It was a hot summer afternoon in the city, somewhere in the middle of the month of June. The menacing overhead sun, hot winds, smoke, dust, and grime from the vehicular traffic, and the cacophony of it all, told you that if hell existed, it would be something similar. As I walked in the midst of all this, I could physically feel all these elements on my body mixed with a steady supply of sweat as it wet my head under my baseball cap, my face, and my skin under my thin cotton T-shirt.
As I remember, I was walking towards the metro train station, near this historical Gate. This gate is one of the few remaining massive rubble-built gates which came up about 400 years ago as the entry point on the fortification wall of this old part of the city. Today the actual gate has passed into insignificance even though it has bestowed its name to establishments around it, such as the newly built metro station and decades-old interstate bus terminus.
The gate is in ruins today with a pockmarked facade, having faced many vagaries of time and cannon fire in the distant past. During that distant past, many lives were lost here in violent struggles, as invading army units tried to occupy the gate in order to enter the city in the face of its determined defenders. If those battles happened on a similarly hot day as today, I could imagine the physical pain, the discomfort, the fear, the disorientation, and the confusion, the soldiers would have gone through. Thankfully, at that point when these thoughts were running in my head, my struggle only entailed getting away from it all. And that is why I was walking rather briskly in an obvious hurry to get inside the air-conditioned environs of the metro train station.
I must have been a kilometer away from the metro station when my cell phone started making the familiar ringing sound. Someone was trying to get through to me. But there was no name flashing on the screen. A little weary of crank calls and in no mood or comfortable position to have a conversation at that point in time, I decided to press the silence button. But moments later the call came in again. Someone seemed pretty determined to reach me.
This time I pressed the green button and that was the start of a most extraordinary conversation.
To begin with, I was struck by the voice at the other end. The voice, which was of an old man, spoke in English and sounded very foreign with a distinct old Victorian British accent.
"I hope I am not bothering you, but I must speak to you on a matter of utmost importance to me and my friends," said the voice.
"Ok, I understand. But please tell me who am I talking to?" I asked.
"Oh, I beg your pardon. I should have introduced myself first. I am Albert William speaking. I hope I am speaking to Mr. Mamgain," said the voice. "And I gather, you are a journalist?" he added quickly.
"Yes, that is right. Tell me what can I do for you?"
There was a momentary silence on the other side.
"Hello, Sir! Are you still there? Tell me, what can I do for you?" I repeated, trying to use my most polite tone.
"Well, I certainly hope that you can do something for me and my lot. It has been quite a struggle getting through to you," spoke the voice which now had a name, Albert William.
Those days I was working for a newspaper as a city reporter covering the civic agency beat. The most prominent part of my job was to highlight the civic problems of the residential colonies in the city through my news articles so that the civic agencies responsible for these works could notice them and do the needful. Not because my writing was anything extraordinary, but purely because I was working for a big city newspaper, and the problems of the residents I highlighted through my articles usually got solved. I was used to individuals or more often, office bearers of Resident Welfare Associations, calling me about various problems their residential colony was facing and asking me to highlight those through my articles.
"Of course, I will do my best," I used my often-used reply.
Then I added, "May I know where you are calling from?"
The question seemed to cheer up the old man. I could feel him taking a couple of deep breaths and getting ready to speak. "I am calling from Nicholson Cemetery," said Albert.
That seemed quite strange. The cemetery Albert mentioned is named after British General John Nicholson, who was the leader of the British army in the fight against the native Indian sepoys during the battles of 1857. One of those pitched battles was fought in this area also, of which this historical gate was a witness. Nicholson perished in that battle. The cemetery where he is buried among other British soldiers to die in that battle is named after him. It is one of the earliest British cemeteries in Delhi and has been in use since. It is located across a busy main road to the north of the present-day metro station, named after the historical gate. The cemetery has an impressive-looking gate with a Victorian-era design.
"You live in the cemetery?" I asked, in a surprise-laden voice.
