There’s an old mansion in our neighbourhood, may be more than two hundred years old. No one wants to live there. But let no one think that the house remains empty. It’s not like that at all. But yet no one ventures out to the front veranda at night. Everyone says that a Sahib roams there wearing a long black coat. His whole body can be seen clearly, except for his two feet. The two ankles are set on the floor, and with those he walks around. It looks eerie. But he never says anything to anybody. Nonetheless, after seeing this sight for a few days the tenants leave the house. Again a new set of tenants arrive.
We’d heard from a foreigner living in our neighbourhood that his grandfather had stayed for many days as a tenant in that mansion. In his grandfather’s childhood too that lanky Sahib would go for a stroll on the same veranda. But back then his boots and all could be seen. Then it was found that whenever a bit of a heavy shower fell, the streets became waterlogged. And the water soon reached the top of the veranda, flooding it. To fix this problem, the floor of the veranda was raised with the help of a layer of bricks. The gangly Sahib must not have noticed the change, since he sauntered about over the old floor, as was his habit. That is why his shoes are not visible.
Sometimes I wonder whether all these crowds thronging the roads and lanes, the impossibly large number of people hanging from trams and buses of Kolkata, are all real people or not. In trams and buses, where there is not even an inch of space to hold and hang on to, even there so many people hang on; it simply defies my understanding. I’ve heard that once a Pundit was hanging precariously from a bus using the arm of his umbrella as a hook to hold on to the grill of the bus window when he felt someone searching the pockets of his homespun cotton shirt!
He turned to see a soot-black, thin-as-a-stick boy hanging mid-air without holding anything. The Pundit got so terrified that he lost his grip on the umbrella. That would have created an utter nuisance if that boy hanging mid-air had not swiftly caught hold of his arm and placed it back on the umbrella.
The Pundit Moshai said, ‘Your heart is so kind, why do you pick through other people’s pockets?’ The boy flickered a disarming smile, and said, ‘What can I do, it’s just habit!’ Saying that he vanished into the crowd.
Another gentleman, he was walking amidst a heavy downpour late one evening through a deserted lane in the Burrabazar area. Suddenly he noticed before him a man herding a flock of goats and sheep. All of them were drenched to the skin, and just then a dilapidated old house came into view. The gentleman had heard that it was this sort of house that usually collapses over men’s shoulders in the rainy season, so he was a little anxious.
Then, when he saw the man getting up serenely onto the veranda of that derelict house with all his sheep and goats, seemingly without a care, he also got up with them. Standing up, he brushed the water from his body, and lit a bidi. As the other man’s eyes glistened at the sight, he gave him a bidi too. After the two had smoked comfortably for a little while, the gentleman casually commented, ‘I had heard that this place is not good.’
The man replied, ‘Of course, it is not good. No one from this neighbourhood ever sets foot here. Even if they get washed away by rain or flood. Indeed, this house really has a very bad name.’
The gentleman answered back, ‘Oh, I don’t believe in ghosts and all those rubbish.’ The man had finished smoking his bidi. He threw off the tip and said, ‘It is well that you don’t, but I do!’. With this he simply disappeared along with his flock of goats and sheep! The gentleman too hastily left the place amidst torrential rain and raging storm and ran for his life.
There was an old house in Bhawanipore, sublet in portions to tenants. The matriarch of the house had no children; all day long she spent arguing with her husband. Whenever there was a quarrel, the husband left the house in a huff and did not return that night. And each time the wife almost had a heart attack from the anxiety and tension! Then she usually went to a part of the open terrace by the third floor kitchen and cried her heart out, imploring the Gods to intervene.
All of a sudden she saw that in the tiny terrace of the neighbouring tenants, three or four little children were frolicking about in the middle of the night. They had a few cats and dogs with them too. As she watched them, gradually her mood brightened. The boys and girls used to climb over the small parapet dividing the two roof-tops and come to this side. They clambered all over her lap and shoulders and said all kinds of things to her in some strange Hindi-English mixed language, promising who knows what! Somewhere there were wonderful fruit bowers, cascading waterfalls, they would take Auntie there one day. So no, don’t you cry anymore, dearie!
Then afterwards, her husband got transferred, and they left that house and settled westwards. Thereafter almost twenty or twenty-two years had gone by. The husband’s head had cooled by then, and the wife too was much happier and at peace. She had brought up an orphan girl and married her off. After she came to Kolkata, suddenly she felt an urge to go and see that house once more. She went there and saw the rooms had become more wretched, hideously broken down and discoloured. It seemed as if in the twenty-two years not even a single coat of paint had ever touched these walls.
She went to that old third floor flat. Now an old lady lived there alone. She said, ‘her husband had passed away ten years ago, her son and daughter-in-law had gone and settled in Mumbai, and thus she has become so utterly lonely. But the children living next door, those little boys and girls, and their cats and dogs, they make the night come alive with their cheerful frolics.’
This time the matriarch could not suppress her curiosity and took a stool and descended down to the small terrace next door. Then she leaned over the opposite parapet and strained to see from where the children always came. She saw that on the other side of the parapet, only a steep wall descended straight down. There was no sign of any room there, nor was there any place for building rooms. Only a small lane stood alone by the side.
The original story Bh-bhut (ভ্-ভূত) by Lila Majumdar was first collected in her book Kheror Khata (খেরোর খাতা) published in Dec 1981-Jan 1982 (পৌষ, ১৩৮৮) by Ananda Publishers, Kolkata.