Aruni Kashyap

Neerumoni was the first one in the family to suspect that those books were the reason behind all those sounds and strange incidents. Anil had stared at her for a long time before commenting where on earth she had heard of books being haunted but she said firmly that it wasn’t the soul of her dead husband, his father, who was troubling them but the souls trapped in the books. She stood up, picked up the bamboo creel where she had scooped out some rice from the gunny bag and started walking towards the huge, one-acre pond behind her house. She would spend a long time there. Washing the rice, the vegetables, the clothes and the unwashed vessels from the afternoon’s meal wouldn’t take that much time. But Anil knew that she liked to change into a petticoat that she would pull up from her waist and tie it just above her breasts to swim there for a long time.

Winters aren’t too harsh in Teteliguri Village, unlike the villages beside the Jaintia Hills or Meghalaya border. The wind from the hills enters every nook and corner like the suddenness of bad dreams. Shivers you to the bones. Meghalaya is the abode of clouds; the white clouds descend with the quietness of cats’ paws and soon the people discover themselves in the middle of fog even before the cold starts to lick their bones. Here, in Teteliguri Village, things are better. There are huge paddy fields beside each hill. There are many houses, many people in this village. The breath of each person, the open fields and the low altitude ensure the climate remains warm and comfortable. Of course, when all the trees in the stunted hills which guard the village start to move slowly, a storm is produced, but still, the chill reigns only during the nights when the stones become cold too fast. The wind produced by the moving leaves of the trees in the hills carry that cold from each cold stone, ushering them into the village households, like uninvited guests. That’s why, when Neerumoni said she was hearing things, he had suggested, it was the wind. It was usual for the wind to knock at the door, hover over the straw roof of their thatch hut that had tough mud walls only in parts. But she was convinced just like the previous time when she was confident that it was the soul of her spiteful husband, who had many more desires left to enjoy before he died in that accident. He wanted to return to the mortal world to fulfill those wishes, she had thought. In the process, he would torment them until they lost their peace completely, she had told them.

At first, Anil had taken her seriously just like most other women in the village. They prayed. They left a meal with the favorite dishes of his father on the western side of the house. But the opening and shutting of the books in the middle of the night (mostly during Saturdays and Tuesdays) didn’t stop; nor did strange souls stop troubling Neerumoni: they left earthworm mounds on the food she cooked; they left strange handprints on the bed sheets she had washed in khar. And one day, when they had cooked duck meat with banana-flower, a ball of curly hair was dropped in the curry.

Gradually, those murmurs, faint songs, rustle of pages of the bark books, invaded their dreams too. During lonely afternoons, when everything would remain quite, except the sound of rustling leaves, those sounds were louder, faster, restless. One day, she woke up at midnight, disturbed by the choric melody of the singing crickets. She saw four lanky men standing beside the small wooden box where the books were kept. They were trying to open the lock with a knife that had a blue plastic handle. When she started to shout at them, they turned their faces towards her, grew black wings and flew off through the ceiling without tearing it apart. When the rest of the family members woke up because of her screams, she told them one of them wore a long green dress, the other two white turbans and dhotis. They looked as if were from a royal family. They didn’t wear ornaments though.

No one had believed her that day. But she continued to stress that it was the soul of the books, that the books were haunted. Her suspicions were fortified when she saw one of those books take the shape of an old man in her dreams. He was crying, asking her to set him free, telling her that he was trapped there by mistake, unlike the other souls who had committed sins and he wouldn’t ever disturb her if she freed him from the fetters of the charms in the bark books. When she said that she hadn’t trapped him, he got angry and screamed calling her a liar. Anil laughed it away. Neerumoni’s argumentative eldest daughter Anju, however, who would have said many sarcastic things about her mother’s superstitions, would have fought with her as she did often until a month ago, was quiet that day. 

