This story is the winner of "To Be Continued" short story contest
Inspired by Manichitrathazhu/ Chandramukhi/ Bhool Bhullaiya
The dogs howled, the wind blustered outside, rattling the window panes. “Manish, please get that dog to shut up!” Naina groaned. She felt a terrible headache coming on, one that reminded her of that period when she had suffered from a split personality; that of Mandakini, an ancient courtesan, who had witnessed her lover murdered brutally. What a close call it had been! Naina had almost taken vengeance on her innocent husband and tried to kill him, under the delusion that he had been the murderer.
The astute Dr. Jimmy had advised his close friend, Manish, to tell Naina everything. She had not wanted to know, but Manish had assured her firmly that she had come out of the terrifying experience. The past was firmly in the past!
But why did that dog continue to howl? She went to the window to shut the sound out. Her grandmother had told her tales of spirits, mentioning that a howling dog was the harbinger of death. She shivered involuntarily, unwilling to open any forbidden doors within her mind.
“Amma!” the scream made her heart pound. She rushed into the dining room. Karthika, her daughter, stood, petrified. “Karthika, why did you scream?” she asked, trembling. The moment she saw her mother, the girl ran towards her, and hid her face on her shoulder.
“Amma, I s...s...saw a shadow outside the window. It looked like a woman with long hair.” She was obviously terrified, and tears flowed down her pale cheeks.
Naina gathered her daughter to herself. “It must have been the branch of a tree or something, child.” The girl looked unconvinced, but Naina comforted her.”Where is Vishnu?” she asked. Karthika shook her head. She had no idea where her high-spirited brother was.
When Manish came home after work, he laughed their fears away.
“A shadow? Of a woman? Did you just get scared by your own reflection?” he said mock-gently. Karthika had long lustrous hair that Naina oiled lovingly every week.
“Achan, of course I didn’t see myself! I am not that silly!” Karthika pouted.
“No, you’re sillier!” countered Vishnu, back after his jaunt. He was the pert one who loved being in the limelight. He was more talkative than his younger sister, who preferred the company of books to that of any human being.
Dinner over, the children went to bed. Naina and Manish sat on the verandah. This was their own time every night, when they talked about their day, their conversation punctuated by the sound of crickets, or a raucous choir of frogs, and the rustling of the breeze in the trees around. Naina loved this time she spent with her beloved husband.
That night, she was sleepy, and turned in earlier than usual. Manish stayed outside for a while. The stars in the velvety sky beckoned him.
CRASH! Manish jumped out of his chair as he heard glass breaking, a sound that reverberated in the still night. He rushed indoors. The sound had come from the dining room. He came to a sudden stop. There was glass lying on the floor, having fallen down from the face of the grandfather’s clock, a clock that had been broken once earlier, and repaired.
“Oh, no! How did this happen?” He turned to see Naina’s concerned face. “I have no idea!” he admitted.
Manish called Sundari, their maid servant, to clean up the mess. He was struck by the apprehensive expression on her face. “Sir, how did the glass break?” she quavered. She had not been in the house when the earlier events had taken place. “It was an accident!” said Manish sternly. “I hit against it by mistake! Now don’t go around spreading lies and scaring all the other servants!” The white lie was essential, as people had long memories. He did not want any speculation at all. The clock was repaired over the next four days, and everything was back to normal.
“Naina!” Manish had a broad grin on his face. “Guess who’s coming down for a visit!” Very rarely did he look so happy at the news of a visitor! “Jimmy is here for a break, and wants to spend a few days here with us!” Naina’s smile was equally broad. Dr. Jimmy Joseph was not only Manish’s best friend, but also the psychiatrist who had solved the mystery in the old house. The mansion that had a room under a lock strong enough to keep in the spirit of a beautiful dancer, Mandakini, who wanted to avenge the death of her lover! The frenzied spirit had threatened to drink the blood of the murderer on the night of a certain Ashtami, the night when her spirit would gain the strength required for her vengeance.
Strange occurrences, seemingly supernatural, had taken place, and the inmates of the house had constantly looked over their shoulders, unwilling to confront the dreaded Mandakini. It was Jimmy who had solved the mystery, proving that it was not a spirit but a woman of flesh and blood who had been terrorizing everyone – Naina herself. It had taken a whole so-called exorcism, where there was a mock killing of the supposed murderer by a deluded Naina, to bring her back from the brink of madness. Mandakini had been banished forever from where she had thrived – Naina’s mind!
The nubile Sundari came running in, wringing her hands. Terror shone out of her eyes as she strove to catch her breath. “Last night, my husband heard the sound of anklets outside our room!” Their room was behind the main house. “He peered out of the window when he heard the clink of anklets again, and saw a sight that terrified him!” She wrung her hands again.
“He feels that the spirit of Mandakini has got free again!” she wailed, as Naina put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“There has never been a spirit! Those are just old women’s tales!” she said acerbically. This woman had probably never heard the whole story. If so, she would never have mustered the courage to talk about Mandakini to Naina herself!
