The raindrops splattered against the windshield making it hard to see ahead, despite the wipers best attempts. Hari had to stop. He pulled over to the side of the road, praying that the rain would lessen soon. He shut off the engine and the only sound that came was that of the howling wind, and the rain crashing against the roof of the car. He leaned back in his seat and sighed. The radium dial of his watch indicated that it was six in the evening. It was dark outside, barring a few lights glittering in the distance, shining through the torrential downpour from little mud huts lining the side of the road a little way ahead. Where he’d stopped, there were only trees on both sides, dancing to sway of the wind.
Hari was returning from his Uncle’s village, about two hundred kilometers outside town. He had left town early in the morning, hoping to be back by nightfall, but the rain, and his aunt’s insistence on serving him what she called a “light snack” before leaving, had him running behind schedule. Stopping in the middle of these village roads, lined by forests on both sides, was rather unsafe, but he had no choice. He took out his mobile from his pocket, intending to call home, telling his folks that he’d be late, but there was no signal. A flash of lightning lit up the world around him and then came down the ear numbing thunder. The windows of the car shook, and then, silence!
Half an hour had passed by, since Hari had made the stop and the rain had eased up a bit. It was time to move on. He turned the key, revving up the engine. But it wouldn’t start. He tried a few more times, thinking that it just needed some time to warm up, but nothing. It stayed dead. Cursing he banged his hands against the steering wheel. “Perfect” he hissed through clenched teeth. Outside, the rain had stopped, just the trickle of water, bouncing off the trees, and the occasional growl of thunder and lightning. The lights of the nearby village huts became all the more clear, shimmering off the rain soaked road, sparkling against the misty windows of the car. Hari climbed out of the car, opened the bonnet and poked around with the light of his mobile. But he was no mechanic and it was too dark. All he understood was that it was probably the water that had clogged up the machinery. Hands on hips, he looked around for any approaching vehicles, that he could have stopped to ask for help, but it was a lonely stretch of road that not many used after nightfall. He’d have to try his luck at the village up ahead. Maybe there’d be a makeshift garage or, at least a telephone that he’d be able to use.
Leaving his car like that, unattended was not something that Hari was too comfortable with, but what choice did he have. There were no valuables inside, and the car wouldn’t budge anyway. So locking it up, he walked down the road towards the lights. It was a longer walk than he had imagined it to be. The lights had looked deceptively close from the car but walking towards them, he realized that it was further out than it looked. He was proper wet when he finally reached, soaked from the trickle of water flowing off the trees. He looked around. It wasn’t much of a village. A few stray mud huts, a cow pen, a well, and surrounded by the dark shadow of the trees.”So much for finding a garage” he thought. There were no overhead lines either, so he doubted if there’d be a telephone. He saw a man, walking with a bucket in hand. He was old, his hair white and the weight of whatever there was in the bucket made him stoop. Hari called out to him as he walked closer. It took a while before the man heard his calls. He looked up, squinting in the darkness. He saw Hari, and there was surprise written on his face. Clearly, this village wasn’t too used to visitors, especially at night. Hari approached him. ”Hello, my name is Hari. I was driving down the road, when my car broke down. It’s parked a little up the road from here. I was wondering if you know someone here who can help, or if there is a telephone I can use.”
The man stared at Hari awhile, taking his time to register all that was told to him. Slowly and in a low, wheezy voice, he replied, “No telephone. You go talk to Choubay. He might help. He is the caretaker of the old zamindar’s haveli.”
“And where is this haveli?” Hari asked, surprised. He could see no big structures around, never mind an entire haveli.
“Follow that dirt path around the cow pen, for a while into the forest, you’ll see it. Its behind the trees back there.” He said, pointing towards the darkness.
Hari followed his finger and could vaguely make out the outline of dark swaying trees behind the cow pen. His stomach squirmed. Walking into a lonely forest, in the darkness, didn’t seem like a great idea. For even the staunchest of hearts can be spooked in such surroundings.
