by Chandramohan Nair
It was past 9 pm when Deepak checked out of his lodge in Srikakulam town and took a rickshaw to his new house. It was located two miles from town on the road to Singupuram. The streetlights ended at the town outskirts and Deepak was puzzled to find the road and surroundings beyond bathed in a soft and silvery light, till he saw the magnificent full moon above him.
He looked at the moon and the brilliant sky in wonder! It had been years since he had experienced such a sight, surrounded as he had been in Chennai by apartments and man-made lighting. He soon fell into a reverie which was broken only when they reached the house.
It was a white two-storey structure which looked a bit desolate standing amidst a large expanse of green fields. The owner, a friend of his Branch Manager, stayed in a nearby town. He had recently bought the property and would visit occasionally.
The owner’s portion upstairs was kept locked. The ground floor comprised a large hall, which doubled up as the bedroom, with French windows on the front and the right side.
Access to the portion upstairs was through a door at the back of the the hall. A kitchen and a bathroom made up the other rooms.
Deepak quickly unpacked and had a wash. He placed the idols his mother had packed on an open shelf in the hall and said some prayers to excuse himself for not having performed a proper house warming.
This was his first day after reporting for duty and it had gone well. The branch staff were helpful. The Branch Manager had thoughtfully assigned a young clerk, Bhagyalakshmi, to help him during his six-month posting. Deepak got the feeling that he was really going to enjoy his stay at Srikakulam.
He slept well that night.
When he reached the branch next morning, a bright-eyed young lady with an eager face greeted him. She was wearing a sky blue cotton saree.
“Good morning, Deepak sir. I am Bhagyalakshmi. I was on leave yesterday but the Branch Manager has briefed me. Did you like your new house?” she asked with a nervous smile.
“Hello, Bhagya. Happy to have you as my guide! My house is a bit secluded but otherwise it is comfortable ,” said Deepak.
“By the way, sir, my uncle who stays next to my house has a portion falling vacant next week. If this place does not suit you, I can talk to him. You can have homely food and the walk will be much shorter,” she said.
“That’s nice of you but I should be fine,” he said.
The rest of the week was quite busy for Deepak. The procedures and paperwork involved in the job that he was assigned were quite demanding.
Deepak still found time to chat with Bhagya each day . He found out that she was born and brought up in Srikakulam, had a degree in Commerce and had attended dance and violin classes for a few years . She liked English fiction but had not found the time to read much.
Deepak decided to gift her a short story collection he was fond of carrying along.
“I have got you a nice book of short stories. It includes stories from masters like Chekov, Maupassant and Saki. You will enjoy reading them,” he said.
“Oh, thank you so much, sir!” she said, her eyes sparkling.
Deepak looked forward to the long walk back to his house each evening . The moonlit landscape continued to enthral him while up in the skies the stars shone bright. The road was usually deserted and a cool breeze and chirping crickets were his only companions.
He spent the Sunday relaxing. In the evening he noticed that the moon had considerably waned. He needed to buy a good torch.
The next morning, he was surprised to find Bhagya standing at the office entrance with an anxious face.
“Good morning, sir. I was waiting for you. I have to tell you something important,” she said.
“Yesterday, I had told my maid Narasamma to visit your place for cleaning it. When I told her where you were staying, she became perturbed. She said it was not a good place but would not elaborate. But then, when I kept pestering her she told me a story. When the previous owner had bought the land there was an old couple staying there. They were looking after the property for years as tenants but the owner got them evicted after going to court,” she spoke hurriedly.
“Oh, that must have been terrible for them,” Deepak said.
“They were heartbroken and went back to their native village near Palakonda. But they both died soon afterwards. The owner built the present house where their hut once stood and Narasamma’s husband was employed as a watchman there. From the beginning he was not comfortable in the house, always feeling some spirits were around. Then just about a year back on an Amavasya night he had a terrifying experience. He got up feeling thirsty and went to the kitchen. He said he saw the old couple sitting on the floor quietly. They greeted him and kept smiling. He passed out in shock but when he woke up he found they had gone. He left the job the same day,” she said, taking a deep breath.
