Savouring crispy samosas from a local fast-food vendor, one monsoon evening, I caught glimpse of something unusual in the pile of old newspapers stacked in his cart. I snatched out that particular piece of article and gawked down at it till my throat ran dry. It was a picture of me playing marbles with Kadambh kaka on his narrow varandeh.
I folded the paper, put it in my pocket and left. Upon reaching my quarter, I scrutinized the article thoroughly to connect the dots. Apparantly, the picture was published back in 1991 in a local newspaper by an inspection committee who were at the time covering a survey about living condition of people in our densely packed chawl. It hit me right. I must have been five or six, enjoying the best days of my life, just a few months before my parents put me up for adoption.
Everyone said Kadambh kaka was a peculiar man with his habits but I had the best connection with him. He had always treated my like his own grandson, Vinay. Spending time with Kadambh kaka had always evoked a sense of individuality in me which set me apart from other children of my age. Whenever he was around, I saw strange things. I saw ghosts. My parents wanted to limit my rendezvous with him for this reason.
I remember my mother once smacking me badly when I told her I met Kaveri kaki (Kadambh kaka's late wife) in the terrace. She was furious over me bringing up deads every now and then, and was convinced that Kadambh kaka was getting me involved in his occult practices. True enough, he was the one to bring me all sort of auspicious threads and pandents and to say- "Niraj, my child, you're special." I never refused his gifts. I knew they were sacred and pious. We would often go to the woods together to collect sticks and occasionally bump into ghosts of recently deceased ones, usually the ones I knew when they were alive. Kadambh kaka had always said that my eyes could see beyond ordinary and there was nothing to fret about. His courage had made me grow fearless and I started enjoying our everyday adventures. I barely talked about such encounters with the supernatural things with my parents. My siblings treated me indifferently assuming that I was possessed. I wasn't. I was just different.
Almost thirty-five years later when I held the lifeless piece of paper, I made a silent wish to reverse time. How enriching it would have been, had Kadambh kaka stayed with me throughout my growing years! I could never forget the day my biological parents decided to send me off, either in dire need of money or to protect me from Kadambh kaka. Either way, it shook my world in a day. I was old enough to understand and revolt but they had made their mind to abandon me. Before I left, Kadambh kaka held me tight and said he would always stand by my side but I knew it wasn't going to happen. My new family lived miles away in the heart of the city in a well off spacious apartment where I grew up to be a rational adult. In the initial years, to help me ease my pain of departure and betrayal, Kaveri kaki visited me every now and then. She would sit beside my bed in the dark and watch me in silence untill I fell asleep. But in absense of Kadambh kaka, things like these creeped me out. Eventually, I stopped encountering supernatural entities and by the time I turned fifteen, I was just another ordinary teenager.
I looked at the picture again and thought of Vinay. He was nearly my age and we two bonded well. I thought of looking up for him in every social media platforms possible and I was lucky enough to get in touch with him so easily. We exchanged phone numbers and decided to hang out sometime. The conversation, though it was brief, filled me with a child-like joy. Vinay invited me over lunch on the occasion of his baby's first birthday the following Sunday. Excitedly, I purchased a small chain with a pendant for the infant and reached Vinay's place just in time. The tight congregation had left little space for us to introduce ourselves formally. Vinay had spotted me at the doorway and flung his arms across me.
Through the commotion, Vinay led me to a small study room where we sat and talked. He told me that Kadambh kaka had passed away shortly after Vinay's fifteenth birthday. I could visualise him on his deathbed calling my name atleast once. I sympathized with him but quickly changed the topic when I saw someone coming for Vinay. It was a guest wheeling the pram around with the baby looking for someone to look after the boy. I took in charge and held the baby boy with utmost care and compassion. His eyes were like Kadambh kaka's, coral brown. I was putting the chain around his neck when I saw someone peeping through an open window. It's a lady, most probably Vinay's wife. We didn't have an introduction yet and may be she didn't like her baby to be around strangers. I forced a smile. She didn't.
The hour was still bedlam when we set to have lunch. The hall was decorated with pictures and flowers. A crucial observation caught my eyes. There was a beautiful picture of Vinay with his wife (the lady I saw through the window) and another, a single photo of hers with a flower garland on. For a moment I could feel my head pounding in bafflement. I extended my hand to Vinay's shoulder and pointed my gaze to the picture. He lowered his head and replied under his lips, "she couldn't make it through the delivery." I tried to comfort him and myself at the same time; him because he had lost his wife in a tragedy and myself, because I had gained back my ability to see the dead. While the first one felt heavy, the latter felt heavier because I barely had the courage to live such a life without Kadambh kaka. How was it possible? I could pull off such extraordinary visions only when Kadambh kaka was around. Was he there? I turned my head towards the study room and caught the baby looking straight into my eyes with his mother standing next to him.