“Huh! Finally.” Bishal dropped his rucksack and laid down on the porch. A light summer breeze brushed across his face and teased his hair, as if to welcome him. A smile flickered from the corner of his face. He took a deep breath and looked up at the vast blue sky. Those clouds…don’t they look like candy floss? As always, busy flaunting and floating in their own rhythm. He stood up and looked around. “This is heaven. Everything is just the same since my last visit. Well, 5 yrs isn’t that long anyway.”
The sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, fluttering of the prayer flags, and the Klopp-Klopp of horses’ hoofs, created an alchemy that was simply heavenly. The snow-capped mountains glittered as the rays of the dusking sun reflected on them. It seemed as if nature was exhibiting its splendour, for him to witness. I can never have enough of this place. This is our ancestral home, after all. Sad that I had to lie to mom and dad about my trip here. Wonder what made them oppose my plan!
The journey from Kathmandu was a bumpy jeep ride through the rugged roads, that were in poor condition. A days rest in- between at Pokhara, wasn’t enough to fuel his muscles. It took him three days to reach their house in Mustang, a sparsely populated district, in the northern part of Nepal.
“Aisshh! Every bone in my body is aching. I think I need to gulp down the whole bottle of raksi* to charge my ligaments. Good that I carried a few. He slid his hand inside his jacket pocket and pulled out a cell phone. “Damn…there’s no network out here. Mom and dad will worry if I fail to message tonight. Ah! It’s getting dark. Let’s look for Baje,* but where in the world is he? ” Bishal picked his sack and walked towards the house.
Unlike everyone in his family, Bishal too, called their caretaker Ram, as Baje. He was a good old, lone man, who has been proving his allegiance to the family since ages. When Bishal ’s parents relocated to Ktm, he chose to stay back to take care of the house.
Man…I’m starving. I’ll ask Baje to cook waiwai* for now. “Baje… Baje…” He moved closer towards the main door. “Ah! There…he left the door ajar, as usual.” Bishal pushed it open and stepped inside the house. “Baje…are you there?”
There was no reply.
“Ah-choo… Ah-choo… Damn! This pungent smell. How much weed did the old man smoke? No wonder he’s not replying.” It was pitch dark inside the house. Bishal tapped open his mobile’s torch, to locate the switchboard, but the thick smoke clogged his vision. Arrgh! This smoke. He must have over stacked the pastille burner. But where did the old man vanish?
“Seems like someone is looking for me…” A voice echoed out of nowhere.
“Eeek!” Bishal got startled at the sudden noise. “Abui!* Baje, you scared me. Where have you been?”
As he took a step closer, few stray beams of moonlight, sneaked in from the crack of the wooden ceiling. They fell upon Ram’s face making his features distinctly visible.
Holy molly! Ram was in worn-out clothes, with a long unkempt beard and scruffy hair. The stench from his clothes was nauseating. Bishal wrapped up his straying thoughts, and spoke, “Er..ahem! Baje, it’s me, Bishal. Are you alright?” He noticed a sudden flicker in those protruding eyes.
“Bi… Bishal …Hmmm! Bishal…” Ram kept murmuring as if he was trying to remember the name.
“Yes Baje, Bishal. Can you please put the lights on and open a few windows? It’s too dark and suffocating in here.” Bishal waited for him to react, but to his dismay, Ram did not move an inch. Baje must be high on weeds. Guess, age and loneliness got into him. Phew! I’ll help myself.
“Shhh! Stay quiet.” He murmured. Bishal ignored him, flipped open a window, located the board and switched the lights on. Ram looked at him sternly and spoke in a hushed tone. “Why did you come here? Why…why did you come back?” He then sat down holding his head, as if hell collapsed on him.
What is Baje talking about? What’s wrong with him? Guess he’s just under the effect of some weed. “Baje…are you ok? Can you cook supper? I’m starving. I carried a few waiwai, eggs and vegetables, just in case…”
“How long do you plan to stay?” snapped Ram. He seemed annoyed and worried.
“Ah…a week or ten days, maybe. Don’t worry, I won’t trouble you much, promise. Speaking of trouble, I need to connect my phone to the network. Which side should I go for better reception?”
To his surprise, the old man left the room without a word. Bishal nodded his head in dismay and went to his room to freshen up. An hour later, Ram walked in with a tray, well arranged with 3-4 bowls of freshly cooked curries, and a plate of steaming rice. He laid them on the table neatly, and sat in one corner, lost in thoughts.
“Wow! Sumptuous supper. Thanks, Baje.” Sniiiiiif! Smells good. Thank god he cooked, orelse I would have had to burn my hands after a tiring journey. Bishal pulled his sleeves up and dived in. “Nom…nom…nom…the food is delicious. Baje, sorry I came without informing. It’s my summer vacation, so I decided to take this trip. I miss this place, you know. By the way, where’s your food? Won’t you have supper?”
“You must leave tomorrow; as early as possible. Get some sleep, and no matter what, do not step out of the house at night. I’ll sleep in the hallway, just in case you need something.” Ram was adamant, and it made Bishal more curious.
