A short story by Kuldip Dhiman
First published in October 1999 in All Hallows, The Journal of The Ghost Story Society, British Columbia, Canada.
The man, who had been in a coma for more than two months, showed some signs of movement. He opened his eyes slowly. In the dark of the night all he heard was the harsh sound of his own breath. And there were bells faintly jingling somewhere far away. Soon the unbearable cacophony of city traffic began to pound his ears. Presently he heard the sound of screeching tyres, followed by a loud crash. Then there was silence for a very long time.
As he lay there, wiping the cold sweat from his forehead, he heard a faint, disembodied voice. What was it? Someone was calling him. Yes, it was a familiar voice. He must go; he really must-but where. ..and how?
'Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...Hey Shambhu ...Lord of the gods, Lord of the Himalayas, serpents, bhootas ...ganas ...give us your power. ..Oum Kaali. ..send us your messenger. . .'
Divya Beliappa, the dusky woman with the husky voice, was invoking Lord Shiva, the destroyer, and the goddess Mahakaali, the force, the energy behind the universe. The others present in the room watched Divya with bated breath as she chanted her mantras. Suddenly, her eyes became so intense that they could have frozen any moving object. Moments later her entire body began to quake violently, and with her left hand she scrawled in the Tamil language the letters corresponding to the English P, R, and A on the notepad she held. 'Oum Mahakaali ...Yes, who are you? Tell us your name. Go ahead. ..go ahead. .. why have you stopped?' As she said this, Divya began to quake even more violently, and then collapsed. Somesh, her husband, quickly sprinkled some cold water on her face. A few moments later Divya opened her eyes. All energy seemed to have drained from her body.
Dr Nalini Krishnamurthy turned her video camera off. Divya looked at her and the other friends in the room apologetically. 'I'm sorry, it doesn't seem to work today. We might try again a little later. Let's go out and sit by the pool, shall we?' She was quickly regaining her composure and becoming her usual cheerful self.
While Divya went to join her other friends, one of the guests approached Dr Krishnamurthy. 'Nalini, would you mind if I asked you something?' 'Go ahead,' the doctor smiled, running her fingers through her long hair.
'Do you really believe in all this bullshit?'
The doctor shrugged her shoulders, 'Well, I don't know. I'm as curious as you are.'
'But you've devoted all your life to parapsychology. Have you ever seen a yourself?'
'No, but there are hundreds of cases around the world. ..,
'Yes; and it's always second-hand information. I have yet to come across a person who has seen a ghost himself. I believe this possession business is nothing but self-hypnosis. And our Divya uses a strange mixture of tantra, the occult, and clairvoyance. It's all rubbish.',"
'You could be right. Let's join the others.' .
They were nine of them, five women and four men, all classmates; and of course their spouses and children had come along too. For the past ten years they had been meeting at Divya and Somesh's lavish bungalow overlooking the Jayamahal Park. The 261h of April had a nostalgic significance, for it was on that day that the class of 1975 had scattered like dry leaves, never to be together again. But against all the odds these nine had somehow managed to keep in touch. No one knew what had happened to most of the others. It is a big world. As they sat by the pool reminiscing about old times, Divya Beliappa heard her ten-year-old Son's voice. 'Maa, there is someone at the door.' 'Who is it putta?' she asked.
'I don't know,' replied the boy, 'but he says he wants to see Divya Iyengar.'
'What?' She arched her eyebrows. 'Who is this who still remembers me by my maiden name? I have forgotten it myself.' She laughed softly to herself. Then she saw the man who had followed her son to the pool.
Everyone stared at the bearded intruder. He was a bit flabby, and there was something odd about his manner, something unnatural. He had a forlorn look, so hard to describe. He waited for their reaction for some time and then said, 'Why are you looking at me like that? Haven't you seen a human before?' He wore an amused smile. Then he directed his gaze towards Divya. 'You'd be Kishmish?'
