Monday, November 17, 2008

I narrated the following ghost story to JP’s school going cousins, Madhavi and Ram, during a recent visit to Chennai.

(It is to be noted that I always tell this ghost story in the first person and always request my audience not to interrupt me with questions. I tell them that the events as they happened in the story are true and are a part of who I am, and if some facts of my life seem contradictory to what I narrate, I am not to be stopped and questioned about it, no matter how strange)

My father was a priest in a temple in the Himalayas. It was a Shiva temple. We lived next to the temple. As a small child, I remember never being allowed to go out of the house on my own. I could only accompany my father to the market to buy the weekly provisions. I had no friends, I never played with other children. I never knew why. I had to satisfy myself by sitting near the window and watch the hundreds of people who would come to the temple to pray. Between the house and the temple there was an ancient Peepul tree. A woman would always sit there, alone. She would wear a white saree and leave her long, very curly hair open. Her head would be bent and she would drape the saree around her head. I never saw her face. I could sense that she was very sad. In a strange way, I was drawn to her. I could feel her loneliness.

My father would stop and talk to her both on the way to the temple and on the way home. Each time she spoke to him, she would cry. Curious, I would ask him who she was. I never got an answer. However, I persisted. My fathers routine had gone on for many years and I wanted to know who this mysterious woman was.

One day my father told me. She is a Yakshini, he said. A kind of she-demon. She lives in the tree. He told me that the way a Yakshini could be distinguished from a human was by her feet. Yakshinis feet do not touch the ground.

All of a sudden everything about my life made sense. The isolation, the unanswered questions, not being allowed to play with anyone, the lonely childhood. You see, I always thought that it was out of respect for my father that each time we went to the market, people would clear the path. Long queues would move away so that we could be first. Shopkeepers seldom took money and they averted their gaze when I or my father would speak. Out of respect, I thought. I never knew it was because my feet do not touch the ground.

Whenever I tell this story, several different reactions follow. (and mostly from adults)
1. A blank ‘I did not get you’ look.
2. A ‘ok’…duh ‘What happened next?’ look
3. A stony silence.
4. A stony silence followed by a scream.

Madhavi and Ram had reaction number 4. This was followed by them insisting that they have a look at my feet. I told them that since I was wearing sandals, my feet were off the ground anyway, so they would never know. I had to take my sandals off after that to show beyond doubt that my feet did indeed touch the ground.

They were not convinced. They are not the only ones. After telling this story so many times, I have seen that I am looked at suspiciously, from a few hours to several days after.

Really, I tell you!

Should I celebrate my success as a story teller or accept Ram’s verdict; ‘She is scary, I did not notice it before, but now I do!’

I had to spend the rest of the evening convincing them that their cousin had not married a Yakshini. I told them ways in which they could tell the story and frighten their friends. The success lies in speaking softly, sadly, giving a feeling of doom. A very good actor might even manage a tear.

Though I assure you I am no Yakshini though I do have very curly hair and can trace my ancestry to the Himalayas.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The first few lines of a deeply moving short story, The Ballad of the Sad Café, by Carson McCullers make me think what an empty house must feel like, if it could. Hence this...

The ballad of an empty house

Boarded up and forgotten,
I live another life.
I trap memories in cobwebs
And breathe into them
A life I wanted.

For everyone else to see,
There are layers of dust,
And the whispered footprints
Of people of the dark
Who crawl over me.

People pass by and say,
Oh look, remember that place?
With its pink roses and lilies
And its garden parties,
And its many romances?

Look at it now, its crumbling,
I would not dare to walk up its path,
Who knows what ghosts live
Behind its brown mould walls,
And its ivy eaten windows.

I smile, I sigh, what would you know
Of my sunshine and starlight,
And the lilies in bloom,
Of the endless dances,
And of my many romances.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Ghosts must have had a special fondness for my family. My mother told me about an experience her father had on his grandfather’s farm. He had gone to the farm for the winter and was staying in the outhouse.

