A little girl falls to her death in a little village called Kuloor near Nadaun. But does the story end here? A few years later, another girl in Chamba bearing the same name begins to recount events of her past life as the 'other' Neetu. Kuldip Dhiman reconstructs the tragic events in the lives of the two Neetus.
Sheetla Devi, one of the pilgrims, tired and exhausted because of the long and arduous journey, was sitting in a corner of the temple. Presently, she began to feel uneasy. For some reason she felt she was being watched. She looked around wearily and realised that two eyes were peering at her through the grille of the temple. Though the light was poor because of the heavy rain, she could make out that it was the figure of a little girl. Must be a curious local girl, Sheetla Devi said to herself and dozed off again. When she opened her eyes after a while, she was taken aback a bit, as that the little girl was now sitting right next to her. Suspicious and alarmed of her, the woman placed her travel bag behind her back. Her fellow pilgrims had cautioned her about petty thieves that hang about in temples.
As if sensing Sheetla Devi's fears the girl said, "Bibi, why are you afraid of me. Don't you recognise me?" The woman ignored the question. The girl, then, left the place and came back with a jug of water. Sheetla Devi looked at her suspiciously.. The girl's face was rather familiar. Sheetla Devi nudged her husband and said, "Listen, look at that girl, doesn't she remind you of our Neetu? She is about the same age, and is even wearing the same kind of school uniform." Shanti Swaroop, her husband, looked at the girl. He was a bit amused but not surprised as it is not unusual for unrelated people to have a physical resemblance. Silence followed.
Before long the girl came back again, this time with some food. The couple refused the offer politely. One reason was that they did not believe in accepting food free of cost from anyone, and the second was that they were afraid of accepting food from strangers. Visibly hurt, the girl withdrew to a corner and began to weep. Not wanting to hurt the little child, they went out and offered the girl's father, who had a small tea stall outside the temple, Rs 31 and accepted the food. As they ate the food, the girl brought a blanket for them. Feeling a bit uncomfortable at the unexpected hospitality of the unknown girl, the couple thanked her and tried to hint to her that they wanted to be left alone.
"Bibi, why are you afraid of me. Don't you recognise me. I am your Neetu."
The couple froze for a moment. Not believing her ears, Sheetla Devi asked, "How can you be our daughter? Our Neetu died years ago."
"No, I am your daughter, and that is my father," said the girl as tears rolled down her eyes.
"What is your name?"
"I just told you, it's Neetu."
"No, What is your name now?"
"It is Neetu," she insisted.
Still not sure of what was happening, the couple looked at each other in absolute puzzlement. The girl not only wore a resemblance to their Neetu, but also claimed to have the same name, and she was also wearing the same kind of school uniform their daughter was wearing the day she died after that fateful fall.
Soon the girl told them what their names were, "And my elder brother's name is Vijay, the younger one's is Sandesh, and my sister's name is Saroj." She also told them about her school, her teacher Madan, her friend Sita, and other relatives. It did not take long for the couple to realise that they were probably face to face with their deceased daughter in her new incarnation. They had heard of such cases, and being religious, rebirth was not an alien concept to them. After asking the girl some more personal questions, they were more or less convinced that she was possibly their dead Neetu.
This is the singular story of Neetu, a girl born in a poor family in Chamba. What follows is a reconstruction of interviews held with various people who feature in her two lives. When I heard about this case, I went over to Chamba to meet Neetu and her present parents, Hansraj and Geeta. As Hansraj was busy with his little tea shop, it was his wife Geeta, the present mother of Neetu, who picks up the narrative from here.
"I was doing some work, when Neetu came home with a man and a woman. "Mummy, that is my bibi (mother), and he is my bhapa (father).' she said in a matter-of-fact way. Dumbfounded, I looked at the middle-aged couple and then at Neetu and gave her a stern look. It was not the first time that we were hearing such words from her. Even as a little child she used to tell us that we were not her real parents, and that she wanted to go to her real home. We used to often find her weeping in some dark corner. But that day I was really afraid. I thought the strangers had drugged her or hypnotised her. I had heard stories about child abductors. But Neetu kept repeating that they were her parents.
