– Stories of the –
Indian Lemon-Chili Charm
Based on Ideas Provided by
The Evil Eye and the Charm is an anthology of three short stories. These stories are a work of fiction, inspired by folklore. Names, characters, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination, or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any person living or dead is purely coincidental.
The book uses superstitions only as a metaphor to delve into a deeper analysis of the human psyche. It does not promote any superstitious beliefs pertaining to any religion or community.
Neil D’Silva asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.
© 2015 by Neil D’Silva, First Edition
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publishers.
We, the entire human race, are a superstitious lot; there’s no denying that. While some of us wear our blind beliefs on our sleeves, others are more understated. It could be something as obvious as throwing salt over our shoulders to ward off bad luck, or as subtle as lining up a teacup to rest exactly on the previous circle it leaves on a table.
We mask our irrational leanings under labels of religious rituals, habits, manias, and—the most sophisticated of them all—obsessive compulsive issues. However, one thing is for sure. We all do things that defy logic; and yet, not doing them would leave us dissatisfied. Irrationality is part of our evolution. As we grow, these beliefs grow as well. The ones that evolve become obsessive compulsion; the ones that do not get termed as superstition.
These colorful superstitions have been part and parcel of India’s vibrant culture since time immemorial. They have now evolved to such an extent that they transcend socio-religious boundaries. A black cat crossing a path is widely considered to be a bad omen. In rural areas, people will never walk under a peepal tree at night. If a glass object breaks, there’s a slight pang in most hearts. Most people who say a wish out aloud have to touch wood.
Though people have attempted to explain these superstitions with scientific theories, not all of them can be explained away. Even in this day and age, the number of believers appears to be larger than the number of non-believers.
The Evil Eye and the Charm is a collection of three stories that revolve around people who are trapped in superstitious thoughts. Specifically, the stories deal with the lemon-chili charm used almost ubiquitously in India, ranging from auto-rickshaws to skyscrapers. Locally known as nimboo-mirchi (from Hindi, nimboo = lemon, mirchi = chili peppers) or the nazar-battu, this charm is believed to ward off the evil eye. It is so common in India that no one stops to question how the practice began.
This lemon-chili charm finds its origin in Hindu mythology. The combination of acrid and spicy tastes is believed to appease Alakshmi, the goddess of misfortune, who is also the older sister of the goddess of good fortune, Lakshmi. If Alakshmi sees lemons and chilies at the door, she satisfies herself with them and does not enter the premises, taking her bad luck away with her.
But whatever may be origin, Indians strongly believe in the power of this charm, and that is not going to change any time soon. If one stops at a traffic signal for a few minutes, there are great chances that a seller might come and tie one of these talismans on the vehicle and ask for money in return. It is found hanging from the doors of shops and homes, silently doing whatever job it is supposed to do.
The stories in this book are dark, reminiscent of a noir humor, and at the end of them all, you will be left questioning your beliefs. The lemon-chili charm is just a metaphor of the things we so easily tend to believe in just because they are a common practice, often refusing to separate truth from fiction.
In conclusion, does this book promote superstition? The answer is no. This book, partly fueled by folklore, is merely an attempt to analyze the human credulous nature. Just as the stories here are open to interpretation, our beliefs are too. Maybe every superstition can be explained away by science. Maybe not. Perhaps, we will never know.
Happy reading, and don’t forget to leave your feedback on .
- Neil D’Silva
Writing is a wonderful process of self-discovery, and a writer realizes that profoundly when he or she sits down to acknowledge the people behind a labor of love. Suddenly the many minds and hands that helped in shaping the book come to mind, bringing home the fact that writing is not a lonesome job after all.
Of all the people who helped me shape The Evil Eye and The Charm, I should first mention my wife of ten years, Anita, who bombards me with story ideas at the rate of one per day, and expects me to write at that speed as well! This book is the culmination of a conversation I had with her on Indian superstitions. Of the dozen odd ideas we discussed, we chose these three to form part of the book. A big kiss also goes to both my children, Gilmore and Felicia, who despite being 9 and 5, give me the space to write.
I would like to acknowledge my younger brother, Roy, who helped me create an initial platform with his sense of how the online world operates. I bugged him enough to get him to create my website, pat down to the way I like it. I have changed everything about the website several times since, but that is all because I learned how to do it from him in the first place.
I also nod to the many author friends I have on my social platforms, especially Varun Prabhu and Aindrila Roy, who took time out to review portions of my work and give me valuable feedback.
I thank my student Ritu Advani for making sure I get the right image for the cover page of this book. I was happy with something else earlier, but she insisted I change it, and she enlisted her photographer friend Yogesh Motwani to get his camera out. Her hunch proved correct; the new cover page is loads better than the previous one.
Also, I thank all the wonderful people in my life, especially my family, who understand that writing is the one thing I really want to do.
For my dad, Philip Neri,
the best spokesperson I ever had
and ever will have.
Sample Chapters from
“Why doesn’t my baby stop crying?”
This was the question on Arundhati’s lips since seven days now. Every evident option had been exhausted on the first day itself. She made sure the child was fed, was cleaned; and rocked her whenever she broke into a cry. On the third day, she had even changed the toddler’s room thinking there might be something disagreeable in it. But nothing seemed to work.
“What’s wrong with Mini?” she cried out to Aniket for the hundredth time.
The young father sat on the floor beside the child, his hair a mess and his eyes sore due to sleep-deprivation. He had returned from work three hours ago, but hadn’t yet gotten into his home clothes.
“What did the pediatrician say today?” he asked.
“The same thing he’s been saying all along—these are growing-up pangs, she shouldn’t be out of sight, she shouldn’t be hungry, and all that bull crap. He’s stumped too. The tests are all good; there’s nothing amiss.”
Just then, the little girl gave out another huge bawl and, turning her head to a side, shut her eyes. The parents watched their nine-month-old going into her temporary solace of sleep. The incessant crying had emaciated her. Her chubby pink cheeks had now shrunken to a pale yellow, converted to red flaps of hollowed-in skin.
The mother looked away and burst into tears. “I cannot see her like this, Aniket. Please do something.”
“What can I do?” he said. “Doesn’t my heart pain too? Let us get her admitted to the hospital. The doctors will know what to do.”
“Will the poor thing be able to bear that environment?” voiced the mother with concern.
“There is nothing else to do, is there?”
“There is,” said Arundhati and looked steadily into her young husband’s eyes.
The husband looked back at her, and there was a cloud of silence in the room. In that moment, even their daughter had fallen silent. Then, realization dawned. There was a strange expression in his eyes as he said, “Oh, that!”
“Yes, that,” said his wife. “Why not that?”
“If it pleases you,” said Aniket, “let us try that too. But, listen, if it doesn’t work, I am getting Mini into a hospital.”
Arundhati lost no time. She immediately took her phone, dialed a number and went outside the room. Aniket looked at the child with fatherly passion. He wondered how long it would be before she burst out into yet another volley of wails.
The dreaded moment came soon enough. Even as Aniket watched on with helpless terror, a huge mosquito landed on the baby’s tiny arm that poked out of its purple blanket. His reflexes worked immediately, and he flailed his hand over the little monster, but it was too late.
The mosquito had done its job. The child blinked her eyes open and, after whimpering in the air for a few seconds, broke out into yet another loud cry.
Arundhati entered the room almost as if on cue, her jangling bangles announcing her entry, and took the baby in her hands. “I spoke with Geeta Aunty,” she said over the wails. “She’s already on her way.”
‘Aunty’ was a misnomer for Geeta, for she actually was Arundhati’s grandaunt, her maternal grandmother’s youngest sister to be precise. She was one of the last of her generation to have come to the city of Mumbai from their native village of Dehgaon. It was good she did that when she could, for Dehgaon was a place where electricity was still a privilege.
For the young couple, she was the only elder figure in easy access, someone they could summon for anything that was beyond their scope. Given her age, Geeta was full of advice. She was at that point in her life when all the accumulated knowledge, whether good or bad, just wants to find a way out.
The old lady burst into the room as the baby was still crying. “O, my good Lord!” she said. “Hasn’t the child stopped crying at all? How can you both sit so miserably while your daughter goes on and on?”
“Is there anything we can do, Geeta Aunty?” asked Arundhati. “We have tried everything.”
“Of course you haven’t” said Geeta as she attempted to pick the child in her wizened arms. However, the child seemed to cry all the more at that, and she promptly left her on the bed. “If you have tried everything, she wouldn’t have been still crying her eyes out.”
“Is there anything we can do?” repeated Arundhati.
“Think what you might have missed? Have you done the usual—feeding her, singing to her, and all that?” the old woman asked.
“Have you shown her to the doctor?”
“What did the doctor say?”
“Nothing,” replied Arundhati. “Everything is normal.”
“Then I am afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“That it is out of the doctor’s scope.”
Geeta looked at the eager couple with stony eyes. Her face seemed to shine with a pale glow. Though her hair had gone all white, her skin hadn’t wrinkled yet; and that added to her bizarreness.
“What I am going to say now won’t sound nice,” Geeta said finally. She went up to the open window, poked her head outside, took it back in, and then pulled the window shut. “Did I not counsel you against buying this house? There’s that Christian graveyard right outside, for God’s sake! Don’t you get scared at nights looking at all those white crosses guarding their dead bodies and whatnot? Well now, your daughter has to pay for your mistake, for she has been possessed.”