“Go there, knock on the door, and ask for Choubay. He might help you.” Having said this, the old man picked up his load and trudged away towards his hut, mumbling under his breath. Hari was all alone, surrounded by the darkness, in a strange place. Deciding to chuck his fears, he took the path around the cow pen and followed the road. After all, if this Choubey could really help, maybe he’d still be able to reach home tonight. The dirt path was covered in mud and very slippery. Hari had to take small careful steps to avoid falling over, his feet sinking deep into the mud with every step. Finally, he reached the edge of the tree line and followed the path into the forest. It was pitch black darkness, the constant chirping of crickets rang in his ears. Hari flicked on the screen light in his mobile to see the way ahead. Every now and then, it flicked off, leaving him blind. Not even his hands he could see. “Why would anyone ever build a house in this kind of place?” he wondered. He had not long to walk on the dirt path, before a clearing opened up, and in it stood a two storey building. It wasn’t huge, but big enough to house four-five people in it comfortably. The architecture was old world. One could see where once a gate had stood, now, just scraps hung off the broken boundary wall. Two steps and a long porch, led the way to a doorway with a brass knocker, the colour fading off over the years. Big windows lined either side of the door overlooking the grounds. The grounds itself was a tangle of overgrown grass and weeds, some thorny bushes lined on one side, and a well on one side. Cracks had appeared on every inch of crumbling paint on the walls, and there were small holes in the sides. It was all that Hari could make out in the dim flickering candle light that emanated from on the rooms next to the door. All the other rooms had their windows shut tight and in it, resided the darkness. Walking up to the door, he knocked hard and waited. Silence greeted him!
He knocked again, louder. Inside, he heard the creak of a chair being pushed back. The light of the candle in the neighboring window moved away, and the shuffle of feet. It got closer and closer and then stopped on the other side of the door. “Who is it?”Asked a deep gruff voice from inside. Hari cleared his throat and said, ”My name is Hari. I was driving down the road here when my car broke down not far from here. I came here for help. I was asked to look for someone called Choubay. Could you please help me?” Once again, silence!
“Please, I’ll pay you.” Hari added incentive as an afterthought. It worked. He heard the rattle of bolts being drawn and with a loud squeak, the door opened. Inside, holding a candle was a rather grim looking man, short and thin, about fifty or thereabouts, graying thin hair, and a scraggy beard. He was wearing a torn vest and pyjamas, looking up curiously at Hari with flickering flame of the candle in his hand casting shadows over his scarred face.
“Are you Choubay?” Hari enquired.
“Can you help me? My car is down the road, a short way.”
“Not today. Too late. In the morning, we go.”
“Can I spend the night here? Will it be alright to leave the car there, is it safe?”
“Yes. Come in.” And he moved away from the door, making way for Hari to enter. Behind him, Choubay bolted the door shut, and shuffled ahead with his candle. Hari followed in silence.
It was a short narrow corridor that they walked through. The walls were bare barring the dust and cobwebs. Passing through another door, they entered a large, square room that formed the centre of the haveli. This must be where the zamindar of old, must have received their guests. Hari could imagine the room being lined with mattresses and cushions, where the zamindar sat attending to his business and guests, smoking from a hookah, and two servants fanning him with giant feathers. All that was there now was an old rotting wooden chair and an upturned bucket by its side, barring which, the room was empty. A staircase at the other end led to the upper storey. Choubay meanwhile, walked into a room, that Hari guessed was the one next to the doorway, where he’d been when Hari had knocked. Walking inside, he saw a small room, probably a store room or a guest room in the past. This room was cleaner than the others and sparsely furnished. A cot in one corner of the room, a table and a chair, and a little wooden box lying under the cot. On the table, Choubay placed the candle lamp. Hari noticed a couple of letters and a torn cover of a book. That was all there was to see.
