By Nabarun Bhattacharya
Translated from the Bengali
by Arunava Sinha
Artwork by Ibrahim Rayintakath
0ctober 6th 2020
At the bottom, near the feet, a door opened and two gleaming urns emerged. One was labelled ‘Ashes’, and the other, ‘Navel’.
I will bring you the brochure and some other reading material. But if you simply watch this video, it’s about ten minutes long, it’ll be clear once you’ve watched the whole thing… this model of Akai VCR that you’ve got is my favourite too.
This is the one we normally use at work. Yes, coffee, please… I was up very late last night… a new kind of elevated furnace is being used in village crematoriums these days, primarily through NGOs… the body’s put on a slightly raised surface like a stretcher and then placed on the iron furnace along with the wood… the ash that gathers beneath is a sort of bonus. People collect that stuff… I’ve seen it happen in Labhpur, close to Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s home. They offer training in Gujarat on this sort of thing. The concept is fine up to the village level. I’m switching on the VCR then sir.
Some snow on the screen to begin with. Then the name—‘Cold Fire… which you have been waiting for. You had to wait eighty-four years for the fall of Communism. And in just six years you’re getting Cold Fire, whose elegance, whose exclusive company, only you or others like you deserve.’
Mr. K.C. Sarkar, owner of three tea estates, watched Cold Fire at work. Dressed in a dhoti and kurta, with sandalwood marks on the forehead, the body was laid on a coffin-like box. The lids opened, drawing the body in. The lids closed. The digital lights glowed. ‘Ten minutes later.’ The lights had been red all this while. Now the blue lights glowed instead. At the bottom, near the feet, a door opened, and two gleaming urns emerged. One was labelled ‘Ashes’, and the other, ‘Navel’. The lids opened. There was nothing inside. It was just like before. Polished, spick-and-span.
Nagarwalla had told Mr. Sarkar about it at the club last evening.
- I’m sending a young man to you tomorrow, KC. Fascinating! I’ve gone and booked it for myself. A lethal name too—Cold Fire!
- I tried a vodka from Czechoslovakia once. Back in the Communist era—now of course the Czechs and Slovaks are different nations. That vodka was named Liquid Fire. Is this some kind of new liquor?
- No sir. This is the ultimate spirit—it’ll make you a spirit.
- Send him to me then.
- I’ve ordered some chilled beer. Would you like some?
- Beer after sundown?
If this frail body must burn just once, let it burn in style, don’t you think?
A large vehicle delivered Cold Fire to Mr. Sarkar’s residence the very next day. Family, friends and relatives all showed up to take a look.
He was a pretty bright young man. His cologned cheek was permanently dimpled in an engaging smile.
- How did you people come up with such a novel product? What prompted you?
He began to stir a spoonful of sugar into his coffee.
- I’ll explain, sir. Look, in the post-Communist world, the difference between the upper and the lower strata of society has taken on an absurd dimension. Every aspect of life – be it education, be it childbirth, be it transport—is different for them. For instance, if an affluent senior citizen like you needed to go on a vacation today, if you wanted to go to a coastal resort, your choice, even if you wanted to go somewhere close by, would be the Maldives or Seychelles, not Puri or Digha. If you have a vision problem, obviously Geneva would be preferable. But this form of existence that you enjoy, this free, superior, and magnificent lifestyle, is completely inconsistent with your funeral. For that, it’ll be the same filthy crematorium that everyone else goes to—Keoratala or Nimtala or Kashi Mitra or Siriti… horror of horrors! Have you had to visit a crematorium recently, sir?
- Not exactly recently. Last year, when my father-in-law’s brother…
- If you were to go now, you’d find it even more horrifying. For example, we have to visit the crematorium quite often on official work. Just the other day, about a week ago, what a horrible sight we saw at Keoratala. Three furnaces blazing. The area where they burn the bodies on wooden pyres had no corpses. A gang of criminals drinking and smoking grass. Meanwhile, six bodies were waiting upstairs for the furnaces. Four more downstairs, outside. And on top of all this, it was raining off and on. A hoard of ruffians with each of the bodies. You can’t imagine.
- Practically hell, you’re saying.
- I haven’t seen hell, sir. But I can’t imagine anything more hellish. One of the bodies was of a drowned man—decomposed. One was a BSF jawan shot dead by the ULFA. The rest were all old men and women from slums or lower-middle class homes, one was middle-aged, seemed to be a political goon, a group of people were shouting those typical Communist slogans, and in the middle of all this—chanting priests, all the paraphernalia of cremation, flowers—a couple of yards away the cot, mattress and quilts blazing—a bunch of urchins on the prowl, dogs, drunks, people weeping, body fluids oozing out from corpses, incense, prayers…
- Oh my god, even your description is making me queasy.
