“Why hello to you.
Good evening as you might say!
I believe we’ve not been introduced to one another. You and I that is. Let me make amends to that stifling gap of unknowledge, shall I? The name is Ram, Ram Mohammed Singh to be correct… Yes, a curious one I know. A little bit Hindu, a little bit Muslim, a little bit Sikh. I’m an Indian of every shade you might say, though I’m sure you might contend with me over the Muslim part… No, of course, it’s not my birth name. I prefer not to cling to things you see. Inheritances especially, and particularly an inherited label. The birth name just wasn’t capturing me anymore. It wasn’t accurate you know. It makes no difference at all to me what stripe of Indian I was born as. All that matters is what I’ve become. My name you see is a reflection of this, of that which I have become…
Now, there’s no need for insults. Don’t be such a snowflake. That’s all a bit childish, wouldn’t you say? I’m hardly going to apologise for my chosen name. As a matter of fact, I don’t apologise for anything at all. In any case, I imagine that you’ll want to save those insults of yours for later when you really do have something to cry about…
“For a man who prides himself on supposedly having all the answers, you certainly ask a lot of questions. Calm down a little and I’ll assuage your curiosity, sir. For a start, you will be relieved to hear I am not interested in your money. Have no fear of it! You have my word on it!... Again with the insults dear sir! You’ll soon find there’s no need for that and more to the point you’ll find there’s no use to them either.
Now as to your other questions about who I am and what this is all about, I shall be happy to elaborate further for you.
But before I do, I must ask my own question of you sir; do you remember the Great Plague?... It is a simple question and one of the utmost importance. Do you remember it?... That is good dear sir.
Very good indeed.
Now I may expound my raison d’être to you… Well, colour me yellow sir! I didn’t realise you were so uncultured. My condolences to you. What I meant, in layman’s terms, was my purpose. My calling. The reason for my existence. Do you follow now?... Ah, that is good.
That is very good. Then we may proceed.
“I was not here when it started. The Great Plague that is. I was elsewhere. Up in northern Canada.
Very cold place indeed.
I was out enjoying the very limits of my restrictive visa. I don’t suppose you know anything about that, do you?
Have you ever been outside India?... No? Really?
Are you aware of how much of a thorn in the side our whole citizenship thing is for getting visas? It’s a serious pain in the ass. It really is… Yes, yes. Alright, I’ll continue. No need to be impatient! As a matter of fact, it would be in your own self-interest not to be so impatient. You really, really, don’t want me to finish my story too soon. But anyway! I was out there in the biting cold when the world stopped spinning. On every screen I looked on I saw the dominoes falling across the globe. One country after another going into lockdown, shutting their borders, quarantining their citizens. Now, wayfaring as I was in a distant land, you’ll be glad to hear that I had not forgotten my own native India. No sir! Not at all! The beacons were lit as you might say haha! My visa was due to expire and I would have been deported in a few weeks anyway, but that is completely irrelevant!! Completely beside the point!
I had a duty, sir! A duty to do my part! To help my country in its hour of need. And so, I returned. I came back home. I shoved and pushed, and I elbowed my way through the jam-packed airport terminal. I did my time in quarantine and when I emerged a free man, I was more determined still to help my fellow Indians in whatever way I could!!
“But you see it wasn’t so bad in India at first. Remember? A few infections, a few deaths. At least that’s what it said on the news. That’s what we were recording with the testing equipment we had. A few infections, a few deaths. That had to mean that things weren’t so bad, right? Even if no one was going out to the country villages and testing people out there. We didn’t see any sign of it coming into the cities. So it mustn’t have been so bad. One might even say that our situation was good. We looked better than the rest of the world. Do you remember? Every other country was putting in their orders for more restrictions, more hospital beds, more doctors, more oxygen, and more coffins.
But not us! No sir! Us Indians were immune to the terrible killer germ! We were made of stronger stuff, remember?
“I started to think there was nothing for me to help with. I really did. And in light of all this, I really was so very glad to be home. I got comfortable. Very comfortable. I felt like my old self again. I spent more time with my parents and siblings. I reunited with old school friends and family members. I even made some new friends. I went on my morning run through the city every day. I walked among my fellow Indians and counted myself as one of them. After being away on my travels for so long, I felt myself to be finally home. You understand this word, yes?
