The sprawling house, with its air of despondency, resembled the multitude of haunted mansions from the movies that Jaan Miyan was so fond of watching once upon a time. The same movies that had landed him in hot water for nothing more than doing his bit to bring some cheer into the lives of those weighed down with worries that life has a way of throwing at unsuspecting people like a toddler learning the laws of projectile motion with his food.
When he distributed pirated copies of movies, he hadn’t done so with a view to earning a few rupees on the side. He just wanted his good for nothing friends to enjoy along with him and found that his skills were quite appreciated, though the appreciation always found its way to him in words, pats on the back and demand for more movies. Never in the form of something more tangible like a few colorful notes. Unless this stay at the sarkari mehman khana could be considered one.
Nabbed in the act for peddling copyrighted material, he had spent a few months in jail. On hearing the news, his friends had disappeared like the bars of mobile reception inside the creaking lift he took to work as a night shift janitor. His poor mother, with her weakened eyesight but a much astute vision, had always warned him that they were no good. She had succumbed to a weak heart during his incarceration but Jaan Miyan liked to believe it was the shock of his arrest that had done the poor thing in. After all, mothers had been popping off for decades on screen on hearing of their son’s misfortunes. Why couldn’t she do it in real life?
The landlady of the chawl who tolerated the mother son duo, threw him out as soon as he returned, saying she wouldn’t be having a jailbird in the premises.
“It breaks my heart in two to do this Jaan Miyan,” she’d said, her double chin quivering like the thinly set curd his poor mother would make him eat. “Your dear departed mother was a good friend of mine. But friendship aside, you are now jail-returned. Your reputation is not bedaagh* like earlier. This is not good for my chawl business, Jaan Miyan. I hope you understand.” She’d wiped away a pair of imaginary tears from the corner of her eyes as she asked for the rent due. Jaan Miyan scoffed internally at the non existent tears while feeling despondent like the poor girls from Hindi cinema who have the misfortune to be no more bedaagh.
Between her and a crying hyena, he would have trusted the hyena everytime. Her hardheartedness was evident from the fact that she never shed any tears where others bawled watching the movies he arranged for their chawl on weekends for free on her request. He felt like dabbing away a tear or two with his dupatta, but stopped as his roving fingers could not find any dupatta*. The hem of his shirt wouldn’t elicit the same sympathy from the watching chawl residents.
How he had ended up at Jagdeep’s house, he never knew. But right at noon Jagdeep, the jovial Sikh guy working as a security guard at the same building he worked at, had suggested the abandoned house as a temporary shelter.
“You know the house that stands at the end of the lane? All boarded up and abandoned? No renter is in a hurry to come to that house. You could stay there without anyone knowing. Do you know the story behind the house?” Jaan Miyan shook his head. His mind and thoughts were usually wallowing in the lanes of Bollywood. He had no time to attend to local legends.
“A young girl committed suicide there. Some people say that the place is now haunted. Maybe you will not prefer to stay there alone. I don’t think you are brave enough.”
A challenge to Jaan Miyan was like a red flag waving in front of a bull. His nostrils flared. His eyes closed into slits.
Was Jagdeep doubting his courage? He would show this grinning sardar what he was made of.
So here he stood, before the supposedly haunted house while Jagdeep was trying to find a place to enter without raising any suspicion.
After all, ghosts were only in movies. At least he would have a beautiful house to stay in.
“Jaan Miyan! You’re in luck.”
Jagdeep called, triumph spilling from his excited voice. Soon he opened the front door and stood there grinning.
That remains to be seen.
Jaan Miyan internalized as he crossed the threshold.
Sumaiya had had a very trying few days. She had been accustomed to a free run of the sprawling house till a few weeks back. She appreciated the peace and quiet. The big rooms echoed with nothing but her raucous laughter whenever she needed to scare away a soul or two. The wide staircases reverberated with the chhan-chhan* of her anklets when she was inspired by the strains of some distant party songs. And when she missed her earthly life, which wasn’t that frequent, she would sit down and sob her heart out. It was satisfying to note that while she had given up her vocal chords along with her body when she swung, she had retained complete control of her vocalizing abilities. They came handy in making sure that no one approached her haven unwanted. Nothing like a shriek or two, or a round of unearthly sobs to keep the neighbors quaking.
