Winter 2007 Volume One Issue One
Association of the Dead - by Jean Graham
Pati Sarwar had always known it. One day, all of this tedious paperwork would be the death of him.
He came late to the funeral, his red cloth-bound record book in hand, and seated himself quietly in the back of the room, prepared to do his duty as a lekhpal of Khalilabad and make the required legal note of the proceedings. Prashad Bihari's service appeared to be progressing nicely. His friend Nabi was just completing a most fitting eulogy. His wife sobbed fittingly throughout. And Prashad himself, teary-eyed with appreciation for the praise being heaped upon him, stood near the mounds of fragrant flowers piled upon the altar, smiling upon the rows of dutiful mourners who had come to pay their respects at the commemoration of his death.
Pati did not fail to notice that amongst those mourners was the editor of Khalilibad's only newspaper, scratching copious notes in a little booklet as the eulogies continued. That would be trouble. Tomorrow, the citizens would see yet another story in the paper condemning the lekhpal and the bureaucracy they served for refusing to hear the petitions of the legally dead. Pati's office would be buried in complaints, telephone calls, and of course, more paperwork.
"Did you enjoy my funeral?"
Pati started, looking up to find that the service had ended, the mourners had all filed out and the deceased now sat beside him on the parlor's splintered wooden bench. "Mm," he said noncommitally, and finished initialing the funeral notation in his book.
Prashad then made a show of pumping his hand, making certain, Pati noted, that the fifty-rupee note (it was always a fifty-rupee note) he had concealed in his palm was duly transferred from one hand to the other.
"Very impressive." Pati slipped one hand surreptitiously into the pocket of his baggy lengas. It emerged, unburdened, to turn several pages of the record book. "I suppose it will be rather facetiously stated in tomorrow's newspaper that Prashad Ansar Bihari has attended his own memorial service?"
"Oh, most assuredly." Prashad brushed a speck of lint from the sleeve of his ashen gray business suit. "Something of an embarrassment for the lekhpal, I'm afraid."
Pati shrugged and flipped two more pages. "A minor inconvenience," he said. In truth it would constitute an unmitigated nuisance, but he refused to admit that just yet.
With an exaggerated glance around the flower-laden parlor, Prashad tucked a second fifty-rupee note directly into Pati's already-well-lined pocket. "Perhaps," he entreated, "if you were to consider declaring me no-longer-dead, then the inconvenience would become a bit less inconvenient. There might, for example, be no newspaper story after all."
"Yes, yes," Pati muttered, though it did not mean he would acquiesce to the demand. "But what is your hurry? You have, after all, been dead for seventeen years and seven months! The declaration was legally submitted, signed, processed and filed--my office possesses a copy--by one Ahmed Mishra Khan of Madhnapar."
"My brother-in-law," Prashad informed him, not for the first time. "A greedy old viper who stole my land for his own and paid the lekhpal of Madhnapar twelve hundred rupees to declare me one of the mritak, legally dead."
"A blessing, surely." Pati clucked his tongue, appalled at the man's blatantly unappreciative attitude. "Do you not realize that for half that princely sum, he might have hired a killer to be rid of you in the flesh as well as on paper?"
"Of course," Prashad said. "Our dear Ahmed is a merciful greedy old viper. But in the five years since you became a lekhpal, have I not paid you a far more princely sum to remove me from the ranks of the mritak?"
"Three thousand, two hundred and forty-five rupees," Pati replied without even consulting his book. "But as you know, I am still checking into the matter of your legal resuscitation. There is a great deal of paperwork involved. These things take time."
"And a great deal of money," Prashad complained with a sigh. Pati followed his gaze to the funerary altar, where burning incense surrounded his framed color photograph with tendrils of fragrant, curling white smoke.
"There is another matter..." Pati turned one more page in his record book and stabbed his finger at a paragraph among last week's notations. "What is this application your wife has filed for the collection of widow's benefits?"
