The Woman in the Well

By ANU KUMAR

 

For nearly two years of my life, I lived with a ghost. It was when my father, a civil servant, was posted in Sambalpur, a now forgotten town in northern Odisha, a state in India’s east. Newspapers then, and even now, always added the descriptor “India’s poorest state” whenever Odisha made the headlines. This happened in the late 1980s, when several hunger-related deaths were reported in a tribal-dominated district in the state’s west, and a decade later, after an Australian missionary was burnt to death, along with his two sons, by a group led by a Hindu fanatic.

The time I remember was some years before all that. I was eleven, my brother ten, and we lived in a bungalow by the river Mahanadi, where civil servants like my father had lived for about a century or more. An old British-era house, with a slanting asbestos roof, huge rooms, doors with folding panels, old-fashioned bathrooms, a long hallway that led out from the storerooms and old kitchen toward a courtyard, in a corner of which stood an old stone well, and at last the garage. A wall surrounded and separated us: from the river on one side, and on the other side from the road that ran right through the city and later became the highway leading out.

At first I wasn’t sure how to refer to the ghost. I couldn’t even picture what “it” looked like. Ghosts were flighty, incorporeal beings, living between heaven and earth, unable to belong to either. In every story I’d heard or read, ghosts came about because of an untimely or early death, and their unassuaged spirits always hovered in a sinister way. Some could do wicked things; the more benign ones condescended to a little mischief, but they were never up to any good.

There were other presences I often sensed in that old colonial house. Gentle presences, softened with age, palpable when the old furniture creaked at night, or when something sounded on the steps leading out from the portico, or when the wind came in through gaps in the old windows. But it was the orderlies or constables working in shifts, running errands and helping around the bungalow, who revealed more to us.

My brother and I often found ourselves in their company, when they had a break in their duties, or when a power cut happened and the lights went out and everyone sat on the patio that was covered with netting to keep the mosquitoes away. We could see the river and the forests beyond, brooding in a silence all their own. In hushed tones, and with eyes round like saucers, the orderlies told us about the “bhoot” who lived in the bungalow, or rather one corner of it—the ghost of the woman who had thrown herself in the well. And that was why the well wasn’t used anymore.

I didn’t believe them. For one thing, wells weren’t really used anymore anyway. The bungalow had running water, though sometimes our mother complained of “low pressure” and about the electricity, which went out in stormy weather. In the two years we lived there, there were some bad storms; once, even a cyclone.

 

It struck me later that Mother must have known something about the story of the ghost. One of the first rules Mother set for my brother and me was to forbid us to go near the well at any time, but especially when it was dark. Evil always happened in the dark, and ghosts, I’d learned, were no exception. Ghosts had the power to enter one’s being, seep into one’s soul, and in turn, their unfortunate victims became evil too. I took my mother’s warnings in this light: she didn’t want us to be badly behaved. As a girl, I knew how important it was to be good, to never step out of line like the bad girls who invariably brought shame and disrepute to their families.

And so I kept away from the well, where she—for this was how the night duty orderly referred to the ghost—had thrown herself in. Soon it became perfectly natural to me to think that the ghost lived there, a Rapunzel-style figure, but far below, in the depths of the well, the walls enclosing her. Like a queen locked in the underworld, periodically whooshing up to scare away children who came a little too close. As long as one stayed away, the danger was contained, or so my reasoning went.

But there soon came a time when I gave in to my curiosity. The first time I looked down into the well, it was one of those long, sultry summer afternoons that sometimes came upon the town, with a heat so thick it turned things dry, dull, and slow. I was bored. While everyone dozed, I walked down the hallway, the storeroom doors to my right and the barred windows on my left, through which the sun came in, making slanted dark shadows on the floor. I stepped over the lines, crossing one after another stretched like fingers warning me to stop, as I made for the steps that led out into the courtyard.

My steps slowed as I neared the well. The stone, gray and brown in color, felt momentarily hot under my palms, but turned cool as I gingerly craned my neck to gaze down. The water lay at a great depth and looked a limpid blue, an inviting contrast to the hot glaze of the day. And in place of the dull buzz of heat around me, the water exuded a quiet, even a calmness. I must have stood there a few seconds before turning away. I will always remember the feeling: my face calmed by the stillness below, touched by the summer heat only moments later.