Not a house you see, but a sanctuary. A place where we are safe. Where the individual is in tune not only with himself but with his community and the universe at large. A place where you feel held up and supported, no matter what happens. Such a place where after years of wandering you might of a sudden feel induced to settle for good, take up the family business and follow in the footsteps of your forefathers.
You understand all this, yes? Good. That is very good.
“You know, had it not been for all the breaking news from the faraway lands I had trekked through, I might have forgotten altogether about the spread of the disease and the whole accursed thing. That’s how at ease I was. How carefree I was. And I realised only years later that everyone else was feeling exactly the same as me. We were all under some strange spell. Some kind of mutual hypnosis. A trance that kept on telling us that everything was fine. Everything was okay, even when it wasn’t. But we know better now, you and I, don’t we? Every trance gets snapped out of sooner or later. Just a matter of time. We know that now. But we dared to tempt fate back then, didn’t we sir?
“Do you recall, sir, where you were when the snap came?... No? Some comfortable villa I imagine, am I right? No? That’s okay. The country went into hysterics, you do remember this, yes?
Terror. Panic. Anger. Horror.
People were dying in the streets of the cities. They were dying in their homes. In their places of work. In their places of worship. In their cars. On the sides of the highways. And no one could breathe, do you remember? No oxygen. No hospital beds. Even doctors and nurses catching it and dying on the job. It was just as the ancients prophesised in the Mahabharata when they spoke of the Kali Yuga and the Age of Darkness.
Do you believe in the Kali Yuga sir? Do you believe that the golden age has already come and gone? That our world and our society have been degenerating for centuries and will continue to do so until Vishnu returns to us for the final reckoning riding astride a pale horse with a sword of fire in his hands?...
That was my thoughts on it too. An old fairy tale for the children. But I see it differently now sir. I do. After seeing our people in the teeth of the plague, I have seen the true face of our times. I have seen the Kali Yuga.
“Now, as I said before, I was resolved to do my part, sir. I couldn’t just stand by and watch my country go down the drain. This was the reason I’d come home in the first place. To help.
To do my duty. To be a champion of virtue even if all the world lay shrouded in sin. So I volunteered. I committed myself, body and soul, to the struggle against this terrible pestilence that gripped our people. But I had no medical experience. I was no nurse or doctor. I knew nothing about how hospitals worked. But they found a place for me nonetheless. And I thought that was good. For even mopping the floors was better than doing nothing, wouldn’t you agree? Whatever it was they put me to do, I would do it to the utmost of my ability. Of that much, I was determined to do.
“Just as I had to push and heave and wrestle through the airport terminal, so I had to do the same just to squeeze through the hospital gates. I slipped through the throng of people. Sick people you understand. Lying on the street, everywhere. Scattered like plastic bags on the tarmac, on the pavements. Eyes lolling in their heads. Chests gasping for breath. When I got past them, I had to get through all the friends and relatives of these dying people. They pressed themselves against the hospital gates. They pointed their fingers and shouted accusations and insults. They were impatient.
Angry. Despairing. Frustrated. Much like yourself sir. Much like yourself. Past them then was what I called the ‘thin yellow line’: a handful of hospital staff covered in yellow protective gear and masks. I’d show my pass to them and they’d let me through. The people behind me would shout more accusations and questions after me when they saw me skip their queue. But I’d just keep walking. Only then was I inside the hospital. Did you ever see it, sir? Like really see it? Like stand there in the middle of it and look at it?... Just on TV. Ah. I thought as much. Let me enlighten you then. Imagine a hospital ward sir. Beds. Curtains. Trollies. Oxygen tanks. Drips. People in coats of white and uniforms of blue. Then imagine a crowd, the kind of crowd where everyone is armpit to armpit with one another. Hands and legs and arms all touching and groping and feeling and tangled up in one another. A heaving sea of human bodies. Now imagine that crowd inside the hospital ward you just thought of. Not a pretty sight, is it? In that type of world, the person who has a hospital bed all to themselves might as well be sitting on the Peacock Throne of the Mughals.
That’s how much of a luxury it was.
