When Kusum Aunty Committed Suicide
Tall, slim, dusky and well educated. That’s how I remember her. She had two daughters both less than ten years of age and about two years apart. Her husband was working in a clerical post in the A.G. office and his mother was staying with them. That’s about all what I can recollect about her. On some occasions when I was dispatched by our mom to give something to her or get some, I got a glimpse of their small home and spartan lifestyle. I would often find her playing Solitaire. In those days this custom of sending small portions of special dishes prepared at home as compliment to the neighbours was much in vogue among the middleclass neighbourhood that existed like a big family.
She was a very quiet, soft-spoken lady who would only open up with our mother. They used to sun themselves on the first terrace of three terraces, we called as “kyari” that lay adjacent to western side of our cottage. The end of this Kyari had a secondary access through a rickety staircase to their apartment, the other one being from the Northern side. Underneath the stair was their privy. We had learned from our mother that she came from a very well to do family. She was an arts or science graduate in the days when not many women studied beyond matriculation.
Her husband Mr. S- was a short statured, jovial fellow with a high pitched stentorian voice. Spreading a sheet or a dhurrie over grassy, uneven patch of land on Sundays and holidays men in the neighbourhood would play cards together from morning until lunch hour or later. We children would play around getting calls in turn from our mothers for taking bath which used to be once a week routine. My younger siblings called me ‘veer’ (valiant) which is how among Punjabees the elder brother is addressed. As I said, the whole neighbourhood acted as one big family, all children younger to me also called me Veer and the parents called me ‘Jagat Veer’ (Universal elder brother). The girls were almost always at our home, playing with us.
Veer saadi mummy kyon mar gayee- I still remember those words filled with shock and surprise timidly uttered in my ears, by the younger of the two, as she slept clinging to me for all the strength she needed. Their mother had committed suicide and this she said to me next day in the morning as on that night they slept at our home. Somewhere on the night before, Kusum aunty had decided to end her life by hanging herself from the feeble, shaky wooden railing of staircase that led from their living quarters to the privies below. She had chosen a pink saree for hanging herself. I still remember her dead body swaying slight in the cool breeze of a fateful morning in October. She was wearing a kameez with green and yellow flowers over a white salwar and a bright green woollen knitted sweater with open front unbuttoned.
A police man in uniform and a folder containing loose papers under his arms raised his free hand to touch the body suspended from the saree. It swayed lightly. A strong hand reached for me and pulled me out of the curious onlookers whose number was fast swelling in a semi-circular gathering a few feet away from the scene of the incident. I think, we were not allowed to go anywhere near the place after that, because I don’t have any remembrance of the incident which definitely was the most serious one that could leave a lasting impression on the mind of a child who wasn’t ten years old yet.
I didn’t have any answer to the query of the little girl. Nobody told us anything. If something was not right between the husband and wife then at least no one in the neighbourhood had any knowledge of it. The children not only eavesdropped in those days on what their parents talked in presumed privacy but in fact there was no place where their parents could speak without being overheard. Nobody had heard anything. Maybe, she was taunted for not being able to produce a “Ghar ka Chirag” or for not bringing enough dowry, or maybe, the thought that “this wasn’t what she wanted from life” had overwhelmed her, depressed her. But the truth was that something had driven her to take such and extreme step.
The walls between the apartments were not soundproof. In fact since the mansion was not designed to house a colony, the apartments had been fashioned out by closing the doors between the adjacent rooms. The aroma of what was cooking in one home wafted to the adjacent and even the next apartment. I think that’s why the practice of sharing katoris of the mouth watering dishes prepared in one house in the immediate neighbourhood and that of a very special dish with every family in the lodge started. It was a right step in earnest I would say because the craving for food once aroused can be likened to the invoked libido. So, if you don’t want the neighbours to come knocking at your door at odd hours with their tongues lolling, the best thing that you can do is to send them a Katori of the sweet or savoury and suppress their aroused craving.
I had certainly learnt the difference between life and death and could understand the dissimilarities between the natural and the unnatural death. I also knew how the living-dead were created, but I had never ever imagined that I might be accosted by a familiar living dead. There was some consolation from the conclusions deduced by us from all the stories about the Churails that we had heard that they were the apparitions of the evil beings which Kusum aunty was not. Kusum aunty loved us, but even then, the thought of meeting Kusum aunty floating in front and reaching to kiss me was scary. The truth of it happening became more and more real as the stories of people who had come across her spectre began to pour in. Though we had heard stories about the sleep walkers, but there was none known to us and now suddenly every morning there were news of people who swore that they had seen. Whole of Kaithu seemed to have turned in a colony of sleepwalkers or were they living dead, none could say.
