Before hurrying out to the backyard, Amma hefts the axe on her shoulder, and announces her decision to take Meena to the betta tonight.
‘But you promised me a cycle if I passed tenth standard,’ I shout, and fling my satchel to the ground. I want to say more, but she has timed it for when I’m running late for school. The unfairness of it suffocates me. All of last year they visited temples, and returned with blessed water and amulets. I never complained. But this is the ultimate betrayal.
The culprit behind these stupid schemes, Ajji, is counting two wads of hundred rupee notes and securing them in her betel nut pouch. The rapid thunk thunk thunk from outside is Amma chopping wood as if there’s a world record at stake. I’m up against a wall again.
‘The way the folks in this village go on about the betta, you’d think it was God’s office on earth. Can’t you see? It’s just a dumb hillock in the forest where the world’s biggest cheat, Baba Shivraj, lives. He’ll give you ashes, barks of trees, berries, and wildflowers, in exchange for your savings,’ I mutter, and hoist the satchel up, feeling the weight of the world on my back.
‘What can we do, Raghu?’ Ajji asks, her eyes magnified by soda-bottle glasses. ‘Who expected a bhoota to possess your sister?’
‘Rubbish! Have you seen a single bhoota in all your seventy years?’
Ajji’s knees creak when she stands up and hobbles over with a plate of steaming upma. ‘Ayyo, ayyo…don’t speak like that. Don’t we have enough trouble already?’
I duck when she tries to stroke my chin. The aroma of fried onions makes my stomach rumble, but I insist I’m not hungry, and run to the highway. I wish I could follow it to the elephant camp where Appa had worked. Instead, I catch the first bus to the city, and dream of the jungle till the class teacher throws a duster at me. All the teachers are full of boring advice, because today is the last day of regular classes in tenth standard, and study leave begins tomorrow. I cannot concentrate. And the last bell for the day takes forever to ring.
I wait for Nalini at the school gate. She asks me why I am wearing a castor oil face. When I tell her, she bites her lower lip like she does when the teacher sets a tricky question. We walk in silence to the rundown garage near the bus stop to wait for her father.
‘Why do you want to become a mahout like your father? Become a forest officer instead, you’ll get to do more for the elephants then,’ she says with the composure of someone sure to ace every exam in life. ‘As for your sister, bring her to our house. We’ll take her to the big hospital.’
Nalini’s father never changes out of his mechanic’s overalls when he sits astride a battered scooter to take her home. She squeezes his arm, and fills him in on her day. A huge smile lights up his face when the garage owner asks us about school. I memorise Nalini’s features again. A month is too short to revise all subjects before the final exam, and too long to survive without her. While my friends fantasise about bike rides with their sweethearts, I imagine her on a howdah beside me as I guide an elephant into the jungle.
After many tries her father kick-starts the scooter to life. She arranges the pleats of her skirt, and sits behind him. Over the din of the engine we wish each other luck. Her long braids dance behind her as he weaves through the traffic. I hop onto the footboard of a crowded bus, and concentrate on staying alive.
An hour later, I jump off when the bus slows near the cement arrow pointing to our village. The road ahead is a green tunnel. Squirrels play tag, and sunbirds flit tirelessly amongst the yellow bells. The phut phut phut of the buds I bang on my forehead is oddly soothing. Meena would have started a competition. If only she’d stop being such a fool, and return to school. I’ve hardly seen her since she moved into the isolation hut behind our cottage.
A vermillion-smudged sky greets me when I enter the village. Chatterbox parakeets streak overhead. There’s laughter in the wind as the farmers finish work. They’re such nice men, but they’ll throng the toddy shops in a few hours from now. Appa never joined them; he’d draw us closer to the small transistor radio, and turn up its volume when their drunken brawls grew louder.
Any preparatory leave for exams signals the start of vacation in the village school. Boys are diving off the rocks into the river. ‘Run home and study, bookworm,’ somebody yells from the waters, and others cackle. I shrug. Meena and I have become lepers in their eyes after we switched schools three years ago.
