I.S. Belissop was not surprised when the body of her husband, N., finally surfaced at the construction site. Whoever buried him had not accounted for the cheap cement, which dried unevenly, yielding a thin crack in the ground-floor living room on a small plot of land in the D-Block of The Castle, then still under construction. He had been missing for three weeks, which, even for him, was a rather long spell. If anything surprised her when she saw his body, partially decomposed in the wet monsoon soil, it was the fact that her most immediate feeling was one of relief without a trace of sorrow. She had expected the relief, of course, but she was surprised at the utter absence of remorse.
Her fellow construction workers were unnerved by her composure at the sight of the body’s unearthing. “It’s ok, you can cry if you want to,” R. said, as he straightened up from digging to tighten the handkerchief around his nose, seeking vainly to quell the stench now filling the room like some viscous substance.
“As a woman should!” shouted A., realizing immediately that the words came out louder than he intended and echoed in the empty room. He had grown up with N. in Kalepura, a farming village an overnight bus-ride away, that now seemed like an idyllic and irretrievable world. They had travelled from city to city as far away as the desert in the Northwest, day-laborers ferried in the open backs of trucks from one construction site to the next. As they had slowly grown apart over the years–N.’s bitterness with the world poisoning everything around him–their wives (I.S. and I.) had grown closer.
I.S. had lain awake the first night he went missing, pretending to sleep, her eyes pressed shut as her ears strained through the drumming of the rain on the tin roof. Relentless sheets of rain had soaked the site for over a week. Droplets now seeped through, occasionally clustering into gobs that struck the bucket at her feet like a gong. When the water rose high enough to splash onto her, she would know it was time to empty the bucket again. She dreaded opening the door after dark, especially on nights when she was alone. An already slight woman, I.S. drew herself into a tight curl, looking for warmth and security somewhere within the darkness.
That security would never come from N. Indeed, it would be in spite of him. Each day her bruises - psychic or seen - itched at the moment of N.’s expected arrival. Thus his returning was more terrifying than his not doing so, which simply meant that he would be spending another night at the brothel, or, more likely, passed out in front of the liquor store, face down in the mud. Either way a week’s wages would be washed away by dawn, but I.S., herself, would be safe. She had thought through her options in great detail for more than a month now and had decided that this would be her last night of terror. She had smuggled home a hammer from the site, wrapped in her sweat-soaked towel, and clutched it now to her chest. She was prepared to explode the moment the door opened.
But that night the door didn’t open, and here she was, three weeks later, puzzled by his corpse, buried by someone else in a yawning hole.
R. and A. could be forgiven for not understanding her. They figured she would have only stayed with such a man if she had loved him blindly and deeply, and if that were true, she should be crying now. She was not, after all, the type one would expect to put up with the extremes of abuse and indifference that N. manifested daily. It would not quite be correct to say she was fearless or outspoken, but despite her stoic demeanor she seemed never willing to withstand even the slightest injustice.
The company had once said, for example, that workers would be paid by the number of wheelbarrows of material they moved from stockpile to construction site. Since the average woman carried less than the average man, it was clear that the measure would slash their salaries. Most of the women lamented but I.S. was impassive. It was that lack of emotion that made everyone suspect her as the culprit when, that very evening, all the wheels of the wheelbarrows went missing. The workers were made to search the entire site but to no avail. The Foreman had no choice but to reverse the measure, and, magically, the wheels were back the next day.
No one else at the company took notice, however, when the Foreman pulled N. aside the next morning to berate him: “Get that bitch of yours on a leash, or I will… !” But N. punched him square in the jaw before he could finish his sentence. He would not tolerate anyone else abusing his wife.
It would be unfair to say that the minute he punched the Foreman, N. also punched out his final timecard on this earth. There was no guarantee that the Foreman, or his henchmen, would bother to take revenge on a lowly worker like N., but from that moment everyone knew one simple fact: if N. went missing, it wouldn’t be a question of who did it, but only when.
The Foreman was more a torturer than a murderer, however. So first he assigned N. to unclog sewers throughout The Castle during the monsoons. The rains trapped leaves, bottles, plastic bags, peels, rat carcasses and the sodden detritus of the never-ending development in drainhole gratings, quickly making puddles the size of small lakes. N. wandered wet and alone all day, waist-deep in water. He would come home eager to vent his pent up humiliation on the one person still under his authority, only to be driven into a maddening rage by her lack of emotion. I.S. would go stiff, shuddering under his blows as she focused her eyes intently somewhere behind him, waiting for the episode to pass. She wasn’t playing possum, but rather withdrawing into an interiority which, unlike the world she lived in, was under her control. She kept memories, places and people in a carefully constructed architecture in this hidden space that she could visit at any time. A kind of sprawling maze, not unlike the one she had been building with her hands for the last decade. “In your castle again?” her superego would sometimes joke, snapping I.S. out of her reverie.
