A woman stood at the ramparts of the Bhangarh ka Kila. She peered over the walls as if looking for someone, then wept despairingly into her hands.
The crowd picked up by mid-afternoon. She had long given up waving and shouting at them because she had realized that though she could see them, they could not see her.
It was always bright daylight in here, whatever this place was, this invisible place she had entered when the sun had set. It was a dream, though not quite so, it was the only way she could describe it. Her dream-prison would not allow her to leave.
She had been to this country before as a child but had not taken well to the unbearable climate. Back then there had been no air-conditioned cars, the mosquito repellent cream had given her a rash and she had fainted twice from the heat. Short of stuffing an air-conditioner in her backpack, she had carried every possible preventative this time, including anti-biotics and toilet paper.
“Oh they have toilet paper in India, Grace.”
Beth hadn’t been pleased with the sight of these ridiculous items. She was particularly sentimental about India and possessed the sort of florid openness that annoyed Grace: everything about this country was beautiful, even the homeless person knocking on your shoulder and the complete disregard for personal space. Part of her annoyance was because she had not taken as well as Beth to the dirt and poverty, considering she was the brown one and had prepared for this trip for years.
She didn’t expect the full force of the heat, flies and mosquitoes. One had to watch the ground for poo while dodging the traffic, and the pair of open sandals that she had brought with her weren’t enough to protect her heels from turning cracked and crusty. She didn’t want to admit that she hated everything about it, hoping that there was perhaps something, some incident or experience would make it all worth the discomfort.
It hadn’t been the child prostitutes in Jaipur.
“Please, please Aunty!”
They rubbed their bellies and tapped their mouths with the universal sign for ‘food/eat.’
Beth had taken to them like a lost mother and the day’s program had to be scrapped because the kids had refused to leave them. After every one of them had turned their bags inside out for candy, the day ended with dinner at a ‘footpath’ shack and many tearful hugs and goodbyes. In the morning, everyone’s heads were itching with lice. There was a further delay as someone went to the pharmacy to buy anti-lice shampoo. Beth had wept all night and had to borrow Grace’s Tylenol.
The travel-writer had warned them beforehand not to eat any raw food, but seven of them, except for Laetitia and Grace, spent two days in and out of their hotel bathrooms despite following this rule.
It reminded her that she hadn’t eaten in three days, according to her watch.
Though she did not feel a trace of hunger, the smells and taste of the aloo paratha of her last meal hadn’t entirely faded from her memory. It brought a mental longing for hot, wholesome food to place in her mouth. In that respect, the Indian part of her had acclimatised quiet well, she had discovered that she loved spicy food–after that first bout of diarrhoea she hadn’t had much of a problem.
She pulled herself away from her dreams and back to the heavy nothingness of the Kila.
The ghosts passed by, not acknowledging her, acting as if they were just taking a stroll through a crowded marketplace. Their voices lingered long after, the noises fading and rising in her ears, sending her into a spiral of confusion.
Her habitual politeness kept her from completely breaking down, she was sure she was just lost or someone had slipped her a drug of some sort, but the damned place had no exit, how many ever crumbling stairs and passageways she thought would lead her out.
“Go madam, not safe,” he had said.
“Yes,” she had replied with a patient smile. She hadn’t missed the look of concern on his face. It was already dusk. Dusk was dangerous and this was a lonely place after dark, but had she wanted to, so she had ignored the warning.
Oh she had heard enough about the assaults. Sleazy men surrounded their group at every other train station, propositioning them, even in German and French, but their group leader was an ace at barking expletives and that seemed to keep the worst of them at bay. Laetitia complained that many of the older women were actually flattered by the attention and that made a mess for the next set of female tourists that passed through.
Gracy wondered who in their right mind would be flattered by that sort of attention. They seemed to ignore her for the most part because she was a brown as a coconut, until she opened her mouth and spoke in an accent.
She stuck to the group. No matter how well she blended in, she wasn’t about to do stupid things like wandering off on her own in a lonely area…which she had done. Exactly that. To catch a perfect sunset over the hills, the ancient India that she had actually come here to see, sans the kitsch and the yoga and tan-tie-dye hippies who had effectively ruined the place. It was a gross appropriation of the culture she had at least half-rights to, she told herself, as she thought of the authentic embroidered purses she had bought off a textile dealer in the Rann of Kutch, stuffed into a backpack in her hotel room.