Now since that stranger had arrived her life had become hell. She had tried all her wiles on getting him to leave the house but he had persisted in staying there. When she laughed, he laughed with her, thinking it was some kind of competition. When she hummed haunted songs from horror movies from the fifties, he actually cocked an ear to listen. Once he even went out to locate the source of the sound so he could listen to the songs properly, ruing the fact that radio stations these days hardly played songs from old movies. He was a puzzle to her, and she was convinced that he was an extremely dense person, who didn’t have brains enough to get scared.
At first she had thought he was some supernatural entity himself. He would sleep all through the day on most days, only waking up once the sun had set. The snores were enough to cause mayhem at any crowded Mumbai local platform. One could imagine their effect in a closed building. Sumaiya felt as if a train was approaching at top speed through a narrow tunnel all the time he would sleep. She was losing sleep and her equanimity as well over her failure. After all, a ghost had a reputation to keep.
She had earlier tried her best to get the creature to wake up once he started snoring, but once he had fallen asleep nothing short of a nuclear explosion could wake him up. Sumaiya eventually realized that even her screeching powers had limits and like a wise spirit, she gave up on this endeavor and resigned to her fate like millions of suffering souls before her.
Once he woke up, he would get ready with care, which was to say, care enough to look scary. She wondered at his working hours and his fashion sense, which to her, served no other purpose than to scare young boys and girls, making them run away screaming. Probably the parents of today had gotten savvy and employed him to keep their kids in line.
The crimson net undervest was an abomination enough. And on top of that the double lined surma*… She decided that she would have to ask the secret behind that. All her life…err erstwhile life she hadn’t been able to find a kohl stick so dark and long lasting.
Once the surma was applied, the man would pour a vile scented oil over his curls by the cupfuls. The noxious fumes were enough to make a living being give up his soul. It was good that she was already dead. On the first day she had almost fled the house because of the malodorous adornment, but then she had realized it was his secret weapon to run her off the premises. So she stayed. However, she hadn’t been able to get used to the putrid effervescence still after all this time the unwanted visitor had been there.
After applying the oil, the creature would put a skull cap on his gently waving curls underneath, put a shirt on top in colors loud enough to rival her screeching, and step out with all the buttons open, the shirt flapping with his movement like the wings of a disoriented bat. Who did he think he was? Jitendra? The only thing lacking was one of those cheap shiny psychedelic sunglasses which the poor fool couldn’t use seeing he worked at night.
She had soon ascertained that he was a night shift worker instead of the vampire she first imagined him to be. A girl can be forgiven her misconceptions. No one who snored like that could be one. At least she didn’t have to scramble for garlic as she was planning to, before she remembered she did not qualify as his lunch… on account of being dead and all.
However the fact remained that she was dead and he was alive. And that should give her an edge. If she couldn’t run off an unwelcome squatter from her home, what kind of a woman, it didn’t matter whether dead or alive, was she? Sumaiya, much like Jaan Miyan, could never say no to a challenge. She would do her best to restore her house to its uninhabited state where she was the only thing haunting its confines, whatever tricks she had to use.
Jaan Miyan was tired. There had been a party at the penthouse of the building he worked in. He hated these parties. His lovely jasmine oil (mixed with the scent of mogra*) could never suppress the stink of piss and vomit that the drunken crowd left behind in their wake. Each party meant double work for him and no extra pay. He mopped the floor, sweat running down his silken curls, (the ones his mother oiled with so much love and the good work now continued by him) and waited for his shift to be over so that he could go home and sleep like a log once the work was over.
Once he was home, he bathed at the hand pump in the back garden. Then he got into his makeshift bed and prepared to sleep. There was a distinct chill in the house. A nice breeze was blowing and he could feel the cool wind playing at the nape of his neck like ghostly fingers. He remembered his mother who would stroke his hair while he lay down to sleep.
