The Letter by Dhumaketu
Para 1 .. The sky was clear and the stars alight. The night was receding yielding space to dawn. A man in the throes of death reminisces about his happy times to draw comfort. Like the way the fleeting radiance in the dying man’s face, the stars sparkled before becoming invisible in the approaching daylight.
It was a cold winter dawn, and the chilling winds blew harsh. Morning chores had already started in some houses. The sound of the grinding mills and women singing came rustling through the air. Spurred by these sounds, the old man sauntered along the lonely road, braving the biting cold. He wrapped his frayed clothes around his body to keep off the shivers. Occasional barks of a dog, women going to work, or squeals of birds disturbed in their nests punctuated the deafening silence that fell over the place.
The folks lay asleep still as the cold appeared to numb them to inactivity. The winter cold’s malignant spell was akin to a villain’s deceptive smile for its victim.
Unruffled by the cold and the desolate surroundings, the old man trudged on till he emerged out of the town-gate. The struggle was palpable as he dragged his feet. His walking stick was his sole companion.
Para 2 .. Rows of trees and public gardens lined the street on either side. The sky looked darker and the cold wind began to gnaw at his freckled skin. At the end of the garden stood a not-so-old building. Light tunneled through the small gaps in doors and windows.
Para 3 .. The old man’s eyes lit up as they fell on the wooden arch of the building and the sign board that read ‘Post Office’. The old man went in and sat down on the veranda. He could hear the muffled chatter of a few persons inside.
Para 4 .. Someone called out, ‘Police Superintendent’. The old man jerked and fell back in a wink. Age had worked around him, not swallowed him whole. His faith and hope had stood on the way of the creeping senility.
Para 5 .. The man inside reeled the names on the addressees and flung the letters to the waiting hands of the postman. There were letters for the Collector, Superintendent of Police, Diwan Sahib, the Librarian etc.
Para 6 .. In the din of the calling out of names, someone shouted ‘Coachman Ali’. It made the old man spring to his feet, bow to the Almighty in gratitude, and step forward in great anticipation.
Para 7 .. He blurted out, ‘Gokul Bhai’
Para 8 .. Gokul Bhai was curious to know who it was.Para 9 .. Ali sought his letter.
Para 10 .. A clerk told the Post Master that it was the old man who came to the Post Office daily looking for his elusive letter.
Para 11 .. Utterly disappointed, the old man went back to the bench. This is the ordeal he had gone through for five long years.
Para 12 .. Ali, during his youthful days, had been an ace hunter. As he began to excel in his trade, his jest for hunting soared. The passion overtook his self. Like opium exerts a vice-like grip on its addicts, the craze for hunting began to enslave him. With remarkable accuracy, he could spot his prey and kill it. Fishing with friends was the other hobby.
Para 13 .. As he approached the twilight years of his life, his hunting prowess waned. He stopped hunting. Then came the bolt from the blue. His only daughter Miriam wedded a soldier and left him accompanying her husband. He knew the parting would come, but had barely prepared for it.
Para 14 .. The hunter’s ruthless spirit had all but mellowed. Miriam’s absence struck him hard. He sought solace gazing at the green cornfields endlessly. He reflected deeply on his plight, and concluded that love bound the universe. Meetings and partings are the ways of the world, he thought. The pangs of separation from Miriam was insufferable for Ali. He sat under a tree and wept away his woes. Vainly hoping that Miriam would at least write to him, he went to the Post Office early in the morning every day although he drew a blank on each occasion. Clinging to a faint glimmer of hope, he continued his ritualistic visits to the Post Office. No letter ever came, but the failure could not dent his optimism.
Para 15 .. The drab Post Office drew Ali to it every morning. He went to the same spot and sat down there with unforgiving regularity. His daily routine soon became an object of heartless humour for the staff. To make him rush towards the delivery window, they would call out his name mischievously as if there was the much-awaited letter. He would soon be turned back by the staff. Dejected, he would return, only to come back the next day with his optimism intact.
Para 16 .. Ali saw peons come and go from different offices to collect their respective mail. They engaged in their malicious gossip about their masters. They were a chatty lot. In their spotless white uniform and turban, they looked so imposing. The Post Master sat inside with his impassive heavy face looking grim all the time. His appearance was so cold and dour.
