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Outsider, Looking In

Meghamala Ghosh

The eye rolled, turbid, cloudy, like an ocean wave, as it flicked onto the shore, the edges crimson, like the thousands of sunsets Nazneen had seen back in California. She stepped back slowly, moving off the carpet hastily. She did not trust herself to speak much. Her words just came out garbled nowadays. Moreover, if her brown skin was any indication, she was still very much a part of society here, and she did not want to ruin it all by opening her mouth just now. “I am no Lady Godiva,” Nazneen muttered under her breath as the eye rolled away. Clearly happy with the inspection, the door was opened. Old and rusty, it made a creak, baleful and tired of its purpose after all these years. The eye duplicated itself as it set into a face, fair and without a single blemish, fanned by silvery hair, tied into a braid at the back, stray tendrils floating in the air let down in hot gasps by the ceiling fan overhead. Nazneen looked past the dark green of her anchol into the room that presented itself to her black eyes. “A bit bare,” she pondered, “or was it just different?” The woman with the one cloudy eye, as Nazneen realised suddenly, was appraising her. Squirming under her intense stare, Nazneen fidgeted on the carpet and blurted out before she could stop herself. “I didn’t realise interrogations were held at the door here.” The woman’s thin lips coated with dark maroon lipstick quirked upwards as she relented. Nazneen moved past her, her trunk trailing behind her, as she wrenched it inside, over the choukath.
Rubina Choudhary had been her grandmother’s best friend and now her only living relative. Nazneen’s ears thundered as a scream rang through them. It had started a few weeks ago, but this time was different. It didn’t stop after a few minutes, leaving Nazneen disoriented and puffy faced. It continued as different voices screamed one after another, a cacophony of screams and cackles and screams and blinding white noise. Liquid, warm and salty pooled into her mouth as the noise subsided, and another joined in. Somewhere, beyond the house and the playground beside it, someone was playing the violin, with the seasoned ease of nights spent mastering the craft. Mouth full of blood, Nazneen stood rigidly near the staircase, lost and alone, terrified and defeated.
A slight movement upstairs caught Nazneen’s attention. Brushing her bangs away from her face, she looked up. There, in the faint sunlight that filtered in through the flimsy curtains that adorned the window, Nazneen could almost swear she saw a long, bony finger settle on a pair of lips, plump and red, or was that black? She put one foot onto the staircase, determined to follow through with the owner of the finger when everything came to a standstill. Nazneen could not put her raised foot down onto the next step, frozen as it was in mid-air. The drops of perspiration on her arms had run off and were now dangling at the edge of the abyss, suspended at the tip of her index finger, unable to move any further. Nazneen tried to turn her head, open her mouth and scream. She did. She screamed herself hoarse, could feel the way her throat muscles closed up, sure to leave blotches of red, like fingernail scratches.no voice came out. The bile that had travelled up her throat, along with the blood in her mouth from earlier had all frozen there, debilitating Nazneen with disgust and terror.
“I am no Lady Godiva,” Nazneen muttered under her breath as the eye rolled away. Nazneen moved her hand to her throat, a tremendous urge to vomit filling up her senses. Had she not already crossed the threshold? A cold shiver crept up Nazneen’s spine as she bent her head to look up at the hallway again. She could swear she saw… The old woman spoke before Nazneen could maneuver her red bangs out of her face. The stair beneath her foot trembled slightly, as if with uncontrollable rage, as Nazneen moved back towards the woman expectantly staring at her.
Nazneen’s Daddi had always told her that there were two kinds of people in the world. The first kind who would never listen to their elders and steal the pineapple preserve from the fridge at two o’ clock in the morning and the second who would sleep through all of the delinquency and have an easier journey, probably, she would also add with a wink, the duller one. Nazneen subscribed to her view, but she also knew of a part where her Daddi had been wrong. The first kind listened with rapt, unwavering attention to understand exactly what it was that they were being instructed to do. They listened and pondered like the rolling cloudy eye at the peephole. Then they decided to not do it because they did not like it. They opened the door and went out past curfew, anyway.