It had been a while since Choubay had spoken and Hari found this silence to be very unnerving. It was almost as if the man didn’t seem to care or notice that a complete stranger whom he had never before seen walked around in his sanctuary of isolation. The darkness creeping in around him, the constant chirp of crickets outside, and the soft drip of water trickling somewhere and the mysterious haveli in the middle of nowhere coupled with a stone of a caretaker, all combined to give Hari the creeps. He decided to end this monologue of silence. “So where is this place? And why build a haveli in the middle of nowhere like this? What do you do here?” he enquired. Choubay turned around slowly, looked at him through his deep dark eyes. Suddenly Hari wished that he hadn’t said anything. Silence was better than this man’s gaze, he decided. The candle light fell on Choubay’s deep scarred face, casting shadows on each contour, but the eyes remained pitch black. Not a light shone in it.
Slowly, with heavy breathing, he spoke. “I’m the caretaker. I look after this place. This haveli was built more than a hundred years ago, in the time of my great grandfather. He was the first caretaker of this haveli and most trusted aide of Seth Maganlal, the owner of it. There used to be huge banana plantations around this haveli, and that was the Seth’s source of income. Since that time, everyone in my family has been part of this haveli, looking after its upkeep. That is how I am here today. The people of this small village are all people whose folks have worked around here, for the Seth. This is where their ancestors have been born and under this very soil, their ancestors lay long after they are dead. That is why they too remain here.” Finishing his story, he picked up a small pipe from the ground, lit it up, leaned up against the walls and puffed, his eyes never straying of Hari. Hari shifted on the floor, his eyes going around the room, a slight tinge of uneasiness crept over him. Outside, a giant bolt of lightning lit up the world, followed by a mighty roar of thunder. He could feel the walls vibrate. It started raining again.
Looking around, he saw Choubay staring outside the window, as if fascinated by the darkness. Without turning towards him, he asked, “And you sahib? You seem like a city man. What brings you here through this little village of ours?”
“I had gone to visit my uncle. His village is Ramdevpur. It’s a little way along this road. On the way back, this infernal rain started pouring down, so I had to stop. When it stopped raining, my car wouldn’t start again. Speaking of which, how do you propose to get it fixed in the morning. You any good with cars?” Hari asked warily. Choubay didn’t look like someone who had even seen too many cars in his life, let alone fix one.
“I am a foolish man, how can I fix rich smart men’s car. But many trucks pass by here in the morning. I will stop one and they can help you. You’ll just have to somehow pass the night in this humble home of mine.”
Hari was a little embarrassed. It seemed Choubay had picked up the uncertainty in his voice, and he was quick to express his gratefulness. “Please, I’m very grateful for your help. Sitting in that car, with the rain and the darkness, I was really at a loss for what to do. Atleast now I have a roof above my head. But tell me this. There aren’t any other roads nearby and the highway is a far way out. And yet, there are so few vehicles travelling on this road. I hardly recall seeing any on the way back. Why is that? ”
Choubay did not reply immediately. He looked long and hard at Hari, his deep black eyes piercing into him. He let out a heavy breath and said, “You must be hungry. I’ll get you something to eat.” Saying so, he slowly got up and walked out of the room, dragging his feet behind him. Hari sat there alone, rather surprised at the sudden change in topic. He did not even get a chance to put in a mild protest, but he was rather hungry, so he let it go. He got up and walked to the window. It was a moonless night. Even if there had been a moon it would have been shrouded by the over bearing dark clouds spitting thunder and lightning. The rain continued to fall. A wet breeze swept over him, little droplets of water hitting his face. He could see the outlines of the dark tall trees swaying to the gushing winds. A toad croaked, the crickets continued with their merry song. Apart from this, nothing stirred. There was a noise behind him. Turning around he saw Choubay walk in. In his hands was a little bowl with dal in it and two thin roti’s. He put it down on the floor. Hari sat down, tore a piece of roti, dipped it into the dal, and ate. “I’m sorry, but this is all I had.” Choubay said. His eyes never leaving Hari’s face. “You shouldn’t have bothered. This is more than enough. You have been really very kind. But aren’t you eating?”
“I have my meals at sunset.”
