There is a small town far in the periphery of the city of Calcutta as it was then known. The streets in that town run sheer straight, meet one another and pass on into the outer world. Hedges of a constant level line the roads and their leaves are sparse enough to give snatches of a yard behind that has less grass and more soil, bumpy to appearance though really quite plain. Houses are scattered upon those grounds; they look the same and they are colored the same, but they do not all open to the same point in the compass. They are small houses with neat verandahs at the front that have fine wire netting between solid walls to keep out mosquitoes and still let in the cooling air. The netting sometimes sags but that does not matter. The wooden door that leads to the verandah is usually painted blue and it too has panels of the net. Inside and just outside to the side of the door grains might be spread out in the sun on fans of cane after winnowing. There is a modest terrace above but since the grounds below are ample, no one really goes up to the terrace for a fixed purpose. Sunshine falls on all the walls and the grounds in the day. The nights are calm and starry.
Ali used to come to this town with his mother to spend a few days of school holidays with his aunt, his uncle and his elder cousin sister Zaiba, who was then studying in high school. The days would pass by in quick succession. Ali would employ the hours in sunning himself, going to the market in the bicycle steered by his uncle, reading comic strips or an occasional book, and playing in the dust. He drew figures in the dust and played alone; sometimes he played hide-and-seek with other children who came to the house but rarely did he go to another house to play. He liked to explore the grounds of the house, especially toward the back, where the terrain sloped down into a kind of grassy pasture with a shed that contained a water drill. At one corner there was a ridge of brittle earth marking a portion of the boundary of the house plot. Upon the ridge grew prominently grand trees that trailed their roots visibly to the ground below; though mighty against the empty air, they were of a species of midget banyans that thrust out open limbs. At the base of this ridge he carved his figures and made excavations and small sculptures, dirtying himself completely but still going on to study the obscure plants growing in every nook and hollow in the light of the sun. On the days when his cousin was present he would play Ludo or Chinese Checkers in the verandah of the house. For a considerable portion of the evenings they would all sit out there and talk while a meteorite might flash in the sky, prompting Ali and his cousin to make a wish about the future.
At the onset of one evening the house was darker than usual. Ali’s mother and aunt were going to pay a long-awaited visit to the neighbor’s house just after the ridge while Zaiba and a classmate would be busy with their lessons in a small lighted corner of the house as exams were approaching. Ali’s uncle was still busy at his post in the laboratory of one of the mining companies whose employees lived in the town. As economy in power consumption was always a pressing issue the house would be lighted up once everyone got back. Ali did not find at all amenable the prospect of spending a few hours under the dim light of the verandah all on his own. He would have liked to accompany his mom but she pointed out that he would have to sit alone in an unfamiliar sitting room while the women were inside lending a helping hand for a small ceremony of thanksgiving that was to take place in a couple of days for a birth in the family. The neighbor’s daughter, who was slightly older than Ali, was dumb from birth and she could not be expected to provide him cheerful company. So he had to stay behind. Before leaving, Ali’s mother asked him if he would not cure the neighbor’s daughter of her dumbness when he grew up to be a researching physician.
He tried to steel himself to spend the rest of the evening in the verandah with his dreams for company, especially those brought on by his mother’s parting words. Twilight was deepening into the sable shroud of evening and he wanted to begin his vigil till the house should again become lighted and lively. But his aunt had left behind a meal for him in the kitchen at the back of the house and though he did not like to tread a couple of shadowy rooms on his way there, neither did he relish the prospect of a tummy gnawing at him in the hours to be spent in that verandah. So he hastily made his way to the kitchen, not caring to look to right and left into the shadows of the rooms for fear of what might be lurking. Zaiba and her friend were already there, eagerly consuming their meals in preparation for the long hours of unbroken study for those crucial examinations that were to take place soon. He thought he heard them speaking of a specter that had been sighted in the vicinity, one that regarded a chosen house from a tree and then entered it by the front door. They finished in a couple of minutes, telling Ali they would take a slow walk round to the front of the house before repairing to their secluded corner inside the house via the verandah. The blue door was as yet unbolted but Ali was to go the same way and bolt the door.