"Oh well, you could say that, but it would be more appropriate to say that I am buried here," said Albert. He added, "And it has been quite a while since I have been here. I cannot figure out for how many years. I guess it has been too long."
"That means you are a ghost calling on me," I said.
"That I must say is absolutely right," said Albert.
It seemed someone was trying a prank on me.
"Is this some kind of a joke? Who exactly is this?" I said, a bit miffed, but still in complete control of my emotions.
A thought passed through my head. The voice could belong to a friend of mine who had called me in the past posing once as a Nepali native security guard and another time, as a policeman from Haryana and I must say my friend did a convincing job of it. Both these characters have a very distinct way of speaking. But somehow the pure British accent of the voice that was coming through my cell phone seemed too genuine for even my talented mimic of a friend to conjure up.
"Mr. Mamgain, Do I still have your attention? If you doubt me then please be kind enough to step into the graveyard and check the 12th grave on your right-hand side. You will see my name engraved on it. We feared that you would doubt us and that's the reason we called you up when you were near the cemetery." Albert said with studied patience in his voice.
The voice this time met with silence from my side.
Albert cleared his throat and spoke again. This time he seemed to be deliberately speaking slowly and clearly. "If you want further proof just watch for the peanut seller standing next to the cemetery gate. One of my fellow resident souls will give him a jolt the moment you say- Do it."
I spotted the peanut seller with ease. A middle-aged thin man with a bored expression on his face.
I gave the suggestion proposed to me by Albert a quick thought.
"OK, Do it!" I said. ,
And to my horrible surprise, suddenly, the peanut seller shook so violently that the packet of peanuts in his hand flew up and he just about managed to arrest his fall. You, my dear reader, would easily be able to imagine the utter shock I felt at what I had just witnessed.
Suddenly, the realization of the impossibility of having a conversation with a Ghost ran a chilled shiver down my spine. My cell phone almost slipped through my sweaty fingers. "Is all this heat around me getting to me? Is this the sign of a heat stroke? Am I disoriented?" I tried to look around, tried to be more aware of my surroundings. Everything seemed normal to me. Though still feeling a bit confused, I found myself uttering a single and feeble Hello! on my cellphone.
I got a ready response from the other side.
"Yes, Mr. Mamgain. Are you now sufficiently convinced of the genuineness of my call? Or do you need any further proof?"
"No sir, I believe you. Please do not shake me or anything else.....I believe you," I managed to blurt out somehow. Then I added, rather hesitatingly, "But why me?"
"Well, the point is I am calling you on a very grave matter," said Albert.
"Yes, that seems obvious. But I am afraid I cannot be of much help to you," said I.
Albert continued to speak completely ignoring what I just said. Something told me that he knew that now he will get my utmost unflinching attention.
"Some days ago, we saw you admiring the gate of Nicholson Cemetery. We felt that you must be sympathetic to us." Before I could say that my interest was purely architectural, Albert added, "Well Mr. Mamgain, you have been highly recommended to us by a very nice soul."
"And who would that be?" I trembled as I asked.
"Do you know Mr. Edward John who lived, till recently, in the nearby Christian colony? Well, he joined us recently. He happened to have your number." My mind raced to one old chap Edward, who indeed lived in the Christian Colony and whom I had met a couple of times to write about the civic problems inflicting the colony he lived in. And the disturbing fact was that the old man had actually died pretty recently.
The conversation continued.
"I am the president of NGRWA," said Albert.
"And what is that?" I asked.
"It is Nicholson Graveyard Residents Welfare Association. Anyway, I have heard that you have been writing about the problems of the residents of this part of the city. We too are facing a lot of problems. The authorities have totally forsaken the graveyard. Many of the gravestones are missing, the names cannot be read as they are totally covered in centuries of dust and the graves need repairs. Whenever it rains a bit hard, the whole inside area of the cemetery gets waterlogged. Also, the trees that gave us shades have been cut down, there is no proper cleaning and very few people visit us. The worst part is, that we do not have a voice and so cannot protest. Ideally, we would like to have our cemetery declared a heritage site and given proper protection," said he.