They spent the next few moments in silence. Hari ate the meager meal put before him while Choubay continued to suck on his pipe. He finished his meal and put the plate aside. Choubay led him outside to small bathroom. There was a pot of water on the floor, using which Hari washed up. “I fill that from the well, once in the morning and once before sundown.” Choubay announced. Hari nodded and went back to the room. He checked his watch, it was almost ten thirty. Hari was used to late hours living in the city, he didn’t feel sleepy but people in villages woke up really early, so turning to Choubay, he asked him when he’d sleep and not to stay awake for him. Choubay laughed. It was a deep laugh that could be easily mistaken for a cough if you didn’t notice the curl of the lips and the sudden twinkle in the dark eyes. With a groan, he sat down again. “Sleep” he sighed, ”It has been so many years since last I slept soundly. Having to live here is my curse. I get neither sleep, nor peace. Fear not Sahib, you are causing me no discomfort at all. Infact, it has been such a long time since I had company at this lonely house.”
“Why? Don’t the other village folks come here?”
“What to say Sahib. They have their own lives and their own troubles to deal with. We all live here oblivious to each others presence. So you coming over tonight, has been cause for much joy in my heart.”
“So why do you continue to stay here? It doesn’t look like any of the old Seth’s folks are coming to reclaim the place back. You can just as well leave and look for a better job in the city. Why stay here?”
“All my ancestors have lived and died here, Sahib. My work is my curse. I have no children, no wife. After I am gone, there will be no one to look after this place. But I upheld my duty, the duty passed on to me by my forefathers. And when I’m dead, they shall be happy that I did what they entrusted me to do.”
Hari said no more. It was useless to argue with a man of such staunch beliefs, no matter how wild those beliefs were. He decided to change the topic.
“So what’s the upstairs portion like?”
The candle flame flickered. A dark shadow passed over Choubay’s face. For a moment, the wind seemed to be sucked out of the room and all of outside became deadly still. And then, in an instant, all was back to normal. Such was the sudden transformation in the atmosphere and for such a fleeting moment that Hari wondered if he’d imagined it all. Looking at Choubay he saw him staring at the floor, twirling the pipe in his hands, a sad look on his face.
“So?” Hari asked again. “You didn’t tell me.”
Choubay sat there in silence for a while longer as if fascinated by the twirling pipe in his fingers. And then he looked curiously at me. “Maybe you don’t want to know.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Hari asked, the sense of uneasiness was back, creeping up his spine, slowly, deliberately. He felt the chills.
“You are a man from the city, a man of science and knowledge. You don’t believe in these things. But here in these little remote villages and jungles, where man rarely walks, we hear and see many things that your science cannot explain. So maybe you’ll laugh. Maybe you’ll not believe me.”
“You mean ghosts? You’re telling me a bunch of spooks are living above us now as we speak? Is the rent good?” Hari asked with a laugh. But there was a little tinge of fear in the laugh. A hint of uncertainty. He let it pass. This was ridiculous, he reasoned. Ghost stories are things you amuse children with.