Anil had looked at her and felt again that after she was raped, he required inhuman strength just to try looking at her face, let alone her eyes. She was sitting in one corner when Anil and Neerumoni were speaking about the helpless old man trapped in the books. Anil noticed the criss-crossed wheals on her wrists: the wheals that were produced after she was tied up to the bed with steel threads used to tie bamboo, and raped, by gagging her with a cotton gamusa. Everyone was away - it was the death anniversary of the Village Headman’s mother. Neerumoni had asked her to come along, tried to tempt her by saying that she’d get to eat payas there but Anju said that Biren would come to leave his baby son with her. His wife was away and his son wouldn’t sleep until Anju sung him a lullaby. Even that day, Neerumoni had reminded Anju that she shouldn’t forget that Biren was after all a man. Though he was her first cousin, the sudden extreme intimacy between them – over the last two years – was the talk of certain sections in the village already. Anju was a popular girl. She was loved by everyone. Probably, every household in the village was indebted to Anju’s help in some or the other way. 

“Anju, would you please weave this mekhela for me? I won’t pay you the full price, will just give you something as a token of love.” Anju turns into a Mother Teresa when phrases such as ‘token of love’ are mentioned in front of her. “Anju, could you come to our house tomorrow morning? I have asked everyone in the village but you know how girls in our village have become after the cinema hall started in Sonapur, they are afraid, their hands would melt away like lepers if they moped the courtyard with cow dung and loamy soil. Who else would I go to?” Anju would nod her head vigorously, agreeing with the old woman. “Anju, don’t you dare forget to come a week before the wedding, you know, there is no one else I could rely on with keys to money to ornaments to supervising, oh, you are such an angel, what would I do without you!”

So when certain sections of the village were wobbling their tongues like the tail of a cheerful dog, most others were least bothered. They had said she wasn’t ‘that sort of a girl’ and why should anyone suspect the relationship between first-cousins? Though some others repeated the phrase ‘first-cousins’ with a dismissive, mocking tone, and suggested how ‘women-hungry’ Biren was, the others didn’t agree. Thus, the day after Neerumoni found an unconscious Anju lying on the bed with bleeding wrists (the steel threads had cut into her flesh) the whole village blamed Biren, accompanied the almost-mad Anil to the police station to lodge a complaint. Biren was in jail now. But, inside the interiors of that haunted house, in the room where all the books with souls that created strange noises in the middle of the night, during quiet afternoons made eerie with the repeated cooing of the doves, a new Anju lived with a constantly growing belly.

Slopp-slopp-slopp! The sound of a woman rushing towards Anil with wet clothes on brought him back to the present. It was his mother. The bamboo creel wasn’t with her. She was standing in front of him – forgetting that she was standing in wet clothes that had become translucent in front of her adult son. When he asked what was wrong, she told him with a terrified expression on her face that a hairy rough hand had pulled her down by the leg while she was bathing in the pond. “I didn’t see it Anil, but it was a man’s hand. Hairy. It’s the books, I am telling you."

*         *         *

Anil’s father Horokanto learnt sorcery from Neerumoni’s father Doityo-burha long before the Indian army camp in this village had become a permanent presence and turned into an integral part in the people’s lives like the ghosts in the one-hundred-and-fifty-year-old tamarind tree, like the unpredictable nature of the waters of the Tamulidobha river that flowed by the village quietly during winters and noisily during summers.

As a result of a small disagreement with his father, Horokanto had left the house for good and had taken shelter in his closest friend’s room -Neerumoni’s brother Nilambor. The next day, when he was having breakfast in the kitchen sitting beside him, her father had asked him what he was interested in. He had said he would like to learn the art of sorcery from him. It wasn’t an easy art – the man who was known across seven villages as a great magician, the man who controlled the souls of many rowdy ghosts, forced snakes to come crawling back to suck out the poison from the wound of a dying man to bring him back to life, said – sipping into his glass of hot milk. But Horokanto was determined to learn. He said he was ready to follow all the rules and regulations. The old man with a long white beard had completed the conversation by saying that if he didn’t follow the rituals for even one day, the bark manuscripts that had the spirits of different wild but dead men trapped in them would strike him dead. In fact, when he would finally gain extreme expertise in the art, he would be able to imprison a bidaa – a ghost who would make everything easy for him – would follow all his orders like a genie from a lamp but the only way to keep the bidaa satisfied, and under control, was to give him more and more work. Inside, Neerumoni , who was a seventeen-year-old girl then, had laughed and told her elder sister that it wasn’t a difficult job at all. One should just send the bidaa to a desert and ask him to dig as many wells as possible. 

