Photo by Wajahat Mahmood (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Aahva had run away from home at 17, packing nothing but some clothes, some food from the kitchen, her dead mother’s diary and three thousand Indian rupees that she had found while rummaging through her father’s drawers. Her father wasn’t rich but he wouldn’t miss the money nor would he, really, miss her. She would not be gone for long anyway. Aahva didn’t know why she was leaving so inconspicuously, her father would probably allow it. She just knew that she wanted to find the spark that her mother had, just before she had hurled herself off a bridge.
‘That night, I felt like it was time for me to leave, I decided to emulate Shankar Lamichhane. I didn’t necessarily carry his pain, I was simply seeking moksha. Something I, obviously, thought I was ready for, and something I, obviously, did not find then.’
Aahva was eight then, she remembers her father crying while her aunts and uncles took care of both of them. Her mother, Ashmita, had never smiled but after the incident, as her family coyly called it, she had begun to smile and laugh. This was welcomed by an eight year old; why would she view this as a bad memory when her mother was happier because of it?
Of course, things are never simple.
Now. Aahva stood in Gongabu waiting for the new bus to Siliguri. She didn’t trust it, but it looked like it might be real. She was there by 2 pm, taking some shelter against the rain, eating some apples she’d stolen from her kitchen. She ate them slowly and thoroughly, knowing full well that she’d have to ration her food, she would have a thousand rupees left after she paid her bus fare. And there was no guarantee that Shanti Mausi was even alive.
The bus arrived half an hour late, at 3:30 pm. It was mid-September, and the monsoon hadn’t let up. Outside the bus window, a thunderstorm brewed in the valley like coffee in a cup. Aahva felt relatively safe inside the new bus, she her light bag into the overhead cabin, she held her mother’s diary with her while she sat. The bus began moving across Kathmandu. She was leaving this city for the first time, and i she would be in a different country; in her mother’s birthland.
‘I think Aahva will always be smaller than I am. She is tinier than all her classmates, it’s precious. I don’t mind it, it means that I will always be bigger and taller than her. And although this would be true regardless, it means that I will always protect her.’
Aahva was in Siliguri a little before 10 in the morning; there too, she was ushered in by the rain and thunder. Her face had gone grey from the tiredness of a long journey, she hadn’t slept a wink, and yet her eyes weren’t heavy. She was used to sleepless nights and dark circles, what she wasn’t used to was travelling anywhere, let alone 500 kms away from home by herself. Siliguri was hotter than she expected so the rain was a welcome distraction; she stood in the middle of the bus park with no idea of her next move. She knew that her mother’s sister’s name was Shanti, she knew that she had been a caretaker of an eccentric doctor, who had stopped practicing for ‘metaphysical reasons’, as her mother wrote in her diary. The doctor came from wealth, therefore had enough money to hole himself up in his mansion on a hill for the rest of his life. And so be it, thought Aahva sincerely, with only thousand rupees to her name.
‘Shanti is happy to be able to earn money while not having to spend it. I talk to her very rarely, but I am glad that she is well-fed, and feels a sense of fulfilment to whatever extent. The Doctor seems like pleasant company in that he doesn’t require much effort, nor does he talk that much.’
Aahva was drenched from head to toe. She stood motionless, paralysed by uncertainty, feeling trapped like a moth stuck within its own madness for the light.
‘Bahini, are you okay?,’ the driver of the bus called out through the smoke of his cigarette. This caused motion to enter Aahva’s life again.
‘I’m fine, dai,’ Aavha lied, and stood under the tin-roof of a teashop, where she was lured in by the charm of a milk tea. Aahva thought that the woman who served her her tea was the proprietor. The woman also spoke Nepali but when Aahva showed her the address she wanted to get to, scrawled in her mother’s charming handwriting in her diary, the lady laughed and said ‘I am from Sikkim, I’m new.’
Aahva now had nine-hundred-ninety rupees, and no further answers. She walked around aimlessly for a while, she was sure Siliguri was beautiful but a bus-park is just a bus-park. She decided she should ask someone else, and went to the counter of a small shop to find a teenaged boy sitting there, listening to the news in what Aahva thought was Bengali.
