FICTION: Fish Ghostess

My grandmother’s ghost hangs on the coconut tree. I have repeatedly suggested that the mango tree has sturdier wood—she wouldn’t want to fall on some coconut thief’s innocent shoulders and haunt him for life, would she?—but the coconut tree had been her pride. Every summer, she’d make the next-door neighbor’s servant boy climb it to pick out the green coconuts. Now she guards the tree as the fruits come and go, suffering under my neglect.

She can access the kitchen from the coconut tree.

“I have laid out your fish,” I say, pointing to the plate of raw carp I’ve placed on the counter. When I’m at work, she’ll temporarily abandon her bat-like position on the large but delicate branches and twist her body, half upright and half the opposite. She’ll reach her hand into through the ornate metal bars of the window and grab the fish with her translucent fingers. I only caught her doing this once when I unexpectedly entered the kitchen to get started early on my maacher jhol. She prefers to present herself to me in the upside-down hanging position.

“Did you put salt on it?” she asks, smacking her lips.

I had heard of mechho bhoots, fish ghostesses, before. Like most people, I’d dismissed the concept as an urban legend to cloak the stealing of fish by Bengali widows of the past who could no longer indulge in flesh, abstinence from their beloved fish preparations their imposed mourning for husbands they often didn’t even care for. Then, my grandmother got swept up in a deluge in Kedarnath—the irony of a severely God-fearing woman dying of a natural disaster while on pilgrimage—and turned into my personal mechho bhoot.

“Yes,” I say. “Do you want powdered chilli on it, too?”

She smacks her lips again. I smear red chilli on the fish and wash my hands.

At the shop, I miscount change for two teenaged girls.

“What an idiot,” one of them murmurs as I correct my mistake. She seems the age to be looking forward to a college that will lie to her about her prospects, letting her look down upon me as a simple neighborhood shopkeeper in this sleepy part of Kolkata.

In the evening, my childhood friend Shibu comes to buy shampoo.

“How many customers did you have today?” he says. I shrug. He knows the answer already.

“Please come start teaching at my academy?” he says, pointing across the street in the general direction of the two-room basement establishment he had to teach people basic computers. “I’ll let you teach Word and PowerPoint. I’ll keep Excel.”

“Five rupees,” I say, handing him the shampoo sachet.

“Even your customers are buying things off of computers these days,” he points out. There’s a disease spreading all over the world, and people are in quarantine. The government allowed shops like mine to open, but customers would rather trust the sanitized illusion of things coming from far away in tightly packed boxes and no idiot shopkeeper to face.

“We can have a good future,” he says.

I ignore the implied togetherness in times to come.

He waits for me to talk. I don’t. He leaves.

Since my grandmother appeared on the coconut tree, six months after her death, words have become a chore. She was the one washed away in a holy river, and I am the one living adrift.

Back at home, I go to our excuse of a backyard. My grandmother painstakingly planted the trees. “A respectable man always has a bigger garden than he has a house,” she always said, a common saying. That was not true for us, with the small strip of land behind our house now stinking of overgrowth and disease, but you wouldn’t know it from her pride.

“How about some oil next time?” she says, frowning. She sways in the wind. “The old lady in the next lane got prawn dipped in coconut curry the other day.”

“She stole it,” I say. I know which dead old lady she is talking about. Her grandson had a party and must’ve prepared delicacies for her to sneak out of the kitchen. They must not have noticed. Full families never notice the ghosts.

“I want prawn curry next time,” she says.

“How about some egg curry?” I say.

She shakes her head (it goes three-hundred-and-sixty degrees a couple of times).

I sigh. I know what will happen if I don’t oblige.

It happens anyways. At night, my grandmother haunts me more than usual. She flies around the room, round and round and round, engulfing me in the whirlwind of her movement. I feel life seeping out of me. I haven’t ventured outside of our shop-cum-house in ages, adhering to the rules of quarantine. My grandmother’s seen me crying from cabin fever. She knows my biggest fear now is the walls closing in on my loneliness and that is exactly what she simulates all night.

At times like this, I wish my mother would float back in one day. I’ll happily forgive her for leaving me for a man. My grandmother provides me no companionship and denies me solitude. At least my mother chose to subject me to abandonment alone.

Two weeks later, more restrictions are lifted by the government. I buy prawns for my grandmother. I give her all of it, myself sustaining on fried potato peels with rice and lentils.

“Now I want big carp in spicy mustard sauce,” she says.

“There’s a food shortage,” I tell her. She snarls at me. At night, she tortures me again.

The following evening, the winds begin to blow. They’ve been talking about this for days now, the disaster on top of the disease, the worst cyclone in a decade. I remember the last one. It filled our shop with water. I had an aquarium then, full of little fish in bright colors I was planning to sell, and they all swam away in the grey water. I was resentful of them. How could they choose the disgusting liquid rising out of the open drains over my clear aquarium?

When the downpour begins, I close the windows but the howling outside is too similar to my grandmother howling in circles as I lie in bed. I curl up on the floor and cry.

Two days later, it stops.

I open the windows. My street has gone from asphalt grey to green, completely covered in fallen trees wrapped in electric wiring. My lights flicker and go out. I run to open the back windows.

The coconut tree lies on the ground. My grandmother is gone. She got carried by the wind and she’ll stay where she lands till another gust blows her back to me.

My neighbors begin to emerge from their homes, terrified question marks on their faces. I inhale deeply, smelling the petrichor. It smells like freedom to me.

Shreyonti Chakraborty is an Indian writer and architect currently pursuing a Ph.D. in the US. Her short fiction has been published in Havik magazine and The Roadrunner Review and her journalistic works have appeared in Hindustan Times.

Image: The fishes of India; being a natural history of the fishes known to inhabit the seas and fresh waters of India, Burma, and Ceylon (1875) (wikimedia)

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