The 2nd of November. All Souls Day. That evening when I was strolling, I found a young lady sitting on the tomb of a grave in the cemetery.
I had asked hoarsely, “What are you doing here?”
The moment she turned, I realized that she was no more than a teenager, maybe. The drying remnants of the sun showed me that her eyes were red and sore from crying. I thought her expressive sad eyes must have been perfected enough by god to appeal to all humanity!
Then she answered in her low tone, “I am searching for peace in life or in death!”
I didn’t know what to say and the light of the lantern flickered and danced as our only hope in this dark cemetery.
She appeared to be a Muslim as her hijab was disheveled. Her once beautiful black hair was slowly drifting in the wind.
I sat beside her.
After a while I asked, “Where are you from?”
“Where is it?”
“Never heard of it! Is it near Baghdad?”
“Not Baghdad, but Damascus!”
“How did you manage to come this far?”
“I couldn’t take it anymore.”
“Well, what about your family?”
“My mom died in a bomb blast in Aleppo when I was fourteen. I never saw my father! I had a younger brother and a sister. When the rebels came and seized Aleppo, my sister was married to one of the rebels and I was auctioned off to the Arabs! I don’t know what happened to my brother. They sold me off to a Sheikh in Dubai, who presented me to his Tamil business partner, who brought me here. I fled when I found the chance. I know this man is afraid of ghosts. So, I am hiding in the cemetery!”
“Are you not afraid of ghosts?”
She answered, “I have seen people dying when the bombs split open their limbs! When my mom died, I mean when the bomb fell on her, she was returning from the market with some milk for my younger brother! The bomb fell, and her body was blown to bits so much so that one of her eyes splintered out of her skull and fell inside our house on the floor beside the cot where I was studying, and the second floor building came crashing down due to the impact of the bomb! Can I ever be afraid after what I went through?”
Big drops of tears were flowing from her eyes.
Then she asked with her quivering voice, “Who are you?”
I replied, “I am the custodian of this Cemetery.”
“Dying is easier for me than to die each moment I live! Are you a Christian?”
“Will you turn me in?”
“I don’t know! Don’t you hate me because I am a Muslim?”
I looked at her and replied, “Do you hate me if I am a Christian?”
She intensely looked at my eyes and replied, “I don’t know.”
“The ISIS rebels said it’s is the Americans who blew up my mom with their bombs, when they married off my sister! They had said the people who killed my mom were Christians. But it’s they who chained me up and auctioned me to the Arab Sheikh, who tortured me!”
“Do you believe them now?”
“I don’t know!”
“What’s your name?”
As the shroud of darkness enveloped the cemetery and the wind slowly started to howl, I thought, I should help her out.
I commanded, “Come with me!”
We walked past the Dutch tomb stones and headed towards my dilapidated den. I knew she would be safe there for the night.
We went inside and seeing the rooms in tatters made no difference to her. The thin red bricks of the outhouse which was now my residence gapped outside exposing the old plastered wall. The red cemented floor had turned grey. I had offered her some water to drink which she slowly began to drink. It soothed her nerves, I guess.
She slowly removed her Hijab, as I saw her beautiful face. She would be hardly nineteen or at most twenty.
She asked me, “Is it true that there are ghosts around here?”
I smiled and replied, “Well, there is a lot of history to this cemetery. Even if you find the ghosts, they are either speaking Dutch, Portuguese or English. They are not native Indians like me. This is a Protestant Dutch Cemetery. The cemetery is a small, square plot enclosed with high walls within which are the tombs. The tombs are either flat, dome and pyramid shaped as you can see! Occasionally they have been diversified by broken pillars, urns and sarcophagi, now all of them are more of less blackened by exposure of the sun, wind and the rain. The grass is wild here, and there you will find bushes of a beautiful orange flowered weed that infests these parts of the country! You will find one or two descendants of the British, Portuguese or Dutch who would descend here in search of the tomb of their ancestors! But you are safe here.”