Nazneen felt that extreme urge to escape. Instead she blurted out, “Daddi missed home.” The old woman smiled, and for a split second it reminded Nazneen of Annie Lennox smiling in the cover of “No more love yous”. Nazneen retracted herself, a feeling of disgust pooling into her belly, followed by an overwhelming need to get closer, inhale the sticky perfume clinging onto the woman’s skin, a desire to learn how to smile like her, charming little fangs out, ready to strike. “So, is this home, then?” the woman asked, a cloudy eye unleashing a torrential wave onto Nazneen’s mind, sweeping away the sand dunes gathered there. She opened her mouth to reply. Her usual sarcasm seemed to have deserted her. Nazneen had it all planned out. She would stomp her feet and walk up the stairs. She would hit her trunk with her left toe. She would smash a jar of sun-dried tomatoes. She would tear the talisman from the door. She would create a terrible ruckus and get sent back. She did not want to go back. Nazneen began to cry.
The woman wordlessly handed Nazneen a bowl of sewai- stringy, sweet noodles floating in a sea of condensed milk. “Eat up. It’s almost time.”
“It’s time for what exactly?” asked Nazneen.
“Oh! My afternoon telly, dear, what else? An old woman has to have her fair share of excitement before she turns into a lump of clay.”
Nazneen stiffened. Miss Choudhary cackled at her own joke, not noticing that Nazneen had grown pale, oblivious to the fact that that was what was left of Nazneen’s family now, lumps of clay under marble, all the way back in California.
“Skin the colour of clay,
Eye as bright as the stars,
The moon waits for Endymion,
Like our bodies wait for the earth.”
Almost time now.” The woman laughed merrily as she strode past Nazneen, upstairs and out of sight.
Nazneen picked up her trunk and went off to her room.
On Saturday, Nazneen slipped out of the house, drawn by the music of a lone violin floating in through the open bathroom window as she sat on the floor, wishing she was drowning. As the music gained momentum, Nazneen gripped the edge of the bucket hard, her palm turning red, redder as the jarred portion sliced through her skin, the blood dripping into the water, swirling red patterns. Nazneen looked at the swirls, like strands of thinning hair, bubbling out of her palm. The music continued as the blood flowed out of her palm, filling Nazneen with a sense of euphoria, never peace. Maybe if she could hear the music from up close, probably talk to the person who had provided her some happiness (dare she call it that?) in her bloodiest hour, she would forget for an hour. Nazneen knew they would always come back.
Once outside, Nazneen breathed in the musty afternoon air, the sun making the sweat drip down her forehead, her eyes squinting and watering as she walked down the unfamiliar pathway just behind the house. The path was littered with dry leaves, dog shit and small squashed mangoes. There had been a thunderstorm last night and Nazneen remembered what her Daddi had told her about the famous kalboishakhis of Bengal. She had said that they took away the heat of the summer sun as they lashed onto the landscape of Bengal, destroying mud huts, ravaging orchards and creating tiny rivers in people’s basements. However, what Nazneen remembered the most were the stories her Daddi told her about them as to how the villagers all had a common myth about Shiva beginning his tandava which was the major reason for the storm. Her Daddi had disagreed and told her that the storm was a woman scorned, a Medea more than a Shiva. Nazneen had always agreed.
The tents stared back at her, their lustreless yellow and grey coverings blowing in the wind. There was a carousel, some broken bric-a-bracs strewn around and people huddled in a corner trying to set up a huge frying pan. Nazneen’s face twisted into a half-grin as she moved towards the tent right in the centre. It splayed like a mushroom, almost as if it had risen from the soil itself, coiling upwards like a giant snake, with its fangs out, ready to strike. There were people inside, huddled in corners, sipping something black and viscous. There were children sitting on the coarse soil near the entrance, playing with marbles, red, like a raven’s eyes. Some of them noticed her, standing listlessly at the entrance, feeling like she was barging in. Nazneen could not help but wonder how she had felt like that her entire life. She was the outsider everywhere, with no roots to hold on to, and no identity to clutch on to for dear life. Life was not dear to Nazneen. With a whoosh of cold air, that make prickles rise up on Nazneen’s arms, something entered the tent. With her back against the entrance, Nazneen could only feel it. Slimy, cold, viscous, like black ink dripping from her Daddi’s old fountain pen, a letter from a coven, a hex she would not dare utter, an abomination she did not particularly want to see, a sickly sweet stench of roses and mildew mixed in with the sweat from a frightened dog. Nazneen turned. A man stood in the entrance, a turban on his head, and a disarming smile on his lips. It was impossible to guess his age. He seemed to be young and old simultaneously, a thousand year old royal from the foothills of a Himalayan hamlet and a 30 year old man from the rich towns of the south.
