‘Why didn’t we come in through here?’
I was fending off my best friend’s queries yet again. We are at my ancestral home for two days, for the annual ‘strangling’ ceremonies. It is a wasted weekend for Malavika and me. That is what I think but for Malavika Kaur, born and lived all her 28 years in Gurgoan, this is the trip of a lifetime, to the exotic Kerala.
Malavika looked on amusingly at the stone steps leading from the road to the narrow low ceilinged stone gateway that once had served as the main gate of this ancient Nair bungalow, till tyres replaced legs. ‘Everything here is either in stone or wood, so fascinating. It’s like we have time travelled.’
‘Not when you have to sit amidst oil filled lighted lamps, flower, rice powder and turmeric rangolis, Sanskrit chants and blazing yagna kunds the whole day’
‘But why such an elaborate puja; people are running all over the place arranging things. It is so larger than life.’
‘This is how it happens every year. It is the same running around, same urgency, same solemnity and the same choked feeling.’
‘Choked? But why does all this happen every year? It is weird even for a ‘superstitious by south Indian standards’ north Indian too.’ She was pointing her index finger to herself.
A smile played up on my lips unconsciously. The heaviness of being at my grandfather’s house was being eased away this time. It wasn’t always like this, here. I had loved this place that is stalled in time – its long black wooden passages, the sunlight beam lighted basements, the brass knockers on the unpolished wooden doors – they had spelled secrets and fascinations once. Now it reeks of dark passageways, murky secrets behind those closed doors and scantly lit rotting basements. The family used only a part of the total built-up and the non-used part was my ex-haven. The only instance I step-in, now, is with the priests and the family, standing near that well in the centre of the compound – small deep well but very large compound. Tomorrow is that annual torment.
‘Grandpa says that it is our annual thanks giving to our protector gods and the ancestors – the snake gods, pishachas, yakshis – everyone.’
‘But why choked, it’s fun no, Mallu? Where do we see such customs in our concrete jungle?’
‘Because this place freaks me out!’ I did not scream but I saw her feel the impose. There was bewilderment, as if she faced a stranger masked in her composed colleague’s facade.
We decided on a walk along the sand colored pebbled path encircling the house amidst the red mud. The path reminded me in an inverse manner the sindoor line on a new bride.
‘It happened when I was in grad final year and the occasion was same. The day of the puja when we were all seated in the central hall, where the puja will happen tomorrow also, an old tramp barged in. Though she ran in quickly, the workers around were quicker. She never reached the puja sanctorum, only her voice did. It was appalling. I saw grandpa perplexed for the first time ever.’
‘But it was only an old women shouting!’
‘But she shrieked and kept screaming the same thing over and over, accusingly, till they threw her out on that mud road but the screams lasted long.’
‘Did you catch what she was screaming?’
‘All this is no penance.’
I had never uttered a word about what I think, I saw and heard, that morning in the well compound but I had since then always stood in the last while everyone gathered around the well for the puja.
‘That morning something happened in there’, I said pointing to the deserted section of the bungalow, ‘Oil was spurting out of the stone steps leading to the well compound. It just kept flowing out; out of the centre of a stone slab and then I heard a huge splash from the well.’ I said heaving heavily, like that morning when I had sprinted out of the well compund.
‘That old well is still used? It must be centuries old, no?’
‘I have never seen water in it.’
‘But you said you heard a spal…’
Understanding dawned into our eyes within nanoseconds. Guess it comes with growing up in the same country, locations don’t matter; thanks to satellite TV – Star, Sony, MTV – India grows up same.
‘I did not image a splash in a well that I have never seen with a drop of water.’
‘May be your ears played a trick; it can happen in deserted places. Some air effect theory, I once saw on BBC.’ She was trying hard to be scientific but I think a slight quiver did creep-in her steady sardaran voice and the casual about-turn to walk back was too indicative.
We ate our traditional ‘banana leaf’ dinner, grandpa’s special for the dilli vali and she was back in her spirits after a mulling-over spell after our walk. We were back in my spatial room embellished with dark wood double bed, iron swing in a corner, puffed up cushions, hanging brass lamps et al. ‘Wow! You can let out this place to Ashutosh Gowariker.’
‘This is the only open room on the floor and the largest too’, all my modesty goes for a majestic toss at my grandpa’s grand heritage.
I signaled that I am going down to my mother’s room while she sat perched on the swing near the window, rolling the old feather pen that she must have picked up from the even older teakwood table, between her thumb and index finger talking on her phone.
It was her, Malavika! I heard her clearly at the far end of the ground floor, in my parents’ room through all the wood and stone. A thousand images ran through my mind most of them featuring oiled steps and an old well.