‘Hello, do you speak Nepali?’
‘Not well,’ said the boy in Nepali, then turned away from her.
‘Do you speak Hindi?’ Aahva asked awkwardly, her Hindi skills would fail her soon, even though her mother’s side of the family were largely Hindi-speaking Indians. The boy nodded to say yes.
‘I am looking for a man, he was a doctor. He hasn’t worked for years, I have heard that he lives on a hill and he has a big house…mansion. This is the address.’
Aahva awkwardly turned the diary.
The boy sighed. ‘Wait here,’ he said and disappeared through the curtains behind him. He brought with him an old woman, he spoke to her in rapid Bengali while pointing at Aahva, which made her feel uncomfortable, so she played with the hem of her kurti.
‘Address?’ the boy asked, and when Aahva held the diary out with the page containing the address unfurled, he practically snatched it away from her. The old woman had a kind voice. She spoke slower, so Aahva could make out some words, although it wasn’t enough to construct a narrative in her head. Before leaving the woman looked at Aahva, pointed at her, and asked ‘Nepal?’, Aahva nodded and added ‘Kathmandu’.
‘Pashupatinath!’, the old woman smiled, displaying her two missing front teeth. She handed Aahva fifty rupees, saying ‘Pashupati,’ then pointed towards herself. ‘Rukmini Chakraborty’. Aahva got the gist of that and said ‘I’ll do it,’ in Hindi, hoping she understood it. The old lady smiled, and left.
The boy had softened a bit. ‘She trusts anybody, my grandmother,’ he said as he paused ‘but listen, my Nani says the man you’re looking for is called Sanjeet Roy, it’s not on top of a hill really, it’s near the base of a hill, on the outskirts of town, a little away from here. Since you seem new here, I suggest you take a cab. I can call up my cousin, he has a cab, he’ll take you there on the meter.’
Aahva nodded. She wrote his grandmother’s name on a piece of paper, and put the 50 rupees with it, in the corner of her bag. It didn’t belong to her.
‘If only my eyes were accustomed to stay still
I’d be able to see every ant in every anthill
Instead, they move around looking for god,
for the holy, looking for someone to pick the ripe words
off the tree of my body,
only It’s so simple, so lovely-
but it dawns on me slowly,
I am the god, and these fingers are holy.’
She hadn’t known her mother was a poet until she left the cab with seven hundred and ninety rupees. She looked around the houses in the area, and one stood out. It was the last house in the cul-de-sac. All the houses were mansions, but this one seemed to be the biggest. She walked towards the house, and read the name plate in front. To her surprise it did not say the doctor’s name but rather said Shanti Bhatt. Her aunt’s name, her mother’s maiden name. She rang the bell. She did not know what to expect but she was nervous, so she played with the hem of her .
‘Yes, who is it?,’ said a woman in Hindi as she exited the house. She wore a red bindi and a peach saree, no doubt this was Shanti Mausi, she looked exactly like Aahva’s mother would have at her age. The image of her mother, although not a perfect one of course, brought tears to her eyes.
‘Mausi,’ Aahva dried her eyes immediately, ‘I’m your sister’s daughter, I’m Ashmita’s daughter.’
Shanti stood still for a while, ‘Ashmita’s daughter?’ Aahva began to inelegantly rummage through her backpack while Shanti walked towards her. She found a few pictures of her mother that she had brought along, a black-and-white photo of her in a frock and two braids holding her older sister’s hand, another photo of hers in colour, wearing a red saree, holding a baby Aahva, a last photo of her staring at the camera with no expression, while Aahva smiled beside her.
‘Aahva?’ Shanti asked.
‘You know my name?’
Shanti began crying, ‘Of course you are, you’re the spitting image of her!’ She opened the gate. ‘My sister’s daughter, the poet’s daughter.’
Aahva walked inside awkwardly, joined her hands and said pranam like her mother had taught her how to. Shanti hugged her instead, ‘Oh my god, you are grown. Look at you, how old are you now?’ Both Shanti and Aahva wordlessly cried in each others’ arms for a while.