Neerumoni saw Horokanto for the first time three days later. He was swimming in the pond wearing a white gamusa around his waist. It had clung to his buttocks. After a long time she had got that feeling. The strangest, the most pleasantly astonishing, but curious pleasure she had felt when her thirty-year-old cousin – with a huge, hanging belly, who had come to invite them for the annaprasanna ritual of his second son – had pushed up her petticoat, taken out his penis, rubbed it against her inner thighs, asked her to hold it and move her hand slowly up and down. After he had started to moan in a strange way, she had suddenly gotten scared and fled, but not before he had kissed her lips, pushed his tongue inside her mouth and sucked her upper lip. That was her first time with a man. After a long time, seeing Horokanto, she wanted to lie down beside him.

They had sex for the first time in a rainy winter afternoon, just after the grains were harvested. It wasn’t a sudden winter rain that annoyed people working in the fields and worried farmers if the leaves of the potato plants would blacken, affecting the quality of the impending harvest. It had been windy since morning. Clouds had gathered little by little in the sky like people trickling down into a wedding reception: leisurely. Her grandmother had advised everyone not to spread the new grains on the courtyard that day because it could rain any time. Though it was winter, the sun was strong. You felt like drinking at least two glasses of water after walking under it for half-an hour. When it had finally rained, everyone was ready for it, and had taken to the beds, sat near the hearths or drank tea. The cold, the fresh smell of water on earth, the wind: it was ideal for a nap. 

But she was a bit late by the time she had reached her house. The quiet house, empty veranda, seemed to instruct her to go straight to the room that Horokanto shared with her brother Nilambor. Inside, he was lying on the bed, his stomach on the mattress. She latched the door. He looked at her, startled; he tried to smile but she knew, he found her sudden entry odd. She started taking off her clothes. When she was finished, she moved ahead to the Horokanto who was staring at her with fast breaths. Later, lying naked beside her, he had brought her closer and said he had never seen a more beautiful woman in his life. They smelled like coconut water.

After four months of random, wild lovemaking behind the house at midnight in the moonlight, early morning beside the pond, in the mud of the Tamulidobha River, behind cowsheds, on hay stored to serve as fodder, they eloped—since they knew, her father would rather kill her than let her get married to him. He stole most of the bark manuscripts with him. Her father died ten years later – by then, Nilambor had died unmarried. Neerumoni had given birth to three daughters and a son. Anju was her first-born. Anil: her second. On his deathbed, her father had met Horokanto finally, had given him the rest of the manuscripts, cautioned him to use them carefully and for the good of humanity; he also mentioned that since he had eloped with Neerumoni and married her against his wishes, he would never be able to use the charms when he would need them the most. “It’s not my curse. I have seen that Fate has decided this punishment for you. These books are powerful but they are unforgiving if you disrespect them.” A few years before Anju was raped, Horokanto had died in an accident. That morning, he had fought with Neerumoni and hadn’t worshipped the ancient books for the first time in his life.

*         *         *

Only after the army crackdown everybody else in the family believed in Neerumoni’s claims about the bark books, that it wasn’t Horokanto’s venom that was filling up the house. A few days before that crackdown, the rebels had blown up a bridge that connected the village with the National Highway and the Guwahati City. In the explosion, three Indian soldiers from the battalion stationed in the village were killed. The tall, long-haired Punjabi soldier’s hand, who always wore a red turban, and behaved with women in the village respectfully (unlike the others), was severed from his body in the intensity of the explosion, flung, and landed on the roof of the village fisherman whose wife was sitting on the courtyard, having her lunch at that time. As it fell on her straw roof, a stream of blood fell on her shoulders (some say most of it fell on her rice and face). At first, she had thought it was a bird that had shat on her clothes but the shit was red and the bird looked like a hand. She fainted. When her neighbors came to see her an hour later, sprinkled water on her eyes and brought her back to senses, she vomited and started to wail hysterically. Everyone in the village had gone to see the wailing woman and the hand with a clenched fist, with five golden rings in its fingers with stones studded on them meant to ward of evil influence of powerful planets in the Milky Way. They were sucking their teeth, saying how useful the presence of Horokanto would have been if he were alive. When Dilipram came, the only bej who took care of spirits and snake bites and barrenness of married women in the village after Horokanto had passed away, they remained quiet. They were convinced that the soul of the Punjabi man whose hand was lying on the roof of her house was refusing to leave her body.

