Short story: “Homecoming”

If it weren’t for the fact that I make a lot of money, I would really hate what I do for a living.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a highwayman who murders unwary travellers. Nor a Wall Street equities dealer who feeds off the financial flesh of innocent individual investors. I would die before becoming a lawyer who defends the mob and gets them off death row. And I shudder at those who ply the oldest trade.

But yet, I earn my keep off the most primal fears of people. Their insecurities. Their psyche. Their very souls.

I’m a detective of the past. A good one at that. I can hold your pulse, hear the way you breathe, look into your eyes and tell you who you were a month ago. A year ago. A lifetime ago. Your deepest, darkest secrets are shining transparent ripples of crystal that I gaze into. And it costs a fortune to have it told. I always tell the truth. Even if it hurts.

They say puberty changes a lot of things. For me, it changed my entire life. I held my Mom’s hand one morning and suddenly knew I wasn’t my Dad’s son. So I asked her. So Dad overheard. So she confessed. So he killed her. So he went to The Chair (lethal injection was not yet in vogue). So I was alone. And have been ever since.

But I had already discovered my power. And how friendless that made me! For anyone I touched bared their selves before me without knowing it. Everyone I wanted to reach out to was taken away by the power, for I could not deal with the darkness inside us all. The first girl I fell in love with was destroyed in my mind by the first kiss, for I could instantly tell that her apparent innocence was guilty of foetal destruction less than a year ago. That left me with little to look forward to – except what I have done ever since. And since you are here, I am telling you – like I tell everyone else – that I have the answer to your lifetime’s queries – but you hear them at your own peril.

So tell me more. About yourself. My agent only collects my fee and makes my appointments. I ask the questions before I solve the riddles. Why are you here? Who told you about me?

Julius Pratt did? Oh, that’s priceless. I remember Julius’ case well. Over 10 years ago, I think it was. He was suffering from dreams that caused him to wet his bed at night, and it bothered his poor boyfriend no end. He was a nervous wreck when he found the trail to my cabin here in Colorado, ten degrees below zero outside and a not-very-imaginary pack of coyotes stalking him. Pretty horrified by that experience, he was – but more so by my reminding him of what he had buried deep down in his childhood… an uncle who used him every night for a year after his aunt died, until drink got the old man. How’s he doing?

He’s happy and married to your sister? Wow! That’s a one-in-a-hundred success. Lemme write that one down. Most people cannot cope with their past, let alone use it to turn their lives around. But I should have known Julius would be a winner. Anyone who is a survivor of a coyote pack ought to be.

But I ramble. Still the unanswered question. Why are you here? In the middle of godforsaken nowhere, all alone, seven in the morning in the middle of winter with a strange man three miles from the nearest motorable track? Must be pretty important to you. I like people who keep appointments. I like you.

You’re trembling. Relax. Tea is on the stove, and once you’re here time will stand still until you leave. How long will it take? How long back do you need to go? Forgetful Miss Agatha Ainsworth just needed to find out where she had kept all her jewels a month earlier, and that took about one minute. Julius went on for a bit more than an hour until we crawled and clawed back into his childhood. Here. The tea is ready. Your turn to sing.

Oh shit. You lost your daughter? And she was just eighteen? And she was sick for sixteen years?

What do you mean “I want to know why it happened to me?” I’m not God. Don’t you go to Church?
Oh, sorry. You’re a Hindoo? Geez. Never had one of those before. I thought they all wore that funny drape thing – yeah, a saree, that’s right – and had those funny red dots on their forehead when they were married. No, really – you mean marriage has nothing to do with that red dot? What did you call it? A bindi? And it’s purely decorative – like lipstick or a tattoo or something? Amazing. One never stops learning.

But we digress again. You want to know why your daughter had to die like that. NO? I thought that was what you said before? Tell me again. Slowly. Try to speak without an accent so that I understand properly. Please. And don’t take offence at me. I’m really trying to help.

I think I have the hang of it now.

You were an overachiever in college, and a fashion model on the side. I’d believe that. You married the man of your dreams. And he was chosen for you by your parents. I don’t get that one at all, but I suppose it’s a Hindoo thing to do.
You emigrated to New York when both of you got prime jobs – husband on Wall Street, yourself at NYU.

Your daughter was the most beautiful thing you’d ever seen, except yourself in the mirror perhaps. At two, midway through the wonderful prattle that she had developed, she suddenly stopped talking. The doctors were puzzled, and couldn’t figure it out. But you tried everything. And she went to a school for special kids and still had a glorious smile and loved you.

And then she stopped walking. After her fifth birthday, she couldn’t even sit up. But she was still the most affectionate and wonderful child on earth. Slowly, her systems began to shut down. And you had to quit your job to be with her all the time because you were never sure what would happen next, and when.

Your husband, on the other hand, became the sole breadwinner in the family and worked late to take care of your financial needs – and her medical costs. Not that any tests, or any form of traditional or alternative therapy, yielded any results. And you resented your husband because he was out all the time. And you were chained to the bedside.

By the time your little girl was fourteen, you wished she were dead. You knew it would happen someday, hoped it would be soon.

But it dragged on for four more years.

Until, thirty-eight days ago, you were free of her. But not of the question, “Why me?”
And you believe in rebirth. And karma. And want me to find the answer in your PAST life?!
Do I look crazy to you? There IS no such thing as past life. We’re born, we live, we die. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Go home.

