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
The shape is like
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
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
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
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?'
'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
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
'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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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