Saturday, August 8, 2015
The villagers affectionately called her the Witch. I call her my ghost. Who am I kidding? I can no longer call her that. But I get ahead of myself. I should start at the start. That is the way she liked it. Still likes it, I hope.
I first met her nearly two decades ago. I was twenty one and was visiting my grandparents at their ancestral village. Though they often stayed with my parents, I had never been to their house. I was excited. Mixed with the anticipation was also the city lad's readiness to patronize the villagers. I was looking forward to being marvelled at for my enlightening thoughts.
When the village turned out to be quite developed, educated and modern, I was disappointed. Here I was, all ready to show off and there was hardly anyone to impress!
Then they told me about the Witch. My heart crowed with glee. But it would have seemed unseemly to jump in delight at the opportunity to show these simple folks, the errors of their ways. I assumed a restrained mien.
"A Witch?" I twisted my head to look at my grandmother who was busy in the kitchen. "Grandma! You never told me about this. That people here believe in witches. In this day and this age, no less."
I stared in pompous indignation at the old man who had come to meet my grandmother's grandson. They were childhood friends, I was told.
"Really?" The old man grinned. "We should not believe in witches? Do tell."
I frowned. Was the old man making fun of me?
My grandmother came to my rescue. "Oh, hush. Don't tease the darling child," she admonished her friend, before turning to me. "Of course, we don't believe in witches, you idiot. What kind of old fashioned, illiterate people you take us to be! She is not a real witch, you know."
Slowly, I gathered the story. The Witch was a twenty year old blind girl who lived in a big mansion on the outskirts of the village. She was the only daughter of the local gentry, who were believed to have been royalty in the distant past. Her parents had died in an accident two years ago. And it was during this time, she had acquired the name.
The girl now lived alone in the big house. Her parents had left her enough money to free her of the worries about earning a livelihood. She had closed most of the house and used only a bedroom, a small library and a sitting room. She did not have any regular servants but had two locals who cleaned her place and did the shopping for her once a week. The family lawyer sent her money every month to meet her needs. She rarely left the house and its grounds. Had never been even outside the village, if word was to be believed.
"But how does she manage?" I asked. "On a day to day basis, I mean? What does she do with herself?"
"Ah," said the old man. "That is where the magic lies."
When I seemed even more befuddled, he promised to take me to meet her on the morrow. "But on one condition," he warned. "You must not treat her like an oddity or talk to her in those condescending and pitying tones people reserved for those they see as 'less'."
The next day, I went to meet her with my grandmother's friend. The house where she lived was shaded from the rest of the village by a thick grove of mango trees. It being a hot summer day, the air was laden with a delicious, juicy sweetness that tempted me to pluck one of those ripe fruits.
The house itself was quite grand, though not as much as it must have been a hundred years ago, I suspected. It was maintained just enough to remind the onlooker of its past grandeur. Now it looked like a retired king, who had settled gracefully into being a benign grandfather.
She was waiting for us in the sitting room, the old man having informed her of the visit in advance. As we entered the room, she turned from the window where she had been standing. And looked right at me.
"Hello," she said. I was pretty sure that she was addressing me since her eyes gently were boring into mine. She was blind, wasn't she?
I recovered enough in a few seconds to reply. "Hello."
I took in her appearance. She was simply and elegantly dressed in contrasts - pastels and bold, gorgeous crimson, a seam hugging a curve here and the rest falling in soft, loose folds. She was tall and coltish, yet held herself with the grace of a more mature woman. Her hair was tied back in a loose ponytail; her slender hand wore no rings and rested on the windowsill.
Finally, I brought my eyes up to look into the pair that was supposed to be blind. They were shaped exotically, with a catlike uptilt at the corners. The pupils were dark but the irises were just a shade lighter. The difference was almost imperceptible; I think it was the way, the light from the window slanted across her eyes that allowed me to spot this - because I have never seen it again in all the years between then and now.
Disconcerted a little and propelled by the not so gentle poke in my ribs, I walked further into the room, with my hand outstretched.
And it was then that I noticed it. It sat quietly, still as a pebble on her right shoulder, with its head almost hidden behind her ear.
It was a Sparrow.
But its eyes were focussed on mine like the girl’s. They looked sentient, almost human in their intensity. It was eerie.
I jerked my gaze from the bird to the girl. She was smiling and had grasped my hand.
