A prayer call pierced the cool evening air. It had rained, and the street outside was washed clean of the dust and filth it was perpetually cluttered with. From the grated window of his room, Ninad watched the water dribble off the leaves of the glistening elm onto the cramped veranda of his house. Plink, plink, plink. He counted each bead as it fell into the expanding puddle. It was day thirteen of his confinement, Ninad reminded himself as he eyed the reflection of the crumbling eaves of his home in the pool of water. Thirteen days since he felt it, a queer sort of nothingness, like a dark orifice was present at his very core, sucking away his vitality.
The priest from the adjacent lane had been called to check on him on the fifth day of his confinement, and then on the eighth day came the Bengali doctor with his bag of assorted tablets and syrups. But neither herbal pills nor prayers seemed to cure his malaise, so on day twelve, the Ojha was sent for. The Ojha baba was a stringy bearded man clad in a saffron dhoti dress, who, after taking one look at the boy, had gasped and ushered the parents out of the room before securely bolting the door behind him. Ninad’s haggard-looking mother later informed him that the healer would be back in a day or two with a definitive remedy for his condition. The young man received this information, as reported by his mother to her anxious husband, rather impassively.
In fleeting moments of clarity, Ninad understood there was something odd about his confinement, if one could call it that. But he lay in bed, a shroud of ennui enfolding him, with no desire to learn whether he really was being detained. Ever since he was a little boy, he had felt this nebulous shift in him come summer. He distinctly remembered the first time it had happened. He was around eleven years old and lying in the same bed on a similar uneventful evening, staring blankly at the roof. Then the strange sinking feeling which he had now become familiar with washed over him like a tidal wave, suddenly turning his world into a sepia-toned purgatory. This alteration over the years mostly presented itself to those around him as a heavy lassitude. His parents and relatives had a simpler explanation for his conduct: good old-fashioned laziness! He had accepted this and was even glad for such an explanation; it relieved him of the painful task of making sense of it all. However, with each passing year, the duration of this state became longer and increasingly perplexing. He had started to wait with rising disquiet and an exhausting consistency for the other shoe to drop. Ninad was now twenty-one, and it seemed to him that the time had finally arrived. This time he felt he would remain in his slump forever, and he knew that his parents could sense it too.
A tepid plate of rice and lentils lay untouched on the bedside table, the smell of warm spices and raw onions dispersed across his tiny room by the sluggish ceiling fan. ‘Did he have his dinner?’ His father’s gruff voice drifted through his bedroom door. Another voice—timid and muffled—responded. His mother sounded worried. She always sounded worried. But he didn’t care anymore. He couldn’t even if he wanted to. He had no strength left in him.
On the fourteenth day, Ninad woke to find a yellow-green lemon tucked underneath his pillow, an attempt by his parents, it appeared, to ward off Jyeshtha, the goddess of misfortune. Faintly irked by the sight of the small fruit and his parents’ gullibility, he tossed the lemon under his bed. As the day progressed, things got stranger. His parents had not bothered to check on him even once that day, and neither had he been served his usual breakfast or lunch of rotis and vegetables. At six, just as the sun had begun to set on the ancient town, he heard a feeble knock on his door. His mother, her face pale and pinched, entered his room without waiting for his response. A bundle of neem leaves trembled in her right hand, and she clutched a brass loban burner in her left. Eyeing him with a synthesis of terror, love and pity, the woman, with her naked feet pattering uneasily on the cold stone floor, circled the room, diffusing the dhoop smoke with the wad of leaves. Within a few minutes, the air inside his cramped bedroom became heavy with incense fumes, slowly filling his nostrils, mouth and larynx, stinging his partly closed eyes. A prostrate and indolent Ninad, from the corner of his watering eyes, watched his mother shield her mouth from the holy fumes with her stole while performing the purification. He knew what his parents were trying and was slightly piqued by it. But he found neither the interest nor the inclination in him to say anything. Instead, he rolled over to his side and returned to stare at the lime-plastered wall abutting his bed. His mother began mumbling an inane charm—a hymn or a spell. He didn’t know which. Her large brown eyes with faint shadows underneath watched him from the threshold of his room for any signs of an unnatural presence. The haze from the dhoop had cleared up, and as the rhythmic flow of the incantation his mother recited strangely comforted him, Ninad drifted off to sleep.
