THE TALISMAN: ARJUN SINGH
Arjun Singh lives and works in London, England. He has worked in consulting and investment banking in the past and currently works for a technology start-up. He enjoys nothing more however, than reading supernatural fiction by Stephen King and watching 70s Bollywood films. He hopes to publish a book of short stories soon.
Back to Stories Index
Amit checked the time again as he paced around the room. Finally, at 3 pm, there was a knock at the door.
“Come in” he yelled
“Sahib, Special delivery…”
Ramnath, the peon said as he opened the door. He stood just outside the room with the door ajar as if seeking permission to enter. Amit pointed to his desk. Ramnath entered the room and left the envelope at the edge of the desk. He began to speak but Amit cut him off.
“You can leave now. Close the door on your way out.” Amit said as he began to open the envelope. Sahib had changed, Ramnath thought as he walked back. It had been three years since Major Amit Singh had been posted to Defence Headquarters, New Delhi. Ramnath had been the staff peon for thirty. He liked Amit. He thought Amit was different – for one thing, he always chatted. Unlike the others, he treated Ramnath with respect. The first couple of years had been great. Then about a year ago, something had changed. It seemed as if Amit had given up. He had become moody and irritable. He had begun to act like he didn’t care about his career. He argued constantly with his CO (commanding officer). Sahib, he thought, had never fully recovered…Amit had waited a week for his posting orders. He had requested a forward area - somewhere like Kashmir. A year back he would have killed to have been posted to a family station like Delhi. Now, he just wanted to get out. It reminded him too much of Seema.
Ramnath’s assessment was eerily correct. No one knew that Amit had tried to kill himself twice. He hadn’t succeeded, yet. Amit read the posting order carefully. It’s easier to get yourself killed than kill yourself, he thought. All he needed was one mission into Kashmiri separatist territory… “SHILLONG?!” Amit yelled as he looked at the letter.
“You’ve got to be shitting me!” He picked up the glass of water on his desk and threw it at the wall. It shattered into a million little pieces. Ramnath heard the commotion and came in to clean the mess.
Situated at an altitude of 1500 meters, Shillong is a sleepy little hill town in North East India. Famous for its wet weather and home to just 250,000 people, it is a big change from bustling Delhi. Amit had been posted to a small village 20 kilometres outside Shillong city. The village of ‘Smit’ would be his new home for the next 3 years. He could hear Seema screaming. He tried to run as fast as he could. He reached the door and kicked it open. Inside the room, there was blood everywhere – on the sheets, on the walls and on the floor. He began to vomit…Amit woke with a start as the plane landed in Gauhati, Assam. He was sweating and disoriented. It was the same nightmare every time. He looked around and remembered where he was. After leaving the aircraft, he picked up his bags and waited for the staff car. The only route into Shillong was by road. He had a 4 hour journey ahead of him. The journey up to Shillong was uneventful for the most part. Amit was feeling a bit uneasy. He thought it was just fatigue. He had been travelling non-stop for about 12 hours. The driver was chatty initially but he soon realised Amit wasn’t interested. They stopped on the way at a small café. It looked oddly familiar, Amit thought… “Young man, do you know they call Shillong - ‘Scotland of the East’?” Colonel D’Souza asked as they sat down to lunch in the Officers mess. “No Sir, I didn’t.” Amit said. Also, I really don’t give a shit, he thought. “You will enjoy Smit – it is very peaceful.” D’Souza said. Amit couldn’t think of anything drearier than living in a village. That night he slept in the Officers quarters at the Shillong mess. At around 1 am, a couple of hours after sleeping, he woke up screaming. It was the same nightmare. Only, this time he thought he had heard Seema mention a ‘Talisman’ of some sort. He got out of bed, switched on the light and drank some water. He read a random magazine for about an hour and then fell into a dreamless sleep.
He hated Shillong already.
It was a typical winter’s day in Delhi. The temperature was 23 degrees, the sun was out and there was a light breeze. Seema and Amit usually spent Sundays just lazing about at home. Not this Sunday though…. They had been married for about 5 years and Seema was due in 3 months. They had known each other their entire lives. Seema’s family lived across the street from Amit’s folks so they had grown up together. After University, Amit had decided to join the army. Seema had thought it was an asinine decision. “It is dangerous and the money is bad” She had said. They had fought over it for days. In the end, Seema had relented and waited for Amit to finish training. They married as soon as Amit was commissioned. On Friday evening, just as Amit was leaving, his CO had called him into his office to have a word. “Amit, good news or bad news? Which one first?” Colonel Rajiv Seth had said. “Can I get the bad news first, sir” Amit had asked. “The bad news is your wife will have to cook for all officers of the regiment on Sunday. The good news is you have been promoted. You are now Major Amit Singh!”
