Prabodh’s father passed away in the first week of August. It was the rainy season, but there was hardly any rain that day. I checked with Madhu and Niraj who too had got the news. All three of us, close friends of Prabodh, reached his house before evening. The body was on display in the main hall for a last glimpse of whoever wanted a last glimpse. Most of his family and extended family were already there, contributing to the sobs, tears, questions, answers, opinions, and general chaos. We had no role there, so we started arrangements for the cremation.
The evening was damp and heavy with August moisture. There was no downpour, only a persistent drizzle. When the pyre was lit, a weak fire, sustained by small logs of dry wood and ladles of ghee, started consuming the body.
At about eleven in the night, it became evident that the fire would need at least three more hours to devour the whole body. We offered to spend the night with Prabodh in the cremation ground. His relatives were leaving one by one. We knew Prabodh’s father well. I felt as though I heard his voice, pleading us to stay back. “Don’t leave my half-burnt body at the mercy of stray animals. Please wait till I am done.”
A few volunteers, experienced in cremation activities, stayed near the pyre, occasionally poking the dead limbs and pushing them into the flames. Burning in a dull fire, the body was taking its own time.
We sat on a small concrete platform, a few paces away from the pyre. It was open from all sides, but there was a roof overhead that kept us safe from the drizzle outside.
Niraj took out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket but discovered immediately that he didn’t have a lighter. He extracted a much debated, reluctantly granted permission to use the funeral pyre for lighting his cigarette. Using a small dry twig, a tiny tongue of flame was brought from the pyre to light his cigarette. He released rings of smoke into the night and made a heavy, poignant statement linking human life with fire and cigarette smoke. We promptly ordered him to stop being a philosopher and concentrate on his smoking.
Prabodh was telling something about his father. We were perhaps not too keen to listen, but he couldn’t sense our disinterest. Gradually his manner and voice became intense and poignant. We started listening with greater interest and were soon riveted in the narrative. He was telling something about their stay in a city called Cuttack in the eastern part of India.
“The two years we spent in Cuttack were quite uneventful. What else was to be expected? So many years have been spent in so many Indian cities, in rented houses or office accommodation. Setting up home in some town, then shifting to another after two or three years was our regular routine. Cuttack was just one such town, sheltering us for a couple of years.
“About two miles away from our home, a tailor had put up a small shop named ‘Paragon Tailors’. I don’t remember any specific reason for choosing that particular tailor. Perhaps we liked the price as well as the workmanship. I remember having tried a couple of other tailors, but finally, Paragon Tailors became our regular in Cuttack.
“Our tailoring needs didn’t go beyond the occasional shirt or a pair of trousers. I got my black bespoke tuxedo with fine stripes stitched there. Paragon, strictly for gents, did not sell clothes, only offered tailoring service. The head tailor himself was the owner. He used to measure us up, note the measurements in a register, keep the unstitched fabric in a numbered slot and issue a printed receipt on which he noted the stitching charges and the date of delivery. A tiny piece of our fabric was also returned to us, stapled to the receipt as a sample. The next thing for us was to go on the appointed date, produce the receipt, pay the amount and claim the stitched garment. It was the standard practice with all tailors: so common that there was absolutely no reason for us to remember the tailor separately from the host of other service providers like grocers and hairdressers.
After a couple of years there, we got a transfer to New Delhi. Packers and movers took care of all our household goods. We supervised their loading in the truck, vacated the house and took a train to New Delhi. Our baggage arrived a couple of days after us. After about ten days of settling down at our new home, one evening suddenly Dad asked, ‘Have you remembered to bring everything from Cuttack? You haven’t forgotten anything, have you?’ It was an entirely unnecessary question. The house at Cuttack was emptied and every single object loaded in the truck. We assured him that nothing had been left behind.
‘Did you collect the shirt from the tailor?’
“The query was baseless. Nothing was given to the tailor for stitching during the last three or four months of our stay in Cuttack. Dad conceded and brushed off the matter with an innocuous response. ‘Just thought I’d ask. If you are sure, then it’s fine.’
Niraj’s cigarette had burnt out and his eyes were fixed on the burning pyre. He asked Prabodh what his father’s age was at that time. It was not clear whether Prabodh had heard the question, for he went on with his narrative.
“About a week after this, I returned from office and settled down with a cup of tea when my wife Madhuri grumbled, ‘Papa insists that some clothes are still left with Paragon Tailors in Cuttack. Already he has asked me thrice this week. Today he enquired again. He remains silent when I deny, but repeats the same question after some time.’ Clearly, there was still some doubt in Dad’s mind. I assured Madhuri that I would convince him, and then forgot all about it.
“Two more months passed. Quite aggrieved with our indifference, one evening father made all of us sit together and complained: ‘I have been crying hoarse, but you aren’t listening. We had given two metres of expensive fabric for stitching a shirt. I am sure it is still with the tailor. You people neither brought the shirt nor got the cloth back. May I know what steps you have taken to collect it from Cuttack? Don’t you know how expensive garments have become? I know you want only ready-made shirts these days. You dislike tailor-made garments. But does it entitle you to fritter away family assets?’
