Saturday, October 10, 2009

Ghost on call

Kurali–Gnyamali had to be summoned. The brouhaha (make that brouhaha…hahaha) kicked up by Ganga, Kishmu and their entourage had wreaked havoc on Sitamma’s
“Kurali-Gnyamali, come immediately!” Sitamma screamed. There was instant
silence. Those were the days when instant coffee had not arrived in the small township where Sitamma lived. But instant silence was very much available—especially when the name of Kurali-Gnyamali, the instant silencer, was conjured up.

The gang huddled into a corner, looking subdued. “Stay this way,” ordered Sitamma and hurried into the kitchen to giggle in peace. The gang squeezed itself into the corner. Legs, hands and heads merged to look like a single respiring, perspiring organism. Like a king spider with tentacles swaying up and down and up and down and up and down. Armed with multiple heads and innumerable legs, it looked like it had descended on this world to preserve and protect the spider species. The king spider started to move slowly, hoping that Kurali- Gnyamali would not make an appearance. Until Kishmu, who was scared of anything with more than two legs, spotted a real spider bungee jumping in his direction from the ceiling.
“Aiyyo!” he screamed loudly. Instantly the king spider disintegrated into human beings of various shapes and sizes. Everybody except Kishmu thought that Kurali-Gnyamali had actually arrived. There were shrieks, yelps, screams, cries, screeches, bawls, shouts, barks, yells and howls which resulted in a strange mishmash of sounds.
“Kurali-Gnyamali!” Sitamma screamed again from inside the kitchen, unable to bear the hullabaloo. Immediately the entire bunch fled the house, from raw fear.
“Who is Kurali-Gnyamali?” Amirthavalli asked when the gang reassembled under their favourite tamarind tree.
“Kurali-Gnyamali…you don’t know Kurali-Gnyamali?” asked Kishmu.
“No, we don’t,” said Rangan a little angrily.
“Mmmm…” (Kishmu was doing some fast thinking. He had never thought about it at all, except that whenever Sitamma mentioned the name Kurali- Gnyamali, he and his brother Ganga froze with fear.) “Are you going to tell us or not?” demanded a voice from somewhere in
the group.
“They are Sitamma’s ghost friends,” Kishmu said quickly. “They can appear anywhere. They recite Kurals, which is why the name Kurali. They tell stories and even find lost things.”
“Yes-yes! They are very good at finding lost things,” chipped in Ganga who couldn’t forget the time when Kurali-Gnyamali had retrieved his Tamil classwork notebook from god knows where. What had happened on that eventful day was this. It was the day the school was reopening after the Dusshera holidays. Ganga was packing his bag for the day and just couldn’t find his Tamil classwork book. Now Ilango vaaddiyaar, a die-hard Tamil pundit and a terror among the boys, was well-known for the choicest Tamil phrases he used to scold students who forgot their
notebooks at home. Even hard raps from his cane were easier to bear than listening to confounding abuses like Kodari kambe, Eena puzhuve, Brahmahathi and Tamil drohi . Not knowing what to do, Ganga resorted to the only solution he knew, which was running to Sitamma and begging for her help.
“How many times have I asked you to check your timetable at night and pack your bag?” emanded Sitamma.
“This is not the first time something like this is happening. I always seem to be the one finding your geometry box, your school badge, your diary and also getting your father’s signature on the test papers.”
“Amma, please…one last time. I have looked everywhere but can’t find it,” pleaded Ganga.
“ Oho! If you have really looked everywhere then I’ll have to ask Kurali-Gnyamali,” said Sitamma.
Ganga had no time to ask who this Kurali-Gnyamali was. He was in a tearing hurry to reach school on time, failing which the headmaster would cane him in front of the entire assembly.
“Okay, please ask this Kurali to find my notebook,” Ganga begged.
“That is not so easy. You have to pay Kurali-Gnyamali a dakshinai, a fee to find your notebook,” said Sitamma.
“How much? I have only saved ten paise since last year,” said Ganga.
“No need for hard cash,” retorted Sitamma dryly. “All you have to do is run around the house thrice and clap your hands over your head saying, ‘Kurali-Gnyamali find my notebook, Kurali-Gnyamali find my notebook, Kurali-Gnaymali find my notebook.’ Only then will you get your notebook,” concluded Sitamma.
Ganga was dumbstruck, but not enough to give up the only chance he had of finding his notebook. It was sheer luck that his younger brother Kishmu had already left for school. Otherwise he would have become the laughing stock of the entire neighbourhood. It was either the disgraceful exercise of running around the house clapping his hands over his head or being admonished in front of the assembly on the very first day of the new school term.
“Let all disgrace happen within the compound of one’s own house,” Ganga muttered to himself and stepped out. He started running around the house mumbling, “Kurali-Gnyamali find my notebook, Kurali-Gnyamali find my notebook, Kurali-Gnyamali find my notebook.”
“Louder,” yelled Sitamma from inside.
So Ganga raised his voice a bit during his second round. He was finding it quite difficult to chant these stupid lines and clap at the same time. “Still louder,” persisted Sitamma mercilessly until Ganga was literally screaming. “Kurali-Gnyamali find my notebook, Kurali-Gnyamali find my
