By the Pricking of My Thumb

By the Pricking of My Thumb

Lakeview Camping Grounds.
Six months ago.

The rain had tapered off by the time dawn broke through. It left a heavy mist in its wake, covering everything around it. The pitter-patter of the raindrops on the tent’s roof tugged at my sleep, briefly elevating me to the land of the semi-conscious. I shifted towards my husband, but my outstretched hand found an empty spot. The hypnotic lure of sleep and the blanket’s warmth embraced me once again, and before I could comprehend anything, I succumbed to it.

The fishy odour from the lake permeating inside finally brought me to the land of the living. I turned around to find Parth sleeping soundly, if snoring, next to me. 

Maybe I dreamt of being alone.

Parth had thrown his blanket off in the night, and I tucked him in. I peeped out of the flap functioning as a window and found the sun fighting feebly with the mist.

Sun 0. Mist 1.

I donned my thick jacket, unzipped the tent door, and stepped outside. The view was worth the chill as rays of light boomeranged off the lake’s surface into the mist, losing themselves in it. I wrapped the jacket tighter around me, gazing into the lake. It looked so benign. The trees appeared eerie, covered in the white mist. 

Tall ghostly sentinels. Keeping guard over the lake. You can check out anytime, but you can never leave.

I laughed softly at my overactive imagination. An imagination spurred by the stories we heard. When the bonfire was lit, most of the campers migrated towards the usual ghost stories. 

It is almost a ritual at every campsite. Something about sitting around a campfire that ignites the urge. Maybe, it is the shadows, created by the flames, we fear. The shadows hiding behind a bright blaze conceal the darkest secrets. 

I shook my head. 

I would make a fine writer. Shadows, secrets, and whatnot! Ranveera, the best-seller author!

Last night, one of the campers had narrated a cockamamie story about spirits residing in the lake, preying on humans.  

“A researcher couple tried to disprove this claim. They stayed overnight at the camp. At night, they saw a shifting mist form, and they split up to chase it. The baak possessed the woman when it found her alone, and her partner didn’t suspect anything. Later, they revealed everything. It is a true story, I swear,” he said.

Parth scoffed at the tale, whispering complaints into my ears. Followed by naughty comments that made me laugh. 

Gazing at the lake now, I agreed with Parth. It was beautiful, and the only thing hiding within it was marine life. I took a deep refreshing breath. With a final look at the still waters, I steeled myself to the task ahead. Waking up Parth was a battle I usually won with the skin of my teeth.

Home.
Five months ago.

Parth had turned into a stranger. An angry shadow of his former happy self. His normalcy-to-rage ratio was high, and his rants were notorious. Living each day with him was akin to walking over a landmine. Which misstep would trigger the bomb was anybody’s guess. My burgeoning fear over the metamorphosis unfolding in front of me transformed me into an insomniac. I would fret all night, wondering what had happened? What was the trigger? Most importantly, why did he change?

Parth flew off the handle for the most trivial thing. The first time it happened, I attributed it to work-related stress. But the increasing frequency made me run out of excuses. His anger had not yet escalated into physical violence, but it was skirting that edge. 

I confided in Sharat, Parth’s elder brother with whom I shared a warm relationship.

“Parth’s behaviour has undergone drastic changes. Bhaiya, I am scared. Last night he shoved me against our bedroom wall. His face was thunderous. He moved in close with his fists raised, but an alert from his mobile distracted him, and he left to attend to it. I am not sure what is wrong, but this is not the Parth I know.”

Sharat nodded, “I accept work has been stressful, but it doesn’t warrant such a response, Veeru. I will talk to him about consulting a doctor.”

Sharat and Parth were partners in a realty firm, started by their parents, now deceased. They had branched out in the hospitality sector a few months back with a plan to exploit the niche heritage market. Recently, they had pooled in their resources, taking heavy mortgages to fund a few new projects. It was the main reason for their stress.

Sharat approached Parth about a psychiatric evaluation, but he adamantly opposed it.

