On seeing Chandan quite still, she continued her monologue, “You are lucky that the guru was at the big cremation grounds in Shivpukur that day and was meditating under a tree. On seeing you coming flying down, the people who had come to attend Navendu Ghoshal’s son’s cremation ran away screaming ‘Ghost-Ghost’, so the guru carried you on his shoulders and knocked on the door at midnight; it was I who opened the door. At first, I got scared. The guru had never brought a corpse home to meditate on, then why did he get one today? Then, after putting you in bed, he started screaming for Maya. That wretched Maya is lost to the world after a few drags of marijuana. When she failed to wake up, he told me, ‘Look Charan, had she fallen near the pyre on Amavas, it would have been a gift to the ashram. A burning pyre and virgin Apoorva’s at that, who had died young. Even then, god has dropped this Bhairavi on us as an offering, in the middle of the cremation grounds and that too at the Shivpukur’s grand cremation grounds, where there is always a pyre burning, be it day or night. You have to look after her, understood?’ And I sat by your side all night. To be honest, I had started thinking that I was keeping watch on a corpse. The guru often prays through corpses; I thought maybe he was thinking of worshipping through the medium of this young girl, but when I kept my hand on your chest, I realised you weren’t dead.”
“Is this a math?” Chandan asked in a low voice and the black girl hugged her. “So, you are not mute. Why did you make me think you couldn’t speak?”
“When did you give me the chance to utter a word?” Chandan laughed this time. She was speaking the truth. This talkative girl hadn’t given her a chance to speak. “What is your name?” Chandan spoke again.
“Charan, Charandasi. What’s yours?” Her laugh lit up her dark face. The sweet smile on that large mouth travelled up her sharp nose and adorned her huge eyes as if with kohl.
“Matches with the colour of your skin. How are you so fair? Were your parents English?”
“Why?” Chandan started laughing. The simple question had distracted her from her backache.
“This one time, Maya Didi had gone to Naimisharanya to meet her old friends from her old akhada. One guard used to bring his mad daughter there to have ash put on her. She was light-skinned like you. That guard was Nikhalis Sahab, his wife was absolutely black and the daughter so fair that even a touch would blemish her. Ok, I should go. If Maya Didi came by, she’d get angry with me.” Tucking the end of her sari in her waist, she left.
Chandan was left alone. She wanted to pass out again. An unknown fear kept her in its grip. How could she run away, even if she wanted to?
Dense forests all around, the large cremation ground in front of her with its arms wide open, an unknown place, strange companions! And then, how could she run away in her weakened state? She tried to stand with the support of the headboard. Her legs started shaking after a couple of steps. She sat on the bed panting, but was happy that her backbone was not broken. Had it been damaged, could she have taken even a step steadily?
She stood up again. This time she walked to the door using the wall as a support. Confident, she walked back to the bed with steady steps. Her back still hurt but the bone didn’t hurt like before. She would be able to regain her muscle strength by walking thus alone, she felt certain. On gathering this sweet fact, she lay down again, happy.
Her eyes went suddenly to a basket tied in a dark-coloured cloth. The lid of the basket seemed to be moving as if by magic. The lid fell off all of a sudden as if by an unseen force and the small knots of the cloth were pushed undone as a black shimmery snake emerged with its fangs out, making smacking noises.
Chandan sat coiled tight and trembling with fear. The snake started hissing and crawling about the room. Chandan couldn’t help letting out a scream. A statue came and stood at the doorstep on hearing her.
“What’s the matter?” She was shocked to hear the question posed in English. Ash smeared all over the body, shoulder-length hair in dreadlocks, some of which were golden and some grey, bloodshot eyes and the body naked.
“Why were you screaming?”
This time the question was answered by the hiss of the snake.
“Oh!” The serious countenance of the man dissolved into laughter at that. What a strange laugh, as if someone had dropped a boulder from the top of a tall mountain. “Bhole’s voice seems to have scared you.”
He walked in long strides to the basket. It appeared as if he had forgotten about Chandan’s presence.
“Does my son need food? It seems that that greedy Charan has drunk his share of the milk again today. The brass bowl isn’t enough for my son. Isn’t that what you are complaining about?” Chandan’s heart was racing. It wasn’t Charan who had drunk the milk in the brass bowl but her.
“Let Charan come back.” He was saying, “Bite her dark body today and make it darker, ok?” Then, he picked up the snake from the basket and started rubbing it over his naked chest and stroking it as if it really were his beloved child. He coiled the mock- complaining snake around his neck and reassuring it lovingly and stroking it, went outside.
“I will feed my son sweet milk.”
Will that naked man feed his son and bring him back here to sleep? And what if he planted his bloodshot eyes and his long locks with his fierce visage in front of the helpless, prone Chandan’s face? What would she do? The snake-charmer was no less fearsome than the snake. She hadn’t been able to see his face properly. All she had seen were the bloody eyes and the ash-smeared chest. Had there been another door in the cave, she would have exerted all her willpower to run away. But if she takes the door he had taken, she would perhaps bump right into him.
Excerpted with permission from Bhairavi: The Runaway, Shivani, translated from the Hindi by Priyanka Sarkar.