She sat down on the stairs and stared dry-eyed at the ghosts, a pantomime designed to drive her crazy. Two ancient goatherds with spider web wrinkles across their sun-darkened faces passed by, wearing giant turbans, holding crooks that they tapped the stone floor and talking to each other in Marwari. An elephant ambled through their fading forms and walked right through a black, moss-ridden wall and disappeared.
She had actually tried to talk to some of them, on the first day when the sun had set. She had gone down the steps, turned a couple of times, ducking to avoid the bats perched on the narrow archways, and then emerged into bright daylight. No path seemed to lead her out. It was bright, bright-night-day. Early morning came and it was soon teeming with people, but no one heard her, not even the ghosts.
“Oh God!” she had wept, “What’s going on? Please, please can you…? Excuse me, sir….madam..?”
But they had just passed her by, walking into walls like cheap special effects.
She touched the wall, it was hard, because it was supposed to be. Her fingers left an imprint on the moss. She rubbed it away on her shorts, not bothering with a tissue.
She heard giggling behind her.
She turned to see a schoolgirl, may be nine years old, standing behind her and blinking in the sunlight. Round face, dimples, pigtails, wearing a blue sweater and a grey checked skirt and adorable Mary Janes on her feet. Probably North–Eastern. She was sucking at the runny lollipop clutched in one hand.
“Why hello!” Grace exclaimed, forgetting her predicament for a moment, “And what’s your name?”
The child responded to her question with another giggle. Relief flooded her being. Someone was acknowledging her existence.
The child nodded solemnly.
“Can you show me the way out?”
The child nodded again.
“Yes? Oh thank God!”
The child giggled again and began to walk towards the exit, then turned around and waited for her to follow. She led her down the stairway with the bats clustered on the aperture, then on down a smaller passageway where she had to crouch to prevent her head from touching the ceiling. It opened to a danker hall lined with windows, the sky grey was cloudy outside the windows as if the weather had changed in the short time they had made it down the stairs. The brush and creepers grew thick outside, crawling over the walls. It was raining.
She followed the kid down the corridor and then up a darkened stairway that she hadn’t seen before.
The child gestured for her to follow and giggled once more, then ran up the stairway, shoes going clackety-clack on the stone steps.
“Wait!” she cried out. She ducked and ran up the crumbling stairs and emerged panting into bright day light, her hair covered with cobwebs, then swung around wildly looking for the little girl.
It was the same place she had left five minutes ago, the sunny afternoon, familiar crowd outside and the dust kicked up in the air.
“Helloooo!” she screamed, running towards the battlements and waving. No one seemed to hear her.
“It’s just noisy, that’s all…” she assured herself.
She placed her hands on an edge and pushed herself up with all her might, then slung a leg over it, scraping her shin on the stone.
“Helloooo!” she called, waving her free arm, “Helloooo!”
Nothing, no one so much as looked at her even though they were so close. A mad idea took hold of her as she gauged the distance it would take for her to jump.
And then she heard the giggle behind her again.
She turned around slowly, eyes wide with recognition and fury.
The child’s silly smile turn upside down as she backed away warily. Gracy leapt down, landing a foot away from the shiny Mary Janes.
“Was that funny? Did you think that was funny? No wait, wait—I didn’t mean—oh—“
Mary Janes ran away, clackety-clack on the stone floor, right through a wall.
Grace collapsed on the floor, weeping and wailing.
“I’m dead, I’m dead! Oh God!”
Eventually, her tears ran dry and she settled into a sniffling, sans the headache she normally felt after weeping for so long. No pain, no physical pain at least. Her scraped shin didn’t burn. It was just a feeling of utter desolation.
She wailed a bit more. Who cared? She was invisible, no one could see her, and she had chased away the only ghost who could. She wondered whether there was a search party out for her, or whether they had filed a missing person’s report, or had informed her mother.
Mom might take it hard.
Her cousins might just do the right thing and pursue her disappearance for a while. They were incredibly good if incredibly dull middle-class kids who had grown into duller adults, studied hard, gone to good colleges and busted their nuts all the way to good positions. And then they had filled the generational quota of two kids. Gracy was the cousin who hadn’t taken advantage of anything that had been provided her. Her salary was enough to keep her from borrowing from her mom and she had been one of those girls who would rather not go to any parties she’d been invited to, because the embarrassment of being a wallflower was worse than the self-imposed isolation of her room. Due to the distance between the countries she didn’t have to answer the dreaded questions as to why her career graph remained a horizontal line…The three-star hotels she stayed in because she couldn’t afford the five star ones.
