Living with Ghosts
They say that houses, like humans, possess souls. Houses could be lucky or unlucky, believe a lot of people, auspicious, inauspicious, inhabited by spirits, charged with tricky energy and frequently, filled with frightening negativity.
Born into a family with an analytical take on life and raised by a rationalist father, I generally smirked at such topics, terming them as superstitious nonsense and openly laughed at my interior decorator friends who, applying the laws of vaastu shastra, advised clients to change the positions of doors, windows and puja corners to ensure a spirit-free environment and enhance domestic bliss. Over the years, I was content to sail along in my status as a proud rationalist like my father, and a non-believer of mumbo-jumbo (as I termed such superstitions).
Till I moved to my new house….
The first thing that impressed me about my new house was the lush greenery visible at every window, a rare sight in the city of Mumbai. There were neem, mango and rain trees lining the road below and yellow blossoms of a Radhachura tree nearly entered my bedroom window in their exuberance.
The shifting of houses happened at a time when there were two sets of board examinations looming over our heads and there was much to distract me. The memory of my last meeting with the couple who sold the house to us is still etched in my memory. The lady, around the same age as me, was moving out of Mumbai, and hence the decision to sell the house. She turned to say a last goodbye to her beloved house. The house had been her father-in-law’s dream project, she informed me sadly.
Just before leaving, she turned to me.
‘Before someone else tells you this, I must inform you that my father-in-law died two years ago, in this very bedroom where we’re standing. He was a wonderful human being- one of the best-loved wardens of the Nagpur jail. Even if he happens to be around, he will do you no harm.’
A cold shiver goes down my spine but I told myself stoutly that I was a non-believer and a rationalist and unlikely to be rattled with this bit of information.
The next six months were very chaotic with both my sons on the brink of their exams and it was around this time that my old trusted domestic help who had been with me for twenty years had to leave rather suddenly for Kolkata due to a family crisis. A succession of domestic maids started arriving from Kolkata but oddly, none of them stayed for more than four to five months. They were always summoned back home due to some urgent reason or the other. It was baffling.
It was when the third domestic arrived that incidents started taking concrete shape. The house is in a long rectangular shape with two bedrooms at one end and a puja corner-cum-bedroom at the other end, and the live-in domestic generally slept in this slightly isolated puja room. The new domestic help, Laxmi, who seemed to be settling in comfortably, came up to me rather hesitantly in the second month of service.
‘Didi, I’ve been meaning to tell you this for a while…’
The woman hesitated and I had to prod her to continue.
‘I’m a fairly deep sleeper but sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night, I get the feeling that there is someone sitting in the cane chair in my room. I’m so terrified that I pull the blanket over my head and I don’t open my eyes till morning.’
I laughed at her dismissing it as a product of her overactive imagination I (you’ve been seeing too many suspense movies, I scolded) and took to making visits to Laxmi’s room in the middle of the night to check out matters. There was no figure in the chair, at any time. As I walked the length of the corridor to return to my bedroom, the dark house felt friendly to me, not hostile. I was seriously perplexed. Merely a fortnight later, news came in that Laxmi’s son had met with a road accident and she had to leave for Kolkata immediately.
The next person to arrive, Pushpadi, was rotund, jolly and a fabulous cook. Her alu-posto, shukto and mishit pulao delighted my husband and sons (unabashed foodies, all) and she was declared a success from the very first week. It was in the second month of service that I noticed an odd nervousness in Pushpadi and her efficiency levels seemed disrupted, somehow. There was something definitely brewing in Pushpadi’s mind. She came up to me rather hesitantly one evening saying she wanted to talk to me in a confidential capacity. I was mystified. Everything seemed to be going so well- was she angling for a salary hike? A job for her grown-up son…? An advance..?
‘Boudi, I don’t know how to say this, I’m very happy in this house, but…..’
‘But, from the last few days in the middle of the night I often feel a presence in the room I sleep in. I can clearly hear someone breathing very close to me. I’m so terrified that I lie as still as a statue till morning comes.’
