Ashes of roses, the tale of a disappearing grave and the Charterhouse of Parma

Rongili Biswas

Once I started writing a story called ‘Ashes of Roses’. And never finished it. 

Not like Mary Jane. I had not heard of her then. I doubted that I had ever heard of her at all. But this story is not about Mary Jane. It is about a cemetery and the day of my visit.

It was a wintry day in the suburbs and daylight was about to disappear in a while. I resolutely wanted to search something within the bounds of the falling light. As I entered, certain greyness seemed to trickle down from the holes in the boundary wall to the ground below. I looked at the rows of graves. There was a small iron gate of a wasted tomb with overgrown scarlet flowers. The leaves were dusty green and they had serrated edges. I thought it could be him. Or it may not be that grave but another one that I saw sometime later on the top of a hill. I am a bit confused now. The other one, the top of the hill one, gave a view of the town cathedral. The spire looked somewhat hazy. My memory is still suspect since there was the sun, and I distinctly remember it was a hot summer day, yet I saw the steeple hanging in the mist, its edges blurred and its gothic front looking shadowy from the distance. An old iron gate of an isolated tomb lay broken on the ground, on which I stood, and I remember the blooming honeysuckle all around. The memory of this makes me think twice about my mistake since I cannot associate those ethereal flowers with the icy wind that was blowing all around in the waning daylight. An overfed black cat crossed my path as I stepped in. Looking at the rows of the graves and the tombstones, I saw the funeral urns full of dead roses, and an old vapour oozing out of them. If time has not mangled my memory fully, I think I also saw hordes of broken earthen idols strewn over the ground. At some point, I decided to change the lane because something told me that the one I was on, would lead nowhere. Or at least, nowhere of any consequence. Despite the fact that I left the lane that seemed to be a veritable cul-de-sac, the disorder of the tombstones was making me dizzy. Soon I would reach a dead-end, I told myself. I was about to, when among the quaint squalor of the dead, I discovered a writer’s son, himself an even more important writer with a floral wreath on his head. It was nothing more than a caricature -- a light-shaded green sculpture with the wreath attached to the head like a crucifixion and part of the nose broken. By the suggestion of it, he was lying on his own tomb. It should be disgraceful to have someone buried like this, I thought. I felt thirsty, I recall. It was almost dark then. As I went past some kind of boundary hedges, in what can be called as the residual light, I saw a German poet receiving all the bouquets and fresh flowers, his remains were recently transported, and it had become a diplomatic issue to honour him. A hard wind was blowing and I was fast losing sight of everything. 

I turned right at the end of that block. Now and then my feet got stuck in the undergrowth. Heaven only knows how many times I went around the specified block that the man at the gate suggested. The names on the stones could no longer be read, let alone the epitaphs. The only place that seemed to contain some kind of faded light were the petits crosses and the even smaller idols of Virgin Mary, firmly placed within the hollow iron structures. I rather liked those cavernous prisons with broken grills and dilapidated wrought-iron curves. I watched them intently in order to breathe the uncanny air they seemed to be exuding. They all looked cold, uncertain. 

What I looked for was a greyish green stone embossed in a white marble block. His rather stern, flat, incurious face, and lengthy sideburns characteristic of his time could not be mistaken. He was never particularly good-looking, so, sure as the wind blows, he would not look like one Adonis now. However prepossessing a sight the sepulchre- sculpture was.

It was a wet and windy day. My matchstick refused to burn. I started touching the stones in order to feel parts of his face. Keep trying, anything would do, I implored myself. Soaked up to the hilt in darkness, the stones yielded nothing. The final bell for the closure of the gates was ringing. I ignored it.

The wind grew stronger, it was whistling. It might rain, I thought. I almost wanted it to rain. The circularity of the movements along one block of graves was giving me a strange sensation. I went round and round till I touched all the gravestones for that particular engraving and found nothing. I almost lost it. This had to be my only chance, the one reward that I had promised myself in years, the only promise that perhaps could have been kept. At that moment, something passed at the corner - a moving life form. The black cat had come back. It stood in front, eyeing me furiously. I motioned it to come towards me. It stayed there with no movement whatsoever, then suddenly turned away superciliously and disappeared into the darkness. 

How much time had elapsed, I could not tell. For, feeling dizzy, I sat down at a certain point. Perhaps it was hours later that sitting on the ground, my knees drawn up together and my chin resting upon them, shivering considerably and still letting the cold wind lash at me, I felt that I needed to find a way out. In the unmitigated darkness around me, it was impossible even to visualize the direction of the entrance. 

It was still a good ten blocks away. At the very least. I could not remember seeing such a starless sky ever before. Bumping badly against tombstones, rotten flowers, thorny edges and boundaries dotted with thistles, I fumbled about in the dark. The dizzying sickness was coming back. I clung on to a broken marble slab that certainly was part of an ancient tomb. That was when I lost all sense of time and I could not even figure out how.

