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Eternal shades

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 11, 2018 Published on April 21, 2017

Illustration: MP

The best place to go for walks, it turns out, is the local cemetery. Bins and I go every evening just as the sun is preparing to set. The trees are still leafless here in Elsewhere. In the cemetery, with no nearby buildings to compete against, they look magnificent: immense traceries of the most intricate black lace, silhouetted against a mauve-gold sky.

The asphalted road loops in and around grassy lawns with memorials in granite, marble and cement-concrete rearing up in clumps and clusters, or else isolated within private patches of fenced-in privilege. Some gravestones are tall and stately, towering obelisks pointing straight up to heaven. Others are bare little headstones, similar to milestone markers on Indian highways. Some date from the mid-1800s while others are as recent as last month. There are other walkers too, many with large dogs who seem very grateful for the chance to gallop about in the seemingly boundless space.

“It looks so peaceful, no?” says Bins one day. “But the ghosts do not agree.” “What ghosts?” I ask, surprised. I had no idea that he was capable of getting spooked. “Not spooked,” says Bins, “and by the way, you’re SO insensitive! Me? I can smell the ghosts. I can feel them.” He starts to point around at different graves. “See that one? It was a young girl. You can tell from the dates. She still has the same surname as her mother, nearby, though she died long before. She’s happy but her mother is still crying.”

He points to another group of headstones, all identical except for one. “See that? He was the last surviving member of a big, wealthy family. They all have nice straight stones, all grey, all granite. But this last guy? He ran through all the money! He has just a slab in the ground and look — if he had a wife and children, they’re not buried here! His dates suggest he died at 51. Maybe cirrhosis of the liver? But he’s still laughing and drinking in the next world! He is forever a happy guy.”

Amongst the many sorrowing angels there’s one in particular who stands out. Sits, actually: she’s almost life-size in greened-over bronze sitting between two stone blocks. Her clothes are the height of 1920’s fashion. She has a lovely pensive face and she holds her graceful wings outstretched behind her. The names on the identical stone blocks are of a man and a woman with the same surname. However, set in the grass beside the man is a small flat marker, clearly stating that it belongs to the wife of the deceased. “In this case,” says Bins, “the widow was the last to go, much after the sister-in-law and husband. Yet she did not marry again or leave a fancy memorial to herself.”

And in a corner of the same fenced-in plot, a tiny headstone. “Little Charlie” it reads, three years old.

I feel suddenly moved. I can see the pretty white smock in which he was laid to rest and the fine blond curls covering his head. Tears fill my eyes. “Aha!” chortles Bins. “You’re not completely insensitive after all!” “Pooh,” I say, shaking my head as we turn to leave. “Nothing like that. Just this fresh April breeze.”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on April 21, 2017
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