I tried hard not to think much about the ghost afterward. I didn’t want to admit my disobedience; nor did I want to think over the sensations I had felt as I stood by the well, my hands on the low wall, looking down at the shadowy outline of my own self reflected in the water below. If I had been a ghost, I might have looked like that.

I was relieved my going to the well hadn’t drawn attention. I wondered if the ghost was really all evil, as she had been made out to be, as I had imagined her thus far. For she hadn’t done a thing. She hadn’t reached up a hand and pulled me in. It was then I felt the first sliver of fright, not at the ghost, but at my own daring, for having stepped out of line. For girls were expected to be quiet, decent, and, most of all, obedient.

 

If my brother had not gotten the fright of his life one dark night, I suppose my grandmother might not have persuaded my parents to have a puja to appease the resident ghost in the well. A puja to draw in all the power and protection of the gods my grandmother worshipped, whose pictures and idols were arranged on the tiered metal altar before which she bowed and chanted her prayers every morning and evening, and later at night, when she put them to bed by draping over the altar a cloth of shimmering soft yellow silk.

On that night, when an unexpected power cut plunged everything for miles into a coal-black darkness broken only by flitting fireflies, the garland of forest fires visible across the river, and perhaps the light of a boat far out in the water, Shahu, the orderly on duty, told my brother and me stories. About animals that suddenly manifested in the dark, cows with glinting fires in their eyes, a dog that appeared faithfully for nights on end and then vanished, and, of course, the ghost in the well.

My brother later mentioned that what had scared him most was how Shahu’s nicotine-stained teeth had glinted in the darkness as he spoke. It made him look quite a specter himself.

My brother and I differed in the things we were scared of then. I was consumed by worry about not being a “good girl,” for this would earn me even more of my mother’s displeasure. I feared my brother’s mockery, too. He bullied me, complained about me to our parents and teachers, and mocked me mercilessly for being terrible at math. Mother and Grandmother leapt to his defense on such matters. He was, after all, the son, the one who would carry the family name forward. For the two years I spent in that town, I was a laughingstock, an idiot, of no comparison to my more intelligent brother.

 

One morning she gave her boys their breakfast and then jumped into the well. This is how I remember Shahu beginning his story. From that one statement, I realized she must have been young. And like every mother, she had ensured that, for all that she did later, the children didn’t go hungry. She had cared enough to do this.

Her husband, so the orderlies said, was a doctor and traveled often. That morning he wasn’t there. She was in that house, the same house we now lived in, with her two sons and her father-in-law, a man who had been one of my father’s predecessors as the senior-most police officer in Odisha’s northern districts.

At that time, I did not wonder or ask Shahu why she had jumped into the well. I did say that she wasn’t really harmful. The ghost hadn’t scared us in any way, yet. And I blurted out the story of how I had peered into the well one afternoon and seen nothing. Maybe it was the darkness. It gave me courage, and no one could see or judge me as I told my story, putting on an airy and casual manner. And maybe I wanted to be one up on my brother, for I could see Shahu’s stories were scaring him, whereas I remained unaffected. The ghost wasn’t scary at all, I said, quite nonchalant. A shadowlike thing had dappled across the water and gone away in seconds, I added.

A stunned silence followed my declaration. My grandmother broke in, long seconds later, warning me never to do such a thing again. After that, Mother and Grandmother told off Shahu for having scared my brother with stories that made no sense, that were patently untrue and, worse, unsuitable for children. I was relieved my infraction had been forgotten, and I was disappointed too. I could never command attention like my brother.

In the days that followed, however, considering the awe ghosts commanded, the distance we kept from them, I was surprised nothing more was said, that I was reprimanded no more. But I guess they were already thinking of the puja, of doing something to appease the ghost, to make sure she remained in the well and did not stray.

Keeping the ghost contained soon became more urgent, for shortly thereafter she began to exercise a greater influence. Since that evening of the power cut, my brother’s fears had grown in quantum leaps. Suddenly he would run out of his room, unable to express what it was that had scared him—maybe someone at the window, he once said—and at night, a lamp standing on three rickety legs always had its light on to reassure him. My parents started noticing the ghost’s presence too. Some nights, when there was silence everywhere, they said they had heard a woman’s high-pitched laughter. And the tinkle of bangles.

The puja preparations gathered force. As my grandmother looked for an auspicious date, my father made inquiries on a suitable priest, and I learnt more about the woman who had thrown herself in the well and become a ghost.

