Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Anila Mathew

Retribution

It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again gazed down from the derelict balcony. Except for the street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I returned to the dusty room.

As I strained to listen, I could hear familiar muted voices. Incantations being said…but no…this belongs to an old geezer. The feeble voice desperately trying to be strong – it is a giveaway. The old fellow has been waiting for a moment in the sun. He must have been a lowly priest waiting on the high priest all his life. Here is his one chance to attain glory.

But he is not strong enough to cause me any worry. I can afford to wait.

……………………………………………………………………………………….

I am waiting here to receive information on my granddaughter. I remember how her father loved mangoes. He always got into trouble due to his greed for the ripe yellow fruit. The man who I was married to never bothered to look at his own progeny. He gave up his pathetic existence easily when he became one of the 11 who consumed illegal hooch and occupied the newspapers before an election.

The one lakh received in compensation for the hooch tragedy ensured that my daughter could be married within a year of her father’s death.

My son had found himself work in a land that had to be reached after sitting in a train for three days – the land of people with dark skin, curly hair and coconut trees. They paid him three times the wages he got in the village. Soon we repaired the hut that had been dilapidated ever since I first entered as a bride. I could afford to stop working in the Thakur’s(landlord) farm much to everyone’s surprise.

The first instance of being branded a witch was a stray casual remark. The Thakur’s cook had let it slip when the young master fell off his swing, while I was sweeping the yard.

A week later, the elder brother of my dead husband came to buy the land adjoining our house. The money was a pittance and I flatly refused. There was an argument, which I thought I had won. Then after the rains, the elder brother contracted a cough and started spitting phlegm.

Now and then I heard whispering sounds ‘w-i-t-c-h…’

Thakur wanted a servant to look after his paralysed mother. Years of slaving in his farm and mansion had gifted me only stiff joints and an aching back. I knew the only remuneration I would receive for taking care of an invalid till her last breath would be leftover food and old clothes. I politely replied, “My days of working are numbered Thakurda. I am old now. I am no longer capable of working Saahib(Sir).” The displeasure of my former master was evident from the subtle ways people avoided me.

After years of slavery under different masters, getting beaten up by an alcoholic husband and struggling to fill my kids’ bellies, I was finally at peace. I remained unruffled by the village gossip about me.

The next year the rains were delayed. Soon there was a meeting with the ojha, the astrologer who was to offer sacrifices appease the rain god. The ojha declared that there was indeed a witch’s evil presence in the village. One night, I was rudely awakened from my slumber with the sounds of knocks and thuds. I opened the door to find a gathering of men armed with sticks. For the first time in my life, I felt an unfamiliar feeling of a fire in my belly. As I struggled to find words, a voice declared: “See how her pupils are dilated…She has been up to her tricks…” Another voice asked me to come outside immediately. All of a sudden, accusations started flying…The elder brother’s illness, the Thakur’s mother’s death, the tree struck by lightning a year ago… Even before I could reply, I found myself tied up to the tree. Men I knew all my life beat me. I was now proclaimed to be the witch who was destroying the village. After a while, it was decided that my house, the hens and the goat were all to be confiscated. I suddenly saw the years of starving, the days of working myself to the bone and the moments of pain being washed away in a single sentence. That was the last straw. “Curse you dogs…”, I spat out.

That was all the excuse the mob required. “See! The witch is out to destroy all of us…” They beat me up till I lost consciousness…

……………………………………………………………………………………………….

The knocking grows louder. Will they be able to push the door open? This must be the third time they are trying to get rid of me. Their father, the Thakur lies in the same position he fell down years ago. He can no longer eat his favourite maach(fish) or drink his whisky. That however, is nothing compared to the derision and indifference showered on him by his spoilt brat of a son and wife.

The brat must have lost all his money and now he wants to sell this mansion. All the land his father and grandfather grabbed from people like me has been gobbled by the river.

After all these years, the ignominy of being beaten up like a criminal has not dulled one bit.

‘Dopdiben…she is here…’ I swirl around to receive my granddaughter. My lineage…my own… How could my son kill his own child only because she is a girl … Even he has changed…But no…there is no time to sink into emotions…

The thuds have grown louder. The old door is suddenly thrown open. There they are… the entire family with a wild-eyed stranger accompanying them. The stranger is the latest in line the family has employed to get rid of me.

I will my soul to take shape of the hideous mass my physical body was after they had murdered me. It was no pretty sight. I summon all the other friendly spirits who rake up a fierce wind. The trick is to avoid all the powders and amulets being flung. If I can throw the exorcist off his feet, then everyone else can be frightened into submission. The souls of the aborted foetuses do their job as they twirl themselves around the scared family members, rendering the adult humans immobile. I appear before the exorcist who, like others before him, can’t help but scream in terror. That is my moment… I narrowly escape his weapons as I push him to the ground with my gaze from one torn eyeball. He is as human as the rest after all. The sight of a bloodied apparition momentarily disarms him.

The wind of the spirits blows harder, throwing everyone into utter chaos. I decide to appear before the young master. Unlike his father, he had a heart attack immediately. His weak soul was devoured immediately. The rest of his family had already fled.

I imbibed the spirit of my grand-daughter’s foetus. She is a strong soul like me. She will be born again. My son has forgotten the breasts that fed him and the hands that nurtured him. But he will be made to receive this soul again.

……………………………………………………………………………………….

After I had been beaten up, I regained consciousness to find a strange sight. I could make out the form of a battered woman on the floor of the forest. As I tried to see clearly, I realized I was looking at my own dead body dumped in the woods for wild animals to devour. I let out a wail. I could see many shadowy forms gliding towards me. I didn’t feel fear, only anger and rage at the humans who had treated me unfairly all my life and denied me dignity even in my death. The spirits conveyed to me that they were the strong souls - the spirits whose bodies were snatched away from them before they were ready to meet their Maker. Souls whose bodies were subjected to brutal assault and torture and yet were determined to fight. Only souls who were strong could remain in the realm of human beings.

I was one among the many who were raped, aborted or murdered. We were determined to make life as hellish as possible for the perpetrators of our deaths. As soon as I gained strength, I appeared in front of the Thakur. At the first instance, he didn’t believe his eyes. But when he visited my home, I appeared using the vision of my dead body. That was when he had his stroke. During his recuperation, I appeared again only to enjoy the terror in his eyes. I decided to prolong his physical suffering. His wayward son and uncaring family added to the fun.

The mansion that enslaved an entire village now lies empty. Its vast grounds have been slowly eaten up by the forest. The Thakur’s son died soon after the attempt to drive us - the so-called ghosts - away. Only a mango tree remains, in what was once a majestic courtyard bustling with servants. There are no heirs who want to risk owning a haunted house.

And I am the spirit that owns it now. I will never stop fighting. I impart strength to every new soul that enters this realm with a wail of anguish. We may have abandoned our shells that were our human bodies, but we will continue to exist. We will make those who denied us our right to live, pay for their deeds.

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