notebook, Kurali-Gnyamali find my notebook.” Meanwhile, and unfortunately for Ganga, next-door Kuzhali was drying her tresses on the terrace when she heard Ganga’s voice. Now Kuzhali had a soft corner for Ganga, though he was younger than her and despite Ganga’s obvious dislike for her. Whenever she crossed his path, Ganga used to cover his nose so as to not breathe the same air as she did. Despite his rude behaviour, Kuzhali still liked him. When she heard Ganga chanting what sounded like her name, she interrupted him. “Are you calling out for me?” she asked coyly.
“Shut up and po di ulla,” hissed Ganga.
“Why should I go inside? This is my terrace and I will do what I want here,” retorted Kuzhali.
Ganga was close to tears now. He decided to face Sitamma’s wrath rather than let Kuzhali the ogress know what he was doing. He ran inside. And what do you think he saw there?
His Tamil notebook on the swing! Ganga grabbed the book and rushed to school.
Conveniently forgetting the embarrassment he had gone through, Ganga started to wax eloquent about how Kurali-Gnyamali could retrieve lost things, recover things fallen into
the well and find hidden treasures. The gang listened to him with rapt attention.
“Can it find the doll I lost last year?” asked Pankajam.
“Er…it can, but it won’t because it is a family ghost. It is our family’s ghost and it will help only us,” said Ganga convincingly. “And know what? I have never lost anything after Kurali- Gnyamali came into my life,” he continued, sounding triumphant.
Now it was Kishmu’s turn to feel that he too had to contribute something towards promoting the family ghost. If Ganga knew so much, then he should know a few stories as well. After all it was their family ghost.
“Kurali-Gnyamali can narrate such interesting stories, that too in the form of couplets—just like the Tirukkural,” started Kishmu.
“Narrate one,” challenged Varadan.
“Yes! Yes! Why not?” spluttered Kishmu quite at a loss for words. He had no clue what a couplet was. So he decided to try his hand at rhyming. He cleared his throat and began,
“In times very hoary Lived a lion called Hari,
Who befriended the fox Pari-Nari
Despite his sore psori.
But ungrateful Pari-Nari
Gave his sore psori to Hari
Who felt very sorry
And that is the end of the story.”
The entire group was silent. Very silent. “You call this a story?” said Neelakandan sounding very bugged. “Why not?” countered Kishmu.
“Stories are supposed to have morals,” pitched in Rangan.
“Even this has a moral. Never make friends with people who have sores!”
“Stories are never this short. They are long…much longer than this,” said Pankajam.
“Well, if both the lion and the fox have sores and are busy scratching, how can any story happen? Just take this moral and keep quiet,” said Kishmu authoritatively.
By now it was time for lunch and the gang dispersed after deciding to meet under the tamarind tree an hour later. But before going home, Ganga and Kishmu extracted a promise from each one of their friends that they wouldn’t tell anyone about their family ghost. There were lots of uestions in the post-lunch session. It was obvious that the entire group had been thinking of Kurali-Gnyamali and the family ghost’s contribution towards the overall welfare of the Ganga-
Kishmu family. More obviously, none of them had kept their promise about not discussing Kurali-Gnyamali.
“My mother says there are no such things as family ghosts,” said Nattu boldly.
“What do you know?” countered Pankajam. “My mother said a Malayali ghost had possessed her cousin and that she had to be nailed to a tree for forty-five days before the ghost left her. Then the same ghost entered her aunt who had to be nailed to the very same tree. The ghost then left the aunt and possessed her youngest you vomit blood. There was a man in my father’s village who was slapped by the kaatteri while he was crossing a bridge. He became dumb after that and the only thing he wanted to do was to marry the kaatteri,” added Rangan.
“If that man wanted to marry only the kaatteri, then it could not have been a raththa kaatteri. It must have been a mohini pisaasu, a female spirit which bewitched him with her beauty and then struck him dumb. My grandmother always says that one should never comb their hair or dress
up or look into the mirror at night. It attracts the mohini to you,” said Amirthavalli knowingly.
“Actually, ghosts are supposed to live on drumstick and tamarind trees. They mostly hang upside down and grab anyone who passes under the tree at the stroke of midnight. Then they invite their friends to share the victim,” said Kishmu.
“Since ghosts have no legs they can conveniently wrap themselves around a branch,” said Ganga looking up at the tamarind tree they were standing under. “Aiyyo! We are all standing under a tamarind tree and tempting the ghosts by talking about them,” he shouted and started running. The gang followed closely on his heels. The terrorized gang spent a sleepless night. Any small sound made them jump. Everyone kept looking for ghosts which might be lurking around
to grab them. Some closed the windows tightly to prevent spirits from seeping in. A few chanted the kanda shashti kavacham to ward off evil banshees. Amirthavalli tossed her anklets into the well because her own footsteps scared her. Nandanaar applied lots of sacred ash on his forehead and chanted ‘Om Namah Shivaya’ before going to bed. Ganga and Kishmu however had lots of
