‘IT IS all bullshit, I tell you.’ Sasidharan had conviction dripping from his voice. He was a tall, sleek youth with unusually long hair. He had a very rational mind for an adolescent.
An adolescent. The word conjures up an image of the immature; of gawky awkwardness, and of confident incompetence. But that was what we were, most of us were seventeen years old, just starting our medical training.
Dotted around the extensive woodland that was our college, were the single-storied, asbestos-roofed buildings that passed for the various pre-clinical departments. A small lane led to the men’s hostel.
Three of us, more boys than men, were walking along this road. Rajesh was the one who told us the story. There was a ghost in that lane. It was seven in the evening, but there were no long shadows.
It was too dark to have shadows. Huge jnavel trees meeting overhead made it look as if we were passing through a colossal tunnel lined with leafy wallpapers. The half moon tried its best, but could sneak in a few meagre beams that were pathetically inadequate.
One fourth year student had committed suicide by hanging on one of the branches of a relatively small mango tree by our side. Rajesh pointed out the tree to us.
That was when Sasidharan had said the above sentence containing the emphatic ‘bullshit’ to express his opinion of what he thought of Rajesh’s story.
‘I am sorry for the profanity. It is pure nonsense, I should have said. We are medical students, after all.’ Sasidharan was a despicably decent chap.
‘You are a stuck-up asshole. A fucking pretentious jerk,’ said Rajesh.
‘I forgive you.’ Sasidharan had a saintly expression.
‘Thank god for that.’ Rajesh curled his lips in a sarcastic sneer.
‘Thank me. God, unfortunately, doesn’t exist,’ Sasidharan stated.
Rajesh was livid. He always had an artwork of chandan on his forehead. He went to the temple before any exam and had a platoon of gods adorning the wall of his hostel room.
‘Bloody non-believer,’ Rajesh muttered. ‘Why do you say that?’
Sasidharan brought on an elaborate patient expression to his face and proceeded:
‘A foul-mouthed amoral drunkard like you is a loyal believer in god. An upright, conscientious, steady teetotaller – that is me – is an atheist. Then why should god exist?’
I looked at Rajesh in amusement. He seemed stumped for the moment. But I could see that his wickedly naughty brain was whirring under the opaque skull. For now, though, he remained silent.
‘There are no ghosts, ghouls or an afterlife,’ Sasidharan reiterated. ‘And no miracles.’
Three of us walked silently along the path for some time. Then we turned to the hostel nestled in the middle of a forested nook. Sasidharan’s room was on the ground floor. That was where we usually congregated for a bout of combined study and discussions.
The room was a spare, small one. A human skull grinned from the sole table placed near the back window. Each of us had a set of human bones. We had to have it for the purposes of our study.
The macabre skull was accompanied by the femur – the thigh bone – on the table. A few marble-sized wrist bones lay on the bed. Scaphoid, lunate, capitate, hamate, pisiform.
‘Damn it, I can’t even remember the names,’ I thought. We had to learn the arrangement, muscle attachments, ligaments, and side identification of each bone.
‘You should keep these covered in the bag when we are not looking at them. They will channel the evil psychic energies of the universe into the room,’ Rajesh said. He looked dead serious.
‘What idiotic nonsense!’ Sasi exclaimed. I laughed. I couldn’t believe that Rajesh meant what he said. Every one of us had a set of bones. They could be ordered from suppliers, and usually arrived by courier from far off places like Calcutta.
‘You are saying that the ghosts of these people follow the bones around?’ I asked, more to irritate Rajesh than anything else.
‘No. But certain objects, like the remains of dead bodies, kindle the latent ghostly forces into action. Do you know that the body of Jayakrishnan, who committed suicide by hanging on that tree, was brought down and was kept for some time just outside the back window of this very room? George from the senior batch told me that.’
I looked nervously at the back window. It looked out into the back of the entire building. It was a narrow wasteland in direct line with the lane that led from the tree on which Jayakrishnan hung, eyes bulging and tongue protruding horribly.
Sasidharan’s room was in one corner of the hostel building, on the ground floor. I looked at the grinning skull on the table and felt a vague unease. Sasi just laughed with derision.
The next day we were walking along the same lane. The sun had set. Entering the gloomy road from the relatively well-lit library courtyard provided a contrast. Silvery splotches on the road showed us where the moon had managed to get through.
The reflected light provided a dull ambient illumination that transported one to a netherworld – a world of fear mixed with nonsense that is rapidly disappearing with the onslaught of rational science. I looked around nervously, plunged in thought.
I was somewhere in between Sasidharan and Rajesh regarding my views on spirituality. I was a strict doubter about organised religion. It claimed to have all the answers in black and white, while the world I could see was wreathed in shades of grey and spots of various colours.