It was a black, freezing, and windy winter. A Swedish winter, bitter cold. A winter that I can only imagine.

Sometime around midnight he heard a knock at the door. It must have taken him some time to wake up because when he did the knocking was impatient and persistent. Not wanting to climb out of bed he asked the person to come in. No one did. The knocking stopped. As he was falling asleep, the knocking started again. Once more he asked the person to come in. Nothing happened. When this repeated itself the third time he got extremely angry and told whoever was knocking to jolly well open the door and come in if he wanted to. The door blew open with a tremendous force. No one was there. Just the wind blowing ceaselessly.

The next morning he told his grandfather about the incident. It came as no surprise to his grandfather. He looked upset and muttered about something starting again. He refused to give any explanation to my grandfather. He just told him not to sleep in the outhouse again.

Friday, November 07, 2008

For some reason the ghosts spared me. Or perhaps I was protected by the Baba, who knows. Of course when I was about two or three, I would tell my mother about the Doosri Larki. This other girl and I would play endlessly in the garden, near the pond, in the Doll House that was made for me. I would tell my mother endless stories about what she told me, what she showed me, what we did.

I remember nothing, sadly. The other girl went away by the time I turned five.
The corridor leading from the entrance of the house in Lucknow ended at the kitchen. It took a long L shaped turn before it reached the kitchen and it had along its length bedrooms and a living room. Its walls had old lithographs on them and from the ceiling hung green handis.

It was a dark corridor, even during the day. I would feel cold walking through it and would look behind me to see if I was being followed. The short arm of the L especially was very dark, being a dead end with no ventilation. In the kitchen, where it ended things were different though. My mother’s cakes and cookies or aromas of curries would send out warmth. Being there was like stepping in from the rain and getting a hot cup of coffee to drink and a fireplace to warm icy toes to toast.

One afternoon my mother heard footsteps. Someone was walking through the corridor. That was strange because the cook would leave by 12 noon and come back only in the evening after 5. My mother looked out of her bedroom and saw a veiled woman wearing a traditional Sharara walk towards the kitchen. When the woman passed her bedroom, my mother meant to call out to her but she told me that at that moment her throat constricted and she could not speak. Once the woman passed her my mother went to the kitchen. Whoever it was could not go out of the kitchen without first backtracking and passing her or opening the back door into the orchard. When my mother reached the kitchen there was no one there. The door was bolted from the inside. The kitchen was empty. Then my mother checked the entrance door but that too was bolted from the inside. No one could have got in. My father , who has a thief fixation, had put three bolts on every door and all three were bolted, from the inside.

My mother had first thought that it was the cook who had decided to come earlier and not wanting to disturb us, had gone straight to cook the evening meal. After finding no one in the kitchen, she thought that she had dreamed it. She later asked the cook if she had indeed somehow come. The cook looked terrified when my mother told her what had happened and was convinced that this was a omen and she was going to die. Thankfully that did not happen but my mother always wondered about what she saw. Never one to be scared of the paranormal she told the mysterious woman that she was welcome to walk the corridor anytime she pleased.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

We had several antique kerosene lamps in our Lucknow house. They were obtained from the palaces of the Nawabs where they were not meant for décor but for every day use. In our house their function was purely decorative. When my parents had parties, the lamps were lit and the muted glow of the flame through the ancient frosted glass was the only lighting in the house. I remember being awed by the beauty of the house on these occasions. It was a rich, warm beauty and I would wrap myself up in it while I sat alone and bored with endless adult conversation and seemingly useless laughter. I never could understand why the grown ups would carry on a deep, profound conversation and then burst into loud helpless laughter. What was the joke?!

On the eve of one such party, my mother discovered that we had run out of kerosene. She was wondering how she could procure some when the doorbell rang. It was our antique dealer. He told my mother that had a very strong feeling that we might need kerosene. He was carrying a can of kerosene to give us. He did not actually sell kerosene, so this was not part of his stock nor did he make any money from the kerosene.

