WHEN YOU WALK a little farther you enter the grove of swaying trees and you know you have made the escape. That there will be no one toddling behind you crying, “Wei wei.” You want to walk home with your mother, just you and her. Your mother works in a library. The library is inside an old creamy white palace with green shutters and many marble statues and columns with curls on the top. You like nothing better than to meet her at the library steps and walk home with her, to hold her hand and skip along the path and swirl around her to draw in her scent, that special scent of cotton sari and soap, and hop around her and jump ahead a bit, all the time keeping your mother in the center of your walk together. You quiz her on the story she has read today. You believe your mother’s work in the library is about reading books and looking at pictures — this is what you have boasted to your friends.
Anandi who looks after your sister at home is a problem. She notices you as you gather your sandals in your hand and try to step nonchalantly past your sister and says, “Arre baba! Just wait a minute. I’ll have to get the pram out now if you want to go.” You screw your eye and look at the big clock on the wall to count the minutes. You see the big hand is still on 10 and the little hand on 5. Anandi is already straightening up her hair but you know she will make you miss your mother’s arrival at the top of the library stairs. Anandi says, “Let’s all stand on the balcony and look out for your mother.” Little sister starts toddling to the balcony. You unlatch the door quietly and let yourself out. Anandi mutters, “That child!”
When she comes home your mother will cuddle your little sister, sift through the mail, occasionally reading to you passages from her letters, and then start cooking dinner. Later she chats with your father, and you are left to hop around waiting to get a word in edgeways and perhaps sent to put your sister to bed.
You scamper down the stairs of the apartment, pulling yourself around the banisters till you reach ground floor, and run as fast as you can in your bare feet over the pebbles and sticks on the dusty ground between home and the grove.
You run to the cover of the trees and flop down to put on your sandals. You haven’t heard your sister crying. You must have made it to the trees before Anandi picked her up. But now you find yourself in exactly the same place where last week a troop of langur monkeys had terrified you. At first you had not noticed their brown and black shapes high up above, in the canopy. They were swinging between trees, reaching out with arms and legs and long tails that wrapped around branches. They chattered and whooped, called out and answered back to one another. The older monkeys plucked fruit with their hands and brought them to their mouths just like a human might do. A baby monkey clung to its mother even as she leapt into the blue between branch and sky. You held your breath and stood still, watching. The monkeys shook clusters of leaves and fruit, moving the dimples of light and shade on the ground. You became bewitched. Forgot to be afraid until a mean monkey stared into your eyes, curled back its lips, and grinned a yellow fangy grin. Then it hissed. The spell broke. You ran home wet with wee trickling down your legs. You had not been to the grove since.
Today the grove is tranquil. The nutty berries the langurs were after have finished for the season. You stride on, picking your way between the latticework of shade and light. Your favorite pastime is to jump from one dimple to another.
When you are nearly through the trees you remember the bhoots and petanis and the need to be vigilant about them. The big girls in the neighborhood told you that they are beings that are dead but not yet dead and they return to live among the living. They are invisible, but they can take human form. The petani is the female and the bhoot and petani travel in pairs and collectively they are known as bhoots. The girls whispered this to you when you snuck up on them where they sat in their secret huddle. They told you that when the living die unhappy, they return to seek revenge. “What do they wear?” you had asked as you struggled to draw a picture of them in your mind. One of the big girls, the one with the big eyes, replied, “Normal clothes. Saris and dhotis.” The girl with a nervous giggle added, “Oh, and pants and shirts also. And they appear in the middle of the path you are walking on. They may stop you as if to ask for directions, like, ‘Where does so and so live?'” The girls leaned in. You tried to get yourself into their circle. You asked, “And, and if you tell them?” A big girl with a soft hoarse voice whispered, “You are done for.” A shiver went up your spine.
When you were too afraid to go home, one of the big girls, the one with the nervous giggle, did you the favor of letting you in on the secret of how to spot the bhoots and petanis. She hissed in your ear, “Their feet are attached to their ankles back to front. Their toes point behind them. Not like ours.” You are so thrilled to be taken into such confidence that you forget to ask her what you are supposed to do when you spot the beings with their back-to-front feet, how you can appease them or reason with them. Since then you have spent a great deal of time looking at people’s feet rather than their faces, especially at dusk. You look toward the west to see how long before the sun dips, for it is at such times as this, when day is not night nor night day, when birds fly to roost and milch cows get rounded up, that bhoots and petanis make themselves visible.
Now you look around between the tree trunks, wondering if bhoots and petanis hide in ambush behind old logs or in hollows. You see no one. You listen. When you hold your breath you hear a beetle scratch a dry leaf. The stillness is both calming and alarming. You lose your nerve. You run like the wind in your new Bata sandals with their rubber-ridged soles that grasp the ground and their two strap buckles that shine in the rain. You run on your skinny legs, your skinny arms propelling faster and faster till the swirled gathers of your frock stop swishing around your legs and instead stick out like wings. And as you clear the grove you see the palace.
