PodCastle 532: Vetala

Show Notes

Rated R for brutal visions.

The night I was to leave Delhi for Toronto, my grandmother told me I was making a big mistake.

“The vetala is going to follow you,” she said, as I stuffed my clothes higgledy-piggledy into the shiny new suitcase I had bought for my shiny new life. “Think of how lonely it will be.”

I slammed down the lid of my suitcase. “There are demons everywhere,” I said. “Even Toronto.”

My grandmother sniffed. “Not our kind.”

“How would you know?” I countered. “You hardly ever leave home.”

She looked at me out of her sharp, blackbird eyes. “And you hardly ever stay here. What are you looking for, Pooja?”

“A good job,” I said flatly. We had been over this many times in the last four months, ever since I’d gotten an offer to work for Recreated Realms, the biggest Timescape company in Canada. “Money. Peace. Security.” Freedom.

“None of which you will find until you stop running away,” said my grandmother.

I didn’t reply. We didn’t talk about the past, but it sat between us, clacking its teeth and rubbing its stomach.

“What about Amar?” said my grandmother at last. “Nice young man like that won’t wait for you forever.”

I made a show of rolling my eyes, although the mention of his name still brought a lump to my throat. Now, I regretted having brought my ex-colleague home and introducing him to my grandmother. As if the demon wasn’t enough. “We’re through. I told you that weeks ago. Let it go, Nani.”

She subsided into a quiet grumbling that lasted until my taxi arrived — early, so she was forced to race through the tika, the ceremonial goodbye in front of the small kitchen shrine.

Later, at the IGI airport, I opened my suitcase and removed every item I had packed. It took over twenty minutes and people glared, but I found the three things my grandmother had sneaked in when I wasn’t looking: a pocketbook Hindi translation of the Bhagavad Gita, a sachet of ashes — my mother’s — and a small, red-painted stone. I closed my eyes and counted my breaths until I had vanquished my desire to scream. The stone, of course, was where the spirit of the vetala dwelt.

I stuffed the book and the sachet back in the suitcase along with everything else. The stone I flushed down a toilet. A gesture, nothing more, but it made me feel better, as if I truly had the possibility of making a fresh start in a new country. As if physical dislocation could dislodge the demon I was haunted by.

Toronto froze and bewildered me. I didn’t know where to start in that city, how to breathe in the -20°C air, how to navigate the driverless buses and taxis. Luckily, Recreated Realms had a guest suite in its headquarters, a sixty-storey tower at Yonge and King. I stayed there the two weeks it took me to find my footing and a cheap studio in Parkdale.

Lisa, my boss, introduced me to the different teams — Design, HR, Marketing, Defence. People from all over the world, picked for their talent, their brilliance. And now I was one of them. I shook hands and smiled until my jaw ached.

“Not that you’ll remember everyone’s names right away,” said Lisa brightly, “and you’ll be in Deep-Net most of the time. Still, it’s useful to know that Gemma makes the best scones and Jorge the best sangria. Pick your poison.” Everyone laughed and I joined in.

Later, I got my password to Deep-Net, the super-computer that ran the simulations of the Design team. I immersed myself in the familiar landscape of coding, already building my first prototype, a Roman bathhouse. For a few blissful hours, engrossed in my work, I forgot all about the vetala.

Then at lunchtime I opened my box and found the red-painted stone sitting on top of a sandwich. I gagged and threw it, box and all, into the wastepaper basket below my desk. I logged back into Deep-Net and tried to continue work, but the stone kept dancing in front of my eyes, taunting. I gave up after a couple of hours and went home, only to find it waiting for me on my pillow. I hurled it out of the window, feeling sick, knowing it would turn up again. Knowing I would have to face the vetala, sooner or later. Knowing that nothing had changed.

I meet the vetala in one of the recreated realms I have helped design.

An old man sits on the beach, repairing a fishing net. Gulls screech overhead and children chase them away. Triangular fish flakes stacked with cod punctuate the beach like exclamation marks. The sky is a deep blue, the harbour dotted with colourful boats. The simulation is perfect: a Newfoundland coastal village of the 1960s, before the cod fishery collapsed and oil spills devastated the marine ecological reserves.

