Short Story ID- 5/2015
My name is Shilpa.
I believe in ghosts because I am one.
I believe in the afterlife because I have been there.
I believe in the occult because I have seen it happen.
Long ago, before the ghost took over, I was human, very human. A beautiful girl. My eyes were brown and earthy, my tresses long and dark and wavy. With a sylph-like figure, I walked with silver anklets tinkling with every move I made, my silk skirt rustling.
I was brought up by loving, doting parents, an only child, spoilt to a degree. Every whim pandered to, almost every wish granted. Home-schooled, my teachers were a motley group who
taught me music and dance, the arts and crafts, history, math and geography. One grave one with a mad gleam in his eye, taught me anthropology instead of his allotted subjects – poetry and Sanskrit.
But those blissful years came to an abrupt end. My parents and I were returning from a cousin’s betrothal ceremony in a horse drawn carriage when thundershowers ensued. A lightning bolt zig-zagging down right onto our path scared the horse. The coach toppled and careened down an incline. My parents succumbed to serious injuries. The coachman lost one eye and walked with a limp all his life. I was miraculously unscathed except for a long gash on my cheek which on healing left behind a very visible mark, a lurid shade of pink.
I was safely deposited in my paternal uncle’s care. My overburdened aunt who had a very pettish, irascible little boy was none too pleased but bore her travails with silent martyrdom.
Unused to housework, I tried my best to do a few chores and assuage her.
My uncle took care of my estate, or whatever remained of it after paying off the debts which my father had incurred. I came to be known as the fair girl with the gash on her cheek. When I came of age, my well-meaning uncle tried to get me married. But the young blades who came to see me drew back in mild horror when they saw my cheek which my small endowment could not balance out.
Then Vasu came into my life. A simple peasant boy, unschooled in life and letters. Orphaned very young, he was left to fend for himself. But he could draw. The lime-washed walls of his small abode were adorned with charcoal drawings – exotic, beautifully primed, comparable to vignettes from some lost Chola period.
The inevitable happened. Two lonely people who were bereft of any plans for a future they could not comprehend, bonded. After weighing the pros and cons of my swiftly running away youth and the paucity of eligible suitors, my uncle relented. My aunt was truly happy for me.
So began my life with Vasu. With my lean assets and Vasu’s diligence, we made us a living, not rich by any standard, but not very poor either. I bought canvas and paints and other paraphernalia
for Vasu’s pursuits. On the side I introduced him to the basics in the 3-R’s . He would now sign his name with a flourish on the lower corner of each drawing.
We peddled some paintings, found buyers among corporations who regaled their spacious foyers with them. When his name became known, exhibitions and galleries took him on.
We gave our house with its small bit of land to a needy one, and moved to a modest place on the outskirts of the nearest town. Its windows opened out to an expanse of misty hills which soothed the eye. My cheek with its lurid pink was forgotten. As if to be reassured, I once asked Vasu whether it irked him to look at it.
What gash? Where? O that – what about it, Vasu murmured. And from that day on it did not exist for us.
At about this time we decided to have a family. Our son was born on a rainy day in July. We named him Viren. He would glide his chubby fingers on my cheek and ask whether I had fallen off my bed when small and whether it hurt. I told him it did then, not any more. So be it, I told myself.
When Viren was 3 I became pregnant again. But this was a hard one. There were frequent visits to the doctor. Then the complications came to a head before term. With the best of help we could get they managed to save my baby. But I died.
I died! I could see that. I could see Vasu weeping over my dead body. My little girl was beautiful with a head-full of dark hair, rosebud lips and creamy skin. In a strange sort of wooliness, impalpable but tangible in some way, I continued to be me.
Rites followed with a smoke-filled house reverberating with chants. Friends and neighbours came in commiserating droves, Vasu and Viren acknowledging sympathy with folded palms.
And in the midst of it all, a wailing baby.
The images became fainter. But I was still me in a strange sort of way, with no body to feel, no cognizance of time, no select geography of place. Then through a thin veil as it were, I heard my baby girl say ”Papa”, and heard her dancing down the hall. I also heard my son Viren talking to his father.
“First she fell from her bed when she was little and cut her cheek. But she became good. Then she makes Netra and goes to God. Why? Is there no way of bringing Mama back?”
But what disturbed me was a new voice. A woman’s voice. She was cajoling Vasu to marry her. She promised to straighten out his home, cook and clean and look after his children.
But I saw that when Vasu’s back was turned, she was fierce and brutal with the children. When she wagged a threatening finger, the children cowered in fright or locked themselves in their room.
I could not let them out of my sight and hovered around. I feared for my children’s lives. Even in this minus-mind existence my panic mounted. I had to warn Vasu but how? I had no body, no voice. My top priority was to get a body, the voice would come. It was the Christmas vacation and the ideal time for action.
It was pitch dark. The house was silent. I floated into the kids’ room with all the energy I could muster. I hovered over my daughter. I went over to my son. I came back to my daughter. I found a way to drift into my daughter’s body. There was no obstruction of any kind. Her body gave a jerk and soon I was looking out of her wide open eyes. She rose, opened the door quietly and went into Vasu’s room where he was sleeping peacefully.
Seeing him brought forth a well of emotion. Why did I have to die, I moaned . I stepped forward in my daughter’s body and sat on the edge of the bed.
“Vasu”, I called softly. I called again.
Vasu opened his eyes and sat bolt upright, consternation in his eyes.
“Netra, what are you doing out of bed at this time of the night? Did you have a bad dream? Come on …”. . .
Vasu’s eyes widened and he switched on the light.
