Prayer Flags: Smriti Ravindra
Even from the third floor we could only see the walls around the hostel and the twisted barbed wires like cacti upon them. To see the road and the vehicles, the trees lining that strip of asphalt, the shops and the shopkeepers, we had to be on the terrace – and the terrace was off limits at all times, except after bath time, when we were allowed upstairs to clip our underwear on the numerous lines crisscrossing like electric wires under the sky. We imagined that from a far enough distance our panties and bras, our underskirts and underslips would look like prayer flags fluttering in the wind.
From a far enough distance we must have looked like little pieces fluttering in the wind, too. We had no roots, nowhere to go, not until the vacations came and we got into separate and unfamiliar vehicles – an autorickshaw, a taxi, a private car – and left the hostel gates to go home. It frightened us a little to leave, to sit, even with our parents, in such an exquisite thing as a private car. We might as well have been buckled into space ships, the way it left us dizzy with excitement.
For the rest of the year we sat only in the large white van that took us to and brought us back from school. Mohan Dai was our driver. He was a short, grim man with a large and tight stomach and a balding head. He wore a green shirt in all seasons and nothing over it, not even in the winters which were so cold. He lived with his wife, Ratna Didi, and his two sons, Sonu and Chutkey, in a small two-room shack behind our dining room. Every evening during dinner we heard him retch and cough into the drain that started at our kitchen, ran past his shack, and eventually disappeared into the land where our matron – a nasty, parsimonious, limping, fat, cruel, evil hag – grew vegetables for us. The cooks were instructed to boil the vegetables for our meals, then the leaves, then the stem, and eventually the roots. Some of us, unable to stomach the mush, retched during dinner, too. But unlike us, Mohan Dai did not puke unsavoury stews into that drain. He puked alcohol. Through the dining room walls we heard him gag and throw up. We heard him beat his wife, beat his sons. We heard his wife and his sons cry. We heard arguments that lasted until Mohan Dai exhausted himself and fell asleep. We heard these sounds every day – they were the background to our dinner hours as much as the clicking of cutlery upon our plates.
In the mornings Ratna Didi came to help clean the hostel. She swept the floors while another woman mopped behind her. Sonu and Chutkey were supposed to be in school, but they were always in our hostel too, waiting for us to send them off on secret errands and reward them with tips. Our errands always concerned food; we were desperate at any hour. We gave money to Sonu and Chutkey and they went beyond the barbed-wire walls, beyond the gates, out to that strip of asphalt, into the rooms of Tandoor and Taj, returning with thick chicken and thin rotis for us. They brought back bars of chocolate for dessert, sodas for drinks. In exchange we gave them money and expected no change. The change was their tip.
They were perpetually in love with the newest girls that came in. They hung around gathering information about Pooja or Aparna. They were forever playing cool, even as they wooed us. Sonu played the guitar. Chutkey told us jokes. We liked them even when we shooed them away. We liked them when we scolded and mocked. We liked them. Some days they were our only contact with the world outside.
Then Sonu killed himself. He poured packets of rat poison into a glass and gulped the mix in a single shot. It was a regular evening. A regular meal of insect-infected bread and a bowl full of bland, tasteless beans. A regular evening of vomiting, hitting and abusing. Like every evening we heard and did not hear Ratna Didi scream. We heard and did not hear Chutkey’s cries. We heard and did not hear Sonu’s silence. We knew he was dead only the next morning after Mohan Dai did not drive us to school and Ratna Didi did not tidy our dorms. We never saw Chutkey again. He ran away from home.
For months after that we were afraid. Too many of us saw Sonu’s ghost. He came to me in flashes and I saw him suddenly when I opened my eyes in the morning or when I turned a corner into the corridor. He played his guitar for Solona. Radhika saw him decayed, his flesh falling off the bones. We slept together after that – as many as could fit in a single bed – and talked nonsensically, trying to keep from dozing off. We imagined Ratna Didi in her two-room shack, wearing a red saree. We imagined Chutkey upon some street in the Hawaiian shirt he wore like wings upon his body. We never talked directly about Sonu. His ghost was sure to come if we talked about him.
Too many of us saw Sonu’s ghost in the kitchen. It stole biscuits and buns and its face was white under the tubelight. There was a strip of light under the door even when the kitchen was locked for the day and we heard the fire on the stove. We knew Sonu was behind the door doing whatever it was ghosts did. We heard his guitar at all hours. We had to cross the kitchen stairs to get to the bathroom and we avoided drinking too much water before bedtime.
That was also when some of us began to see through walls. One night Anuja saw Ratna Didi on the terrace. We were sleeping together and Anuja pointed at the ceiling and said she could see Ratna Didi’s ghost flying over us.
But Ratna Didi is not dead, I said.
You don’t have to be dead to be a ghost, Anuja said.
And then I saw her too, Ratna Didi, floating in the wind like a prayer flag, looking for her sons.