When did Sanchi begin to suspect that this was not her Saya? Almost at once.
Sanchi had taken Saya to the park. On a bench across the swing set, Sanchi browsed Facebook and kept an eye on Saya.
Sam arrived at six. Eager to taste the strawberry balm on Sanchi’s lips, he drew her close. Sensing that passion may turn to frenzy, Sanchi tugged at his office tie and whispered : at home. Sam practised Yogic breathing in assent and asked, ‘Where’s Saya?’
Sanchi turned to the swing set, but Saya wasn’t there !
Panicked; on her feet, swerving haphazard like a mechanical rodeo bull, Sanchi intoned her daughter’s name as if her chanting would turn on a celestial GPS.
‘Over there, Sanchi. She’s over there.’ She followed Sam’s pointed finger, and there was Saya : on her knees at the west end of the park, scooping out mud with her hands, beside a Ficus hedge.
Sanchi exhaled in relief. Thank God.
With a smug expression, Sam carried Saya in his arms to the Honda.
On the ride back home, Saya was her quiet self in the backseat.
‘Promise me Saya, you won’t wander off like this again.’
Saya’s eyes remained transfixed at the trees zipping past her window.
Satisfied, Sanchi relaxed in her seat and Sam held her hand gently over the gearbox. He smiled and she said to him, ‘I know it’s my fault. Shouldn’t have let her out of my sight.’
‘Easy, sweetheart. You were watching over her. You just took off your eyes for a moment. That’s not your fault.’
I love you Sam.
When they reached home, Sanchi carried Saya in and took her for a bath at once. One can never be too careful, specially with new viruses sprouting everyday.
An unfamiliar sensation was pricking at Sanchi’s heart; unable to fathom the cause of this sensation, Sanchi filled the bathtub with warm water, took off Saya’s clothes, and placed her in the tub. Her skin was oily. Mustard oil.
I don’t remember oiling Saya today, she thought. Did Sam?
Doubtful. Sam’s was the kind of doting father who buys his daughter a new dress every week, and a special edition toy every third day; but he had never changed her diaper, or bathed her, or pulled an all nighter when Saya had her colic fits.
Maybe, it’s just sweat and oily skin.
Sanchi untangled Saya’s hair, asked her to ‘look up’, and poured water with a mug. Dirt trickled down Saya’s shoulders, brown sewer-like muck; and before Sanchi could raise her brows, water trickled down Saya’s hair in the colour of blood.
Sanchi dropped the mug. ‘Did you fall down in the park Saya?’ she asked, her fingers sifting through the hair on Saya’s scalp, looking for a wound. How else could the water turn red?
‘No Mummy. I don’t fall.’
It hit Sanchi at once. That unfamiliar sensation, this was it : Saya always called her ‘Mama’.
‘Why aren’t you saying ‘Mama’ today? I liked you calling me Mama.’
Saya bowed her head, veiled in wet hair, whispered, ‘Mummy Mummy Mummy Mummy Mummy Mummy Mum-‘
‘Stop it Saya! You’re scaring me-‘
‘Saya is scaring you?’ said Sam, leaning now against the open bathroom door. ‘I think it’s humanly impossible to be scared of all this sugary sweetness.’
Saya giggled and Sam let out an Aawww, How sweet.
Sanchi wanted to show Sam the red water and the muck, but the water in the bathtub had drained away : Saya’s toe was on the stopper.
Saya always slept in the same bed as her parents. That night, she fell asleep by eight and when Sanchi slipped in next to her, she turned over and wrapped her arm around Sanchi.
Sam was snoring by ten. Sanchi peered at the blades of the ceiling fan slicing through the darkness of their room. What’s wrong with me? A mother does not doubt her daughter. She is just five…. kids learn new things and do strange things everyday. That’s it. I just need to calm down.
Next morning, Sanchi made Masala Dosa for breakfast. Sam kissed her goodbye at nine and drove to work. Saya emptied out her Legos onto the living room floor and built a pyramid.
Sanchi changed the curtains, dusted the bookshelf, mopped the floor, and kept her distance from Saya. So long as doubt festered in her heart, she could not get herself to hold Saya, or play Guess Who, or pretend to be a Kakamora from Moana.
So that evening, Sanchi decided to bake an apple pie. Saya sat on the dining table with her Samsung Tab.
Sanchi was removing the cores from the apples, when she became aware that Saya wasn’t watching Sesame Street. No, there were adult voices, arguing, not English, not Hindi, some Indian language. Bengali?
Quietly, Sanchi stood by the kitchen door and peeped over to the dining table. Saya : elbows on the table, chin on her palms, a smile on her lips.
‘What are you watching baby?’
‘But you don’t know Bengali?’
Sanchi retreated into the kitchen and focussed on baking the pie. I am paranoid. She is my daughter. She is my daughter. She is….. my daughter?
By the end of the week, Sanchi knew that Saya was not her daughter.
The changes in Saya were not something that a kid could pick up from YouTube.
How could one explain Saya’s newfound appetite for food? Her Saya had always thrown a tantrum no matter what you fed her, but this Saya was gobbling four chappatis at every meal without sweat. Sanchi even caught this Saya bite down a green chilli from the salad plate as if it was a Sour Punk.
