Sophia and Tariq were part of a large, noisy family.
There were plenty of cousins with foreign accents and grand aunts with loud cackles. They gathered in Mumbai every couple of years to attend weddings, eat mangoes and shop. And on one evening, all the cousins would make their excited way to their grandparents’ apartment in Colaba. They would climb the steep, creaky staircase, eat an enormous dinner and huddle in the vast hall full of antique chairs and shadowy corners and wait for Salim Uncle to start.
As uncles go, Salim was young. He was a student in an American university and a great teller of tales. Especially ghost stories. His sessions were conducted after dark, with the lights switched off, the curtains drawn, the doors shut and props in place —a clacking rosary, a brazier of glowing coals, a mirror. Sophia could never decide whether she enjoyed these evenings or abhorred them. But for Tariq they were the highlight of the year.
Salim Uncle usually started out with pleasantly scary stories. The tale of the bleeding house near New York. Then the one about the spectral dog with a flaming head that visited an old Bombay bungalow.
By this point the littler cousins were whimpering and had to be sent to bed. After which, Salim Uncle would shut the doors and draw the curtains even tighter and assume a grim expression. “C and R musn’t hear us,” he would whisper. And an uneasy shiver would run through the room.
Sophia was never sure how serious Salim Uncle was—but she felt compelled to check the windows every few minutes, terrified that two hideous, gloating faces would be pressed against the glass.
Chamanai and Ratanai were the most notorious and eerie ghosts in the Bohra Muslim community. The two women had lived a long time ago. Their graves sat in a sinister corner of a cemetery in Surat. And even the most rational adults avoided uttering their names. “If you say their names aloud, they will come,” Salim Uncle would warn. “Avoid talking about them. If you must talk about them, refer to them as C and R. Never say their full names, especially at dusk. And never, never, never stand in a corner and say their names. Because when you turn around, they will be waiting just behind you AND…”
At this point, Sophia would block her ears and squeeze her eyes shut.
These, of course, were only the statutory warnings. Then came the story.
Chamanai and Ratanai were mother and daughter and lived in Surat hundreds of years ago. Chamanai always wore black and Ratanai always wore red. Ratanai was married to a very holy man and soon got bored of his preaching and do-gooding and poisoned him. At the moment of his death, every single mirror in the house cracked.
After Chamanai and Ratanai died, the two evil spirits—one black and one red—wandered the twisty, narrow lanes of Bohra Mohalla in Surat. They were experts in the art of disguise and could pretend to be a kind aunty or a charming stranger. They would befriend their victim, wangle an invitation to their house and finally reveal their true nature.
Then the two ghosts would glide inexorably towards their cowering victim, their faces leering, their eyes glittering with evil. And all it took was a single look at their malevolent smiles for the hapless victim to collapse.
Eventually the two spirits were trapped in bottles by a brave fellow named Mirbhai Moosa who used a combination of trickery and prayers to nab them. He then buried the bottles in a deserted stretch of countryside. And everybody breathed a sigh of relief.
Years later, a railway track was being laid between Surat and Bombay. Workers were digging the ground when they unwittingly smashed two bottles. To their amazement, black and red smoke swirled out and floated away.
At that exact moment, mirrors all across Surat cracked.
Chamanai and Ratanai were back.
“Then?” Sophia would ask hopefully.
“Then, nothing,” Salim Uncle would reply. “They’re still out there somewhere. Waiting to be summoned. If you see pieces of red and black cloth fly past, be very careful. If a strange woman in red or black talks to you, be very careful.”
“But what can we do?” one of the cousins would ask tremulously.
“Check her feet,” Salim Uncle would reply immediately. “C and R have feet that point backwards. And they don’t walk. They glide about one inch above the ground. Those are the only things that they cannot disguise.”
“And what if…what if the stranger’s feet point backwards…what then?” Sophia once asked.
“Then be careful not to look at her directly in the face. Be careful never to invite her to your house. And keep your wits about you. If you see through C and R’s disguise and refuse them entry, they can never harm you again.”
Sophia was so terrified of Chamanai and Ratanai that she did actually peep at the feet of strange women for many years. Then she became a teenager and more interested in fashion and pop songs than ghosts. She coloured her hair, wore tight t-shirts and listened to the Top 40s. And she forgot to be afraid.
