In the everyday harmony, you don’t quite learn to distinguish, if there is anything other-worldly, apart from the usual. Mostly when you don’t know what a sound or movement is caused by, you assume there’s a scientific explanation somewhere and that it’s not worth giving it another thought.
That is why many of us who grow up in old houses are quite at home to the comings and goings of not quite natural things. You see eerie shadows in the moonlight? It’s just something rustling in the tree. Perhaps a squirrel. Perhaps a monkey. The monkey population seems to have made a comeback in the neighbourhood. Many a time we hear distant footsteps and cries and laughs, but it’s all part and parcel of being in this mini ecosystem.
This used to be more of a big, sloppy town than a real metropolis. But within a few short years, the allure of quick cash drew in people like a desperate trickle of ants in the sun. Cheap factories set up faster than a house of cards, but just as flimsy. Suddenly, we needed new buildings, to live in and breed industries and families. The slums grew, their older, central chunks taking brick and concrete form while the teeming fringes continued in tin and plastic. The city corporation began digging: new sewage lines. Internet. Perhaps a corpse or two to hide away.
Weed patches and passive ditches made way for big, noisy construction projects. Sand and dust was everywhere, in our nostrils and inside our homes. The sound of hammers breaking brick and generators humming became the new heartbeat of this city on steroids. Crammed little shops, narrow workspaces for tinkers and tailors, everything spilled out and filled up what was not long ago an ungrown child of a metropolis, spacey and unexciting.
It’s these new buildings that scare me. The city has been developing so fast, and so many people have come to buy the little apartments, their chunks of bigger structures hastily slapped together. Constructing and selling homes in places where people never actually lived before; it might look like harmlessly abandoned, swampy land, but it’s easy to forget that in some places there are echoes of bad things.
Rudro moved into one of these, right after his divorce. I suppose in his mind it was just a new place to start over without Sharmily, with furniture and curtains and knickknacks that were decidedly not hers. He talked about making it a real cosy bachelor’s pad; he invited us all over to see it right after he signed the lease. ‘Us’ being Niaz and Anika and me, all nervously catching each others’ eye and agreeing with any positive statement that we could come up with:
“It’s very bright, you don’t expect to get so much natural light in this part of town!” was Anika’s contribution.
Yes, there were big windows, and no buildings blocking the view. Yes, it was much more cheerful than the last apartment. But we could hardly say that there was a grimness that was very different from when he and Sharmily lovingly picked out all the decor of their first (and as it turned out, last) home together.
At first, we all went, intent on spending time with our old friend and trying to help him get his head back together. It was, after all, not a great time in his life. He was cheerful enough and kept trying to invite lots of people over, especially on the weekends. Many new people that we’d not come across before and younger ones as well. Rudro was big on watching league football late at night and he’d ask us to come stay over, watch the game and crash. We didn’t stay the night all that much, thinking that really we weren’t teenage anymore, the appeal of your own bed and your own things at home is much greater and there’s work the next day of course.
The first time we did stay the night, it seemed like old times, fun and silly conversation, intent swearing at crucial moments of the game, a lot of unhealthy binge eating. We didn’t get to sleep till we could see the dark of the night slowly thin, in anticipation of dawn. I was the first to leave, at 8am. Stepping out into the morning air, I breathed in and out and thought it was nice to be out at the very start of the day.
Anika called me later that day. “I couldn’t sleep!”
She must have sensed my eyes rolling, because her next words were, “I did sleep, but I felt so restless and I was so tired when I woke up!”
So initially, we just thought it was uncomfortable to sleep there. Not clear why, since the bed was comfy, as was the couch, the blankets, all soft. We soon found that the house was surprisingly cold in the evenings and the blankets hardly kept us warm.
But we started going over less and less, as Rudro found more people to befriend and ask over. These people didn’t seem like they had anywhere else to live; their descriptions of their jobs were vague and they did not leave.
Rudro would call us with just the same frequency, a new excitement in his voice. “Come over! Everyone’s coming! At least stop by. Or come after whatever you’re heading to now.”
