Babagee and the Grim Reaper
By Richard Rupnarain
We would all like, at least to some degree, to know what the future holds for us. The proliferation of psychic hotlines, palm, card and tea-leaf readers, tarot and dream interpreters, crystal ball watchers, and mediums who channel familiar spirits, all attest to the fact that humans are prepared to trek into dangerous territories and chart forbidden zones if necessary just for a peek into the ultimate frontier called the future.
Babajee Lalsingh was one of those people who was prepared to pay any price for the ability to prognosticate the future. Even as a nine-year old he was intrigued with the ouija board and employed it to all and sundry purposes including verification of the answers to his homework. In fact, he became so obsessed with the board and so adept at manipulating the planchet that word quickly spread into the neighborhood that Lalsingh's boy could tell the future with a fair degree of precision. Soon everyone came young and old, men and women, learned and ignorant and joined the queue at his parents home to seek Ouijas advice on just about anything. He still remembers the first barrage of supplications.
Will West Indies beat India in test cricket, and by how much? How long me going to live? Ask him if Rohan Kanhai gon knock a century! How much GCE I gon pass? When I gon get married? (whisper) Ask him if Tall Boy Mukesh like me! Is fuh truth too much curry does cause cancer? Ask him if me grand pickney gat nara or jumbie hold de bai. Ask him if Nijinsky gon win the horse race and how much I should bet! Find out if me grandson gon pass Common Entrance. Ask Ouija when is the best time for me try me luck for a visa? Find out if me rumsucker husband got a sweet lady and ask him fuh she name.
In fact, Babajee only surrendered his obsession with Ouija when his grandmother warned him that through this weegee thing the devil would take over his mind. But even then his relentless passion for knowledge beyond the mundane continued to propel him in pursuit of the paranormal. When he was thirteen he began to scour the public libraries for all of Lobsang Rampas books and eventually immersed himself in The Third Eye. One day, after school, alone at home, he locked himself in the bedroom of his parent's bungalow, plaited his feet on the cold wooden floor like a sadhu, closed his eyes and tried to follow Rampa's directions on astral travel just as he had it memorized from the book. Fifteen minutes later his elder brother came in from work and found him in a trance-like state, oblivious to everything around him, his eyes rolling in his head as if he had ingested potassium cyanide, and shivering uncontrollably like a rocket ship at Cape Canaveral just before lift-off. Realizing something was wrong his brother called out for help from the neighbors and, as good fortune would dictate, the loud screams snapped Babagee out of the trance. When he came to his senses he explained that he was somewhere in outer space, floating for what seemed like an eternity among the stars in a thick, dark void when he heard his name ring out in space like a sonic boom. It was only then he realized that he did not know how to get back into his body as he had not read that far into Rampas book. It was the scariest moment of his life and that day he vowed never to tamper again with the mystical arts. But of course time is a great healer and as the years went by he had all but overcome the jolt of his aborted astral mission and his inveterate interest in things supernatural began to resurface with greater intensity. That Saturday afternoon, as he unfolded the ungainly Graphic newspaper and noticed an advertisement in the lower left corner of the page he straightened himself in the chair like a child on the verge of a cliffhanger.
Juxtaposed into an uneven four-inch long section spanning two columns of the paper was a drawing of a turbaned man with long curly beard. Beside him the caption read, Let Pandit Read your Future. The print was smaller than the regular newspaper font and he had to bury his face into the dailies to decipher the writing.
For five dollars, the advertisement said, pandit will tell you your future. He read the testimonials. Pandit told me good luck will follow me and he was right. No bad luck followed me for three months now, one man said. Pandit told me I will pass my GCE, and I did. I got two subjects, said another. Pandit told me I will get married and have three children, a third testimonial boasted, and he was right. I am married to a nice man and I have two children. The next one coming soon! I will write pandit again to find out if the baby will be a boy or girl because my sister wants to know if she will be an uncle or an auntie.