Para 17 .. It was a day like any other, but the Post Master sat glued to his seat.
Para18 .. ‘Police Commissioner’, out went the call and a man lurched forward to collect his letters.
Para 19 .. ‘Superintendent’, another call and another man stepped forward to collect his letters. Like this, a long list of names were called out daily.
Para 20 .. After the last name was called out, Ali got up, saluted the edifice, and returned home. He was old-fashioned haggard who refused to see the writing on the wall.
Para 21 .. On one occasion, the Post Master wondered if the visitor was indeed mad.
Para 22 .. A clerk narrated how the old man had come there unfailingly every day for five years at a stretch looking for a letter that appeared to be in eternal transit.
Para 23 .. The Post Master quipped, ‘Who has the time to write a letter every day?’
Para 24 .. The Postman interjected, ‘The man carried some heavy moral burden for having led a life of bloodletting and killing. He is paying for his sins now.’
Para 25 .. The Post Master said quite nonchalantly that the mentally deranged ones are a strange lot.
Para 26 .. Then followed a series of anecdotes about lunatics. A postman in Ahmedabad whiled away his time making heaps of dust. Another went to the riverbed to pour water on a stone.
Para 27 .. The conversation triggered a fresh round of disclosures. A mad person walked up and down ceaselessly. Another sang away his time, and the third one would slap himself and then begin to cry.
Para 28 .. The whole office was immersed in animated discussion on mental ailments. Working people love to intersperse their work with some light-hearted banter to cut monotony. The Post Master had his own take on this matter. He felt all mad people lived in a world of their own. For them, the normal human beings appeared mad. They are like the poets who are always lost in their quixotic worlds.
Para 29 .. He ended his talk with a laugh that revealed how he saw the lunatics with pitiful mocking.
Para 30 .. There was an unusual break in Ali’s daily routine visits. Few in the Post Office took notice; few bothered. Finally, he showed up one day, exhausted and gasping for breath. A strange sense of urgency had gripped him that day.
Para 31 .. Unable to restrain his mind, he walked up to the Post Master to ask if there was any letter from his Miriam.
Para 32 .. The postmaster was in a hurry to go out.
Para 33 .. He was clearly irritated by the old man’s query.
Para 34 .. Ali casually uttered his name.
Para 35 .. The postmaster appeared to be annoyed further. He asked if the name Miriam was important enough to be registered at the post office.
Para 36 .. Ali beseeched the post master to note down Miriam’s name so that the letter could be delivered when he was there no more. Ali had spent his life in hunting. He had picked up little worldly wisdom. He was clearly naïve to imagine that his dear daughter’s name Miriam meant nothing to the people at the post office.
Para 37 .. The post master was nearing the end of his patience. He shouted rudely at Ali.
Para 38 .. He yelled at Ali to go away. When the letter came, his office wouldn’t mutilate it. Saying this, he hurried off. It was a jolt Ali could barely take. He appeared to be at the end of his tether, but strangely, he still clung to his hope. A letter from Miriam appeared so remote, so distant and so elusive.
Para 39 .. Ali heard someone coming from behind. Turning back, Ali saw that the person was a clerk.
Para 40 .. Ali approached him with all sincerity.
Para 41 .. The clerk was responsive.
Para 42 .. Ali had carried a old tin box that had five gold coins. Showing no signs of hesitation, he emptied the contents into the hands of the clerk. It left the clerk confused and surprised. Ali told him not to bother at all.
Para 43 .. His offer was genuinely artless. Ali said the gold coins had become almost redundant to him. But, he attached one condition to his gift.
Para 44 .. The clerk was inquisitive to know what the condition was.
Para 45 .. Ali beckoned towards the sky and asked the clerk what he saw up there.
Para 46 .. ‘Heaven’, the clerk replied.
Para 47 .. Ali took the name of Allah to underscore the solemnity of the gift. He urged the beneficiary to forward Miriam’s letter to him when it arrived.
Para 48 .. The incredulous and baffled recipient asked where he could send the letter.
Para 49 .. ‘To my grave,’ pat came the reply.
Para 50 .. It surprised the clerk further.