Divya was shocked, for Kishmish had been her nickname in school. She took a good long look at the man but failed to recognise him. The stranger was clearly disappointed. 'So you guys have forgotten me, eh?' There was a hint of sadness in his tone. He came forward and proffered his hand. Still they showed no sign of recollection, merely looking at one another and then at the stranger. The intruder walked towards Somesh. 'Somu yaar, at least you should remember me. We were the worst of enemies in school,' he laughed. 'No wonder you never invite me to any of your reunions.'
Somesh drew a blank and looked towards Divya for help. ' All right, we admit that we can't place you,' said Divya. 'Now will you please tell us who you are?'
'Take three guesses! ...Okay, I'll give you a hint. When did you finish school?'
'1975,' Divya replied.
'Well, I left in November 1970. Dad got transferred to Ambala Cantt.'
'Oh, my God!' she exclaimed. 'That's ages back!'
He looked disappointed. 'Why do people only remember the friends from their last year in school? Why do they forget the ones who left earlier?'
They looked at him, his long beard, his drooping eyes, his loose skin; trying to recognise the waxen face. Divya, who was rather proud of her photographic memory, tried hard to place the visitor. November 1970; that meant she was in class seven. She tried to picture her classroom in her mind's eye. An image of the old school building appeared. She heard the sound of children laughing, screaming, shouting, fighting. Little girls in white tops and navy-blue skirts, and boys in white shirts and navy-blue shorts. She saw the P .T .Master flaunting his cane; the class teacher Lata Deshpande writing something on the blackboard, the science teacher rushing to the teachers' room with a pile of notebooks; the Drawing Master joking with the students; the vendors selling jaamallahabad, kalleykai, puttani, and time pass outside the school gate. She tried to focus on the hazy faces. There was Kalpana Rana, her closest friend at the time. Another face. Who was it? What was her name?
Oh! We called her Billy, because she was cat-eyed. Another face, another nickname. A boy this time. They used to call him Langur, the one who broke his arm once. Another nameless face emerged, and then another. ..but where was the boy standing in front of her as a bearded man now? She tried hard, but her memory failed her.
'Can't remember? I'm not surprised,' the mystery-man said, 'Okay, do you remember the guy who always had squirrels in his bag?'
Divya jumped with surprise. 'Oh, shit! That's you! Ummm ...wait, I'll remember now.' She looked at the others for help. 'Yaar, now I remember. ..what was the name yaar? We used to call you. ..' She remembered the face of a porcupine-haired boy, who tamed, of all the things, squirrels. 'Got it! ' she cried, 'we used to call you Porky. Right?'
'So, Kishmish, you only remember me as Porky?'
'Come on; all of a sudden you return from the grave and expect us to remember you after I so many years? It's your fault, you never kept in touch.'
'Yeah, that's true, but it's not easy, you see,' he said ruefully. 'At times I tried, but I couldn't . . .'
'Don't make silly excuses,' Somesh said, and made a drink for the forgotten man. Divya stood close by, gazing at the sky. 'Got it!' she announced in triumph. 'Oh! got it. Prabir Dutta, right?' The man smiled. 'Oh, Prabir! It's been so long.' As Prabir Dutta joined the others and exchanged gossip, something bothered Divya.
Something was wrong somewhere. This man, Prabir Dutta; something was not right about him. She did remember the porcupine-haired boy-the squirrels in his bag, how he used to scare the girls with them-but the man before her looked nothing like him. Faces change over the years, sometimes beyond recognition, but still something remains: a familiar way of smiling, some odd gesture, something. Can one really change so completely? He must be an impostor. But how did he know so much? It was amazing. As Prabir reminisced about his school days, Divya suddenly interrupted. 'Do you remember once when it was the physics exam, and you were caught cheating? And the Princi, S. N. Thakur, thrashed you in front of everyone?' 'S. N. Thakur who?' He was a bit annoyed. 'When I was at school, the Princi was K. D. Dwivedi, and just before I left, V. V. Srikantaiah had taken over.' He gave her a stern look.
'Hey! are you trying to test me? I should have brought my passport ...'