They left him while he sat at his meal trying to chew the puffy, cracking rice tossed in a bowl with groundnuts and onion. Ali was aware of the dark that had been settling about him, causing him to worry. He dropped his spoon and went to the window. He stood there and in a while he could see a figure up on one of the outstretched arms of the biggest of the trees on the ridge. This was a tree that in the day showed a bark all scaly and ridged. It had numerous knurled roots that seemed to delight in molding and churning the soil. Ali’s heart beat in his mouth. The thing up there looked weirder than the tree and was seated in comfort. He hurriedly crept back to his meal and finished it quickly. There was no time to lose; while there was still a lingering trace of daylight in the sky, he had to beat his way to the front of the house as quickly as possible.
He went outside through the backdoor and did not dare to look up. He was trembling in fear of the unknown but this was a feeling familiar to him; the only significant point was that it had not happened for quite some time. He turned the corner of the house and prepared to make a headlong dash to the front, but not before he had yielded to a temptation to espy again the thing on that naked bough. The figure was watching him straight with a leering grin. Ali fled to the blue door, shut it behind him and stood panting in the verandah. He knew he was still within the ken of this creature; he could feel its eyes drilling into him such that the points of his own flesh were raised in sure anticipation of a meeting. He could drag his stool to a corner that was out of sight of the tree, but there the light of the already dim bulb in the verandah scarcely fell, and he would be extremely fidgety if he sat in that spot. Ali stood where he was, not looking in the direction of the ridge and hoping that by this act the figure up there would be gone. After some time he summoned enough strength to go to the side of the verandah and cast his eyes toward the tree through the netting.
The figure was still perched on the limb of the tree. In the backdrop of a starry sky, the creature was glowing forth with a round face much as the moon does with an expression of its own on certain nights. There was something terrifying about the suggestion in the face of that apparition that abruptly chilled the nerves. It was the merry face of a body apparently seated in comfort on the limb, yet the merriness was certainly not the kind to inspire a sense of ease. Anyone coming upon this creature could only realize with an instinctive recoil that it was necessary to keep an enormous distance from it, if not run way altogether. Nothing but malice was waiting to unfold if the observer read the signs both in the look on the face and in the existence of the thing itself. For Ali, this was now no familiar predicament of the kind that arrived when he was told a story about man-eating demons on a silent night, the predicament that might be removed by a resolute exercise of one’s guts. What he saw at present was something unspeakably out of the ordinary. He came away to the far side of the verandah and tried to calm himself to think.
For the moment, the chances of an escape from his ordeal were not very bright. He could not flee from the house into the unknown, nor could he stay in it while that thing was settled up there. Raking his mind for a solution, he felt drops of perspiration on his forehead even on this cool night. There was no question of running to Zaiba and her friend within the dark house. Running to them would mean not just crossing foreboding rooms but also becoming cringingly yellow in their eyes, a prospect not to be contemplated. And yet he could not endure the large duration of time ahead till the house would be lighted and his mother present. Ali dragged the stool to the dim portion of the verandah away from the tree and sat on it. He felt his nerves and muscles relax a little as he rested his face on the palms of his hands while leaning forward in thought. He could not help thinking of a drastic remedy. In many of the tales he had heard, the ogres and demons were slain in the end by legendary heroes who wielded long swords that did not fail to decapitate heads. He was not come of sufficient age to emulate one of those heroes. Nor could be summon such a hero at the present moment. He had to ask himself, then, whether there could be any way to overcome this cousin of monsters that had imposed itself this evening when he happened to be alone.
