THE GHOST WHO SIGHED
As I recall my most vivid image of her, Grandmother must have been around seventy-five. She was bent like an inverted L, wrinkled and light-skinned with fading grey-green eyes – yet sprightly and active, humorous and generous to a fault. No beggar was sent away without a coin or a palmful of rice, no untouchable kurava who came to our house to sit at a distance in the front yard with his crude string instrument and sing the glories of gods went away without a little money or left-over food. Yet Grandma was as much a casteist as Arjuna and Lord Krishna of her stories. Not even the head of our share-croppers, Kannan, or his wife Karumbi were allowed to get too close to a member of the family.
Caste mattered. She also believed there was something lowly about the things that had anything to do with the people she called Maplas – people who were not Hindus. Christians and Muslims were neither low- castes nor untouchable, but they ate the flesh of the sacred cow. The British – all white people were considered British and addressed Sayip – were greeted with respect, but not received in one’s house if one could help it. They were secretly rumoured to be more unclean than the lowest Pariahs because they wiped their bottom, not washed it. The word Sayip, reserved for the white man, though a localized form of Hindi Sahib, was spoken with an element of contempt.
When Brother Pedro, the tanned and freckled Italian Sayip from my missionary School came home to ‘teach the true religion’and to gift her a gilded copy of a vernacular Bible, Grandma received him with appropriate courtesy, put out a reclining chair on the veranda and offered him pre-boiled ginger-water in copper tumbler to drink and betel nuts and powdered tobacco wrapped in manicured betel leaves to chew. Both were graciously declined, I thought, with a tinge of disdain. She listened to him with all the politeness that was becoming of a light-skinned brown woman when talking to a heavily tanned white man in those days when the fiendish shadow of the British rule darkened every Indian thought. The kingdom of Travancore was not strictly under the British, but the Viceroy in New Delhi up North made the Maharajah in deep South Trivandrum cough up annual protection money for protecting him from themselves.
The white man’s air of condescension worn by Brother Pedro and the brown woman’s politeness on Grandmother’s visage evaporated when Pedro suggested that it was foolish of Grandma to worship a black goddess adorned with dozens of human hands hung around her waist and a garland of human skulls adorning her neck while blood dripped from her tongue. Such a morbid and ghoulish image, said Pedro in practised vernacular, was of the devil, not of a goddess. There was no goddess, only one God, he said, and that god alone was worth worshipping.
Grandma bristled and barely managed to control her temper.
“Devil, the Chekuthan, was that half-naked god of yours who was hung up good and proper from a tree trunk, nailed on his hands and legs and bleeding all over. Who would meet such a terrible fate unless he was the devil himself? I would rather worship the goddess with the hands of such devils hanging around her waist and their skulls around her neck than worship a god who was nailed up.”
I noticed that Brother Pedro’s mouth twitched as he tried to smile and failed.
Grandma’s body still shook in anger when Pedro stood up.
“You are agitated, the devil has possessed you. Maybe you’ll see sense some other time,” said Pedro before he picked up the gilded Bible that was meant to be her gift and walked away.
When the white man went past the gate and disappeared round the corner, Grandma mixed fresh cow-dung in water and washed the chair where he had sat, and the entire veranda and the steps where he had walked.
“I didn’t mean to insult Christu,” she whispered half to herself and half to me while wiping the cow-dung paste off the stone-tiled floor. “But that sayip made me do it. Christu was a good man. Maybe a god himself. Who knows the mysteries of the divine? You must never say bad things about other people’s gods.”
I had no intention to insult any God, for my examination was coming close. But I liked the way Grandma deflated Pedro who was our teacher in physical training classes. Besides, he coached me in football. I hated the way he would feel for and twitch my penis from outside my shorts and kneaded my nipples through my football-singlet when no one was looking. I knew what all that meant, because a distant relation (that was how I knew her– Mani Chechi) was a better trainer in that game.
