This is the short story Khushwant Singh mentions in the extract from Absolute Khushwant: The Low Down on Life, Death & Most Things In-Between: How To Live & Die
I am in bed with fever. It is not serious. In fact, it is not serious at all, as I have been left alone to look after myself. I wonder what would happen if the temperature suddenly shot up. Perhaps I would die. That would be really hard on my friends. I have so many and am so popular. I wonder what the papers would have to say about it. They couldn’t just ignore me. Perhaps the Tribune would mention it on its front page with a small photograph. The headline would read ‘Sardar KhushwantSingh Dead’—and then in somewhat smaller print:
We regret to announce the sudden death of Sardar Khushwant Singh at 6 p.m. last evening. He leaves behind a young widow, two infant children and a large number of friends and admirers to mourn his loss. It will be recalled that the Sardar came to settle in Lahore some five years ago from his home town, Delhi. Within these years he rose to a position of eminence in the Bar and in politics. His loss will be mourned generally throughout the Province.
Amongst those who called at the late Sardar’s residence were the P.A. to the Prime Minister, the P.A. to the Chief Justice, several Ministers and Judges of the High Court.
In a statement to the press, the Hon’ble the Chief Justice said: ‘I feel that the Punjab is poorer by the passing away of this man. The cruel hand of death has cut short the promise of a brilliant career’.
At the bottom of the page would be an announcement:
The funeral will take place at 10 a.m. today.
I feel very sorry for myself and for all my friends. With difficulty I check the tears which want to express sorrow at my own death. But I also feel elated and want no one to mourn me. So I decide to die—just for the fun of it as it were. In the evening, giving enough time for the press to hear of my death, I give up the ghost. Having emerged from my corpse, I come down and sit on the cool marble steps at the entrance to wallow in posthumous glory.
In the morning I get the paper before my wife. There is no chance of a squabble over the newspaper as I am downstairs already, and in any case my wife is busy pottering around my corpse. The Tribune lets me down. At the bottom of page 3, column 1, I find myself inserted in little brackets of obituary notices of retired civil servants—and that is all. I feel annoyed. It must be that blighter Shafi, Special Representative. He never liked me. But I couldn’t imagine he would be so mean as to deny me a little importance when I was dead. However he couldn’t keep the wave of sorrow which would run over the Province from trickling into his paper. My friends would see to that.
Near the High Court the paper is delivered fairly early. In the house of my lawyer friend Qadir it is deposited well before dawn. It isn’t that the Qadirs are early risers. As a matter of fact, hardly anyone stirs in the house before 9 a.m. But Qadir is a great one for principles and he insists that the paper must be available early in the morning even if it is not looked at.
As usual, the Qadirs were in bed at 9 a.m. He had worked very late at night. She believed in sleep anyhow. The paper was brought in on a tray along with a tumbler of hot water with a dash of lime juice. Qadir sipped the hot water between intervals of cigarette smoking. He had to do this to make his bowels work. He only glanced at the headlines in bed. The real reading was done when the cigarette and lime had had their effect. The knowledge of how fate had treated me had to await the lavatory.
In due course Qadir ambled into the bathroom with the paper in one hand and a cigarette perched on his lower lip. Comfortably seated, he began to scan it thoroughly and his eye fell on news of lesser import. When he got to page 3, column 1, he stopped smoking for a moment, a very brief moment. Should he get up and shout to his wife No, he decided, that would be an unnecessary demonstration. Qadir was a rationalist. He had become more of one since he married a woman who was a bundle of emotions and explosions. The poor fellow was dead and nothing could be done about it. He knew that his wife would burst out crying when he told her. That was all the more reason that he should be matter-of-fact about it— just as if he was going to tell her of a case he had lost.
Qadir knew his wife well. He told her with an air of casualness, and she burst out crying. Her ten-year-old daughter came running into the room. She eyed her mother for a little while and then joined her in the wailing. Qadir decided to be severe.
‘What are you making all this noise for?’ he said sternly. ‘Do you think it will bring him back to life?’
His wife knew that it was no use arguing with him. He always won the arguments.
‘I think we should go to their house at once. His wife must be feeling wretched,’ she said.
Qadir shrugged his shoulders.
‘I am afraid I can’t manage it. Much as I would like to condole with his wife—or rather widow—my duty to my clients comes first. I have to be at the tribunal in half an hour.’
Qadir was at the tribunal all day and his family stopped at home.