“Netra, what are you saying, this is “
“No Vasu, this is Shilpa. I have…”
“Netra, what has happened to your cheek? Where did you hurt yourself? It looks bloody..Netra..”
“Vasu, listen to me, look at my eyes they are brown like Viren’s. it is me Shilpa in Netra’s body…”
Vasu held his head in his hands. “What is the matter with you Netra. Is this some kind of a sick joke..”. .
‘No, this is Shilpa. I am in Netra’s body. I have come to warn you and there was no other way to tell you. Just look at me. Touch me.”
After a long time, Vasu looked at me unblinkingly.
He held Netra’s face in his hands and kissed her forehead gently.
“It is really you, I can feel it. O Shilpa, I have missed you so much. Many a time I have felt that I cannot go it alone any more. It is the children who give me strength, who uplift me…”
I felt a tug somewhere. As if the body was giving way.
‘Vasu, do not marry Hira. In your absence she torments the children, I have seen it. They are terrified of her. I know she is planning to kill them one day. Accidents will take place…”
“But I have no plans of marriage..”
‘But she has. Do not marry her. She will kill our children”
.Vasu sighed and took Netra’s hands in his. “I won’t”. he promised.
‘Don’t let Hira go anywhere near the children, she pinches and punches them”
Don’t let her touch them. Help will come and you will know. You will know.”
Then a strange thing happened. I knew that I was trapped. Whatever I did I could not get out of Netra’s body. Panic mounted.
“Vasu” I screamed. “I cannot get out of Netra’s body. Vasu, I cannot…what do I do now .O …”
Viren came in rubbing his eyes.
“What is all the noise, Papa? And why is Netra here? And my god, what has happened to her face? Did she fall off the bed?”
I do not know how we passed the night. But we did.
Vasu kept the kids away from Hira. When she approached them in his absence, Netra who had lost her voice, snarled at her holding her brother back protectively. Finally, Hira gave up on Vasu and left the place never to return.
One day, Vasu called a priest to his home to apprise him of the situation without divulging details.
“Some spirit seems to have entered my daughter’s body. She has lost her speech…”
At this point Viren entered and asked , “Is swamiji doing pooja for Netra?”
Turning to the priest he said, “She has not spoken a word since she fell off the bed and cut her cheek. Can you make her okay?”
“Of course I can” said the priest, smiling.
Elaborate preparations followed. The rumour was that Vasu was propitiating his wife’s fifth death anniversary privately behind closed doors.
There was a fire pit, flowers and coconuts, agarbattis and incense. The magic of Sanskrit intonation swirled mellifluously..
A heavy block of teak was placed near the fire where Netra was seated cross legged, eyes shut, and palms together. There was a 10 inch long nail and a hammer also kept in readiness.
At last the ritual came to an end.
“Vasu,” the priest said. “Please ask your son to go to his room for a while. This part of the proceedings may upset him. No harm done but just as a precaution”.
Viren acquiesced readily.
All he wanted was for his sister to be back the way she was.
The priest took the hammer, placed the nail tip down on the wood, and prayed fervently.
“For whatever reason you have come here, whoever you are, please leave this place. It is your nature to be free. not to be trapped in this body. Go to the abode of the gods and be at peace. Nothing bad will befall the family. Go in peace.”
Saying this, the priest hit the nail on the head with great force and plunged it into the wood.
At the same time a heart-rending scream was heard which rang eerily down the hall and in the corridors.
Vasu was shocked to the core. Even the priest cringed for a moment.
Suddenly, Netra shrugged her shoulders and yawned as if coming out of a long sleep.
“Hi Papa, I feel so refreshed. Did I sleep for long? What has been happening here, a pooja?”
Viren came running out. “What was that?” he cried.
“ O just an eagle which had lost its way. We diverted it…see your sister is good now.” And he patted the boy’s head.
Normalcy returned to the Vasu household. He missed Shilpa all the more after having had a brief whiff of her. Sometimes, he jerked out of sleep with a voice in his ear saying help will come, you will know. But over time, this whisper faded away..
It was cool after the rain. The coconut palms swayed and dripped. Pools of water in the grass shone like mirrors sewn on a green skirt.
On the path leading up to Vasu’s house from the main road where the traffic boomed, there appeared a girl in a purple sari. A bag slung on her shoulder, her umbrella open against the light drizzle, she was placing her feet carefully against any slippage. She stepped on the porch, hung her folded umbrella on the hedge, knocked off her soggy footwear and plonked herself on one of the chairs. Keeping the newspaper aside Vasu rose from his.
“Very unpredictable weather, don’t you think?’ she said.
“I am Saki. I am doing a survey for a magazine I work for. I need to ask you a few questions, preferably with your whole family present, if they are here.”
At this, she produced a pad, a printed sheet and a pen from her bag. exuding efficiency.
Vasu’s children came running out their fingers fat with play dough.
“Hi there,” she greeted them, smiling brightly. “Can I have your names please?”
But they could only ogle at her.
She looked up at Vasu, who was also gazing at her with parted lips.
Viren was the first to find his tongue.. .
“Did you also fall off your bed when little? She did once ,” he said pointing to Netra. “ My mama did too long ago.”
The girl, Saki, patted the long pink mark on her cheek and said,
“ O that – it is a birthmark.”
Author’s Bio: Ranjani Neriya lives in Michigan. Her articles, poems and short stories have appeared in several Indian newspapers and magazines. Her poems have been published in many journals in the U.S. She has published 2 books of poetry, Batik 1994 and Promise – a life, October 2013.