Olive Branch (Short Story)
It was a freak accident on the highway. The deer managed to cross barely the first two lanes of the road before the car hit it at 80 miles an hour. Five lives were lost in an instant, including the deer.
That was how Christmas began for Makarand Pandey in 2015. He woke up to the news of his wife, his son, his daughter-in-law and his one and only grandson dying in a horrific car crash. He fainted before he could learn about the deer that died.
He stopped briefly at the gate. He had been coming to the cemetery once a month — on the 24th to clean up the four tombs. The burial ground at Bansilalpet was a small one and had lost most of its ground to encroachments over the years. Many an apartment complex had been constructed on the bones of the dead.
Two hours after learning about the tragedy, Makarand Pandey, had to choose a cemetery. Time was running out. Real estate in the city was scarce and costly. Finding those six feet of space underground per person was a challenge. People told him that his options mainly were Ambarpet and then Bansilalpet. People of his faith usually preferred Ambarpet because the Bansilal cemetery adjoins the cemetery of another religion. Even in death, some hard lines were drawn.
He was angry with himself. He was angry with everyone. He wanted to kill them all. “Bansilalpet” He declared.
He walked slowly across the tombs and found his four covered in dust and leaves. A dog was sleeping on his grandson’s tomb. Two kids from the nearby slums were playing on his son.
He wanted to shout “Get lost you fools”.
The hardest thing for any father to do is to lower the body of his son into a freshly dug grave and then climb out of it. The priest chants something and declares that the grave is ready to be closed. Then they ask the father to take a fistful of mud and drop it on the face. Makarand Pandey had seen quite a few hardships in his 65 years of existence. Nothing came even close to what he had felt when he released the scoop of mud into the grave.
He ran away from there. Out of the cemetery. Into the concrete jungle. His brother was trying to catch him. They were all worried. They thought Pandey was making a dash to the nearby Hussain Sagar lake to jump into it.
He had no such ideas. He had no ideas at all. His mind was completely blank. He just couldn’t handle the finality of the situation. “Just release the mud. End of story. End of Nishaant Pandey in your life. You would never again see his face.” That was a bit too much for the old man to digest.
The cemetery was dirty. However, thanks to a slum that was housed inside the cemetery, the surroundings were relatively neat. The slum dwellers had a set of toilets constructed on the northern boundary. So there was no public defecation.
Thank God for the small mercies, he thought and looked at the bucket in his hand. “I will get you water”. One of the kids playing on the tomb jumped off. Before he could say yes or no, the bucket was in front of him full of water. The second kid looked at the old man, “Thatha, should I clean the tombs?”.
Pandey nodded. The kid whistled and in no time there were fifteen kids — all furiously cleaning the tombs. Within minutes, the tombs were as good as new. The dog had duly been dispatched to unknown territories.
Pandey smiled and took his purse out. “No cash. Chocolates?” one of the kids asked him. It made sense. Even if he gave them cash, they would just give it to their parents. He walked to the nearest grocery stores and bought a bunch of chocolates and cookies.
Then he started distributing them. By the time he was done, he had served at least a hundred kids. The undertaker appeared from nowhere suddenly. “Get the hell out of here. Don’t make the tombs dirty” he shouted and the children disappeared quickly.
“Don’t worry sir jee. Your family is my responsibility. I will ensure they rest in peace.” He said.
“See you next month sir” the undertaker said.
They are not there. That’s just some cement, concrete and granite. His family is not inside those tombs. They are not anywhere else too. They died. Plain and simple truth. They ceased to exist. They have not gone to a better place. They have not crossed to the other side. They simply are dead.
Makarand Pandey started walking towards his car. He was not a religious person. He did not believe in God. He wasn’t one of those who believed in a supreme force above everything but argued against giving that force a name or a personality. He wanted scientific proof for everything. If something could not be proved, it didn’t exist in his point of view.
It was crushing him though. Those who believed in God, had something to fall back on during crises such as this. They had the option of clinging onto the olive branch extended by God. Makarand Pandey had no such luck. He had to deal with the situation all by himself — all alone. No God or religion to his rescue.
For the first time in his life, he envied the believers. He wanted badly to go be able to go to a temple and pray for inner peace.
His brother was wailing — “Oh God, he was only three years old. Why would you take him out? What did he do to you?” The kid looked as if he were sleeping peacefully. The doctors managed to present him properly to the grieving family. No such luck for the other three though. They were badly mutilated and had to be completely wrapped in cloth. Pandey closed his eyes. He wanted to die that instant. No such luck though.
His sister was crying, “Remember the four pigeon babies that we had to get rid of from your bathroom. We kept them under a tree in the garden. All of them died. This is God’s way of extracting revenge.”
Pandey burst out laughing. “God takes revenge? What kind of God is he?”
There was a loud horn. Pandey came back to his senses. He was in the middle of the road. He could see a deer too trying to negotiate the traffic on the road. He apologized to the driver and hurriedly crossed to the other side. His car was parked there.
As he approached the car, he sensed something was weird. He turned around and saw the deer. It was on the other side of the road. He had never seen a deer astray on the roads inside the city. It was looking squarely at him.
And then he realized it was not just the deer, which was weird.
“Hi Dad” His son called, “Get in. Let us go for a drive”.
Makarand Pandey stopped dead in his tracks. He could see his son in the driver seat and his daughter-in-law in the navigator seat. Little Pandey was playing in the car seat. Makarand Pandey’s wife was seated next to the kid.
He knew this couldn’t be real. If it can’t be proved, it can’t be real. But he could see them in flesh and probably blood. They felt so real. He slowly walked to the car and got into the back seat. His son started the car and tried to wade through a big traffic jam. “Looks like a hit and run.” He said, “An old man. May his soul rest in peace.”
Makarand Pandey mumbled. “May his soul rest in peace. Let us go.” He looked back at the deer. It was happy just standing there and staring at him. “Thanks for the olive branch” he mouthed.
They drove into the sunset.