It all started on a bitter December night.
Beena washed her feet. The warm water of the tube well made her cold feet tingle. Decembers are usually chilly, especially at night. She splashed her face with some water too. Patting her face dry with the gamocha, she waited near her grandmother, who was washing the utensils used for dinner. She could smell the fog. As she tried to inhale all of it, her nostril hairs shivered.
Grandmother had finished. Keeping the utensils near the tube well, her grandmother squatted near the cherry tomato bushes, picked up her mekhala and relieved her bladders for the night. Even in the faint gleam of the lamp kept nearby, Beena could see those fair, round bare bottoms. Having done the nightly rituals, both of them walked back to the house. Her grandmother carried the utensils in one hand and the lamp in the other. Beena almost ran, as they passed the tamarind tree. Spirits reside in trees which bore sour fruits, grandmother always said. Grandmother closed the back door of their house and secured the iron bolt. She arranged the utensils in a stack on the bamboo rack on the veranda. Guiding Beena back to the bedroom, she locked the door. After putting out the lamp, she slowly tucked herself inside the mosquito net. Beena was already in bed.
She always liked this time of the day. She enjoyed being under a mosquito net. It made her feel at home, her own home where she could imagine of flying in the sky like the big birds and swaying her hips to the drumbeats like the young lasses. As she lied there, she could feel that everyone else was asleep. She could feel the silence, clenching at her guts. She held to it too, as if not wanting to let it go. Her nostrils would flare up with the smell of the lamp that had been put out. She would blow out her nostrils more and more. She wanted to taste the burnt kerosene in her mouth. Then she would try to hear the night. There was the constant noise of the cicadas, a distant howl of a fox, and an occasional croak of a frog. She liked doing these before she finally fell asleep. It had become like an arrangement she had made for herself under this swelling mosquito net. It was like her own nightly rituals she had to do before falling asleep.
Tonight was different. As she lied there on her side of the bed, nearly completing her nightly rituals, she suddenly heard footsteps approaching, girip, garap, girip, garap. It sounded like a distant drum beat in a temple during the evenings. Before she could even make any meaning of the sounds, they stopped. Doors opened. Doors closed. She heard the loud cracking creaks of the old wooden doors. Then came hysterical laughter, of a woman, a man, a thing, she did not understand really. Something clenched at her guts tighter. But this time, it was no quiet silence of the night. Beena felt sick. But she had only eaten a light meal for dinner. Or, was it fear? She crawled towards her grandmother, pressed her body against the warmth of the soft wrinkled skin and flesh and dug her face in the safety of her grandmother’s murky armpits. “Go back to sleep”, her grandmother said. She closed her eyes forcefully, so hard that she felt the eyeballs were going to explode. Her mind racing all this while, what could it be? She had heard about the different kinds of spirits from her grandmother. There were the birhas, the mischievous djinns, the jokihinis, who were the witches, the baaks, who ate raw fish. “Is it a birha, grandmother?” she asked. “Hmmm”, her grandmother nodded. So, it was indeed a birha! Only the warmth of her grandmother’s soft hand on her head lulled her to sleep. She felt thankful to god, she had her.
She would hear the birha almost every night now. Although she was acquainted with the sounds now and knew that he was there, lingering to make his presence felt after everyone went to bed, she still dreaded the coming of the night. She had forgotten about her nightly rituals now. She no longer thought about the mosquito net with its bulging belly, or the big birds, or the hips of the young lasses swaying to the drumbeats. Neither could she smell the lamp or taste the burnt kerosene anymore. The birha was there. Her grandmother said he was Mrs. Das’ pet.
Mrs. Das was their next door neighbour. She lived alone in a mud hut with a tin roof. The birha, the grandmother said, would injure other people and plunder their food to bring it for Mrs. Das. If Beena peeped through the banana grove in their backyard, she could see Mrs. Das washing her clothes. She was very beautiful, just like the women Beena saw on the screen of the big old TV set in their drawing room. Sometimes, she would hear Mrs. Das sing, her melodious voice would reverberate in the otherwise still afternoon. While her grandmother whiled away her afternoons fishing in the backyard pond, chewing betel nut and lime, Beena would take advantage of her short lasting liberty and run off to Mrs. Das. This was before Beena came to know about the birha.