“Thank you very much sir! Appreciate your support.”
Amit was happy. Major Amit Singh – he liked the sound of it. He had rushed home to tell Seema. She was ecstatic. She had called her parents and then his. That night they had made love. They were scared they might hurt the baby but were too excited to stop. It had been a while since the last time. Everything was in place for Sunday lunch. They woke up Sunday morning and started to get on with last minute preparations. Guests would begin arriving at 1 pm. Amit was setting up the bar – that was always his job. He was in charge of the drinks. Seema was in charge of everything else. He remembered he needed some lemons. “Seema, are there any lemons in the kitchen?” He yelled. “No, I used them all for the curry” She yelled back. “Ok – no problem, I am going out to the store to get some. Will be back soon” He said and looked at his watch. It was 11:30. He went into the kitchen, kissed Seema and picked up the car keys on the way out. “Seema, please lock the door” He yelled as he walked out. That was the last time he saw his wife alive.
The officers’ quarters at the mess in Shillong were quite basic, but comfortable. Amit had passed the rest of the night peacefully. While showering the next morning, he recalled the nightmare from the night before. They had begun about a week after his wife’s death. He remembered coming home from the store. It was almost 12:45. He had been stuck in traffic for 40 minutes. He was rushing. He noticed the front door was open. Seema never listened to him. She would never lock the door. She thought he was overcautious and he thought she was careless.
“Seema, I thought I asked you to lock the door” He said walking in. She was not in the kitchen or the lounge. He walked into the bedroom. “Seema, why are you like this? I thought I…” His words trailed off. There was blood everywhere. He began to vomit…Colonel Seth had arrived soon after. Amit remembered he was carrying a bottle of wine for the party. The rest of the day had passed in a daze. Seth had called the police – they had come, asked some questions, sealed the scene and left. Seema’s parents had come in the evening accompanied by his own parents. They were distraught. Seema was their only daughter. The police had said it was a robbery gone wrong. Apparently the burglar had come in through the unlocked front door. When he saw Seema, he had panicked. She had put up a fight and paid for it. A week later Amit had tried to kill himself and failed. That night he had had the first nightmare. They were quite regular now and he was used to them. It was always the same scene – the bedroom, the blood, Seema’s body. Last night was different though, he thought as he began to shave. He remembered hearing something else. Seema had said something in the dream – something about a talisman. He put on his uniform, collected his bags and waited in the mess lobby. The driver arrived at 9 am. As Amit sat in the car, the feeling of uneasiness returned.
Smit is 20kms from Shillong and situated on a mountain that overlooks the city. The population is just a few hundred people, most of whom work for the army. There is only one main road that runs through the village. This road is flanked by a few buildings like the soldiers’ barracks and junior officers’ quarters. There is also a small community centre with a large garden that is used for ceremonial banquets. Finally, there is the local medical practice and a small Hindu temple. Senior officers’ houses are located further down the road. Beyond all this is a small man-made lake. The drive up to Smit was uphill and the road was dotted with potholes. The last monsoon was particularly bad and it had taken its toll. It took them an hour to get up to Smit. Amit just couldn’t shake the feeling of uneasiness. It seemed to be getting worse as they got closer to the village. They entered through the only road passing the barracks and community centre. Amit had been allotted the large house at the end of the road which overlooked the lake. They approached the house and pulled into the driveway. That was when he saw Seema. She was standing in the veranda of the house looking out towards the driveway. She was smiling…
D’Souza was right – Smit is beautiful, Amit thought. The driver had mentioned that his house had been rented from a local politician. It was on a slight incline so it looked out over the village on one side. On the other side was the lake. There was a winding gravel driveway that led up to the front door from the main road. There was a veranda in front and a large garden behind. At the end of this garden were steps that led to the lake. The house itself was about 150 years old and made entirely of brick. It was originally built by the British in the late 1800s as part of a tea estate. It had 3 en-suite bedrooms, an old fashioned kitchen, a large lounge and an attic. Seema would have loved this place, Amit thought. He thought he had seen her standing in the veranda earlier. He had looked at the driver for a second and then looked back. Whoever it was had vanished by then.
