The moment we started reading our competition winner MS Pallister’s submission, we were caught up in the eerie, gothic setting and felt like we were reading a Shirley Jackson or Susan Hill story — only one told against a contemporary Indian background. This nuanced, deeply atmospheric piece left us with a pervading sense of both nostalgia and foreboding. It forms the opening of her unpublished novel, Nayan Mahal.
The prize was a one-off consultation with our founding tutor, Marina Kemp. Pallister said:
‘Before I met Marina for my consultation, I was ready to give up on my novel. But that hour with Marina completely turned it around for me. She had wonderful advice and suggestions on not just the novel but also the synopsis and cover letter. From the detailed feedback it was apparent that Marina understood my characters and my writing style as well as I did. By the time I left, I was motivated to work on my novel and send it out again, especially now that I was equipped with insightful feedback and words of encouragement.’
Pallister’s novel is finished, and the rest — some of which we’ve had the wonderful opportunity to read — is moving, intelligent, beautifully plotted and deeply compelling.
Come in. See what I’ve done to your mother.
Not yet. A few more minutes.
The black cast iron gates of Nayan Mahal, adorned with lotuses and rose vines, were the most unwelcoming in the entire district. Like broken, ink-crusted nibs, a row of rusty spearheads crowned the gates to deter burglars: completely unnecessary because no one, as far as I could remember, had ever wanted to enter the house willingly, much less sneakily. There were stories. Not of a haunted house, like the one down the road where a ghost rang the bicycle bell three times at midnight, having died in a hit-and-run incident. No, that would have been far preferable to local rumours about Nayan Mahal.
To walk across the house’s shadow was worse than a black cat crossing your path. Even beggars stayed away. In almost a century of existence the house had done nothing to change this reputation. In fact, it had only strengthened the sobriquet, so much so that when people referred to something jinxed they called it “Nayan Mahal.” Nayan Mahal was the daughter-in-law whose arrival was followed by her husband losing his job; it was the ox that pulled the plough the day before the rains failed.
I rubbed the dust and soot off the marble plaque by the gate. Nayan Mahal shone in black. Engraved below were the names of my grandfather and father.
Mahendra Pratap Rathod
Uday Pratap Rathod
No more names for there were no more sons.
Years of heat and rain had stripped the paint off the boundary walls, but entrepreneurial spirit had replaced it with advertisement posters for shops and Diwali sales. Diwali! Was it forthcoming or already in the past? Someone had taken pains to whitewash the top of the wall and written in red: 6 December. Ayodhya Chalo. Every second wall down the road shouted out this message, urging motorists, cyclists and passers-by to go to Ayodhya. The adjacent city, considered holy. In reality, a human-and-temple traffic jam.
Whatever it was, I’d be long gone by 6th December.
‘Can’t find the bell?’ Mike said. ‘I’m getting cold.’
In Delhi, he had complained about the heat. It’s November, what do you expect? Why did you insist on coming when I repeatedly asked you not to? I could have said those things, but I’d just sound ungrateful. After all, he was here to support me.
I shoved my hand between two dusty lotuses and undid the latch on the inside of the gates. Old habits.
Having successfully fled once, I had no choice but to enter this jinxed house once more. The windows watched me. You’re back. The doors flexed their wood and ground their hinges, ready to swallow me.
Don’t get too excited. I’m only here for a few days.
So you think.
Perhaps I was viewing it through the melancholic setting of the twilight, but the house looked ready to collapse. Even while I had lived here, while my father was alive, the house was falling into disrepair. Partly because we didn’t care, even though we lived within its walls, and partly because we couldn’t convince anyone to work on it.
Not that house, sahib.
Not that house.
There’s nothing wrong with it.
One look at my father’s bloodshot eyes and they’d shake their heads.
