This short story by Vidya Murlidhar captures the fragility of life and reminds us of the old proverb, ‘Man proposes, God disposes.’
Abhi stood in front of the mounted pyre, watching the flames rise high, every lick of the fire vying to outreach the next to stoke the barren summer sky to bear rain on the land, parched and arid, while it lapped up the charred remains of his father carrying the recently disembodied soul straight up to the heavens. He pinched himself. Was this really happening? It was a moment inevitable in his life, in everyone’s life but when one came to face it, the experience seemed surreal, unbelievable. How could his father die and leave him so? Orphaned and alone – no one to turn to, no one to fall back upon, no one to take for granted. He looked around at the handful of somber faces, gathered to mourn the loss of his father, Ram Kumar, an istriwala. A mere man’s passing did not warrant the dramatic throng of crowds. but to the son, the loss left a bottomless void, a wide gaping hole whose lips would never seal. Abhi felt his own life crumble, go up in flames as he gazed into the fire.
The crackle of the embers took him back to those days when he, as a young lad, had accompanied Baba to Mumbai, the land of dreams years ago. Tired of the unending drought that had afflicted their fields in a tiny village in central India, when no amount of coaxing and cajoling the earth had yielded crops, Baba had come to the city to support the needs of his own young family and that of his brother, Hari, who unable to carry the burden that farmers faced when nature unleashed her harsh ways, had ended his life. Baba had silently stepped in and vowed to care for his brother’s family as his own. Armed with elementary education, unskilled in vocational ways, leaving behind a young wife, three little nieces, and their mother, and hoping to make enough to sustain their basic needs, he had set out to the city taking his only son with him. With his bare hands, which had thus far only served to cradle the farmlands, Baba had built a ramshackle dwelling on the outskirts of Mumbai in a suburb, Borivali, that was just developing.