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The Haunting

Originally published on Sulekha, back when it was a creative writing community, in June 2002

It all started eight days ago. It was a hot and sticky night, like all summer nights in the coastal city where I live. Paru and I were sleeping together — as all long-married couples do I’m sure — on the same bed, but slightly apart, unable to bear each other’s touch in the heat. The humidity was killing, and the madly-spinning fan hardly helped. Paru was asleep, asleep with the sleep that comes after a sixteen-hour workday. I was awake, awake with the wakefulness that comes after an unproductive day writing. Slowly, as I drifted into sleep, I began to paint.

People sing in bathrooms. When they are alone, they hum their favourite tunes to keep themselves company. Sometimes, the tunes they hum are indicative of their mood — happy, sad, aggressive, ecstatic, down in the dumps — whatever. But me, I have always painted. Ever since I was a kid, I never sang. Rather, I painted everything around me. My bathroom is my Sistine Chapel, my bedroom rivals the Louvre, and my works are right up there with the da Vincis and Picassos. Whenever I am alone, I paint. And my painting reflects my moods very accurately. A black day has paintings in sombre shades of blue and grey. A great day has vivid reds and yellows screaming happiness.

That night, my painting was as a soft, longing melody. Slowly caressing me, as in pastels I drew abstract figures of love and longing. My senses were heightened and the pleasure I experienced grew and grew. As my painting became more and more pleasurable, I drifted into a sleep where I was one with ecstasy. It would have been difficult to get to sleep otherwise on a hot humid night like that one.

When I began dreaming, it was like most of my dreams — vivid and in screaming colour. I was at a wedding in a large wedding hall. Paru was somewhere — I couldn’t see her, but I knew she was there. I went looking for a wash-basin to wash my hands. Why, I never knew — I simply had to wash my hands — the ununderstandable logic of dreams was in full flow. I finally found the wash-basins in a narrow corridor. There were two of them, on opposite walls, positioned in such a way that when one was using one wash-basin, there would be little space left in front of the other one. I set about washing my hands, and as I was rubbing them vigourously, I felt rather than saw someone coming to use the other wash-basin. I pressed myself against the wash-basin, giving the other person as much space as possible. I could see in the mirror that it was a young woman, dressed in a white cotton top and jeans. She squeezed into the space between my back and the other wash-basin. As I went back to washing my hands, I could feel her pressing into me from behind. More than anything, I was embarrassed, and stepped aside with an “Excuse me.”

“It’s okay,” she said, and stepped around to the wash-basin I was using. She looked brightly at me and smiled. When I saw her face, it was as if something hit me. She was pixie-faced, Arwen Evenstar without her ethereality, an earthy fairy, a sensuous angel. And all I saw of her was her face — I could see nothing more, and I knew that I was bewitched. She did not say anything else — just smiled at me and walked away. After that, I kept seeing her at different places, but always as a fleeting image in a distance. I woke up breathless and in a flutter. I did not know what to do. I was bewitched by a woman in my dream.

I gulped down half a bottle of cold water. It made me sweat even more. I sat under the fan in the living room till the sweat dried before making my way back to the bedroom. And through this all, blissfully oblivious to everything, Paru slept on.

Paru and I have been married for six years. We have slipped into a comfortable relationship with each other. I love her with everything I have, and she loves me with a fierce possessiveness that is sometimes terrifying, sometimes comforting. Her earning keeps the home fires burning, while I have been trying to be a writer for the past year and a half. Everyone thinks I’m crazy. But not Paru. She shares my dream. Or at least she says she does. I have been moderately successful, though not in the monetary sense. Paru waits patiently for the Book that will release us from the drudgery of having to work for someone else. Six years of living together has made me acutely aware of her sensitive points and I avoid them studiously. It makes life much more easy and there is so much more companionship. Occasionally, I am careless, and fights happen, but they are patched up very quickly. We both feel that each fight leaves us more securely bonded to each other.