Now I was warming up to the conversation. "I understand that there is no practical way through which you could get your complaints heard by the authorities concerned."
Then I added hesitatingly, "But If I may ask you, in the scenario where you are not being heard you can at least scare a few people in protest. I think you should be good at that.''
I heard a loud throaty laugh on the other side of the line. The laugh was followed by a bout of cough. Then Albert cleared his throat and spoke.
"What a capital idea. I must say Mr. Mamgain, I like your wits. But I must tell you, in all seriousness, that we have thought about this thing very seriously. And we acted on it too, but I am afraid the results were not very encouraging. Well, it is easier said than done. Scaring people is no longer a cakewalk. In fact, nowadays people are too busy to get scared. They are all the time rushing about in their cars and if one tries to scare them then he runs the risk of getting hurt," he said in a complaining tone.
"Surely you cannot get hurt. Being dead and all that," I pointed.
"No, I am not talking about physical pain. But you do get hurt emotionally when someone runs through you with his car or brushes you aside hurling the choicest of abuses," said Albert.
He added, "But we do manage to scare some people some of the time. But we found out that it is after all not much help."
"How does that happen? Can you explain?" I asked.
"Well, a couple of years ago" began Albert William "a determined sort of character amongst us took it on himself to scare the wits out of an area municipal official. And I must say he did a good job of it. But the municipal official was so stunned that his heart gave in. And soon enough he was among us. Now he also attends NGRWA's executive meetings and appreciates our problems, but now he also cannot do much."
I thought deeply about the whole thing and reached the conclusion that I needed to reassure the poor soul. So I began, in as reassuring a tone as I was capable of,
"Mr. Albert, please do not worry, I will visit the cemetery very soon with my photographer. And that is a promise. I will highlight the poor state of the Nicholson Cemetery the best way possible and we will carry the story with relevant pictures as well."
Albert went quiet after hearing this and then spoke again, "That is exceedingly kind of you my dear. But if you don't mind, I would like to put in one more request. And this is most pertinent for us."
"Yes, go ahead, tell me," I said.
"Please do not quote me or any of my fellow residents. You never know when one of the municipal officials gets really peeved and decides to dig up the grave of the person quoted in the story. You see our names are inscribed on them," said he.
"I do not think you have to worry about that aspect. I cannot imagine doing something like that."
At this Albert William thanked me and then bid me goodbye. And for heaven's mercies did not say the nowadays customary "See you". But when he last spoke to me, I could feel his voice welling up in emotions. By the time our conversation was coming to an end, I had managed to reach the cool and clean environs of the metro train station. I could hear him more clearly then and could catch his emotions much better.
After speaking to him, I felt a wave of sympathy rising within me for Albert William. Was I afraid? No! I do not think so. Did I feel it was all real and not some prank or the product of my heat stroke? Well, even though it defied all logic, the conversation felt very real to me. Then and there I decided to do a news feature on Nicholson Cemetery.
Following this conversation, I did a hard-hitting story on the poor state of the Nicholson Cemetery and the authorities' utter neglect of it. The cemetery's claim to being a heritage site was also underlined strongly. Having done the story to the best of my abilities, as promised to Albert, I proceeded to the nearest outlet of my cell phone service provider and applied for a change of number on an emergency basis. Thankfully, I got a new number in two hours.
Writer's Highway- As children, we grew up on stories. We heard them, played them in our heads and sometimes added our own words to them and made them our own. But with time we lost this ability to hear or tell stories. The world of stories, although fictitious, often whispers life's deepest and hidden truths to us. Now CitySpidey offers you a platform to rekindle the spirit of the imaginative writer in you. We invite all writers to pick up their pens and travel free through the highway of thought. We welcome original stories and poems that would be featured on our website. Please send them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Kindly keep 'Submission for Writer's Highway' as the subject of your email.