She had asked, “What is your name?”
“Well, you can call me Mr. Hope!”
She asked, “What about your family, Mr. Hope?”
“Family! Well, I was born here, just like my father, who too was born here just like his father!”
She smiled at this joke.
I continued, “Well, I was married to Angela Lawson. She bore me a son and a daughter. My daughter Mary passed away at the age of two, due to diarrhoea. She would be of your age by now, I guess. I am not good with dates, you know! My son, Andrew, drowned while swimming in these backwaters here. He was nineteen then. Angela died of grief! I only thought my grief was unsurmountable! But your experience speaks volumes of your stamina, to face this devil called grief!”
Salma’s eyes had moistened up. She had kind eyes just like Angela, my wife.
As the wind howled, the tattered wooden remains of slats of the jalousie windows clattered in the wind. The flame of the old lantern flickered on.
Salma said, “It is getting cold in here!”
“It is always cold in here! Would you like some more coffee?”
“Yes, please! That’s really kind of you!”
“Kindness? Do you think there is kindness left in this world?”
She kept quiet for some time.
Then she replied, “Well then, what’s the way out?”
“I don’t know!”
The cold wind again howled and the wooden remains of the rickety door slam shut. The wooden slats of the jalousie windows squeaked and cried out with the wind. We could still see the lantern placed on the tomb stone where I had found Salma sitting though the remains of the door.
Salma asked, “Don’t these ghosts harm you!”
I smiled and replied, “Well, they are ghosts of chivalrous men, who were gentlemen who died fighting with swords and cannons. They are not the ones who fights with deception and cowardice, or drop bombs on innocent people. I belong to those people who fought own duels!”
Salma smiled at this.
Salma now picked up the TIME Magazine that was kept beside the tattered bed. It had the picture of a decorated army general. She looked at it intensely and then said, “Why do people go to war?”
“My dear Salma, it is often said it is one of the most difficult question. People go to war due to hatred and greed. There are war on grounds of religion, on grounds of nationalism. Well, nationalism pits men into hating men and killing them too. It is destroying the rationality of sanity and they end up killing other people whom they have never met. The same human blood is lost when there is war. Somewhere down the line, humanity loses out.”
“But why are people decorated for killing other humans! Look all nations decorate the most aggressive soldiers who they term as warriors!”
“Well, that’s the funny part of it. Some say if you want peace, then prepare for war! Mostly innocent people get nothing out of it. It is an economic burden for nations. Do you think the heads of states do not understand this? Some say it helps to eliminate evil. We commit an evil deed of war to kill an evil. You cannot eliminate an evil by using an evil means. Love can eliminate evil and hatred! Most people may not agree with this, because this is a very difficult proposition! Moreover there is no one point path to sure shot success since this issue is too complex!”
Salma replied, “You appear to be a die-hard romantic, even at this age!”
I smiled back wryly.
Suddenly Salma said, “Do you hear that?”
I said, “What?”
“Listen carefully!” replied Salma.
I smiled and then replied, “Don’t be afraid, Salma, I think they are rumbling in their graves, they usually do! They are otherwise harmless!”
Salma’s concerned face actually reflected her fear!
Then I heard a noise that seemed like metal hitting stone. I got up and said to Salma, “Wait, don’t go out of here! I think there are grave diggers searching for hidden treasure. I have to prevent them.” Then I rushed out with my heavy pistol.
The howling of wind had picked up and it had started to drizzle. I picked up the lantern and went towards the direction of the noise. I could see two men digging the grave. I howled like a wolf and charged towards them. I could feel the platoon of soldiers consisting of the Dutch, Portuguese and the British chasing them in unison. As if they had risen out of their graves to assist me. I ran as far as I could chase them till I reached the gate of the cemetery. They had left and ran away shouting “Ghost! Ghost!”
