“Wake up, Viraj. I saw her again.”
Viraj rubbed his eyes and squinted at his wife. Leela’s haunting eyes and the dark circles underneath, stood out in the limpid moonlight pouring through the window. The last seven days had worn her down.
“There… she was swinging on the carved wooden swing, there. She stared into my eyes before taking a plunge into the well.
“She was dressed in a sh… sheer white fabric as b… before.” Leela stuttered.
Nervous dread gnawed at his insides. He fixed his eyes on the decrepit courtyard of his 1000 square–yard ancestral house, which was in the process of restoration.
There was neither a wooden swing nor a well.
What was wrong with Leela, he wondered. He had ambitious plans for the mice-infested, 600-year-old edifice, which was the last tie with his resplendent past. He had not only taken a bank loan to reinstate the building to its pristine glory but also hired a daunting array of conservation architects to preserve its architectural heritage.
It was the seventh night in a row when she had wakened him up in the middle of the night to claim the presence of the girl in white. The riveting narrative would unfailingly start and end the same way; the girl would always start on the nonexistent swing and end up killing herself. The only thing that differed radically was the method.
The girl had a motley of methods at her disposal; it varied from jumping into the fictitious well to banging small bricks on her head till she bled copiously and breathed her last. On other days, Leela declared she saw the girl fling herself into a hole in the ground which appeared at just the right moment. He couldn’t recollect all the details as the methods were not only mootable but also downright bizarre.
Was it merely a case of hormones running amok, because of her heightened sensitivity and fragile mental condition? Viraj pondered. Leela was eight weeks pregnant.
They had all sprinted down to the patio on the first night, Leela had conjured up the girl. The following nights he had passed up the domestic-help and had scurried down on his own to depone Leela’s phantasm. Currently, he did not incline to undertake a wild goose chase.
Viraj stroked Leela’s disheveled hair and pulled her close. He gently caressed her trembling body. He escorted her to the bed and held her till she drifted off to sleep; her transition littered with inane details of the swing and the girl in white.
He ambled towards the oversized window.
The orange glow of street lamps cast a myriad of shadows on the narrow alley of Chandni Chowk that led to his Haveli. The chirping of crickets and the occasional bark of the street dogs unsettled him.
He abandoned all hopes of sleep and sauntered towards the living room. The only other room, apart from their bedroom that was temporarily refurbished, amongst the other fifty rooms.
He pictured the rooms remodeled into spacious guest rooms aligned around the parqueted marble central courtyard. He looked down upon the fountain with the marble-inlay work reminiscent of the Mughal dynasty.
He poured himself a drink and cast about something to divert his attention. He found it in consideration of the giant Mughal style portrait of his deceased father-Chaudhary Jagjiwan Singh, the hereditary landlord whose ancestors were acclaimed administrators and courtiers with the imperial government.
He quietly regarded the artwork; his father had his head in a stern profile, while the rest of his body half was turned towards the onlooker. Viraj had returned home six years after his father’s demise.
A product of the boarding-school system followed by residential universities, Viraj had never been close to his father. The payment towards his education was the pinnacle of the parental liabilities for his father. Towards the autumnal years of his father’s life, Viraj had tried to bond with him but had given up after being called on the carpet for eying his wealth. Not that there was any real wherewithal apart from the ancestral house, Viraj thought wryly, as he took a deep swig of the lager.
Viraj made his way to the terrace through a labyrinth of staircases and balconies; one of the smaller roofs had crumbled, thus wrecking a whole section of the house.
He gazed forlornly at the breathtaking view of the Red Fort, the Jain Lal-Mandir, and the Jama Majid in front of him. The lilting melody of afternoon azaan did little to soothe the disquiet in his soul.
The last few days had been uneventful, but he realized it was a lull before a vicious storm.
He clamped his eyes shut as he recalled the events that unfolded yesterday. Leela had woken up shaken and startled from a nightmare in which Viraj had strangulated their unborn-child, while the girls had stood mute spectators.
He was anguished by the turn of the events; not only was he the new entrant in the monstrosity, but also the number of girls had increased staggeringly.
All the efforts to calm Leela were in vain. He had to drop her to her mother’s house in Gurugram to assuage her agitated state.
This morning, his mother-in-law had phoned him to inform about Leela’s miscarriage.
He should have never touched the house with a bargepole, he thought; it had wrecked his life.
He was torn. It consumed every ounce of his being to delay his visit to the hospital and inspect the splintered roof.
“Viraj Babu, look at this!” the workman yelled from the ground floor.
Viraj bounded downstairs, cursing under his breath.
