Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Sound of Death

A short story by Kuldip Dhiman

Based on the private papers of Donald Anderson, M.D. (1866-1936)

Susan was afraid; terribly afraid. It must have been well past midnight when she entered the study and looked about nervously. I left the novel that I had been reading by the fire, and waited for her to say something. No words came.
'Is anything the matter, dear?' I held out my arms to her. We moved closer to the fire, and I noticed that she was trembling with fear.
'Listen,' she said, 'listen very carefully. Do you hear that? Someone is moaning in pain.'
Did anyone have to remind me of those soft moans and groans? I had been living with them for more than a year; but how does one explain that to a young bride who has just arrived in India from Liverpool?
'You have had a very tiring journey, dear. There is no one here.' I poured her a glass of brandy, and tried to humour her.
'What are those sounds? I have searched the entire house and the clinic, and I am sure there is no one about. , 'My dear, it's rather late. Let's go to bed. It can wait till the morning.' 'No, it can't.' She was determined. 'With those terrible sounds echoing everywhere, how can you expect anyone to sleep?'
She was right. It was only her third night here, and already she had begun to be disturbed by the sounds. I held her hand and drew her close to me. As she trembled in my arms, I decided to tell her the dreadful truth.
'Susan,' I began, 'in spite of being a man of science and a qualified doctor of medicine, I have come to believe in things which I would have dismissed as fraud only a few years ago.During my training at Bart's, if someone had told me that there are men who drink sulphuric acid as if it were a cup of hot tea; that there are men who bury themselves in sand for days and emerge alive; that there are men who walk barefoot on burning cinders; that there are men whose bodies do not age, I would have laughed. In this modern age of science, when man is unravelling the mysteries of nature, how could an educated English doctor be expected to believe in such things? It was not long, however, before I changed my mind.
'In the winter of 1892, I found myself in the snow-covered hills of Simla. I had accepted the invitation of Major Edward Rennick of the 1st Brigade of the Bengal Horse Artillery. I soon fell in love with the place and, at the major's encouragement, I set up a modest practice on the Mall. There were very few doctors in Simla then, and my arrival was eagerly welcomed.
'Things went on quite well, and my practice flourished. However, it was not long before , I was drawn towards things that my scientific training at Bart's had not prepared me for. Often I went by horseback to see patients in far-flung places and isolated villages, and soon I had learned a smattering of Hindi and the local dialect and befriended the simple hill people,who I found warm-hearted and friendly. Major Rennick shared my interest in the mysterious arts and the customs and traditions of India, and in our spare time we often It ventured into remote villages and met many strange yogis and holy men.
'One fine summer afternoon a runner, Biku Lall, brought a letter from the Major. I opened the note, which read: .
Dear Donald,
Would you like to witness something truly extraordinary? Come without at'
moment's delay. Your presence is of vital importance.

'1 thanked Biku Lall, and in about an hour was at Major Rennick's magnificent bungalow near the Loreto Convent. The sun was about to disappear behind the mountains when I knocked at the door, which was opened by a manservant, who salaamed me before showing me into the Major's study. .
'Upon seeing me, Major Rennick motioned me to remain silent. In the golden light of the setting sun, which filtered through the windows, I saw a man lying on the floor as if he were dead. The Major tip-toed towards me and led me to another room.
' "What's happening?" I asked in some astonishment.
' "Take a seat." The Majo.r motioned me to a chair, offered me a cigar, then lit one himself and drew on it. "You will soon witness, if you are fortunate, a very singular feat..That man in the study is a highly experienced yogi. I met him last month when I was on a temporary duty at Kinnaur. I had the good fortune to be able to converse with him for some  days, and I must tell you that I was greatly impressed by his wisdom. If he could learn English and travel to London, by love! he would draw packed houses."
 "But what on earth is he doing lying on the floor?" I asked-
' "He is performing the Shavasana, which translated literally means the Corpse-pose. It is one of the best poses for relaxation." Major Rennick bent forward and added in a whisper. "In my company you have seen many yogis who can hold their breath for hours. But do you know what the man in my study is trying to do?"
'1 shook my head-
' "He is trying to stop his heartbeat."
'Myown heart went cold. "What!" I cried. "Why, that's impossible. Surely you can't be serious. He will die!"
'"We shall see," said the Major. "Let us go back to the study."
'Once there, Major Rennick told me that we were to check his guest's pulse every half an hour. As the yogi lay on the floor, I observed that he was a tall man with the perfect physique of an athlete. His face was truly majestic, and his hair jet black, although he did not have the  customary beard that most Indian yogis and saints have. I put him at about thirty or thirty-five, and said as much to the Major.