An omnipotent god would have a much more complex mind than what theology imagined. And all creeds seemed to be putting words into god’s mouth while he looked on silently with exasperated amusement.
Or did he? Was he there at all? Could consciousness survive the physical destruction of the brain? What was consciousness anyway? I had read a lot of unnecessary popular science on such matters. The hard problem of awareness and continuity of the self –
My reverie was broken by my awareness that we were rapidly approaching the tree on which, according to Rajesh, the body of Jayakrishnan hung limply, the neck twisted at an impossible angle.
It was a large jnavel tree, but had many low-lying branches. The stretch was especially dark and thick with bushes. I was walking with my head lowered when Rajesh let out a scream.
There are many kinds of screams. This one was not very loud as far as screams go, but there was a wealth of feeling behind that yell. It was as if he was dying. Dead scared.
It rang out in the shadowy stillness with terrifying intensity. He was pointing at the tree, and I saw his scared eyes and teeth through his open mouth. My eyes followed his finger, and I could see it. The Body.
It was dangling, from a low branch. In the dim light, a solitary break in the canopy let in a single beam of moonlight that glanced the hanging apparition. I had a momentary glimpse of limply hanging limbs and a twisted neck.
Did I see the protruding eyes staring vacantly or did I imagine it? I don’t know. We didn’t stay for a closer look, believe me. All I remember is a jolt of electricity running up from the base of my spine and exploding in my skull in a panicky firework display.
Sasidharan and I were at the entrance of the hostel in two seconds. I don’t even remember running, but we sure must have. Rajesh was nowhere to be seen. Sasidharan and I looked at each other. His eyes were like cut kiwi fruits, bulging comically.
The hostel porch was deserted. Tomorrow was a holiday. The unruly crowds were out in town and the studious ones hard at work in the bowels of the building.
Sasidharan half ran into his room, and I followed him. The room was pitch dark. Sasi was fumbling for the light switch when suddenly, the skull on the table came to life.
I mean, it came on. Got lit, you know, in a ghostly blue light. In the impenetrable darkness of the room, it was shockingly visible; the empty socket cast a piercing stare.
The lipless visage of the exposed teeth grinned at us. Sasidharan screamed as we retreated from the room like exploding shrapnel, so fast that we were back in the hostel corridors, propelled by our primal fear.
A few of the students came out to investigate. Sasi was just pointing at the room with his mouth open. Enquiries filled the air.
‘Sasi saw a rat in the room,’ I explained. My heart was doing uncomfortable gymnastics inside, thudding as it contorted inside my chest cavity. My face had become passive now. I was a good actor.
They laughed in disgusting mirth as they put on the light and explored the room. I surreptitiously lifted the skull and turned it around. It had nothing suspicious about it.
Sasi stayed in my room that night. We did not talk much, and when I woke up in the morning, he was gone.
The incident would have changed my world-view if I hadn’t become so restless with curiosity that I decided to investigate. As soon as the morning brightened, I went back to the lane were we had seen the hanging image of Jayakrishnan.
It did not take much courage. The light of the day made it very non-threatening. In the bushes, there were two pillows, shirt and a pair of trousers scattered over thick scrubland.
‘I know you hung that scarecrow on the branch yesterday. But how did you manage the lighted skull?’ I asked Rajesh the next day. I was very casual. Caught unawares, he confessed, laughing horribly.
He had kept a bulb inside the hollow skull through the spinal hole. The wire was going out of the room through the window and he had a battery ready there. As soon as we ran into the room, he circled to the back of the building.
He could see us entering the room, and switched the contraption on. As we got out, he simply reached through the bars, removed the bulb, and kept the skull back. What a neat scheme. I felt a grudging admiration.
Sasidharan took leave and went to his house for a week. He came back with an amulet around his neck and charmed threads tied around his wrist.
He had been to see one of his uncles who was a famous astrologer and an authority on spiritual matters. He had the air of a man whose life had been transformed. Rajesh was aghast. He was now afraid that Sasi might learn of his prank and made me swear to silence.
Sasidharan was a man destined for greatness. He was a brilliant student and was active in religious discourse. The nearby temple authorities were delighted to get at least one medical student to be a part of its Vedanta study group.
I was told that his talks were inspired and dripping with rare insights. He went on to become student editor and we listened to him as he made a speech at the inauguration of the student’s union.
‘We study the human body and physiology through science. But that is not the only way to knowledge. One can have a sudden insight to ultimate truths. It is all in the mind. One should have self-realisation for this.’
Rajesh was sitting by my side in the audience.
‘My god, I have manufactured a monster!’ he exclaimed.
‘A self-realised monster.’ I grinned at him.(Jimmy Mathew)