The heavy rafts had landed on one of the ground-floor walls that had long endured dampness and moisture seeping into its core. The wall, along with a part of the flooring, had triturated under the weight of the raft.
“It seems to be a sort of a basement,” the workers exclaimed.
Dusk had fallen by the time Viraj returned.
He navigated through the chaotic by-lanes to reach the archway that marked the entrance of his ancestral house. The stone-plaque on the side of the forecourt mentioned- ‘Jagjivan Niwas’ in brass letters.
Viraj curled his lips and looked away.
The mansion had finally ravaged the last vestiges of his happiness. It had snagged, not only his father, but his mother, and now his offspring.
His face contorted as he thought about his mother. Soon after his birth, she had allegedly fled with a servant and brought disgrace to the family.
A half-awake stray dog lying in the doorway whimpered as Viraj entered.
The damp, decayed furniture from the basement was piled up in the patio. Viraj squatted to examine it. Most of the pieces looked beyond hope, but a few were salvageable. He had almost turned away to leave when something made him stop.
It sent his mind reeling.
It was a plank which appeared to be a mangled part of a swing with intricate elephants’ motifs. The same swing that Leela had seen and elaborately outlined, night after night.
He grasped the fountain to steady himself.
“Babuji, the basement has filled up again. We will have to install a jet pump to drain the water,” the workman’s voice diverted his attention.
“It will keep overflowing until you fill-up the well that lies under the fountain.”
Viraj turned towards the voice and immediately folded his hands to greet the visitor, Shambhu.
“Malik…You!” Shambhu immediately lowered his eyes.
If it was not for Shambhu’s ardent dedication, his father would have met his maker much earlier. Shambhu had taken a voluntary retirement after his father’s demise, six years back.
“Shambhu kaka, I’m Viraj. Have I changed so much that you can’t recognize me?” Viraj exclaimed as he pulled a chair for the old man. Shambhu slowly looked up.
“I apologize for the delay. I took a train as soon as I received your message about the renovation. Sorry, to hear about Bahurani. The workers told me you had gone to the hospital.
“You should have never got her here. This haveli is not for women. No woman has ever set foot in this haveli for the last thirty years since Badi Malkin left. I had started to work for Malik soon after. This place is cursed. Malik attempted to remarry and have another child, even towards the fag end of his life but to no avail.” Shambhu sighed.
Chaudhryji had wanted to remarry? Wanted to father another child? There was a well under the fountain? How many skeletons were hidden behind this dilapidated facade? Viraj wondered.
“Chote Malik, if you don’t mind, I’d like to leave tomorrow. I merely wanted to hand over this address to you. Malik used to send five-thousand rupees to this address every month.”
Vijay studied a band of pigeon chirping on the wooden jharokha and then glanced at the suspended electrical and phone cables hanging overhead from ramshackle poles.
He had to not only restore the haveli to its past glory but also sustain it. He couldn’t afford to send money anywhere. He buried the address in his diary and soon forgot about it.
The next six months passed away in a blur.
As Shambhu had cautioned, Viraj never asked Leela to the site again. And now, since she was pregnant, he couldn’t take a chance.
The fountain had been dug, and a well was discovered. But despite the pump, the basement still flooded frequently. The ground-floor rooms had enormous patches of moisture and humidity, even after several coats of lime mortar.
Viraj was overlooking the workmen scraping the synthetic paint with sandpaper when his phone rang.
It was his mother-in-law.
“Viraj, Leela had a miscarriage this morning. She had that nightmare last night.”
“What… What nightmare?” he stammered.
“Same, as the last time. She saw you marching into her bedroom, with the girls by your side, and then you smothered the baby. I am taking her to the hospital,” she mumbled.
“I’ll start right away,” Viraj quickly spoke.
“Beta, that’s why I called you. She is fragile, and maybe it is not the right time to meet her,” she said, before putting down the phone.
Notwithstanding her advice, Viraj reached the hospital. When he raised his hand to cuddle Leela, she dropped his hand and drew back.
“Why are you after my babies, Viraj? You and those girls. You are a murderer! I never want to see your face again…” Leela yelled, her voice shrill.
Viraj dropped to his knees and grabbed his face with both his hands.
The mansion had cost him more than he had bargained.
It was time to untangle the long-forgotten knots. He fished out a crumpled piece of paper from his diary and stared at it for a long time; maybe it was time to rake up the past again.
The elderly woman couldn’t breathe. She had curled herself into a ball and was gasping for air.
Viraj’s eyes widened, and his mouth gaped. He had never expected someone who had met him for the first time to react like this. He reflected on the events that had happened since morning.
The address that Shambhu had given him had led him straight to Haridwar.
