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The Return of the Dead

By Gita Viswanath

For the first time in the history of the universe, God and the devil were on the same page. Their domains were getting filled up with an influx of souls tarnished by a virus. To maintain social distance, they decided it was time to throw all inhabitants back on earth. God had it easier. Gravity helped him in ejecting his inmates. The devil had to shoot them upwards and that was tough on him.

“What’s your worry? We are dead now; we can no longer spread disease.” The souls chorused in a last-ditch attempt to stay back.

God in his wisdom said, “This virus has flummoxed me. It’s a never-before situation. So, let me play safe. My ministers and I can’t take a risk.”

“You can’t risk us, can you? Won’t we fall ill? Haven’t we had our fair share of pain and suffering? Won’t we overcrowd the planet and create chaos? We were always taught God is a kind and benevolent being. Trust in him.” 

The infallible God had no answer. He was forced to think. God condescended to consult with the devil and both decided that only those who had died in the past twenty-five years would be ejected. The rest had attained salvation; so, they were not a threat. Ultimately, being the almighty, he had his way with his herd. The devil in his turn entertained no questions. He simply kicked them out or rather up.

The souls of the animal Heaven were tickled at the sight of the exodus. “Our time has come! Down below, our compatriots have been restored to their spaces; they roam like emperors of all they survey, and our enemies are finally locked up. And here, we rest in peace,” the animal souls sang delightedly. 

The day arrived. Hundreds of souls were released. As per the decrees of God and the devil (they seem to work in tandem for once), they landed in the places from where they had last departed. As a result, those who died in road accidents were found loitering on the streets of places as far apart as New York and Nagpur or Los Angeles and Latur.

They were promptly arrested by the police and kept in custody for not maintaining social distance and on top of it, not wearing masks. When they were questioned, they honestly replied that they were thrown out of heaven or hell as was the case.

The situation at Versova police station in Mumbai turned bizarre. The poor cast-outs were laughed at and branded as pagal – mad. At the same time, most were so lucid that the police were totally confused. They gave their home addresses and phone numbers without any hesitation. The ones who died several decades ago gave their landline numbers which were now defunct. Some of them said they were homeless but were able to name the localities where they used to sleep on footpaths. One even tried to appease the police by saying, “Call my family immediately. They can give you chai paani and even samosa* right away.” He had, after all, died while over speeding in his BMW, no less. At this, the homeless ones got enraged and lunged at him.

“Hey, we’ll handcuff you,” yelled the police while trying to prevent a bloodbath.

“Sir, he’s the one who drove over us,” two of the homeless defended themselves.

At this, the inspector on duty called his senior and requested him to come over as soon as possible. Or else, there were bright chances that he would need to be rushed to a psychiatric ward. 

Hospitals, which were as it is bursting at the seams, suddenly saw new patients arguing with the existing ones that it was their bed. One patient suffered a heart attack as soon as he saw a woman appear out of nowhere in front of his bed. She was trying to pull out the intravenous drip and insert it into her arm. At that point, the patient passed out. Hearing the thud of a human body on the floor, a nurse rushed in only to pass out herself on seeing a stranger fitting the drip on her own. The dead woman calmly completed her task and lay on the bed wondering why the staff looked like figures from outer space. When the nurse did not return to her bay for some time, a doctor walked in to see her collapsed on top of the patient on the floor and an unknown woman resting on the bed. She rushed out screaming as if bitten by a rabid dog. 

Mammaaa, Papaaa, bhaiyya ka bhoot*,” Aastha began crying. The family was barely recovering from the suicide of their son, a sixteen-year-old teenager who hanged himself a week ago in his room because his father scolded him for spending too much time on his cell phone. The father, still fuming with rage, rushed out of his bedroom on hearing Aastha and stood there as though struck by lightning. “Oye, what’s happening?” he stammered.

The mother, who followed, began shouting in joy, “My son is back, my son is back.”

The father went out to get a broomstick saying, “Bhoots go away when beaten with a jhaadu*.” Finally, the dead teenager, a little amused, a little embarrassed, spoke: “I’m back. Even God didn’t want me. Where else could I think of going?”

Aastha and her parents fainted one after the other and the dead-living living-dead boy got into his bed and fell into a deep sleep; not before posting a picture of himself on Facebook and Instagram, with the caption, ‘Thrown out by God’.

In Vadodara, in Gujarat, an electrician landed on a light pole and was sent back to God immediately. God was stunned and looked at him furiously.

