Arjun and Anjali, a young, successful, and apparently happily married couple drive from the city to picturesque Kashipur to spend a few weeks at their friend’s summer house. They are well looked after by Shanti, the housekeeper, who takes pains to make their holiday comfortable. Shanti grows quite fond of Anjali as the days go by. When Shanti accidentally discovers that Arun is having an extra-marital affair, she is torn. Would she be doing Anjali a favour by telling her the horrible truth? Or is it kinder to stay silent and bear the burden of her secret?
I tell the guests – a young couple, early thirties, if I were to guess – about the missing girl the day they arrive at the big house. Couldn’t I have waited? Let them settle in. Shake off the tiredness of the drive from the city. Enjoy a blissful night. After all, they are not weekend visitors who flit in and out of Kashipur like frantic butterflies. That lot has no time to settle down. Show up on a Saturday. Pack up and leave on Sunday. Where is the sense in that?
Weekenders are flighty creatures, but their travel plans are their business. Who am I to judge? I share the story of the missing girl with all of Saab’s friends who come to stay here. Kashipur wouldn’t be Kashipur without the story swirling around in the air; an old story, old as the mist that hangs over the mountains and reaches out, with long fingers, to my home.
She went missing years ago. At dusk, when a light rain was falling. Her parents raised the alarm when they realized that their teenager, a pretty girl who hummed sad love songs when she went out to graze the family’s goats, had been gone for hours. A blood moon hung in the sky. The pines on the mountains gleamed white. The wind whistled an eerie tune. Search parties, armed with sticks and lanterns, scoured the area. The men marched through woodlands and scented pine groves, chanting the girl’s name like a prayer. They looked for her everywhere: on the curvy, narrow roads, the trails crisscrossing the mountainside, on jagged cliffs, in the dark hearts of gorges and thickets that never let the sun in.
“Was she in an accident? Did someone kidnap her?”Anjali asks, sitting up straight.
She has showered and changed, and so has Arun. The two of them are seated at the dining table, where I’ve laid out a hot meal.
“She can’t have vanished into the mist…” Anjali’s voice trails away. Arun is too distracted by his phone to pay attention; his eyes, his fingers, his whole being hooked to the gadget.
“Nobody knows what happened,” I say. “The police didn’t launch a search. Kashipur is just a speck on the map. We don’t matter”
“Can you believe that?” Anjali leans forward, taps the rim of Arun’s glass with a spoon.
He looks up at her, his face a blank. He is a handsome man: tall, well-built, and acutely aware of his handsomeness.
“The cops didn’t bother looking for the girl,” Anjali says.
“The one who went missing. The one Shanti is talking about”
“Sorry, sweetheart,” Arun smiles, displaying a perfect set of teeth. “What’s Shanti’s story again?”
He’s the kind of person who pays attention to a story if, and only if, it revolves around him. Still, Anjali repeats the details for his benefit. He shifts in his seat, fiddles with his phone, tries to strike an interested pose. The story is lost on him and Anjali is wasting her time, but who am I to judge?
Arun is on a diet — fruit and vegetables only; no sugar, flour, or dairy. On his wrist is a fluorescent green band, a “fitbit”, which records how many paces he walks, how many hours he sleeps, how fast his heart is beating. The bit is his best friend. He consults it all the time.
“What if she was fed up of this place?” Arun says, pointing at the mountains. The view from the dining room is a treat; endless expanse of sky, the valley soaked in moonshine, the mountains looming over it, like majestic sentinels. “Too quiet. Too much beauty to take,” Arun makes a face. “Maybe she ran away to the city to start a new life”
“Did they find her?” Anjali asks. “Did she ever come home?”
“Is that a yes or a no?” Arun drums on the table – a restless, impatient beat. He cares very little for my answer. I can tell.
“No one knows what happened to her,” I say. “She’s gone, but she’s still here”
“I don’t understand,” Anjali’s grey eyes scan my face.
“Her ghost…her spirit…wanders around. We’ve all seen it.” I tell them about the morning I woke up to see a shadow hovering outside my window. My cottage, a cubbyhole fifty steps away from the big house, faces the east. Even if I’m short on space, I’m never starved of light. But it was early in the day, that hour when the light is pale and sickly, and the sun lurks behind the mountains like a shy guest. The shadow, a still, sombre presence, clouded the window pane. I froze. My breathing slowed down. My body went numb. I crouched under the bedcovers, and stayed there till sunlight flooded my room and the shadow faded away. Many residents of Kashipur report similar sightings. Some say they bumped into her outdoors; others felt her presence in their homes. A shadow flitting across a window pane. A silent companion on a walk uphill. A whisper stripped of a voice. A dancer stripped of a body. A wispy thing of air and smoke none of us can ignore.