"Five dollars! That's cheap! Babajee exclaimed, I gon write the pandit and ask him what me future hold."
That night he waited patiently for his wife to fall asleep before undertaking the task of writing the pandit. He had two good reasons for such prudence. First, he was sure that if Rani learned of his interest in knowing the future she would dissuade him as she was well aware of his adventures with Ouija and Rampa, and besides she never liked "see-far" people, condemning them as "robber men" since they defrauded her nani of her "big, fat tillary" which should rightly have been bequeathed to her mother. The second reason is that he needed the solitude to concentrate on his writing as he had never written anything longer than the greetings on Christmas cards, and even then the wishes were always the same, "Merry Christmas, to your family circle, from our family circle." The moment she began to snore he sought the opportunity to ease himself out of the lumpy fiber mattress and sneak out into the kitchen. Along the way he grabbed an old exercise book from the kitchen cabinet, the same book his wife used to do her shopping list, creased and ripped out a page and quietly proceeded to the kitchen table. Despite moving stealthily like a lion on the trail of a wildebeest, the floor boards creaked with every step, but fortunately not loud enough to wake Rani out of her deep sleep. It was an old house, built some sixty years ago by his grandfather for his family of nine children, and later extended by his father with the addition of two bedrooms. Since the addition of the bedrooms the house had become a bit unstable and would shake ever so slightly when the winds were heavy or if heavy duty vehicles passed by on the nearby public road. Despite his mother's nagging to address the problem before it became worse, the old man remained adamant in his refusal to hire a contractor, insisting that the house was safe and that the existing structure could support two additional rooms. At first Rani was apprehensive about living in a shaky house but as time went by she grew accustomed to the tremors and subsequently deemed any expenditures on strengthening the foundation as a waste of good money.
With four shaves of the kitchen knife he carved out a point on the pencil, then poured himself a cup of water and lit the kerosene lamp, careful to keep the flame low enough not to rouse his sleeping wife, and with the inspiration of background music provided by the wind as it rustled through the bars above the fireside, he began to write:
Dear pandit, he scrawled with a chewed up yellow Helix pencil, I know you is from India but I hope you can understand English writing. But let me know if you cant read English because me mamoo does watch coolie picture and he know a little Hindi. I used to go to larn Hindi but I drop out after me mai said she cant afford to pay. All I know is ca-ca-ga-ga-anga. And I know some other words me nani does use pon me when she mad. But dem must be bad words because every time I use them me mai does clap two box pon me mouth. Anyways, I spot your advertisement in the Graphic paper on the bottom left hand side next to Continental Biscuit advertisement and I decide to write you. Me is a man like this! I dont make bassa bassa but I does get straight to the point. My name is Babagee Lalsingh. Me father say it should be Babajee, with a J, Lal Singh, two words, but that them people at Depot dont know how to spell and them join up the two last names. So my last name is really Singh, just like your last name. You think abie related? Anyways, the reason I write you is because I want to know how long more me have to live. I is 45 years old today. I born February 24, 1923. But it might be off one or two days. Me mai say the people lost the record and when she went to the Registry to collect me born paper so I could go to school them ask she fuh guess when me born because them cant find none record. You see how them people over here macklet? Dem can't even read and write and dem got big work with the govament. Anyways, the reason I asking you this is because I want to take out some life insurance. But if I know I got time I could hold out lil more before I take out the insurance. So let me know when I gon crap out. Everybady say you is a real prophet, not like Manjit over here who read me friend Bholaram palm and tell de bai he gon live till eighty-five years. Next week Bhola stick he foot pan nail and get tetanus and dead out. But he wouldn't a dead yet you know. Is hard aze gat am there. When me tell am to go sick nurse he say, Nah! Me go live till eighty-five!
P.S. I put een your five dollar in the air mail envelope but I wrap it store paper because abie postman is a thieving man and he does bust open all dem letter from out away if he spot any money inside. I also sending two extra stamps so you could write me back fast. Yours truly, Babagee Lalsingh.
