“Nice girl”, what was her name again? Naniba asked as I closed the main door.
“Naniba…!” I involuntarily rolled my eyes. You just finished talking with her for an hour about Khambaliya! How could you forget?
Naniba smiled, her wistful, old person’s smile, reaching her soft brown crinkled eyes as she slowly straightened the pallu of her white cotton sari. “Well…at my age…”
“Yes yes, I know. At your age you’re doing great by remembering to wake up and have a bath every morning.” I teased her and slumped in the recliner. My Saturday evening was looking drab and uneventful.
“But tell me no, what was her name?” Naniba asked again.
“Seema Gosani” I replied.
“Gosani…Gosani from Khambaliya? Oh… I know that family really well”
“Cool, we were thinking she could be a good match for Mihir”
“No..you can’t do that. Our Mihir? No no. Call your mom. We cannot do that. That will be terrible. Inauspicious. No…you can’t do that” – Naniba insisted getting all riled up.
“But why? You just called her a nice girl”
“Well…They’re Brahmins. We are Suthar. It’s not a good match. A boy cannot marry in a higher caste. No no no.”- I hadn’t seen her get so flustered in quite a while. At her age, her hands and feet trembled anyways but the tremors just shot up. I could see her trying to hold on to the glass of water and failing.
“Hm..that’s a lame excuse. Your sons and your son’s sons are married all over the place. For heaven’s sake, we now have a Canadian and a Ukrainian daughter in law and you are worried about a Gujarati Brahmin. Come on naniba. You can lie better than that. It has to be something else. Tell the truth.”
Naniba got up. Slowly. And shuffled, with her hunched back to the only possession she had in the house. An old, tattered black suitcase that she treasured. I followed. She seemed a little fazed and well, it was a Saturday evening. I had nothing better to do.
She indicated I should take the suitcase and keep it on the bed. She sat down next to it, letting out a sigh as her tired body ached with every movement. She meticulously started taking out object after object, clothes, her purse, her shawl, some jewelry, containers with odd trinkets, some old photographs, her bhajan booklets, some old cards, spice boxes and what not, till she reached the very bottom. From there she pulled out a folded bright red chunari with a golden border and very intricate embroidery and stared at it. Softly and slowly she started singing a song
“કોણ હલાવે લીંબડી ને કોણ ઝુલાવે પીપળી
ભાઇની બેની લાડકીને ભઇલો ઝુલાવે ડાળખી…”
(“Who is moving the limbdi branch and who is swinging the peepal
The sister is the brother’s pet, the brother is swinging the branches”)
“Naniba, tell no. Why can’t we ask for Seema’s hand for Mihir? What is wrong? Whose chunari is that?” it was getting more mysterious by the minute. I tapped her shoulder.
As if coming out of a daze from some deep sleep, Naniba looked at the red chunari and kissed it.
“Seema Gosani, grand-daughter of Nandlal Gosani.”
“Yes.. yes, that could be the name of her grandfather. He’s bedridden now. Probably his last days. More reason to talk of the marriage now than later.”
As if nothing I had said had registered, naniba looked at the red chunari and a tear escaped her eye. She began humming the song again. I sat there. Wondering whether to call someone for help. And just then she looked at me, a piercing sad look and started speaking.
“Rekha. Rekha Gosani. This used to be hers.” Naniba continued. Another tear escaping her eye.
“Seema’s grandmother? No naniba. Seema’s grandmother’s name is Jyotsna. Jyotsna Gosani.”
Naniba took a sharp breath. The sadness in her eyes turned into anger. Her frail tiny, hunched body froze for a moment.
“No. Don’t take the name of that bitch in my presence.”
Those were uncharacteristically strong words for my grandmother. I had never heard her curse before. Seemingly I had opened some old wounds. Could she have been in love with Seema’s grandfather? Hmm…the writer in me had started weaving some interestingly damning stories.
Naniba continued. Talking more to herself than me now. As she often did these days.
