The Little Brave Girl
There used to be a fig tree near my old house in Akola, where I lived before I moved to Mumbai. It always had an aura of mystery, a mystery which arose curiosity and awe in my five year old mind. Many rumours surrounded it too, rumours that were never proved to be anything more, but which stayed nonetheless. They said it had the blessing of Lord Datta himself, the Indian deity. Another not so auspicious rumour said a young woman wearing a red dupatta hung herself from it. Nobody could confirm it, but the old ladies often swore at kitty parties that they see a red dupatta hanging at the topmost branch every full moon night.
My family lived in the house for almost twenty six years, fourteen years of my life. We owned two flats in the old fashioned building, probably the first of its kind in the town. Our flats were on the first and the second floor, connected by a custom made iron staircase that ran along the outer wall of the building.
Once a year, the branches of the tree would be chopped down until it again spread its crooked claws in all directions at the onset of monsoon. The branches, when at their full growth, would brush your sides as you walked up the iron stairs to the upper flat, reminding you that it’s still here, that it’s watching. I shared the bedroom that the stairs opened into with my sister, while the rest of the flat would be unoccupied.
When I was 6, our maid ran off to marry her lover. She’d been with us, taking me to school every morning, getting me back, making me eat and do my homework and put me to nap for as long as I could remember. I think it was she who taught me to read Hindi and Marathi, since I could read and understand the Devnagri script since I was 5, even though we didn’t start regional languages in school until third grade. After she left us, I started living on my own in the locked house in the afternoons. Akka would return from school, have lunch and make me eat too. She’d leave for her coaching classes, locking the door from outside. Latches hadn’t reached Akola yet, and we used the traditional lock, which formed a loop around the door handle. And thus, began my journey of living with my mind.
I was never an outgoing person, though I opened up to the world a bit since I moved to Mumbai. Back in the old days, I never really had any real friends, and I hardly ever went out to the grounds to play with the kids from my colony. I liked staying inside, arranging and rearranging my books on the unused cot in the upper flat. Every time Appa returned from Mumbai, I’d wake up at 5 am to first get my hands on the books he’d bring for me.
“From where do you get so many books for me, each time?” my voice full of admiration and eagerness.
“There’s a huge book market in a place called Dadar, where I board my train from. They have all kinds of books, and hundreds of bookstores, all stacked with books right upto the ceiling,” Appa would say, hands on his knees, stooping low to look into my eyes.
“Hundreds of stores, with books stacked upto the ceiling?!” and he’d smile at the wonder in my eyes.
“Yes, meri jaan,” my life, he’d say. “Do you want to visit it someday?”
“I’d love to, Appa. When can we go? Let’s go. I want to go now.”
He’d chuckle, ruffle my hair playfully, “In good time, darling.”
Appa promised me that if I completed reading a hundred books, he’d build me a glass bookshelf. Every idle afternoon when I’d be alone in the eight room duplex we’d made for ourselves, I’d arrange and rearrange, count and recount the books I’d read, make lists by title and reread them. I’d draw diagrams of my room, positioning my glass bookshelf right beside my study table, and make note of telling Appa about some special idea that I’d had for it the next time he came.
Books were my only company, my only friends, and I loved them. I’d sit in front of them for hours, making countless stories in my own head and wonder at how filmy my life was, how wonderful this little world I lived in was. I hardly stepped out into the world, but I don’t think I was even aware of its existence back then. My stories were all the world that existed, and I was the hero they were all about.
There was this one book I thought about a lot, and strangely, Appa hadn’t brought it for me. It belonged to a friend of my sister, I think, though how it reached my hands, I never knew. More Ghost Stories, the title said. Naturally, I was curious and I started reading it. At the tender age of nine, I have to admit I didn’t understand much of it, since the ghosts were nothing like what they showed in movies. Indeed, the first story called The Lonesome Place by August Derelth seemed to say that the little boys created the ghost by simply believing it existed. My small brain couldn’t get around it, and eventually, the book just lay among other of my much simpler books, though it always managed to catch my eye.