My mother was taken aback and she told him that she did actually need the kerosene.
Many years later when my mother was recollecting this strange event, she said the fakir must have been behind it. She was only half joking.

Friday, August 22, 2008

My father was obsessed with collecting and making furniture. Very often I would see carpenters working endlessly on a sofa set, a cupboard or some other heavy and extremely ugly furniture. They were made to work in an open shed that faced the front garden. My father took great pride in being a slave driver. The carpenters had to work relentlessly and must have been poorly paid, I am sure.

One October a carpenter who had been working on restoring a bed that had been brought down from Mussorie walked up to my mother and said that he had enough and he was leaving that evening even if he did not get paid and the work was incomplete. My mother’s first thought was that my father was the reason he wanted to quit.It was not unusual. It was well known that no one could work for my father for very long. His temper was famous. He was well known all over Lucknow for his rage and people were terrified of him.

On being questioned he said that he was very afraid to work in our house because of the Baba who lived in the compound. He claimed that every evening he would see an old man in long white robes walking in the orchard. The carpenter said that he looked life a fakir. This fakir appeared to do nothing in particular but the carpenter was very intimidated by the way the he would look at him. This fakir never spoke and behaved as if people around him did not exist.

My mother who was used to the strangest reasons for staff leaving the job laughed this one off and told the carpenter that she would speak to ‘saheb’ to increase his pay, if that is why he wanted to leave. The carpenter refused and insisted that he was very afraid that the Baba would cast a spell on him and he felt that even another day in the house would doom him.

Naturally it was of no use telling him that there was no Baba. My mother suspected that he might have been on some kind of drug and the Baba was a hallucination. To convince the carpenter that there was no Baba my mother called the gardener and told him to talk to the carpenter.

“But Memsahib, there is a Baba in the orchard. He is a very nice Baba and I do puja to him every day. He is very kind and his blessings are with me always”.

The carpenter never came back and my mother’s interrogation of the gardener resulted in nothing but a repeated insistence of the existence of the Baba.

This was the beginning of a series of very strange events that my mother experienced first hand.

My mother had given Badi Bi the cook a week long holiday. A few days later my father announced that he was calling his politician friends over for lunch and he expected a good North Indian spread. Imagine trying to feed and please pot bellied self obsessed old men! My mother could make the most wonderful cakes and bakes but she struggled to make Indian food those days. Now she was in a real fix. It was no use reminding my father that Badi Bi was on leave and preparing the kind of food he was expecting was impossible. He simply did not care. It had to be done. This was the order he gave in the morning and the spread had to be ready by noon.

My mother despaired and wished that Badi Bi would somehow come back. A hopeless wish for Badi Bi was several hours away from Lucknow.It was only the third day of her leave. I cannot imagine what my mother must have gone through. My father’s temper spared no one. Not even her.

At ten that morning the door bell rang and my mother opened the door to a breathless Badi Bi. Very agitated she puffed and panted as she asked my mother if everything was all right. The moment she was told Memsahib wanted her back immediately, she came rushing. Why had Memsahib sent for her? My mother was very surprised and told her about the lunch. “But Badi Bi, how did you know I needed you, I just wished that you were here, I did not send for you”, she said.

“But Memsahib, a fakir came to my house and told me to go back immediately because you needed me and you had sent him to call me. He told me that it was very urgent and I must leave right away.” she said.

My mother had no explanation for what happened. My father got his spread and was well pleased and none the wiser.

The mysterious fakir became a fairy godmother as my mother found out fulfilling even the most fleeting wish she had.
The house I grew up in was haunted, that’s what all the servants would say. They would tell me that long ago, before any house was built, that area was a village and before that it was a forest through which the British troops would pass.