Not far from the city’s big park lives another friend, Khosla. He and his family, consisting of a wife, three sons and a daughter, reside in this upper-class residential area. He is a judge and very high up in the bureaucracy.
Khosla is an early riser. He has to rise early because that is the only rime he has to himself. During the day he has to work in the Courts. In the evenings he plays tennis—and then he has to spend some time with the children and fussing with his wife. He has a large number of visitors, as he is very popular and enjoys popularity. But Khosla is ambitious. As a lad he had fancied himself as a clever boy. In his early youth his hair had begun to fall off and had un covered a large bald forehead. Khosla had looked upon it as nature’s confirmation of his opinion about himself. Perhaps he was a genius. The more he gazed upon his large head in the mirror, the more he became convinced that fate had marked for him an extraordinary career. So he worked harder. He won scholarships and rounded off his academic career by topping the list in the Civil Service examination. He had justified the confidence he had in himself by winning laurels in the stiffest competitive examination in the country. For some years he lived the life of a contented bureaucrat. In fact, he assured himself that he was what people called ‘a success in life.’
After some years this contentment had vanished. Every rime he brushed the little tuft at the back of his head and ran his hands across his vast forehead he became conscious of unrealized expectations. There were hundreds of senior civil servants like him. All were considered successes in life. The Civil Service was obviously not enough. He would work—he would write—he knew he could write: There it was written in the size of his head. So Khosla took to writing. In order to write well he took to reading. He amassed a large library and regularly spent some hours in it before going to work.
This morning Khosla happened to be in a mood to write. He made himself a cup of tea and settled in a comfortable armchair by the electric radiator. He stuck the pencil in his mouth and meditated. He couldn’t think of what to write. He decided to write his diary. He had spent the previous day listening to an important case. It was likely to go on for some days. The court room had been packed and everyone had been looking at him—that seemed a good enough subject. So he started to write.
Khosla was disturbed by the knock of the bearer bringing in the paper. He opened the news-sheet to read the truths of mundane existence.
Khosla was more interested in social affairs, births, marriages and deaths, than events of national or international import. He turned to page 3, column 1. His eye caught the announcement and he straightened up.
He just tapped his notebook with his pencil, and after a wake-up cough informed his wife of the news. She just yawned and opened her large dreamy eyes wide.
‘I suppose you will close the High Court today’ she said.
‘I am afraid the High Court doesn’t close at just any excuse. I’ll have to go. If I have any time P11 drop in on the way—or we can call on Sunday.’
The Khoslas did not come. Nor did many others for whose sorrow at my demise I had already felt sorrowful.
At 10 o’clock a little crowd had collected in front of the open space beneath my flat. It consisted mainly of people I did not expect to see. There were some lawyers in their court dress, and a number of sightseers who wanted to find out what was happening. Two friends of mine also turned up, but they stood apart from the crowd. One was a tall, slim man who looked like an artist. With one hand he kept his cigarette in place, the other he constantly employed in pushing his long hair off his forehead. He was a writer. He did not believe in attending funerals. But one had to hang around for a little while as a sort of social obligation. It was distasteful to him. There was something infectious about a corpse—so he smoked incessantly and made a cigarette smoke-screen between himself and the rest of the world.
The other friend was a Communist, a short, slight man with wavy hair and a hawkish expression. His frame and expression wavy hair and a hawkish expression. His frame and expression belied the volcano which they camouflaged. His approach to everything was coldly Marxist and sentiment found no place in it. Deaths
were unimportant events. It was the cause that mattered. He consulted the writer in a polite whisper.
‘How far are you going?’
‘I plan dropping off at the coffee house,’ answered the other. ‘Are you going the whole way?’
‘No ruddy fear,’ said the Communist emphatically. ‘Actually I had to be at a meeting at ten, and I was planning to be free of this by 9.30—but you know our people haven’t the foggiest idea about time. I’ll get along to the Party office now and then meet you at the coffee house at 11.30. Incidentally if you get the opportunity, just ask the hearse driver if he is a member of the Tongawalla Union. Cheers.’
A little later a hearse, drawn by a bony brown horse arrived and pulled up in front of my doorstep. The horse and his master were completely oblivious of the solemnity of the occasion. The driver sat placidly chewing his betelnut and eyeing the assembly. He was wondering whether this was the type likely to produce a tip. The beast straightaway started to piddle and the crowd scattered to avoid the spray which rebounded off the brick floor.
