She felt miserable. It was how she felt on the best of days, so it would be accurate to say that she felt more wretchedly miserable than was usual even for her. It wasn’t only the strands of silver that grew atop her head in an increasingly dense thatch, the burgeoning waistline from all the comfort eating she was prone too, her non – existent life or career prospects at the ripe old age of thirty-something or even the fact that she lived with her evil grandmother in a shoebox on a desolate stretch of a shitty little town which might as well have been nowhere.
The achy sinuses, scratchy throat, leaky nose, throbbing temples, rising temperature and sneezing fits that plagued her as she sat hunched miserably over her laptop on a wet and foul night struggling to find the words that were hopelessly lost to her for the manuscript, she had been working on for what felt like a century and a half might have been the obvious cause for the heightened sense of angst, but there was more. It was the encroaching sense of hopelessness that had crept up on her and she no longer had her grandiose, extremely improbable dreams to fend them off.
Ordinarily, she tried not to encourage her tendency to feel sorry for herself, but since she was suffering from a wicked bout of the flu (could it be some mutant strain of the dreaded Covid – 19 virus that was likely to wipe out all of humanity in a single fell blow?) she had given herself permission to wallow in a bottomless abyss of misery and self-pity. So, she ate everything in sight (not even the bubonic plague could curb her appetite it seemed), swallowed down the self – prescribed antibiotic and paracetamol with cough syrup while pondering morosely about lost dreams, unfinished manuscripts and a wasted life that might as well have been flushed down the toilet from the get-go.
Such dreams they had been… before they had been relegated unceremoniously to the trash heap of her existence. Big, beautiful dreams that featured her living a glorious life and loving every single moment of it. In the realms of fantasy, she was a fabulously wealthy, award winning, bestselling author who never ran out of words or ideas, living in an opulent beach house exactly like the one Tony Stark had in Iron Man.
There were lovers aplenty in La La Land, of the sporty as well as arty variety. Some of them had even been resurrected from the dead or brought to life from fiction to fuel her sex – soaked fantasies. Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Scipio Africanus, Richard Burton, Oscar Wilde, Raja Raja Chozhan, Prithviraj Chauhan, Kobe Bryant, Rhett Butler, Aragorn, Legolas, Sherlock Holmes… How she had loved in those dreams! And been loved back! It was all very intimate, memorable and simply marvellous. Sometimes, it was nasty. Entirely devoid of anything but pornographic value. A fornication-fest of orgiastic bliss with her afloat on a sea of seminal fluids. Which was even better.
She was effortlessly skinny in her dreams and always impeccably groomed. She travelled the length and breadth of the world on carefully curated book tours where her admirers hung on every word she uttered, begged for her autograph and clicked selfies with her. Publishing houses fought over the rights to her books and the chance to enrich her even further. Ivy League colleges begged her to address their students, tempting her with indecently fat cheques. Studio executives began a bidding war to buy the movie rights to her books and begged her to star in them.
Of course, she acceded. But only after they had agreed to pay her an arm and a leg. Soon she was accepting the Academy award and delivering a witty speech togged out in haute-couture duds specially designed for her by some hotshot couturier accessorized with some classy Cartier diamonds and those high – heeled shoes made by sadistic men who believed walking should be a painful experience and running, next to impossible.
It wasn’t always about books, money, fame, art or sex. Sometimes, she was a criminal psychologist/profiler who put serial killers behind bars. Or an explorer and intrepid traveller like Marco Polo or Ibn Battuta, journeying to the remote reaches of the cosmos and seeing all the marvels there were to see!
In those mesmerizing dreams, where she could be anything and everything, she sang, danced, acted her heart out, and made love with wildly fascinating people. Sometimes the fabulous folks who wandered into her dreams became her closest friends who held her in their arms and listened to whatever shit popped into her head and spilled out of her mouth. They had the best conversations about everything and nothing over steaming cups of milky coffee and cake. She went wherever her whims led her and was delirious with joy. For in her dreams, she was never afraid. And always happier than she could bear.
