Saturday 15 August 2020

Amar Agarwala, Short Story 2020 Featured Writer

The Haveli

Rahul and Chandni Maheshwari were clearly having the time of their lives. They were traversing the last leg of a most wonderful of holiday they had taken since the time they had married, which was quite out of fluke. It happened when both their parents decided to pay them a visit and the family decided on completing the mandatory ‘thread ceremony’ of their seven year grandson, a naughty little boy the parents had lovingly named Moksh.

The rituals needed to be performed in the native village of Rahul’s forefathers’ a tiny hamlet called Govindpura, located in tehsil of Khandela in Rajasthan. Thereafter, the families planned to visit a small town named Banasar, which lay in the tehsil (an administrative area mostly in rural parts of India.) of Dharampur, a place from where Chandni’s forefathers’ hailed. The couple were exuberant that they were finally chancing a visit to their native villages; that too in the comforting company of both their parents which would help acquaint them with many of their relatives they had never ever met. Moreover, their respective clans would finally meet their son, which they felt was very important. Something they knew their parents would relish more than anything else in the world. They also planned on visiting Jaisalmer, Udaipur and Jaipur, which was like icing on the cake. The arrangements for the holiday were hurriedly made and despite their trying professional schedules, both Rahul and Chandni were determined to work it out.

They hired a ‘Toyoto Innova’ a plush air-conditioned seven-seater from Delhi to take them around Rajasthan during the fortnight that they planned to spend there. The driver assigned to take them around was a witty little fellow called Mann Singh. He hailed from the town of Bhiwandi and was an expert with not just the topography of Rajasthan but doubled up as an encyclopaedia about the history of the places they were visiting. It gave the trip just the right impetus it needed. Moreover, it being the month of November, autumn had set in to make the weather mild and very pleasant, it all added up to make the holiday near perfect, well almost.

Happy days have a strange habit of evaporating sooner than one imagines, and it was no different with the holidaying family of seven. The last leg of their journey from the historic city of Udaipur to Jaipur, was a long drive of some four hundred kilometres, with the road snaking through the district of Beawar located near the city of Ajmer. Mann Singh regaled them about the erstwhile glory of the Beawar tehsil and suggested that they could consider taking a small detour through some of its ancient villages and that it would make for some interesting sight-seeing. He recalled one in particular, a tiny desolate village within the folds of the Aravalli hills named Khera Neemri. He mentioned that the only point of attraction in the otherwise desolate village was a beautiful old haveli (a mansion) which once belonged to one of the richest merchants of that area known as Nathmal Gulab Chand. The grand old edifice was lying in near ruins but it was a spectacular structure and was more than worthy of a visit. Mann Singh added, that he had gathered from reliable sources that the place would soon be converted into a heritage hotel, relegating another piece of invaluable history into the gaping jaws of modernisation.

Having spent two very interesting and informative weeks with Mann Singh, the family was more than impressed with his wide repertoire of knowledge which they felt was nothing short of prolific. Considering the fact that they were to fly back to their home city of Kolkata only late in the afternoon the next day, the holidaying family knew they had plenty of time on their hands. Besides, the idea of visiting an ancient mansion excited both Rahul and Chandni who weren’t just zealous travellers but were avid photographers with a fancy to click the ancient and primeval. Even though the elders were slightly reticent, they gave way to the exuberance of their wards and soon the vehicle nosed towards Khera Neemri. Mann Singh alleviated the family’s concern by stating that there was yet time before darkness would descend and the sojourn at the village wouldn’t take long. And that they’d easily reach Delhi before nightfall, where they were to put up at a hotel until their flight took off the next afternoon. Implying they had plenty of spare time to while away, and using it made sense. It would tantamount to giving their perfect holiday cake the right icing. However, things didn’t work out quite the way they planned. To begin with, a puncture delayed the tourists by an hour or so, but it did not dim their spirits in the least.

Then quite astonishingly Mann Singh was a little lost tracing the dirt track to the village which he had visited only once, that too many years ago. They lost some more time until Mann Singh happily announced that they were tantalisingly close to their destination. The family heaved a sigh of relief as the vehicle noisily came to a halt inside the shambling courtyard of the ancient haveli, startling a flock of pigeons which nervously fluttered away into an approaching dusk. The sun was already on a sharp incline and the lengthening shadows carried a discernible coolness upon their frail shoulders, caressing the warm desert sands with phantom fingers. One by one, the family filed out of the vehicle, for they desperately needed to stretch their legs, especially the older lot who were bone tired by then.

