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The Homeless Ghosts of Calcutta
In the small courtyard just outside of my window grew a splendid Neem tree. It stood proudly in the middle of the space, stretching up towards the sky. At night, I would often lie in bed listening to the wind rustle as it blew through the leaves. There was little relief from the heat and humidity of Calcutta; however the shade of the Neem tree offered a small reprieve. Outside of our courtyard the city was ever changing, as it consumed houses and yards alike. Construction sites birthed square generic apartments at an ever increasing pace. Sometimes as I lay in bed I wondered if that was going to be our fate, forced from the home in which my sister and I were being raised in and into a shoebox apartment, with only a window box for marigolds. I was just fifteen, and the monsoon season was upon us, a mixed blessing at best. There would be breaks in the humidity, when there would be torrential downpours of rain as though the heavens were expelling every last drop of water.
One evening, as a storm approached, Mother made a point of going throughout the house turning lights on, just before twilight fell. The wind rolled over our house and blew through the tree, shaking it like a child might shake its rattle. Dark clouds sped overhead, and before long rain pounded on the roof and splattered against the outside walls, on the tree. My mother had a worried look on her face during dinner and each time the lights would flicker she would mutter a prayer to Ganesha. My sister Kusuma and I would exchange glances and raised eyebrows, because Mother was not usually one to demonstrate any measure of devotion. After dinner Kusuma and I went upstairs to my room to watch and listen to the rain. Its rhythm lulled us, and brought us a measure of relaxing pleasure, like a private symphony of percussion.
As the humidity and heat retreated, Kusuma and I sat near the window. She was playing with her doll while I sketched her in profile. Lights from nearby construction shone over the simple wall into the back courtyard and illuminated the Neem tree’s branches. Occasionally, a particularly hard gust would blow the fronds towards my room, like the tree was waving to us. Night fell along with the rain, eventually Kusuma left for her own room while I continued to work on her picture. In the light of an oil lamp I was filling in background. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a sheet of rain slash through the tree and for an instant it looked as though a woman dressed in a sari was perched in the tree. I turned my head quickly to check my vision, but like a shy lady the tree moved its branches to cover itself from my prying eyes. Several more times I looked at the tree, but did not see the figure again. Distractedly I rubbed my eyes and found them tired from a long day. I set the sketch pad and pencil aside and climbed into bed.
The next evening at dusk found both another monsoon and Mother moving through the house turning on our lights again. Over Papadums we watched her fret and mutter more prayers. Being the kids that we were, we rolled our eyes out of her sight. In the fading light we went upstairs to draw and play again. This night, I choose the tree as my subject and flipped to a clean page in my sketch book. After about an hour of working on the picture I handed it to Kusuma and asked her for her opinion.
“It’s very nice Raj, but why do you have a woman and a headless man in the tree?” she asked politely.
“What do you mean? I didn’t draw anyone in the tree.”
“Sure you did, they’re right here in the branches near the wall,” she insisted. I took the sketch pad back from her, and sure enough there were two figures in the tree.
“I like the technique you used, the soft charcoal makes them look like ghosts,” Kusuma added. I glanced around me, and didn’t see my charcoal stick anywhere. My sister kissed my cheek and ruffled my hair before skipping out of the room. As her footsteps receded down the hall the lights suddenly went out. Instinctively I glanced out the window at the Neem tree and the branches parted as I looked revealing the woman in her sari and a man sitting next to her holding his head in his lap. I heard Mother downstairs yelling a prayer out. I blinked several times, but as I did the lights came back on and the tree closed itself up. This night, I stared out of the window for several hours waiting and hoping to catch another glimpse. While I kept vigil I thought about Kusuma. She had been right, the figures in my drawing, and in the tree, looked as though they had been placed in both locations with a soft charcoal stick. Smudged edges and no real definition on the paper reflected how my mind saw them.