"'Mummy, why are you afraid of them. Just as you gave birth to me, they also gave birth to me once. Long before you did,' she said. After speaking with the strangers for a considerable length of time we were convinced that they were not thugs at least. As our confidence in them grew, they asked us if they could take Neetu along with them to there home in village Kuloor, which is in Nadaun, Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh. We declined their request, saying that we would take her there some time later. In the months to come, we received many letters from them, but we just ignored them all. They, in fact, wanted to adopt her. This may sound strange now, imagine someone wishing to adopt their own daughter!
"Neetu was born after many miscarriages," continues Geeta, "and she is very dear to us. We couldn't bare the thought of sending her away with strangers in spite of the fact that they might have been her parents in her past life. But things were not the same anymore. Neetu began to have frequent bouts of depression, and on one occasion she ran away to the bus stand to catch the bus to Kuloor. It was at that time that we thought it might be better to take her there. About that time we got an invitation from Shanti Swaroop for his surviving daughter's marriage. The note said that the marriage ceremony would not begin until Neetu arrived. What harm can they do to us? we thought and took the bus and got off at Nadaun. We did not know where Shanti Swaroop's shop was, but Neetu led us to it. The signboard read: Dhiman Mechanical Works. The shutters were closed that day because of the marriage. Neetu then told us that we need not worry, as she knew the way home."
Then Hansraj and Geeta took another bus. Neetu asked the conductor to drop them near a peepal tree a few kilometres ahead. As they got off the bus, Neetu could barely hide her excitement. Pointing to a little building across the road, she said, "Look, that is my school." She entered the school and immediately recognised her teacher whom she called Master Madan.
"As we walked along the narrow path," Geeta continues, "there came a point when the path bifurcated into two, and we did not know which one to take. Neetu told us to turn left, but as we were not sure we decided to ask someone. Just then we saw a bangle-seller approaching us. When we asked him the path to the Shanti Swaroop residence, he pointed to the same path Neetu had asked us to take. As we walked along, we saw a few water pitchers placed under a tree. We stopped to quench our thirst, but Neetu told us that there was a little bawdi (small tank) further down. After a while, we did come across the bawdi she had mentioned. Remember, that was her first visit to that part of the world. A little farther down, Neetu saw a young man walking along the path. "Sandesh bhai !" she screamed with joy and ran towards the dumbstruck young man and put her arms around his waist. After getting over his bewilderment, the young man picked Neetu up in his arms and led them home.
Once there, everyone was overjoyed at seeing her. Neetu immediately recognised her sister and Vijay, her elder brother, who was very attached to her. Upon seeing her he couldn't control his tears, and he went on crying for a very long time. Then, there was a minor commotion, as all the guests got more interested in Neetu than the marriage ceremony. One by one various relatives, neighbours and friends were produced in front of Neetu, and she recognised them without any hesitation.
As she began to get used to the experience, Neetu suddenly asked Shanti Swaroop, "Where is my chair"
"My revolving chair."
Swaroop smiled and asked one of his sons to bring the little revolving chair that his Neetu was so fond of. (The chair is still there in one of the rooms).
In all this excitement, Neetu's present parents were sitting quietly in a corner, wondering if their daughter would ever go back with them. Just then Neetu approached them and said, "And now, I will show you the place where I met my death."
Over the years, Neetu has revisited that accursed place many times, and she had to revisit it again for my sake. It is called Maseh Khud, a wide ravine with green hills on either side. As she led her past life parents and me to the spot, an uneasy silence prevailed. Stopping near a steep cliff, Neetu said, "There, do you see that tree up there? I tripped from that tree and fell into the khud." As I was speaking to Neetu, Sheetla Devi broke down. Neetu went up to her, and wiping her mother's tears said, "Bibi, why are you crying. Haven't I come back?"
