(Excerpted with permission of Aleph Book Company from The Greatest Urdu Stories Ever Told, selected and translated by Muhammad Umar Memon.)
It was all so unexpected. They were stunned. They put the stretcher down abruptly, gawked at the dead body, then looked at each other with a million questions stirring in their eyes. Their eyeballs moved dumbly in their sockets for quite some time, and when they stopped, the two shrugged their shoulders uncomprehendingly. Then, simultaneously, they grimaced, severely straining their necks and letting their gaze hover over the dense trees of the Parsi cemetery. Not a single vulture! Not even as far as one could see! This was absolutely the first time that such a thing had happened.
The bell had gone off two hours earlier to put them on alert. And sure enough, a quarter-of-an-hour later the attendants of Bagli No. 2 were handing the corpse over to them. The two had pulled the corpse into the bawli area and closed the doors behind them. Later Pheroze Bhatina, having opened the small window in the door and questioned the funeral attendants outside about the relatives of the deceased, asked one of them, ‘How about the tips—did they give any?’
The attendant had smiled and flashed two ten-rupee notes at Bhatina, who promptly snatched them, stuffed one in the pocket of his dagla and gave the other to his companion, Hormoz. Then they shut the window.
‘Good Lord,’ Hormoz lifted his head and gratefully looked at the stretch of sky peeping in from the thick foliage of tall trees. Then he motioned to Bhatina with his eyes. The two bent over, picked up the stretcher, and started to walk towards the bawli.
‘Pheroze,’ Hormoz addressed his companion, walking along.
‘How long…I mean how long will we go on doing this sort of work?’
‘Cut it out.’
‘Yaar, is it the only thing we’re good for?’
‘So what do you think.’
‘Nothing, really. I was merely asking.’
‘That’s all. I swear by Zarathustra.’ He looked up at the sky.
After a brief silence Bhatina said, ‘Look, Hormoz. The Parsi Council took care of us, didn’t it? Let’s just say we were the unlucky ones. Right? What do you say?’
‘Same story. Not much difference. But the truth is, I’m fed up. I’m just plain fed up.’
Their conversation was cut short, as they had reached the bawli enclosure. A single kick of Hormoz’s foot opened the door and the very next instant they took their places by the corpse, one standing by the corpse’s head, the other by its feet. The corpse’s face, which had been smeared with yogurt, was absolutely white. Hormoz lifted the head a little and Bhatina quickly pulled the shroud clean out from under it. By turns they reverentially touched the corpse’s feet, touched their hands to their eyes and chests as a sign of respect, and got up. A handkerchief had been put around the waist with the ritual kasti-string to cover the corpse’s nakedness. They left it alone. Then they came to their quarters in the corner of the bawli compound and sat down at a table. After some time Hormoz set a wine bottle on the table and the two filled their glasses. Pheroze Bhatina popped a piece of arvi roll into his mouth and said, ‘Hormoz.’
‘What a life!’
‘What’s the matter?’
‘Bagli No. 1, 2, 4…the bell…son of a bitch…and…’
‘Corpses…still more corpses…’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Just look. Look at the life of a Parsi.’
‘What about it?’
‘His youth runs super fast but his old age merely crawls along like a freight train.’
‘True, brother, absolutely true.’
‘Yes, absolutely true.’
They kept up the litany of ‘true, true’ for quite a while as they continued to drink, breaking somewhat later into fits of sobs. After an hour or so the bell went off again. This time the corpse was coming from Bagli No. 4.
‘There, Lord Zarathustra’s provided for more wine.’
‘Come on, yaar, let’s get going.’
They made their way over to the bawli’s main entrance. The door opened a second time. They slid the empty stretcher out. Moments later it was pushed back in with the corpse from Bagli No. 4. One of the attendants tossed two ten-rupee notes at them once again. But this time Hormoz stepped forward to grab the money. Then they closed the door, picked up the stretcher and started off toward the bawli.
‘One day we too will end up dead, just like this, no?’
Hormoz stopped, turned his head to look at Pheroze Bhatina, and then asked him rather harshly, ‘Now what makes you ask a question like that?’
‘Everyone has to die.’
‘True. But I’m not planning on dying quite yet.’
‘Planning? What the hell do you mean?’
‘Shut up, fool. What have we seen in life so far? Dead bodies, more dead bodies, and vultures. At the most, a little wine now and then from that fucking Sitara Road liquor store…crude, mixed with ammonium chloride…ten rupee notes. I ask: is this what you call life?’
Pheroze didn’t answer, he just kept looking at Hormoz.
‘Come on, brother, is it life?’
‘What can I say. All I know is this: when the call comes, I must go. Somebody else will take my place. When you go, somebody else will take your place too.’
‘Shut up, fool! Bastard! Pig!’ Hormoz shouted.
