She confined herself to her 68 square feet room, erected books in a delectable manner, with a table lamp close by that was barely enough for her reading. When it was time to sleep, she rolled out the mat that was earlier upright, rolled and coiled it in concentric circles – the symmetry of which could bring about a hallucination. Today she has picked up the least scary book from the shelf, reading it for the 3rd time, ‘Afterlife: Ghost Stories from Goa’. She had picked it up years ago from a book fair with her mother.
Mother was never interested in novels or any books for that matter. She was interested in cookbooks though, which she read visually and with some help in humming and crooning along with the alphabets. Reading in this single genre, had become a routine that she had committed to follow. She had made herself promise to be wholly consumed by ghostly spirits, unseen, in darkness. The day her mother died, she was not present and when she arrived, she was grateful to her relatives for waiting. The pot-loiba ritual (annihilation of the body elements – fire, water, wind and earth) was previously decided to be performed in her presence, but she was quite late, and they completed the pot-loiba without her.
Avri was flustered, as she tried to recount that, and that short memory was a haze, blurred under unconfirmed chronology. Fragments of her memory speeded back and forth in her mind. One uttered, “Your mom had nail marks on the neck, pointed: certainly not of human.” Another hissed, “The house had seen paranormal activities since some time. Your mother often complained of running noises from the terrace, some women wailing.”
All these little things seemed to frame a common, underlying plot of a horror story or film. Though her mother died of arthritis and also due to her frequent respiratory problems, she couldn’t ignore all the voices that caged her.
People’s voices. Whose?
Ever since she had arrived, all the voices seemed the same. Olivia, the tall, model cousin clawed her fingers around the glass, pouring alcohol in the backyard secretly, murmuring something. Little Sana’s round glasses which looked more like an old granny’s pair than those of the pretty kind looked very offplace on her.
“Sanarei, come in. It’s your dinner time.” The girl’s mother called. She slept early, and so had to be fed and tucked into bed.
Olivia hid the cigarette and hummed to a hipster song. She was considered ‘spoilt’ for a small town person. After the aunt left, the girl took the liberty to position her cigarette again, and headed back to her chain of thoughts. Blank. A blank stare. To the empty land spread out of the house’s backyard boundary. Avri couldn’t help but transport herself into the horror scenes on TV. The scenes where the characters tend to go out around midnight and seemingly welcome fear to take shape through ghosts. But it seemed justified here, it was winter, and the verandah was vast and the fire across the grill kept them warm.
It was the perfect opportunity for Olivia to indulge herself. However, the grill was empty; a family can’t eat non-vegetarian food for 12 days after a person’s death. The fire, though, burned non-stop, battling the winter chill.
When all the rituals were dusted away, lasting several days, when people started to leave, they all seemed to eye her strangely. A strange commiseration. There was a similar, sensitive and emotive phrase everyone appeared to convey. Some through their eyes, some through a bidding embrace, a tap on the shoulder and some via a rub on the back.
Everything seemed to lead to one question for her. A peculiar tongue. For the first few days, the people buzzed in and around her, while her mother’s images flashed now and then. In her sleep. It continued for nights. On some days, her mother would be standing by the unfinished painting. She had worked as an art curator and was a painter too. She had projects filed under the desk, but she chose to paint with her mind. A reminiscence, that was too hard for her to form at the moment. She couldn’t differentiate; what was real and what wasn’t. She picked up her notes on Hilma af Klint art. Her eyes stared down the lines and circles and shapes that she admired. She smiled briefly, she knew her mother’s appearances were a mockery of her illusions. Her grief and guilt were assaulting her with images of someone gone.
She walked back to the room, and saw a man in plaid button up shirt, tucked in grandpa trousers. She smirked and tried to avoid him.
“Avri,” someone muttered under her ears. She was fearless at this point; and dressed up in a new, white linen sweater and a pair of beige tapered pants. She dug for the most scary book, but they were becoming too regular for her now. Like the neighbors clattering around next door. At times, in a serious demeanor, she thought of herself as one of ‘The Five’ and performed her own attempt for communication with the dead, an area of self-acclaimed expertise.
