The events that I am about to narrate happened in Pune, India during my Engineering days.
I shall give a brief background of the characters associated with this incident for the benefit of our readers.
Paru, Anand and Lalat were my best friends during my junior college days. We were inseparable pals who would hang out together no matter what. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and I really feel nostalgic whenever I remember those good old times.
Anyways, good times always come to an end. Lalat's father got a job posting in Pune which is around 200 Kms from Mumbai. Lalat had to shift to Pune with his family. The parting was heavy for all of us and we promised Lalat that we would regularly be in touch with him. Initially we used to be in touch regularly via letters or phone calls (mind you, internet and e-mail were only available to a privileged few at that time and the era of mobile phones hadn't dawned in India as yet). Slowly our contact reduced as all of us became busy with our lives and careers.
Paru, Anand and I joined the same Engineering College and were happy to be together once again. We also learned that Lalat had joined an Engineering college in Pune and was doing fine. Engineering days were very hectic and it was only a rare occasion when we could get a chance to speak to Lalat. It was two years since we had last met him.
After completion of our second year engineering exams, Paru had this fantastic idea of going to Pune. Paru's father owned a sprawling farmhouse in Pune which was an excellent getaway for us. We were also excited at the thought of meeting Lalat after such a long time.
It was pouring heavily when we reached Paru's farmhouse in the evening and we were completely drenched. Cursing our luck and the rain gods, we soon made ourselves comfortable. We immediately wanted to contact Lalat and inform him that we were in Pune. We had deliberately not informed him earlier since we wanted to surprise him. Unfortunately for us, the caretaker told us that all the phone lines were dead because of cable cuts caused due to the heavy rains and that it would take at least one day for services to be fully restored... Lalat's house was quite a distance away and it was practically impossible for us to go there because of the stormy conditions that prevailed. We felt bad that we would not be able to see our pal until the next day only. We were treated to a sumptuous dinner by Mannu, the caretaker of the farmhouse which was a small consolation for not meeting our pal.
We chatted away until 1.00 am and after that went off to bed. This was the start of the strange events that followed which still baffle me to this day.
At around 2.00am the phone in Paru's room rang. After briefly speaking to the caller, Paru hysterically started banging the door of our rooms. He was sweating profusely even though the weather was quite chilly at that time. He was literally trembling when he told us that the caller had informed him that Lalat had been killed in a freak car accident the same evening and that the funeral would be held early next morning at around 4.00 am at a nearby crematorium. Upon asking him who the caller was, he told us that the voice wasn't clear and before the caller could identify himself, the phone went dead again. We thought that someone from Lalat's family might have contacted Paru's house and got our telephone number from them.
We were all stunned and could not believe that our pal whom we had planned to surprise the next day was no more. Controlling our emotions somehow we started off to the crematorium where the funeral was to take place. We managed to reach the place by 3.45 am. Many of Lalat's relatives and family members had gathered at the crematorium for the same. They were surprised to see us there at that unearthly hour.
According to Hindu customs, a dead body is consigned to flames after the last rites are performed by the priest. This is a way of returning the body back to the five elements of nature. One of the relatives had gone to get the priest and everyone was waiting for his arrival. At around 4.30 am we saw a lone figure walking towards us. He quickly introduced himself as the priest who had been summoned to come there and perform the last rites. Lalat's body was wrapped from head to toe in a white cloth. The priests who generally perform these rites are quite used to the sight of dead bodies and perform the rituals monotonously without attaching any emotions to it. While performing the last rites the priest asked for the cloth to be removed so that he could see the face of the dead man.
Something then happened which scared the daylights of everyone present. As soon as the priest saw Lalat's face, he immediately broke into cold sweat, gave a loud wail and immediately fainted. Everyone around was stunned. Some people from the crowd immediately took the priest to a nearby bench. The priest shortly regained consciousness. He was still trembling when he told us that the young man who had come to his house that night and had requested him to perform the last rites at that unearthly hour was none other than Lalat himself. There was absolutely no doubt in his mind about the identity of the person who had summoned him. This fact was further confirmed when the relative who had been originally assigned the task of getting the priest came there and apologizing profusely at his inability to get a priest at such an early hour. The people around somehow convinced the priest to complete the unfinished last rites. The priest was still shivering when he left the after completing the last rites. The whole atmosphere was very eerie with people still not coming to terms with the facts presented to them.
We visited Lalat's parents who were in a bad shape the next day and did our best to console them. We returned home with a heavy heart fully aware that we would never be able to meet our pal ever again.
A couple of days after the incident, Paru and I were pondering over the sequence of events which had occurred the night Lalat died. It occurred to us that we hadn't identified the person who had called us that fateful night. We made some enquires with a couple of people close to Lalat and were told that none of them had called us that night. Suddenly there was a realization which sent a shiver down our spine that it might have been Lalat himself who had called us that night to inform us of his death. After all the phone lines were dead that night. Perhaps he wanted one last reunion with his best friends.
As for the priest, he was pretty shaken by the whole incident. He suffered from high fever and was bedridden for a week. It is said that after this incident he never opened his door to anyone after 8.00 pm until dawn the next day.