Ria sat for a while lost in her thoughts. Then she cried herself to sleep.
She was woken by the doorbell. She looked at her wrist watch and smiled. It was time to see the expression on her parents’ face. She ran and opened the door. Her mother screamed like a little girl when she saw Ria and hugged her. Her father lifted her up like she was a little girl, kissed her on her cheeks. “Where is Mishti?”, he asked. Ria told him that she was in Naisha’s house and her father ran over to get her back. Ria’s mother could not stop hugging and kissing her daughter. Her father carried sleepy little Mishti and her mother ran to her and kissed her. Mishti woke up thoroughly confused. She wanted to go back to sleep but these people were stifling her. She was about to cry when she recognized them. She grew shy and wriggled herself free from their arms and hid behind Ria.
“When did you come here?”, her mother asked her while Ria made three steaming cups of coffee for herself and her parents. “I came here the day before yesterday”, she said grinning.
“Then why didn’t you tell us?”, her mother asked stroking a lock of stray hair from her forehead. “And what? Miss this look on your face?”, she asked handing her mother a cup. Her mother kissed her.
Mishti was overcoming her shyness and was playing with her grandfather. Ria gave her father a cup of coffee and sat beside him. He put his arm around her and kissed her forehead. “So, how come you decided to come all of a sudden?”, he asked.
“Well, Mishtu fell sick and the doctor said she needs a change of air. So I thought I’d bring her earlier than intended.”, she said sipping her coffee.
“He’s gone to Singapore on official duty. He’ll join us soon.”
“Naughty as ever”, her father said squeezing her tight.
“Umm.. Did you ..umm.. know about Sanjay?”
Her father’s face became hard as stone. “Yes”, he replied. “Why didn’t you tell me?”, she asked.
“I don’t know. I thought it would be best for you to find out on your own. Or maybe I didn’t want you to find out at all. I didn’t know how you would react. I didn’t want you to… I don’t know Ria I don’t know”, he said growing restless.
“Dad”, she said.
“What?”, he asked.
“Nothing”, she said. She heard her mother coming and turned on the TV.
“Ria, come here”, her mother beckoned to her. Ria got up and went with her mother while grand-daughter and grandpa watched cartoons.
“Look what your aunt gave me”, her mother showcased the heavy silk saree that she received for the wedding.
“Oh mom this is beautiful”, said Ria feeling the heavy fabric with her hands.
“You like it?”, she asked.
“Yeah I love it”, she said.
“Here’s one for you too”, her mother said giving her another unopened packet. “Well, you can take which ever you like of course”, said her mother.
Ria looked at both, felt the fabric and its weight like her mother had taught her. “Well they are both beautiful. You take which ever you liked mom”, she said.
“No no, its your choice baby”, said her mother.
“Ok I’ll ask daddy what he thinks”, she said. She got up to leave the room when her mother pulled her back.
“I want to talk to you about something”, her mother said. “What is it ma?”, asked Ria. “Your old friend Sanjay.” “Yeah I know mom. My friends told me. But why didn’t you?” “Oh Ria, such horrible things have been happening here. We didn’t want you to come over at all. We thought it was best if you were away”, said her mother.
“Why what happened?”, asked Ria frowning.
“I don’t know how to describe it Ria”, her mother said wringing her hands together. Her forehead had beads of perspiration.
“Come on ma, you can tell me”, she said.
“Well, people used to take that the road near maid Annamma’s house… they heard weird noises especially in the afternoons. I didn’t believe them at first. Annamma used to come and tell me every day. She even considered shifting her house from that street. Then the grove, I heard stories about the grove as well, but I was not sure what to believe and what not to believe but Ria, things started happening here as well.”
“What things ma? Can you tell me more clearly?”, asked Ria holding her mother’s sweaty hands.
“I heard bicycle bells Ria. I always dismissed it thinking it must be some kid outside. Then I heard someone by your room window. I heard someone persistently ringing the bicycle bell. Every time I go to check, there is no one. Your father never admits it, but Ria it freaks me out. And once, when I was sleeping at night, I felt someone standing by my bedside. I opened my eyes and saw a tall thin boy. I thought I was dreaming. He then called out your name and disappeared.”
Ria’s hair stood on its end.
“Things are not the same anymore Ria. I am scared”, her mother said beginning to cry. Ria debated if she should tell her mother about her experiences, but she knew it would only freak her out even more. So she kept it to herself.
“Ria you must go back immediately”, her mother said. “But ma, Mishti needs to be here. She is not well. Besides I want a break too. I want to be with you. I am not going to let some old wives’ tales scare me out of here”, she said trying to sound brave though she was crumbling from within.
“Oh Ria Ria”, her mother said.
“Don’t worry ma”, she said patting her mother’s hand. She turned to leave the room with the sarees in her hand when her mother caught hold of her hand. She turned around and her mother smiled at her.
“What is it ma?”, she asked.
“Come”, said her mother.
“Come where ma?”, she asked.
“Ria come”, her mother repeated. Her face had visibly changed, though it was still her mother’s face there was something different, like there was the silhouette of another face within her mother’s face.
“Ria come”, she repeated and laughed a deep unnatural laugh. Ria wrenched her hand free and stood glued to the floor. Her mother looked at her in a very disturbing manner. Ria screamed out to her father, but her voice never left her throat. Her mother came and caught hold of her neck and tried to strangle her. Ria tore free and ran out of the room. Her father and her daughter were not in the hall. She turned to see if her mother was following her. But her mother was standing looking stupefied. Ria went out of the front door to get some air. Had that just happened?
She saw her father and his precious granddaughter a little distance away. Mishti was trying to look for Jiminy cricket amongst the flower beds. She walked quickly towards them turning back all the time to see if her mother was following her.
“Papa”, she said gasping for breath.
“Oh this little girl here thinks I am a bad boy and need Jiminy cricket to set me right, she’s looking out for him”, said her father laughing merrily.
“Papa, I think you ought to check on mummy. She is not well”, said Ria.
“What? What happened?”, her father asked.
“Uh I don’t know, she is acting weird”, she said.
Her father ran into the house. Her mother was unpacking her suitcase. “Are you alright?”, he asked.
“Yes why?”, asked her mother.
“Ria came to me saying you were not keeping well”, he said.
“Me? No why”, she replied innocently.
Ria was standing behind her father.
“Ria, what happened?”, her mother asked.
“Uh .. well.. you said you… well.. I don’t know ma, you were all sweaty”, she said. She was not sure if her mother was aware of what happened.
“It’s summer, I am working, I am obviously sweaty”, her mother said sounding casual. Ria made sure Mishti was nowhere nearby. She stood behind her father and said, “Ma, you were acting weird.”
“What do you mean weird?”
“Err… you… your face changed and you were asking me to come with you.”
Her father looked at her puzzled. And so did her mother. Ria thought it was best to leave it at this.
“I .. never mind. I thought you were not ok”, she said managing to smile. Her mother smiled back at her still puzzled.
“Say, which saree do you think will suit our Ria?”, she asked her father. She was behaving like nothing had ever happened.