Urvi, my first cousin, medical student and best friend in the family was standing at the door to my room. Brought up in Qatar, she has been studying here since 11th standard. ‘What, what happened Urvi?’
‘I think she got scared.’ Grandpa had his old, wrinkled hand on her head and was comforting her in whatever English or Hindi he could manage. I think I heard him inject some Malayalam words too. But Malavika scared?? She could scare a few leering dilli boys at one go!
After everyone slowly trooped out with instructions to not leave my friend alone in the new place, pushing the huge ancient door shut, I swung around.
‘What the hell happened? That was one bloody scream.’
‘That’s the hell that happened. None of them noticed it and I was not sure if I should tell.’
My gaze followed her index finger. Under the swing. A book and the feather pen. If my stare did not spell chill, my words must have. ‘Isn’t that the antique pen you were fingering and a stupid hand paper book? And you shrieked like that for this?’
She recoiled yet again, for the second time in twelve hours. And I heard her voice shake, again, indisputably this time, ‘Mallu, pick that book up, you will know. It is not any hand paper book.’
The book was lying open in a pushed away manner under the swing, the fading brown hard cover, threading at the edges strongly settled on the floor, yellowing pages ruffling in the wind from the window. I went over to close the windows and that is when I noticed that which I had never noticed in all these years. My room’s windows opened into the old well’s courtyard! I hurriedly closed the windows, picked the book and crossed over to Malavika.
I flipped the ageing pages nonchalantly all the while questioningly gawping at Malavika. ‘It is an old rusting hand written book and the script is Malayalam if that is what scared you. It does look like jelebi’s but it is nothing to shriek about. Where did you pull this out from, by the way?’
The silence hung heavy in the room inspite of the huge dimensions and my tone was not helping it ease down either. ‘I know you are upset with me but this is not what it seems. This book was on the windowsill and I was talking to mom. I don’t remember when I picked it up but I swear it was blank when I opened it and like many silly things we do while on phone, I wrote my love name and all this appeared just like that. I swear it was blank before that. I noticed all this after I disconnected, then I stroke out my name and it went blank again. I wrote again and this. I freaked out, completely.’
She was clearly embarrassed but I was confused and scared, books don’t write themselves.
‘What does it say, mallu?’
‘Let me call Urmi. I am a Dilli mallu, can’t read Malayalam beyond those bus boards.’
More than three hours have passed since my cousin had plopped into my bed. Though her speed was good, there was much on those pages. The book seemed to have added pages, I felt. She was on the final pages and my heart palpitated unsteadily.
‘Ok, guys. I don’t know if all this really happened though the place in the book is this house and I have heard some names in there, around here sometimes’, Urvi said.
‘Malavika, pass on the pen. You said it goes blank when you strike out the name. Let’s test.’
‘Chill chechi, I have a theory. Testing.’
Urvi stricked out ‘Malu’. The pages went blank and my senses went numb. Abnormal or paranormal, the definition didn’t matter. Urvi wrote my name, the page was full again. She stroked the name out, the page went blank again. She wrote her name, full again. Stroked out, blank again. She wrote Malavika’s name. It was blank! She looked up.
‘What?’ Urvi had this mad maniac grin on, it was freaking me out more and Malavika had nearly lost track it seemed.
‘Chechi, I don’t know how, but this book is like an in-house google. You write anybody’s name related to this place and it shows you write-ups about them. Like yours, mine – everyone’s, everything. It is unnerving, you may be anywhere in the world but if you are related to this house it shows up in this. Like my time in Qatar, everything.’
‘But my name?’
‘Yes, when I write your full name the page is blank but when you wrote your short name Malu, lots of pages were filled. There is a full story there but it is not your story. It is not even this age. If I understood it right, it was during the time of great grandpa, about a maid called Malu and if the story really happened then I think Chechi you were right.’
‘When I had joined college, that year when you came for puja you told me that this place definitely has secrets that we don’t know of.’
‘Yes but it was because that old lady came screaming things, remember?’ And also because of a splash and……
‘May be she knew this story because if this is true then this house has seen murders.’ Urvi tapped the book with her index finger but the silence enhanced it like gongs.
‘But there is a mismatch somewhere because the place Malu died in, does not exist in this house.’
‘Tell us what you read may be we can figure out.’ Malavika was being Nancy Drew but I had a feeling this was no story; this was history.
‘Malu was one of the many maids here; she had practically grown up in the house, somewhere behind the curtains of kitchen and in the shadows of the basements. That was how it was those days. Servants were like the Hogwarts elves, only their work was to be visible not them. It says that her mother had mysteriously disappeared a few days after her birth. It also hints that her father was in this house but doesn’t name anyone.’
