The five men were bachelors. The youngest was twenty two and the oldest twenty eight. They worked for different employers in nine-to-five jobs. The jobs did not pay much, and so the men could afford only a small room each in a two-storey tenement. All the rooms were on the upper floor, as the lower one was being used by a paints-and-dyes company as a temporary warehouse.
These five men had a pattern. Six days a week, they returned from work at around six p.m. and showered. Then they got together in one of the rooms and went into cards, caroms or chess. Around eight p.m. they went to some restaurant down the street for dinner – Dutch – and returned by eight twenty or so. They were always back before eight thirty because that was when the locality had its daily power blackout. It lasted an hour, and for the duration the five men were in one room, chatting by candlelight. This hour was the highlight of their day. When the lights came on again, the men said good night and dispersed.
So one night, as usual, the blackout descended. This time the host was Xavier ‘Benny’ Ebenezer, the youngest and looks-wise the most endowed in the group. Usually it was Kiran, the oldest of the five, who chose the topic for the nightly chat. Tonight he was inspired on the spot by the blackout.
“You guys believe in ghosts and spirits?” he said as Xavier lit a thin candle and placed it upright on a squat plastic table that the men surrounded.
Ramji usually listened till all of the others had responded, but tonight he answered first. “They’re all bunkum.”
Majeed got up, closed the entrance door and latched it. “I’ve heard tales,” he said as he rejoined the group. “But to this day I can’t decide if they’re true or just made up.”
“Of course they’re all pure fiction,” Ramji declared. “Ask any of those story makers to repeat his ghost tale. You’ll find holes big enough for you to walk through.” Majid’s response was just a weak nod.
“Your turn,” said Kiran, nudging the thin man seated to his right.
“I do believe these things exist,” Tarun said softly, looking at the other four one by one, and praying inwardly none was a ghost. “I’ve heard tales, too, and somehow many of them never seemed cooked up.”
“Then you are not worldly wise enough,” Ramji returned, shaking his head.
“What about our host?” said Kiran, nodding at Xavier.
Xavier looked at Ramji, and said, “I once came face-to-face with something ungodly. Until then I’d thought ghosts and spirits were absolute drivel. But that one incident turned my belief on its head.”
“Aha, when was it?” Ramji almost sneered.
“About two weeks ago.”
“Here, in Madras?”
“No. In my village. That’s more than a hundred miles from here.”
Ramji shook his head. “Haha, why do ghost tales happen only in rural settings?” he guffawed. “Are those things scared of cities? Or city folks? Or the noise and pollution here?”
“I can’t answer that,” Xavier conceded. “Point well taken, though.”
“So now you’re a believer in ghosts and spirits and what not, right?”
Xavier nodded. Ramji’s next question was: “Has that kind of ungodly experience ever happened to you here in Madras?”
Xavier thought for a moment and shook his head.
“Then you imagined it or some prankster in your village was behind it,” said Ramji.
“I think neither,” said Xavier. “Okay, do you feel like hearing my tale?”
“You can’t convert me,” said Ramji.
Kiran looked at his wristwatch in the dim yellow light. “Just eight forty-five. We’ve time to kill. Tell us of your experience, Xavier. Ramji, why don’t you just listen? We’ve nothing better to do.”
“That’s a good reason,” Ramji nodded.
“My village is in a very backward region,” Xavier began, “backward in every sense of the word. My generation was the first there serious enough about making a career. I attended a distant polytechnic and got a technical diploma. It was of no use in my village. So I had to go to a city to find a right job and earn money. Some of my teachers at the polytechnic suggested I migrate to Madras.”
“So you packed up-” Ramji began but Xavier held up a hand to silence him.
“Around this time,” Xavier went on, “I fell in love with Mary. She was the most beautiful girl in the village. Every eligible male was smitten by her. Even married men couldn’t help staring whenever she passed by, but her crush was for me…”
At this point a slight breeze caused the flame to sway dangerously. “Hey,” Kiran caught his breath, quickly shielding the flame with his hands. “Close the window.”
“Can’t,” said Xavier. “The lower half has no door.” He shifted his position so that his broad-shouldered frame came right between the open lower half of the window and the burning candle. That blocked the next gust well in time. “We all called her Momsy Mary,” he resumed, “because she almost always began by uttering ‘momsy’ when she spoke. She’d lost her father early in life, and her mother had brought her up amidst acute poverty. So there’d been no schooling for Mary. She had to help her mother in making and selling pancakes. It was hard labor and the returns were just about enough to keep the wolf from the door. In spite of all the difficulties, she grew up to be a stunning beauty.
