The Small Suitcase
If you reside in the New Gulistan Colony at the outskirts of Karachi and have visited the area graveyard to bury someone, you may have seen me. My name is Khuda Baksh and I am the head gravedigger. Actually, there are three gravediggers and two of these, including me, are head gravediggers while the third man is an assistant to both of us. Mind you, we are all kept quite busy because New Gulistan Colony is a poor area, consisting of rundown houses, shanties, and drug dens. Open drains, manholes without covers, and huge piles of garbage dot the area. Disease is rampant and the doctors are worst than the disease, so there is a steady supply of corpse to the graveyard.
In some ways, the graveyard is the only peaceful section of the colony. At one time drug addicts and homosexuals – may Allah’s curse be on them – were found lurking between the graves but the pious residents of the area delivered them a good thrashing and with the grace of God they moved away to an abandoned warehouse next to the largest garbage dump about a mile down the road.
The graveyard looks rather forbidding after sunset as there are no lights. The power supply was disconnected a long time ago as obviously the dead cannot pay bills. But all burials take place before sunset so it is not an issue. The grave yard is open from three sides, but a wall stands on the fourth side. Unfortunately, despite constant admonitions, passerby use the wall to relieve themselves. There is a huge painted sign on the wall that says, “Freshen Up with Seven Up!” I sometimes chuckle when I imagine the dead coming out of their graves and having a cold drink. As a little side business, I have allowed a flower petals seller to have a kiosk at one corner of the plot. He gives twenty five percent of the sale money to me.
My job comes with two perquisites: I get a small living quarter on the premises and a burial plot of my choice. I have chosen one that is located on a rise with a view of the rest of the graveyard. To ensure that the space is not given to anyone else, an empty grave has been put at my chosen spot and only my co-workers and my family know the location. To be on the safe side, I sometimes sprinkle a few flower petals on it to give it the appearance of a real grave with a body under it.
If you are thinking that I am going to tell you about my encounters with djinns and churails, and the dead rising from the grave to have a sip of cold drink or come asking me for a cup of chai in the middle of a night, then you are completely wrong. Mind you, I do believe that there a djinns as they are mentioned in the Holy Book, but I think that djinns must have better places to go than a burial site in a miserable area like the New Gulshan Colony.
In stories trouble always comes at night. For me, the trouble came not only at night but on a night when there was thunder and lightning and it was pouring down buckets of water. I was happily bundled in my warm bed with my wife snoring a few feet away. The four children were scattered around the floor like little bundles of rags. There was a knock on the door. I first thought it was just the wind but the second knock was more a punch. I got up quickly to avoid a situation where a violent kick to the door could follow. The door was very flimsy and I was afraid of the door coming off its rusty hinges and flattening my wife. I lit a candle and opened the door. A strong gust of wind blew out the candle, but nearly simultaneously there was a flash of lightening.
The person that the lightening revealed seemed as if he had come out of a fresh grave. I am not given to superstition but truth be told I thought for a moment that he was a walking dead. He was drenched in rain and covered in mud. He must have tripped over in darkness. He looked emaciated and his eyes were bloodshot. My first thought was that he was a drug addict who had wandered off to my shack looking for food or water. Strangely though, he was holding a small suitcase in his hand.
“Get lost, before I set the dogs after you!” It was a bluff as I do not have any dogs. I have hard enough time feeding my family to keep and feed dogs.
“I need a grave.” His voice was barely audible over the fury of wind and rain but it sent a chill through my spine. Was he a mad man or a murderer? So as not to upset him I decided to play along. “A very reasonable demand my friend, very reasonable indeed. We all have to die one day and so we all need to have a grave. Now tell me, where is the body that you need to bury?” By this time my wife had woken up by the noise and sensing that there was some trouble had positioned herself behind me with a stout bread roller in her hand poised for attack if the situation worsened.
“I want to bury this”, the man pointed to his suitcase. “I will pay you 10,000 Rupees for a grave to bury it.” I asked him what was in the suitcase. He looked at me, hesitated, and then whispered, “My past“.
