I used to think I am insane for a very long time. Or, perhaps it drove me to insanity as time went by. What am I talking about?
It started when I was ten. I had this peculiar dream about windchimes. A pair of them dangling in the air. Giggles accompanied their tinkling…carefree giggles of babies.
I told about it to my mom first because she was a doctor. Dreams sprouted from our brain, so I thought she would know what was happening to me.
“It’s just a dream, Minu,” my mother would stroke my curls with affection, as she said. “Don’t think too much about it. Otherwise, you will continue to have the same dreams.”
I tried my best to follow my mother’s advice. I used to think of all my favourite things whenever the to and giggles tried to squeeze into my thoughts. Ice creams, storybooks, and the swing in the playground behind my house. For a time, it worked. But then, one night, I woke up screaming. The windchimes were all around the place. They won’t stop their jingle and the giggles—they grew so loud; I thought my eardrums will burst. I still remember how hard my mother embraced me, whispering soothing words in my ears to get my breathing back to normal that night.
And then it happened. I had just returned from school and was walking towards our building, Block B, when I saw a huge crowd before Block E. That’s where my friend Sapna lived. The cries and agonised shrieks of a familiar voice drew me towards the spot. I squeezed my way through the murmuring crowd. There were people on the ground floor and on the stairs that led to the first floor. My heart hammered in my chest as I stepped up to the first floor.
My sight streamed past a volley of known and unknown faces until it stopped on Sapna. She stood next to the door from where the heart wrenching sobs emanated. Upon seeing me, she waved.
“What’s going on?” I whispered into her ear. I peeked inside the house and saw the woman whose wretched cries had brought the residents of the entire block to her gate.
“That’s Deepa aunty,” Sapna muttered, “she had gone for a bath and asked her mother-in-law to look after the babies.”
“Then?” I asked even as I tried to wrench my gaze off Deepa aunty, whose disheveled covered half of her face and ricocheted away as she slammed her chest.
“When she returned, she found her mother-in-law asleep and went to check on the babies.”
All of a sudden, the sounds from my nightmare returned. Sapna’s voice turned into a distant garble and the sounds sucked me into a whirlwind. When the swirling stopped and I got back on my feet, I found myself inside Deepa aunty’s home. The people gathered at her door were gone.
“Amma, I am going for a bath. Please look after the girls,” she instructed an old lady seated in a chair facing the twin cribs.
I called out to Deepa aunty, but she didn’t reply or look at me. It was as if I wasn’t…visible?
I swerved toward the cribs where the little baby girls lay kicking their plump little, soft feet in the air. Their giggles—oh Lord! They had kept me awake night after night. I flinched as the other sound caught me unaware. The window near their cribs was open; and two little windchimes hung over the cribs, swung as the breeze played with them.
Beads of cold sweat broke out on my forehead as I tried to scream. But my voice had disappeared too.
The old lady on the chair rose to her feet and hobbled towards the cribs. She plucked out something from within the cups of her blouse. Something tiny and circular. I walked closer to see what she held in her palm.
She put one in each of the twins’ puny mouths while whispering sweet-nothings to them. I tried to stop her; but she couldn’t hear or see me. I looked into the twins’ mouths as they swallowed little white pills. I couldn’t pluck them out of their mouth. My body was just a draft of air. I was a ghost. ped giggling and suddenly appeared alarmed. Their facial muscles contorted and within seconds, they were gone.
The old lady, satisfied that her pills had achieved their purpose, plonked herself back on the chair.
“Now,” she sighed, “I can ask my son to try for a male child.”
Few Years Later
The years between school and college were more or less uneventful, thanks to the anti-depressants my therapist prescribed me. It was my parents’ idea; suppress something you don’t understand. In their case, more like ‘don’t want to understand.’
But thanks to therapist’s pills, the voices and visuals bouncing inside my head faded away with time. The vision about the grandma murdering those poor babies became a figment of my imagination as I grew up.
My college years were more liberating than high school, where I had to pretend-play to be a ‘nun’. That was my code words for Ms. Goody two-shoes. I had passed out of an all-girls convent. My parents had hoped that avoiding a co-ed school would keep my morals and values intact. Back then, I was too naïve to understand that it was their way of keeping me from interacting with guys.
But when I got admitted into one of the top colleges of the country, they had to overlook the fact that it wasn’t ‘all girls’. It worried my parents that the college was in a different city. But I assured them that their ‘goody two shoes’ daughter would never fail them. Truth be told, I was thrilled to step into a new environment, ripping away my parents’ list of ‘Dos and Don’ts’.
College years were some of the best years of my life. I could voice my doubts about any subject to our open-minded professors. I lived in a private hostel where I formed my own tribe of girls. My heart still hadn’t experienced the flutters of first love. I wasn’t in a rush either.
My time there taught me to be self-reliant, confident, and, most of all, independent. I had stopped taking my medicine because the sounds hadn’t perturbed me in a long time. I thought I was cured. I wish now I knew better back then.
Teasing each other about some guy was harmless fun to me and my girl gang in college. In the absence of social media, our canteen hour was our sole window for gossiping.
“Nowadays, you seem a little too interested in biology, Minakshi,” my friend, Kusum, often mocked me.
“I don’t understand what you mean?” I just waved my hand at her.
“Well, if you need extra tuitions, someone is eager to give them to you.”
“What nonsense,” I laughed it off.
“He is here right now, sitting right behind you.” Kusum cocked a brow. I followed her line of sight and turned around. I saw a guy dashing out of the canteen. We all laughed as we saw him dart like a scared rabbit.
Later, I learnt his name was Nitish, and he and I had a lot of classes in common. He wasn’t like most other guys. By that, I mean he was a shy, quiet, and a decent fellow.
Then one day, I bumped into him at the library. We both exchanged hesitant apologies. At the library counter, it turned out that he and I needed the same book.
“I don’t need it. You can have it.” He handed me the book and walked away. That day, I saw something in his eyes—admiration? Liking? It was too early to think of the other ‘L’ word.
Maybe I should have led him on. They say our mind is a magician whose ‘Prestige’* could often leave a weird taste in our mouths. I learnt that the hard way again. The voices came back. This time, an echo that continued reverberating like a broken record. Sometimes, I sat up all sweaty on a freezing winter night, panting as I realised whose voice I was hearing.
During our last year at college, we had an excursion trip to Panchgani. By then the echo had grown into this lifesize monster, howling loud as if standing right there with me all the time. I would pinch my arms blue to break that trance. But it was as if my dreams no longer discriminated between my sleeping and waking hours.
I flinched upon someone call out to me amid the constant clamor in my head. I swerved to face Nitish, who had been standing there with me. God knows for how long. A soft rubicund light pierced my eyes. I was at a sunset point. But where was the rest of the college group? Where were my friends?
“The rest of our batch mates are at the museum.” Nitish said as he observed my expressions.
“Where?” Nothing about what he said made sense.
“The museum,” he repeated. “We came to this horticultural museum today. But I saw you leave the group. So I thought….”
When I said nothing, Nitish surveyed me with a concerned gaze. “Are you okay?”
I nodded. I did not feel like talking.
“Well, so we are about to leave college soon,” He scratched his head as he spoke.
His words irked me. I don’t know why. Why was he stating the obvious?
“I was wondering if you are free this evening? Then we could…you know,” He blushed.
“No, I don’t know. We could what?” I couldn’t hide how peeved I sounded. He looked surprised.
“Please don’t be upset, Minakshi. I just wanted to—”
The echoes returned with a vengeance. I wanted to shoo Nitish away. But he continued talking.
“Go away, Nitish,” I whimpered.
I could still see his lips moving. Then he suddenly extended his hands toward me.
“NO!” I shrieked and pushed him. I closed my eyes as the echoes amplified. They said just one name—Minakshi.
“So, Minakshi, how are you today?” Dr. Mittal leaned into his chair and stared at me.
I heard him. But something else grabbed my attention. The photo frame on his desk. Two lovely girls, and a young woman with a radiant face, stood smiling for the camera. His family.
“I am okay,” I replied, lost in my own thoughts.
“Do you like taking pictures?” Dr. Mittal asked.
I shifted my gaze towards his handsome face. Poor guy, he had no idea.
“Do you remember this boy from your college?” He took out a photo album from his desk, opened a page, and placed it in front of me.
A familiar panic seeped out of the crevices of my mind.
“Ni…Nitish?” I uttered.
“Good, you remember him then. Was he your friend?”
Dr. Mittal’s voice suddenly sounded like a mélange of incoherent words. I remembered the echo, the one that botched my senses when Nitish was trying to say something in Panchgani all those years ago.
And then the echo dissipated into a feeble cry. Something else grew in its place.
I saw Dr. Mittal rise from his chair and open the door to someone. My mother, now a grand old lady in her seventies, padded inside.
I hadn’t lost total control, so I could still hear them talk.
“Did she say anything? Is she improving?” my mother asked.
“Nothing much. I don’t think we should bring up Nitish’s suicide at this point.”
“Yes, of course,” my mother quavered. “She was so young when that happened. What kind of boy jumps off a cliff to show a girl that he loves her?”
Nowadays, I couldn’t feel the warmth of the tears that dribbled off my chin. I looked at the Dr. Mittal’s family photo and wondered, should I tell him now what I could hear? The nightmares would follow soon, I knew.
Prestige*: The climactic moment of a magic trick
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