' "He is sixty-eight," he corrected me.
' "Sixty-eight-eight!" I exclaimed. "Good heavens!"
'We both prepared to keep watch on the yogi for some time, but we were to be
disappointed that day, for before long we saw him begin to move. Then he got up and, upon seeing us, spoke in broken Hindi so that we could understand him.
 ' "Aaj ka din theek nahin ...I am sorry, I am sorry to disappoint you today. Let us wait until tomorrow."
'I was introduced to the yogi, whose name was Hridaynaut Bhardwaj, and he smiled and set me at my ease in an instant. Realising that we felt as if we had been deprived 50 I of some great~ experience, he said, "What I tried to do today is extremely dangerous.  There are only two or three yogis in the whole of India who can stop their heartbeat. It requires great training and experience. I am merely a novice in this matter. Main toab hi bachcha hoon."
'"How long have you been practising yoga?" I asked.
'"Not very long-about forty years, maybe fifty-I can hardly remember." Without noticing my expression of amazement, he continued, "You see, my Guru strictly forbade me to demonstrate such skills. Demonstrating yogic powers merely to impress others hampers a yogi's spiritual quest. It was only because Major ii has been asking me to show him something spectacular that I agreed. As I did not sUcceed today, I shall try tomorrow at the same time."
'Later, when we were at dinner, I said, "Hridaynautii, may I suggest something?"
'The man nodded.
' "Why don't you come and perform at my clinic? As I am a doctor, your amazing feat will have more credibility if you perform it at my place of work." 'The yogi smiled faintly, and said in his usual calm way, "I do not have to prove anything to your scientific fraternity. We are not street magicians or conjurers."
' "I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way," said I, and explained to him what I had meant. In the end, however, I was successful in convincing Hridaynaut and Major Rennick that the next session should be held at my clinic.
 'Next evening at the appointed hour we were ready. I had selected a comfortable chamber on the top floor for the experiment. Hridaynaut Bhardwaj had had an early meal and seemed to be ready. He sat on the floor cross legged, and said, "Dekhiye sahib, you must realise that we are meddling in Some very dangerous business. Please listen to me very carefully." We moved a little closer to him.
' "Although I have mastered yoga to a great extent, I have still not perfected the art of stopping my heartbeat fully. You are aware of my unsuccessful attempt last evening. There are times when I stop my heartbeat at the first attempt, while at other times it takes longer.
What is alarming is that at times I fail to revive my heartbeat when I want to. It revives sooner, or later, on its own. Now, listen to me." He looked at me with his intense eyes. "If I succeed now, I may be in that state for twenty-four hours. For all practical purposes, I will be dead. But as I have just said, sometimes I find it difficult to revive my heartbeat, and in that case it may take longer. Now, this is very important, Doctor. No matter how long it takes you will do nothing to revive me. You will not try any of your medical trickery, because that could be fatal to me. Do you promise me that?"
"I promise," said I.
'"In that case, please leave me alone in this room. Come back after an hour and check my pulse. And remember," he warned again, "no matter how long it takes, you must do nothing. ..absolutely nothing."
'The Major and I waited anxiously in the clinic below. An hour later, when I checked the pulse of the man lying on the floor, I broke out in a cold sweat. There was no pulse. I placed my hand on the left side of his chest, and there was no indication of a heartbeat. I could not believe it. The man before me was dead. I wiped the perspiration from my forehead and looked at Major Rennick.
' "What do we do now?"
' "Don't be too excitable, my dear fellow. We must wait until tomorrow evening."
'I asked the Major to stay, for I was too unnerved to spend the night alone with that body in my clinic. We were awake the whole night, and every moment weighed heavily on my conscience. Major Rennick tried to put up a very brave front, but I knew that he was shaken by the experience. Morning brought little relief, and for the whole day we were on tenterhooks. Finally the evening drew in, and we waited nervously beside the body of the yogi. To our horror, nothing happened.
'I checked the yogi's pulse a"ain and again. With every passing hour our anxiety grew, and as morning drew on, with no sign of the yogi waking, I turned to the Major in some panic-, "Shouldn't we do something?"
 ' "Have you forgotten your promise?" the Major reminded me.
 ' "No, of course not. But we cannot leave him like this."