How did the end come about, and what was Neetu doing there on the cliff? Shanti Swaroop says, " On that fateful day, we were fixing some pipes in the house. I asked Neetu to climb up the ladder and pass some materials to her brother on the first floor. 'No, I am afraid. If I climb the ladder I might fall down and die,' she said to me. "Come on, it is such a small ladder," I said, "don't worry my child, you won't die."
"'No, bhapa, I might die." Thinking that she was finding excuses to avoid doing work, I laughed and left for my shop in Nadaun."
Picking up the narrative from here, Sheetla Devi says, "After my husband left, Neetu asked me to give her a bath. Then she wore her school uniform and slept in my lap saying, "Bibi, when I die, I am going to appear very tall to you."
"'Shut up! Don't ever utter such words again', I chided her. Then all of a sudden, she began to suckle my breast. I was quiet amused as she was about eight years old at the time. It was Rakhi that day of 1985. She had collected Rs 9 . She gave the money to me and asked me to deposit it in her name. She then locked the door and threw the keys towards me. 'Bibi, you always complain to bhapa that I don't do any work. Look I am taking the goats to the khud.' Saying this, she ran away so swiftly that I couldn't believe my eyes."
While Sheetla Devi took her the buffaloes to graze, Neetu climbed a tree that was on a high rocky cliff. It was about ten in the morning. Her best friend, Sita, lived across the Maseh khud. She called out her name thrice. "Sita . . . Sita . . .Sita." Then she lost her balance and fell off the tree. Had she fallen straight into the pool of water below, she might have lived, but her head struck a rock first, and that proved to be fatal. A village boy named Johnny saw her fall. He rushed quickly to the spot and took her out of the pool. But it was too late. The girl died before any medical aid could be given to her.
After Neetu's death, her parents, especially her father, lost interest in business. He and his wife spent most of their time going to temples undertaking long pilgrimages. The business suffered as a result, and the family was soon in a financial crisis.
Elaborating on the reunion with his dead sister, her elder bother Vijay adds, "She has forgotten a lot now. She used to tell us that after her death she went through five rebirths, the last one being that of a snake. But as days passed, Neetu became silent and withdrawn, and we stopped asking her questions about her past."
When asked if he was sure Neetu had not unwittingly made up the whole story, Vijay Kumar says, "Why would she? We are not very rich. I have no doubt at all about her claims. When she is with us, we feel our Neetu with us. There is no difference in the experience. She is the same person. How else can you explain her memories, her likeness to our Neetu and so on? To this day, she sends us Minjjar from Chamba, which is their version of the Rakhi festival."
I contacted Madan, her teacher and Neetu's friend Sita over the telephone. Madan is a skeptic, although he has no explanation for the events just mentioned. Sita, a married woman now, could not add much to the story. Unfortunately, no one bothered to keep a record of what Neetu used to talk about when she was younger, and no record has been kept of dates and other events making it difficult to reconstruct the story properly.
As I was taking pictures of the Maseh Khud, I asked Neetu, "Do you remember what happened to you just after you died?"
"I found myself in a strange misty place," said Neetu. " I saw strange plants and then I saw a huge tree. It appeared to be aglow and there were little cups hanging from it. Things were appearing and disappearing all the time. I was feeling good and, at the same time, I was afraid. Then I saw a weird-looking man in an unfamiliar attire. He was saying something to me but I could not understand a word of it. Then I saw a small wooden house. Oh, I have forgotten so many things now."
Neetu, is now a married woman with a daughter, and has a husband who is sympathetic. She lives in Chamba, visits her present parents often, but her mind keeps drifting to Kuloor and her little home there, her parents, her brothers and friends. She has still not got used to being displaced, first from her past-life parents, and then, after her marriage, from her present- life parents.