The third evening, I planned to ask my mother about her new ritual to see if it would explain what I was seeing. Earlier in the day I had investigated the back courtyard, which was now a mud filled bog, and there were no tracks leading to or from the tree. That eliminated Kusuma playing a joke on me, or street people slipping over the wall and seeking some kind of shelter in the tree. Dinnertime brought a visitor, Uncle Srinivas. He had a round belly, receding hair and a ready laugh. Dark brown eyes peered out at the world from underneath his prized NYU ball cap. Rather than stay in the west, he had returned home and started his own tech company. Dinner was a more lavish affair, and I confess I forgot to ask mother about the lights and prayer. And so it seemed did Mother, not once the whole time did she mutter anything to Ganesha or fly around the house turning on the lights. That night we all sat around the dinner table and talked, laughed and joked.
After Uncle Srini left, Kusuma and I mounted the stairs in the foyer, past the statuette of Vishnu, to our rooms for bed. We bade each other good night and I lay on the mattress in the near darkness, though light came in from the construction site again. Unable to sleep I rose from my bed and went over to the desk and sat. I thumbed idly through my sketch book, stopping at random pictures and re-examining my work. I reached the last picture, that of the Neem tree and froze. The hairs on the back of my neck rose and gooseflesh broke out over my arms. The picture now showed no less than seven ghostly figures. A trio of women was chatting over tea at the base of the tree; on a branch by himself there was a richly dressed man of the Brahman caste and finally drifting up through the boughs was a spectral shadow, drawn in darker charcoal than the others. It radiated a sense of foreboding from the page straight into my heart. Immediately I rose and went to the window and looked out over the yard. The tree drooped under the third night of monsoon rains, but nothing sat in the branches.
A light breeze cut across my bare legs, and my blood ran hot and then cold, I sensed that I was no longer alone in my room. Half turning, I saw in my peripheral vision a gentle white glow. I completed the turn and found myself staring into the silvery hope filled eyes of a young woman, near my own age. She was adorned in a wedding sari, decorated with henna tattoos and jewels, the pinnacle of which was a bejeweled Tikka. She smiled gracefully at me and dipped her head. I knew my mouth was hanging open and that a tremor had started in my spine and traveled down to my legs. She seemed to have form, yet in substance she was like one of my sketches, drawn in white chalk. I tentatively reached out with my hand, unaware of the room or conscious of whether or not it was a good idea. Carefully my trembling hand stretched towards hers, until at last my flesh touched the ethereal.
Her palm felt cool, like I had just touched a smooth stone at the bottom of a riverbed. Ice frosted the edge of my hand and I pulled it back quickly from her. She smiled encouragingly at me, raised her arms above her head and did a slow magical turn. My eyes lingered on her hips, thighs and breasts; a visual feast amid the famine of my awkward teen social life. Realization struck me somewhere between her second and third turn, I was in the presence of a shankchunni or penti, a particular type of ghost. A favorite amongst you men, she was the spirit of a woman who was unlucky in love during her life and now seeks out the unsuspecting young men that might be susceptible to their charms. I briefly toyed with the notion, I mean she was pretty! When I saw her wide eyes boring into to me I abruptly pushed such thoughts out of my head. I could just hear Mother complaining about that decision loudly to the neighbors: “He couldn’t find a nice Hindi girl; he just had to take up with a penti!” I smiled politely and bowed, but then shook my head negatively and spread my hands open, hoping that I was pantomiming an appropriate level of remorse not to have chosen her. I must have, because she smiled ruefully, winked and faded from sight.
I sat down on the edge of my bed, breathing rapidly with my mind racing over this spectral visitor. I didn’t sleep that night, instead I sat at my desk drew several sketches of the beautiful ghost girl with her hopeful eyes. Several times I looked out my window and saw the ghosts settled in our Neem tree. In the morning I set off to Uncle Srini’s apartment, figuring that if anyone was going to have useful information and withhold their judgment it would be him, as opposed to Mother. When I arrived, Srini was reclining on a bench on his apartment’s small porch, overlooking the Calcutta Technical School sipping some tea.
“What’s up kiddo?” he asked with a hint of an American accent.
“I was wondering what you know about ghosts,” I asked somewhat hesitantly.
“Depends, what kind?” he replied smoothly.
“All kinds,” I gushed pulling my sketch pad out of my worn messenger bag. I flipped it to the previous night’s (and early this morning) pictures. Srini hummed to himself while he looked through the sketches.
“These are great Raj; you are definitely growing as an artist.” I glowed at the compliment, at home drawing was more of a tolerated pastime than something desirable (read: having a future.)