“What!” Aniket, who had been silent until then, suddenly shot up, quivering in disbelief.
“I knew you wouldn’t believe me, Aniket,” she said. “But do you have another answer to her crying? What about her tests? For you, a baby crying nonstop without reason may be a new thing, but for me it is not. I have seen it all too often back in the village. Villages, as you know, are places where ghosts of all shapes and sizes are found in abundance.”
“There’s a ghost in that child?” Aniket pointed at the crying baby with a trembling forefinger. “There is no way I am going to believe in this. Arundhati, you had your chance. I am now taking her to the hospital.”
“Wait!” Geeta placed her fingers on Aniket’s arm, stopping him in his tracks. “Don’t do that. You will kill the child.”
The sentence landed on his ears like a slap.
“This is not the time to try out an experiment,” insisted Geeta. “What do your doctors know apart from what they have learnt in books? Do our children in the villages not survive? They do, and without all this fancy medicine. They grow healthier too.”
Arundhati came forward. “What’s the solution?” she said. “Is there anything?”
Geeta looked around with a steely eye. “There is one thing. Get me a lemon and seven green chilies.”
Arundhati did not understand what that meant. But when people are at the end of their tether, they stop thinking and satisfy themselves following orders.
Still shivering, she went into the kitchen and came out with a large lemon and seven green chilies. Geeta took them and pulled out the needle and black thread from the sewing machine that was in the room. She fashioned a charm with the chilies and the lemon hanging below them, finally tying the thread to a small stone she took from a flowerpot.
“What nonsense is this?” asked Aniket.
“Haven’t you ever heard of this?” Geeta spoke even as she tied the knot with the thread so that the whole thing stayed in place. “You city people live in a well. This is a charm to ward off the evil eye. It will take away the spirit that’s troubling the poor child. Anyway, get aside. I have work to do.”
Geeta then went up to the child, who was still crying over everyone’s voice. She dangled the nimboo-mirchi contraption over soft brown tufts of hair on her tiny head. This bemused the child and her crying receded. Finally, the old woman took the talisman and moved it thrice around her body, chanting something under her breath. The parents looked upon the entire show with concern that was tinged with their helplessness.
Then she came up to Aniket with the thing held in a pinch. “You have to take this now,” she said, her voice as resolute as it could get, “and, without stopping anywhere even for a moment, throw it in the graveyard out there.”
“There is no way I am doing that,” said Aniket. “The child is still crying, Arundhati. This is all useless.”
“Go now,” said Geeta, oblivious to the man’s interpolations. “Go if you want your child healthy.”
“But that’s a Christian graveyard!” Aniket protested.
“So what?” said Geeta. “The evil spirits know no religion. This is a lost spirit; you have to take it to a place where it can rest.”
The baby had begun to cry again. Arundhati looked at the child and then at her husband with beseeching eyes.
“Go without footwear,” Geeta continued. “And keep walking straight ahead. Do not enter the gate of the graveyard. Fling this thing as far as you can, but remember it should fall inside the place. And then, turn and come back. Do not stop to look. Do not turn behind even if someone calls you by name. Especially if someone calls you by name.”
Aniket couldn’t believe he was doing this. He still remembered his days at Science College, mastering the Theory of Relativity and Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. He remembered topping all through his academic life, his mother pushing him on with her meager resources. His mother’s kind face, full of practical reason, danced in his memory. He thought, in a way, it was good she wasn’t alive now to see what inanity he had been reduced to doing because of his superstitious wife.
He walked along without footwear, just as he had been instructed, and held the nimboo-mirchi straight ahead, as far from his body as possible. A small mercy was that the hour was past eleven now; there weren’t many people on the street who could see him. He hoped he did not run into any of his buddies or his colleagues from the school he taught in. And then a thought entered his heart that made him shudder—what if any of his students saw him? He would be the laughingstock for life.
As he stepped into a lonelier side-street, the street sounds diminished. All he could hear now was the distant barking of dogs and his own footsteps. The night wasn’t quite bright too, for though it was a Full Moon night, the moon was eclipsed by the clouds. The only thing he could see clearly moving was the nimboo-mirchi in his hands.
To and fro it bobbed, like the pendulum of a grandfather clock. It seemed to mock him. Until fifteen minutes ago, this was an innocent lemon and a few chilies lying somewhere in the fridge, destined to spice up the next day’s chicken curry. Now it was a thing that had not only a life in it but something that was more than life. For some reason, despite all his scientific upbringing, Aniket felt that the thing moved more than it should.
His lonely fearful mind made him almost see something moving inside the lemon.
With hasty measured steps he walked, practically counting each step, until he reached the cemetery. To date, he hadn’t thought of this route more than as a usual shortcut from the main road to his home. He had even used this stony path several times at night when he returned home from the bar with his friends. But now, walking alone, and with an important purpose, the place looked different. At the moment, the graveyard wasn’t just a thing on the route; it was his destination.
The iron gates were shut, their spikes piercing the night with unwelcoming intensity. This was a routine act; like other establishments, cemeteries are also shut at night, completely regardless of the fact that this is the most useless thing to do. How can a shut iron gate prevent the spirits inside from coming and going as they chose? What barricades could one put on ethereal beings that floated whichever way they fancied?
As he neared the gate, something began to change. The more he wanted to disbelieve the foolhardy expedition he had been sent on, the more he felt attracted towards some unknown thing within that burial ground.
The feeling reached its peak when he came up to the gate. The atmosphere became cold without warning. His thin shirt, which so far had been a good choice for the balmy summer night, was now unable to prevent the cold draught from seeping in and sending a shiver down his spine. In the distance, not sure from where, he thought he heard a woman’s wail. Somewhere above his head, he heard the flapping of wings of what could only be a gigantic bird. He looked up; but there was just the wide gaping sky there—no tree or no light pole where a bird could have possibly perched on.
But most of all, the nimboo-mirchi seemed to move with grave ferocity now.
His fingers had gone cold and sweaty, and he almost dropped the charm at the gate. But that would have been a huge disobedience, for he had been expressly told to throw it inside the graveyard. He held the thread tighter now, but he could not shake away the feeling that it wanted to run away from him, away from the burial place, just like a child wants to escape a stranger’s powerful clutches and run back to his mother.
Then, taking careful aim, he raised the damned thing high in the air and flung it as far as he could. He aimed at a glistening white grave and it hit the marble cross on the tombstone and then fell down on the muddy ground below. His throw had been good. The accursed charm was now well inside the cemetery, but, despite the moonlight, he could see something that chilled him to the bone. The lemon, which had so far been plump and yellow, began to wither and shrink.
Gasping most audibly, he turned the other way. Do not turn behind and look, the old woman had warned him. He did not care for her words much—at least he thought he didn’t—but something told him this was not the time to disobey.
This time his steps were quicker. He did not stop to think about the small pebbles piercing his feet, some of them surely causing injuries. But the path seemed unending. The more he walked, the more endless it seemed. A vague reminder of The Theory of Relativity coursed through his mind — time stretches out when you want it to pass quickly — and he quickened his pace.
And then, he heard a distinct word; a loud whisper that floated into his ears.
His feet stopped so abruptly that he almost fell down. Instantly, the cold increased, and he began to shudder. Despite that, he felt the sweat oozing out of everywhere on his body. A big drop of sweat formed at his temple and crossed his cheek.
A spate of childhood memories ran through his mind, and all of them involved his mother. For the word that was spoken in his ear—Kannu—was his nickname given to him by his mother and used only by her from his birth until the time she died twelve years ago.
The last he had heard the word was when his mother was on her deathbed. Glimpses of that lethal asthmatic attack flashed before his eyes. He had reached home a moment too late — by the time he had reached, she had already been clutching her bosom, collapsing by the kitchen sink. “Kannu,” she had said through her dying breaths, “Kannu, be a good boy. Do not miss me.”
But what was this now? He had cremated her in the Hindu crematorium himself, done all the rites, fed all the Brahmins. He hadn’t left any stone unturned.
The voice was more endearing now, a twinge of sorrow laced in it too, but it was also closer.
A part of him wanted to turn back and look, but the other part—the wiser part—put wings on his feet. He resumed moving ahead, not daring to look back for anything, heading in the direction of his home.
Then he heard the footsteps.
His own steps were heavier now, but over the heaviness of his steps, he could clearly hear the echoes of another. And they were gaining. Now he almost broke into a run, but the other footsteps fell quicker too. He ran along the street, not caring who saw him anymore—actually hoping at least someone saw him now. He would love some human company for once.
He almost broke into a run now; any human habitation was still a few minutes away. As he ran, he felt his own breath, but he became increasingly aware of another—the cold breath at the scruff of his neck that seemed to grow colder and colder.
“Kannu…” the sound rang one more time, this time almost into his ears.
And then he saw the gate of his building. Pleased beyond measure, he thought his ordeal was over. Someone had followed him—someone who was not his mother for sure—and he knew it would stop when he’d be in his familiar surroundings once again. For once, he regretted not having any divine symbol on his body. But his home was replete with little brass idols of several deities, all collected by his devout wife. Whatever had followed him, would not dare to follow him inside his home.
He entered the gate just as he felt clammy fingers around his collar. The breath of the entity chasing him sent a shiver down his neck. But he didn’t stop. He was so close.
The lift was out of order.
