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The Skeleton

Nothing is going to induce me to sleep at night in a room which has a skeleton model hanging from the wall, and nothing is going to induce me to read spooky stories at night.

I read "Konkal", a story by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, in broad daylight and hours before I hit the sack. The narrator of the story begins by mentioning that the room, adjacent to the one where he and his two childhood friends slept, had a human skeleton hanging from the wall. This is going to be really scary, I thought to myself. But, it didn't turn out to be a scary story after all. It did touch upon the dark side of life but the story wasn't intended to scare; rather, it deals with a number of social issues.

The childhood friends used the skeleton to study osteology. It was a real skeleton that belonged to a pretty young woman. The woman was married off as a child when she probably didn't understand the meaning of marriage. But, obviously, she had no say in the matter. She was scared of her husband. The husband died two months after the marriage and the in-laws branded her as 'vishkanya' or a girl who brought ill fate to others. She was turned away from the house and the girl came to live with her elder brother. Over the years, the girl turned into a pretty woman. The brother was quite a recluse and did not have many friends. So, the woman did not get to meet many young men. The brother had a friend who was a doctor. The doctor was a regular visitor to the brother's house and eventually rented a portion of the house to start his own clinic. He was the only man from the outside world with whom the woman got an opportunity to interact. It was, perhaps, natural for this reason that she fell in love with him. The doctor, it seemed, somewhat reciprocated her feelings. But, he became engaged to another woman because she was bringing him a good sum of money. A few hours before his wedding, the doctor is enjoying a few glasses of wine with the brother when...well, the story then goes on to tell of the circumstances that leads to the woman's transformation into a skeleton and the doctor's plans of getting married going awry.

Not a scary story really; in fact, it starts out as a humorous story till the dark side unravels.

The room, adjacent to the one where we three childhood friends slept, had a human skeleton hanging from the wall. The bones made a rattling sound when the breeze blew during the night. In the daytime, we had to study the structure of the bones. In those days we were given lessons in literature by a teacher, while a student from the Campbell Medical School taught us osteology. Our guardians wished that we should become proficient in all branches of knowledge. It would be futile to explain to people who know us as to how successful we have been in fulfilling that wish, and to those who do not know us, it would be better if things remain unsaid.

Many years have passed since then. In the meanwhile, the skeleton has disappeared from the room and so has all knowledge of osteology from our heads. No amount of investigations can reveal where they have gone.

A few days ago, owing to shortage of space in the house, I had to sleep in that room in the night. Unaccustomed to sleeping anywhere else other than in my own room, sleep eluded me and I lay tossing and turning on the bed even as the gongs of the chiming clock in the nearby church sounded all the hours of the night. Just then the oil lamp that was burning and had been flickering for the past five minutes, went off abruptly. There had been a few unfortunate incidents in my house lately and, so, when the lamp went off suddenly, the thought of death came instinctively to my mind. I reflected that for nature it was the same thing whether a lamp gets extinguished late in the night and merges into the ever-pervading darkness, or whether the flames of life of human beings are snuffed out suddenly, sometimes in the daytime and sometimes in the night.

The recollection of the skeleton came to my mind. I tried to imagine what the person, whose skeleton it was, must have been like in life. I suddenly felt as if some conscious being was moving around the mosquito net while tapping on the walls of the room; I could hear the sound of breathing. It was as if the conscious being was searching for something but could not find it and, so, was going round and round looking for it. I realized that this was my imagination caused by a tired mind due to sleeplessness; it was the throbbing of the blood rushing to my head which sounded like footsteps. Yet, a shiver ran through my body. "Who is it?" I spoke out in order to dispel my illusory fright. The footsteps approached the bed and stopped; I heard a reply, "It is me; I have come in search of my skeleton."

I thought it was ridiculous to be scared of the creation of my own imagination. Holding my bolster firmly and speaking in a casual manner as if talking to a person with whom I had a long acquaintance, I said, "That's a very good task you have undertaken at such an hour. But what need do you have of the skeleton now?"

The reply came from very close to the mosquito net, "What do you say! My heart was encased in that skeleton; all the 26 years of my youth blossomed around it. Should I not crave to see it just once?"

"That is true. Fine, you look around for your skeleton while I try to get some sleep," I replied.

The voice said, "Are you alone? Then, let me sit for a while; we can talk for some time. I used to talk with people 35 years ago; but for the last 35 years I have only spoken to the wind in the cemetery. Today, once again, I will sit by your side and talk like a human being."

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  • Union Public Service Commission - www.upsc.gov.in
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  • Indian Statistical Institute - www.isical.ac.in
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  • Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad - www.iimahd.ernet.in
  • Indian Institute of Mass Commission - www.iimc.nic.in
  • IIT Bombay - www.iitb.ac.in
  • Indian School of Mines, Dhanbad - www.ismdhanbad.ac.in
  • Birla Institute of Technology, Ranchi - www.bitmesra.ac.in
  • Central Institute of Fisheries Nautical and Engineering Training - www.cifnet.nic.in
  • Indian Institute of Information Technology, Allahabad (Deemed University) - www.iiita.ac.in
  • Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi - www.cmfri.com
  • Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai - www.tiss.edu