Here’s an uncanny story from Madhumita. Three-day long rains had inundated the locality where the young couple stayed. The lady of the house cooked khichudi (rice and lentil porridge) and crisp onion munchies and eggplant fritters. Her husband joked about having hilsa fries with it. Find out what happened after they had hilsa, in this interesting ghost story, a weekly column of the author, exclusively for Different Truths.
It rained like never before. It had been raining since the last three days, incessantly, steady heavy downpours punctuated with short spells of sharp and smart drizzles. The sky was permanently clothed in dark nimbus clouds and it was evening all day during the day. The road was transformed into a canal where rowing boats sailed, boats borrowed from the three rowing clubs nearby. Good Samaritans of the locality, manning the boats, delivered essential supplies like milk, bread and vegetables to families that needed those.
I had enough stock, my husband being of a very particular and responsible kind, always playing it safe so he never had to face any emergency or critical situation. He had gone to visit our neighbours on the sixth floor where he had found his partner of chess. He was an Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the university and had happily taken casual leave for as long as the rains would go on, he had announced. My parents-in- law were in Mumbai visiting her daughter. Alone at home, I made myself a cup of strong ginger tea and stood at the balcony of our ninth floor flat looking down at the city turned Venice. I was quite enjoying this privacy, having the entire house to myself, doing as I pleased. Married for barely two years, I was expected to behave as the most perfect, docile and obedient daughter-in- law. My ma-in- law never imposed any restrictions on me though and baba was the most gracious person I had ever known. He was even better than my own father. Even then, I kept to my limits and gave my new set of parents their due respect, listening to their advice and obeying them as situations demanded. But I liked this new freedom immensely. At other times perhaps I would have sulked for Palash to rush to play chess, leaving me alone at home behind. But today I happily let him go, reminding him to not forget lunch time. I would be cooking khichudi, I told him. And hilsa fries with it? He had asked. Yes hilsa. They’re swimming down there, in the canal down there. I’ll go catch some and fry those for you. I rolled my eyes in mock anger and shut the front door once he was in the lift car.
It was past twelve when the khichudi was almost done. I made a batter of gram flour and sliced eggplants and chopped onions to make fritters, crisp munchies as accompaniment to the rice and lentil porridge we Bengalis so love to have on rainy days. As I wiped my watering eyes, smarting with the pungent scent of onions, the bell rang. Knife in hand, I opened the door. No it wasn’t Palash. A middle-aged man stood there, dripping wet, a plastic bag in his hand. He was Palash’s uncle. My ma-in- law’s brother.
Didi? Where is Didi?
Come in, Mama (maternal uncle). Ma isn’t here. She has gone to Mumbai, to Pratima’s place.
Baba too. Please come in.
Hold this, Bouma. There’s hilsa for you all. Too bad Didi isn’t here. She loves hilsa fish. I had promised her to treat her when she would go to Birpur next. Birpur is our ancestral home, your Shashuri has told you I hope. But that is not to be. I mean, she might go perhaps but I wouldn’t be there. I mean…well forget it. Now take it to the kitchen. Since she isn’t here, I’m afraid you’ll have to cook. Hope you can cook, can you? Mama spoke without a pause. I marveled at the coincidence. Palash had joked about having hilsa with the khichudi, knowing fully well there wasn’t any in the fridge. I took the bag from him and ushered him into the room.
You’re all wet. Where’s your umbrella? And why did you venture out on this terrible day? You could have phoned. I would have told you to come another day. Ma isn’t home plus it’s a deluge out here.
Another day? How could I come another day? Polu wanted to have hilsa today, didn’t he? So here I am!
Palash wanted to have hilsa! How did you know that? I was surprised beyond measure. It was uncanny.
Mama had brought the fish, cut into pieces and cleaned. It was a big fish. So I used some to make a curry with mustard paste and rice to go with it and fried some. Palash had returned and was happy to see his uncle. He took out a kurta and pajama from his wardrobe and sent Mama to the washroom to change.
We had a most delicious meal, the three of us. The fish was fresh and full of flavor and taste, just as it used to be during his childhood days, Palash said. The hilsa had lost its flavor because of the pollutants in the river was Mama’s opinion. The rain became more intense and the buildings across the street were barely visible. There was nothing to do and nothing to see outside. Palash sent his uncle to the guest room and suggested we all sleep to help us digest the heavy meal.
I woke up into darkness. The room was so dark it seemed it was midnight. I got up and switched on the lights. The clock on the wall showed six. I woke Palash up and went to the kitchen to make tea. I wondered why we slept so long. Must be the heavy lunch, I thought as I put three heaped spoonful of tea into the teapot and poured the hot water into it. The rain had stopped but the sky was still overcast, a uniform ominous orange looking down upon us. I placed the three cups with saucers on a tray along with a plate of biscuits and went to the drawing room. Palash was already there, fiddling with his cellphone. I sent him to call uncle to have tea.
Palash came back a good ten minutes later. Alone.
He’s not there.
What do you mean he’s not there? Not in the room? He must be in the toilet then.
No he isn’t. He’s nowhere. And look. Look at this.
Palash had the yellow kurta and the white pajama in his hands. The clothes he had given to Mama to change into, taking his wet ones off. They had not a crease, not a wrinkle. Fresh and ironed as Palash like his clothes to be kept in his wardrobe. Like those were never worn.
What does this mean? I looked at Palash. His eyes had the same question. I rushed into the kitchen. The plates were there, unwashed as I had left them, with no discarded fish bones on them. There was not a trace of fish anywhere. Nor were there three plates.
Was I dreaming? Were we dreaming, both Palash and I? But why should I dream of his Mama who I had met only a couple of times?
We sat dumbfounded, speechless, in the drawing room. The phone rang. The land phone that was kept in Baba’s study. Palash jumped up as if struck by a bolt of lightning and ran out of the drawing room. I ran after him.
Hello. Speaking from DB Hospital. Is this Mr. Pramathesh Ganguly’s house? We have someone here who is your relative. Mr. Dipen Banerjee. He has given us this number. This is his sister’s house, he had said. He was brought in by some unknown people. He had slipped and fallen on the road when he was hit by a car. He was going to your house, he had said, minutes before he breathed his last. He is no more. Please come and identify the body and take him with you.
Palash staggered back to the drawing room and repeated the words he had heard on the phone, verbatim, to me, as he let himself drop on the sofa. We sat silent, listening to the sound of rain. It had begun raining again.
Pix from Net