The Price Paid

Orissa, 1967

She could feel their presence.

They were all around her, hovering, within reach yet seemingly far. She squeezed her eyes shut. They were whispering and mumbling and demanding… calling her name. 

No, no, noooooo. Go away! Leaveeeee meee…

And then, she screamed. 

*****************
The Asylum

The gleaming blue Chevrolet Impala purred to a smooth halt, expertly guided by Ramuddin. He rushed to open her door. 

‘We are here Rani Sahiba,’ he said deferentially.  

Out stepped the aristocratic Rani Kailash Kumari Deo of the erstwhile kingdom of Dhenka. At five feet seven inches, clad in a white sambhalpuri silk saree with her equally white hair pulled back in a severe bun, she was an imposing figure. 

She looked at the derelict single-story building of the mental asylum. It’s time for her to come home. Behind her sunglasses her eyes misted, though her face remained impassive. Five years is too long. She deserves the truth, doesn’t she?  

***************

‘I am taking her home,’ Rani Sahiba intoned sternly.  

‘But Rani Sahiba, she is in no condition to be taken home. She has deteriorated over the past few months. I think…’ The doctor stopped mid-sentence. It was extremely intimidating to have the formidable Rani Sahiba, glaring at you. 

‘Make the arrangements, you have one hour,’ she said as she sat erect in the uncomfortable chair. 

The doctor tried one more time, ‘But Rani Sahiba, with all due respect you’re not her guardian.’

Rani Sahiba pointed at her extremely efficient secretary who had been standing behind her. The very prim, cotton sari clad, Ms. Sneha came forward and kept a file on the doctor’s desk.  

‘All the relevant documents are in there,’ Rani Sahiba said curtly. Even Ma Stambhesvari will not forgive me but I did what I had to do. 

‘Err…,’ he said as he reached for the file, ‘Maybe you would like to look at her medical file.’ As he pulled the file Ms. Sneha had kept, he pushed another one that had been lying on his desk towards Rani Sahiba. His action was completely ignored. 

While the doctor perused the file, he tried his best to impress upon Rani Sahiba that the patient was suicidal, her hallucinations were getting worse and she oscillated between screaming and utter silence. 

‘Dr. Parthasarthi, I assume you have a very busy practice and your patients need you. Don’t they?’ Saying so, Rani Sahiba stood and looked down her nose and noted beads of perspiration on the doctor’s forehead. Good! ‘You have ten minutes to bring her here.’  

As the patient was wheeled in, Rani Sahiba’s severe countenance cracked. Hey Ma! Though only for a moment. 

**********
Jatan Nagar Palace

Finally, after a ride of four hours from Bhubaneswar they turned onto the road leading to the massive gates of the Palace. Rani Sahiba, Ms. Sneha and Ramuddin saw the patient stir for the first time since she had been huddled in the back seat of the car. 

As the imposing edifice came into view, her glazed eyes slowly cleared. Her breath grew choppy. Did she recognize her surroundings? Perhaps a flashback of another time? A mix of emotions crossed her pinched face. Where am I? 

She fidgeted, and rocked from side to side. A whimper escaped her chapped lips. Rani Sahiba thought she heard longing and hope. I am so sorry my child, forgive me, I failed you. I have so much to repent for. She didn’t touch her, instead she hummed a melody. After a few minutes the rocking subsided. The patient cocked her head to a side and listened.

That song…

Slowly she looked at Rani Sahiba. A whisper of recognition floated in and out of her eyes. Her mouth moved as if to speak but no words came. Her face scrunched up in pain and frustration.  

The car came to a halt in front of the grand entrance. 

Weary from the journey Rani Sahiba stepped out. She moved to the other side and opened the door for the patient. This was the moment of truth. Everyone stood with bated breath. Rani Sahiba extended her bejeweled hand. Slowly, ever so slowly the patient’s pale and shaking hand emerged from inside the car and clasped Rani Sahiba’s. All exhaled in relief. 

The first hurdle had been crossed. 

*************

8.00 P.M.  

‘I can spend the night here Rani Sahiba, if you want,’ offered Ms. Sneha. 

