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Old haunts

Daribha Lyndem | Updated on January 24, 2020 Published on January 24, 2020

Outlier: It was immodest and baroque, and it refused to blend in with the terrain of unassuming little Assamese homes to its left and right   -  ISTOCK.COM

Daribha Lyndem

Red imprint: “There was no turf, no grass, only the wet mud that was squelchy 90 per cent of the year, and gravelly the remaining 10. The underside of our shoes always turned red when we went to explore that house”   -  ISTOCK.COM

“Ma told me I was not to go there,” my best friend said, pointing out to a house in the distance, as we sat on her roof sucking on lemon pickles. “I think it’s because it’s haunted,” she continued. It loomed eerily in the distance.

“No one lives there?” I asked.

“Not anymore,” she replied.

“So we can have a look from the street, right?” I asked her.

She nodded, and we headed down the sloping road that led to the house. When we got closer to it, we could see it was unlike others in the neighbourhood. It was not fortified with a boundary wall, and people could easily walk up to its front door. The property was in Cleve Colony, close to where my best friend lived, and soon after this first sojourn, we snuck onto the grounds any chance we got. It did not have a garden, no yellow dahlias which bowed heavily under their own weight. Every house in this city had dahlias, and dragonflies that flew past you if you sat in the garden. Here, there was no turf, no grass, only the wet mud that was squelchy 90 per cent of the year, and gravelly the remaining 10. The underside of our shoes always turned red when we went to explore that house. “Our state is mostly composed of red laterite soil,” our teacher droned once in geography class. That is how I learned to call the soil red, and not orange, even though it reminded me of how my hands would look after I dug my fingers in a vat of Mom’s mehendi. “The soil is rich in aluminium and high in iron oxide. It is good for the cultivation of fruits and cash crops.” Oranges grow well here. That is why orange trees lined the walls of most houses in Shillong. “It is the proudest tree,” I overheard my mother tell my sister. There were no orange trees outside the Bhoot Bangla, only weeds and a lone willow behind the house.

We always went to see it when my best friend’s dad encouraged us to go out to play. “You kids need to step away from the television, go outside for a walk,” Uncle said in a stern manner.

We were confident as we walked to the Bhoot Bangla, past Mizoram House, the kirana store that sold Kwik’s cheese balls, my favourite, and the enormous house of one of the wealthier home-owners in the neighbourhood. Always the same route, always the same houses. All so familiar, as my best friend was. I waved at her neighbours as we walked past their house as they watered their plants. Mr Bhattacharya, like many dkhars(non-tribals) who stayed there, had a garden filled with large leafy plants. They liked bougainvilleas and rubber trees. Bah Kharmalki liked his garden to be filled with potted flowers that stood in a neat row. Pansies and roses all lined their terraces and front porch.

Our backs began to tingle as we got closer to the house. We spoke loudly as if trying to ward off the nebulous spirits with our cacophonous voices.

One time through the dusty windows she thought she saw a figure.

“I think I saw something!” my friend said, her voice shaking.

“You sure?” I asked, trying to sound brave.

“Yes!” She replied vehemently. We both ran off, our shoes kicking the dust and the phantoms that lurked in the shadows. The birds that rested on the willow and the dogs that prowled around watched us leave.

The Bhoot Bangla was a two-storey colonial building that stood right next to a bend on the road on the way up Cleve Colony. You could not see it when you walked up the road but it loomed in the back, peeking from behind houses, when you walked down. It was a dirty turmeric colour with parts of the paint having peeled off. Its ceiling was domed, as opposed to the flat or slanting roofs most of the houses in Shillong had. We were certain only a dkhar would have lived in this house, no local would have built their house this way. It was immodest and baroque, and it refused to blend in with the terrain of unassuming little Assamese homes to its left and right.