“Did she return? For real? Am I the one rejecting it? Can the dead come back for real?” She pondered.
“Did the folktale turn out to be true? Did a cat cross over my mom’s body and now she has turned to a hiyangthou (a ghost in Manipuri folklore)? She doesn’t haunt me, but has she somehow retained her soul in this house?”
Her brain couldn’t carry weighted thoughts anymore and her eyelids, dropped to sleep.
She woke up briefly, half sleepy, and saw her mother by her side again. Very calm, her hair combed and face made up well. Her lips were scrubbed a well-balmed pink. She was definitely not a ghost. Is that how she died, peacefully despite of all the mongering whispers of people? It was probably better then, if she passed that way.
The next day, she rolled the mat over her, capturing herself in sleep, the floor was littered with books, warped chart papers and half drawings. She felt a sudden urge to throw up, and headed to the washroom. Her eyes went almost blind at that time. She could just see black everywhere, as though it was the only color that she knew, that she painted with: the one color that comprised her world.
She slept randomly for days, woke up at odd hours but, also remained fed and full.
The man and her mother talked by the bedside. Her condition had become untreatable and she had to be sent away for advanced care, which her mother hesitated to do.
She held the painting that lay unfinished, it was a pencil outline of a photograph within a photograph. There were dots. Like puzzles. But who would join them correctly?
Alive or dead, who’d vouch for which? Within the 68 square feet room, what she had created was her own story. The dots of their story, her and her mother’s, were disconnected but also proportional to the years they had been apart.
Avri reached home, clutching suitcases and neatly packaged paintings. She was already being called a mad woman at her workplace and in the neighborhood where she stayed. Three days before she arrived home, on the computer screen, words were chaotic. The lines, the letters, all scattered, and a message popped up from a person whose name quite correctly read as Dr. Ghosh.
“Mother is dead.”
Ah, the arthritis! Poor mother, bastard daughter. She gulped down some tablets, one after another, keeping a 10 min gap between each.
Mother had maintained the house economically and skillfully. Seven years was just like yesterday. And just like yesterday, she had the same meal her mother had cooked for the two of them after hunching on the kitchen stove for a fair 40 minutes; after coming back from the Sunday market. The kettle was still boiling, fresh on the gas, the cat purred in from the window, the camphor wafted down from the top of the cupboard, a familiar smell of roasted puntius from the backside grill – her mother’s favourite side dish, came bearing down as well. Were these the smells from before, remnants? The agarbatti smell of the morning puja dived in too, the ones from the usual packet, with Shiva on the cover. A faceless man had accompanied her till home. She didn’t recognize him. She couldn’t recognize herself too. She was losing her identity apparently; she touched her face and slathered her hands on a smooth, flat board. But she could paint whatever she wanted there as well. She speeded to the room upstairs, to the sacredly stored books and childhood elementary memoirs of art, and rummaged along the torn and wretched spine of the art book of class 2. The faceless man, or Dr. Ghosh, was it? He told her to draw a piece of her fondest memory, which she could relive. She held the pencil, sharp as a knife and teared through a surprise parcel box. But she had lost it. She has lost herself in a riddle. A riddle of dots. In the rudimentary art books, students were made to join the existing dots and form the shape of animals, things and figures. One incorrect seam would make the art drawing go wrong.
25th February: a mad woman, with a name tag, red-faced, black sparse straight hair, and skinny physique, died of a sudden cardiac arrest, an old klonopin clawed in her hand hermetically. She had diseases, many of them.
Avri’s dots had aligned to a straight line, and found way to afterlife.
Ruby Singha studies English (MA Literature) at Delhi University. A poetry, prose and pizza aficionada who, when not writing, reads up on Neapolitan pizza and keeps trying to make one. Born in Silchar, Assam, she considers Shillong as another home.