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I never wanted to go to Pahargarh. I did everything I could to spoil our plans. There were too many wounds, memories of sour exchanges. It was their careless words. Each infliction still fresh in my mind. I wasn’t old enough to forgive them, not then, but there was Papa – demanding I do right by them. You know better than anyone how he gets.
I know you’re the sort to believe in omens and such things, and we had enough. A fortnight before we were to leave I remember catching something that had baffled the doctor. I was ill for days. Coughing through feverish nights, barely conscious. And that summer, remember how hot it was, a meteorological record they said. Do you remember the news reporting all those cars, sparking up by themselves? Booming in mini explosions. Hellfire they’d called it.
You spoke of forgiveness over the phone, but this isn’t about forgiveness at all, is it? I will, I have decided, tell you everything that happened to me that last time I was in Pahargarh, and perhaps then you will understand.
In writing this, I find myself wishing that the horror of that time will lessen somehow, simply by putting it in words. There are moments even now when I feel once again the fear start to creep back in. It’s closing in, clawing its way despite the distance placed by the last twenty years. Oh Jija, I have to stop myself, trick my mind, fool it into thinking that that’s all behind me. Some days it works and then some days … it fails me.
I suppose the problem lies in remembering it all too clearly. As though in a mere few seconds the clock has unwound itself and I am there again, a confused child.
I don’t mean to scare you, my dear Jija, that is of course the last thing I would want. They’re our family and I know that means something. It is different for you, we both know the special place you hold in their heart. In you they see her reflection, in me they see something else. I am sorry if I sound bitter, even after all these years.
Uncle Roy and Auntie Jaya had initially planned to drive down. It’s a scenic route, they’d said, and there was so much they wanted to show me – but that wasn’t to happen. We must have booked the last tickets on the overnight train and the journey wasn’t a good one. We had two unscheduled stops. The first time was for an engine change, the electrical problems had already caused us significant delay. The second time it was much more terrible: on the tracks before us, the driver had spotted the dead carcass of a cow that had strayed too close to its end. At first he didn’t know what it was, that lump of leather? Abandoned furniture? Old luggage? It was dangerous, whatever it was, it shouldn’t have been there. But as we got closer, we saw. All of us peering out of our windows with ghoulish interest. The cow laying lifeless, its dark eyes staring vacantly ahead. I could take it no more, Jija, I couldn’t. I felt unsettled like I had made a big mistake, taken the wrong road, Auntie Jaya said it was nothing, nerves probably from seeing what we just had, but I have wondered since, if it wasn’t simply a warning.
It took us a whole day to reach Pahargarh, our train pulled into the station just before dusk. Uncle Nema was waiting there for us. He barely spoke a word, instead he lumped our bags in the boot of his old Ford and loaded us in the front like parcels ready to be shipped out.
“It’s his way, he’s always been a little … distant,” Auntie Jaya said to me. “Don’t take it to heart.”
“I don’t mind,” I said.
“He’ll warm up to you soon,” she went on, “I’m sure of it. He loved your mother, like a sister. They were inseparable.”
“Oh,” I said, and I tried to imagine a young Uncle Nema and our Mama, playing their childish games. How she would have hidden, how he would have gone looking for her. Was he still looking for her?
The sun had set by the time we reached the fort. The Pahargarh Kothi stood a little way out, a great shadow rising from the dunes. The jeep rattled on towards it, barren landscape slipping past us. As we got closer, I could see the orange glow of the torches, and I could make out a small silhouette waiting by the gates.
“Dai Ma is excited to see you,” Auntie Jaya said, nodding towards the figure.
Dai Ma, she looked so frail.
“Oh, you’re here. My dear sweet child,” she said, rushing towards me. “You’re home.”
“Dai Ma,” I said, “It’s … nice to see you again. How have you been?”
“Good,” she said, smiling, her face too young for the rest of her, “a few aches and pains but that’s old age, isn’t it. Come inside, come on. Have you had something to eat?”
“We ate on the way, Mai, don’t worry. I didn’t starve your poor girl,” Uncle Roy said, shaking his head at me.
“You look so much like your mother, it’s like having her back with us,” Dai Ma went on.
“Oh,” I said. “I’m not the one who … Jija’s the one who looks like her. Not me.”
