The doorbell buzzed. The American doctor got up to open the door of his room at a five-star hotel in Calcutta and inquired, “Yes?”
“Me…It’s me, Ram Deen, Sahib!”
“So, you’ve come! Come right in. I have been waiting.”
“Shall we go, Sahib? That is, if you’re ready.”
“Yes, I am. – Have you arranged for all fifty?”
“I could have procured a hundred, even a thousand, sahib, there’s no shortage here,” replied the man, proudly.
“Good! Let’s go then.”
Both came out of the room. When they approached the portico, the doctor’s driver promptly brought the car to them. The doctor sat at the back and Ram Deen, by the side of the driver.
“Where to?” the doctor asked Ram Deen.
“To Chowringhee, Sahib.”
“Chow-ringhee? Sounds like a very big mortuary.”
“No! – I mean, yes, sort of.’
The car started, giggling. But soon she settled into her routine gear and quietly moved on to fly on the road.
“You’ve done a wonderful job, Ram Deen.—Who’d believe it? A full fifty in a single swoop!”
“In our country, we can at once arrange to fulfil the biggest needs. All you should have is, loads of money in your pocket, Sahib!”
“Don’t worry. As soon as you deliver, you’ll receive your money.” “I don’t worry, Sahib. I’ve had dealings with your country since long. You Americans are a very straight people – and – and so full of life.” “That’s exactly what we doctors in America suffer from. In our country people hardly ever come to die.” “But those who are destined to die, would surely be dying.” “Hardly so, Ram Deen, unless in accidents at funfares. But luckily for the doctors, they don’t occur infrequently. Normally our people tend to ignore their appointment with Death.” “Ha ha ha! — Our people on the other hand, are very fond of the old girl. That’s why our doctors don’t trust them and charge their fee in advance on each visit.’ “Yes, what else do you expect in your country, where death is so popular? You wouldn’t expect them to follow the dead for their fee, would you?”
The American doctor looked out and his eyes fell upon a surge of innumerable humans. He felt rather creepy in his body. No face seemed to bear signs of individual features. All seemed alike, everyone coming and going, here and there, unaware of one another. They were all here and yet nowhere! Their eyes were wide open but not really seeing. Their feet lifted up on their own accord. There was a loud din around and they could hear nothing.
The doctor took out his pen and notebook and started to write:
June 15, 1977. A road in Calcutta. Floods of human beings with no indication of life in them. As though, suffocating in their graves, they have walked out. Or, they are so tired that they are walking back to their graves. The doctor stopped writing and lifted his head to survey the scene again. – Are these people really alive? Or, already dead? If they are dead, why are they walking around?
The doctor was excitedly engaged trying to account for the phenomenon medically. I shall raise this issue in the doctors’ conference. Is this possible? Or not? But why not? – The human machine may continue operating while the human may be dead.—Yes! – but how can one prove it? – No, this is not possible! The doctor again looked out, at the people.—No, how do I say it can’t happen when this is in fact happening here, right in front of my own eyes. All that has to be done is to have science prove this.
The driver noticed the red signal at the crossing ahead and braked the vehicle in the row of cars close to the footpath. The doctor felt a strong urge to focus his attention on some one face in the crowd. But how could he rest his eyes on inundated multitudes. He peeped out, venturing to greet them with his smiles but they continued to walk quite oblivious of him, of each other, and in fact, even of themselves.
The car set into motion as soon as the green signal flashed.
The doctor wondered how he would react, if any one of these people were to ask him for a death certificate.
Yes, why not? If he is not alive, he has a perfect legal right to obtain a certificate of his death. Or—or, I should know of a more confident mode of medical examination to confirm his death and to show that Mr. So-an’-so himself carries his person.
The doctor impatiently lighted a cigarette but, perhaps thinking of some article pronouncing the dangers of smoking, he quickly extinguished it and straightened himself on the seat.
“Yes?” The American doctor was startled.
Ram Deen pointed his finger to the right.
“You see that pavement, Sahib? It is about three quarters of an hour when I passed by here.—You know what? – Close to that pillar, a dead body suddenly stood up on its feet and started calling out “Please, do hear me, please!’ But nobody paid any attention to it. The body then raised its voice desperately, “Please! – I am a dead person. Please—please help me.’ No-one slowed his pace to hear the poor soul.”
“The poor soul?” the doctor inquired.
“I mean, the dead person.”
“But, Ram Deen, how do you know the person you call dead was not the only living soul in that crowd of the dead?”
“After all, I was also amongst them all. If you want to check me up free, go ahead and do so…I am alive.”
“Then why didn’t you stop to help the dead body?”
“I didn’t, for I had to see you about the same time.”
“Yea, I’m glad you were very punctual. Have you really arranged for all fifty?”
“Yes, Sahib, all fifty. Would you like me to arrange for more?”
“No, fifty would do. —-But tell me; what was that dead body trying to say?” he asked, laughing.
“Oh—just this, that it had been dead for over ten hours and that some God-fearing person should have mercy and bury it somewhere for it to be on the path of God.”
“Then?” the doctor had really been intrigued.
“I told you, nobody even lifted his head to look at the hapless body. The poor thing must have gone somewhere herself in search of a graveyard.”
“But Ram Deen, are you sure the dead one was really dead?”
Ram Deen laughed.
“You are such a big name in medicine, Sahib. If the dead one was indeed a dead one, it cannot but be dead.”
“Yes, I know what you mean.”