Her relatives didn’t bring it up, but she knew they whispered behind her back.
She realized how incredibly dull she might have appeared to them. No career, no husband and no kids.
She didn’t know why she had no ambition. She knew it would be great not to scrimp and save for once, but with every small change in her life she settled into a complacency that she found difficult to shift out of.
She knew technically that she was a failure and had stopped trying to convince herself that it didn’t bother her.
A noise and vibration of a vehicle woke her. A pair of chubby policemen in khakis revved up on one of those loud bikes that chugged up a big cloud of smoke. She rose and clutched her bag to her side, heading for them purposefully. She picked up speed in the last three metres and rammed into them, the fatter policeman taking most of the collision. He steadied his bike and stared at her with a look she recognized well.
“Sorry madam,” he said, clutching her hand and speaking in an oily voice, “Yes madam? Yes? How can I help you?”
She wrung her hand out of his and ran through a doorway. A stone came loose and she slipped and tumbled down the narrow stairs. Her knee bent inward and she rammed her heel into her crotch while thumping her way down the stairs, kicking loose several more stones. The pain was momentary and forgettable.
She landed at the base of the stairs, dazed.
The corridor was lit up and the floor lined with an intricately woven carpet. Men in royal livery, the kind with big moustaches that open doors to five-star hotels, held feathered fans. The blast of trumpets hit her ears as if she were at a wedding.
Even in the dim light of the flickering torches she could see that the stuff was authentic. Real feathers, real Kutchie embroidery, hand stitched angrakha, camel-leather mojris, the belt at his waist holding the curved sword made by artisans who had passed on their craft from father to son for generations. She stared, mesmerized, as the din rose and the Rajput prince stepped through the archway, his black eyes glossy and soft as a colt’s, the eyelashes framing them long and lustrous, his cheekbones cut so magnificently that she was tempted to reach out and draw a finger down to his jaw. She had seen parts of this face, in the cowherds and the priests and the camel drivers. His eyes passed over her, the carpet taking the firm tread of his heel as he made way down the hall with his entourage continuing on until, she knew, they would disappear just like the rest. She sighed as the last trumpet faded, alone again.
For a moment she wondered which one of the girls would have loved this short display as much as she, Laetitia perhaps. Beth generally despised opulence of any sort. Laetitia was German, Kali worshipping, guru deifying relic of the sixties with plenty of stories to tell.
“The masseuse, his name was Baby. Nothing great you know, moustache, woolly hair, chubby. And he asked me, madam, would you like to take off your top? So I thought, what’s going on? He asked again, and I was like okay, let me try this. And I tell you, Grace, I have never ever—“
She covered her face, shaking her head and giggling.
“Never, in all my years and all the hundreds of men that I’ve slept with… It’s the heart chakra, ya? It released, like a volcano! Really, if you’re ever in Goa…”
I’ll pass, thought Grace. Why would she want some man’s grubby hands all over her? And all this hooey about the chakras and the nudity reminded her of the absolute disregard tourists had for the locals. At the same time, she envied Laetitia’s ability to enjoy herself so easily. Release was the word she had used. She craved it too, not the limp surrender that allowed her to be swept along with the tide, but an unburdening.
She rose to her feet and stumbled up and out into the sunlight and the familiar sight of the crowd. Clutching her bag to her side and clambering up the ledge again, she shouted hoarsely to the crowd, “I promise, I promise I’ll do something with my life if you just get me out of here!”
Why hadn’t anyone sent a search party, geo-located her, anything, just anything? She began to wail again.
“Oh! Fuck you, cousins! Fuck you Beth, you sanctimonious bitch! Fuck you Laetitia, you stupid hippy!”
She collapsed on to the floor and curled up into ball and wept and shivered.
Nobody actually cared. Her initial fears were just panic, this was living proof. She was disappearing, becoming non-existent. She remembered the times she had sung along to Joan Baez alone in her room, imagining who would miss her if she died, and who besides her mother would attend her funeral. Stupid, pathetic Grace! No one missed her, no one would search for her!
A pair of boots stopped by her face and one stepped right through her head. The feeling was of dipping one’s head underwater and then out again.
“….Must we build another house, Gerald? How many houses do we need?”
A woman in the grey and blue dress, holding a green parasol, spoke with exasperation to a man in uniform.
“It’s just vulgar!”
“Vulgar? Are you joking, darling? Have you any idea how long and hard I’ve worked for this?”
