Reading is fabulous. The imagery it creates in little kids can be fantastical. Reading also brings alive the past – the lived and the long forgotten past.
Reading “The witches”, by Roald Dahl, with my nine year old (my second born) this summer, took me back in time.
The year was 2005. The month was May and the story that follows is a witchy one.. the only witchy encounter I ever had!
I had just moved to Bangalore.
My husband had leased a cosy apartment for us, which was home for the next 3 years. The apartment had a fresh paint smell, polished marble floors, neatly finished teak wood fixtures, a warm little dinning room with a beautiful sit out – a balcony.
A huge mango tree fenced around the balcony of this first floor apartment. The mango tree was an absolute beauty. Its strong branches and leaves rustled in the breeze. It gracefully dropped a large part of its branches into the cosy sit out.
The enormous tree cut the sunlight and made the apartment quite dark on cloudy days. Bangalore can be cloudy for a large part of the year.
The three storeyed building belonged to a renowned family of central Bangalore, who converted their large family bungalows into apartments. This description of the flat by my husband has remained with me. He has been a lover of homes ever since I’ve known him.
This particular one was finalised after a wide search of homes to arrive at a stylish yet affordable space, in the centre of Bangalore, a city which was gaining momentum in more ways than one.
The landlady, Ms. Seher, lived in an apartment across ours on the same floor. “We’ve spent so much to meet your requirements”, was the first thing she told me when I met her, even before the hello!
“Your husband was so particular about renting a new place..we spent over a lakh to paint, polish and clean it..”, she went on…. my attention not on what she spoke but on how she spoke, and even more, on the way she looked – cold and pale, with light glassy eyes. I could almost see through the iris and pupil, into the depth of her eyes.
Her skin was wrinkled in severe detail. It had a translucent look to it. Her eyebrows were arty, thin and precisely drawn out with a brow pencil.
She had large bony hands with pointed nails, painted a bright red, filed to maintain a sharp tip. She tapped her hands on my shoulders as she spoke. My attention swayed with her fingers fearing I might get poked!
I was also worried she might hurt my kid (my first born, age 3 years) in an attempt to pull her cheeks.. as some adults do, to show their affection.
She noticed how distracted I looked when she spoke. “You look stressed dear.. don’t you like the new home.. we have spent so much on it to renovate it.. hope you don’t move out too quickly like the previous tenants after messing up the walls and bathrooms.. don’t you like Bangalore?”, she asked.
While in fact my wonder had less to do with my settlement and more to do with the peculiar appearance and queer mannerisms of the landlady.
Our first meeting ended with,”I can smell kids”. That statement was enough to scare any kid. “.. I can see you have a very quiet and shy little one..hello there”. And my three year old curled into my legs. She was anyways always between them ever since she was born!
The “smelling kids” story continued, “I worked as a school teacher for over 35 years and retired a few years back..”, Ms. Seher proudly shared.
“Oh, how lovely”, I smiled! (Gosh.. the poor school kids, how scared they must be of you I thought!)
“Lovely, it was..”, she continued,”when Bangalore was quiet and we walked or cycled to school. The city had fresh air, children were respectful, scared of teachers and obedient.
Now the city is noisy and crowded.. it’s hard to walk around with so much traffic and pollution.. Richmond town isn’t how it was.. the children are spoilt brats with no values and parents are too busy to teach them any. Bangalore is getting warmer, we barely had homes with fans.. now we need fans all summer.”
“Fans is great”, I said, “considering the rest of our country is scorching away in May”.
“I’m happy to be home and retired.. but Sheela still has a few years of service left.”
(Now whose Sheela?? I thought. Not another strange and scary neighbour, I hope!)
“Sheela is my friend and flatmate.. we’ve been friends for years and worked in the same school.. you’ll see her in the evening sometimes”, she elaborated even before I asked, almost reading my mind or expressions maybe.
We made a couple of trips to the home to settle our stuff, before moving in, but never met Ms.Seher or her friend Sheela.
On one such luggage dumping trip I bumped into a frail old lady. ” Hello are you Sheela? Seher’s friend ? we are your new neighbours”, I greeted her enthusiastically. The lady looked at me and said, “I know, I am Seher’s sister, I live on the ground floor and don’t ever call me Sheela again!”. She mumbled something in her mind and mouth and walked away. Not sure if I meant to have heard it or not.
That night I shared that meeting with my husband and he said Sheela was just a bit loud and slightly rude, so she must be unpopular with Ms.Seher’s family. And how did it matter to us, he said. It didn’t matter at all. It just got me more curious about Ms.Seher, Sheela and our intriguing new neighbourhood!
Meanwhile, my kid-with-a-mind, told us that if any of the scary aunties asked about her, we should tell them that she is asleep!
Interestingly, the ladies avoided us, lest we ask for some more repairs or polishing. They were far from the prying neighbours we thought they would be.They were rather inconspicuous – unseen and unheard. The silence on our floor was uncanny.
In fact Ms.Seher did not even recognise me on one occasion. This was soon after we had moved into her apartment. “I’m having trouble with a tap.. could I have the plumber’s number please”, I requested one day. She opened the door just enough so I could see her glassy eyes… shimmering in the dark home, with no lights switched on.