“Rekha was Nandlal’s twin sister. Siblings that could not be kept apart for even a minute. Till….till Nandlal got married to that..that…”
I could see her pale skin turning red. I brought a glass of water from the kitchen and tried to change the topic.
“So…naniba…did you guys…Nandlal, you and Rekha go to school together? Was Rekha your friend?”
She smiled. Her expression softened. Like a child who has just woken up to a piece of cake.
“Yes. We were very good friends. Rekha lived by the well and the peepal tree in a big haveli. Their father owned 100 acres of land. They were rich Brahmins. Their haveli was gorgeous. We used to go to school together. Come back from school together, pick berries in summer and play in the puddles in the monsoons. We would go to events and sneak into marriage halls to eat free food. We plaited each other’s hair and we dreamt of and joked about our husbands to be.”
“And nandlal uncle?”
Naniba blushed. Her eyes turned to her feet for a fleeting second and she smiled. Like a teenager who was saying the name of her boyfriend. Wow. This was cool. I never thought of my grandparent’s love life before.
“You had an affair with nandlal uncle? Is that it? Is that why Seema cannot marry Mihir? Did he dump you or something?”
She let go of the chunari, reached for her walking stick and started hitting me with it.
“Affair. You imbecile girl. You young ones today, you have no respect. What affair. Affair! Oh God, take me away. Why did I live to hear these words”
I took the stick from her hand firmly, laid it aside and gave her a soft hug. Feeling more of the bones than her.
“Come on Naniba. I was just kidding. And for the record, that stick hurts. You do hit hard! Ouch?”
“Your mother didn’t teach you any manners young lady. In our times we didn’t have affairs. No. We were pure and innocent….”
I still remember those days. We were 14. My father had started looking for matches for me. I did not want to get married. I wanted to finish school. But in those days, 14-15 was it. It was hard to find grooms if you were 16 or older. Almost impossible. Nandlal was the first to get married amongst us three. As I said before, Nandlal and Rekha were very close. Their favorite time together was to swing on the huge wooden swing that their father had built for them, hanging by thick ropes on the branches of an old old Peepal tree, at the edge of the ridge that looked onto the Gomti river. Next to the village well. It was beautiful in all seasons. The Peepal tree, the village well and the swing that looked onto the river. Huge rocks lining the ridge. The place turned lush green in the rains and barren brown in the summers. And you could see the full moon right up there from the swing.
Nandlal and Rekha spent countless hours playing there. Nandlal swinging Rekha and both of them singing this song.”
Naniba started humming that song again.
“Naniba, focus. What then? Where is Rekha now?”
“Oh…she visited us today. Didn’t you see her?”
That confused me for a second till I realized her mistake.
“No no, naniba. That was Seema, Nandlal uncle’s granddaughter. Not Rekha.”
“But she had their eyes and their big forehead and their tender shoulders. Yes, Rekha and Nandlal looked a lot alike. You could tell they were siblings from a mile away.”
“Ok. So what happened to Rekha?” I was getting annoyed at the diversions in the story.
“Well…as I said, we were 14 and Nandlal got married. To Jyotsna.” It seemed that it took naniba a lot of effort to take her name without spitting. But she managed.
“ She was beautiful, fair, soft skinned with big black eyes, long thick hair, a perfectly sized waist. Always wearing silk chunari and expensive jewelry. Her father was the sarpanch of Gop, the neighboring village. And she was a .. a..”
“Yes naniba…We have established that she was a bitch. Can we go on now?”
“Well, the village loved her. Obviously. She was pretty and rich and a Brahmin. She could be very sweet also. Very soft spoken and proper. You know? But she was dark from the inside. We could feel it. Well, Rekha and I felt it. Not Nandlal. He was star struck. smitten. stupid.
Nandlal stopped coming to school after the marriage and joined his father’s farming business. Rekha and I continued. Rekha used to talk about missing her brother. Missing their time together at the swing. She mentioned how Jyotsna manipulated things at home to make her seem the bad girl at every point. Small tricks she would play and get Rekha beaten for no reason.