"Ah, yes," Prashad said innocently. "Is there a problem? Did she fail to pay you the appropriate fee?"
"No, of course not." Pati waved a dismissive hand. "But it is surely submitted in error? Your wife is not a widow."
"But she is. Didn't you just say yourself that I have been dead for seventeen years and seven months?"
Pati smirked. "Amusing, Prashad. Most amusing. But ineffectual. The request for pension will be denied, naturally."
"Ah. Well then, my wife can expect the return of her application fee?"
The lekhpal forced himself to smile. "Perhaps. If she files the proper forms to petition for refund."
"For which, of course, there is a fee."
They sat in silence for several moments, during which Pati's pages crinkled furiously with his turning. There were other matters for which he must bring Prashad to task.
"Now see here," he said at length. "You have caused my office no end of trouble these many years, as well you know. Thirteen arrests. All charges dismissed. Detainee legally dead. Eight attempts to run for public office. Disqualified. Candidate legally dead. Twenty-one lawsuits filed. All thrown out of court. Plaintiff legally dead. What do you hope to prove with these antics?"
Prashad merely smiled at him and offered no response.
"And now this." Pati turned another page. "Six weeks ago you successfully filed for certification making this Association of the Dead a legally embodied organization. After which, all eighty-two of its local members have petitioned my office to be declared un-dead, and to have their surnames collectively appended with Mritak until such time as they are back among the living."
"Yes," was all Prashad had to say.
"Have you any idea how long eighty-two name change petitions will take to process?"
Prashad merely shrugged. "We of the spuriously dead wish to affirm our unity. What better way to accomplish that than to make Mritak our family name?"
"Vexatious," Pati breathed, and snapped his book shut in frustration. "Extremely vexatious. With one breath, you plead for the monumental favor of declaring you un-dead, and with the next, you damn me to weeks--no, months--of tedious, unnecessary labor. This is no way to do business, Prashad Bihari. No way at all."
"Perhaps. But I will never give up, Pati. Even if I must rise from off my funeral pyre to do it, I swear to you that I will have justice for the mritak."
"I fear," Pati sighed, "that it is I who shall meet an early end--worked to death by your unending petitions!"
"You have my sympathies," Prashad said quite insincerely. "Perhaps you should get out more. Why don't you attend our meeting this evening? In the back room of Nabi's bakery in Rama Street. I'm sure you would find the matters up for discussion of the utmost interest."
"Prashad, Prashad." Tucking his record book beneath the folds of his lungi, Pati rose from the bench. "When will you cease to plague me?"
"When I am declared no longer dead," was the immediate reply, "or until you cease to take my money and force me to consult yet another lekhpal."
Pati shook his head, but made a point of keeping one hand pressed firmly over the pocket containing Prashad's rupees. "Vexatious," he repeated. "Egregiously vexatious."
"Good day, Lekhpal Sarwar," said Prashad, rising as well. "Thank you for so graciously attending my funeral."
"Grace had nothing to do with it," Pati grumbled on his way to the door. "Funerals must be made a matter of public record, the same as marriages and births and divorces and..."
"...and reversals of spurious death?" Prashad interrupted hopefully, but Pati continued out the door, still shaking his head, and did not answer.
Not long before sunset, it occurred to Pati Sarwar that he ought perhaps to accept Prashad's invitation after all. If he were to meet the members of this Association of the Dead, he might be able to impress upon them the enormity of the task they had set for him. Dared he hope that they might actually listen to reason and withdraw all one hundred sixty-four of their petitions?
It would be, he decided, worth a trip to the bakery in Rama Street in order to find out.
The forty minute walk wound him through crowded streets that teemed with Khalilibad's homebound work force. Bicycles, smoke-belching buses and automobiles, and scurrying pedestrians all threatened to run him over at every turn. Pati persevered, clinging tightly to the record book that rested once again beneath his lungi.
