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Madan examined the game. His grandma, whose turn it was next, waited. He ran his left hand through his hair; She slammed a three of spades. They had a pre-assigned symbol for every suit and hair was for spades. The game was Mendicoat, a popular card game in those parts, and Madan’s team, comprising him and his grandmother, had gained an edge with the move.
“Darn it,” cried Janak. “You signaled at her, didn’t you, you cheater!”
“Did you see me do that?” Madan responded, in a taunting calm manner. “Did you see me do that?" he then asked Kanchan, Janak’s partner for the game.
“How will I! You people are experts at it. Grandmother especially!” Kanchan said.
“May God take my eyes if I did it!” Their grandmother, reliably shocked, exclaimed, and the game continued.
The sun was raging and they were seated on a charpoy under the shade of a huge Madras thorn tree in a shed next to their house; It was too hot and stuffy inside the house, a modest one-bedroom hall affair that was supposed to house more than fifteen people - matriarch’s four sons and their families - during the summer months.
Madan went on to win the game, and consequently, the bet, terms of which stated Janak would take him to Karsanbhai if he lost. “I do not understand why you’re aiding Madan in such foolish endeavors,” Janak complained as he flung his cards. His grandmother told him she just wanted to win the game. She did not give two hoots about the bet.
“Don’t blame me if something happens to him,” he said, “These city people come here with their fancy ideas. What do they know of the laws that govern life here!”
“Come on, I just want to write an article on him. There’s no need to blow this out of proportion. Nothing will happen,” Madan said.
“What do you know! Just want to write an article, he says. You have no idea what you’re dealing with. Think about it for a day or two.”
“Today is Wednesday. You know he only performs the ritual on Wednesday. Next Wednesday I won’t be here.”
“Let it be then. No need to go.”
“But I won the bet.”
“I don’t care about the bet.”
“Okay, I will go alone then.”
The game over, Janak and Kanchan shortly left to go to an aunt’s place, and Madan lay down, placing his head on his grandmother’s lap.
“What is this new mischief? Nothing to do with your mother, I hope, may God bless her soul,” she said.
“It’s work Grandma. I was talking to my boss about our village before coming here and I must have mentioned Karsanbhai. He was intrigued and asked me to do a piece on him.”
“Why do you go around telling people about Karsanbhai? Do we look like samples to you Mumbai folks?”
“No Grandma, it’s just what he does, nobody does nowadays. I don’t know of anybody else who claims to put people in touch with the dead.”
“Don’t say ‘claim’. I know you will not believe it, with your education and all, but don’t assume you know everything just because you have a degree.”
“I never said I don’t believe it. My job is only to report, not comment.”
An atypical frown appeared on her face. “I don’t like this thing you’re doing. Writing about us as if we’re something to be read about and interpreted.”
“Why are you clubbing the entire village together? I’m not writing about you.”
“We’re all one people. Also, Janak is right. These are delicate matters. I hope you have thought it through."
He turned his gaze to her face. She looked concerned. He saw no point in stretching it any further.
“Maybe I won’t go.”
She looked at him for a moment and then breaking into a mischievous smile, said, "I know you will go. You've taken after me. Once you decide, you don’t listen to anybody."
"Nothing like that granny. It's a job, that's all."
"What are you planning to do? Interview him? Will you be there when the ritual is performed? Be warned, it’s not for the faint-hearted!"
He looked down, pinched his nose lightly, and said, "I will manage.”
"On another note, I do hope you have taken after me. Your father isn’t the bravest of men when it comes to these things,” she said and laughed her grandmotherly laugh.
Harsh beams of sunlight poured in through the branches above and met with his eyes. He covered his eyes with his right arm and turned to his side. His gaze fell on the closed window on the sidewall of the adjoining house. The house had stayed closed for as long as he could remember. He realized with some surprise that he did not know who lived in the house and why it was closed. He asked his grandma.
"Oh, you don't know? The owner's son, a little boy at the time, drowned at the beach. His parents who were naturally in deep grief and shock left everything and moved to the city. This was more than fifteen years back and they still haven’t done anything about the house.”
He looked at the window and shuddered. He wished he hadn’t asked.
Peacocks announced the arrival of the evening with their screams and people recommenced their outdoor activities.
Madan went out the door and put on his left shoe.
“This boy won’t listen. I have told him multiple times and in clearest terms that this is a bad idea. But who will pay heed to my advice!” Janak complained inside, to whoever was listening.
Madan put on his right shoe.
“Okay do whatever you want. But you will find yourself alone in this. I am not coming.”
Madan set out. He looked about and realized not much had changed in the village. The houses, the pathways, the people looked the same as the last time he came here. The pace of life, of progress, was the same as the pace of vehicles that had to be driven cautiously in these narrow, unpaved lanes, lest they get scratched by a thorny branch.
As he turned left out of the lane, not a hundred meters away came a bungalow on the left, the first house along the path, which was infamous throughout the village as a place of horror, a place to stay away from. There were various stories associated with the bungalow. The one that had stuck with Madan was of two teenage girls, twins, who had hung themselves. As he had grown older, he had forgotten the story but had not been able to get the picture out of his head - the sisters helping each other out probably, a serene look on their faces as life went out of them.