“Welcome to my home,” she said. Her voice was clear, confident, unaccented. It was as if she had learnt the language from someone who had invented it.
I shook my head. I was growing addled. It was all this talk of magic and witched which was influencing me.
“Thank you,” I replied. “Your home and the village are lovely. My grandparents often talked about it but this is the first time I have managed to come here.”
Over the next couple of hours, she took us on a tour of the house, served delicious, spicy tea and told me all about the history of her family. And all of this without stumbling once as she navigated without assistance around the house. When my grandmother’s friend was not looking, I surreptitiously waved my hands in front of her eyes to check if she was truly blind.
The Sparrow which had not left its perch on her shoulder all this while, had just before flown to window sill to catch the last orange rays on its homely brown wings.
The girl did not react to my waving hand. She was truly blind.
Once I accepted that, I relaxed and began to enjoy her company. She was actually quite talkative and vivacious. I was beginning to see the magic – in the way she handled herself, ‘saw’ the world around her.
“What do you do all day long? Don’t you get bored?” It was a rather intrusive question and the old man looked daggers at me. But I was curious. My grandmother often warned me against it.
She shrugged. “Not really. I have all these stories.” She waved her hand at the books lining the walls of the room.
“Are they…” I trailed off. This was a breach even my impudence would not allow.
“In Braille? No. None of them are. But I can still know them, can’t I?” Her smile was mischievous while the bird’s steady gaze assessed me.
I had no reply.
“You are a curious little cat, aren’t you?” she teased a little later, with the ease of an old acquaintance. “What is it that you want to do? Or, do you have a treasure to live upon for your entire life?”
I was a little taken aback by the way the tables had turned upon me. But I had to admit, it was only fair that I answered her. “Haven’t really decided,” I hedged. “May be a writer.”
As soon as the last words left my mouth, I swear, an unholy gleam came into both their eyes.
“Really? Maybe, we can swap stories this summer. Be each other’s Schehezerade,” she spoke with a smile. I got a feeling that somehow this was extremely important to her.
When her shoulders relaxed, I noticed that in the last few minutes, she had been sitting almost at the edge of her seat.
Puzzled, I was about to remark, when the old man (whom I had completely forgotten) cleared his throat. “I think it is time to go.”
We left a few minutes later after I promised to visit her every evening for the rest of my holidays.
On our way back to my grandmother’s house, I asked my grandmother’s friend about the bird. “How old is that bird of hers?”
“What bird? She does not have any.”
“But there was a Sparrow with her. Didn’t you see it?”
When I look back now, I realize how curious that summer was, how pivotal. Life changing. A rather misused phrase that is very apt.
True to her word, she became Schehezerade. Every evening, she told me a story. Some days, it was simple and childlike. On other days, it was full of drama and grandeur and world shaking events. Then there were times, when she spun a microcosm so detailed, that I could see it assemble bit by miniscule bit on my palm.
And never did she refer to a book. She poured the words out in a steady waterfall, as if there were pages turning in her head. These were stories never heard before. I had checked. They were original. When I asked her how she knew places as far flung as Delhi, Rome and Sahara the way she did, she winked.
She was an enigma. I was beginning to accept that she was a Witch.
All those evenings, the Sparrow sat still on her shoulder, with only its eyes mobile, following every movement, every breeze, every light, drinking in the details of all that happened around it. While it had unnerved me initially, slowly I grew accustomed to it as her – her pet. There was no other way to describe that relationship.
Eventually, my vacation drew to a close. While she had narrated a new tale every twilight for nearly two months, my own imagination had remained arid. I had never really tried writing. It was just a vague idea that I had in my head. I believed that because I loved stories, writing them would be easy. For the first time in my life, I understood how difficult it was.
I did think about cheating, telling her a story from some obscure book. She was blind. She was unlikely to have known it. Better sense prevailed. I would like to claim that it was because of my sense of honour but in truth I feared that she would know the fraud in an instant. And her opinion of me did matter.
On my last evening in the village, she told me her most intricate story yet set in a war ravaged country. By the time she finished, it was quite late. She invited me to stay the night.
I accepted. I was given a pillow and a blanket to make myself comfortable on the sofa. She bade me goodnight and left with the Sparrow sitting on her shoulder.
Thirty minutes later, I went towards the kitchen in search of water. On the way, I passed her bedroom. The door was slightly ajar and through the gap, I could see her form silhouetted against the window. Her hands were cupped delicately in front of her, as if she held something precious.