‘Don’t make a racket. Stop talking about life. Look, we’ve got a corpse to take care of.’
They shut up. Walked over to the bawli in silence. And when they opened the door…
It was all so unexpected. They were stunned. They put the stretcher down abruptly, gawked at the dead body, and then looked at each other with a million questions stirring in their eyes. Their eyeballs moved dumbly in their sockets for quite some time, and when they stopped, the two shrugged their shoulders uncomprehendingly… And then they let their gaze hover over the dense trees of the Parsi cemetery. There was not a single vulture anywhere in sight.
This was absolutely the first time it had happened. Corpses, but no vultures in sight anywhere. Usually though, after Hormoz and Pheroze had dragged a corpse to the bawli, the vultures made short work of it within minutes. As they saw the vultures return, they would come back to the bawli, douse the skeleton with acid, which would then crumble like fine dust into the depths of the bawli—gone forever, who knows where? Sometimes no dead body was brought in for days on end. But on such occasions the Parsi Council would buy a goat and have it delivered to Hormoz and Bhatina who would then feed it to the vultures, lest hunger drive them away for ever. But this? Corpses—a shoal of them, so to speak—ready but no vultures around to finish them off!
Both gawked at each other with peeled eyes. After they had stood there dumbly for some time they put the second corpse on the mesh as well, then they covered the mouth of the bawli and gave each other a deep questioning look.
‘What do you think? Shall I go and let Keqabad know?’
Bhatina went into his room and pressed the emergency button. The red bulb on the wall of the office of the Parsi cemetery began to blink. The clerks scampered out—confused, shocked. Similar bulbs also went on in the baglis. The clerics stopped the holy recitation from the Avesta. Dogs wandering about in the baglis were suddenly gripped by fear and slunk into corners. Mournful relatives accompanying their dear departed stepped out of the baglis in a state of prodigious nervousness. Everywhere there was a single question: What’s happened?
Keqabad bounded out, looked at the sky closely and promptly went back in. People hemmed him in, noisily asking the same question, ‘What’s happened?’ In response Keqabad announced, ‘The vultures have gone away!’
‘Vultures’ve gone away?’
‘Something’s bound to happen!’
The secretary of the Parsi Council received Keqabad’s phone call. His forehead began to wrinkle. After he had heard it all he returned the receiver to the cradle, turned on the intercom and informed the director of the matter. Right away an emergency meeting was called. The matter was presented before the board of directors. But the question persisted: Where did the vultures disappear to?
‘What did you say, the vultures have disappeared?’ the police commissioner asked with a trace of surprise in his voice.
‘Yes, our vultures have disappeared,’ the chairman of the Parsi Council confirmed, stressing each syllable. In rapt attention he listened to all that the police commissioner had to say, his face turning one colour after another. He listened to him for a long time. After the commissioner had hung up, the chairman too had returned the receiver to the cradle and looked at the directors and found their gaze intent upon him with a single question. He apprised them of the substance of his talk with the commissioner. Each of the participants left the meeting with tremendous worry and only a slight feeling of reassurance. The secretary rang up the cemetery. Then Keqabad briefly summed up the substance of the exchange between the police commissioner and the chairman to the revered clerics and others present. From the clerics the news travelled down to the attendants of the baglis and from them ultimately to Pheroze Bhatina and Hormoz. Bhatina listened to the whole thing very carefully. He then looked at the sky, clearly visible from random openings in the dense foliage: there was not even a crow anywhere, or a kite, let alone a vulture!
All of a sudden they flinched. The bell had gone off again. A corpse was being sent from Bagli No. 3. Once again they were standing at the door. The corpse arrived. This time, though, the attendant thrust two fifty-rupee notes at Bhatina. After Bhatina and Hormoz had pulled the corpse inside, the latter grimaced and said ‘Hormoz!’
‘Yes, what is it?’
‘Why in hell have all the Parsis decided to die only today?’
Hormoz didn’t answer. He just went on looking at the sky.
‘To start with, no vultures in sight; then corpse after corpse comes our way.’
‘Where have the vultures disappeared to?’
‘The police commissioner said the vultures, all of them, are flocking to the Kharki, Raviwar Peth and Somwar Peth neighbourhoods.’
‘Oh these idiot Hindus and Muslims are at each other’s throats again. There’s been a riot. The bastards, they’ve torched everything: houses, shops, even ambulances and hearses, the whole lot. The street is littered with corpses. One right on top of the other. Piled high. Our vultures—well, they’re having a feast there. And that police commissioner…he said that after the street’s been cleaned up, the vultures will come back on their own accord.’
‘Even if the street’s cleaned up—so what? What makes you think the vultures will return? This fucking India…there is a riot every day here, every day a fire, every day people die. The vultures’ll come back? The hell they will!’