Long after I had fallen asleep, there is a light knock on the door.
I wake with a start. Who could it be? Suddenly I am nervous. I continue to sit there, reluctant to get up. I yearn for the person on the other side, whoever he may be, to go away.
The sound of knocking grows louder. I pretend that I am far away. With every passing second, I feel the knocks grow more urgent and the knocking hand closing in on me. The noise swells and spreads helter-skelter throughout the pitch-dark room.
I keep staring at the door, with absolutely no intention of opening it. When I can no longer put it off, I am overcome by fear. No one will knock on our door at midnight without good reason, just to chat about tomorrow’s lunch or how the servant girl had not come in that day. Bad news is more than likely.
In the past, news delivered like this at midnight was always horrible, vitiating the atmosphere in our house. These days, just a simple knock on the door is enough to scare me. Staying awake night after night, waiting for a knock on the door, has turned into an unbearable ordeal.
Suddenly a light floods the whole room, disturbing my train of thought.
“Wretch! You’re sitting here wide awake, and you won’t open the door?”
He yells in anger because his sleep has been interrupted, and goes to open the door. Sleep is more important to him than anything else.
Each step he takes towards the door feels like a tremor inside me. Wonder what news awaits us on the other side! “Ya Allah!” My heart whimpers and writhes in fear. I want to rush forward and grab his hand to stop him from opening the door.
He draws the latch back noisily, not caring that the child might wake up. I can hear someone from outside speaking to him in a soft tone. Unable to understand the low whisper, I try to listen with all my concentration. I crane my neck from the bed to sneak a look at the speaker. I imagine I can infer the news by merely looking at the face. His silhouette is hiding the person entirely from my view. I get up from the bed to ask him what the problem is. No matter how hard I try my body slumps back, drained of all strength.
I close my eyes, unable to bear the excitement, and pray to god. The news that will reach me in just a little while – who will it be about, what will it do to me? I recall the book I am halfway through. I remember Amma. How am I going to endure this? I see everyone’s face flash before me and vanish instantly.
He steps out of the room. He is speaking to someone from the telephone in the hall. To whom, it is not clear. I feel suffocated, find it very difficult to breathe. My whole body seems to be roiling in fright.
Earlier messages had evoked fear rather than sorrow in me: a constant fear. Fear is a stronger emotion than grief. This message tonight could upturn everything in my world. Now he comes back into the room, picks his shirt off the hanger, puts it on and steps out.
“What is it?” I ask him urgently. My voice sounds very feeble.
Without turning towards me, he says, “Nothing.” He bolts the door from outside and walks away. His reply is disdainful, as usual. His scorn has always provoked me to anger or tears. But now, unlike in the past, I feel relieved. I feel strong, even. If the news was terrible, he wouldn’t have been scornful. His reply even makes me happy.
That state of mind lasts barely a few seconds before another doubt surfaces in my mind. His ‘nothing’ could also signify protective concern. Did he say “nothing” only because the news had to be hidden from me? If that were true, then...
Fear returns and clings to me again. I am close to breaking down. If I had looked at his face, there would have been no scope for confusion. Angry at my lapse, I scold myself.
If I had heard the voice, things would have been clear to some extent. My mind was focused not on learning the news but on avoiding it. My head aches. I hold my head tight with both hands.
I don’t know what time it is. What’s the use of knowing, anyway? The sound of a stray dog howling outside the window gives me the shivers. I am distraught when I recall that a howling dog is a bad omen. Hearing the dog howl, a few more dogs join in with fierce howls of their own. One by one, their separate howls meld into a relentless wail. I don’t know where so many dogs could have come from.
There’s no choice but to keep staring at the door till he comes back. My gaze refuses to remain steady. Why, why, why...the question seems to reverberate inside my skull.
Darkness has invaded everything. Suddenly, I feel as though I am inside a ramshackle cave. Like a fly trapped in a spider’s web, I am gripped by fear and my body grows limp. My mouth is muttering repeatedly, “Ya Allah! Save me.”
My body grows stiff from having sat still for so long in restless anxiety, and breaks into a sweat. I hear the sound of the room’s door being opened. This is the moment when the mystery that surrounds me is going to dissolve. He comes into the room, unbuttoning his shirt.
He latches the door and goes to bed without saying anything. I turn on the light, wanting to hear the details. The darkness which had filled the room just a while ago disappears in an instant. He has closed his eyes in an attempt to go to sleep, and shouts angrily, “You wretch! Don’t spoil my sleep. Turn off the light.”
Without a word, I switch off the light. Darkness, which was waiting outside, has crept into the room stealthily, without making a sound. It has spread itself above our heads, on the roof-beams, our bodies, and particularly his face. Darkness has a very strong appeal. It rests comfortably under my bed where no light can enter, and gazes at me.
I sit there wondering whether I should ask him or not. How long can I stay like this, gripped by fear and anxiety? I must of course face the consequences of unravelling the mystery – if not now, later! What am I going to achieve by deferring such knowledge until later? I feel as though the tension and fear are about to kill me.
“What’s the matter? Where did you go?”
He abruptly turns to me.
“Won’t you just drop it? I’ve told you it’s nothing! Don’t ask me unnecessary questions and plague the life out of me! How she nags all the time! Wretch!”
After yelling at me, he turns over and goes to sleep. The contempt in his voice is at its peak.
The peace that descends from somewhere brings me relief. “Allah,” I mutter to myself. Since the anxiety is completely gone, I am feeling calmer. Fine, I don’t have to feel afraid anymore. I can try to sleep. But the locked door frightens me. The street dogs’ howling has not stopped yet.
Let the door stay open. For me to live unafraid, the door must be open. If this fear persists, I feel like I might go insane.
I wake him. He is already fast asleep.
“What?” he asks in irritation.
“Why don’t we keep the door open?” I suggest diffidently.
Uncomprehending, he asks, “Why?”
“Just like that.”
“Why do you pester me like this in the middle of the night? If anyone comes to hear of this, they will spit on you. Can’t you sleep with the door locked?”
After shouting at me, he goes back to sleep. I remain sitting there, and feel no urge to reply.
Excerpted with permission from The Curse, Salma, translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman, Speaking Tiger.