There was another young officer stationed in Smit – Captain Asif Khan. Khan came to help settle Amit in. He began by giving Amit a tour of the house. For some reason, Amit felt he didn’t really need the tour. Somehow, he felt like he knew the house well… “Sir, that’s the last box. Will there be anything else?” Asif asked. “No, that’s it - thanks very much for your help Asif.” Amit said looking at his watch.
“Gosh! It’s ten thirty. Any plans for dinner?” He asked.
“Not really sir. Would love to join you.” Asif replied
Amit’s manservant, Thapa began to lay the table. Amit and Asif opened a couple of beers and sat down to eat. At about half twelve, Asif left for his house which was 2 minutes away. Amit watched TV for an hour and then turned in. At 3 am, he got out of bed and walked out into the back garden. He walked all the way to the end of the garden and down the steps towards the lake. Seema was standing at the edge of the lake. She was smiling…
“The talisman, Amit. Get the talisman…” She whispered.
Amit shot out of bed. The phone was ringing. He ran into the lounge to answer it. It was his father.
“Amit, beta, have you reached?” he asked.
“Yes Dad. All OK – I was just waking up” Amit said.
“Well rise and shine soldier. It’s 7 am.” His dad said and laughed. They chatted for a bit. Then Amit looked at his watch – it was twenty minutes past the hour.
“Dad, I better get ready for work – let’s talk later, OK?” Amit said and hung up His head hurt. He had not slept very well. It must be the new bed, Amit thought. He was glad he had not had the usual nightmare. He did however have a very vivid dream. He remembered seeing the lake, his wife.
“The talisman, Amit. Get the talisman…” He had heard Seema whisper.
He was thinking about the dream as he walked into the kitchen to get some water. Thapa was already there.
“Sahib, can I make breakfast?” Thapa asked. “No, just some coffee please” Amit said.
“Sahib, did you go into the garden this morning?” Thapa asked pointing at Amit’s feet. Amit looked down and saw there was dried mud and grass caked on his feet.
“Is everything in place for the party, Asif?” Amit asked. “Yes Sir – we are all set.” Asif replied.
“Good. The GOC (General on Command) and the local MP are going to be here and you know what D’Souza is like.” Amit added.
It had been a month since Amit had arrived in Smit. The work had kept him busy and he had settled into the house. He thought about Seema constantly and was just waiting for the right time. He was determined to kill himself. He could not bear to live without her anymore. The reason why he hadn’t done the deed as yet was because even though he couldn’t explain it, he felt he had some unfinished business. His nightmares had stopped but had been replaced by something else. He had started sleepwalking. It had happened 5 or 6 times since the first night in the house. He had slept and dreamt about Seema at the edge of the lake.
“The talisman, Amit. Get the talisman…” She always said.
On waking, he knew he had walked barefoot till the lake. His feet were always dirty and so were the sheets. He had not tried to prevent this though – it was the only way he could still see his Seema.
Durga puja is always a big deal in North East India. It is the most important festival of the region. The army had planned a large ceremonial banquet in Smit for the troops. D’Souza had put Amit and Asif in charge of organising the event. Amit was standing at the entrance to receive guests. Colonel and Mrs D’Souza were the first to arrive.
“Hello Amit. I came early just to check. The GOC is coming, you know” D’Souza said. Amit hated the way D’Souza micromanaged him. He guided them into the marquee. Several other guests followed. General Rahul Khanna arrived last. He was accompanied by the local MP – Mr. Alex Fernandes. Amit introduced himself and showed them in.
“So, are you the young officer for whom the army has rented my bungalow?” Alex asked
“Yes Sir, I am. It’s a great house.” Amit replied.
“Yes, so it is.” Alex said
Then he looked around and added in a hushed tone “Say, you haven’t seen Dr. Shankar as yet, have you?” He looked at Amit and chuckled. Amit looked puzzled.
“Dr. Shankar Sir? Not sure who that…” He was cut short by General Khanna.
“Amit – Everything looks great” Khanna said looking around.
“Major Singh – it was great talking to you. Hope you enjoy living in Smit. Let me know if you have any issues with the house” Alex added and walked into the marquee. The evening started with the prayer ceremony. The priest walked up to the stage and said a prayer of thanks. Amit was not religious and he found all this tiresome. The prayer was followed by Alex’s speech. General Khanna then started the festivities off with fireworks. As soon as these were over, people started making a beeline for the bar and the waiters started serving snacks. This promises to be another dull evening, Amit thought.