' "There is nothing we can do but wait patiently. He will be fine-sooner or later." , Alas, the Major was wrong. Days went by, but nothing happened. I would check Hridaynaut's heartbeat several times each day, only to be met with disappointment.  'Two weeks passed, but the body, although cold, was not decaying. Surprisingly, Hridaynaut's hair, beard, and nails did not grow. This puzzled me a great deal, but it also gave me some hope. It was clear to me that he was neither in a coma, nor was he j dead. ~ , As the days passed,- my anxiety grew. Major Rennick kept the authorities informed i throughout, and there was an inquiry, which concluded that there had been no foul play of any sort. It was agreed that it was best to keep Hridaynaut at my clinic till further notice.
'1 wrote a letter to The Revd H. S. Olcott, who had co-founded the Theosophical Society with Mme Blavatsky at Adyar, near Madras. Unfortunately, Olcott did not reply; he was probably too busy with the Society's activities following the death of Mme Blavatsky. I also wrote to the Society for Psychical Research in London for help, but no assistance came. They probably took me for a madman.
'Seven months later Major Rennick was transferred to Cabul, and I was left alone with Hridaynaut Bhardwaj. It had been almost a year since that fateful encounter with the yogi.
'By now I had become more or less used to the unnerving situation. I had begun to take my; practice seriously once again, and things might have continued in this way for Heaven knows how long.
'One evening I was invited by my neighbour Mr McKeough, a member of the Simla Amateur Dramatic Club, to the premiere of The Talisman at the Gaiety Theatre. The play was rather poorly presented, but I enjoyed myself nonetheless, and was in a cheerful frame of mind as I made my way back towards my house.
' As I approached the building, however, I was shocked to see that the top floor of the building was on fire. Fires are common in Simla, as most of the houses are made of wood. The firemen battled with the flames and brought the situation under control, but not before most of the top floor had been gutted.
 'When the realisation came my head was in a whirl. I ran to the room where Hridaynaut lay. Amidst the smoke I saw the charred body of the yogi. Words cannot possibly describe how I felt that night.  'The next day I informed the authorities what had happened. Their decision was unanimous. The man should be cremated without further delay, and the order was carried out immediately.
'As I tossed and turned in my bed that night, I realised that the matter was far from over.
Some time after falling into a fitful sleep, I woke with a start. I heard faint moans. Someone was breathing very heavily, and it did not take me long to realise who it was.  'I will never forget that night. It was the longest of my life. With Major Rennick gone, I was left helpless. Since then I have lived here with the sound of death. ..alone. .., Susan held me close and stroked my hair.
 'My darling, it must have been dreadful for you.' .
 'In a way, and especially at first; but I have come to the conclusion that the man means no harm to me. And I have learned to live with the sounds. They are so soft that after a time, you do not hear them; like the ticking of a clock.
'Did you not consider living somewhere else?'
'I did, but the sounds followed me everywhere, even to Dorset. For a while I stayed with Major Rennick, but it made no difference. I wonder why you have not heard them until now; perhaps they were too faint. They grow strongest here. I did not tell you about them because I didn't want to frighten you. And I could not bear the thought of losing you. I am so terribly sorry ...' .
'It's all right.' She soothed me, as one would a nervous child. 'I don't love you any the less. Come, let's go to bed.
Two months later, Susan gave me the good news that she was expecting a child. I was overjoyed; but as the day approached we noticed that the moans in the room were becoming louder. Earlier we could put them aside, but now they were too loud to be ignored easily.
And on the final day they became unbearable. I was alarmed. Would the baby come to some harm? My nerves were in shreds. I sent for a nurse from the Ripon Hospital. In the middle of the night, as my wife writhed in pain and her cries grew louder, I could clearly hear the other sounds which rang out through the house. The nurse heard them too, and almost fled, but I somehow persuaded her to stay.
 Later in the night, when I heard the first cries of our baby, I thought my ears were going to explode. The two sets of cries echoed in the hall, and Time seemed to have come to a halt. Then, in an instant, everything went silent.
I went in to see Susan, who was exhausted but otherwise all right. I was also introduced to the baby, whom the nurse was holding.
'Congratulations, doctor,' she beamed, 'it's a boy!' '.
Indeed it was; the healthiest baby I had ever seen. I could have jumped for joy, but instead kissed Susan. There were tears of joy in both our eyes.  Then I realised something. I motioned Susan and the nurse to be silent for a moment.
'Susan, listen,' said I, 'listen carefully.'
 We heard nothing. There was silence everywhere.
First published in June 1997 in  All Hallows, The Journal of The Ghost Story Society, British Columbia, Canada.