He looked at himself.
His face looked calm, rested. His hair was still a bit ruffled, and that unruly strand was back on his forehead. Not that it mattered anyway. He wasn’t the athletic type, and a layer of flab had developed around his waist in the recent months. Still, he wasn’t that unattractive. However, it seemed like he had aged dramatically in the last two days. His whole body looked sickly pale, except the skin underneath his eyes, which had turned dark purple.
“What do you expect when you haven’t slept for two whole days?”, Ian called out from behind.
Antariksh was startled for a moment. He hadn’t noticed that he had company, but that was only half the reason. Ian could always peek into his mind, and this always freaked him out. He definitely needed to learn this trick.
“I don’t look too bad, do I?”, Antariksh queried.
“White doesn’t suit you.” Ian retorted.
“Do I have a choice?”
“Go kill yourself buddy!”
“It isn’t so funny, you know?”
“Ah, but for me it is. Now shut your trap, you are talking too loudly.”
“Does it matter?”
“You want to find out?”
“It’s useless talking to you. Heaven knows why I ran into you.”
“I know. You weren’t looking where you were going. If I’d been as careless as you were, you’d have walked right through me.”
“What will you take to stop talking? Shouldn’t you be a bit subdued, considering the situation?”
“It isn’t my funeral, so why should I be?”
“Fine, go to hell!”
Antariksh looked around. Everyone looked despondent. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen so many people in his house. His friends were there; even a few classmates who weren’t quite close to him. They bunched up together and conversed quietly in a corner of the room, and he wondered what they might be talking about.
His curiosity would have dragged him to the group, if he hadn’t noticed his sister when he did. Dressed in a white salwar, she looked pretty even with her swollen eyes leaking a drop every other minute. Watching his sister in this state sank his heart. He hadn’t talked properly with her ever since she had asked him to stay out of her life, and he wished that he could say something to her that would lessen her grief.
“There there Rini, be strong.”, her boyfriend Attrishu spoke, seeing a fresh wave of tears rolling down her cheeks, “I’m here with you.”
He placed his arm on her shoulder. She gave a slight nod, and tried to hold back the tears, that still flowed anyway. She rested her head on his arm and wept silently, her eyes fixed at the lifeless body on the floor.
Antariksh never liked him, but for the moment he had to put the differences aside and let Attrishu handle his disconsolate sister. He suddenly realised that he was right in the middle of the room, all alone, and went outside to find Ian.
“Well hello, who do we have here?” spoke Ian in a sarcastic tone as Antariksh joined him near the gate.
“Can you talk normally for just a while?”
“Umm, let’s see. I guess no. You see, I haven’t talked to many people in the last two years, and am sort of outta practice.”
“I need someone to talk to, and you aren’t being quite helpful.”
“I’m all ears, but I can’t help using my mouth as well.”
“Never mind, my mistake.”
“Yes, it pretty much was. Don’t pin your expectations on me boy. Try talking to the doormat.”
Antariksh stormed back into the house cursing under his breath, and almost ran into a couple of guests at the bottom of the stairs. He missed them by mere millimetres, swaying to his right to avoid the outstretched hand of one of them. The two men continued talking as if nothing happened.
He went up to his room. It was the only place in the house which provided him the solitude that he needed at the moment. He looked around the dimly-lit room. It was a very small room, and if he hadn’t been extremely particular about keeping his things in order, it would have been impossible for him to live here. The room was actually meant to be a storeroom, but since they never really had anything to store, he had moved in here when his sister Trinayani had started demanding a room of her own. And that was over four years back. It took him a while before he had managed to stuff all of his belongings into this tiny space, but somehow it had seemed more homely than his previous room once he had settled in. True, he could never have more than three people in the room without someone getting his foot stomped upon, but his friends weren’t the kind to mind the lack of space or comfort. Well, most of his friends. He was sure Ian would have a different opinion on this as well.
Ian. Could he be counted as a friend? He was more of an acquaintance. And the only thing that Antariksh had managed to get him to agree upon was that he was a very disagreeable person. That was exactly why he had found it difficult to believe when Ian had claimed that he used to be a comedian. Ian never seemed to be satisfied with anything. And his way of talking had an odd indifference that was unique. It was as if he just didn’t care about anything. This irritated Antariksh. He hadn’t been able to get a proper conversation with Ian ever since he had met him two days back, but still the two of them had stuck together like childhood buddies.