‘Shanti is the great love of my life, I miss her so much. She is my sister, my one true confidante. I have been betrayed by both men and women alike, but Shanti, my Shanti I can trust. I haven’t seen her in over a decade, but I know, one day, we will be together forever, I will steal fruit from the neighbour’s garden for her, and we will eat it with joy like we once did.’
She sat with Shanti Mausi sipping tea and eating a lunch of roti and spinach heartily. ‘I didn’t know she wrote poetry’.
‘Oh yes, that’s all she did, she wrote in Hindi, Bengali, English. Talented woman, your mother. What language is her journal in?’
‘Talented woman, your mother.’
Aahva had been in Siliguri for about six hours and her Hindi was already better. Though her family was not native to Siliguri, her mother might as well have been. The baby of the family was born here. Shanti and Ashmita had a 15-year age gap. ‘Your mother, deeply adored by my parents and I, seemingly dropped out of our existences to marry a Nepali man. We didn’t quite know what was going on, but we just thought of it as a poet’s whim and accepted her for it.’
‘Where’s Dr. Roy?’ Aahva asked.
‘He’s been dead for seven years. It’s just me now, in this old haunted house,’ she giggled, ‘Do you want to see your mother’s poems?’
Aahva nodded with excitement, Shanti held her niece’s hand, obviously overcome with love, and led her to a bedroom up the stairs. ‘Is this all your stuff? Okay, good. You can stay here. You see those notebooks on that shelf?’ In the crooked, worn-down shelf that hadn’t been dusted for a while were about 10 notebooks of varying lengths. ‘That’s all your mother’s writing.’
‘Amazing, all of it is poetry?’
‘No, some of them are journals, some are just school notebooks, some are filled with poetry, yes.’
‘It is the longing of a fruit so sweet
It burns my mouth like the sun
and thousand oranges collapsing on top of one another
love, as we make -ourselves-
as we make -each other- more bearable.
we forget, we are mere seedlings
for trees to root out of.’
In the room that Aahva was staying in, the windows faced the back garden, the trees were humungous green things. Since the house was at the base of a hill, the sudden upward growth of the land seemed like it came out of nowhere, almost like it emanated from the back garden. The slope of the hill was close, probably close enough to flick a paper aeroplane at. Aahva stretched her neck out of the window, but she couldn’t really see the sky as the trees and the hill covered it. But she could still hear the sky, it was roaring, aching for release. Then the sky clapped, and the rain started pouring in river quantities. Septembers in Siliguri didn’t seem much different than Septembers in Kathmandu, but in a foreign land she felt more at home than she had in years.
‘Forever, I have waited
for this bird to peck through
my empty lungs
for its feathers to make my ribs a nest.
It could be because my body
never changes dimensions
or because my mind is a wandering box across the darkness
It could be because
I have no gills or fins
or limbs or palms or teeth.
Forever, I have waited
for this silence to drown my agony
for nestless birds, for faithful lovers.
I have waited to receive letters
from god, and now this bird-
a siren, a beacon-
an ambulance of jarring menace
a rickety box across the darkness of time,
it looks like death and feels like nirvana.
I imagine its shape,
Its nest in my soul,
a succulent neon egg;
a fruitless body,
an empty charade.
Because why else would birds gather around forests
if not to discuss emptiness?
Forever, I have waited for
soft, soft cotton.’
In the living room, Shanti laughed tenderly. ‘Look up there, that sparrow,’ Shanti pointed at wooden ceiling, where a sparrow was perched. ‘A sparrow or two is always gathered here in the monsoons.’ Aahva smiled, they looked so soft. Shanti and Aahva made her way to the kitchen.
‘Mausi, do you need help?’
‘No, I’m good, child. Let me make you a big meal.’
‘Please don’t worry yourself.’
‘Nonsense, I’m meeting my daughter for the first time, ‘ Shanti paused, ‘Although I feel like I have known you for all my days, you remind me so much of Ashmita. You’re so shy, just like her. I know you’re a different person, I don’t mean to compare you.’
‘You remind me of her too, Mausi. So much.’
‘Your Hindi is adorable.’
‘You mean terrible.’