Both stood at the foot of the patient’s bed, looking down at her. The sturdy metal bed, painted white, was placed in the grandest bedroom of the palace, the Queen’s room. It was but a foot away from the queen’s bed. The patient had been tied to either side of the bed with ropes. They were encased in velvet to prevent any harm to the patient.  

‘No Sneha.’ I can’t have any witness to what happens next. ‘You too need your rest,’ said Rani Sahiba. 

‘You can summon Ramuddin, he’s only a bell-pull away.’ She bowed as she pulled the ornately carved door closed behind her after wishing Rani Sahiba a good night. 

Rani Sahiba continued staring at the waif of a girl lying on the bed. I have taken matters into my hand and things will only be better from here. She walked to the head of the bed and bent down to gently kiss the forehead of her heavily medicated sleeping granddaughter. Now begins our battle. You are not alone any more, my precious Priyu. She squeezed the sleeping girl’s hand. 

Sometime later she too retired for the night. 

********************* 
3.45 A.M. 

She woke up to Priyu whimpering. As she looked over, she saw Priyu thrashing her legs. She was trying to pull her hands free. Her eyes, filled with fear, darted rapidly around the room following something only she could see. It sounded like she was trying to say ‘no’. Then she screamed, a sound that rose from the depths of her soul and sent chills down Rani Sahiba’s spine.  

She hurriedly sat on the chair placed next to the bed and soothingly ran her hands over Priyu’s clammy forehead. She hummed the melody. The thrashing and screaming continued, for a long time. Finally, exhausted, drenched in sweat and her clothes crumbled, Priyu drifted off to whatever land she was a prisoner of. 

***************
Few Weeks Later

One sunny morning after a difficult night with Priyu, Rani Sahiba finally sat down for her breakfast. It was being served on the huge balcony abutting the Queen’s room. A beautiful set of sofas in deep blue were arranged under the awning. 

The days had melded into nights. For the first time since she had embarked on this journey Rani Sahiba, felt discouraged at the enormity of the task she had set herself.

Seeing her pinched lips and worry lines, perhaps for the time in twenty plus years of her service, Sneha said, ‘Rani Sahiba, I’ve been reading that smells and sounds play an important role in rooting out the memories and bringing such patients out of their make-belief world.’

She poured tea and handed the delicate china to Rani Sabhiba.  

‘We should recreate those memories. Like when you hum that melody to her, she calms down…’

‘Hardly,’ muttered Rani Sahiba, rather uncharacteristically.

 ‘… more often than not. Atleast we know she listens to it every time…’

‘True.’ 

‘…So, let’s make a list of all things she liked as a child.’

‘Hmm…,’ Rani Sahiba nodded contemplatively, ‘You may be on to something Sneha.’

Rani Sahiba was infused with renewed vigor. Within a week, the things on the list stared arriving. Simultaneously that week was used to steer Priyu towards the balcony. After much coaxing and encouragement from Rani Sahiba, she could step out of the room and sit on the rocking chair that was placed next to the sofa. They mostly took her out in the evenings as it seemed the best time for her.  

Finally, one evening was chosen to unveil the grand plan. 

Rani Sahiba led Priyu onto the balcony and made her comfortable on the rocking chair. With vacant eyes – as usual – Priyu’s gaze remained unfocused, untouched by the breath-taking beauty of the setting sun. Then Rani Sahiba nodded to Ms. Sneha. She went down to the garden where Ramuddin waited. O Krishna! Please let this work. Bring Priyansi back to us. Just as the evening bade goodbye and the night sauntered in, Ramuddin flicked on a switch.  

Right on cue, the small carousal in the middle of the huge lawn lit up. Music drifted up to the balcony. 

No reaction. 

After a few minutes the giant wheel’s lights were turned on. 

Still no reaction! 

Slowly the lawns and gardens came alive with the lights and sounds and smells of a country fair. The smell of chaula bara, chakuli pitha, khaja and rasabali wafted in the air. Various sellers called out to sell their wares. Guys walked on stilts and clowns pranced about. Their laughter carried over to the balcony. 

Though Priyu’s head was turned towards the fair, her eyes were still vacant. A few hours went by. Finally, tired and disheartened, Rani Sahiba rose to take Priyu inside. However, at the threshold, Priyu stopped. She tilted her head to one side. That song! Someone was signing. 