There’s a crowd around a small TV set in the toddy shop. The excited voice of the commentator rises over the swell of the spectators’ cheering. I don’t stop to check the score. I’m done with cricket, and yes, with fireworks too.
An intelligent beast like Raja should have known not to trample the man who’d cared for it for twenty years. Three years ago, India won a nail-biting final against Pakistan, and some cricket-crazy fan lit fireworks in the city square just when the five temple elephants were being walked in rehearsal for the utsav. When owners of the shops and vehicles fought for damages from the temple trust, Appa’s fellow mahouts admitted that he’d never used his ankusha to control the tusker. I hate to think a small jab around Raja’s eyes, ears, or anus with that bull-hook could have averted the biggest tragedy of my life.
“I would never use the ankusha on my child,” Appa whispered to the temple trustees in the hospital before he died. Instead of compensation, he begged them to ensure Meena and I finish school and college in the city. When the parcel containing the ankusha and Appa’s possessions arrived home, Amma burned it with her stares.
Today, Meena’s teacher reminded me to tell Amma that if Meena could bring a letter of absence signed by a doctor in the Primary Health Centre, he’d allow her to appear for the fourth standard exams, and promote her to the next class. He handed me a slip of paper, and continued, ‘Raghu, be a responsible brother, and convince her to return. Here’s the phone number of the hostel run by the temple trust. They said you can both move in there if you’re having problems at home. I’ll drop by to convince your mother if you can’t.’
What should I have told him? That Meena was possessed? That all of Appa’s savings were going waste on cheats like Baba Shivraj? That I forget the science and logic taught in school when I’m home? I’m tired of hopping between two worlds. How I wish Appa was here to bridge that gap with his gentle banter.
When I reach home, Ajji and Amma are buzzing around like flies high on toddy. I throw my satchel inside our cottage, and head to the small trough in the backyard to wash.
‘Raghu, we leave in two hours. You’ll stay home and study for your exams, won’t you?’ Amma asks.
‘I’m coming with you. That’s final. Whether I study or not is my problem. Okay?’
Ajji starts to say something, but busies herself arranging fruits and flowers in bags. Amma sets me a plate of red rice mixed with spicy spinach sambhar. I gobble it up, and wash my plate outside. Meena is fashioning thatches from coconut fronds; Ajji’s list of ‘useful skills’ a girl should acquire never ends. With the milkweed and weeds sneaking up to it, it’s unlikely her hut will survive another monsoon. It was anyway a gloomy hole even when Amma had used it during her monthlies.
The whole drama began last year with Meena’s blood-stained underwear. After we got home from school, she showed it to Amma as if it was another red star beside the ‘excellent’ her teachers wrote in her notebooks.
‘Can you believe this? She’s only nine,’ Amma had shrieked.
Ajji helped drag the startled Meena outside, and together they doused her with cold water from the neighbour’s well.
‘I’ve caught her watching adult scenes on TV,’ Ajji said, never at a loss to dispense her wisdom. ‘I should have seen this coming.’
I snorted into my glass of milk. Ajji hasn’t seen the movies my classmates watch on the sly during recess. In the film songs Meena watches on the neighbour’s TV, fully clothed men and women prance in gardens. In the most ‘scandalous’ scenes, two flowers touch, or a dupatta floats over a couple locked in embrace.
After the dousing, Meena was confined to the isolation hut for four days. Amma made me write a leave letter to her teacher. Meena screamed and sobbed—her face a mess of snot and spittle. On her first night there she wouldn’t let go of my hand when I went to give her a thin mat.
‘There are big rats here, Raghu,’ she had cried. ‘Take all my paint boxes and brushes if you want, but please sleep here with me.’