It was the shape of a classic wedding cake. Except a cake at the end of the party — crumbled, a shadow of its former beauty. The two Ashoka trees on either side of the front steps were dead, their bare branches pointing every which way, accusing everyone for their death. The blue paint on the railings had turned grey; the white on the rest of the house was chipped, revealing red bricks underneath. Spidery cracks ran down the pillars in the verandah. How were they still holding up? On the terrace was the marble gazebo with what looked like a satellite dish hanging off it — the lopsided bride and groom on top of the cake.
You look like I feel. Like you’ve always made me feel.
The garden was reduced to straw and dust. The stone fountain in the middle, like the house, was in three tiers and equally worse off. Stale rain water filled the top trough; the middle was covered in guano from birds which drank from above; the third and the largest held colourful plastic bags.
And the whole place stank. A damp, peaty smell.
Not doing too well, are you? Just a few curtains of cobweb and the picture’s complete.
Once again… welcome to my house. Come freely. Go safely; and leave something of the happiness you bring.
Ha! You’re not Dracula, you’re worse. And I have no happiness to bring.
‘Maddy, you ok?’ Mike turned around. ‘You’re muttering.’
I had to stop talking to the house. It made it believe it was alive.
Mike put down our suitcases in the verandah, on tiled peacocks with broken beaks and torn feathers. ‘The place is a mess,’ he said, surveying the mouldy ceiling. ‘Mahal indeed. Looks like a giant stack of ashtrays.’ He wasn’t the kind to save your feelings.
‘It used to be much nicer.’ I dug my toe in a peacock’s blind eye, wondering if I should knock. What if there was no one in there? If it was all a ruse to bring me back to this house?
‘Watch out!’ Mike shouted, pushing me away from the door.
A spotted cow bounded up the steps, charged at the heavy, rotten doors, throwing it open, and ran inside.
‘What the hell was that?’ Mike said.
‘I know it’s a cow. How did it get here?’
‘I dunno. I locked the gates.’
‘Are you saying you keep cows in this place?’
‘I don’t know what I’m saying, Mike. I haven’t been here for ten years.’
We walked into the round, empty entrance hall, which exited into a long and narrow corridor. Like a pipette, as though the architect wanted to feed us to the house one by one. Where was the cow? I switched on the light.
‘What’s this? A two-watt bulb?’ Mike asked.
There was another light in the corridor, but I chose to follow the catechism of my fingers as they brushed along the wall. A padlock: my father’s studio with its shrouded, half-painted canvasses. A carved door with glass panels and a whiff of mildew: the library, full of biographies, fairytales and dried up tears. Another layer of lumpy whitewash between the living room and the kitchen, which covered childhood scrawls (Mridul is a fatso, Antra eats bogey) but couldn’t trap the smell of turmeric from Rukhsana’s cooking. The cold touch of the spiral staircase with marble steps and mahogany banister, down which I never tired of sliding, astride or side-saddle.
‘Where is everyone? Is there anyone?’ Mike said, finding the switch for the light in the hall.
I stopped. ‘There’s the cow.’ The animal sat in the vast dining hall, between Ma’s room and me, munching on the corner of the curtain. I walked around it, and was tapped on the legs by its tail for my insolence.
Ma had made sure that Death had no trouble finding her. The usual signposts were there: dark room with closed curtains, stale air that smelled of mothballs and cough syrup, the sound of her laboured breathing. She herself was dressed in a black nighty, dwarfed by the room and the four-poster rosewood bed she was lying on.
I crept under the mosquito net and sat down beside her, taking her hand in mine. She opened her eye, just the right one. The left side of her face drooped, as though it was melting; every feature lopsided. She growled, slapped away my hand and tried to push me away.
‘Ma, it’s me. Mridul.’ From inside my blouse I pulled out a necklace with a Ganesha pendant and pushed it towards her. She’d given it to me on my sixteenth birthday, hesitantly and a bit reluctantly.
‘He removes obstacles,’ she had said, running her thumb over Ganesha’s smooth gold trunk and fat belly. ‘He’s failed to remove any of mine. Maybe because I don’t ask with a pure heart. You might have better luck.’