“A ghost? What fun!” Arun laughs out loud. “When do I get to say hello?”
Anjali stays quiet. Fear? Doubt? Sadness? Her silence puzzles me, but I let it be.
The next morning, Saab calls on the landline to check if the guests are okay. The call is only a formality. He knows I’ll take good care of them. I’m an excellent housekeeper and a great cook and in all the years I’ve spent working for Saab, none of his friends have had reason to complain.
Saab says Arun’s father is an old friend; a politician with powerful connections, a kingmaker who topples governments with a snap of his fingers. Arun is a talk show host, a tv personality with a huge fan following, his fame no less formidable as his father’s.
I picture the city as a giant stage. Saab’s friends line up there in rows. The spotlight, dazzling bright, shines all day, all night, bathing them all in a heady glow.
“Anjali has her art,” Saab says, clearly in awe. “She has a show coming up – in London, next month”
I’ve seen her prop up her easel in the living room, next to the window where the light streams in, pure and clear. Her paints are scattered at the foot of the easel. Brushes, canvases, paint rags – all unpacked and stacked on the floor.
“I’m an admirer of hers,” Saab trips over the word. He will buy her paintings, the ones she works on here, in the spot by the window with a spectacular view.
I imagine a picture of the mountains hanging on the living room wall. A miniature replica, boxed into a frame, staring at the real thing outside. Saab forgets to tell me that Anjali’s paintings are not mirror images of nature. There are mountains and streams and sun-kissed meadows in them. Birds soar in the blue. Streams shimmer, flowers burst into bloom. But all of it is fleeting, all of it seems a dream, as if every blade of grass and cloud, every mountain and jagged rock will vanish, in an instant, like a shadow at dawn.
The first week of their stay passes quietly. Arun spends a lot of time on his computer and phone, emailing people, giving instructions, managing, from miles away, his staff in the city. Anjali works on her paintings all day. She starts at first light and by evening, her shirt is splattered with paint, her hands are soaked in rainbow hues, her shoulders slumped from exhaustion. The work consumes her completely. She soldiers on, hour after hour, unfazed by hunger and thirst. Most days, she skips her lunch. If she takes a break, she gobbles up everything on her plate, thanks me for cooking a great meal, and rushes back to work.
Dinner is a more relaxed affair. Arun joins her for the meal; talk and laughter and friendly banter light up the room. Wine glasses clink. Jokes drift in the air like brightly coloured balloons. They offer me some wine, invite me to sit down, have a chat. There are things they want to know. Have I always lived in Kashipur? (This is my home. There’s no other place I’d rather be). Do I have a family? (I’ve been on my own since my husband passed six years ago. Lung cancer. Prakash wasn’t a smoker: one of life’s many ironies). How often does Saab come to stay at the big house? (Once a year. Twice at the most). The house is perfect, the mountains so grand, why not spend more time here? (Sorry, you’ll have to ask him).
After dinner, they head upstairs, loose limbed, tipsy from the wine. I stay back to clear the table and do the dishes. The kitchen is on the ground floor, at the rear of the house. The bedrooms are upstairs, two airy rooms and a sprawling balcony with a bird’s eye view of the valley and the mountains. There is also a glass-panelled sunroom up there, a snug capsule angled to catch the light. In the winters, when Kashipur freezes over, the sunroom is the warmest spot in the house. Arun has spread out his yoga mat there, a blue rectangle on which he does headstands and other contorted asanas, twice a day. Anjali prefers walking to yoga. She takes off for a walk, usually by herself, when the sun peeps out from behind the clouds. The walk clears her head. She loves to breathe in the morning’s calm.
I show up at the big house at 7 every morning. Anjali is roaming the hills; Arun is in the sunroom, doing yoga, egged on by his pushy fitbit. I get started on breakfast, tiptoeing around the kitchen, quiet as a mouse. The walls are thick enough to muffle gunfire, Arun is upstairs and Anjali is out, but I am quiet because I have perfected the art of working quietly, of being an invisible presence in the house. Saab’s friends come here in search of uninterrupted calm. Kashipur is the promise of silence, sanctuary from the city’s roar. I keep the peace. I do my best to please.
When Arun is done with his yoga hour, he wanders into the living room in search of tea. I brew him a fresh pot. He settles down on the couch, sipping his tea, staring at the mountains in the distance. I let him savour the tea, and the view. Speak only when spoken to.
