An eerie silence enveloped the forlorn Amrai village like a thick blanket. The month of October brought along with it a cold breeze, that chilled the spine, an owl hooted from the near by age old Tamarind tree thus disturbing the silence.
Lucknow city in Uttar Pradesh, India was 25 kms away from Amrai. The only mode of transportation being a Khad -khada, ie a horse driven cart that plied between the village and the city, once a day. The village was totally cut off from city life, if not for the khad-khada. Iliterate villagers dwelled there in kutcha and crudely made pukka houses, did farming and lived there life peacefully.
‘ What job can an educated find in a village where the main occupation is farming?Though educated yet unemployed is a curse.’ Heena, mused as she relaxed on her bed. She lived in a sparsely furnished single room rented dwelling that was part of bigger house. Her son slept beside her; she looked at him lovingly and tucked him under a bed sheet that had seen many a washing.
Soon it would be Diwali, the festival of lights and crackers and happiness for the wealthy. The poor too worshipped the goddess Lakshmi; the goddess of wealth, hoping every year that she would bless them also with her pot full of gold coins, though it never happened in her case. ‘Ah!’ she sighed. Another year to watch silently; the rich burning their money on crackers, the poor suppressing the desire to spend like the rich. The ritual of welcoming wealth never stopped though!
She thought of her husband and wondered where he would be then. God alone knew what he did because he brought pittance home at odd intervals. He never cared to know whether she ate or went hungry. She picked up the old, dog eared novel to read which she might have read the umpteenth time. Her malnourished fragile body cracked as she bent and straightened herself once, before settling down with the book. Despite her poverty, the charm and grace stayed on, clinging to her soul. She was twenty five, but poverty made her look ten years older, yet the face had a soft grace and intelligence sparkled in her jet black eyes. A deep sorrow layered her sleepy face.Soon she got engrossed in the thriller she was reading, she did not realize when sleep crept in. The book now rested comfortably on her softly heaving chest.
All of a sudden Heena felt heaviness on her chest as though someone was squatting on her. She tried to open her eyes but they were tight shut like the shutters of a shop. Fear crept in at the realization that something weird was happening, true to her intuition, the heaviness increased as she gasped for breath unable to move or open her eyes. She tried to scream, but she choked, darkness enveloped her into a trance.
She envisioned a sudden flash of light, the heaviness on her chest lifted and her eyes flew open as she looked up at the ceiling. ‘Voila! What is this I see? A woman hanging from the ceiling or is it a woman floating in the air? Unbelievable!’ She thought in a flash of a second.
At a glance she saw a well built beautiful woman in her twenties, fair complexion, waist length brown hair, sharp long nose, full mouth accentuating her chubby cheeks. Black eyes stared back at her. Her attire weird; she wore a faded blue underskirt that hardly reached her shanks and a faded maroon sari blouse buttoned only at the top by a single hook, the rest of the blouse unhooked revealing the shapely half cups underneath. ‘Woman thy name is feminity!’ she said aloud, appreciating her beauty.
The figure in the air spoke suddenly to her amazement in a strange voice that sounded like a distorted computerized voice, followed by an echo. The lips did not move yet the voice rang in the room breaking the silence of the eerie night.
Fear gripped her and she tried to scream for help but her throat went dry and she could hardly hear her own voice. Panic stricken she lay helpless, totally under the mercy of the figure in the air.
The figure looked at her and she heard the voice again, this time the voice crystal clear, audible and sensible. She heard for sure the third time, for it repeated, ‘Leave this place!’
Heena finally mustered courage and spoke to the figure now hanging right above her chest; she could hear her own voice now. “Leave this place? Sure I will. I am here for a short stay, I will move on next month, don’t worry. I am not here to stay for good.’ She wondered all the while, why this apparition wanted her to leave.
On a vertical view of the room from the entrance towards the left, there is a cupboard on the wall. As she turned her head towards it she noticed that the cupboard had disappeared. She saw as an old rope cot, covered by a printed light blue bed sheet. Suddenly, the ghostly figure appeared sitting on it. It looked straight at her, steely piercing jet black eyes that showed no emotion. Seated there, with its legs slightly parted, hands on either sides, resting on the bed, it repeated the same words that she had replied to already.
‘Leave this place immediately!’
By now Heena was beginning to sense a mortal danger. She was no match for this figure of a woman seated in front of her. Once upon a time when she was better of economically, she was herself a well built, robust woman. Athletic and strong, but poverty had taken its toll. Now she was half of what she was once, fragile, malnourished pathetic state of the fairer species.
As Heena’s eyes spanned the seated heavy figure, her lips spoke, ‘I will go away from here, I won’t be staying long. I am here on rent. I don’t know where my husband is right now. It’s been two days since he came home; there is hardly anything I can do in this village except feel self pity. Look at me, Look at my condition; I am here because of the cruel joke of fate. Because of my good for nothing husband, he left me here and now there is no sign of him!’ She went on blabbering, pouring her grief out to the unemotional figure seated next to her, demanding her to leave.
Suddenly, the flash of light disappeared, darkness, total darkness once again. She looked for the woman above her, beside her. Vanished! Heena terror stricken, groped for her son, lying beside her, found him, cuddled him close to her heart. There was no sign of the figure anywhere now. Will it return and ask her to vacate immediately? She wondered.
She opened her eyes slowly and saw the room as it was before. She sought her small alarm clock; it showed only nine on clock. The night was young; she was by then sweating profusely. She pulled the blanket over her head and thought deeply, ‘what was that? A ghost of a woman? Why did she ask her to leave the place immediately?’ She could not go back to sleep, afraid the ghost might appear again, and may ask her to vacate her bed may be. She held her baby close to her heart and waited for dawn like never before. When the birds chirped and welcomed the dawn, she opened the door cautiously and went to relieve herself, with gratitude to the sun.
