By Sunil Sharma
“Ghosts are required for the post-industrial society!”
“Like the spectres of art, philosophy and heritage. Great artists continue to survive mortality. In ideas. Via ideas. Clothed in them.”
“I am a born skeptical.”
“Well, in that case, I can tell you about the return of a ghost.”
“Return of a ghost! That must be the province of Hollywood!”
“No, not at all!”
“It happened in India. In my own town.”
They were sitting in a corner of a popular dhaba called New Delhi Café, off the national highway NH 24. The golden fields of ripe wheat lay stretched before them on this lazy afternoon, other side of the road.
A thin boy served them thick-milk tea in kulhads, along with fried pakodas.
“When will the van arrive?” the female asked.
“In an hour,” the male said.
“What should I do here?”
“Enjoy the scenery,” the male said. “The ambience. Feel of the country.”
“Hmm. OK. Tell me the tale.”
“Of the return of the ghost…”
“Well, I will tell you about the spectre of Surendra.”
“Who was he?” she asked, watching the heavy traffic.
“I will give you the back story first. Here it goes like this. Surendra was a man who had come to claim in the evening of his life that he represented democracy, nation and the republic.”
“Yes. You heard right.”
“How is it possible, yaar! Preposterous!” she exclaimed, while munching the pakodas.
The male smiled. Sipping the tea, he replied, “Indeed! The people were shocked initially. The cops came and took him away, the well-read man from his village to some place, considering the old man as a threat…”
“Oh! So common!”
“What happened then?”
“He was not to be seen afterwards. His family vanished from their ancestral home.”
“Sad! Is it not?”
“Yes, it is. Entire family suddenly uprooted. Honest lives disrupted.”
“Well. After a few months, Surendra’s ghost was seen…”
“Yes. Seen by some. The ghost quoted Gogol!”
“Must be a learned man.”
“He was a good reader and aware of his rights. He wanted to make fellow villagers aware that they, too, were like him – representatives of a democracy and the republic but the majority scorned this idea, while others supported the prophet of a dumb age!”
“After few sightings, the cops said these were rumours.”
“They might be right.”
“No. They were not.”
“Because I met the ghost of Surendra.”
“What?!” Her kulhad slipped down her dainty hand, eyes wide in shock.
He smiled. Lit up his cigar. Drew in the smoke, rolled it in his mouth and then expelled the rich smoke.
The duo, sitting on the cots, watched the highway. Overloaded trucks were moving in a slow line. There was chill in the breeze.
After a long silence, the male resumed, “Here, it goes…the encounter with the spirit on that memorable early evening, few miles down this highway, near the river; an unusual event in a liminal space, experienced by few mortals…”
The man had materialised suddenly and stood beside the man with the camera taking pictures of the quiet countryside, and a shrunken river meandering down, as a thin strip of dull silver, towards the railway bridge in the distance. He stood near the photographer and watched the sun set from the motor bridge, like an old companion. The photographer paid no attention to the stranger who looked a bit pale and odd in appearance. A dog barked somewhere in a field nearby, as the vehicles passed over the long bridge. But the latter was used to such silent visitors—country folks being outgoing and friendly, even chatty. He took shots of a passing train; the rising fires from the crude camp of nomads, near the right bank.
It was a bleak scene.
But sun sets and rivers fascinated him. He often got down from his bike for taking pictures. Preserving some Instagram moments!
“Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” The stranger said, talking in general.
“That is Seneca!” the photographer exclaimed, now looking closely at this rustic man of indeterminate age and hollow voice.
“How do you know the Stoic?” the photographer asked. “Seneca in this rural area?”
The stranger coughed. A muffled voice came out, “Not every villager is illiterate. You will find fools in educated cities.”
His voice came as hollow, something metallic that echoed on the stale air.
“I did not mean to offend you, sir. Just curious.”
The stranger nodded. “Sharing thoughts with a man who carries his Seneca in the backpack. I, too, loved On the Shortness of Life.”
The photographer was floored. “Great! Nice meeting you, Mr…?”
“Hi! I am Daniel.” He offered his hand but Surendra did a Namaste.
They stood there watching the sun plunge down into the waters of a choked river. A song wafted forth from the camp of the gypsies—a rich male voice lamenting the passing of youth and a love unrequited. The dholak, bansuri and dhak could be clearly heard in the open-air mehfil there–fascinating concert! The riverside. Gathering dusk. Cool breeze of early November. Pungent smells of food being cooked on earthen stoves there and a tribe of nomads, taunting the civilization and its materialistic possessions, by its unsettled ways of living on the outskirts of cities for centuries.
“Simple folks, often demonized by the urban imagination.” Surendra remarked in a raspy voice.
Daniel nodded. “You are right! We try to demonize everyone that does not fit into our limited and relative ways of looking at the wider things.”
“Woes of civilization!” Surendra said. “A faulty civilization that outlaws those who are defaulters. The ones that prefer to be non-compliant with its codes.”
Daniel was surprised. “Amazing! Where do you live? Nearby?”
Surendra smiled. The yellow face cracked a bit. “In a village, some fifty miles away from this place.”
The frail figure croaked, “Often I haunt the highway.”
“Oh! Poetic!” Daniel remarked. “How do you travel from your village?”
“Astral paths are many and open for spirits!”
Daniel laughed. “You write poetry?”
“No but I know the provinces travelled by the poetic minds, my friend.”
“Impressed! I am impressed.” Daniel replied.