Anika and I did make a quick stop after going to a wedding together; we were dressed in saris and had Niaz’s driver with us, so we had good excuses not to stay too long. As the car turned into Rudro’s street we looked up to his flat and could see the outline of someone standing at the window. It moved away quite suddenly and I wasn’t sure how to explain the malevolence I felt coming from that distant figure. Anika looked at me, and I realised she too felt uneasy. I wasn’t sure it was because of our visit, or whether she’d sensed the same unease at that lurking shadow.
We went up, to be welcomed by a gaunt Rudro. The light was dim; the people in his house seemed to swarm about, like flies. The bass line of the thudding music seemed to echo inside of me. My head began to throb. Everything seemed a little louder, a little more garish than expected.
“Stay,” Rudro said. “There’s food coming.”
“We just came from a wedding, Rudro, we’ve done some biryani justice,” I said, trying to be light-hearted.
Rudro frowned for an instant before breaking out into a smile. “I’m sure you did,” and with that he loped off to the next room. I suddenly felt awkward. Here I was with Anika, overdressed and standing amidst a sinister swarm of people.
“Should we just leave?” Anika whispered to me.
“We can’t just leave?” I wasn’t sure whether I was asking or telling.
So we sat. It was like being a hostage, only we weren’t quite sure what was the threat keeping us stiffly positioned on the couch.
I could see “Niaz calling” flash on the screen of Anika’s phone, but we could barely hear it ring. It gave us the excuse to rush to the exit, so as to answer the call on the stairs as we hastily clattered down in our heels, escaping something – something! Only I don’t know what.
We let a month go by without really checking up on Rudro. Then he called us one day, suggested we stop by when in the neighbourhood.
“I don’t know,” Anika said. “I really don’t like the people at his house. But we really should see him.”
But neither Anika nor Niaz came with me when I went, driven by fear and guilt. And I didn’t find the same person we knew once I arrived, and climbed the cold, hard steps to the dark wooden door. And this time, he was all alone, with a cold white light on in the front room.
“It’s good to see you,” Rudro said. His voice was a faraway echo of his real voice. His skin seemed papery, colourless. He looked so frail, and somehow small, a little scrap of life in this dead house.
Yes, that’s what it was. The house was dead. It was cold and unforgiving and draining any energy it could find.
I clutched at Rudro’s wrist. There, the pulse of a living person. He looked at me, no surprise at my strange gesture, his eyes sad, helpless. Like prey.
“Rudro,” I said, feeling the warmth slipping away from my hand into his tepid one. “Let’s go out. Get some air.”
“I’m tired,” he said. “You can open a window if you want some fresh air.”
He even sounds old and defeated, I thought. I shut my eyes, briefly, and then looked to the window. I walked up to it and peered out. A single yellow street lamp showed me an empty road with shadows, but no movement. Not a whisper of breeze; no stray cats or dogs lurking about.
Why had he come here, to this street? Nothing lived here. There wasn’t even a tree or a hedge. Just concrete sidewalks and drooping wires. I must get him to leave, I thought. Surely, he could visit his sister; spend a few days with his young nephews. They’d liven him right back up.
“Rudro, why don’t you go stay with your family sometimes? Then you won’t have to worry about cooking or looking after an apartment by yourself.”
“Why? This is my home. It’s convenient for work. The whole point of getting this place was not to get into anyone else’s household. I don’t want my sister fussing over me.” The words seemed determined; yet the voice was tired, and resigned.
I didn’t know what to do, except evasively make plans to see him again and then leave. I didn’t know what I was leaving him to. My steps echoed in the stairwell. As I stepped out of the building I looked up, and it seemed the building looked right at me, with one malignant eye formed by Rudro’s single lit window. I began walking down, hearing my footsteps scrape the pavement. I thought I heard more, just a slight shuffle behind me. I glanced back, quickly, but there was nothing I could see.
I’m not coming back, I’m not coming back, I chanted to myself.
I bolted to the turn at the end of the cul-de-sac, that would bring me to lights, traffic, sewage. Anything that was human and alive. Just before the turn, I looked back at that lifeless street and that dead house, the little electric glitter of its one corpse eye-window.