Beena had liked the woman. She liked to watch her beautiful shapely body saunter in the house. Mrs. Das liked her too. She would often offer her chicken curry and rice. She cooked so well, Beena thought. Not that her grandmother was a bad cook but Mrs. Das’ emanated more aromas in the air, which gnawed in her stomach making grumbling noises. Hearing these noises, Mrs. Das would simply smile and put some more chicken on Beena’s plate. Why was this woman not a mother like the other women she knew? Beena often wondered, she cooks so well, and cares so deeply, she should be a mother. Her children would be lucky. Sometimes, Mrs. Das would teach Beena to sing and she would play the harmonium. How well she played that thing! Beena was always left in awe of this woman. She even gaped at the woman when she would take out the small mirror with the red handle, tucked in the bamboo pole on the mud wall and carefully yet elegantly put the colourful bindi on her forehead, exactly between her eyebrows. With the bindi, she looked more like the women from the TV screen.
These women would appear on the TV screen every evening. As dusk slowly crept in their daily lives, Beena’s grandmother would wash herself and light the earthen lamp and incense sticks, kneeling down in front of the basil plant in their front yard. Then she would sing some hymns. It was not like Mrs. Das’ though, Beena thought sitting at her study. Her grandmother’s voice was more shrill and broken. And the singing hurried, as if to catch the setting sun on the Brahmaputra. After some time her grandmother would sit on the old bamboo armchair in the drawing room and call for her. Keeping her books aside, Beena who had been waiting only for this moment all the while would run in a jiffy. She knew her part. As if lifting the veil to reveal a newly wedded bride’s face, she would raise the old thick maroon velvet cloth from the TV set. Like everything else in the house, the TV too had been her grandfather’s, who had been long gone now. The TV was a huge box, with two collapsible doors. As she put in all her strength to open these doors, the magical screen would gradually appear. Then she would switch it on and sit at her grandmother’s knees. There would be fair, beautiful, shapely women, whose clothes would be flying in the breeze laying bare their pointed blouses. They would be dancing with robust, handsome men, to the tunes of Hindi songs.
Beena could still remember the day when she was three and her parents had brought home a baby boy from the city hospital.
After a month, she was sent to live with her grandparents in the country. With the monthly allowance her parents sent and now her deceased grandfather’s pension, Beena and her grandmother had an unruffled existence. Beena liked it here, in the country, with her grandmother. They were like two pigeons cuddled in a little nest, she thought. The stout yellow school bus would drop Beena near the temple around the corner. She had to walk from there, passing the small field where the young lads played football, then walk past the municipal water tap, where a group of young women would come to fetch drinking water. Not everybody was lucky like Beena and her grandmother to have a tube well in their homes. For a few moments, she would get lost looking at those shiny feet drenched under water. They looked like the shiny sleek black catfish her grandfather used to bring home from the hills when he was alive. The water playing on their bare feet would remind her of those young women and men from the TV screen dancing under the waterfall. Something would clench at her guts again. Probably, it was her hungry tummy, she thought. She would pace up the long end of the street. When she reached home, she would see her grandmother waiting for her in the portico. Beena would take off her shoes and keep them aside on the veranda, glancing towards the window of the mud hut next door. Her senses would be awakened by aromas of chicken curry and colourful bindis. This was before she knew about the birha. Now, the window caused turbulence in her heart and mind. She saw the other women, with pots perched on their bared waists, some flabby, some slender. They stopped near the mud hut and talked fervently amongst each other, once in a while rolling their eyes. Were they scared too? Beena thought, they must be. After all, it is a birha.