A long time ago, such as when your mother and your father were little children, a British viceroy lived in this palace. He ruled the country and held grand parties to which sahibs and memsahibs, and rajahs and maharajahs came in carriages. Your home is in the estate garden of the palace. Despite the scary monkeys and the living dead, you think of it as the loveliest place on Earth. You love every bit of the library.
The palace has huge stairs, more wide than tall and patterned with flowerpots. Halfway up is a terrace from which you can turn around and look at the field and the gardens around you. At the top of the stairs are many red buckets filled with sand. Your mother explained that if there was a fire, the sand would help put it out. At the top of the stairway there’s a water cooler and little paper cups that magically hold water. You love to step inside the library under the huge doors and past the handsomely dressed guards. You have to be quiet. And not touch books with dirty hands, and never with your feet, because books are like your teacher. You have to turn the pages with care, from the top-right corner. You love to smell books. Old books smell on the covers, new books smell on the pages inside. You love to run the palm of your hand on the pages and to trace your finger around the pictures.
Best of all you like the children’s library under the huge stairs with its little bamboo chairs, little tables, and short bookcases that you can reach. There’s a fish tank where golden and yellow and black fish swim around all day among green plants. There’s also a blackboard on which you can draw or write in big letters just like the teacher does at kindergarten.
Just when you think you have made it through the trees, your sandal snags on a twig and you come crashing down in the dirt. You stifle the cry in your throat in case the bhoots hear you. Tears rush into your eyes. You look back toward home and toward the library, but now all you see is shadows in trees. Both seem so far away. The knee stings where the skin has scraped off. Then you remember the scab on your elbow acquired a few days ago and turn your elbow around to stare at how it has turned into a gray-black reptilian pattern on your brown human skin. You get up and brush yourself down.
There are three different ways of getting to the library from the woods. There is the fourth but you never consider it because it skirts along the bad pond past the bad tree and close to where the big girls have told you are the graves of the British dead. You are more afraid of British bhoots than Indian ones.
The good pond is small. It has a curved footbridge across it. You often stop to watch ducklings swimming or lilies blooming in this pond. The bad pond is dark, with reeds on one side. One day it had grabbed and sucked in one of the big boys when he waded in to fetch a ball. The bad tree is huge, with roots that stick above ground unlike any normal tree. Its thick dark buttresses are taller than the tallest person you have seen. This is the sundari tree. They grow in the Sundarban forest at the end of the holy river Ganga. You shudder at the very word Sundarban — the land of the Royal Bengal tigers that you have seen in the Alipur zoo. The big girls have also told you that in the buttresses of the sundari tree live the nagas, the cobra people.
A single waif of a cloud floats by while you decide which path to take to the library. It’s followed by another. They look like lazy white swans against the sky. When you walk alone you yourself have to decide where to put the next foot, and the next.
You could go through the garden beds of cannas planted like a maze. The red, orange, yellow flowers on mulberry-colored stalks and long green leaves provide a perfect spot for playing hide-and-seek or for wending your way in and out of each flowerbed. Or you could take the straight gray-pebbled path with a little hedge beside it.
You hear the brassy sound of the gong the guard strikes on the stroke of every hour, and you know it is five o’clock. You unbuckle your sandals and, picking them up, you take the shortest way, running across the maidan and through its stubbled grass that tickles your soles. You see your mother detaching herself from the throng of fellow workers and stepping down the stairs, and you are struck by how graceful and pretty she looks. You look forward to surprising her and to seeing the look of pleasure on her face when she sees you. You are going to be the first to tell her about the blue aerogram letter that has arrived in the mail from her brother in England, and that the neighbor’s chickens have hatched, and you’ll show your scraped knee and ask, “Can we have that potato and pea bhaji again tonight?” You are a collector of happenings. You bubble with chatter.
You wonder if today your mother could tell you the story of the nightingale that sings or the tree that talks. You know this was possible once upon a time when a princess called Sheherazadeh lived in a place called Baghdad. You have stabbed at the swinging globe your uncle bought you and shrieked in delight when you found a place from a story. Or, today your mother may tell you the story of a rocket called Sputnik that went up into the sky the day your baby sister was born, or of the ugly duckling in Denmark.
In real life you like things to be regular. Neat. In stories you allow for the weird and the strange. The thing is, and here lies the crux of the problem, knowing which is which. You had asked your mother about bhoots, and she said they didn’t exist. You said to the big girls, “My mother says bhoots don’t exist,” and they had replied, “Grown-ups forget things. They don’t know everything.” It is true. Your mother and father, and grandma especially, do forget the simplest of things, particularly if they have not written them down.
As you hurry you pause, but only for a moment, as it occurs to you that your mother may scold you for leaving home without Anandi. But walking alone has brought you closer to yourself. You are five now, you explain to yourself, not a baby like your sister, and therefore you know a thing or two — one of which is that anything is possible in this unexpected and fabulous universe — and that your mother could be so happy to see you she may in fact forget to get cross.
This piece, originally published in the September/October 2009 issue of Orion magazine, is part of a joint effort by Orion and Words without Borders. For more information and for other Orion pieces, click here. And click here for the project in Words without Borders.