After school, Sophia joined St Xavier’s College in Mumbai She loved her new subjects, especially Psychology and History. So when the Psychology teacher gave the class its first assignment, she was determined to do it well.
“It’s about the power of stories,” she explained to her family at dinnertime. “About how certain stories capture the imagination of a certain group or community. We have to find one story, and describe its hold on a group of people.”
“How interesting,” her mother remarked, passing around the rice. “Have you thought of anything?”
“I don’t know,” Sophia replied, tapping the table with a spoon. “Some fable I guess.”
“Why not C and R?” Tariq asked suddenly.
“C and R?” Sophia repeated.
“Chamanai and Ratanai, your favourite spooks,” he said, serving himself chicken.
“Don’t say their names,” his mother snapped automatically. “And why that story, of all the stories in the world. Some things better left alone.”
Tariq laughed. “There you are. All of you are scared witless of those two characters. Nobody says their names. Nobody goes near their graves. What better proof do you need about the power of stories?’
Sophia nodded enthusiastically. It was a great idea.
The next morning, Sophia sat at her computer and conducted a Google Search for Chamanai and Ratanai. To her astonishment, she didn’t get a single hit. Nothing at all.
“Your search—chamanai ratanai—did not match any document,” the screen informed her. “Did you mean chamana urbana or chandni raatein?”
Sophia meant neither. So she tried Chamanbai and Ratanbai instead. This time she got a few matches. But the various Chamanbais and Ratanbais were names on government lists and court documents. There wasn’t the slightest indication that they were anything other than ordinary mortals.
“It’s bizarre,” Sophia told Tariq that evening. “You can find every possible thing on the Internet. But nothing at all about these most famous ghosts!”
“Maybe everybody’s too scared to write about them,” Tariq shrugged. “Anyway, you can ask Salim Uncle. Or Ruby the Rajdhani Express. Or Aunty Fatima.”
Sophia called a few cousins and aunts, all of whom seemed startled by her questions. They were all terrified of Chamanai and Ratanai, but were vague about the details. It was as if these two shadowy figures got their power from the silence and uncertainty that shrouded them.
Sophia made copious notes for her assignment. Salim Uncle—now an overworked professor in California–sent a terse email, filling in a few blanks. So the next day Sophia headed for the college library, planning to write her first draft.
The library—a high-ceilinged room awash with golden light—was full of students. Sophia shyly headed to one of the long polished tables and squeezed herself into a corner, next to two girls who were referring to enormous books on Microbiology. The girls ungraciously shifted their teetering stack and made space for the newcomer.
Sophia pulled out her pad and began writing the story of Chamanai and Ratanai. As she scribbled, long forgotten anecdotes floated back into her mind. She remembered her grandmother’s sister, who stoutly maintained that she had seen a red figure at the bottom of the staircase, just minutes before she tumbled down and broke her hip. Then she remembered the warnings about black and red fabric and Salim Uncle’s words, “Never, never say their name when you are standing in a corner. It is a clear invitation and they will come.”
After writing for half an hour, Sophia stopped to stretch and look idly around the library. Then she read her draft to herself in low mumble. A habit that always bugged Tariq—and seemed to displease her Microbiology-loving neighbours as well.
Sophia was making a few corrections when a dark shadow passed over her yellow pad. She looked up sharply. And then she saw it.
A red handkerchief.
It had appeared on the table behind the Microbiology books. Just an ordinary red hanky.
Except that as Sophia stared, she felt a jolt like an electric shock. A sudden, sickening realization that made her fingers numb and her head spin. And as she sat, clinging onto her pen and sanity she knew—without knowing how—that they were here.
Chamanai and Ratanai were here.
Terror gripped Sophia so hard that she could barely breathe. She had been stupid and foolhardy. She had broken all the rules. She had sat in a corner and uttered names that were better forgotten. And someone… something… had heard.
“Stop it. It’s just a handkerchief. It’s just a stupid ghost story,” Sophia tried to calm herself. But it was futile. She could feel the prickle of evil. She could identify the whiff of malevolence in that bright, busy room.
Desperately, Sophia turned to the Microbiology students and pointed to the red hanky with a shaking finger and asked, “Is that yours?”
The two girls gave her a strange look and merely shrugged. The hanky fluttered faintly in the breeze—and suddenly Sophia was galvanized into action. She grabbed her notes and file and pens, squashed them into her backpack, and rushed out of the library.