Ajji wouldn’t hear of it. Meena’s wails seeped through the thin walls into my dreams. On the fifth day, Amma and Ajji bathed her in turmeric and sandalwood water and trussed her up in a gaudy red and gold sari. Glittering artificial ornaments covered her neck, arms, wrists, and waist. They lengthened her hair with false hair and entwined it with jasmine strands. That evening she went on display for the women of our neighbourhood who repeated variations of you-are-no-longer-a-girl-you-are-now-a-lady. Meena picked dirt from her toenails while the invitees gorged on laddus and savouries.
Meena grew quieter, and missed school for weeks at a time. There were frequent crying spells. She would sit in a corner hugging her knees, and refuse to speak. Every night, Ajji burnt a bunch of broom sticks and drew smoke circles in front of Meena cursing the ‘evil eye’, and then smeared black soot on Meena’s forehead and cheeks. Amma dug around our hut, but didn’t find any doll stuck with pins. She repeatedly quizzed Meena about whether she had stepped on lemons or eggs that unhappy people left at crossroads. The doctor at the PHC declared Meena fit. He pinched her cheeks and asked her why she didn’t like school. Then Ajji recalled that her mother-in-law had been possessed by a bhoota, and everybody stopped looking for answers. And Meena went from being the darling of the family to a dreaded ghost.
I walk towards Meena. From the gloomy depths of the isolation hut two pinpricks of green light move out with a meow. Bikki stretches and makes figure-of-eight patterns around my legs before jumping up to the roof. A regular diet of rats has made his black coat shiny. Meena saved him from a pack of dogs, and nursed him back to health in the isolation hut seven months ago. Because Amma and Ajji were convinced that Bikki was the ghost’s assistant, and threw water on him at every opportunity, Meena moved in with him.
Meena avoids my eyes, and walks into her hut. She sits on her haunches and hugs her knees. Meena’s skirt has climbed inches, and she now looks thinner. Three discoloured copper amulets hang around her neck from black strings; each one commemorates the end of Amma and Ajji’s patience.
I tug her hair gently. ‘Hey, what’s so terrible about the monthlies? Girls in my class have it too. I can’t believe you prefer staying at home and listening to these two rocks rattling in a tin box all day.’
She shakes her head. ‘I’m a wicked girl. Ajji says I brought bad luck to Appa, and now my bad thoughts brought my monthlies before time. She says I’m unsafe around men, because I’m a woman now. I’m terrified to step out of the hut.’ She twists the end of her skirt with nail-bitten fingers. ‘Raghu, please, I don’t want to go to the betta.’
‘Ajji and Amma are illiterate, don’t listen to their nonsense. Talk to Nalini, or to your teachers at school. This baba-business is a big waste of money. There’s still time. Just tell Amma you’ll resume school.’
She blows her nose on her skirt, and starts to cry, ‘I want Appa.’
It’s a depressing hut even if she has stuck old newspapers cut in elephant shapes on the walls. I idly pull out a cardboard box stowed in a corner. She rushes over and grabs my wrist. ‘No! That’s mine.’
I withdraw my hand. ‘Okay, do what you want,’ I say, and stomp back into the cottage. I should study hard. At least then, college and hostel will whisk me away from this insane place.
Inside, Amma is lighting two oil lamps before a picture of Lord Ganesha. The sandalwood fragrance from the incense sticks does nothing to dispel my irritation.
‘Amma, Meena’s teacher wants you to send her to school with a letter from the PHC.’
‘She doesn’t want to go, Raghu. It is better she learns housework and gets married in a few years. That way, she’ll no longer be our responsibility,’ Ajji says, from behind me.
‘It’s important we get the bhoota removed at the earliest. Then she can go back to school if she wants,’ Amma says, scowling at Ajji.
‘Appa wanted both of us to go to college.’ I finger the slip of paper in my pocket. ‘Her teacher will call on us shortly.’
‘Let him come. Who’s afraid?’ Ajji says. ‘You fulfil your Appa’s dreams. That’s enough for us.’
It’s almost 8pm when Ajji calls out it’s time to leave. The neighbours bid us farewell when we lock the door. I’m entrusted with the bags of flowers and fruits. We hail a pickup van on the highway, clamber into the rear, and sit on bunches of tender coconuts. Throughout the journey, I can’t shake off the feeling that we’re letting Appa down.