He had only just turned onto Rama Street when he heard the shattering report of gunshots. No bus backfiring, that. Six loud explosions in rapid succession: unmistakably gunfire.
Pati was caught up in the press of bodies suddenly rushing east toward a figure that lay sprawled face down on the pavement. The man's gray suit coat was already stained crimson with his blood. Pati stared. Hadn't he seen that very same suit earlier today, at the mock funeral? It had been worn by...
A number of the helpful bystanders had now turned the dead man--and dead he most assuredly was--face up, confirming that it was indeed Prashad.
Pati glanced nervously up and down the crowded street, but not unexpectedly, he saw no sign of the assassin. Far too easy to vanish into the masses here on the streets. For that matter, the killer and that man jostling his elbow at this very moment might easily be one and the same.
"I told you, didn't I?" Pati said as though the corpse could hear him. "I told you your relatives had been generous in merely declaring you dead when they might have hired an assassin for half the sum? Well, it would seem that someone has now corrected that small financial oversight. You should have listened to me, Prashad. You should have listened!"
He waited in the press of onlookers until the police, the now genuinely distraught widow (who was now genuinely a widow), and finally the undertaker had all arrived to perform their duties. Now, Pati thought grimly, he would have to record Prashad's death and his funeral both in the record book for a second time. How typical of Prashad, so faithfully true to his word, to remain troublesome for the lekhpal, even after his death!
Not an hour after the six shots had disrupted Rama Street's normal evening commotion, Prashad Bihari's mortal remains had been borne away, the onlookers had dispersed to go on about their affairs, and the last police car had departed. Only a gruesome pool of blood remained, puddled on the concrete to testify that anything had happened here at all, and that was even now being washed away by the industrious efforts of a melon vendor whose cart stood nearby.
Blood stains were bad for business.
Pati supposed he ought to start the long hike home again, but some unexplained compulsion turned his feet in the opposite direction instead, and took him to the door of Nabi's bakery, where Prashad's meeting had been scheduled to take place. For reasons he could not have fathomed, Pati went on inside and made his way to the back room, where Prashad had said the Association of the Dead would gather.
And he found them there. Dozens of the same men he had earlier seen at the bogus funeral service, seated before an empty podium, their heads bowed in mourning for the brother who was now truly gone from them.
Would they go on, Pati wondered, with this bizarre organization of theirs and with their name change and un-dead petitions, in spite of Prashad's loss? Would they be at all inclined to learn from this tragedy and listen to reason, should he endeavor to address them?
Somehow, Pati doubted it. Much as he yearned to try, he sensed that now was not the time. So he took a seat once again in the back of the room and sat in silence for a time, to pay his respects--in earnest this time--to Prashad's memory.
It was the least he could do.
Forty minutes had ticked past on Nabi's ancient wall clock when a back door scraped open and shut, and footsteps mounted the platform down front.
"Good evening," said a voice.
Heads came up all over the room, followed by gasps of amazement, Pati's among them.
Prashad Bihari stood at the podium, draped in the undertaker's long white dhoti, his face deathly pale behind the dark sable brown of his beard.
"I hereby call this meeting of the Association of the Dead to order," the dead man proclaimed, and looking directly at Pati, he smiled with a full set of gleaming white teeth. "And we are delighted to welcome Lekhpal Pati Sarwar into our midst. I do hope you have brought your little red book, Pati. We have a number of legal petitions we wish to discuss with you."
To a man, every member of the Association shouted his agreement and then promptly rushed to the podium to examine their miraculously returned leader at close range, all of them chattering at once.
Pati leaned back against the wall and vented a long, shuddering sigh. Eighty-two petitions for reversal of death status. Eighty-two applications for name change. And now...
How on earth was he supposed to amend Prashad Bihari's status now? Spuriously dead, then actually dead, now genuinely undead?
Pati despaired to think of the time it would take.
It was as he had always known. One day, all of this tedious paperwork would be the death of him.