“I told you, you will laugh. To be honest, I do not know what it is, ghosts or otherwise. Ever since I was a little boy, my father had forbidden me from going upstairs at night. There are bad things there, he said. Never go there after sundown, he had told me. Never had he given me a reason. Then one day when I was a boy of around ten, two men came to the village. They were rich men, came in a big van, and carried cameras and other things with them. They came to my father and told him that they were from the TV. They were doing a show on ghosts and haunted buildings in the state and wanted to shoot in the haveli. They had heard stories about it, and wanted to investigate. They had planned to spend a night in the upper floor of the haveli. Father refused. Telling them that it was unsafe, he asked them to go back. But they paid him a lot of money and he agreed. It was decided, that me and father would stay with them till sundown and show them around and cook their meal for the night. At sundown, we were asked to leave the haveli and spend the night with the folks of the village. They’d leave the following morning, and we could have the haveli back. They promised that they’d cause no damage to it. It was all settled. Accordingly, that day, my father showed them around while I cooked. At sundown, we left them alone and spent the night with Rahim Kaka, one of my father’s friends at the village. I had nightmares that night. Often my sleep was broken by sudden flashes of disturbing images. During these times, I noticed Baba’s bed was empty. Looking out the door, I saw him sitting outside the hut in a small stool, smoking, the smoke curling from his lips, as he stared intently, with unwavering attention towards the clump of trees behind which stood the haveli. Once he even got up and walked a few paces towards it, but came back before long, shaking his head. This went on till morning. When the first rays of sunlight, lit up the sky, Baba with his quick strides, went down the dirt path towards the house. I followed. We went past the broken gate. All was still. Not a soul stirred. My eyes scanned the second floor windows. Two were open. Inside, nothing but the paint scraping off the walls could be seen. As agreed, the door had been left open, so that we could enter in the morning, in case they’d fallen asleep. We went in. All was silent. The air hung heavy inside the haveli. There was an odd stillness in it. My heart thumped loud enough to be heard all the way from the village, goosebumps on my flesh. Baba called out the men’s names standing in the hall, but no reply came. We spent a good five minutes calling their names without response. Some other village folk had also joined us by then. Gathering our breath with careful steps, we climbed up the stairs. The upper floor has a long corridor in the middle and two bedrooms on either side of it. The first one was empty. I remember the open windows that I had seen while coming in. They were of the second bedroom on the left. The door was closed, but it wasn’t locked. Baba knocked on it loudly. Not a soul stirred. So, slowly, carefully he pushed it open. I tell you Sahib, for as long as I shall live, I will never forget the sight I saw before me that day. The windows on the far side were open, lighting the room. The bedrooms were all bare, the furniture had been long sold off. The white paint scraping off the wall, had cobwebs and dark patches all over it. On the floor were two mattresses and a camera was placed on a stand beside them. On one of the mattresses lay a man, hands behind his head, staring at the ceiling. His eyes glassy, his mouth curled up in a curious smile, froth trickling down the side. The other man sat under one of the windows, with a curious bordering on gleeful look in his eyes, as if amazed, his mouth open, his hands hanging loosely by his sides. And just like the other, he was looking up at the same bare patch of ceiling, the life sucked out of him. We all must have stood there for a long time, stunned, struck by disbelief. And then Baba lunged forward, shaking the men, in hope that they’d rise up. But their sleep was too deep for anyone to wake them. Their lifeless limbs hung about them. They had seen something wondrous and amazing before the life had been sucked out them, teeth bared in half grimace, half laughter rendering a horrific look about their faces.
There was an uproar in the village that day. Baba and Rahim Kaka eventually went to the nearest town and brought the police. There was a lot of hue and cry. The police asked a lot of questions, there were people from the news and our little village and the second floor room of the haveli became famous. Police sealed the room off, and we were forbidden to enter or allow anyone else to enter. Some days later the excitement and the attention died down, and life went back to normal. But since then, never, have I been to the upper floor after sundown. I usually avoid the place even during the day, but sometimes I go to clean or fix a leak. But every time I walk into that room, I can see the faces of those two men drawn in a horrifying half grin, staring fixatedly at the roof with such wonder in their eyes as the life was drawn out of them and I wonder, what it could have been that could do something like that. It is something that I hope that I never have to find out. And that, sahib, is the story of the haveli. It has a bad name. That is why no one comes to our village, and that is why so few cars take this road after nightfall. You city people can laugh, but having lived with this curse all my life, I have learnt to accept it, to fear it.”
His voice trailed off as his story ended. His eyes wide, staring at the floor lost in his memories, probably recounting the horror in his mind’s eye. He shuddered and looked up with those dark deep eyes, straight into Hari’s.
“You never asked your father why he forbade you from going to the upper floor?”
“Many times, I asked him. He never said anything apart from that it was a bad place. After that incident, he would always refer to it when I asked and used to say
-See! See why I had warned you. Don’t ever forget that.
Sometimes I think he didn’t know either. Maybe he had heard it from his father and was merely passing the warning. I never found out.”