The crowd did not have to wait very long. My corpse was brought down all tied up in white linen and placed inside the hearse. A few flowers were ceremoniously placed on me. The procession was ready to start.
Before we moved another friend turned up on his bicycle. He was somewhat dark and flabby. He carried several books on the carrier and had the appearance of a scholarly serious-minded professor. As soon as he saw the loaded hearse, he dismounted. He had great respect for the dead and was particular to express it. He put his bicycle in the hail, chained it, and joined the crowd. When my wife came down to bid her last farewell he was visibly moved. From his pocket he produced a little book and thoughtfully turned over its pages. Then he slipped through the people towards my wife. With tears in his eyes he handed the book to her.
‘I’ve brought you a copy of the Gita. It will give you great comfort.’ Overcome with emotion, he hurriedly slipped back to wipe the tears which had crept into his eyes.
‘This,’ he said to himself with a sigh, ‘is the end of human existence. This is the truth.’
He was fond of thinking in platitudes—but to him all platitudes were profound and had the freshness and vigour of original thought.
‘Like bubbles,’ he said to himself, ‘human life is as momentary as a bubble.’
But one didn’t just die and disappear. Matter could not immaterialize it could only change its form. The Gita put it so beautifully—
‘Like a man casts off old garments to put on new ones.. . so does the soul, etc., etc.’
The professor was lost in contemplation. He wondered what new garments his dead friend had donned.
His thoughts were disturbed by a movement between his legs. A little pup came round the professor’s legs licking his trousers and looking up at him. The professor was a kind man. He involuntarily bent down and patted the little dog, allowing him to lick his hands.
The professor’s mind wandered—he felt uneasy. He looked at the corpse and then at the fluffy little dog at his feet, who after all was part of God’s creation.
‘Like a man casts off old garments to put on new ones...so does the soul ...‘
No, no, he said to himself. He shouldn’t allow such uncharitable thoughts to cross his mind. But he couldn’t check his mind. It wasn’t impossible. The Gita said so, too. And he bent down again and patted the pup with more tenderness and fellow feeling.
The procession was on the move. I was in front, uncomfortably laid within the glass hearse, with haifa dozen people walking behind. It went down towards the river.
By the time it had passed the main street, I found myself in solitude. Some of the lawyers had left at the High Court. My author friend had branched off to the coffee house, still smoking. At the local college, the professor gave me a last longing, lingering look and sped up the slope to his classroom. The remaining six or seven disappeared into the District Courts.
I began to feel a little small. Lesser men than myself had had larger crowds. Even a dead pauper carried on a municipal wheelbarrow got two sweepers to cart him off. I had only one human being, the driver, and even he seemed to be oblivious of the enormity of the soul whose decayed mansion he was transporting on its last voyage. As for the horse, he was positively rude.
The route to the cremation ground is marked with an infinite variety of offensive smells. The climax is reached when one has to branch off the main road towards the crematorium along a narrow path which runs beside the city’s one and only sewer. It is a stream of dull, black fluid with bubbles bursting on its surface all the time.
Fortunately for me, I was given some time to ruminate over my miscalculated posthumous importance. The driver pulled up under a large peepul tree near where the road turns off to the cremation ground. Under this peepul tree is a tonga stand and a water trough for horses to drink out of. The horse made for the water and the driver clambered off his perch to ask the tonga-drivers for a light for his cigarette.
The tongadrivers gathered round the hearse and peered in from all sides.
‘Must be someone rich,’ said one. ‘But there is no one with him,’ queried another. ‘I suppose this is another English custom—no one to go with funerals.’
By now I was thoroughly fed up. There were three ways open to me. One was to take the route to the cremation ground and, like the others that went there, give myself up to scorching flames, perhaps to be born again into a better world, but probably to be extinguished into nothingness. There was another road which forked off to the right towards the city. There lived harlots and other people of ill- repute. They drank and gambled and fornicated. Theirs was a world of sensation and they crammed their lives with all the varieties which the senses were capable of registering. The third one was to take the way back. It was difficult to make up one’s mind. In situations like these the toss of a coin frequently helps. So I decided to toss the coin; heads and I hazard the world beyond; tails and I go to join the coin; heads and I hazard the world beyond; tails and I go to join the throng of sensation seekers in the city; if it is neither heads nor tails and the coin stands on its edge, I retrace my steps to a humdrum existence bereft of the spirit of adventure and denuded of the lust for living.