Into a starless night.
I had an unremarkable childhood. Together with my two sisters, my father and mother, we were a family of five. Our family life was stable. Dad went to work nine to five, Mum cooked the most amazing food and we children went to school. In the evenings, we played with our friends, later completed our homework, had dinner, watched some television and finally went off to sleep.
Those days, the social environment was unlike it is at present. People communicated with each other more often on a face to face basis than via emails and messengers. Families shared dinner together, relatives came for visits, neighbours shared recipes and casseroles, community members participated in celebrations and so much more.
Children had a fun life. These were the end of the seventies and beginning of eighties in Bombay, the city of dreams, in India. Television broadcasts were limited to a six to ten timing in the evening on weekdays. Sundays it would come on in two slots, morning nine to afternoon two and then again evening six to ten. There were no computers, laptops, tabs or cell phones. There were radios and landlines.
Children were free to use their physical and intellectual skills. They climbed over walls, fences and trees, drew hopscotch on the pavement and played infinite games with infinite self-made rules. On weekends, it was a force of habit for families to huddle together in the evening for the movies that were broadcast on the television. People slept by ten those days because there was nothing more to do.
I have two sisters. One older and one younger. I refuse to give excuses to my status as a middle child, but I can confidently state, I was a difficult child. Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t, am not, autistic or ADHD (terms people hadn’t even heard those days) but I did have some behavioural issues.
There is a three-year difference between me and my older sister and a six-year difference between me and my younger sister. There shouldn’t have been any behavioural issues. I had plenty of me-time with my parents as the second born. Or did I?
My earliest memory of my life is the identical dresses my Mum used to stitch for me and my older sister. Same fabric, same pattern. But the similarity in our outward personalities ended there. While my sister was the apple of the family’s eye (this included my grandparents, uncles and aunts), they considered me a bit of a wild-child. No I didn’t have a devil may care attitude, but my family may have felt I had the devil in me.
No, this wasn’t an assumption. I had heard them talk about me.
Memories – Prisha – 1978.
“You seem tired, Sudha,” my father’s tone is gentle as he lays down for the night.
“It’s nothing,” Mum mumbles back. She does sound tired. Exhausted. I turn on my side. I can hear their muted voices as I lie on my bed in the room next to theirs. “Prisha as usual.”
My heart constricts. Why am I not surprised she’s complaining about me? “She’s only six, Sudha, how difficult can she be?” Dad reasons. Yay, Dad!
There is a brief silence before the tirade begins. “For once why don’t you spend the entire day with her and then you might get the answer to your question.” My mother’s nightdress rustles as she shifts. I can sense her teeth grit together as she speaks of her woes. “She’s stubborn, messy and she whines all the time! I can’t get her to do anything on time! She has torn all her school books, she needs new pencils every day, she eats her erasers, her teachers complain she dreams in class, she snatches other children’s snack boxes and if I scold her, she whines! You have no idea how she whines! It’s like an incessant wail that overpowers me till I feel I’ll go crazy! The only way I can get her to stop is by whacking her.”
“Don’t you Sudha me! You have no idea! I’d rather have her sulking in one corner the whole day than making us miserable! She’s nothing like Saumya! It’s like they came from two different mothers! But no, I bear the memory of the horrendous labour she put me through, those hours of agony! And yet, I can’t believe she came from me!”
“I guess that’s why you find it more difficult to deal with her. Because she’s different.”
The light switches off in their bedroom sinking the apartment into darkness. I can sense Mum has put an abrupt end to the conversation. Dad settles down to mumbling a few tired prayers.
I lie on my bed, staring into the darkness around me. My older sister and I sleep in the living room of our one-bedroom apartment. Stored away in the day, my bed is a pull-out one. It has wheels and tends to shift when I turn on my sides. I try to lie still as it annoys my sister to no end when the wheels squeak. But some nights, I can’t help it. Some nights I toss and turn more than usual.
Faint, dusty rays from the street lights outside filter through the curtains throwing murky shadows on the walls. My sister is fast asleep, her breath soft and peaceful. I keep staring at the ceiling fan willing my eyes to stay open. Mum’s words hurt me more than I can express. I hate myself for all the trouble I cause her. What is wrong with me? Why do I frustrate her so? Why can’t I be more like my sister?
My eyes droop losing focus on the whirring fan blades. I promise I’ll be a good girl, Mum.
Drops of cold water, shining like jewels fall over my frozen cheeks. My breath fogs, my eyes stir trying to defy the embrace of deep sleep. What is happening? Why is it raining?
