What the Souls do at Midnight

Drives you crazy, this pest of a Soul!

Sarala Head Mistress falls asleep—and hey—this Other-female, this sly Soul, wakes up.

Out of Mistress’s ageing body—all of forty years—it emerges, stretching vigorously like a hunter waking in his river-side tent, throwing a contemptuous glance on Mistress’s body, five feet long and some forty inches wide. The Body is but an Impermanent Garment. Nearly in tatters after much washing. Here it is—breasts flopping all over the chest, midriff loose and flabby, baggy cheeks on a sallow face. The hollow under the chin has collected quite a bit of fat. Below the eyes, dark patches have spread. Yes sir, this thing’s turning fusty. No point, really, in sending it to the laundry; better get a new one. As far as Soul is concerned Mistress’ body is like a nightgown. Good, no doubt, to put on. The more worn it is, the more comfortable. But worn, still. Can’t wear it to go out—no sir, not at all.

So, as already stated—Other-female materializes. Her nightly jaunts aren’t new. Early on, they used to be around the house. The rice batter in the kitchen —hope the cockroaches weren’t falling into it? Were the rats getting at the potatoes in the plastic basket? Has someone left the bathroom tap open? Those were the kinds of things she fretted about. But one night Mistress’ Soul bumped right into her husband’s Soul. That meeting was a bit of trouble; the latter was in a sort of tricky situation

with the Soul of the woman next door. Mistress’ Soul was really very hurt. The domestic outings ended then. Once night fell, once Mistress fell asleep, Soul would slink out like a cat. Through the bedroom door, footfalls muted, it would enter the passage. The eldest son’s room is just opposite. This gentleman is a third-year graduate student of science. He’s been provided with a computer, bought on a bank loan. The fellow’s forever buried in his browsing. No worries on whether Mother has a soul, and if she has one, what it is up to. Even if he did, what did Soul care? Let him go and check in the bedroom. Mistress’ body lies there still, clad in a brown-coloured nightgown with big yellow sunflower print, face resting on the left arm, mouth somewhat open, fast asleep.

The room next to it belongs to Mistress’ second boy. This gentleman is in school—higher secondary. His breath stinks of tobacco. That’s from smoking a leftover cigarette butt discarded by his father. Perfectly set under his pillow is an open page from a magazine carrying a brassiere- ad. Studying remains the least of his interests. If it were somewhat otherwise, he’d have surely managed a decent pass at least in one or two papers in the Onam exam.

Let that be. Now, as far as Soul is concerned, the tough part is getting past the boys’ rooms. Once that’s achieved, then it’s downstairs, straight away. There are three rooms downstairs. The sitting room, the dining room, and the kitchen. The body of the husband, the once-head constable-now-beefed-up-to-Circle Inspector, would be at rest in the sitting room, legs stretched on the divan, slurping up Fashion TV. The door is discreetly shut. Can’t let the boys’ studies suffer. Husband is an officer who sleeps little. His eyes are ever wide open. An extremely busy Soul. Therefore he never notices Mistress’ Soul step out, nor does he hear the soft tinkling of the wind chime over the doorstep when Soul brushes past it on its way out. In order to sense something, he’d have to know a bit of Feng Shui. But well—policemen? And Feng Shui? Ooh!

That’s Mistress’ great advantage vis-a-vis the Circle [Inspector]. She even knows about Feng Shui! What’s the connection, you may ask, between Head Mistresses and Feng Shui. True, under ordinary circumstances, Head Mistresses need know nothing of Feng Shui. But they can’t escape that knowledge in this New Age. These days we’re being attacked by knowledge pouring in from all over. As a result, Head

Mistress too arrived at Feng Shui, step by step. Thanks to the Head Master of the Boy’s High School, Janardana Kurup. It’s true that the girls’ and boys’ schools are housed in separate buildings. But they have a common canteen. At noon, the mistresses and masters of the two schools congregate in this thatched shed for lunch. They have a separate space to themselves, properly private.