We alight after an hour at the outskirts of the city. A single light on the betta’s summit fixes us in its unwavering stare. We find a bullock cart willing to give us a ride.
‘You’re late,’ the driver says. ‘Most people reach before twilight.’
Ajji argues that she hadn’t mistaken the timings. Our cart is making a great racket. But the driver assures me he can count on his fingers the number of times a cart was attacked by animals. Huddled on the inclined wooden plank behind him, we struggle to stay upright as the cart sways. The wet earth smells heavenly. The bullocks know where they’re headed, and the driver doesn’t use the whip. An hour later he stops at a clearing. Ajji doesn’t haggle, and pays him a hundred rupees. He says our problems will be solved.
We have to climb about a hundred narrow rock-hewn steps in the moonlight. Progress is slow because Meena wants to urinate often. We reach the summit as dawn breaks, with whatever blood the mosquitoes couldn’t draw from us, and join a winding queue. Amma forgot our snacks in the bullock cart. I pocket a few bananas from the bunch meant for Baba and sneak out of the queue.
Unlike our monthly ration queue, this one is moving fast. The drill is simple: Baba sits cross-legged under a banyan tree. People offer him their hard-earned money with the fruits and flowers on a tray, blurt out their sob stories, and prostrate themselves at his feet. He raises his palm and throws a handful of useless stuff into their grateful hands.
Only the ‘possessed’ are directed to wait under the neem tree. We join four dishevelled women and three men under the tree. The men are restrained by ropes. Amma and Ajji unabashedly ask and share details of afflictions with the family members. We learn they’re here for a ‘follow-up visit’. Meena sits apart from the group, and draws flowers in the mud with a twig.
The ‘possessed’ have boring stories: Woman A hears voices and keeps the house up all night, shrieking. Woman B just delivered a baby, and has gone crazy. Woman C has tried to end her life twice. Woman D feels so frightened at home she huddles under the cot all the time. Man A flies into violent rages after he was laid off from work. Man B talks to himself non-stop, and begs women of any age to marry him. Man C prefers to remain naked, and tries often to run away from home.
‘My son behaved okay with the mad hospital doctor’s medicines. But when we stopped the medicine, he grew worse. We want a cure. Why ruin the body with chemicals?’ Man A’s mother asks, and everybody agrees.
Baba stretches up from his cross-legged stance and strides into a cave after the last of his worshippers leave. He can easily play a villain in the movies—the machete-wielding guy who lifts people high in the air before smashing them down.
One of Baba’s assistants ushers Man A into the cave. When the cries reach us, I’m spooked. I walk to the mouth of the cave, open to the sky like the paan-stained mouth of a demon. Vermillion is painted on the walls like blood. It is dark, and reeks of camphor. Baba screams for the spirit to leave, and strikes Man A with neem branches. He also strikes him with a log. Each time the man pleads for mercy, Baba warns the spirit of dire consequences if it doesn’t leave.
Man A starts to whimper, and struggles to sit. ‘I’m leaving, I’m leaving,’ he cries.
Baba stops the torture, and steps out bathed in sweat like a triumphant wrestler. Man A gathers his trailing rope and rushes into the arms of his weeping mother.
I’m queasy. Meena’s flowers extend all around her in the mud. I need to act really fast. I tell Ajji I’m feeling nauseous and need a betel nut to suck. I make such a fuss about the size of the nut that she thrusts the pouch into my hand, and transfers her attention back to the cave. I slip away, and watch the torture from behind a huge rock. I stuff the wads of cash into my pocket, and fling the pouch into the bushes.
Ajji delivers Meena into the cave, and looks around for me. With Baba, payment comes first. He refuses to start the ‘treatment’. She pleads with him. Amma sets off in search of me. Baba talks to Meena alone outside the cave. She doesn’t look up once, or utter a single word.