“Ah, who do we have here?” he crooned, gesturing for Nazneen to come closer. Nazneen found her feet walking themselves to him. She wanted Daddi. Hell, she wanted Rubina Choudhary here now. The sickly stench got sharper and fruitier as she moved closer. Pebble eyes stared at her as the corner of one mouth twitched upward and a hand rummaged in the pocket of the jacket he had on. The skin on his forearms was covered in ulkis, all green and spidery. Nazneen tried her best to tilt her head and read some of it. The man was extremely thin, almost skeletal and his laughter rang out, almost maniacal in its intensity. He put a card on Nazneen’s palm, and pursing his lips, let out a cold gust of breath on it, his long fingernails digging into Nazneen’s shoulder. The whispers in the tent had stopped, she could see the children, but everything was blurry, faded, like a picture book drenched in water, the paint running down, like tear streaks. The fingernails digging into her shoulder were hurting her more and more, as if someone was slashing at her with a knife, her palm burning, tentacles of fire leaping onto her skin, taunting her, saying “Nazneen, come and play”.
She was on the ground outside, a free ticket to the room of water and mirrors in the palm where the card had been.
Rubina took Nazneen to the mela grounds next, bought jalebis and talked to the people there as if they were family. Nazneen did not really want to be here, with its sea of tinsel lights looking down at her as if she was a criminal, silently judging her, following her around. Knowing she had to get away, she scrounged in her pocket for the ticket that would take her to the room of mirrors and water. When she entered the tent, Nazneen looked at a deserted room with different mirrors strewn all over, some small, some tall and some rose-coloured. At the centre of the room was a pool of water, brilliantly black, and shiny. It looked inviting, as if a quick dip in it would absolve you of all your sins. Nazneen heard someone imperceptibly call out to her from the back, timorously and she turned to see that the mirrors had assembled all round her, as if they had moved of their own accord, crowding her in, one more push and she would tumble into the black cauldron. The tent flap parted as two little boys walked in, awe written all over their face, as they stood in front of each mirror, giggling to each other, as the mirrors made them look smaller, tubbier, thinner, older. Nazneen recoiled back. The mirrors crowded around them, competing for their attention, as the children giggled and ran towards each, till they could run no more. Conveniently having trapped them, right in the centre, black tendrils now rose up from the pool, glittering. They took the form of a midnight rose as they put on a display, the sound of a violin playing something ancient, like a lullaby. The tendrils twisted around the boys’ waists, their hands, their necks as they giggled, gurgled as they twisted tighter, and plunged them into the pool. The music stopped, the mirrors went back in position, and the water became still. The voices in her head mocked her again. Nazneen had killed twice now. Death clung to her, the sickle in her hand, the Reaper behind as she ran from one place to another, dripping blood, like the post-woman with the death warrant waiting to be delivered.
Nazneen stumbled out.
The man with the turban was standing in front of the sweet shop, a card in his hand, burning as he flicked a thumb over it, depositing the ashes into Rubina’s palm, where they turned into a black signet ring. Rubina smiled at him, as he bent down and said, “In time.” On the ring, in clear letters was her name. Both of them turned to her together, chiming in, the voices clear, yet distant, honey-sweet as they called to her.
“Come and play, Nazneen. Here’s your ring. Join us.”
Nazneen screamed.


2 comments

  • So intricately worded. ’Could almost feel the chill at my fingertips.

    Camellia Paul
  • Beautiful and haunting!

    Sayantika Sarkar

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