I walk down the beach, inhaling the tangy sea air, feeling the wind on my skin like a living thing. It’s one of my favourite realms; I come here again and again, on some pretext or the other. Fine-tuning it for Marketing, I tell Lisa. Perhaps today I will climb the lighthouse and see a humpback whale.

But something is different about the realm today. Something I do not remember coding. The old man. My heart sinks. I squat opposite him. “You aren’t real,” I tell him. “Not here.”

“The unreal never is, the real never is not,” he quotes the Gita, and smiles before continuing his work.

This is not a coded response. This is not the simulation of an old fisherman. I push my fingers into the rough sand, letting the gravel scratch my skin. I am a child again and it is that terrible week my mother died and I met the vetala for the first time. I couldn’t cry — I didn’t quite believe she wasn’t coming back — and everyone else was at the funeral. So I lay in bed with my face turned to the wall until the vetala appeared. He told me — he showed me — how my mother’s body was burning on the pyre, flesh blackening and falling away to free her spirit. Then I understood, and I screamed and wept until a neighbour came hurrying upstairs to shush me.

“I didn’t kill her,” I tell him, although he knows that already.

“I never said you did,” he says. “Would you like to see her again?”

“No,” I say, although I want to, very much. The vetala cannot bring anyone back from the dead, can only put on their skin. I wonder what my mother would look like now, if she were still alive. If she would be an older version of me.

“You have to stop following me,” I say. “Why are you here?”

“Fixing my net. Why are you here?” He throws out the net and I notice his weathered old hands. Hands that are on backwards, palms facing front, knuckles behind.

I stand, but there’s nothing to stand on. The light has leached out of the world. I can see through it, the flawed code I myself have written — rats ravaging the fish flakes, the old man with the wild hair and too-long teeth, entrails entwined in his arms like a garland.

I turn and flee through the door that has followed me down the beach.

A month after I left her, my grandmother tripped over the stairs of her tall, narrow house and broke her hand. My cousins took her to the hospital. I called her cell phone when I heard the news.

“I keep telling you to move into a flat, but you never listen,” I said.

“Why should I move? This is the house my father built, the house where your grandfather died.” Her voice sounded thin and weak, despite her words. “This is where I’ll die too. You’d better be mentally prepared for my funeral.”

“You’ve been saying that to me for the last fifteen years,” I pointed out.

“Well, this time I really mean it,” she said. “Come back before it’s too late.”

“I’ll be home for Diwali,” I said. “Do me a favour and hang on until then. I need to return the stone to your shrine.”

“Oh, you have the stone?” she said, all innocent. “I wondered where it had gone. I guessed, of course. You were always his favourite.” When I didn’t respond, she said, “How’s the new job? Is everything fine?”

“Of course,” I lied. “You should rest now. I’ll call again in a few days.”

I didn’t tell her the vetala had infected my work, necessitating hours of clean-up. She’d just have told me to come back home. As if going home would solve anything.

I couldn’t get rid of the stone. I kept throwing it away, and it kept turning up: in my purse, in the kettle, inside my shoe. At last I’d caved in and put it on the windowsill of my apartment.

I sat by the window, watching the snow fall soft and relentless over Queen Street, until there was nothing but a world of white, a world of ghosts. And I wondered if my grandmother was right, if the vetala was as lonely as I.

My second meeting with the vetala occurred in real-space. It was March and the evening was grey and cold. People buttoned up in winter coats strode past, their faces bent against the driving wind. I sat in a Tim Hortons opposite my office building, nursing a cup of cooling coffee, delaying the moment of departure when I must get up and confront myself.

A slim, dark-haired man slid into the seat opposite me. “Hello, Pooja. May I join you?”

I frowned. He seemed familiar, with his boyish smile and that lilting accent. Brown-skinned, but not South Asian like me.

“Jorge, from Marketing,” he said. “I work in the same building as you — just a different floor.”

I attempted a smile. I was in no mood to socialize. “I remember, yes. Jorge who makes the best sangria. Have you been working late today?”

“No later than you,” he said. “I’m going to grab a coffee. Can I get you anything?”

“No, thank you,” I said. “Actually, I was just about to leave.”