However, that was a blessing in disguise, he thought, for he did not want to enter anywhere he couldn’t escape from. Yes, running up all the five stories to his house would be a better idea. He was a good runner. He could run this much for sure.
And he ran, heaving and panting, all the way to the top. He got a feeling that he was not followed anymore, but he didn’t stop. He wanted to land in the safe confines of his home.
The door was open. As he entered, still running and short of breath, Arundhati came and held his hands.
“The crying has stopped,” she said between tears. “It just stopped suddenly ten minutes ago. She was in the middle of this loud crying attack and then it was all over. Just like that. It was like… like something ran out of her.”
“Where… where is Geeta Aunty?” huffed Aniket.
“She left after Mini stopped crying. It was getting too late for her.”
He went inside the room. His Mini was now laughing, playing with the red monkey he had bought for her last month, as if nothing had happened. She was back to normal, mouthing monosyllables that were her versions of addressing her mother and father.
“Well, close the door,” he told Arundhati.
“I did,” she said. “I am so happy, Aniket. She is talking too! Just like a normal child, like this nightmare never happened. I know how much you dislike these things, but isn’t there some truth in them? You did it for me, for us. I will never forget it.”
“You are sweating,” she said. “I’ll get you some sherbet.” She went into the kitchen.
Aniket pinched Mini’s cheeks and she laughed in reply, attempting to say “Pa-pa… Pa-pa…” as she had been taught to. He laughed too and turned to go into his room to change his soiled clothes. It was when he was almost at the door that Mini’s laughter suddenly stopped.
Then a voice—a single word—rang through the little room. It was still the voice of his daughter but she spoke a word she had never been taught:
And Aniket turned. His girl, dressed in shocking pink, was still laughing, but there was something wrong with the laughter. Something terribly wrong.
All through her life of sixty-two years, Dharini Shukla had followed every ritual in the scriptures, not omitting even the vaguest of them. Even after her family members left her one by one—some through death and some by drifting away to better pastures—she followed all the customs. They were her pride, the thing that identified her. Everyone in her community unfailingly consulted her prior to any ceremony, whether it was a mundan or a funeral. She knew the exact number of rounds that needed to be taken by women around the banyan tree for a long married life, and she knew exactly how much heated coconut oil was needed to massage the newborns, and at what temperature.
But things began to change rapidly after her son returned from Manchester, having successfully completed his MBA. Jatin meant to go back, of course, for life in Mumbai—or, more specifically, in his mother’s tradition-saturated house—stifled him.
For two people who grew up supporting each other (Jatin’s father had died in a freak road accident shortly after his birth), mother and son were as different as chalk and cheese. While the old woman made sure everything in the house faced the sun, even the kitchen cutlery, Jatin did not care in the least. He deliberately sat with his laptop facing any other way but the east; and he did so especially when his mother was around. While the grand lady insisted on fasting on days of lunar eclipses, Jatin specifically binged on those days and spared his mother no details of his eating.
Everything about the house and his mother’s irrational beliefs began to rankle Jatin upon his return from Manchester. Even the doorbell that chimed to the tune of a holy mantra every time it was pressed pissed him off no end. The tulsi plant in their little balcony garden was, for him, only a house for insects and worms. The black demon figure hanging upside-down at the door to ward off evil was nothing more for him than a campy representative of his mother’s foolhardiness.
“You are growing old, mother,” he said one day. “Man has reached the moon, why even Mars is within our reach. We are probably putting foundations for buildings there as we speak. And you are still stuck up here with this east-west mumbo-jumbo!”
“Science is good,” said Dharini in her characteristically soft voice, “but it isn’t the answer to everything.”
“So what? The things that are not answered by Science today are simply not yet discovered,” debated the young man. “There was a time when fire was supposed to be an evil monster in the jungle, when diseases were supposed to be curses from the gods. What about them now? Don’t you yourself use fire for everything? Don’t you rush to the doctor for medicine every time you fall sick?”
“Yes, I do,” said Dharini, undefeated. “But there was also the time when the Pandeys’ boy got sick. Remember? Did any medicine work for him? It was only when they took him to the fakir that he became all right. The fakir knew it was the evil eye, and you yourself saw him casting it away. Come on, don’t tell me you have forgotten that now. You were around 15 then.”
“He just had a disease for which Science hadn’t found a cure and that time,” said Jatin. “And the fakir got lucky. If fakirs and babas could cure diseases, why are there any diseases in this world? In fact, why do people die at all?”
“I do not wish to talk about things you do not want to understand,” she said. “I have my heart to think about. Anyway, come home early today. I will make your favorite bhindi ka saalan.”
Jatin harrumphed and walked away. This was the way most of their conversations—nay, debates—ended. There was never any conclusion; one of them always walked out on the other.
Jatin came down the building and out of the gate. He usually walked to the rickshaw stand at the crossroads, and hired one of them to reach wherever he wanted to go. He was late for an appointment and had to almost break into a run. Running didn’t come easily to him for he had piled on a lot of unnecessary pounds during his three years in England. So he shuffled along, as fast as he could, and saw a black and yellow rickshaw waiting right at the bend. His eye fixed on the vehicle, he almost began to hail the driver, when he discovered he had stepped on something that crunched under his feet.
Cursing his darned luck, he bent to look at the offending object. And what he saw left him wondering.
It was a nimboo-mirchi talisman, the kind he had seen so commonly used in this boorish town, and it was right there at the center of the crossroads. He had stepped on the chilies; the lemon was still intact.
Despite all his urgency, he stopped. He had heard hundreds of things from his mother about these nimboo-mirchi things. “They are used to ward off evil spirits,” she would say. “People use them as a kind of charm to exorcise those who are possessed. And, after the spirit is absorbed into the charm, it is thrown at the crossroads. The spirit waits thus at the crossroads, waiting for someone to step on the talisman. And when it happens, all the bad energy of the spirit is absorbed into that unsuspecting person.”
Here, he had stepped on it and nothing had happened to him. He didn’t drop dead, as his mother would have feared. In fact, he felt better than before, truth be told.
But he wasn’t the one who needed to learn that such superstitions are called blind beliefs for a reason. He knew all too well the inanity of these practices. The one person who needed to learn this was his mother. He hated it when she equated everything with her perceptions of faith. This was a great opportunity to show her the futility of her beliefs. There is no bad luck if anyone steps on a nimboo-mirchi or on anything else for the matter.
So he stooped—his bulging abdomen making it difficult for him to squat—and picked up the charm. He looked at the innocent coterie of a lemon and seven chilies and laughed.
But his grin was cut short abruptly.
“Sahib, what are you doing?” The scream was hurtled in his direction and he missed a beat at the sudden voice. It was his usual rickshaw driver who was now looking aghast in his direction.
“I stepped on it,” mumbled Jatin.
“Throw it away, sahib. Throw it away as far as you can, preferably in a graveyard. Then go to the temple and ask the pujari to sprinkle holy Ganga water on you. Please do it, sahib, for God alone knows what kind of hex it has.”
“Stop spouting nonsense, old man,” said Jatin. “People like you should have become extinct in the last century. What are you doing in this digital age?”
Saying that, he took the nimboo-mirchi, turned around, and walked towards his home.
Dharini opened the door and looked at her son with a surprised expression. “Jatin,” she said, “is something wrong? Why are you back early?”
Then he dangled the nimboo-mirchi in her face. She almost yelled, reeling backwards till she hit the wall. “Aiee! Where did you get that from?” she said. “Why have you brought it here? Throw it away this instant.”
But Jatin only moved in. He locked the door of his house and kicked off his shoes. “I stepped on it,” he said with pride.
“Oh Good Lord!” said his mother, her eyes moistening. She ran to the altar in the house and prayed to the photograph of Hanuman, the sankat-mochan, the warder-off of all evil. “He does not know what he is doing, Lord Hanuman,” she said. “Please protect him. Save him. May my prayers to you not go in vain!”
This show did not impress Jatin. “Stop blubbering like you have gone nuts, mother,” he said. “When will you learn that all this is a whole load of nonsense? I stepped on it, but did anything happen to me? Look, I am standing here right in front of you, aren’t I?”
“Do not mock the unknown, my son,” she said. “The unknown doesn’t hurt you until you begin to challenge it.”
“Challenge! Pooh! What world do you live in? Anyway, I am doing more than challenge.”
Dharini’s eyes grew wide in terror. “What are you going to do?” she said in a hoarse voice.
“I’ll tell you,” he said and backed into his room. He stepped inside quickly and bolted the door.
Dharini, petrified at her son’s recklessness, banged at the door from outside. “Don’t do anything stupid, Jatin. Come out of that room! You don’t know about things.”
Jatin shouted from inside, “Diddlysquat! This is just a lemon. It contains citric acid and nothing more. No bloody spirits. And these are chilies. They contain chemicals too. If I can remember the name, I will tell you.”
“Don’t do it, son.” Dharini’s voice rang out. “You remember Banwari Lal from our village? The milkman with seven daughters? Sure you do. Once his bullock had stepped on a nimboo-mirchi when he was going to his field. He thought it was all right because it was just the bullock that had done it. But, from that day onwards, he didn’t have a day of peace. One by one, his sons-in-law started falling sick. The eldest one died. Another one got paralyzed. It continued for seven years, son. Seven years. And the spirit did not spare the bullock either. The poor animal died of a terrible disease. There were pustules all over its body when it was found in the fields.”
