Exultant Relief

‘I sent a letter to my father, and on the way I dropped it. Someone came and picked it up, and put it in my pocket…’


‘I sent a letter…to MY fa-th-er, and ON the way I dro-pped it. Someone…came and…picked it up and, put i-it in MY po-cket…’

Every weeknight I heard this childish jingle just around the time I went to bed. The first time the strains of this well-loved ditty floated in, I sat up, pleasantly surprised, nostalgic. Walking to the window, I pulled aside the blinds, and peered out. I saw no one. The singing, however, went on.

Five minutes later I could no longer hold myself in; I went out and looked for this mysterious singer, a child singing in the sweet, unselfconscious way that only they can. I looked here, I looked there, behind the fountain, in the woods, but I couldn’t find the owner of the voice. Finally I just stood still, and allowed the voice to wash over me; there was something so pure about it, something that touched me in a way I didn’t remember.

The next day I heard the singing again, but in locating the singer, I was unsuccessful yet again.

Some days, instead of the singing, I heard it being played on a child’s 1 octave keyboardette. The tune drifting in was like a soothing lullaby, and I would fall asleep listening to it. It amused me, a reversal of roles; the adult being sung to sleep by a child.

My friends were horrified when I related this nightly occurrence.

“Are you crazy? You actually go out into the woods when you hear it?”

“How can you take it so calmly?”

“I have the contact details of an appropriate company. You ought to take the details from me.”

It never struck me to be afraid of this mysterious musician. I was well aware of the reputation of the old mansion in the woods; a beautiful piece of work, built by an eccentric old woman as a shrine for her husband, whose price was less than one-tenth of its actual value, because no one would buy it. It was haunted, the agent warned me, but I had no time for ghosts or ghouls. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t bother them, so they needn’t bother me.

So I bought it, and haven’t really regretted my decision till date. Old houses have a wonderful aura; there’s an air of calm wisdom, the comfort of a mother’s bosom. The house and I connected so well, that soon it became impossible to distinguish where it began and I ended. It became an inexplicable part of me.

Maybe it was because of the house that I was never frightened by the ghostly singer. I felt safe and protected, and the very idea that someone might do me harm in my backyard seemed laughable.

Some days the song would take on a different note; almost as if it were inviting me, as if it were waiting for me to join in. So I too sang along. The child’s voice would take on an air of delight, and we sang a pleasant enough duet, I would have to say!

Often there was a change of song…Chanda Mama being the preferred alternative. The ghostly child was a bilingual singer! Its voice was as pleasing in Hindi as it was in English.

Months later, the singing stopped abruptly. Newly wed, I led my skeptical husband to the window by which I used to sit, waiting for the song. We waited long, but the song didn’t come. I was disappointed, but not embarrassed, for I missed the song more than I missed proving its existence to my husband. He laughed, not without a little condescension, and enfolded me in his arms.

“Looks like your singer doesn’t like a bigger audience,” he said, nibbling my ear. I let him nibble, my thoughts far away. Why didn’t the child sing tonight? And why did my husband’s response rankle? Why did I suddenly feel like a little child being disabused of a fantasy, and not like someone his own age?

The night after, too, I went to bed without its soothing comfort. The ghostly singer became my husband’s favourite dinner time story. Whenever he wanted to tease me, he would burst into a nursery rhyme in a grotesque imitation of a child. I laughed the first few times, and then asked him pick another topic; the songs had become an intrinsic part of me, and these days, I felt as if there was something missing in me without them. He would laugh then, lovingly rub his nose against mine, but the very next day, would proceed to entertain company with the story of the ghostly singer who didn’t exist.

My life slowly changed. I was happy enough with my husband. We were compatible in most ways, and shared a love that seemed normal enough. Yet, I felt different. I was no longer myself, and I wasn’t a blooming bride either. I felt alienated from my inner self; I no longer connected with what I liked to think of as my soul.

As I went about my daily life, I felt as if a huge chunk had been extracted from my psyche. I felt as if I was constantly answerable to someone that I had stopped being an individual, and I didn’t know why.