Then again I went back to inspect the spot. I found that they had vandalized the grave. They had dug up the grave and I found they had left behind the gold platted coffin. Beside the coffin, I found a small familiar looking box. I now realized what they were after. So I took the box and started for my den. The drizzle had picked up and I could feel the cold dampness reaching my bones. I was dead sure they would not return that night after the fright I must have had given them. I felt dead tired and felt I had not slept for so long.
I could see Salma’s white face peeping in fright from behind the door. I put down the lantern and placed the hefty pistol beside my rickety broken wooden door.
I smiled and replied, “Bloody grave diggers! Fled on confrontation crying ghost!”
I smiled and handed over the small box and said to her, “I think they were searching for this. I think you need it more than me.”
My cold wet shaking hand, had touched her extended hands. I could feel she too was shivering. I didn’t know if she was shivering with fright or cold. I assured her however saying, “Don’t worry as long as I am there. There is nothing to worry!”
I had a feeling that my task of protecting the graves had reached a point of culmination. I had handed Salma what she needed most.
She asked, “What do you think is in this!”
I smiled wryly and told her, “Well, I don’t think there will the treasures of seven kings! But hopefully enough to get you started!”
Her bewildered eyes said it all.
She then asked, “Can I open it, now?”
I said, “Keep it with you. Open it tomorrow at day break. By the way, you can sleep here in this bed!”
She asked, “And you?”
I had replied, “Well, I don’t sleep at night. I am the custodian, and you know after what happened tonight, I have to be extra cautious!”
That night I roamed aimlessly around the cemetery. Inspecting all the graves and throwing the dead flowers away from the tomb stones. It was almost day-break when I returned to my den and found Salma still sleeping soundly like a baby, yet she was clutching the small box to her breast like a baby clutches her doll. Then I tip-toed to the other room which was once my son Andrew’s room and slowly occupied the cot and feel asleep. The room had almost caved in however my rickety bone felt no pain. After all, I too had been searching for some peace so long.
The next morning, when Salma woke up, she didn’t find Mr. Hope in the outhouse. She was so hungry that she left the cemetery and went in search of some food. She did beg for some food and she got two bananas from the street vendor. She ate one and started to return towards the cemetery. She found that there was a crowd of people waiting outside the gates of the cemetery.
When she enquired, “What’s the matter?”
One of the guys replied, “One of the graves of Mrs. Angela Hope has been vandalized and desecrated! The authorities of the Southern Church of India who looks after the cemetery must be informed. The caretaker of the cemetery, Mr. Jim Davis found out this morning.”
Salma was a bit alarmed by this. Yet she asked, “Are the descendants’ of the Hope family somewhere here?”
The man laughed and replied, “You must be crazy. Angela Hope died long back in the eighteenth century. Her husband’s grave Captain Raymond Hope’s grave is just situated beside her grave. They were the only Anglo-Indian members who were buried here! You got to get crazy trying to trace any of them!”
Salma alarmed at this didn’t say anything more and walked to Ernakulum which was around six km from the Dutch cemetery of Fort Kochi. Tears were flowing down her eyes. She kept reminding herself to remain strong. Then she begged her way to Cochin. On reaching Cochin, she had opened the box. She found two small diamonds of the size of pigeon eggs and an old parchment. What was scribbled on the parchment was beyond her imagination. It was “Dear Angela, May these diamonds sparkle and add happiness to you, in life and in death. May you find peace!” Much to her amazement, the part of the name Angel was stuck off from the name Angela and instead Salma was scribbled over it. Salma sold one of the diamonds and started a new life in Cochin. She is now married to a Hindu tailor named Gunusekharan. She named her son as Hope. However, on the All Soul’s Day, she makes it a point to visit the Dutch Cemetery in Fort Kochi and leave a candle and a bouquet of flowers for the Hope Family. If someone asks her why she visits, she would answer, “Well, they were the ancestors of my long lost friend Mary Hope, from Syria.” She was now at peace with herself. No one has even heard of ghosts or paranormal activities from the Dutch Cemetery after that, which was once vandalized. Neither did they find the grave diggers!