‘Malu was pretty, a maid girl but just as dainty and alluring like the women of the house. Vikram, grandpa’s eldest brother too grew up in the same household, at the same time studying his books and scriptures. Like the musk and the hunter, Malu and Vikram could not stay away from each other.’
‘The bungalow had a pond located in the south wing and all the maids had their fixed turns in going for bath there but it was prohibited to be around the pond after 2.00 p.m. Many didn’t know why least of all the maids; the pond was a whirlpool pond and those developed mostly in late afternoons and since nobody ever went there during afternoons, no one knew. That day great grandpa, unexpectedly summoned Malu to clean the heirloom lamps. Thrilled to be called directly by the landlord she worked hard while Vikram teased and the lovebirds flirted, oblivious to the world. But nothing missed Shyam, great grandpa’s manfriday.’
‘She could complete the work only by late afternoon and had missed her bathing turn but it was only a rule she was breaking and she was too excited to be scared of admonishments. Spring in her steps, dreams in her heart, she did not see a rather large patch of sesame oil on the step just above the water level and the next thing was a splash, flailing hands and some clothes being sucked into the pond.’
‘Next morning everything was pick-and-span. Malu had disappeared, gossip followed for a few days behind the curtains and then all was hush. Vikram closed himself completely, he did not know where or why Malu went and didn’t know whom to ask. Last heard he was seen storming out of his father’s room, quite unlike his character. He was found poisoned in his room.’
The silence that hung in my room was heavier than ever before. ‘If everything was cleaned, it means Malu was made to slip and the pond just sucked her in, not even the dead body appeared. Clean act’, Malavika said.
‘It also means that our great grandpa knew. Everything.’
‘Chechi, it also means that they knew the secret of the pond. It was all planned, timed and brutally executed. Caste fanaticism! He did not mind seeing his son waste away. But the mismatch remains, there is no pond in this house.’
‘The book said south of the house. Which is…’
‘This’, Urvi said pointing towards the window I had closed hurriedly, ‘but there is no pond there.’
‘That part of the story sounds unreal, firstly there is no pond and secondly ponds don’t have whirlpools.’
‘Google to the rescue’, I said fishing out my phone. ‘Shks. No EDGE.’
‘Chechi, we can google tomorrow when we are in better network and about the pond let’s ask Aachi, the oldest maid.’
All three of us slept together, with the lights on. Murder mentions can even centuries later make you feel like the past is crawling all over you.
It was nearing twilight and the puja was concluding in the well compound. As usual I was at the fag end of the assemblage while Malavika strolled outside. She had wandered the whole property; there was no pond here.
Malavika and me stood watching the yellowing sun over the ancient heritage when my phone rang. I put the phone on speaker.
‘Chechi, come to the well compound.’
‘Urvi, I am not stepping into that place.’
‘This is going to blow your minds away. Come quickly. I am on my way.’
Urvi was already inside when we reached, the light from my room was eerily lighting the compound but it was too large to be lighted up by a single tube light.
‘This is the place, it all adds up.’
‘I heard the chanting very carefully. Remember, grandpa had told us that this is a prayer thanking the well for the water it gave our ancestors. It is not. It is a bali payer – for the dead. I picked a familiar name in the chant, in every line – Malu.’
‘What??!!?? But she slipped into a pond.’
‘Aachi said there are stories of an in-house pond which went dry when she was a child. She doesn’t remember seeing it, only memories of her mother talking about it. She said her mother was crazy to say it was where the well is.’
‘Here? Impossible. First of all how can there be an in-house pond.’
‘Malavika many old families in Kerala have ponds attached to their houses. Look at this place guys, a football ground can fit in, the ground is so uneven and the steps – 27 steps till the bottom, it’s really deep and the well explains the whirlpool, right?’
‘Yes, google says whirlpools were possible in ponds if there were huge elevation differences, like a deep trough or a WELL.’
Stunned silence surrounded us; it felt eerie to be standing 27 steps below sea level, moon and tube light dimly lighting the well that was a grave.
‘We have a flight to catch in 3 hours.’ I said, all things crystal clear now – the oiled steps, the splash – but I didn’t want to be anywhere around this reality.
‘I had put the light on in your room and was also looking for that book but could not find it’, Urvi said as we walked into my room.
In the next hour, we packed while also looking for that book but bizarrely it had disappeared.
‘Chechi, Aachi also said that this floor was closed since Vikram Grandpa’s death and was only opened because of your stubbornness. Coincidently, you also chose his bedroom as yours.’
‘I think he knew, he just wanted us to know maybe expecting the remorse that never was.’ I said.