Corie Ralston is a post-doctorate researcher in the Bronx, New York. She
has stories coming up in XX Magazine
and Antipodean SF.
She is currently working
on adopting all the stray cats in her neighborhood and will soon be known
as 'The Crazy Cat Lady of the Bronx'.
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The Ghosts of Bombay
by Corie Ralston
Sudipa finally phoned me. Her voice was exactly the same, and she talked about Ravi and the ocean and the traffic in Bombay as if no time had passed since we last spoke.
"Mitchell," she said. "I've missed you."
I closed my eyes and pressed the phone tightly against my ear, trying to shut out the sounds of the crowds and blaring horns that drifted into my apartment window from the street below.
"I'm surprised you're still in Bombay," she said. "I was sure I wouldn't reach you."
I found myself unable to reply. It was really her, the real Sudipa. Not the ghost that had stayed with me all these years. Not the ethereal Sudipa who followed me from room to room in my small apartment, a clear and beautiful reminder of her own absence.
She talked about her cottage on Malabar Hill, where she now lived with Ravi. I cringed as she spoke; it was the cottage we should have shared, with the window overlooking the Arabian Sea and the star jasmine growing from the back door clear down to the beach.
She stopped, finally, and the silence over the line stretched on.
I forced myself to speak. "I'm still teaching at the College," I said. I walked to the window and looked down on Kasturba Street, with its multitude of vendors and tourists.
Crates of tomatoes and mangos lined the dusty sidewalks beneath strings of pale, plucked chickens and wreaths of garlic and peppers. Pedestrians and bicyclists fought for space among the cars and rickshaws. I had thought--hoped--her ghost would be gone, but there she was, weaving through the crowd with a basket of fruit and dried peas, working her way toward my apartment. The smell of sweat and dung and frying meat hung in the air like a thick fog.
"I'm glad I found you," she said, then took a breath. "I need your help."
I pulled the window shut despite the heat. The sounds of traffic were muted through the glass. "Are you all right?" I asked carefully.
She paused before answering, and I imagined her standing with the phone cradled to her ear, her hand covering her face the way she did when she was upset. "I'm all right," she said finally. "It's Ravi."
"What has he done? Has he hurt you?"
"No, it's nothing like that. It's hard to explain. Please, Mitchell. Can you come today?"
I hesitated. It wasn't far, but to see her again, after so long--I wasn't sure I was up to it. I looked at my reflection in the window. Short, bristling brown hair across my scalp and chin. Sudipa used to say she loved my eyes, pale green against dark lashes. I wondered if she'd notice the gray creeping in at my temples now, or the lines forming at the corners of my eyes.
I squinted and could almost make out Sudipa's ghost in the glass: a dark, hazy form standing behind me. As I watched the image coalesced and her face became distinct against her glistening black hair. She kissed my cheek, and I imagined I felt the feathery touch of her lips.
"Please, Mitchell," Sudipa said again. It sounded like she was crying, but I couldn't tell if she or the ghost had spoken.
I looked away. Of course I would go. She was with me every minute of the day already. "All right," I said. "I'm on my way."
The train to Bombay Central was packed. I squeezed in to one of the crowded compartments as the train lurched from the station. Tobacco smoke and loud conversation swirled in the hot air around me. I was glad the trip would be less than an hour.
I glanced up to see the ghost standing at the edge of the platform, waving to me. She beckoned insistently, and I shook my head before I knew what I was doing. The man next to me stared at the empty platform, then back at me. I ignored him. I was used to it now, no longer embarrassed by the stares.
Sudipa took a few steps to keep up with the train, then swung herself up onto the car behind mine. I shook my head again, but smiled.
She was wearing the same jeans and blue cotton blouse as the day I first asked her out, so many years ago back in the States. Maybe she was trying to remind me of that day. She didn't need to, though. I wouldn't forget the way the sun streamed through the high windows of the campus cafeteria to leave strips of reflected light across the chipped Formica table tops and orange plastic chairs. The way her long black hair was pulled in to a loose knot at her neck, a few silky strands escaping to rest casually against her cheek, lifting ever so slightly when she breathed. Her eyes were a startling hazel against her smooth dark skin.
She had been one of my students in the morning section of my mathematical methods class at San Francisco State University. All that semester I watched her transformation from the shy girl who sat in the back of the classroom and rarely raised her eyes to mine, to the top student who watched my lectures with rapt attention and challenged me with insightful questions. As her manner changed so did her attire, from the loose saris of her native country to the jeans and t-shirts which were the standard student uniform on the campus then.