“What can I do? When you sent us, you said we would land at the spot where we died. That damn pole is still unrepaired and I died instantly.”

Some ministers burst out laughing. “Hmm …” God scratched his head while thinking deeply about a condition such as this. For the first time, he doubted his efficiency.

“Fine, this is no excuse for you to return. You will now land at the spot you were last seen before you climbed that goddamn (oops!) pole.”

As God finished his sentence, the electrician felt himself going down in a free fall like a skydiver. He landed on his Hero bicycle which he had parked next to a tea stall on the road before climbing the pole. The stall was closed. There was an eerie silence. Not a vehicle, not a human anywhere in sight.

Seeing him appear out of the blue, a frightened dog came up towards him. The dog looked so weak with ribs poking out that he could barely bark, let alone bite. Thanking God for providing him with transport to reach his home, he mounted his cycle and pedalled his way feeling elated to be back.

He kept thinking about how happy his family would be to have him in their midst. After all, he had died so tragically just a month before his second baby was to be born and his first child, a girl, was just three years old. He wondered if the second was a boy. He wished it was. At least his mother would stop taunting his poor wife. Whistling his favourite song, he kept cycling, finding the way a little confusing. He was returning after eleven years.

An old woman who could barely walk struggled to find her way. So much had changed in the twenty-five years since she left; she could hardly recognise a single house. Suddenly, she heard a whirring sound up in the sky and as she looked up, a shower of red rose petals fell from the skies. Rows of men with little children on their shoulders and women with bundles of belongings on their heads were the only denizens of the streets. They all had masks on their mouths like Jain munis*, the old woman thought. They rushed to gather the petals, tried to squeeze some juice into their dry throats, and made the children nibble the petals. The old woman joined these masked men and women. When she told them, she had come back from the land of the dead, they thought they were hallucinating. Since she didn’t look threatening, they let her walk along with them. After walking for eternity, they found some people distributing poori bhaaji* and pouches of water. They let the old woman join the queue.

The news broke out on television. Excited reporters screeched into their microphones. Some enterprising ones even managed to reach the dead and interview them. Some went a step further and visited the homes of ones who were receiving their dead, some happily, others not so. Amid a pandemic, the reporters created a virtual pandemonium.

Anup Gohain, who headed the channel that could get an award for the most hysterical of them all, chose his flavour of the day — conspiracy. The dead couldn’t return; he shrieked, this is nothing but a conspiracy of our enemies from within and without. Pakistan, China, the opposition, leftists, pseudo-secularists, the tit-bit gang, Anup Gohain enumerated in rising intonation. And then for dramatic effect, he lowered his voice to a whisper. Tell me, all you so-called scientific people, what else is this if not a conspiracy? They have been sent out to contaminate millions of Indians and destroy this glorious land of ours. All this and more in Debate Number One, once again he screamed. During the debate, he yelled out to the participants on the other side of the fence, “the nation wants to know. Today, you have to give them an answer.”

The police inspector rushed to the station after receiving his constable’s call. He had heard the news. He took charge of the situation that was turning chaotic by the second. Calmly, he ordered that all addresses and telephone numbers be noted down. Then, he personally oversaw the despatch of all those held in the lockup to their homes. The homeless were dropped off at the pavements which were deserted now. They slept peacefully. No hafta* to the police, not even to the local don.

The screams of the doctor echoed down the corridors of the hospital just as the day duty staff was handing over charge to the night duty staff. The television was on in the recreation room of the medical staff and they were staring at it open-mouthed. Of course, they had heard of ghosts and unusual movements in mortuaries but beyond laughing, had never given it a thought.  Could they now dismiss something that was happening on a global scale?

All channels — Indian and foreign — were reporting bizarre episodes of the return of the dead. The screaming doctor barged into the room, huffing and puffing, “Come with me, look at what I just saw.” When they reached the ICU, they revived the nurse first and then questioned the woman who had displaced the patient. She was able to even recall the names of doctors who had attended on her. So eloquent was she, she even told them that she was admitted for a hysterectomy. “Such a routine procedure for women my age – why did you have to kill me?” She asked them indignantly.

The truth was a rookie anaesthesiologist had given her an overdose; resulting in the tragic and untimely death of an otherwise healthy woman. She went on to plead with the doctors to set right their mistake and send her back home to her loved ones who were surely missing her. In response, the two doctors and the nurse passed out! The dead woman pressed her hand to her mouth trying hard to suppress a laugh.