Thus I grew up under the care of my innocent Grandmother while my parents lived in far-away government quarters with my elder brother. When Mother was pregnant a third time, she came home, delivered the baby whlle Grandmother midwifed. A month later she went back with the baby to live in the far-away place in the hills. I remained with Grandmother. She loved me dearly, fed me well and told me godly stories after the evening prayer while frogs croaked in the back yard and stars twinkled in the sky like a confetti of Diwali lights. I don’t recall missing the rest of the family although I looked forward to the days when father would come home. He brought new clothes and sweets and tales of my big brother’s mischiefs and the little one beginning to walk or talk.
Once a year Grandmother would leave me in the house and go for the Shivaratri fair The first trip of hers I could recall was when I was four. The pleasant chill of January was nearly gone; the roar of the sea two miles away had flattened to a low note and the frogs became silent since the rains had been long gone. A couple of days before the trip, Grandma invited the – Mani Chechi – a buxom spinster in her early thirties – to stay with us for a few days. I never learnt her real name, she told me to call her Mani Chechi – literally, Bell sister. To get me used to a stranger in our midst, Grandma would sleep in the next room. Being of the right caste, though not really a true relation, Chechi was allowed cook and eat dinner in the sacred kitchen. In return, she was to tell me stories at night and sleep beside my bed – on a mat spread on the floor – to dispel my fear of the dark. As it turned out, it was a more-than-fair arrangement..
On the evening before Shivaratri, the night when lord Shiva would frolic with his wife Parvati, Grandmother would prepare to leave, trusting me with Mani Chechi. When the shadows had begun to lengthen and the faint golden beams of the setting sun climbed to the top of the coconut fronds, Grandma would set off with a cloth bag with the right stuff for worship tied to her arched back and a walking stick in her hand. The Chechi would serve me dinner without insisting, unlike Grandmother would, that I say the evening prayers in praise of Lord Rama. That was some relief. Soon the oil lamps were put out; I would lie on a sheet spread on the huge antique bedstead with heavily carved legs. The Chechi would spread her mat dutifully beside the cot. She was no good at story-telling; her voice was a monotone, not expressive like Grandma’s. She would make up for it by reaching out and peeling my foreskin and closing it slowly in the beginning and then building up tempo while I pretended to sleep. Perhaps Brother Pedro had prepared me for something like this. I didn’t miss my Grandmother then, so I never complained. On occasions I would give a start when an abrupt feeling of exhaustion overcame me. At other times, the Chechi’s fingers would slacken and her fat and fleshy hand would fall off leaving me disappointed. Some of those nights when Grandma was away, she would climb on to my cot and press my knee to her bushy mount and let me fondle her ample bosom. I would sleep with a faint guilty feeling that night; but would look forward to her fingers reaching out to me the next night. She stuck around for a few more days after Grandma returned. Though the feeling of guilt lingered all through the days, I waited impatiently for the bedtime and the feel of her fleshy fingers.
Grandmother would walk ten miles – distance was counted in miles those days – to the sands of the Aluva River, which had by then receded to spread out a large beach on one bank. The appearance of the beach in February, only to disappear under swirling waters when rains came in June, was believed to be a miracle from Lord Shiva.
Shivaratri meant Shiva’s night – the time when the Lord and his wife Parvathi spent their time making love while their devotees fasted and sat guard outside chanting their glories. There were no loudspeakers then, so I suppose the night was not too noisy except for the music of the mosquitoes, clanging of bells and Shiva-Shivo-Shiva calls which did not seem to interfere in the divine couple’s passionate activities inside. Hawkers lined the path which were brightened by kerosene-fuelled contraptions called petromaxes. The small temple glistened with oil lamps; hawkers added joy with their wares – mostly food and toys. Arabian dates had the pride of place; then there were baskets of puffed rice, flattened rice, sweet halwa, and toys – colourful paper fans that turned in the wind; rubber snakes that would crawl on the ground when thrown and little gods with spring-loaded heads that nodded sideways like classic dancers if you shook them or when the wind blew.
