BY VEENA HARI
As I sat there feeling a familiar ache inside me, an old memory came to me, without my calling, often like these memories do. I must have been ten or twelve years old in the memory, and I could see myself in my maternal grandmother’s house. I used to often spend my summer vacations with my maternal relatives. I guess my parents needed some time off me, as I did off them. I wouldn’t mind spending the days there, as it meant no more evenings full of terror-filled waiting as I dreaded the sound of the doorbell and the state my father would walk in, and the fights between my parents that followed. I felt invisible and doomed.
In this memory, the house was crowded that afternoon, everyone was there--my parents, my grandparents, and even aunts and uncle. My parents were preoccupied by playing the part of the perfectly happy couple, and my father had spared the drinking for later. At that moment, even I believed in it, at least I badly wanted to.
Each room that was joined by unnecessarily long and serpentine corridors was full of people and bustling with conversations in loud voices. I avoided these corridors because they were darker than the actual rooms, and generally empty, and I kept running through them imagining that they were gradually closing in on me, and my life depended on getting to the next room as quickly as possible. There was an excitement in the air, or maybe only I felt the excitement, but the memory is not very clear.
There was food, lots of it, and I was running around, serving, popping in-and-out of conversations, getting teased, and generally kept myself engaged and entertained. I had eaten more than I needed to, as the food was delicious and abundant, and I had no worry or dread clouding my appetite that afternoon. I had eaten so excessively that the residual aromas of the thick curries that remained long after the meal was over nauseated me. And yet, I was as happy as I could ever remember myself to be, at least until it happened.
I was in the bathroom. There was a square mirror on one of the walls in the bathroom. On its faded wooden frame stuck round bindis in different colors that I loved putting on while I was there and pretended to be my mother. The mirror was high up, at least for me in my four feet stature, and I couldn’t see my face in it until I raised myself up on my toes, and even then I could only see the top half of my face; my brow furrowed with the effort of stretching, and the bindi whose glue was half gone, dangled between my brows.
That afternoon, I was excited, so I set a challenge for myself: I would see my whole face in that mirror. To fulfill that challenge, I began hopping in the bathroom, lightly at first, and then as I got frustrated with the quickness of the movements that did not allow me to actually see my own face clearly, I began jumping higher and higher.
I slipped and fell down hard on the wet bathroom floor, my body twisting unnaturally to fit in the cramped space between the commode and the tiled bathroom walls. I didn’t scream or shriek. I just laid there for a few minutes, mortified at the thought of everyone finding out that I was jumping in the bathroom. And then slowly I tried getting up, my head spinning with ideas of what I would tell mum--that she would believe without widening her eye and repeating her question as she often does when I am lying. My side began to hurt. I couldn’t stand up straight, so crouching forward, I stepped out of the bathroom.
I went quietly straight to my mother who was engaged in what looked like an important conversation with Panditji. Panditji was our family astrologer and pundit. He, and only he, would conduct all religious pujas and other rituals for our entire extended family. Our family practically worshipped him and believed his every word to be the entire truth. He would often join us on such family meals, dispensing advice and making predictions for the family at no cost unless they felt like giving him some present, which he would never refuse. He was there that day to discuss my father’s stars, which as I found out later according to him, were the reason he was drowning himself increasingly in alcohol. I interrupted their conversation and whispered in my mother’s ear, "Mum, my tummy hurts."
"Koi nahi beta. You must have eaten too much. Just lie down for some time, thik ho jayega." It will be fine. She said this without eye contact and cursorily patting me down my back. Panditji was looking at me intently, and I hung my head down. He continued telling her something.
I grabbed her arm tight and said, "But mum, it’s really hurting only here," pointing to my side as I clutched it hard.
Panditji stopped talking and looked at my mother and said, "Let us see what she is complaining about. Today I am sensing some black magic in this house in anticipation of everyone’s presence here. She is young, I hope that isn’t what is affecting her and causing her pain. I would like to check for myself if you permit. I am really concerned about your family, Simi."