I softly pushed the door further open, shamelessly spying on her.
She raised her cupped hands to her lips, kissed them and flung them outwards towards the window. The sparrow shot towards the sky.
She stood still for a second, before turning towards her bed, with her arms extended, hands groping for support like any other blind person. In my eyes, the gesture seemed foreign. She stumbled several times before flopping on her bed.
I eased back from my position quietly.
Next morning, the Sparrow was back on its favourite perch. I had questions galore but for once I couldn’t ask them. I decided not to broach the topic. What could I have said anyway?
When I was leaving, she took my hand. “When you first came here, you said that you wanted to be a writer,” she paused. I was confused. Where was she going with this? She took a breath of resolve before continuing. “But I don’t think you have any stories in you.” A pause again. The Sparrow measured me with cool eyes. I felt an anticipation, as if something momentous was about to happen. “I, on the other hand, am full of tales. I have told you so many of them this past summer. Only you have heard them. That hurts me in ways that I cannot even describe.” Another breath.
She spoke again. “I am unable to write. My lack of vision will not let me. So, I want to propose something to you. I want you to write my stories. The words will be mine, the characters from my dreams but you will be the author. I will never claim them. It is enough that they are heard.”
I was stunned. My brain froze momentarily before racing, a train without brakes. It was a dream. I was being offered glory without the guts. I was so tempted.
“Why?” I had to ask.
She released my hand, not answering immediately. “Do you know why a woman breastfeeds her baby? True, it is the best food for her newborn child. She does love her child, right? But do you know that it is also a physical necessity for her? Holding that precious milk inside hurts her. She ‘needs’ to feed the baby. She does not expect any reward for it. She just has to. It is an instinct, an ache. I feel the same about my stories.”
I became a celebrated, feted author. The Witch became my Ghost. She told the stories. I wrote them. She crafted the words. I printed them. It won me many awards, critical acclaim and so many admirers, fans. Some claimed that I was one of the greatest writers of this century. And she – she remained in the shadows. Until last year.
Our usual modus operandi was elegant in its simplicity. Once every year, I went to my grandparents’village. It was where ‘my muse’ visited me. The press called the village my ‘writing room’.
I spent two months’ worth of evenings with her, feverishly typing every accent, every comma, the curve of each sentence and the lilt of every fresh chapter. Then I returned to the city and sent the manuscript to the publisher.
Last year, it changed. When I arrived at her doorstep for our annual ritual. I found the door locked. I knocked. She did not open it. Just asked me to go away.
This continued for nearly a fortnight. I grew anxious. This would not do. I had already received and spent a large advance for this book she was yet to narrate. It was due in little more than a month!
On the fourteenth day, I decided I’d had enough. She could not use and discard me like this, without an explanation. I knew no other existence, no other skill, no other living, except this charade.
When my knocks elicited the usual refrain, I went around the house. I found the window where she had stood that first time. It was open. With a grunt, I hoisted myself in.
The house was musty, a film of dust settled on the very air. I found her in the bedroom. She lay across it, with the Sparrow tucked against her bosom. Her fingers lightly caressed the bird. Her lips moved fervently in some silent rhythmic prayer. Her eyes were closed. Tears streaked her cheeks.
When I called her name, she opened her eyes slowly. And for the first time, they were unseeing. Blind.
“My Sparrow is dying,” she whispered.
“I am sorry.” I was impatient, brusque, eager to get back to the book. “It must be really old. I think we should give it a grand burial.”
“No!” Her voice dripped horror. She sat up straight. The bird lolled dead on her bed.
A heart rending scream echoed in the house. She fell from the bed, curled into herself, clawing her eyes. “I am blind! I am blind!”
Foreboding crept into my blood, as I recalled the night I had spied on her and seen the bird fly away, only to return next day.
“What do you mean?” Anger and fear made my voice harsh.
She stopped sobbing, rising to her feet. I was standing on the other side of the bed. She, of a gait so graceful that people with vision could never match, faltered, slipped, groped her way to where I stood. But she faced away from me. I suspected it was not intentional.
I turned her around. Her eyes were dark, their luminosity extinguished. “What do you mean?” I urged.
“My Sparrow,” she halted on a sob. “She, she…” Words failed her for the first time in two decades, as she shattered into a heap.
I understood. She was a Witch. The Sparrow was not her pet. It was her Vision. Her Imagination.
There would be no more stories. And she would need a walking stick.