Long before daybreak, basic human needs of tens of thousand men and women jostling for place on the strip of a river-bed would start demanding priority on the river that had turned shallow for the season. Most of the pious, forgetting the hygiene that their religion demanded, would start doing their morning affairs in the sacred water or its banks downstream, but Grandmother would have none of it. She would begin her trek back home after the temple bells were rung to signify the opening of the door of the divine couple after they had done whatever that was to be done and she had said her final prayers. It was still very dark and it would be dark through most of her sleepy and exhausted walk back home, burdened by the packs of dates, sweets and toys meant for me and for my older brother who would visit when his school would close a month later.
Half way home, Grandmother had to pass through a dirt path that wound its way through a maze of thorny bamboos in vedi-mara. The name meant shooting wall. Where the bamboos ended was a clearing on which stood a banyan tree that loomed frighteningly large and wide with roots hanging down from its branches like ghosts. A little distance from the tree stood a broken-down platform of grey planks of rotting wood. Till a few years ago in the Maharajah’s days, those in the know said, convicts were hanged atop that platform from a wooden beam. Maybe the place came to be called Shooting Wall when some of the convicts were shot with muzzle-loading guns. A policeman filled the gun’s long pipe with gun powder from the nozzleend , pointed at the waiting victim, and fired. Even in daytime men were afraid to cross the Shooting Wall. In the dark no one dared go that way. Those who were strung up and those who were shot lived in the banyan tree and mauled those who after midnight passed by the clearing. Many eye witnesses had said that they had seen white clothes dart about in the dark on top of the broken down platform. Some claimed to have heard chilling howls and curses coming from the place at midnight.
For Grandmother, the alternative path through a village of the low-castes was taboo, too far and round-about. In February, the chill of the tropical winter had nearly departed, yet fog descended in those early hours of the morning, and crickets screeched their shrill vibratoes. Grandmother said when she emerged from the limits of the hanging place, she wasn’t sure whether her few remaining teeth chattered from fear or from cold.
A couple of miles from the Shooting Wall was a Muslim village. A white mosque with its polished brass dome and spire loomed large in the faint glow of the horizon signalling the coming of the sun half hour later. Next to the mosque was a waist-high thicket of shrubbery beyond which was the grave yard where white tomb stones stood up in the twilight like ghosts. The rumour was that all through the night a jinn on a huge white horse roamed the area protecting the mosque and the graves. He cut with a heavy sword anyone who wandered about the mosque after midnight. Never a thief was heard to have strayed into the Muslim village for fear of the jinn.
Grandmother tried not to look at the dark bush, the white grave stones, or the domed mosque with its shiny brass spire. Yet she couldn’t help making a furtive glance, which made her blood freeze for a moment. She often hoped that her return walk would time with the call for the morning prayer when many Muslims in white clothes would make a beeline to the mosque. She had no watch, so such precision timing never happened.
Grandmother didn’t tell me of these escapades; I overheard her reeling them out to the Chechi who went to the veranda to help her unload the packages of gifts she brought for me and the rest of the family that was to arrive later. Grandma always had a separate packet for the Chechi to take to her home when she left a couple of days later.
When the major part of the night’s events were discussed – I kept my ears screwed if the woman would spill the beans on our nightly mischief. She never did. I had always believed that I was somehow the major conspirator in the minor orgy. As years passed, I actually became one. I once went down on to her mat and tried to mount her the way Hamsa, a dear classmate, told me how men did it to their wives. Chechi tried to help me, but I failed. She let me brush my hands on her bushy mount and knead her nipples the way Brother Pedro did mine. For the first time, I felt her hairy mount and the wam fleshy mouth beneath it. She held me tight, sinking my face in her soft cleavage. To sooth my failure, she stroked me till a dry orgasm ran up my spine to my head and put me to sleep,
When I woke up in the morning, I was on the cot, and Chechi was curled up, her clothes in place, on her mat below.
