(To be told on a dark night in a bossy old lady voice)
Long ago when I was newly married and living in a tin-roofed house with my husband’s family, the time came time for my sister-in-law to give birth. The old midwife delivered her right there the cow dung smeared floor. It was a rainy night and the monsoon wind was wailing through the kunguli trees. The power was off, so the midwife worked by the light of a kerosene lantern. My mother-in-law had lit the kitchen fire, filling the house with a damp smoke that smelled of eucy bark and pine.
The delivery went well and I got to hold the baby, so tiny and perfect in his little towel. When his chin began to quiver, I handed him to my sister-in-law to breast feed. She pushed him away.
“What’s wrong, Akka?” I said. “Your baby needs you.”
“Vendaa,” she said, and turned her back.
“Come, pa.” Her husband’s voice was gentle. “Look how beautiful he is. Just like his mother.”
In spite of our combined efforts, she continued to refuse her child. My sister-in-law had never been like this before. She had always loved babies and had been a super mother to her three-year-old daughter.
The baby’s crying drove my father-in-law into a fit. He ordered his two sons to go to town for milk powder and a bottle. On their return, my mother-in-law fed the poor thing.
“I’m sure your Amma will be fine by morning,” she said. After wrapping the little fellow snugly, he fell asleep.
The next day, my sister-in-law still refused to talk or eat or hold her baby. She wouldn’t move from her sleeping mat.
“What kind of useless female are you?” my father-in-law said. He slapped her hard, but she showed no emotion.
“Leave her,” my uncle said. “A ghost must have entered her. I’ll go call the mandravathi. He’ll know how to cure her.”
That afternoon, the mandravathi arrived and chanted magical mantras. He circled burning camphor around my sister-in-law’s head and sprinkled her with holy ash. For the first time in two days, she sat up.
“Who are you?” the mandravathi asked. “And why did you possess this woman?”
She stared at him aggressively.
“I am Otcha Rowdy,” she replied in a rough man’s voice. “I saw her walking in the pear orchard one day and she pleased me.”
A chill crept up my neck. I had heard about this Otcha Rowdy. About a year ago when drunk, he had fallen from a tree and died. I moved closer to my husband.
“She has a new baby to care for,” the mandravathi said. “You must come out and leave her alone.”
“You must leave me alone!” My sister-in-law roared and attacked the mandravathi. She struck him several times on the chest and back. The mandiravathi grabbed her braid and flung her across the room.
“You listen to me!” he said, shaking his fist. “Come out of her at once!”
“We’ll see,” the ghost said. “I might consider leaving if you all talk politely to me. And give me exactly what I want.”
My sister-in-law walked around the room and began to clap like the transvestites do when they demand money from the shopkeepers.
CLAP! “Give me a new veshti.”’ CLAP! “And a thundu (shawl)” CLAP! “And T.A.S. snuff.” CLAP! “And s bottle of Coca Cola.”
“Akka, stop doing this,” I said. “You’re scaring me.”
She marched right over to me. “Who are you, little girl? Go on! Get me those things immediately.” She plunked onto my father-in-law’s teak chair, leaned back, and put her feet up on a stool. Her eyes sparkled like broken glass.
My father-in-law, uncle, and husband went to town and returned with all the items the ghost had demanded. She grabbed the bottle and pinged the cap off with her finger. The bottle cap shot up and hit the roof. Glug, glug, she poured the fizzing drink down her throat. My sister-in-law had always hated soda.
“Alright, alright,” the mandravathi said. “We’ve given you everything you want. Now you must come out.”
“Not until you play drums for me. And dance.”
Our husbands looked at each other.
“Go on! Dance! Just like Rajni Kanth Super Star.”
The brother-in-laws began to beat cooking pots and wiggle their hips.
She turned to father-in-law. “You too, old man!”
“Then I won’t come out. You choose.” She sucked in a big pinch of snuff and wrapped the thundu around her neck.
The mandravathi finally convinced my father-in-law to cooperate. For two days, the men had to perform like dancing apes. On the third morning, my sister-in-law wrapped the white veshti around her sari like a man, and left the house. She hoisted our enormous washing stone onto her head and hurried down the hill. It had taken three men to move that stone to our house.
The whole lot of us followed her about two kilometers down the ghat road. She dropped the washing stone near the huge tree by the white people’s cemetery. The ground shook.
As she stood there panting, the mandravathi approached her. She screamed, convulsed, and fainted. He removed the veshti and thundu, placed them on the rock together with the snuff and coke bottle. After dousing the pile with kerosene, he struck a matched and lit it.
My eyes went wide when he approached my sister-in-law with a small knife.
“What are you doing?”
He cut a tuft of hair from the top of her scalp and nailed it to the large tree.
Several minutes later, my sister-in-law began to moan. I went to her and helped her sit up. She looked around at us with confused eyes, then frowned and rubbed her messy hair.
“My head hurts.” She was speaking in her normal voice now. “Why are we here by this cemetery? And my baby, where’s my baby?”
My mother-in-law handed her the infant. She touched his cheek shyly .
“Adah dah, little lion cub. Amma’s here.”
And that was the last we heard from the ghost of Otcha Rowdy.
Nambinaa nambu, nambaati po. Avalavu thaan. If you believe me, then do. If not, then don’t. Get moving, now. I’m done.
(Story told to us by Packiamma)