She asked her grandmother once about the birha. She had changed her school uniform and put on her faint white gray smock that touched her knees. Every day after school her grandmother would serve her a bowl of soft rice mashed with ripe bananas and milk. Sitting down on the low wooden stool, she was slurping the last bit of milk left in her bowl, when she posed that question to her grandmother. Why did a good woman like Mrs. Das keep a birha? She wanted to know. It infuriated her grandmother. Only answers to her question were thrashings with a long freshly cut cane stick. “Next time you are interested in things concerning that woman, I will smash your legs”, her grandmother cried. She was puzzled. Mrs. Das was a good woman, couldn’t they see?
One afternoon she decided to gather courage and sneak into the mud hut. She needed to tell Mrs. Das not to keep the birha anymore. Her grandmother didn’t know. She was busy with her fishing rod. When Beena landed on the veranda of the mud hut, she was gasping for breath, more from apprehension than lost strength. The door was open already. It was dark inside. The windows were closed. In one corner, lay a figure, its clothes soiled, unkempt hair and puffy eyes. And, its tummy was like the mosquito net, swelling and bulging out. Before that thing could notice Beena, she ran with all her might for her life, it was the birha! She wanted to throw up.
Not many days passed when Beena realised she was wrong. It had been raining since dawn that day. Gloomy clouds loomed over them. Beena didn’t go to school. The musical note of the falling rain was more fascinating than school. In the obscurity of the incessant rain, she saw a rickshaw stop in front of the mud hut. The rickshaw left. Under a big black umbrella appeared a huge belly, protruded like her grandmother’s fair round bare bottoms. Dreaded Beena tried to look at it. There stood Mrs. Das, dragging herself. That day Beena was sad. That must be the birha’s doing, she thought. After that rainy day, Beena saw Mrs. Das a couple more times, sometimes hanging wet clothes to dry on the cloth line, sometimes fetching water from the municipal water tap. But this woman didn’t look like the women from the TV screen. Beena saw the young lads jeer at her, she heard the women cursing her. One day she realised, she couldn’t hear the birha at night anymore. Did it flee? Nights were now only for Mrs. Das’ sobs and cries.
The next December, nights were more freezing. Her grandmother was arranging the cleaned utensils on the bamboo rack, when Beena heard convulsive cries from the hut next door. Then it stopped. Something clenched at her guts tonight, like the fateful night last year. She heard her grandmother lock the door of the bedroom. Her nostrils flared up with the smell of the lamp. She could taste the kerosene in her mouth. She could hear the cicadas, the fox and the frogs. The swelling mosquito net embraced her imagination. But she could not dream, neither of the big birds flying or the young lasses swaying their hips. Sleep betrayed her that night. With the first crow of the cock, she woke up and washed herself. Her grandmother was still asleep. Beena couldn’t keep her curiosity at bay anymore. She unlatched the doors, put on her slippers and set out to peep into the mud hut. She would do it once and run, she thought, grandmother would be awake anytime now.
The morning was gobbled up by the wintry fog. The bitter cold felt like a sharp razor blade on her cheeks. Beena clasped her shawl tighter to her body. Her feet marched as fast as they could. The door to the mud hut was partly ajar. She stood there, in a dilemma, in a fear of the unknown that lay behind that wooden door. She shouldn’t have come, she thought. She heard her grandmother, she thought. Her grandmother must have been awake and is searching for her. Thrashings from the freshly cut cane stick flooded her mind. She headed towards the wooden door and threw it wide open. There lay a woman floating on a scarlet pool. Her mind could only perceive a stream of broken images- a woman, a scarlet pool, a knife, two wide open limbs, bundle of flesh in between- all still. Beena ran, as fast as she could. She rushed cutting through the jagged coldness. Her grandmother was waiting for her in the portico. “The birha killed Mrs. Das, grandmother”, Beena cried. Her grandmother held her tightly, as she broke down into tears. Both stood there in a serene country on a cold December morning, like two pigeons cuddled in a little nest. She pushed herself into the murky armpits of her grandmother. Her pain and tears were gobbled up by the wintry fog.
It all started on a bitter December night.