Tuesday, 10 August 2021

Indra Chopra, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

The Pearl String

“Ram Narayan, Ram Narayan,” raspy, genderless, like rustling of leaves, a hint of vapid tingling sensation on my ears, nudging me awake. I panic and ignore the name calling, assuming it might have been my imagination playing tricks on my psyche on this moonless Amavasya night (First day of the dark fortnight in the Hindu calendar). A perfect setting for crepusculum inhabitants to come down to earth to visit their families.

The voice again and this time mellifluous, soft and silky. I squint through the mosquito net. Glow worms blinking on the imaginary, ambiguous unknown faces. But wait! There is Amma (mother). What is she doing here? She is walking towards the Peepal tree with an oil lamp. She always believed that our family’s problems were due to someone practicing black magic against us, and religiously followed the rituals, placing a lighted ‘diya’ under the Peepal tree (considered to be an abode of spirits), fasting on Amavasya days and giving food to the needy.

I focus on my surroundings, the trees, the bushes, the sleeping family in the lawn opposite. A vaporous haze shrouds the Semal or Cotton-tree in full red bloom, the Peepal, the old Neem tree, standing tall near the gate, their twisted inter twining branches reaching resolutely towards the light. Inside the compound, enclosed by a hedge, the stars shine on the fruit laden Mango trees, the Jackfruit tree, custard apple and karondas, the rose bushes and sunflowers. My gaze rivets to the Peepal tree and there is no one. ‘Why did Amma not touch my forehead as she always did when I complained of discomfort’?

As a child I was scared of ghosts and ghostly stories, of hallucinatory tales of apparitions and whispers in the dark. Once my siblings ganged up on me switching off the lone bulb in the shed, my study-haven. It was a dingy room with no windows and one main wooden door which they locked from outside. My screams had brought Amma banging on the door and my elder brother experienced his first slap. For days I refused to go near the shed or walk alone at night, holding onto Amma’s saree, till disgusted with my behaviour, she threatened to lock me up in the shed. I must have been around seven or eight years old and it was a lesson learnt in self protection.

Morning creeped in with the chorus of koel’s sing -song and chirping birds heralding a new day. To me a link in the chain of daily rituals of breakfast, medicines, visitors, family.

The night was forgotten to resurface towards the evening. I was dreading the repeat visitation of the ‘unknown voice’. As my bed was being laid out on the patio I told my wife that I would prefer the room. My choice was vetoed as summers are excruciating in the Gangetic Plains and most of us slept under the stars, in the cool breeze. Water coolers and air conditioners were still new in the late 1950s. I was waiting to get better to start construction of my dream cottage, fully air-conditioned, next to the main bungalow; a much awaited luxury after years of austerity and hardwork.

Sleep eluded me and in the eerie quietness, broken in intervals by the whirring Pedestal fan, I could hear my thumping heart. A feeling of emptiness creeps in. I glance towards the lawn, at the mosquito-netted charpoys of my wife and five children. They were still as logs, oblivious to the turmoil around me. I envied their ability to switch off, to focus on their needs. I was glad that I could give them the luxuries that had circumvented me in my growing years, of believing in Amma’s words to ‘Have faith’ and slog on irrespective of obstacles. I had myself to blame as I refused to follow the laid out life pattern, to stay within the threshold, the trajectory of no consequence of my parents altruistic world.

Life had been a struggle once family business and house was lost in legal battles with father’s two brothers. They wanted their share of family property their grandfather had accumulated after years of toil and struggle. Great- grandfather had come from Punjab (Sialkot, now in Pakistan) much before independence, for a sanan (dip) in the holy waters of Ganga and Yamuna, the Sangam. The sanctitude must have permeated his body and soul and he decided to settle in the Gangetic plain.

Rest is family history. After heavy financial losses incurred by prolonged court cases we vacated the family mansion and moved to a two room tenement. Money was needed to finance our elder brother’s new business, to get eldest sister married, schooling for remaining siblings, including me, and for daily expenditure. There were six siblings, three brothers and three sisters, and only one earning member. Father did not live long, heart attack, so it was left to me to help out elder brother. I had refused to drop out of school and in defiance distributed newspapers in the mornings, attended classes during the day and evenings helped in the business. Candle lights and street lamps were my saviours to study when there was no electricity at home. I persevered with university education, Bachelors and Law degrees, aiming for the Civil Services, to wear the ‘Bowler hats’, the round dome shaped hard felt hats. Well, it was not to be and I managed a job in a multinational company.

Slowly life took an upturn and from two bedrooms we moved to four and in an upscale locality of the city. I got married. My gratification was short-lived. Soon the familiar Indian joint family story-line piggy-backed on emotions when the elder brother announced that he was moving out with his family to set up a separate household and business. The signs were there for some time with women disagreeing on minor issues and sides being taken. Now the present eldest the onus of running the business and family fell on me, to take care of my wife, children, Amma, two sisters and younger brother.

‘The thing about horizons is that, upon reaching one, you always encounter another’.

I would often go and stand on the banks of River Ganga watching the ‘red globe’ disappear in the waters for its daily ritual of holy dip and to re-emerge fresh and bright the next morning. The cool sands, sifting through my toes were an inspiration, reminding me to hold onto the present.

I realised my true strength. Business was prospering and within two years, in 1949, I bought the present house from a departing Britisher (India gained Independence in 1947) and settled into a life of affluence.