They sat in silence for a while. To Hari, this supernatural stuff was too hard to take in. Sure, it gave him the creeps, but to actually have to believe every word of it was just not what his science schooling had taught him. There must have been a very logical reason to it.
“Didn’t the police find anything?”
“They investigated for a long time. Kept coming up against loose ends, unable to explain it. In the end, they passed the deaths off to heart attacks. The reason for two perfectly healthy people simultaneously suffering heart attacks at the same time in the same room, remained un-explained.”
Again silence. Hari sat there, his mind racing over all that Choubay had just told him. It seemed ridiculous. “Ghosts? Pah! Idle village gossip.” He thought. Maybe Choubay had just made up this elaborate cock and bull story just to sound impressive. And he had the perfect setting to convince people of it too. A lonely village in the middle of nowhere, a broken down old house surrounded by forests. It seemed even the elements were on his side, with the rain and the thunder. Bottomline being that the man had either made it all up, maybe the rest of the villagers were in on it too, hoping to attract some publicity towards the village, or that the man Choubay was a little crazy, had imagined all of this. How could one blame him. Living alone like this in an old dark broken house for year after year fulfilling some wild oath of duty taken by some great grandfather centuries ago, it was truly madness. Living like this, one was bound to imagine things like that. Hari decided to go no further into it. The man for all his weirdness, had helped him in a tight spot and it was best not to accuse a savior of sorts by calling him a liar, or mad for that matter. Instead, he decided that it was best to catch some sleep. After all, if he had to drive in the morning, he’d rather not do it sleep deprived and puffy eyed. He looked at his watch, it was almost two in the morning. “It’s gotten pretty late. I’m sorry to keep you up like this. I’d also like to catch an hour or two’s sleep before leaving, to be honest. I’ll sleep here on the floor. If you can get me a spare sheet, that would be very kind of you.”
Choubay laughed his cough like laugh again. Two of his front teeth were missing and one looked infected. “No need to be so modest, Sahib. Please, take the cot. I’ll sleep in the next room. There is a spare cot there. No trouble at all.”
“You’re sure about it? I’d hate to put you through any more trouble than I already have.”
“No trouble at all Sahib. It’s always a pleasure having company.” He stood up slowly and shuffled out the door, “Great pleasure Sahib, great pleasure….” Repeating that under his breath, he walked out. His feet dragging against the floor outside till it faded away, and Hari was alone.
The rain had come down to a trickle, but the sky was red. The storm hadn’t passed over. The heavens occasionally flashed open followed by the roll of thunder. It had been a long tiring day for Hari. He blew out the lamp that Choubay had left on the table. The darkness closed in around him. He twitched nervously, the story coming back to him again. The light had taken away with it some of his rationalism and courage. But he pulled himself together and walked over to the cot. It was old, the wood chipped in various places, the spring creaked loudly when he sat on it. There was a thin rag of a sheet at the foot of the cot, meant to be used as a blanket. It smelled badly, so Hari left it where it was. He lay down, using his hands for a pillow and within a few minutes was fast asleep. Outside, the crickets droned on.
The window lit up with the flash of lightning. It was the third time that he’d awoken from his sleep. He looked at his watch, it was three twenty. The winds howled outside, the thunder clapped down. What made him wake up each time, he knew not. But he couldn’t sleep. Haunting images flashed by. Two men staring into nothingness at wonder, sitting dead, a man with white hair and a stoop, walking with a pail in the night, saying, “Never go upstairs at night, never”, Choubay chiding him, “You’re a man of the city, you shall laugh. Great pleasure, great pleasure… You shall laugh…” Something inside him was burning up. Not letting him sleep. His mind was obsessed. Fear was superseded by curiosity. Choubay was a fool, to believe such things. He himself was a fool, to be scared of such things. He’d show him. “But why? Why does it bother me so much. Why couldn’t I just sleep and forget about it. Another fireside tale. But this was different. When you’re children, you’re told tales of dark lonely villages, of deep forests and places no one goes. That is where the ghosts live, that is where they haunt, they scare, they kill. Sitting in the bedroom of a high rise surrounded by the noise of cars and amplifiers and televisions, and a million other people, it’s easy to laugh it all off, but here he was, in a broken down house, in a lonely village in the middle of the forest, a place that hardly anyone lives in. And the ghosts were there. Right upstairs. This was the moment of truth. What a story he’d have.”
