Basic Instincts by Fehmida Zakeer

A pile of shattered tiles and four pairs of incredulous eyes. Deepa couldn’t believe she had actually pushed Dev’s girl just as she was about to cross the threshold. She felt perplexed. Of late she had begun to have premonitory dreams again. Usually they worked to her advantage but it seemed as if this time, her instincts had gone awry. If she had not pushed her, the tiles would have crushed Tara, it would have been that simple. Bad timing for involuntary reactions, but there it was – she was a heroine now.

Deepa looked at the shards of reddish black terracotta and felt choked. It was as though one of the pieces had somehow jammed inside her throat, just like the ball of rice that had refused to go down at dinner a fortnight ago. They had been finishing up when Dev’s call came. After a long string of monosyllables, Aunty clicked the phone shut and sat still. When she started to speak, she chose her words carefully and said, ‘Dev’s coming the week after next, in time for Anu’s wedding … he is bringing the girl home, wants us to meet her. Seems he is serious about her.’ If Aunty and Anu had not been concentrating on Uncle’s reaction they would have seen Deepa struggling to swallow and reach with shaking hands for the glass of water.


Dev was helping Tara get up. He seemed to have become fairer than ever. Do all people become light complexioned when they go abroad? Maybe that’s what she ought to do too. She shook her head in an attempt to focus. Tara was coming towards her with a tremulous smile. She hugged Deepa, ‘Thank you for saving me.’ Dev gave a thumbs up sign, but Deepa noticed that his grin was a trifle shaky as he asked, ‘Deepa, still going strong?’ Anu squeezed Deepa’s shoulders.


Since Dev was busy with wedding invitations and such, and Anu housebound, being the bride, Tara became Deepa’s responsibility.


Aunty told her, ‘Take her around Deepa, give her a glimpse of our way of life and customs.’


Deepa wondered what they would have done if she had taken up her new job and gone to the city. Her employers had indicated that they would like it if she started immediately. But she couldn’t turn down Anu’s plea, ‘Stay till the wedding.’ The memories of a shared childhood helped her make up her mind then. But now she wasn’t sure.


Deepa took Tara to the family pool the next day. ‘Wow, this is fantastic.’ Tara walked through the tiled doorway and drew in a deep breath, ‘A natural pool right in your backyard, I love this.’ Her eyes sparkled, mirroring the glitter of the rippled vein of gold twinkling on the creased surface of the pool. Dark green waters lapped against the age darkened laterite walls on three sides while it gently played at the bottom of the steep flight of steps going down. Two towering jackfruit trees stood on the high ground overlooking the pool at the far end, two halves of a canopy rising majestically through which disjointed beams of light rained down to the pool, dodging the intertwined branches of the trees.


Tara jumped into the pool causing the placid waters to swing about violently. The wayward ripples churned up memories in Deepa’s mind. She could even now hear the giggles and laughter, as they had raced as children, trying to catch the sun speckled ripples, pretending they were grains of gold thrown down from heaven. In her teenage years, Deepa had secretly wished that the childhood game would magically come true and she would actually trap a golden nugget. She knew exactly what she would do with it: smelt and shape it into a thali to make it the yoke by which she would be tied to this family and more importantly, to Dev.


Tara beckoned to her to join in. Suddenly an elaborate scene formed in her mind – Tara’s legs caught in the leafy tentacles coiled haphazardly under the weight of the water, her struggle to break the wall of water and Deepa’s face grotesquely arranged in a drawn out wail. Deepa shook her head as much to Tara’s invitation as also to dislodge the picture.


The next day Tara wanted to explore the shady grove behind the house. They wove through the trees and crunched leaves beneath their feet as Tara told Deepa about herself. ‘I am completely city-bred, born and brought up in Melbourne,’ she explained, ‘my father is from Kashmir and my mother is a Singaporean. I can count the number of times I have come to India. It is refreshing, the change in scene, so picturesque.’


They reached the huge banyan tree under which a shrine to the serpent god stood. ‘Don’t go too close, there could be snakes. We perform pooja here once every year to appease the serpent god,’ Deepa cautioned and looked around warily. She half hoped that the said god would put in an appearance and scare off Tara. Forever.


Low lying branches encircled the stone platform on which the idols stood, shielding it from the harsh rays of the sun. A veil of silence hung around the place, disturbed at times by sudden, soft rustles as though in warning. If the eeriness unnerved her, Tara showed no signs of it and displayed a childlike curiosity. A long piece of lacy transparent skin crisscrossed with brown lines lay just beyond the stone platform and Tara gave a cry of delight. She walked over to take a better look. ‘Is it…’ she began.