- Naturally. But whatever you may say, whether you book a Cold Fire or not, that’s your decision, I cannot imagine you amidst all this. Excuse me sir, I’m probably getting a little emotional…
- Oh no, you are absolutely right. Since everything in my life is exclusive, why shouldn’t my funeral be that way too? If this frail body must burn just once, let it burn in style, don’t you think? Moreover, this can’t be thought of as a mere gadget. It’s a family asset if you come to think of it.
- Right sir. People can buy Cold Fire for business reasons too. The very concept of cremation and funerals will change.
- Have you read the Gita?
- Yes sir, we had to take special training on thanatology. We had to read the Gita and the Tibetan Book of the Dead as part of theory. May I say something, sir?
- Of course you may. Go ahead.
- Do you believe in rebirth, sir?
- I don’t exactly know, but this Cold Fire makes me think redeath might be a better idea.
- This observation of yours is very philosophical, sir. Should I book one for you then, sir?
- Of course. Wait, let me get my cheque-book. I think I can get hold of at least half a dozen other clients for you.
- Thank you sir. I don’t have words for my gratitude.
A large vehicle delivered Cold Fire to Mr. Sarkar’s residence the very next day. Family, friends, and relatives all showed up to take a look. It was certainly something to marvel at. Just that Mr. Sarkar’s ancient gardener and servant quit their jobs.
The rare feat of being the first person in Calcutta to be cremated by Cold Fire was achieved by the famous gynaecologist Chandramadhab aka Chandu Chatterjee. Just the previous night he had hosted a lavish party at the Taj Bengal to celebrate his grandson’s first birthday. Scotch had flowed like water. The very next day stunned and grieving friends watched as Cold Fire was switched on at precisely eleven o’ clock in the morning, and the blue lights glowed at ten past eleven. The door near the feet opened and two gleaming urns emerged. One containing the ashes. The other, the navel. The whole thing was captured on video.
Two hundred and thirty units of Cold Fire have been sold in Calcutta so far.
The Gift of Death
I have met several such insane people, in different shapes and sizes and with different behaviours.
The story that all this preamble leads up to is not about lunatics or suicides, however. In fact it’s been three whole years. I was returning home by train from Madras.
The card was black, made of some kind of paper with the feel of velvet. On it, an address in an unsettling shade of bright yellow. Nothing else.
His position was that, for a variety of reasons, each of us harbours a unique death wish within ourselves. That is to say, a pet notion—and desire—of how we’d like to die.
This was a very expensive affair. Very few people could afford it. Till date, not more than two or three people had heard the symphony of death.
Rachmaninoff’s Aisle of Death, or the wistful strains of a sarengi, as you wished. Several thousand watts of sound enveloped the client in a trance.
And then there are always the political leaders. It’s very easy to help them—all of them prefer a heart attack.
But not all his efforts will allow him to guess when, where, or on which road he will die. The virgin charm of sudden death will always remain.
Some people’s lives are so dreary that in the process of putting up with the tedium they don’t even realise when they just die. When you think about it, they seem to be under a cloud of doubt even after death.
In that respect, few people are born as lucky as me. Whenever I get fed up of things, something inevitably happens to revive my spirits. But you can’t say this to too many people. Friends and relations all assume I’m grinding out an existence just like them. Hand-to-mouth. Brainless sheep, the whole lot. But then it’s best for them to think this way. Else they’ll be jealous. They’ll look at me strangely. I don’t know how to cope with envy. I’m afraid of the evil eye too. Good and evil – that’s what makes the world go round.
The first thing I have going for me is my amazing contact with lunatics at regular intervals. Chance or fate, it just happens. An example or two will help me explain without creating problems on the business side. But it’s best not to tell the psychiatrist my wife took me to. Suppose she changes my pills?
Just the other day this man—gaunt, half-dead, looks like one of those people who can fly—got hold of me. Had two terrific schemes, he said. He’d sent the details to every world leader. Two of them had replied so far. Both Thatcher and Gorbachev had praised his ideas. He’d be talking to both of them soon. He was flying out next month. I sat down to hear of his schemes.
The first one was to build a projection jutting out from the balcony of every apartment in all the high-rise buildings coming up these days. Something like a diving board at a swimming pool. He would make a couple of prototypes to begin with. Once the government had approved enthusiastically, it would be added to the building plan, without having to be added on later.