One day she told me directly she wished to marry me. I was only twenty then. She was a kid herself, barely eighteen. I had just taken my diploma and had no work. I told her I loved her too. I’d to first find a job, though. I then told her I was planning to go to Madras.”
Xavier paused and looked at his listeners. They seemed interested.
“Then what?” Kiran said with a trace of impatience.
“Momsy, Benny!” Mary clutched Xavier’s arm. “Madras is so far away!”
“My teachers tell me Madras is full of opportunities,” Xavier said, stroking her raven black hair.
“Momsy, but it also has a lot of distractions,” she whined, and buried her face in his hands.
“Hey, she’s beginning to suspect me.” He gently put a finger under her chin and raised her face. “Mary, I promise you this. In a couple of years from now, I’ll have a steady job, and then you’ll have me all for yourself.”
“Momsy! I’m scared, darling.”
He smiled, giving her a gentle tap on the head. “I have an idea to beat back your fear. Start dreaming of our kids from this moment. Their faces, their skin colors, their chubbiness, their clumsiness, all that we are sure to go bonkers over. Not to mention their sweet names.”
“So saying, I took leave of her.” Again Xavier paused. He was looking fixedly at the shimmering flame, as if he was suddenly seeing images of his beloved in it.
“Don’t tell us she married someone else,” Tarun said, disturbed with a sudden feeling Xavier would tell them exactly that. Worse, he was scared Xavier would say he had committed suicide after his failed love and that the man they were now listening to was a spirit.
Xavier sighed deeply and said, “Last week I was at my village. I stayed there for about four days.”
“Longer than usual,” Ramji put in.
“On my way to there, I got a call from a friend who’s still there making a modest living. He gave me the shock of my life. Mary had committed suicide the day before.”
Pause. The silence that descended was almost scraping their skins. Tarun swallowed hard. Majeed wondered if he shouldn’t just run away. Kiran shook his head sadly, and a visibly shocked Ramji whispered, “My God!”
“I got the call when I was in transit,” Xavier picked up. “I was planning to go, marry her and bring her over. The call just wiped out my plans.”
“Did you find out what drove her to that?” Ramji said.
“My friend told me that, too. Some jealous persons there had lied to Mary that I’d married another woman and settled down in Madras for good. That must’ve shattered her. I never knew she was that sensitive.”
“We’re all sorry for you,” said Kiran, the feeling coming straight from his heart. “But then, where’s your face-to-face with some ungodly thing?”
“Yeah, coming.” Xavier shifted slightly while taking care not to let the breeze wafting in reach the flame. “My friend told me she’d been buried in the village cemetery that afternoon. The train ran late by hours, and then I had to wait for long before I got a bus. Finally, when the bus dropped me at the outskirt of our village, the hour was midnight. It was a mile’s walk to my house, and around the village cemetery. No electric lamps along the way. The pale moon and my flashlight were my only aids. I hoisted my grip over my shoulder and walked, whispering Christ’s name.
At the sight of the cemetery, I stopped suddenly. I just stood there, staring at the tombs and crosses that seemed to remind me where I would eventually finish up. Then I took a step . . . then another . . . and another . . . towards the cemetery, rather than away from it. And then I found myself at its gates. Through the iron grill, I looked at the low mounds that shrouded bodies and bones. And at the wooden crosses that jutted out of the dry ground. There . . . beneath one of the mounds . . . lay my beloved . . . in absolute peace . . . totally insensitive to my grief. God, why did she have to come to such an end?
Then there was a low sound behind me. I wasn’t sure what to make of it. One moment I thought it whispered my name, and the next it seemed to be a meaningless gurgle. It didn’t get any louder but it chilled me to the bone. I didn’t dare turn my head. I just kept staring at the symbols of the dead before me. Then the sound stopped, and I decided I’d better run away. I grieved for Mary but my own life was dearer to me than anything else in the world.
I had taken only a few steps towards the village when I stopped again. A few feet ahead of me stood a figure in white. It had the profile of a human being, but it was as tall as a palm tree. There was no breeze at all, but the figure was swaying – ”
In the course of the narration, Xavier shifted his position to ease his strained knees. And inadvertently gave the incoming breeze a clear path, even if only for a moment or two.
The breeze promptly licked off the flame, and there was total darkness.
Almost immediately there was a sweet female. “Momsy, Benny! Then what did you do then?”