Tendrils from an icy breath caress my cheek and a needlepoint nail traces a scratch across it. “I see you,” the voice whispers in my ear, “I see what you see.”
My eyes dance behind my eye-lids, battling my need to open them and my common sense to keep them closed. I can sense this has happened before. I am helpless, weighed down by an uninvited presence.
A sticky tongue traces the path of the blood that oozes from the scratch across my cheek. “I will get you someday,” the voice whispers its macabre promise, “Someday you will sleep too deep, someday you will dream too far…”
NO! I wail in silence, flaying my arms about to break the inhuman grip.
A harsh slap across my face sends my head whipping to one side.
My eyes snap open breaking the spell. I’m drenched in sweat. My wide eyes stare around
prepared to see something evil but all they can see are the familiar shadows. My sister sleeps on.
I want to wake her up. I want to cuddle up to someone. “Saumya,” I whisper, “I’m scared, I want to pee.”
Saumya groans her annoyance. “Shut up and sleep!”
“But Saumya…” I touch her arm but she turns to the other side and sleeps on.
I am too scared to move from my bed, my eyes still searching the shadows. I see nothing
but I’m too afraid to go to the toilet on my own. I hold for as long as I can, then I pee in my bed as I have done every night since I was born.
Mum isn’t too pleased about the laundry she has to do in the morning. My bedding stinks. Period. It is so bad that I have a rubber sheet to protect the mattress but nothing can protect my favourite blanket. No one knows that it is my protective shield; it gives me a false sense of security as soon as I hide under it. My pee soaks it every night so it’s washed and dried daily, ready for use at night. No one else will touch my blanket because it smells so bad. But that’s exactly why I love it. It keeps something away. I truly believe it does.
As a six year old child, I have little memory of the nightmares I endure on a regular basis. An icy touch, a scratched cheek, something frightening but nothing more. I wake up daily to a brand new day, excited about endless possibilities. I have so much to do and so little time. I try to be on my best behaviour, as promised, and yet I am late for school as I can’t find my tattered school diary. I also conveniently spill milk on my school shirt. My apologetic smile for Mum gets me nowhere. She all but drags me from the house and drops me to school which is at walking distance from our house.
I spend my day as usual daydreaming, drawing patterns on the desk, attempting to hijack snack boxes and generally getting into trouble. The only thing I look forward to is the evening at my neighbour’s home.
Uma Sangram is a dance teacher at my school and also my next-door neighbour. A beautiful, kind woman, she has a daughter, Anushri, who is around three years younger than me. She lives in a cosy, warm, loving home with her husband and her daughter and she adores me to bits. I have no idea why, but I love her back. I call her Uma aunty and her husband Partho uncle. Anushri and I enjoy playing for hours, creating imaginary castles and forts with bedsheets on their apartment’s balcony.
It is part of my routine to come home from school, play with my friends, wash up and then head on to the Sangrams. I spend my entire evening with them and am rarely home for dinner. Uma aunty ensures I eat every morsel off my plate because I am very skinny. Not that all her indulgence ever matters to my skinny self.
One night, Partho uncle is late coming back from work. He works as a manager at a car factory in the east side of the city. He is usually home by seven but today it’s already half past and he isn’t home yet.
I sit under a bedsheet draped over chairs to fashion a make-shift fort to play with Anushri. We sit under the sheets sipping on her play tea set.
“I’ll be right back, Prishi,” Anushri chirps as she leaves the play fortress.
“Ok,” I chirp back happily. I hum under my breath as I arrange the dolls around me. A yawn escapes my lips indicating the day’s adventures are catching up with me. I lay my head on the soft pillow next to Anushri’s favourite doll. It isn’t very late, I am aware I have at least two whole hours of playtime left in the day.
In the next instant, I am fast asleep.
The car driving along the unlit road is travelling fast. Partho uncle is worried. He is late for dinner. He makes it a point to never be late. Today he has stopped to buy red roses for his wife. The flowers will commemorate the day they first met.
A sudden fog swirls up, swallowing the car. He can’t see clearly but he keeps going. Then icy drops of waterfall over his head and roll down his cheeks. He loses his focus as he looks up into the face of evil. At that moment the car spins out of control.
I scream. Loudly.
“Prisha! Prisha!” Those voices are as though they come from a distance. I choose to ignore them. I have to see it. I have to see what it looks like!
“Prisha!” My eyes snap open staring into the frightened eyes of Anushri and Uma aunty.
“Oh, poor baby!” Uma aunty envelops me in her arms, “Were you having a nightmare?”
