The Family Ghost
By Rati Mehrotra
The day before she left for her husband’s village, Urmila got her dowry: a goat, two gold bangles, and the family ghost. The bangles were pretty and the goat would be useful, but what would she do with the ghost? Dirty, smelly old thing.
“Be quiet,” said her mother when she complained. “You’ll see. The ghost will be a valuable asset to you in your new life.”
“You just want to get rid of it,” said Urmila. “And you want to boast to your cousins that you gave me three things for my dowry. You’ve only given me two good things, and if I subtract the one bad thing, that leaves just one.”
Her mother grabbed her ear. “You’re not so old that I can’t give you a good thrashing.”
“Old enough to get married, aren’t I?” shot back Urmila. She twisted from her mother’s grasp and ran to the shade of the banyan tree outside to sulk.
Urmila hadn’t wanted to get married, of course. What she wanted was to go to school and learn things and become clever, like the city girls she sometimes glimpsed on the television set belonging to a friend.
But the Bijpuri village elementary school was only until Grade 6, and after the age of thirteen, Urmila had stopped going. There was no point; she already knew more than the alcoholic schoolmaster did, who spent most afternoons slumped on his desk, occasionally rousing himself to shout at the rowdier elements of his class.
Still, she’d argued with her mother.
“I could live with Anoothie maasi in Lucknow and go to school with her daughters.” Anoothie was her mother’s cousin—one of the lucky ones who’d married a city boy.
“Anoothie has three girls of her own to look after,” her mother had replied. “I wouldn’t dream of saddling her with a fourth.”
“There are boarding schools for girls…”
“Are you crazy? They’re too expensive. Even if we sold all our land, it wouldn’t be enough.”
“Then I could just stay here with you and Papa and the boys!” cried Urmila. “I can milk the goats and make the cheese and cook the food. Why do you want to send me away?”
Her mother’s lined face had softened, just for an instant. “Because that’s the way it is. You’ll know when you have children of your own.”
And so they’d found a match for Urmila, a lean pock-marked young man called Rakesh who lived two villages away and was the son of a childhood friend of Urmila’s second cousin. He worked in a shop that his father owned and he had studied till Grade 10, a fact that rankled. Okay, he’d failed the tenth grade exam, but still. He’d had the opportunity to go to high school, something Urmila would never get.
The wedding day was a blur. Urmila didn’t have to do much—just sit and make faces at her bridegroom from the safety of her veil, while the priest droned incomprehensible Sanskrit shlokas about duty and loyalty and good behavior. Then there were sweets to eat, but Urmila barely tasted them. Drums and singing and dancing followed, but Urmila did not dance. She was glad when the wedding was over and the strangers went back to their own village.
In one week she would have to leave, too, but at least it gave her time to say goodbye to her friends. She visited all her favorite spots: the vast spreading banyan tree in the middle of their soybean field, the disused tank with stone steps going all the way down to the dank floor, and the train tracks outside the village, stretching into an infinity of brown fields and hazy blue sky.
The family ghost took on the shape of a dog and followed her at a distance, as if marking her already for its own.
* * *
When the time came to leave, Urmila hefted her bag on her shoulder and untied the goat from the veranda of their mud-walled home. Everyone lined up outside to say goodbye: her father, her two little brothers, her mother. No one was available to accompany Urmila—it was the wheat harvest season and all hands were required in the fields.
Her mother handed her a small bundle wrapped in leaves. “Lunch,” she said. “Don’t forget to share with the ghost.”
Urmila rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything. The ghost never ate, but her mother always insisted on leaving a plate of food for it. The food was eventually eaten by one of the goats or dogs, so it wasn’t a complete waste.
As she set off down the dirt path that meandered across their field to the outskirts of the village, Urmila felt a lump in her throat. She swallowed it fiercely. Only stupid girls cried, the ones who looked to others for help and pity.
Two hours later found her on the semi-paved road that ran parallel to the train tracks. The tracks went all the way to Lucknow, the state capital. She had seen pictures of the city in her geography book—pictures of minarets, gleaming glass towers and huge shops filled with unimaginable goodies. It was a place she was unlikely ever to visit.
The sun rose high in the sky and heat shimmered in waves upon the road. Ahead of Urmila was a bullock cart. Off to the sides were the fields, golden with wheat. The sound of a tractor came in a distant roar. Yet Urmila had never felt so alone before. She cast a glance behind her. The ghost gleamed silvery-gray in the sunlight. It was currently in its favorite shape: the shape of her mother. It was oddly comforting, like a piece of her childhood home was following her into the unknown.