The army crackdown happened the next day. The village was surrounded by scores of soldiers, who came in jeeps and wore boots that made loud sounds when they started running towards the hamlets. Someone had started to play the drum in the village prayer hall. Its booming sounds started to reverberate like the announcement of a war. Neerumoni’s neighbour, Bibha, came running to tell her to flee. “Save you and your family members’ lives first, forget the belongings.” Neerumoni stood there frozen, not knowing how to take Anju with that bulging stomach. But she hurried; hoping it was just a false alarm, hoping that in the central meeting ground of the village, everyone would say, go back, nothing is wrong.

When she had landed on the red soiled streets of their village, she saw all the young men running towards the forests. She saw women, children, girls, old men, running across the fields to the next village, by crossing the dry Tamulidhobha River of winter. While she was running with a heavily pregnant Anju, she was thinking how she had made love with Horokanto on the banks of this river, in the mud, like two buffaloes, in a summer morning a few decades ago; it was the rainy season and the river beside the passionately lovemaking couple was flowing with great force, creating whirlpools, making sounds like the laughter of a voluptuous woman crazy for sex. Suddenly, she heard gunshots. She turned back. Someone said it was Hiren and someone said, no no, no one has been shot. They started to run again.

They returned to the village next morning, after spending a worried night in the Maloybari Village across the river. Each and every house in their village was ransacked. Clothes were walked over (white bed sheets looked the ugliest). Food was strewn around. Beds upturned. Tables broken. Chairs piled up in front of the courtyard and burnt down (plastic and wooden). Mattresses left in the rain or still emitting smoke after being set on fire. Mud walls broken down. Earthen pots in the kitchen thrown out into the courtyard. As they were arranging the things in their houses, they could hear the cries of the milkman of the village: Prodhan Mahatu. He had forgotten to untie his twenty cows from the cowshed and the army had shot down all of them. Their corpses were lying in the cowshed, stinking of blood and greenish dung that had come out along with the intestines.

In the haunted house, Neerumoni asked Anil, “Every single object in this house is thrown around, but look, the bark manuscripts are where we had left them. They have even thrown away the mustard oil lamp that we lit in front of the manuscripts but why didn’t they try to open the wooden chest where we have kept them locked?” All of them believed that the bark books were thrown around, but those were haunted books, they didn’t need legs to go back to their original place. They imagined the soldier who must have disrespected the books, was dying slowly in a strange disease. 

For the first time, they felt safe because of the books’ presence. All these weeks after Horokanto’s death, they were petrified, unable to solve the mystery behind the sounds. That night, Prodhan Mahatu went to the army camp and stabbed one soldier and put one of the camps on fire. They shot him dead.

*         *         *

Dilipram wasn’t a great bej. He had in fact learnt most of his charms from Horokanto though he had lived in the house of an old bej in Hatimuria Village, Mayong as his pupil for around five years, working in his fields in lieu of fees. That man had given him the teeth of a male crocodile, the dry hands of a female monkey (chopped when she was pregnant and left to bleed to death), severed legs of mating lizards, snakeskin and many other indispensable things required in the art of serious sorcery for the greater common good. When Horokanto was alive, Dilipram would come to him occasionally with questions: “Do we use a pregnant bitch’s morning urine to make this medicine?” 

“I made the potion for cobra bite with the liquor made from banana-trunk ashes but worried if the concentration is strong enough?"

The people in the village had thought that before he would die, Dilipram would inherit all the bark books that were lying in their house, bound by deer intestine thread made stronger with a coat of flour and gold dust. In fact, after his death, Neerumoni had offered them to him but he had refused. He had told her that she must know those books had a soul and they always chose their owner just as her father was. So was Horokanto – why would he fight with his father at all and come to stay in their house to learn sorcery when he had belonged to such a rich family? It’s all decided “above,” he had told her with conviction, pointing towards the sky.