“This one looks like a Skondhokata, the ghost of someone who died in a terrible train accident. It is said that they cause mischief, but can be easily outwitted because they can’t think properly since their heads aren’t attached. This is a Penti, young woman who was unlucky at love and died broken hearted. They prey on eligible young men, so watch yourself,” he said with a sly grin and a quick tousling of my hair. “This is a Brahmodoitya, kind of a wise man. Though he may or may not pass on any wisdom. He could very well make trouble for you instead.” When he reached the last one he paused, with his finger hovering over the smudged outline.
“This is a Nishi, they are exceptionally dangerous. They lure people out of the home by calling the person by name in the dead of night. They lead the victim away, and they are never seen again. I knew a guy once; he vanished in the middle of the night. It was said that a Nishi got him.” Srini stopped and shuddered, “No one ever saw him again.”
“Is that true?” I asked nervously.
“Several family members said that they heard screams far away in the middle of the night. They didn’t think anything of it until the next morning, when they woke and their son was gone.”
I took a little courage in the fact that Uncle Srini seemed to be serious about this subject and then told him: “I think we have ghosts in the Neem tree.”
Srini sat back and rubbed his chin, with one leg crossed over the other.
“The tree is a good place for them, typically they need a place to haunt, and trees work well when a house isn’t available. The ghosts can see most of the house from there, and see where lights are lit. Your mother has been obsessing over that you know, lighting all the lights. It is how you keep ghosts out of the house,” he said as a matter of fact.
“Each night this week the number of ghosts in the tree has increased. Last time I counted there were seven, why are more ghosts settling in the tree?” I asked him.
“Well, I’m no expert; however it could be all the construction going on nearby. When a house gets torn down by the construction crew it forces the spirits out. They wander around like regular people might when they’ve lost their home. If the ghosts spot a prospective house, they will start congregating around it and look for a way in.”
“I met a Penti last night,” I confessed ruefully. “I was awake late and the lights were off.” Srini whistled softly.
“That was lucky. If I were you I’d put in a night light. You don’t want a Nishi coming to call on you.”
“Is there anything I can do to get rid of them?”
“Ghosts that haunt houses often choose places that are comfortable, and have a certain kind of energy. Your house was owned at one time by a very powerful priest, who worshipped Kali Yuga in secret. While not necessarily positive energy, it is indeed very powerful energy. I think you might be in for quite a time though.”
I left Uncle Srini’s and headed back home as the daylight started to wane and dark clouds rolled in again. Rain was falling softly when I opened the front door and walked into the foyer. Nervously I switched on the ceiling light allowing the bare bulb to shine over the off-white walls and hardwood floors. From his perch next to the stairs, Vishnu regarded me with a stony expression. I headed upstairs listening to the stillness that does not normally exist in my home. In my room I sat on the bed and watched the Neem tree as the light outside slowly faded. I waited until the light was gone from outside and I shut off my bedroom’s single light. There were more tonight than last night. Seven had become seventeen; they were starting to look like white fruit dangling from the tree. There was a flicker before my eyes and I immediately knew that one had just entered my room. Curious, I turned slowly around and came face to face with a man, wrinkled with age and faint wispy hair floating over his head. His pale eyes were wise beyond measure, but kindly as well. He drifted over to my desk and gestured to the spot where I usually kept my sketch book. He pantomimed opening a book and I realized what he was asking of me. I took it out of my bag and placed it on the desk. My visitor looked patiently at the book until I opened it to the last page. The Brahmodoitya passed his hand over the page and pictures took shape; a series of images appeared depicting the ghosts’ migration from one site to another initiated by the arrival of a construction company and their wrecking machines, which seemed to confirm Uncle Srini’s notion. The page flipped by its own volition and a new image started to take shape. As soon as the first couple of lines were drawn, I could sense the malevolence of the subject and understood it to be a Nishi.
The image continued to form, and other ghosts became part of the picture either in a pose that suggested terror or with an expression of a similar nature.
“So the other ghosts are afraid of the Nishi too?” I inquired. The Brahmodoitya nodded his head.
“Is there anything I can do to send it away?” The old ghost scratched his head as if in deep thought. His expression brightened and another picture drew itself on the page. It was the Neem tree and on its trunk was an intricate drawing. The wise man pointed at the drawing, then me, and finally out the window at our tree. I nodded my understanding. He wanted me to draw on the tree what had just appeared on the paper.