When I came to, the wind had blown away the clouds. I saw a few scattered stars. A numbing fear was choking me. I cannot be condemned to stay here only because I decided to search for a man who hides his own tomb, I told myself. Hides his own tomb, I clung to the phrase in an effort to hide my utter desperation.

I kept on stumbling over everything conceivable to get closer to the light coming from the night district outside. My body was aching from colliding with things half of which would have been unrecognizable even in daylight. Things that were wasted, corroded, mouldered away. Like the crumbled funeral urns and the dead flowers inside them - greyed, hollowed, paled - ashes of roses.

When I reached the boundary wall and clambered up, my mind was so blank that I had no fear jumping beneath. Soon, hobbling along the glittering pavement of the night district, replete with sounds that seemed to come from a world I knew only in my distant dreams, I saw the moon coming out of the heaps of clouds. It looked brazen, and yet lifeless. I felt unhappy, disconsolate. Worse than that - worsted. 

From then on, I thought burial could be a problem, the wilted roses never gave me any peace, for the love of God! How many times I saw them spreading their wings all around the cemetery. Once it even went to the extent of seeing them venturing up to The Agile Rabbit, dancing on the pavement that touches the border of the small vineyard in the corner, and then sliding down the hilly path towards an unknown expanse. They were not there for a long time after that. But one night they came back. A storm was about to start. The stairs of Rue Foyatier were looking desolate under the glimmering light of the lone street- lamp. I suddenly spotted them moving under the rows of young Chestnuts, huddled together, slower than ever. They might have grown more pallid during those days of exile, they looked sallow, debilitated, almost crushed by the burden of time. When the storm came and lifted them in its azure hands, they gave in with the softness of a maid in love. 

Since then, I had never seen them again - those withered roses. It felt like a cruel blow. It incensed me beyond belief to think that I had no control on anything whatsoever, least of all, on my dreams. For a few days, I tried to draw vague images of funeral urns with grey roses amidst lost graves. I did not succeed in that either. I prefer not to talk about burials since then, you understand now, don’t you? After I failed to spot the man. He was a colossal writer who died on a Paris street during a seizure caused by the terminal phase of syphilis. Common belief has it that he was a compulsive womanizer who at his heart adulated women, and I suspect they loved him back in their own intractable ways. He wrote countless letters to his sister, whom he adored, and in one of his innumerable biographies spoke tenderly about three chestnut- haired whores, whom he met in London. 

Once I was in the Charterhouse of Parma.


Between rows of poplars and fields of corn stood the stupendous edifice. The corn on the boundary was ripe by then and the huge field that enclosed it was full of alfalfa that had grown opulently. A sudden breeze created ripples, the velvety vegetation went recumbent, and the lone bald patch that ran through the field became invisible momentarily. In the north-west corner, a solitary conifer spread its branches like a spent, wearied bird with decaying wings.

Was it really that? Was it truly a hot summer day when the sun shone aslant into the face of the structure before which I stood befuddled? Was the greyness imbued into the visual by the distant Appennine mountain range there for real or did I imagine the whole thing, frame by frame, image after image? I remember the not-so-wide road taking a sudden left turn and becoming a gravel walk, the entrance of which was closed with a horizontal wrought-iron barrier. I remember asking myself what sort of a fence could that be, since it did not at all seem to withhold the possibility of someone’s entering through the adjacent corn-field. When a car sped past, I could almost feel the tremor and the wretched noise of its revved-up engine made me shudder. Otherwise, it was silent as the grave. There were a couple of Oaks on the other side of the road. A Cedar, perhaps. One ancient Ippocastano, and a few violets and convolvulus on the ground. I had to go down on the uneven stretch of the field by the side of the gravel walk, and go up again, when the sprawling alfalfa greeted me.


“He retired to the Charterhouse of Parma, situated in the woods adjoining the Po, two leagues from Sacca.” 

Stendhal’s hero Fabrizio Del Dongo’s swashbuckling story did not have any allusion to the charterhouse before the very end of it. Amid epic battles, audacious escapades, seedy political intrigues, and love’s unwavering sublimity, only once the thought crossed Fabrizio’s mind. Could he seek refuge in a charterhouse, if destiny wills it? The alarming inexplicability of the title refuses to be disconcerting, when one sees how in the story places with definitive bounds act as repositories of womb-like security for Fabrizio. His existence throughout is camouflaged in mistaken identities. The fundamental ruse of misplacement thus remains an essential core in naming the narrative. 

Who said this? Am I quoting someone? Ann Jefferson? Margaret Shaw? Someone else? Maybe. But it’s still me - rummaging, ruminating, rambling to my heart’s content.