Parth and I were school sweethearts. We were the few lucky ones whose young love culminated into a strong and healthy marriage. We were completely in sync with each other and our lives. Parth handled the business aspect of the partnership, and I looked after the financials.

Of late, I felt my life was unravelling as I watched, helpless, trying to hold on to the loose ends, and failing.

Hospital.
Three months ago.

The doctor stepped back as Parth lunged at her. She dropped his file, and it clattered on the floor, peppering it with papers. The ward boy immediately restrained Parth, who struggled to break free. 

The doctor gestured to leave the room with her. “Ranveera, I have prescribed the highest dose of medicines. I am doubtful of their effect, though. Despite your reservations, it was a good decision to admit him in the psychiatric ward,” she said. 

I nodded, defeated. In the last three months, I had been to hell and back several times. Parth’s emotional outbursts had lumbered into the physical territory. 

A few nights back, I woke up thirsty. Parth’s side was empty. As I descended, I spotted him with his head inside our fridge. 

Parth and his midnight snacks!

I called out to him as I entered the kitchen, startling him. Parth spun around, his mouth full, smeared with blood. What I saw next made me shiver. 

Parth was chewing dead frozen fish. Watching me, he swallowed and calmly raised the fish to take another monster bite, his eyes, dark pools. My breath quickened.  He finished it in two bites, wiping the blood with the back of his hand. He approached me as I stood staring at him. He raised his hands.

Is he going to hug me? Who got the fish? When did Parth start eating fish? Raw?

He closed in and, without any warning, started to strangle me. His cold and calculated manner scared me senseless. His breath smelled of fish. As I writhed in desperation, he increased the pressure on my neck. All of a sudden, he released me. I staggered against the counter. He waved and walked out of the kitchen.

What just happened? 

Dazed, I couldn’t live in fear anymore, and that is why Parth was in the hospital.

I exhaled and leaned against the glass window as I watched Parth, my love, being administered a sedative. 

My entire life had unraveled, and I stood holding the fast-dwindling edge.

Home.
Two months ago.

Parth was home. He was sluggish due to the drugs, but he was home! We decided to provide the same care as the hospital but in our residence. My happiness knew no bounds. We hired an aide, Ramesh, for the day-to-day tasks.

Yesterday, while Parth watched television in the den, I decided to retire to our bedroom. It was a tiring day. As I ascended the stairs, I felt oddly unsettled. Each creek of the warped staircase felt like a warning. Halfway up, I froze. A weird smell wafted in. It lingered in the air, the smell of fish. I felt transported to a beach, strewn with dead fish. I gagged, holding the banister for support. It disappeared as quickly as it had appeared. The hair on my neck quivered. I turned around to see Parth watching me. Staring. 

The days fell into a routine. Parth, who was such a foodie, now had to be cajoled for eating a few morsels. He had lost tremendous weight, and his face was lined. He lay on the sofa, drugged, and watched endless television.

I caught him eyeballing me many times. Each time, an intense hatred burned in his eyes. The sheer force of venom petrified me. 

Last night, as I tucked him in bed, Parth smiled at me. A smile so cold, it caught my breath. An evil smile. 

My fear was back, and it brought reinforcements.

Home.
One month ago.

We let Ramesh go. He was careless and forgot to give Parth his dose. Parth attacked him as the medicinal haze lifted. It was sheer good timing that I had entered the room when Parth had Ramesh in his grip. Though weak, he managed to land a few punches. I moved with speed I didn’t know I possessed, and I injected him with the sedatives.

When he was leaving, Ramesh said, “Didi, something is wrong with sir. Despite being medicated, I could feel his power. If you listen to me, a ghost has influenced him. That is what they say in my village.  Did the two of you travel recently? A waterbody?”

At my nod, he continued. “I thought so. Baaks haunt lakes and rivers. My grandmother would say if they come across a suitable human, they overpower and possess them. Please take sir to Mehandipur. There, they perform exorcisms.”