She charged out of the college, down the road and only stopped when she reached her bus stop. She was still panting when a 132 double decker arrived and she climbed to the upper deck, sank into a vacant seat and squeezed her eyes shut. A few minutes later, feeling calmer, she opened her eyes and looked around.
Everything was normal. Young boys with mountainous schoolbags. A dispirited looking carpenter. A group of villagers babbling excitedly. Then suddenly Sophia’s gaze fell on the empty seat next to her. And she let out a piercing shriek.
On the seat—just two inches away from her–was a flimsy, black chiffon dupatta.
The other passengers were most concerned. But Sophia pushed past them and jumped out of the bus at a traffic signal. She stumbled all the way home and was flushed and feverish when she arrived. Her mother firmly fed her chicken soup and Crocin and put her to bed.
By the next day, it was clear that Sophia had a viral infection. Her temperature soared and she lay on her pink bedspread with cold compresses on her forehead. She felt she was blundering through a grey, unpleasant dream.
Then one night she woke up with a start. Even before she looked at the window she knew, with complete clarity, what she was going to see. But still she gasped when she saw the twisted faces—indistinct in the inky night – before they disintegrated into the darkness.
Gradually, the fever receded. But Sophia remained pale and miserable. She ate little, slept badly and was reluctant to leave the house. The sense of foreboding grew and grew. As did the conviction that Chamanai and Ratanai were just around the corner.
Finally, Sophia confided in her mother. “I know it sounds like I’m imagining things,” she said tearfully. “But they are out there. Sometimes I hear laughter that nobody else seems to hear. And I somebody’s watching me.”
Sophia’s mother was panic-stricken. Either Sophia was imagining terrible things or she was the victim of dark forces. Both options were alarming. She sent Uncle Salim a frantic email, but he was no help at all. “I’ve always treated C and R as characters in a story,” he wrote. “But maybe you could approach a priest. And explain to Sophia that she mustn’t give in to irrational fears and beliefs. I can’t think of anything else to do. So sorry.”
Sophia’s parents began discreetly hunting for a priest with expertise in ghosts. Meanwhile, they insisted that Sophia should lead a normal life. “No more locking yourself in the bedroom,” her mother said firmly. “You love Navratri. You must attend your college dandia tomorrow. Go with Maira and Trisha You’ll have fun.”
So on Saturday evening, Sophia was getting dressed in a purple and pink ghagra choli when the doorbell rang. It was dusk—that time of day when all bad things come out to play—and Sophia was uneasy. But her parents had popped out to buy a microwave oven and Tariq was in the bathroom. So she forced herself to answer the door.
She looked through the peephole and saw a woman and little girl in the late evening gloom. They were dressed in mirrorwork ghagra cholis and looked like everybody else that she knew. So Sophia opened the door.
The woman was glamourous in her shimmering skirt and beautifully streaked hair. “Hi,” she said gaily, “I’m Geeta Sukhija’s sister. We’ve gotten here a bit too early and Geeta’s stuck in traffic. Can we wait at your place for a few minutes? Love your ghagra choli, by the way.”
Geeta Sukhija lived one floor down and was a friendly, helpful soul. So Sophia held the door open and smiled at the little girl.
The child grinned back and licked her lips. Her tongue was a shocking red.
Sophia had opened her mouth to say “come in”. But the words shriveled on her lips and, instead, she glanced at her visitors’ feet. But they were completely covered by long and bulky ghagras.
Sophia felt giddy with indecision. She was afraid. But that was no reason to be rude to Geeta Aunty’s sister. She had to get a grip on herself. Determined to do the polite thing, she started to wave them in. But all the time she could hear Salim Uncle’s voice pounding in her head, “Check their feet. Check their feet.”
Suddenly, Sophia knew what she must do. “Please remove your shoes first,” she said in a loud voice.
The little girl glared with burning intensity. The woman hissed. They both whirled around and vanished into the staircase.
Sophia shut the door, almost crying. Was she going mad? When would life return to normal? When would she stop seeing Chamanai and Ratanai in every stranger? Yes the two visitors had behaved oddly, but they could have been perfectly normal people!
Unsure of what she had done Sophia headed to her dressing table to complete her make up.
The lipstick was halfway to her lips when she saw it.
The mirror had cracked from side to side.
This story appeared in Scary Tales
Edited by Lubaina Bandukwala