By the end of the term she crackled with life. She engaged in conversation about everything with the same delighted intelligence, from the taste of the cafe lattes at the student lounge to Gauss's law.
When she talked to me her attention was so fully on me I forgot that anyone else was there. I couldn't think about anything except her. As the teaching assistant, I wasn't allowed to ask her out; the guidelines governing student teacher relations were strict and explicit.
But the day after the semester ended I followed her to the school cafeteria.
She laughed when I asked if she would come for a ride with me up the coast. When she said yes, I didn't think I could be any happier.
We spent all that winter and half the summer at my small apartment near Golden Gate Park. In the evenings the breeze through our open windows brought the smell of the sea and the distant rumble of the waves against the shore. Nights I lay awake, listening to Sudipa's soft breath in the darkness.
It was impossible to believe it would end, though she had warned me.
"My family is searching for a suitable marriage partner for me," she told me one evening as we stood in the living room next to the window overlooking the ocean. I have no memory of the view that day, only her wide, sad eyes as she looked at me and told me she would be going back to Bombay.
"Did you tell your parents about us?" I asked.
She shook her head and turned toward the ocean. "They don't have to know."
"I'll come to India with you," I said. I tried to catch her eye, but she stared steadfastly out the window. I was finishing graduate school that year, and was certain I could find a teaching position in Bombay.
"You don't understand, Mitchell. It's already being planned."
"How can you marry someone you don't even know?"
Sudipa looked at me then, and her eyes were set with fear and determination. "If I don't do this, I'll lose everything. My community, my family. You can't understand what it's like."
"Marry me," I said. I took her hands in mine. "We have our own community, our own friends--"
"I can't simply give up what I've known all my life." Her eyes flashed with anger. "And you shouldn't ask me to."
She pushed my hands away and pulled her arms across her chest, hunching her shoulders as if against a chill wind. She rested her head against the window, and I watched the glass cloud over with her breath. Finally, without turning, she said, "You know I love you, don't you?"
I left the house without answering. When I came back later that night she was already gone.
But I was determined not to let her go so easily. I didn't really believe she would go through with it, that she wouldn't come back to me. Shortly after she left I moved to Bombay and found a temporary teaching position at St. Xaviers College.
While I struggled to understand basic Hindu and Urdu, and learned to haggle with street vendors, and grew accustomed to sweet cardamom tea in the afternoons, and became sick and then well again, and finally settled into my teaching schedule and found my way around the sprawling chaos of the city, Sudipa made her wedding arrangements and refused to see me.
The announcement arrived at the end of the summer. In beautiful gold script Sudipa's parents proudly announced the marriage of their daughter to the son of a well-known Bombay businessman. "Mitchell," Sudipa had written in small letters at the bottom of the card, "Please understand that I have to do this. It's just as hard for me."
I crumpled the announcement, walked out of my apartment, and threw it in the gutter, already overflowing with trash. Then I sat on the pavement and wept. She was wrong; it was harder for me.
Her ghost arrived the day she married Ravi. I had just stepped off the bus on Kasturba street and was five yards to my door when suddenly she was walking toward me. Her arms were outstretched in greeting, as if she had been waiting for me, perhaps watching from the window. My heart pounded happily and I stepped forward to embrace her, and then suddenly she was gone, and there was only the jabbering of the crowds and the roar of cars and the smell of burning tires and diesel fumes. Two old men in traditional red and blue Sikh turbans stared at me. I dropped my arms to my sides and stared into the dusty air where she had been.
I started to feel her presence everywhere. Matching my step during my evening walks, lying on the bed next to me in the mornings. I caught glimpses of her, real enough that I found myself maneuvering to avoid her in my small apartment, squeezing past her shimmering form as she stood in the doorway to the bedroom.
At first I thought it was just a memory, manifesting itself to fill my lonely days. But I knew I wasn't imagining her ghost when she started speaking. "Did you see the precession on Navroji Street today?" she'd ask, or "I talked to your sister about her new job." She said things that surprised me because they were exactly the kinds of things Sudipa would have said, but never had. She wasn't the distant and gentle nostalgia of a memory. She was raw, unpredictable, and her eyes sparkled with laughter or darkened in anger just like the real Sudipa.
Later that winter I heard through a friend about the birth of Sudipa's first child, and then the child's sudden death. I felt her loss, though still she wouldn't speak to me.
