As all ancient cities, Madurai had centuries old cemeteries in the outskirts of the town. As centuries went by, the city grew from a highly planned capital of the erstwhile Pandya empire to an unplanned, modern town struggling to have an identity in the modern age while retaining its glorious past. The cemeteries which were in the outskirts when first planned centuries ago, were pulled right into the middle of civilization as the city grew in haphazard fashion.
Shiva’s home, in Harvey Colony (named after an Englishman who started the textile mill in which Mr. Raman worked), was near one such cemetery. The home’s proximity to the much storied and perennially dry Vaigai river made this closeness inevitable. Burning pyres could be witnessed from the terrace of the home. Tales of ghosts from the cemetery were told with such relish by young and old that the listener, if weak hearted, could come down with fever simply by fright.
Ghosts in Homes
One belief among the inhabitants of Harvey Colony was that ghosts from the cemetery visited houses which were being constructed. At nights, a house being constructed made enough noises to strengthen the beliefs of the story teller and the listener.
A house being constructed was also the best place for a chat in evenings when Shiva and friends returned from school. Chats started at 6pm and would continue till 9pm when mothers screamed from their respective homes for their wards to come home for dinner.
Shiva’s friends consisted of three 12 year olds, Seenu, Sathya and Shiva, and two 13 year olds, Mani and the Sourashtra boy Babu.
On that particular winter evening when the sun sets before 6pm in Madurai Shiva and his friends were gathered in a home being constructed in Harvey Colony. They were seated on the terrace floor with feet hanging outside the building as the parapet wall was yet to be constructed. The discussions varied from latest movies to movie stars to heroines to illicit arrack being distilled near the river. The church bell signaled 7pm with 7 loud gongs. As was the norm, the discussion about a famous actress was stalled by the gongs.
“Pei irukka illaya?” (Are there ghosts or not?)Sathya started a topic with a question of whether anyone in the group believed in ghosts. Everyone gave a vehement no, Shiva even ridiculed the idea of how there was a television program on beliefs in rural villages and how villagers were being duped. Sathya, from a village 3 hours from Madurai, continued on how his grandmother (a toothless 90 year old who was said to speak regularly to ghosts of her relatives) said ghosts were common in newly constructed homes. “Unga veettu kelavi’ki vera vela illa.” (That old hag in your home has no other job) said Babu with scorn. Sathya started narrating on how his grandfather had once seen a ghost of a lady in a home being constructed at his village and how it had narrated the story of her murder. The mood in the group suddenly became slightly somber, fear trickling in.
At that very instant, when each member of the group was thinking of ghosts of women in white saris, there was a power cut due to a blown fuse in the electricity pole distributing power to their homes. “Dei…I just felt someone pulling at my heel” said a voice in the group in the moonlit darkness.
The next 3 minutes saw the 5 brave hearts screaming their way to their respective homes, heels touching their backsides.
A Dog Day
Blacky was Sathya’s large, black colored dog which was tied to the verandah of his home. Blacky was a rather temperamental dog as he was always tied inside the cramped verandah and only taken for short walks at night and early morning. He was friendly with Sathya’s friends who treated him with biscuits and murukku from the neighborhood grocery store.
Mani, the simpleton in the group, liked Blacky a lot and never missed an opportunity to fondle the large black head. That Saturday started with Sathya’s father having to leave for his office early and thereby missing Blacky’s daily morning walk. Blacky kept barking for attention from someone in the household to take him out. It resulted in a reprimanding from Sathya’s mother who was trying to make herself heard to the fish monger outside.
Shiva, Mani and Babu made their way to Sathya’s home, after breakfast in their respective homes, for their Saturday morning cricket. Babu handed out murukku and kadalai mittai (ground nut candy) procured from the grocery store. “Sathya, bat, ball yeduthuvaada…” (Sathya, bring the bat and ball) yelled Mani as he drew stumps on a wall outside a neighbor’s home. “Dei, nee vandhu yeduthukko (You come and take them)…I’m having breakfast” came the reply with a mouth full of dosa. Mani made his way to Sathya’s home entrance and removed his footwear in the verandah. He saw Blacky looking sulky and as usual gave his head a good, rough fondle.