If only she could have really lived in her dreams! But it was hard to carry on dreaming. Especially when reality with its unvarnished ugliness forced its way into her system like an unwelcome virus and refused to get lost. Thanks, or no thanks to the heart-breaking beauty of her dreams, her singularly dismal existence had become even more so and there was no escaping it. Slowly but inexorably, she sank into a quagmire of depression and despair.
Past hurts and losses resurfaced to keep her company in her sorrow, and she kept the painful memories close. She had lost both her parents while still a child. Wicked grandmother had kindly taken her in. Only to hold her captive forever more in the aforementioned shoebox, where the old bat had resided ever since her own husband had kicked the bucket, a long time ago. The harridan had never forgiven her only son for marrying against her wishes, compounding his error by dying young and foisting the fruit of his loins on her. Grandmother had hated her daughter – in – law, whom she considered ill – omened. Since she was an uglier version of her mom, grandmother dearest hated her too.
She continued her studies in a cloistered all – girls school chosen and grudgingly paid for by the matriarch. Later, grumbling incessantly, grandmother shelled out for a seat in an all – girls college, the only one in their god-awful town. She used to dream of running away to greener pastures with a handsome stranger but no handsome strangers crossed her path. Or even sleazy slime balls, would – be rapists or others of that ilk.
The belligerent bitch was fully committed to preserving her virtue, so there were no men in her life. Unless you counted the crusty old chauffeur who was loyal to the old fart and her ancient manservant, who hoicked up his lungi to expose his colourful underwear and spent the days pretending to sweep and swab the shoebox when in reality he did little more than sneakily smoke his beedis, hawk up phlegm and spit it out in a grotesque projectile onto their veggie patch.
Her life would have been even more pathetic if it hadn’t been for her late father’s collection of books, carefully preserved by his grouch of a mum. The nag encouraged her to read to her heart’s content and even ensured that there was a steady supply of snacks for her to munch on as she swam across entire oceans of words. Only belatedly did she realize that the harpy had figured that chubby girls with their noses buried in books were less likely to elope with the first member of the opposite sex who was ready, willing and able. Too bad she wasn’t a lesbian. It would have given the old crone the cardiac arrest she so richly deserved!
There had been a few marriage proposals. But the tyrant had rejected them all. Even the somewhat decent looking neurosurgeon who lived in Switzerland. Thereby, depriving her of a lifetime spent stuffing her face with gourmet chocolate and getting hopped up on sugar and fondue while gambolling in snow – clad mountain slopes. She had never forgiven her for it.
How dare the old crow reject a neurosurgeon from Switzerland? Everyone said it was because her evil grandmother had gotten used to bossing her around and needed her granddaughter around to nurse her through the advanced stages of old age, decrepitude, and the rest of it, till death did them part. She had a bad feeling that the ancient one would outlive them all. Even if the apocalypse struck and took everything including the cockroaches, the ornery Ogress would live on forever, parasitically feeding on anyone and everything in her immediate vicinity.
Admittedly the good doctor had been the only good prospect. The rest were mostly losers with blood – shot eyes, balding heads and bulging paunches. She felt only mildly bad for appraising them on the strength of their physical attributes given her own shortcomings in that department.
Soon the offers dried up when word got out the martinet had handed over all her land and jewellery to her evill-er daughter and shameless son – in -law who never visited except for that one time when they arrived with stale murukkus and a lawyer in tow bearing truckloads of deeds and documents for the old fool to sign. She could do nothing about it except fight the temptation to burn the shoebox with the lot of them in it and run away to the Himalayas and live among those naked yogis in the bracing cold.
The dastardly dame did not think it was a good idea for her to accept the teaching job offered to her from her stupid school. Whatever would people say if she actually worked for a living like some grubby peasant? So, she had tried to make it as a writer and failed spectacularly. Not that she had expected anything else. It was only in her dreams that she had ever managed to succeed. Life had always been a less than stirring litany of abject failure. Some of her stories and articles were published in modest to respectable publications for embarrassingly measly sums and sometimes just for ‘the honour of being published’ but there was no steady work for her.