Head Master spoke of world affairs during lunch hour. That’s how Mistress got to know of the Pournami Service Society. That led her to become a pious participant in the mass prayer at the Goddess’ temple nearby on each full moon day. There she would be regularly, dressed in the traditional off-white two-piece sari. Soon, Master mentioned the Baba’s wonderful acts. Naturally, Mistress began to lean in that direction. She put up a big image of the Baba at home and worshipped it. Many things – honey, sacred ashes, milk, ghee – flowed miraculously from the image. Relatives, friends, Master himself, flocked there to witness the miracle. Another time Master talked of the sacred miracles at Vallikkavu. From then on, Mistress attended the devout Unions – the satsangs – along with Master. But The Art of Living became popular around that time. Then, for some days, every evening after school, both of them attended the Art of Living course. They reached home at dusk, smiling at each other, soaked in sweat, after all the prancing and dancing. Sugar and BP levels fell rather quickly. A general sense of well-being shaped up. And before long Master turned eloquent about Chinese astrology, Feng Shui.

‘It’s quite accurate, you know. Can’t help believing. So many people’s experiences ’ one afternoon Master swore to Mistress. That

made Mistress very keen. Laying two mattresses upon the same cot leads to marital disharmony, Master remarked. The very same day, Mistress removed the family cot from the bedroom and replaced it with individual cots with individual mattresses and individual bed covers. She then pushed them close together and perched a little statue of kissing doves at the head of the cots. Whenever it fell noisily to the floor knocked down by Circle in one of his fits of anger, she would always carefully and nervously restore it to its correct position at the head of the cots.

‘There should be no mirrors in the bedroom,’ Master said one day. ‘Not just the mirror, but every other shining object in the bedroom should

be hidden under cloth curtains. Only then will there be happiness . . . energy . . . in the body . . . at daybreak.’

‘What’s the connection between mirror and energy?’ Mistress sounded anxious.

‘You wouldn’t know! All of us have Souls in our bodies. These things step out of our bodies and wander around at night. In truth the dreams we see at night are the doings of the Souls, at night . . .’

Something sharp, almost a streak of lightning, passed through Mistress’ forty-year-old body. For some days, she argued with herself: yes, no. And then compromised: maybe true, who knows? It bothered Mistress no end, like a troublemaker of a student who couldn’t be despatched with a T.C. But soon the helpless conclusion was: oh yes, true, but who’s bothered? The moment she conceded ‘true’ she was lost. Soul proclaimed Freedom. Without a care, she began her nightly excursions.

I’ve already told you, at midnight, Mistress’ Soul would cross her sons’ and husband’s rooms, traverse the front yard, open the gate, and get out into the road. There, in the street-lamp-light, she would don a fluttery moth-body. Bleak dark nights can make anyone feel lonely. Soul fluttered her wings to fight off its weight. Then, soon, her translucent wings would droop and fall off. A worm-body stinking of stale oil would wriggle its way back. At dawn, the street lights blinked dead. Burning bright, even then, would be the pangs of loneliness. When she woke up at the sound of the alarm at 6 sharp, when she made black coffee and poured it into the thermos, sometimes, Mistress would catch a whiff of the scent of stale oil in a glass tumbler. Not recognising it to be her own scent from the past night, she would wash the tumblers with soap, again and again.

And so this went on and on. Once, when Mistress was fluttering about in her moth-guise, she saw another Soul under the street lamp, alone and sorrowful. Like a school kid parted from its companions, it sat, sad, chin resting upon its hand. Mistress’ Soul was pretty sure that no one would recognise her – that made her a bit bold and naughty. The kid ran after the moth. The innocent game was fun, but time flew, and the Soul-moth’s wings would soon fall. Anxious now, Mistress tried to

escape, flying off as fast as she could. The kid tried to grab her, but got just one of her wings. Like Cinderella who ran off without her slipper before the magic-time elapsed at 12, Mistress escaped, flying now, falling now, but reaching home on one wing.

That day, at school, during lunch-hour, Master said, ‘Yesterday I had a strange dream. That Mistress had turned into a moth . . . I tried to grab you and a wing came loose. When I woke up in the morning, there was this wing . . .’

Master opened his purse and placed before her a crystal wing. Some vague memory made Mistress feel nervous and shy. That night, Mistress’ Soul tried hard to pull off the single wing, like Cinderella’s single slipper. Soul didn’t feel brave enough to venture out. The body tossed and turned.

