The small graveyard on the outskirts of the city had one visitor, who daily frequented its consecrated grounds without fail. Nothing kept him out of this daily routine. Following a self-declared ritual, this white-clad old gentleman visited the graveyard every evening with his customary gift of a small bunch of roses and a few candles. He came to visit someone special. That was evident.
I first saw him when I visited my grandpa after a long absence. Something about him struck me to the core. Was it his melancholic eyes, or the sad smile on his lips? I was curious; I wanted to know whom he visited. But how? It was impossible to trespass on his sacred ground; nor was it proper to inquire from the keeper about him. I kept my distance, observing him closely. He was kneeling in front of a small white marbled gravestone. I could see his lips moving. He was saying something. Was he talking to that special one, lying in her eternal rest, or was he praying? I watched him till dusk enveloped the ground. Still, he was there, kneeling in that same attitude. It was getting late for me, therefore, with much reluctance, I left the ground. But the image of this old gentleman stayed strong with me.
A few years later, I had to walk the same ground for a friend of mine. When I entered the sacred precinct of the cemetery, I knew I had come not only for my friend but also for me, to look for those melancholic eyes and sad smile that have visited me from time to time the past few years. My eyes wandered looking for him. Would he be there? Or has he joined that special one of his heart, in heavenly bliss? I was in trepidation. Then my eyes caught the familiar image. Yes, he was there. He had come, and as usual, was paying his homage. My stomach did a little flip. I was nervous. But, it was now or never. I took leave of my friend and directed my steps towards that picture of devotion.
Standing aside a few yards away, I patiently waited till he finished his rituals. And when he was finally rising to his feet, I quickened my steps towards him. The rustle of the dried leaves must have warned him of someone’s approach, for he turned. I greeted him with a smile and saw the sad smile returning to his lips. A few minutes passed in silence while we contemplated one another.
Then he spoke. “He lies there peacefully”.
“He!” I was confused. Wasn’t he coming to visit his dead wife with that beautiful bunch of roses?
The old gentleman didn’t notice my bewilderment, being deeply immersed in his contemplations. He merely nodded.
I approached and read. “Captain Russell Fernando” A handsome young man in a military uniform was smiling at me. My heart stopped.
“My only son,” said the voice beside me. “I’m sorry, uncle”, I managed to stammer.
The scene that greeted me was so unexpected that it robbed me of my natural speech. He smiled the same sad smile.
“Seven years”, he continued. “And I come here every day, so he won’t feel lonely.”
Then the old gentleman looked at me as if driven by a new thought. “Did you know him?” he asked. I shook my head. He nodded as if to say, “Oh well”.
Suddenly, my eye caught on a broken statue of a soldier, that was kept at the side of the base, hidden from the plain view. His eyes followed me and saw what I was looking at. Instinctively, his face contorted. With a cold, sinister smile, he turned towards me. His face was so ugly to behold that I jumped back in alarm. His face softened at my flustered self and rewarded me with a smile more akin to a grimace.
“That”, he said pointing towards the statue, “is not him. I wish I could throw it away. But they won’t let me”. His clenched fists flailed at some unseen enemy.
“It was put here”, he said pointing to the top of the gravestone. “They did it. Thought it was a fine tribute to a fallen hero”. His mouth twisted as he articulated the word “hero”. “I broke it”, his voice was a whisper.
I gazed at this piteous old gentleman who was fighting a lone battle to come to terms with his grief.
Suddenly, he cackled. I was seriously beginning to be alarmed. Was he a madman after all? Maddened by grief? He shook his head as if to negate my thought, and bending over the side of the gravestone, picked up another small statue. It was a statue of a batsman.
“He loved cricket. Represented the school and wanted to play for the national team. His club got it done in honour of him”.
He has become calm again; his face adorned with a beautiful smile as he caressed the statue.
“This is my son, innocent and young, full of happy dreams. But they took it all away”. His voice quavered. “My son was no hero, Sir”, he continued, addressing me. “He was a political victim, like thousands who fell under the spell of false patriotism, both in South and North. He understood it, only too late. In his last letter, he said so.”
He took out from his pocket a faded paper. Long shed tears have blotted out the ink and wiped out its contents. The tears started pouring freely over his withered face as he looked down at this sacred piece of relic, the final communication from his son. I felt a lump in my throat. My heart was aching at the pathetic picture before me. What could I say to console this grieving old gentleman? Am I to say everything will be alright, knowing it won’t?
All of a sudden, the air felt stifling, and I felt suffocated. It was time to leave the scene behind; his grief was too oppressing. He roused himself as if from a dream, wiped his tears and smiled at me apologetically. With a swift movement, he waved the statue of the batsman before me. “Remember my little Lara”.
I could only nod. The episode has deprived me of the common use of my faculties. Ignoring my dumb response, he moved towards the tomb of his worship. And I turned back, mechanically.
At the gate, the keeper said, “He is mad, sir. Everybody says so.” I glared at him; some unspoken rage was brewing within me. It’s appalling to learn that youths had been made pawns in old men’s game for power. And creating division between ethnic groups, who have lived harmoniously in their blended cultures, just to attain their political agendas, is even more shocking. I kept my reflections to myself and walked on in silence, my mind full of all I had seen and heard; there was no point in letting lose my frustration on an ignorant, uneducated man, who could not understand a father’s inconsolable grief. But I couldn’t dismiss the idea that somehow, we too are unwitting culprits of this father’s grief. With a heavy conscience, I quitted the cemetery without a backward glance.