Mann Singh disappeared behind a sand ridge dotted with cacti; they knew it was his smoking habit, which he was very discreet about, as the rustic folks still respected elders and guests and refrained from smoking in front of them. The stunning eighteenth century edifice stood imposingly on a desolate track of sand without the slightest trace of any human habitation around. Its crumbling
fa├žade reminiscent of an erstwhile glory stolidly stared down at the visitors.

The echoing silence which took over from the cooing pigeons was only rend by a palpable lamenting of the desert winds which swept past skeletal branches of a cluster of babul trees which stood nearby like sentinels guarding a ravaged treasure-chest in the forlorn sands. The moaning sounded more like some surreal welcome being proffered to the guests. The fading beams of sunlight further accentuated the marvels of the ancient mansion’s golden yellow Jaisalmeri stone finish, which proudly displayed the magnificent stonework which stood out despite the decades of negligence it had gone through. It was easy to see that the onslaught of gruelling years of the harshest of weathers had failed to camouflage its former splendour which would have easily befitted royalty in the times of yore. The beautifully carved jharokhas, richly carved wooden windows staring out of ornamentally latticed balconies fused with intricately drawn floral patterns replete with birds and animals splendidly complimented the near masterfully designed teakwood doorways where mammoth stone elephants stood as if they were ready to go on a journey. In all it was breath-taking to say the least.

Both Rahul and Chandni stood agape at the wondrous piece of ancient marvel, oblivious that time was sifting like sand in an hourglass. Despite the delay, they were overly glad to have come, or else they would’ve missed something remarkable. They spent the next hour going around the haveli, posing at happy angles, taking innumerable pictures of everything that appealed to them. So charmed were they with what they saw that they ended up taking more pictures that afternoon than they had in the entire journey put together.

While the couple were happily clicking, the elders were resting their tired limbs at the inner courtyard of the haveli sipping steaming paper-cups of the tea they had picked-up from a sooty wayside kiosk in their thermos. The boy was completely immersed in the little games he played with himself, the cacophony of his squeals, yells and giggles echoing across the dusty confines of the empty corridors and rooms. It may have been the sheer lethargy resulting from the long and tiring trip, or perhaps the magic cast by the mystic ambience of the manor that the visitors completely lost track of time.

No sooner had the late afternoon dipped near the western horizon, that things took a strange turn. Chandni not finding Moksh around called out repeatedly for him but the boy did not respond, a little alarmed Rahul hurried into the haveli shouting out for their boy. Finding his parents ambling around the corridors of the ground floor, he asked them if they had seen the child at which they said that they had seen him only a minute ago running around the broken fountain which stood at the centre of the courtyard. Rahul reached the central portico in long strides but the boy wasn’t to be seen. On sheer impulse he looked up towards the upper storeys and glimpsed the boy playfully waving out from a second storey window. He shouted out to him asking him to be careful as many of the windows had no shutters and portions of the surrounding walls and balcony were broken. The waving hand disappeared no sooner had Rahul shouted out at the boy to be careful and instructing him to climb down forthwith. A visibly upset Chandni fell in step beside her husband screamed at her son to come down immediately. She was grossly annoyed at herself at being so taken in by the place that she had literally been careless about their child. When Moksh did not come down in the minutes which followed, Rahul decided to go up himself and fetch him. The stairway leading from the inside of the portico was broken in parts with the cemented handrail and banisters missing in most places, Rahul carefully side-stepped the broken portions and briskly climbed the steps, all the while shouting out the boy’s name. As soon as he stepped foot onto the first floor, he thought he heard a suppressed giggle, knowing it was Moksh, he called out for him to stop prancing around and that it was time to leave. Another giggle from a corner and then it faded into adjoining hallway at the rear side of the building. Taking rapid strides Rahul reached it only to find a flash of red and green, rushing from the corridor into one of the adjoining rooms.

Angry, he hollered at the boy to behave and come out instantly, aware that twilight was gently descending around the precincts. The boy did not appear but Rahul heard footsteps rushing towards the staircase, knowing the boy was intent on playing a game of hide and seek; he chased the sound and found himself at the landing portico of the stairway which went up to the second floor. From the balcony he could see the anxious face of his wife standing below, she was joined in by their parents, who looked equally perturbed, shouting out instructions to Rahul, while Chandni kept yelling at her son to get down or be left at the haveli all by himself.
The sound of the boy’s laughter reverberated from the emptiness of the mansion and Rahul leapt towards the second floor, shouting at the top of his voice, warning the boy that he was in for a sound thrashing if he did not stop the game. The second floor bore a more dilapidated look and was empty as the desert sands. Instinct told Rahul that Moksh was hiding in one of the rooms. He paused momentarily to catch his breath, his heart hammering from a growing nervousness that was gradually spreading its sinewy tentacles around him.

