by Atul Sharma
“Hope leads to win,
Despair to death.”
I found these words inscribed on a tomb when I visited St. Johns’ cemetery in Solan. It houses bodies of many Europeans of British times and a few recent ones of this near extinction race in India.
The words sounded surreal. Yes, it is hope that offers us the fodder to live through the daily struggles engulfing our lives.
When I took a close look at the tomb, I found a name James inscribed below these words, who lived through ‘1830-1860’ a mere thirty years.
Then while I was looking intently on the tomb, an old and frail man approached me.
“Many people’s heart is touched by these words,” the old man said examining my face.
I took a long glance at this man from head to toe who wore a dirty white kurta pyjama, which had many patches on it.
“Yes I am too touched by these,” I replied.
“Then you deserve to hear the story of James.”
“And who are you?”
“ I am Mange Ram Sahib, I work as chowkidar (watchman) here.”
The Idea of hearing to a story in the midst of a cemetery sounded to me enchanting.
“Okay then I am ready to listen to your story,” I said excitedly.
I think Mange Ram understood my eagerness and here he put a proposition.
“ Sahib this rare story would give you a once in a lifetime experience. And I have till now never shared this story with anyone but myself. As you showed a great interest in James Sahib that is why I am revealing it to you. But it will cost you.”
“ Cost! What cost?” I inquired concealing my enlarging excitedness; as I was due to hear an untold tale.
“ Just Rs.100/-.”
“ Don’t you think you are asking for too much.”
“ No! No! Sahib, if you do not like the story I will return the money.”
Now this seemed to me an excellent bargain. An untold tale in a cemetery and if the story does not interest me, I can always ask for a refund. Now I imagined if all the movies too came with this offer so then I could get my money back on many bad movies seen by me.
I set my purse free from the confines of the back pocket of my rugged blue jeans and still in confusion of whether to part with the money or not, I hesitatingly handed over Rs.100/- to Mange ram at last.
Mange Ram held the note up against the sun to probe its authenticity. I found it weird though but meeting a stranger in a cemetery and hearing a story from him was weird too.
“It is not a false note.”
Mange Ram’s lips formed a half smile and then he placed the note in the side pocket of his old rugged kurta.
he pointed towards two rocks placed opposite to each other , one big and one a smaller one and walked towards them.
He sat on the bigger rock and with his palm thumped on the small rock indicating me to sit on it.
I sat down.
Then Mange Ram closed his eyes and in one breath started to speak as if he were a saint preaching a sermon.
“James was a soldier in the British Army stationed in India. He was six feet tall, had golden hair, blue eyes and of course white skin. He remained clean shaved and always made it a point to shave daily and wear impeccable clothes.
As he turned twenty-eight, he was shot in the leg while resisting the mutiny of 1857 in Kanpur. His wife deserted him along with their two children finding it a good opportunity while he was recovering in the hospital, to flee back to England as she was already fed up with living in India.”
“James should have married an Indian girl, they know how to stay along in any condition,” I commented.
Mange Ram frowned depicting his displeasure on my disruption of his sermon. And continued.
“The shot cursed him with a staggering gait. Soon he was discharged from the army. He lingered here and there for a few years ultimately commiting suicide.”
Mange Ram opened his eyes and started to gaze down at the ground. He sat like this for a few minutes uttering nothing.
“Is there anything more to James’ story,” I asked Mange ram disappointed by whatever he told me by then.
Mange Ram did not bother to answer my question and started to narrate without lifting his eyes.
“Now what I am going to reveal to you Sahib it may chill your soul but don’t be scared as you won’t be harmed.”
Though I was not scared till then but after hearing these words I felt my heart pounding a little faster against my ribs.
“Everyone says James still haunts this cemetery and can be seen talking with the visitors in the disguise of…”
An eerie silence descended. I took a quick glance at the whole cemetery and to add to my horror there was no other person to be seen there.
I mustered some courage and asked, “In the disguise of who Mange Ram?”
” In the disguise of Mange Ram Sahib,” saying this Mange Ram raised his head, his blue eyes met mine , reminding me of James’ and with a roaring laughter. Mange Ram alias James vanished without any trace in front of me in the air.
My whole body froze with dread. My eyes fell on the ground and saw my Rs.100/- note fluttering on the ground.
I got up from the rock hurling my steps towards the cemetery’s gate leaving the Rs.100/ note on the ground as it was indeed a good story.