[Cultural Introduction: In traditional Hindu culture, cremation involves barefoot (as a mark of respect) friends and family members carrying their dead, on a cot, to the crematorium. The cot is added with support arms, usually bamboo poles which are carried by the mourners on their shoulders. While on the way to the crematorium, they chant: Bolo Hori, Hori Bol. Hori in Bengali language refers to the Almighty and the word Bol is, “to say”, “to invoke the name of”. So Bolo Hori means, “In the name of God”]
A pair of baleful pale-yellow glassy eyes with dark vertical slits, stared malevolently at me. With ears laid back, tongue sticking out and the face contorted with a horrendous snarl, it was the face of the devil alright, about to launch itself into an attack. The owner of that hideous face, the spotted skull, was resting comfortably on a small, intricately carved, mahogany vanity table, set against the living room wall. The wide open mouth revealed a pair of 2-inch long yellowed canine teeth dangling from the upper jaw, and two rising from the bottom. At eight-odd years of age, the sight presented me with a spectacularly fearful vision of a painful death.
It was early evening when I first met the monster as I was riding my cousin’s tricycle while exploring their living quarters. My feet froze on the pedals, as my gaze went up the wall. Just above the evil head, the greenish dirt colored hide was spread out. There were dark chocolate-colored rosettes on the fur, with an inch wide black edge all around. The ominously long tail of the beast was also plastered against the wall. It looked as if the monster was flying in space looking for its prey. And here I was, defenselessly counting out the last minutes of my young existence. This was my first encounter with the face of death and my child brain was simply mortified.
From the intervening open door to the kitchen, I could hear the sounds of pots and pans clanking against each other and the ladle, as dinner preparations were on. Also wafted into my ears was the merry laughter of two sisters, my mother and my aunt, as they attended to the kitchen chores. The aroma of dinner was invading my nostrils, but I was sure I wouldn’t be seated at the dinner table to enjoy it. Not with this huge sprawled out monster aiming straight for me. Even at that early age, I had seen pictures of leopards mercilessly killing prey – old and young alike. I didn’t need to be told that my chance of survival was next to none.
My bladder was threatening to yield or maybe it had, and that was the moment I heard my name called out from behind. I jerked, but couldn’t risk taking my eyes off that monster on the wall, to face the caller, till my brother’s hands rested on my shoulders. Ah that uncertain relief that flowed through me! The next moment, a question that presented itself was: were we both in mortal danger now? My elder brother followed my gaze and immediately knew the whole story – I didn’t have to speak. He put on a reassuring smile and told me it was just a dead leopard that my uncle’s dad had shot. He walked over to the wall and as a dare, inserted his fist in-between those dreaded jaws and asked me to join him. Sheer madness I thought, as I became conscious of the blood resuming its flow in my feet. I was simply pleased to have the opportunity to get out!
My brother started laughing at my plight, but I was beyond care. My first and only concern was to get out of that room as fast as I could. Like a bat out of hell, I did. If my brother hadn’t come looking to fetch me for dinner I don’t know what would have happened. Most probably I wouldn’t have been typing these lines. In that fading light, that awful monster appeared all the more diabolical, and had almost succeeded in stopping my poor little heart. Such was my fright. At that moment, all I could think of was to put as much distance as I possibly could, between me and that creature from hell.
We were visiting my maternal aunt’s living quarters on Remount Road, Calcutta, India. Right in front of the Territorial Army station. My uncle used to work for a shipping company and was in signal and communication. His job necessitated that he work the night shift but my aunt, a small diminutive figure, was scared of living alone. There was another bigger reason for her fear. She would complain that all through the late evening, past midnight and right up to early morning hours, people could be seen and heard carrying dead bodies for cremation. The procession of mourners and pall-bearers would jog-trot the very road that runs right in front of the red brick building. We had joined our aunt to provide her relief and company in the absence of her husband.
Early that evening, I had already witnessed at least two parties carrying their dead to the crematorium. The scene was a typical one – a cot tied securely on to two green wobbly bamboo poles, which were then carried by the pall-bearers. The deceased’s body was placed on the cot, covered with a white sheet and only the face showing. Often there would be a rope looping the corpse to the cot to hold the former in place. Standard fare was a wreath around the neck, flowers strewn on the body, and the customary sticks of tube rose (Rajanigandha) attached to the four posts. It was the smell of burning incense and sway of the Rajinigandha sticks on the deathbed making its last march, that made the scene particularly eerie for the bystanders. Even as a child, death has been a stark realization for all of us. We are all conscious of its finality and irreversible nature. That is was makes us mortally afraid even to watch such a scene.
At the dinner table, I had completely lost my appetite after my encounter with the devil. But my mother would have nothing of it, and her instruction was plain and simple: eat! That command now made it was obligatory for me to at least nibble at the food on my plate. I was so relieved and glad that we had come to spend only one night at my aunt’s. One night is all I had to manage to survive I told myself. Dinner ended with my mother admonishing me for wasting food. But for once, nobody needed to coax me to go to bed. All I wanted was to close my eyes and make the devils go away. Tomorrow we would be leaving for the safety of our home. For tonight, just pull the cover over the head and force sleep to take over. It was then I heard the gong go off at the Territorial Army post, followed again by that dreadful, and at the same time mournful, chant: Bolo Hori… Horibol!