Anna Tambour presents 

The virtuous medlar circle
thoroughly bletted

It was a summer of superstition. It was also the summer I fell away from my life.

I was 16, and in college when I first heard of the Come Tomorrow ghost. My mother's fortunes had just taken a downward turn. She had left my father, and, with no husband and two children, shifted to a house on the very edge of a lower middle class neighbourhood fading into slum. Ours was the very last street that could still make some claim to respectability, with narrow two-storey houses, scooters and occasional cars, menfolk working in offices and shops, womenfolk who were housewives and had at least one part-time servant working for them, children who went to the English medium school on the main road instead of the government school down the lane.

Across the street were the tiny, mud-and-plaster homes of the slum dwellers. Ragged men and pinched women worked as rickshaw drivers, mechanics, cooks, sweepers and waiters. Scrawny young men in tight trousers and colourful shirts combed oily hair on street corners humming film songs or listening to cricket commentary on small radios with tinny speakers. Runny-nosed, filth-encrusted children sniveled and crawled in the street unattended until they were old enough to be put into service as apprentice dish washers, mechanics or maid servants.

That same summer, rumours of an outbreak of plague did the rounds, inspired and fuelled by reports of an actual case in Surat, in the north. The fears spread at the speed of ignorance and superstition, making their way even to my college, where there were dark whispers of rats in the kitchen, a student who'd collapsed in the canteen. The nearby temples rang with the bells and chants of special prayers, many of my neighbours and even classmates sported protective amulets and talismans. It was like I'd stepped back into the dark ages.

I learned a lot, that summer. I learned about fear. I learned about hate. I learned about the slum.

A slum, I discovered, is not made by the people in it – instead, it makes them, shaping and moulding them until they fit its mould. It is a container that lends its shape to the sad human fluid poured within.

The shape is like this:

Every night the men get drunk and beat their wives and children. Every morning the wives spend hours screeching their grievances at their hungover husbands or their frightened children, sometimes also beating the children or the more hungover and fuddled husbands. As the boys became older, they sometimes joined their fathers in beating up their mothers or siblings. Small children shouted at and beat up smaller children. The only creatures who were immune from this ecosystem of abuse were the mongrel dogs, who were given a share of everyone's scant food and affection, and served as guards for the slum, in the absence of a police force with any interest in protecting those who were too poor to pay either taxes or bribes.

Living so close to the slum, we began to be shaped by it, too.

I started to stay out late, smoking furtive beedis with the son of a rickshaw driver. My sister played and squalled in the dirt in our tiny, untended garden. My mother sat weeping and raging inside the house, only emerging from her depression when her lover, a traveling salesman for a pharmaceutical company, came to visit us. I watched her change from a smart, self-reliant woman who read French existentialists and smoked Navy Cut cigarettes into a ragged-haired hysteric, hollow-eyed and increasingly akin to the starved creatures who lived across the street. She lost weight, her face became permanently caught in a resentful frown, she started lighting incense sticks, ringing bells and praying loudly at odd hours of the day. Even her eyes had somehow changed, shifting shape and size to become more like the small, hard eyes of the women across the street.

We started fighting each night; long, acrimonious no-holds-barred slum fights. It didn't happen overnight--perhaps one night my mother lost her temper and called me a name when I came home late or was surly at dinnertime. A few nights later, when the epithet was repeated I would respond in kind. The next time this happened, my mother would slap me and say I was like my father. I would slap her back, telling her that she wasn't good enough for my father. My sister, who still missed her father, would cry, and my mother would backhand her across the face. I would shove my mother and tell her to leave my sister alone.

And so on, night after night, until we were just as unabashedly, vocally, physically dysfunctional as any of the slum dwellers. In this way, I learned to fear, and to hate, and to hate and fear myself.

Sometimes, afterwards, I would sit on my bed, staring out of the window through tears and the slum would take on the aspect of an old woman--squat, crouching, emptiness in her eyes, clutching her sides as she laughed to herself, cackling and hissing in glee, watching us slide away from our middle-class certainties. At times like that, I partially identified the slum with the Plague Mother, the ambiguous she-deity who was said to hold the power of a cure from the plague everyone was speaking about, but who also spread its seeds in the first place. Something from the slum had blown in our window and infected us. I had no idea where a cure could come from.