Apparently it was essential for people to have such high spots nowadays to stand or sit on. Without railings, not very large. It was for those who wanted to be by themselves. People were chased by thousands of things these days. He was being chased by the chief minister, by scientists, by the prime minister. The police commissioner too. Also by the Special Branch, the Criminal Investigations Department, and the Research & Analysis Wing. That was when the plan struck him. A slice of space—but outside the building. Speaking for myself, the idea appealed to me too. Entirely possible. But because I lived in a single-storied house inherited from my father, I didn’t give it too much thought. His second scheme was not exactly a plan – it was more of an adventurous proposal or proposition, though it was closely connected to the first scheme. He would stand as well as walk on the wings of a mid-air aircraft. He wanted to demonstrate this practically. Today’s youth would regain their courage if they saw him. The youth needed dreams, for the alternatives were drugs, cinema, and HIV. He wanted to perform this feat on an Indian Air Force plane. He had written it all down in detail. There were diagrams too. All of it gathered in a thin plastic folder. He kept these documents in a file tied up with a string. He wanted to know if I could help him with the second idea in. Whether I knew an Air Marshal, for instance. When I said I wouldn’t be able to help him, he requested me to pay for a cup of tea and a cigarette at least. I did.
I have met several such insane people, in different shapes and sizes and with different behaviours. I have seen people who have gone mad with sudden grief. I’ve encountered not a few suicides too. Before killing themselves, some people develop a half-mad detachment. I’ve come across such people too. But then I’ve also run into not one but two cases where there wasn’t a whiff of insanity. Both of them used to spend time with mystics. One of them used to go to Tarapith, that den of mystics, every Sunday. The other was embroiled deeply in office politics. Both hanged themselves. All of these incidents are true. The age of making stories up has ended—why should people believe me, and why should I bother to make them up, either? Some of the lunatics and suicides I’ve seen were tragedies of love. But this isn’t the time for stories about women. Although the first person whom I told the story that I have eventually decided to recount here was my wife. A woman, in other words.
And this was what led to all the quarrels and demands. For what? That I must see a psychiatrist. I was an able-bodied man—why should I abandon the business I ran and go see a doctor for the insane? She paid no attention. Her brothers came. Collectively they forced me to see a woman psychiatrist. What an enormous fuss they made. But it turned out to be a good idea. Very pretty. Western looks. And matching conversation. Very cordial. I liked her so much that I told her the story too. For years altogether now I’ve been taking the tiny white pills she gave me, thrice a day. Sometimes I take a blue one too. It gets wearisome. I get annoyed. But I like the woman so much that I can’t help trusting her. I try to tell myself that I’ve recovered from an illness. Not that I’m ill.
The story that all this preamble leads up to is not about lunatics or suicides, however. In fact, it’s been three whole years. I was returning home by train from Madras. I have to travel indiscriminately on business. To save money I travel second class on the way out, but on the way back I give in to my longing for luxury and inevitably buy a first-class ticket. There was no one else in the four-berth compartment. I was comfortable. Somewhere near the Andhra-Orissa border I woke up and found everything dark. The train wasn’t moving either. Pitch dark. You couldn’t see anything out of the window. Once my eyes had adjusted to the darkness I realised that the train was standing at a small station somewhere. A deep indigo night sky. Hints of low black hills. A few lonely stars. People moving about. The glow of torches. Getting off the train, I heard that a goods train had been in an accident. It would have to be moved and the line, repaired. Only then would our train resume its journey.
Almost without warning, the lights came back on. I went back to my compartment. At once I discovered that someone else had entered in the darkness. The man was—not probably, but almost certainly—not a South Indian. His appearance and way of talking made that obvious. In his forties. Fair, well-dressed, handsome. Slightly greying hair. His fine shirt and trousers, gleaming shoes and the tie around his neck gave him the appearance of a successful salesman of a multinational company. I wasn’t entirely wrong, but I still don’t know the name of the company or how big it was. So big that it was almost mysterious and obscure.
After some small talk both of us lit our cigarettes. He was the one to offer his expensive cigarettes. When I asked him whether he wouldn’t mind a little whiskey, he said he didn’t drink. So I drank by myself. There was no sign of the train leaving. Neither of us spoke for a while. Almost startling me, the man suddenly said: Keep this business card of ours. Might come in useful. The card was black, made of some kind of paper with the feel of velvet. On it, an address in an unsettling shade of bright yellow. Nothing else. A Waltair address. Nothing else on either side of the card. Neither the name of a company, nor a phone number.