After sealing the envelope with flour paste, he held it up to the sunlight to make sure the money was not visible and when he was convinced that the contents were safe he scurried off to the post office and watched with boyish delight as the teller affixed the stamp and dropped it into the box. But as he made his way back home he experienced a sudden change in emotions. Exuberance turned to apprehension and then into fear as he began to contemplate the consequences of his decision to write to pandit. Was it really a good idea to know ones future? Would not such knowledge rob life of its adventure? Is it not the uncertainty of the future that leads one to prudence and responsibility? Is it not the call of the unknown that challenges the human mind to risk and enterprise? How exciting can a predicable life be? These questions would continue to haunt him over the next few days and, despite efforts to conceal his fears, his peers noticed both the transformation of his visage from cheer to gloom and the contemplative silence that brooded eerily over his otherwise congenial personality. He was a security guard who loved his job and who made it a duty to know all the employees who passed by the guard hut every morning and for many of them he was a welcome sight whose gracious words of greeting, affirmation and praise meant the difference between a good and bad day at work. But from the day after he mailed his letter he was a different man, more pensive, more preoccupied with the nature and consequence of his request, to the point where he began to discharge his duties like a robot, void of personality, seemingly indifferent to all and sundry. When they asked him how he was doing he simply said, "me aright!"
The days passed and he had almost forgotten about the letter, perhaps intentionally so, as he became deadly afraid of such knowledge. Eventually he lost his voracious appetite for food and began to experience bouts of insomnia and sudden attacks of diarrhea. Like a patient facing major surgery the next day he would lay awake at nights and stare for hours with unblinking eyes at the galvanized zinc sheeting above the greenheart rafters as beads of cold sweat oozed from his forehead and temples and soaked his pillow and sheets. To alleviate his self-inflicted suffering he tried convincing himself and others that the advertisement was simply an entertainment hoax to which one should not pay much attention. But when the days drew closer to the within six weeks period stated in the advertisement he even wished that the mails would be lost in transit somewhere on the high seas between India and Guyana.
Unfortunately for him that wish never materialized. The reply came exactly forty-two days to the date of mailing his request. The postman stuck the letter between the gate closer and continued on his route, whistling and hailing neighbors, unaware that to some he was an angel of mercy and to others an angel of death. When Babagee came in from work he saw the letter and, with trembling fingers, unfastened it from the closer and stuffed it in his jacket pocket. As he made his way into the yard a feeling of intense fear and dread overcame him and he began to sweat profusely from glands and parts of his body he never knew existed. He could even hear his heart palpitating above the sounds of the tabla drums down the street where a Kali Mai pooja was under way. His fingers, numb and sweaty, involuntarily let loose of the bicycle and like a man with a bullet in his stomach he stumbled his way into the kitchen where his wife Rani was clapping paratha roti.
Afternoon! he said to her as he hastily kicked off his shoes and headed off in the direction of the living room.
Good afternoon, Rani replied, is where you rushing going? Something happen? What wrong?
Nothing! Nothing! I just want to use the latrine, he lied.
But the latrine outside, she pointed out.
Yes, man, me know! Na bother me! he said, becoming more irritated by the second.
Look, me married you twenty years and me know something a bother you. Tell me!
Aright! You know that pandit that them say could tell the future?
You mean that turban man in the Graphic?
Yes, same man.
What happen to him?
Well I decide to write him and ask him about me future. Then when I send off the letter I change me mind but it was too late. Now he write me back and now me friken to open the letter.
Where is the letter?
I got it in me pocket.
No! Suppose it say something bad gon happen? Let me burn it a fireside.
Nothing bad aint gon happen. What is the worse thing he can tell you, that you not gon get rich? Me can tell you that!
Reluctantly he handed over the letter to her, his fingers still trembling and cold sweat continuing to bleed from his forehead.