Under the shade of an old peepul tree, Urmila stopped to take a break for lunch. She sat cross-legged on the grass and unwrapped the bundle her mother had made. Chapattis, rolled around mango pickle. A small, spare lunch that she would have to share with the ghost. She sighed and divided it in half. She laid the ghost’s share a little way away, and began to eat. The leaves she gave to the goat, who nibbled them with indiscriminate delight.
It was only when she was done that she noticed that the leaf-plate with the ghost’s share of food was now empty—without any help from the goat.
“Oh, so now you are actually eating the food?” she said. “I will have to cook extra for you every day.”
But the ghost was gone. Perhaps it was sleeping off its lunch.
The ghost did not show itself again until she arrived at her husband’s house late that afternoon. There, while she was being inspected by her mother-in-law and a gaggle of aunties, it reappeared as a fatter, scowlier version of her mother-in-law. It made faces at the real version, which sent Urmila into a fit of giggles which she disguised as a cough.
There was nothing much else to smile about. The house was nice enough, with a clean courtyard surrounded by little rooms. But the women had bewhiskered, unfriendly faces and judging eyes. The goat was taken away and the gold bangles were passed around and criticized.
“Not as pretty as the ones my Mangia got,” said one woman.
“They don’t look like real gold,” said another.
“Get the goldsmith to check them,” said a third. “If they’re fake, you should send her back home.”
The ghost paused in its antics to pull that woman’s hair. “Hai hai,” she screamed, clutching her head. “A ghost! Your bahu has brought her ghost.”
The neighbour women made themselves scarce. Urmila’s mother-in-law glared in every direction, but of course she couldn’t see anything. Only family members could see their ghost, and not many people had one anyway. “Superstitious nonsense,” she muttered. She threw a dirty look at Urmila. “Rakesh will soon sort you out.”
What did she mean, sort Urmila out? It didn’t sound a bit pleasant.
Urmila’s mother-in-law bit the bangles and spat. “They’re real all right,” she said. “Just not as thick as I expected.” She squeezed a fat hand through the bangles with some effort. Urmila watched, disconsolate, as the only valuable thing she owned passed into her mother-in-law’s possession. She had expected it, of course, but it was still disappointing.
They lit lamps in the courtyard and the men came back from the shop. Urmila’s new husband stared at her whenever he thought his mother wasn’t looking. After they had washed up at the pump, Urmila helped her mother-in-law serve the food. The ghost appeared, sitting next to Rakesh and waiting to be fed. It was even trying to look like him.
Urmila made sure to serve the ghost as much food as she served Rakesh and her father-in-law. She worried that her mother-in-law would notice, but all that happened was that she frowned and commented how the food appeared to be disappearing faster than usual.
At the very end, Urmila got to serve herself. There was not much left, but this did not disturb her. She would just have to make sure she cooked extra food from now onward. After everyone had finished eating, she helped wash the dishes and clean the kitchen while the men smoked a hookah on the veranda outside.
Finally, when all the chores were done, she could put it off no longer; she went into the tiny room she would have to share with her husband that night, and every night of her married life. The ghost followed her in.
Urmila stared at the room: the single cotton mattress, the two flat pillows and the earthen pot of water in one corner. Her stomach began to churn. This was the part Ma had always glossed over. Was it going to hurt?
The ghost moved closer, reassuring. Rakesh’s footsteps sounded in the courtyard outside and Urmila kicked off her slippers. She scuttled to the far corner of the mattress and lay on her side, her back to the entrance, pretending to be asleep.
Rakesh paused at the entrance and blew the candle out. In the dark, she heard him fumble with his clothes, and a deep embarrassment took hold of her. Whatever he was doing, she did not want to see it. When he clambered onto the mattress next to her, she tensed, ready to scream if he touched her. But then she felt a welcome coldness on her back. The ghost had slid between them. Urmila wrinkled her nose and grinned, uncaring, for once, of the smell.
Rakesh shivered. “It’s very cold here all of a sudden. How can you sleep? Let me get a blanket.”
“Don’t bother,” said Urmila. “It’s the ghost next to me. You’ll be fine if you sleep in the courtyard.”
“How can I sleep in the courtyard?” he said, aggrieved. “I’d never hear the end of it from my mother.” He sniffed. “Did you have a bath today?”
“That’s not me, that’s the ghost,” she snapped.
Despite the cold, despite the smell, he tried to embrace her. But she didn’t scream, because it was funny more than anything else. The ghost hugged Rakesh until he choked and gagged. All trace of desire left his face and he rolled away, defeated. “I can’t believe you brought your family ghost here,” he complained. “It belongs to your family, not mine.”
“Your family is my family now, isn’t it?” she said sweetly. “It’s a gift from my mother.”