Hari’s eyes lit up. Sleep forgotten, the adrenaline pumping through is veins. He had to do it. To go up, to see. If nothing else, just to satisfy his own curiosity. His mind was made up, his body was unwilling. Fear still resided in some corner of his heart. But he pushed it aside. The thrill of the adventure before him was too great for fear to ruin. He got up. Another flash of lightning lit up the room. Walking over to the table, he picked up the lamp. But there were no matches around. He used his light of his mobile to look around but found none. He wondered if he should wake up Choubay and tell him. And then he remembered those dark deep eyes, blacker than that blackest of pits, boring into him, warning him, about the perils that roamed upstairs, and he decided against telling him. He imagined the scene when in the morning, he’d walk in before a shocked Choubay having spent a few hours in the night in the dreaded upper floor, demolishing the ghosts from his mind. He let the lamp be. The mobile light would suffice. And with that in hand, emitting a faint glow on the way ahead, Hari walked out of the room, embraced by the darkness.
The air was damp and cold in the durbar. The light of the mobile screen sweeping the dusty floors, canvassing up the cracked white pillars from which hung cobwebs. The silence hurt his ears. Any second, he expected Choubay to call out to him from somewhere behind the shadows. Hari walked slowly, carefully, measuring each step, his eyes darting around, senses on edge, looking out for the slightest sounds. The dark staircase lay ahead. It was made of stone with wooden railings by its side, the wood had become rotten over the years, but the staircase stood strong, leading into a world of darkness. Hari stood on the first step and stared into the pitch blackness. That flame that had flickered in him had dampened considerably. His mind was at war. There was still time to turn back. And in that state of conflict, he heard a scurry behind him. He jumped. Turned around, flashing the mobile screen round the room. In its light, he was just able to catch a rat scurry across the floor, disappearing into another room. His heart was racing. But the false alarm of terror had eased his mind. Suddenly, he was feeling slightly embarrassed at his own cowardice. And with this new found courage, he started up the forbidden staircase. Outside, the night was at its darkest, the howling winds raged on.
It seemed like hours to Hari, as he climbed the staircase. At each step, he’d stopped and looked around, willing his heart on. Sweat dripped down his brows as he reached the top. Not a light was to be seen. He flashed his little light around. The landing led to a long corridor, and on either side of it were two doors apiece, the four bedrooms that Choubay had spoken of. The walls like that of the floor below, were dust covered with holes in certain places from which water trickled through. The air was heavy, with damp and a sense of foreboding. Maybe that was just his imagination at play, but Hari was sure he heard whispers. What they said, he knew not. “It’s just the wind playing tricks on my mind.” He walked on. He looked everywhere, scanned each corner of the corridors as he walked through it. He knew which room to go into. His eyes focused on the little brass doorknob adorning the stout wooden door that shut out the second bedroom on the left. The same bedroom where many years from now, two men were discovered dead, with fear and wonder etched on their lifeless faces. That same room was the one before which Hari now stood. He stopped, waited, listened for a sound, a warning maybe just about any indication to turn back. But none came. He had not come this far to chicken out. Deciding thus, he slowly turned the doorknob. The lock clicked open, he stopped, waited once more. Silence. Then he pushed the door open and walked inside.