It was not a sudden realisation. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always felt like something other than me and my family resided in the house. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve lived with it like it’s a fact I cannot deny. When I was very young and slept with my parents, like we do in India, I always believed two figures stood at the doorway to our bedroom, quietly watching us sleep. They never bothered us or even tried to move towards us. They never outright scared the little girl that I was, though I never tried to probe further into the matter. Despite being that young, I believed that even if I wasn’t afraid of them, I do not need to get closer to them. I’d be uncomfortable changing sides as I slept, so I’d tell myself the onlookers needed a glass of water or to take a pee, conjure up images of the two turning their backs on us and go along in my mind. Only then would I change my sides and escape back into my peaceful slumber. Even back then, I believd ein the power of my mind, though never quite realising it.
On my twelfth birthday, Akka gifted me the Harry Potter series. I was engrossed, reading my first novels ever, and it was then that I realised I was in love with stories and not just books. I’d read a book, watch its movie, and I loved both equally. Stories fascinated me, my heart craved drama.
It was during this time, that I started living alone in the room that I once shared with my sister. At nights, I’d turn the living room light off of the lower apartment, quickly shut the door of the lower end of the staircase lest someone follows me, and climb up the stairs, careful not to look at the tree beside, in case a pair of glowing eyes was following my movement. I’d run to the switch board, turn the light on, close the door to the stairs and give a small sigh of relief. The relief won’t last long though and I knew I had to turn the light off and climb into my bed, fastening the mosquito net as I go. It was a routine, an everyday ritual of controlled fear, but a fear nonetheless. The moonlight shone on the higher branches of the fig tree, and always, some piece of cloth found its way into the tangle of branches, just like the old ladies said. Ever since I watched Lord Voldemort’s snake Nagini in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows, a sound of slithering round and round, circling my bed fell on my ears, every night. Even today, when I’ve grown up and changed houses and realised all of it was a play set up by a child’s mind, the slithering noise comes back each time I’m scared.
But I was a brave child. I had come to terms with my fear, had accepted its existence and still lived through it every moment I was alone in the house. Until one day when I was thirteen.
I had started making friends, even had a small group of girls who I’d hang out with after school. One day, I saved the money Amma gave me for food and bought a pretty pearl bracelet instead. We talked about boys, who was cute and who asked Rachel for a pen the other day, and my neatly arranged books that I stared at everyday weren’t as neatly arranged anymore. I was growing up, my pineal gland slowly calcifying.
Though I still believed in the presence in the house, I didn’t think about it so much. Until one day, for one last time.
It was the day of my final exams, and I’d woken up at five in the morning to do some last minute revision. I was sitting at the dining table, at a chair facing the wall and the door beside it. Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a white figure pass through the corridor. I’d felt things before, but never actually seen anything. I wasn’t even sure if I actually saw something or if it was just a trick of my brain, but the old fear returned. But this time, I wasn’t ready for it. This time, I wasn’t in acceptance of it. This time, I wasn’t brave. I just sat with my hands on my table, staring at the empty doorway for almost five minutes, not even moving a muscle.
Finally, I gathered the courage to move, ran to the bedroom and went to sleep beside Amma.
Ten years back, I was the kind who sat on the first bench of the class, spoke to no one, and did my job quietly. You couldn’t bother me, because no one could break through me. No one knew that when the teacher talked about battles long lost, my mind painted pictures of the undiscovered hero that I was, saving the school from unknown evil. No one knew that when they read about Romeo and Juliet in the literature hour, my mind spilled words of me and my love running, holding hands, away, away, away from this world. No one knew that when they struggled to perfect that picture from the book, my hands created the story of my life. No one knew that when they struggled with all their might to live a life the way they thought they must, I had already lived mine. Not one, not two… but all the lives I wanted, all the stories others only craved for. I painted the stories I loved, wrote the stories I loved, sang the stories I loved, and lived the stories I loved. They spent a lifetime struggling for one life, and I lived thousands of them… in just a lifetime.
The day I witnessed the apparition, I told myself to stop it. I told myself to snap out of it, to stop creating ghosts like the little boys in that story by believing in them. That day, I told myself to grow up.
Ever since, no unearthly presence has ever bothered me. Ever since, no white figures or sparkling eyes or onlookers as I sleep have come up into my dreams or visions or whatever they were.
But ever since, I have lost a little part of me. Ever since, I have lost the little brave girl who was so passionate about stories, she made her own life a bollywood movie, a classic novel. Ever since, when I think of my childhood, I think of someone who isn’t me, someone who can never be me. This person that you are right now, you’re never gonna be the same person again. People don’t exist, time does. The ghosts are gone, the figures in white are gone, the eyes are gone, and sadly, the little brave girl has gone too.