Slowly she looked over her shoulder. 

That song, the night, the smell of the food and underneath all those fragrances, that one particular fragrance, tugged at her the most. It knocked repeatedly on the locked door of her memories. It was the fragrance that reminded her of… That couldn’t be. Could it? 

Finally, she saw what was infront of her. A fair! 

The memories clamored. Emotions surged. Happy, carefree, safe…

Taking it as a sign Rani Sahiba gently guided her down the stairs. Priyu’s hand trembled and her steps faltered. But Rani Sahiba was determined and perhaps deep down Priyu was too. She let herself be led, wandering the fair for an hour. The bangle seller called out to her. Red! I want red bangles. The door was creaking open.

Later, Rani Sahiba offered her a gupchup. One more, I want one more. 

The memories were stumbling out, of laughter and a golden sunset.

The ittar wala offered her a small glass vial. The fragrance hit her. It can’t be! Shocked, she dropped the bottle and started to hyperventilate. Alarmed Rani Sahiba firmly held her arm and started walking back. At the steps of the palace Priyu stopped. 

‘Come on Priyu, it’s time to go. Its late and you are tired,’ said Rani Sahiba. Just like she had all those years ago, which had been their last happy outing. 

Priyu didn’t move. A memory tugged, of another time, another place but the same woman.  

‘Aayi?’ she whispered, ever so softly and hesitantly. 

Rani Sahiba’s smile bloomed slowly. Thank you, God! She is truly home. Now my repentance can start. 

Priyu’s eyes widened. It’s her; that smile, her fragrance and our song. In that instant the fog parted. I am home! 

They hugged and cried. But the onslaught of memories and emotions was too much and she swooned. Aayi barely caught her and both almost fell to the ground. Ms. Sneha and Ramuddin came running. 

**************

One Week Later 

The hallucinations were less frequent now and Priyu was more herself. Aayi and Ms. Sneha had their hands full or rather mouths full explaining things to Priyu. But every time she wanted to talk about herself or what happened they distracted her. 

That evening as Priyu and Aayi sat on the balcony, with Priyu’s head on her lap, Aayi sensed that today she would not be able to distract her. Today, the truth would come to light.  

‘Aayi, no one believes me. They think I’m mad. But I am not,’ Priyu said casually as if conversing about the evening and not something as earth shattering as her mental illness. But in her mind, turmoil brew. Please believe me Aayi, please! I’ll not be able to take it if you don’t. 

She shifted her head so that she could look into her Aayi’s eyes when she said, ‘I see dead people. They are not hallucinations.’ She held her breath and waited for a reaction, ‘They talk to me,’ she whispered.

Encouraged and earnest now, at not being brushed aside as utter rubbish, she sat up and scooted closer to Aayi. 

She looked into her Aayi’s eyes. Her eyes are so clear and steady not like moth… She shook her head. No! that woman was not worthy of being called that. ‘They tell me things, and ask me to do things. They scare me Aayi. I scream at them to leave, but they don’t. Am I mad Aayi?’

Aayi slowly lifted her right hand and gently touched Priyu’s cheek. Oh! My child how you have suffered for my blind love.

‘Aayi?’

Taking a deep breath Aayi said, ‘No. You are not mad.’

Pryiu was taken aback. After so many years, she hadn’t actually expected anyone to agree with her.  

‘What are you saying Aayi?’

‘Priyu, you’re not mad. I used to see what you see now. We can trace our lineage to the gifted tribal women of Dhenka. They had the boon or curse – call it whatever you like – of sight. They could see dead people who asked them to do things for them. Some women accepted it and worked with it. They were either revered as a Devi or hunted and killed as a witch. Some refused to accept it and went mad. The gift wanes as the next generation’s strengthens.’  

I can’t believe it! I am not mad. Oh! Thank God. Tell that to my moth…that woman and the doctors. But wait! If Aayi knew this, then why didn’t she say anything? Why did she let me suffer? 

Aayi watched joy, relief, hatred, anger and betrayal flit across her precious Priyu’s face. Oh! Priyu I can never make it up to you. Please! Forgive me child.

‘Priyu, when I had your mother, it was a very difficult pregnancy. I had already lost two children in the womb. So when she came, she was pampered. Unfortunately, that spoilt her. But I was oblivious to her faults. As she grew, I waited for her gift to bloom. But sometimes it skips a generation. In hindsight, it was good. Then when you exhibited the signs when you were around five, I was happy. And in the beginning when your mother…’

‘Don’t call her that! She doesn’t deserve to be anyone’s mother,’ Priyu screeched.

Aayi sighed and nodded, ‘…when my daughter left you under my care, I was very happy. By then I was beginning to accept that my daughter was a very selfish person. So, while she and her good for nothing husband flited across Europe, I got you all to myself. But when you were around nine, she came back for good. I didn’t know the reason then, but one day she just came here and took you away to Bhubaneswar. Never in my life before that day had I…’

‘Had you what?’

‘Ever even raised my voice at her. But that day I slapped her and told her she was making a mistake.’ 

For the first time Priyu saw her Aayi, as an old and defeated woman. She wanted to go to her and put her arms around her, but she needed to know if she could forgive her Aayi. 

‘Yes, it was a mistake,’ whispered Priyu. 

Thinking back to those years with that woman, she realized that they were the worst four years of her life. Her life had revolved around nannies and one psychiatrist after another and occasional exorcists. And then that woman had committed the ultimate act of betrayal. Her ‘condition’ as that woman termed it, was worsening and it was putting a serious crimp in her lifestyle. 

‘Why? Why didn’t you come for me?’ burst out Priyu. Her face contorted in anger. She couldn’t sit still anymore. She got up and started walking up and down the balcony.  

‘I did.’

That stopped her short in her tracks. She stared at Aayi. 

‘I did. But your mother, sorry, my daughter,’ Aayi took a deep breath before she continued, ‘forbade me from contacting you. She said I had encouraged your condition instead of treating it.’ Then she whispered, ‘She also said… she would… kill herself if I came close to you.’ 

Finally, the tears she had been holding for what she had not done and for what she had done later came coursing down. The damn was breached and she cried like she had never in her life. 

Her Aayi’s covered face and her heaving body and each tear laced with pain was as if she was lamenting a loss, propelled Priyu to sit next to her. Wait! Was she lamenting the loss of her daughter? Was she actually dead? I never asked her and she never told me.

‘Then when she admitted you to the mental asylum when you were thirteen, I was… broken. This was my child, my flesh and blood and she did it to her own daughter. I felt like an utter failure. It took me a year to get over that. Then I went to the best legal minds I could find in the country but none of them could help me. For three years I tried everything legally I could, but nothing happened. Also, your eighteenth birthday was approaching.’

At her quizzical look Aayi explained, ‘After that the longer we wait to deal with the gift, the more difficult it becomes to control and master. I had to do something.’ No one can forgive me for THAT! 

‘All the legal minds said, I could have your guardianship if only my daughter was not in the picture.’ 

Startled Priyu looked at her Aayi. What did you do?

‘Means don’t matter, only end does. She is no more and you are free.’

Oh Aayi! What a huge price we’ve paid.
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Glossary:

Ma Stambhesvari – the Goddess of the Post or Pillar, is one of the famous formless autochthonous deities
https://www.jstor.org/stable/44141229?seq=1
https://books.google.co.in/books?id=HQvbJDacNDMC&pg=PA135&lpg=PA135&dq=stambhesvari+orissa&source=bl&ots=QMkXZhKpT4&sig=ACfU3U1633UnfmRTnsZQ8I4dlv1xQ5J_Bw&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjjtLuSqYPqAhVNSX0KHRI3AvQQ6AEwBHoECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=stambhesvari%20orissa&f=false

chaula bara – rice vadas (more like bhajiyas to be had as a snack)
khaja – a sweet dish (Refined wheat flour is mixed with sugar and fried lightly in some oil)
chakuli pitha –  a crispy snack  

rasabali – a sweet dish made from cottage cheese which is flattened and deep fried into reddish brown cheese cakes. Then they are soaked in milk which is thickened and sweetened and garnished with sliced dry fruits.
gupchup – pani puri / golgappe / puchke
ittar wala – the one who sells fragrances
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Shweta Singh
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