Jatin was sitting on his bed, looking carefully at the lemon. “This innocent lemon did it?” he shouted, incredulity rife in his voice. “What the hell! How thick-headed can you people be! Have you ever heard of things like epidemics and coincidences? If you had seen a classroom or opened a book other than your religious fiction ever in your lives, you would have known. Anyway, it’s never too late to learn. I will teach you.”
Jatin got up and filled water in a glass from his bedside jug. His mother must have heard the sound of the water splashing into the glass, for she banged at his door harder, but he chose not to answer. He opened his bedside drawer.
“What are you doing Jatin?” the mother demanded.
Jatin took an object out and answered, “You know what I have in my hand right now, mother? It’s a penknife.”
“No!” she shrieked. “What are you going to do?” The door began to shudder at its rafters now. “Open up, or I’ll break down this door.”
“Sit down, mother,” Jatin said coolly. “You do not have the strength. And now, I am going to cut open this lemon.” His voice was almost manic now, like a passionate magician who has steadfast faith in his own performance. “And make a nice lemon sherbet out of it.”
The latch on the door threatened to fly off.
“And then I am going to drink it,” said Jatin. “See, this is the farthest I can go. I am taking Mr. Evil Spirit in me.”
“Jati-in!” The mother’s voice was breaking now. “We don’t want any further bad luck in this house. I will not be able to bear it. Please.”
“I will show you no such thing exists,” said Jatin. “It’s a good thing you don’t have seven sons-in-law and a bullock. You have only me. I don’t care if anything happens to me. That’s a big ‘if’ though. Nothing is going to happen.”
Saying that, he got out the penknife and brought it down on the lemon. The fruit had hardened a bit under the sun but was still serviceable. The tangy aroma of the lemon wafted into his nostrils.
Taking one half of the lemon, he squeezed it into the glass. This immediately clouded the water and he squeezed the other half. Then, stirring the concoction with his little finger, he raised the glass to his mouth.
He could hear his mother’s heavy breathing. He could picture her with her mouth agape and eyes wide open, the expression of scandalized distress that she so frequently wore on her round visage. “I am drinking it now,” he said for the benefit of his mother outside.
And he dipped his tongue into the glass. “It is sour,” he said. “But then it is meant to be that, right? Lemon juice is sour! Nothing special in that. I would have seriously worried if it had magically turned sweet or something.”
He took a sip and grimaced. The sourness stung at his throat. He blinked several times, and his mouth and cheek muscles pulled back in reflex, but it passed.
Then his eyes met the liquid in the glass. The cloudy fluid looked as innocent as it could, limpid strands of lemon and its seeds still floating in it, but his expression changed.
Suddenly, he grabbed his throat and gagged. His gasps became louder with each passing second, and clearly carried through the door. “Hey mother! Mother!” he choked. “I… I… cannot speak!”
He could hear his mother’s cries faintly now, perhaps she was stunned into inaction. He continued to gasp though, louder each time, and screamed, “Mo-ther…”
“What’s happening, child?” came a feeble cry. “Open the door! Open it!” There were a mother’s tears mixed in those words.
“I… can… not…” he gasped. “I am… I am dying. Oh, oh, I am… turning… blue…”
“No!” came a loud scream, and there was a violent thud at the door. She was probably hitting the door with some heavy object.
And then Jatin’s expression changed again, this time to one of utter mirth.
He laughed out loud.
“Ha, ha, ha!” he guffawed. “Fooled ya!” What did you think, mother? That this silly juice got me? You are so gullible. See, nothing happened, mother. There’s nothing such as bad luck, and there is nothing wrong with the juice either. It only needs a bit of sugar! You want to see me drinking it? All right, let me open the door and show you.”
Stifling his peals of laughter and still holding the glass in one hand, he proceeded towards the door. With the other hand, he turned the lock.
“At least now you understand there is noth—”
But he could not complete the sentence. For, when he opened the door, he saw his mother sprawled out on the floor. Froth still bubbled from her mouth, but her still eyes staring heavenwards and her hand clutching at her breast left no doubt in her son’s mind about her present state.
Keeping the glass on the floor, he sat down beside his mother, weeping into the silence of the empty house.
“Sushma, where is Milin?”
Alok’s words brought an abrupt halt in his wife’s steps. She turned and looked right into his fear-filled eyes.
“What do you mean?” she said, loud enough for the other people on the street to turn. “He was with you.”
“No, he wasn’t!”
“He was,” she insisted. “Weren’t you walking behind me? I thought he was with you.”
“No,” said the husband in an exasperated voice. “I thought he ran up ahead.”
“Why will he?” She kept the bag of groceries on a bench by the roadside. “Where is my Milin? Where is he?”
“All right, all right,” said Alok. “Sit down. You have to watch your blood pressure. I’m going back. He’ll be all right. I’ll bring him.” Without waiting for any further reaction, he retraced his steps and went in the direction they had come from.
Alok found his son, all right. He did not have to run back much. His eight-year-old boy was standing where his parents had forgotten him, at the roadside corn-on-the-cob vendor. The boy had a half-eaten cob in one hand and his other hand played with something that dangled from a corner of the shop cart.
“Is this your son, sir?” the vendor asked. “I was asking him who he was but he wouldn’t answer.”
“Yes, he’s my son.” Relief rushed through Alok’s being.
“Better take care of your son, sir,” said the vendor. It was the kind of two-bit advice that everybody starts doling out when they spot someone who has committed a mistake. Alok thought of retaliating with some comment of his own, but his respite kept him in check.
He turned to look at his son instead. It was then he noticed his boy’s face. His jaws were moving, presumably still chewing on the corn, but he wasn’t swallowing. It was just a rhythmic mechanical movement of the mandibles. His eyes, however, were alive with an odd kind of fascination.
“What is it, Milin?” Alok asked. “Is something wrong?”
But the boy only stood transfixed. His father bent down to his height and lined up his eyes in the direction of the boy’s gaze.
The object of his immense curiosity was the thing in his hand, which Alok immediately recognized as the lemon-chili charm he had seen people using to ward off the evil eye. The present talisman was hung from the vendor’s cart, who was using it ritually to keep his mobile establishment from the influence of any evil entities that might be lurking in the environs.
“What is that, daddy” the boy asked, his voice stifled in his unmoving lips.
“Have you never seen such a thing, Milin?” Alok asked his son in a gentle tone. “That’s a nazar-battu; it keeps out the evil eye.”
It would have turned into a tender moment of a father explaining a new discovery to his son, but it was brusquely destroyed by a boisterous voice from behind.
“Hey, silly boy!” the voice rang out. “No touch that. Not good. Bad, very bad.”
Alok turned around with an expression of annoyance and found it was an old man in rags. He recalled it was the same old beggar who had pestered him earlier when he was buying corn. Now that he saw him closely, he could not ignore the large red mole, bearing the size and shape of a chickoo seed, hanging from his lower lip. It was a sight that could not be unseen.
“Keep your distance, man,” Alok shooed him with a grimace.
At the same time, Sushma came running to the spot. “There you are!” she yelled out, instantly smothering her son in her arms. “What took you so long?”
But father and son still stared at the beggar. Despite the warning, the hobo only proceeded further, his finger wagging and his lip quivering with words that failed to come out. The movement of his lips made the undergrowth look more grotesque.
“Take care of son, brother,” the man said after some effort. “That thing not good.”
“That be a magnet,” came the reply. “It attract evil—disease, ghosts, spirits, curses, everything, and pass it to the next poor sucker. You want your boy to be sucker?”
The boy shuddered. The vibration in his gaunt body was almost palpable.
“We don’t believe in such nonsense,” said Alok.
“No one do,” stammered the vagrant. “No one do till bad things really happen. See?” He pointed to the thing under his lips, an insidious smile hidden within.
“What is he talking about?” Sushma asked.
“Forget him, he’s a madman,” said Alok. “Let’s go from here.” Casting one look at the thoroughly confused vendor, the family began marching out of the spot.
“But beware my words,” said the beggar to their backs. The child turned and saw his rheumy eyes shining with strange foreboding. “No good happens to those who touch this. Mind you.”
The spot made its appearance three days later.
It was a Sunday and as usual Milin returned home at around seven in the evening after a hectic game of cricket with his older friends. His clothes looked right out of the first five seconds of a detergent advertisement and his feet soiled the floor wherever he stepped on, which prompted Sushma to prod him into the bathroom. He emerged from there five minutes later with just a towel wrapped around his still-wet back.
“You are dripping water all over the place!” his mother yelled. “Go right into your room and dress up first.”
Alok who had come into the passage leading to the bathroom to wash his tired eyes glanced at his son briefly. But then he turned again, and his expression changed to one of concern.
“Milin,” he said, “What’s that on your back?”
It was in a place the boy could not see.
“Sushma, come here,” the father said urgently.
She came out of the kitchen, her gown smelling of coriander and onion.
“Look at this,” he said, turning the boy violently in her direction.
It was a red mark, about half an inch, near his left shoulder, just beyond the clavicle. The area was mottled and raised above the skin surface, around as high as the thickness of a fingernail.
Sushma saw the blight and frowned. “What’s this, Milin?” she asked. “Did you get hurt somewhere?”
The boy still could not see it but he tried to feel it with his hands.
“Does it hurt you?” Alok asked, rubbing his thumb over the mark.
“No,” said Milin. “What is there?”
“Look,” his father said and placed a hand mirror behind his back so that he could see its reflection in the bathroom wall mirror. “Can you see it now?”
