Urmi stepped into her apartment. Closing the door shut, she dropped her backpack to the tiled floor. Slipping in an album by India’s melody queen Latha Mangeshkar into her CD player, she walked to the kitchenette to put the kettle on.
It was a long day at the cyber café. Designing, and analyzing programs took their toll. It was only in her fifth floor apartment in the quiet suburban district that she could breathe without the tensions that accompany a high paid, skilled job in a private firm.
Standing by the kitchen window while the kettle perked, Urmi let her eyes wander over the vast sea with white peaked breakers shining glossy in the setting sun. It's such a soothing sight, she thought.
Urmi carried a steaming cup of tea to the living room. Sinking into the cushioned settee, she sighed in pleasure, soaking in the music waves as they washed over her body and soul. She sipped the aromatic liquid, as the day’s tensions eased away. She looked like a lovely figurine in the fawn colored suit, reclining on the burgundy colored sofa. Dark limpid eyes were closed in repose with thick lashes spreading fan- like on her fair cheeks. At twenty two, Urmi had everything a young girl could ask for, beauty, youth, money and freedom.
She was startled out of her doze, when the door bell rang. She saw the postman through the half-open door. He proffered a telegram. Urmi took it, signed the receipt and handed it back with a smile, and walked over to the settee to read the telegram.
“Oh no, this can’t be true,” she exclaimed as she read, her face turning ashen in the spreading twilight. Abruptly, she emptied the remnants of the cup into the sink, rinsed it and left it on the pane to dry.
She rang her boss and informed him of her sudden trip to her native place, while throwing a few essentials into an overnight bag.
“I should be able to make it to the six o’ clock passenger,” she muttered, locking her flat, and racing to the lift. Spotting an empty auto -rickshaw outside the apartment complex, Urmi beckoned to the driver. As it slid to the kerb, Urmi got in saying “to the railway station and please, be quick,” she said.
It was dark when she reached the station. A cool wind ruffled the hovering black clouds. Urmi could smell rain in the air, as she paid the rickshaw. She ran into the neon-lit railway station.
“One ticket to Mylavaram please,” she asked, the ticket clerk. He checked the chart on his desk showing train departures and arrivals.
Mylavaram, one of the millions of sleepy, sparsely populated hamlets of India, was six hours away from the city Urmi worked in.
“You’ll reach Mylavaram around midnight. I hope someone will come to receive you,” he said, smiling.
“Someone might,” she replied, returning the smile.
“Have a nice trip ma’am,” he wished, handing over her ticket.
Meandering through the jostling crowds, Urmi got to her compartment, barely making it before the train’s departure. She sat on the window-seat peering at the emptying platform. As if on cue, heavens opened and a downpour drenched the surroundings in minutes. It pattered down the widow glass, blurring the view. Laughing children and chatting fellow passengers greeted her eyes as she looked around her compartment.
The train gained speed. In the ensuing darkness, trees and the surrounding hills attained misshapen appearances. Soon, Urmi was lost in a stream of memories.
“I’ll haunt you after I die if you don’t do what I tell you,” Mona shouted at a trembling ten-year-old Urmi on a gloomy afternoon. She looked like a fierce dragon to Urmi’s frightened eyes. After glaring at her, the dragon shook her and went back to her room fuming.
Just then, Urmi’s mom came out of the kitchen. Seeing her daughter in tears, she asked,
“What happened darling?”
“I have brought the wrong book from the library. She was so angry,” said Urmi, sobbing, burying her face in mom’s bosom. Mom hugged her and consoled her saying, “Don’t cry love. She doesn’t mean what she says.”
Aunt Mona! What a character! Death hadn’t spared her too, sighed Urmi in resignation.
Mona was her father’s only sister. She lived with her brother’s family after her parents died. Hot tempered and easily irritable, she was a terror to young Urmi and the neighborhood kids. She nagged at them for no particular reason. Urmi had no memory of Mona working or studying for a degree as the practice was with older girls. All she did was to mop around the double storied house and wander in the garden, aimlessly. She hated advice. The little reading she did was just an idle passion.