I don’t know if it was haunted but no one ever seemed to go inside it. Even the neighbourhood teenagers never went there to drink at night, although they had made use of all abandoned homes to drink and break the emptied bottles. In the evening light, the branches of the willow tree looked like arms. In winter, it got dark at four in the afternoon. The Bengalis in the neighbouring area who blew their conch in the evening, slicing the silence in that quiet neighbourhood, always gave us a sense of security. They made us feel less alone when we walked past the house. Even though we feared the nameless, faceless ghosts we believed lived there, it never deterred us from trying to get inside. A big rusty lock impeded our entry. We struggled with it every time we went, till our hands turned orange and smelled like what blood tastes.

“I saw a man dig a hole in the ground there and throw in a dirty knife,” my friend said one time.

“What? Why?”

“I don’t know, but from where I was standing it looked bloody and he buried it in,” she said with an air of surety.

I believed her, and we went to look for the knife the weekend after she told me this. We took bamboo sticks, dug them into the mud, causing it to crack, reminding me of the oozy tops of the cakes my mom would poke a knitting needle into to see if they were done. We never got beyond an inch of digging before we got bored. She told me about the earlier occupants of the house.

“The owner of the house suffered a tragedy, that is why they don’t stay there anymore,” she told me.

“It would not be a Bhoot Bangla if it did not,” I replied, incredulous. “What happened?” I continued, still curious.

“Oh, one of the kids jumped off the roof, died,” she said, trying to sound sombre.

“Which kid?”

“I don’t remember,” she shrugged. “What does it matter? It’s haunted now. A ghost is a ghost.”

“True,” I replied.

“But what harm can a ghost do? It’s already dead,” she said, almost speaking to herself.

“I don’t know, make you kill yourself? Make you so scared that you go mad? Kill you?”

“But if they could not hurt us when they were alive, what can they do now?”

“Can ghosts move things? Can they touch things?” I asked.

“I don’t know. But they don’t need to be haunting us. We have not done anything wrong to them.”

“Yes, but does a ghost remember anything about its past life?”

“It should, right? Or why would it be so angry?”

“I hope I don’t end up a ghost. It must be lonely,” she said.

Our excursions to the haunted house grew sparse as we got older. We took another path, where school boys played basketball in their shorts, so we could giggle as we walked past them. When we did cross the house, we barely noticed it. We had stopped trying to open the rusty lock. Incredulity took the place of curiosity.

By the time we were in college, people grew prosperous, the one-storey houses around it turned into two-storey ones. People paved over their rose beds and small gardens to make more space to park their extra cars. Only a large poinsettia plant in the corner of Bah Kharmalki’s garden remained unpaved. Mr Bhattacharya had moved away. A four-storey guest house took the place of his home and we could barely see the Bhoot Bangla’s roof from afar. Around it, guest houses sprung up, and the Bhoot Bangla remained unchanged in a location considered prime property. It stayed mute and defiant for as long as it could. It had history and I could hardly extricate the history of that house from memories of my friend.

It was gone now. Just as she was. Cancer, she told me over the phone. She turned to ash, just as the big, ugly house was razed to the ground, and turned into dust. A shiny new guest house stood in its place to accommodate the burgeoning tourism industry and the influx of Bengalis and Assamese people who came over on long weekends. People walked up and down that same road, and there was no longer the fear of being alone near that house. I did not need the sound of conchs, or the crunch of leaves under the stray dog’s feet to feel comforted. Phantoms and shadowy old houses with odd histories seemed less frightening now. There are things more frightening than ghosts, like the wraith-like figure of a dying friend.

The locals complained that the tourists littered, and made a ruckus. “The tourist taxi cab drivers drive like maniacs almost running school kids off the road!” I heard someone complain once. People were upset their city was not as quiet as it once was. I am unsure if “quiet” is what made a city. People disliked the touristy, cacophonous dkhars who cut through the loneliness of a dark night. Our ghosts were killed by tourists and concrete. There was pavement over the red soil so the guests would not have to worry about muddy shoes. They never chopped down the willow tree and somewhere under all that red and pink lay buried the bloody knife my best friend had once told me about.

Daribha Lyndem is an IRS officer from Shillong, currently posted to Mumbai. Her debut book ‘Name Place Animal Thing’ is slated to be released by Zubaan in April 2020

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Published on January 24, 2020
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