“Oh!” The woman scoffed and turned way, leaning over the parapet, the ribbons on her bodice fluttering in the breeze.
Gerald, an balding man with a thick greying moustache, dressed in red and black military gear, looked extremely hurt by her dismissal.
“I don’t know what you want, Emma, really,” he said gruffly. “You married me when I was an average soldier and now that you lack for nothing, you choose to complain. Do you want to go backwards?”
“Of course not, Gerald!” exclaimed the woman. “But could we not flash our wealth around like a pair of nouveau riche upstarts?”
“How dare you accuse me of such a thing!”
“Oh, I didn’t mean it like that! It’s just hot here and the children and the disease and the—!”
“Hot? That’s precisely why I’m building a bloody house in Ootacamund!”
“I’m not swearing!”
He stuck a forefinger inside his collar and pulled at it.
“You know it’s considerably more expensive to maintain ourselves there?” he sputtered. “With your parties and your ayahs and gardens and two bloody carriages!”
“Don’t raise your voice at me, Gerald!”
“I will do as I bloody well please!”
Emma began to weep bitterly into her handkerchief. It didn’t seem to far from any present day relationship. It seemed rather typical, actually. She sat up and watched as they faded, still arguing. She wondered if they had ever made it out of here and what happened to them. The story of Emma and Gerald, a sweeping tale of a disgruntled British couple who couldn’t decide where to splurge their ill-gotten gains. She had definitely dodged a bullet. Most couples fought about money, and it made her glad to be….be….be….
Who was she? The gap in her thoughts hit her forcefully, as if it ran right through her brain. She felt her memory vanishing as quickly as smoke.
“You are…” she said purposefully shoving each word out of her mouth, “You are Grace. Jeyraj. Your. Friends. Call. You. Gracy.”
Her brain was having the toughest time wrapping itself around it: her identity, like it was a tough math problem or a vague memory. She repeated her name, over and over and began to touch her hands to check if she felt real. Her skin felt solid to touch but with little feeling, sparking between her fingers, a dread running through her soul.
“I’m alive. I’m still alive. I’m Gracy. I’m—”
The sky grew dark so suddenly that she trembled a little. What’s that she felt, a chill? Goosebumps?
It began to pour as if hundreds of buckets of water were being emptied from the sky. She rose to her feet, her shoes soaked with cold water. It lapped at the ramparts and poured in through the gaps in the wall. The wall began to crumble. She rose to her feet, water lapping at her ankles, knees wet. The world beyond the crumbling wall of the Kila was a sea of dark green.
She turned and ran inside the nearest doorway available to her.
It was pitch dark. Her shoes were wet. At the bottom of the stairs sat a group of men, blocking her way out of the stairway, a bonfire lit between them. They were sort of men you wouldn’t want to meet if you were walking alone down a dark road. She retreated back into the darkness of the stairway, hoping they hadn’t seen her.
They were passing something between them, a cigarette. No, a syringe.
“I had a dream last night.”
The man with the syringe in one hand grinned as he pierced a forearm already pockmarked with old injection scars. He rolled his eyes upwards and sighed.
“Tell me, bhaiya, was it God again,” asked the man sitting the on opposite side of the bonfire.
“I was outside. I met my mother and sisters. I got out.”
“You got out? It wasn’t a dream then.”
“What do you mean?”
“Because we’re not really here,” said another man, “And if we’re not here then we can be anywhere.”
“You’re delirious again.”
“I’m not. There’s been nothing in that syringe since we’ve been stuck here. So what are you getting high on?”
They were clearly speaking in Hindi, their voices and laughter bouncing off the dappled yellow walls, and she understood every word even though she didn’t know any.
“Do you even remember your name?”
“My name is Ramesh, you’re Pravin.”
“Or am I Ramesh and you Pravin?”
The dreamer sobered briefly, then grinned again, but the existentialist looked angry and upset.
“That fire, does it even warm you?”
“It will if you want it to,” said the guy with the syringe, “Such a place it is. You have to embrace it.”
He reach out and held his hand over the fire, then withdrew it. It smoked briefly and he held it up for them to see.
“It’s the memory of it. Of the pain.”
“Shut up!” shouted the other guy and punched the wall with his fist. It crumbled.