Years rolled, nothing changed in Mona’ life. Well into her thirties and almost a confirmed spinster, she’d grown into a sullen recluse, mostly, keeping to her room. Urmi had escaped her grumpiness and temper, by shifting to the city, first, for college studies and then, for a job.
Urmi knew aunt Mona resented her smart looks and well-paid job in the city. Neighbors confided in her that Mona did her best to stalemate Urmi’s marriage proposals by spreading rumors about her nonexistent love affairs. Her father, Mr. Iyer, tried to check her wild ways, but she accused them of being partial to their daughter.
Urmi felt no regret or remorse at Mona’s death. It was the suddenness of it that shook her composure. What happened? How and why did she die? she wondered.
In her absorption in the past, Urmi hadn’t noticed the emptying compartment with her co-passengers getting off in the stations in between.
The train came to a screeching halt at Mylavaram around midnight. Urmi was the only traveler to alight from it. A dim bulb burned in the center of the deserted platform. She looked around remembering the times, when she and her buddies came here to watch trains. Now, many of them, either married or moved elsewhere.
Urmi walked out of the small station and spotted a lone jutka (Indian term for a cart pulled by a horse) in the yard. Shivering in the sharp December chill, she pulled a woolen scarf around her head. The wizened old jutka-driver, recognized her.
“Is that you Urmi?” asked Ramu, recognizing the little girl, whom he had driven to school for many years.
“Ramu, how are you?” asked Urmi. He had aged, thought Urmi, noticing the stoop.
“Your father asked me to wait till the last train departed,” he explained, taking her bag and putting it on the cart’s floor. Urmi climbed in and sat in the seat beside the driver, to get a clear view of the road ahead. At the touch of a flick, the horse moved on.
“What happened to aunt Mona, Ramu?” asked Urmi, once they were on homebound.
“They said, she deliberately jumped into the well,” he replied, his expression hidden in the shadows.
“Oh God, but why?” aghast, Urmi asked.
“Rumor was that the man, whom she wanted to marry, refused her in the last minute.”
“Oh,” muttered Urmi, shocked at the tidings.
A cold breeze rustled up as the jutka gained a steady pace. A sudden shower slashed down and the horse started neighing and resisting. Then, it just remained rooted to the ground, motionless like a stone, and it refused to move. .
“Let’s start walking before the storm crosses the coast,” suggested Ramu sliding down and helping Urmi to get out of the cart. Then he tied the horse and cart to a post by the road.
The thin moon disappeared and they were wrapped in total darkness. Urmi walked along the rough hewn pebbled path, ahead of Ramu. Scores of villages all over the country had no proper roads or power to this day since Independence thought Urmi regretfully, despite the promises made by the leaders.
Within minutes, the rain thickened to a dense downpour. The wind howled and blew at a high velocity. Urmi was drenched and soaked to skin. Shivering like a leaf in the buffeting wind, she saw the faint glimmer of light, moving in the distance.
“Someone is coming this way,” she said, a little anxiously.
Soon, a young man with the lantern, stopped by her saying, “Urmi, thank God you are safe.” His umbrella protected the lamp and himself and her.
“Jagan, thank God, it's you. I missed you so much.”
She threw herself into his arms with tears of relief.
They were neighbors, since their childhood days and fell in love as they grew. Jagan was a civil engineer, working for a government irrigation project located in another district. If their parents knew of their love, they never talked about it. Their silence was taken as approval for their marriage by the young couple. Aunt Mona had no idea of this love liaison between Urmi and Jagan. And then, she died.
With Ramu close behind, they started walking.
“Do you know how she died?” asked Jagan, rather subdued.
“Yes, Ramu just told me about it, ” with a slight shiver.
“We don’t know why it happened,” said Jagan.
The rain almost stopped by the time Urmi and Jagan reached her home. The sprawling structure, built pagoda-like, on the lines of Kerala architecture, shone stark white against the dark sky.
As they entered the compound, involuntarily, she looked at the well. Darkness and the death, seem to have cast an air of mystery on that corner. Urmi, quickly averted her eyes and walked to the house.
Ramu went back to get the horse and carriage as the rain ceased.