Circle had gone to sleep, content after reiterating in police-language his long-standing views on the infamy that characterised three generations of Mistress’ lineage and the dowry arrears he was yet to receive. In any case the man has more than one Soul. Each had gone its own way. Mistress tried hard to sleep. Soul’s desolate single wing yearned to fly. It stumbled on the memory of the lost wing. Then, hey presto, there wafted in Master’s Soul, a breath of fresh air. Tenderly holding out to her the lost wing. And Mistress’ Soul, it demurred no more.

That was the time of the return-monsoon. The mild wetness of rain lingered on. The clouds practised their Art of Living high above. There unfolded the devout-union of the stars. The pious full moon doggedly pursued piety on sacred sky-paths, rolling around some divine sanctum in intense sayanapradakshinam. Mistress’ and Master’s Souls rose to celestial heights. Now clad in star-bodies that shimmered in the heights. Now in bright comet-bodies that zoomed around sky slopes. Now melting into the sea as ribbons of moonlight. Now reborn as octopuses, writhing out into the open deep. Around them swam nine carp fish, bringers of good luck. The carp were blue. With orange gills. Pink eyes. Sixteen octopus-arms held each other between the swimming fish. Swinging to and fro upon wave-trunks.

It was getting light. The sky grew pale, washed clean and soaked blue by the return-monsoon. The two Souls were still in floating octopus-

bodies; now they woke up. The seawater felt softly warm at dawn. Fishing boats with whirring motors whizzed past. The stink of diesel filled air and water. Mistress’ Soul held Master’s Soul firmly with all eight arms. He tried to shake her loose.

‘Ambujam will be up soon . . . ’ He murmured.

Mistress felt sad. They’d missed flitting about as mating doves.

Hadn’t donned dragon-bodies that spit fire.

‘Ambujam will be up soon . . . ’ Master sounded alarmed.

Circle, too, would be up soon. So will be the boys. Mistress let go. Octopus-bodies tumbled back, dead. The Souls got up from the sea and went home.

According to Feng Shui, no mirrors are to be placed in bedrooms. But Mistress’ bedroom was indeed defective. The mirror-door-ed cupboard was built-in – couldn’t be removed or covered up. Soul was blinded by the light from the mirror as it entered the room. It squirmed at the thought of getting in. Mistress’ ugly and unshapely body lay reflected in the mirror. Wing-less. Gill-less. Leaf-less. Flower-less. Vim-less and vigour-less. A clumsy sack of leather all stuffed with fat. Soul felt like puking. The sky, the sea, the soil, and the deep called to it from memory. It wanted to flee.

And if so? Head Mistress won’t wake up in the morning. She won’t make black coffee and store it in the thermos; she won’t dry-fry flour to make puttu for breakfast. The boys won’t wake up to the sound of the chutney being ground in the mixer. Circle and sons will discover Head Mistress’ body clad in the sunflower-print nightie with its mouth slightly ajar in the bedroom with the mirror-door-ed cupboard. They will weep aloud, recalling her to be good and kind. Safe in the ignorance of the wanton acts of her Soul at midnight, they will pray for her rest. And Master, what will he do? Will he go to the school as if he knew nothing? Will he lead the mourners’ procession to her house, wreath in hand, wearing a black badge? Will he speak in the condolence meeting, voice breaking with emotion? Too many bothersome things. Soul felt bleak. Outside, it became quite bright. Souls, of course, do not travel after daybreak. What else to do? Soul donned Mistress’ body, once again. The body woke up with a kind of depression that it often experienced on

certain mornings, directed itself to the kitchen, entered into black coffee- puttu flour-lunch packets-processing activities.

Circle, who had helped himself to the black coffee, rubbed his tummy and went off for a walk. He returned with a kilo of fish.

Mistress stared into the plastic bag. Inside her, something jerked. Carp, light blue in colour, orange gills. Exactly nine.

‘Oh… aren’t these those fishes?’ Fishes fated to swim in the frying pan tonight. Mistress looked at them, anxious.

‘Which fishes?’ Circle had no clue.

‘In last night’s dream,’ she was about to say. She couldn’t. Other- female wouldn’t let her.

Well, it was OK to say. How many people know the truth about dreams?

“Ardharathrikalil Athmakkal Cheyyunnathu” (Mohamanja.

Kottayam: DC Books, 2004: 21-27), translated by J. Devika.

Forthcoming in a collection by Penguin, India.

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