Shanti shook her head to say no, but laughed along with Aahva. The rain still poured, and Aahva sat by the kitchen table reading her mother’s poetry, she would occasionally recite bits and pieces to Shanti. Shanti would coo, but not say much, as she chopped onions, tomatoes, vegetables, as she kneaded dough, soaked the rice in water, cleaned the daal. In an hour, Shanti had prepared two types of vegetables, daal, tomato chutney, raita and roti. ‘This is too much,’ Aahva said, but the hungry girl was able to eat plenty. ‘Poor thing, you must have been starving. You can stay here as long you want. Did you call your dad about arriving here?’
‘He doesn’t actually know I came here…’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, I didn’t tell him I was coming here. I sort of ran away, not necessarily permanently. I just wanted to find you.’
Shanti stared at Ashmita for a while, then nodded, ‘Well, that adds up. Is he a good father?’
‘Well, it’s not he’s a bad father. He’s just aloof,’ Aahva said in English. ‘He was a good father, before Aama died. My mother’s death… he disappeared.’
‘Men without their women,’ Shanti murmured. After that, Shanti and Aahva began talking about other things, the books they read, how Aahva had graduated 12th grade a year early. ‘Smart young woman!’ Shanti beamed with pride.
‘Mausi,’ Aahva asked after a few moments of silence, ‘Who was the doctor you worked for?’
‘Dr. Sanjeet Roy was a cardiologist. But I am guessing that’s not what you’re asking.’ Aahva smiled, from the living room they could hear the sparrow flap its wings.
‘I fell in love with Sanjeet,’ Shanti said, surprising Aahva. ‘I was never his caretaker, I just didn’t tell anybody. I don’t know why, I just wanted to keep our relationship a secret. He was twenty years older than I was. I didn’t want to get married, I didn’t like the idea of being a widow. So, it was difficult for us to be living together. Sure, I could have pretended to be married, worn sindoor, but I just didn’t want to. I never saw myself as a wife, I would rather lie about our relationship. And he felt comfortable that way too. I was a caretaker in the sense that he would have starved to death without me, but that’s not that farfetched for most men. This isn’t even Sanjeet’s house, this is my family house. Ashmita was born here.’
‘What about your neighbours, didn’t they know it was your house?’ Aahva asked.
‘No, they didn’t know. I hadn’t lived here for years. I had grown older, and looked much different. The neighbours were mostly different people too. Sanjeet and I also kept to ourselves.’ ‘What about your name, in front of the house?’
She shrugged, ‘They just thought senile old Dr. Roy didn’t even care to change the old placard.’
‘No one knew?’
‘Well except Ashmita, you mother knew.’
Aahva looked at her half-eaten roti for a bit. ‘But in her journal, there are numerous places in which she says that you were his caretaker, and that you live in his house.’
‘Aahva, daughter, your mother was always better at writing fiction.’
‘My mother told me she was dirt poor growing up!’ Aahva said, looking around her.
Shanti laughed, ‘Yes, your mother’s fictions were sometimes cruel.’
Aahva wondered what else were lies. She knew one thing for certain though, the gentle and sweet way in which her mother wrote about Shanti was not fiction. ‘Why did the doctor stop practicing, my mother’s journal just says some metaphysical reason.’ Shanti cackled at that, ‘How vague. I could tell you, but you would think I’ve gone mad. It’s best if you experience it.’ Aahva had felt nothing but warmth with Shanti, but in that moment she recalled a side of her own mother that she had buried deep. A menacing side. Aahva still had many questions, but nonetheless, she let it go. The hours of sleeplessness finally caught up to Aahva, and she said her goodbyes to her aunt. Shanti just smiled at her.
‘I miss the house I grew up in, I miss the hill we have for a neighbour. I miss the trees, so large, so alive. They were my friends. I must have spent years of my life just talking to them like a mad woman. They never said anything to me, but I could still hear their voice.’