- That’s not our actual address, mind you. You have to take a roundabout route to reach us. But when you write to us add your address with all details. Our people will certainly get in touch with you. It may take a little time. But they will definitely meet you.
- What exactly is this business of yours? Seems to be some sort of secret, illegal affair... But then you’ve got business cards too—strange!
- Look, our company doesn’t have a name. No name. We help people die - you could say we gift them death. Of course, it isn’t legal, but...
- You mean you murder them.
- Absolutely not! Murder! How awful, we aren’t killers. It will be done with your full consent. Different kinds of death, in different ways. You will choose your method, and pay accordingly. You want to die like a king? We can do it for you. We will fulfil whatever death wish you might have, no matter how unusual. You’ll get exactly what you want, just the way you want it. But yes, you have to pay.
I had a long conversation with the man thereafter. I’m recounting as much of it as I can recollect. As much of the strangeness as actually penetrated my whiskey-soaked brain in the anonymous darkness of the station. As much as I’ve been able to retain three years later.
His position was that, for a variety of reasons, each of us harbours a unique death wish within ourselves. That is to say, a pet notion—and desire—of how we’d like to die. Like a romantic, someone might want to leap from a mountain into a bottomless ravine on a cold, misty evening. Others want their bodies to be riddled by bullets. Yet others, to be charred to death in a fire. Someone else wants poison in their bloodstream, so they they begin with a slight warm daze and bow out as cold as ice. Some want to be conscious at the moment of death, while others prefer to be halfway to oblivion. One person wants to be strangled to death. Another is keen on being stabbed. Some people wish for death in a holy place, the sound of sacred chants ringing in their ears. But wishing doesn’t guarantee fulfilment. No matter what, the majority of deaths are uninteresting, drab, and dull. This company meets the demand for such deaths, fulfilling its clients’ death wishes. I remember some parts of the salesman’s pitch verbatim.
- There’s a theoretical side to this too. Our R&D is extremely strong. You’ll find non-stop research underway, not only on the practical side of death, but also on other aspects, covering data from the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Thanatos Syndrome, Indian thoughts on death, Abhedananda, and Jiddu Krishnamoorthy to the latest forms of murder, suicide and clinical death. Forget about India, no one in the world is engaged in this sort of business. It wouldn’t even occur to anyone. We’ve been told of a few small-scale attempts in Japan, but this isn’t a matter of automobiles or electronics, after all. They may have their Toyota and Mitsubishi, but those poor fellows still can’t think beyond hara-kiri. All those bamboo or steel knives - so primitive. Not at all enterprising. Incidentally, do you know which country has the most suicides in the world?
- Must be us.
- No sir, it’s Hungary. Magyars are incredibly suicide-prone.
They offered access to all kinds of death. They would fulfil even the most intricate and virtually impossible proposals. A man from Delhi had always imagined dying when his jeep skidded on an icy mountain road. It was organised. If you wanted to die of a specific disease, their medical team would check on its feasibility. But they would not engineer someone else’s death on your request. You could only arrange for your own death through their services.
I learnt a great deal from the conversation. Apparently, many people lived such bewildered lives that even though they had a vague idea of how they’d like to die, they could not express it clearly. The company had a choice of pre-set programmes for such clients. The most regal of these was the ‘record player’.
A gigantic record player was set in the ocean at a distance. A huge black disc was set in it, the disc of death, turning at thirty-three and one third revolutions per minute. The record player was placed on a rig similar to an offshore oil-drilling platform. You had to get there on a speedboat. The fortunate man desiring death was made to sit on a chair over the spoke, shaped like a bullet or a lipstick, reaching upwards through the hole at the centre of the record. The record-player played an impossibly tragic melody—Western or Indian. Rachmaninoff’s Aisle of Death, or the wistful strains of a sarengi, as you wished. Several thousand watts of sound enveloped the client in a trance. Revolving on the surface of the ocean along with the record, he was also transported to a place beyond the real and the unreal. When the music ended, the stylus entered the glittering space in the middle of the record with the sound of a storm, striking the man a mighty blow that ensured his death even before his body hit the water. His head was either torn off his body or pulverised. As soon as the corpse fell into the sea, hundreds of sharks swam up at the scent of blood. This was a very expensive affair. Very few people could afford it. Till date, not more than two or three people had heard the symphony of death.
- Who are they?