“Then onwards it became the most talked about topic in the family. Papa’s suppressed grievance found expression with greater frequency. There was a hurt in his tone which gradually turned into a meaningless tirade against the rest of the family. His nagging continued with greater force and volume. We could see his tortured mind getting more and more agitated with an unfulfilled desire; the desire to see the piece of cloth or the shirt it has turned into. We tried our best to convince him that he was under a delusion. We hadn’t left behind any cloth with any tailor. Every single piece of fabric ever given to the tailor was accounted for, his bills settled in full. Nothing was pending from either side. We did not have any receipt. Even assuming the paper is lost, someone would have remembered. But no one did. Dad himself was unable to say whose shirt was to be stitched. He ought to forget it.
“He didn’t forget. Any time was a good time for him to protest. He went on recounting the same topic at different times and different places. Visitors and neighbours were also not spared. The complaint came with an uncharacteristic rancour bordering on anger and frustration.”
Prabodh became silent for some time and stared at the pyre, as though he was expecting his dead father to come out from the pyre and explain why he acted that way. I wanted to make a comment, but the atmosphere had become so tense and heavy that any comment would have appeared flippant. I could sense that both Niraj and Madhu were also suppressing their urge to ask something. All eyes were fixed on Prabodh.
The subject of our discussion was in the process of turning into a heap of bones and ash right before our eyes. With an eerie feeling, we were trying to balance feelings of remoteness and intimacy. Two hefty males were busy near the pyre, pushing the unburnt limbs into the fire. It took some time for Prabodh to regain his composure and resume talking.
“A heavy sombre mood prevailed in our house almost constantly. One could never say when the tranquillity would suddenly break and father would remonstrate, with visible hurt and anger, making everyone uncomfortable. Food would be cooking in the kitchen; children would be busy with their homework and everything would seem normal and placid when suddenly father would keep aside a book he might have been reading, to demand an action-taken-report about the missing cloth. His question would be directed to me, Madhuri or sometimes, even to the kids. ‘I know that you have enough money not to bother about the cost of a shirt. Oh, you have enough! Of course, you do. But don’t, for God’s sake, throw away things which belong to you. It will drive away Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, from our home.’
“We had been listening to father’s carping for about a year when my younger brother Ramesh and his wife Mayuri came to stay with us for a few days. Hardly had they entered the house when father cornered both of them to give a quick version of his story. Ramesh was amused but offered a mild assurance, ‘Oh, don’t you worry about this silly thing. Why do you presume that tailor won’t return the shirt just because we have lost the receipt? I shall collect and bring the shirt during my next visit to Cuttack, maybe next month.’
“Mayuri tried to rationalise father’s expectations. ‘Don’t offer any promise just to close the matter temporarily,’ she warned her husband. ‘Assure him only if you can really go to Cuttack and fetch the shirt.’
“We did not take either of them seriously. We had a jolly good time with them, moving in and around the city in a holiday mood. Dad too joined us and enjoyed the outings. It appeared as though the tailor and the cloth were wiped out from the family memory. Dad did not raise the topic.
“But the bliss did not last long. Ramesh and Mayuri had just a few more days with us when father suddenly threw a spanner. ‘What about the shirt?’ he asked one day. Mayuri had never really involved herself in this matter. She had studied Clinical Psychology for a year and would have earned a post-graduate degree after one more year, but her growing romantic association with my brother Ramesh hastened her flight to the altar, shelving all chances of a Masters’ degree. We believed this as there was no denial from Ramesh, who seemed to accept responsibility for Mayuri’s incomplete studies. Having been a student of psychology, Mayuri thought it appropriate to offer a technical view on the issue. She asked us some questions and appeared to thoughtfully ponder over the data for some time. Then she announced, ‘Take my word, Father won’t permit anyone to go and collect the shirt from Paragon Tailors.’
“We wanted to know why she thought so. Mayuri assumed a consultant’s role and a tone that was distinctly pedagogical. ‘Not so simple. It is not easy to fully explain his thought and behaviour. We know for sure that he believes strongly about a shirt having been left behind with the tailor. If this belief is demolished, he will get a jolt which could shatter him. His belief and his fear come together as a package. We can only see his belief but his fear remains invisible, even to himself – the fear of knowing that there is no cloth with the tailor.’
“Ramesh protested. He warned us not to be swayed by the words of some quack psychiatrist and claimed that he too could put out a couple of his own theories. He had read somewhere that father’s conduct was called OCD although he was not sure what it meant. ‘Something Something Disorder’, he helpfully elaborated.
“Mayuri didn’t let it pass. “Not something something. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. But this is different, not OCD. For God’s sake, don’t confuse.’ His wife’s gentle admonition would not perhaps have chastened Ramesh, but my wife asked them to keep quiet and started her own tirade. ‘Instead of finding a solution, both of you are busy trying to find out a term to describe Dad’s behaviour. What your books call this behaviour is of no consequence to us. Leave that. Let’s discuss and decide what can be done. Should we just leave it as it is or do something about it?’”
Prabodh paused here and looked sharply at us, as though he was expecting us to answer that question. It was dark all around and the only feeble attempt to illuminate the night came from the funeral pyre. The darkness prevented us from looking into each other’s eyes in search of answers. The subject of our discussion and debate was disappearing in a rage of flame and smoke right before our eyes. The process of total conversion into cinders was almost complete.
We didn’t have any answer for Prabodh. We knew that death could demolish the arrogance of life. Death could also demolish the humbleness of life. Getting or not getting a shirt from a tailor would not in any way have impacted the combustion of a human body.
Our silence might have disappointed Prabodh, but his voice didn’t betray any disappointment when he resumed his narrative, more like a dispassionate observer than like a son.
“Nobody accepted the option of not doing anything. Father must not be left to wallow in his own senility. All obvious questions were asked and answered:
‘Why do we worry so much?’
‘Is dad’s delusion so bad that we should lose our sleep?’
‘Can we not leave the matter as it is?’
‘We can go on managing father with our lies and assurances.’
“Mayuri issued a stern warning that leaving the matter unsolved would make it even worse. Dad would become extremely rigid and unmanageable. Already things had started going out of control. Not doing anything was not an option. Many possible solutions were contemplated. Perhaps a new shirt could be bought and shown to father with a harmless lie. Even going once to Cuttack was not a big deal. Cuttack was far from Delhi, true, but a visit was possible. We had many friends and relatives in and around Cuttack, so going there would be a desirable deviation from routine. I had agreed to travel to Cuttack, bring a shirt and submit before Dad.
“Mayuri didn’t approve. ‘Allow him to handle his own problem. You just cannot solve it any other way. Dad must meet the tailor and talk to him. No shortcuts, please. We know what will come out of his talk. Even Dad may have an inkling. But in this matter, he is like a baby. You must take him along when you travel to Cuttack.’
“We could not ignore the in-house psychologist, though half-baked. By then, father’s behaviour and talks had turned more shirt-centric. His total disregard of time and place gave us several embarrassing moments before friends and neighbours, not to speak of unsuspecting visitors. With no alternative in sight, we booked tickets for travelling to Cuttack.”
A man came to Prabodh to inform him that the body was fully burnt and embers would die in a short time. Not much time was left for daybreak. Rain hadn’t changed its dull languorous pace. Prabodh stared at the informer, then continued speaking.
“We were feeling a bit uneasy after reaching Cuttack. Can you just walk into a shop and ask for an object which you know doesn’t exist? How can you save your face before the tailor? And what happens if father picks up an argument with the hapless tailor? We could guess how the tailor would react, but it was beyond anyone’s guess how father would react.
“We had planned that some of us would go in advance to alert the tailor about our imminent visit. He would be served with a white lie. Let him not fluster. We won’t mind a bit if he just denies our claim. He would not lose anything except a few minutes of his time. But things didn’t shape up that way. There was no time for anyone to make an advance visit. Having come to Cuttack, a visit to the temple of Chandi, the presiding deity of the city, became mandatory. The time allotted for the tailor got curtailed. We knew that it wouldn’t take more than five minutes to talk to the tailor and return to our cab. But Dad had to talk to the tailor himself. That was Mayuri’s firm instruction.
We had to park our cab about fifty meters away from Paragon Tailor and walk the distance. The narrow street and clumsy traffic did not allow us to go any closer. Dad opened the rear door, stepped out and started walking towards the shop without waiting for us. We followed him. Known place. Familiar streets. Nothing seemed to have changed. Cuttack city doesn’t change much.
But before we reached Paragon Tailors, we saw the head tailor himself walking from the opposite direction. Before anyone could utter a word, father spoke out, ‘Hello Dwivedi, how are you? Do you recognize us?’
“We never knew that his name was Dwivedi. Nor did we know that father had remembered the name. We could see that the tailor didn’t forget his past customers easily. He could place us. A few minutes were spent exchanging pleasantries. I heard Dad mumbling something incoherently, which, I am sure, nobody heard. I think I could make out the words, shirt and cloth. ‘Please come to my shop. We shall have some tea,’ Dwivedi offered. I was happy at his offer. It would be far easier to talk in his shop than on the street. But before anyone could say anything father blurted out, ‘Thanks a lot, but no. Cannot come for tea now. We are already late. I am happy that we met. Be happy Dwivedi, and stay healthy. Goodbye.’
“The discussion was over even before it started. I looked sharply at Dad. From his stern looks and demeanor we could make out what he wanted. He didn’t want any of us to say anything more. The tailor went on his way after delivering his parting words, ‘I am really glad that you have remembered me. Clients who remember a tailor and talk to him on the road are rare, very rare indeed! Goodbye.’ Father appeared quite content. We moved on. The tailor and Cuttack city were left behind.”
Prabodh didn’t say anything more. After seeing him quiet for some time, I asked hesitantly, “and then?”
Prabodh could read the unspoken question that was bothering all of us. “The shirt issue was never raised again,” he said.
Neeraj opened his pack of cigarettes, pulled out a stick and took a hard look at the pyre, already extinct. Then he threw the unlit cigarette on the cremation ground.