“Some gift.” Rakesh swore under his breath. “When will it let us alone?”
“Not tonight,” she said. Maybe never, she thought with delight. “Why don’t you go to sleep?”
At last, after much grumbling, he did.
Early the next morning, Urmila’s mother-in-law summoned Urmila to her room. Rakesh must have told her what had happened.
“How dare you bring your dirty family ghost into my home?” she stormed. “I didn’t believe the women who told me yesterday that I had an infestation. Tell it to leave or begone yourself.”
“Maaji, you know it does not work like that,” said Urmila, keeping her voice calm even though inwardly she quaked. Being sent home in disgrace would bring shame upon her family. She would have to avoid it, attractive though the idea of leaving was. “You know that by bringing my family ghost here, I have transferred its allegiance. If I leave, the ghost will not follow me. It will stay here and be unhappy and make the milk go sour. Surely you do not want that.”
Rakesh’s mother pointed a quivering finger at her. “You chudail. I will make you suffer for this.”
“You will not, Maaji,” said Urmila, spying a silvery tendril on her mother-in-law’s plump shoulder. “Or you may find yourself very uncomfortable. It’s got an arm around your neck right now.”
Her mother-in-law gasped and laid a hand on her throat—the hand which was adorned with Urmila’s bangles.
“I want my bangles back,” said Urmila, knowing she was pushing it, but knowing also that this was the best time to claim what was rightfully hers. “They’re mine. Ma gave them to me.”
Her mother-in-law wrested the bangles off her hand and threw them at Urmila’s feet. “Take them, you good-for-nothing witch! I want nothing of yours to touch me.”
Urmila picked up the bangles and slipped them onto her own hand. They fit perfectly. “Thank you, Maaji,” she said. “I also want nothing of yours to touch me. Now we understand each other.”
After that, no one in the household crossed Urmila. The ghost was always at her side, ready to defend her. Her mother-in-law went on a long pilgrimage to Badrinath, and returned subdued and prayerful. Sometimes Urmila heard her muttering: “Hey Krishna, protect my son from this evil creature.”
Urmila slept every night with the ghost next to her, and her husband at the far edge of the mattress, curled up shivering under a mound of blankets. She got up early to do her chores—pumping water, cooking food, fetching firewood, milking the goat. In the afternoons, she joined Rakesh and his father at the shop. She was better at sums than they were, and soon took over the job of keeping accounts and handling the cash. It was not a bad life, although she sometimes chafed for more. At least she got to read the books and newspapers the shop stocked. She persuaded her father-in-law of the profits to be made from math and English textbooks, and he went ahead and bought some. They sold quickly, but not before she copied out the sums and read the essays for herself.
After a year had passed, she went to visit her mother, carrying a box of sweets and a bolt of cloth from the shop. The ghost followed in her mother’s shape, although it had become dimmer now, harder to see.
“Tell me about the ghost,” she asked her mother after the gifts had been given and pleasantries exchanged. Her brothers were at school and her father was working in the fields, so they were quite alone.
“Nothing much to tell,” said her mother. “I inherited it from my own mother when I got married. I gave it to you so that you would have kindness and respect from your in-laws, so that no one would beat you or hurt you in any way.”
“So it will always be there for me?”
Her mother smiled, a little sadly, and changed the subject. Urmila saw then that her mother had changed, become older and weaker. But how was that possible? It had only been a year since she’d left home. She did not have time to puzzle over this, for her brothers came home from school and threw themselves on her like puppies. She played with them and told stories, and then her father returned, and they all ate dinner together. Just like old times, except that Urmila felt like a guest, a stranger in her own home.
Three days later, she returned to her husband’s village with a heavy heart, knowing that her life had diverged from her family’s; things would never be the same again.
Rakesh’s face lit up when he saw her. “Thought you were never coming back,” he said, and warmth suffused her. Despite the ghost—or maybe because of it—Rakesh was civil to her, even affectionate when no one else was listening. She wondered then if the ghost would ever leave, ever make space for her husband next to her. And then she hated herself for thinking it and was quite cold to Rakesh for the rest of the day.
Another year passed, and Urmila visited her mother again. The ghost followed, but now she could no longer see it, at least not in the sunlight. In the night time she could still make out the pale grey blur next to her on the bed, although she could no longer discern its shape.
This time, Urmila was shocked at the change in her mother. Her active, wiry, scoldy mother was completely bed-ridden. She had become so emaciated, you could see the skull beneath her skin. Urmila rushed to her side and crouched down.
“It’s me, Ma,” she said. “I’m going to stay here and take care of you.”