Why did the owners need AC in a place like this? There are draughts in this house which keep it much cooler than the outside. It’s so easy to fall asleep here after being hot and sweaty like a Mumbai local passenger in June.
Then with fond memories of his mother patting him and fanning him, he went to sleep. Soon the house was reverberating with the sound of his snores.
Sumaiya cursed under her breath in exasperation. It was good that her parents had left the house when she died, otherwise they would have killed her on hearing her use such language. Well, her afterlife had been instructive. That much she could say.
She stopped with the icy breaths. It took a lot of exertion on her part and did not have the intended effect at all. Earlier squatters had lost all bravado at one cool whiff on their skins. This one, however, was sleeping peacefully while her peace of mind was in tatters.
She looked at the sleeping Jaan Miyan and his curls, waving under the onslaught of his tremendous snores. There was something about those curls that made her want to run her fingers through them.
If I still had them.
She caught herself. What was she thinking? She needed the place free of distractions so she could haunt it undisturbed. As it is she had stopped the scary sound fest that kept away the local population. Soon there would be squatters here in droves.
That is it! I will scare him with my screams. But first I need to wait for him to get up. No one can hear anything above the din of his deviated septum.
Evening descended. Jaan Miyan felt refreshed after a great sleep. He felt he could tackle anything the world threw at him at this moment. He put on his particular favorite parrot green undershirt, which was more holes and less fabric, and was just applying the surma in his right eye with the greatest of concentration when someone spoke in his ear.
The application of surma is a complex thing. It requires skill and focus in equal measure. A lack in the skill department can make you look like a blast victim and if your focus is disturbed, you can easily take out your eye with the applicator.
So when someone spoke in his ears while he was applying the surma, it was no surprise that he poked himself in the eye.
It was Sumaiya who had whispered his name. She had big plans of repeating his name in his ears till he was pulling his curls in fear and frustration. She had to stop after one try only, though. The reason? When she put all her emotions into his name and delivered it through her ghostly vocal chords, it sounded like the desperate cry of a lover instead of a terrorizing whisper.
While a man could be forgiven for mouthing expletives after poking himself in the eye, Sumaiya wasn’t ready for what happened.
Sobbed Jaan Miyan in a broken voice with tears streaming from one red and swollen eye. “I know it’s you. Earlier when the room got cold, I was sure it was you running your fingers in my hair to comfort me. And now you called me. Who else would call me Jaan? Ammi, I am so happy you have come here. We’ll be together once again.”
Sumaiya screamed in exasperation, putting all her frustration and anger into the scream. It built up like a train whistle and increased in pitch till the glass windows started to clatter in their casements.
All the commotion failed to have any effect on Jaan Miyan who just stood there with the ghost of a smile playing on his lips. Then like a mother scolding a naughty kid, he said, “Ammi, don’t be so angry. I always said you will burst some nerves with your anger someday and you did. I promise I will be a good boy. Please stop screaming.”
Sumaiya was in shock. She had subjected him to the best of her screams, one before which lion-hearts quailed, and yet this infernal Jaan Miyan was standing there, his curls framing his innocent face, a look of pure love mixing with the putrid oil vapors. His dimples danced with his heaving features. Just a minute! He had dimples? Sumaiya fled the room, rather spirited away.. or did whatever it was that spirited spirits did in the clutch of overpowering emotions.
Later as she pondered over the problem, she saw that mere sounds or sensual effects were not going to fetch results. This Jaan Miyan must have been rendered half deaf by his own snoring and her screaming was wasted on someone whose faculties were compromised at best. She needed something more shocking. Something more tangible than ghostly fingers running over his thick skull. And she knew just the thing.
Jaan Miyan woke the next evening to feel the bed near his feet wet. Something was dripping on his toes and he could feel them squelching. He got up and his eyes flew open, all the sleep departing in a moment. A chicken hung in the air at the foot of his bed, blood dripping from its half-severed neck down onto his toes.
