I’d only gotten done with my Boards and was beginning with the Intermediate back in ’84 when Baba moved cities. It was an abrupt upgrade from the sleepy town of Baripada to the bustling, city life of Balangir. Since Baba was Postmaster in the Indian Postal Services, we’d been given a three-bedroom quarter, a little to the outskirts of the city, along with a house-help for assistance in the daily chores. The house-help was a middle-aged man with greying hair all over his body. He constantly fell sick every other day and thus, employed his daughter in his place. She had taken to the job enthusiastically, her name was, Jyotini.
The house was two-storeyed and had the lavatory built in its backyard (in those days, lavatories weren’t supposed to be attached to the main building for the presence of the prayer room which was deemed holy.) The backyard opened into the forested areas ahead of it. Despite the hustle of the city, thankfully the location of our new house, didn’t take away the peace I would’ve otherwise missed from our previous home.
I had taken admission at Rajendra College but couldn’t get myself to study the subjects of Science. I wanted to be a writer and would spend my days either loitering around the city or sitting in the backyard, watching Maa and Jyotini set up the house and run errands while discussing world affairs. Jyotini seemed to be my age, or she could’ve been younger, you can never tell a woman’s age, can you? But she was dedicated. She’d work her limbs from dawn to dusk, and even while Maa took an hour off in the afternoon, she wouldn’t rest.
Baba would often give me the eye of suspicion around her. He’d think I was in love with her, how else would my attendance woes in college be justified. He couldn’t see how Literature would interest the son of a man who graduated top of the class in Economics. He’d make brazen statements about how my age demanded commitment to a career, not a woman and that I had it all wrong. Nevertheless, his eyeing hadn’t many effects upon me, and I went on writing, aiming to publish a novel before the college gave out degrees.
One night, at about 2 (I’d often lose track of time while writing for long stretches), I’d been out in the backyard using the lavatory when I heard someone, or something, shifting in the vegetation ahead. I peeked out the small, exhaust window to see, and saw someone standing very close to the back wall. It was dark and the back of the quarters weren’t well lit so, I couldn’t make out who it was. Only that, the built was small and seemed feminine, the hair ran all the way down to the waist, I could see their back and it seemed like it was, Jyotini.
“Jyotini?” I called out after a second. There was no response.
“Jyotini? What’re you doing outside at this hour?” I asked again. Still, no response.
I stepped out and went behind the stall to see what the situation was but found nobody there. In a second’s time, she had vanished. Strange, I thought to myself. I stood there for a while before heading inside and to my surprise, found Jyotini sleeping on the kitchen floor. She’d often do so during the summer. Maybe she was out to use the lavatory and then had come back and slept off; you can never be ahead of women, can you? I thought. So, I didn’t sit on it for long and retired for the night.
But I was soon proved wrong for thinking that was the only time that was to happen for, the same incident occurred again and then, again, like a drill. I’d go out to use the lavatory late in the night and would find Jyotini standing outside; as soon as I’d come out of the stall, she’d vanish, and I’d find her sleeping on the kitchen floor minutes after I’d walk back inside. After the fourth time this happened, I felt determined to ask her what she’d do outside at night.
The next evening, I heard Maa and Jyotini discussing a certain sighting in the area, I’m not sure what they called it, but it seemed like this part of the outskirts of the city was witnessing a haunting. It seemingly was the ghost of a scorned soul, a woman who had killed herself in spite. The nearest neighbors, who lived some 500 meters away said, nobody knew what the ghost of this woman looked like, because whoever saw her died immediately. 2 Men had already died in the area and we were being advised to not venture out at odd hours and to keep all doors bolted at night. I wondered if there was any truth to this speculation.
I didn’t bother much over it, if my father couldn’t keep me from writing, what could ghosts do? So, routinely, that night I sat by my open window and wrote until the last bit of ink in my pot had dried. I probably didn’t realize when I’d dozed off, for exactly at 2 AM I was jolted awake. My notebook was strangely empty, apart from some drool that had escaped the sides of my mouth and the hair at the back of my neck had begun to stand from the cold air that was blowing in. It was windy and on listening carefully, it seemed like the wind was walking among the bushes in our backyard. I stayed quiet and listened to its footsteps for a while. I stared at my notebook and wondered if I’d really written nothing that evening. Had I dreamt it all? I felt the urge to use the lavatory then.
As I got up from my chair, my back felt weirdly heavy, as if I’d been carrying a weight all this while. I stretched and remembered that I’d forgotten to ask Jyotini about her lavatory visits. I thought I’d check on her before I went outside. As soon as I’d begun to descend the stairs that led to the back door, I slipped, shaken by Jyotini’s shrill scream from the kitchen, and hit the back of my head against the wall.
Suddenly dizzy, with my head spinning, I ran towards her.
The wooden door was ajar. Jyotini sat on the floor kneeling, her back facing me, still like a doll. I shouted at her over the ominous din of the wind and the kitchen door flapping with it.
“Jyotini?! Are you alright?”
She didn’t move. I waited for her to turn towards me, but she didn’t.
“Jyotini?” I called again.
I grew restless as I neared her. I had only bent down to grab her shoulders, when I felt someone standing right behind. A long shadow was cast on the wall beside me. I felt a weight form on my back, and it grew heavier with the passing second. As I was about to turn to look, Jyotini, in a snap, turned to face me, bellowing,
“Don’t look at her!”
I jumped and almost screamed as I hit the ground. My throat dried up; no sound came out my mouth. My body froze as she stared at me. I felt the weight grow heavier on my shoulders.
She was drowned in sweat, her hair stuck to her forehead. Moonlight shone upon her face that’d lost color.
And her eyes— her eyes were bleeding.