Meanwhile, in the long, sultry summer, superstitions combined and grew.

I saw a new variant on the 'Come Tomorrow' formula, 'Plague Mother Come Tomorrow' chalked on more and more of our neighbours' houses. I asked Chandru, the autorickshaw driver's son, what they meant. He laughed knowingly and told me the old story of the ghost who comes to visit in the nights, updated to accommodate the recent plague scare and the merciful, cruel figure of the Plague Mother. I laughed too, despite the unease the story made me feel, and turned my head to spit out some juice from the betel leaf I'd been chewing.

Just then my mother appeared. She'd been shopping and I hadn't realized I was loitering about and chewing paan on the street that led from our house to the market. She grabbed me by the ear and asked me what I thought I was doing. She made me spit out all of the paan and then dragged me home. It seemed as if all the defiance and all the blows that I offered her in the nights disappeared in the daylight, out in the open, away from the hag-ridden slum squatting across from our house. I was expecting a fight to erupt once we got back, however. In a weird way, I was looking forward to it.

Instead, when we got home, my mother pushed me in, locked the door behind herself, and then collapsed onto the cot that served as a living room sofa, and began to weep.

'What's the matter, ma?' I asked, suddenly alarmed by how lost and scared she looked. In some sweet, sick way I still loved my mother even then. 'What's the matter?' she asked, looking up at me, still sobbing. 'Everything is the matter. I hate this place, I hate these people. There's black magic in these places, black magic and bad spirits. How can I keep you both safe from all that?'

My little sister, who had come out of the bedroom she shared with my mother, went and sat next to my mother, hugged her, and started to cry too. I was close to tears too. Instead of crying, though, I laughed.

'Is that all? You're scared of the Come Tomorrow Ghost? Ma, that's a stupid slum superstition, you know it's nonsense.'

'No it's not. I've heard about this in our native place. The ghosts there are virtuous, and they protect the way of the law. There are special dances to worship them and ask them to look after us. Here, in this city, nobody does the dances, and the ghosts are angry. That's why the people are scared of a ghost. That's why they want the ghost to stay away.'

I could not believe what I was hearing. My freethinking, independent mother was gone. She had crossed over entirely. We may as well have taken up a hut across the street. I told her all this and she began to wail incoherently, her cries joining with my terrified sister's. Fed up, I stormed into my room, pulled on my headphones and lay down in bed, listening to Guns N' Roses, cranked up loud to drown their crying and wailing out.

I never spoke to my mother again.

Each night, coming back from school, I'd see the words 'Come Tomorrow' scrawled on our door, and I'd rub them out. Then, I'd go to my room, change into my torn jeans and Metallica t-shirt and lock the world out with heavy metal tapes played on my walkman until I fell asleep. I even stopped meeting Chandru --I wanted to have nothing to do with the slum dwellers, whom I came to think of as an amorphous mass of subhuman life that had somehow subsumed my mother. Meanwhile, the Come Tomorrow ghost, or the Plague Mother, whoever she, or it, was, did its rounds from door to door, waiting for a sign that it was welcome. Fever mists shimmered in the summer haze, and various ailments spread from household to household, but none of them, yet, were the plague. Footsteps were heard at night, knocking at many doors, but less and less living people were seen walking abroad at nights. A rank smell compounded of sweat, drains, oily food and misery rose up from the slum, becoming denser and more palpable as the summer approached its peak. Amidst all this, in its shadow, we crawled along, the ruined remnant of what was once a functioning family unit.

Then, as I lay in bed one night, listening to music, the air of fear and filth seemed to intensify and I sensed a presence in my room. Thinking that the latch had slipped--which it sometimes did--and either my mother or sister had entered my room, I looked up, tense, ready to snap, when I realized that the figure that had entered my room bore the general outlines of a squat old woman in a ragged sari and my door was still firmly shut.

'What the fuck--' I blustered, pulling off my headphones.

'You didn't say to come tomorrow…' I heard the woman say. Her voice was soft, it sounded old and weak.