I wore the necklace every single day, wondering if I had a pure heart, until I walked out of this house. Then the necklace began the journey of a stowaway, transferred from one handbag to another, until it found a permanent place in the drawer of my dressing table. Just before leaving London, I had replaced it around my neck to pretend to my mother that I had never taken it off. By now I knew I didn’t have a pure heart either.
‘Ma, it’s me. Mridul,’ I repeated.
She stopped pushing me away. Was it me she recognised or the name or the necklace? After ten years of absence, did I have the right to be recognised? A tear fell out of the corner of her eye, chased by another into the hollow of her ear, and she turned her face away.
I took her hand again. Rivers of grey veins crisscrossed under loose flesh. It could have belonged to a woman twice her age. At only 53, my mother was being consumed by diabetes. I picked up a handkerchief by the pillow and wiped her ear. Again she slapped my hand away. I deserved it. I was late. Way too late. She didn’t want me there.
A mosquito had managed to squirm its way inside the net. It hovered over Ma’s forehead, looking for the ideal spot to stick in its proboscis. In a flash my hand seized it from the air — years of practice — and squished it on the corner of the bed, a brown smudge staining the bed sheet. I was admiring my handiwork — I had saved my dying mother from a mosquito bite — when Ma grabbed my arm. A tug. I bent down towards her. Another tug, and I got closer. The smell of medication on her breath was nauseating. She whispered something but her words were slurred by paralysed lips.
‘What is it, Ma?’
Saliva trickled out instead of words. I wiped it and offered her some water, but it dribbled down her chin.
‘Are you in pain?’
A wild look entered her eyes, as if she was searching for something. Suddenly, she let go of me and pushed me away.
‘I’m not leaving, Ma. Not this time.’
I heard them from Ma’s room. My sisters.
‘You live together?’ asked Antra.
‘Yes.’ Mike’s voice sounded flat and deep against her sing-song.
‘In same room?’
‘Yes. You do know there’s a cow in the room?’
‘But you are not married?’
‘Just … we’re not.’ A cough. ‘Are you going to do something about the cow?’
‘Kohil!’ It was Kaya’s voice this time, calling out, commanding.
‘How old are you?’ resumed Antra.
I heard her gasp. ‘Thirty-six! And not married!’ Then to Kaya, in Hindi: ‘I think there’s something wrong with him.’
Kaya weighed in now. ‘Is something wrong with you? Are you divorced? Can you not have children?’
‘What on earth?’
I looked down at Ma. I needed to get up, go and rescue Mike from his interrogation. But I couldn’t bring myself to move.
Then I heard Rukhsana. Our cook and maid of over thirty years, though she was much more than that.
‘Hai Allah! There’s a cow in the room.’
‘Who’s that man?’ asked a younger voice, sweet and sharp, like a koel crying in the night. It must be Rukhsana’s daughter, Farah, all grown up now. They spoke in Hindi. ‘He’s so white.’
‘Kohil!’ Rukhsana called out.
‘If that cow shits I’m not cleaning it.’
‘Be quiet you foolish girl and get Kohil.’
‘I want to know who that man is.’
‘Mridul’s boyfriend, I think,’ said Antra. ‘They’re not married.’
More gasping. ‘Hai Allah!’
I walked in, interrupting this soap opera.
Before any embraces or introductions could be made, an old man entered the house. Jutting ribs, dressed only in a chequered dhoti. In the middle of November! He bent down beside the cow and whispered something in its ear. The cow stood up and followed him out of the house.
‘Mridul!’ Antra squealed and ran up and hugged me. I found between my arms a bigger and wider version of my younger sister, wrapped in an expensive Benarasi silk sari.
‘Thank you for the phone call,’ I said. In Hindi. The words rolled out of my mouth, despite not having used the language in ten years. Didn’t even sound rusty coming out of retirement.
‘Thank Kaya,’ Antra said. ‘Somehow she still had your number.’