“Don’t look at her.” she repeated and kept repeating, as if begging, for long, until I fainted with her voice echoing inside me.
The next morning, I woke with a shrill ringing in my ears. My head still hurt. I opened my eyes and it took a while for my surroundings to come to focus; I was sprawled on the bedroom floor. Puzzled by how I’d ended up here and a hundred other questions buzzing in my head, I dragged myself out and looked for Maa-Baba.
I heard muffled conversation coming from downstairs. Maa and Baba stood inside the kitchen, looking extremely concerned. Jyotini was huddled in a corner at the back, clutching onto her knees, rocking back and forth. Her skin looked pale and drained of blood. I gaped at her as last night’s details slowly came back to me.
“Jyotini, are you okay?” I kneeled and asked her. She didn’t reply.
I repeated myself as Maa brought her a glass of water.
She said, “We found her like this minutes ago. At first, we thought, she must’ve had a nightmare, but she’s not saying anything. We’ve called for her father.”
As I got up to leave, Jyotini grabbed onto my leg and stared straight up at me, the same way she’d done the night before. She spoke slow and with emphasis, in a voice that did not waver,
“Don’t… look at her.”
A shiver ran down my spine and I jerked backwards. Why did Jyotini keep saying the same thing repeatedly?
She repeated herself again and then, again. With every minute her chant got quicker, as if she were a record stuck on the gramophone. Her Baba arrived an hour later and took her away.
After they’d left, I told Maa and Baba of what had occurred. None of us could make head or tail of what had happened to her that night.
Jyotini’s Baba came home three days later and told Maa that she was keeping unstable, both physically and mentally. She had stopped eating, wouldn’t take baths and would go days without combing her hair. She’d not talk to anyone and would get petrified as the night came on. She went about telling everyone the same thing she’d told me earlier, to not look at ‘her’. Nobody understood what she was trying to say or what she was afraid of.
I kept replaying the events of that night for days to come, trying to understand what it was that she had seen. Neither could I sleep, nor could I write in peace.
Almost a fortnight later, we received news of Jyotini’s death. It left us shattered, but more shocked. She had hung herself in her room back home. Her Baba had sent word about her funeral.
Maa, Baba and I immediately left to join in her last rites. The poor girl had succumbed to her suffering, I prayed for her peace as we walked. Jyotini’s house was a modest, low roofed mud-house with a single room she shared with her parents. Many people had gathered in the front yard where her body lay covered in white cloth. Her mother sobbed uncontrollably,
“She took her. She took her. She took her!”
Jyotini’s Baba looked at us, his face expressionless, and spoke gravely, “the local Ojha told us she was under a possession. Whoever controlled her caused her to take her own life.”
My forehead crinkled. I couldn’t believe what he was saying. Jyotini was a healthy, hard-working woman. How could she suddenly have developed a malady? She was strong. How could anybody else have controlled her?
I stared at her cloth-covered body for a while, until the wind blew out the cover and revealed her face that had greyed, but what caused me to suddenly purge my guts out, were her eyes—her eyes had been split open from the middle; tears of blood had dried on her face.
A shudder ran down my spine.
“She sliced her own eyes before hanging.” Jyotini’s Baba whispered to me, “She was clutching onto the knife as she hung, her body rotated with the wind all night.”
I couldn’t look at her anymore. I couldn’t control my sudden urge to burst out crying. I was terrified. I felt empty. How could she have done this to herself? How? I couldn’t process a single thought.
I lost both my appetite and my sleep for days that followed. Maa tried to change things for me but failed. I had to find out what had happened to Jyotini. She kept telling me something I did not understand. I had to know now.
I went back to her house a week later.
Finding her mother sitting in the yard, staring into the distance, I asked if she could tell me about the Ojha who’d seen Jyotini before she died. I told her I wanted to know exactly what she’d seen or who she’d seen. I wanted to bring justice to her suffering. But she only looked at me crestfallen, mum for minutes that felt like hours then, broke down crying.
Jyotini’s Baba left working for us; the day he left, he said, “She didn’t want you to look at her, she was probably trying to save you, son. Our Jyotini was like that, very kind-hearted. If she didn’t want you to see, you mustn’t. Don’t ask all these questions and try to know. It’s best to leave some things unknown.”
But, how could I have gone to sleep knowing somebody died, perhaps because of me?
Baba came to me one day and told me, his colleague at the postal department heard of the incident and said something strange. He said, it all sounded familiar to him. When he’d asked what he meant by it, he avoided it and went back to his desk. Baba didn’t want me or Maa to worry, so he asked me to leave the incident at that.
I didn’t understand why everyone was avoiding talking about this. There were so many questions, but no answers.
A month passed and then another, everything began going back to normal when Baba had to move cities again.
I was helping Maa pack, we were wrapping away belongings with old newspapers from the store, when I came across a clipping that read eerily familiar:
"Suicide of 25-year-old woman, died by hanging. Balangir: Wife of postmaster suffered trauma after witnessing husband cheat on her. Bizarrely, sliced her own eyes with a knife then hung herself."
I stared at that clipping in disbelief. It was dated back to ’78, almost six years ago. I read the report over and over again. The victim was a postmaster’s wife. Did that mean it occurred here, in this very house? I recalled then Baba mentioning that this quarter had been leased out after quite a long time, and that we were its first occupants in years.
Could this mean, Jyotini encountered this woman’s spirit that night? Did her spirit still linger around? Could I have saved Jyotini had I not fainted? I kept wondering as the clock ticked into the night and many nights became one.
We soon shifted to another city far from Balangir, it smelled different, felt different. But even today, years after, when I sit down to write into the night, I wonder if it wasn’t for Jyotini, would I have died? If not for her, would I have turned and looked?
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's August 2020 Issue.