Lost In The Graveyard
written by: Asad Mian
It's Sunday morning and I'm lost in the graveyard, again.
Although I've been here several times now, over the past month or so, the disorderliness of graves confounds my ability to find the one I seek.
I'm ready to kick myself, again, for I am unable to adroitly navigate this graveyard. I mean how many graveyards does one get to recurrently visit in one's lifetime? Can't be several. Being too much of a male about figuring out directions on one's own, or perhaps just being stubborn, plain and simple, I refuse to ask the grave digger-cum-gardener for guidance.
"How many times will you have to come here before the track becomes as familiar to you as the lines on your palms?" I ask myself, somewhat rhetorically.
I backtrack to where the narrow excuse of a path splits; and this time I make a left turn, towards the boundary wall of the cemetery, in hopes of finding that grave.
I read several names, dates of birth, dates of death, and of course epitaphs, on tombstones, as I make my way around, and occasionally over, the graves. The text is trilingual - Arabic, Urdu and English - for the majority of tombstones. Some graves are enclosed in opulent immaculate niches with incongruent glistening Greco-Roman marble arches, likely indicating the wealth and social stature of the deceased; while others appear worn down, headstones weathered and indecipherable, almost orphan-like, perhaps forgotten by time and family.
As I itinerantly observe, a verse starts forming in my head. And it goes like this:
Graves of mothers, fathers, brothers,
Of sisters, aunts and uncles too
Tell stories of lives lived, loved, lost
The dead were mostly old when taken
Sans the new-born babes in those smallest graves…
I apologize if my primitive attempt at poetry has given you heartburn, but I bet you get a good sense of the graveyard's inhabitants per se.
As I pass by graves of strangers, their names, vital statistics (if given), and epitaphs (where present), create, strangely enough, a sense of kinship with all sleeping there eternally.
I feel less lost. Even when I come across tombstones with names like Mary, Martha, John…
Aren't those folks supposed to be in the Gora Qabristan (Christian cemetery)? Maybe they converted but retained their maiden (baptismal) names. Perhaps, like me, they are foreigners trespassing a foreign land.
Lost in the above thoughts, aimlessly I walk a bit further, and suddenly come across it.
Found it! My heart does a jig.
Coming across Dad's unmarked-as-yet grave is akin to finding an oasis in the proverbial desert.
Pattern recognition, I remind myself. In other words, I need to visually and mentally secure the area surrounding Dad's grave in my memory bank so I do not get lost next time.
I memorize the names of his neighbors. Facing northwards while standing at his foot end, on his left is a lady - a Begum per the inscription - and an army major on the other side; just beyond his head end is a child (going by the size of the grave), and that makes me happy for Dad; he liked small kids and vice versa. [As an aside: I realize, afterwards, that taking a photo of the graves surrounding Dad's would have been less taxing on my memory, although the decorum or ethics of photographing graves without informed consent from the living (next of kin) - or dead - is unclear to me.]
After committing Dad's neighborhood to memory, I liberally sprinkle the rose petals that I have brought along with me. I let several fall on the neighboring Begum's grave, given her proximity. It feels right to do so. I then light several sticks of Metro Millan agarbatti, that cloying locally manufactured incense. Kneeling by Dad's grave, I recite what I can recall of Surah-e-Fateha. On attempting specific duas (prayers), my mind draws a blank; so, I don't push it. I feel its ok not to pray in any organized fashion.
I notice how the rose petals on Dad's grave attract honey bees and small butterflies. That again makes me happy, because Dad loved nature. Perhaps he shall continue to commune with those critters, more than humans...
I wonder what Dad's and his new neighbors' hereafter is like? Do they emerge from their graves after hours and chat about the follies and foibles of the living world - the temporary abode? What else do they chat about? Geo-politics or religion? Cricket? Perhaps they discuss and debate the ethics of doctors sending friend requests to patients on Facebook. Maybe they stroll around the cemetery. Are they eternally happy and thankful now? If not, then whom do they complain to?
I am fascinated by and utterly curious about afterlife. Not surprisingly, this realization occurs in a graveyard, of all places - death and life are, after all, ultimately entwined.
Karachi's weather has finally turned. A gentle breeze from the east and soulful cooing of the koels in the banyan trees that abound, creates a rather pleasant ambience. There's peace within and without. And in that moment, I realize I am not at all lost in the graveyard.