Para 51 .. With remarkable composure, Ali said she was a day away from his grave. He grieved about his darling Miriam whom he would not see before he departed. The sadness in his face was palpable. As the clerk walked back slowly to his home with the gold coins, tears rolled down Ali’s eyes. He sobbed inconsolably.
Para 52 .. Ali had strode on earth for the last time. No one got to see him; no one cared to find out.
Para 53 .. A day arrived that saw the postmaster in distress. His daughter was in her sick bed in a different town. The postmaster was restless. He was desperate to know something about her. The day’s incoming mail arrived and were piled over his table. There was an envelope he had seen so often earlier. He grabbed it, but it was addressed to Coachman Ali. He dropped it like a hot potato. It was a rude shock. The distress of his daughter had banished his arrogance and aloofness. He was a meek and mellowed soul now. He realized that the letter the Ali had pined for so desperately had finally come. It was Miriam’s.
Para 54 .. The postmaster lost no time to summon Lakshmi Das, the recipient of Ali’s gift.
Para 55 .. Lakshmi Das arrived.
Para 56 .. The postmaster handed over the letter to him and inquired where Ali was then.
Para 57 .. Lakshmi Das promised to find out.
Para 58 .. His daughter’s letter had not come in till that day. The father was on tenterhooks. The worries about the daughter’s well being robbed the father of his sleep at night. He flipped from side to side in his bed till three in the morning. He decided that he would personally hand over the much-awaited letter to Ali when he would come at four in the morning.
Para 59 .. The postmaster felt a torrent of empathy for Ali. He understood the agony of a bleeding heart. One night of torment had helped him to gauge Ali’s five years of anguish. He heard a gentle tap on the door. Sure that it was Ali, he stood up from his chair. The opportunity to unburden his guilt had arrived, he felt. He opened the door promptly.
Para 60 .. With great warmth, he ushered in Ali. He handed over the letter to the man weighed down by age, grief and worries. Ali hunched over his stick. Tears flooded out as he writhed in suppressed emotions. But the face seemed to exude an intriguing kindliness. When he lifted his eyes to look at the postmaster, a strange ray of blinding brightness seemed to come out of it. The postmaster recoiled in horror at the strange encounter.
Para 61 .. Lakshmi Das had overheard the words of the postmaster. He asked his boss if the visitor was the old Ali. But the flummoxed postmaster was lost for words. He kept looking intently at the door through which the old man had come and exited. It took some time for him to regain his composure. He confirmed that he was indeed speaking with Ali.
Para 62 .. Lakshmi Das disclosed that Ali was dead. He wanted the letter to be handed over to him.
Para 63 .. The postmaster was overwhelmed with a feeling of surprise and sorrow. He wanted to know if the man had really died.
Para 64 .. Another postman, who had just come in, confirmed that Ali had died some three months ago.
Para 65 .. Confusion and wonder swirled in the postmaster’s mind. The apparition of Ali still hung around. Miriam’s letter lay there undelivered.
Para 66 .. The post office hummed with activity soon. The clerk read aloud the names of the addressees.
Para 67 .. The postman began to see the incoming letters in a new light. They were not inanimate packets of papers, but carriers of loads of sentiments. Life-sustaining emotions were embedded in them.
Para 68 .. As the dusk fell, Lakshmi Das accompanied the postmaster to Ali’s grave with Miriam’s letter. As if laying a wreath, they deposited the letter at the grave and headed back.
Para 69 .. The postmaster had not yet got rid of the confusion that had engulfed his mind after the strange encounter in the morning. He asked Lakshmi Das if was sure he was the first to come in to office in the morning.
Para 70 .. Lakshmi Das confirmed that he was the first visitor.
Para 71 .. The post master murmured something that showed he was still troubled with some disquieting riddles.
Para 72 .. Lakashmi Das was curious to find out what was playing on the mind of his boss still.
Para 73 .. The post master skirted the question. He went inside. The remorse and the angst of having been so rude to a grieving father’s heart haunted him. Ali’s plight sat on his shoulders like a mountain of sorrow. That Ali died with his unrequited love for his daughter was very painful. And the suffering of his daughter worsened his torment. He sat down near the fireplace plunged in sadness.