“Where?” the boy asked.
Alok placed his forefinger on the transgression and boy saw it.
“I don’t know what it is, really,” said Milin. He made that face children make when they think they are going to be put into the dock.
“We are not scolding you,” said Sushma, her words laced with as much kindness as she could muster. “Why should we? Such things happen. Go now, dress up. Let’s see what we can do.”
Then she looked at her husband, and making sure the boy had gone inside his room, said, “What were you thinking? Touching that spot like that?”
“What do you mean?”
“What if it can pass from one person to another? You never know with these skin diseases.”
“Oh, I know more about diseases than you do,”
pooh-poohed Alok. “It’s just some skin infection. I’m calling Dr. Mehra now.”
“All right,” said Sushma. “I’ll finish my cooking.”
When the family came out of the doctor’s clinic an hour later, they had their smiles back on their faces. “I told you it was just some infection,” said Alok. “See, even the doctor said it is just a three-day thing. Boys keep getting all these things, no need to worry.” Then they went to an ice-cream parlor to celebrate and forgot all about it.
On the fifth day, the second mark appeared.
This time, Dr. Mehra was instantly voted out. The first mark hadn’t gone either, despite applying all the prescribed creams and popping all the antibiotics after a great deal of insistence. Expert opinion was now sought from a dermatologist Dr. Singha who operated at the other end of town. The lady skin specialist was highly recommended by Mrs. Gautam who lived next door. The lady had told Sushma in strict confidence how the doctor had removed an obstinate non-cancerous growth on an unmentionable part of her body in just seven days. Alok promptly checked Dr. Singha’s website and found her to be one of the top skincare specialists in town.
An appointment was booked right away. The family reached her clinic half an hour in advance and had to wait for half an hour beyond their scheduled time. When they finally got in, they got acquainted with a slew of unknown devices. There was a particular device that stood out — some kind of laser torch that shone an invisible beam on the infestation, and showed it in different colors.
“It is an allergy,” she pronounced, scribbling a few details on her handy notepad.
“What is the allergen?” Alok asked with an eagerness that made the doctor look up at him. He had been reading a bit on the Mayo Clinic website.
“That we cannot say for sure,” said the doctor. “In case of allergies, it is easy to see the symptoms, but it is very difficult to understand what may have caused it. Has anything changed in the boy’s lifestyle in the past few days? Some new food you introduced, or a new piece of clothing, probably even a new shampoo?”
“No,” said Sushma. “Nothing has changed. But we changed the position of his bed last week if that matters.”
“No it doesn’t,” said the doctor, “as long as it is the same bed and the mattress is the same.”
“What medication is he on at the moment?”
Alok rattled off the names.
“Okay,” said Dr. Singha. “Those are the right ones. Maybe he needs stronger doses. Bring him back to me if it doesn’t begin to recede in a week.”
“Doctor…” began Alok, “I wanted to ask you… Is it… is this contagious?”
Dr. Singha turned grave at that. “See, allergies are never contagious per se. But at the moment, we aren’t sure what allergy this is. It could be some rare kind of problem that we do not know about. It is best to refrain from touching the spots at the moment. I saw you touching him earlier, Mr. Gupta. I know he’s your son, but you must avoid physical contact till this subsides.”
“Oh!” Sushma let out. Her eyes changed color on account of the moisture they had suddenly developed.
However, at the end of the week, almost half the boy’s back was covered with the pockmarks. Some of them had become so large now that they were raised by at least a chapatti’s thickness. What made them look creepier were the squiggly threadlike raised lines that passed through each of them.
“They look like dead earthworms are trapped inside those boils,” Mrs. Gautam told a crying Sushma. “Why is Dr. Singha not able to treat it?”
Alok, who was sitting with his head buried in his palms, said, “We have been there three times already. All she does is give more creams to apply and looks more and more confused each time. It’s like she is fascinated about the medical rarity of it all.”
“Strange,” said Mrs. Gautam. “Dr. Singha has an impeccable record. If she’s not able to treat it, it might be something serious.”
Sushma did a turn at those words. “I know… I know something is wrong… I just know…”
Alok sent his son out of the room and came and sat next to his wife. “Control yourself, Sushma. It’ll go away. Skin diseases are hardly life-threatening. They are just superficial; they all go away with time.”
“No!” cried out Sushma. “It’s a curse. It’s the beggar’s curse.”
“Shut up, Sushma,” said Alok.
“What beggar?” Mrs. Gautam suddenly perked up.
“The beggar by the roadside who sits near the cob vendor,” said Sushma. She narrated the incident in fits and bursts.
“I have heard of such things,” said the woman. “Yes, they might happen. It could be an evil eye.”
“Stop talking nonsense, ladies,” said Alok.
Mrs. Gautam placed her hand on Alok’s shoulder. “I have been a Biology teacher, Alok,” she said, “and a very good one at that. I was this close to becoming a nurse but I took up teaching instead. More respect. Anyway, I know things about the human body most doctors do not. And, trust me, there are several things that cannot be explained away by just science. That thing your son’s got… that’s not normal.”
“But what hogwash!” protested Alok. “Do you really think it’s the evil eye or whatever you say?”
“Who knows what lies in the vast infinite space beyond us?” said Mrs. Gautam. “Do you even know what might be lurking right now in this very space? In the small volume of air that lies between my face and yours? Strange things happen, and we’ll never know why.”
A small voice squeaked from the door. It was Milin, who poked his head into the room. “Daddy, something happened that day.”
“What?” the father asked.
“When I touched that lemon,” he said, “that thing under the cart…”
“When I touched it, it became dark and it moved.”
The three elders in the room looked at each other with bated breath.
“Are you sure?” Sushma asked, holding the boy by his shoulders.
“Yes. It was bright and yellow at first, but when I touched it, it became all brown and dirty. The chilies dried up too.”
“Do you see, Alok?” Sushma told her husband. “There’s something there. Or else, why wouldn’t it go?”
“So what must I do? I have tried everything else.” Alok took his hand to his head again.
“Go back to the place,” the older lady suggested. “Find out the beggar. Wait… isn’t this the same beggar with the large red mole under his lip?”
“Yes,” said Alok.
“Well… what do we know what else he has on his body?”
Leaving their boy under the care of Mrs. Gautam, the couple ran posthaste to the corner of the road where the cob vendor ran his business from. They did not even bother to change their home clothes. An idea had formed in their head and they wanted to get it out before it festered to something incurable.
The vendor, dressed in just a vest and a dhoti, was busy daubing a tangy spice on the cobs and rubbing lemons on them. Several customers waited expectantly around his little stall. On a corner of it, a makeshift fire fueled by coals burned away, singeing raw cobs to a delectable golden yellow color.
Alok pushed through the crowd, and looked under the wooden platform the stall was built on. It was dark there, and he had to sit down. Then he saw: the nazar-battu that hung from there, a fresh one for the day that had wilted by now, swaying gently in the evening breeze.
He tried to yank it out, but Sushma placed her hand on his shoulder. He looked at her shaking her head, dissuading him from dabbling with unknown things.
Just then, the vendor looked at the couple and yelled out, “Hey mister, what are you doing with my cart?”
Alok stood up. “Do you remember me?” he asked. “My son was lost that day, and I found him by your cart?”
“Yes,” said the man, handing out a cob to a teenage girl. “Yes. What do you want now? Is your son all right?”
“No,” said Alok. “He isn’t all right.”
“He’s got something…” began Alok but demurred. “Let that be, you are busy. Just tell me this—Do you know the beggar who was here that day?” The couple looked around. The beggar was nowhere to be seen.
“The one with the big red thing on his lip.”
“Oh, that one? He’s Shamshu. The kids here used to call him Crocodile Man. All those warts on his skin.” He handed out another cob. “Anyway, good he’s gone. He was scaring my customers away.”
“Why’s he gone?”
“Strange story,” the seller continued. “Four days ago, he turned up, all fine and handsome. No warts. They had just gone. Everyone was just amazed. He was quite young, not even thirty probably. Those spots just made him look old.”
“Where is he now?” asked Alok.
“He went away,” came the reply. “He said he was going out into the world to make a proper living now that his disease was gone.”
There were no more words to be said. The couple looked at each other, not knowing how to take this ahead.
The boy now seemed to be devolving every minute. When his parents got home, they saw the red marks had now come upon his face as well. His eyes seemed to be thrust deep into their sockets because the swelling had begun taking hold of his forehead. However, despite the affliction, it was strange that the lad did not cry.
Mrs. Gautam, who had been sitting in the house until now, got up. “I need to leave,” she said. “You take care of your boy. This is a curse, I think that’s clear by now.”
“Thanks for all your help,” said Sushma without any true emotion in her voice, and again went back to crying her eyes out.
“But tell us.” Alok interrupted the woman as she proceeded to the door. “What can we do about him now?”
“I don’t know about the occult,” said Mrs. Gautam. “But there’s one thing. Go to the baba who sits outside the temple and ask him. He is called Baba Jhumroo. I’m sure you have seen him. He’s unmistakable in his yellow robes and black sunglasses.”
The next day itself, the three of them lined outside the temple. Not caring to join the throng of devotees who queued up to get inside, they looked for the mendicant. They spotted him in the courtyard, sitting under a tamarind tree.