A crowd gathered around the hole as the Contractor’s Ambassador arrived kicking up a cloud of red dust. A young man in a crisp white uniform, a boy really, hurried out of the car to open the doors. The Contractor, a short, rotund man stepped briskly out of the car and waited for his college friend the Commissioner, who was just pulling up in his state-issued Range Rover. He was dressed in the standard police uniform - khaki all the way, and a hardened face obscured by a bristling moustache and a pair of aviator sunglasses, the latter always impossibly and cinematically placed to catch the sun. Immediately upon exiting the car, the Contractor held a white handkerchief to his nose, but the only sign the Commissioner showed of acknowledging the putrid stench was a stiff-jawed grimace—although that may have simply been his expression. Though larger than both men, the Foreman was somehow dwarfed by their presence. He followed with red eyes and sweat on his brow, stammering “He, uh, must have fallen in…”
Fallen, like the dark angel, into a hole dug just for you, I.S. thought to herself.
The Commissioner slowly paced around the pit, circumambulating it twice, then, deep in thought, stopped near N’s rotting face and tapped his perfectly polished shoe on the concrete floor. “What a mess — ,” then, taking a shallow breath tapped his watch and walked back towards the car. “I’m late, but I’ll send some people,” he said, patting the Contractor’s shoulder. “They’ll take care of the report."
“Thank you, Mr. Commissioner.” He handed him a thick stack of folder paper. The unnecessarily large vehicle rolled away.
After a brief pause the Contractor lifted his gaze from the hole. “All of you, get back to work!” he boomed, dismissing the crowd.
I. was kind enough to make the arrangements and the Contractor provided a tempo–an insect-like three wheeler–onto which the body was loaded. A. sat in the back with the body while I.S. and I. squeezed themselves into the front seat next to the driver. The Castle was an hour from the edge of the city. A highway had been built to service this suburb but the plan kept expanding and, with it, the date of completion. A black line, the road bisected farms and scrubland, now a saturated green against the wet, red clay stretching to the hazy horizon. The cramped quarters of The Castle’s worker homes felt distant and I.S. breathed in the cool air that rushed into the tiny cabin of the tempo mixing with whiffs of I.’s hair oil. I.S. pressed close to I. as the truck rumbled down the highway. Houses and tea shops slowly began to punctuate the otherwise empty landscape until they consumed it. A. found some cause for concern in their closeness, as would the brother of two sisters, or father of two daughters, or any man who feared women.
The unpainted grey of their concrete and metal home had made their eyes unused to the intensity and arbitrariness of color that characterized the city’s architecture. Like its denizens, this city seemed built by a million architects, each with their own blueprints, which only accidentally overlapped. Houses bowed into the road and butted up against each other. Buildings seemed complete except for the rebar protruding from their roofs as if ready to grow skyward at a moment’s notice. Apartments sat atop shops, which spilled into the sidewalk and street teeming with people on every imaginable mode of conveyance — walking, cycling and driving without concern for lanes or signals or street names.
And the temporality of the city, too, was layered and knotted. Ancient temples bore signs of garishly fresh paint, and buildings no older than a decade, run down by dust and exhaustion, looked like ancient ruins. Traffic passed on either side of trees that had remained despite the expansion of the streets. More than one builder had placed holes in their homes, allowing preexisting coconut trees to pass through. The sound of traffic, horns and construction filled the air with a cacophony that the denizens seemed oblivious to. I.S. and I. were overwhelmed and drew closer together, feeling suddenly insignificant in their odd little vehicle with a corpse in its trailer, and a corpse-like husband to boot.
Like The Castle, the city also expanded parasitically, swallowing up its surroundings. The city planners had tried to contend with this expansion and the concomitant traffic by laying a circular road around the edge. But by the time they had finished laying one ring road, the city had already expanded far beyond its boundary, necessitating another. Like the cross-section of a tree, the city kept adding rings as it grew. It was only a matter of time before the expanding circular boundary of the city and the rectangular Castle expanding into plots of land around it would meet and merge. And as when two radio signals collide in their concentric expansion, static and disarray was bound to ensue.
As shadows stretched into the evening, A. gestured toward a massive windowless building, pinkish-beige in color with grey chimneys rising five storeys high and issuing light grey clouds of smoke. “We’re here” he said. “That’s the crematorium.”
The trailer creaked as A. jumped out and ran ahead of the tempo to the Guard at the gate. The Guard looked bemused as A. approached, haggard as the latter was from the drive. “We’re here to have our friend, and her husband, er, former, husband” - he pointed to I.S. - “cremated.”