I see you now, shaking your head at me, but you couldn’t possibly blame me for speaking the truth. We have each inherited our sorrows.
“I think you both have a little bit of her,” Dai Ma said, pressing her palm into mine.
I didn’t say anything.
We sat talking outside in the courtyard. The night was peaceful, the kind of peace one would never find in the city. I understand what you mean when you say that you miss the stillness of Pahargarh, it is a stillness that I haven’t found anywhere since. Time seems to stop there, maybe I imagined it so, imagined those moments preserved in their entirety like some kind of strange magic.
Dai Ma asked about everyone, Uncle Nema sat silent beside her listening to what we had to say, he didn’t share in the conversation. Every now and then he’d allow himself the smallest of smiles which would disappear just as suddenly as they would appear. I didn’t have much to give to the conversation myself. Pahargarh felt so foreign, so unfamiliar, that I almost felt like a pretender. Uncle Roy and Auntie Jaya, kept the conversation going, bless them.
“You must be tired,” Dai Ma said, she’d caught me nodding off. “I thought since the rooms are too warm, we would lay the cots out in the courtyard where it’s cooler. Camping under the stars, you don’t get to do that in the city.”
“No, we don’t,” I said, with a small smile.
After the journey I had had, a warm bed, a good night’s sleep sounded lovely. I didn’t argue with her.
The cots had been laid on the other side of the gate. Beside the small door carved into the iron stronghold, giving easy access to the outsiders. It was oddly exposing, but I slept as soon as my head hit the pillow, as though I hadn’t slept in days. When I woke later, it was slowly, a creeping consciousness and then complete awareness all at once.
I don’t know what it was.
You know how sometimes you can feel how many people there are in a room, not by looking but just by sense, it was something like that. I know how it sounds, as I write this I can feel your doubt, but my dear Jija, believe me it was so. I sensed movement, not more than ten feet away, moving closer, ever so closer.
Where do I begin to talk of the doubt that wracked my mind, for days after I questioned that first night. Returning to that dark hour, the first impulse.
Was it real? Any of it?
Could I have done anything differently? Ignored it perhaps, but what use is any of that now?
I kept my eyes closed, my breath shallow as one would in the troughs of deep sleep, but my heart would not listen. It thundered on like a race-horse threatening to escape. Threatening to make a run for it as I … I stayed in place. Paralysed.
The footsteps were soft. Delicate pattering against the stone floor. They kept coming, closer and closer.
Why didn’t I scream, you wonder. Why didn’t I jump out of my bed? Call out, “Who’s there?” Call for help? What if I had? What if there had been a reply?
The footsteps stopped, a foot from me. Nothing happened, for what seemed like a long time.
I tried to gauge the time in my head, I’d slept before twelve, but it was still too dark, too still, for it to be close to dawn. I could hear the cricket’s song. Perhaps it was two thirty, three, perhaps it was later.
Even in that state of panic, I felt myself drift in and out of sleep and it was just as I had shaken myself awake once again that I heard it. The tinkling laughter, an escaped giggle of a small child. Suppressed, controlled, fighting to break free. Every sense in me became alert to it as I struggled to keep my eyes closed. Have you ever fought against your own nature?
Don’t, for it is a battle you shall always lose.
The child, whoever she was, sang a familiar song, like a lullaby from years ago. She was in a world of her own making, happy. Auntie Jaya slept beside me, I could hear her gentle snores unperturbed by our visitor. Did she not hear the girl? I wondered.
Somewhere in the house a door slammed shut, loose around the hinges, and the girl stopped her song. I waited for more but this time the silence lasted. I don’t know how long I lay still, awake in my cot, my insides twisted in a knot. But when I finally fell asleep I could hear the birds of dawn singing their morning song.
When Dai Ma woke me the sun was a good way up in the sky. The light, the clatter of the household, the industrious movement of its people, I’d slept through it all.
Were it you, you would have asked her about the child. I didn’t. I started to, but I hesitated. Instead I folded up my things and took them inside the house. There was much of Pahargarh I was still to discover, and the small girl, she seemed so far away that it didn’t take much for me to convince myself that she were only a figment of some waking dream.