'What do you mean? Who are you? Why come tomorrow…' Suddenly I stopped. I knew. And, for all my show of contempt for the superstition, I believed. You always believe in the nightmare when it is right there, in your room, staring you in the face.

'You're the Come Tomorrow Ghost aren't you? You must be!' I was not scared; instead I felt more excited than I'd been in a long while. More alive. Thinking back, I realize how strange it was, my lack of fear, given how much I had learned of fear that summer. How strange, and ill-advised. The only conclusion I can come to is that I had not yet learned all that I had to learn about fear at that moment. Or about hate. Soon I would.

'I am not a mortal creature, not anymore, and I only enter homes where I am not unwelcome. So, yes, I must be your Come Tomorrow Ghost,'

'Well, why have you come tonight, and what do you want?'

'Because no one else would have me. I want is to talk, to pass the time. It is good to be inside, away from the silence. And the darkness.' The Come Tomorrow ghost omitted to mention that there are more things that can be achieved just by talking than just the passing of time. At the time, I didn't notice the omission. Or perhaps I ignored it, glad for a change, for something new to deal with, anything other than my broken life and my hate.

'Talk about what?' I asked.

'You tell me. I've been here for a long time, and can talk about nearly any subject you'd care to bring up.'

'Tell me, do you know of any other ghosts? Not like you, ghosts that haunt places, I mean.'

'Do I know of haunters? Why yes, I do.' Her voice seemed to gain in volume and strength as the conversation progressed. 'What sort of ghost shall I tell you about?' She looked around my room, at the discarded t-shirts and jeans, the pile of comics and music magazines, the pin-ups and rock band posters on the walls. 'I shall tell you of another young man, much the same age as you at the time, and the ghost he met, in this very city, when you were only an infant.'

This was the story she told me:

'Jaichand was the son of the money-lender Jairam, and he had all the time in the world to loaf, and dream, and idle. He had many fine clothes, and his own servant. But in the evenings, he would slip away and wander restlessly at the edges of town, singing songs from the movies and thinking of fame, and adventure, and women. He wanted to be a doer of great deeds, a lover of many women, a man of action and romance, not just a smug, oily lender of money like his father. But there were no great deeds to do, no women to love, no action and no romance to be had, it seemed.

Then, early one night, after the first rains, when the sky was aglow with that eerie orange moonlight that comes once a year, Jaichand wandered a little further than before, and from a mansion in the midst of a lush garden, he heard a woman's cry.

Daring to hope that the adventure he longed for was at hand, he jumped the compound wall and ran up to the mansion. There, he found a young girl, just a year or two younger than him, dressed in the finery of a merchant's daughter, and clutching her hand to her mouth. Before her was a cobra, rearing its hooded head at her. In a moment, Jaichand had picked up a stick and was upon the cobra, beating it to death and smashing its skull. Once it was over, he threw the stick away and shuddered. The girl was beside him at once, thanking him, vowing gratitude, asking who he was. She took him into her home, where jeweled servants brought him spirits to drink and sweets to eat. The servants were fleet-footed and discrete. The girl's eyes gleamed as she gazed adoringly at Jaichand. He was charming and gallant, paying her many little compliments he had learned from the matinees, and by and by, she led him to her chamber where they passed the night.

From then on, Jaichand's life was bliss. All day he lay in bed dreaming of his wealthy, beauteous paramour, and each night, he made his way to her mansion, where they passed the nights in song, laughter and love.

But Jairam was not happy. He worried about his son, who seemed weaker and more distant every day, sleeping through most of the day, then wandering out late at night, only to return even more tired and drained out, just past dawn. He refused food, and only looked away silently when Jairam tried to speak to him. Finally, Jairam sent for Lokesh. Lokesh was the Gorkha watchman who had guarded Jairam's house for more than two decades. Short but fair and strong-limbed like all the men of his tribe, Lokesh seemed to become tougher and more formidable with age.

'Something is wrong with Jaichand. Someone has led him astray and he spends his nights away from home. It is a terrible misfortune to have a disobedient, wayward son.'

'Tell me how I can help, sahib.'

'First, we must find out what the matter is. I want you to follow him tonight. Just follow him, see where he goes, what he does, whom he meets. Come back and tell me what you have learned. Then we can decide what to do next.'

