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Sunday, January 19, 2014

The Apparition of Priya Sethi by T J Benson

The Apparition of Priya Sethi by T J Benson

Priya Sethi was a meticulous woman; nothing escaped the trenchant scrutiny of her brain, fingers and broom, not the cobwebs that gathered in the ceiling corners of her living room, the dust settled at the back of the LCD television suspended from the wall or the mysterious contact numbers in her husband’s mobile phone.

On such moments as these, she would drop the phone and wear her henna tattooed hands on either side of her thickening waist like handles of a ceramic tea-jug, in aggravation that only peculiarly stubborn grime like these could bring. A couple of years back, when these numbers saved with curious names like ‘Baby’ or ‘Heart’ first surfaced, Njideka, 48 then, broke down in tears, claiming that they were members of his ancestral occult in his village who were after him, threatening to kill his darling Indian wife and two half-caste sons if he did not join their secret cult. Priya did not know what to say. Her newly married parents had moved to Nigeria in the late 50’s to serve as Doctors under the British Government and had her months later, so she had no knowledge for the spiritualism her country was renowned for. She never went to India either, her parents were honorably buried in Nigeria years later when they died and when the time came for her Masters in Gynecology, she only went as far as Yale. 

She met Njideka at Ahmadu Bello University in the 70’s, she was the only Indian student that year and he was the only course mate sympathetic to her plight. Boys ridiculed her mercilessly and she wanted to run away to India, without telling her parents, suddenly overcome with nostalgia of a country she had never known. She wanted to wear a sari, eat roti and greet any stranger she met on the street crowded streets of Mumbai ‘Namaste!’ She had been crying at the back of the class and making these plans when Njideka walked up to her. He did not tell her sorry or how it would get better, he only told her she was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.

So she had let him figure out what to do with his occult oppressors while she continued being his wife and mother of his children. This fateful day, the particular contact that disturbed her was saved ‘Sweetheart’ and she did not need to be a witch to know whoever the person was had nothing to do with the occult. It had happened to her Nigerian friends, had she thought it won’t happen to her?

She dropped the broom on the carpet and dropped herself into nearest leather cushion. She made sure she did all the cleaning, all these years, fearing her husband will look elsewhere as it was rumored most business men were prone to do. For the same reason, she did not employ any nanny either. She maintained her job as a Gynecologist with the Ministry of Health, in case his export business might go bad. Yes she had taken all the necessary precautions to secure them a happy life and his family hated her for it. His relatives had threatened and screamed and the more endeavoring like her mother in-law had lunged for her neck on several occasions. But Priya was a peaceful woman and to exacerbate their disdain for her, she neatly didn’t dignify their attacks with complaint. She had not married them, but Njideka.

Njideka who was now terrorized by an occult member called ‘sweet heart’.

She needed to take her mind off the things, wasn’t she supposed to be a calm peaceful wife? There was only one way to go about this, to pretend as though she had not seen the mischievous contact on the phone he had forgotten, before travelling for his business trip yester night.

She remembered their foodstuff was exhausted and mentally combed her room for her Federal Government pension receipt card. Njideka would kill himself before he let her touch it. She hauled herself from the chair and went to her room. The card was in a folder dated 10 years ago, when she retired from the Federal Government and started collecting pension. It felt a betrayal to her India, to serve another nation and get paid for it. As retribution, she paid attention to it from the safe distance of the internet since she couldn’t just go there. It felt sometimes like the house was tying her to Nigeria, preventing her from visiting her motherland. 

As she stood up from the bed her sons spoke to her, soothed her from the picture frame on the wall above the headrest that housed their hopeful faces, frozen in time by camera. They were undergraduates at Oxford University so there was no one in the house to ask where she was going. What she was going to buy for them before coming back. How she missed them.

It took effort to remember where exactly the Pension Office was, even though they had lived in the Abuja City for the last two decades. Maybe it was because the last time she came here was 3 years ago or maybe it was because the dynamic metropolis was in a continuum of structural evolution. Storeys rose even higher, road-side kiosks cleared away to permit billboards, crescents widened into roads and roads doubled into express ways. The monsters of glass and concrete loomed above her, almost obliterating the sun, lonely and devoid of people, like the city that housed them had reached the end of time. Observing all these things driving along Miatama District, she felt suffocated by an inexpressible sense of an ending.