Now, as he passed the bungalow, Janak’s phrase from earlier came to his mind, “Laws that govern life here.” What was that about? He had heard the phrase uttered by these people innumerable times since he was a little boy. Are these laws not the same everywhere? Was he a fool to walk into the unknown?
Just at that moment, he felt a hand on his shoulder. He shrieked and rushed a couple of steps and then realized who it was.
“Woah, what’s the matter?” Janak said.
“No, nothing. You surprised me, that’s all.”
“So gutsy! I fret to think what will happen to you when you see the ritual,” he said and spat.
“I thought you weren’t coming.”
“Might as well be there in case something goes wrong.”
Ahead came the village chowk. They turned left and entered the lane with the Community Hall on the right and a compound with a huge tree, home to crying peacocks, on the left - an especially creepy place. As he walked on, he felt he walked further into darkness. All of a sudden, he wanted to return to the safety of the city. Something was not right. Hanging twins, drowning boy, communicating with the dead, the laws that govern this place, nothing seemed right. What was he thinking, getting into this mess, this darkness?
He looked about to see if Janak was still there. He was. The world was running out of light though. The day was slowly wishing him goodbye. The night would see him now.
Karsanbhai stayed in a small room in a compound that also housed a temple. The large open area in the center was used for temple activities. It is here that Karsanbhai performed the ritual.
As a boy, Madan had found it frightening yet inviting. Every Wednesday at ten in the night people would gather, some to witness and some to take part in the ritual. It was said nobody who came went back unsatisfied. Every participant believed they had communicated with the dead.
It was pitch dark as Madan made his way into the compound. He was a little feverish, a result of the twenty-hour car ride he was sure, half of which was in the scorching heat.
Karsanbhai wasn’t home. His apprentice met with them.
“Say, Janak, how come you decided to call on him?”
“This is my cousin Madan. He is from Mumbai and works there as a journalist. He has come for a week. He wants to write an article on Karsanbhai. Tonight, when the ritual is performed, he wants to observe it and interview Karsanbhai afterward, along with a few participants.”
“I am sorry, but we cannot allow it. This is a sacred ritual and we believe it should not be publicized. An interview with Karsanbhai is out of the question I am afraid.”
“That’s not why we’re here for. I want to participate in the ritual,” Madan said.
“No no, this is not what we discussed. You are not participating. Why do you want to participate? You really think this is a game, don’t you? I will tell your father,” Janak protested.
“I am participating. I want to talk to my recently deceased mother,” he said.
“No no. Let’s go home. Let’s discuss this and come back. Let’s talk to your father. Let’s see what he says. You cannot do this.”
But Madan had made up his mind.
Madan’s father had spent the evening walking the lanes of his childhood, with the people he had grown up with. Going back to his house now he was as satisfied as one is after a good, heavy meal.
Entering the house, he asked his sister-in-law to make tea and went into the bedroom to change into a lungi. He noticed somebody sleeping on the bed with a couple of thick blankets on. He inched closer to ascertain the person's identity and realized it was Madan. He asked his sister-in-law about it. She said he was feeling feverish.
“Happens to him when he's out in the sun for too long. Driving all the way from Mumbai was a bad idea," he said.
He went inside and felt Madan's forehead. "Pretty bad, isn't it?" he said. "Give him a tablet after dinner.”
Shortly Janak too rushed in and checked on Madan. "I had told him it was a bad idea," he said.
"What are you talking about?" Madan's father said.
"He wants to participate in the ritual. He wants to communicate with his mother. We went to see Karsanbhai."
"What is this madness! You people should have stopped him."
"I did discourage him. I told him he should stay away from all this. But he would not listen."
Madan's father looked at Grandma questioningly.
"I did not know," she said.
His face changed all of a sudden. He sat down on the chair, closed his eyes, joined his hands, and mouthed a brief prayer.
Madan started murmuring in his sleep. It seemed he was having a nightmare.
Madan was at peace. He picked up a handful of sand and let it slip through his fingers. Ahead, the waves continued with their rhythmic ebb and flow. The sun looked forward to dipping into the sea. His family members were having a good time. The older ones sat at a distance from the seashore and looked at the sunset and the younger ones stood in front of the waves, shrieking with delight every time a wave crashed into them.
He drifted into a vision from his childhood. He wore a bright red t-shirt, sky blue shorts, shades, and a yellow cap. He walked about without a care and kicked up sand every few steps. Having seen something in the sand a few steps ahead, he rushed toward it and crouched to examine the curious object. Then he looked back. Madan realized the boy looked nothing like his younger self and in fact, the boy was in front of him, actually there. It's the boy who drowned, he realized.
Madan looked about. All his family members had vanished. A wave came and snatched the object out of the boy’s hand. He rushed to reclaim it. Madan stood up and sprinted toward the boy like a madman to save him. He ran and ran. And he realized he was running on the spot. He had not moved an inch forward. The boy reached the seashore. Madan ran on, helpless. He spotted something in the sky above the ocean; two girls, twins, preparing to hang themselves, the same serene look on their faces. He let out a series of screams. The waves came closer to him.
The first wave crashed into him and he saw his deceased mother.
The second wave crashed into him and he saw his father.
The third wave crashed into him and submerged him and his hand emerged out of the water and he rose.
Manish Bhanushali is based out of Navi Mumbai, India. His works have appeared in Livewire and Gulmohur Quarterly.