But Rekha would still steal some time with her brother. Specially the full moon Poonam nights were their swing hangouts. Nandlal would take his turn at swinging Rekha. And she would laugh with tremendous joy as the swing flew over the river, several feet below.
I used to join them sometime. But Jyotsna was never invited. It was our time together, like old days and we would make sure Jyotsna had enough work to keep her inside the house on those nights.”
One such evening in the month of Shrawan, I was late. The moon had already taken over it’s throne in the night sky. I saw Rekha on the swing. But there was no laughter and from afar I could see that the person swinging her was wearing a glittery chaniya choli and the trinkling sound of her payal and bangles was syncing with the swish-swoosh of the swing. But apart from that trinkling, the night was starkly quiet. Eerily quiet. I was glad I had removed my payal and kept them at home. I didn’t want to go any further and give myself away. Just then the girl pushing the swing took out a small dagger from the helm of her chaniya and slit the thick rope holding the swing. Everything happened so fast. The glint of the steel dagger, reflecting the moon, the jerk of the swing as it flew over the river and the shriek. God that shriek.”
Naniba stopped talking. Drained. But then began again without further prodding. It seemed this story had been bottled insider her for a very long time.
“I saw Rekha slip out of the swing as it jerked, saw her body flail, her hands trying to grip the receding swing, her chunari untangling and flying up as Rekha fell into the raging river. A plop. A tiny plop that got swallowed in the hoots of the owls in the trees on the ridge, whose quiet night had been disturbed. A few owls flew out as the girl who was pushing the swing caught it and stared into the dark night. She then turned. It was Jyotsna and the glint in her eyes was the glint of the devil.”
“And then?” I pursued impatiently.
“And then, I ran. I was 14. So I ran. I didn’t know what to do. No one was going to believe a poor suthar’s daughter over a rich Brahmin’s daughter in law…And there was no saving Rekha. The river Gomti had swallowed many a lives and many a bodies. No way she could have survived that fall.”
“Hm… and so? Seema cannot marry Mihir because her grandmother is a ruthless murderer?” The story seemed a tad made up now.
“No…it’s not just that. I went back to the ridge at the crack of dawn. I wanted to apologize to Rekha, to tell my goodbye, to pray for her. And there, just at the first glint of the rising sun, I saw Rekha’s red chunari caught in the thorny berry tree at the edge of the ridge. I went to untangle it. I wanted to keep it, hug it, apologize to it. And while I was untangling it, I saw Rekha climbing up the ridge. I mean, obviously it wasn’t Rekha. It was a ghost. With a translucent body, that was floating towards me. Rising from the river, smiling. She looked directly at me and smiled, a tear strained smile. For a moment I was scared. But then I realized that she hadn’t made the transition into the heavens. Elders used to say that, if you die in the river, and your body isn’t found, the soul gets stuck. I waved to Rekha. She waved back. She came next to me and slipped her cold soft hand in mine. From then on, we talked on our way to school and on our way back. We played our usual games and stole our meals. She was there. No one else could see her. No one else could hear her. But she was there with me all the time. Her family mourned her death, but unmarried young girls don’t have a lot of space in society and so everyone got over it pretty fast. No one questioned the slashed swing. Occasionally I did see Nandlal brood near the swing at full moon. But nothing more.”
“Ah…now this is exciting. You can talk to ghosts. That is so cool” I played on, rubbing my hands in glee.
“You can make fun of me. But I know what I saw and I know what I did. Anyways…it’s none of those reasons that I am saying no to Seema. It’s just that Seema is cursed.”