Her mother smiled weakly. “Silly girl,” she muttered. “Of course you can’t go to the city. Money doesn’t grow in fields.”
Urmila shook her, a pit opening in her stomach. “Ma, you’re not making sense. Wake up!”
But her mother’s eyes closed and, with a small sigh, she slipped into a fitful sleep.
“It’s no good,” rasped her father from the doorway. “She’s been like this for months.”
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Urmila rose, fists clenching. “I could have come home, looked after her.”
“She didn’t want to worry you,” said her father. “She wanted you to have a chance at happiness in your new home—the chance she didn’t get at your age.”
“What do you mean?”said Urmila.
He looked down as if ashamed to meet her eyes, and twisted his hands. A small, quiet man who worked hard and rarely raised his voice. “It’s my fault,” he said at last. “When your mother and I got married, we were very young, younger than you. I was completely under my mother’s thumb, and I’m afraid she gave Seema a hard time. She scolded her often, beat her when she didn’t listen, even tied her to a post once. Your mother tried to run away a couple of times. Her own parents always brought her back. This continued until you were born and then…”
“And then?” Urmila prompted, her mouth dry.
“Something changed,” he said softly. “My mother was angry that you were a girl. She had wanted a grandson to boast about. But Seema was wild with joy. When my mother tried to take you away from her, she screamed and screamed so that the whole house shook to its very foundations. My mother backed down and let her be. From then on, Seema’s power grew and my mother diminished.”
“The ghost,” whispered Urmila. “She didn’t inherit it—she made it out of herself.”
Her father sighed. “I tried to dissuade her from giving it to you. But Seema was adamant. The ghost would protect you, as it had protected her. It would make you strong, as it made her strong.”
“But why is she so sick and weak now?” said Urmila. “Is it something I did?”
His forehead creased. “The ghost took something vital out of her. While you were here and the ghost was close by, it did not matter so much.”
“Then the solution is easy,” cried Urmila. “I make the ghost come back here. Then Ma will be well again.”
Her father only looked at her and she realized it would not be that simple. The ghost was bound to her, and she was bound to another home. How to release it back to her mother?
She thought of this as she walked back to her husband’s village the next day. She wheeled around once as a shadow moved on the road behind her, but it was only a crow. “I know you’re there,” she said. “I don’t need you any more. Go back to Ma. Go away.”
But she knew the ghost followed her still.
She realized what she had to do the moment she arrived at her husband’s house. Rakesh came bounding out to greet her, but she brushed him aside. The hurt in his eyes cut her to the quick, but she ignored him and went inside. She would have to be ruthless. She couldn’t afford to consider anyone’s feelings; her mother’s life hung in the balance.
Her mother-in-law was in the kitchen, and her father-in-law was lying on a charpoy in the courtyard, reading the newspaper. She stood before him, swallowed hard and announced: “Pitaji, Maaji, I have to return the ghost to my mother. I am sorry, but I can no longer be your bahu. You may ask the vakil for a divorce. I will leave in the morning.”
Behind her, Rakesh gasped. Her father-in-law’s paper fell out of his hands and he gazed at her in dismay.
But it was her mother-in-law who put their thoughts into words. “Hai hai,” she moaned. “Why am I so unlucky? I will never live this down. I will be the laughingstock of the entire village.”
“Not necessarily, Maaji,” said Urmila, feeling a stab of pity for the woman despite herself. “You could always say I am barren or insane and you’ve sent me back to my family. You won’t have a problem finding another girl for Rakesh.”
“I don’t want another girl,” hissed Rakesh, but her mother-in-law’s expression had turned thoughtful. Here was an opportunity to get rid of the recalcitrant bahu and find another, more malleable one, without a ghost to haunt the household.
Urmila went to her room to pack. In the courtyard her in-laws continued to argue, Rakesh’s voice rising in anger, his mother’s soothing. Doubtless she was telling him they’d all be well-rid of Urmila.
The ghost appeared next to her in Rakesh-shape, more clearly visible than it had been in months. “I’m taking you back,” she told the ghost. “Back where you belong.”
“But what about you?” said Rakesh, coming into the room. “Where will you go?”
“The state capital, perhaps,” she said. “Where women can find work as easily as men.”
“I’ve heard Lucknow is full of gangs that prey on simple villagers,” said Rakesh.
“It is not your concern,” she said. “I can take care of myself.” She lay down in her corner of the bed, her back to him so he would not see her face.
Rakesh sat down behind her, keeping a respectable distance as usual. “Are you unhappy?” he said. “Do you dislike me that much?”