My teaching obligation was up after that year and I could have left India then, but somehow the weeks turned into months turned into years. I settled into my strange routine of busy mornings and afternoons at the College, and evenings with the ghost. And I was seeing more of her every day. I was afraid if I went back to the States she would follow, trailing after me like the forlorn and hungry dogs that roamed the streets outside my apartment.
I caught a cab for the five mile journey from Bombay Central station to the cottage. The driver maneuvered skillfully between buses and cars and donkeys, alternately accelerating full speed and braking abruptly. Eventually the huge apartment complexes of the city dwindled, giving way to the quieter suburbs of Malabar Hill. The warm, salty breeze caressed my face, and I closed my eyes, breathing in the familiar smell of the sea.
The driver stopped at the end of the short gravel driveway, and I stood staring at the cottage as the dust from the taxi's passage slowly settled to the ground.
The house was one of those built during the early part of the century, an elegant two-story Victorian, with a balcony running all the way around the second floor. But as I drew closer I saw the paint was mottled with brown stains from the sea air, and there were large gaps in the wood covering the front porch.
Low, bright orange flowers grew haphazardly here and there in the front yard. As I tried to recall the name of the flowers the door swung open and Sudipa appeared.
After all those years of seeing her ghost, finally I was looking at the real Sudipa again. I realized I was clenching my hands, my nails digging painfully into my palms. I forced myself to breathe slowly, to still the shaking in my limbs. I started across the uneven ground.
I had thought her ghost might disappear when I saw Sudipa again, but she appeared next to me as I walked.
I stopped in front of Sudipa. She wore a bright red sari, and her arms were covered in silver bracelets. But there were dark semi-circles under her eyes, and her mouth was drawn in a tight frown. She seemed smaller than the ghost, somehow, and I realized it was because she held herself hunched slightly forward.
So different from the ghost who stood casually with her hands in her hip pockets, taking in the house and the beach beyond.
"How have you been?" I asked. It sounded inane. I tried again. "Have you been happy?"
"What kind of question is that?" Sudipa snapped, and I almost stepped back from the forcefulness of her voice.
Then something in my face seemed to soften her. "I'm sorry," she said. "It's just ...." she stopped. She twisted her hands together and stared at the wooden boards of the porch.
I reached out and pulled her carefully to me. She relaxed in my embrace.
"Mitchell," she said, her voice muffled against my chest. "It's been so long."
I nodded against her soft hair.
Sudipa pulled away. She bit her lip, still clenching her hands together, and looked at me with wide, unblinking eyes.
"What happened, Sudipa?" I asked. "Has Ravi done something?"
"It's strange," she said. "You won't believe me."
I smiled reassuringly. Whatever it was, I was sure I had seen stranger. "Tell me."
"You knew I had a child?" When I nodded she continued, "He died in the hospital after he was born." She looked down for a moment, and I felt a rush of sorrow for her. "Ravi never got over it. He wanted a son so much. We were going to name the boy Mahesh. And then we started seeing him."
"Seeing who?" I asked, but I already knew the answer.
"Mahesh. We saw him first as a baby, then growing older, just like he would have if I hadn't--" she stopped, closed her eyes a moment. "He would just suddenly appear. Down at the market, or running on the beach. In our house was the hardest, because when we were tired and alone, we sometimes thought he was really there."
I nodded slowly and tried not to look at her own ghost standing next to me.
"Ravi became obsessed with Mahesh," Sudipa continued. "Whenever he saw Mahesh he followed him around. Finally, he did something--I don't know what--to follow Mahesh. And now he's gone. I mean he is here, but--" she faltered.
"Gone?" I tried to look past her into the dark interior of the house. "What do you mean?"
Sudipa led me through the narrow hallway to the back room. Ravi lay on a sofa against the far wall. He was thinner than I had imagined. His face was gaunt and there were dark smudges under his closed eyes. I walked over and put my face close to his, listening to his shallow breathing, then carefully pulled up an eyelid. The pupil was fully dilated, unseeing.
"He needs to go to the hospital," I said.
Sudipa shook her head vigorously. "No. A hospital won't help."
I straightened up, about to argue, and caught sight of the ghost standing next to me, half smiling, as if amused. As I watched she sat next to Ravi and put her hand on his forehead.
"He has gone to search for Mahesh," Sudipa said from behind me.
I turned my back on the ghost and faced Sudipa, who was anxiously clenching her hands together. "What makes you think I can help?" I asked.
"Please, Mitchell," she said. "I didn't know who else to call."