He put his hand in his coat-pocket and, much to their surprise, produced a squirrel. Some of the children came running to look at it. 'Want to play with it, eh?' he asked. He placed the squirrel on a boy's palm and said, 'Don't be afraid, it won't hurt you.' The children took the squirrel to the pool-side and began to play with it.
Divya felt very sorry for him. What right had they to suspect him? If he said he was Prabir, then he must be.
'Sorry yaar, it's just that you look nothing like the boy we knew. Tell us about yourself.'
'1 will. But let me know about you guys first.'
'Shall I start?' Divya looked around at the others with a smile, then turned to Prabir.
'Well, after school I did my post graduation in History. And as you can see, I married Mr Somesh Beliappa.' She coughed artificially and continued. '1 have a son; there he is. Much to the disappointment of my well-wishers, I never took up a job. I'm not the bright and ambitious Divya Iyengar you knew.'
Prabir looked at Somesh. 'Lucky bastard, marrying your childhood sweetheart! But Divya lyengar sounds better than Divya Beliappa.'
Somesh smiled in response. ' And Divya Dutta would have sounded even worse.'
'You haven't changed,' Prabir laughed; and the gossip session was on. They all related their adventures or misadventures after leaving school, and updated Prabir on others who weren't present. 'You remember Dinesh Kulkarni? Such an idiot in school; now he's the G.M. of Escorts. Shrimati Rao is in Singapore. And you remember T.K. Ananthamurthy, the genius who always got ninety-nine per cent marks, and who we all thought would become a research scholar? Well, he went astray, became a drug addict. This one eloped with his friend's wife, this one married his secretary. That ugly duckling Yamini Ganapa hy-she won the Miss India title last year. Can you believe it? And that lanky guy; what was his name. .. Bhaskar Shetty ...what happened to him. ..,'
'He died in a road accident in Kenya in 1989,' said Prabir. And where is Razia Khan these days?'
'She committed suicide in 1985, because her in-laws troubled her.' It was Prabir again. 'You seem to be reading the obituaries regularly,' laughed Somesh. 'Come on; tell us about yourself. , 'What do you want to know?' He gave a wan smile and looked around. 'Nothing much happened. Dad got transferred from Bangalore to Ambala. Life then changed totally. , 'What happened?'
'Oh! that's a long story. I'm not supposed to disclose the details about my past. In fact, I'm not supposed to be here.'
'Now, don't tell us that you're The Spy Who Came in From the Cold!' joked Srinivas Bhatt, one of the guests.
'You said it. What's the time?' he asked. 'The guys up there must be looking for me.'
'The guys behind the Iron Curtain, you mean?' Somesh quipped.
'It's a lot more impenetrable than that. You see, I'm really not supposed to be here.'
While the others were engaged in catching up with old times, Nalini began to walk towards the swimming pool where the children were playing. She panned her camera across the scene, and zoomed in on a small girl by the water's edge. Suddenly the child lost her balance and fell into the pool. Nalini dropped her camera and ran towards the pool. On hearing the screams of the little girl the others also charged towards the pool; but before anyone could do anything, Prabir dove in and scooped up the frightened child.
The girl's parents thanked Prabir profusely. Somesh waited until the excitement was over, then said, 'Prabir, come with me. You need to change your clothes. Mine will fit you fine.' Prabir stood for a moment and looked at the children, then at his friends. 'The water is so deep and cold, ' he murmured to himself.
'Not really,' Divya reassured him, 'it's no more than six feet.'
'Water can be very dangerous. And then there are the weeds. ..'
Somesh glanced at his wife, then touched Prabir's arm and motioned towards the house. The two men left, and the group remaining by the pool fell into small talk. A few minutes later Somesh returned, looking flustered and worried.
'What's the matter? It looks like you've seen a ghost!' Divya joked.
'Perhaps I have.' Somesh was not smiling. 'I got Prabir a change of clothes and showed him to the bathroom. He seemed to be taking an awfully long time, so finally I pushed open the door, to see if he was okay; and I found the bathroom empty!'