Though she was gone but her spirit was surely around. There was no doubt about it. Frantic search for a skilled occultist was started. Encouraging news about Jiya Ram, the sweeper of the police lines being an expert in these matters poured in from many quarters. He was very experienced because the riddance from the evil spirits of the people who were hanged in the jail was frequently sought by the authorities to pacify the inmates who complained about the ruckus created by them as they were said to have been seen by many performing ghost dance on the tin roof running over their cells. One row of those cells lay parallel to the Constance Lodge. It was as close as one could get. Our house not only was adjacent to where Kusum Aunty lived, it was the one facing the prison wall. It was a classic example of being between the devil and the deep sea or should I say Chudail.
He was a trained exorcist. It was a skill he acquired from his father. Because of its dangerous dimension this art could not be learned in a school. The secrets of this have to be learnt on the job and perfected. The regimen is tough and demanding. It is imparted to the very daring and willing disciple by the family elder who takes the promising son under his tutelage for grooming. The mantras, the rituals and the code of procedures are taught verbally and one has to start by sleeping at the cremation ground for a few nights.
He studied the case and said, “We will need to nail the territory.”
There is no way of stopping these caspers from flying around and they have a very special bond with their homes, their children and other children they loved. I knew, that my love will land me in trouble. She had a special affinity for me, but that all women and the girls in the neighbourhood had for me except Geeta, I thought.
He said that the cost of the special ingredients for Samagri are hard to get in places like Shimla, but there were strict codes for oblation.
“You can’t use dung in the name of Samagri.”
“We have to wait for the full moon night.”
“It falls on next Sunday”, said mother.
Yes, exactly, he pitched in, I know, but I have to buy things, mark the area. Then I have to make the packets and distribute to all the houses that fall in her domain and go to every house and explain the procedure about how and when to consign the contents to flame in angeethe.
We all had gathered around our mother and we were listening to him with abstract attention.
“What contribution is required from us”, asked mom?
“Panj rupai- Five rupees”, he said ,
“Te kuj purane kapade.” (and some old used).
Mother thought for a while. Five rupees was not such a small sum that could be spared without seriously impacting the budget which stood on the props of the from frugal salary as most of it went for paying for the grocery and essential purchased on credit. There was no room for expenditure on luxuries much less on superstitions, but safety of her family was paramount. It was also one of those rare chances when Jiya Ram’s word was a command. It was his chance to extract his pound of flesh and he wanted to make it as succulent as he could. He went from door to door and depending upon the number of the family members to be protected, the financial status the family and the depth of their belief in the efficacy of the occult practices, he upped or reduced the contribution he demanded from them.
He had retrieved his books from the discarded piles of trash where it lay forgotten like my diaries and dusted them, like I may on getting a call from a Publisher if I may, one day. He returned on the eve of the day he was to take a round and put the arcane knowledge to practice. He had to show results and they had to be immediate. All the sleepwalkers had to be put to sleep at once. People had stopped venturing out after sunset but it couldn’t be stopped altogether. Little children had to go to the bathrooms across dark verandas or they had to go to answers the knocks at the doors which could be from the living or from the dead. From the view point of us children, what he was going to do was an exercise in futility because he had no expertise of driving the fear out of our heads or hearts or wherever it lay hidden in our tiny frames.
We had become very obedient children as the thought of retribution by the God’s agents for our sins played on our little minds. We had heard the tales of many children who disobeyed and strayed straight in to the traps of the devils, but they were in the stories related by others which could be fictitious, but this one was real. Mothers had started linking, the instances of troubling them to God’s laws of justice and now they didn’t need to call us repeatedly for coming back home after the sunset, we stayed at home of our on volition.
“At dusk after doing pooja of Yama and Bhairo, I will set out on marking the territory her spirit is to kept away from.” “At that time, you put this Samagri in fire in you angheethi.”
“Do you have alum at home, he asked?” Yes, I nodded my head, I had seen it in Papajee’s shaving kit box.
“Good”, he said. “You put that in fire too. It will puff up in to the shape of a phantom”. Take it out with the tongs, beat it and through it out of the house.”
He handed the mother a packet of some dried herbs, roots and leaves and chant this mantra. He pointed to the chit in the packet on which some “Mantra” was written.
“And yes, if someone meets me during my arduous task of banishing the accursed soul, he shouldn’t ask me what I am doing, because it will put both of us in a grave danger”, (Onu vi bhay, te mainu vi bhay)- he had said. The words still ring in my ears. We felt sorry for the words he had used for the woman we loved when she was alive. I espied tears trickling from my mother’s eyes but there’s no place for the dead among the living. She had to be banished from the territories of the living people.
I do not remember how successful was the operation of prohibiting a formless entity as free as air from entering a territory marked by driving some nails in to the earth, but we grew out of that fear as memories faded and we grew up in years.