"You expect me to bring Ravi back for you," I said. I crossed my arms across my chest. It was cruel of her to ask this of me. "Why don't you just go after him yourself?" I struggled to keep my voice low and even.
Sudipa's eyes flashed. "You said you would help." But I could see through the anger in her eyes. She was frightened. She didn't want to go where Ravi had gone. It frightened me too, I realized, though I had been living with the ghost for years.
I shook my head. "Why do you want him back? He wanted to go. Let him stay wherever he is."
"He'll die, Mitchell. His body is still here." She stared steadily at me. "I thought I could count on you."
I clenched my jaw.
"He went to find his son," Sudipa said, her voice softer. "Wouldn't you have done the same?" She stepped forward, raising her hands in a pleading gesture.
When I didn't reply, she continued, "We haven't been able to have a child since Mahesh. He did it for me. He thought he could bring our son back." Her voice caught and she squeezed her eyes shut. Tears rolled down her face.
"Mahesh is dead," I said quietly.
Sudipa put her face in her hands and her shoulders shook as she wept. I felt the knot of anger dissolving as I watched her. Ravi wanted to meet his son. Maybe I would have done the same. I looked at Ravi's still form and wondered if I would be able to see his ghost, or Mahesh's. Sudipa's ghost still sat on the sofa, but as I looked around the room I saw no others. Only the off-white walls and the bare, tiled floor and through the window, the blue sparkling ocean.
I had somehow thought everything would change when I saw Sudipa. That the ghost would disappear, that Sudipa would return to me, and that we would go back to the life we once had. But here I was, finally with her again after so many years, and what I suddenly wanted was to be back in my apartment with the ghost.
I sighed. "Okay," I said. "I'll try. But I don't know if I can find him." And if I did find him, I thought, I wasn't sure I would try to bring him back. "Where did you usually see Mahesh?" I asked.
She thought for a moment. "Most often along the beach."
"Then that's where I'm going." I paused. "Sudipa, I need to be alone to do this." The truth was that I wasn't sure if what I planned would work.
But Sudipa didn't argue. "I'll wait here," she said.
The sky had dimmed to a dirty red, and the last of the sun's rays skimmed the wide expanse of water, lighting the wave tips briefly before escaping into the night.
I walked the shoreline, listening to the waves slap gently against the sand. The pebbles poked through my sandals. The ghost walked beside me, as I had known she would. How many times had she beckoned to me before, back in my apartment? I would follow her now, as I was sure Ravi had followed Mahesh.
I cleared my throat. "Sudipa," I said. It felt strange to be talking to the ghost. She glanced at me, but continued to walk. She had taken off her shoes and swung them by their laces as she walked, stepping lightly across the sand.
"Sudipa," I said again, and stopped walking. "Take me there," I said to her back. "Please."
She looked over her shoulder at me and smiled. The old smile. It was hard to place at once, the difference. But then I knew. It wasn't just happiness in her face, it was love. The real Sudipa hadn't smiled at me like that today. I blinked hard, and swallowed. I suddenly wanted to be part of the ghost's world. The place where she still loved me, where she had chosen me, where we had forged a life together. The need tightened around my chest and threatened to suffocate me. I stepped forward, holding out my arms, and the ghost turned, and stepped into my embrace.
And suddenly we were there.
It was abruptly daylight, and the sunlight sparkled so brightly from the water that I had to squint, and Sudipa was suddenly real in my arms. Real, warm, breathing, and holding me tightly, and then stepping back to look at me with affection. And it was real! I wanted to shout wildly and dance and run.
I was laughing and crying at the same time as I pulled her to me again and kissed her and stroked her hair back from her smiling face.
"What took you so long?" she asked with a laugh.
I looked around. We weren't in India, I realized. The houses were different, and the wind carried a familiar chill.
It took a moment to orient myself. Then I knew where I was: back home on the California coast. So she had stayed with me, after all. It was so close, I realized. This reality, half a world away but existing right on top of the other. I had passed from one to the other without even moving.
I looked around again, and a movement from the rocks out in the surf caught my eye. I stared, making out a small figure.
"Go get Mahesh," Sudipa said, kissing me lightly on the cheek, "before the tide strands him out there. I'll unpack our lunch." She started up the beach.
I watched her walk away. Was this really what would have happened, I wondered, or a dream? The sand under my feet was hot, the cry of the gulls shrill in the wind. I shook my head. It wasn't a dream. I started toward the figure on the rocks. The cold water reached my knees, soaking my sandals and my trousers, but I didn't care.