“Please wait,” he said, “we have so much to talk about.” He reached out and touched my wrist. His touch was cold, colder than ice. I shivered and stared at his hands. Hands that were on backwards. I tried to draw back, but he encircled my wrist. Fear and desire warred within me. His eyes were hypnotic; I could forget myself in them, at least for a while. I was dissolving, unable to think or move, trapped by his gaze.

“I can be whatever you want me to be,” he said softly. “Not like that silly boy you left behind. Why fight it?”

Because I’m alive and you’re not. I pushed the chair back and got to my feet, dragging my hand away from him. The spell broke. “Leave me alone,” I said. “I don’t need you anymore.”

“You will always need me,” he said. “Who else is there?”

Grief does not have a colour. It does not have a name, a language, or a nationality. But it has texture — the smell of ash, the taste of tears. As I walked away from the vetala, I remembered the dead. My grandfather, pushing me on a swing in the threadbare park opposite our house. My mother, pounding dough for chappatis in the kitchen, wiping sweat from her brow. My father, a shadow lurking behind her, faceless because I had never seen him, did not know what he looked like. I remembered the dead and I wondered — did they remember me too?

“You should read a bit of the Gita every day,” my grandmother said. “It gives nice perspective.”

I snorted. “What, the bit about Krishna persuading Arjuna to kill his cousins and teachers, because what does it matter anyway, they’ll all be reborn eight million times?”

“That’s not how it is!” snapped my grandmother, her annoyance coming through clearly even at a distance of eleven thousand kilometres. “Krishna is telling Arjuna to do his duty as a warrior in the battlefield of Kurukshetra, and reminding him that the spirit is untouchable. Don’t distort the Gita’s meaning like all those foreign scholars do. Try to understand the essence of it. Read just one shloka at a time. Guaranteed to give peace of mind.”

“I thought I wouldn’t get any peace until I stop running away?” I said.

A pause. Then: “You won’t. But I can’t help hoping. You’re my special grandchild, aren’t you? The one the vetala chose.” The unlucky one, she did not say.

“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “How’s the hand?”

Our conversation veered to physiotherapy. I did not tell my grandmother that I was reading the Gita, the same lines every day, as if they could somehow permeate my soul:

For to the one that is born death is certain, and certain is birth to the one that has died, therefore you should not grieve over that which is unavoidable.

I am testing Design’s newest creation, the last run of the Canadian between Toronto and Vancouver. I love train journeys, and what better way to explore this vast country than to traverse it east to west through forests, mountains, and prairies?

I wish the Canadian still ran, out there in the real world. There was a time when it had a daily run. The service was reduced to five days a week, then twice, and then just once. In the summer of 2021, it ran its last. Train aficionados have been clamouring for years for a simulation. Recreated Realms will make good money off this one.

I press my face to the window, and catch a glimpse of a black bear clambering up a spruce tree. We pass through lakes and forests untouched by the fire and disease that have ravaged Northern Ontario in recent years. I allow myself to relax. I have not seen the vetala in weeks, have been very careful with my coding. Not even Defence can find any loopholes in my work.

Twenty miles short of Hornepayne — a railroad town that no longer exists — a South Asian couple catches my eye. The man faces the window; the woman is bent over a book. Something about the tilt of her head, the arch of her neck, draws me, and I sit down on the empty seat opposite them.

“Enjoying the ride?” I ask with a smile.

The woman looks up and my heart lurches in recognition. My mother. That’s my mother. Looking just the same as I remember — hair tied back in a knot, large, luminous eyes, forehead knit in an expression caught between surprise and worry: what are you doing here?

Although I have told the vetala that I didn’t kill her, it was my fault she died. It was because of me that she went looking for him, the man who had been given a restraining order, forbidden to go near us. Because I hankered for a father. Because I didn’t know what he was like, was too small to remember the alcohol-fuelled rage, the savage beatings. Perhaps my mother thought the years had mellowed him down, that he wanted a daughter as much as I wanted a father.

And because I know what will happen next, I rise from the seat, thinking of the door just behind me, the escape to real-space, to my drab little office with the empty desk and blank walls and the safe hum of voices down the corridor.

But my mother catches hold of my arm. “Stay with me,” she pleads, and I hesitate, and then it’s already too late.

The man twists away from the window and smashes his fist into my mother’s face.

