Monica Bhide’s The Soul Catcher, is a narrative about destiny, grief, loss, faith, love and sisterhood. An excerpt from the book:
The night leaves Damini tired, but she knows what she needs to do now, and the very thought makes her smile. After leaving TT and Nisha pain-free, Damini begins her final journey in this form. She turns to look at Nisha’s house one last time.
“Shakti will watch over you,” she says and blesses the house.
She begins her long walk towards her beloved gardens.
The searing pain that nearly killed Nisha is now inside Damini’s body and headed to her heart. If she doesn’t reach the gardens in time, that pain will kill her.
As she walks, Damini remembers a conversation she had with Ravi just a few weeks ago. He had been difficult.
“Nisha needs to go to the hospital. Why should we use you?” he asked Damini repeatedly.
“All I know is that when people invite me to help them, there is a deeper reason there. I don’t always know what it is and, to be honest, sometimes they don’t either. But this world of pain binds me to them. I am here; it’s a call of duty,” she’d replied. Ravi had reminded Damini of that conversation this evening when he thanked her profusely. He repeatedly apologized for not understanding her role.
Damini quickly pulls out her phone and sends the promised text message.
She looks up at the dark sky. The clouds, their burden spent, are gone. The wet road beneath her bare feet gleams in the dark, glittering under the full honey moon. It comes once every hundred years, this moon, and it’s the moon she has been waiting for.
“You are my last pain patient, Nisha,” Damini had said to Nisha earlier that night, after the baby was born.
“Last patient? Why? What is wrong?” Nisha said, holding Damini’s hand.
“I just want to be a normal person, you know? I don’t want this—this thing, this curse, anymore. Tonight is the honey moon. I am to go to the Garden of Harmony and ask Chand, the Moon God, to free me of my bond of pain.”
“Why? You’re helping so many of us. I don’t know what it’s like to be you, but if you give up this blessing how will another Nisha ever survive?”
Damini answered with a mere whisper, “My whole life has been for other people. Just this once, I want to live for myself.”
They had hugged and Damini said her final goodbye. “Now, I must hurry. If the sun rises before I reach the
gardens, I will have to carry on this path for another hundred years.”
Damini hurries more. Her mind shifts to the candid reason she wants to stop being the pain killer: For the first time in her life, she’s in love.
The love of her life is a lover of books, a wizard with words, a poet, a painter, and a weaver of wistful fables.
Damini met him a few months ago at the hospital. He needed surgery to remove a malignant tumor from his brain. As they prepped him, they realized he was unresponsive to the anesthetic. The nurse on duty called Sister Angela, and Sister Angela called Damini.
Damini smiled as she recalled that fateful meeting. She took his pain, and he stole her heart. “Your name. I love your name. It defines you. Amrit: immortal,” she said, when he thanked her. “I’m not exactly sure what you did, but I didn’t feel a thing during the entire surgery. I just want to know, are you okay?” His concern ignited something in her heart. She had helped thousands of people with their pain and while all of them thanked her, not a single person had ever asked how she was and how this affected her.
After that conversation, Damini and Amrit were inseparable. “For the first time in my life, I feel like I am loved for being me instead of my healing powers,” she had confided in him. She learned that he was a school teacher and taught English around the world. She was mesmerized by his travels: He had taught under the open skies in Nakuru, on the shores of the impossibly beautiful Padang Bai, in the deep underbelly of Dharavi, on the open terraces of Begur. He was an avid photographer and shared images of the beautiful gardens where Tagore wrote, the cozy English street where Shakespeare grew up, the bars where Hemingway drank.
“Books have been my only connection with the outside world that hasn’t involved pain,” Damini had said, when he showed her pictures of his travels.
Damini told him everything about her life. Things she’d never shared with anyone. About her mother, her sister who could capture a person’s dying breath, her journey of being in constant pain and, for the first time in her life, the kind of life she really wanted.
She had seen Amrit first thing this morning at the hospital and told him about the power of the honey moon. His response had made her laugh. “Go to your honey moon tonight so we can go on our honeymoon soon.” Then, he took a moment and, completely out of tune, sang her his favorite song: “Pal pal dil ke pas, tum rehti ho.” Every moment you are close to my heart.
Damini walks faster, trying to navigate a way through a busy shopping district. She catches her reflection on the glass door of a clothing store and stops for a moment. She can’t remember the last time she looked so happy, so filled with joy and anticipation. To be at the cusp of freedom was a privilege not granted to beings like her. Her sister, Yamini, for instance, bore the eternal curse of being a blessing. Yamini, a gifted healer, was unlike anyone else in Damini’s family. While the heavens had gifted the rest of them a choice, no one knew why there was no way out for Yamini. None that they were aware of, anyway.
As a child, Damini looked up to Yamini. She was ethereal, soft-spoken, and seemed to glide when she walked. Yamini’s smile soothed, her touch relieved, and her voice calmed even the most agitated soul. The sisters, scouring old Vedic texts, had found a way out for Damini. But despite years of researching, nothing had shown up that could release Yamini.
“No one can help me. I don’t know how to tell you this, but I almost killed a man—a hospice guard—to keep my power a secret. There is no way out for me now. I will live forever like this.” Yamini had wept when the sisters spoke a few days ago.
But now, Damini smiles. She knows there is a way out for her, and soon she will find the way out for her sister. As Amrit reminded her, “The great Hafiz says there is a way out through the cup of love. She will find her way out through love.” Damini hadn’t exactly understood what he meant, but nevertheless she believed him.
She begins to run as she feels Nisha’s pain reaching her heart. The pain comes in jolts and pierces her sides, shocks her system. But Damini isn’t worried. She is close to the Pool of the Weeping Lotus. That’s where this pain will leave her forever.
She had asked him one night, “You know, Amrit. I take on the pain of the acid attack, the butchered arm, the gangrene- infected leg, the smashed skull, yet most days, I want a life where the most exciting point of my day is winning a bargaining war with the vegetable vendor. I want babies to spoil, a garden with flowers that bloom and die. I want to drape myself in chiffons and silks. I want to be terrified watching a scary movie and cry my eyes out at a romantic one. Does that make me selfish?” His response had made her feel confident in her decision.
“It is called wanting to be human. Why should you not be given what you want?”
A car whizzes by, splashing Damini with rainwater from the streets. She wonders if the driver is oblivious to her presence, or perhaps he sees her too late, a lady in white, and is mortified, too afraid to slow down. Or, like many unenlightened humans she knows, unaware of anything outside his own little bubble. She laughs to herself at the irony of the thought: Isn’t this what I am seeking to become—an unenlightened human being?