“Chicken!” He cried excitedly. “Ammi you are the best. You know how much I love chicken and thus you have brought one for me. Halal too.”
One can only guess the effect of this proclamation on Sumaiya. She had arrived at the conclusion that nothing less than the sight of some blood was going to hammer the fact of the house being haunted into the neanderthal skull Jaan Miyan sported. Consequently she had spent the better part of the day trying to corner and catch a rooster from among the few that roamed the area behind the bungalow. It had proved harder than she had imagined and involved feats of athleticism she had never imagined herself capable of when she was alive. Maybe there was some truth in her parent’s complaints that she didn’t exert herself enough.
She had somehow nabbed the rooster who led her a merry chase for a couple of hours and while she had no cuts or bruises to show for her endeavor, it wasn’t for lack of trying, but because of lack of a biteable surface. The rooster had been one of those who harbored illusions of being a canine instead of a mere fowl. He bit first and crowed later. She desperately wanted to wring its neck but held herself back. If she wrung its neck, there would be no blood and blood was needed to scare that apparently unscareable specimen of humanity.
So when she stood there holding the chicken, its lifeless body swaying in air, its neck dripping blood, the scene frightening enough to scare the pants off anyone, to hear Jaan Miyan attribute everything to his mother was the last straw. As she threw the chicken to the ground in disgust, she heard Jaan Miyan croak, his voice full of emotion,
“Please take my name once again Ammi. Call your son once again. I am dying to hear your voice call me like you used to before everything went out of hand. Call me Jaan, like yesterday. Please Ammi.”
“Cut it out. I’m no one’s Ammi. Your Ammi isn’t here. What a thick head you have,” Sumaiya said, her voice tired and dull.
“My Ammi used to say that. Who are you? What do you mean Ammi isn’t here? Who brought me the chicken, knowing I love to eat chicken and haven’t had one since I went to jail? Who called my name yesterday, her voice filled with all her love? My Ammi, who else!”
“It was me. I brought the chicken. I was trying to scare you off.” Sumaiya replied.
“Trying to scare me off? Scare me off to where? I have no other place to go.” Jaan Miyan looked suspiciously close to tears and suddenly Sumaiya had an inexplicable urge to comfort this man-child by wiping off his tears and patting his abundant curls. She knew she did not want to run this fool off from her house. She decided to manifest in front of Jaan miyan.
Jaan Miyan saw a beautiful girl of around twenty materialize in front of his eyes. He gaped at her, eyes ready to fall out of their sockets.
“How can you scare anyone? Was it you who called me Jaan yesterday?” He asked, a blush deepening his tanned cheeks and making the dimples peek out.
Sumaiya sighed. “Yes. It was me. I live here.”
Jaan Miyan kept ogling the spirit spiritedly. Then he said, “I too live here. That means we live together. Can we live here together?” He blushed once again at the implications of his words. Sumaiya decided she liked to see him blushing. It would be fun to find ways to make his blood rise.
“Yes, we can,” she assented. “But on one condition. You have to give up that stinking concoction you call hair oil.”
Emboldened Jaan Miyan ventured into dangerous territory. “My Ammi used to apply that on my hair. You can see the results. But I will give it up for you. Will you call my name once again? Please?”
And Sumaiya did.
“Jaan,” she whispered into his ears and disappeared.
However, unlike the last time, it was received exactly as it was uttered, a salutation filled with love and tenderness not misunderstood at all.
The house still stands despondent but it now has a sentry. Neighbors say he is mad because of the long tresses dripping coconut oil. The scary sounds have ceased. Rather the sounds of laughter and melancholy songs from the fifties emanate from inside. But, instead of one, two voices, one male and one female, can be heard now.
No one in their right mind approaches the haunted house still.
Pic courtesy : Lumen on pexel.com
Bedaagh : spotless
Dupatta : a piece of loose clothing like a scarf
Chhan-chhan : the tinkling sound of anklets, used in movies to introduce an effect of horror
Mogra : a flower
Surma : black powder for adorning eyes.
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