You look to your left you see two, three, four, maybe even five people, all of them sick, all of them coughing and wheezing, crammed onto one bed. You look to your right and you see doctors and you see nurses trying, trying, to help with no equipment, no vaccines, no tests, no oxygen, no anything. You see tears drip down their masks as they try to help. You see bitterness in others. You see anger in them too. And despair and frustration as well. Because the truth was, they were no different than all those people at the hospital gates trying to get their dying friends and family into the hospital. They were helpless. Completely helpless, you understand. There was nothing they could do.
“But I wasn’t going to be helpless. I was determined not to be. I wanted to do some good. They gave me protective gear to put on. Two layers of it you understand. Two layers of plastic coverings. Two masks. And a set of goggles. We were covered head to toe, like spacemen nearly. Then we went down to the special room. Do you know what was in the ‘special room’? Do you know what we did there in the Room of Special Purpose?... No? It seems you have very few of the answers today sir. Well, fear not. No need to be ashamed. I’ll enlighten you further on the matter. The Special Room was where the incinerators were. It was the place we burned the bodies.
“It had to be done you understand. Had to be done. The corpses were still infected. And in the heat, they’d spread new diseases. And there were so many of them, so many corpses. It
had to be done. When I first started there, we did the job properly. We did it as civilised people would. We did it as the old Crematorians told us to do it. We put one body on each tray and then fed them into the machine to be cremated. When their corpse was cooked to ashes, we scooped them out and cleaned the tray for the next one. All the other guys and I, thought that was hard. We were already burning so many. It was a baptism of fire for us all. Literally. You’d see guys on their first day. The nerves would start to go on them when they saw it. When they saw the dead hands slung down off the trolleys, the dead faces all numb and motionless, the dead eyes rocking and wobbling in their sockets as we lifted the bodies onto the cremation trays. Most of us had seen dead bodies before. But not like this, you understand. And not so many. All at once. All in one day. All-day long. Hour after hour, day after day. It would hit you on the job or sometimes it would hit you afterwards on the break. Your whole body would go into spasm. You’d feel like there was a weight pressing down on your chest and shoulders, find it hard to breathe, hard to talk. We weren’t so much undertakers as we were factory labourers working at the conveyor belt of death. There was no dignity to it. No respect. No decorum. No sanctity. After a while, a few hours for some, a few days or weeks for others, the shock wears off. You’re burning so many bodies that it just doesn’t mean anything anymore. You’re just lifting a weight, that happens to be in the shape of a person, taking it from point A and taking it to point B for processing. People went into the hospital, and ashes came out. Production line logic, you understand.
That’s all it was to us.
“But that was only the start of it you see. That, as I said, was when we still did things the old way. One body. One tray. But while we were down there, hour after hour, day after day, burning bodies and scooping up ashes, the disease just kept on spreading, and spreading, and spreading. And the people, they just kept on dying, and dying, and dying. And you see, we were just working the hospital incinerators. There were traditional crematoria all over the city burning corpses too. But it wasn’t enough. None of it was enough. People were dying faster than we could burn them. The old way wasn’t cutting it. So we started doing what the doctors were doing in the hospital wards up above. Just as the hospital beds had half a dozen patients swarming over them, so we began to double and treble up too.
Total strangers had their bodies stacked together, burned together, and had their ashes mixed together. The incinerator wouldn’t completely cremate them when we did that. You’d find teeth and vertebrae in the ashes afterwards. As we doubled up, even more, we found whole blackened skeletons waiting for us on the tray, skin and clothes charred onto the bones. I remember once we opened the furnace and found a skeleton with three pairs of arms sprouting from the torso. It was like looking at Shiva himself if Shiva had ever had his divine essence roasted up inside a furnace.
“You see all kinds of things in there, working the furnace. You burn so many people that it doesn’t even compute with your brain. A guy who worked at another hospital once told me that he’d burned so many people that he wasn’t sure if the people he’d incinerated were dead or alive. He said the hospital beds were so full in his district that the doctors started sending people already on death’s door for cremation prematurely, just to make space. And in amongst the body heaps, I saw the faces of friends, the faces of my friends’ parents, the faces of my cousins, the faces of aunts, uncles, teachers, neighbours, shopkeepers, managers, farmers, taximen, policemen.
All faces of people you know. People, you’re familiar with. People you hate. People you love.
