Do you believe in ghosts? Do you believe in li’l beasties under the bed? Do you believe in ‘wandering souls’ and haunted houses and – stretching it a bit – in werewolves, assorted fairy-creatures, Nessie, non-goth vampires and, yum yum, succubae and incubi?
Gather around children, and let Auntie Rimi tell you a story. Sit close and clutch each others arms.
Several years ago, in an infamous area once home of dacoits and thagis/thuggies was cleared of lonely stretches of treeland and inconvenient ponds. And hemmed in by railway tracks atop a hillock of mud on one side and a self-contained factory on the other, a new neighbourhood began to slowly sneak into existence.
Plots of land were bought cheap by enterprising local minds, and blocks of flats were built. In the corresponding social scenario of joint families breaking up, and nuclear families emerging, the flats soon filled up. On paper, that is. No one – especially those familiar with the area – seemed willing to move in right away. The desolate buildings, interspersed with older houses a couple of stories high and plenty of trees and bushes, housed hardly three families each. And when the early morning Kanchanjanga Express or the late-night lorries thundered by, the buildings shook hard enough to wake them in their beds.
Then a family of three moved in to one of the buildings. A couple in their early middle-age and their daughter, a darling little muffin of three years. The incessant eerie howling of foxes and barking of dogs kept them awake the first few nights, then they slowly turned deaf to the ambient animals. And they began to love the place. True, it was lonely, but it was also sunny and green and quiet, and where in the horribly crowded smoke-belching city would one find such an oasis of peace? The little girl, though, refused to move from one room to another alone, even in the sleepy glare of the afternoon sun. If she had to pee, she gritted her teeth and held it in till she absolutely couldn’t, and then woke her napping mother up to guard her through the bathroom trek. At nights, she refused to even look at dark corners and behind cupboards. Children and dogs, say people with characteristic insensitivity, can sense these things.
Things happened. Little, but inexplicable. Keys disappeared, and turned up in odd places. The parents said they must be losing their minds, what with old age creeping up and a little imp on the hands, oh man, this life! Then Files disappeared from locked compartments, and was found beneath the bedding. Trinkets disappeared; Mother declared she must’ve thrown them away, damned useless junk. When they turned up a few days later, she maintained a discreet silence, but kept her eyes open just that bit wider. In mischievous reply, her new lipstick disappeared. Poor bewildered Child was much cajoled and threatened and the eye of suspicion was briefly turned on the Overgrown Brat of the house, but when it did turn up, it was in her bath water early the next morning, when both Child and Father were fast asleep.
However, the big event happened when Child’s grandmother, who suffered from a somewhat rare heart-condition (or so believed Child, who at time felt quite strongly that rare was how all heart-conditions should be), had a relapse and had to be taken to the nursing home in a tearing hurry. Child’s aunt called with the news when Mother was cooking. As Mother went to receive the call, she asked Child to keep an eye on the boiling rice. In the next seven minutes, Mother had slammed down the phone, missed the cradle, swore, dressed in a blitz, stuffed purse with cash and kind, grabbed keys, grabbed Child, and was out of the house and on her way. Only when in the rickshaw did Child have a chance to open her mouth. “Mumma,” said she, “you forgot the gas.”
The world stood at a standstill for a second.
Next minute, Mother was huffing up the stairs on the heels of Child. They burst into the house, expecting to be hit with the pungent smell of cooking gas and burning rice… only to find an apartment perfectly in order. The oven was turned off, the knob of gas cylinder was turned off, and – listen carefully – the pot of rice was carefully upturned next to the sink to drain excess starch. The duo stared quietly at the neat domestic scene for a few seconds, then locked the door quietly again and went down the stairs.
In public since then, Mother has maintained that she must have gone back and turned off the oven, then the cylinder, then carefully drained the rice, then cleaned the kitchen, all in that mad rush, somehow. In private, she changed the topic.
In fact, Finding Logical Explanations became the family’s favourite past-time. The only person who felt righteously outraged was Child, who when proudly narrating tales of such supernatural hide-and-seek to the extended family, would be rubbished and reprimanded sharply for telling tales by Mother or sniggered at by Father. However, they let her prattle on about the spirit of the girl who haunted the second floor bathrooms in school or walked about the boarding wing in the dead of the night in anklets. It was most unfair! After all, any school worth it’s salt has at least one ghost. But the to actually live in a haunted flat, oh my! What a story that would be!
“But people might not come to our house if they know, darling”, explained Mother patiently, once the three were back home, “Don’t you want this to be our secret?”
And thus the matter was turned from Something You Can’t Boast About, to A Delicious Secret Never to be Told – a switch in circumstances infinitely preferable to a child. Still, when she heard her elders and presumed betters summarily dismiss all matters supernatural (“There’s no such thing as ghosts! Are you mad!”) with the stonewall logic of “Show me ONE person who has actually seen a ghost”, it was all she could do to keep her mouth shut. The hegemony of belief systems, she tells you! All this being forced to keep quiet or be ousted and ridiculed because there’s no room in the accepted structure to accommodate different experiences… damn, but it’s trying.
And thus [musical flourish] Rimi is only the person of her acquaintance who can claim, firsthand, to have lived, for years and years, in a haunted house. And has several delightful tales to show for it, too. All else like her please raise hands. No one? Oh well, the benefit of being a thick-glassed bookworm is that you can identify – however strange your lot – with some bit of literature, if not with actual people. I remember falling in love with Shirshendu Mukhopadhay’s “Gondhota Khoob Sondehojonok” and “Kalor Dokan” the first time I read them, and wishing they could have been real for me. After all, what’s the point of being ridiculed without some fringe benefits?
As a little bonus for reading this through, we’ll conclude today with The Best Ghost Story In the Whole World. There were, once on a winter’s evening cold, two men travelling in the same compartment of the suburban railways. One of them looked at the anthology of supernatural tales that the other was reading and snorted derisively.
“What, asked the reader, “don’t you believe in ghosts?”
“Hah, no”, said the snorter. “There’s no such thing as ghosts. Do you believe in them?”
“Yes, I do”, said the reader. And disappeared in a puff of smoke.