Urmi’s parents were waiting on the patio. They were visibly relieved, when they saw her and Jagan and took them in. After a brief exchange, Jagan got up saying,
“Ok then, let me take leave for now. It's quite late, you should rest now, so you'll be ready for the funeral rites tomorrow. If you need anything before that, just call me.”
“Thanks Jagan,” said Urmi’s mom.
“Oh, it’s nothing aunt,” replied Jagan, walking away.
Soon after Jagan’s departure, Urmi, went right up to her old room. After a quick shower, refreshed and hungry, she went downstairs to the dining room. She drank the warm vegetable soup her mom put before her thirstily. She felt sated after tucking away the softly boiled vegetables and a bowl of assorted fruit. After dispensing with bowls, she said a quick good night to her parents, and went up. She climbed into bed and promptly, fell asleep.
Sometime in the dead of the night, Urmi woke up, sweating. Looking up at the wall clock, she noticed it was half-past three in the morning. Her tongue felt parched. She got up, walked to the counter, poured a glass of water from the jug and lifted it to drink.
She was startled by a rasping voice, that said,
“This is going to be your last night Urmi. I warn you.”
Urmi saw Mona lounging on her bed, with a lopsided evil grin on her elongated face. Urmi screamed and slipped to the floor.
“Urmi, my daughter, what happened?”
Her mother cried out, when she found her daughter on the cold floor, early next morning. Her father and other relatives, raced upstairs. They were shocked to see Urmi, weak and worn out, lying on the floor. They lifted her up to the bed, and covered her shivering form, with a blanket. They blamed it on the sudden cold weather that swept the land. Urmi slept like a log for an hour or two and came awake with a start. She heard voices coming from down below, which reminded her of the last rites of Mona to be held on that day. She shivered, remembering the frightful encounter with Mona. She managed a shower and dressed in traditional clothes before joining the family.
Arrangements for the ceremony were in progress, supervised by the priest and his helpers.
Visitors started coming in, and by ten O' clock, the rites began. A fire was lit with sticks of wood placed in a kiln. Urmi and her parents, sat in a row facing the holy fire and the priests. While chanting, the priests consigned things like sandal wood, ghee and other essentials to the fire as prescribed in their religious texts.
The belief was that by performing these rites, the departed soul would be helped in detaching itself from earthly bonds, and be on its way to the next level to salvation.
As promised, Jagan was helping with arrangements for the lunch, which was to follow soon after the ceremony. There was total silence except for the deep chanting voices of the priests. Solemn expressions on the guests' faces seemed to indicate that they were all thinking of Mona, her peculiar personality, her strange life and its tragic end.
Urmi was almost falling asleep on her father’s shoulder, when suddenly, there was a loud sound from the kiln. The burning fire went around in all directions in the kiln, emitting blue tongues of flame and a thick curly smoke. All were astounded and looked fearfully at the center of the fire.
Urmi woke up with a cry as everyone heard a raspy, wheezy voice from her, while the blue smoke attained the shape and looks of the dead woman.
“I want my revenge,” spoke a disembodied, inhuman voice.
The priests sat looking back and forth from Urmi to the blue flames. One of them asked firmly,
“What revenge? why?”
“I will kill the person who caused my death. I will end Urmi too. You cannot send me away. I will not go, no, no, no never.”
“Who gave you misery?” the priest persisted.
Urmi looked askance at the priest and said with eyes that flashed angrily,
“You ask too many questions”.
Next moment, Urmi shuddered and assumed her own original voice saying,
“Mom and Dad, I feel sleepy and weak. Let me go to my room.”
Her parents took her to her room, and lying on her bed, she listlessly gazed into the void.
The priests announced that there would be a postponement of the ceremony, till they could conduct it without the spirit's interruption. One by one, the visitors sauntered away.
The house was empty and looked dark as if sinisterly shadowed. Urmi’s parents sat in the emptied hall, gravely worried and concerned for their only daughter’s life. They had no idea of Mona’s secret life or of her bad experience with someone. They were stunned at the words of Mona’s spirit vowing that it would kill her perpetrator.