“No problem,” the Guard replied. “We just need the permits.”
“Yes, because of new city ordinances regarding smog, you must obtain a permit for all fires.”
The Guard laughed harshly. “You’re not saying you’ve made any fires in the past six months, not even just a little one to cook or stay warm, without a permit, are you?”
“Because if you are your problems for today have only just begun.”
A. laughed. This can’t be the case, he thought. This man must be pulling my leg. How could I not have heard of such an ordinance? And how could there even be such a thing, in a city with such cold nights, where half the population requires small fires to cook and stay warm…
“I’m not saying anything at all, really. I just want to have my friend cremated, as he should be according to what is said and has been said for thousands of years.”
“Had been said,” the Guard corrected him. “Or perhaps you have not heard of the radical new exegesis by the great scholar Q?”
At the mention of Q, I.S., who had otherwise yawned and simply waited for A. to ask her for the permit, which of course she had, began to listen more intently. She had heard once before of the new revelations in the scriptures being unfolded by the Learned Scholar Q, but only in passing on the street, and it was only a sliver of dialogue, someone saying - “Well now that Q has questioned the transcription all of the holy rites are in doubt…” - and then the young cosmopolitan man from the city had kept riding along on his bicycle.
“Are you saying,” she heard A. now respond, nearly in tears from the abuse and confusion, “That we should not be cremating N. here?”
The Guard laughed again. “When did you ever hear me say anything like that? I am only saying that if you want to do so, you need a permit, and that you may not want to do so, if you have read Q well and wisely.”
“What does this Q say about cremating?”
“Q says nothing. Q interprets.”
“Well then what does he interpret?”
“The scriptures of course.”
“I mean what does he interpret the scriptures as saying?”
“Only what they do say.”
“Bloody hell! Which is what?”
“‘The soul and the body are like the pages of a book.’”
“And what the hell does that have to do with anything?”
“Well certainly you wouldn’t burn a book -”
“No, but -”
“Well, then, why would you burn a soul and body?”
“Because they are only like a book.”
“How, then, do you understand what it means to be like something?”
At this A. paused, not so much because he could not as that he would not answer this absurdly and unseemly philosophical Guard. Here I.S. stepped in.
“Sir, here are the papers you request.”
A. was too dumbfounded by the whole sequence of events to be angry with I.S. for withholding for so long. And he was equally too stunned to notice that I. was in the car trying as hard as she could to constrain her laughter at him.
“The permit is dated May 1st. That’s one month ago.” The guard curiously eyed I.S., who responded with a blank stare.
“Those buffoons at the registrar's office never get anything right,” he finally said, approving the permit with a thud of his rubber stamp. “All seems in order, you may enter now. This key will open the vault to your cremation station.” His voice turning ominous he continued, “But know this, the halls of the crematorium are vast and dangerous, and you will need a guide to ensure you arrive at the correct station. You can only use the key once, and if you do not use it in the correct hole, you will need to pay a fee to replace the damage done to the other station.” He eyed them over. “I do not think you could afford the fee. It is exorbitant.”
“Well that shouldn’t be too hard,” A. said, “There’s a number on the key. Don’t we just match that?”
“Yes, but the heat of the ovens often melts the numbers on the door.”
There was a bit of an awkward pause. The sun was beginning to set and I.S. thought about how majestically it sliced through the smoke coming off the towers. A small lizard crawled near her foot, lapped out its tongue at a passing fly, and moved on. I.S. could not tell whether it had caught the fly or not.
“What are we to do, then?” A. finally asked.
“Might I recommend hiring one of our guides? L., he’s my nephew, he’s very good, and charges a very reasonable rate.”
The guard shouted out to a young boy, no older than fourteen, who had been sitting under a tree fiddling with his cellphone. “Oi, get off your ass and take them to number 86.” Glancing over at A. he mumbled, “Lazy bugger, but a nice boy.”
The gate was finally thrown open and the tempo turned left, onto a quiet tree-lined street with the crematorium on the right. The boy waved the tempo past and struck the back of the vehicle twice with the palm of his hand indicating that he had hopped on. He clung to the back of the truck with one hand and was again absorbed in his little glowing screen, typing away with one thumb.