Money and success are complementary and I was able to realise my dream of travelling to the United Kingdom and Europe, my first solo trip, for six months. My wife had refused to accompany me as she was not comfortable in leaving our two year old son in the care of grandparents. It was a frenetic trip by a P&O liner, from Bombay and back, through the newly commissioned Suez canal, passing Gibraltar, Egypt, Spain, Italy, France, Germany (had taken short breaks in these countries) and on to England, Scotland. Highlight was shaking hands with Queen Elizabeth II and receiving a memento from her. I was invited by a friend to watch the presentation ceremony for a Fox hunt.

I suppose too much excitement took its toll and on return to India I was diagnosed with a heart problem. Cardiac care was still in infancy in Allahabad and our family doctor would send me for long stays at the local hospital. In desperation I turned to Ayurvedic treatment, to Hindu saints and preachers talking of ‘Moksha’, for instant balms of freedom from fear of dying. Advice is difficult to put into practise when one is living a life of anxiety, of apprehensions about the present and the future. In the past four months my life has been a virtual journey of extreme elation and grief. The dependence on drugs was slowly incapacitating me, highlighting the disquietude and dissonance, the sacrifices and hard work.
 

Forty five years is still young and in the natural sequence of life there are ‘still miles to walk’. Ahh...Robert Frost....How I regret measuring my life in terms of productivity and not pleasure. I was obsessed with achieving success in terms of material wealth and fame. The house, commercial complex, successful business, children in convent schools, purchasing new cars every two years....the list is endless. But then the best of plans can misfire and one is left with ashes. I fumble for the Bhagavad Gita, under my pillow, holding it, seeking solace from memorized lines “Death is as sure for that which is born, as birth is for that which is dead. Therefore grieve not for what is inevitable.” It is asking for the impossible. When alone I want to cry, to let my tears flow for lost opportunities, of unpredictability of existence. I am scared but dare not voice it to my family. The pain of leaving everything behind, unfinished, is lacerating my being into shreds.

There is some movement in one of the charpoys. It is my wife looking towards me. Probably checking if everything is alright. She returns to her sleep.

Of late I have been venting my frustrations on her and I know she is hurt. I remember the winsome nineteen year old, the initial struggles to adjust in a traditional family dominated by my mother, wrapped in a cotton sari cooking on a 'chula' (mud stove) with coal and wood. I had wanted an educated English speaking bride and found her through an advertisement in a Delhi newspaper. She did her best to blend in with my aspirations, transmogrifying into a chiffon wearing socialite, an equal partner in the heady years of joys and sorrows, of achievements and disappointments. We were planning a trip to the new world, USA, and our luggage was packed. My illness ended all preparations. The suitcases are still stacked in a corner. Guess there is no time or inclination to unpack them.

Days merge into one another. It is Amavasya night. It is still pleasant to sleep outdoors, tranquilized by the heady perfume of Jasmine flowers, their whiteness glowing in the inky darkness.

I am waiting. The rustle was audible, like a click of heels, and automatically my head swerved towards the Peepal tree near the main gate. The filtering street-light sketching patterns around it and a dash of vaporous figure, elongated, leaning against the tree. I wonder what was stopping it from entering through the gate or rather floating through. Maybe I am hallucinating, the effect of too much medication, and there is no one. I shut my eyes, scared to open them. I try once again, curious to see the face, to recognise the person tormenting me.

The voice, genderless, hoarse ‘Ram Narayan, Ram Narayan-- What will you gift your eldest son on his wedding day”. Innocuous, benign, pointless, as my son is still sixteen years old. My answer matched the question “A pearl string’. It was quiet as streaks of sunlight filtered through the clouds.

Soaked in sweat and no energy to shout for help I pretend to be asleep, ignoring the cheerful good mornings and enquiries of health. I wait for the right moment to recount the phantasmal happenings of last night and previous nights.

Recriminations, reprimands, family consultations and a flurry of activity accentuated my helplessness. I resigned myself to fate, to the rituals of the day.

Few hours later, hearing animated voices I see the old retainer, visibly agitated and gesticulating. He had cycled down from the Shop to inform us that a pearl string was missing from the strong box. It was a custom, every night, before closure that expensive jewellery pieces were transferred to the strong box. The combination was known to me, my brother and the trusted manager who had been with the family for decades. The missing Pearl string was discovered in the morning while my brother and the manager were rearranging jewellery in the display shelves.

This was a prelude to events beyond comprehension. The extended family converged around my bed, now moved inside the room, and it was decided to summon the family priest to perform havan (Fire purification) to cleanse the atmosphere of impious vibes. The old retainer was sent to his village to get a Shaman or ghost-catcher, as according to the priest it was clearly a case of occult.

My health was deteriorating and I did not know how to react to these bizarre happenings. With each passing day there was a sense of inevitability, a fear of the unknown. I was struggling to stay alive.

Footnote: This is a true incident of my childhood that transpired weeks before my Father’s death. A week later, and before the servant could get the ghost catcher from his village, my father passed away on 7th June 1960 at the age of 45. The mystery of the missing Pearl String and the ‘Voice’ was never solved.

2 comments:

  1. I did wonder if it was a true story, as parts of it seemed familiar to me, including the jewellery shop. You really have captured the eerie, ghostly atmosphere. Looking forward to more.

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  2. The comment above was mine. Don't know why my name did not appear.

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