Aahva put her head on the pillow and fell asleep instantly. She slept dreamlessly for a while, but in the middle of the night the thunder woke her up. Her curtains were left undrawn, she could see the back garden sporadically light up with each lightning strike. She looked out the window, noticing something minute. She wouldn’t have been able to describe it, it was like something was breathing. But it wasn’t a figure. Aahva felt deeply unsettled, but decided to push her luck and turn on the lights. She took careful steps to where the switch was, and whimpered a bit. When she turned on the light, she let out a scream. Shy Aahva had never made that loud a sound. Shanti came rushing in, she was still wearing the peach saree, she hadn’t changed because she hadn’t gone to bed. Shanti held Aahva in her arms. ‘It’s all right, it’s nothing to be scared of’.
The trees had moved closer, Aahva was certain. They had moved, all of them were lined outside her bedroom window. It was like they were breathing, and staring directly at her. The difference was so minute, but no one would’ve missed it. We always know when we’re being looked at.
‘Mausi,’ Aahva stuttered, ‘What’s happening?’
Shanti looked at Aahva, ‘I wish I could tell you. I don’t know, I honestly don’t. But it’s normal, at this point, even natural. It has been happening for years. It’s nothing to be scared of, they do nothing.’
‘They…they being the trees? Mausi, I feel so heavy.’
‘I know it seems strange, but that’s just the way it’s been. Since… since your mother’s suicide attempt. This is how it’s been.’
Aahva stared at Shanti, then fainted.
‘I am like a moment suspended through water, opaque and heavy. I am like a sailboat, too in love with the sea to think of the dock.’
‘How exactly did your mother die?’ Shanti asked Aahva. In Shanti’s room now, Aahva was still rocking back and forth with fear. Shanti rubbed Aahva’s back. ‘It’ll be all right.’ The curtains were drawn.
Aahva tried to regain her composure. ‘She died of pneumonia. Didn’t you know?’
‘I did get news of her death. I knew it was an illness, I was grateful that it wasn’t her own attempt. But I didn’t know what illness. Imagine, she survived a fall that should’ve been fatal, only to die from an illness that’s basically the flu.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Aahva said, once again, then began to whisper, ‘The trees started moving after Aama jumped from the bridge.’
‘That’s right. Look, your mother was always going on about her connection with her surroundings. She was always a strange child, obviously very intelligent but also very ill. After she ran away with your father, something that was unnecessary, we became even more concerned for her mental health. She would come home frequently. She looked happier, more stable. She would still spend hours in the backyard but we let that go. She seemed healthy. But then both my parents died a year apart from each other, and Ashmita stopped visiting. She had you, too. I wanted to see my niece, I should have come to Kathmandu but something stopped me. We would write each other letters frequently and we’d call each other as much as possible, especially when we both got mobile phones. Somehow I didn’t feel like I missed her so much, I felt like she was always there with me. When I heard about your mother’s suicide attempt, I don’t know, I was taken aback. I never expected it. I heard her voice through the phone, it was delirious. She kept talking about spirits and the everlasting connection she had with the hill and trees. I thought she’d finally snapped. But then, then of course…’
‘The trees started to move,’ Aahva offered.
‘A week after her attempt, the trees started to move.’
‘Is that why Dr. Roy quit medicine?’
‘Yes, he felt a connection to them I could not. He said he was done with the real world, that he could feel his time coming to an end anyway. He wanted it to spend it with me. I could not feel this connection, or I could but I chose to ignore it, refused to give it any power because I didn’t want to admit that I would be losing Sanjeet and your mother in a few years.’
‘Your mother sent a rather foreboding letter. Let me show you.’
Shanti stood up and opened her cupboard, she reached for the top shelf and took out a plain, small wooden box. Shanti handed the box to Aahva. ‘Look inside.’
Aahva looked inside, there was a singular piece of paper. It was a letter from her mother to Shanti.
‘Dear Shanti, I know how distraught you must feel. I did too. I thought I had finally achieved the thing I desired most in the world: an escape from this physical body. But of course, I was wrong. I thought I knew what that meant, I thought I had failed. But no sooner had I begun feeling that way, the actual answer became clear. I have achieved moksha, it just isn’t my time to receive it. My time comes soon, I will have to do nothing. I will have to take no action. Just know this, I love you, sister. I have always considered you to have tethered my sanity. It is not my time right now, but three months after my daughter’s 10th birthday, it will be. Till then I will spend all the time I can expressing my gratitude to the people that matter, that is my daughter and my husband. But mostly, my dear older sister, it is you that deserves my gratitude, it is you that matters.’
