Tsering tells a Story - 2
Which takes us forward, or backwards, since that is where we went with Pema Tsering the first time, to the evening of Keising’s thirty-second birthday, when Pema Tsering began her now famous story.
“This is a story about… men and women, and the spirits that lurk between them — the household spirits that perch on the bedstead watching couples embrace, or steal into the long hair of women to come home with them. For they say, there are as many kinds of spirits as there are people. (That is, if you don’t count the spirits of animals and plants.)
There are the good ones and the non-interfering ones, of course, but these ones are largely ignored in stories. What we like on a winter’s evening like this one is to hear of the malevolent ones, the ones that make trouble — that works best. And today, I have selected for you the most treacherous and terrible of them all — the man-eating khunduwa.
My father who has spent years keeping an eye on these creatures in the creaking of bamboo walls or in the flapping of laundry always said that…
The khunduwas are special in the realm of spirits, because they are the spirits of live women. The spirits that leave their bodies when they sleep, flying out into the night, hunting men.
Any women can be a khunduwa — rich or poor, docile or quarrelsome, the most beautiful or the truly ugly. And they are usually ordinary women — the kind you pass by on the street or buy your vegetables from. To be able to tell a khunduwa by daylight is the most difficult thing in the world. It has the greatest of lamas perplexed. Why, even the most vicious khunduwa, after a night of debauchery, woke up the next morning and remembered not a thing of her night’s adventures.”
She paused to pour him another cup of roxi from the kettle. He was listening to her with the rapt attention of a child.
“And so, while these women slept each night, their bodies soft and warm in the arms of a lover or snoring in exhaustion, their spirits disappeared through the open window or a crack in the wooden floor, soaring through the night air with their fellow khunduwas. When seen from a distance, the khunduwas — to the human eye — resemble sparks of light that glimmer over the horizon. And when a traveller at dusk sees flickering lights in the distance, he must not be too sure of arriving at his destination soon, for they could indeed be the flying khunduwas.”
“Like other spirits, they prefer lonely forest paths and hills. Though these days, they are known to haunt even the roads in the town — the khunduwas having discovered that after nightfall, the otherwise crowded corners or streets are the most desolate places. They especially enjoy the moonlight because they can wear the light and darkness like multiple robes — flaunting one, then the other over their naked bodies.
They usually pick men of youth and vigour. The young man on his way back home, having had a drop too much, weak-fleshed lamas too nervous to remember their chants, old men with new brides half their age, dark-skinned traders from the plains — none are spared. The khunduwas descend on the man with a great shrieking and slurping, clambering over each other to get at their prey.
The body is usually discovered in a water body or a gorge later. Like the one that swept up in the stream the other day, it was of a young man but his skin, they say, was of an unbearable whiteness, as if not a single drop of blood remained in his body.
And so it happened that one night, Keyhung was returning home after visiting a shrine in the mountains... ”
She glanced at him through the corner of her eye. He looked a little startled, as if he had almost heard his own name, Keising — but no, she had said: Keyhung.
“Now Keyhung, the hero of our story, was a learned and devout man, having spent his childhood at a monastery. He was an authority on the holy texts — his word was respected in nine villages. As he made his way home, what should he see but an array of flickering lights humming over a tree in the darkness.”
She reached out for the kettle to refill his cup and studied his face. Keising had been a monk too. He had left the monastery to look after his family land when his father died, but he still retained a respect for learning. She almost smiled — yes, that was a good touch. Holding his cup, he looked up and nodded, urging her on.
“And so Keyhung, unable to withstand his curiosity — yet wisely suspecting the worst — walked towards the tree, taking care to remain in the shadows, chanting the om padma…
“As he approached the tree, he heard voices, laughter. The bright lights now took on the shadowy forms of women. He silently crouched behind the vegetation, close enough to the tree to hear what they were saying. Taking them for forest spirits, he did not dare look at them.
They chattered and laughed — if you could call it laughter, those horrible sounds. Then a shriek of excitement tore through the forest that froze his blood. A hushed silence followed, in which he heard the unmistakable sound of dice rolling on the ground. That was it — a group of spirits gambling, playing at dice. That made him feel somewhat braver. Intoxicated by the fervour of their game, they would be less attentive to human presence. (And anybody who has watched a game of cards in progress, by humans or others, will tell you that.)
So Keyhung shut his eyes and called forth every bit of his enormous learning and power, sitting bowed in meditation. Then quick as lightning he sprang out of the night and grabbed the pair of dice that lay on the ground — and fled.
The khunduwas had no idea a man lurked around them (gambling had indeed dulled their otherwise extraordinary perception) and for a while they stared at one another stupefied. But when they realised he had made off with the dice, they broke into a long, mournful wail that echoed through the hills, hushing the dogs and striking fear into the heart of every man alive. Then, tearing at their hair and shrieking in anguish, they went for Keyhung.
The wail that reached Keyhung almost paralysed his limbs. And though his strides felled gorges and forests and fields, he could feel their long hair brushing against his cheeks and the scent of woman in his nostrils. They were gaining on him.
Keyhung ran as one who flees the very goddess of death, and finally arrived at his home. And once inside, he hurriedly set about bolting and latching the door. But he had hardly caught his breath when they arrived. The whole house shuddered as they crowded around it — whistling in their shrill voices through the cracks and scratching at the windows with their sharp nails.
The voices pleaded with him to return their dice. Threatening and cajoling in turn, they offered him untold riches and power, the most sensual women and prodigious strength. And they persisted in their mournful wailing.
All this while, his beautiful new wife lay in bed, fast asleep.
The blanket had slipped off to reveal the skin of her neck and arms and watching her soft body rising and sinking in rhythm, a great wave of tenderness surged through his being.
But wait — first he must teach these devious khunduwas a lesson.
He put a long iron rod in the fire, heating it till it was red-hot. Then he put his mouth to the door and whispered to the khunduwas’ leader that yes, he was willing to let them have their dice back. She immediately put forward her hand and thinking he held out the dice, grabbed the hot iron rod instead. A howl of pain escaped her and finally, having met their match, they fled, leaving Keyhung alone.
Putting away the dice in a box, he turned to the sleeping body of his wife. Having escaped a fate worse than death, he feared nothing in the world now. And lying down beside her, he took her with the passion of one who has lived again.”
Pema sighed, stopped for just a moment and continued.
“The next morning however, a most inexplicable thing happened. Keyhung woke up to hear his wife complaining of a deep burn mark on her hand that puzzled everyone — as if she had held a hot iron rod.
People were even more surprised to see that in the space of a second after he heard this, Keyhung’s whole head of hair went completely grey.”
She had finished.
It was time for him to leave. She began to put away the cups. He got up, stumbled to the gate. She could already read the roxi in his steps. But what she looked for was the other — the fear in his eyes.
He stood at the threshold for a while, as if floundering, unsure of what to do next. Then he retraced his steps and made a feeble attempt to hold her hand. She looked up at his face — it was pale, almost contorted with fear.
But Pema had not finished her story. In her mind, her story had begun from the end — an end that he would play out now. She slipped her hand out of his grasp like a shy maiden, but her eyes were hard and shone for the first time in a long while.
And now, she wanted him to go back to his new home, walking out into the thick fog, through the bamboo grove, to the lily-white creature, deep in sleep, her fingers clenched — exactly as she had described it.
Back to the home he had left her to create but to a marital bed her words had poisoned, laced with fear of the blind world of sleep. His lover’s lips anointed, painted with her aconite words.
p. 1 p. 2
Parismita Singh is a Sarai Independent Fellow and is working on a comic book. She lives in Delhi and Assam.
This is her first published story (2004)