So when Priya stepped into the ground floor of the Pension Office, she was rudely awakened by the brawling mass of people that infested the place, they were everywhere, on the zigzag queues, spread on mats on the ash-tiled floors, standing on the plastic seats, seating on the window sills, harsh and feral looking, under the florescent lights, everywhere. She couldn’t see them as individual people, they were one, a single organism of frail moving bodies, exchanging roles when one got tired from a position. Those tired of squeezing and pushing on the queue for example, resorted to replacing those hurling insults and curses from the window sills. Some got tired of that too and spread themselves on the tiles on the immaculate tiles to recover from their battle scars, for the mats had been exhausted. After regaining their strength, they patriotically marched back to the queue to fight. The enemies behind the counter were barely visible above the wrestling bodies. It was sad, old people, trying to collect from the cashier the years they had dutifully served their country in hopeful anticipation of secured tomorrows. They did not seem to be making any progress.

Undeterred, Priya stepped forward. She was not a newcomer in this country, she was born here. There was a hallowed silence and a pause when they saw her. Some shamelessly stared and Priya ached for them. Many Nigerians still nursed the superstition that foreigners carried something superior into their country, something that was supposed to make their lives a little better; her Muslim friend’s friends held them in high esteem for having an Indian friend. Of course laughing, she would remind them that she was not Indian but Nigerian, that she was born here, but it would not matter to them.

They began to step aside for her to walk up to the counter.

An old woman, presumably in her 60’s began screaming something about witches and marine spirits in Pidgin English. Priya mentioned in the hallowed silence that she just wanted to inquire her account balance for the benefit of those listening. They let her walk up to the desk and the cashier who had been panting, sweating profusely behind his desktop immediately composed himself at the sight of her and tried to act like attending to Indian-Nigerian Pensioners was something he did all day. How could he help her? She told him how she originally wanted to withdraw some money from her account but seeing the number of people on the line, she only wanted her account balance. The lanky young man insisted in a feigned American accent that it didn’t matter, he could do hers. She was getting to dislike him, his pretentiousness and wanted to ask him why. Because she did not look Nigerian? She calmly insisted on checking her account balance. 

After collecting her particulars including the Pension card, his face wore a confused countenance it wasn’t accustomed to. From where Priya stood, she could see him press the F6 button, the shortcut for refresh, over and over again. Then defeated he finally looked up. Something was wrong, impossible with her account. She did not understand. How? He handed her two sheets of freshly printed paper, containing all her details, year of registration, period of service to Government, age, all that. Nothing was wrong she told him, except that her account was empty.

He told her, gravely, that her name was printed in red ink.

There was a collective gasp in the sea of people. The woman who screamed something about marine spirits earlier was now talking about ghosts and pointing wrinkled fingers at Priya. The murmurs that built among these people only made Priya desperately curious. So what if her name was printed in red, she wanted to know. The boy looked sadly at her as the answer reared its ugly head at her, springing up from her years of being a Doctor; it meant she was registered as dead.

Everything started falling together in Priya’s head. She did not need the death certificate her husband had signed to know he had withdrawn all her money. Her sweat and toil in a country that was not her parent’s after he had killed her with the red ink. Walking down the aisle, she felt something die inside her. She was so immersed in her mourning that she did not notice the stupefied stares of people. She would have understood, for they had seen a ghost come to collect its pension. 

She welcomed the melancholy outside the building this time, it was only fitting. The sun was an impotent yoke in the azure sea above. She was not just a betrayer to her India, she was now a harlot, pro-bono. The woman in her, craved to call him and accuse him or break-down somewhere and cry or call a friend. But it was that woman, she realized with dread, that was the thing in her that had died. When she got back home she realized she hated the place, hated the memories she had with him, she hated with such violence and passion that consumed and surprised her. Except her boys. How did she tell them she was going to leave?


The word, full of purpose and action startled her. She wondered if she had done anything with purpose all these years without Njideka’s inspirational input. It was she who wanted to have children. When he realized she cherished the idea of having offspring to love and cater for, he tried to steal the originality of the idea from her; he wanted offspring to carry his family name. He bought all their clothes, insisting on suits for her even though she would have loved flay chiffon skirts. He decided hospitals she would work in and when the time came chose careers for their boys. 10 years ago, he decided for her that it was time she retired from her labors in the government. The only original thing she had left was her surname, Sethi.