She would have probably made more as a hooker in the red-light districts. But she looked even more hideous with her clothes off and doubted her sojourn as a whore would be any more successful than her writing career. Although it was worth considering, if only to piss off her old fashioned, ridiculously moralistic grandmother who nevertheless took the time to leer at her manservant and insist he massage her neck and feet, every single day, moaning and groaning like a porn star as he ran his grubby paws over her.
Eventually, she did land a soul – sapping gig with an entertainment website. Now her job was to stalk celebs on social media and write gossipy/click bait crap about them for a pittance. It was the best she could do, so she looked at pics of the glitterati living it up in exotic locales, wrote about their affairs, boob jobs, drug habits, adorable kids, diet secrets, fitness regimes, current projects and wished all the while that she were dead. Death by envy, frustration and bitterness. A suitably wretched ending to an existence, shorn of all things worth having. Or maybe a rape and robbery gone wrong, ending in her murder would be a better way to go.
In a bid to distract herself from thoughts of dying, she had taken a stab at writing the great Indian novel. The ideas were there but for the life of her she couldn’t find the fracking words to express them with anything close to literary merit. She recalled that the likes of Jeffrey Archer, Stephen King and Danielle Steel wrote compulsively for a few hours every day and she was determined to follow in their footsteps even if it killed her.
She made the time to write when she was not taking care of the old curmudgeon who had rescued her from the frying pan only to toss her into the fire or trawling through social media to see what the celebs were up to, sometimes staying up all night to pound away at her laptop, praying it would churn out gold. Or silver. Or something. Or anything at all but the endless nothings.
There were glorious days when she managed as many as twenty pages of pure, unadulterated brilliance. But when she re – read the damn thing, it was always the same. It was bilge. Garbage. Utter drivel. Sewage. It was true. The entire thing was worthless. So there was nothing to do but to delete everything. And start over. Over and over. Till she got it right. If she got it right. Ever. Then she would agonize over why she had nothing to show for all that effort. So much wasted effort. It was her fate. A slow death by the endless expenditure of exhausting, unrewarding effort.
She didn’t think she was properly suicidal. It was true that on some days, she did go to sleep thinking it would be a blessing if she didn’t wake up in the morning. But the funny thing was, she thought a lot about dying without ever getting off her fat butt to do anything about it. Not surprisingly, like everything else in her life, her suicidal tendencies had the dubious distinction of being half – arsed. She probably ought to see a shrink, but nobody believed in shrinks in her neck of the woods including herself. Crazy grandma who could have probably used a shrink herself believed there was nothing a visit to the temple and a dose of castor oil couldn’t fix. Even bad genes inherited from an ill – omened daughter – in – law. So, they visited one too many temples and she tried to shit away her overall dissatisfaction.
It was all very hopeless. But she continued to muck her way through a life she didn’t want. Sans the dreams that had made it worth a damn. She forced herself to crawl out of bed every day, remembering the brilliant pages she had written the previous night and so heedlessly deleted promising herself that she would never again delete a single word she wrote, even if it was utterly worthless, knowing that she would not, could not keep her word to herself.
Then she would shrug aside the self – loathing with difficulty and get cracking with her dull routine which included making coffee and breakfast, lunch, dinner for the old lady and herself in addition to dusting, sweeping and swabbing. Her evilness had always been parsimonious and did not believe in hiring maids or cooks, especially since her granddaughter could be counted on to take care of cleaning and maintenance with a little help from her manservant who had the unique gift for making a place dirtier as he pretended to clean it. Before the crone fell in the loo and dislocated her shoulder and smashed her hip bone, she had lorded it over in the kitchen and produced many a delicious if fattening meal but now that her withered body was on the verge of quitting, urged otherwise by a will of steel, it fell to her to take care of meals as well.
So, she cooked, cleaned, wrote her abominable articles on the glam brigade, worked on her book, deleted her efforts almost as soon as they were laboriously expended and saw the rest of her life play out in this unchanging spool of utter meaninglessness. And it would have gone down that way too, if she had not been hunched over her laptop on that bitter night, groping for the words she would eventually erase with the brutal click of a button. She wished the damn flu would ease up. So, she could slip into the always troubled slumber from which she hoped never to wake up.