Lokesh nodded. That night, he followed Jaichand, secretly determined to take matters in his own hand and thrash whoever had led the young man astray.

He followed Jaichand to a barren field outside town, where the young man entered a broken-down old shack with no roof and a dirt floor. Lokesh peered in, ready to spring into action. He saw the young man laughing and singing and writhing about on the floor and talking. He must have been talking to himself, for he was alone.

Lokesh's courage fled, as did he. He knew no fear of mortal creature, but the supernatural was more than he was willing to handle. He made his was back to Jairam's home where he let himself in by a side entrance and made for Jairam's office room, where the anxious money-lender sat telling beads, waiting for news about his son.

'It is worse than I thought, Sahib.' More than the words that Lokesh spoke, it was the way he said them that frightened Jairam. Normally a steady, calm drawl, Lokesh's voice was now a breathless, quavery rush. 

'What do you mean?'

It was hard to make sense of Lokesh's semi-hysterical report, but eventually Jairam extracted the whole story from him. Once he realized what had happened, he whispered the single word 'yakshini' to himself. After an uneasy silence in which he seemed on the verge of either tears or madness, he sent Lokesh to call a priest from a temple to one of the darker Goddesses.

When Jaichand returned that morning, Jairam was waiting for him. He greeted him as if it was the most normal thing in the world to welcome one's son home at the crack of dawn. He had the cook make breakfast for Jaichand and sat and chatted with the young man, making small talk about business, upcoming festivals and news from the provinces. When a bemused Jaichand retired to his room, Jairam locked his son in, only unbolting the door to let a wild-eyed priest in a few hours later.

After several days of starvation, whipping and listening to the priest's eerie chanting, the young man's will was broken, and he swore never to return to the shack in the field. Today, he is a money-lender, like his father before him, and he never speaks of the nights of love and glamour he knew as a young man.'

'That's just a story,' I blurted out, 'It isn't true.'

'It is true,' she replied, 'and that shack still stands. No one dares tear it down for fear of a curse. It is surrounded by buildings and streets now, but you can find it if you search'.

'Then tell me where it is!'

She told me. And then she held her sides and laughed, cackling and muttering to herself. I could hear the cackling and muttering long after the rest of her had faded away. The heavy sense of decay and fear still hung around me too. It has never left me since, and sometimes I still hear echoes of the old woman's laughter.

Of course, I had to find the shack for myself. Her story was just bait, and I had swallowed the hook, eager for my own undoing. I was anxious to fall away from my life as it then was, somehow. I would have been happy to fall upwards to glory, but was willing to plunge into other realms as well, as long as I could escape where I was.

She'd told me that the shack was in a run-down commercial area, not too far from where I lived, and I set out to find it that very night. It was soon after the first rains, when the sky was aglow with that eerie orange moonlight that comes once a year. I walked for a long time through streets that were emptier than usual because of the plague and ghost scares. I wandered among the smells of dung and filth washed away by the recent rains, occasionally evading sleepy, drunk guards or alert, vigilant packs of stray dogs. I was often lost, wandering blindly, before I found the shack from the story. It was a decrepit ruin, surrounded by the backs of shabby office buildings on three sides, and a garbage dump on the fourth. I walked through the dump, and entered the shack through a ruined door. Inside, there was a decayed old cot on which I lay down, waiting for the girl ghost to appear.

I dozed intermittently, drifting in and out of troubled, indistinct dreams. It was damp, and I felt cold and sleepy. After what seemed a very long time, a bat flew in through the ruined roof and hung upside down from a beam. I started and stared at it.

'Get out of here;' it cried at me, in Tamil, in a cracked, wheezy old woman's voice, 'You get out of here! You don't belong here, get out!' I should have run, but I was too terrified to move. I lay there, shivering and afraid, my jeans wet with urine, as the bat cackled, and flew away. After some time, I felt something moving over me. It was a mass of rats, a dark, heavy, writhing, wriggling, blanket of rats. I screamed and leaped up, beating them off me, throwing them against walls, crushing them under foot, sobbing, yelling, running, running, running away.