things to sort out with Sitamma. They had concocted wild stories in front of their friends. But now they had to match the tales with their mother’s version of Kurali-Gnyamali. The question of utmost importance being if Kurali-Gnyamali was one ghost or two.
That afternoon, Ganga and Kishmu had spluttered like fools when they were confronted with this question. “Is Kurali-Gnyamali one ghost or are uncle. At any given point of time one person or the other from the family was nailed to the tree. Soon it got to be a very mundane affair. By the end of it all, the entire family had learnt Malayalam from the ghost! It even taught my great aunt how to make chakka pradaman,” she ended, feeling rather important.
“I have not heard about family ghosts, but I do know of Raththa Kaatteris, vampires who slap you till they two ghosts?” Pankajam had asked curiously.
Kishmu had said “one” and Ganga had said “two” simultaneously and had ended up looking like “filtered fools”—Sitamma’s favourite term of abuse. Her explanation for this analogy went something like this. To make original aromatic filter coffee, one filled the brass filter with freshly roasted, coarse coffee powder and poured boiling-hot water into it. Since the powder was grainy, the water took long to seep in. Hence first decoctions were akin to people who had thick, grainy heads that prevented penetration of any kind of knowledge and advice. Second decoctions were slightly better, the third even better and so on and so forth. But as far as Sitamma was concerned, she preferred first decoctions not only for her coffee but also for her friends and acquaintances. “Makes life easy,” she would say.
Coming back to Pankajam’s question on the number of ghosts, the gang had been relentless with Ganga- Kishmu on this issue.
“One or two?” they had demanded.
“One,” Kishmu had said with an air of finality.
“Then why is it called Kurali-Gnyamali? It can just be Kurali, no?” Rangan had asked.
“Why? I am called Amirthavalli, which is Amirtha + Valli. One person, two names. Likewise Kurali-Gnyamali,” Amirthavalli had explained. Not convinced with this explanation, the gang had persisted mercilessly. Luckily for Ganga-Kishmu dusk had fallen heavily on the surroundings, setting off an eerie glow. Spontaneously, the brothers had broken into a run shouting, “Kurali- Gnyamali!” And that was all that was needed to scatter the ghostbusters in
twenty different directions.
Back home, the brothers waited for an opportunity to check with Sitamma about the family ghost’s history. The opportune moment presented itself after they had eaten dinner.
“Amma, that Kurali-Gnyamali…” Kishmu started hesitatingly.
“Yes, what about it?” asked Sitamma who seemed to be busy searching for something.
“Are they one ghost or two ghosts?” asked Ganga, scared even to utter the name.
“Mmmm?” Sitamma asked, still preoccupied with her searching. “Are they one ghost or two ghosts?” Ganga said a little loudly.
This time Sitamma turned around immediately and looked long and hard at her sons. She knew very well that the boys and their gang had been thinking of nothing but spooky things all day. Then she quietly said, almost in a whisper, “Dusk has fallen. I have lit the lamp. I cannot utter the name or talk about ‘it’ now. But let me show you something.” She led them to the
door which opened into the backyard and showed them two flickering images, two moving shadows on the ground. “There…” she said and turned away. The boys stood transfixed. They ventured to look at the shadows bravely, thinking that Sitamma was standing right behind them. In the faint moonlight, the shadows looked eerie. They appeared and disappeared in quick succession…All at once, the two images merged into one and then disappeared. The boys were bewildered and pretty scared. All they could now see were banana trees swaying mysteriously in the evening breeze.
“Amma, we saw two…then one,” Ganga whispered.
“Yes, amma,” said Kishmu and turned to see an empty space behind them.
That did it! The boys ran into their mother’s room yelling, “Why did you leave us alone?” Quickly they smeared sacred ash on their foreheads, recited the kanda shashti kavacham and closed all the windows and doors. It was only then that they noticed Sitamma frantically searching for something. “What are you searching for?” asked Ganga-Kishmu simultaneously.
“My gold ring,” replied Sitamma.
“Why don’t you ask —— (remember, the ghost’s name was not be uttered after dusk) to look for the ring?” asked Ganga. Then he went close to Sitamma and whispered into her ear, “Why don’t you try that clapping-your- hands-above-your-head exercise?”
“U-huh?” said Sitamma distractedly. “Why can’t _______ look for it, amma?” repeated Kishmu.
“ Oh! It’s vacation time and ‘it’ has gone on a holiday,” said Sitamma absent-mindedly.
“But just now…we saw ‘it’ in the backyard, no?”
“No, no. What I mean is ‘it’ left on its vacation just a few minutes ago…” said Sitamma quickly.
“So that means ‘it’ won’t be here tomorrow?” asked Kishmu excitedly.
“Umm…err…well…no, Kurali- Gnyamali…have gone on a holiday. I guess I have to find the ring myself because Kurali-Gnyamali won’t be back for a while,” replied Sitamma, realizing what she had done. Sitamma’s reply was received with a big whoop of joy. The boys immediately opened all the doors and windows. They ran across to their friends’ houses to inform them about the ghost’s departure…There would be no Kurali-Gnyamali any more. least till Kurali-Gnyamali were on a holiday. Sitamma was cursing herself silently in the kitchen. The brouhaha in the hall had already begun with renewed gusto.