You lift them up, bury them under two other people, and then you turn that face of theirs into ash and dust. I burned old people, young people, poor people, and rich people. I burned men, I burned women, and I burned anything else in between too. I burned Sikhs and I burned Hindus. I burned Muslims too. Do you know why? Do you know why I burned Muslims even though it’s against their faith and customs to burn the dead? Because they ran out of ground to bury their dead. There was no more room for the Muslim dead to sleep. Cremation was the only way to keep the bodies off the streets and to keep the dirty dogs from chewing them. So I burned them too. I burned every shade of Indian. I burned them all.
“You try not to think about it. Try not to ruminate on what you’re doing, and just how much of it you’re doing. You start to think about it, and you’ll break. One guy in our crew, Udham, forgot to reconcile it one day and he let his mind wander. He fell to his knees in the middle of a shift and started screaming through his mask. No words you understand. Just screams. Maybe he saw his girlfriend or his mother or his brother in the mix of bodies. Maybe not. Either way, he stopped to think, and it all caught up with him, all at once. We didn’t help him to his feet. No pats on the back or comfort coffee. There was too much work. So we worked around him and kept feeding the fires while he screamed and screamed. He didn’t come back the next day. Committed suicide I reckon.
Drowned himself most likely.
A lot of us Cremators did afterwards. Drowned themselves that is. Trying to quench the fire you see. You can leave the fire, but the fire never leaves you. When I was there I wanted to be home. And when I was home I wanted to be back there. It’s all you can think of. The fire, the fire, the fire. You can smell the fire before you even see it. The stench of searing flesh, human soot, and scorched body fat, all stay in your nostrils, stay in your mind. You take a shower and you can still feel the residue caked under your fingernails. Your family don’t understand it, can’t understand it. You look out your bedroom window and you see the pillars of smoke rising all along the horizon from the outdoor crematoriums. And all you can think is ‘I should be there.’ You can’t wait for your day off to be over so you can go back. You head back and you can hear the fires before you feel them. You can hear the roar and the crackle and howl of the flames. And then, little by little, you feel the wall of heat washing over you and you know in that instant that you’re back.
“You have to lean in you understand. You have to revel in it. Wallow in it. In an insane world, the only way to stay sane is to be a little insane. I started to enjoy it. I had to. I had to enjoy it. Because otherwise, it made no sense to be there. I would stand in front of the wall of incinerators and stretch out my arms like I was greeting the morning sun. You start laughing during the shift. And you laugh hard. You laugh as hard as you can. Do you know why good sir? Because it’s the only thing you can do to stay sane on the job. The only way to justify what you’re doing. The only way for your mind to reconcile it. If it doesn’t make you happy or cheerful, then what are you doing there? You’ll lose your bearings. But afterwards, it’s hard to let go of it. Hard to let your mind wander. Hard to look at your fellow Indians when you’re doing your groceries and not calculate how hot the oven needs to be to cook them. The other guys had nightmares afterwards. They started to binge pretty hard on alcohol, drugs, girls, fighting, gambling, anything at all to stamp the memory out. But none of it ever leaves you. Families and friends couldn’t live with any of us anymore. We’d all seen too much, done too much. Some of us ended up living on the streets like dogs. By and by we were all drawn together again and started living in an apartment with one another. Within those confines, we had our little circle of mutual experience where we spoke about the fire. The fire, the fire, the fire. No one else understood what we’d gone through.
How could they?
But it was so much more than that for me. Those guys were all I had. When the surge ended and the river of corpses finally dried up, I came back home to find that home was gone. My family was a shadow of itself. My friends were all either dead or crushed by the death of their own loved ones. The city streets were almost empty. Places I’d done my groceries at were shuttered up or abandoned altogether. Bit by bit it started to dawn on me that the place I’d come to call home had been turned to cinders in my incinerator. I had really burned them all. There was nothing left but the fire, the fire, the fire, the fire. The home was in the ashes of the fire.
The furnace was my real home.
My true calling.
My purpose on this earth.
My raison d’être if you will.