“Do I need to draw it now?” I wondered aloud. The elderly ghost shook his head and pointed at the picture, where an outline of a fierce monsoon had taken shape. Then the jars of henna ink rattled on my desk, like the Brahmodoitya had run his finger across them.
“This is what I should draw on the tree with? These inks?” I asked aloud. I received a slow nodding of his head as my reply. I looked back at the drawing and recognized the image on the tree as that of Vishnu; it was a familiar image of the deity though I could not place where I had seen it before.
“When the drawing is complete, then the Nishi will leave?” I said. The ghostly figure drifted over to the table and stared at my drawing book, and caused another sketch to appear. This one had the blotchy figure of the Nishi being pulled out of the tree by a large glowing hand. I studied the drawing, noting the detail with which the figure of Vishnu had been drawn onto the tree. It was a nearly impossible rendering; the amount of detail was quite daunting. Without my best effort, eventually the house would be overrun by opportunistic ghosts striking at the first blackout or popped bulb. I waited in my room, alone with all of the lights on. Waited for the day to pass to night, waited for the monsoon to come again, waited for my chance to lay what was outside to rest.
I considered everything about the picture, the style, and the lines; how one detail led to another. I prepared the ink and several reliable pens, the simplest tools with which I was going to try and create a masterpiece on tree bark, in the rain. Morning drifted into afternoon, Kusuma and Mother both moved about the day with their usual purpose unaware of the event about to take place. As the evening approached, the brilliant orange and pink sky clouded up and became black and gray. The wind howled through the streets, knocking over dustbins, swirling trash in miniature dervishes. Mother and Kusuma had left earlier for dinner and then to visit a temple, apparently Mother had decided to take matters up with a higher authority. When I look back on the situation I wonder why I did not talk to her first. Why instead did I gather up my supplies and head into the courtyard. When my foot touched the threshold that led from the house towards the tree I felt the first chill wash over me. At this point I was resolute, I could not have been swayed by anyone or anything.
The wind was raging, but as of yet no rain had fallen. I hastened to the tree and laid my hand on its scaly bark and wiped away some of the dirt and dried bits of leaves. The surface was far too rough for the precision necessitated by the ghost’s drawing. Casting my eyes around the courtyard, I spotted a fragment of terra cotta that formed a sort of jagged shovel shape. I quickly grabbed it and started scraping the bark off the tree. Perhaps not surprisingly the skin underneath was smooth and dry. I decided that my approach would be to sketch the picture first, and fill in details in a second pass. I prayed fervently that Shiva, Ganesha and all of the other Gods would watch over me as I went about drawing the image. I dipped the tip of my pen into the inkwell and touched it to the tree, and when I did a sibilant whisper came from the branches above.
“Rajah,” it hissed in my ear. “Come away with me, Rajah,” the voice urged. I dared not look up, for I knew that perched just above me was the Nishi. I could feel the cold aura it radiated brush up against me while I worked. The chill crawled around my shoulders, down my chest and under my arms. I exhaled slowly and closed my eyes trying to imagine Vishnu standing beside me and guiding my hand while it moved across the exposed skin of the Neem tree. One black line merged with another, and another. Soon I had the outline drawn, using an area of about forty-six centimeters by forty-six centimeters. I kept on dipping pen into the well and refining the outline, time drifted past unaccounted and the darkness around me became absolute, save for the wide beam of light from the construction yard. In the beam of light I continued to draw, my hand moving at a frenetic pace filling the littlest details. Jewels and vestments were added to the image. Vishnu’s conch and lotus, mace and chakra all joined the imagery as it developed. I was nearing the end when the first drop of rain smacked down in the dirt behind me. I noticed that the tree drank in the ink as quickly as I could apply it. When the rain finally struck the tree the drawing did not slide off in a rivulet of grayish water. While I paused to study the work, the temperature in the air dropped rapidly, until I could see my breath in front of me.