Manish scoffed at the tale. “The man must have been stark raving drunk!” He smiled, “Maybe he’s been dreaming of some beautiful woman, and she decided to walk into his dreams, anklets and all!”
However, there was a feeling of unease all around. Old tales were dug out of their crypts, the servants began grumbling about moving around at night. They spoke of midnight visitations, blood thirsty she-ghosts (yakshis) and the incessant sound of anklets. In the midst of all this activity, Dr. Jimmy made his appearance.
Karthika had tears flowing down her cheeks as she held up her favourite dress which had been torn to shreds, as if some bad tempered soul had taken a knife and cut several holes in it. “Amma, who could have done this?” she wept inconsolably. Vishnu hated to see his sister in tears. “I will make sure that I find the person and thrash her!” he promised. He was the confident one, which is why his parents tended to protect his gentle sister more. Vishnu was like the shining sun, in whose shade grew his timid sister.
“What’s the matter?” Jimmy breezed in with his customary swagger. He was a stocky man with a winsome manner that bordered on the ridiculous, making people take him lightly. But his sharp eyes missed nothing. He had been listening to all the stories with a feeling of déjà vu.
His old friend, Babu, would be his accomplice again to help him find out about these strange occurrences. Babu told him about the voluptuous new maid, Sundari, who was spreading stories about the household.
“Sundari, tell me everything!” Jimmy cajoled her, his charm coming to his aid. The woman glanced at him from under her heavy eyelids, and smiled. “Jimmy Sir, I will! She licked her lush bottom lip, and a change came over her face. “My husband saw Mandakini, with her hair billowing in the wind, her anklets creating music as she danced on the hill behind the old house!” Jimmy watched her minutely, noticing her face as she described the other woman, a strange avid expression in her eyes that shone disconcertingly.
“What did she look like?” he asked her. “She was beautiful, but her eyes were large and staring. Since he saw her from a distance, she looked petite.” Too far for him to have actually noticed her eyes and heard the anklets, Jimmy smiled to himself.
Babu, Manish’s uncle came over the next day. As they sat for lunch, Babu broached the topic nervously. “There are rumours about people having seen Mandakini.” Manish and Jimmy laughed uproariously, as Naina smiled. “Don’t worry! Those are just rumours, insubstantial and airy as the air!” Jimmy remarked. “Mandakini does not exist! She is just a myth, after all!” Manish was smiling along when he caught Babu’s worried glance at Naina. He realized that the older man had a few suspicions locked away in his mind. Manish glanced at Naina, and a tiny suspicion sparked in his mind, one that he shut away immediately.
Vishnu and Karthika came in, as the conversation was going on. They heard the last statement that Jimmy had made, about Mandakini. Their eyes widened with trepidation. Karthika was almost in tears. Jimmy got up swiftly, and placed his arms around them, putting them at ease with his comic remarks! He was fond of them, as he was their godfather, and had seen them grow up.
He recalled the day when they had asked him about those dark days when their mother had been ill. He had told them what he thought they needed to know, but a few more secrets were locked away in his heart, secrets he would need to bare to them some day.
That night a scream reverberated through the still night, from the courtyard behind, and woke the sleepers. With their hearts in their mouths, they rushed outside. A figure lay on the ground, groaning. It was the maid’s husband, writhing in agony, as blood flowed from the wound on his chest. He was taken inside, and efforts made to staunch his wound.
Jimmy looked at the family and the servants gathered around. Terror shone out of their eyes, as he scrutinized them closely. The wounded man was out of danger, and insisted that Mandakini had stabbed him. He had obviously seen no one.
“Who has done this?” Babu asked, quaveringly. Jimmy looked at him. “It could be any one of you.” Babu blinked, but Jimmy had already moved on. He questioned the terrified servants. Sundari stood, eyes wide with fear. Jimmy moved towards Naina.
“Do you know anything?” he asked. Naina stammered, “J…J…Jimmy, what do you mean?” Many eyes looked at her in suspicion.
Manish silenced Jimmy, “Not in front of the children!” There was an ache in his heart. “Please don’t put ideas into their heads!” But Jimmy continued, “The person who has done this is slowly turning into Mandakini, and needs to recreate the past! Here, once again, she was trying to kill her lover’s murderer!” He looked at Naina gravely.
Suddenly, he turned to Sundari, whose eyes had turned strange again. “What do you know, Sundari?”
Startled, the woman broke down, “Jimmy Sir, it was not me!”
“But you know who it was!”
She looked around wildly, her searching eyes wide with terror. “The person’s not here anymore!” she quavered.
The tinkle of anklets came from outside. They rushed to the window. A figure, clad in ragged dance attire that hung loosely on a petite frame, twirled around clumsily, humming the old familiar song tunelessly. A dark red bindi appeared like a slash of blood on the pale forehead. Mandakini had been reincarnated!
The vacant black-rimmed eyes glanced over them all, with no trace of recognition, as the humming continued. The blood-stained knife flashed in the light as Vishnu continued to twirl.