The dead do not die.
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.
She stood by the kitchen window while the kettle perked. Urmi loved letting her eyes take in the soothing view of the vast sea with white peaked breakers, shining glossy in the evening sun.
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, letting the day’s tensions slip 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 shook 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 contents of the telegram.
“Oh no, this can’t be true,” she exclaimed as she read, her face turning ashen in the spreading twilight. She emptied the contents 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. She threw a few essentials into an overnight bag. “I should be on 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 waved to the driver. As he slid to the kerb, Urmi got in saying “to the railway station, and please, make it fast.”
It was dark when she reached the station. It was just after six. Day light started fading. A cool wind ruffled the hovering black clouds. Urmi could smell the rain as she paid the rickshaw before she ran into the neon-lit railway station.
“One ticket to Mylavaram please,” she said to 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 said, handing over her ticket.
Meandering through the jostling crowds Urmi got to her compartment barely five minutes before the train’s departure. She slid into the window seat peering at the emptying platform. As if on cue, the sky opened with a downpour drenching 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. Trees and the surrounding hills attained misshapen appearances in the darkness of the night. Soon, Urmi was lost in the 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. Seeing her daughter in tears, she asked,
“What happened darling?”
“I have brought the wrong book from the library. She lost her temper,” said Urmi, sobbing, burying her face in mom’s bosom. Mom drew her close 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 having a job or studying for a degree as the practice was with older girls. All she did was to mop around the double storied house and wandering 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 forties and almost a confirmed spinster, she’d grown into a sullen recluse mostly keeping to a room upstairs. Urmi had escaped her grumpiness and temper, by shifting to the city for college studies, and later, by finding a job away from home. It was great relief to escape from the clutches of her aunt, who could be described, satanic.
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 parents tried to check her 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? Somehow Mona’s sudden demise bothered Urmi.
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 get down with her overnight bag. A dim bulb burned in the center of the deserted platform. She looked around remembering the times she and her buddies coming here to watch trains. 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 walking toward her, recognizing the little girl whom he had driven to school for many years.
“Ramu, how are you?” asked Urmi with relief. He had aged, observed 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 of the carriage, to get a clear view of the road. At the touch of a flick, the horse moved forward.
“What happened to Aunt Mona, Ramu? And so suddenly too,” asked Urmi once they were on their way.
“They said she deliberately jumped into the well,” he replied, his expression hidden in the shadows.
“Oh God, but why?” aghast, Urmi asked.
“They said the man whom she finally agreed to marry refused her in the last minute.”
“Oh,” muttered Urmi, shocked at the tidings.
A cold breeze rustled up as the jutka moved at 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. No amount of persuasion from Ramu could move it.
“Let’s start walking before the storm strikes the coast,” suggested Ramu sliding down from his seat and helping Urmi down.
The thin moon disappeared and they were wrapped in total darkness. Urmi walked along the rough hewn pebbled path overtaking Ramu. Scores of villages all over the country had no proper roads or power to this day since Independence thought Urmi regretfully. Leaders broke promises, once elected to power.
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 a lamp moving in the distance. “Someone was coming this way,” she thought in relief.
Soon the person with the lantern stopped by her saying, “Urmi, thank God you are safe.” He had an umbrella to protect the lamp and himself.
“Jagan, I missed you so much.”
She threw herself into his arms and cried tears of joy and relief. They were neighbors and fell in love as they grew. They knew each other like the backs of their hands. Jagan was a civil engineer, presently employed in a government irrigation project located in another district. He met Urmi whenever he went to the city on project work.They would go out to dinner and a movie if he stayed longer than a day in the city. This time when they met, he had to leave earlier than usual because of his father’s sudden illness. He needed to take him to the hospital for a general health check.
If their parents knew of the relationship between their children 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 homewards.
“Your dad was worried about you and asked me to go to the station. I got caught in the rain,” he explained. Urmi nodded.
“Do you know how she died?” asked Jagan, rather subdued.
“Yes, Ramu just told me about it.”
“We don’t know the whole truth yet,” said Jagan.
The rain almost stopped by the time Urmi and Jagan reached Urmi’s home. The sprawling structure, pagoda like built on the lines of Kerala architecture, shone stark white against the dark sky.
As they approached the house, Urmi noticed a light burning in the upstairs room facing the front yard. She wondered who it was staying there. Involuntarily, she looked at the well in one of the front corners of the house. Darkness and the death of Mona seem to have cast an air of mystery on that corner. Urmi quickly averted her eyes and walked to the house.
Urmi’s parents were waiting on the patio. They looked relieved when they saw her and Jagan and took them inside. After a brief exchange, Jagan got up saying,
“Ok then, Uncle and aunt, let me take leave for now. I will be there for the funeral rites tomorrow. If you need my help before that don’t hesitate to ring me up.”