Here, you read it in your mind, he instructed, and dont tell me if is something bad.
So she read, and he watched, his eyes locked unto hers like a radar and his head sidewinding in unison with hers. Then she paused and swallowed, and he did the same. Both of them remained silent for a moment, one afraid to speak, the other afraid to ask why.
Look! she finally said as she crumpled the letter, dont bother with them see far people. They dont always tell the truth.
But that man has a reputation. Everybody say he speak the truth. Tell me, what did he say?
You sure you want to know?
Yes, man, tell me!
He say you have one more year to live.
The thing that he had most feared had finally come upon him. He was going to die and soon.
But I am a healthy and robust forty-five year old man. I dont smoke and drink and wild about like Johnny and dem boys. And to besides, I does play cricket every week. Me na ready for the Grim reaper," he protested. "How me gon dead within a year?" He paused for a moment and with the caution of a geriatric trying to lower himself into his wheelchair he eased himself into a nibi chair that he pulled out from under the dining table. Then he asked in resignation, "Pandit say how I gon die?
He said you will get into an accident, she answered.
He say when?
Yes! On August 20, 1969! Look! Dont believe them stupidness. Me mother always say when you time come it come, that nah mind how punkin vine run, he must dry up one day."
"Yes, but the difference is that now I know when me vine gon dry up.
At first he was angry at himself for writing the letter but as the hours passed and he contemplated the unfairness of life he found himself getting angry at others. He was still in the prime of his life and much healthier than most of his friends and certainly in better physical condition that the perpetual drunks down the street, who, for some inexplicable reason, were given a longer lease on life. But in the ensuing months he gradually came to accept his fate and, after a while, even felt blessed for being privy to such knowledge. After all he was allotted sufficient time to make provision for his family, to make things right with his Maker, to right all the wrongs he committed, and to seek forgiveness of those whom he had hurt and alienated in his lifetime. With this new perspective he became a radically changed man.
"I better go and take out that insurance policy fast. At least I could leave some money for you, he suggested.
"I don't know what trouble you get yourself into now. Me nani always say, Never trouble trouble till trouble trouble you. Now you gone and bring torment pon your life and pon me life too. Me na know what does go into you head sometimes!" she barked as she stomped out of the kitchen.
In accordance with his plan he took out life insurance policies for fifty thousand dollars, at six different companies so as not to alarm the insurance community, as he figured that with three hundred thousand dollars his wife would be able to live comfortably after he is gone and, assured that her future was secure, he decided to enjoy life a little. Despite Ranis continued apprehension at the pandit's prophecy and despite her reluctance to go along with his profligate plans he nevertheless withdrew their savings and began to live life like a rich man, saying to whoever asked him for the reason for his imprudence, Kal Ho Na Ho, a line he picked up from the inebriates at the local rum shop. By the time he resigned his security job the news of his impending death had already become known, not only to his co-workers, but also to the public at large, drawing criticism from sceptics who decried such prophecy as farcical, and sympathy from those who believed in the powers of Indian sadhu.
As the divided public debated the issue Babagee and his wife boarded a Guyana Airways Twin Otter to Trinidad and Tobago. It was the first plane ride for both of them and the exhilaration of soaring above the clouds made his wife quickly forget about the absurdity of the whole experience. When they returned from the trip to Trinidad he obtained a provisional driver's license, took a crash course from Hack's Driving School and, after just a week of practice, he proceeded straight to Central Garage and bought a Vauxhall Victor. Thereafter he visited all his relatives, from Corentyne to Pomeroon, and from Georgetown to Soesdyke, leaving them with substantial amounts of money and other gifts. As the days drew closer to his departure he became more liberal, giving away his furniture and clothes, not just to family, but also to neighbors and strangers, and he began to wax philosophical, exhorting his young nieces and nephews to make the most of their time and to enjoy their lives while still young.
