Magazine article New Internationalist

"The Book of Shadows"

Magazine article New Internationalist

"The Book of Shadows"

Article excerpt

Bitiya is a young university lecturer from Delhi, whose face has been disfigured in an acid attack. Her fiance had committed suicide by hanging himself and, blaming Bitiya for his death, his sister takes revenge by throwing acid in her face. In this extract from The Book of Shadows by Namita Gokhale, the main character moves between different levels of unexplored consciousness as she tries to grasp her new reality.

[Graph Not Transcribed]

In the flat light of my hospital room, of my clean white hospital room which still smelt of construction, my hospital bed which did not creak, this new environment so disconnected from the final moment in that month of insanity - in this room without shadows, I felt contrition. Not regret at Anand's death - I hadn't killed him, of that I was sure - and not even anger at his sister's revenge. No, I felt contrition. Love, touch, joy, passion, the hard reality of my best friend's husband secure in my welcoming womb, the elation of being alive, of riding life - these were the culprits. I felt safe in that room without shadows: no harm could come to me there. My mind too yielded its recesses, its secret pockets of pain and hope and expectation, and lived for the one clean moment of inhalation and expiration.

My face had been banished from memory. Even in the bathroom they had taped up the mirror so that all I could see when I brushed my teeth in the mornings was a white sheet of paper that flapped faintly when the exhaust fan near the window (the barred window) was switched on. This was a new, fancy hospital, a plush and expensive hospital in the outskirts of Delhi, they were full of care and concern and newfangled ideas about the psychology of the patient.

* * *

After great pain, a formal feeling comes -

The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs -

The stiff Heart questions was it He, that bore,

And Yesterday or Centuries before?

Emily Dickinson, here in Ranikhet, in this bed which creaks, in the candlelight (the power has gone, a wire snapped, a pole fallen) with the insistent rhythm of the rain on the slate roof and a world of shadows closing in around me. I do not sleep at night; I am afraid of closing my eyes. I dread both dreams and reality but most of all I dread the half-light of that moment when one is not yet asleep, when the realities of night and day interlap, when the will is suspended and unreason begins its reign.

As a child, I was never afraid. My sister would whimper and cry at the slightest excuse or provocation, but I possessed a secret, hidden pool of resilience and belief that lay submerged somewhere between my mind and my young bodyscape, which I could access at will. As I grew older I forgot the way to this dream pool, and then, finally, it dried up. Now the shadows overtake me.

During the nights, I am possessed by the most dreadful sense of urgency, and the gentle eyes of our old Bhotiya dog, Lady, light up the dark that fills my room and save me from drowning. It is Lady's persistent breathing that keeps me sane through the nights, the kinetic nights when words and phrases from my childhood crowd the room, illuminating faces I can remember but do not recognize. It is on such nights that I put on the lights and count the rafters (there are forty-two of them) and blank out those memories which still flit between the shadows.

My uncle in Bangalore had bought the house when we were very young. My sister and I had played in the garden in the summers, we chased the butterflies, plucked the hydrangeas, killed wood beetles and buried them near the stems of the climbing roses that clambered over the veranda. When evening fell and the shadows lengthened we would retreat into the security and safety of the house.

An Englishman who had never lived here had sold the house to my uncle in an inordinate hurry. Lohaniju came with it: Lohaniju who told us stories; Lohaniju who held us tenderly when we stumbled on the steps or were stung by the nettles that grew high and wild on the tennis court. …

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