' You must be joking, ' said Divya.
'Not at all; come with me. ,
A flurry of excitement went round, and everyone went into the house to have a look. The bathroom window was open, and it was large enough for a man to escape through. It made no sense to them.
'I'm sure that guy was an impostor,' Somesh said.
'I doubt it,' interrupted Sarabjeet Singh. 'He knew too much about us. ..about our past.
No one could have told him about the little childhood episodes, the nicknames. ..'
'Hey, look here!' Nalini Krishnamurthy drew their attention to the notepad that Divya had been using earlier in the evening. Everyone turned their eyes to the letters scrawled on it.
P_R_A . . .
'Prabir!?' they all gasped in unison.
'Prabir Dutta?' S.K. Raju, the Drawing Master, wrung his hands. 'Let me think. Which batch would he have been in?'
'He was in our batch, sir, but he left the school in 1969 or 1970,' said Divya.
'That's a long time back! Can you describe him?'
Divya described what she remembered of Prabir Dutta. Mr Raju had to tax his memory, but he finally remembered.
'Oh! Got it!' he exclaimed. 'Isn't he the one who always had squirrels in his schoolbag, and was forever playing truant? Oh, the rogue. ..that bloody chotley fellow splashed ink on some of my paintings because I had to beat him once. Aiyyo, such beautiful paintings, from my college days. Where is he now, I wonder? And why are you asking about him?' Divya told him about the mysterious visit of the man calling himself Prabir Dutta. Mr Raju was quite intrigued. 'Okay, we'll trace that chotley fellow. Let's go and dig up the school records first. , With the help of Chandre Gowda, the Head Clerk, they unearthed the dusty old records.
After a long search, they finally found what they had been looking for: an old brown file with the title 'Class VII B (1970)'. Divya held the file in her hand, and trembled with nervousness, as though her childhood was about to be re-enacted. She finally mustered up her courage and opened the file.
On the first page, the names of all the students were written in ink that was now fading. Zenobia Postwala ...Sadhana Bari ...S. Tharini ...Neena Joshi ...Divya's heart beat
uncontrollably. She had not seen most of them for years, forgotten their names, in fact never spared them a thought. Where were they now? Who knew? Happy, unhappy, successful, unsuccessful, married, divorced? She wished there was some way to make contact, even if it was only to say hi.
She read further. Srikumari Pillai ...Lynn Alvares ...Rajini Desikan ...Then her heartbeat almost stopped. Yes, there it was, large and clear: Prabir Dutta. She turned to the corresponding page. His record was there, and at the end was his permanent address.
The old woman in the typical middle-class home opened her door to find a man and a woman outside.
'Namaskara,' the man said, 'I am Somesh, and this is my wife Divya. We are very old friends of Prabir's. You must be his mother. Is he at home?' 'Do come in.'
They were shown into the house. After they were seated, the woman asked, 'So you want to see Prabir?'
'Yes,' Divya said. 'We were together at school, you see.'
'How come you remembered him after so many years?'
They looked at each other in silence. Then Divya said. 'Well, we lost touch, actually. Three days back we had a get-together, several of us who were at school together, and then ...'
She repeated the entire story .The old woman sat in her chair as if frozen.
'It can't be. It simply can't be. He could not have come.'
'How do you mean? We saw him with our own eyes!'
'Don't you people know?' The old woman was silent as Divya and Somesh looked at each other, puzzled. Finally she said quietly, 'Prabir died in 1971.' 'Don't say that!' cried Divya.
'I am his mother; I ought to know,' the woman replied, with sadness in her voice. 'We had to leave Bangalore as my husband got transferred to Ambala. You know how It is in the Air Force. Prabir joined the Central School there and was soon back to his old ways. One day he played truant as usual, and with some of his friends went to a nearby lake for a swim. .. he. ..he never came back.' Her eyes became moist and her voice choked a little. 'The lake was full of weeds.. ..' She looked at the framed photograph of Prabir that was hanging on the wall, and then at Somesh. 'Had he lived, he would have been your age.' 'But who was the man who came to our party? How did he know so much about our childhood?' asked Divya. ..
