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.