It was while rubbing her eyes in weary frustration that she espied the real witch, complete with the warty, hooked nose, unkempt hair, cracked fingernails, and shapeless garments, helping herself to some food from the fridge. The foul fiend had even got her claws on the chocolate caramel brownies she had intended to devour later, to feel better about the state of her writing.
She did not have the energy to scream in horror like those big – breasted women with disproportionately tiny waists in scary films, as she watched the wicked witch chow down. Her head was throbbing from the depredations of a hostile viral takeover and was not up to dealing with the ramifications, if delusions and hallucinations were the latest symptoms of the life – threatening illness she was most certainly dealing with.
So, she sneezed into a tissue, examined the contents with mounting irritation and hardened her resolve to do absolutely nothing to save herself even if it meant being dragged down to the fires of hell and getting sodomized with a pitchfork. The part of her that wanted to somehow survive hoped that whatever it was would fade away into the shadow realm even as she turned back to her unforgiving screen and searched blindly in the hollow pit of nothingness for the words that would not come.
The witch cackled. It was such a cliché, but she jumped, hoping that the creature would settle for her grandmother’s soul, sucking it out of her desiccated husk of a body, after it had been drained of the blood and fluids that were surely past the expiry date and leave her alone. Perhaps she should try her hand at horror.
Perhaps you should. The witch said. And cackled again.
Why are you here? I doubt you are here to grant three wishes… she whined, not bothering to ask how the witch knew what she had been thinking. What if she was granted three wishes? She would ask for success, fame, and romance, she decided. If those choices weren’t safe as shit, she didn’t know what was.
Mercifully, the witch did not cackle for the damn creature was engaged in licking her claws (talons?) clean. I am not a lumbering genie in a lamp, in case you are confused, the abomination sneered. But I can give you everything that pathetic little heart of yours ever wanted in return for something that you would gladly part with.
Almost everything. The witch smirked. At the end of our little transaction, you will have a completed manuscript which will be a bestseller and later, your precious script will be made into a movie, the culmination of a record – breaking deal if you play your cards right. Hell, you will even recover from the ailments that plague your mind and body, spared from the infernal angst and melodramatic agony that has been your lot in life. In return, all I ask is that you give me the only thing of any worth you have. Your worthless old grandmother who already has one foot in the grave.
She was surprised when she hesitated. It sounded too good to be true and therefore, it was almost certainly too good to be true. Wasn’t it? But what did she have to lose? And the witch was right. Her grandmother was at death’s door even though she insisted on clinging to life with her gnarly old hands. Still, she paused.
I haven’t got all night! What will it be? Your dreams in exchange for your grandmother who is already as good as dead or not? The witch began to fade like an amateurish CGI job.
Wait! She said quickly. I will find the words to finish my novel, won’t I? My book will go on to be a massive bestseller and a gargantuan blockbuster? (She wondered if she should insist that her book win critical acclaim as well and a slew of prestigious as frick awards) You can guarantee that?
She was glad that the dreams were back. Though it sucked that she had the worst of colds even in that state of sublime fantasy which had formerly been sacrosanct, free from interlopers who wanted to damn her forever.
Of course! The witch rolled her grotesque eyes. I give you a personal guarantee though you will do well to remember that nobody can predict the future. Not even the countless Gods out there. But with my help, you, who have always had nothing, will finally have everything you have ever wanted. If you are willing to get off that well – fed backside of yours and do the needful that is.
She recoiled. Was this monstrosity expecting her to snuff the life out of old flatulence with a pillow or something? Or maybe poison her? Or stick a knife in her heart? Was she supposed to get her hands dirty?
The demon spawn laughed out loud. You don’t have to do anything of the sort. The creature looked at her appraisingly. All you have to do is agree to trade her life which is almost at an end in exchange for the fulfilment of your desires. Just say the word and we will have a deal.