My husband was not one of those who believe men are better than women; yet I was the one laying dinner on the table each night. I was the one doing the laundry, and I was the one listening to him talk about his friends, his work and his views on cricket. When I spoke about my work, he listened, offered advice, but an uncomfortable realization plagued me that he considered his work to be of more consequence.

It didn’t strike me as unreasonable when I asked to be treated as an individual, and not a wife. It bothered him when I questioned old relatives who asked me why I wasn’t pregnant as yet, and if I was taking good care of him. It was little things like these that widened the chasm that was steadily emerging between us.

“Let us move to another house,” he said, suddenly, one night. This old house was jinxed, he said. He reminded me of all the people who wouldn’t buy this house.

“And now when I think about it, I was probably wrong about the singer. The ghost probably exists; it fits in with the history of this place. And now it’s hell bent on ruining our marriage.”

I was stunned. Could it be…? It was true that the songs had stopped the day I brought my groom home. But the house…it had been built as a shrine for a husband!

I had difficulty in believing that the child singer was malicious. Noting my indecision, my husband increased his efforts in persuading me to move to a two bedroom flat that he had his eye on, in the city.

“It will be closer to both our work places. Besides, you shouldn’t be…” he stopped abruptly.

I looked up sharply, he had been about to let slip something that he didn’t want to.

I needed to think, I said, and walked into the woods for the first time in over a year. For a while, I waited almost expectantly. I knew the singer was gone, but hoping against hope, I started singing the first song I had heard it sing. Silence. No answering tune.

I spent a long time in there; it brought back memories of days when I was happy, and it cleared my head. I thought of what my husband had said, and it dawned on me why he suddenly believed in my ghost. It made him uncomfortable to live in a house that I had bought with my own money. He probably couldn’t stand the jibes that I imagine came his way, about men living off women.

I filed for divorce.

Relatives descended on me like a ton of bricks. Nobody could understand why I had terminated a marriage that seemingly had no chinks. You’re a fool! I was told. A husband that wasn’t abusive, who loved you and wanted to take care of you…!

How was I to convince dozens of people who were so conditioned by society that they couldn’t see beyond stereotypes of men and women? Not one female relative who came to admonish me could understand why I refused to be a ‘woman’. I was taking feminism too far, I was told. Feminism was fine for the world, why drag it home?

“Aren’t you taking it too far?” questioned a distant cousin. “You’re like those radicals who scream bloody murder when you read out fairy tales to children.”

To the others, said- “Really! Some people begin reading too much into Rapunzel, Sleeping Beauty etcetera. Honestly, can’t they just see it as innocent fairytales? Why must they begin seeing patriarchal propaganda in it?” Other voices chimed up in response. I smiled wryly to myself, as two others joined in, saying they were merely stories of love and fantasy.

“How can they be anything more? They’re for little children for god’s sake!”

It was ironical that these women were voicing out the very reason for my divorce without realizing it. It was these books that one is subjected to right from the time one can comprehend that were responsible for not only my husband’s attitude, but all these women’s too. How can any one ignore the stereotypes that begin to be fed into us right from childhood?

I was alone, in my mansion, after more than a year. I felt at one with the house again.

That night, I had a curious experience. I was almost asleep, in a state of semi consciousness, when I fell into a dream. I dreamt of the singer, only the child was, curiously enough, woman; a woman so old that her face was hidden under wrinkles. She beckoned to me, and asked me to look deep in her eyes. There I saw a young girl, laughing, singing songs, arm in arm, in step with a young boy. The old woman smiled a sad smile at me, and lifted her manacled hands.

“I thought nothing would change it.”

As she walked away from me, she started singing, and I too joined in.

The next night a familiar sound reached my ears. The tinkling keys of a keyboardette, and a child’s voice. “I sent a le-tter to MY fath-er. On…the way…I d-r-o-p-p-e-d it. Someone came and…picked it up and…put it in my po-ck-et!”

Surprised, excited, I hurried out of bed to sit by the window again. The child sang longer that night. I joined in, a smile of comprehension on my face.

Koyel Lahiri