Ah! Seems like I’ve been talking to myself. Amazing. But why is it that Baje wants me to leave tomorrow? Fine, I’ll just agree for now and talk to him tomorrow, when he’s sober. Hais! The mobile network. I’ll check it in the morning and cook up some story to tell mom and dad.
“Alright, I’ll leave tomorrow. But for now, I need some rest. I’m dead tired.” And without further discussion, Bishal went to his room. He uncorked a bottle, drank a few glasses of raksi, and dropped down on the bed.
Four years back:
“Meena, I think it’s time to move to Ktm. Bishal is busy with his exams and will not question much. I’ll call him and tell something convincing. He can continue his studies in Ktm, and we can all stay together.” Milan, Bishal’s father, wanted to keep his only son, away from their ancestral home. He had valid reasons. It was a tough decision, to leave their farms and cattle, part from the ancestral home and adjust to the city life. But he had to do it, at any cost.
Bishal’s mother, Meena, agreed without a word, for, all their efforts to get rid of the age-old crisis, went in vain. No jhakri* could succeed in controlling the events, and they were left to live in fear. When Bishal was just 8, they sent him to a boarding school, in Birgunj, a city in Nepal, far away from Mustang. They put him under the supervision of a distant relative; paid frequent visits but rarely took him home. Each time Bishal questioned, all he received were vague replies. He waited for the right time; time when he would find the answers to all his queries.
“Bishal… Bishal…” A faint voice was whispering his name.
“Hmm… Baje, What do you want in the middle of the night? Let me sleep. We’ll talk tomorrow morning.”
“Bishal, wake up. We need to talk…wake up.” said the voice.
His eyelids felt heavy, yet somehow, Bishal managed to squint. In the faint beam of light, that sneaked through the crack of the window, all he saw was a silhouette. “Oh-ho, Ba…” Before Bishal could finish the word, the figure in front of him, somehow became more visible. He sat up, jerked his head, and rubbed his eyes to make sure, it wasn’t a nightmare. It wasn’t. His body prepared for the ‘fight or flight’ response, but all he could do was stare in awe.
The person in front of him wasn’t Ram, but a young girl, probably in her early teens. She had a saree draped around her body; her face black with soot.
Bishal wanted to yell, but his vocal cord got paralysed. Holy god! Our house is haunted. I could never imagine…
But then how come the spirit knows my name? How come I can hear the spirit speak? Oh boy! This is trouble. He grabbed his phone to put the torch on.
“No, don’t turn it on, and don’t be scared. I’m not here to harm you. I just need your help.” She was polite, but Bishal couldn’t feel at ease.
He mustered his guts and said, “Who are you, and how do you know my name? How come we can hear each other? What did you do to me?”
“I will tell you everything. But for that, you have to come with me.”
“Go with you? At this hour? Where?” Bishal was totally confused.
“Yes, now. We need to hurry. Come, let’s go. And, carry that torch of yours.”
Having said that, she disappeared into the door. Bishal stood gazing in utter disbelief. Hundreds of thoughts raced inside his head; he failed to think straight.
“Bishal, I won’t hurt you. Let’s go.” There she was, again. Her words of assurance weren’t enough, yet, Bishal followed, as if he was in some daze. He walked out of the main door and took a narrow muddy trail, through the paddy fields. In the faint moonlight, Bishal saw a shadow, leading the way. A half an hours walk took him to the entrance of the forest. It was totally dark under the shadow of the trees. He hesitated. I’ve never come to these parts. It won’t be possible to remember the way back. Oh god! What have I got myself into!
“A bit more, and we will reach our destination. Relax, I won’t let you miss the trail.” She tried to ease his mind.
Ridiculous. How can I relax in the presence of a ghost?
An hour’s walk inside the forest led them to a clearing. There were few ruins of age-old chortens. Gosh! What will we do here? He noticed the shadow lurking under a pine tree. “Now what? What do we do here?”
The cacophony of the insects inside the forest almost drowned the feeble sound of her sobs. Yet, it could not escape the sharp ears of Bishal. “Are you crying? Do ghosts cry? No, I mean… Ok, forget it.”
“Stop calling me a ghost, ok? Yes, I’m not alive like you, yet…”
“Ah, ok. Sorry. Tell me, how can I possibly help You?” Bishal wanted to end this quick. “Please tell me. I’m all ears.”
“It’s a long story that started with my birth. I was the only girl child in our patriarchal family. Ignored and despised I was, throughout my childhood. My brothers enjoyed every privilege; from fancy clothes to education. I stayed home to help with household chores and never complained or nagged for anything. Everything was going fine, until one day…” She paused; hesitated to speak.
“Don’t hesitate. Tell me. What happened next?” Bishal was keen to hear it all.
After a brief pause, she continued. “I was 12 when I got my first period. My mother explained it all to me, and I followed. During chhaupadi,* I was kept in a cattle shed, and all I got, was a small rug to cover myself. It was mid-December, but no one felt pity for me. Mother was helpless, and all she did was, sit and cry. Shortly after, I developed pneumonia, followed by diarrhea and dehydration. My father and my brothers watched it all, in the name of an age-old tradition. No one heard my cries; no one bothered to call or take me to a doctor. Each day, I was allowed to get just one bucket of water. I didn’t know if I was to save it for drinking or to use it for cleaning.”