“Well, as I said, Rekha did not make the transition into the heavens. She was stuck and the darkness in her overpowered her kinder instincts. In fact, for her it was unconscious, but her darkness did things. Bad things. And in that it grew. Nandlal and Jyotsna had a daughter. She died within six months of being born. The day the baby stopped breathing, Rekha seemed conflicted on our way back to school. As if something was going on insider her ghost mind. Nandlal and Jyotsna kept trying for a son. You know how people want sons. They kept getting daughters. Jyotsna gave birth to three more girls, the middle one was the same age as your mom. And then Jyotsna died at the age of 26. Leaving three girls motherless. She died a very painful death also. People say that in the cyclone of 1960, Jyotsna got caught on the highway and got swept with the wind over the ridge of the Gomti river. The same ridge where she had killed Rekha. When they found her body three villages down, it was scarred and battered. No shred of beauty remaining. Nandlal became a drunk and the girls raised themselves. I kept in touch with the family till we moved to Bombay in the late 70s.
Each of the three daughters are also dead by the way. And all of them have left behind cursed daughters. The eldest child of Nandlal slipped over a ledge on her yatra to Vaishnaodevi, on a full moon night. The youngest child died in an accident when their car got thrown off by a truck in the ghaats of Mahabaleshwar, again on a full moon night. And the middle child, Seema’s mother jumped off her 11th floor terrace. They say she had become crazy. But if you ask me, it was the curse. I think Seema must have been 10 when she lost her mother.”
“Ah. …” Finally, I had no retort. I did not know that Seema’s childhood had been so difficuly. Honestly, the last part just shook me up. I took a moment to digest it. Was there a way I could verify this? Maybe I could ask mom. She might know.
“Sins of the father they say. But if you ask me, Seema is cursed with the sins of her grandmother. And as long as there is a girl in this world with Jyotsna’s blood in her, the curse will live.”
“But you can see Rekha no, talk to her? Can’t we visit Khambaliya and talk to her? You ask her to stop the darkness. It’s not fair.”
“Hm.. Life is not fair my child. And these things are not in my hands. But I did see her. Last month when we went for the havan, it was her 80th death anniversary. And as our car passed by the swing and the well and the Peepal tree, I rolled down the windows and I saw her, swinging in her black and golden chaniya-choli. Unlike me, she was still 14, her long black hair flowing with the wind and she was humming her song. Peaceful. Or not? Who would know? I said a prayer for her then.”
“But…” I was thinking of a way to help Seema now. Buying the story and not challenging the curse theory.
Just then, the door-knob turned, the locks clicked and someone entered the house. I skipped a heartbeat. The full moon outside the window and Naniba humming the tune were freaking me out. I couldn’t get the tune out of my head.
I froze, and then mom walked in. She saw naniba holding onto the red chunari, me looking as is if I had seen a ghost and the full moon outside the window and mom started laughing. Hard.
“So you’ve been conned as well?” Mom came into the room, still laughing, kissing me on the head.
“Conned?” I stared at her. Confused.
“Seems you just heard the Rekha story. Right?”
“Um….yes. You’ve know about it?”
“Who hasn’t? It’s been going around for eight decades now. I guess a prospective daughter in law was seen by my dear mother?”
Naniba was humming her tune, zoned out, uncaring of the laughter and cynicism.
“Yes…Seema, Seema was here. I may have mentioned of our interest in her for Mihir.”
“Well…that’s a story your naniba makes up to keep any women we like from becoming our bahu’s (daughter in law). What surname did she use this time for Nandlal?”
“Ah…nice…it’s been used for every daughter in law we have. Patel, Voralia, Falia. Nagda. Ignore it. Go on. Go see some cute kitten videos on your insta feed. There is no Rekha. There is no Jyotsna and there is no Nandlal. Unlike you, your grandmother didn’t get a write club to weave and pour out her stories so they’re just trapped in her head. And full moons tend to get them out.
Go on now.” Mom insisted as she saw that my inbuilt I7 inside my head was burning up with questions.
I stared at naniba. She seemed to be lost again. Her eyes staring into empty space. Humming. Carefree.
This Saturday evening had not been drab after all.
**This story is purely fiction. No one was murdered or cursed 🙂
Written as part of Write Club Bangalore’s session on Unreliable Narrator.
2 thoughts on “The Swing.”
A very well narrated ghost story
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