Yet the doctor could not figure out much. So, he shot another question, “Isn’t it necessary in your country to obtain a death certificate?”
Ram Deen laughed politely.
“You Americans are so wise, and yet so innocent! Sahib, no-one was willing to show the dead body the way to a graveyard. How do you expect the poor thing to take rounds of government offices just for the certificate? Or maybe she ought to have procured the certificate while alive, by bribing. But then, if she had money for bribing, she’d rather have got herself medicines. And then, she wouldn’t have died!”
Even though the doctor found Ram Deen’s sense of humour interesting, he felt he was crude.
“Perhaps you are wondering, Sahib, how the goodman came to know of his death without a certificate.”
“Yes, we do not believe that someone is dead unless it is a medically certified death.”
“But here, our certificates are mostly fake. We believe we are dead only when we ourselves feel so…! Driver, turn left from here. We have to go into this gali.”
The doctor looked around and asked, “Why do you build your hospitals in such mucky surroundings, in such narrow lanes?”
“There’s no hospital here, Sahib.”
“But isn’t the mortuary part of the hospital?”
“We are short of shelter even for the living. Why waste our scanty resources for the dead? —- Stop, driver.”
The car stopped.
The American doctor saw a number of impoverished people, young and old, snatched in a row at a side. He looked interrogatively at Ram Deen.
“We’ve arrived,” Ram Deen announced.
“Where we were supposed to”, he paused to complete his answer before he got down from the car. “I came to you only after I had organized them here.”
The doctor demurred, “But I ordered for dead bodies.”
“Look at them carefully, Sahib, do they look like the living.”
“This is not a joke, Ram Deen.”
“How could I dare, Sahib? The dead don’t even know they are dead. But look at each one here carefully. Each has total conviction that he’s long been dead.”
Angry and baffled, the American doctor looked at those poor people, “You are a strange man. I had told you to arrange for fifty corpses for our experiments in American hospitals.”
Ram Deen began to laugh.
“No, Sahib, I know practically all countries in the world take men and women from our country. I thought you too need these dead and gone people for some jobs your own men can’t do. I did not know you have come all the way from your country to dig our graves.” Ram Deen took off his muslin cap to scratch his head, “Shall I tell you something, Sahib! I believe my men should work out very well for your experiments. They are going to drop dead any time. Many may breathe their last on the way. You have only to look at them carefully to believe what I am saying.”
“What are you trying to say?”
“What I am trying to tell you is to take them away quietly.”
“Hold your tongue! Tell me clearly. Can you get me fifty dead bodies…fifty real corpses?”
Ram Deen scratched his head and put his cap back into its position,” Yes, I know the bodies have to be dead. But you should yourself scrutinize these people – you’ll be convinced that they are like corpses. But, wait. I shall explain my point broadly and clearly.”
Ram Deen came out of the car and walked towards the row of men. Without uttering a word, he slapped one of the men with all his might. The man did not save himself from it, nor did he wince or react to it, he stood quietly just as he was as though nothing had happened. Ram Deen ran back to the American doctor like lightening, “Do you still not believe me…that they are cent percent corpses?!”
The doctor was surprised and ruffled. He ordered his driver, “Let’s go back. Drive!”
“Wait, sahib. Go by me… Take these men. Whatever experiments you care to conduct, feel free to use these men. Wait, driver!…Sahib, if you like you can pay me my money later, after your work is done!”
“Start the car, driver.”
“The dead would cost you more, Sahib, you’d have to pay for their cartage, while, these men will carry themselves on board.”
The vehical moved on instantly.
Ram Deen then turned to pay attention to the row of people standing there.
“Hard luck, fools! Don’t blame me. Had you been really dead, you would have reached America in such style.”
Joginder Paul (1925-2016) was born in Sialkot (now in Pakistan). He published over 13 collections of short stories, including Khula, Khodu Baba ka Maqbara and Bastian. Amongst his novels are Ek Boond Lahoo ki, Nadeed, Paar Pare and Khwabro. He has four collections of flash fiction (Afsaanche) , a genre with which he is known to have enriched Urdu fiction significantly. Paul is a recipient of many literary honours including the SAARC Lifetime Award, Iqbal Samman, Urdu Academy Award, All India Bahadur Shah Zafar Award, Shiromani Award and the Ghalib Award. He was also honoured at Doha with an Urdu Adab World award for contributing to creative writing in Urdu.
Sukrita Paul Kumar (translator) poet and critic, was born and brought up in Kenya. She held the prestigious Aruna Asaf Ali Chair at Delhi University. Formerly, a Fellow of the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla, she was an invited poet at the International Writing Programme, Iowa, USA and Hong Kong Baptist University. Honorary faculty, Durrell Centre at Corfu, Greece, she has been a recipient of many prestigious fellowships and residencies. Her recent collections of poems amongst others are Country Drive, Dream Catcher, Untitledand Poems Come Home (with Hindustani translations by Gulzar). She is the “Writer in Context” Series editor (with Chandana Dutta) being published by Routledge UK. Her co-edited book on the eminent writer Krishna Sobti is the first in the series. Amongst her critical books are Narrating Partitionand Conversations on Modernism. Her translations include Nude, book of poems by Vishal Bhardwaj and the novel, Blind(HarperCollins). A guest editor of journals such as Manoa(Hawaii) and Muse India, she has held exhibitions of her paintings. Many of her poems come out of her experience of working with the homeless, the street children and Tsunami victims.