Soon it was August 19,1969. The ominous eve of his departure arrived sooner than he expected, but he was pleased that everything had gone according to plan. He had made provision for his wife, shown generosity to friends and neighbors, restored some broken relationships, taken a plane ride to a foreign country, and driven his own car. Now the time of his departure was at hand and he was ready to face his destiny.
That night his relatives, friends and neighbors came by, as it were, to have a wake for the about to die. He even invited pandit Gulgulla to do a final pooja, and gave the controversial seer a substantial offering in the hopes that the holy man could guarantee his return to earth as a brahmin in the next janam. As expected the crowd was huge. Over the past year his benevolence and magnanimity had procured him many friends and they came to his little wooden bungalow in droves, some crying, others pensive, and a small minority still cynical about the prophecy. The women filled the interior of the house, singing bhajans to the sounds of dhantal and tablas, while the men lined the stairs and filled the bottom of the house, drinking rum, playing cards and slapping dominoes on shaky wooden tables they borrowed from the community center. Rani reckoned that night she had to make green tea and polouri for over a hundred and fifty people.
Me na believe in them tupidness, a disgusted Lalman confessed, much to the annoyance of pandit Gulgulla who kept rambling incoherently something about the elements of fire, air and water. "How people can tell the future? If that pandit know the future he woulda been a rich man. He wouldn't have to ask for five dollar."
"Yes, and he could bet pot the horse that gon come in fuss and win nuff paisa," Jamna added.
Yes, pon tap that tell me, how you gon dead in accident if you dont go out the house? Balgrim asked, all you have to do is stan home. Dont go out pan the road and dont use none hire car and mota bike and you safe, man.
So they all agreed, in complicity with his wife, to keep Babagee from leaving the house the next day, not even to use the latrine. All the while Rani was busy making tea for the arriving sympathizers, her husband sat pensive next to pandit Gulgulla, like a sick or frightened child seeking solace in the shadow of his parents. As the minutes ticked closer to midnight he began to turn pale and looked sickly, the condition perhaps feigned to induce the onset of death as he did not feel like a dying man, being still full of vitality and still in control of all his faculties. Then a grievous thought entered his mind. What if pandit was wrong? What if he didnt die tomorrow? What will life be like the day after tomorrow? He had spent all his savings, given away all his belongings, resigned his job, and bade farewell to all his friends. A failed prediction would mean not only that he would become a veritable laughing stock in his community, as no one would blame the pandit for his misfortune, but that he would have to resume life as an emotional and financial middle-aged bankrupt. How he wished he could undo his deed but he knew it was useless, for as his aji would say, "When coconut fall from tree he can't fasten back!" The morbid picture disappeared from view only when the old grandfather clock began to chime its countdown to midnight.
At the sound of the first chime the din of pots, pans, dominoes, and bhajans ceased abruptly and everyone stopped whatever they were doing and simultaneously approached the clock as if they wanted to verify that it was indeed midnight and the accumulated shift in weight towards the living room caused the aged bungalow to shake on its stilts. The resulting movement of flooring under their feet caused the occupants to panic and dash for the door, all sixty of them that were inside the house, and the sudden shift in weight dislodged the rickety cabin from its greenheart posts and sent the building crashing to the ground. The sounds of screaming women and children drowned out the crescendo of the collapsed structure and, in less than five seconds, it was all over. The house was razed to the ground and bodies were strewn everywhere between splintered wood and zinc sheets. Under the cover of a dense cloud of dust the able-bodied men helped the women and children out of the debris and the hire car men rushed the wounded to the dispensary. When the dust had finally settled they counted fifteen wounded and one dead. The main beam had fallen on Babagee and crushed his skull. He died on the spot.
Oh me gawd! Sarso wailed, as she, Rani and others watched the men remove the crushed body of their deceased neighbor and friend, that pandit a talk truth! Me better write him about me future!
Richard Rupnarain formerly from LBI, Guyana, lives in Toronto, Canada. Bazie@Rogers.com