My mind flashed back to the campsite. The word baak, a catalyst, had provoked an elusive memory.

A baak waits for its prey and then jumps on an unsuspecting human. It prefers dead humans, but it can overpower live ones, too.

Parth whispering, he will test the theory.

Waking up to an empty bed.    

Was he possessed?

Mehandipur Temple.
Now.

The temple rose between the two hills of the Aravalli ranges, a silhouette against the afternoon sun. Barren trees dotted the narrow and unkept path. The vehicles on the road kicked up a storm of dust, which settled everywhere. 

The temple was bigger than I expected, though decrepit with peeling paint and its windows boarded up. A murder of crows sat on one of the eaves. They appeared to be watching our every move. Stray dogs roamed around, milling with the pilgrims.

As we dragged Parth inside, I noticed the temple’s plaster stained with soot. The light around us was dim, and I could hear murmuring everywhere. As we neared the main altar of Lord Balaji, I saw sights that froze my blood. Several people chained to metal poles were screaming and cursing. And, crying. 

A man mumbling loudly was sliding down a staircase, head-first. He landed on his pate, hitting it hard against the floor, but was unhurt. He rose, ascended the same stairs. On reaching the top, slid down head-first again. His expression was blank while he kept at it. Again and again.

Further on, two men held a supine woman. Her hair was loose and framed her face. They held her against a stone pillar and regularly banged her head on it while whispering under their breath. The pillar had dried blood on it. Now rows of fresh blood were racing towards the ground. There was a steady pattern of the whole affair: thunk-chant-thunk-chant. The woman struggled and screamed obscenities, but they paid no heed. With deliberate movements and chants, they struck her head against the pillar. Back and forth. The woman, after a while, collapsed in one of the men’s arms. For a moment, I thought she was dead until she rose up and looked at peace. 

The episode rattled me as I gawked at them. My countenance may have reflected it because Sharat kept a hand on my shoulder.

“We will get him back, Veeru. Don’t look around it will upset you. Let us meet guruji.”

Two men from the temple approached us, and after a short discussion, they asked us to accompany them. They walked on either side of Parth, holding his arms. Parth started to strain violently against them, but their grip was strong.

Parth commenced howling as we walked. He thrashed and jerked his head, then left it loose. Turning it to the side, he snarled. The men tightened their hold on him. Our eyes met. A shiver went down my spine. Parth laughed, a strange sound. His eyeballs rolled back, and he began to convulse as if experiencing an attack. I moved in instinctively to help him. 

“No, madam. Don’t touch him. The spirit inside him is getting scared. Keep your distance,” one of the men advised. 

I reluctantly dropped my hand.

Along the way, a few people sat with their possessed family members in dingy stalls. Many were forcing prasad down their throats. Some were shaking too hard to hold the food in. A crow flapped its wings above us, and its squawk was shrill. It settled on a standing slab of stone. I noticed several such pieces, some small and some huge, placed against the walls. 

One of the men holding Parth observed my quizzical look said. “These stones are placed on the influenced humans, and when the preta leaves the body, it is captured inside these slabs. If the family buys one, then the preta is forced to stay in it, and it cannot follow them home. Stay away from them,” he warned.

I shuddered and kept my distance as we continued walking. We reached an airy, well-lit, and pristine hall filled with priests, clad in robes. 

An old-man approached us. His long hair tied behind him with a red vermillion mark adorned his forehead. 

“Mr. Sharat, welcome. I am Vishnu, the high priest. Mehandipur is a unique temple where Lord Balaji, an avatar of Lord Hanumanji, has been granted special powers. Only he can exorcise ghosts from possessed humans. Today, I will lead the ritual,” said he.

Vishnu stared at Parth, who was squirming, trying to break free. 

“The spirit in him is not the one we usually encounter. It is a water spirit. But we are equipped to handle it,” said Vishnu, after a pause. 

He led us to a clean small room. He and the men who had accompanied us along with a couple more joined him. 