Next morning Divya woke up earlier than usual. After making her tea she lazily spread out the newspaper. She scanned the headlines and turned the page, then glanced over some of the advertisements. She was about to go to the next page when a small boxed notice caught her eye. It was an obituary, and the photograph was familiar. She nudged her husband. 'Hey, wake up. Look what we have here.'
When Somesh saw the photograph his heart grew cold. 'It's Prabir! What is going on?' The message read; In Fond Memory of Madhu Shah who left us on 28th April. 1994.
Grieving wife, children, and parents. ' The address given below was familiar: just two streets away, behind the Gulabi Girls High School. Somesh and Divya were there within the hour.
They were met by the father of the dead man. After listening to their story the old man said, '1 don't know what to make of it myself.' He sank in his chair and lit a cigarette. 'You see,' he said, 'after a serious car accident he was involved in, my son was in a coma for two months. The doctors had given up all hope. But now, after hearing your story, I do remember that something strange happened on the 26th. We checked everything in Madhu's room and retired early to bed that night. I used to get up in the middle of the night to check if everything was okay. That night, to my horror, I found him missing. He had just vanished.
'We searched each and every room of our house, the attic, the basement, the garage, the servants' quarters, the grounds' ...Some time had gone by. We were about to phone the police and the hospital when my daughter-in-Iaw announced that Madhu was back. I rushed to his room. Madhu was lying on his bed, unconscious. ..as if nothing had happened. ' The old man looked at Divya and Somesh. '1 just don't know what to make of it.'
'Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...Hey Shambhu ...Lord of the gods, the Lord of the Himalayas, serpents, bhootas ...ganas ...give us your power. ..
'Oum Kaali ...send us your messenger. ..,'
Dr Nalini Krishnamurthy was ready with her video camera. Divya tried once again. 'Oum Kaali ...Mahakaali ...who are you?' her voice rang out. After a while she wrote in Tamil the letters corresponding to P-R-A-B ...
Somesh, who was nearby, could not control himself. 'Hello, Prabir! How are you?'
'Thank you for the visit last week. But why did you remember us after so many years?'
F-E-L-T L-I-K-E S-E-E-I-N-G Y-O-U A-G-A-I-N
'Why did you come as Madhu Shah?' I
T-H-A-T W-A-S T-H-E O-N-L-Y W-A-Y
Are you happy over there?'
Dr Krishnamurthy pushed a paper in front of Somesh, and he read out the written on it.
'Tell us how is it over there?'
There was no response. .?
'Prabir, tell us how is life over there?'
Dr Krishnamurthy gave him another paper with a question on it. 'What happens after death?' Somesh read. There was no response.
'Porky, are you there?' Somesh said, 'What happens after death? Hello! Porky, please tell us. ..Porky, you. ..'
There was silence for a long time. Then Divya's trance broke and she collapsed. Somesh fetched her a glass of water, and while she recovered, he turned to Dr Krishnamurthy. 'Nalini, what do you make of it all?'
'That's a difficult question to answer.'
'Still, you must have some sort of theory.'
Nalini shrugged. 'Hundreds of cases are being investigated, but we're still in the dark. All I can say is that Prabir, for some reason, felt like getting in touch with us. Remember, he was secretly in love with Divya. Madhu Shah was in a coma, which left him in a state very close to death. We don't know what happens to the soul of a person who is in a coma. Perhaps the soul leaves the body temporarily, and then interacts with departed souls. I think Madhu Shah acted as a conduit. ' She laughed. 'Or perhaps Prabir is still playing truant over there. Old habits. ..'
As Dr Krishnamurthy explained her hypothesis, Divya opened the windows to let in some fresh air. She saw the beautiful gulmohar tree that had stood in her garden for years. There was movement in the red flowers and green leaves of a branch near the window.
A lone squirrel was playing in the branches.