Amongst the many deep, dark questions I have been assailed by through the years, there is none that disturbed me more than the one concerning supernatural creatures. Yes, you have guessed it correctly. I am indeed referring to ghosts. And the question in question is: Do they really exist? I have to admit that I am still searching for an answer, which means, amongst other things, that I often find myself in uncomfortable situations. Such as wondering whether the person sitting next to me in a theatre, say, is a … you know what I mean, don’t you?
Being fair minded though, I allow my neighbour the same right that I exercise. So, when the person glares back at me with misgivings in response to my repeated furtive glances, I respond with profound humility. In fact, I am even tempted to embark upon a conversation with such people on the subject of our mutual mistrusts, simply to assure him or her that I am as much uncertain of my own true identity as I am of others’. To be precise, I am willing to admit without any hesitation whatsoever, that I could well be a ghost posing as a living being, which, needless to say, leaves enough room for the reverse possibility too. The former option, however, sounds more convincing, since ghosts are known to be particularly well-endowed with abilities to transform their shapes whenever they will, except of course for the fact that I am not exactly sure if I myself am one such spirit engaged in the bizarre gimmick.
The only reason I desist from engaging people in such profound discussions is that I am almost certain that it would precipitate undesirable consequences. Understandably enough, ghost or no, I hate being the centre of attraction, be it in praise or revulsion. Normally, Lady Luck has favoured me with all the bounty at her disposal. Even if people doubted what I really was, just as I kept doubting all the time what they were, they remained poker faced, holding their cards pretty close to their chests.
Meanwhile, the river of my life, or after life for all I know, flowed placidly. No storm, not even a ripple, till of course the fateful day when Yamini arrived.
Yamini was a stenographer. Do you know what a stenographer is? She is someone who takes dictations from dictators who are too arthritic to write or type with their own fingers and occupy enormous chambers allotted to them in recognition of their disability. Medical records confirmed that the uric acid in my blood stream had reached alarming levels and facilitated thereby my entry into the aforementioned chamber, the enormous one, in case you have lost track. I moved into my newly decorated office, consisting of an outsized desk, five empty filing cabinets, six bookshelves full of dust but empty of books, I being as uninterested in them as the three geckos who shared the room with me. There was a room-heater of course to keep me warm when I dozed off on winter afternoons. Soon, like all high officials occupying enormous c’s with attached wc’s, I fell in love with my well-appointed facilities. And Yamini, whom I hope you haven’t forgotten on account of my garrulity induced distraction, was asked to submit to my dictates along with those of others elevated to my rank.
Since the nature of my work was not clearly defined, they adorned me with a designation, somewhat in the spirit of a Minister without portfolio, a recognition granted to prevent party MP’s from bickering. In my case, they worked out a rather pompous title. I forget though what exactly it was, because it was long and convoluted, apart from containing difficult words. As far as I can reconstruct from my rapidly decaying memory, the position I held sounded somewhat as follows: “Crisis Coordinator for Devastating Predicaments in the Absence of Emergencies of any Variety At All”. Long, as I said. Even the acronym CCDPAEVAA is a strain on one’s memory. I will refer to it therefore simply as cc. If nothing else, it rhymes well with the ec and wc that went with it.
I spent most of my time in my ec staring out of the window at a tree, watching multi-coloured butterflies flutter in and out. And when that bored me to death, I started dreaming, but sometimes screaming too, as I gave out orders to less big officials when the less big officials were themselves dreaming. And the lesser ones in turn did the same to even lesser ones. This is the way the office worked, right down to the least big of officials, i.e. the doorkeeper. Everyone kept himself or herself busy either dreaming or screaming. But the poor stenographers, whom no one recognized as either big or small, remained in a state of limbo so to speak, running from office to office, scribbling down whatever got dictated, or sometimes just sitting in front of the bosses when they fell asleep.
I soon realised that one of my unwritten duties was to keep Yamini, the little stenographer, running in and out of my ec. The thin, emaciated girl with large timid eyes would rush in pencil and pad in her fragile hands, ready to take a dictation. But, I would normally forget what I wanted to dictate! Which was embarrassing for me, being a cc and all you know. I would start out with something like, “OK Yamini, take a dictation.” “Yes sir,” she would whisper reverentially, her fingers ready to fly across her notebook. And we would be in that situation for the next several minutes without one more word being spoken. With the discomfiture mounting by the seconds, I would try to salvage little bits of my dignity by starting to rock in my chair, pretending to be deeply immersed in thought. And she watched me rock, sitting rock still herself, pencil poised, in stunned silence.