He was indeed unmistakable. With enormous black shades on his eyes and his jet black hair let loose up to his shoulders, he looked very much like a kitschy rock star and not like any ascetic they had ever come across.
Alok moved ahead, his steps unsure, his mind unsettled, and brought his son in front of the strange man. Behind those glasses, no one could say for sure whether the eyes were open or shut. But there was a definite spontaneous reaction.
As soon as the boy was placed in the line of sight of the flashy hermit, he took off his glasses, and opened his eyes wide.
“Why did you come here?” the man asked, his voice echoing all around the temple courtyard. Just like the rest of the man, the voice was strangely musical too, though the words carried a sense of foreboding.
“Get him out!” the sadhu yelled at the parents.
“What is this?” said Alok, the embarrassment showing on his face.
“Your son!” boomed the sadhu. “He’s not welcome here.”
“Baba!” Sushma said and stopped her husband, who was preparing to storm away in anger. Then, with all the sweet supplication she could muster, she said, “What wrong has my son done? What does he know? Look at his state. All doctors have failed. Only you can help him now? Please tell us what’s wrong with him.”
“Woman! Leave my dress,” the sadhu warned. “Can you not see that your boy carries a curse?”
“The curse of a diseased spirit. The disease killed the man hundred years ago, but could not kill the spirit. Since then, the spirit of that diseased man is wandering around, looking for a body it can call its home.”
“How do you know all this?” asked Alok.
“A sadhu knows!” he boomed. “It is the job of a sadhu to know of all this. And that spirit is in your boy now. What did he do? Did he touch anything that he shouldn’t have? A nazar-battu, that was it, wasn’t it?”
“I knew! I KNEW!” the Baba said, and he was almost dancing now. “But you know, you have a way out if you wish.”
“What do you mean?” asked Alok. “What can I do?”
“This is a transfer curse. It is transferred through an object, usually the lemon-chili charm that your foolish son touched. So you can do the same. You bring me a lemon-chili charm, a fresh one made at home. You know how to make one? Good! I’ll be in the open space behind this temple tonight. Come before midnight, and bring your son. I can transfer the affliction from your son into the charm, and then you can dispose of the charm. Just hope that someone touches it, and the rogi spirit will go away from your son into that unfortunate person.”
“But that will be unethical, won’t it?” said Alok. Sushma clutched his arm.
“Unethical?” the sadhu sang out, the ends of his robe flapping around him like a large bird’s wings. “Is it ethical that he has entered into this young child of yours? Do spirits know ethics? Anyway, this is your only hope. Take it or leave it.”
It was night when father and son set out. Sushma stayed back. She wanted to tag along, but Alok wouldn’t hear any of it. “You are too emotional,” he said. “I don’t want to pacify you on top of everything else.”
Milin had fallen silent over the week. Slowly, as the disease had taken over the upper parts of his body, he found it difficult to speak. Alok somehow put a loose shirt on the boy and walked with him to the place that was indicated by Baba Jhumroo.
The sadhu was already sitting over a bonfire. He sat cross-legged on the ground, unmindful of the various twigs and pebbles that poked him. He had several powders smeared on his chest. The most curious thing was that his glasses were still in place.
Alok carried the lemon-chili charm in an outstretched hand. The light of the gibbous moon shone on the rotundity of the lemon and made it almost scintillate in the darkness.
“So you have come!” Baba Jhumroo pronounced. “Now hand me the lemon-chili and give me the child.”
Alok hesitated for a moment.
“What are you thinking about?” the sadhu asked. “Leave him here, and you sit there, on that rock. Do not look this way. It’s going to get gory.”
Alok had no option indeed. He left a doubting boy in the care of the strange man, and went twenty paces further to the rock formation and sat on it. His unbridled obedience was on account of the fact that he had absolutely no knowledge of what was going to happen. He sat with his face turned the other way, looking at the moon and the grass and the mysterious shadows of faraway unknown things. From the distance, he could hear the sounds of the baba chanting mantras of which he didn’t understand one word. Then, slowly, his boy began to moan. Alok wanted to turn and look, but he did not. He knew better than to interrupt. There was one point when the boy almost screamed and Alok was tempted to leave everything else and run to him, but he was reminded of the incurable red marks on his little body and checked himself again.
About a minute after that loud cry, Alok felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned to look and saw his boy. The marks were still there, but there was something good already. The lad attempted a faint smile that escaped with some reluctance from his chapped lips.
The baba followed right behind. He wasn’t wearing his glasses now, and even in that darkness, Alok could see the redness in his eyes. But redder than those eyes was the object in his hand.
“Here it is,” said the ascetic. “The spirit is in it now. See how it yearns to escape?” He handed him the nazar-battu, which was now daubed with several red powders and poked with a dozen needles.
And, truly, Alok’s instinct told him that something moved within the citrus fruit.
“Take it away immediately,” the sadhu said, “and make a circle at the center of the nearest crossroads with chalk or coal, and place this thing in it. Do it now when it is still dark and lonely. Whoever steps on it first, the spirit will enter into his or her body. Go on, take it. Now.”
Alok took the thing from his hand, and held his boy’s arm.
“Leave your boy at home first. Do not take him along with you. Now, go,” said the baba and went away in the opposite direction in the wilderness.
The night had now darkened to an extent that kept all decent souls away. This hour was appropriate only for the evil ones that performed their vicious deeds in the envelope of darkness and for those desperate people who had no other option. This particular night, Alok belonged to the second category.
He walked stealthily, because the deed he was to do could not be classified as holy; and he came up to the crossroads he had traversed so often in the daylight. Now, with nothing but streetlights to mark the spot, there was an ominous ferocity to it. The street looked clean now, almost like a virgin’s forehead that yearns for a mark of the sindoor. He took a piece of chalk out of his pocket and, sitting at the center where the two streets intersected, he drew a near-perfect circle.
Then he took the nazar-battu, which had gone stale rapidly, and placed it within the circle. As it hit the street, the lemon rolled off to a comfortable position and lay steady.
Just then, he was distracted by the long wail of a police van. It came right up to him and stopped as he stood up.
“Hey, hey, you,” a policeman beckoned to him with a great deal of purpose. “What are you doing here at three in the morning?”
Alok realized how odd he must appear standing in just his nightclothes in the middle of the street thus. He attempted to move, but the policeman stopped him with a raised hand. “Stand right there! Don’t move a muscle.” Then he called out to his subordinate. “Hey, Shirke, bring me the picture of that escapee.”
Shirke’s heavy body huffed out of the van and brought a file to his senior. The inspector looked at the picture and then at Alok’s face.
“Does he look like him?” he asked the constable.
“No sir,” came the reply. “I don’t think so. Not one bit.”
“Hmm…” the inspector pondered. “You seem to be a decent man. Why are you strolling out on the roads in the middle of the night like this? Where do you live?”
Alok pointed at his building which was hardly a hundred feet away.
“Okay, you may leave,” said the inspector officiously. “Go straight home or I’ll come after you and take you in.”
Alok moved away from the spot, his legs almost numb from the sudden shock. But he had hardly taken four steps when the inspector stopped him again.
“Wash your feet after you reach home,” he said. “You seem to have stepped on something.”
And Alok looked down with horror. The lemon-chili lay dead in the circle now, and bits of it still hung from his chappals.
As he walked home with turbulence in his mind, he unconsciously scratched at a spot over his left shoulder.
Sample Chapters from
Maya’s New Husband
An Indian Horror Thriller
About Maya’s New Husband
Maya’s New Husband is the debut book of Neil D’Silva. It is a horror-thriller set in suburban Mumbai, which in itself is a first of its kind. The book was written during the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) of November 2014, where it was adjudged a winner. It was a winner in The Entertainer category of The Literary Awards 2015 hosted by Authors’ Ink Publications and Inside Stories. It is a participant of the India Readathon.
When launched in its paperback edition in association with Authors’ Ink Publications, it hit #1 on the first day itself on the Amazon India Bestsellers’ Rank in the Young Adult, Mysteries and Curiosities category.
This book tells the story of Maya Bhargava, a schoolteacher, who falls in unexplained love with a total stranger. There is no visible rationale for their romance, which even culminates into marriage. Parallel to this is the story of a cannibalistic serial killer who ravages the streets of Mumbai. While Maya is still coming to terms with her strange new husband, the city is reeling under the shocks of the multiple murders. How these two stories cross is what forms the crux of the story.
Here are the first two chapters of Maya’s New Husband as a bonus gift. The book can be ordered on leading online stores such as Amazon and Flipkart, and a few selected stores throughout India.
You could read more on .
~ 1 ~
When Maya Bhargava was appointed the Head of the Biology Department at the Madam Somdevi Khanna High School for Boys, she felt she had reached a milestone towards the fulfillment of her goals. Having taught in the school for seven years, it was about time she received due recognition for her work. At 33 now, she wasn’t getting any younger.
That day, her first day as H.O.D., she and her friend, the English teacher Padma Murthy, sat in her new cabin and had a discussion on how times had flown. They spoke about their past days in the school, and generally cribbed about other teachers and a few of their students. Padma was on the right side of 40 still, but she hadn’t received the recognition her younger friend had. That was a sore point, but in her English Department, such accolades were rare.
They opened their respective lunchboxes and geared up for their small communal meal. Maya had a preparation of okra and eggplant, a dish Padma truly enjoyed, and Padma had vegetable biryani with paneer, a favorite with Maya.