Her Saya had always tugged at her clothes and said ‘Mama, susu’, whenever she needed to pee. But for this Saya, peeing was private. This Saya always closed the door shut when she used the toilet. Her Saya would never have closed the toilet door. She would have asked her Mama to stand by, and sing The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round…..
And then, how could one explain Wednesday night, when Sanchi woke up to find Saya missing from bed ?
Barefoot, Sanchi checked the bathroom : empty.
In the living room, light from the kitchen formed an elongated rectangle on the marble floor. Within this rectangle of light, stood the shadow of a woman : frozen, unmoving, like a paused black and white movie. The shadow’s head was leaning to the left and from there fell a snake like braid of hair that slithered on the kitchen floor.
Sam will believe me now, thought Sanchi, but when she turned around, her hand knocked over a ceramic oil burner. Silence was broken; her presence revealed. Out from the kitchen walked Saya and said : Water.
Stepping over the broken shards of ceramic, before she disappeared into their room, Saya paused for a moment, and said, ‘Get back to bed. Mummy.’
Sanchi cleaned up and slept on the couch in the living room.
Sam caught a flight to Bangalore on Saturday. He would be back on Tuesday.
Saya watched an old Bengali movie all morning. She ate four chappatis and two bowls of dal for lunch while Sanchi sat at the other end of the dining table.
‘Not eating, Mummy?’
‘Mama’s not hungry,’ said Sanchi, staring blankly at the yellow wall.
‘Eat, Mummy,’ said Saya, ‘or you may die.’
‘That doesn’t sound too bad,’ said Sanchi, and hurried to the kitchen.
Saya followed, placed her plate on the kitchen sink, and then pulled open the cutlery drawer. Her fingers sifted through the forks and spoons, and came to rest upon the blade of the kitchen knife.
Run run run now Sanchi there is still time run now before it’s too late before you see this Saya become what she really is before you come to face what you are not ready to face before it’s too late…..
Knife in hand, Saya left the kitchen.
Why am I not running I can run now out of the door and drive away somewhere a coffee shop or somewhere anywhere anywhere but no no no no NO
What about her Saya? Was this her body, possessed by something? Or was her Saya dead? No, she thought, her Saya was alive and needed her mother. I just need to figure out what I am dealing with….. What do I know so far? Something happened in the park…. That’s when Saya first called me Mummy. And then the blood in the bathtub…. and Bengali…. yes…. she’s been watching Bengali movies.
Sanchi needed to make a call without being overheard by that Saya. She took the Honda key from Sam’s bedside, pretended to water the plants in the backyard, and when she was sure that she was not being watched, she climbed over the backyard wall. The Honda was parked at the front gate, she ran over and got inside it, trembling.
‘Hello, Sangita? Yeah….. How are you? Good…. Good…. Wonderful…. Listen, I need a little help….. I am writing this story…. just a new hobby…. yeah…. it’s set in Bengal and you are the only Bengali I know…. so it has this ghost, you know, it can shape shift into another person…. maybe possess them…. you know any Bengali myth like that?’
‘God Sanchi ! You seem to be doing some serious writing. Shape shifters? Well, there is something called Daiini, secluded hags that practise black magic. Like a witch. They are said to abduct children and turn them into animals. But they don’t really shape shift. Apart from that you have regular ghosts that haunt and possess people….. the Emily Rose kind. You also have Gechho bhoot, the ones that live on trees. There is also something called…. called Petni. A vicious lot these are. Ghosts of unmarried women with unfulfilled desires.’
‘And how would one chase them away?’
‘No idea dear.’
Thak thak thak…. Saya tapped the window with the kitchen knife. Before Sanchi could central lock the door, Saya opened it and sat down on the seat beside Sanchi.
‘Let’s go, Mummy.’
‘Back to the park, Mummy.’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Mummy, you do love your Saya, right?’
Sanchi said nothing, but backed the car onto the street, and drove.
‘Who are you?’
‘I am this Saya, Mummy.’
‘And my Saya?’
‘You’ll meet her soon enough, Mummy.’
The Honda halted at the park. Saya placed the knife on the dashboard. ‘See. You must trust me, Mummy. Do as I say.’
The swings were busy at work. Kids ran, screamed, cried, and laughed all over the park. Mothers sat on benches, lost in virtual addictions.
Saya led Sanchi by the hand. Fig trees blocked the westering sun. A cat ran past them. And then, they were there : the same Ficus hedge where Sam had spotted Saya last time.
‘This is where you took her away from me,’ said Sanchi.
‘Not here,’ said Saya. ‘Look up.’
Behind the Ficus hedge, stood a small fig tree. Towering over this, was another fig tree.
‘Now close your eyes Mummy and hold out your hand.’
Sanchi could almost feel the presence of her Saya. Like the breeze was a kiss from her. She closed her eyes and held out her hand.
‘Good Mummy. Open your eyes now.’
Sanchi opened her eyes and watched this Sanchi and this Saya walking hand in hand to the Honda.
Mama? You came for me?
There beneath her boughs, blossomed her Saya.
Yes, baby. I did.
Note to Reader – I am working on learning the craft of writing stories. All critical and constructive comments are welcome. Please feel free to point out how this story could have been written more effectively, or what works and what doesn’t work. Thank you for all the support.
Image credit : Elina Sazonova from Pexels.