They have come to weep for those who can’t.
Ramsingh Chaudhury’s haveli smells of cinnamon and incense, charred wood and pine oil, age and death. Ten women gather around the zamindar’s body lying still in the center of the hall, all in white, their eyes blank, their mouths shut. Ten more women stand a distance away, garbed in shrill black and red, their eyes abrim with tears, their wails loud and ringing in the silent night.
Shashi sways her head side to side, mimics the hand movements of the other rudalis, and joins in the wail chorus. This is a sadness which is profound and unforgiving for the family. She has to respect the departed and the living. She has to respect the sanctity of this room, and be careful not to overdo anything.
Yet, as she sees the cadaver, something stirs inside her. Her voice takes a new rhythm, a different note in that melancholy chorus. She doesn’t realize what she is doing anymore. Even as she sways, Amba’s accusing eyes burrow inside her. But Shashi doesn’t know how to stop this. She sees the body as she wails for her own private despair, detaching from the strictly professional cries of her colleagues. She lets out a terrible cry that rings through the room. She sees the cadaver blur as tears stream down her cheeks. The skin is deathly pale, the eyes unmoving. But there is a movement, sudden, in the ring finger of the left hand. A palm jerks and faces sideways. No one notices this but her.
The rudalis start beating their chests now. Shashi joins the mourning chorus, her eyes now affixed on the corpse.
“What were you doing?” Amba asks, washing her hands and her feet with the cool water of the hand pump. She has the same accusatory stare as before.
Shashi looks up.
“I couldn’t help it.”
“You couldn’t help what?”
“I…” Shashi is relieved that it isn’t the other thing.
“One job. Sit. Wail. Get out. That’s it,” Amba says. “Don’t tell me you started feeling for the family.”
“I got carried away.”
“You know Mataji doesn’t like it.”
“If the rich are too busy, too unavailable to mourn for their dead, why should we care?”
That was the first thing Mataji ever taught Shashi. “I’ll be careful.”
Amba grunts a little, gives the barest of nods before walking away.
In a decrepit hut, Shashi tries to listen to Mataji’s reading. She tries to make sense of it all but it escapes her. Mataji’s voice is as detached as possible. The news is nothing out of the ordinary. A dead body had just leapt to life, that too upon the funeral pyre.
“But the zamindar was dead,” the girls tell Mataji. “We saw him. We cried for him.”
“These things happen all the time,” Mataji assures them. “Amba, chhori,” she adds before the rudalis could respond, “… my leg hurts.”
“Can I massage it for you, Mataji?”
“Naa, ri. Just lead the women tomorrow. Mohan Lal’s father has passed. I have a headache coming on, too.”
“You rest. I will go.”
Mataji fans her head using the fabric of her dirty lehenga. Her bangles, white as bone, shine against the heat and the sun. Dried cow dung discs rest atop each other a distance away, and flies buzz around them. Shashi doesn’t mind the smell; she has grown used to it.
“You are learning, chhori?” Mataji asks Shashi. “Did you get the payment for yesterday?”
“I did, Mataji. Much thanks.”
“Chalo, ladkiyo. Help me to my place.”
The rudalis scatter away as Amba helps Mataji to her hut. Shashi sits inside her hut, fanning flies away.
The other cadaver is a shrunken husk of a thing, barely a body at all. Paper thin skin hanging limply by bones, pale. Mouth agape, lips parted in death. Eyes closed. Nostrils covered with cotton balls. Shashi sits and sways, determined not to lose control. Not to do what was done the night before.
There is nary a tear in the eyes of the grieving, their faces showing malice, eager to get rid of the man who had presided over the family business. Mohan Lal, the eldest son, sits twirling his moustache, his eyes giving signs not of mourning but of impatience.
Shashi beats her chest, copying the predefined movements. Like each rudali, she cries, careful this time.
But again, sharp cries escape from her breasts. The lifeless hand twitches. But the body remains still as ever.
The payment for this day of grieving is good. So good that Shashi may not have to attend the next two, even three funerals.
Mohan Lal is very vocal about his disapproval. The death of his father was very convenient. But now that his father, too, has risen, quite inexplicably, the town bears the brunt. Mohan Lal is angrier than ever and refuses to talk to the press. Of course, the rest of the household rejoices. The old Mukhiya of the family is back.
But the old man doesn’t say much. He asks for shadows; yes, shadows. When the afternoon sun goes behind the clouds and the mansion casts a gloomy shade on the ground, the old man is on all fours, trying to lick the blackness off. He is perennially hungry, but nothing can quench his hunger.
Meanwhile, Ramsingh Chaudhury has had a spring in his step ever since he came back. He strives to find meaning in things when there isn’t any. He vows to write a book of poetry in Urdu, never once having read the language before.
The two undead are the talk of the town.