He added that she would get signs. There will be a day when they would have to leave the books so that they reach the rightful owner. That person could even be Anil, or one of her future sons-in-law. Now, sitting in front of Anil, who was telling him about the strange sounds that had shaken up their house, had taken away their sleep, Dilipram suggested that they take out the books every Tuesday and Saturday, spread them under the sun (if there is no sun they would do it in the veranda) and light a mustard oil lamp, offer some white flowers or red flowers and pray the Gods of those ancient books not to trouble them. “Try it out.” He said calmly as if it was completely normal for such things to happen and said that they might get some positive results. 

When Anil stood up to leave, the middle-aged man told him that if it didn’t work he should come to him on the night of the twenty-second Saturday with a new steel plate. They would go to the cremation ground to check out what exactly was wrong. He said that it could very well be the case of the search for a new owner because those books couldn’t stay without an eligible owner for a long time. “If you don’t take care as soon as possible, all of you will die.”

He started to walk away, leaving a stunned Anil staring at his back. Then he turned suddenly, said that he didn’t know why, but for some strange reason he had a feeling that one of those trapped souls had become too powerful since they hadn’t been controlled by spells for nearly a year now, after his father’s death; that soul might be trying to come to the earth to fulfill his or her worldly wishes.

The breeze lifted the light cotton cloth with which Dilipram had covered his flabby body. In that chilling silence, Anil could as if even hear the sound of ants moving in a queue from one end of the courtyard to the other end. A cold sweat ran through his body. Dilipram finally added that the soul could be trying to take birth through Anju so they would have to kill the child as soon as it takes birth if the first remedy doesn’t work. Anil decided that he wouldn’t tell his mother about the last part. She would get paranoid unnecessarily, he thought. 

While returning home, Anil passed the milkman Prodhan’s house. A strong stench of rotten animals was coming out from the house. He rushed to sit down beside the road a little ahead, vomited. He tore off some leaves of the eucalyptus tree that stood beside the road, inhaled until he felt better. The village would have to do something as soon as possible, he thought, wiping his face with the cotton handkerchief that Anju had woven in the hand-loom before her rape. Otherwise the smell would spread, turning the whole settlement absolutely uninhabitable. After Prodhan was shot dead, his wife and two daughters had vanished mysteriously. They must have fled to some relatives’ house. They didn’t even wait to receive Prodhan’s body; but that was a wise decision, the army would have killed them too had they gone to ask for his body. The decomposing body of Prodhan was handed over to the villagers after all those young men and women from the city had come with pens and tiny notebooks and cameras that made loud sounds while clicking photos. They were flown in by the army in a helicopter. Some of them came by cars, were helped by the army to cross the river on boats to cover the conflict. He stopped by the grocery shop of the village to buy some lentils that his mother had asked to buy. The shopkeeper wrapped half a kilogram of red lentils in an old newspaper. When he received it after paying, Anil didn’t notice the bloody picture of a man that was printed on it.

On reaching home he apologized to his mother. He said that they should have believed her on the first day itself. He retold exactly what Dilipram had told him, except the part about Anju’s unborn baby. Neerumoni said “Let’s wait and see what happens” after they’d worshipped the books for the next twenty one Saturdays and Tuesdays.

She moved inside her house, asked Anju if she needed something. But she just wept soundlessly. Neerumoni knew why. After she was raped, for a long time, Neerumoni blamed her for the whole incident: Didn’t I tell you not to roam around with Biren too much? Wasn’t I cautioning you for a long time until it finally happened? You destroyed your life, but at the same time, destroyed ours too, ensured that your younger sister, Nirmali, wouldn’t ever be married. Since the day that gag was removed from her mouth, the only sounds that came out from her mouth were the sounds of weeping, of muffled cries of pain.

Neerumoni shivered, looking at her bulging stomach – another three months left! It was already February...What would happen if she gave birth to twins? No, no, as if one child isn’t enough of a trouble... Will she be able to stuff a handful of salt into the infant’s mouth and take his life? Wouldn’t this child be her first grandchild?