“The students nowadays!” said Padma between mouthfuls of eggplant. “Atrocious! I happened to confiscate a few of the boys’ phones today. Regrettably, I skimmed through their contents.”
Maya chuckled. “What did you see on them, Padma?”
“Did you see some boobies?” Maya made an obscene gesture to go with her words.
“Good Lord, Maya!” said Padma, scandalized. “The things you say.”
“Come on, Padma, these are boys! At their age, they are all fighting their hormonal demons. What else did you expect to see? But tell me—didn’t you enjoy it at that age too?”
“Shut up, Maya!” Padma almost dropped her spoon.
“Yeah, don’t act like a saint,” said Maya. “Don’t tell me you were any different as a fifteen-year-old.”
“You know, when I was fifteen, we had this amazing teacher. We used to call him Robinson Sir, and he used to teach History. Oh, what a dreamboat he was! That slickly combed hair and those washboard abs and the neatly ironed formal shirts and trousers he wore! We girls spent a lot of time cursing whoever the bitch his wife was. We had to just smell his deodorant and we would have an orgasm.”
“You are a teacher, for God’s sake, Maya!” said Padma.
“Stop being such a prude, Padma. Loosen up. We are all human under our teachers’ garbs.”
They were busy with their colorful banter when there was a knock at the door. Even before Maya could ask the person to come in, the door opened and a head butted in.
It was Bhaskar Sadachari, the Arts teacher of the school. Everyone knew he had been appointed on the recommendation of Principal Rajkumar Purohit himself, and perhaps the recommendation was justified. He did have some skill in those oddly long fingers of his, which he had shown with his work over the past couple of years. However, the esthetic appeal was limited to his artworks. It didn’t extend to his physical form. His hair was always in a state of disarray, his eyes often bloodshot, and a perpetually overgrown stubble tried in vain to hide the ungainly face that lay underneath. Wherever he went, he left behind aftershocks of comments—people buzzing about his near-complete abandon of any aspect of hygiene.
Through the corner of her eye, Maya saw Padma wrinkling her nose and closing her lunchbox.
“Madam,” the man addressed Maya, completely ignoring her friend, “I’d like to know if you need any help in setting up the models for the Science Exhibition.”
Maya thought. She did need help, for she had ambitious plans to make a few large models. This man, who was known for his artistic skill, could be a good assistant. But, accepting this offer would mean spending time with Mr. Weird Man, and that was something she did not want to do. “Thanks for the offer. I’ll let you know,” she said in a dismissive tone.
Bhaskar was probably too boorish to take that hint, or maybe just too obstinate. He hung at the door awhile, giving the ladies one of his twisted smiles. Padma avoided eye contact by trying to find something in the folds of her saree.
“Yes, you may go,” Maya told him curtly.
The sentence was succinct, but it conveyed what it meant in no mean terms. Being snubbed directly, Bhaskar retreated his head from the door and left.
No sooner did he leave than the ladies began gossiping. “What’s the matter with him?” said Maya. “He is so creepy.”
“Have you seen his neck?” said Padma, shoving the lunchbox aside. “Sorry, I won’t be able to eat now. His neck—it’s so red.”
“Is it? I haven’t really noticed.”
“Rajan Sir told me he saw him in the washroom once, washing his face with his shirt buttons open, and he saw his chest was red too. Initially, I thought it must be a rash, but what is it now—a year?”
“Two!” said Maya emphatically. “It’s two years now.”
Padma moved in closer, the way one does when telling something conspiratorially to a friend. “Also, did you notice? I don’t think he ever bathes. The moment he entered, the room was filled with this awful stink.”
“Stink? Really?” Maya shook her head. “I didn’t get that. Probably it’s my blocked nose.” She let out a mucus-laden sniffle to validate her point.
“He is dreadful but what can we do about it?” asked Padma with her hands in the air. “The Principal is besotted with his work. He’s not going to send him away.”
“Yeah! The children like him too. I keep hearing of all the brilliant drawing he does. However, I find him creepy. It’s not because of his looks, it’s the way he acts. Almost like a stalker.” Maya let out a shudder. “I’ll prepare the models myself, but I am not going to take his help.” The resolution in her voice brought an end to the conversation.
Anuradha Bhargava was a contented middle-aged woman, proud of her traditional Maharashtrian roots. Her home was filled with symbols of her religious and communal affiliation, and she was proud of having raised two daughters to be such headstrong, self-believing women. Her older daughter, Maya, had just called to inform that she had been promoted to the Head of Department. She didn’t really understand what H.O.D. meant, but she didn’t want to lose the opportunity to bask in her prized daughter’s glory. Her other daughter, Namrata, worked as a Floor Manager at a suburban mall, which was a big achievement, particularly in the male-dominated environment of mall management. Yes, Anuradha Bhargava was certainly proud of her daughters.
Her only afternoon chore was to prepare lunch for herself. Her daughters ate at their workplaces. Eating a simple but delectable fare of vegetables with chapattis and pickles while watching TV was the highlight of her day.
She finished her chores and sat down on her favorite easy chair and began surfing channels. Her housewifely interests veered towards family soap operas. She could watch several at a time and be passionately affected by all of them. The grandfather clock in the corner told her there was an hour more to watch whatever she pleased. Maya never allowed her to watch her soppy shows once she returned. They curdle your mind, she always said.
When she was engrossed in watching how the daughter-in-law on TV gave a scathing response to her old crone of a mother-in-law, there was an unexpected ring at the door. In a reflex move, Anuradha changed the channel. If Maya had returned earlier than her usual time, she didn’t want to be caught watching this show. When the doorbell went a second time, she got up gingerly and moved towards the door. It scared her to open the door like this; the peephole didn’t help much as the corridor outside was dark in the afternoons, and the safety chain was erratic at best. She made a note to remind Maya about getting a safety door installed.
However, her worry was unjustified. It wasn’t Maya at the door, just the neighboring woman. “Is the electricity working here?” she asked, smiling with her dentally-impaired mouth.
Anuradha nodded, and the woman smiled. She didn’t leave though; it was the unspoken communication between two leisurely elderly women who seek each other’s gossipy company. The electricity had just been an excuse to start a conversation, and it had worked.
“Come in, Laxmi,” said Anuradha, opening the door wide. “I have some good news for you.”
Laxmi sat down on the couch, her bones creaking audibly as she sat. Anuradha put her channel back on and lowered the volume of the TV a bit so that they could still hear it but it would not intrude upon their conversation. “Maya got a promotion today. Headmaster of Department!” she said with suitable awe.
“Oh, that’s great!” Laxmi cackled. “That means Principal, isn’t it? I always knew she will become Principal one day. Our Maya is indeed a talented girl.”
“This is not really Principal,” Anuradha elaborated.
“What did you say?” asked Laxmi. “These days it is difficult to hear anything clearly.”
“Oh, it’s nothing. She got a promotion, that’s all! Would you like tea? I was going to make some anyway.”
“All right,” said Laxmi, “but less sugar, okay?”
Presently, Anuradha came back with two teacups and the room became fragrant with the aroma of masala chai.
“Did you hear about the Bawdi Chawl thing?” asked Laxmi after she had taken her first noisy slurp of the tea.
“What Bawdi Chawl thing?”
“Oh, haven’t you heard?” Laxmi’s face went grave with the importance of someone who is making a somber revelation. Her wrinkles appeared to have increased with that expression. “There was a kidnapping. A young girl of 16-17 years.”
“Who knows about these slum-dwellers? The maid told us. The girl went to college yesterday and hasn’t returned yet.”
“How do you know it’s a kidnapping?”
“What else will it be? Kidnapping, rape, murder, whatever. All the same. She’s a daughter of a cobbler, a pretty girl it seems.”
“It’s horrible,” Anuradha said with sufficient emotion.
“You have two daughters, Anuradha, you need to be very careful. By the grace of Ganesha, I have only sons.”
“You cannot be too sure about sons too these days,” said Anuradha, her traditional upbringing somewhat incensed at having been called the mother of girls. She wasn’t narrow-minded—at least she didn’t consider herself to be—but it was conversations such as these that brought a sense of disquiet to her mind. “Kidnappings have become so common nowadays,” she said. “Anyway, my girls are capable of taking care of themselves.”
The door was slightly open and Maya walked in without warning, worry writ large on her face. “Ma, why is the door open like this?” she asked and then saw Laxmi. “Oh, Laxmi aunty, you are here. Even so, you must keep the door closed.”
“Heard about the kidnapping?” asked Anuradha.
“Congrats on becoming Principal, Maya,” said Laxmi.
“Principal? Oh! No, aunty—”
“Forget that,” said her mother. “See, there was a kidnapping here today. Nowadays, all one reads in the papers is such criminal stuff. Be safe, that’s all.”
“You should tell that to Namrata,” said Maya. “She is the one who returns late at night. And, what’s this? Were you watching that stupid show again?”
Anuradha quickly shut down the television. “Not me,” she said, “this Laxmi here insisted.” She made a sign to Laxmi—a peculiar sign with raised eyebrows that meant she had to play along—and Laxmi quickly gulped the last dregs from her teacup.
That evening, there was a small celebration in the Bhargava household. Namrata bought the wine, and the three women cooked a three-course meal together. All three were good cooks, and they could whip up a miracle with their ingredients. The family was vegetarian by choice, quite known in their social circles for their culinary expertise. They prepared their signature dish of cauliflower pakoras to follow up with stuffed eggplant and bhakris and a dessert of carrot halwa.