The rudalis lift water from a well, frayed ropes cutting the bricks, eating away grain by red grain.
“Mohan Lal. Haramkhor. Asking for his money back.” Amba heaves the earthen pot and places it over her head.
“He considers us a bad omen,” Shashi adds.
“Everyone does, ladki. He is just an idiot.”
“But why isn’t anyone talking about these miracles?”
“These aren’t miracles,” Amba’s voice is cold, her tone impersonal. “Sinners who don’t get a place in heaven are thrown back to the earth.”
Shashi shifts uneasily as she draws her bucketful from the well. Amba’s hut is in a worse condition than hers, but she declines any help offered. Even Mataji looks like she can’t go on for long. She walks heavily, shifting the weight of one foot to another laboriously, looking ill.
The rudalis don’t want to be where they are. But they don’t know what else to do. They mutter and curse the evil spirits that have revived the dead and ruined their prospects.
In the night, Shashi shifts from side to side, unable to keep her eyes closed. Nights are colder this side of the village. Thick, velvety darkness inside her own hut. A shimmer from the moon outside, splashing on the mud caked floor. She shivers under her patched, thin blanket.
Something moves near the blackness near the door. Like ink, it seems to spread. She gets up, straining her eyes to make sense of the apparition. The lamp has gone out and she doesn’t have enough oil to light another one.
“Ladki…” There’s a voice—thin, cold, it gets inside her bones. “Give a hungry man something to eat.”
Shashi gasps as she makes out the thin, old limbs and loose flesh of Mohan Lal’s father under the moonlight.
“I know it in my heart. You will help me, won’t you?”
The old man gets up, his rickety body making sounds like a folding charpai. “I have been having these… these dreams.”
“Go away, you wretched soul! Who… Did anyone see you coming?”
“Nobody,” he assures her. “I will go. But I’m thirsty…”
Shashi reaches out for the surahi. There is a steel tumbler atop it. She picks it up, her eyes still glued to the undead man squatted on the floor.
“I won’t harm you, Mai,” the old man tries to dispel her fear.
Shocked at being called a mother, Shashi clutches the surahi with trembling hands and tilts it a bit to fill the tumbler. Some water splashes on the ground, some fills the utensil. She offers the water to the man, who accepts it graciously.
“Peace be with you,” the man says as he drains the tumbler. “I don’t like this world, but I am thankful you brought me back. I don’t resent you, Mother.”
“That’s enough,” Shashi commands sternly. “Now go back to where you came from.”
Silently, Mohan Lal’s father crawls away through the door into the moonlit night.
The monthly trip to the post office is short and uneventful. Last night’s events are still fresh in Shashi’s mind, like moss clinging on wet walls.
The rickshaw puller is a chatty old man who keeps droning about the undead, spinning tall tales about his grandmother who seemingly woke up during her funeral progression. Shashi endures the journey in silence.
Throngs of visitors wait outside the post office, each clutching their respective letters and packages reverently. Shashi gets in the line for women, which is short.
“Chitthi hogi mhari,” Shashi says, her words coming out broken. Is there a letter for me?
A tobacco chewing man looks up and stares at her with a disgusted expression. “Who writes to you, wretched woman?”
“Search, once.” She knows how to be assertive. “Shashi ke naam se. From Bhilwara.”
“Name and address?”
“But I just told you.”
“You did? Tell me again.”
“To Shashi. From Bhilwara.”
The man grunts as he looks into the heap of postcards. Then his eyes light up. “Ye hai, dekh? You know how to read?”
“Yes.” Shashi almost snatches the letter from his hands.
Mataji has taught her to read, but it isn’t as easy for her now than it was a long time ago.
As she reads the letter, each alphabet one by one, her hands tremble, her mouth dry as the letters form images, impossible and horrific inside her mind.
The heat is oppressive outside of the post office, beating down on her and the earth. Once out on the dusty yellow road, she finally realizes the full extent of her loss.
Her mother is dead, and there is nothing she can do about it.
Shashi convinces herself that she would cry. She would wail like a bereaved daughter. She should be able to unleash the flood when she sees her mother’s body. But her home is far away, and she can’t really afford to travel. The handwriting in the letter grows colder with each reading: Your mother passed away last week. This is the reason why she feels so detached, why she hasn’t shed a tear.
There are no rudalis for people from low castes. The rich have the monopoly over grief. She screams alongside others at someone else’s funeral, someone else’s grief. She cries, even bursts into tears. But she feels the suffering isn’t her own. It is forced. The tears belong to a rudali, not her. And she knows that the town will celebrate the rise of an undead tomorrow.
No one suspects the rudalis. Theirs is a low job, the lowest of them all. No one suspects Shashi. The town is convinced that the cure to immortality lies in dying and the burden of coming back belongs to the rich. The poor don’t deserve coming back.
Shashi listens to their hush-hush and breaks a little inside, each time. Her mother wouldn’t come back, because she couldn’t cry for her. Her mother is probably ashes by now, and there isn’t a god forsaken thing she can do about it.
In the night, she shifts in her sleep. She has been starving herself, saving all her money for the journey. She will return to Bhilwara, to her home. She doesn’t want to be a rudali anymore. She will find another chore. The rich people are always looking for girls like her, girls who can work round the clock, without complaining, without being seen.
She shifts to her right and finds a shadow at the door. Tall, heavily built, it belongs to Ramsingh Chaudhury.
“I have been searching for you,” the zamindar says.
“I don’t know what you are talking about.”
“You know well. Us undead… we find ourselves talking to each other in the night. This is new for us. We are in your debt.”
“What do you want?”
“I came here to express gratitude. Thanks to you, I can take care of my people…”
“Thik hai… Now leave me alone.”
“Listen, Shashi. You don’t have to live like this, you know?” the zamindar pleads. “I owe you my life. Come and work in my haveli.”
Shashi laughs. “How will you explain to people why you need a rudali? Did you forget we are ill omens?”
“I will tell them the truth. You brought us back.”
“What do you think will happen then? They will burn me like a witch.”
“Then what should I do?”
Shashi doesn’t know what to say. The long, sullen silence between them draws on. Outside, a cold wind rises, whistles, and caresses the parched earth. A dull scraping sound, like brooms running across the sands. Shashi shivers. The cold settles in her bones, the image of her mother now suddenly hovering in front of her eyes, all too real.
“I thought if I helped you in some way, I would obtain peace.”
“Had you stayed dead, you’d have met my mother.” Her voice is now of the rudali: detached, composed. “She is gone, and I couldn’t even cry for her.”
Ramsingh sits on the floor, crossing his legs.
“I wish I was there.” She wraps the blanket around her, tightly. Revival. Life after death. The mere thought of the undead seems evil to her. “I could have…”
“I can easily arrange for you to go.”
“Don’t you see, Zamindarji? It is bad omen in my village for a woman to not shed a tear at an elder’s death. Pretty ironical, isn’t it? A rudali who can’t cry for her own.”
“What can I do? Tell me…”
“I don’t know.”
Zamindar waits for her to come up with something. She doesn’t. After a while, he leaves, as quietly as he had come.
Shashi drifts to sleep, slowly, cradling her own body for warmth.
The rudalis haven’t gone to any mourning in two weeks. A good thing for Mataji’s health; she is feeling much better now.
“Where would you go? You don’t have any money.” Mataji’s concern is genuine when Shashi announces her decision to leave behind what has been her family, something like a home. “Who will take you?”
“I’ll return to Bhilwara, Mataji.” She chokes. “You have taught me much. You know I can manage.”
“There is no teaching in our profession, girl. Only pain and suffering. Go now, and don’t show me your face again.”
Shashi knows that Mataji doesn’t say this out of spite. It is just how she is. She nods and leaves.
Her savings would barely last for the journey. More water, less food, Shashi reminds herself. The heat is too much. She takes a caravan which first takes her to Chaudhury’s haveli. Now, in the broad daylight, the mansion looks majestic. There is a lawn in front, a fountain, and barbed wire fencing all around the area.
“Kaun hai?” A tall security guard shouts as she approaches the front gate, biting her lower lip. “Who are you?”
“I need to speak to Zamindar ji.”
“No one can just walk here and meet him,” he barks. “He is busy.”
“Tell him my name. Shashi. Then see if he doesn’t come running. I bet you a thousand rupees.”
The guard laughs. “You will lose.” He fiddles with an old telephone, speaks into it with curiosity, and hangs up. Then, truly enough, Ramsingh Chaudhury comes half running, half walking, to the main door.
Ramsingh gestures the guard to open the gate. His face is pallid in the sunlight, and there are blue-black rings around his eyes.
Shashi doesn’t come inside. She stands at the threshold, gazing adamantly into his blank eyes.
“You said you wanted to help me.”
“Yes, I do.” His lips are dry, his voice deep, sonorous.
“Could you give the rudalis something else to do for a living?” She pauses to be sure of what is asking him to do. “Can you end this custom for me?”
“I will see to it.” Ramsingh nods, and she feels as if the broken pieces inside of her have started to mend. She feels whole now. As whole as when she was young; when she skipped ropes with her mother in her village; when she cooked rotis with her. She remembers her mother’s face; her wise eyes, her fiery conviction; the way she fought the Sarpanch to retain Shashi in school, but failed.
The last bus to Bhilwara is always late, but she needs the time to prepare herself for the long journey. As other caravans, rickshaws and lonely travelers rush past her in the heat, she remembers who she really was, and could still be. She rests on the scalding black road, hugs her knees, and weeps in silence.