The lightening and thunder literally shook our rickety house. It had been raining cats and dogs for almost a week, and the river near by was overflowing. The people in the neighborhood came out of their houses only to check the water level of the river and then disappeared in to the darkness of their houses. It was the month of ‘Aati’ , known for the heaviest downpours of monsoon.
With the flickering ‘lampiamv (Lantern) mum was making her final round of checking for all leaks from the roof and placing buckets and vessels below each broken tile. I closed my books and stretched on the mat to get the much needed sleep. Sleep was indeed the luxury which all enjoyed during the torrential monsoon rain. But tonight it was different. Will the flooded river reach our rickety house? Where we will go? The nagging questions faded as sleep finally took charge.
It was the continuous shaking of the ‘vodap’ that woke me up. There was also the voice of a frightened child calling out. First let me explain what is a ‘vodap’. The word is now extinct from usage. The front veranda of the house was always exposed to sun and rain. During the rainy season they wove coconut leaves, and tied them one above the other to make a thick shade. This protected the house from sun, rain and wind.
The outermost layer of ‘vodap’ had turned grey /ash color, and my granny used the crevices to store her rare relics. They contained a strange variety of items like a broken rosary, a feather to clean the ears, (ever heard of an ENT those days?), a large comb with several tooth missing, a smaller comb to extract the lice from the head of every female in the household, a faded holy picture, a ‘sudethi of palm Sunday in the shape of a cross to chase away the ghosts, and a few thorns of different size!!!
The thorns were her surgical instruments to extract the thorns from the feet. Well I don’t know how to explain it more?as the modern generation will never understand how could thorns end up in our feet so frequently. Those were the days the leather sandals were only used during the wedding and then carefully preserved for the ‘next great event or ‘vodlem festh’ (Carnival). So the bare feet constantly bore the brunt of hard exposure.
"Bayamma Vo Bayamma bega bale?!!!" it was the shrill voice was of shakila the younger sister of Susheela. Our Tulu neighbors always found it difficult to remember Christian names. So ‘Bayamma’ was the default name of every Christian woman in the village. They were our neighbors living a mile away. I was shocked and surprised to see how a girl could walk through the forest and reach our house at such a night. She whispered something to mum with a frightened voice and mum grimly lighted the lantern. I could understand that something had happened to Susheela.
I had to accompany mum, being the only male in the household. We carefully trudged through the dense bushes and the forest path that led to their house. One had to walk carefully and watch for the snakes. People dying by snake bites was as common as catching a common cold.
The dogs were howling continuously and the thatched mud house with a single solitary lamp looked eerily frightening. The whole house reeked with the smell of tobacco and sweat. The sobbing small children in torn clothes and the broken few chairs spoke volumes about the pathetic story of that family. The entire household had gathered and was silently watching the girl seated in the dark corner of the veranda. "Susheela, dada maga?"mum called out anxiously. Susheela turned towards us with her red blood shot eyes and gnashed her teeth. I stepped back in fright. It was not anymore my innocent childhood friend, but she looked like the Goddess Kali with her tongue out and eyes glaring. Her eyes reflected the light from the lantern and I froze where I stood.
…As we slowly walked towards the tree we could hear the sobs and wails of a woman!….
My first reflex was to RUN, but the dark path towards home and the forest was equally scary. I helplessly watched the events as mum started uttering prayers in trembling words and threw some holy water on the girl. It did not deter the girl or whatever was on her?and to my horror she started talking in the voice of a man. The crowd whispered that the voice was of her dead father. Her father had died long ago due to a snake bite and the entire household lived in utter poverty and misery ever since.
As we returned home that night I started thinking more about the plight of Susheela. She was my childhood friend. Unfortunately she could never make it to school due to poverty. Of late the girls of our village had learnt the trade of rolling Beedi (a hand rolled home made cigarette).This contributed to their income . The trade had attracted most of the poor girls of our neighborhood, and many children had given up schools in order to help the parents.