‘A snake skin yes …’ Deepa said and Tara knelt down for a closer look. Deepa imagined the sloughed off skin filling up and lashing out with quick bites, but of course no such thing happened. Deepa tried hard to dislodge the tangle of thoughts coiling inside her and robbing her of her sanity. If she had met Tara in different circumstances she would have actually liked her, would have liked to be friends with her.


Just then, Tara spied an old well further down and walked over to it. She braced herself on the moss-covered bricks and looked deep into the well. After that, Tara wanted to go to the place everyday. They took to visiting the place after lunch. At this time of the day, as though by agreement, life came to a standstill in the village. The roads emptied out and small shops partially downed their shutters as their owners spread out jute mats behind tiny counters and snoozed. Even the animals – dogs, goats, hens – stopped their ceaseless wandering and took shelter in the shade. Tara and Deepa walked through the grove plucking baby mangoes from low branches till they reached the old well covered in moss and ferns. They sat on the rocks and relished the bitter sour juice of the tiny mangoes as they chatted. Tara would sometimes jump up and look down the well prompting Deepa to question her fascination for it, ‘There is something so romantic about it – look it is so deep, many people would have come and taken out its water, washed their clothes,’ Tara said, her eyes flashing.


One day Tara asked, ‘How is it,’ she began and bit into the mango in her hand, ‘to be psychic?’


‘But I am not psychic.’ Deepa said.


‘You do get dreams, glimpses about future events.’


‘But all that is out of my control, I cannot look into the future as such. I just get these visions,’ Deepa smiled.


Tara banged her hand on the rock and then asked, ‘Have you ever had any dream about some event in your life?’


‘Only once, about my parents, I told them not to go out that night, but they just laughed, wouldn’t believe me, after all I was only a seven year old child. They never made it back alive. If it hadn’t been for Dev’s family I would be in some orphanage.’


Tara squeezed Deepa’s fingers, and sat silently.


Later Deepa wondered why she continued talking. Words she had never rehearsed, snaked their poisonous way out of her mouth effortlessly, ‘I do get a dream in which someone plunges a knife into my stomach.’


Tara stopped chewing and gasped, ‘My God’


After a while she asked, ‘Is it someone you know, is the face visible?’


‘Earlier the face was not clear, but now it is.’


She cheered up. ‘Then we can do something about it. Have you told anybody about this dream?’


The spiel of words coiled around Deepa’s tongue slipped out easily as if she had rehearsed it, ‘No, I haven’t. It’s no use, you can’t change fate; you have to meet your destiny. My parents … for example.’


‘But this is different. If you know someone is going to kill you, do something about it – tell the police or tell the person. Is it someone I know?’


Deepa nodded.


‘Tell me, who is it?’


Deepa pulled back her hands and stood up, ‘Can we stop this please? Shall we go home?’


‘No you have to tell me.’


‘Trust me, you wouldn’t want to know.’ Deepa jumped up and started towards the house.


Tara ran ahead and blocked her, ‘Is it Dev?’


Deepa laughed aloud, ‘Nnoo.’


Tara closed her eyes for a second and sagged back on her heels in relief, ‘Then who, tell me, we can do something about it, I’ll tell Dev. Everyone will help.’


Deepa closed her eyes, shaking her head, Tara squeezed her shoulders, ‘Tell me.’


Deepa almost said, ‘You – who else? Why have you come to ruin my life?’ That’s when a movement from beyond caught her attention prompting her to look over Tara’s shoulder. She could see Anu and Aunty standing on the verandah at the back of the house. They were beckoning. Deepa suddenly remembered – Aunty had wanted her to accompany Anu to the beauty parlour. How could she have forgotten? She saw Aunty’s kind face besides Anu’s anxious one. They wouldn’t yell at her, they had never talked harshly to her in all these years, and Anu and Dev – there had been no barriers between them, she was the one who had wanted to change the lines of their relationship, push open the spaces between them.


Deepa looked at Tara whose eyes were almost hidden by the creases on her worried face. She knew she would never be able to face any one of them if she went ahead with this lie.


She burst out laughing and slapped Tara’s shoulders, ‘Got you, didn’t I?’



Fehmida Zakeer is based in Chennai. Her work has come out in The Linnet's wings, Everyday Poets, Shine Journal, Ink Sweat and Tears, Bewildering Stories, Static Movement, Muse India and others. One of her stories was short listed in the Open Spaces writing competition 2010 and another made it to the honouree list of the Binnacle Competition 2010.