I was around eleven when Mani Chechi found a husband and that put an end to her annual visit. Grandmother arranged for a low-caste woman to sleep outside my room. On the night when Grandma was gone to the sacred river bank, I lay in bed, hoping that the woman outside would come in some time and wank me to sleep the way the Chechi did. She didn’t, so I stroked myself , fantasizing how the Chechi’s new husband would be mounting the woman who used to be mine. I felt overcome with jealousy, but also felt relieved that we were never discovered.
Grandmother came home exhausted, nearly faint, next morning. She did not allow the woman to help her unload the burden from her back. Casteism, she had learnt from the Bhagavad Gita she used to read often, was important. If castes were abolished, women would become immoral, high blood would be adulterated, families would be ruined. A Low-caste could not be allowed to touch the dates and puffed rice that was in her back-packed cloth bag. How many people of what-all castes would have handled those bare dates while being transported from Arabia to the premises of her temple could not bother her. Now they were in her high-caste hands. So I was called.
I was wide awake in bed, still hard from the night’s fantasy, not at all ready to receive Grandma. I rushed out and piddled under the coconut tree that wore a part of its roots above ground like a pleated skirt. I remained embarrassingly hard and felt wet in my knickers.
“ You piddled in your knickers, go take a bath,” Grandmother ordered. I watched her twist her body and unload the stuff on the high veranda without help. Then she lay down on the floor, sighing with exhaustion.
“Don’t touch me. Did you touch my grandson? I hope not. These youngsters have no sense of caste. You can go; come back later and collect a measure of paddy for your services,” said Grandmother to the woman who had disappointed me at night.
The woman walked away, feeling insulted and spitting to show her feeling. Grandmother, though sensitive and kind hearted, believed that untouchables were so created for their karma; they should know their place. She never forgave the Regent Queen, the young king, or his Dewan – Prime Minister – for proclaiming that low castes could be allowed into the temple premises.
Grandmother never entered the house without finishing her morning routine and a bath in the pond behind the house. This time she acted different.
“Help me get up, I want to lie down. I will sleep on your cot”, she said.
I was frightened that Grandmother would detect the peculiar smell of my self-indulgence that yielded nothing. She didn’t. I noticed that she had bent even more than I had seen her the previous day. She had more wrinkles than before, her body was warm. She kept breathing hard. I sat beside her, crying. What if she died? Was she dying because I wanked last night?
A couple of starving hours later, Grandmother sat up. “Did you think I was dying?” she asked, laughing.
I hugged her, still crying. “Don’t go to Shivaratri again,” I said.
“We’ll see about that a year from now,” she said. “I will make some rice gruel and boiled yam in curd for you,” she said. “First, my morning things, and you yours”.
I picked a pinch of burnt-rice husk for brushing my teeth from a basket suspended from a low-hanging rafter of our thatched roof. To clean my tongue I tore off and split along its length a vein from a leaf of the coconut frond that hung low behind the house. Still brushing my teeth with the coal-black husk, I doffed my knickers and jumped into the pond in the midst of water lilies. Frightened, a thin water-snake slithered hastily ashore and vanished. When Grandmother came down to the pond to bathe, I was already out of water and rubbing myself.
“Ammamma, do you believe in ghosts?,” I asked her just as she was swiping away lily leaves from a half-circle that she cleared and lowering herself in the water.
“Why do you ask that,” she asked. “”You surely think I’m dying”. Then she laughed, showing her one front tooth stained with pan-leaf chew and lengthened by retreating gum. I recalled she had a lovely row of teeth when I was younger; she lost most of them by chewing betel nuts wrapped in strips of dry tobacco leaves.
“No, of course not. I was all alone last night in the room. The woman you asked to sleep outside to guard me snored so loudly. Every time the shadow of a swaying palm-frond registered on the wall, I thought I saw a ghost.”
“I had taught you the Hanuman-mantra. You should chant the mantra before you sleep, and keep your eyes closed.”
Of course, I knew the mantra. I could recite it with ease :
Oh Hanuman of Alattoor temple
Don’t show me terrible dreams.
If I have a frightening dream,
Knock me with your tail and wake me”.