Pahargarh by day looks quite different than it does by night. It is not nearly so menacing, I should say. The place is woven in memories. Of course everything that I know about it is from Papa. His stories always made Mama sound like a goddess, didn’t they? It wasn’t much different there either. Even though they spoke in hushed tones, guilt-ridden, trying not to catch my eye, I could understand what she meant to them, to that place. With the invisibility of the listener, I relived her time. Her exploits and adventures.
Did you know she was a crack shot? Sharpest shooter in the district, they said. Even her room is kept just the way she left it, as if at any moment she were to return. The walls are painted with murals in her hand. Fantastical creatures, apsaras and devas, the fabled landscape of Shalimar patiently filled in with the passion of miniaturist. In one corner of the room lies her Veena, I didn’t know she was trained in classical music. There were so many things about her that I was learning for the first time. If only we were half as accomplished as her, Jija, imagine what we would be.
Uncle Nema followed me around all day. He didn’t speak to me, not a word, but at every turn I’d find him waiting, watching. Whenever I’d catch him he’d pretend to do something, but I knew it for what it was – a show.
That second night, I felt rested, more at ease, despite the events of the previous night.
It had to have been in my head, I remember telling myself, no one else had made mention of it. I slept earlier that night, took a Melatonin to ensure that I wouldn’t wake. For a while it worked. I slept a heavy-lidded sleep, the night breeze that blew through the courtyard lulling me into dreams of family, of Mama, of all us together, happy.
It was the laughter that woke me up. Louder this time, open. Somehow she seemed more real, my nightly visitor. She was playing a childish game, her unbound pleasure was obvious in her carefree movements.
I don’t know if she could have sensed my awareness. That I was awake. I didn’t move, not a finger, but she knew. She stopped her game, still humming that lullaby, I could hear her footsteps coming closer to my cot. Bare and soft, with a music of their own. This time she didn’t stop, perhaps she were emboldened by my lack of action. She was almost by my head. I had stopped breathing, my eyes squeezed shut. I prayed to anyone who’d listen, but the words that came out were jumbled, half-eaten, half-forgotten. I couldn’t string a sentence, I couldn’t even squeak out a cry. Choking on my fear just as two hands grasped the side of my cot.
Nothing for a beat.
Dare I hope…
For a moment it seemed as though everything was alright.
Do you know, Jija, what it feels like to be shaken out of your own skin, to tremble so violently that every part of you seems displaced?
The cot shook terribly, the child’s strength – incredible. I could hear the iron legs creak against the granite floor, scraping the bottom and with it I shook. Every part of me shook.
Scream, you’d say, and I tried with every ounce of my strength, but my lips seemed to have been sewn shut.
I was made of ice.
I don’t know if it were the shock, or the fear, or the complete loss of control of my own body, which made me lose consciousness. The next thing I remembered was Dai Ma shaking me from my sleep.
I bolted upright. I think she saw the fear in my features.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s … it’s nothing,” I said. “Bad dream.”
Why did I lie?
I don’t know. Would they have believed me?
I was having a hard time believing myself.
I couldn’t tell them then, could I?
I washed up, the cold water jarring me out of the nightmare.
I felt sick.
Uncle Roy had planned a nice picnic lunch in the afternoon after a trek along the Chambal area. Its history, he said, hangs heavy in the air and I couldn’t, he insisted, miss the opportunity to go around. I thought it would be a nice distraction, a good way to get away, so I agreed. It was just him, Uncle Nema and I who went, Auntie Jaya and Dai Ma stayed home preparing for the Puja in the evening. Dai Ma loves her customs, or perhaps it is the place they hold for her. To me they seem like meaningless actions, but to her they bring a sort of order to life.
“This place has stood its ground for centuries, did you know that?” Uncle Roy said, as we went around the Chambal caves.
They were grey and stony, dark cold walls that seemed to whisper. What would they say, if they could speak?
“Invaders repeatedly conquered this land and it passed through many hands, yet isn’t it remarkable how it still stands. If only the spirits could speak.”
“Spirits? Ghosts you mean?” I asked him, trying not to sound too eager.
“Yes spirits, ghosts, memories even,” Uncle Nema said in a low voice. He had been silent for so long that I’d forgotten he was with us. “Things buried don’t stay buried, you may forget them but they don’t forget you.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
Uncle Nema looked at me not saying anything, as though he were making up his mind about something, and then he said, “You can run from things, but they will catch up to you. One day, you’re going to have to face them.”