Her father-in-law, Narayan Chand, the man who had been in the house with her on her last night, had served in the district a decade before my father. When his name came up during a conversation between my mother and grandmother, I caught the quick look of comprehension and warning they exchanged. This indicated a matter that couldn’t be discussed openly, one that was especially unsuitable for children. My curiosity now piqued, I persisted.

Who was he really? I wanted to know. But I made sure not to get too irksome and waited to catch my mother in a mellow mood—such as when she listened to music, for this always brought a pensive, wistful look to her face—and she would be more receptive to my questions.

“He’s a very corrupt man. And rich too,” said my mother one night. But she said nothing more about it.

The house fell into a quiet then. The red gravel driveway was lit up a ghostly blue with the neon lamplights. The jackals howled across the river, and the forest fires rose high in the sky. The river that otherwise looked sluggish and blue appeared dark and menacing, almost as if a curtain had dropped, sheathing us, apart from that red ring of forest fire, from the rest of the world. The crickets cheeped, the moths gurgled around the lamplights, the jackals called again, and sometimes, depending on which way the wind blew, they sounded very near. When my father was on tour, we felt marooned, looking out through the netted bay windows of the verandah, watching the dark river. My mother would tell us stories and sing the songs she knew and for some moments dispel any fears we might have. It was at those moments, for those songs, that I wanted my mother to like me, to love me as she did my brother. I would be good. I would not be wild. And I would stay away from the ghost.

 

My father’s office was just a short walk away from our bungalow. Both were within the walled compound, with the river to one side and Cantonment Road on the other. My father sat at one end of a green-topped table with wooden outer bands. The table was always packed with files, but I liked the pen stands and the prismatic paperweights. Behind him on the wall hung all the photos of his predecessors, more than forty of them from the 1890s onward. Men in their khaki uniforms—passive, stern and unsmiling—their heads turned leftward as they posed for the mandatory official photo.

Narayan Chand was in the middle row, the fourth portrait from the right. His bespectacled, lantern-jawed face appeared to look over my father’s shoulder as he sat at his table. Narayan Chand’s face was unrelenting, glowering, with a certain look in his eyes that made me afraid. He looked like all the men I had known who appeared as distant figures, who were to be feared and respected. The only time they acknowledged you was when you greeted them, in a whisper and with folded hands.

Even though there was little likelihood of my ever meeting Narayan Chand, and even less that he would step out of the photo and stand over me, his fingers crooked into his leather belt, I knew what he would do: acknowledge my greeting with a clipped nod, and then let his eyes, bulbous and all-staring through his thick-framed glasses, rove over me in a way that made me self-conscious, that made me long to hide my pubescent breasts, to shrink into myself and disappear. Had his eyes moved like that over his daughter-in-law? Had she understood, too, the things in that look that all women and girls soon learn to decipher well?

The priest who would perform the puja came with good recommendations and worked in an insurance office. One afternoon on our return from school, he was sitting next to my grandmother on the cane chairs in the patio. He looked disheveled, with unkempt gray hair and tobacco-stained teeth, wearing an off-white loose kurta and dhoti. He had mud-streaked black sandals on. Maybe he saw me assessing him and read it as disdain.

The priest had his revenge on me in a matter of moments, when my grandmother asked him to read my hand and tell my future. He frowned, holding my hand gingerly. He peered through his glasses, tut-tutted in concern, and then told my grandmother that there was going to be trouble in my life, for I was much too stubborn. I dared not look at my mother, who stood near, biting her lips like she always did when she was tense. Grandmother tried to urge him on, to say nicer, more encouraging things. She told him that such things should not be mentioned before the young, while I, my voice strangled, asked if he saw anything even a little good in the lines on my palm. “You will live till about sixty-five,” he said dismissively, dropping my hand abruptly. I caught him surreptitiously wiping his palm on his loose kurta.

With my brother, he was effusive and generous. My brother would be brilliant in whatever he did. Looking at my now beaming mother, he went on: “Your son will be a doctor or an engineer.” These predictions cheered her considerably, and, with my grandmother, she set about making the puja arrangements.

 

Preparations for the puja began early one morning. All the things preordered from the local market had arrived the previous evening: fruits of every kind—apples and bananas and even exotic ones not seen in Odisha, such as pineapple—in chunky tins, were arranged on new bamboo trays; a gingham-printed dhoti for the priest and a fine cotton sari for his wife lay on another tray, neatly wrapped in cellophane.