“Come, let us sit on the bank for some time.” Surendra spoke in his hollow voice.
Must be a terrible smoker, thought Daniel. They went down the bridge and sat on the bench, few feet away from the river. The promenade was deserted at this hour.
Across the turgid waters, a pyre crackled ferociously. Few mourners there, some leaving slowly the burning ghat.
“Death! What a grim reality!” Daniel exclaimed. “Total cessation. Nothing left. Except some bones and dust!”
Surendra seemed not to agree, “There are realms beyond the reach of the yellow fingers of death, my friend!”
“Now you sound a true philosopher, sir! I am enjoying.”
Surendra was silent. Then: “Death is not final destination! Ask Orpheus. Or Lazarus!”
“Then what happens? Where do we go from here?”
“Well…there are spaces where this and that world meet to cohabit.”
“Is it so?”
“How do you know for sure?”
“Because, my friend, I am a denizen of such realms.”
“Is it? Daniel laughed. “Funny man!”
“I speak the truth. There are few takers for truth these days!”
“Right. Absolutely right. Nice talking to somebody bright, after such a long time!”
“Certain encounters are destined.”
“Oh! Yeah. Absolutely.”
“Like Hamlet the King meeting Hamlet, the Prince.”
“Oh, my God! You are full of cultural references and profundity.”
Surendra replied, “Friends are chosen by fate. You are one of the chosen.”
“To listen to the message from the other side of reality…”
“And what is that message?” Daniel played along. “All ears!”
“Certain dimensions lie beyond the physical. Once shed the mortal coil, the other dimensions come into the play…”
“What are these dimensions?”
“When you are dead, yet alive.”
“No. Not possible!”
“Mere transformation of energy. From one form to another. You continue to live beyond the daily prison of your body…”
“How can it be?”
“It is like ideas. Ideas continue to operate beyond their originators. Seneca dies yet lives!”
“Yes. The paradox of a civilisation obsessed with the real, the tangible, the objective,” continued Surendra. “As said by the Bard: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’ Remember the famous lines?”
“Sure! Your high-school Shakespeare! Well, I will say, it is getting curiouser and curiouser!”
“There are things that an eye cannot see. Transcendental things. Truths that reside in the non-physical states. Only artists, mystics and philosophers can comprehend.”
“It is heavy-duty stuff for me.” Daniel chuckled.
“Not at all, Daniel,” the man observed, while strays barked a mile down the embankment, as the shadows thickened. The gypsy singer broke into another throaty song, the snatches heard over the wind:
The hungry skies have Devoured the full moon. Go back to the camp early! The dark harbours dangers On the way, maiden fair and the Dead may visit tonight!
“We tend to live on forever in our words and legacies, dear Daniel. When I hear a Ghalib being recited with a full heart, on a full moon night, in a corner room, the poet comes alive for me. Yes, get resurrected in a shadowy form. Real presence evoked through words or visuals or film! That is the power of the cultural things to summon the dead and make them re-born, for few minutes, for you!”
Daniel nodded, distracted by the song:
Beware, innocent girl! The ghosts are around The night is dark. Do not trust the shadows, O, pure one! The dead want to talk to a fair maiden And steal her gypsy heart!
The music increased in tempo and other singers joined, a few males danced, while some women clapped and also sang—a happy group. Daniel smiled…
“What happened afterwards?” asked the female. They were travelling in the van. The highway was crawling with cars headed towards Delhi. Soft music played on in the interiors smelling of new holster and tobacco. The young driver was humming along.
“The end was equally fascinating!” the male said.
“Tell me…a long journey ahead!” insisted the female.
“Yes. The gypsies there…”
“They are the Original People.”
“What is that?” asked Daniel. “Come, let us see their dance.”
Surendra walked along lightly. “These are the wanderers who could see the other worlds.”
“The ghosts, the gods, the realms intangible discussed in arts but now lost.”
“These tribes straddle an innocent age and the post-industrial age as a bridge.”
“Excellent!” Daniel remarked.
“As certain peoples can still see the elves, these diminishing tribes can see the fairies and spirits–the other universe.”
“Right. I agree.”
As the duo approached the camp on a rising ground, off the dirt road, facing the river, their dogs barked furiously and then became quiet. The dancers kept on dancing before the rude bonfires.
“Daniel, remember, certain ghosts are necessary. The unredeemed souls, ideas. They continue to guide the present. If exorcised and finally forgotten by collective amnesia, then that civilization is doomed to die soon…”
As Daniel entered the outer ring of the camp, an elder beckoned him inside the circle. The gypsies welcomed him as one of their home. He sat down on the cot and watched them sing and dance.
Then he remembered his companion. “Where is my friend?”
The elder said, “There was nobody with you, Babu!”
Daniel just stared around.
No trace of Surendra. A mild mist swirling around…
“So how did you know that he was Surendra?” the female asked.
“Because, next day I came across a news item on an online site about Surendra and his haunting in that area. It was titled: The Ghost of a Democrat Citizen!”
“Ha, ha-ha!” the female laughed. “You must be fictionalising again Daniel.”
“No, darling! I am not a writer.”
“That is precisely the point. A writer can be dismissed for using fiction. However — not those who do not write but produce fantastic tales!”
Daniel smiled but did not reply…
Sunil Sharma is an Indian academic and writer with 22 books published—some solo and joint. Edits the online monthly journal Setu. Currently based in MMR (Mumbai Metropolitan Region).
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