Barely, had he entered a large anteroom that a few bats woken up from their daytime slumber loudly flapped their leathery wings and rushed towards the intruder nearly toppling him over. Reflex made him quickly shade his face with his hands against the flying mammals which brushed against him and momentarily left him a little stunned.

Regaining his balance, he hollered even louder for his son, the outcry ricocheting against the limestone walls and echoing in the gnawing twilight. Suddenly he heard footsteps rapidly approaching, he quickly turned around thinking it was Moksh but it was his wife, looking more distraught than he had seen her in a while. She was traumatised at the ridiculous antics of her son, and kept screaming out for him to behave, repeatedly warning that they would leave him there with the ghosts which lived in the mansion if he did not come out of hiding. The very next moment, a voice sounded from one of the room, it seemed as if Moksh was calling out to them, both the husband and wife rushed towards the room, but were aghast to find it was empty.

The harried parents were clearly at their wits end, for the boy was not even to be found on the second floor. They both knew that despite being naughty and often mischievous, the boy had never done such things. Rahul and Chandni were increasingly feeling that it was not normal for Moksh to defy them to this extent. When Rahul suggested that they should try the terrace, the boy had to be there, as there was no other place left to hide. Chandni burst out sobbing loudly, pleading with the gods for the safety of her child and swearing to herself that she would never think of visiting such empty desolate places with their child ever in the future.

The echoes of her pleadings to her husband reverberated in the stark emptiness as it steadily began to grow dark. From down below the elders shouted asking if they too should join in, which Rahul forbade them to do, knowing the state of the stairway and the condition of their arthritic knees. Instead he asked them to look for Mann Singh, his gut felt that the man would be able to help. When both Chandni and Rahul reached the sprawling terrace, it was empty. It did not take them more than a few harried glances to make out that the boy wasn’t there either. Rahul stood completely bewildered, as a flabbergasted Chandni held her face with both her hands and wailed out intermittently for their son.

When exuberant yells echoed from down below caught their attention. Staring down from the parapet of the terrace, they could make out the hazy outlines of Mann Singh standing alongside their parents holding Moksh’s hands. Both husband and wife called out their son’s name in exasperated but joyous unison, but it did not stop goose pimples from spreading across their skin. It was bewitching to find their son tamely standing with the family, seemingly amused, even a little flummoxed at his parents’ extreme anguish. Grossly relieved but wanting to make haste, they rushed down the darkened staircase the stairs repeatedly swearing at Mann Singh for being careless and that he should have informed that the boy was with him.

They were climbing down the first flight of steps when a slightly disoriented Chandni missed a step and slipped, tumbling down a few steps. It was a stroke of sheer luck that she managed to grasp hold of a side railing or else she would have taken an awkward fall. Her yelps made Rahul rush to her side, he tried helping her get up, but she could barely manage to stand on her left leg. Her ankle immediately began to throb and pain seared through her at every step. Not managing to bring her down on his own in the growing darkness, he shouted for his parents to help, his fervent yells echoing into the stillness of dusk, sending a few more bats flapping and screeching all over the mansion.

Mann Singh was quick to their rescue, and with some difficulties they brought down a badly hobbling Chandni to the courtyard. A quick joyful reunion between the harried parents and the boy was followed by Rahul firmly goading everyone out of the haveli without wasting a moment. Night was quickly spreading its blind veil over the place and the surroundings were growing darker by the moment.

That is when Rahul’s mother shrieked that his father had followed Mann Singh up the stairs having heard Rahul shouting for help. And that he hadn’t climbed down. A palpable minute of argument followed between the mother and son about the logic of letting the aged man try the stairs at that hour, but what was overwhelmingly important was to find the old man. Rahul’s frantic yelling for his father was replied by the sound of his own echoes and yet more flapping of wings around the courtyard.

Perplexed at the ongoing, Chandni blurted out that place was haunted, only to be firmly rebuked by both the elderly women. Mann Singh instructing the family to wait near the vehicle, then he rushed up the stairs to look for the elderly man. Rahul’s mother who at first was reluctant to leave the premise without her husband needed to be coaxed to do so. A few minutes later all were seated inside their vehicle, as a morbid darkness gnawed at their car windows. Ten tantalising long minutes crawled by but Mann Singh did not appear, to the utter nervousness of the family. Rahul asked the ladies to be patient as Moksh burst out crying in fear. Few more minutes and Rahul knew that it would be foolish to wait any longer. Despite the hollers of protest from his wife, he pulled out a small penlight from his shoulder bag kept in the rear side of the vehicle and stepped out into the cold evening air.