I would always be awed by the fact that the house and the land around it was large enough to fit a village and before that a forest. The loss of both would make me feel sad. Who had destroyed the forest to make way for the village and who had destroyed the village to make way for the house and its unending grounds?

I would often dig about in the garden hoping to find some treasure left behind by a soldier or a villager. The gardener told me that if I dug deep enough, I would probably find the skeleton of a British soldier and I would know it for sure because he would still have his helmet on.

Although we had a fairly large house keeping staff, none of them would take up the offer to stay in the quarters provided for them. The servant quarters were on one side of an orchard and to me they seemed very tempting. I would spend many hours there with my books, dogs and imaginary friends. I had the pick of fruits to eat and rooms to invade and laze in.

No servant would stay there because they said that in the evenings you could see lamps burning outside the doors and windows of the quarters. This story had been handed down generations of servants and nobody ventured there after dark, except my mother who would take that path for her evening walks. She never saw any lamps but the gardener told her it was because she was a “devi” and the spirits would not harm her.

However, when I was perhaps 6 years old, a cook and his wife came to stay there. Knowing nothing about the lamps and not really caring when they were told, they settled in happily. I was delighted because I always got a snack or a very spicy curry to eat when I went to play there. I was given this secretly because it was always between meals and always loaded with so many green chilies that had my mother known she would have disapproved.

Nearly three years later something happened. The cook, Duli Chand, told my parents that it was his duty to report what had happened the night before.

It was a moonless night, Duli Chand and his wife were sleeping outside, in the portico of their quarters. After midnight Duli chand thought he heard his name being called. He woke up and far down the orchard he saw a man who was wearing white kurta- payjama calling out his name. The voice was deep and menacing. He repeatedly asked Duli Chand to come towards him. When Duli Chand got up to go him, he apparently disappeared.

Duli chand was very shaken by this incident but he assured my parents that he was not the kind to get scared and that if he had God to protect him, he would fear no one human or non human.

Two months after this incident Duli Chand died. He did not have any medical problems. He developed a cough a fortnight before and that turned into a lung infection which he did not survive.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

School stories……

My boarding school would take in students throughout the year. One day an Italian boy joined school. He was blond with curly ringlets falling into his eyes. His smile held a thousand promises of mischief and mayhem. He spoke only in Italian and this made all the girls want to teach him English. He was chased by us through the school corridors, accosted in the dining hall and smuggled into classrooms during free periods. A smile from him or a word spoken by him, especially if it was a recently taught English word was all that was needed to make our day.

He was only three when he joined school. His parents wanted him to get used to India, especially Indian food. In the first year he did not need to attend any formal classes. The headmistress would make him sit in her office for an hour and teach him English. For the rest of the day he was free to do whatever he liked. A lot of his time was spent in the dining hall and rice and rasam soon became a favourite with him.

When he was not eating, he would go from class to class, peep in and smile. Then he would stand and wait for us to squeal in delight and call out to him. Sometimes he was met with absolute silence and no amount of waving and smiling would help. He would then step in and in a flash disappear when he saw who the teacher in class was. Most of the time it was the math teacher. Even he knew that math teachers are a terrifying species that all children should keep well away from.

One February when we were studying for the tenth grade preliminary exams he ran past our class. We had a free period then and he was immediately caught and dragged into class. He was delighted to discover that this was the class of his friend who had an endless supply of scented colourful erasers. She sat down on the floor with him and spread out her treasure. Soon we all were pretending we were in a forest and on a mission to ambush and kill enemy soldiers. Compasses made deadly weapons and the dismembered bits of eraser flesh made a little blond general very proud.

We lost track of time. Suddenly a classmate ran up to us breathless. The bell had rung, did we not hear it? Now the Sanskrit teacher was on her way to class and it was too late to send him out. He was trapped. Quickly through frenzied gestures and broken English we told him that he had to hide and wait till he was told to come out. The enemy had got powerful and he could get killed. We more or less threw him into a gigantic carton box and threw in bits of paper and anything else that we thought would serve as a camouflage.

