Who does not have a skeleton in their cupboard? Well, I once had a scary one in mine.
When my older brother, my only sibling, was eighteen, he entered medical college, and you should have witnessed the fuss everybody made over him. Grandma was the worst offender because she thought we should all be thankful that we had performed enough good deeds in our past lives to have an incomparable genius in the family. We need not be afraid of sickness any longer, because there would now be a doctor in the house. Hundreds of students enter our Medical Colleges every year and I couldn’t see why Suren’s entry was so earth-shaking.
Being fussed over was nothing new to Suren. It started even before he was born, when my mother’s doctor revealed that the sound scans showed that it was a boy. According to Grandma, a boy is a priceless gift from God. Anyone without a son will go to a special Hell reserved for such people. A son is indispensable to light the funeral pyre of his parents and to send them to Heaven. Daughters are second class citizens. Someone should tell Grandma that women are indispensable too, for producing the indispensable sons.
Just after entering college, Suren announced that he needed a human skeleton for his anatomy lessons. He had to go all the way to the Capital City to get one because skeletons are not available in every nook and corner of the country. He brought his skeleton home in a cardboard box that was an approximately 2-foot cube. I thought that it must contain the skeleton of a dwarf, or a child.
I was quite terrified when Suren said he would have to leave the box in the cupboard in my room, the room I shared with Grandma, because his cupboard and room were crammed with things. By ‘things’, he meant an abundance of clothes, shoes, sports equipment and so on. He explained that the skeleton was a dismantled one of a grown-up—that the skeleton could stand up only if the bones were held together by ligaments and tendons and muscles. He said a dismantled skeleton was handy because he could take, say, the fibula and the tibia, if the anatomy lesson for the day concerned ‘The Lower Leg’.
The skeleton entered my cupboard, despite my protests. Grandma was very hypocritical about it. She was always zealous about observing ceremonial purity. Corpses are unclean. So, whenever we returned from a funeral, we could not enter the house without a bath outside the house at the garden tap. We had to fill buckets with cold water and drench ourselves, fully clothed, thus acquiring purity. The car had to be washed and the inside wiped with a wet cloth. Grandma didn’t mind the dismembered skeleton because Suren convinced her that it had been cleaned and washed and disinfected and that it was no longer untouchable.
Once classes began, Suren regaled us with stories that were outrageous. Students had to dissect cadavers, which had been fished out of a well of formalin. The chemical smell of a cadaver is so overpowering it could knock you down. Cadavers are very precious, so the students had to dissect in groups and each group got only a part of a cadaver. The laboratory assistant would have sawn a cadaver lengthwise and then divided it further. Suren’s friend Narendra fainted when he met a cadaver for the first time.
For a long time after this revelation, I did not sleep well. I would bury myself under the bedclothes and have nightmares until I fell asleep, and afterwards, in my sleep. Sometimes, the bones in the cupboard would assemble themselves and try to get me. At other times, they came for me, clothed in their flesh. Often, they were covered in a white sheet because they had transformed into ghosts and only their grinning skull was visible.
When the wind whistled in the corridors between houses on stormy nights, I decided that the bones were rattling as they quarrelled while putting themselves together. When my brother heard my tale of woe, he offered to put an end to the commotion the bones made. He assembled the skeleton himself, with staples, string, wires, and rubber bands. He made the skeleton sit in a chair, stood his guitar next to it and fixed tiny green electric bulbs in the eye sockets. “He will be a good sentinel and cast a mellow light at night,” said my brother. It was now vastly more grotesque than some bones in a box.
Suren’s words were prophetic though, and I must acknowledge that the skeleton did me a good turn.
One weekend, my parents and my brother went away to visit my other grandmother and Grandma and I were the only ones in the house. In the night, I heard muted footsteps in the room, then a voice menacingly muttering, “Wake up, wake up, unless you want me to hurt you”. I was certain the skeleton would get me this time and burrowed farther under the bedclothes. The skeleton whisked my bed linen off, despite my desperate efforts to clutch it, and I found that it was wearing a balaclava mask and held a heavy cudgel in its hand; it was clothed entirely in black.
Grandma was seated on her bed, trembling. “Where’s all the money, where are all the valuables?” The skeleton kept demanding. Grandma said it was all in the bank. Then it caught a glimpse of Grandma’s chain, the beautiful, elaborately designed gold chain that she always wore, and snatched it. Grandma’s neck was bruised–as we discovered later–and she cried out in pain.
Then the intruder turned around and must have spied Suren’s creepy skeleton in the semi-darkness. It screamed and fled from the room, taking Grandma’s chain with it.
The comforting thing about life is that time marches on, and all bad things come to an end. In due course, my brother got through his first medical exams and was ready to sell his skeleton to a freshman or fresh woman. And much to my relief, that meant a fresh home for the skeleton.