- Excuse me, but clients are more important to us than even god. We cannot possibly divulge their identities. Although we are practically friends now, you and I. Do you remember how Mr. ____ died? You should.
- How could I not remember. Such a horrible plane crash!
- It was a plane crash all right, but that was what he wanted.
- But what about the other passengers? Surely they didn’t want it.
- Sorry. It’s prohibitively expensive. Because there are other victims.
- But they were innocent.
- Innocent! My foot! In any case, there’s nothing we can do about it. None of them told us to kill them. But if they insist on taking the same flight, what are we supposed to do? Moreover, this was his choice. Yes, choice. We made all the arrangements to fulfil his request, using the money he paid us.
- But. Why did he do this?
- He had got rid of Mr. ____ the same way. Not through us, of course. Lots of innocent people had died on that occasion too. So he wanted a similar death.
- How many more such cases have you handled?
- Numerous. But why should we tell you about all of them? Can all such cases be talked about? Should they even be talked about? We offer many services. We sell suicide projects, for instance. Not as expensive. Lots more. Let me just tell you this, all the famous people who have died recently—from the Bombay mafia leader being gunned down to the Calcutta film star who committed suicide with the phone in his hand and forty sleeping pills in his stomach—it was all our doing. And then there are always the political leaders. It’s very easy to help them—all of them prefer a heart attack.
- So you people help only the famous? Give them the gift of death, that is.
- We’re still trying to consolidate our business, you see. The company’s a long way from breaking even. But yes, pride in our performance is our major capital at present. Later, of course, we’ll have to think of the economically weaker classes too. To tell you the truth, poor people are much more trouble. The bastards aren’t even sure whether they’re alive in the first place, how can they be expected to think of death? And besides, they’re unbelievably crude.
- What about those even lower down—miles below the poverty line—beggars?
- Impossible! Last year our R&D people studied the death wishes of beggars in three metropolitan cities—Calcutta, Bombay and Madras. Their findings were—how shall I put it—silly and delightful. Childish demands.
- Such as?
- In most cases the image involves eating. For instance, some of them want their limbs, heads, and bodies to be stuffed with meat, fish, butter and alcohol till they explode. They desperately want liquor. Then again, some of them wanted god to take them in his arms at the centre of Flora Fountain in Bombay. Infantile, and so naive.
- But you have to say they’re imaginative.
- That’s true. They’re bound to, since they’re human beings. But yes, we get a lot of valuable ideas from children. Just the other day our R&D unearthed a fascinating story from an American newspaper.
- Tell me, please.
- A boy, you know. About twelve. Somewhere near Chicago. The fellow had dressed up as Batman. He was Batman constantly, jumping from roof to roof with a pair of wings clipped on. No one took him seriously. Even the girls used to laugh at him. Child psychology, you see. So none of you can recognise Batman, he said. One day he was found in a deep freezer, frozen after several days in there. You’d be astounded at the kind of cases there are. Batman! Actually it’s not like I don’t drink. Pour me a strong whiskey, will you? What’s this whiskey called? Glender! Oh, it’s Scotch. I’ve never heard of this brand.
I had poured a few whiskeys. For the salesman. And for myself too. After I had poured several, he had left like Batman, swinging and weaving. I had weaved my way to bed too. The train had started moving. I could still hear his voice ringing in my ears...
- But yes, there’s a grand surprise in death, especially in accidental death—a thrill that we never deprive our clients of. Say someone has booked a death to be run over by a car. But not all his efforts will allow him to guess when, where, or on which road he will die. The virgin charm of sudden death will always remain.
Who was this man? What company did he represent, for that matter? The gift of death—the idea couldn’t exactly be dismissed out of hand. Despite my best efforts, I hadn’t been able to do it for three years. Secondly, don’t we have our own visions of death, after all? Would it be fulfilled in this one life, in this life? For instance, I have a specific sort of death wish of my own too. But then the death by record player is very expensive. Naturally. I live with doubts and misgiving like these. These things lie low when I take my pills regularly. When they raise their heads, I visit the psychiatrist. She changes the medicine. Blue pills instead of white. In the darkness of power-cuts I pull that man’s black business card out for a look. The disturbing yellow letters are probably printed in fluorescent ink. They glow in the darkness. I don’t mind showing the card to anyone who gets in touch with me. You can check for yourself by writing to them. It might take a little time but their people will certainly get in touch. You can be sure about this. They will definitely meet you.
Some people’s lives are so dreary that in the process of putting up with the tedium they don’t even realise when they just die. When you think about it, they seem to be under a cloud of doubt even after death.