Adjacent to the burning ghat in Benaras, in the narrow winding maze of lanes filled with stores selling marijuana and scented cardamom, in a tiny one room apartment lived a girl and her mother. They would climb on their roof and watch the flames and smoke rising from the ghat. The mother told the girl that when she died, the girl should burn her there, because people burned there would reach moksha from the life and death cycle. But the girl said, “if you are not born again, who will look after me?”
“Someone else will,” her mother promised.
When her mother died, the girl was only nine. People told the girl that she was unlucky because her mother died on a Tuesday morning. Bad timing, they said, be careful, because bad things will happen to you. “Like what?” the girl asked. But they just looked at the ceiling and folded their hands and did not answer her.
The girl’s father would seldom come home. People said he had another family somewhere else. The father showed up, took the gold necklace and the bangles from the mother’s body, said he would be right back, left the house and did not return
On the third day, when the mother’s body started to smell, the girl covered her up in a bed sheet and carried her on her shoulder to the burning ghat. The priest said he needed money before he let her inside the waiting room, but the girl did not have any. The priest took pity on her, said the girl could go wait, but she needed to find the money for the burning. “Maybe a rich man will donate the money,” he said.
In the waiting room bodies were lined up, all covered in white muslin, nicely wound with ropes. It was there that the girl’s mother spoke to her. “See that body in the left most corner? Replace me with that body and take it home. Feed the body some Ganga water. As you pass by the market, pick up whatever food you want. No one will ask for money.”
The girl did as she was told and put the new corpse on her shoulder. As she stepped up from the ghat, the evening prayers floated in from the other ghats and the night market was in full swing. The girl picked up some fish, eggplant, potatoes, rice and tomatoes. The sellers were horrified at the sight of this little girl carrying a corpse and did not say anything.
Back in the house she fed Ganges water to the corpse and it became a woman. She was younger than her mother. She said, I will be your New Ma for the day. But at night I will become a corpse as I rest. The girl consented, and often in the evening she would carry the corpse to the night market and pick up whatever she wanted cooked. The corpse would just lie at night, sleep, and wake up before the girl did in the morning.
Words spread that the girl was a Tantrik. “She commands a corpse.”
People flocked to seek her blessing. But New Ma advised not to open the door to anyone until she was older. Ultimately the news got to her father and her father came. The girl opened the door because New Ma said she could. When he came in, New Ma asked for the jewelry of his first wife. The father did not have them. New Ma went with her father and got the jewelry. New Ma said she took care of the father and that he would not bother her anymore.
Soon the girl became a beautiful young woman. New Ma asked the girl to go to Kolkata and find work. She also asked the girl to take her to the Ghat and burn her before leaving. This time the girl had money. The corpse was doused in the Ganges and placed on the wood pyre. The girl took the torch and placed it on the face of the corpse. But instead of New Ma’s face, she saw her Old Ma’s face.
Ani Banerjee is a retiring lawyer and an emerging writer from Houston, Texas, who was born and brought up in Kolkata, India. Her flash fiction has been published in Flash Flood, Friday Flash fiction and other places. Find her on Twitter @AniBWrites and AniBanerjee.com.