As I dressed for school, Mother looked preoccupied, frowning as she looked once again at the list of things the shops still had to deliver: the flowers for every god on the altar, and the pair of handmade leather slippers the Chinese shoemaker—from the only such family in Sambalpur—had not sent over yet. She couldn’t wait for my brother and me to leave, for it was she who had to cook the puja meal: dozens of fried wheat dumplings, a spicy potato-and-peas curry, a dish of sprouted pulses and coconut, a pastry made of cottage cheese and jaggery, and a dessert of rice and milk.

“Everything should be vegetarian,” the priest had insisted at that first meeting; the smell of meat, he’d added, would only excite the ghost. After he left, I heard Mother tell Father in an aside that the priest had only made his own preferences clear. As a Brahmin priest, it’d not behoove him to officiate at a puja where meat was on the menu.

The puja was almost over by the time we got home from school. We arrived to the sound of cymbals and the priest sonorously chanting the last prayers. They all sat cross-legged, Grandmother and my parents behind the priest on coir mats, their eyes reverentially closed, palms folded, as they faced the garlanded gods arranged on the altar. All the food—what mother had prepared, and the fruit cut and arranged tastefully—had been laid out on trays and big silver plates in front of the deities, just to the priest’s right. The fragrance of sandalwood and the cloying smell of incense lay everywhere.

After the conch shell had been blown three times, long and loud, we followed the priest in an impromptu procession. Behind him walked my grandmother and my parents—my mother only a little way behind, as decorum demanded—then my brother and me, and the orderly on duty straggled behind last of all. All of us, with folded hands, moved from room to room as the priest clanged a small bell repeatedly, and with his other hand, he held the prayer plate high, the smoke billowing out from flaming coir strands. This smoke, enervated and blessed by the various deities arranged on my grandmother’s prayer altar, would now dispel every evil, every malignant influence in the house. The smoke made me cough and tear up. But I was forced to inhale it deeply, so that no trace of wickedness was left in me.

 

Some months later, we traveled in father’s car to a neighboring town to see a guru. My parents had suddenly begun to have immense faith in this guru, who was tall and strapping and had traveled the world with an entourage of disciples. The businessman who hosted the guru and his disciples lived in a huge house, twice the size of the government bungalow we lived in. Rooms on two levels overlooked a gymnasium-sized inner court. Once we stepped in, we encountered a soothing quiet and an emptiness. Apart from an empty bench in the courtyard, there was no one, and no other bit of furniture.

But we knew the guru was somewhere near when we saw some very fair-skinned people, dressed in long, colorful kurtas, who floated around looking ethereal and disembodied. “His foreign disciples,” Mother exclaimed in a whisper. To my brother and me, they looked like creatures from another world, which indeed they were, for one rarely encountered the likes of them in small-town Odisha.

Before long we were called in to pay our formal respects to the guru. We trooped in, quiet and obedient, and bent to touch the guru’s feet with our hands. We sat down amongst others on a carpet, looking on, suppliant as the guru stretched out on a low bed, his legs and arms massaged by two sets of people who regularly changed places with those seated on the carpet.

The guru moved his fingers through his beard as he stared down at us, his eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles moving from one face to another, and I hid behind my father’s broad back, afraid to be singled out for attention. It was then I caught the eye of another saffron-robed figure. He sat on the carpet like us, but close enough to the guru so that he could hand him stuff, like a pen or water, or read out things the guru wanted. He was much younger than the guru and did not have a long, flowing, wispy beard. He looked back at me, stern and unsmiling. I folded my hands as I had seen others do in the face of similarly robed figures, but he did not respond. He glowered at me instead, his black beady eyes and his bushy black eyebrows giving little away. But there was something about his wide jaw, his square forehead that seemed familiar.

On the drive back home, as we dozed in the back seat and the low-roofed sedan hummed its way down the narrow highway, it was Mother who said, “That Chand’s son looked a bit at peace.”

Father hummed in agreement. “After all these years,” Mother said, and Father agreed again. A long time later, Mother said, “That’s a terrible way to lose your wife. She was too pretty.”

The way she said all this made me go very still. I knew whom she was talking about then. But Mother seemed to suggest that being pretty was terrible. I had always thought that ugliness was the more terrible sin. Something one could do little about. “She was too pretty. Poor thing,” Mother said again.

