Everything is red. The trees look like they’re bending over. The lorry is approaching the village. Nurpur. Don’t tell anyone it was Nurpur. Just say it was any old village. A motorbike was coming from the opposite direction. The driver of the motorbike had no head. It’s because the wounds were so fresh. That’s why he was still driving the motorbike. He must only recently have been beheaded.
Was this during the war?
No, normal days. The lorry driver got so scared, he swerved and crashed into a ditch.
How old were you?
Tell me another story.
Imagine a beehive. It hangs from a branch like a sling. It’s pouring rain. Chacha-ji is getting married. After three days, he has to take his bride back to her mother’s house.
It’s tradition. They are waiting for the bus to come. Chachi-ji is wearing a beautiful sari, silver and pink silk with a golden border embroidered with chocolate-brown flowers. The bus comes after five minutes. They have hardly gone one mile when the top of the bus strikes a low-hanging branch. The beehive falls onto the bus. The bees fly straight through the open windows and sting the passengers’ faces, bodies, eyes. An empty bus is coming from the opposite direction. The bus driver pulls over and waves at the empty bus to stop. All the passengers are taken home. They knock on the door. We don’t recognize them. Their faces are swollen. Are they demons? Are they dead? They have no eyes. We scream! Only my mother, who recognizes Chachi-ji’s sari, knows who they are and lets them in. Then the treatment begins.
How were the stings treated?
There is a fruit that grows wild. It was rubbed on them. Their eyes were like slits. I can’t remember the name of the fruit. Body, everything, was swollen. They could have died. I am telling you these stories because I myself don’t know how long I am going to live.
Don’t be stupid.
You don’t be stupid.
Tell me another story.
What kind of story?
A ghost story!
Okay, there was an old woman, my mother’s friend, and she knocked on the door, out of breath. The hem of her sari was caked in wet mud. It was midday and though it had rained, the heat was at its highest. She said, I will not tell you why but you must do as I say if you want to see something strange. Go to Sector Four, to the house on the corner opposite the market, the one with the bronze gate, and take some fruit with you. If you want to see what I am talking about, you need to go straightaway. Mum got ready. I got up, too.
How old were you?
Seven. Mum said, No, you stay back. I said no. Mum said, It is very dangerous. But I was adamant. So, we left. I walked behind Mum with my eyes down on the ground. We reached the house. The door was already open. Saw a lady sitting on a string bed, looking very depressed. She gestured to the room behind her with her chin. We went in. There was her daughter lying on the bed with a sheet over her face. Mum put two oranges on the bed. The oranges in India look like tangerines but are enormous in size. Do you remember them? All of a sudden, the girl started screaming. Her mother rushed in. What’s the matter? The girl screamed, They are beating me up and now they have thrown me down the mountain. The girl’s mother lifted the girl’s top and what we saw was awful: blood all over her body flowing down her stomach. Mum asked, Why is this happening? The girl’s mother said, This is nothing new. This has been going on for a year and a half. The blood on her body but also the things in her suitcase are covered with handprints of blood. When she eats, clots of blood fall out of her food. The moment we say, Here is your food, here is a dress for you to wear, blood pours out of it. At that moment, the girl’s mother saw the two oranges on the bed. These are for my daughter? Yes, said Mum. The girl’s mother started to peel the fruit. Then she screamed, holding out the orange to Mum. It was filled with blood. Mum nudged me and whispered, Go home. But I couldn’t move. The orange was stuffed with blood clots. My daughter has not eaten for a year and a half, said the girl’s mother. We left as quickly as we could. On the way home, we stopped at the old woman’s house. Tonight is the deciding factor, said the old woman. The girl is possessed by a ghost. A very famous person is coming to give a treatment. It’s a weird ghost. Many people from different religions have tried to get the ghost out but all have failed. Once, a Sikh gentleman came. He traveled from Lucknow and after some prayers he hung pictures of Guru Gobind Singh and Guru Nanak above the girl’s bed. Then he took out a big sword and hung that up, too. However, the pictures swung from side to side, so did the sword, and fell on the floor. Tonight at 2 a.m. a new man will start his treatment. Come with me. We will go and look.
Did your mother go?
She told the old woman that she couldn’t go because at 4 a.m. she had to get up and start cooking for the coming day. But in the end, she set the alarm for 2 a.m., and when she left, I followed her.
What did you see?
A man was sitting on the floor, chanting. About a hundred people were watching him or waiting in the yard outside or peeking through the windows. After a while the man took a bowl that was meant for the feet of a lady. He stopped chanting and asked the girl to sit in the bowl. And she did. He started to chant again. This was a shallow bowl made of nickel. The girl began to spin. The man chanted mantras with great speed. When it looked as if the girl was going to fall, the sorcerer, for that was what he was, caught her and got her down on the ground. He told the public that if the ghost had left the girl’s body, the peepul tree in the yard would start shaking. If the branches move, the ghost is gone. Look. Exactly that happened. The tree began to shake of its own accord. No other tree was moving. There was no wind that night. Everyone clapped!
Was she cured?
No. The sorcerer picked up the girl and lay her down on her bed. At that moment, the girl’s long hair began to move of its own accord and stuff itself into her mouth. Her body pasted with blood by unseen hands. I could hear the sound of the hands slapping against her body as they patted her with blood. Soon, she was covered head to toe with blood. I pressed through the crowd to the foot of the bed. I saw the handprints appear on her body. Everybody was amazed and struck with horror. The sorcerer was embarrassed and ashamed that his attempt had failed. He took his payment and left. Everybody knew the girl was possessed now.
What happened to her?
The parents learned about a pond where people took their loved ones when they were possessed by evil spirits. A sorcerer lived in a hut next to the pond and gave treatments to all who came to that remote place. So, the parents went to the pond and paid the sorcerer a huge amount of money. They were told that as soon as they got home, their daughter would be perfectly okay. They reached home but the symptoms resumed. The girl lived in that state and died after six months. The end!