I bent down and touched Kaya’s feet.
‘Always be happy.’ She laid a hand gently on my head. Dressed in her usual white sari of self-imposed widowhood, she looked more like Ma than ever. The older she grew the stronger the resemblance: same doe-like eyes, slim nose and high cheekbones. Once, she had been the most beautiful of us three, but now she was a negative of Antra: sunken cheeks, dark circles under eyes framed with crow’s feet, worry lines crisscrossing her forehead. Then she smiled. My mother’s smile. And I caught a glimpse of the old beautiful Kaya. But the smile vanished as soon as it appeared, as though it had been a mistake.
‘You’ve cut your hair.’ Her voice had more than a touch of rebuke, as she stroked the dark strands around my cheek. That’s exactly what Ma would have said. It was hard to tell if Kaya really minded my short hair or if she was getting ready to be the materfamilias.
‘This hairstyle suits me better.’
‘It does,’ Antra agreed.
‘I see you’ve already met Mike.’ He was sitting at the dining table, drumming the wood with his fingers.
‘Your roommate,’ Kaya said.
‘He’s very handsome,’ Antra said. ‘Such beautiful blue eyes. Think how fair your children will be.’
‘Nonsense,’ Kaya chastised Antra, then turned her anger on me. ‘You’ve brought him to this house? What were you thinking?’
‘Oh, let me see. How about so I could introduce him to you? My sisters.’ That was the last thing on my mind, but I could never let Kaya have the last word. We didn’t speak, we jousted. Mounted on our mental horses, we used our lancing tongues to inflict pain on each other. When we fell we slept it off and began again the next day. This time, she believed she had the advantage because of her moral high ground. She had stayed. I had left.
‘We can talk about all that later,’ Rukhsana said. ‘The poor girl has just arrived. Come on, let’s eat.’ She took my hand in hers and led me to the kitchen. ‘I’ve prepared your favourite, keema matar.’ Then suddenly she embraced me. ‘Khuda ka khair you’re back. She’s held on only for you. Now she can die in peace.’
I clung to her in happiness and impending grief, breathing in her hennaed hair, as her tears wet my cheek. My dear Rukhsana, how I had missed her.
‘Let me look at you.’ She stepped back. ‘You’ve changed so much.’
So had she. No longer the big and sprightly woman who used to move around this enormous house effortlessly, looking after everyone. Time had hunched her shoulders, slowed her steps, made her weak. Caring for my mother would do that to anyone.
‘But you haven’t aged a day,’ I said. ‘You still look like Hema Malini. Dream girl.’
‘Tch.’ Rukhsana gently slapped my arm and laughed.
‘My friends say I look like Madhuri Dixit,’ said Farah with the same toothy smile as her mother’s. She was only six when I had left.
‘Hmm. I don’t see it,’ I said. Farah’s face fell. ‘You’re more beautiful than Madhuri Dixit.’
She giggled and hid her face in her hands.
‘Now don’t you give her a big head,’ Rukhsana said. ‘As if her bekar friends were not enough. Useless all of them. They just talk about heroes and heroines and Bombay. And ever since this filmy worm has bitten her she has stopped studying. I worry. Don’t know what’ll become of her.’
‘I’ll become a superstar. And then I’ll come to London.’ Farah took my hands in hers. ‘There are women in London with golden hair, isn’t it?’
‘I know. I’ve seen it in Baywatch. And with big—’ she put her hands in front of her breasts and puffed up her cheeks.
‘Chhi besharam.’ Rukhsana hit her with a spatula. ‘Go make the rotis. Make sure they’re not burnt. If you’re not going to study, at least learn to cook so someone will marry you.’
Farah returned to the cooker and turned on the radio. The latest hit number began to play. The opening bars sounded suspiciously like The Final Countdown.
‘What happened, Rukhsana?’ I asked.
For MS Pallister’s contact details and more information, please email us on firstname.lastname@example.org.