She stared at me for a few seconds, like she didn’t know who I was and just when I was about to get lost into the depth of her iris and pupil, she replied curtly, “The Wimbledon is about to begin dear, please.. I don’t like any disturbance during the match”, and she shut the door.
There is always a first time for things.That really was the first time someone had shut a door on my face!
We met Sheela next. And how!
I opened the door of the flat one evening to step out and screamed with shock. I saw this large lady with black kohled eyes, standing outside the door. “Hello, why are you so scared? I was just seeing this blue charm hanging at your door, it caught my attention. We haven’t met, I’m Sheela”. Godd.. I almost fainted with the shock of the situation.. someone standing like that at my doorstep.
“Hello”, was all I said.
“Where did you get this, its quite attractive!”, she asked.
“My mother sent it. Its the Turkish evil eye”, I replied.
“Do you believe in nazar (the evil eye) and all that? I didn’t think young people like you would”, she laughed.
“Never really thought about it..”, I smiled.
“We just decorated it for its beauty.. but I’m sure someone must have believed in the evil to have invented it!”, I laughed with her.
Sheela reminded me of the Patriarch in traditional families- the head of the unit, curt and firm, authoritative, who went to work and whose word was final!
I also unscrambled why Seher’s sisters didn’t approve of Sheela and were rather unhappy about their sister’s happy connection with her!
On day four came in Shanu, a very enthusiastic domestic help. She rattled away the names of all the north Indian food she could cook at a self-initiated interview.
“Aap dilli se aaye ho(are you from delhi)..”, she asked.”Hyderabad se”, I said, to avoid getting too pally!
“Mujhe rajma chawal, dal makhani, palak paneer sab banana aata hai “, she insisted on pleasing the north Indian she assessed I was.
Wary of her enthusiasm, I still decided to give her the job of the house maid, thinking about the boxes left to unpack and a home to set up.
Shanu was caught pinching stuff in the house one day and I gently asked her to leave. Little did I know who else I was upsetting besides Shanu.
“Why did you turn her out?”, bang-bang came in Sheela… shouting and furious that evening. “Well, I caught her stealing.. so didn’t have much of a choice there”, I said.
“But she did all our work too.. and now she won’t come to our place either! We find it very hard to find maids.. Seher doesn’t like too many of them and now see how tough you’ve made it for us, by turning her out!”, she ranted rudely.
“You can keep her for as long as like.. or until you find her stealing something”, I said sarcastically. “Whats the big deal..they are all thieves.. you keep an eye on her.. atleast she cooked and cleaned well.. how are we going to manage now?”, fumed Sheela.
“I have to go to school..and Seher is so ..so.. forget it.. you won’t understand.. send me the next lady you hire. No one comes to our place otherwise”, she fumed and walked away.
“I wonder why” I thought aloud.. “because they are so scary”, affirmed my kid-with-a-mind!
We enjoyed settling in the quaint building. We occasionally bumped into Sheela but barely ever saw Ms. Seher.
One stormy evening, around 5.30pm, it was pouring fiercely.. so we couldn’t step out of the house for our usual park outing. Enjoying the rain and my tea in the balcony, my daughter and I spotted a beautiful white Owl on the Mango tree. It perched firmly on one big branch of the tree, so close to where we sat. Wow and wow again, we were fascinated by the beautiful visitor.
That was the first time I had seen a white owl and we excitedly clicked pictures of it and watched it for the next hour. The owl wouldn’t fly till it was dark and we didn’t want to miss any moment of this rare sighting.
The rain got fiercer in the next hour and as soon as it turned dark… the beautiful white visitor flew away.
After a few days we bumped into Sheela locking the door of her flat, looking very sad and lacking her usual dominant energy. She wore no kajal and her eyes were swollen, like she had cried. “Hi Sheela.. how are you and hows Ms.Seher.. we barely ever see her.”
Seher left last week. “Left for?”, I asked hastily. “Seher is no more, she passed away.. my dear friend and partner for life, my only support and family… “, she spoke very sadly and teary eyed.
Astonished at what she said, “but.. but..we were here all the time.. when did she pass away.. and how come we didn’t hear from anyone else about it.. in the building I mean.. or hear any sound.. “, I asked ghastly!
“Last week.. that evening when it was raining heavily.. she breathed her last around 6pm”, she shared sadly and stepped down the stairs without talking anymore. “She was very particular about her privacy.. and her secrets”, she muttered as she walked down.
“Now you are my only company and support.. I will see you when I return after my prayers”, she said with her back to us.
My kid ran into the house first and I followed her and locked the door tight!”
“Mumma I don’t want you to be aunty’s friend.. okay?”, insisted my three year old.
“In fairytales, witches wear black hats and fly on broomsticks…
Real witches dress in ordinary clothes and look very much like ordinary women. They live in ordinary houses and they work in ordinary jobs” – Roald Dahl
“And they vanish..
just like that..
Without a whimper or sound on fiercely stormy and rainy evenings.. while we sipped our tea and watched the mango tree“, is what we believed.
— Rohini Sethi
Child Development Consultant