One morning, when the sun throws long shadows on the mountains, he is in the mood for conversation. “Your ghost story,” he says, projecting his voice across the room. “I’ve been thinking about it”
“Oh?” I’m surprised he remembers.
“Did you ever see the ghost here? In this house?”
“Upstairs, I was cleaning the sunroom. I felt the air move behind me. Sensed a presence. Turned around to check. Her shadow was on the threshold. She was gone in a second”
“Do you believe in god, Shanthi?” Arun’s tone puts me on guard. He’s switched to talk show-host mode even if no one is watching. I’ve seen plenty of hosts like him on tv, digging up people’s secrets, burrowing into their past like moles.
“Heaven, hell, the whole deal?” he asks, setting down his tea cup.
I pray to god when I’m in trouble. I am an occasional visitor to the temple on the hilltop, a small, white-walled structure, perched close to the clouds. I offer flowers to the deity, ring the brass bell for luck. There are times when my faith is shaky, days when I ask why he floods our lives with pain and misery, why the balance of things in this world is so skewed. The good are punished. Evil wins. Flood and famine, war and slaughter – where is god when things fall apart? I blame him at times, resent him even, but I still believe that an all-knowing eye in the sky watches over us.
“No god or ghosts for me,” Arun says. “Never believed in them. Never will”
“What if you see a ghost?” I ask, annoyed by his smugness. “What if it’s right in front of you?”
“Interesting question,” he says, angling his head to the side.
We’re not in a studio. There are no cameras in here, no audience to impress. Still, his responses are choreographed, his gestures smooth, practised. Maybe he thinks life is one long chat show; people come, people go, spilling their deepest, darkest secrets on a studio set.
The doorbell rings, rescuing me from Arun and his questions. I’m so relieved I want to do a happy dance. I run to the front door, slide the bolt back, let Anjali in. Her face is flushed, hair all messed up, but the spring in her step tells me the walk’s done her good. She has good workdays and bad. On the smooth days, images flow without a hitch – from inside her head to the tip of her brush on to the canvas. And then there are the ones when nothing goes right. She crouches before the canvas like she is in pain. Her eyes scan the sky, the pines, the faraway peaks, begging them for a cure. I’ve learnt to read the signs, to predict, correctly, which way her day is headed. It’s a simple skill – like gazing at the clouds gathering over the mountains and predicting rain.
Every time Saab calls, I give him a first-hand report. “She’s on fire today,” or “No work done” or “She’s stuck. It’s driving her crazy.”
“May the muse be kind to her,” Saab says, softly.
The mountains and the honeyed light trickling in through the pines, the valley laced with silvery streams, the sky and the stars and the air throbbing with birdsong – all of it is inspiration. Maybe the muse lives in them. Maybe the muse speaks to her through them.
“Is the muse always a woman?” I want to ask Saab. People say cooking is a woman’s job, and so is cleaning the house and scrounging around for firewood. Prakash never stepped into the kitchen, not once, when he was with me. In the twenty odd years we spent together, all the meals we ate were cooked by me. If I didn’t light the fire, he would’ve turned to ice. If I stopped cleaning the house, he would’ve lived in filth. Let the dust gather. Let the cobwebs stay.
I want to get to know the muse better. Gather every detail there is to piece her story together. Understand how she works her magic. Understand why she got stuck in this job. Is she human or an exotic, winged creature? A talker or a silent presence? Does she dress in silken robes? Wear a crown? My head is buzzing with questions, but Saab is not in the mood for a chat. He has a business meeting to attend. A working lunch he can’t be late for. Traffic in the city is a maze so even his sleek black Mercedes, built for speed, takes forever to ferry him across town. He hangs up, abruptly, without saying goodbye. I save my questions for another day, another time. I can wait.
The morning I overhear Arun’s call, rain clouds are spread thick across the sky, the sun a smudge on the horizon. The breeze is sharp, chilly. I shut the kitchen windows to keep it out, then start cutting up some fruit for Arun. He’s still on his fruit and vegetable diet. Salads and steamed vegetables – that’s all he eats. I’m planning on making pancakes for breakfast – Anjali’s guilty pleasure. Her face lights up like a child’s when she sees them.
Arun’s voice – snatches of a conversation – drift into the kitchen like motes of dust. He’s up there on the landing, talking to someone on the phone. “I’ll be back on Monday, darling,” I hear him say. “One more week. That’s it.”