I tried to go back to sleep, but was unable to for a long time. Finally, when I fell asleep, I dreamt of being back in college, and everything was so vivid. I was just beginning to look around, when she flashed by at a distance. At first, I thought I was imagining it (It does sound weird, doesn’t it – “thought I imagined it” indeed! It was a dream damnit!). Then I caught sight of her — the same pixie face. She was not looking at me, she was not doing anything to attract my attention. She was just there, and I knew it. As I tried to get closer to her, she vanished into a crowd. Thrice I saw her, and thrice I got no more than a passing glimpse of her. I woke up again, this time with an ache that I could not explain. I sat up in bed, trying to work things out.

Why was this happening? Why was this girl haunting me? And who in the name of all that’s sacred and profane was she?

“Come on,” part of me said, “you’re being paranoid. You’ve seen the girl in two separate dreams on the same day. Surely you cannot imagine that she’s ‘haunting’ you.” But the voice was weak. I knew, from deep down inside to right up above, that I was bewitched. I stayed awake the rest of the night. I must have fallen asleep from sheer exhaustion — I was shaken awake from a dreamless sleep by Paru.

Throughout the day I was distracted, and my mind kept wandering back to my pixie-faced tormentor. This was a very strange thing that was happening. I went over what I had done over the last few days. I could not put my finger on any event that could have triggered off this haunting. I could not concentrate on anything else and could not write a word. And I dreaded the arrival of the night when I would have to face her again.

It was worse the second night. No sooner had I closed my eyes than she was there. Flitting away at the slightest sign of my approaching her. I recall nothing else about the dream, except that I kept seeing her at a distance, and she kept going away whenever I tried to approach her. I could not bear it any more and resolved to stay awake the entire night. I sat up in bed, but did not switch on the light — Paru hates the light to be on while she slept. Again, I must have fallen into a dreamless sleep from exhaustion, and was shaken awake by Paru in the morning.

Over breakfast I told Paru about it. I expected her to shrug it off and say that it would be gone in a couple of days. Her reaction surprised me. She reacted sharply, accusing me of dreaming of other women when she was there. With that she turned away, carrying her now-empty bowl of cornflakes and coffee cup to the kitchen and dumping it in the sink. The sound of the bowl hitting the sink told me she was upset. The day was agony — Paru took an autorickshaw to work, and responded to my phone calls in monosyllables. She was still hurting, and was letting me know it. In the evening, she was tearful, though not apologetic. I calmed her down saying that it was all right and I would get over it. That the haunting seemed to be over and that I would sleep well that night. She chose to believe that and was happy.

That night, I curled up to sleep with my head in the crook of my arm, staring into the darkness, not daring to close my eyes. For I knew she was waiting just beyond consciousness. Waiting to lead me from agony to more agony. I did not sleep that night at all, and was awake when the milkman rang the bell. The first thing Paru asked me when she woke up was whether everything was okay.

“Yes, everything’s fine,” I lied to her. My burden was mine alone and I could not share it with even Paru. I desperately thought of whom I could talk about this. As I sat and took stock, I found that I had no one to whom I could even tell my tale of woe. Slowly, over the years, Paru and I had had only each other for company and had phased out all other friends. And the only person with whom I could share this was not taking this with equanimity. A wild thought occurred to me. Maybe I could talk to Suri about this. He and I were best buddies since college and had shared everything. But that was before Paru came in and claimed me for her own. Suri was in fact the only friend I had for a long time after the wedding. But he had left two years ago in pursuit of a better career and a better love life. He was now somewhere in the US. Three hours of fruitless searching on the Internet left me where I had been — alone with my haunting.

So went by eight sleepless and semi-sleepless nights. I was a wreck. Paru could see it, but was unwilling to acknowledge it. As I searched in vain for a way out of this conundrum, an idea struck me. It occurred to me that I could actually write about it. This very writing has been cathartic. Having put my burden into words, I feel lighter, freer, and rid of my pixie-faced tormentor. I feel, in my heart of hearts, that she will return no more. That my slumber will be peaceful and full of exciting dreams. I am already painting in reds and yellows. Huge butterflies soaring like eagles. Gaugin would have killed to paint like me. I am free… perhaps.