Mansi gasped in pain as it shot through her stomach. Oh no! She thought “my baby”. Her mother was right, she shouldn’t have insisted on coming for the wedding. Where were they going to find a doctor in this god forsaken home town of her mother-in-law? As the old rattling taxi droned into the highway of the hospital, Mansi felt a chill run down her spine. This dark black monstrous building surrounded by dark pathways cannot be a hospital. It looked like a house on horror street. Maybe they were at the wrong place, and what were those stone steps with ancient statues doing in a hospital. This did not seem the place her mother-in-law suggested they bring her to. Not a soul in sight; there had not even a watchman at the iron gate, she thought as they just turned into the pathway. The taxi driver kept looking nervously over his shoulder as he drove into the large winding road. White curtains fluttered in the breeze as the nurse rushed out to receive her. ‘How silly of me’ thought Mansi as they lay her on the stretcher and took her in.
Mansi looked around at the empty beds and smiled at the sleeping woman on the bed next to her. She did not like the place at all; it was so dreary and dusty, trying to sleep but the white curtains, kept waving above her head as if trying to tell her something. The dark shadows of the trees fell on her pillow as if reaching out to grab her as the cold wind touched her face gently caressing her. She closed her eyes hoping that they would leave her alone.
Mansi groaned and turned over trying to sleep. A small smile flitted across her face, as the little one turned in her stomach. They had already decided his name, “Akaash”. Her husband wanted a son. Girls were cursed in their family, he had said. " Daughters never survived", his mother had said; not that she believed in old family tales. Her eyes drooped and as she turned to look down the hallway, she saw it was empty. Where was the matron, and shouldn’t someone be sitting on the desk and watching over them. But then there were only few of them in the almost empty rows of beds. Maybe she was in some other ward, tending to others. The next morning she spent her time counting the nearly empty iron beds around her and talking to Raashi lying on the bed next to her. She tossed and turned trying to sleep and as she propped herself up, Shantabai stared at her with hatred as she wheeled off Raashi, groaning in pain.
Soon the shadows on her bed turned golden as the warm breeze caressed her awake. There on the bed next to her lay Raashi cuddling her baby boy. They spent the whole day talking and laughing as the little boy waving his fisted hands as if to reach for the stars. Morning came and Mansi opened her eyes heavy like lead her head spinning and painful. The beds were empty and there was no one left but her in the maternity ward. Where was Raashi after all she had delivered her baby just yesterday? Oh! Raashi? The doctor said “She has gone home. She was upset as she lost her baby in the night. The nurses say last night suddenly the baby turned blue”. No that cannot be, she argued, that was not possible, everything was fine and who sends a woman home next day after delivery. Something is not right, I know. ‘Take me home’, she begged of her husband as she stared at her mother-in- law hiding in the shadows.
That evening, as Mansi lay in bed cuddling her new born son, Shantabai came close to her and whispered “This place is haunted and neither you nor your son will survive”. Oh boy! thought Mansi, she is actually talking to me. She stifled a pretended scared giggle and called her closer begging for more.
“Tarita, was only twenty,” said Shantabai, “Born into a house where girl child is a curse on the society and where girls are told that they are inferior and a burden. Tarita saw her mother slave over the stove day in and day out. Her father was an educated man but when it came to traditions, he could not see beyond the hair of his moustache. Then one day the television came into the house and Tarita cuddled up with her mother each afternoon as the moving pictures slowly unfurled the modern woman. Each night she would revolt against her father in her sleep and dream the impossible dream. Then one day she was married off much against her wishes. Her heart revolted, her soul revolted, her mind would not let her accept her dependency on her husband, but she could do nothing. Each night she lay on her bed, wishing she could run away but next morning things were just the same. Soon she was pregnant and her mother-in-law insisted she find out whether it was a girl or a boy. Better kill a female fetus, she said, rather than give birth to an unwanted child. If a daughter is killed, the next child will be a son, she explained to the flabbergasted Tarita.
A screaming Tarita was dragged here, to this very room. Her mother-in-law pressed a few hundred notes in the hand of the doctor as they wheeled her into the room. "She begged me to help her but I couldn’t do anything but wipe the sweat from her brow", said Shantabai. She cried and begged them not to touch her little unborn girl, but they would not listen. Tarita screamed that she would not let them get away; she would take revenge on all those laughing at her as she slowly slipped into unconsciousness and a few days later heartbroken into an unwanted death. I watched it all happen, but I could do nothing but watch them take her away covered in a blanket of white,” continued Shantabai, “I could not sleep or rest for days after that incident and then one day I peeped into her home. They seemed to be happy she was gone. The neighbours told me they were looking for a new bride for their son.
Soon footsteps could be heard walking down the corridors of the hospital at night. Some say they saw the shadow of a young woman smiling and some times she turned horrendously ugly. The birth of a boy meant sure death in the hospital. Many a times, I have seen Tarita walking the corridors,’ said Shantabai. “No one comes here anymore. Why did you come, did your mother-in-law not warn you? “
Mansi stifled a giggle as she looked at Shantabai in surprise. “You know my mother-in-law? Rubbish, I don’t believe this. There are no such things as ghosts.” Her expression slowly turning into fear as the old woman’s face suddenly seemed possessed by a demon, eyes glazed and unflinching. Shantabai stood over her clutching the corner of her sari twirling it nervously. Mansi panicked but no one was there and she reached for the bell as Shantabai yanked it out of her hand and pushed her down hard onto the pillow raving and ranting “I knew Tarita would return, she had promised revenge. She would come to avenge her girl’s death,’ she screamed, “She would avenge the death of my girls too”.
Mansi eyes rolled in horror as she cried out “Your girls?” “Yes, yes” the old woman shouted “they killed them in my womb even before they were born, two of them, one after the other, like I was just a child bearing machine. The third time, I ran away to my village. They could not kill her in my womb so they came when she was born and dragged us to the fields in the darkness of the village night and strangled her, beat me up and threw us into the well and left me to die. I died a thousand deaths waiting for them to come back to finish me off. The well was not new to me but they did not know that. I had played hide and seek in that well as a kid. I dragged myself out and I dug my daughter’s grave with my own hands and buried her there all by myself. I hid in the jungle the whole day with nowhere to go so I returned home and begged for another chance but shocked to see me alive they beat me over and over again and threw me out of the house. Do you know what they did after that? They brought him a new wife. I waited and watched praying hard for her to have the same fate, but she delivered a son. A son, yes, a son, and did I try to get to him. Many a times, but he escaped me. They feared for him so they sent him away far over the seven seas out of my reach. Do you know who that woman was who took my place? Your mother-in-law, Yes yes!! She saved your husband from me, but look she sent you here to die instead and so you will” she gasped, “You will die and so will your son, just as did Raashi’s son and all the other boys born here”. No, no, Mansi screamed, “Don’t do this, let me go”. Mansi’s body thrashed about as Shantabai laughed and soon the pillow muffled her screams forever.