He got up to return to his home, a block away.
“Thanks Jagan, for your help,” said Urmi’s mom.
“Oh, it’s nothing aunt,” replied Jagan, walking away.
Soon after Jagan’s departure, Urmi asked her mom,
“Ma, is there anyone staying in my room?”
“No darling. We just keep it clean expecting you to come home any day. Why do you ask?”
Urmi didn’t want to alarm her mother, so she just brushed aside the question, diverting her mom’s attention by mentioning some other topic. She was concerned about the light burning in her room.
Urmi went right upstairs to her old room and looked around for who was it that stirred behind the curtains and why the light was on. She found no one. The room was as it was and there were no signs of anyone moving around. Her imagination must be working overtime, she thought. Half an hour later, 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 softly boiled vegetables and a bowl of assorted fruit. Then she rinsed the bowls in the tiled sink and said a quick good night to her parents, who were watching a late night show on the TV. She went upstairs and climbed into her four-poster and fell asleep promptly. There were two other rooms, one that belonged to Mona, and the other, a guest room. The clock showed 2 am. Another day was a couple of hours away.
Sometime in the dead of the night, Urmi woke up sweating. She looked up to the wall clock. Half past three in the morning, she noted. Her tongue felt parched. She got up, slipped on her slippers and walked to the counterpane and poured herself a glass of water from the jug and lifted it to drink. She started when she heard a rasping voice near to her ear.
“This is going to be your last night Urmi. I warn you.”
Urmi looked up and 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 bedroom floor early next morning. Her father and other relatives, who came to attend the last rites of Mona, raced upstairs. They were shocked to see her weak and worn out lying on the floor. They lifted her up and put her on the bed covering her shivering form with a warm 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. Immediately, she was aware of the noise coming from down below, which reminded her of the last rites of Mona to be held on that day. She shivered at the evil warning given by Mona. She had no energy to feel the touch of fear. She felt groggy and tired, yet she managed a quick shower and a change into traditional clothes before she joined the family in the hall.
Arrangements for the ceremony were in progress supervised by the priest and his helpers whom he brought along with him. He knew it was going to be elaborate with various rites. These ceremonies will continue for the next day too.
Visitors started coming in and by ten in the morning and the priests started the chanting the mantras. The group of people and the priests sat around a set of bricks laid in the shape of a square. A fire was lit with sticks of wood placed in the kiln. The common belief is that with the performance of these rites, the soul detaches itself from its earthly bonds and is put on its way to the next level to salvation.
Urmi and her parents sat in a row and the rest of the relatives and well wishers sat behind them. As promised, Jagan was around helping with the arrangements for the lunch, which was to be followed soon after the ceremony. There was silence except for the deep chanting voices of the priests. There were solemn expressions on the faces of all. Surely, everyone was thinking of Mona, her peculiar personality and her way of living and her tragic end. Each of them was absorbed in their own thoughts. Urmi was almost falling asleep on her father’s shoulder, when suddenly, there was a crashing sound from around the fire. The fire went around in all directions in the kiln emitting blue tongues of flame and a curling smoke. All were astounded and looked fearfully at the center of the fire.
Urmi woke up with a cry as everyone heard a raspy harsh voice coming from her as the blue smoke attained the shape and looks of the dead woman.
“I am not going to go away till I had 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 do you want? Who is your enemy?”
“I want to kill and torture, the way I was tortured in mind and body. 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,
“Don’t ask me 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 the room.”
Her parents supported her weak form and took her to her room, where she sat listlessly on her bed for a long time.
The priests announced that there would be a postponement in the last rites till they could conduct without the interruption of the spirit of Mona’s spirit. Nobody knew when it would be. Slowly, the visitors got up and went away silently.
The house was empty and looked dark as though haunted by a sinister shadow. Urmi’s parents were worried for their only daughter’s life. They had no idea of Mona’s secret life or that she had a bad experience with someone. They were stunned at the words of Mona’s spirit vowing that it would kill her perpetrators.
Urmi’s father tried to recall the callers 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. She never looked that cheerful in years, he surmised.
Suresh and Gopi, two of the three friends she made at the library, came to see them after the death of Mona. The other one, Prabhu was away on business, they said. He went to 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 information with him.
Urmi’s dad 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 thinking of how to meet Prabhu.
Later, he met Urmi. She was her normal cheerful self. Obviously, she had no idea of the possession of her soul by Mona’s spirit.
“Shall we go out and have some ice cream, Jagan?” she asked.
“Can you make it or shall I get it home?” Jagan’s concern for her in her present state was evident.
“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. He said that he might marry her soon.”
“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 sat up involuntarily and was listening to the conversation. He decided to see this Prabhu person.