1. Kurals: They are didactic poems in the form of
couplets written by the Tamil saint-poet
2.Dusshera: A festival in October celebrating the
victory of Rama over Ravana (or of good over
3.Vaadiyaar: Teacher in Tamil.
4. Po di ulla: Go inside! in Tamil.
5. Tirukkural: A book of didactic poems written
by Tamil saint-poet, Tiruvalluvar.
6. Chakka pradaman: A Kerala delicacy made
out of jackfruit.
7. Kanda shashti kavacham: A hymn composed
for Lord Kartikeya, believed to ward off evil.

Ghost on Call was published in Chatterbox Children’s magazine in September, 2001.


  1. It was so funny. Especially the part where the boy ran around the house clapping his hands. I remembered my childhood as I read this. Like Kurali Gynamali, our mother used to scare us with 'Nattuchaal' (the afternoon demon who gobbled up kids who wandered out in the afternopon instead of sleeping) and Pottichakki (who came out in the night. She looked like a shiny mass of black). My sister and I never wandered out in the afternoon, thanks to my mother's convincing narration of 'Nattuchaal'. ;)
    Just loved it. Thanks for making me think of the fun-filled (at that time scary-to-death) moments! :)

  2. madam,
    really a good story after a long time. time... time... racing with time; what is the life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare - william wordsworth

  3. Am spellbound by the narration. Awesome and hilarious, as usual !!!

    Tamil vaadiyaar's scolding-LOL !!!!

    My dad used to use the term - KETPARAI KADIKKI - Whoever asks will be bitten. Me and my sister used to wonder and get scared sometimes by this Ketparai Kadikki. Later we understood.

    Now, I use the same with my girls - but they know I am just making fun and enjoy it !!!

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  5. Hi Jaya,

    I enjoyed reading this story. :) I want to subscribe to the Chatterbox Magazine. I've been looking for it in bookshops and everywhere on the net but I haven't been able to find a website url or address. Has the magazine folded up?? If it's still running could you mail me their snail-mail address?

    I'll greatly appreciate your help!


  6. Hi Kavitha,
    The magazine has sadly folded up. I will check back with the editor to find if you can order some back issues. It is worth a buy actually.
    Pl mail me at after few days to find out about this.