‘This is a very stubborn spirit. You’ll have to come again on the next new moon night. Then leave her here for a week, I’ll drive it away,’ Baba grunts. He grabs Meena by her hair, and pushes her towards Ajji.
A strong breeze rustles the leaves, and a koel practises its song. Dried leaves swirl down around us. Meena’s face is blank, but Ajji and Amma look distraught.
I meet them on their way down the steps, and make a great show of remorse. “Someone snatched the pouch from me. He was tall, dark, and thin.” Ajji and Amma start to scream at me. We go back and look around for the ‘thief’. There’s no one who matches the description. Baba’s assistant hushes us with a warning when we start arguing.
On our way home, I sit beside Meena in the bus we manage to catch. She’s trembling. I offer her a banana, which she gobbles up in three bites.
Meena rests her head against my shoulder and closes her eyes. A fist grips my chest. I’m not sure how, but I’m certain I haven’t let Appa down.
The village is asleep when we reach home. The neighbours have left us a pot of food on the ledge. Meena stumbles into her hut.
Ajji stretches out on the mat with a long groan. ‘God! What sort of boy loses money like that? Next time, we’ll leave Raghu at home.’
I refuse to eat, and spread my mattress away from them. While they eat, Amma and Ajji decide to work an extra shift at the sarpanch’s house to save money. I press the pillow over my face and try to sleep. No matter how much I twist and turn, there’s no muscle that doesn’t complain. I wait for Amma and Ajji to fall asleep, light the oil lamp in the kitchen, and walk to Meena’s hut. The door is open. I almost fall over her. She is sprawled near the entrance. Inside, I spread her mat out, and help her lie down on it.
I sit on the floor, and take her head in my lap. I push the strands of hair away from her forehead. ‘Please, Chicken, listen to me.’
‘Only Appa calls me Chicken,’ she says drowsily. She struggles to sit up, and hands me the cardboard box. I lift the cover. This can’t be true! Appa’s ankusha.
‘The neighbours found it in their well when it dried up last year. Don’t show it to Amma. She hates it. It’s yours now.’ She places a clammy hand on my arm. That’s when I see a bleeding gash on her left wrist.
The box drops from my hands. Brushes, empty paint boxes, and sheets with drawings spill over the ankusha. My hands are stupid when I tear the hem of my shirt and bandage her wrist. I prop her against the wall. I lift the ankusha, and sit beside her. Amma had never let us see it properly. The bronze bull-hook is shaped like an outstretched palm with a long curved little finger. The hook sits firm on a two-foot-long-rod. Its pointed tip has something red and sticky on it. I grow cold. That amount of Raja’s blood could have saved Appa’s life, or taken Meena’s.
With trembling hands I wipe the hook’s tip on my shorts. ‘You shouldn’t have done this. Appa will be sad. This bull hook was still unused.’
‘I want to join Appa. I’ll tell him why I used it, he won’t be angry.’
I tug her hair. ‘No, Chicken. There’s no hurry. You have ninety years to think up a good excuse for having used it.’
The gash is not too deep, but we’ll go to the big hospital in the city first thing in the morning. After her tetanus shot, I’ll find out from the nurse whom to meet. As for Amma and Ajji, I’ll threaten to quit my studies and join the elephant camp if they dare come near Meena again. And there’s always the phone number Meena’s teacher gave me.
I wait till Meena falls asleep, and race to the river with the ankusha. I press it close to my chest once, before flinging it into the black waters. ‘We’re sorry. Please take it back, Appa. I promise no bhoota will torment your Chicken again,’ I whisper. A sliver of yellow moon and a few stars framed by a mesh of coconut fronds are my only witnesses. I sit exhausted on the damp grass, and watch the glistening river hurrying away. The warm scent of damp vegetation envelops me. The river gurgles childishly, and somewhere, a lapwing cries twice, ‘Did you do it? Did you do it?’
When I return to the hut an hour later, I’m restless. I lie down beside Meena, and wait impatiently for dawn.
This short story was published in Jan-Mar 2019 issue.