I didn't see Ravi until I had climbed up the small island of rocks and crouched next to boy. Ravi squatted further down on the rocks, looking out across the ocean.
He turned when he heard me, and his eyes narrowed. "Are you the father?" he demanded.
The boy looked up at me from the shell he was holding, his green eyes sparkling with happiness. "Look, a conch!" he said, holding out the shell to me. His hair was rich and dark, like Sudipa's. But his eyes were mine.
Ravi stood up and started toward me. His form rippled strangely, as if made of water.
"You don't belong here," I said.
"He doesn't belong here," Ravi answered, pointing at the boy. But his voice had lost its edge and he stopped moving toward me.
"Go back to your world," I said. "Mahesh stays here."
"My world," Ravi echoed, his voice soft. He slumped his shoulders. He was growing fainter; already I could see the ocean through him. "You're right. Mahesh wouldn't have fit in there."
I realized what he meant. Mahesh the green-eyed boy would have been an embarrassment to Ravi. I thought of something Sudipa had said. That she and Ravi couldn't have children. So Mahesh was mine, in both this world and the other. Only here, he had not died after he was born. I felt the cold wind bite through my shirt, though the sun still reflected brightly from the water surrounding me.
"Why did she do it?" Ravi asked. But he wasn't looking at me anymore; he seemed to be talking to himself.
"She loved me before she met you," I said. I had imagined saying that to Ravi many times. In my fantasies it was vindictive and gratifying. But now it just seemed cruel. I almost felt sorry for him.
Ravi shook his head sadly, and disappeared.
A voice called from across the water. I looked up to see Sudipa waving from the shore.
"This isn't what happened," I said. Mahesh looked up at me, uncomprehending. "It's what I wanted to happen," I said. I took a last look at the waves splashing against the rocks, the sun coruscating from the water, Mahesh's dark head bent in concentration once more over his find.
And then I simply let go. It was so easy, because I knew the other place had been right there on top of me all along.
I opened my eyes to darkness. The sand and pebbles were warm against my back where I lay, and the sound of the waves lapping against the beach whispered in my ears. I raised myself up shakily.
"Mitchell," a voice called. I made out the figure of Sudipa, running from the house.
"Thank you, Mitchell," she said, catching her breath. "Ravi's all right. He woke up."
I tried to discern her expression as my eyes adjusted to the weak light.
"Are you all right?" she asked finally, when I didn't speak.
"I'm okay," I said, my voice hoarse. Then I asked, "Sudipa, was Mahesh my son?"
She was silent. That was answer enough, but then I felt her hand on my arm. "Yes," she said.
"How did he die?" I could barely hear my own voice, but I couldn't stop myself. The years were falling around me like a thunderous waterfall, cascading me back to the Spring when I read that Sudipa's child had died. Now I understood what had really happened.
The hand was gone from my arm, and Sudipa's angry voice reached across the years and pulled me forcefully back to the present. "What are you implying, Mitch? How could you think such a thing?"
Before, I would have reached out to reassure her, to calm her. I had been swept along with Sudipa's moods, like a branch caught in a strong current. But now all I felt was a strange hollowness.
You didn't have to kill him, I wanted to say. But I didn't. It was over and done, and I wanted nothing more than to leave Sudipa's house and her sad past.
I watched her for a moment, her arms wrapped around her chest protectively, pulling her shoulders forward. She narrowed her eyes as she stared back, but her gaze was flat, the anger dulled with resignation. It was hard to believe I had once seen those eyes crackling with anger or wide with delight.
I turned and started up toward the driveway, and she didn't follow.
At the place where the gravel path met the main road, I paused and looked back toward the ocean, a dark mass barely visible in the moonlight. The wind was colder now, and I suddenly wished I had brought a sweater. But I knew by the time I reached the city the sun would be rising. And in the warm morning air the ocean would sparkle a deep blue, and the small flowers growing determinedly from the sandy soil would open up, their orange and red petals like tiny fires dotting the ground. Nasturias, I remembered, half turning to say the name aloud, then realized no one was beside me.
I looked around, startled. The air around me was strangely empty. No other presence. Only the soft whispering of the wind and the faint smell of lemon grass. The ghost was gone.
I lifted my head and breathed in deeply, letting the cool night air fill my lungs. I would start to pack when I got back to the city. It was time to go back to the States.
Just me, with no ghosts trailing behind.
I smiled and started the long walk back toward the station.