“It doesn’t hurt!” he shouted and jumped to his feet, “Why doesn’t it—-”
His eyes fell on her moccasin clad foot, innocently revealing itself like a furry brown rat in the darkness, and then rose up her bare leg towards her face. Their eyes met, and she saw the same desperation she felt—-that this was not all, that this wasn’t the end. He lunged towards the opening of the stairway, but his friends jumped up and held him back by the arms.
He pointed towards her.
“She sees me! Ey! Ey! Madam!”
Gracy tripped over backwards and then crawled up the stairs. The last thing she heard was the man shouting, “She sees me! She knows!”
As she ran through the opening back from whence she came, her mind was already preparing itself for a completely different time and weather.
The sun hit her hard. The terrace was bone dry and outside, beyond the wall the dust rose high in the air with clamour of the crowd. There were so many people! More than usual.
As she raised her hand to hide her face form the sun, she caught sight of the transliterated tattoo on her forearm. She couldn’t remember how she had got it, whether it had always been there and why she hadn’t noticed it before.
Someone was named Gracy. Her name. Her name as Gracy.
The crowd was swelling, enormous. Sanskrit prayers blared from a loudspeaker on a pole. Women with ghungats covering their heads were holding plates of marigold flowers and burning diyas, singing in shrill voices. It was some sort of festival.
There were white people amongst them, tourists, jostling their way through the crowd and trying not to lose their partners. The sight of them gave her hope for some reason, as if she knew them. She had been one of them. A woman caught her eye, her poofy auburn hair thinner than the last time she had seen it, her face older. She knew that woman.
“Let—Let—Laeticia!” she shrieked without thinking, but the noise of the loudspeaker and the crowd drowned her voice.
The woman stopped and turned about, looking confused.
“It’s me! You know me! Please help!”
Laeticia frowned, shook her head and looked about again.
Me who? Who was she? Her mind was empty. She had no past, no future, she existed. The only thing she knew was the urgent feeling of panic. To leave, to get out of here.
“Please help me!” she cried out again.
The woman named Laeticia took an unsure step towards the Kila, as if she could hear her voice, but unsure about where it came from.
“Don’t leave me here! I’m inside! I’m stuck in here! Come find me!”
The crowd surged around the woman, who looked even more confused now, shoving her way towards entrance of the Kila, upsetting a train of women who were holding offerings. The clouds pulsed rapidly in the sky, moving like someone had clicked fast forward on a video. The sun dimmed.
The woman at the ramparts noted the weather changing and her entire being was filled with dread. Her rescuer would never reach her in time.
She lifted her foot over the gap in battlement of the wall, scraping her bare thighs on the sharp stone and pushed herself up. She took a second to gauge the forty-something foot drop. The noise of the crowd merged into a dull babble, and the people began to fade. She stepped off the edge, tripping as a sticky, invisible mass held her with back with ghostly hands. Her body fought back, hurling itself downwards. She felt as if her entire being was being stretched, like she was bungee-jumping on a rope that would pull her back no matter how far she fell.
“NO!” she shrieked, reaching towards the woman, whose eyes widened as she stretched a pair of trembling, blue-veined hands into the bright afternoon sky. “Om Namo Bhagvate Vasudevaya—–” she murmured, as if reaching for a benediction from the gods. Confused worshippers peered at her from under their veils and then at the sky.
“I’m alive, don’t leave me here! Let me live! Let me live!”
Gracy’s shrieks echoed against the walls of the Kila, mixing with the Sanskrit prayers. The women raised their voices under their ghungats and joined the chant– the gori mem was holding a ball of pure divinity, everyone could see it. Their voices rose and the world cracked between the bodies of the living and the dead….
Kila – Fort
paratha – unleavened bread
Angrezi – English
Angrakha- Traditional upper garment worn by men in India
Mojris – Handcrafted leather footwear
Bhaiya – Brother
Ghungat – veil
Gori Mem – White lady
Some info on the actual Bhangarh Fort:
Located at the border of the Sariska Tiger Reserve in the Alwar district of Rajasthan, Bhangarh Fort is a 17th-century fort, infamous all over India for being the ‘Most haunted place in India’. Because of the numerous ghostly experiences and happenings in the fort premises, villages have sprung up far away from the fort, due to the fear of what lies within. Even the Archaeological Survey of India or the ASI has forbidden the locals and tourists from entering the fort at night. This completely ruined, haunted fort of Bhangarh does have a very eerie, negative aura to it. Several legends have attested to the paranormal happenings inside the fort.(x)
Story by Rhea Daniel, please do not repost, copy or plagiarise. You can share the link if you’re interested but that’s it.