He pulled out a wad of money from his pocket. It was a novel proposition but I had seen more bizarre things during my time as the head grave digger, like the burial of family of six killed by their father. My mind worked fast. The man was clearly mad. I can give him the grave reserved for me, I thought. I am a poor man and Rs. 10,000 was a neat sum of money. “OK. Come with me”. Grabbing the money from his fingers, I picked up my spade and he followed me to my grave. The rain had suddenly stopped and the moon had broken through the clouds. The grave was soft due to the rain and it was not difficult to dig it up. The man placed the suitcase inside with great care. He started sobbing as if he was burying a loved one rather than a silly little suitcase. I filled back the opening. Suddenly, the man stopped crying, turned, and left quickly like a departing apparition.
Overcome by curiosity about the contents of the suitcase, I quickly removed the soil and pulled it out. It was not locked. For a moment I was afraid I would find a small body or some body parts. After all, many mothers kill their bastard babies and dump the body in garbage dumps. My fears were unfounded. The suitcase contained some papers and pictures. I quickly closed the lid and put the suitcase back in the ground, covered it and then made a mound over it to return it to its original form. I made a mental note to spread some flower petals on it the next day to make it look authentic.
The bounty from the mad man came in handy for buying some new shoes for the children, a shalwar kameez for me and fake jewellery for my wife. With the money leftover, the family went for a picnic to the Seaview Beach where dune buggy and camel rides were taken and some chaat and roasted corn were devoured. Enjoying all this with my family, I must admit that I hoped there were more mad men in the world.
About a month later I was doing my usual round the premises hoping to find mourners visiting their loved ones graves so that I could extract some money from them with a promise to keep the graves in tip-top shape. I heard a great commotion near my future grave. There were sounds of swearing, crying and shouting. I rushed over to see a crowd of men. Some of them were viciously kicking a man who lay prone on the grave clawing at it with his knuckles. Some other men were cursing him and pelting him with stones. I shouted at the angry attackers to stop. It turned out that these men, along with a maulvi from the nearby mosque had just buried someone and were returning when they had come across this man digging my designated grave with his bare hands.
The beaten man was bleeding through his nose and his front teeth had dislodged due to a kick to the face. The maulvi, still seething from anger shouted, “Yeh shaitan ki aulad hay!” (He is son of the Satan). He said that the accused was trying to steal a corpse. I did not care much about the mad man but I was afraid that he may spill the beans on my allowing him the use of a grave to bury his suitcase in return for money. To establish that I was equally outraged at the desecration of the grave, I gave the prone man a solid kick, spat on him for a good effect and cursed his parents and ancestors. “Don’t worry Maulvi Sahib, I will hand over this haramzada to the police after giving him a solid beating”. As a proof of my intentions I delivered a few more kicks to the man. When the crowd dispersed I spat again in the face of the man and asked him what he thought he was up to in digging up the grave. “Why are you back? Next time they will kill you.” I shouted at him. “I want it back, I want it back, that is all that I have left.”, he sobbed.
He was having difficulty in breathing and was spitting blood. He got up with great difficulty and staggered towards the end of the graveyard. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks and started laughing hysterically. It was a wild, mad, reckless laugh. He was staring at the wall of the graveyard where the sign offered freshening up with 7 up. He looked up at me, laughing away, tears running out of his eyes. He doubled up with a maniacal mirth and shouted to me, “Can you get me a seven up?” Without waiting for a reply, still laughing, he stepped out on the road. A huge oil tanker appeared hurtling from the bend of the road but the man stood still, staring vacantly in space. The tanker hit him and hurled him back into the graveyard, close to where he had buried his suitcase.
I sent the assistant grave digger to the office of a benevolent trust for the poor. They sent a pickup and took away the battered body to be buried in a pauper’s grave near the main garbage dump.
Next day, two policemen appeared and questioned me about the dead man. Of course, I pretended I knew nothing about him or why was he tearing up the grave. They asked me to take them to the grave where he was found by the Maulvi and the mourners. “I am sure the bastard has hidden some arms or drugs. Dig it up”, ordered the older policeman. I brought my spade and dug it up. To my utter surprise, there was nothing there. I must have turned pale as one of the policemen asked me why I looked so shaken. I tried to appear casual and asked what they knew about the man. “Nothing, there were no identification on him. No money, no address. Good riddance, I say”.
To this day, I sometimes doubt that the man really appeared at my door. Maybe it was just a dream following a rather robust dinner of chicken biryani that night at the mosque. But my wife confirms what happened, and I know that I bought new shoes for my children and they still remember the picnic to the beach.