Girls who could not loveOne day, she wrote Titir a long letter and slipped it under her door. It didn’t occur to her that the move would only cause her object of dedication to further stiffen against her.
During her time at the convent school in the hill-station, she had learned to walk the corridors on nights when she could not sleep. She was very young then. A teenager. Yet, there was something about being unable to sleep that made her feel like she had become as wise as her mother, if not older. She even imitated her mother’s way of arranging and rearranging her pillow during sleeplessness, cursing the pillow like it was its fault she couldn’t fall asleep.
It was one of those nights that Chaukidar Daju saw her walking to-and-fro in the corridor and told one of the cooks the next day that he had seen a ghost who wore her hair in a Thai cut. The news spread quickly. It was carried by the cooks to the cleaning ladies and then the infirmary lady, and then to the students who lived in the convent hostel, a rickety 19th-century building.
“Did you hear that? A girl with Thai cut!” Candice whispered. With her Catholic upbringing, she was a huge believer in the Holy Ghost and the security provided by blessings.
“It means it’s time for a house blessing. It always happens around this time of the year. The headless nun, the nun at the piano, the steps on the stairway...haven’t you heard?”
“But Titir Di said they were only rats!” she protested, hoping that her friends would trust what a senior had said, more than they did the rumour. She didn’t really want to admit it had been her walking up and down the corridor, and not a ghost. She wanted the conversation to pass.
She felt it would be too embarrassing to tell her friends it was her who had been walking the corridors at night, because she hadn’t been able to sleep. That would invite a host of questions as to why she hadn’t been able to sleep. What could possibly keep a teenager awake? They weren’t even old enough to fret over boyfriends. (Well, if they had been, the convent apparatuses would have rendered the idea beyond conceivable at any rate).
So, the girls continued with the spooky story. They spoke in hushed tones about “the one with Thai cut”. There were at least five girls in the hostel with the haircut that was locally known as Thai cut; hair cropped at the nape in imitation of some Thai Airlines flight attendant, spotted in a free distribution/promotional calendar. But it hadn’t occurred to anyone that the person walking the corridor at night could be one of the students. Also, the stories kept changing.
Now, one of the girls had spotted her walking around the Oval garden. And now, someone had seen her sitting down by the grotto, with her face buried in her knees, weeping. The stories grew weirder and started to creep her out. This was her they were talking about! Or had been her to begin with, at least, although she had nothing—even remotely—to do with the latest sightings.
She had stopped walking the corridors on sleepless nights. The corridor was rather long, flanking a row of two dozen rooms. And it overlooked the hillside in its entirety, built with a long row of glass windows opening towards a view of the queen of hills, as they called it. Her room was the last in the row and had a view of the town that took its name from fog, because it was always shrouded in gloom. They said that people couldn’t see another person approaching even within a distance of ten feet in this town. Since forever, it had continued to nestle drowsily in a near perpetual fog, while the humdrum lives of its residents moved in tune with its famed, sluggish railway.
She had started to sit up on bed on sleepless nights now, looking out the window at the hillside town. Constellations formed across the town at night, when the lights came on.
“It looks like someone took a handful of stars and scattered them over the hillside,” Titir Di had once said, as they were watching the lights together from the edge of the Oval garden. It was something they did on evenings some weekends. She thought Titir had a lyrical way of speaking; always in a sing-song tone. She had wanted to compliment her, instead, smiled in acknowledgement. “You have a very beautiful smile,” Titir had said just then. It had made her happy. Titir had then reached out for her hands, held them for a moment, then dropped them suddenly; and they had sat in silence for the rest of the evening until it was time to go back to their rooms.
In the days following that evening, she started to retreat into her shell. And here’s the reason why. Titir had stopped talking to her completely. She would ignore her on the stairs, in the hall, and would seek company of her classmates constantly, so that she didn’t catch her alone. For someone like Titir, who spent much of her time cooped up in her room, listening to Jagjit and Chitra Singh, it was a bit over the top.
One day, she wrote Titir a long letter and slipped it under her door. It didn’t occur to her that the move would only cause her object of dedication to further stiffen against her. In it, she had asked Titir to explain what she had done to suddenly be subject to such treatment. She implored Titir to take her back. Implored! I am your chosen “soul sister”, she wrote. Had she forgotten? But it seemed like Titir had forgotten. Her pleas in the form of a letter, mournful looks, random sentences spoken louder than is necessary any time Titir was within earshot, were of no avail.
At term end, Titir was gone, never to return. And with her were gone, the stories of all the things she did in her home at the tea estate, the boy from the army club with eyes like those of a bird, who Titir liked to dance with, the soulful ghazals...all of those…Titir took them with her. And in their place emerged slow days and sleepless nights.
She would look out her window at the hillside and sometimes at the window that used to be Titir’s. It was on the other side of the yard, so it allowed her a view of just the slant of light falling on the ground from Titir’s room when the lights were on. She used to imagine her reading then. The new occupant who came to inherit the room didn’t read at night like Titir used to. And she didn’t listen to ghazals passed down by her parents. In fact, she didn’t play any music at all.
With the house blessing ritual observed, everything became quiet again. The girls’ faith in goodness was restored and fortified once more. The stories about the one with Thai cut were gradually forgotten. While she had stopped walking the corridors completely, some nights she would still sit up to stare at the fireflies in the town, her mind tracing the lights to draw imaginary constellations.
When it was her time to leave the hill station and move back to her home in the valley, she came to a new kind of awakening. There were no fireflies, but frogs that ribbited all night long through monsoon, competing with the sound of rain. Sometimes there were crickets screeching, interrupted by geckos who said out loud their own names. And by that time, she had come to realise that sleeplessness was going to be her most frequent and loyal companion for the rest of her life.