Almost predictably, around a fortnight later, a phone call arrived informing us that Pushapdi’s husband, who lived in Ranaghat, had developed pneumonia and she was needed urgently back home. We hurriedly sent Pushpadi back home, while praying for her husband’s recovery.
I was flabbergasted and sat down to analyse the situation. The same pattern was playing itself out time and again. It was true that all the domestic helps who had seen, heard or felt a nocturnal presence had been unsatisfactory in small ways; petty thefts, lying tendencies, cheating ways and often, lazy. Was someone then systematically filtering out bad elements from my house? If so, who? The previous owner’s words played out in my mind, ‘…if my father-in-law is still around in this house, he will do you no harm. I fact he will guard you…’ Was the gentleman whose dream house this had been, still here?
The next week, my elder son, who was in the habit of studying all through the night, informed me very casually that he heard footsteps in the corridor very often and when he got up to check whether any family member was awake, there was no one visible. Being a pragmatic boy, he was far from being afraid and refused to pay any attention to the happenings. He heard the footsteps go up and down all through his study leave but continued solving his Maths problems, unfazed. It was around this time that even I started seeing things. A gray shape vanished out of my field of vision even as I turned to focus on it, and always in the corridor. Was I imagining things or was he showing himself to me? If yes, why…? I felt uneasy; there was some indefinable menace in the air, a sense of danger.
I was alone at home one afternoon and sleeping deeply when I suddenly felt someone push me hard. I got up with a jolt- there was no one around. But there was a smell, a strong smell. Of gas. I ran to the kitchen and turned off the burner, throwing open all windows. The part-time domestic help had forgotten to turn off the gas which had been leaking for a good two hours. On waking up, I would have gone sleepily straight to the gas and turned in on for tea and with disastrous consequences, in all probability.
Things were getting a little out of hand, and my husband was getting worried. Odd rumours, floated by the domestics, were reaching his ears. The time had come, he declared firmly, to take a serious course of action. A firm believer in the supernatural, he had already gone into panic mode. We should have a satyanarayan puja at the earliest date and cleanse the house of spirits, he ranted. I felt a tremendous feeling of sadness weighing me down- I did not want to cleanse the house, I did not want to exorcise the spirit. I had become very fond of my resident ghost and sometimes, I even found myself chatting with the late jail warden. But my husband was adamant.
The satyanarayan puja started on all the wrong notes. I had barely sat down to paint the alpana for the puja when I experienced sudden giddiness. I was laid up in bed next, unable to participate in the puja preparations and my friends pitched in to help. The puja progressed steadily but I was too ill to concentrate. The homa fire had been barely lit when a strange wind started blowing in the room even though it was sunny and still outside. Suddenly, the homa-fire nearly went out altogether and the astonished thakur moshai had to fan it frantically to keep it alive. He doesn’t want to leave the house I thought in anguish, the spirit doesn’t want to go…. A thousand queries battered my mind: was all life merely a form of energy? On bodily death, did a person morph from one form of energy to the other? If so, were dead people always around in some state, possessing the ability to manifest themselves at will…? The metaphysical arguments went round and round in my head making me feel more ill, but there were no answers on the horizon.
The puja was completed, but was there true closure? Since then, the house has been sterile. Mostly. I feel a sense of loss but my beloved ghost visits once in a while, more on a tourist visa. I can feel his benevolent presence in the corridor. Always, the corridor. When I offer food to my ancestors during the pitra pakshya, I stand on my terrace and offer some of it to my jailer friend, too. In gratitude and affection…. A close friend (an insomniac) in the neigbhbouring building says that often, on full moon nights, she sees a bespectacled bald elderly gentleman standing at my drawing-room window and gazing out with arms folded (although no one of that description lives in my house).
The warden gives me tiny hints if things are likely to go amiss with my family and I return the favour by ensuring that, after twelve o’clock at night, the corridor is completely free of humans for him to stroll in. We live in a state of mutual affection and symbiosis, my ghost and I. When the census officials come asking for the number of family members living in my house and my husband answers ‘four’, I smile to myself. Deep down in my heart, I know very well that the number of permanent residents in my house is actually ‘five.’
(Based on true life incidents in the author’s life)