As the rays of the morning sun climbed up his bed and sprayed the light blue colour of the bedsheet upon the walls, he looked at the clock. Nine fifty. It was almost time. He felt a bit out-of-place at the moment. He wasn’t sure how he was supposed to react. He searched within himself, but he found no answers. Should he be crying at the moment, just like his sister? Or should he be battling the tears like his father? His father had soaked in the pain and hid it in a corner of his heart, and was trying to put up a brave face for the sake of his daughter.
For a moment, it seemed that the ground under him had given way, and when he came back to his senses, he found himself downstairs, right behind his father who was busy chanting the mantras after the priest.
“You’ll do better to stay in your senses, or you’ll be run over by a truck or something.” Ian spoke.
Ian was right beside him. Antariksh wanted to reply to the taunt, but thought otherwise. He remained silent and watched the proceedings quietly.
He hadn’t yet decided whether he wanted to go to the cremation ground. He had had a discussion about this with Ian early that morning, and quite expectedly, it hadn’t gone anywhere. But he had to decide now, because his father had already risen, and the people were getting themselves ready for the journey to the cremation ground. Well, he didn’t want to be all by himself in the house, and that left only one alternative.
He wasn’t sure if he was at all welcome in the procession, so he chose to trail behind everyone. Ian had disappeared somewhere, and he wasn’t quite sure whether to be glad or worried about it. He decided to think about it later, and moved slowly behind a couple of his not-so-close batchmates, who were talking to themselves in hushed tones. On any other day, Antariksh would have been curious to know what they were talking about, but today, he felt a strange detachment from these trivial things. Maybe the experience of death does that to some people, he thought. He simply wanted to find an excuse for his strange behaviour that was very much unlike him.
As the people reached the ground, he watched his father head to the office with some papers in his hand. He reappeared a few minutes later, accompanied by two grim looking officials, who then proceeded to check the body. After a few minutes, they left and the person in charge of the cremation process hauled the body over the pile of logs that had been already prepared. He then proceeded to cover the body with a few more logs. Antariksh didn’t want to see what came next, so he wandered away and stopped at a fair distance from the gathering, which had swelled up in the last few minutes. As he watched, a few more relatives arrived and joined the others without trying to catch anyone’s attention.
“I hate latecomers. If you’re so busy, don’t come at all.” came a familiar voice behind his back, and then added, “How’s it going pal?”
“It’s going fine, I guess.”, Antariksh said, still looking at the thick smoke emerging from the pyre. Deep inside, he was glad that Ian was back, but he didn’t know how long that was going to last.
“So, feel anything?”
“And you call me the insensitive one.”
“I feel a sense of loss, but that’s all. I’m not sad.”
“I still don’t know how significant it is, or how it is going to affect me.”
“You think it is only the body that is burning right now?”
“Technically, yes. But when are things so simple?”
“Look, when you die, that’s the end of you. But your life is not the only thing that comes to an end. Anyone who had anything to do with you had their lives impacted by you. Each of them had plans, hopes and desires in which you had a role, however small it may be. But now that you are dead, all those are useless. They have to reshape their lives without taking you into the equation. Look at all the people here, you know why they are here?”
“They wanted to say a final goodbye, isn’t it?”
“Yes of course, but there is more to that. As they watch the body burn and get reduced to nothing, they will realise that it is the end of any hope they had of getting the person back, and that they have lost everything related to that person. They can expect nothing more from someone who has ceased to exist. Their hopes are also gone.”
“Hmm…” Antariksh said, the impact of Ian’s words starting to take effect.
“So my dear boy, do you realise now how much you have lost?”
Antariksh knew what Ian meant. He looked to his left, and there was no one to be seen. He had forgotten yet again that he couldn’t see Ian, and knew that Ian couldn’t see him as well.
“Everything. I’ve lost myself…”
This is supposed to be the first chapter of a larger story that I intend to complete in the future, do let me know in the comments what you feel about it and in which direction the story should proceed from here on.
P.S.: In case you haven't already figured it out, both of them are ghosts.