“Face what?” I asked. “What are you talking about? Is there something here? Is there something … something that you’re not telling me about? Please, what is it?”
“Nothing,” Uncle Roy said, a boyish grin on his face. He isn’t the sort to believe in these things, I do love him but he hasn’t the imagination for them, not that I’m saying I had imagined any of it. Oh, I don’t know Jija, I don’t know what I’m saying anymore. It gets difficult, things don’t seem as they are even as I write them.
“Stop scaring her, Nema,” Uncle Roy said, turning to him, and he shrugged easily, letting go of our conversation.
“Come on, there’s something I think you’d like very much. Better than Nema’s tales of spirits and ghosts,” Uncle Roy said to me. And we moved on, not returning to any more talk of spirits, ghosts, and empty walls. Instead for the rest of the afternoon we listened to Uncle Roy go on about the local lore of Pahargarh. He has an encyclopaedic knowledge on the subject, centuries worth of historic account, tales of old kings and queens, most of which seemed to end in tragedy. But I couldn’t stop thinking about what Uncle Nema had said about running from things. I didn’t know what he meant, I was there, I wasn’t running, and yet. Perhaps he’d seen her, my nightly visitor, perhaps he knew the little girl, but why didn’t he say anything, why did I have to endure it all on my own, alone?
By the time we made our way home, I was too tired to think about anything but there was no rest to be had. The minute we got home Dai Ma rushed me off to get changed for the Puja.
Dusshera, what a momentous festival it is, and in Pahargarh it is as though the entire year centres around these celebrations. The burning of the effigy of Ravan heralding a new way. Let go of the past, make way for the future. It is the village’s most beautiful offering, isn’t it? I do miss it, I’ll admit that to you, Jija. The fire roaring up into the sky, the way it licks the ten heads of Ravan, the way the drums beat as parts of him melt away. I took courage from its heat. I took courage to let go of those old gashes that I had clung on to for far too long. If I tried, I knew I could finally escape.
The evening ebbed into the night. I thought of my nightly visitor, was she around watching us? She should be, because if she were she would realise that were she to come tonight, she would hold no power over me.
I suppose knowing what I know now, it was childish of me to throw out such a challenge, maybe I shouldn’t have. For she came that night, just as she had before.
This time I wasn’t asleep. I lay waiting for her soft bare footsteps. I wanted to see her face, it was the only way I could be rid of her and she knew that, because when she came to me she kept her head turned away. I sat up not two feet from her. This shadowy illusion of my dreams.
She gestured for me to follow her and I did. Her small steps guiding me. She knew her way around, better than I knew mine. We walked to the edge of the courtyard, you know where the stone slab ends in a drop. She was so close to the edge. I called to her to stop, “Stop,” I said. “Stop.” But she wouldn’t. Come closer, she signaled. And closer I went, trying to pull her back, pull her away from the edge.
One behind the other, that’s how we stood by the edge of the drop. And then she turned and I saw.
I saw her face.
Those familiar features, a reflection of my own, a reflection of yours.
It was too much, the world started to spin around me, even the soft rustle of the trees boomed and echoed. And in all that I could see only her eyes, brown like mine, brown like yours.
The weak cry that escaped me, I wouldn’t have thought anyone would have heard it.
I wouldn’t have thought that I were meant to be saved.
Uncle Nema was right, things have a way of catching up to you.
They told me that he caught me before I fell.
They were all very understanding of what I told them, I didn’t tell them everything, I still don’t think they would believe me.
The doctor said that it was a case of sleep-walking. The excitement, the sudden change, they were all factors. Dai-Ma worried about my health, Uncle Roy and Auntie Jaya did too, but they said I was lucky that Uncle Nema had been there. I know I was and I guess I should be happy, but … but Jija, I can’t help but feel like I had abandoned something there.
I know how it sounds and I don’t mean that I should have given up my life, but that little girl she meant something. She was showing me … and I abandoned her. I ran away.
“Shock,” Dai-Ma whispered when I tried to explain this to her.
“Trauma, perhaps,” said Auntie Jaya.
But I know what I saw.
I promised myself that I wouldn’t return there, not until I was ready. I wasn’t then, and I don’t think I am even now. If this is about forgiveness, my dear Jija, I shall say that I’m not ready to give it yet. Not to Mama, not to myself.