Urmi’s father tried to recall the visitors they had, when Mona was alive. He remembered the conversation he and his wife had with Mona, when she told them that she had made some acquaintances at the library. They seemed educated and refined from the details they gathered from her. Her brother felt happy that finally, she was becoming more sociable and less hostile to people.
Suresh and Gopi, two of the three friends she made at the library, visited them after the failed funeral rites of Mona. The other one, Prabhu, was away in the city,to collect new books from a retail seller for the small book shop he owned, in the town, they informed.
When Jagan met Urmi’s parents at their home, they shared the above news with him.
Mr. Iyer said, “Jagan, find out who that Prabhu is, and how friendly he was with Mona. Something about the whole incident of Mona making friends with the trio, bothers me.”
“Yes, Sir, I will do my best,” replied Jagan, already planning to meet Prabhu.
Later, he met Urmi, who looked her normal cheerful self. Obviously, she had no idea of the events that took place.
“Shall we go out and have some ice cream, Jagan?” she asked.
“Can you make it to the parlor or shall I get it home?” Jagan sounded worried.
“I am fine really. Let’s go to the parlor”.
At the ice cream parlor, they met a few friends and invariably, the topic turned to her aunt and the recent events that took place at Urmi’s house.
One of them, Casey by name said,
“an uncle of mine was friendly with your aunt Mona.”
“Oh, do I know him Casey?”
“I don’t think so. Uncle Prabhu is based in the city where he has a small book store.”
Jagan overhearing the conversation, decided to see this Prabhu person.
On the next day, Jagan took the bus to the city. Since it was not a big town, locating Prabhu’s small book store was easy. He spotted it, in the far corner of the town-square.
Jagan walked up the road that led to the narrow stall. He mounted the few steps. Peering into the semi dark interior of the store, he could make out books, packed to the brim, in roof- to- floor racks. A bespectacled man of about forty, probably doing accounts, looked up, and asked Jagan to come in.
“How may I help you sir?” he asked, in a polite tone.
“Hello, I am Jagan. Am I speaking to Mr. Prabhu?”
“Yes Sir, I am Prabhu.”
“I needed some information about Mona, a friend’s aunt.”
“Mona? Of course, I knew her quite well thanks to that little library in her town. I feel sad at her untimely death. I couldn’t make it to the funeral ceremony because I was called away on an urgent business.” Prabhu’s response sounded genuine.
Jagan tested the waters by taking the conversation a little further.
“I believe she was a close friend of yours. You guys frequented the coffee shop, I was told.”
“That’s right. She shared her opinions with us. She told us that she met had someone with whom she might be able to spend the rest of her life.”
“And his name is…” Jagan’s question hung in the air, obviously expecting an answer.
“She didn’t quite tell reveal the name. We were all left wondering if he could be any one of us, you know….,” Prabhu said, looking at Jagan in a meaningful manner.
“That’s true,” Jagan, agreed. He left a little later.
Another impasse, Jagan thought, as he walked back to the bus-stop. Soon, he was on the bus, speeding on the road to Mylavaram.
A tall man with strong dark features, wearing a white shirt and dhoti ( is a type of sarong that outwardly resembles trousers, commonly worn in South India), stopped the bus near a hamlet named, Atapadi. Dark glasses and a Rolex watch on his wrist, make him look rather incongruous in the village back-ground, thought, Jagan.
Spotting an empty seat beside Jagan, the stranger came over and sat down.
“Which place are you heading to, brother?” asked the stranger looking at Jagan. His easy manner surprised Jagan.
“Mylavaram” he said .
“Oh, Mylavaram? A pretty place with pretty women,” the stranger continued unabated. “I used to visit there on business. You see, I am a financier. I collect monthly interest on the loans I give. By the way, my name is Ajan Nayar. And you are?”
" I am Jagan. You must be knowing some people in Mylavaram,” said Jagan, conversationally.
“Oh, yes. A cousin lives there, with whom I previously put up,” Ajan replied. " I fell for a wench thereabouts, by the name Meera or …”
“Mona?” Jagan supplied the name with nervous anticipation.
“Exactly!” “How do you know that?” asked Ajan, genuinely surprised.
“I guessed. So what happened?” said Jagan, trying to keep up the drift of the conversation.