Yes, I guess I was. I look around at the play fortress, it’s a mess. I have pulled it apart in my sleep.
She brushes wet tendrils away from my face. “Come on, let’s have dinner. It’s getting late.” I look at her confused. “What about Uncle? Is he home yet?”
“No, sweetheart, he isn’t. I’m sure…”
“I want to speak to him,” I blurt, cutting her off, “I want uncle to come home now! He’s
not safe! He’s not safe!”
Uncertainty flickers in Uma Sangram’s eyes. “Did you have a bad dream about uncle? I’m
sure he’s fine.”
“No! No! He needs help!” I’m almost hysterical by now but I’m glad my frenzy alarms her
enough to make her call him.
The watchman at the factory confirms Partho Sangram left at his regular time. Uma aunty
glances at the clock. Her husband is more than an hour late. It isn’t like him.
She calls my father and explains the situation. Within minutes I see Dad leave our
apartment in a hurry and drive off into the dark night.
With no means of immediate communication, the next hours are the longest of our lives.
Two hours later, Dad returns with Partho Sangram. From the balcony, I can see he has to lend support to uncle to get out of the car.
When they reach home, Dad reveals he found Partho uncle’s car in a ditch by the road. Uncle had driven off the road straight into it. He was semi-conscious when Dad found him. After a quick visit to the hospital and basic check-up, he was discharged to rest at home.
With the adults and Anushri fussing over him, I don’t get to approach uncle immediately. Instead, I’m sent home while my parents and a few other neighbours surround him with questions. As luck would have it, apart from a mild concussion he isn’t hurt. He keeps mumbling about a fog that came out of nowhere. It isn’t winter yet so his explanation doesn’t seem to convince others. It could be a car from the opposite direction that didn’t use dippers on the dimly lit road.
But, Partho Sangram is adamant it was a fog. He also added that he saw me. Well, not exactly me but a girl who looked like me. She was pale and cold with silver hair and bright violet eyes. I have black hair and chocolate coloured eyes.
I’m not supposed to know about this. But inquisitive as Saumya is, she has all the details and takes pleasure in tormenting me with them. “I bet the Sangrams know what a freak you are now.”
The news alarms me. I don’t want to lose the Sangrams. I don’t want to lose anyone. I’m not a freak!
I stare at my reflection in the bathroom mirror. Is there something wrong with me? I stare long enough to acknowledge the normality of my features. My head holds a messy mop of hair, my eyes are keen as they are a regular dark brown. Why then can I see a flicker in them?
I lean forward, using my finger to force my lower eyelids down. I look gross and funny enough for a giggle to escape. Then I see them. They are very faint. Almost non-existent. Purple flecks of an amethyst, dancing in my irises. I can see them because I’m hunting for them.
The mirror fogs over. I let go of my eye to take a nervous step back. I want to move, to bolt out of the bathroom but my feet are rooted to the floor. I’m cold. Cold enough to shiver and hug myself. I see a movement in the mirror. The fog is clearing into a mist. It’s still me and it isn’t.
Her hair is silver, her eyes a burning purple. Her face is a direct imprint upon mine. We could be twins.
She lends me a smile loaded with evil. I can feel my lips move too. Am I smiling back? Reflecting what she wants me to? I know I’m trembling and am beyond terrified. The terror that grips my senses seems to lift me off the floor till I’m floating several feet off it.
Now I’m looking down at her through the mirror. She begins to lean forward and reaches out of the mirror. Her torso is half in and half out. She can reach me with her sharp, icy talons. They scrape the bottom of my chin.
“Yes, pet, I am you and you’re me.” Her voice is at once enchanting and alarming. “I need you as you need me. You don’t know how powerful you are yet. Don’t forget me. I hold your will in me. You can’t escape. You will never be free.”
“Prisha! Prisha! Dad! Dad! Look what’s happening to Prisha!” I can hear Saumya’s frenzied screams but mine are louder than hers.
I realise I’m in my bed and not in the bathroom anymore, screaming and thrashing about like a crazed person. Dad’s gentle hands grab me. In the next instant, cold water splashes across my face and I come awake with a deep gasp.
“It’s okay, it’s okay.” Dad hugs me close, rocking me in his arms. “You had a nightmare.” I let out a low wail and in the next instant, wet myself. He doesn’t mind. He holds onto me, giving me the much needed sense of security.
I shiver for a good ten minutes before my body calms down. Nightmare. Yes, it was a nightmare. At least now I know what my nightmare looks like. It looks like me.