“No!” I try to scream, to move, but my limbs are too heavy. I’m drowning in air thick as a swamp. I cannot breathe. Again and again he hits her, until her face is reduced to bleeding pulp. Until the jaw is broken, sharp splints driven upward into her brain.

“Stop!” My arms break free and I punch the man, raining blows on his head, his shoulders, the empty mask of a face. It’s like hitting a rag doll. Like punching sawdust. He goes limp against the seat, head lolling. Still I don’t stop, until he is reduced to a pile of dust on the seat. I straighten up, gasping and sobbing, and look at the seat where my mother lies sprawled.

But my mother is gone. Not even her bloodstains remain. The train car is empty but for myself and the vetala, who has materialized opposite me in his most fearsome form: grey-skinned and wild-haired, naked but for a loincloth around his waist. His arms are smeared with ash; his nails extend like the talons of a raptor from hands that are on backwards.

I take a deep, shaking breath and wipe my face. “A low trick, even by your standards,” I say, forcing calmness into my voice. “Don’t ever do that again.”

The vetala’s smile widens, showing elongated canines. “But you pounded him to dust,” he says. “I thought that would give you some satisfaction.”

I want to hit him, to slap that smug grin off his face. But it won’t change anything. It won’t stop his cruel games. I turn and leave.

I took the rest of the day off and called my grandmother. It was midnight in Delhi, and she’d just gone to bed. “Is everything all right?” she asked at once.

“Tell me about the vetala,” I said. “How can I get rid of it?”

“Get rid of it!” she said, indignant. “The stone has been in the family for generations. It protects us.”

“It didn’t protect Mama, did it?” I shouted. “It let him kill her!” I had done the unthinkable. I had given voice to the unspeakable. I clenched the phone, waiting for her response.

There was silence for so long I thought the connection had broken.

When my grandmother finally spoke, her voice was flat and cold. “The vetala cannot protect us from others. Only from ourselves.”

I disconnected the call, and discovered I was crying. What had I hoped for? Some magic mantra to make the demon vanish? Some deep wisdom to take away my pain?

I went to the windowsill and picked up the red-painted stone. I gripped it in my palm, imagining the spirit leaching out of it.

“What do you want,” I asked, “to leave me alone? Should I go back to India and marry Amar? Should I sleep with a firang? Throw myself off the office building? What. Will. It. Take?” And with each word of the last sentence, I smashed the stone down on my palm, until the skin broke and blood seeped out, a line of red pain in a world of grey.

Unbidden, a shloka from the Gita touched my mind. Feelings of heat and cold, pleasure and pain, have a beginning and an end. They do not last forever. These, O Arjuna, learn to endure.

And I wondered how the warrior Arjuna had endured it, the death of those he loved at his own, guilt-ridden hands.

It is my latest creation, and my best. I have spent over a fortnight working on it, day and night, have let no one else see the codes or test its integrity. Lisa thinks I’m recreating Victoria in its heyday of the 1990s, before the seas rose, submerging the southern end of Vancouver Island.

What I have built, she has never seen.

When testing day arrives, I am jittery with nerves and caffeine. My head is pounding and my hands shake. Will it work?

It has to. I have poured my soul into this one. I have given it everything I am and more. My pain, my fear, my guilt, my longing. Everything I remember of my mother, the circumstances of her death, and the child I once was.

I step inside, and the world transforms. Funeral pyres throw gouts of flame into a purple sky. The air is thick with ash, hot with smoke. The ground is littered with bones. It is a Shamshan Ghat, a cremation ground. The one place my demon cannot resist, cannot manipulate. Here the outer layers of our earthly selves are burned away until only the truth remains. Here I will confront him in his own skin.

I sit cross-legged on the ground to wait. Hours pass — or perhaps they do not, and the passage of time is an illusion, like everything else. I breathe in the ash, and practise what I will say to the vetala, the words of banishment I have made up and recited in front of the mirror every night until I can almost believe they are real. In the absence of any external wisdom, I must make my own.

Smoke congeals into a shape in front of me. The vetala is coming. I am ready for him, I think. I have the words, and I have the courage to speak them.

The smoke clears, and shock courses through me. It is not the vetala. It is a small child with a bob cut and a shy smile. She wears a dirty blue dress I can vaguely remember, and clutches a one-eyed doll in her hand — a hand that is on forward. She raises her other hand and says, “Hello, didi.”