“It’s not about you,” said Urmila, annoyed. Men always thought they were the most important creatures on the planet. It was the fault of the women who cosseted them, of course. “It’s my mother. She’s ill, and she needs the ghost to recover. The ghost was part of my dowry and the only way I can return it is by leaving this family for good.”
“I see,” said Rakesh. “Well, that makes sense. Your mother’s health is very important.” Taken aback, Urmila said nothing, and in a little while, he was asleep and snoring.
Urmila stayed awake for a long time, fuming. Somehow, she had expected Rakesh to offer more resistance than this. In the past two years, she’d come to consider him a friend.
She left the house early next morning with little more than she had brought: her clothes, her bangles, the goat and, of course, the ghost. The ghost leaped ahead of her in the form of a bright silver fox, jumping into trees, hiding behind bushes. It looked happy. She should feel happy, too. She was doing the right thing. But she knew her parents well enough to predict their reaction.
Sure enough, when she arrived back home, her father took one look at the goat and groaned. “Oh no, Urmila, what have you done?”
“The only thing I could do,” said Urmila, tying the goat to a stake and dumping her bundle on the veranda. Her brothers came rushing out to greet her. The ghost had vanished into the house already, as if it couldn’t wait to be reunited with its maker.
“Your mother will be devastated,” said her father.
“Well, at least she’ll be alive,” snapped Urmila, and went inside.
Her mother was sitting up on her rug, eyes lucid, a puzzled look on her face.
Urmila bent down and kissed her. “You look better, Ma,” she said. “You’ll be up and about in no time.”
Her mother gripped her arm. “What did you do?” she said. “Why has the ghost come back to me?”
Urmila disengaged herself. “I persuaded it,” she said, the pain of the lie sharp in her throat. “Rakesh and I are leaving for Lucknow, and we won’t need the ghost any more. Rest now, Ma. You’ll be much stronger tomorrow.”
A smile lit her mother’s face. “Your dream to go to the city is coming true. I’m so happy for you, darling.”
Urmila gulped back a sob.”So am I,” she said.
Nobody tried to stop her. Her father knew, perhaps, that she would not listen to him. Also, how the tongues would wag if she stayed. People would gossip about what was wrong with her, that her in-laws had sent her back. They would blame her parents.
Urmila went to say a final goodbye to her old favorite spots: the banyan tree in the field, the disused tank. Then she set off down the semi-paved road that ran parallel to the train tracks, her bundle on her back, the bangles hidden beneath a sleeve. She would sell them in the city; the money would be enough to live on for a month or two, and meanwhile she would look for work. She had a head for sums, she had experience working in a shop. Somehow, she’d manage. If she got into trouble, she had Anoothie maasi’s address in her diary.
But first, she had to reach Lucknow. It was, she had calculated, a brisk week-long walk. Perhaps faster if she got a ride in a bullock cart or a tractor.
Running footsteps behind made her jerk around in alarm. But it was only Rakesh, huffing to catch up with her, a bundle on his back and a determined look on his face.
Urmila recovered her voice. “What are you doing here?” she demanded, hands on her hips.
“Going with you,” he said. “I’ve always wanted to work in Lucknow.”
“What about your parents? The shop?”
“My father can hire one of my cousins. They’ll be only too happy to make some money off him.” He grinned. “My mother is discussing our divorce with the vakil. I think it will be difficult for them to arrange without either one of us around.”
“But…” Urmila could not wrap her head around this thought, “you’re leaving your mother? Just because you want to work in the city?”
His smile vanished. “No,” he said. “Because I want to be with you. My wife.”
“I don’t know why you want to stay married to me,” said Urmila, making her voice mean to disguise the sudden gladness in her heart. “Just because I don’t have a ghost, doesn’t mean I’ll let you touch me.”
He put his hands in the air, a look of protest on face. “I won’t. I mean, not if you don’t want me to.”
She turned around to hide her expression. “Your mother will miss you,” she said.
“I’ll write to her,” he said. “We’ll go visit her after a year. She’ll forgive us.”
Us. Not you, not me. The doubts and fears within Urmila dissolved like mud after the monsoon rain. “Okay, you can come with me,” she said. “As long as you share all the chores and work as hard as I do.”
“Harder,” he promised, and slipped his hand into hers.
About the Author
Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra now lives and writes in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of the science fantasy duology Markswoman and Mahimata published by Harper Voyager. Her YA fantasy novel Night of the Raven, Dawn of the Dove is forthcoming from Wednesday Books in Fall 2022. Her short fiction has been shortlisted for The Sunburst Award and has appeared in multiple venues including The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed Magazine, Uncanny Magazine, Apex Magazine, Podcastle, and Cast of Wonders. Find out more about her at ratiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra.