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At Stranger’s Grave
An Elegy For What Has Not Yet Come to Pass
The first essay of the Nilgiris series is already prepared for publication, but I want to hold off on sharing it for another day because today, I wish to share my stream of consciousness. I often do not allow myself to write from a place of vulnerability; I am too protective of my inner space and guarded against being too soft or emotional. So, reaching this point where I could allow myself to flow between the pen and paper, between you and me, was a long journey, and you enabled me to walk it with courage. I am grateful to exist, to be able to write, and to you for reading through my stories and experiences in this world. They may mean nothing in the grand scheme of things, but you care, and I care that you do, and that means everything to me. For that, I thank you.
Many years ago, on cold winter evenings like this particular one today, my father would sit us down with one warm tumbler of malted milk and delve into vivid details, almost re-enacting the strange encounters of his childhood with the spirits of another world. My little body would shudder, and I would curl my toes, tucking them tightly within the inner folds of my thighs while sitting in a folded, crossed-legged position. My father, almost drawn to the edge in this trance of storytelling, would rarely notice the shiver running down our spines. My mother, with her graceful and grounding aura, would calmly walk across the room and break the spell of fear cast by my father, telling him not to scare us with his weird stories. The whole room would dissolve into an atmosphere of unease, with lingering questions that I never dared to ask. Fast forward almost two decades, and I still feel the specter of the unknown lingering in my family—a fear of what lies beyond, an unsettling ambiance. However, this time, it's not the ethereal entities of childhood tales that haunt us, but the grim realities of a terminal illness and its capricious nature.
We have learned to live with the existential fear of cancer in our own ways—although you could easily categorize us into our specific stage of grief, mostly ricocheting between anger, denial, and depression. One cannot know what it feels like without confronting it personally; there is no way one can emulate the same level of helpless pits of existential angst only through empathy. There is no way to experience these specific treacheries of life without facing them head-on, such as the gush of melancholy that washes over you when you confront the fact that you are now in a phase of life where you have to be ready to live without the man you knew and loved ever since you were a baby. Although I know that we are all essentially alone, and the promise to fill the deep trenches of loneliness is the biggest fallacy of the modern world on which our consumerist society thrives. Although I know that loneliness is the last mile, the last mountain to climb, the last road to befriend before you can completely embrace solitude, knowing it doesn’t make it easy to accept it, and knowing it is not enough. I often look at my mother's sullen face and feel nothing but massive shifts of empty space inside of me. How do I comfort her when I cannot even comfort myself? My imperfect humanness gnaws at me every night when I go to bed.
Yesterday was Diwali, the festival of lights. According to the mythological epic Ramayana, on this day, the crowned prince Rama returned to his kingdom Ayodhya after rescuing his wife, Princess Sita, from the clutches of the demon King Ravana of Lanka, who, motivated by lust, kidnapped her. Although the epic ends with the classic victory of good over evil, I highly doubt that the complex realities of our world can be explained by such simple mono-myths anymore. The nuances of an ordinary life are far removed from the larger-than-life idealism of good vs. evil. An ordinary life is sifted through pain and purpose to be a complete human worthy of their own story, even though global traumas are still pressing—the sense of individuality is redefined around those events.
Have you ever observed a colony of ants on a wild hunt for scraps? They go in an unperturbed straight line, and then, if you obstruct their way using your pinky nail, the ant behind will find a way around it. We are the ants out for scraps for our own solo existence in this universe, getting trailed off by the obstructions of massive world events and then swiftly finding our ways around them. I do pine for more peace and abundance for everyone, but can they have it just because I am pining away? No. Does that prevent me from pining away more? No. But at least I learn that I demand reasonably, that the metaphorical pinky nail of the world leaders is beyond my control. As long as my colony exists, I still need to work hard to be a part of it, to gather scraps for our survival.
The festival of light is a beautiful one, but its foundations are based on certain truths that do not resonate with the reality of my experiences. No amount of lights, lamps, and candles can warm the sad, grieving heart of a disillusioned woman who dances with death every day. It is not resonant with the truth of the reality of my life, and so I reject it.
The Speaking Graves
We are born into this world, expected to fit smoothly into molds that have been crafted for us by the society we live in. Some of these molds are older than a few generations. However, the expression of an individual’s soul is beyond the limits of what society impresses on us. We are bound by our identities but free to explore as many possible versions of our unique abilities as we like.
For instance, I find a lot of beauty in dark, morbid things, which is very unfitting according to modern optimism. I find the darkness a comforting place, for none but familiar folklorish monsters lurk there, far less dangerous than real humans. I have immense love for ancient ruins, abandoned manors, and heritage architecture. The stories they hold seem as real to me, as the ones we are living right now. So whenever the ghosts gesture for me to come closer to listen to their stories, I am often receptive because the silent tongues of the departed speak nothing but the truth about life. There is no pretense in death, no exhibits to demonstrate power or might when one goes six feet under.
A few months ago, I walked into one such Gothic architecture; this story has a connection to the Nilgiris series that I am yet to release. The St. Stephen's Cathedral looks nothing spectacular from a distance, but on close inspection, it will be reminiscent of the classic Gothic revival movement prevalent during the peak of The British colonial Empire. A timeless memorabilia was erected after laying the foundation stone of St. Stephen's Cathedral in April 1829 in the district of Udagamandalam. It was pronounced as ‘oota-ca-mund’ by a handful of officers who landed in this valley of botanical paradise, and later, the settlers lovingly nicknamed it ‘Ooty’—a name it still proudly wears as an indelible mark of its colonial past.
The steps leading up to the massive front timber doors warned of a time when it was built, a period when the contractor was wary that the rain and red dirt of the Western Ghats could threaten the unblemished floors of the house of God. So, to hide the dirt and the rain, the steps were raised more inches than normal and painted in brick red color, common across many colonial architectures of India. Inside, the narrow aisle running across the congregation hall leads up to the sermon pulpit. The stained glass windows along pointed arched cavities on the eastern side depict many significant motifs of the Christian faith. Although I am not particularly religious, I could sense a prevailing calm in this rainbow mosaic of colors and hymns reflecting off the ornamental decor created to evoke transcendental experiences.
The property outside of the church is massive and poorly managed, but hidden within its ground is a rare gem. The side path opens up to a massive pine forest shadowing several ferns beneath whose collective canopy lies a 19th-century cemetery. This is the church’s backyard, so I guessed that all those who rest in those graves were once a member of that particular church.
The wind whispered through the pines and ferns as they rustled in unison, while I leisurely studied the graves one at a time. Time, the only resource that stands between me and them. An army of tridax daisies grew in the graveyard; after all these centuries, they seemed to be the only reliable protectors of the graves, keeping away the creepers and other invasive species of moss from destroying the few legible epitaphs that remained. Some headstones bemoaned ailing wives or daughters taken by the mysterious consumption, while others commemorated infants who barely lived a couple of years, probably perishing due to malaria or influenza. War wounds seemed another culprit among the rather young officers who were fighting in the frontlines. Tridax daisies are said to have healing properties, and the soldiers considered Ooty as a resort for wellness—it seems to fit in now. Maybe they now rest healed from their battle wounds, forever in the bed of these white angels presiding over their gravestones.
Several solemn tears broke at the corner of my eyes while I read all the inscribed stones that I could. I noticed that the average age of people residing there must be somewhere between 22 to 37, with the expectation of a few new ones that seem to belong to octogenarians. Tells you how far we have come as a species in the pursuit of well-being. I stood there with a part of me wanting to break down and fall apart, and another part that could hardly comprehend the beauty of this morbid estate. I have been carrying these massive mountains of grief inside me constantly, and in this site where death reigned, I just wanted to hand all that over to the silent graves of these strangers who, like me, once dreamed, loved, and lost.
I wanted to walk out of there with clarity, with a light heart. I wanted to feel like I understood that death is not entirely absolute, that some stranger might one day stand in a field of daisies, listening to the wallowing ferns and pines while they too weep at a stranger’s (my) grave. Maybe, just maybe, death is yet another song, another waltz through the great and mysterious ballroom of existence.
Until then, the ghost awaits, demanding a last dance to put them to rest and I must oblige.
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