Sometime later that evening, Amit was having a drink alone. A short portly man made his way over to him. From his clothes, Amit recognised that it was the village priest. He thought he had seen the priest somewhere before. “Hello Panditjee. Great to finally meet you.” Amit said Panditjee had been the village priest for 40 years. Everyone in the village knew him.
“I have wanted to meet you since you got here. I came to your office a few times but they said you were busy. I have expected you for some time now - I knew you would be back. It’s great to see you again, my boy.” The priest said. Amit stared at him blankly.
“Panditjee… have we met before? I mean, you look familiar but I am sure we have not met this last month” Amit said.The priest laughed.
“Oh, we met way before that. Looks like you have forgotten. Come and see me on Sunday and I will help you remember.” He said.
“Help me remember what?” Amit asked mildly irritated. He was beginning to lose his patience. He didn’t like riddles.
“I will help you remember where to find it, my child. I helped Dr. Shankar and I can help
you.” Panditjee said
“I have no idea what you are talking about. Looks like you have had a few drinks Panditjee” Amit said and looked away.
Panditjee got up to leave. He turned back and looked at Amit. His face hardened.
“I know about the Talisman, Amit. Come and see me on Sunday. We need to talk.” He said and made his way over to the exit.
Amit was stunned. His eyes followed the priest as he exited the marquee.
Despite sleeping late, Amit woke early on Saturday. In fact, he had hardly slept at all. His mind was racing. He was trying to make sense of last night’s events. Both, the priest and Alex had mentioned “Dr. Shankar”. Amit didn’t remember meeting any Dr. Shankar during his time in the village. He was also troubled by his rather cryptic conversation with the priest. Panditjee seemed to know about the Talisman. He got out of bed and phoned Asif. Asif’s sleepy voice came on the line.
“Asif – Amit here. Sorry to wake you so early. We need to talk. Why don’t you come over for breakfast? It’s 7 am now. Shall we say 8:30?” Amit asked. “Yes sir – of course. Is everything alright?” Asif asked.
“Everything’s fine. I just need…to check something, that’s all. Come for breakfast and we can talk.” Amit hung up.
Asif arrived an hour later looking troubled.
“Sir, I told the cook last night to take it easy on the chillies. Next time, I will make sure…” He began. Amit cut him off.
“Asif, don’t worry – everything was perfect last night. You did well.” Amit said They made their way to the dining table. Once Thapa had served them and left, Amit began,
“So, I didn’t see Dr. Shankar at the party last night.”
Asif looked at Amit and laughed.
“Nice one sir.” He said.
“What do you mean?” Amit asked not quite understanding the joke.
“Well, you asked about Dr. Shankar, sir. You were joking, right?” Asif explained
“No I wasn’t. That politician and Panditjee mentioned him yesterday but I don’t remember meeting him this last month.” Amit said.
“Oh I see. Well, there is no way you could have known. You haven’t been around here that long, I suppose. It’s a long story sir” Asif said.
“I’m all ears” Amit replied.
“OK – well, it was before my time. I mean this story was already quite old when I was growing up in Shillong. I believe this house belonged to Dr. Shankar. Apparently, he vanished under mysterious circumstances about 30 or 40 years ago. No one has seen or heard from him since. My mother says that around 7 years or so after he disappeared, the village authorities declared him legally dead. They never found a body though. This house was auctioned and that’s when Alex bought it.” Asif finished.
Amit was puzzled. He now understood what Alex had meant when he asked if Amit had seen Dr. Shankar – a poor attempt at a joke. But the priest had said something about helping Dr Shankar… “Oh, there’s one more thing sir.” Asif continued.
“What’s that then?” Amit asked “Well, they say that when the doctor didn’t show up for a house call one evening, they sent someone to fetch him. This chap walked in – the front door was open. Apparently, he found Dr. Shankar’s wife lying dead in the bedroom. There was no sign of the good doctor of course. Apparently, when they conducted a post mortem on her, they found that she had died of natural causes – a heart attack, I think. The doctor had probably come home from work, found his wife dead and then…. well, then no one knows what happened to him. He had left a small note by her body before disappearing.” Asif said
“What did the note say?” Amit asked
“Wait for me...” Asif finished.
Amit woke at 8am on Sunday morning. He had had a restless night. He had seen Seema again. She was by the lake asking for the Talisman as usual. He looked down at his feet and saw caked mud and grass. He recalled his conversation with Asif…. He was curious to see what the priest knew about the Talisman and Dr. Shankar. So, he showered, ate breakfast and left for the temple. It was a 10 minute walk from his bungalow. Panditjee had just finished his morning prayers and was standing outside.