She did not hesitate this time. I will do it. You can have HER. She flinched inwardly. Deals made under duress when you were experiencing what was clearly a fever dream did not count did they?
Wise decision! The witch cackled one last time. And it does count.
The dispenser of desires disappeared in a puff of green smoke. Of all the fricking clichés, this one was the worst!
She wrote thirty pages that night. And it was good. Even better, she did not feel the irresistible urge to delete them all before she fell asleep. Because it was genuinely good. For the first time in forever, she fell asleep with the merest hint of a smile on her lips.
When she came to, it was not in her own bed, but the one in the guest bedroom downstairs. Grandmother’s family doctor was long gone but his handsome son ministered to her needs now and he was talking to the old she – devil who was looking better than ever and leering lasciviously at Doc Handsome, who was assuring her that her granddaughter would live now that she had been fed intravenously and the fever had broken. She felt the needle in her vein and resisted the urge to pull it out and stick it in her eye.
Of course, it had been a fever dream! Too bad the crushing disappointment on seeing the old hag, hale and hearty would not kill her. Handsome was telling the bitch that if she came for weekly check – ups as per usual, there was no reason she wouldn’t live forever now that her hip and shoulder had mended perfectly. She did not doubt him and sighed aloud.
Doctor Handsome heard her. You gave us all a scare, he scolded her gently. The kindness in his eyes made her want to bawl. He was always nice and made her feel like a real person and not the sack of shit she always saw in the mirror. At that moment, she loved him with all her heart, and would have gladly become his whore, if he wished to cheat on his wife. You really shouldn’t self-medicate, he told her mock – severely. He handed her a bar of white Toblerone. And winked at her.
She was touched he remembered her mentioning that it was her favourite. Most folks would have nodded and glanced meaningfully at her corpulent form but not Handsome. He told her he had a weakness for the stuff too and despite Doc’s orders he continued to indulge his taste for it. She tried to croak her thanks, but he merely shook her hand, smiled his kind smile and was gone, with her stupid ass grandmother in tow.
To her surprise, she made a speedy recovery. To her relief (and only mild disappointment), grandmother dearest was in fine fettle too, spinning like a dervish, cooking and baking up a storm. She had more time to write and to her surprise, the words did not elude her. Thirty pages became three hundred and eighty pages, as she worked with a joyful abandon that was the best of boons. She was so busy writing; she forgot to hate herself and fill the aching emptiness inside with all the food she could eat.
The months rolled by in a haze of profound euphoria as the floodwaters of her creativity spilled forth in a merry rush. And she wrote and wrote and wrote. Who needed fricking witches and their contracts that demanded signatures of blood? Not her, that was for sure. All she had needed was confidence. When she finally, typed the last word of her manuscript she thought her heart would explode with happiness. In fact, she was so glad it was almost possible to ignore the unease that was lurking just by the periphery of conscious thought and bounded rationality. Besides, her wonderful grandmother was looking positively robust.
As for herself, she looked great and felt great. For once, stalking celebs paid off and she got the name of Priyanka Chopra’s literary agent. She emailed the guy, following the submission guidelines down to the very last letter. Ordinarily, she would have died off anxiety, but she was now an inhabitant of the top of the world and she knew no fear. Of course, he replied and said that it was WUNDERBAR. He was confident they would get a decent advance. And she did. More than fairly decent. Her happiness was now complete. It was even more complete when the big studios expressed more than a passing interest in her manuscript and began a bidding war for the rights.
There was more. The old dear had been working on finding a match for her with a vengeance and soon her efforts paid off and she was engaged to a software dude, (what exactly did those chaps do anyway?) based in Singapore. He was bald (in the manner of Jason Statham) and charming as frick. Not only did he buy her one of those ridiculously expensive Android phones, but he also patiently taught her how to use it. If that were not enough, he sent her flowers, chocolates, perfumes, soft toys, Anokhi Kurtas (anarkalis, which flattered her form) and sparkly thingies in classy, gift – wrapped boxes. He flew down every once in a while, to take her out to lunch and make out with her in his car (A silver Audi, he had rented).