It was a dark moon night and a light mist was drifting in from the north, making Rahul shiver momentarily. It was perhaps more of paranoia than the chill that began to seep into his bones as he switched on the penlight and stepped inside the eerie stillness of the old mansion. He felt someone behind him and quickly flashed his penlight thinking it was Mann Singh but there was no one. A strange scratching sound made him jerk his head to one side and he feverishly flashed his penlight at the direction but all he saw were heaps of dried leaves and a mischief of ugly rodents questioning him from dark corners with their beady eyes.

He repeatedly shouted out for Mann Singh and then his father into the quietude of the haunting stillness inside but was answered by the echoes of his own voice and the loathsome ghoulish whispering of the night wind bellowing through the gaping doorways and windows. A creaking sound here, a scraping sound there and Rahul feverishly began to flash his penlight in every possible direction, feeling a strange fear tugging at his heart-strings; a sixth sense telling him that he wasn’t alone. He stood very still at the centre of the courtyard for tell-tale signs of his father or the driver, but there seemed none. He could not decipher sounds which seemed even remotely human. He knew without a semblance of doubt that if Mann Singh or his father were around they would have quite easily heard his shouting for them. He felt completely befuddled at his father and the driver’s whereabouts.

Inside the safety of the vehicle, Chandni had begun to cry again, though the ladies were trying their best to console her that everything would be fine and that her father-in-law, Rahul and Mann Singh would be back soon, but they themselves were on the verge of crying, a strange unknown fear steadily chewing away at their burdened hearts. The child sat huddled in between, clutching his mother tightly, his tear stained face bearing ample evidence that he was terrified at the ongoing.

An urgent tapping on their window prompted Chandni to look into the darkness outside, it was the contorted face of Mann Singh pressing against the car window urging someone to open the door as it was locked from inside. To their great relief Rahul’s father stood right behind, a stupid smile pasted all over his weather-lined face. When asked by his angered wife where he was, the driver came to the rescue by replying that the old man was on the terrace, when traced out by Mann Singh. The elderly man had broken his spectacles after it had accidentally fallen when he bumped against a pillar. Thereafter, his feeble eyes found it hard to negotiate the dark and he couldn’t find his way down.

Suddenly Chandni yelled at the two men that Rahul who had gone inside looking for them urgently needed to be called back. The anguish in her voice made an ashen Mann Singh turn and sprint towards the haveli without a second thought. In fleeting moments, he was swallowed by the murky darkness of the imposing mansion. It was just the beginning of a strange cat-and-mouse game; as one went and the other came back. And when none went to look the missing person, none came back. No one in the family was sure if it was them playing amongst themselves or phantoms of the ruinous mansion playing surreal games of hide-and-seek. It was turning out to be a dangerously diabolic sport which continued through the night.

All the while, the family sat inside the car praying for their safety, and feverishly hoping that they could leave soon. Each one of them could fathom without a semblance of doubt that something was severely wrong and that they were enmeshed in a gruesome trap from which escape seemed near impossible. As getting away from the mansion would imply that they’d need to leave one member of the travel group behind, as at any given point of time, one of them was missing.

When the dark gave way to dawning light, which filtered past a few crimson clouds and reached the outer courtyard of the haveli, a passing shepherdess found the dust covered vehicle parked there with a flock of pigeons happily perched upon it. They were cooing merrily but were unable to wake up the trespassers who were mostly sleeping inside the car, a couple of them sprawled near the imposing doorways. When shaken up from this intoxicated slumber by the rustic woman, they seemed completely disoriented and unable to correctly recall the macabre happenings of the night before. Mann Singh who seemed the most alert of the lot was casually informed by the village-woman that no one from the adjoining villages ventured near the place after sundown. She recalled an old tale which she had heard from her elders about Seth Gulab Chand’s granddaughter’s wedding at the haveli many years ago. The story goes that it was attacked by a gang of feared dacoits. Even though Gulab Chand’s men and a couple of thanedars put up a brave resistance, ultimately all family members were shot dead and the mansion was looted.

It is believed that the place now teems with the departed souls of Seth Gulab Chand’s family members, all whom were killed that night. Also, that they do not take kindly to trespassers considering their most chilling and barbaric fate. She mentioned that it was nothing short of a miracle that the family members were all safe even though scared and hapless after the night long ordeal. The lady advised them to depart with haste, and they did without much ado. Delhi was only a few hours away and they could still reach it before their flight took off later that day. None of them bothered to bid their byes to the old haveli, which had warmly welcomed them the previous afternoon but later made them tread through the horrifying portals of hell.

The visitors having hastily departed, all that was left behind was an echoing pall of silence entwined with the grey smoke and the dust spewed by the vehicle. It ominously hung around the courtyard after the visitors had sped off into the desert sands. The old haveli did not seem to mind the morbid farewell, which was at best a rude barter for it having extended the visitors a night’s stay at its haunted precincts.

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