He rose early the next morning from a deep slumber on the living room floor. The first thing he noted was the bewildering admixture of sounds and smells. Then he caught a loud squawking and flapping of wings near his foot. Though a bit bleary-eyed, Ninad managed to identify a fairly irate rooster staring at him through the smoke from a ritual fire. The Ojha, who had visited him two days ago, stood over him. He was holding the creature upside down by its shanks. The sparse wooden furniture had been moved to a corner, and a blazing havan kund now occupied the centre of the living room. It filled their small house with its smoky, fiery haze.
Ninad’s mother coughed from across the kund, the lower half of her anxious and mousy face hidden behind her dupatta. His father sat cross-legged next to his wife, watching his son being purged of evil spirits with an expression that was firm yet befuddled.
‘LEAVE!’ bellowed the healer, glaring at Ninad with his small malignant eyes as he commenced his jhaar-phook. He shook the poor inverted rooster threateningly at Ninad. Tickled by the absurdity of the scene, the young man began to laugh.
‘Aah! It shows itself! Look how the evil spirit laughs at us’, the Ojha spoke with a satisfied expression, nodding to the parents who had gone from looking tense to thoroughly terrified. The mother cowered behind her dupatta. She rapidly muttered a prayer under her breath while the father, with his eyes bulging, receded to the furthest edge of the room. Ninad found their behaviour ridiculous, and it annoyed him to see them partake in this ‘silly spectacle’. He glared at his father, wanting to convey his displeasure, but the rooster was shoved indecorously into his face before he could open his mouth. The visibly flustered bird thrashed its wings, striking him while screeching in his ears.
‘LEAVE!’ the Ojha roared once more.
Pushing the dangling bird aside, Ninad coolly responded, ‘Where do you want me to go, sir?’
‘It talks back to me’, the healer scoffed.
‘Leave my son alone!’ the father suddenly yelled at Ninad.
‘But I am your son’, he countered. His father’s eyes almost fell out of their sockets, and his mother appeared to have collapsed in a dead faint. As Ninad watched the poor woman crumple to the floor, her dupatta sliding sloppily off her head, he wondered if he ought to play along and have it over with. After all, resistance was never an ideal mode of engagement in his family.
After a moment of deliberation, Ninad sank back onto the floor and allowed the angry fowl to be brandished at him.
‘I can feel the spirit in my control now’, the healer reassured the parents. He mistook Ninad’s compliance for the submission of an imaginary preternatural force. Ninad’s attention was drawn to the set of eager faces pressed against the kitchen window, a hideous sort of excitement animating their generally vapid appearance. The neighbours want in on the fun, he thought dispassionately. By now, his mother had recovered herself with his father’s assistance and was now sobbing noisily into her stole.
Sudden exhaustion washed over him; all he wanted in that moment was to close his eyes and make it all disappear. The squawking, chanting, sputtering fire and crying floated away into the distance. Ninad’s body sunk deeper into the ground; his limbs were slack with stupor. As he was on the verge of nodding off, he was rudely awakened by the Ojha, who had seized a clump of his hair and tried to rouse him by lugging on it.
Ninad hissed in pain and decided he had had enough. He struck at the healer’s wily bearded face. This only seemed to excite the man further, for the Ojha sprang back from the boy’s reach and proceeded to hop on one foot, performing a sort of ritual dance with the rooster still flopping from his hand. Ninad’s bewildered parents slowly started to inch towards the room’s exit.
‘Confounded spirit! You try to lay hands on a holy man?’ The Ojha danced. Whoosh! Whoosh! He pranced about the empty lounge. Ninad’s parents now peeped into the room from a small window between the lounge and the foyer, unable to watch the fracas in its entirety or look away. A neighbour’s loud whooping could be heard from behind the kitchen window.
Bouncing his way to the havan kund, the healer stuck out his hairy arm and extracted a long iron rod from the centre of the crackling flames. He then lifted the rooster and jabbed it in the rump with the hot metal bar. A few petrifying shrieks and a lot of writhing about later, the Ojha released the bird from his grasp and set it about in Ninad’s direction. The boy had been watching the unfortunate animal being tortured in silent horror and was now confronted with an unhinged bird flying towards him, its beady infernal eyes wild with frenzy.
