This Columbus Day weekend, I am ensconced in Baltimore, which has meant that, among other things, my thoughts turned to Edgar Allan Poe, the city’s most distinguished literary son, one of a select group of writers whose work I was first exposed to via comic books, and someone who, to put it mildly, gave me the shakes for a very long time. The story that did the most to ensure this clammy place in my heart was the Cask of Amontillado.
One hot Delhi afternoon, as I rode back in a crowded school bus from a fairly typical sixth or seventh grade day, I noticed, next to me, a boy reading a comic book with a lurid cover that spoke of stories of the terrifying, the macabre, the gloomy. I was bold enough to ask to read it when my companion was done, and was soon plunged into its grim world. The first story I read was the tale of Montresor’s deadly revenge. I was horrified by the ending, as Montresor immured Fortunato within the catacombs that lay beyond the wine cellar under his palazzo. I read other stories in the collection, but none of them, including the Murders in the Rue Morgue, had the same effect on me.
The story of Montresor and Fortunato tapped into a childhood claustrophobia, a paralyzing fear of being locked in, of being crushed alive by an invisible weight that drove the air out from my lungs. A recurrent childhood nightmare of mine had been that of somehow suffocating under a blanket. It was one reason I found the winter months especially scary: sleeping then meant the use of the classic North Indian razai, the heavy, stuffed-with-cotton-wool quilt that made the Delhi winter nights tolerable. Time and again, I would wake at night, shaking, gasping for air, convinced I had been buried by my razai. The razais seemed cavernous, with acres of space beneath them that shrank to enclose me in a woolly grave. I was never able to put my head under one and regarded my brother, who nonchalantly went to sleep with his head shoved under his quilt, with some amazement.
This fear was compounded by the presence of the immurement theme in Indian legend and history. More than one Bollywood movie featured characters walled up alive while plaintive dirges played in the background. One particularly famous instance occurs in the 1960 epic Mughal-e-Azam, which shows the Mughal Crown Prince Salim’s illicit lover Anarkali, immured on the order of Salim’s father, the Emperor Akbar. And immurement didn’t just happen in the movies. The tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, suffered the loss of his two sons to this terrible fate: the nine year old Sahibzada Fateh Singh and the seven year old Sahibzada Zorawar Singh were so condemned on 12 December 1705, by the Governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan. (The two boys had been captured following battles between Sikh and Mughal forces in the Punjab, and ‘asked’ to convert to Islam, a ‘request’ they had refused). It wasn’t just in the realm of fantasy that immurement lurked.
But there was something else about the Cask of Amontillado that made it more than a story about about a man left to die, walled in and alone. It featured treachery and deception, it spoke of unhinged anger, moved to reach out and exact the most terrible retribution of all. And if I had a fear of being crushed, suffocated, and buried, I felt even more terrified by the thought that such a fate would be facilitated and eventuated by an ostensible friend’s deception. Fortunato’s shrieks haunted me for years; for the love of God indeed.