I do not answer; I cannot. It is too much to bear and I want, at that moment, to be gone from here. To leave the child trapped in this hellish place which is, after all, of her own making.

She hesitates and tries again. “Sorry, maybe I should not call you didi. You are not my sister. But you are older than me and I thought it would be more respectful.”

I find my voice. “You’re me. Me before Mama died.”

“You look a lot like her,” she says. “But Mama was prettier.”

“Until he beat her face in?” I say, knowing I am being cruel, almost relishing it.

But the child does not flinch. “You’re still here, aren’t you? And Mama lives in you. Always has, always will.”

Tears prick my eyes. “Who are you, really? Who’s the vetala?”

She pushes the hair off her forehead, impatient. “The vetala is just a . . . thing. We animated him with our pain.”

“How do I banish him?” I ask.

“I think you know,” she says, and smiles.

I shake my head. “I can’t let go of the pain, if that’s what you mean.”

“Who said anything about letting go?” She puts down her doll and reaches for me. I wrap my arms around her thin body, holding tight.

“Don’t leave,” I whisper.

“Never,” she says. “Didn’t I tell you? I am always with you.”

And she slips away, the phantom girl, before I can ask her more, leaving the one-eyed doll in my arms.

When I return to real-space, the realm is gone, the codes extinguished from Deep-Net. And although I run recovery late into the night, I find no trace of the Shamshan Ghat where I met the vetala in my own skin.

I called my grandmother to tell her I was coming home. It had been a while since we’d spoken and she was careful with me, perhaps remembering how I’d disconnected the phone last time, all upset. But my news broke her reserve.

“You’re coming back for good?” she said, delighted.

“For a while,” I said. “My company wants to open an office in Delhi, and they picked me for the six-month pilot.”

“Amar will be so happy,” she said. “And the vetala too. I’m sure he wants to come back. Being in foreign parts is so depleting.”

I made a non-committal noise. I didn’t tell her I hadn’t seen the vetala in several weeks. I had rendered it harmless when I embraced myself. I was more than my pain, but pain would always be a part of me. And maybe that was all right.

I still kept the stone on my windowsill, but it stayed put in one place. I knew that if I threw it now, I’d never find it again. Perhaps that is why I did not throw it.

That summer, before I flew back to Delhi, we had a team retreat in Whitehorse. We took one of the last surviving trains of Northern Canada, a restored steam locomotive, over the narrow gauge White Pass and Yukon Route.

I took the stone with me, carefully tucked into my purse. I had no fear of it now, and it seemed churlish to leave it behind when I would be returning it to my grandmother so soon. I also had the sachet of my mother’s ashes and the pocketbook Gita. Three things that defined me, that were inextricably entwined. Arjuna had the wily Krishna to guide him in the battlefield of Kurukshetra. I had only had the vetala. Maybe, in the end, it was enough.

I sat between Gemma and Lisa, letting their chatter wash over me, basking in its ordinariness. The train cut between cliffs and began to climb. Snow-capped peaks surrounded us; to our left stretched a dark green slope, dotted with spruce and pine. The train entered a long tunnel; conversations petered out, muted in the dark, as if the dark was sacred.

A hand closed over mine, ice-cold to the touch. I did not flinch; I let him hold me. And then, as light appeared at the end of the tunnel, I whispered, “Goodbye.”

His hand slipped away, and we emerged into the bright light of the afternoon sun.

About the Author

Rati Mehrotra

Born and raised in India, Rati Mehrotra now lives and writes in lovely Toronto. Her debut novel Markswoman was published by Harper Voyager in January 2018. Her short stories have appeared in Apex Magazine, IGMS, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, AE – The Canadian Science Fiction Review, and many more. Find out more about her at ratiwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @Rati_Mehrotra.

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About the Narrator

Srikripa Krishna Prasad

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Srikripa Krishna Prasad is a Canadian-Indian undergraduate student living near Toronto, Ontario. While she studies both the social sciences and the natural sciences at university, she is a writer of short stories and an avid listener of podcasts and hopes to bring her creative work to the world one day. She is very excited to join the Podcastle community.

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