“Stop. Please stop. I can’t hear this anymore.” Bishal started to pace back and forth. He felt cold and clammy.
“It’s not the end yet. Let me continue, ok?” She looked at Bishal, and he eventually nodded in approval.
“You know what, during those days, in the wee hours of the night, I heard mother’s faint voice, telling me to stay strong, and not worry; that, I’ll be fine soon. That, I’ll be loved and cared one day. That, I’ll marry a prince, one day; that, we will all be happy, one day. That, I will be a mother too, one day. Until…”
Bishal looked at her. Her face had an expression of innocence, but her eyes spoke of concealed grief.
She stayed silent for a moment. “Anyway… One night, I woke up crying in pain. When I looked at my leg, I realised it was the sting of a scorpion. It wasn’t venomous, yet, my body couldn’t sustain the effect. I was deprived of basic medication and first-aid. My mother begged and pleaded, but all fell into deaf ears. I felt cheated. It was no less than murder.
And…as I laid lifeless inside that filthy shed, they continued their normal life, until two days later, few volunteers agreed to bury my body. Post my burial, no ritual was followed. Since then, here I lay, waiting for my redemption.” She pointed towards a patch under the huge pine tree.
“Gosh! I can’t believe this. How could your family be so cruel? And they didn’t even perform the death rites? Nasty folks.”
Suddenly she burst into sardonic laughter.“So you think that My family…rather, Our family members were nasty?”
“Sorry…did you just say, Our family? Now, what do you mean by that? How can your family be my…” Before he could spill the rest of the words, a thought flashed in his mind. Holy god! So this is what it is all about. She chose me ’cause we are related.
“Bishal, they kept you away from the house ’cause they did not want you to know the truth. There was huge unrest, after my death. Some social activists informed the officials after they came to know about me. But everyone in the village stayed mum. My father, that means, your grandfather, had to part with a bit of his fortune, to suppress the whole situation. Since then, I had several encounters with each member, including Ram. The poor guy smokes weed for the whole day, to ignore my presence in the house. Unfortunately, my father and my eldest brother died of a heart attack. They could not bear the trauma of my regular appearance. But your father, that means, my elder brother, sustained the encounters. Yet, instead of helping, he called the jhakri’s to chase me away.”
“So you mean to say, you are my aunt? I mean, you would have been my aunt if you were alive?” Bishal was kinda shaken.
“Yes, son. And, I could have been a good aunt to you, if only… Anyway, whatever happened, was destined to happen. Now all I want is you, to dig out my remains, and complete the death rites, with respect. That will set my soul free.”
“Can I ask for your name? I mean, you must have had a name then, right?” Bishal asked.
“Yes, my name was Shubhu. Mother gave that name to me, for, she believed I will bring luck to the family.” She sighed.
“Shubhu nini* I’m so sorry to hear all this. They kept the incident of your death, and your presence in the house, as a secret. I had no idea but I promise to carry out the rites, with due respect. Just give me a day, or two. I’ll have to find a priest, as I am not familiar with such duties. I’ll have to talk to Baje, but for now, I won’t inform mom and dad about our encounter. They will freak out for nothing. I’ll tell them once I return back to Ktm.”
“It’s alright, son. You are brave and kind. I’m sorry you had to go through all this.” Bishal looked at her and smiled. Shortly after, they set off on their way back home. Ram was still sound asleep and had no inkling of the recent happenings. Bishal was tired, so he went off to bed.
Two days later, together with the priest, Bishal performed the death rites. When he was done, he felt a touch on his shoulder. He turned back to see, but there was no one around. Once again, he felt the touch on his hair and cheeks. Bishal looked up and smiled. “Nini, I know it’s you. Hope you are happy, now that your will is done. And, thank you for giving me a chance to know you.” A soft breeze brushed past him. Bishal felt his eyes moist. Love you, Nini. Take care.
He bid farewell to Ram, who was still in a state of shock. His parents almost collapsed when Bishal narrated the incident. His father gave him a tight hug and cried like a kid. “I didn’t want the incident of the past, affect your mind. Hence kept the whole affair, as a secret. Thank you, son. You’ve made us proud. I promise you today, and I hope Shubhu is listening to this…I will build a school in our village and name it after her. I cannot turn back time, but I will keep her memories alive. All thanks to you, son.”
And, the day ended with a tight family hug, followed by a sumptuous meal; to celebrate Bishal’s safe return and Shubu’s onward journey.
Raksi – traditional distilled alcoholic beverage.
Baje– grandfather/used to address an aged person.
Ktm- Code for Kathmandu.
Waiwai- A brand of instant noodles.
Abui! – Used to express surprise.
Jhakri- shaman (a healer, witch-doctor)
Chorten- an important religious monument in Buddhism.
Nini – Aunt
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