Portraits in Hell

The elders had been convinced by a series of mysterious deaths in the village that showering was a fatal affair.


“We’ve lost twenty odd men this summer, all young, all healthy,” huffed Maghu, who’s tobacco-soaked bones had endured eighty six winters thus far. “And one quite recently, what was his name? Ammer Chand’s son who came back from Chandigarh this spring?”


He looked quizzically at the people squatting around the Diya on cotton mattresses laid across the cedar floorboards, but the listeners’ low, inchoate groans couldn’t forge any syllables. The orphaned sounds, finding each other, played, collided and accreted into loose words, some with meaning, and some without; words, most of which strayed far from the matter at hand: a sea of sounds. Apu, who was visiting the aggrieved with his father, was blind in this sea, floating amidst waves of these strange utterances. Sometimes they would tide, and at other times ebb. Some waves cancel one another, while others nurture and grow themselves: a play of amplitudes. And then he awoke in the same room, in the same space, having moved further in some ineffable way.


“The younger one?” someone squinted.


“The younger one? Never knew Ammer Chand had a younger boy. The one I know is a slouch and drinks like a fish!”


“And beats up his wife…”


“And beats up his children! Four beautiful kids he’s got!”


Maghu looked annoyed that his mention had digressed into gossip. He ruddered the talk.


“Yes, yes, he has a younger boy, got married last autumn. He was in the shower singing a song, quite a merry young fellow he was,” he chuckled phlegmatically, breaking into a cough towards the end, as most old men do. “And when his wife outside heard him stop all of a sudden, she grew suspicious and decided to check up on him. And just like that–” he slapped his palm on his thigh with a vitality alien to most octogenarians.


“Poor girl, poor girl. This makes no sense,” a middle-aged woman with orange, henna-abused hair piped nasally. “Did he take the smack?”


She tiled her broad, pockmarked forehead, casting suspicious glances across the room to summon some more gossip. After a spell of silence, when nobody found it appropriate to talk about the village drug habit, the rosy-cheeked widower by the diya sighed loudly and went on.


“It’s a relief that my Jindu went painlessly in her sleep,” he said, squeezing his fingers. “She was blissful when I saw her in the morning. It was almost like she were asleep.”


“That’s the most important thing.”


“And she went away during the Uttarayin, it is a good time to go.”


“Take heart, she is in a better place.”


“Read the scriptures. In these moments, you should act with holy reason, with the gyaan.”


Apu listened to all this chatter in a corner, shifting his eyes along the wooden rafters on the ceiling, to the plastic flower bouquet hung above dusty almirahs in a corner. The room had been hurriedly dusted and sanctified with cow-dung a few hours after Jindu Devi was found dead, ‘almost like she were asleep’. He wondered whether the mirror on the almirah door was stained under the threadbare floral dust-cloth. Perhaps her living self had never known this room.

He had always considered this exercise tedious: ten days of this post-mortem gossip, people coming and offering money and ration and oil to the family as a token of respect and compassion. Could a bottle of oil ever hold up against death? Did they care about perpetuating this symbol of mortality, the mortal lamp that burnt day and night for ten full days, more than they cared about one’s will to live?

In the way these customs work, every attempt is made to avoid a private moment of mourning. Everything is made communal and public, from mourners offering to sleep in, to the early morning sessions of collective wailing and afternoon gossip.


“He looks like you,” the orange-haired woman said smiling. “Maybe a little better than you did at his age.”


“Oh most definitely! How did he get so tall? Must have taken after his grandfather,” chimed in another village lady whom neither Apu nor his father knew.


“Yes, he takes after his grandfather,” Apu’s father replied.


“Is he married?” interjected a distant aunt who wouldn’t miss a single funeral or wedding in the valley.


“No, not yet.” He dismissed their questions with a sweeping cliche, “You know how it is with kids these days.”


They seemed pleased now that they’d been humoured, and thus they fell silent, basking in their common triumph. Order, thought Apu silently, everything had to be in order, even suffering or pain. These people did not carry hells within them, or didn’t dare to look hard enough within. They scratched grief at the surface, never daring to look deeper – for that would change them. A few illuminated ones had paved the way already, and they didn’t care to go further. Since then, this path, this street, had seen sleet and rains, and the prayers that our mothers etched upon its cobblestones had long eroded. All that remained now was an empty trellis of their thought, of their suffering, and that was enough to contain the scope of our grief.

***


“Why is Uttarayan a nice time to die?”

The crinkle of poplar leaves under their feet pierced the late autumn light.


“That’s because her journey would be shorter by six months,” he answered, feeling his pockets for his car keys.


“How do we know that?”


“Listen, it’s just what they say. Don’t make much of it,” he said, irritated. “Did I give you the keys? I can’t seem to find them.”

***

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printed white on red trickled down his eyes.