Neerumoni went to the kitchen to cook the red lentils that were wrapped in the newspaper and noticed the bloodied face of the slain man printed on the paper. She trembled for a while and imagined the blood in the man’s body was mixed with the lentils. She wondered if she’d need to wash those lentils again and again to remove that blood. She felt queasy looking at the blood, the rose-red lentils. Suddenly she noticed that was Prodhan’s distorted face: full of anger, full of the pain of losing twenty of his cows that he had reared like his own children; cows that came running to him whenever they saw him, red and brown and white cows that liked to rub their heads on his back; cows licking their calves’ balls and ears that he rebuked if they chewed his clothes hung in the clotheslines; cows that had the most beautiful and innocent eyes in the world.

She called out to Anil and asked if it was really Prodhan in that photograph. He looked at it and said yes, that’s Prodhan’s blood-splattered face. “DANGEROUS SEPARATIST MILITANT GUNNED DOWN IN TETELIGURI VILLAGE.” After he read aloud the headline, she threw away the lentils. They didn’t have lunch that day.

*         *         *

The day Anju spoke out a full sentence, that too in her normal tone for the first time after months, Neerumoni couldn’t believe her ears. For the last ten months she’d heard her daughter cry in agony and impotent rage only. For awhile, she thought it was one of those sighs of the wind that had been bringing the incessant rains from the hills. It had been raining hard for the last few weeks, signaling an early rainy season. Probably the first wave of floods would arrive too, consequently. The previous morning, Neerumoni had noticed that the edges of the veranda in her house had disintegrated. There was no sign of the emerald green moss that had grown in the last few months as a proof of her disinterest to keep the house in order. 

But Anju didn’t have anything great to say.  When her mother heard that she had seen a child with eyes that shone like flames in her dreams last night, she was sure it was her daughter’s turn to be disturbed by the books. She looked worried and promised that she would send Anil to Dilipram’s house as soon as he returned. Neerumoni sat beside her daughter. Anju extended her hands and pressed her mother’s with hers, wept and said that she didn’t want that child. As soon as it is born, she would shove a handful of salt into his mouth. It was dark outside. As if the sky had decided to cover itself with a black shawl to keep away the chill. It had spread a soft blanket of darkness even during the daytime over the wet roofs, over the rain-drenched trees, paths, stones and red soil. She held on to her daughter’s hands. Through the window she looked at their dog that was shivering in the sudden chill, curled up in a corner of the cowshed, over the hay stored for the cows as fodder. She noticed that the small wooden suitcase where the bark books were kept locked shook mildly – was it throbbing? Moving? As if someone was trying to escape from there. She couldn’t stop breathing faster.

Anil didn’t return home until late afternoon. After serving him lunch, Neerumoni mentioned Anju’s dream and Anil sat there stunned for a while. Then he told her slowly what Dilipram had cautioned him about – that one of the souls might have become too powerful and could be trying to attain physical shape by possessing Anju’s child. Neerumoni whispered: he must have already taken possession of the unborn.

When Anil left for Dilipram’s house, it had started raining harder. He passed the Tamulidobha river before reaching his house and noticed the gurgling waters of the river. Water from the hilly tributaries and streams had given it a new life, new youthful blood; like a voluptuous whore, as if she was laughing, trying to wake up people from their stupor, trying to warn them of something.  

He also crossed Prodhan Mahatu’s house. Last month, the villagers had cleaned the mess. They didn’t know what to do with his land and property, and left everything the way it was. Even the clothes. One of the men who were cleaning up the corpses had entered the house and told the villagers that in one of the hearths there was still a container of rice left and huge steel pots of milk had curdled, formed curd, grew fungi, had turned green and yellow and brown, letting out another kind of smell that was difficult to describe. Now, Anil noticed, wild creepers had covered the whole house, the huge cowshed where he kept all his cows and even the bamboo gate. The structures were completely covered by those creepers which looked like massive blocks of leaves. Not even glimpse of the mud walls, of the wood in the windows was visible.

