Neerumoni was the first one in the family to suspect the bark manuscripts. Anil had stared at her in silence. Where on earth had she heard of books being haunted? She said firmly that it wasn’t the soul of her dead husband, his father Horokanto, who was troubling them but the souls trapped in the manuscripts.
She stood up and went out to the one-acre pond behind her house, bamboo creel in hand. She would spend some time there. Washing the rice, vegetables, clothes and vessels from the afternoon’s meal wouldn’t take long. Chores done, she liked to change into a petticoat, tied just above her breasts, and swim for at least an hour.
Winters aren’t harsh in Teteliguri, not like the villages at the foot of the Jaintia Hills on the Meghalaya border. The wind from the hills enters every nook and cranny there. Meghalaya is the abode of clouds. The white clouds descend as quiet cats’ paws, and soon people are in the middle of a fog, even before the cat’s tongue can scrape their bones. No, here, in Teteliguri village, things are better. There are huge paddy fields. There are many houses, many people in these houses.
Here, the climate remains warm and comfortable. Of course, when the trees in the stunted hills that guard the village start to sway, there is a storm. But the chill reigns only on nights when the winds freeze the stones, and then carries the bite of it into the houses of the village, an uninvited guest. That’s why, when Neerumoni first said she was hearing things, Anil had suggested it was the wind.
It was usual for the wind to knock at the door, hover over the straw roof of their thatched hut. They had never finished reinforcing the walls with mud. Back then, she was confident then that it was the soul of her spiteful husband, Horokanto, who had many unfulfilled desires when he died in that accident. He wanted to return to the mortal world, she thought. In the process, he would rob them of all peace.
Eventually, Anil took her seriously, as did most other women in the village.
They prayed. They left a meal with Horokanto’s favourite dishes on the western side of the house. But the manuscripts still opened and shut in the middle of the night (mainly on Saturdays and Tuesdays) all by themselves. Nor did strange souls stop troubling Neerumoni: they left earthworm mounds on the food she cooked, and strange handprints on the bedsheets she washed with khar. And one day, when she had cooked duck meat with banana flower, they dropped a ball of curly hair in the pot.
Gradually, those murmurs, faint songs, the rustle of bark as the manuscripts turned their own pages, invaded the dreams of Neerumoni, and Anil too. On lonely afternoons, when everything was quiet, those sounds were louder, quicker, restless. One night, Neerumoni woke up, disturbed by the choric melody of the singing crickets. She saw four lanky men standing over the small wooden box where the manuscripts were kept. They were trying to open the lock with a knife that had a blue plastic handle.
When she shouted at them, they turned towards her, grew black wings and flew off through the ceiling, leaving it undisturbed. Her screams woke up the rest of the family, and she told them one of the figures had worn a long green dress, the other three white turbans and dhotis. They looked as if they were from a royal family. They didn’t wear ornaments though.
No one believed her. Her suspicions were fortified when she saw one of the manuscripts take the shape of an old man in her dreams.
He was crying, asking her to set him free, telling her that he was trapped there by mistake, unlike the other souls who had committed sins. He promised never to disturb her if she freed him from the fetters of the spells in the bark manuscripts. When she said that she hadn’t trapped him, she wasn’t holding him there, he got angry and screamed, called her a liar. Anil laughed it away. But Anju, who would have said many sarcastic things about her mother’s superstitions, who would have fought with her even a month ago, was quiet.
Anil looked at Anju and felt again that, after she was raped, he required inhuman strength just to look at her face, let alone her eyes. She was sitting in a corner when her brother and mother were speaking about the old man trapped in the manuscripts, fingering the crisscross of welts on her wrists, the result of being tied to a bed with steel threads ordinarily used to tie bamboo.
Everyone was away. It was the death anniversary of the village headman’s mother. Neerumoni had asked her to come along, tried to tempt her by saying that she’d get to eat porridge at the function, but Anju said that Biren would come to leave his baby son with her. His wife was away and the little one wouldn’t sleep until Anju sang him a lullaby. Even that day, Neerumoni reminded Anju that she shouldn’t forget that Biren was after all a man. Though he was her first cousin, the sudden intimacy between them over the last two years was the talk among certain sections of the village.
But Anju was a popular girl. Everyone loved her. Almost every household in the village was indebted to her in some way or the other. “Anju, would you please weave this mekhela for me? I won’t pay you the full price, but I will give you something as a token of love.” Anju turns into Mother Teresa when phrases such as “token of love” are mentioned.
“Anju, could you come to our house tomorrow morning? I have asked everyone in the village, but you know how the girls in our village have become after the cinema hall opened in Sonapur, they are afraid their hands will melt away like a leper’s if they so much as touch the mix of cow dung and loamy soil. Who else will I ask?” Anju nods vigorously, agreeing with the old woman. “Anju, don’t you dare forget to come a week before the wedding. You know there is no one else I can trust with keys to the money, the ornaments, with supervising...oh, you are such an angel, what would I do without you!”
So while some tongues were wagging, others remained quiet.
Why should anyone suspect the relationship between first cousins? Those tongue-waggers said “first cousins” in a dismissive, mocking tone, and suggested that Biren was “woman-hungry”.
Thus, the day after Neerumoni found an unconscious Anju lying on the bed with bleeding wrists, the whole village blamed Biren and accompanied a near-crazy Anil to the police station to lodge a complaint. Biren was in jail now for raping Anju. And inside that haunted house, where books with souls created strange noises, a new Anju lived with a constantly growing belly. This new Anju didn’t speak, and often cried silently.
Slopp-slopp-slopp! The sound brought him back to the present. His mother had rushed in and was now standing in front of him, her adult son, in wet clothes that had become translucent. She hadn’t brought her bamboo creel back and looked terrified. When he asked what was wrong, she told him that a rough, hairy hand had pulled her down by the leg while she was bathing in the pond. “I didn’t see it, Anil, but it was a man’s hand. Hairy. It’s the manuscripts, I am telling you.”
Excerpted with permission from the story “For the Greater Common Good” from His Father’s Disease, Aruni Kashyap, Context.