He had knocked several times, but when no one had answered, he had to crank open the rickety door.
That had made him come face to face with the elderly woman, who had stood rooted to her spot. In a few minutes, her revulsion had escalated into the intense physical response; he was witnessing.
A man from the kitchen dashed towards the woman. His face turned ashen as he looked up at Viraj.
He sobbed bitterly, “Why Malik, why have you come? I never used a single penny you sent me. I gave it all away.”
“Hush, Sudha, it’s okay.” he turned to his companion.
“Baba, I am Viraj Singh, son of Chaudhary Jagjiwan Singh,” Viraj responded.
The man furrowed his brows and gulped many times before turning away. He put his arm around the woman’s shoulders and she turned into his chest.
Viraj had to lay open the entire story before he could eke out a response from the man.
“Those girls in white are your sisters.
“Year after year, I watched Bade Malik murdering them, soon after their birth; in reckless pursuit of a male heir. He used to force Malkin to sit in that infernal swing and watch him massacre the girls.
“Malkin was expected to endure it without a word. These girls you described are enacting their deaths. Malik not only flung them into the well but also buried them alive in the courtyard.” The man inhaled sharply.
“My name is Bhola. I was with Chaudharys since I was an adolescent boy. By the time your father took reins of the household, I had married Sudha,” he said, pointing towards the woman.
The faint sounds of Ganga aarti admixed with the tinkling of the prayer bells filled the air. The aroma of burning incense lent an ethereal aura to the entire atmosphere.
Bhola looked out and fixed his eyes on the diyas floating in the water.
“The night when Malkin gave birth to her seventh daughter is etched in my memory. The rain was lashing against the stone balconies, and a terrible storm was in the offing.
“The newborn’s gender had made Malik incandescent with rage. Embittered, he first smashed the newborn’s skull with a brick and then turned his wrath on Malkin. He pummeled her till she passed out. His smoldering fury found its next victim in Sudha, who was then brutally assaulted.
“He then locked the two women in the tehkhana, for the next few months. Malik visited them often to defile and violate Sudha repeatedly. I couldn’t do anything to abet their agonies.” Bhola’s voice cracked and caught in his throat.
“At the end of a year, Sudha delivered a male baby. The mental and physical impalement, however, had taken roots in both the women. While Malkin passed away in her sleep, Sudha, who had meekly endured the excruciating torture, never spoke again.
“In exchange for the baby and our silence, Malik granted us freedom. We have been here since then,” Bhola said, with tears streaming down his face.
“So, she is my m… mother,” Viraj pointed towards the woman, “And, she reacted like this because…”
“Because you are a spitting image of your father, and that is precisely the reason, why your wife saw you in her nightmares.” Bhola interposed.
The silence deepened. Viraj felt the hair stirring at the back of his neck. He tried to get his mind around what Bhola had told him.
In the next few months, Viraj along with a team of workmen, sifted and shoveled through the courtyard, and unearthed multiple fetal skeletons.
Water-well-contractor was hired, and they exhumed not only fetal skeletons but also adult bones that Viraj knew belonged to his mother, Shakuntala Devi. The well was then sealed from the bottom up.
He released the ashes; the cremated remains of his mother and sisters into the holy river Ganges, with the belief that finally, they all attained the salvation they sought.
Five years later
The business had been bustling since the time Viraj had opened the doors of his ancestral haveli, ‘Shakuntala-Sudha Nivas‘ to the public.
He stood at the multifoliate archway and savored the artwork that adorned one of the walls. It was a portrait of Shakuntala Devi, seated on a carved swing, and encircled by seven white doves.
On the other side of the courtyard, his mother, Sudha, was engaged in a banter with his four-year-old daughter, Radha.
The haveli was finally at peace. It had purged out the secrets and lies that had been rotting in its womb for a long time. Viraj gently closed his eyes and let placid calm wash over himself.
Azaan(Urdu)-The azaan, is the Islamic call to prayer, recited by the muezzin at prescribed times of the day.
Babu(Hindi)-The title babu is used in the Indian subcontinent as a sign of respect towards men.
Malik(here)- used as a title for the headman of a family.
Haveli- A haveli is a traditional mansion in the Indian subcontinent, usually one with historical and architectural significance.
Badi Malkin(here)- used here, as a title for the family’s head wife.
Chote Malik(here)-used here, as a title for the son of headman of the family.
Jharokha- a type of overhanging enclosed balcony in Indo-Islamic architecture.
Ganga Aarti (Hindi)- a ritual of offering prayer to the Ganges river, held daily at dusk in Haridwar.
Diyas(Hindi)- oil lamps made from clay.
Tehkhana( Urdu)- basement
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