After a while, I would suddenly blurt out, “Dear Mr. Jhunjhunwala, How much longer do you think you will take to realise that the half-bricks you supplied us are turning out to be utterly useless to keep monkeys away from our premises. Please be advised that our aim being atrocious, the bricks we throw usually land in neighbouring buildings, destroying glass panes and sometimes hitting people instead of the monkeys. They have now gone to court against us and we have to prove that you never supplied us any bricks at all. Don’t send us bricks any more please. Besides, do try and appreciate that all my colleagues are descended from monkeys anyway. I, being their cc, am not allowed to throw bricks at them either.”
Having proceeded this far, I would start feeling rather important and satisfied that the job was on its way towards completion. I would pause and look forward to further inspiration to complete my letter. Usually, this led to more chair rocking and Yamini would start waiting patiently once more, her eyes riveted on her notebook. Emphasis on notebook, mind you.
On one occasion however, I rocked somewhat more violently than usual, thereby disturbing the centre of gravity of the total mass comprised of the chair and its occupant. As a result, the steel chair suddenly gave way and before I knew what was happening, I found myself sitting on the floor right next to the seat of the chair, which lay detached from its legs! The incident occurred in a split second. There was associated sound and fury of course, but by the time Yamini raised her eyes from her notebook to check out the source of the noise, I had already succumbed to gravitational pull. Needless to say, she was totally taken aback. For, she discovered that the cc, who was sitting on the other side of the desk only a while ago, had simply ceased to exist! Remember now that the desk was monumental and I was sitting on the floor, completely hidden from her sight.
Well I wasn’t exactly silent either. I was simultaneously cursing Godrej or whoever it was that had designed the chairs and uttering my ooh’s and aah’s as I nursed my posterior, which was the hardest hit area of my remains. These noises, on top of my complete disappearance, did not make a favourable impact on Yamini. Like me, she too must have entertained doubts about the real identity of the people she came across in her everyday travails. It would seem that she did not quite associate the moans with my vocal chords and there being no living animal visible in the room, except for the three geckos, not to lose track of details, she concluded that the supernatural had invaded. Whereupon she backed up her discovery by loud, piercing shrieks. There was nothing but alarm in her voice as she sat petrified in her chair, pouring out her agony in clear D-sharp scale, with an intensity that would amaze even Parveen Sultana. The day had been cloudy and it was somewhat late in the afternoon. The dusk had arrived early therefore, adding the necessary finishing touches to the atmosphere.
Soon enough, the entire office had assembled in my ec. Fortunately, they discovered me, but hesitated for a while to help me rise to my feet, being taken in by Yamini’s yelling. By this time, I too had regained enough of my composure to make out the only word Yamini appeared to have left in her vocabulary. And that word was “Ghooooooooooooost”, loud and clear. She repeated it in a variety of notes of course, with a twist here and a turn there, but the solitary word remained unchanged. Good singing it was, but a bit monotonous, lyric wise I mean. The assembly debated for a while on who needed more help at that moment of time. It was Yamini who won their sympathy, because by this time she had actually fainted and definitely needed to be carried out of the room in a make shift stretcher. They called in a doctor too as I was given to understand later on, who advised her a month’s rest to recover from her shock.
I found out in the meantime that quite apart from my posterior having sustained injuries, there was a little lump in the middle of my head, arising no doubt from a collision with the wall behind my chair. So, as I caressed my bottom with my left hand and my head with the right, an intrepid colleague actually helped his cc limp into his private wc and apply a towel soaked in cold water to the lump on his head.
When faced with tricky situations, ghosts normally dissolve into empty space. From the looks I received for weeks thereafter, I was sanguine that I had failed to live up to the reputation I had acquired following the Yamini incident. The lump on my head remained stubbornly in place for a few more days and the pain in my bottom too persisted, the way it does for most people beyond their prime.
But it was Yamini who did manage to disappear. She failed to join office after her leave expired. Some say she sought transfer to a branch the office had in Coimbatore. Upon inquiries though, I discovered that the branch had long gone out of existence. Yamini, it would appear, had branded me a ghost only to melt away herself. Like “a cake of ice on a hot July day”.
And that, dear friends, completes the circle, bringing us back to the vacuous inquiry we embarked upon. Who’s who indeed in this wide, wide world?