The hug

Berjis Desai

What Hirabai saw on the Tavdi bridge, she never could recollect. However, when she reached home at around 9.30 p.m, her daughters rushed to hug her. She pushed them aside with brutal force and stomped into the house. "Mumma!" exclaimed Kola, the eldest; mid-sentence, she was flung to the ground by Hirabai who had a strange smile on her transformed face — nostrils flaring, saliva dripping from the half open mouth, eyes bloodshot. She let off a string of profanities in a gruff, guttural voice and began to speak in Hindi. She kicked her sleeping husband in the ribs; he was too drunk to even feel the pain. One of the daughters trying to rush out to seek help was picked up and tossed aside. The commotion was not audible to most residents of Seervai Vad, already in deep slumber, except Goolbai whose house was diagonally across Hirabai’s.

Like her husband, Hirabai too has started drinking, thought Goolbai. She lifted her heavy frame from the four-poster bed, carefully parted the macchhardaani (mosquito net) and wore her sapaats (flat chappals). Her twin children, Keki and Khorshed, were reciting by rote "12 fours are 48" for their terminal exam the next morning. Goolbai opened her door and shouted "Kola! Why is your mother screaming?"

"She has gone mad!" exclaimed Kola. Her two sisters were adding to the chaos. Two dogs came running, went near Hirabai, made whimpering sounds and fled. Goolbai unlocked her door and stood on her otla (patio). She took one look at Hirabai and scampered back into her house.

Kola ran down the cobbled street to Dr Fredoon’s house and shouted, "Doctorsaheb! A ghost has entered Mumma’s body! Please come!"

  Illustration by Farzana Cooper


Rubbing his eyes, the doctor, in his legha and sudreh with a black velvet cap on his bald head, grabbed his medical case and walked hastily towards Hirabai’s house. She spat at him with venom. The doctor was petrified and began to hiccup loudly. This irritated Hirabai or whatever personality had overpowered her, and she slapped the doctor whose spectacles flew off and broke. The myopic doctor quickly darted into Goolbai’s house. "Doctor, you madar…, come here at once!" Hirabai shouted.

Several doors were now being screechingly opened in Seervai Vad.

"Why don’t you summon Rustomji, Kola?" suggested Goolbai from her half-open door.

"He returned from Bareilly late last evening and was very tired," informed Dr Fredoon in a squeaky voice.

"Doesn’t matter, Kola; wake him up," advised another neighbor, Dhunmai, trying to sneak a peek at Hirabai.

Bachamai was most reluctant to awaken her husband after his long journey from Bareilly Cantonment to Delhi to Bombay to Navsari which involved changing three trains and patiently waiting on railway platforms for several hours. Childless Bachamai harbored a mild resentment against Hirabai having four daughters. During the year, Rustomji was permitted by his employer to visit his hometown only once, and that too for just 15 days. Bachamai blamed this as the primary cause for her infertility, though both her sisters too were childless. Rustomji was a large man with an expressionless face. Although he did not smile much, he had kind eyes. After his father died at 32 of bubonic plague, leaving behind his widow, Rustomji and two daughters, Rustomji dropped out of the ninth grade and took up a job as a shop assistant in the Bareilly Cantonment, serving liquor, ham, cheese and chocolates to the British soldiers.

Apart from being an ordained priest, Rustomji was an ardent disciple of a mystic called Behramsha Shroff, founder of a movement know as Ilm-e-Khshnoom (path of knowledge), who had been imparted occult knowledge by the Great White Zoroastrian Brotherhood in Mount Damavand in Iran. During his vacation in Navsari, Rustomji never missed a single public lecture of Shroff. In Bareilly, Rustomji amused himself with a pygmy chimpanzee who was trained to tie and untie shoelaces while grinning mindlessly at his benign owner who prayed twice a day for an hour each time.

"Hirabai appears to be possessed," Bachamai informed her husband, who clambered out of bed, washed his long hands and oval face with ice cold well water, liberally applied taro (unconsecrated bull’s urine) to his exposed parts, loudly recited the Kem na Mazda, untied his kusti, woven by his sister, Mumai, who was estranged from her cousin husband and resided with him. While reciting the Ahura Mazda Khodai, he tied his kusti, and then with both his thumbs he loosened the knot while praying Jasame Avanghe Mazda. He was now a soldier, clad in the uniform of the faith, about to embark upon a crusade to defeat the infidel entity harassing his neighbor. The moment he spotted Hirabai, he shut his eyes and visualized the white magician King Shah-e-Faridoon, who had vanquished much evil during his long life. Hirabai, or whatever entity she was possessed by, immediately sensed danger and rushed to attack Rustomji.

"Fé namé yazad, bé farmaané yazad Ba name nik, Faridoon é gaav dayé!" intoned Rustomji in a sonorous voice which reverberated in the pin-drop silence in the moholla, as his impressed neighbors watched intently from half-open doors.

Like a deranged sprinter, Hirabai darted and slammed her head against Rustomji’s ribs. He thumped her back with a violent blow. Hirabai went limp and hugged her neighbor in a massive bear hug. Her relieved daughters smiled gratefully at Rustomji who gently detached himself from the woman and walked away.

Bachamai, somewhat proudly, handed Rustomji a large cup of tea.

The utterly exhausted Hirabai slumped on the floor and began to snore.


Berjis Desai, author of Oh! Those Parsis and The Bawaji, occasionally practices law.