What do you mean you won’t? Get out of here.

No, of course I won’t throw you out physically. That’s not my style. I’m just asking you to leave politely.

You want me to try this insane stunt? Even if I don’t believe in it? Do you know what the experience is like even for normal stuff? Half my clients run before the first ten minutes. Another third soil their clothes. That’s why it’s money in advance, paid to my agent before he issues the appointment letter.

OK, I accept. You paid for services and braved hell to get here, and this is the goddamned U. S. of A. where the consumer is king and every contract is a bloody decree. But that doesn’t mean you win. You will regret this. Maybe we both will.

I’m going to place my hand on your neck and feel the pulse there. Don’t squirm. It is cold up here, and water is scarce, so I bathe only once a month. And I don’t bother to explain that to most people, okay? You’re still going to have to touch noses with me. And I will look deep into your past through those beautiful grey eyes of yours and speak in a voice that is not mine. You can talk to that voice, ask questions or pass remarks, but if you break skin contact, you break the contract – and that’s the end of it.

You still game? Good girl. Here we go.

* * *

About a hundred years ago, somewhere in a part of India they now call Orissa, there was a tiny hamlet called Rayamati. All the households there consisted only of women. That was the tradition. The girls were all poor. They had only one way of making a living – from the sale of their bodies. Kings and nobles and British army officers and wealthy landowners all came here.

Children used to get sent off to distant relatives, but then some social workers set up an adoption process into the cities. Boys were preferred, both because Orissa families have always been male-dominated and also because the girls could anyway join the trade as soon as they were old enough. But there was one woman, Malancha, who wanted out. If not for herself, then at least for her beautiful daughter, Malini. It broke her heart, but she knew it was the right thing to do. And so Malini became the very first little girl to move from that village to a foster-home. But she could never understand why her mother, whom she loved more than anyone in the world, was sending her away.

She went to a gorgeous house in Calcutta and had warm and loving foster-parents. Her new Father was a Judge, her mother a talented artist. All creature comforts beyond her wildest dreams were hers, and every indulgence she sought was instantly provided. But the hurt never went away. She resented the fact that her birth-mother was not there to look after her.

And when her foster-mother died suddenly of malaria, the Judge married again. The new mother soon had her own child, a big bawling baby boy, and Malini was slowly pushed down to the status of a menial. Her Father was too busy to check on whether she was properly taken care of. And the hurt, in any case, never went away. All her anger was focused on the one person who had ever really loved her. Her real mother.

Still, as in most families of the period, Malini was married off at the age of 16. The Judge saw to it that she had a decent wedding, Stepmom notwithstanding. The man she married was a clerk twelve years older than her, and he lost interest in Malini within a couple of years since she bore him no children. He got himself a second wife, leaving the first to take care of the kitchen. And the hurt never went away. She wished she could make her mother hurt as much. But did not know where to find her.

When the second wife had a son and Malini could stand it no longer, she engineered an accident. They used to cook on kerosene stoves in those days, and it was easy enough to allow one end of her nine-yard long sari to get too close to the stove. What she had not realised is that burning oneself can hurt quite a bit, and the flames and the screams attracted the two-year-old toddler. He was right behind her when she fell over backwards.

Not everyone who has an accident dies. The little boy was scarred for life and a cripple for the sixteen years more that he lived.

But Malini did not pull through, although her husband was scared enough of the Judge’s wrath to see to it she had all the best possible hospital care for the couple of days that her body struggled for survival. But when the mind is dead, the body stands no chance. Her last thought was, “If I had to live my life over again, I will see to it that my mother never leaves my side.”

There is such a thing as karma. And not only do we reap what we sow in deed, sometimes we even reap what we sow in thought. Yet, in life, we must move on.

Goodbye, Malini.

* * *

You still here? What happened? Did I lose it? Or did it make sense?

You mean it? That you are at peace and that I helped you find it? That is the NICEST thing any client has ever said to me. You’re a pretty gracious lady. No, you don’t have to tip me. I don’t touch money. Mark, my agent, manages all that. It’s almost morning; you sure you don’t want to wait until it’s a little brighter? No? Suit yourself. Take care, now.

* * *

Hi Mark. Guess what? I quit.

Yep. You heard me right.

WHY? ‘Cos I’m an in-dee-pen-dent in-di-vi-jual.

What are YOU going to do now? Bugger me if I know. You’re a smart city-slicker type; go find yourself another scam.

What am I going to do now?

First, I will take out all the money you have so carefully banked for me over the years. Have a long shower. Get a shave and a haircut. Buy some nice clothes.

Then I’m buying a one-way plane ticket to India.

There’s a place somewhere there called Rayamati, in the state of Orissa. I lived there a lifetime ago, and I am going back there to mourn my daughter, who died in a kitchen accident.

How come I never told you?

Well, I had kind of forgotten…

Dr Anjan Ray

Dr Anjan Ray is the Director of the CSIR-Indian Institute of Petroleum at Dehradun, Uttarakhand, India, a premier research institute in the oil and gas sector. He was a visiting lecturer at the Xaviers Institute of Communication, Mumbai and a founder-member of the Indian Society of Cosmetic Chemists.