He was proud as frack that he was marrying an author and was almost as excited as she was since the book was scheduled for a summer release, just after their honeymoon (they were going to Europe for three glorious weeks!) It was all too magical for words. Her beloved grandmother famed for her parsimony, showed her the trousseau she had put together for her wedding. It was a Queen’s ransom. There were silk saris, silverware enough to fill a truck and so many diamonds, it was indecent. This was in addition to the prime property the wonderful soul had bequeathed to her and an apartment in the city which was being rented out at present. She was officially rich now!
It was all too perfect for words. So perfect, it was easy to brush aside the stray tendrils of encroaching dread. What happened in fever dreams did not count, she assured herself. And witches were merely a figment torn loose from nightmares. The way fairy godmothers did not exist outside of fairy tales. She devoured a second helping of roast chicken placed before her by the old sweetheart, who smiled encouragingly and said that a healthy appetite produced healthy babies.
She swallowed and said nothing. They went for grandmother’s hospital visit together. It was reassuring to note that the grand dame did not need the assistance of a cane. Dressed in one of her finest silks and dripping with diamonds, she might well have been visiting the Queen rather than her doctor.
Handsome was waiting at the entrance, waving cheerily at them. He didn’t have to, of course, but it was just like him. They were inside when grandmother pulled her aside. I am getting forgetful dear, will you run down to the car and bring back that gift box of assorted nuts and treats? It is the very least I can do for this nice boy who has restored me to full health. A good boy! Just like his father before him.
She didn’t have to be told twice. There was a skip in her step as she made her way down the winding path to the parking lot. It was best to hurry, if she wished to make it to the car before the chauffeur took off on one of his ridiculously lengthy tea breaks.
She felt the explosion before she heard it. When she turned back, the hospital was still standing but it had lost entire chunks of itself. She took in the gaping holes, billowing smoke, flying bits of concrete, sudden sparks, ear – splitting shrieks and the distant wail of a clanging alarm, praying that it was a nightmare which would dissipate the second she woke up.
In a daze, she ran towards the scorching inferno. Her grandmother was afraid of dying alone. She needed to be there for her. It was the very least she could do. A Good Samaritan, tried to hold her back with a surprisingly fierce grip for such an ancient crone, her cracked, soot – stained fingernails digging painfully into her flesh. Prising herself free and shoving the do-gooder aside with violence borne of her terror and guilt, she was running full – tilt towards the remains of the hospital when the second blast tore through the barely standing hospital, obliterating it and all in the immediate vicinity entirely.
The witch did not cackle. It was such a pity after all. But these things happen, the termagant mused to herself as she cast one last withering look at the scene of utter ruin and devastation, before simply vanishing from the scene.
Anuja Chandramouli is a bestselling author and new age Indian classicist widely regarded as one of the finest writers in mythology, historical fiction and fantasy. She followed up her highly acclaimed debut novel, Arjuna: Saga of a Pandava Warrior-Prince, which was named as one of the top 5 sellers in the Indian writing category for the year 2012 by Amazon India with Kamadeva: The God of Desire, Shakti: The Divine Feminine, Yama’s Lieutenant and its sequel, Yama’s Lieutenant and the Stone Witch. Her articles, short stories and book reviews appear in various publications like The New Indian Express, The Hindu, Scroll.in and Femina. Some of her other books are Kartikeya: The Destroyer’s Son, Prithviraj Chauhan: The Emperor of Hearts, Padmavati: The Burning Queen, Ganga: The Constant Goddess and Muhammad Bin Tughlaq: Tale of a Tyrant. Mohini: The Enchantress is her latest work of mythological fiction and winner of the prestigious Popular Choice AutHer award. Her books are also available as audiobooks and have been translated into Hindi.
An accomplished TEDx speaker and storyteller, Anuja Chandramouli, regularly conducts workshops on creative writing, mythology and empowerment in schools and colleges across the country. Her Mahabharata and Ramayana with Anuja storytelling series is now available on YouTube. She is a trained Bharatanatyam dancer. This mother of two little girls lives in Sivakasi, TN, India.