Within seconds we were back in our places and the classroom was completely silent. The teacher, as she entered must have felt proud. Here was a class that was serious about doing well.

Minutes ticked by. Someone coughed. Then someone else. Soon coughs were answered by many other coughs. Someone sneezed. Two girls hid under their bench, buried their heads into their skirts and laughed.

The teacher looked up and a subtle change in her expression that we all knew so well made us quiet for a while. Then the coughing began again. One brave girl asked to be allowed to go to the restroom. She barely made it outside class before she fell down laughing.

The teacher was very annoyed now but there was nothing she could do. It was winter, coughs and sniffles were normal. A weak attempt at asking what was going on was answered with a wide eyed innocent “Nothing Miss!” But she knew something was wrong. It frustrated her. Her hands itched to punish. It was torture not to be able to do anything. There right under her nose we were clearly laughing at her and she could do nothing. Nothing until…..

Out he popped, the little Jack in the Box. “I’m hungry!” he wailed, the only fluent sentence he knew in English, with perfect pronunciation.

For a few moments nothing happened. The teacher had frozen. Her mouth was open and a hundred expressions all competing to get out had frozen with her. Even he remained in the box, eyes wide, and his body ready to bolt on cue. We waited. Still. We were seconds away. Then it came. A torrent of fury.

She had never seen such a shameless class she said. Hiding boys in class, whatever would we do next? It is not good for girls to talk to boys, did we not know that? So shameless she said, she would tell the headmistress. This was what we were doing when the exams were so near. Did we want to bring disgrace to our families? How could we do this being students of such an institution? We were just like the girls from the bad “outside” world. Here our parents had sent us to learn good values and this is how we were letting them down.

Meanwhile he continued standing in the box with his eyes growing wider and wider. He was very scared. Finally she turned to him and told him to get out. He did not need to know English for that, he ran out but not before yelling rudely at her.

For about a month we were the talk of the staff room and the teachers made it a point to tell the other classes not to follow our bad example. The headmistress threatened with expulsion any girl who was caught talking or even looking at the little three year old charmer.

Monday, July 21, 2008

In grade 8 a friendship had developed between one of the most attractive and intelligent girls in class and another girl, who was quite introverted and thus selective about her friends. I remember her as an ever smiling and unassumingly intelligent girl. This friendship was a very close and loving one. They would do everything together and most of us were indifferent to it, We hardly gave it a thought, initially.

The fact of their friendship must have festered in AN’s mind for a long time.She had always nursed a feeling of awe mixed with jealousy for this intelligent and attractive girl. One day, she could take it no longer. Gathering her group around her she said that there was something very abnormal about their friendship. It was just not right. She then spoke about homosexuality, a word that only a few knew the meaning of in that conservative school. Those who knew the meaning gasped as if a new understanding of this friendship had come to light. Those who were told the meaning(also the very orthodox girls) labeled these girls with the one word that was the ultimate in our lingo to describe a fallen person “Sooo shameless!!!!”, saying it out aloud, after making a dramatic gasping sound and covering their mouths.

AN succeeded in making the others alienate these girls. They would get strange looks, no one would talk to them after school or before. They were spoken about in barely concealed whispers. Many dirty, holier than thou looks were shot at them.

The effect was tragic. These two girls, with no one else to talk to, remained even closer together. They rejected and attempt made to talk to them by the few who would ignore AN’s dictates. This made them lose out on possible allies as well. They became like Siamese twins. On many occasions we would see them crying together and none of us dared to approach them. It was as if they had created a protective psychic shield around them that no one could penetrate. They ate little, sometimes not eating at all or eating just one meal in a day. We saw them get thinner. We saw them put on a brave front but break emotionally. No one , none of us did anything to help them.