“Bhagya, what are you telling me? The old couple came back as ghosts? I just don’t believe it. Narasamma’s husband must have had a drink too many,” Deepak said in astonishment.
“I was only telling you what Narasamma told me! She believes they come back to visit their cherished old home on the new moon night around the anniversary of their death. She feels they may make come this Saturday on Amavasya night , ” said Bhagyalakshmi, looking very agitated.
“Bhagya, calm down. Don’t take the story seriously. I have been staying at this place for a week without seeing or feeling anything untoward. I have not heard anyone else talk about this. If not a drink, her husband must have had a nightmare,” Deepak said.
He walked back home with some trepidation that evening. The moonlight was getting fainter by the day. The enthralling lustre of the previous week had been replaced by a foreboding darkness. The torchlight hardly dispelled the gloom. He resolved to take a rickshaw home from now on.
Deepak kept the kitchen light on that night. But he could not sleep. He listened for noises other than the familiar chirping of crickets.
When dawn came, he felt relieved and silly about his mindless worrying.
The remainder of the week fell into the same pattern . In office, he forgot his anxiety as he was immersed in his work. At night he kept wondering if there was truth in all the dark superstitions surrounding Amavasya. Bhagya, too, appeared increasingly apprehensive as the days went by although they still had their daily chat.
When he reached office on Saturday morning, Bhagya was waiting for him.
“Sir, you know that Amavasya starts tonight… Why don’t you stay in town just for the weekend?” she pleaded.
“I thought we had closed that story. It’s going to be just another night,” said Deepak, secretly wishing he could have taken her advice.
“All right, sir. I will be leaving early today. Take care,” she said, smiling uneasily.
Deepak worked late to clear up all the arrears and then had his usual dinner in town.
It was pitch-dark when he took the rickshaw home. He felt relieved in a way, knowing that with this weekend his worries would likely be over.
Surprisingly, he had little trouble going to sleep, having slept poorly most of the week.
He couldn’t sleep for long, though, as all the anxieties of the week resurfaced. He looked at his watch. It was just past midnight. He knew he would not sleep again till dawn. A distant sound caught his attention. The sound of people talking. He got up and looked through the front window. His heart skipped a beat. He could see a dull light advancing towards his house. The night was too dark to see anything else.
He stood transfixed as the light moved right up to the door accompanied by soft voices. He heard a tapping on the door. Initially soft, then louder and more insistent. Then the light moved to the window and he could make out the faces of two people: a man and a woman who appeared to be smiling and saying something in a strange language. He tried to scream but no sound came out. He heard a key turning in the lock very slowly. The door opened gently.
At the branch the next morning, the staff were milling around the Branch Manager’s cabin. The Branch Manager had just come in and was addressing his senior officers.
Bhagyalakshmi rushed into the room and exclaimed “How is Deepak sir, is he all right?”
“He is much better now. He had collapsed in shock around midnight yesterday,” said the Branch Manager.
“Luckily the owner and his wife had a duplicate key to the house and took him to the hospital immediately. What I don’t understand is why Deepak became so disturbed when he saw them. He knew they were coming . I had told Bhagyalakshmi last week to inform Deepak that they would be coming on Saturday by the night train,” he said looking at her.
“Sir, I am so sorry. I completely forgot to tell him…” she blurted out.
“That was very careless of you, Bhagyalakshmi. But that still does not explain his extreme reaction. He just had to talk to them and things would have been clear,” he said looking puzzled.
Bhagyalakshmi went back to her seat, sat praying for a minute and then glanced at the short story book Deepak had given her.
Romance at short notice had left her with a contrite heart.
The phrase ‘Romance at short notice’ is part of the last line of Saki’s story The Open Window.
Picture from https://www.flickr.com/photos/heartfullofpoison/