When Aastha and her parents came to in the wee hours of the morning, they found the sixteen-year-old in deep sleep. Still reeling under shock, they stepped forward gingerly to check if he was for real. “Bhaiyya, Bhaiyya,” Aastha called out gently. No response. The mother, who was convinced about the return of her son, sat beside him on the bed, stroking his head, pushing back the lock of hair from the forehead. Standing by the bed, the father wondered aloud, “Yeh kaisa ho sakta hai – how can this happen?” The boy stirred. The mother shushed the father and pretended that the cremation and the besna* never happened. They all shouted excitedly, “Welcome back!” With no one entering their home and they not going out, the return of their dead son needed no explanation. They all lived happily ever after until …

The electrician reached his home. He left the cycle leaning on the wall and entered through the tiny gate which was the same after eleven years except for a louder creak. His wife was swabbing the room. She looked through the half-open door, left the pail and the duster on the floor, stood up, smiled, and said, “Ahh, it’s been a long time.” The electrician was stunned. Here he was, returning from the land of the dead after eleven years and this woman, his wife and the mother of his children was inhumanly calm. On the wall, he noticed his framed photo with a plastic garland with dust in the folds of the petals.

“Salma, aren’t you shocked to see me?” he asked her.

“Why should I be? You were always with me. You think you could go away so easily?”

“But you used to not see me, hear me, you couldn’t touch me, see, see,” he grabbed her hand saying, “You are not dreaming, Salma, I am really here in front of you.”

“Who said so? I used to see you, hear you, feel you, all the time.”

The electrician was flabbergasted. What could he say to her?

“Where are our children?”

“Sleeping. Come inside, see …”

The electrician was surprised to see four. Disturbed by the sounds, they woke up. The youngest of them, four years old, was the first to speak, “He looks like Abba.”  When the electrician died on the pole, his parents got the widow married off to his younger brother, Ahmed. In a short while, Ahmed returned with a basket of vegetables, took off his mask, and stood rooted to the ground on seeing his brother.

Bhai, have I lost my senses?”

“No, you haven’t, take a bath and come. I’ll explain,” said Salma in a soothing voice.

Ahmed went in never to return (he exited through the back door) and the electrician was restored to his home and family. Salma laid out all the vegetables next to the sink and began washing them with soap.

“What are you doing?” asked the stupefied electrician.

Han, that’s how it is now.”

Shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head from right to left, left to right, the electrician replied, “Chalo, kuch tho badla — okay, something has changed at least.”

The old woman found it extremely hard to find her way home. She walked endlessly in the scorching sun with one group of workers only to realise she was on the wrong route. Then she turned at a fork to join another group. After three days of repeatedly joining different groups, she finally reached what she remembered as her home. Alas! The people who now lived there were not her family. They wouldn’t let her in. Once again, she was stranded. Totally exhausted and unable to walk anymore, she settled down under a neem tree, cursing God for harassing her, and set up her home with a snake and a monkey as her neighbours.

For almost a year, the dead and the living blended seamlessly. They lived, loved, fought, cast out, oppressed, forgave, made up like humans always did. In the meanwhile, the invisible virus continued having a field day in the world, upsetting many apple carts. God and the devil began missing their flock. They realised the stupidity of their thoughts and actions. By dying and returning to them, the souls had completed a journey. Why then were they made to resume their earthly voyages?

God addressed his ministers in a cloud meeting, “My creations respect death and the dead. Never speak ill of the dead, they say. They keep them forever in their memories. They equate the dead with me. They offer flowers and incense to them the way they do to me. They tell children that the dead go to God.” The ministers nodded gravely in agreement. “Then, why have I betrayed their trust in me?” God asked shamefacedly. “Who am I without my flock? How can I erase the ultimate truth of life, that is death?”

God and the devil summoned back their herd. As suddenly as the dead had appeared, they disappeared.

*chai paani… samosa — tea, water… savoury snack

*Bhaiyya ka bhoot — Brother’s ghost.

*Bhoot — ghost

*munis — sages

*Poori Bhajji — food.

Gita Viswanath is a Baroda-based writer. Her novel, Twice it Happened, was published last year by Vishwakarma Publications, Pune. She is also the author of a children’s book, Chidiya. Her poems have been published in Kavyabharati No 28 and Coldnoon. Her short story, Paper Gods, was published in the May 2020 issue of Muse India.

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PLEASE NOTE: ARTICLES CAN ONLY BE REPRODUCED IN OTHER SITES WITH DUE ACKNOWLEDGEMENT TO BORDERLESS JOURNAL.

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