Aahva read this letter a few more times before nodding and putting the letter back in the box. Shanti put the box in the cupboard. Aahva walked towards the windows, opened the curtains. The trees stared.
‘Was my mother a headache as a child?’
Shanti laughed, ‘You have no idea.’
Aahva felt like she would explode. She had read a Hindi poem written by her mother when she was 13, it made its way inside of her body.
‘Another intelligence found
not just another clothed fool
But another voice, come rain
come winter, a consciousness
extending, living forever,
It is found.’
‘Who thinks like this when they’re 13?’ Aahva thought to herself. At 4 am, she was finally ready to fall asleep again, curtains closed. She fell in and out of sleep. In her sleep she would feel like her mother, she would experience the dissonance between the real world and the world she felt pass her by. But once awake, she would again cease to understand what that meant. In her dreams, she also saw her mother’s words float in her head. Sometimes she saw them in 13-year-old Ashmita’s handwriting, but Ashmita no longer existed in that form, nor in any human form. So her words, as in protest, also began to be jumbles. Aahva saw, in her dreams, floating words, blacked out and changed. Its already cryptic meaning, made worse; the poem in her dream stood in complete contradiction to the original poem. But it made sense to Aahva’s lucid self.
not just another fool
But just another voice, come rain
come winter, a consciousness
extending narrowing, living dying forever,
It is found always lost.’
After a while, she memorised this version in her sleep. Then stopped dreaming, and woke up 10 hours later, at 3 pm. She felt well rested but empty.
Shanti didn’t talk while Aahva relayed her dream. They were drinking tea again, the only other sound was Shanti slurping her tea, while playing with the spoons. ‘My version wasn’t even good, it was just depressing for no reason. The original poem was written by a 13 year old, so things are excused.’
Shanti broke her silence to laugh, ‘You’re 17.’ Aahva grinned and shrugged. Shanti fell silent again, but the silence was forced. It was like she had wanted to say something but couldn’t.
‘Just say it, Mausi.’ Aahva said.
‘Your mother’s poems do that. Not…not on their own. But for reason, in this house, it works like a spell. I have dreamt of her words ever since she was a child, only of course, they come to be convoluted too. Sanjeet also experienced that.’
‘Is this house haunted?’ Aahva asked bluntly.
‘I wish it were that simple,’ Shanti replied, ‘It’s not. It’s not haunted, really. Not by ghosts anyway, not in the way we understand it. I lied yesterday.’
‘When you asked if the neighbours hadn’t noticed me, the owner of this house, staying here under the guise of a caretaker. Well, it’s not that they did, because they didn’t. But it’s not because I look older and different, it’s because this house is somehow charmed. Like it’s wearing camouflage, everyone can see the house, of course, but it just gives off a different perception to others. It’s like it’s sentient.’
‘But I was able to recognise it.’
‘You are not others.’
‘This is bizarre.’
‘But do you believe it? You have no other choice, do you?’
‘You’re right, I have no other choice but to believe it. Why else would I want to come here like this? And I can feel the house, I can feel it watch me. Does that sound strange?’
‘No, that’s what I’ve felt for the past 40 years.’
‘But it doesn’t seem to like me very much.’ Aahva added.
‘Who? the house? Well, it probably likes you, it just wants to remind you that you’re not Ashmita. It keeps reminding me of that.’
‘Great, another house that reminds me over and over again that I’m not my mother. Mausi, how have you not gone mad? Living here, first with my mother, then with Sanjeet, then alone? How?’
‘Oh my child, of course I’ve gone mad.’ Shanti shot Aahva a menacing grin that sent shivers down her spine. Her Mausi was a kind woman, she would give Aahva some money if she asked, she knew that. She would ask soon, and leave. She had to make a visit to Pashupatinath anyway, but perhaps she’d make the visit for herself, too.
‘Mausi, would you like to come with me?’ Aahva asked after Shanti handed her three thousand rupees.
‘No, my child. I haven’t left the house in a decade.’
Aahva had many questions. Like where did the fresh vegetables come from? But she decided to keep quiet.