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The centrally heated wafts of January metro station air made him sweat as he stood still on an ascending escalator. It is all about the frame of reference, he was taught. A woman dressed in black stood still beside him. A group of raucous college boys approached him, standing still at the landing.


Her journey’s shorter by six months, he thought, finding Jindu Devi in his thoughts all of a sudden. But who was moving?


The room appeared before him, the plastic flowers, the old gay photograph nailed to those ceiling rafters. That room would still be in that village, awaiting another death, another mourning lamp, more oil and gossip.

The escalator stopped at his feet. He had approached the landing. The woman rushed past the boys, she stumbled forth partly with initiation and partly with evasion.

Now, he had ascended to the great rush of the world, and it swirled around him like troubled waters devoid of circumstance. How does the idea of afterlife come by in these currents? Apu had, almost by accident, come to live in Delhi, far from the mountains where he was born. It was always about one hallmark of life or the other that led him to this city. Wasn’t this a journey in its own right? Five hundred and fifty kilometres to the city of djinns. One could assign definitives to this afterlife of smoke and fire.

***

It wasn’t until Vera spotted Apu standing at the station gate that he was seen.


“There you are!”


She seemed elated, and wrapped herself around him in a coaxing embrace.


“I thought you’d forgotten me already!”


“It hasn’t been long,” he said. “Hasn’t been that long at all.”


“It’s been three years, Apu,” she sighed. “And it took me a lifetime of convincing to get you out of the house.”


“You know I’m a shut-in.”


“Yes, yes, you and your drama! Shouldn’t you live a little?”


She threw her arms, frail as the Delhi January winter, over her head. Two wheat stocks in a field of mottled grey.


“I’ve missed you too,” he answered.

***

The history of portraiture is not a peaceful one. As Vienna and Florence emerged as cultural centres during the European Renaissance, a different battle was being fought in the Ottoman world. As these realistic portraits made their way to the homes of several Ottoman pashas and art connoisseurs by way of trade and commissions, a profound psychological struggle began. Audacious as the attempt to project life in such detail was, many people had begun resonating with their desire to be visible not just as sinners, or products of His creation, but as flesh and blood. For once bodies had become more than just flesh. Mirrors found their way to the halls of the rich, while the poor had learnt to polish them.

“It isn’t unless you’re spotted that you are seen.”

***

Vera and Apu walked through the lanes of Khan Market that Sunday afternoon, amongst people who barely cared for the obvious.


“My hair’s gotten all dry,” Vera complained. “You see it, you see it, don’t you? It was so much better when we met here the last time.”


“Perhaps. But you’ve always had great hair.”


“Pfft! You and your compliments!”


They fell silent for a while, before she began again.


“You’ve gotten a little chubby, or is it the coat?”


“Have I?” Apu scratched his forehead.


“How’s that mountain that you keep speaking of?”


“What mountain?”


“The one that goes to heaven? The one you keep clicking pictures of… I don’t remember what it’s called.”


“I don’t think there’s a mountain that leads to heaven, Vera.”


Apu knew what she was talking about. The Hamta, the mountain pass that he had grown up gazing at. Its slope rising eastwards in three mounds of snow. “All spirits travel to the east,” Apu remembered from his boyhood.

If they all took the same route, how come Jindu Devi would make it six months earlier to the afterlife? Do spirits fear blizzards too? Wasn’t death supposed to make us invincible? He looked at Vera, she had already moved on. Life in cities moves on. It whirs. It rushes. Where was this life, this untamed gust heading to?


***


Hauz Khas Metro Station. A twenty-something woman in a grey jumper traces the little yellow footsteps on the floor. “Meet me again,” Vera had said while seeing him off at the station. The same words she had said three years ago. “Meet me again?”

The girl walked on, not skipping a single yellow acrylic footprint stuck to the ground. It turned her walk into a hobble, it got her stared at. It got her seen. Everyone saw her walking to the Delhi Metro’s Yellow Line amongst a sea of people who were all taking the same route. She had transcended the barrier of being just another person on her way. In her peculiarity, she had managed to break through the narrative of her creation. She had stepped out of the miniature into the great mirror-lined ballrooms of the West.


“The mountain that leads to heaven,” Vera had asked him.


The Hauz Khas metro station is the deepest in the Delhi Metro network, twenty nine metres under the surface. Twenty nine metres closer to hell. At least these yellow footsteps did not lead you to heaven, this was certain. But do they bring you twenty nine metres closer to hell? The girl kept hobbling until she reached the platform, waiting for the train. Do they have portraits in hell? Apu wondered, even though he knew the answer very well.



Arsch Sharma, 27, has been writing professionally since 2018. He has penned works of creative fiction and non-fiction, including opinion pieces, essays, short stories, poetry and novellas.


Cover art: "IMG_2504OA PAINTING AND SUCCESSION OF THE IDEOLOGIES IN EUROPE" by jean louis mazieres, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.