When he reached home it was evening. When he told his mother what Dilipram had advised to do, she asked him if he had hidden something from her again. He lit a fire, sat beside it, rested in its warmth, and told her that he hadn’t kept anything from her this time. In fact, he should have told her everything last time, instead thinking that she might worry too much. A storm had broken out, running through the village like a madwoman. Their weak thatched hut started to vibrate.

Neerumoni wondered aloud if they would be able to go out, expressing her worries that Anju was complaining that her abdomen was hurting. Anil said that it was more the reason to go because Dilipram had told them they shouldn’t delay the relinquishing of the books even for a moment – even if lighting strikes the whole village and spreads a wild fire in the hills that would come chasing the village. They would have to do it on their own, before Anju gives birth to the child, otherwise, the soul would be born in their own house, and no one would be able to predict what it would do.

When they stepped out of the house, Anju’s water had broken. She screamed, but in the wild roar of the dusk’s thunder, they didn’t hear her cries. She crawled out of her bead, breathless, and lay down on the green mattress that was spread on the floor, spread the legs and waited, wondering if she would be able to do all alone. At first, she lost consciousness.

Outside, Anil was looking at the swishing betel nut trees, moving to and fro in the air like a drunken man walking on the village street, oblivious of the cars and the scooters and the bicycles that might run him over, hit him; he wondered if one of those trees would fall over them, killing them both. He firmly held the wooden suitcase with one hand and the umbrella over his mother’s head. But the umbrella didn’t stay with them for a long time. The wind was fast – like the fast spring storm Bordoilia. People believe the storm is the soul of a newly married woman who goes to her mother’s house with long hair open with great speed, destroying everything on her way: huts, trees, cowshed and crops. That evening, the wind that was making the betel nut trees swish and swish had the might of that impatient spring storm, eager to reach her mother’s house as soon as possible. So when they heard the wicked laughter of the youthful river, they were relieved.

The riverbank was slippery – below, the water flowed down with great speed. In the middle of the river Anil saw a wooden chair being carried away. It was yet to become completely dark. So he also saw the roof of a house that had come floating on the river, getting trapped and destroyed bit by bit in the maddening eddy. Will it go really? The souls? He thought. It should be done with Anil’s hands, since he was the heir of his father who died without choosing the right owner of the bark books, who couldn’t train someone, giving away that knowledge before dying. After they had emptied the box into the tempestuous waters, Neerumoni told him that someone breathed into her cheeks and she heard a sigh. Anil didn’t say anything but she stressed that it was warm, as warm as it could be in that chilly evening and then he said, it was just the wind, just the sound of the wind moving across the leaves and over the waters. On their way back, they didn’t worry about Anju but only thought about Horokanto – the husband, the lover, the father. Before pushing the gate of their compound and opening it, Neerumoni said, “You know, even my father had found most of these manuscripts in a wooden box. Things just get repeated.”

“What will happen now?”

“They will travel – may be even to the sea, in search of another owner.”

Inside the house, Anju was lying unconscious, a newborn between her legs, and slick with blood. Neerumoni took a sharp knife and cut the chord. There was absolute silence. She waited; she patted on the boy’s back.

It didn’t cry.

She took a towel and wrapped the baby in it and said softly, “I think the books found their right owner. May be that person is in our village only.”

Anil wanted to say, that it’d be too fast, too good to be true, but he kept quiet. He looked at his sister’s face, called her. He wanted to show her the baby before he would bury it.

The soil at the back of their house must be soft like mud now. Digging a deep hole would be easy. Neerumoni sniffed. The air smelled of fresh mud. She couldn’t understand why the face of the baby reminded her of her dead father who was hurt because she had eloped with Horokanto. 

Aruni Kashyap is the author of The House With a Thousand Stories (Viking, June 2013), a novel set against the secret-killings of Assam - a series of extra-judicial killings alledgedly conducted by the Indian government to quell the Assamese separatist movement. This short story, 'For the Greater Common Good', is told through the perspective of the members of a family who believe the ancient bark manuscripts in their house are haunted. The story blends myth, folklore and political reality to represent life under the shadow of terror. Kashyap has also translated and introduced Indian author Indira Goswami‘s last work of fiction,The Bronze Sword of Thengphakhri Tehsildar, for Zubaan Books (January, 2013).