Once a week the girls went to the branch office to submit their product and collect money. The occasion served as a pleasant outing for girls, who otherwise spent practically twelve to sixteen miserable hours each day rolling Beedies. Moosa byari who owned the branch had many misadventures with girls which also became the talk of the village. I had noticed that Moosa had started harassing Susheela, and kept her waiting for a long time for her money. She had to pass through our compound to go home and I had often noticed the tears.
Mum had a horrible habit. She kept a watchful eye on her growing son like an eagle watching its prey. On Saturdays the girls used to pass in front of our house on their way to the Beedi branch. So every Saturday mum made it a point to dry her laundry without fail on the nylon rope tied in front of my window. This completely blocked the view from my window (and it blocked my vision of a giggling colorful world!) I used to hate mum for this.(I thank God for it now, probably it prevented one more messy intercaste marriage! Who knows?)
For the remaining duration of my vacation I gave company to Susheela whenever she went to collect her money from Moosa Byari. It was not easy to escape the watchful eyes of mum. Susheela was grateful, but I had to endure the hostile stares of Moosa . Soon the college reopened and I returned to the hostel. However the memory of Susheela got revived every now and then, during the psychology classes. Our Professor Fr. Miranda used to speak often about how a personality could respond in a variety of ways when subjected to extreme pressure and oppression. Could it be that Susheela was expressing her utter frustration by exhibiting an unusual behaviour? As the days and months passed I completely forgot about Susheela.
It was Christmas time again. We boys always enjoyed the midnight mass not because of its significance, but because after the midnight mass we had a list of adventures to do . This year we had planned to climb the nearby hill where the huge Banyan tree stood. This place looked haunted and even during day time people did not venture near the tree. Murders, suicides, rapes and all the illegal activities took place around that tree. To go near the tree at night would give a fresh dose of adrenalin to our adventure starved lives. As soon as the ritual was over, four of us friends turned towards the hill. Mum was too busy evaluating the new sarees of her friends and did not notice my escape to the forbidden hill.
It was a cool night and most of the people had by now returned home after the midnight mass. One by one the Christmas decoration lights were going off. As we silently walked there was a nagging fear in our minds. But on the outside none of us wanted to show that he was a Sissy. All that changed as soon as we approached the tree. As we slowly walked towards the tree we could hear the sobs and wails of a woman! We stood still for a few minutes. Yes, it was unmistakable sound of someone crying! "RUN??GHOST!!" my friend Herbert grabbed his slippers while the other made a frantic sign of the cross.
Somehow I refused to run. Something was telling me it could not be a ghost. So we started talking loudly and approached the tree cautiously. The wailing stopped and the sound of running feet could be heard . It was a indeed the figure of a woman running in the shadows, and not a Ghost!. In the moonlight we found a bottle of pesticide opened , but hastily dropped. There were a pair of slippers, and I had a vague feeling those looked familiar.
Great!! We had foiled a suicide! I had to hurry back to the hostel the next day. All was forgotten till I came home again for Easter holidays.
Mum told me about the disappearance of Susheela. No one knew where she was, but police suspected foul play. Her slippers and some clothes were found in the forest. Some even said Moosa had murdered and buried her in the forest. There were even rumors that her ghost could be heard wailing near the Banyan tree.
Every time I pass by that banyan tree the memories of my innocent childhood friend haunt me to no end. I never believe in Ghosts, and swear by my catechism which I had learnt for first communion. "Nimanyo char vostu?. Morn, Zodthi, Emkond/Sorg" ( The last four things ?Death, judgment, hell or heaven ) I have even checked the holy scriptures and made sure that the ‘final four things’ are there all right, and no scope for a ghost.
But the Ghost of Susheela has continued to haunt my little village. It keeps on haunting the poor households, the Beedi branches, the stone quarry, the cashew nut factories, paddy fields, even convents.
Granny had added additional holy pictures on the ‘vodap’ after hearing the rumors about Susheela’s Ghost. I think she may need tons of them to scare away this one Ghost!
[All names are Fictitious]
Author: Richard D Souza- Qatar