How do you break your children’s hearts with such news? She knew they would pretend not to care because they were boys and their Father’s culture summarized emotional traits as effeminate so she considered waiting for them to come back to Nigeria for summer holiday. But she knew she would not spend an extra moment in this house than necessary, she sent them an email in three lines. Taking a deep breath, she walked into the 3-bedroom flat that she’d called home. As if begging for a last chance, it tried to talk to her, to remind her of the memories it held. The almost invisible distorted crayon alphabets from when Gozie started writing. The roundish worn dentures on the lichen carpet where the boys sat playing their video games. The dark circles engraved into the arm rests of the tea-colored leather chair, where fingers had clawed. The faint shadow of an explosion just above the Television where an empty bottle had narrowly missed it target one alcoholic night. The phone Njideka had left behind, on the book shelf…

It was the phone that held her gaze longer. It was desperately curious she thought, that a phone number will bring to precipitation in one moment things unspoken for years. Priya went to her room and began to rummage through her things in search of something that wasn’t Njideka’s idea. Her drawers. Her brown leather suitcases. Her jewelry box. She found nothing, not a single piece of cloth. Not an earring. That was when she started to cry. For things that might have been if her parents had chosen to stay in India, maybe she would have been born there. Maybe she would have been married at 18 and not have to fall into the arms of the only boy who did not ridicule her in school. In this moment of despair, crumpled on the bed like a wilted hibiscus, she remembered the only thing she had that was truly hers, which she did not share with Njideka, her surname. Yes. Ramalingham Sethi had given his daughter a wedding present, a silk gown and matching sari that she never saw reason to wear. In Nigeria anyway. She clawed and unraveled the compartments in wardrobe until the dress spilled out.

Wearing it gave her a new kind of joy, something beyond nostalgia, it was like her parents had somehow, come alive in the fabric, her people believed love superseded human life-time anyway. She felt young, new, her. She gathered up all her clothes in a pile outside and sprinkled kerosene. She dropped the phone, car key and jewelry Njideka bought her into the flames, like spicy ingredients sprinkled into a cooking pot. How joyously the flames leaped! She went back inside and picked her ATM card. It contained some salary savings she reserved for rainy days. In a hurry, like this opportunity to leave was only fleeting, she rushed outside the house like she would be forever trapped in it if the sun set before she left and hailed a taxi. She was gasping when she told the driver she was going to the Nnamdi Azikwe Airport.

She almost cried in relief when the cab drove her away from the malevolence of the house, the malevolence that had kept her captive for decades. For a terrible moment she realized she had not locked the house and Njideka was to come back from his trip that evening. The driver wanted to know if anything was the matter. No, she assured him with a specious smile. She continued smiling to herself until the taxi entered the express that will take them to the Airport, until it warmed her heart. Nothing was the matter, in fact there was no matter at all, the only inhabitants of that house she worried about were far away, not due to come back till summer. She thanked the driver at the airport and paid him the spare change she had left. Yes the hostess said there was one last flight to India. Why did these things have to be so dramatic, like the movies? Because she told herself, handing over her Mastercard, because one usually made the right decisions by narrowly missing the wrong ones. Because right decisions rarely come to us. 

It was in the Airport that she bought her a new phone, with her money. It made her giggle all the way into the plane, a woman in her late forties excited at buying something for herself for the first time. She sobered when she remembered she had to give her sons a kind of explanation. I’m going away for a while; call you boys when I get there.

She was overcome with childish delight when the plane left the ground. She had no care in the world; her sons were in Oxford. She had no luggage either; she was going back the way she came, with nothing but her parents’ spirits cloaking her. She giggled wickedly when she imagined the look on Njideka’s face when he came back from his trip that evening. She knew what his reply would have been if she confronted him. Sweetheart is the leader of the occult group, he had been blackmailing me, so I used your money to pay off, come on P, you never lacked anything, I made sure of that. Well she was going away from Nigeria; she did not know when she would come back. She wished she would though, for the sake of her children.

When she came down from the plane under a new kind of sun in New Delhi, her skin sang with pleasure and her heart gave a joyous leap. She even removed a sequin from her dress and placed the shiny thing on her forehead, as a bindi. The young taxi man waiting in front of the airport to pick her luggage was a little surprised when she came empty handed, but quickly recovered and closed his palms under his chin and bowed his head a little. “Namaste!”

“Namaste!” she replied, the only Indian word she knew, but it would have to do for now, she was going to take it one bit at a time.

T J Benson is a Nigerian short-story writer. His works have appeared in the 14th issue of the Sentinel Literary magazine, the Kalahari Review, Myne Whitman, He works as a Fashion columnist for the online magazine and he recently started an arts magazine His debut novel The Color of Silence awaits publication.

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