“You need to stay away while we conduct the exorcism ritual. At no point in time should you interrupt us. Whatever happens, do not come near us,” Vishnu warned us. 

He looked at me, “Madam, the spirit is smart, and it will call out for you, beg you to intervene but don’t fall for its tricks. Let us do our work with no interference. Okay?” asked he.

Sharat and I nodded. I had some reservations but willing to go with the flow if it helped Parth. 

Vishnu joined the others. They formed a tight circle around Parth and the man who held him. Parth wailed like a banshee. He hurled curses and spat at them. One of the priests started to play a musical instrument. The man let Parth go and joined the circle. Vishnu initiated the chanting. I couldn’t discern the words but caught a few stray ones. Balaji was the only one I recognized.

Parth stood in the center, trapped while the priests rotated around him. He glared at them. His face showed distress. The movements, music, and chants of the priests were rhythmic and increased in tempo. Parth struggled as the clique around him pivoted quicker. 

He screamed, “Veeru! They are holding me against my will. Save me. I don’t want to do this. I want to go home with you. Let’s go home.” 

I closed my eyes, tears rushing down my cheeks. My body gave an involuntary start, but I stayed put. He sounded like my Parth, the one I knew and loved. 

The priests encircling Parth began to twirl faster, their chanting more hurried. Parth looked as if he was being torn into two parts. One part wished to sway to the mantras, and the other one resisted it. He stretched his hand to clutch at the shoulder of the pandit ahead, but it flailed in the air. He couldn’t seem to reach him as though the chants had formed a bubble around Parth. One he couldn’t burst.

The men whirled with quick movements. In tandem, Parth started to push against his invisible bonds. It appeared as if an unseen cloud around him was closing on him, inch by inch. His head lolled back, and a guttural keening escaped him. 

The priestly wheel was speeding, nearing its crescendo. Their pace began to affect Parth. Vishnu’s voice had gotten hoarse. The man on his right took up the chanting. Sweat poured down their faces, their white robes slick. Their synchronized rotations spiraled faster and faster. 

“Sharat bhaiya. Save me. Please, they are torturing me,” yelled Parth.

Sharat’s eyes pooled with unshed tears. It was breaking his heart to hear the agony in his brother’s voice.

Ditto.

The priests almost-ran around Parth, who swayed to the beats of the steps. The cadence of the chants reduced to a crawl as Parth stopped moving. The circle stopped. Parth fell in a heap. 

Sharat jumped toward them. Parth lay on the floor. Before Vishnu could stop him, Sharat clutched Parth’s hand. Parth’s eyes opened, and he looked exhausted but relaxed. 

“The bhoot has departed from his body. Your brother is free. Buy a brick and lay it against the wall. But first, feed him prasad,” said a fatigued Vishnu, wiping his brow.   

Sharat led a weak Parth to a corner where I fed him prasad. Parth leaned against me, his eyes clear, and his face, sweaty but unlined. Like it used to be.

“It is over, bhaiya. We got our Parth back. His suffering and trauma have come to an end,” I said to Sharat.

When I was wiping Parth’s face with a towel, Sharat smiled. 

A fishy smell lingered in the air.

***

Glossary:

  1. Preta – Ghost
  2. Bhoot – Ghost
  3. Baak – A water spirit famous in East India. It favours fishes and is known to possess humans.
  4. Bhaiya – Brother
  5. Didi – sister
  6. Pandit – Priest
  7. Mehandipur Temple –  A temple in Rajasthan where open exorcisms take place.  It is one of the few ones, another one in Assam where such rituals are common place. 

***

Author’s note:

The end in this story refers to the end of possession in Parth’s case. The exorcism ritual was a success and the ghost departed from his body. 

The ghost, baak, is very fond of fish, and people in Assam often draw certain symbols on their fish baskets to avoid being attacked by the aforementioned ghost. My attempt has been to associate the smell of the fish with the arrival / presence of the baak. I hope you enjoyed it☺

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