“Love you too”
A dish slips from my hand and crashes on the floor. Arun goes quiet. I hear the sound of his footsteps, panicked and hurried, racing down the stairs. He is headed towards the kitchen, towards me. I grab a bowl off the shelf, dump the pancake batter in, start stirring it.
“You’re early today,” he says, planting himself by the kitchen door. He sounds out of breath. Flustered. We make eye contact and he looks away, quickly, too quickly.
“I’m making pancakes,” I point at the bowl. “Anjali’s favourite”
“Super!” he says, faking a smile.
I turn my back on him, add in eggs to the batter, whisk the mix into shape. He hovers at the doorway, watching me work, lost for words for once.
The call gets stuck in my throat like a bone. Knowing what I know, I can’t be at peace. I can’t look Anjali in the eye without feeling guilty – the secret is Arun’s, but I’m the one keeping it from her. I go from one restless day to the next; looking for the right words, the right time to talk to her. Arun goes about his business as usual. Yoga sessions, long hikes on the mountain trails, work calls and emails – his days are packed. He acts like nothing has changed between us. Our conversations, if there are any, are whittled down to the bare minimum. We maintain a polite distance, which suits us both.
When I am on the phone with Saab, I almost blurt out the truth to him. I open my mouth to say the words, then bite my tongue, will myself to be quiet. What if Saab were to accuse me of spying on his guests? What if I became the villain, the spy, the wretched housekeeper who violates the privacy of his friends? He would hate me for it forever. Blame me for wrecking a beautiful relationship. He was always going on about what a great marriage they had – the perfect couple, so well matched, so in love. I feel bad for him. I hate to shatter his precious illusions.
There are times when Anjali and I are alone with each other, moments I should seize, steel my heart, tell her the horrible truth. Instead, I hesitate. One night, Arjun goes to bed early. He’s spent the whole day hiking. He’s exhausted. All he wants is the sweet relief of sleep. Anjali wishes him goodnight and sits down to dinner. He waves at her from the top of the stairs as if he is saying goodbye. She returns the wave with a smile. The house is quiet. Outside the window, cicadas chirp, an owl hoots from a treetop. The moon glides over the mountains, a sliver, sickle-shaped.
I wrestle with my silence, fumble for words, to find the right way in. Anjali tucks into her food, sits back, tells me about the painting she’s working on, the magic of Kashipur no artist can resist. Peace lives in these mountains. Beauty roams free.
“We’re so lucky to be here,” she smiles, dazzled by her luck.
I don’t have the heart to break the news to her. Maybe tomorrow, I tell myself. Or the day after. She is here for another week. I’ll find a way to bring it up in the next seven days.
The hours slip through my fingers. A week whizzes by. I am paralysed by doubt. I can’t make up my mind: would I be doing Anjali a favour by speaking up? Was it kinder to keep her in the dark? Every marriage has its secrets; lies swept under the carpet, lies wilfully ignored. The truth is an unwelcome visitor; a threat, a calamity, the storm that wrecks the house of cards.
I spend sleepless nights over it. Sunday dawns, bright and clear, and it’s time for them to leave. Dressed in blue jeans and white shirts – Arun’s shirt is tucked in, Anjali’s is a loose-fitting, flowing garment – they wheel their suitcases to the car. Anjali paintings, ensconced in layers of bubble wrap, are strapped to the luggage rack on top.
“Any time you are in the city, come stay with us,” she whispers, surprising me with a hug. Her eyes are wet. Her voice teary.
“Be careful,” I want to say. “Watch out!”
But I can’t sound a warning without offering her an explanation. Either I tell her everything I know, or I stay quiet.
“Take care, Shanti,” Arun smirks, slipping into the driver’s seat. “Don’t let the ghost get you”
I have advice to offer in return, but I hold my tongue. He leans forward and turns the key in the ignition. The engine purrs, ready for the road. Anjali straps on her seat belt, blinks back tears, and gives me a cheery wave.
I stand at the gate and watch her go. The car zooms downhill, past the pines, past the gnarled oaks, a maroon speck against the green, vanishing into the blue.
Saab – Respectful term for Master, Employer
Author’s Bio: Vineetha Mokkil is an Indian writer currently based in New Delhi. Mokkil is the author of the short story collection, “A Happy Place and other stories” (HarperCollins, 2014), which was listed as one of the Ten Best Works of Fiction of 2014 by The Telegraph. Her fiction has appeared in the Santa Fe Writers’ Project Journal, Asian Cha, The Missing Slate, Jellyfish Review, The Bombay Review, and the Bangalore Review among other journals.