They drove on slowly for a few minutes, passing innumerable doors that looked identical to each other. They were hexagonal iron doors no more than two feet wide with a large black switch similar in shape to a circuit breaker to the right of each door. There were worn paint markings on each rusted hexagon and A. realized quickly that the guard was right. Not only were the door numbers often illegible, but they seemed to be in no particular order: ...5, 9, 26, ?, 5?, 9, 79, ??, 38…
I.S. had become distracted. Never having learned to read or write she could not be of much help here. She found herself thinking about Q’s words–the soul and the body are like the pages of a book. If the body is a book then a crematorium is a burning library she thought. She imagined thousands, hundreds of thousands of bodies with entire lives filled with experiences released into the ether as they turned to ash. But we all die, she thought. What does it matter whether we are burned, buried, or fed to the fish? She had never read a book herself but had heard them being read. Each reading with its own intonations, emphases and interpretations. Q himself was only an interpreter of scriptures. The terrorists in the North had claimed that the only way to honor the teachings of their book was to eliminate all those who refused to follow it. The zealots in the East claimed that their book was proof of their god-given right to drive out the local population and kill those who resisted.
“You ok?” I. asked a little worried at I.S.’ silence.
“We should burn all the books in the world,” replied I.S. as if still in a reverie. “Q is an idiot.”
Two sharp metallic whacks delivered by the young L. brought the tempo to a halt. He stepped off and sauntered towards a vault barely raising his eyes from his phone. I.S. noticed that he was shuffling rectangular blocks on the screen, a game of some sort. He rapped the metal door of the vault, which echoed like a gong. There was something unseemly about his lackadaisical relation to a place of mourning. A young boy already inured to death. “Actually I’m not sure if this is the one,” he said, still without looking up from the phone.
A. fiddled with the latch of nearby vault number 86 as he began to doubt if L. would be of any further help. After a short struggle the rusted lock gave way and the narrow cylindrical vault opened with a shrill creak. An iron grill slid out, presumably the bed on which N.’s remains would need to be placed. The three of them would have to lift the putrid corpse, stiff in places and leaking in others. There was something strange about pushing N.’s remains into a dark cell no bigger than his body. The cell was dark and seemed endless, like a black hole.
Even for I.S. this was too much and she looked away quickly. She finally had to accept that she had wanted him dead, and although she wasn’t unhappy that her wish had been fulfilled, she felt anxious. Perhaps it was that the anger she had bottled up to unleash upon him that rainy night had had no release. Or perhaps it was the even more terrible thought: that N.’s horror had been her excuse for all the world’s horrors, and now she was going to have to deal with life, as life, as the miserable wretched thing it was still going to be. Or perhaps she was anxious because anxiety is the feeling most profoundly associated with the beginnings of freedom. The famous anxiety of the decision of which Q had written so much, although I.S. did not yet know this.
“The gate closes in half an hour. You better hurry up,” L. said. He kept leaning against the brick wall of the crematorium preoccupied with his game. His voice seemed older than his demeanor.
They left the crematorium. I.S. did not turn back. She did not want to see the beauty of the smoke and sun eclipsed by the dark sky, by the dark memory of that man.
As they began their journey home, she wondered if she would ever discover what had in fact happened to her husband. Of course everyone knew it was the Foreman, but everyone knew all sorts of things that turned out not to be true. Like this Q, for example. Everyone seemed to know one thing about the separation of body and soul, and then he came along and said they were one. And what did that mean, anyway? What should they do then? Was the answer: burn the books? Or was it: let them rot and decompose in the forest? She did not know, and she doubted if Q did either, and she doubted if N. had even thought of such matters. It was not now as if her neatly contained world were crumbling under the weight of freedom and new knowledge (as colonists always imagine), it was simply that the insecurity of existence that came with her daily life was showing a new angle of itself to her. She liked it, if only because newness meant that things might change.
I.S. did not know if she were living in a tragedy, or a comedy, or simply a mystery that would proceed with irruptions of dismay followed by escalations of grandeur, on endless loop. But she wouldn’t try to solve everything right now. Not everything is solvable, or meant to be solved. Plots, like cement, begin to crack if they aren't thick enough.
When they dropped her off at her home she pretended to go in, but then slipped back outside. She walked for hours, trying, as mightily as she could, to arrive at no solutions.
It was dawn and a blue light filled the quiet air of The Castle when I.S. finally opened the tin door of her empty home. As soon as she stepped into her little room she felt her shoulders relax. It was as if her body had been trying to unconsciously shrink into itself. When she gained control of her body again, and made it hold its form, this knot, this doubling of self into self, unravelled.
She was exhausted from the long day and wanted to collapse into her bed immediately. She would have to rise soon with the sun and go to work, but she needed some sleep. As she began to unroll her mat in pitch darkness, something slipped and fell with a loud thud. She felt the floor with her hand and found the cold metallic claw of a hammer. Her hand paused for a moment and then moved slowly down caressing the warm wooden handle. She thought again of that morning: a rotting body caked in mud, a portly man with a moustache striding through the dust beside a man in Khakis–an enforcer of the law–and behind them the red-eyed and shrinking Foreman, who would soon be banging on her paper-thin door if she slept in a minute too long.