I didn’t argue that the mantra was not much help for one who was already awake and doing the wrong thing with himself. Doing the wrong thing kept my mind off ghosts just for a few minutes,
When we sat down, facing each other, with crossed legs on low flat stools and began to eat gruel and curried yam, Grandmother opened up.
“Every time I walk by that shooting-wall and then the Muslim graveyard, I expect to see a ghost. I had been walking for fifteen years alone by that way before the morning twilight ever since your grandfather died. He was not afraid of anything. But, tell you the truth, I was.”
“Did you ever see a ghost – even a passing shadow of one?”
“No, never. For twenty years, he walked ahead of me, same path, same time, and never looked this side or that. I walked behind him, reassured that if I made a cry, he would be by my side, handling any ghost with his bare hands. Before he died, he told me never to stop going to Aluva Shivaratri. Shiva took care of the dead; the best way to keep them happy was to make them offerings by the river bank on Shiva’s Night. I go there, say a prayer and make a rice offering for his soul, then for the souls of my ancestors. There are times when I feel that he walks behind me, not ahead. Once when he came to me in my dream, I teased him. Men are supposed to walk in front of their wives, not watch their behinds.”
She giggled with a tinge of sadness. She must have loved Grandfather dearly.
“Why am I telling you such things? You are just a little boy ,” she said.
A little boy? Only last night I did what older people do. If I was older, I could have married Mani Chechi and did it right and proper every night.
“I am not a little boy,” I said. “I am ten, soon to be eleven. When you came in this morning, you looked like you had seen a ghost”.
“Ah, that. It was faint light already, and I did see something in the grave yard by the Muslim mosque. I saw a movement, and a bald head showing above the shrubs. The head was whispering something, and it was all so ghoulish. I ran, and while running, I realized it was the voice of Kutty Muhammad, the mapla who deals in coconuts for us and buys our paddy – you know him, the old man who lost his wife last year. I had heard that Kutty Mohammed visited his wife’s grave every morning and gossiped with her ghost. So I took courage and got this side of the bush behind the old Mapla’s bald head and screwed up my ears. Would you believe it, he was sweetly asking his dead wife’s permission to take a new wife!”
Grandmother’s wrinkled shoulders shook; her laughter sounded like hiccups. The folds of her throat danced up and down.
“Then what happened?”
“You wouldn’t believe this. It was either an owl or a bat, I am not sure. It happened so fast. The thng gave a shrill cry and flitted over the Mapla’s bald head. Maybe its wing slapped him, I’m not sure, Kutty Muhammad shot up in fear and stared in the direction that the bat – or was it an owl – flew. By now it was lighter; I could see him clearly; he was shaking. First I thought he was shaking with fear. No, he was angry. Guess what he said?”
“He glowered at the grave. Then shanking his hands at it, he screamed: “You haram – ill-begotten bitch’ (no, I mustn’t say those words to you, but that’s what he said). Then he said, ‘I get your message, but you like it or not, I’m going to marry sweet young Nilofer, your lucky niece. You lie here and burn with jealousy till Qayamat and may Allah sends you to hell!’ Then he spat, picked the towel he had over his shoulder, slapped the grave stone with it and walked away.”
Grandmother didn’t laugh this time. She heaved a long sigh.
“That was funny, wasn’t it? “ I said, wondering why Grandmother looked sad at the end of the story.
“No, but that’s what I thought first. Then something happened.” Grandmother looked away when she said that.
“I heard the grave heave a sigh, a very long, sad sigh.”
“Come on, Grandma, You imagined it. Stones don’t heave sighs. Maybe it was the wind. What did a dead woman care whether the bald orangutan married again or not?”
“I don’t think she cared that the old Mapla was going to marry again. It was the abuse that must have hurt her. No woman, dead or alive, likes to be abused.”
She was looking away at nowhere; her green eyes looked glazed. Seemed to me there was a ghost of a memory in those eyes.
I didn’t dare ask if Grandfather, who died long before I was born, ever abused her and if she still nursed the hurt.