 

It took me some more months before I worked things out on my own. The man I had seen in the saffron robe was Narayan Chand’s son; the resemblance struck me with a blinding clarity, and then other realizations followed. The ghost was the man’s wife, Narayan Chand’s daughter-in-law, whom he had raped that last fateful night.

The next morning, she had thrown herself in the well. She was pretty. My mother’s words kept resounding in my head. So pretty that her father-in-law could not resist her. He was a powerful police officer, and no one would believe her. And he knew too that she couldn’t, and wouldn’t, tell anyone. She would be blamed. For being pretty, for being a woman who had tempted a man, even an older father-in-law, a respected police officer who sat in his portrait in my father’s office, his bulbous eyes popping out in his all-knowing righteous anger.

Rape, as I was learning then from all the newspaper stories I read, was the worst thing that could happen to a woman, a girl. It was terrible because of the hushed way people spoke about it, never actually referring to rape when they spoke about a girl’s ruined life, or a sudden death. It frightened parents, the thought that anytime, anywhere, rape could happen. It made them worry about their daughters, made them restrict their every movement, deny them freedoms their brothers enjoyed. We—my classmates in school, and me too—had come to accept all this, knowing it was for our own good. Such restrictions and rules stopped us from being harmed, from getting raped. But the young woman had been in her own home, and yet nothing, no one had saved her.

The last bit of this story took me years to get into shape, most of it coming together accidentally, though I never knew the young woman’s name. Maybe her ghost, living on in the well, sought not to assuage her anger—for ghosts are supposed to be dissatisfied spirits—but looked for someone to know and understand her story. For it did seem that, in spite of the puja and our visit to the guru, the ghost remained very much around.

Late one night, when a storm broke, the lightning flashed menacingly, too close to the house, and the thunder cracked long and ominous. It felt as though in moments the roof would crash down on us. Repeated shafts of lightning lit up the river, turned it into a gray-purple line. Thunder drowned our every frightened cry, and my usually sedate father shouted the guru’s name, calling for relief. Some nights later, the lamp, always kept on because of my brother’s fear of the ghost, caught fire. My mother spotted it in time; a few moments’ delay could have led to the lamp falling over, setting the mosquito net afire. My parents always talked of this as a narrow escape. And I wondered if, like the two boys the young woman had left behind, I might have been left motherless.

After another year or so, Father was transferred again. Years later, when I wrote about the ghost in a fictional form, portraying her as a woman who loved reading and who had killed herself, I called her bahurani, or “beloved daughter-in-law.” She became a ghost and lived in the attic of a bungalow, a familiar presence to the inhabitants because of her anklets. An editor pointed out that bahurani seemed quite similar to another haunted character in my book, named Ratri, meaning “night.” My editor’s nudge gave an apt ending to at least one story, even if a fictional one: the young mother, the bahurani, the ghost in the well, now had a name—Ratri.

At that time, I was troubled by such women, women who were rendered invisible, even disbelieved, and who held onto their secret stories, looking for someone to tell them to. My editor’s words encouraged me that it could be done, that such stories can be told with empathy, courage, and the willingness to listen, even to long years of silence. I could no longer look away. I wanted to voice these many hidden stories, to bring something enchanting and meaningful to these unfairly forgotten lives. Every life, I’d learnt, is worth a story; every life contains several complicated selves. All such thoughts reflected my own urge not to remain invisible anymore, not to live to someone else’s expectations, but to let my story unfold in its own way.

 

Some months ago, I was talking to my mother. She’s much older now, and so am I, and we live on different continents, in different time zones. When I called her up, it was midnight where I was, as quiet as the ones I remember in Sambalpur, and she was sipping her morning cup of tea.

“Do you remember anything of the ghost?” I asked. “Did you ever really hear anything?”

“The gentle sound of anklets on the patio outside. It sounded like a young woman,” my mother said, “and the sound was always pleasing, like some sweet music.”

 

Anu Kumar’s most recent works are the novel The Hottest Summer in Years and the collection A Sense of Time and Other Stories. Her nonfiction work on the lives of early South Asians in America appears this year from Simon & Schuster India and Yoda Press. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Maine Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, Numéro Cinq, Past Ten,TheJuggernaut.com, Atlas and Alice, and elsewhere. She lives in New Jersey and has an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts.

 

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The Woman in the Well

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