Referring back to the original on my pad, I found that I was almost finished. All that remained was some intricate bead work, to finish the depiction of his necklaces. I heard in the distance the slam of our front door. A light from the second story shone over the courtyard from Kusuma’s room. She and my Mother had returned home early, probably due to the weather. As if on cue the rain fell even harder. Fat drops of water spattering across the paper, which I could not adequately shield. The page absorbed the droplets. With a cry of dismay I watched the intricate drawing smear and run down the paper, dripping onto the ground.
Several of the ghosts were drifting around me, and up in the tree limbs a pair of Skondhokata was tossing their heads around like demented jugglers. I closed my eyes and tried to picture the sketch before it had become ruined but each time that I did, all I saw was the tear-like lines running down the page. A triumphant hiss fell out of the tree to my ears, and looking up I saw the Nishi gliding out across a limb towards the now dark square of my sister’s bedroom window. Why hadn’t I studied more diligently the various forms of Vishnu, like the statuette in our hall? The sound of my hand slapping my own forehead was like the crack of a whip. The drawing had been exactly like the figurine in our house. I sprinted back into the house, racing to the front hallway.
The statuette was one of my Mother’s prized relics from her family, it was about sixty centimeters tall, and expertly sculpted from river clay, then painted and glazed and finally fired in a kiln. It stood on a plain table by the stairs watching over the living room and television. I scrutinized the details of the necklaces, and they appeared to be a match for the sketch that had melted away. From above Kusuma’s voice rose in fright. I heard the sounds of my mother struggling with the door and calling out my sister’s name. Quickly I snatched the figurine and sprinted back out into the yard. A wall of water slapped me down into the mud, and I struggled to regain my feet and crawled to the base of the tree. Up, over my shoulder I saw the dark smudge struggling to pull Kusuma out of her window. Frantically I put pen to tree and looked back and forth between the statuette and the drawing. Hastily I scratched out the last few lines of Vishnu’s image. A clap of thunder erupted as I drew the last circular bauble, and the ground rumbled and the tree swayed. The back yard became aglow in silver as an enormous hand reached down from Heaven. At that moment, the Nishi released Kusuma and dove directly at me.
A strange thing happened. At the same time that I was struck by the Nishi, I felt a presence enter my body from the opposite side and fill me like water poured into a glass. There was no room left inside of me for the Nishi. It was pulled up into the tree by the silver hand. Angrily it glowered at me, how it managed without a discernible face I do not know, but trust me when I tell you, it glared. I stood up, and nearly fell back over as my knees buckled. I put my hand against the trunk to steady myself and found it oddly warm to the touch. I sagged uselessly against the tree and slid back to the ground and stared across the backyard. In my stupor I hardly acknowledged Kusuma and Mother crossing the yard to me, or pulling me into the house. Talking with Kusuma later on, I found out that my eyes were glassy and unfocused like I was in shock. Several days afterwards, I tentatively stepped out onto the back patio and looked at the Neem tree. It stood majestically, thrusting its branches into the heavens. I went over to the trunk where I had drawn my rendition of Vishnu, and it remained, unfazed by the pounding rain and blazing sun.
Time passed, and Kusuma and I moved away starting our own lives separated from the house and the Neem tree. From time to time I’ll visit Mother, and each time I make sure to check on my drawing. It remains there to this day. The ghosts now silently perch in the branches, content in the knowledge that the tree is sanctified by Vishnu’s hand. These once homeless spirits had been granted a new home within the tree, for the remainder of its time. These days, now that I am older and moved on, I think back to the old house, where Kusuma and I grew up, and wonder if the Neem tree still stands, or if the residents were once again: The homeless ghosts of Calcutta.
sfbell - I must apologize, I just realized that I mis-spelled the one ghost. It should be Petni, not Penti. I am so, so sorry.
loved the story, every spooky bit of it
Excellent story, I heard the piece on NPR and thought there were stories to be told. Keep up the great effort.
This was one of my absolute favorite stories I've seen at QM. I don't mind seeing it run again!
Great use of Hindu lore and legends with modern elements. Waiting for more from you!
Extremely well written. Although centered around a different culture, the reader is able to follow the plot due to cleverly written text explaining the culture while developing the story. Great technique! Former librarian
Quite enjoyed it. Well-paced. Good detail. Convincing action. Nice metaphysical touch. Sympthetic ghosts!
Mr Bell; Amazing story well written!
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