That morning she approached the owners of the house, a middle aged couple, the husband a postman and his plump housewife. They had four children, two girls and two boys. The elder one was married; the second one was doing her tenth class and the boys still in school. She narrated to them the previous night’s weird experience. They listened to her silently. The postman suddenly got up and went into his room and came out with a bundle of letters and a photo album. He handed them to her with downcast eyes. She was bewildered and puzzled. She opened the photo album and she got the worst shock of her life. The ghostly figure she had seen the previous night was in front of her in the photos in her bridal finery.
‘Who is this?’ her eyes widened with horror.
‘She was my daughter, murdered three and a half years ago by her husband and in her laws; a victim of dowry death!’ the postmaster said sadly.
Heena had to suppress a scream but said gently, ‘She was the one I saw yester night, I am sure. How could it happen to such a beautiful woman? How cruel of them? How sad it is? What a tragedy?’ She could not utter a word more as she flicked through the pages of the album, watching the girl’s picture in different poses, undergoing different rituals connected to her marriage. Her husband a well built man and handsome looking stood beside her smiling in his wedding dress. Who could have predicted that the greed for money would one day turn him into a murderer, she mused.
The house mistress who was reluctant to speak all the while spoke suddenly.
‘She was a beautiful girl, and we got her married into a good family. We thought so, but we were wrong. We lost our daughter for ever.’ Tears uncontrolled flowed down her plump cheeks. She touched the photos with her fingers and was lost in thoughts. A mother’s pain, only a mother could know.
Her husband handed Heena the bundle of letters and said, ‘We never took her seriously, we thought things will become alright with the passing of time but that never happened and we lost her forever!’ He heaved a sigh of pain.
Heena untied the bundle and she found thirteen letters within a span of an year.
‘What a beautiful hand writing in Hindi!’ She said, ‘and what a wastage!’ She felt sorry for the departed soul.
The ink was smudged towards the ending in few letters she noticed, probably pain within might have rolled down her eyes as a testimony to her trials and tribulations in life.
She quickly scanned through them the essence was the same in all of them. She read out one letter aloud, which was written almost towards her last days during her stay there, written in the month of November 1990.
‘Papa, please come and take me home. These people are harassing me mentally and physically for more dowries. They think you are very rich, after seeing our big ancestral home. My husband is demanding for a motorbike as an extension of dowry. I told him I have another sister to be married off and my papa isn’t rich as he thinks, but he wouldn’t listen to me. They make me toil the whole day, yet do not give me enough to eat. My husband does not love me papa. These days he is threatening to kill me. He has taken away all my jewellery and never takes me out anywhere. I write to you secretly, please do not reply, just come and take me home, give my love to all at home. I miss u all.
Heena was speechless, the ghost had spoken to her, the photo and letters were in front of her as a big question mark. She had never before believed in the existence of ghosts, but now, she had no answer to her own questions.
The lady of the house spoke finally, ‘Its Diwali time, and she has visited the house again and she found you in her room. The dress you saw was the last she wore when she was here. She was burned and could hardly wear any clothes, bah! My child used to cry her heart out!’ She burst into uncontrollable sobs and couldn’t speak a word for some time, painful memories crowded her vision. Her husband picked up the thread and continued the story.
‘Well it was a case of dowry death, they troubled her for dowry, I was helpless as I had to fend for my family too. When I turned a deaf ear, they got vexed. One day while she was working in the kitchen, the mother in law, poured kerosene on her at around 11 o’clock and her husband lighted a matchstick and threw at her and then both ran away from the house. The neighbors heard her screams and saved her. They brought her here in such a pathetic condition, oh my lovely daughter, half burnt, her lovely hair like a burnt bush, what a mess she looked! He sobbed. She lay here in the room you have occupied, on the cot you mentioned, for six long months, shriveled, ugly and writhing in pain.
After six months, her husband and in-laws came here repenting, requesting for a truce. The society does not allow a married daughter to stay long at her parents place after her marriage, so I agreed to send her back, despite her denial. They sweet talked me into believing that they have realized their mistake, and would take care of her well henceforth. I believed them once again. I gave them more money and a motor cycle as a gift to my son-in-law. That was the last I saw of her, when she returned it was her dead body.
‘How did it happen?’ Heena could hardly ask this question.
‘Four days after their departure, I heard the shocking news via telegram, that my daughter’s naked body was found in the fields. The neighbors said they had locked her up in a room without food and water for three days. On the third day they gave her poisoned bread, which she ate hungrily and died begging for a drop of water. My child, they killed her brutally, inhumanly. God will never forgive them!’
“What happened to them? Wasn’t a murder case filed?” Heena asked aghast at the injustice and cruelty towards women in North of India, in the name of dowry.
‘Ah! Case, police, court, all is nonsense. The mother and son went to jail for a brief period of time. Now they are roaming free. Case is closed. Money can do anything. This is a world of criminals, difficult for innocent people to survive. I heard he is now on the look out for a rich bride these days. He will marry again for money; I wonder what will happen to that girl! A girl’s life is valueless in front of money my dear!’ He sighed. ‘I have to go for work now’, thus saying he left Heena and his wife.
Heena looked away as the memory of the ghost danced in front of her. She mumbled to the lady, “What was her name?”
The mother said in tears, ‘Rani’.
‘Rani means queen in Hindi, yet Rani did not die a queen’s death. What an irony!’ Heena mused as she held her child close to her bosom.
22nd March 2009.
Causes Sumathi Mohan Supports
Child education, eradication of child labour and child marriages, promotion of education in slum areas. free thinking. MV Foundation, Hyderabad. CRY.