They sat at the table and began with the wine and the pakoras. Anuradha refused the wine at first but the daughters insisted. “It’s just fermented grape juice, Ma,” said Namrata. “This much won’t kill you.”
“It’s the spirit of the day,” said Maya.
They spoke about Maya’s day at school and about Anuradha’s plan to invest in some gold during Diwali and about how they should contact their relatives in Dadar about a suitable marital alliance for Namrata.
At that point, Namrata chipped in, “No Ma, I have always told you. No arranged marriage for me.”
“So what do you plan to do?”
“That’s my lookout.” At that moment, Namrata seemed every bit like a spoiled younger sibling. She understood that, perhaps, for she braced herself for the inevitable reprimand.
“No one in the Bhargava household has ever had a love marriage if that’s what you think,” boomed Anuradha. “This love-shove does not work for long. I had an arranged marriage, and see what a lovely life I have now. Even though your Dad left us early, God bless his soul, he made sure we didn’t have any problems after him. Don’t you remember Maya’s marriage—”
At that, there was an abrupt silence. Anuradha stopped midsentence and looked down into her plate and started playing with the stalk of an eggplant. Namrata looked at Maya’s face and then Anuradha’s. Maya got up with her half-finished plate.
“Sit down, Maya,” said the mother. “I am sorry.”
“It’s okay Ma,” said Maya. “I’m not hungry anyway.”
“Oh, sit!” quipped Namrata. “Come out of it. It’s two years for Samar now.”
“Shut up, Namrata,” said Anuradha, “what do you understand of these things? It isn’t as easy to take a husband’s loss as you think. Grow up and you will understand. Maya, sit down!”
“I tried everything,” said Maya, her eyes brimming with tears. “I changed myself for him. He didn’t ask me to, but I knew he wanted me to. We kept each other happy. And still, he went all the way there and—”
Namrata placed a hand on her sister’s shoulder.
“—gave up. Just like that! Who knew he had such sadness in him? Why, Ma? Do you have any answer? Why did he have to throw himself under the train like that?”
~ 1.5 ~
The girl opened her eyes with some effort. Her head hurt as though she had been hit. She tried to touch the part that hurt her, but realized that her hands had been tied with a thick rope. The rope—made of pure coir—had cut into her fair flesh and even in the near-darkness, she could see the blood trickling down her wrists.
The fear came over her like a storm. It was an immediate explosion of memories: returning home after her extra practical classes at college… standing at the bus-stop alone at that late evening hour… the shuffling behind her in the bushes… the sudden sharp blow to the back of her head… and then, blackness.
She tried to yell, but at that moment she became aware of the gag that was stuffed in her mouth. She looked down and was horrified to see—it was her own blouse. Stripped off her body, stuffed into her mouth.
All her dreams turned to nothing in that one instant.
Topper in school and college.
The only girl in the Physics class.
Will go far; will become an engineer.
Will marry a wonderful man; have wonderful kids.
Nothing!—It meant nothing now.
The only thing she wanted was release.
To escape from this unknown place where she was tied to the floor, naked like a hog, terrified beyond measure.
An awareness of pain followed the sense of shame. The pain arose from her thighs, and she looked down at them, frightened of what she might see.
Her fear wasn’t unjustified. It was a strange pattern—four parallel curves intersecting four other parallel curves forming a crisscross spiderlike pattern. She looked at them, amazed and somewhat fascinated at their artistry, and then realized—the pattern wasn’t drawn on her thigh with a pen; it was cut into her flesh with a weapon.
The redness was not ink; it was blood. It was the source of her pain.
Once the consciousness of the pain set in, it refused to go away. She wanted to hold the wound, contain the blood flowing from it, but her hands were tied. She kicked the only free part of her body—her legs—but doing that only made the pain more intense. The cuts were thin but deep, and more blood oozed as she moved her legs.
She squirmed and tried to break free from the pillar where she was tied by the wrists. They began to bleed too, and trickles of the warm fluid started moving along the sides of her torso and mixed in the pool that was already accumulated below her.
It was too much blood. She wondered how such a spindly wound could cause so much blood to flow. It seemed unreal, but the slight tinny smell in the air around her told her otherwise.
The darkness of the night was receding now, but she couldn’t see anything beyond her toes. Then, as her eyes got acclimatized to the darkness, she became aware of something. A figure in the darkness. A man.
He was seated at the far end of this room or whatever it was. She could only see his head and his naked chest. He sat without making the slightest movement, like a mannequin in a departmental store. But the most frightening thing about the man was his eyes. There was something quite wrong with them. The darkness did not tell her much, but she could sense their oddness, and she could sense their unmoving gaze upon her. She squirmed, trying to break free, or to at least move away from the unflinching gaze upon her. But, the more she moved, the tighter her bonds became.
Then a rat, of which there was no dearth here, emerged from behind the head of the distant human and darted towards his eyes. Why did the man not move? He stayed put there, even as the rat sniffed all over his face, and then began to nibble, right into his left eye.
That was when she realized.
She was staring at a long-dead corpse.
The blood loss began to take its toll on her, and she was again plunged into darkness.
The hapless girl woke up with a start when she felt someone touching her breasts.
Fully alert now, she attempted to focus her vision, and the shape of a man squatting next to her materialized. There seemed to be a smile on his face, but there wasn’t anything cordial about it. Yes, he was ugly. And the ugliness was not merely of his warty face or his unkempt hair. It came from somewhere within him—from the diabolical look behind those smiling eyes, from the stench of death that underlined his strong odor. For a moment, she forgot the excruciating pain arising from her wounds.
Pain, like everything else, has a limit. It is acute when fresh. It is at this time—when the aggravation is newly inflicted—that it is the most unendurable. But if it persists for a period of time without being allayed, the nerves of the body get familiarized with it. The receptors still carry the physical impulse, but the effectors do not bring back any biological response. It is then that the pain begins to weaken, or rather the body becomes stronger to bear it.
However, this also makes things much more frightening. When one can see a gaping wound in their body and the blood oozing out of it too, but cannot feel the pain, that’s when things become the scariest. It’s enough to drive anyone nuts, and this was just a fragile college-going girl.
“No… Don’t pass out again,” the squatting man pleaded. “I want you to see. Will you do that much for me? Will you stay awake for me? Please?”
It was a plea, like a beggar beseeching for food.
Then she saw the weapon in his hand. Not exactly in his hand, but on his knuckles. His fingers passed through its four joined metal rings, the ends of which had sharp, pointed nails. The nails were soaked in blood; and she realized it was the blood of her own flesh.
Still smiling that vicious smile, he plunged that knuckle thing deep into her body, this time right into her chest. She could not see this new wound, but she felt it for sure. There was a sound too, a sickening crunch, and her educated mind told her what it was. A memory of a twig she had once stepped on came to her—the poor twig had broken into two with the same crunch.
As warm blood trickled down her torso, she was surprised she still had blood left in her body to flow out of the new wound.
Then, she reacted. A shriek of the newly-generated pain formed on her lips, but the sound died out before it could emerge. Her weakness overcame her response to pain.
She looked into his eyes and, as she could not speak, her eyes did all the talking. Her vision was becoming groggy now; and yet her eyes pleaded, implored, begged, made an earnest request to leave her and to spare whatever was left of her—both in body and in spirit—and, for a moment, she thought that he understood. For he took her head in his arms and took it close to his chest and, smoothening her hair, said, “Don’t worry, dear. It will all be over soon. It has to be done, you know? We all have to atone. Believe me, I am sending you to a happier place.”
There were no more tears, just the ones that had been already let out, drying up on her bloodied cheeks. The last sight of her short life was that of the dead man she had seen before, the one in the distance. His face was still turned towards her in the same manner, motionless in all other respects. But now some daylight streamed into the room. She could see a little more. His face seemed pale; and where his eyes had been, she could only see bloodied hollows, and the tails of rats emerging from them.
“I’ll get started now,” her tormentor said, holding her chin up as though he meant to kiss her. “I’ll get you out of the misery right away.”
Her heart was stopping now, her brain still flickering with its last dredges of life. Her vision stilled itself upon the man. She saw now how white his body had become, drained of all its blood. White as a sheet. White as dead. And, on that white skin on his chest, she saw the dried up mark—the same mark of the spider that she now possessed.
“Oh, him?” her killer looked in the direction of her gaze and said. “It’s been a while since I had him over for dinner. He’s become a bit stale now. Don’t feel like going to him anymore, and why should I? I have you now, don’t I? But let me tell you this—his kidneys! So juicily healthy and wonderful! He made an excellent dish of roasted kidney beans on toast.”
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The lemon-chili charm, or the nimboo-mirchi as it is locally called, is a fascinating part of Indian folklore. This charm is supposed to ward off evil. With that belief, it is commonly hung at the doorposts of homes and offices, in vehicles, and even in local trains and buses. Such is the popularity of the humble nimboo-mirchi! But, like all superstitions, there is a deeper question here as well. Is there any shred of truth behind this almost ritualistic practice? And if not, why are millions of Indians following this practice since generations? Find in here the story of a child who wouldn't stop crying perhaps because of an evil presence upon her, a mother who wouldn't shun her traditional superstitious beliefs, and a boy who inadvertently touches a malicious charm and suffers horribly. The stories will leave you wanting for more, but more than that - they will make you think.