“Well, we fell in love and were happy meeting in my rooms, which I rented later. After a while, she started pressing me to marry her. How could I with a family of a wife and two kids?”
“Didn’t you tell her about your family before things went far?” Jagan sounded censorious.
The man looked at Jagan as if he was a fool.
“Why should I refuse a pretty woman when she offered herself, unasked? I don’t think any man with a susceptibility to womanly charm would say no,” replied Ajan, with a wicked twinkle in his eyes.
“Her visits were nocturnal and she would leave by dawn. I was spending more time in Mylavaram than in my own village. Then, on a moonless night on a chilly December night, she asked me to accompany her, back to her place. We entered the compound of her house, which actually was her brother's. I saw a huge well in a corner. She took me there and stood leaning on the circular wall around the well, and told me why I should marry her immediately.”
“I am expecting your child, that’s why,” she replied, quite assured. “People know of our meetings. They will gossip and my reputation will be destroyed,” she said.
"This is unexpected. I need sometime to plan how to go about it.” I said, turning to leave.
“Mona clutched my shoulder in a strong grip, and I shook it off, and was walking away, turning my back on her. I heard a loud thud and looked back and she wasn’t there. I ran to the well and looked down into the deep waters. The night being dark, I saw nothing moving in the water, and hurried away.”
“Weren’t you concerned about her life?”
“I was. On the next day, I went up to her house to talk her brother. After hearing about her death through others, there was nothing I could do. You see, I was not responsible for her death. in her excitement, she lost her balance and fell into the well.”
Jagan was dumbstruck. So, this was how she died, he thought, alone and unfulfilled. So, her spirit was restless and vengeful, Jagan surmised. What should I do? He asked himself.
Before they parted their ways, Ajan said, “Thank you, for listening to my tale of woe. I feel quite relieved.”
Jagan nodded, lost in his own thoughts.
Mona’s funeral rites resumed week after, before which the priests visited Iyer's house and gave him the date they'd fixed. Invitations went out.
On the appointed day, those interested in attending the function, came and were seated in the hall.
Urmi and her parents sat facing the sacred fire, along with others, much in the same position as in the past. The rites began.
While the ceremony was in progress, suddenly, a swaying, re-eyed Urmi, muttered incoherently,
“Where is my killer?”
“No one killed you. You died by drowning in the well, “said, the priest.
“I will kill Urmi. She has no right to live, when I could not,” raged, invisible presence, illogically.
Urmi got up, and like a stick in motion, moved straight to the well in the corner. She leaned on the short wall. Her parents were aghast. people were agog with anxiety.
“Here you go, you bitch,” said a guttural voice, and Urmi was pushed into the deep by an invisible hand. A splash was heard followed by sepulchral silence.
A thick wave of smoke was seen and with a loud “humph” it disappeared in a northerly direction.
There was total confusion in the crowd, and before pandemonium broke, Jagan and the priests, hushed them, and asked them to go in to witness the rest of the ceremony, with the assurance that everything would be fine.
People couldn’t stop talking about the Urmi and her probable death even as they they waited for the function to end.
All of a sudden, someone shouted,
“Look, who’s there!”
There was a confused cry from the small group of people, when they saw Urmi entering the hall, tall and beautiful. By her side, walked Jagan with a protective arm around her.
The chief priest told them what transpired.
“Jagan came to see me a couple of days before. He conveyed the details surrounding Mona’s death. I consulted a professor in Parapsychology, not knowing how to solve this puzzle. He pointed out that the most important thing was, to follow the hint regarding the dramatic change in the vengeance of the ghost regarding the victim. He successfully anticipated the spirit’s next move. He gave us a plan that allowed Mona’s ghost to believe that it had killed Urmi, in the same way she got killed. We had time enough to arrange for the diver to stay in the deep well, and save Urmi from the clutches of her dead aunt. Much to our luck, the timing of the events was perfect and we were able to save the young lady.”
A celebratory mood spread through the invitees. Yes, indeed! They were celebrating the release of Mona’s spirit from earthly bonds and more importantly, it was a celebration of life, a gift given back to Urmi.
Word Count : 4106