'The Charterhouse of Parma is an odd title, since charterhouses are not mentioned until the end, and that of Parma only on the very last page……there is something distinctly cavalier about ending it in an institution which in historical fact has been closed down in 1768, and which in any case had never stood where Stendhal placed it, in the woods near the river Po and two leagues from …..Sacca'.

So much has been written down.


I was looking at the imposing brick-structure with innumerable arched windows all over and a single rounded one on its façade. At a distance over the horizon, beyond the electric poles and some thin strands of poplars, a sudden gust of wind was trying to blow the clouds away. The beautiful bell-tower, that could not be imagined as a penitentiary even in one’s wildest dream, overlooked the lush green field, with something like a miniature turret shining behind.

One can but feel awed before such a sight. And I did. The rows of windows indicating a cloister was the reason for this slightly elongated appearance, I told myself. The church on the left side, at a right-angle to the main structure, gave one a sense of an exquisite clutter, in keeping with the flat, serene, raw sienna-hued wing on the right - something that looked like an unvarying extension of the cloister. Between the poplars and the distant mountain range at one end, and a leafless willow at the other, what came in view were baby maples planted along the entire length of the façade, fresher than anything I had ever seen. It was only when I could see the slight acclivity of the field close to the left flank had created an enchanting geometric pattern, with the corn-heads in the foreground and the arcane monastery at the back, did I dare to wade through the field, almost till the edge of the baby maples. 

And then something happened.

The buzzer went off before I could comprehend anything. I was still reasonably far from the structure that was shimmering in the August sun, at least, I think I was, when a ghastly sound nearly knocked me down. I stepped back in horror. A man had appeared under the Horse Chestnut. ‘L'edificio è in riparazione’, he said ‘ You can’t see that from here, but we are working within it day and night. Not today, though. That’s why the alarms are on.’

‘How many years will it take to wind up’? I asked, when I recovered a little.

‘No idea but how does that matter?’ He added with a tinge of sadness in his voice ‘Noone comes here nowadays, anyway.’ 

‘È vero?’ I asked.

‘Yes’ he asserted, ‘although this one is indeed Stendhal’s charterhouse, some say it’s not. There is another one in the city – one in which you can enter. People go there mostly, if they wish to witness his inspiration. It’s more convenient. So, I guess they want to believe that that one is the real certosa’.‘But the true charterhouse,' he concluded, 'I believe, is this one, in front of which you are standing now’.
After the death-like sound emanating from it had died down, and the verdant Alfalfa started swinging about me in the blowing wind, the man disappeared as abruptly as he had appeared behind the copse of poplars.
The other certosa, like the man had said, was around the central piazza of the city. After being greeted by a dimly-lit corridor with white walls, and an ornate brick ceiling, I reached the section of the cloisters. They formed a neat arcade this time with arched colonnades around the two adjacent sides of a rectangular field. Everything was well-tended. Even the centrality of the dome and the bell-tower seemed measured here.

Benedictine workers built it in the early fourteenth century within a span of ten years and it still bore the marks of Cistercian architecture with square apses and chapels. The lantern on the intersection of the nave and the polygonal transept, the marked prevalence of the nave on the aisles were other signs of that architectural marvel. 

If my memory serves me right, the church ceiling looked distinctly baroque and was replete with nativity scenes. Or maybe I am wrong. It could even be gothic. Or Renaissance. The altarpiece was shrouded in darkness, one could only decipher a white galloping horse in suspension. In one of the panels, soft golden light filtered through the gilded concentric circles, fell on a swarm of cherubim to create an illusion of an oculus. Was there truly such a thing, or is it something that I am imagining now, I keep asking myself, but then doubts begin to gnaw at me almost immediately, no matter which conclusion I opt for.

Heaven knows which one was the real charterhouse and why I did I look for it so desperately. I know I felt ominously bewildered by this doubling of structures. The confusion in my mind that had reigned over the shifting visuals of the two certosas , the claims of one being the real, the inspirational, and the other the inconsequential, the counterfeit, had always had dizzying effects on me. But then, why was it so necessary to break down barriers between reality and fiction? I cannot tell you that either. Literary pilgrimages have so many imponderables that perhaps at times they are best left alone.

I only know my fetish might mean something ‘To the happy few’ to whom Marie-Henri Beyle had finally decided to dedicate his book."

Bio: Rongili Biswas is a writer and musician based in Kolkata, India. She writes in both English and Bengali. She has published a novel, a collection of short stories and has edited three books. She is the winner of two literary awards. Her novel has won the prestigious 'Bangla Academy' award (2015) and one of her stories has won the 'Katha' award (2005) (the best story of a year in a language in India). She has  recently finished writing a novel on nineteenth century French literature and Gustave Flaubert. An  economist by profession, Rongili has published widely in development and public economics as well as in political economy.

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