The frustration of a missed walk, reprimand and a late breakfast made Blacky take it out on the one thing near him….Mani’s forearm. A loud bark was followed with Blacky taking a mouthful of Mani’s forearm and giving it a good, chunky bite. Blacky, his frustration all spent, went to lie down in his customary face-on-paws position. Mani’s, in total shock, could hardly utter a word. Sathya’s grandmother, who had a clear view of the events from hear customary seat in the loving room, yelled for Sathya to come and have a look at Mani. Sathya came running and found Mani bleeding profusely from his forearm.
Sathya made Mani ride pillion in his 15 year old moped, which could barely take one rider let alone a pillion, to pay a visit to the local doctor. Shiva and Babu were asked to inform Mani’s parents about the incident.
By the time the duo reached the clinic Sathya was drenched in Mani’s blood. The doctor, a serious, first generation MBBS from the prestigious Madurai Medical College, looked sternly at the two boys trying evaluate if they were up to some mischief or not. After coming to the conclusion that the boys were as innocent as they looked he set about treating the by now half faint Mani.
After administering the antibiotics and stitching up the wound he said “Thambigala (boys), there is one thing you boys need to do…..you need to visit the cemetery when a body is burned and inhale the fumes as it is being burnt”. Mani turned paler when heard this. Sathya, the most adventurous in the group, looked at Mani with enough glee to make onlookers think the duo was given free tickets to the movies.
There were two cemeteries near Harvey Colony and both were scheduled for burning bodies that night. The one chosen was scheduled to burn the body of a 95 year old man who used to own a pawnshop years ago. The cross eyed, bearded vettiyaan (cemetery caretaker), with 7 foot long stick said the burning was scheduled to start at 7:45pm. The boys could come at 8:00pm for what they wanted. The vettiyaan told them he would charge them Rs. 5/- as it was the body of a rich man. For the same service, if the body was of a drunkard, he would have charged Rs. 1/-.
Mani was picked up sharp at 7:45pm by Sathya in his moped. Sathya was the more eager one as a visit to the cemetery at night would earn him bragging rights for a year at Harvey colony.
The moped was parked outside the cemetery under the neem tree. The cemetery was an empty piece of land surrounded by a 5 feet high brick wall. The wall itself was surrounded by high thorn bushes normally found in Madurai. There was a rusted, tin roofed shelter, for burning bodies, supported by bamboo poles in the center of the land.
Today the cemetery was strewn with flowers from the procession which had bought the pawn shop keeper to the cemetery. The first flame had been lit by, probably, the first born of the pawn shopkeeper. The vettiyaan would light the rest of the wood beneath the body. He was starting to light when he spotted the boys entering the cemetery and beckoned them to the shed.
Mani let Sathya take the lead whose swagger kept increasing as the pyre got closer. Mani was terrified of the vettiyaan as his mother had used “vettiyaan kitta pidichi kudukkava?” (Shall I give you to the vettiyaan)as a threat to make him eat his food. The threat worked so well that 8 years after the last threat the terror still remained intact. Little did his mother know her son would be forced to meet the vettiyaan near a burning pyre, on a moonless night, right in the middle of the cemetery.
The vettiyaan had completed lighting the pyre and was leaning on his stick about 2 feet from the burning body. The boys stood on the other side facing the pyre and the vettiyaan. The stench of burning flesh was slowly increasing but was too faint for Mani. The vettiyaan, who had seen numerous adults and kids come to inhale the fumes, signaled the boys to come closer to the pyre. Mani vehemently shook his head. Sathya, by now absolutely sure there was nothing else in the world that could create fear in him, swaggered up to the pyre near the midriff of the burning body.
At that instant the burning body chose to rise from the flames with its arm extended. Sathya, for all his foresight on how he would brag about this at school, had not expected the dead to rise like this. His screams pierced the stillness of the cemetery. The following 4 minutes were filled with Sathya’s screams, the vettiyaan hitting the rising corpse with his stick and Mani trying to pull Sathya from near the pyre to the cemetery exit. This scene would remain with Sathya for the rest of his life.
The night watchman would report the strange scene of two boys leaving the cemetery as fast as the 20 year old 50cc wheezing moped could carry them. The boy driving the moped was said to be laughing uncontrollably while the pillion was clinging on to the driver in sheer fright.
About the Author
Rahul Dhinakaran is a Mechanical Designer from Chennai. He is writing a series of Short Stories based on his Childhood In Madurai. The first of the series has been published in IndianReview.in and can be read under the link http://indianreview.in/return-from-school-rahul-dhinakaran/