It was a room with two large windows, both shut. The walls were white, the paint scrapping off with dark patches and cobwebs all over. It was free of any furniture, except two dark shapes on the floor. Flashing his mobile over it, he saw two, damp, insect infested and rotten mattresses lying on the floor. Hari’s heart beat escalated, he felt a chill down his spine and goosebumps erupted on his body. The images of two men, sitting there, mouths open in half grimace, half grins, eyes, echoing terror, flashed before him. He wanted to run, but his feet refused to move. He stood there rooted, horrified and fascinated. He looked up to the ceiling, the object of those men’s fascination, but saw nothing of any interest. A flash of lightning erupted outside, the light briefly entering the room through the gaps in the windows, where the wood had become rotten and fallen off. Hari walked over to the nearest one and pushed it open. The dark treetops swayed before him in the dark, the rain had stopped but the storm raged on. Looking away, Hari walked around the room, his light flashing over every nook and corner, examining it through darting eyes, but there was nothing to be seen or heard. He walked back to the window, and sat down below it, daring the elements. Nothing happened for thirty minutes. He started to doze off. The light on his mobile flicked off, his head fell on his shoulder.
And then there was the light. At first, Hari thought it was the lightning. He didn’t open his eyes. But the light never went away. He opened his eyes, slowly. The light came from above, a strange whitish hue piercing through the darkness around him. Hari looked up. His eyes widened, his heart stopped, a soft scream left his mouth. He wanted to get up but his hands and feet wouldn’t budge from his sides. He felt cold, and out of nowhere, he started smiling. The terror never left his eyes, but a smile erupted on his lips, he couldn’t breathe, he choked, but the grin was etched on his face, as if carved, a soft moan escaped his lips and the light flicked out from his eyes. His hands relaxed, slumped down, his head rolled onto his shoulders, terror in his eyes, and his teeth gnashed into a horrible twisted grin. A bolt of lightning flashed outside, and the crickets chirped once more. All else was still.
The raindrops splattered against the windshield, birds chirped in trees, the sun hidden behind the clouds. A truck passed by with an almighty roar, splashing water off the road, and Hari awoke with a start. His breathing heavy, his heart racing. He looked around wide eyed. He was in his car, where he’d been stuck the night before. The rain had stopped, the water dripping was coming off the trees above. It took a while before his senses returned to normal. It was all a dream. He’d dozed off in the car that night. He laughed, relief spread across his body. He stretched in his seat and turned the key, but the engine wouldn’t start. Maybe if he pushed it a bit. He got out, the cool fresh morning air swept across his face, water dripping on him from above. He looked around. The road was empty again, up ahead was the little village, he had seen in the night and many times over in his nightmares. He shuddered at the sight of it. “It was all a dream. Relax!” he reassured himself. Turning the wheel with one hand, he pushed the car, but it was not long before he realized the futility of his efforts. Pushing the car, holding the wheel and turning the key at the same time was near impossible. He needed some help. Looking around, he saw a figure approaching from the side of the village. He was covered in a shawl, was holding an umbrella, and walked with a shuffle. As he approached, Hari called out to him, “Could you please help push the car for me. It won’t start.”
The man looked around, his face was mostly covered by the shawl. He looked at Hari, nodded and came over. He put down his umbrella and going over to the back, pushed the car, Hari standing by the driver’s seat, helped along and having gathered a little momentum, turned the ignition on the engine. It spluttered, the car jerked forward and then, it roared into life and started ticking over. Relieved, he got out and turned to his helper, “Thank you. If it hadn’t been for you, I’d be in a fix. My name is Hari, could I drop you off somewhere here?”
The man, came over, lifted his shawl. He was a grim looking man, short and thin, about fifty or thereabouts, graying thin hair, and a scraggy beard. He was wearing a torn vest and pyjamas, looking up curiously at Hari, his eyes as dark as tunnels looking straight into his. His scarred face contorted and he let out a cough like laugh. Hari stood there stunned, his feet shaking, his hands cold, a chill ran down his spine.
“No, Sahib. My name is Choubay. I am the caretaker of the old zamindar’s haveli here in the forest, right behind the village over there. Thank you for the offer, but it’s no trouble at all. It’s a great pleasure to have helped you sahib, a great pleasure…” He smiled, two teeth were missing and one was rotting. Hari stood there mouth open, a soft scream escaped his lips. Without a word, he dropped into his seat, and accelerated away, as fast as he could. He looked into his rear view mirror, and saw nothing.