The Ojha darted out of the living room, away from the rooster’s path of attack, and fastened the door shut behind him. The parents and the faith healer observed the events unfold from the small window. With nowhere to retreat, Ninad sprinted about the constricted space in circles, the livid chicken not too far from his heels pecking viciously at his calves. As he was being chased, he recalled a friend once telling him that the best way to fend off an aggressive bird, a raven in his mate’s case, was to appear larger and more menacing than the creature. So, he raised his arms and waved them around violently, hoping to confuse the animal.
This is insane, Ninad decided after a few unsuccessful rounds of flapping about and hopped onto a wooden settee. Armed with a throw pillow, he shooed away the bird, forcefully swinging it at its snapping beak. But the rooster persisted; it soared at him and attacked him with its spurs. Weary, bruised and fed up with the whole ruckus, Ninad aimed a firm kick at the bird’s breast. When his foot hit the breast, the rooster flew across the room and landed—ruffled and injured—against the wall.
Before he could take a moment to feel sorry for the animal, the living room door was thrust open, and in came the Ojha with Ninad’s father bounding over. The men caught hold of him by the shoulder and dragged him over to where the battered rooster lay. Meanwhile, his mother watched on tearfully from a distance.
‘The spirit is on the verge of leaving. I can feel it. The boy must bite into the bird and transfer the evil force into its body’, the healer said while grabbing the limp fowl by its nape and shoving it under Ninad’s nose.
‘Just bite it, son! Get it over with’, his father pleaded. Ninad watched his mother’s petrified eyes looking at him, imploring him to end everyone’s agony. He felt the strength leave his body. Wanting nothing more than to return to his bed, he capitulated and sank his teeth into the unfortunate rooster’s neck.
Ninad stepped out of the State Road Transport bus and into the summer noon air. After a vexing cross-state journey, the dawdling conveyance deposited him at a stop a few streets away from his parent’s home. He could hear the rickshaw bells ringing in the streets and the clamour of the town roads and markets in the distance. Ninad trudged through the narrow lanes of the old city, one hand wheeling an olive suitcase while the other clutched the strap of his rucksack nervously. Almost two summers had passed since he had left home. Two summers since he had decided to bear his disquiet in peace, in the comforting isolation of a bustling metropolis. Two summers since he had spoken to his parents.
He walked up to the iron gates of his former residence, a crumbling single-storeyed structure with peeling ochre walls located at the bazaar’s intersection. A neighbour jogged up the driveway to receive him. Other acquaintances had assembled in the living room, anxiously awaiting his arrival. As he entered the familiar space and made his way to the empty wooden settee, Ninad noted that a deep, viscous stillness had permeated the house.
‘They’re resting. I’m not sure if we should wake them up right now’, the aunty who lived next door whispered.
‘We should. When they see him, they will surely snap out of whatever trance they’re in’, another aunty commented.
‘What did they say when they spoke to you on the phone last week, son?’ the uncle who had whooped during his ritual purification asked.
‘Nothing’, Ninad responded.
‘Nothing? Not even a namaste or a hello?’
‘Not a word!’
‘It seems worse than we thought then’, the aunty from next door said.
‘Son…I hope you don’t mind me asking. But do you suppose it could be the same… uhm…thing that troubled you a few years ago?’ asked another uncle.
Ninad didn’t respond immediately. Through the kitchen casement window, he observed a bicycle pass by the house. It was loaded with a bundle of tightly packed fowls, hung upside down from the crossbar by their feet. The sight stirred something in him. Emptiness and agitation suddenly swept through Ninad, and he felt an intense desire to run away from it all. Odd, how one could feel everything and nothing at the same time. Though the two years away had provided him with some solace, he never truly felt rid of the ominous shadow that had trailed him since his youth. And here in his childhood home, he sensed it again, stronger, harsher. Had his parents and neighbours been right all along? Could it be that his family was cursed, their house cursed?
‘Should we call the priest, son? Or the Ojha baba? I’ve seen him around the neighbourhood’, the uncle continued.
Ninad felt the shift again inside him, a familiar alteration. ‘Call the Ojha’, he finally said.
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