“Ah, Amit. You decided to come. I am glad.” Panditjee said.
“Yes – against my better judgement, I might add” Amit said.
“Lets go inside” Panditjee said ignoring the barb.
Amit walked in. The temple was empty – strange for a Sunday morning, he thought. There was a large sitting area in the centre and in front of it was a donation box. Beyond that, there were small statues of various Hindu gods – Shiva, Ganesh etc. There were a couple of bells hanging from the ceiling. It was a standard Hindu temple, for the most part. The only peculiar thing about this one was that there was a tree growing in the middle of the room. Amit looked at the tree and recognised it at once. That familiar feeling of Déjà vu swept over him again. He was positive he had seen that tree before.
“No one will disturb us today” Panditjee said from behind him as he locked the door.
Amit felt a bit uneasy. Where have I seen this tree before? He wondered. He heard footsteps behind him. He turned to look around and saw Seema walking towards him. She was smiling…
That was when he fainted. When he came to, he was lying on the floor and Panditjee was kneeling over him. He had a glass of water in his hand. Amit took a sip.
“I know this is a bit overwhelming Amit” Panditjee began.
“But you must listen to everything I say very carefully. It is very important that you remember. Otherwise…” He continued,
“I have been the only priest in these parts for the last 40 years. About 10 years after I took over from my father, a young couple came to see me – Dr. Ravi Shankar and his wife Vidya. They seemed very worried. They had been married for about 7 years. They had both recently moved to the area. I believe Ravi had bought the house you are currently renting.”
Amit said he knew and told him about the conversation with Asif the day before. “So, you know how the story ends. Here’s how it begins...” Panditjee continued “Ravi and Vidya loved each other very much. They had spent about a month in the area and had settled in quite well. Ravi was the only doctor for miles so almost everyone in the village and surrounding areas knew of him. Like I said, they appeared quite worried. Ravi explained that Vidya had been diagnosed with a terminal heart condition. It was only a matter of time…” He paused to have some water and then continued.
“Do you know, Amit, that we Hindus believe that the human body is just a vessel? A vessel for the soul, actully. We believe the soul persists even after the body is destroyed. When you die, your soul looks for and eventually inhabits another body. Reincarnation, my boy. It is a fundamental part of the religion and it has been proven scientifically as well. You may not believe this, but I have seen it with my very own eyes. Tell me Amit, have you ever experienced Déjà vu?” Amit was silent. He remembered the café on the way from Gauhati to Shillong – it had seemed so familiar. He thought about how he knew every nook and cranny of Alex’s house despite having never lived there. And then there was the tree inside the temple – where had he seen it before?
“I thought so” Panditjee said and smiled.
“What if there was a way for you to be with your wife again Amit?” He asked.
“Even if reincarnation was possible there is no guarantee that you will be with the same person again. You could be reborn in different parts of the world.” Amit replied. “And that’s where the talisman comes in, my child. It was passed to me by my father and to him by his father and so on for generations. I gave it to Ravi so he could be with his Vidya again. And, I believe he was – until a year back anyway…” Panditjee finished. Amit looked out of the window. It was beginning to get dark.
Amit walked home from the temple at around 8 pm. Everything was beginning to make sense now. He asked Thapa to make him his favourite curry that night. Finally, at 11 pm, he switched off the lights. He was asleep within minutes. He knew the dream would come that night.
At 1 am, Major Amit Singh woke up with a smile on his face. He began to walk towards the back door. He noticed that it was an exceptionally clear night as he stepped into the garden. The moon was bright and he could see the stars. He saw Seema in the distance by the lake. He walked up to her and kissed her. She smiled. Then he started wading into the lake and switched on the waterproof torch he had carefully kept by his bed before sleeping. He swam to where he thought he would find it. He dove down and began to search the murky water. He didn’t have to look far. Through the hazy water, he could just about make out a human shape. The talisman was around Dr. Shankar’s corpse. He unhooked it and put it around his own neck. Then he slowly exhaled till all the air in his lungs was gone. Seema would be waiting…. The next morning, Thapa called Asif in a panic.
“Sir, Amit sahib has vanished. I have looked everywhere and there is no sign of him. When I came in this morning, the back door was open and there was a note on his bed”
“What does the note say?” Asif asked.
“Wait for me...” Thapa replied.
Next Story: ...........................................................................................................................................