I ran for the longest time, lost and scared. The sun rose, and set, and rose again, many times over, but the rats still covered me, a foul cloak that adhered to me no matter what I did, and I could not make out where the streets I was running through were. They were all dilapidated and deserted, and the few shadowy figures I occasionally saw paid me no attention. I ran for ages, through places more and more obscure. Very rarely I would catch a glimpse of a fellow sufferer--running, running, covered in a seething blanket of vermin. Once, I thought I saw my sister among the shadowy figures who passed by quietly, but what she was doing with them I could not tell. Another time, in the shadowy streets, I thought I saw my mother and her lover walking from door to door, holding lanterns and calling my sister's name. All this while, my sister was just a few paces behind them, but they did not turn to see her. I tried calling out to them, but the rats had gnawed away my tongue.

Finally, there was nothing left of my flesh for the vermin to devour and they fell away from me, one by one.

There followed a long period of silence, and darkness. Time had passed me by as I ran, and I was beyond the world I'd known. It took many years of crawling in a space where there is no space, before I found my way back to the world I had fallen away from.

By this time, my mother's fortunes have shifted again, sideways rather than downward. She lives with a new husband but no children, on the edge, where a town is beginning to fade into a city. My sister is very far away from them, further even than I, in a place beyond all worlds. I cannot find her at all. She is beyond love, hate and fear now. I do not know who the creature was crueler to--her or me. I do not even really know who the creature was--ghost, plague mother, the slum itself or some other nightmare from the empty heart of the cities and towns we have built across the land.

I want to visit my mother, to talk to her one more time. Every time I try, I realise that I am not welcome and I go away, resolving to try again some other day--maybe tomorrow. In the meantime, I crouch here, emptiness in my eyes. I watch the people hurrying about their lives, I think of how a slum is just a sort of layer of scum that settles on the surface of any city and I laugh to myself. 

Jayaprakash Sathyamurthy (also spelled Satyamurthy) just sent me, when I asked for his bio:
... born in 1977… lives in Bangalore, India, and usually writes for a living. Sometimes he writes because he has to. This has been one of those times.
Out November 2010:
"To Stand and Stare"
In Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Issue #48
Get your copy in paper or pdf.
I'll add that he is a great observer and thinker who expresses himself in a beautiful choice of words – and by beautiful, I don't mean superficially stunning. Whatever he writes is deeply felt, meaningful and judged. Having a better grasp of the nuances of English than most people who can only speak this tongue, his nonfiction (which is about the world) should be published around the world instead of being mostly limited to the country where more people take English seriously and play with it more skilfully than people do in any other nation.
One place that his fiction has popped up is Bust the Door Down and Eat All the Chickens, a Journal of Absurd and Surreal Fiction from exotic Salt Lake City. I recommend it. But I think the reason Jayaprakash Sathyamurthy's fiction is not more widely published is that his stories are high quality and more modern than most venues. He might be frightened of rejection, matching editors' fright at publishing something some readers might not understand as well as we all do, say, zombies, vampires, and LA cops. We all lose.
Read another story by Jayaprakash here:
Run For Your Life, in Pratilipi, a bilingual quarterly magazine.
I hope his first fiction collection will come out soon. He is also a fine reviewer, interviewer, and columnist.
He has a new blog, Empty Dreams, where he's posting some of his new fiction, but he doesn't write about his writing, and you'll never be told how many w***s he wrote today, or didn't.
Aaahfooey is his site that is also in a blog format, but I guarantee it also is not like most writers' blogs. Aaahfooey is deeply interesting and always focussed outward.
& It's always nice to get feedback, so let Jayaprakash know what you thought of his story by writing to him at
jayaprakash at gmail dot com

The virtuous medlar circle
is part of
Anna Tambour and Others

"Come Tomorrow" is copyright © 2010 by Jayaprakash Sathyamurthy.
This short story appears here with thanks to Jayaprakash Satyamurthy, whose payment was less than a brass razoo.
This story is part of a series of invited pieces by people I find deliciously inspiring, always a hoot, and who write like a bletted medlar tastes. A.T.
Photograph copyright © 2010 by Anna Tambour.
The Virtuous Medlar Circle © 2004 – 2010