Did they have minds of their own, these beings? No, he had no wish to plead or beg with the creature up there. But if it could have such a wicked smile, it must surely have the ability to plan and design things. It must surely have a mind. He could try to scare it away by announcing some of the mighty spells he had often seen conjured up by some wise men who went visiting houses. Yes, even such a powerful entity as this ghost with its all-knowing, confident smile could be made to flee in the face of these spells and rituals. But such was its domination and its position that it seemed the ghost would heed no warnings from mere mortals. On the contrary, it might well become disposed to come down from that tree and advance toward the verandah, a possibility that set Ali’s heart racing and caused more beads to gather upon his forehead. If he could not dash to the tree with a sword nor issue a credible warning, what could he do to make the creature go away for good?
Bent in his thoughts, Ali found he was straining himself beyond the tolerable. It was a torment not just to find there was no way to resolve the crisis but also to be forced to sit in a dark portion of the house for such a large part of the evening. Maybe the creature was gone. It is such a blessing to know that what has been needling you beyond measure is really no more present just when you think you can take the suffering no more. Ali got up and walked with keen steps to the other side where he could see the tree. He peered through the netting, assuring himself that his fears had been unfounded. At any rate, even if such a thing as a ghost was up there, it should be worth trying to ignore it. There was no reason to think you could not live in coexistence with a creature that did not mean to abide more than an evening. And perhaps the creature really did not mean any harm if you looked at it closely. So he looked up and his eyes fell on the reclining being again. The face was shining and it loomed larger than the body. The face was turned to him and Ali could unmistakably detect a leer. The eyes on that face were cocked up and the whole regard was of a being with an unspeakably horrific intention. And this was a ghost. The expression on its face was hypnotic enough to beguile the watcher into surrendering to it completely. It was obvious that nothing could be more hideous than the presence of such a thing on a night like this.
Ali turned his back and returned hurriedly to the other side. He felt the pores on his back bristling in a way that rarely happened in his life, and he quickened his steps into a run. Placing his hands on the netting on the other side in an effort to clutch at something, he again found his mind whirling to find a way out of his agony. He could not bear in this manner the night that was coming. That creature had to quit its place and disappear. If he could not conquer it or scare it off, he must find a means to lure it away. What could work against such a specter of the night? Prayers might help but Ali believed that they were effective only if recited with other people. He tried to think of his strengths. More than once, he had led a team of boys to glory in a regular game or in an irregular brawny battle. He had frequently earned praises for his performance in school. From time to time there had been other achievements for which he had received kudos from the grown-ups. For example, once he had turned in his painting of a boy pulling a board cart on which a girl was sitting, something that caused everyone to look at him in plain admiration. On holiday now, he spent the hours of the day engrossed in discoveries in the surroundings. These discoveries had a meaning in the light of what the world held out to him. He wanted to carve a career for himself that made him a pioneer. He would delight in the deeds that showed how he excelled in his crafts. What was that which his mother had said to him before she left? He felt blood and warmth flowing through him where there had been a sort of numbness and dread. Yes, what had she said? Something about the neighbor’s girl who could not speak. Yes! Wasn’t she waiting to be healed by him? What force could pretend to match the one that was in this moment beginning to course through him, giving him an exhilaration fit to upset the stars he could see in the sky?
He darted to the side from which the ghost could be seen. Of course, the thing was still there but Ali thought that its leer was replaced with a broad inviting smile that took the attention for a moment. He caught the eye of the creature but did not blink. They looked at each other and it seemed the ghost had an important call upon Ali. Although he would have liked to know what it was, he was the one who would talk first. His heart began to beat a normal rhythm as he stood firm and addressed the figure.
“I’ll make the neighbor’s girl speak. Only when she talks, I will give you ear.”
He turned around decisively, sat upon the stool under the full light in the verandah, and waited for his mother to return.
The Union of Writers of Quebec (UNEQ) selected the opening chapter of his first novel for a mentorship program with an established writer. He plans to publish this novel at a later date.
- Booted up and ready to go
- Rural Princess