My mother was slightly surprised, but her face quickly changed to worry, and took me in her arms she said, "Oh my god, aren’t there enough problems for us already that now the evil spirits are troubling my daughter too. Please, Panditji do what you feel is right."
Panditji whispered something in my mother’s ears, and she disappeared into another room. He came to me and gently said, "Not to worry. We will be making you alright in no time." His English was heavily accented, and he put his hands on my shoulders as he said this--his fingers were chubby, shaped like mini-sausages, and there were different colored stone rings on each of his fingers on both his hands. I wondered why he wore so many rings.
My mother returned and asked us to follow her to the other room. I grabbed onto her hand and followed her with Panditji closely behind us. As we walked through the long corridor, I felt his eyes boring into my back, and turned back twice to find him smiling widely at me. I responded with a weak and confused smile of my own. I was scared he would find out that I was jumping in the bathroom, and tell the whole family and then I would cry.
When we reached the room, my mother asked me to lie down on the bed. I did and stared at the white ceiling that was peeling away from one corner of the room. I had come into this room after a long time but noticed that not much had changed. There was a shelf along one of the walls that I couldn’t reach as a child, and I would lie on the bed and try to guess what was up there by looking at the bits and corners that were visible. When I was tall enough, one summer afternoon when everyone was asleep, I inspected the entire contents of that shelf. I couldn’t play that guessing game again.
This room also had a balcony that was one of my favorite spots until the previous summer when a crow landed on my head and pecked me while I was standing there reaching out for one of the tree’s branches. Apparently, his nest was on that tree, so he got angry is what my Mama later explained to me. I was scared anyway and avoided that room altogether for the rest of the summer.
Panditji closed the door to the balcony and lit an incense stick or agarbatti. A thick fragrant smoke began to fill the room. It was sandalwood. He closed his eyes, and walked around the room with the agarbatti, chanting something under his breath. I was feeling nervous and clutched my mother’s hand tightly. Then he turned to her, nodded his head and she got up to leave. I heard the door shut after her and gulped hard. I grabbed the bed sheet in a fist and tensed up. He told me to close my eyes tight and not open them until he asked me to. I obeyed.
After a few minutes passed in silence, I slightly opened one of my eyes and saw him near the shelf placing a red cloth potli towards the back of the shelf. The dhoti he was wearing was a dull yellow and exposed his calves. They were hairy and thick, and I shut my eyes tightly when I looked at them.
A few minutes later, I felt his hands on my stomach and was startled. He began touching me tenderly at first, asking me where the pain was. I opened my eyes, and he immediately told me to shut them. I must keep my eyes closed to be cured. I had to concentrate hard to keep my eyes closed as I showed him where the pain was coming from. He pressed and massaged my side that was in pain.
And then his hand went upwards. He grabbed my pubescent breasts--they were sore and he squashed them hard. I could hear his breathing quicken. He asked me to lie face down. I did and he touched me on my rear. Pinching, pressing, rubbing as he wished. It will be alright now, he repeatedly said as he went along. I concentrated on keeping my eyes shut. It took a few hours or minutes, I am not sure, but it felt really long.
He called my mother to the room and fetched the red colored potli from the shelf and explained to her how it was kept there for black magic by one of the family members, and how he has deactivated its effect by chanting powerful mantras, and how it has left him exhausted. He said he must leave right away, and my mother must not allow me to speak for the next few hours or the evil spirits will begin acting up again. My mother followed his instructions.
And I did not say anything about it even after the few hours I was supposed to be silent were over.
Veena Hari is a closeted writer who lives and loves in Mumbai. She spends most of her time looking for beauty in the nooks and crannies of city life, A psychologist-by-day, she loves working with children, as long as they are not her own. You will often find her nose buried in a book and her mind vacationing elsewhere.