“I came to understand that we were chosen for this purpose. That ours was a holy mission. We were Yamadutas in the flesh, servants of Lord Yama, sending souls to his abode for his judgement by way of the flames of Agni. But then I realised that it was more than this. Much more. We represented in ourselves a new priesthood, a new order. The old priesthood believed that the rivers were sacred. Believed the holy water would wash away the evils of this world. You remember this yes? Surely you must? You allowed for the festivals to go ahead. Isn’t that right, dear Governor?... Yes, yes. I know that that was all some time ago. I know that you’re not Governor of our fine state anymore. That was then and this is now. But you remember it, don’t you? The millions of people that landed in from near and far to bathe in the holy waters. You remember, yes?... Good. Good. Then you understand. You see the water was not so holy after all. It did not cleanse the people. It did not save them. The water was dirty. The Hindu priests were wrong. The Muslim Imams and the Sikh Granthis with their un-infectable mosques and temples were all wrong too. False idols all of them! All of them! Wicked, corrupt, and shameless, servants of the Kali Yuga’s darkness! But not my brothers and I! No! We are servants of the great Vishnu! We pave the way for his avatar, Kalki, who shall come astride a pale steed with a sword of fire! And we ourselves wield that very same sword of fire! For it is fire, not water, that cleanses the earth, purifies the air, and extinguishes the darkness and corruption of this world! While the old faiths spread pestilence and disease and death through our country, ours has burned away the rot and decay they have sown!...
You call me mad?
That certainly seems a little rich coming from the man who, in spite of all the warnings, told the pilgrims to come down to the river and pray! Mad? I’m nothing of the sort. I’m quite well-read actually! And well-travelled as I already said. Mad! What words you dirty dogs choose! The truth is, that I’ve broken free of the trance. I’ve snapped out of it! Agni’s heavenly fire has enlightened me to the truth! And the truth is that the rule of you dirty dogs is nothing more than filth, greed, and hypocrisy!
“Now there really is no point trying to get out of those handcuffs. I assure you, you’ll not live one instant longer by doing so… As I said before Governor, I have no interest in your money. I am a holy man. Answerable only to the Gods. Now bear with me just two minutes while I get this in order. Ah yes, it’s all coming back to me now! Here’s the tray, here are the controls, and woohoo there’s our little fire billowing inside already!
Now hold still sir, hold still while I lift you and… there we are!
Sorry about that. As I said before I seldom apologise for anything anymore but the one exception I will always make is apologies for errors pertaining to my work. I have a work standard I like to maintain you see and I used to have help with the carrying part but, alas, none of the boys wanted to tag along for the occasion… Yes. Right, you are on that one sir. That siren does sound like the police. I had a feeling I should have made a distraction for the hospital security fellows but I was too caught up in telling you my story.
But oh well! We’ll make do.
Have no fear now Governor. You’ll be toasting long before they break down that door. I came prepared with paraffin. Hold still now while I drizzle it over you.
Open wide now! Open wide! Rest assured you’ll combust very swiftly!
“Now that should be enough for you. Hold on a second while I rub some over myself… Why? Well, I’m coming with you silly! Into the fire! And onwards to the world that awaits me after! I’ll not be taken alive. I’ll not apologise for anything. I’ll not be held accountable. That relates more to you than I, wouldn’t you think? I have no fear of dying sir. It makes no difference to me. A dirty dog like you though, I can see how you still might be afraid. You never saw it. Not really. Watching the television isn’t quite the same as living in it. You’ve never stood amongst the hundreds of funeral pyres and been swallowed up in the wafts of scorching human meat! You’ve never had to climb over mounds of cadavers. You’ve never had to feed your own friends and family to the fire. But I have. I’ve burned every shade of Indian there is. And were it not for present circumstances, I’d burn our whole country to the ground just so dirty dogs like you could torment it no more!... I know this is uncomfortable. Me lying on top of you, face to face. I would apologise for the discomfort, but I don’t recall you ever apologising to the Indian people for the shitstorm of death you created…
Oh please, your apology is too little too late now, wouldn’t you say?
“Now let me just reach across you for the button and yes! Thunderbirds are go! The help you’re calling for will be too little too late now Governor! We’re going in! Into the fire! The fire! The fire! The fire! This is my home dear Governor!
My home!... No use screaming now!...
Why aren’t I scared? You ask that?
But by now, after everything I’ve said and told, you surely already know. No? Well, it’s quite simple really.
“I’ve been burning all along.”