Thankfully summer holidays are the best drug of forgetfulness and in the new term the friendhsip had ended and they related to each other as they would to anyone else.No one brought up the incidents of the previous academic year. Maybe, because of us a friendhsip had ended but I think, in the circumstances, it was better it did.
Rachel Simmion's Odd Girl Out made me think back to my school days. Was I a mean girl in then? Memories of my life in a boarding school are becoming vague and distant and all I get are a few glimpses. Things that stood out, the things we did so that we would fit into the Enid Blyton ideal of boarding school life are clearly remembered. They still feel like triumphs against authority. Things like smuggling tuck in on parent meeting day (Sunday), keeping awake till late telling each other stories, making elaborate escape plans, daring to raid the school fridge and then snigger when another grade was blamed and endless such things that to us were a very big deal.

But was I a mean girl? Did I target and victimise the more quiet and demure girls? Did I laugh at someone’s clothes? Did I move in a clique?
Did I join in the general bitch sessions when groups of girls would identify and wholeheartedly make life miserable for some girl for the rest of the academic year?

One memory regretfully stands out. I was sitting under a tree with another girl and we were taking about goodness knows what. I must have been in grade 7. We had just finished a match of throw ball and were resting. Another classmate came in and wanted to be a part of the conversation.
So she asked us what we were taking about and for no reason whatsoever I said that we were speaking in code and only smart people could understand the code.(We had just been introduced to chemical symbols and for some reason i said CuSO4 was code for common sense). Then just for the kicks I got I rattled off code that was meaningless even for me. She looked at us sadly, angrily and she walked away. As I watched her, I felt very bad about what I had done but was too proud to apologise. My compensation for what I did was never to bring up the code again.

However, meanness was very much a part of school life. When you are in a boarding school, you are with your peer group all the time. Before, during and after school. If someone decides to make you their target for harassment, there is nothing much to look forward to except to accept being emotionally battered all day long and then find it being repeated in the evening and at night.

Right from the time I joined this school in grade 5, I found that there were many girls, who individually or as a group would target one or two girls every term, every year.

What these girls did to others is difficult to define. The cruelty was often very subtle and smiled at its victims through a sisterhood of love and friendship that girls in boarding schools seek.

AN had in grade 5 declared herself the boss of the class and had around her a group of girls who could either be slaves of who looked good to have around her. Among the latter were the well read ones, the smart ones, the pretty ones, she had an eye for the pretty ones. Thrown in among the slaves and the decorations were the executors of her endless schemes. Girls who could say mean things to the targeted girl. Girls who could mobilise support to isolate someone, Though two other girls competed for Boss status in grades 6 and 7, it was AN's constant presence that worked with, played with and snuffed out the socio-emotional lives of may girls right till grade 12.

AN made HD into her personal servant. HD had to wash her clothes, make her shelf ( a space we got to store our things, we had no lockers or cupboards), comb her hair and many other such things. In exchange HD got to be AN's pet. HD would make her sit next to her and then very affectionately begin to peel away her self esteem bit by slow bit. “Oh, HD is so good at cleaning, she will grow up to be an excellent servant!" She would say, and then smile at HD, eyes brimful with simulated love. AN decided that she was the charismatic mentor to HD and would tell her, train her to think the way she herself thought and became her knight and protector against real and imagined bitching from other girls. Naturally, mot of the bitching could be traced back to AN herself.

In the school where I teach, I know of a case where a girl had to leave school because of the kind of torment and isolation she experienced because the ‘it gang’ in her class succeeded in turning the entire class against her. My students told me that if they were seen talking to her, they would also be ostracized.

The emotional damage of this kind of female aggression is more or less permanent. In any case the experiences are not forgotten. I remember perfectly well many instances where I, my friends and other girls in my peer group were targets. The harassment often subtle though many times direct lasts months, even years. Once a target, it becomes almost a game. The victim expects to be harassed because at least then she can exist on the fringes of the all important sisterhood.