24 March, 2011

Unfinished Stories

Mumbai - Present Day

“Is this yours uncle?” the question had me looking at Rahul holding out a plastic wrapped package covered with dust. Where did you find it?. “Up there in the attic, what amazing stuff is lying around there, but do open this up first” He was eager to know what was in it. “Go ahead son; do it before you go crazy with curiosity”. With the typical impatience of youth he ripped it causing the dust to fly everywhere and some up my nose. I sneezed thrice. “Wow what an antique piece” I heard him say with awe and the eyes misted from sneezing hazily took in the grey shellac body of my trusty old hand held tape recorder. It had been a constant companion from bygone days as a reporter; much like I carried a cell phone these days. Default appendages of progress. Same dumb habits, only the devices have become smarter, I thought to myself.

What’s the story with this Uncle as he started pressing the buttons and out popped a cassette tape? TDK was the label and neatly scribed in my hand was just one word “Bassein”.

“Some other day Rahul” I said settling on to the cane & cushioned easy chair on the balcony watching a grey cloud make its way across the sky. It seemed to be carried on along a forgotten wind. He had left the device on the tea table and I looked at it once and went back to my sky gazing. The cloud was gone and the sky was bright light blue & crystal clear.

It is often said that there is a book in every one of us but can it be true of objects too? Well, if not a complete book then it definitely merited a short story and quite a strange one it was too. I was not even sure whether it had happened at all, must have been what….he mentally counted…28 years?… it was just his third year as a freelance reporter so …yes, 26 years ago. He just leaned back and closed his eyes.

Vasai- Bassein – 1984

The cottage was cozily tucked away around the bend well away from the main village. The church lay on the road towards the house and beyond it ahead was the ancient cemetery. The house belonged to my friend Martin Andrade and it had been in his family for several generations. I was here on an assignment to cover Vasai as a historical destination and to interview a few locals that included the native fisher folk who were the original inhabitants of this area. Martin had told me that Philo aunty or Philomena Machado, the caretaker would look after my food. I was all set the moment I reached the cottage in the afternoon. Philo aunty turned out to be an ample old lady of an age that could have been anywhere from 45 to 70 and I put it nearer 70 than 45 when she mentioned her ten year old grandson a few times. The lunch comprised of black pomfret curry and rice, a spicy flavor so delicate that left me blissfully content of being in good hands. She like old ladies often are was good naturedly curious about me that within fifteen minutes she knew all of my quirks including the one that in winter nights I used socks as gloves while sleeping.

I strolled outside on to the cottage grounds to find the shade was on account of two old and large trees, one was a tamarind and the other a banyan. They literally spilled over half the compound and shaded a portion of the road near the house. There were no street lights so was sure that this area would be pretty dark by night time. As I strolled further within the compound there was a small by-gate and a path that led up into a wooded area. Philo aunty told me that it led to the cemetery where the Machado family had their burial plots along with their servants and relatives from an era gone past.

Which is your room? To which she replied that she didn’t stay here but at the village and would come back at 11 the next day when she left at 6 in the evening. After that I had the house to myself. What do I do for transport and she told me that you can use Martin baba’s bicycle to move about as no one comes to this side of town after seven and for the first time I felt the eeriness of the area. “Why so?” I asked her. “Oh, it’s on account of the ghosts that live here.” “You mean at the cemetery?”She nodded sagely to that, looked up and said in a very matter of fact voice “And on the house grounds too.” I looked at her to see whether she was kidding me only to notice that she was not. You told me you are an agnostic no? One who doesn’t believe in either god or ghost so there is no worry for you? “I have this”, I told her tapping my tape recorder and several tapes on which I would listen to my favorite music & then in the morning record the various interviews on it as scheduled.

The tiredness from my journey and the lovely lunch had me sleeping off till nearly five in the evening. Philo aunty called me over showed me where she had kept the dinner, how to operate the rather old fashioned gas stove for me to warm it later. She also showed me the black and white TV that had an antenna mounted on the roof. The monkeys often hung on it so practically the TV didn’t work most of the time. I told her it didn’t bother me and I came out with a book and sat on the patio which she called a verandah that had two rose wood easy chairs with foot rests, but I simply rested my foot on the balustrade. From where I sat I could see the trunk of a tamarind to my left and the corded roots of the banyan to my right. They simply dwarfed the house. Keeping the recorder near me switched on a Kishore Kumar collection that I had recorded. Philo aunty bid me bye and went off home. I made myself a chai and spent the next couple of hours reading. The tape had run out. I took out Martins cycle and pedaled over to the village. It was a simple collection of houses. From one of the shops I bought batteries for the torch and tape recorder and a couple of packets of gold flake fine tobacco cigarettes. The pan shop wala when told that was put up at a friend’s place, asked me which family? When I mentioned Machado’s cottage, his face paled over and urged me to hurry back as it was getting dark. Finishing a smoke I pedaled back on the long dark road. The dynamo run light from the bicycle was the only illumination on the path. It wasn’t really far but not exactly near either as I passed the church and soon turned into the gate of the cottage. On looking up while putting the bike on the stand, the grey light from the moon and the two elders (as I started referring to the trees) had cast shadows which seemed at least scary if not actually sinister. Long and snaky as they crept across the expanse of the ground and the verandah.

Washing up I finished the dinner in a leisurely fashion and made my way outside to the verandah. Switching on the light there I sat and changed a cassette. As the music played on softly I made myself a pot of tea from the kitchen and came out. I loved the solitude and the dark expanse outside. Lighting up a smoke, drifted off along in the music and the tea. Just heard the crickets over the music when they got sharper else it was all so serene.  In the distance the church clock gonged mid night and I smiled at Philo aunt’s snippet on the ghosts. Now they should be coming, it’s the hour. I lit up another smoke and poured a second cup. I switched the cassette tape but did not play it only to notice that the crickets had stopped and there was pin drop silence. Even the wind had stopped and the leaves were not rustling either. I felt a brush against my legs to see a huge grey hairy tom cat with a fluffy tail jump up on the balustrade in a far corner. He had not once looked at me and majestically started licking each and every part of his body with special attention to a spot  above his left ear. I noticed that there was a maroon colour spot and when I moved on to the face, the tom looked straight at me through amber colored eyes. I felt the shock of being seared by a laser. Where had the cat come from? I thought. There had been no animal around the garden in the afternoon nor heard Philo aunty mention it. “His name is Bajirao and was Master Philip Machados cat, said a voice from the dark.  I was so startled that I kept the cup down and started brushing off the ash that had spilled on my shirt.

“Is anybody here?” Yes sir it’s me said the same voice. It was an old man wearing the uniform of a valet from an era gone by. He turned & the left side of his face became visible. It was flattened, with a red hue; one eye had slipped from its socket and was sitting squarely in his ear. From there it blinked and winked at me. “Do you stay around here?” I asked. Yes on the Banyan tree. So are you telling me both the cat and you are Ghosts?” “I would prefer the word spirits, young man as there is a serious class system these days with so many of us dying over a period of time.” Why are you here?” at this question, he looked at me intensely from the slipped eye and said, young man didn’t you just call out to us as the clock chimed? I smiled at him, so are there any more of you around? You guys can begin telling me about this area that I have come to do a feature on and yes how did you end up become ghosts?  Why are people afraid of you and are there many amongst you who enjoy scaring people?” “Do you want to meet some of them from here?” How many of you live here and he raised one eyebrow as I realized my gaffe. Seven he said including the cat. We were waiting for you.

Thoroughly confused I asked “Can I record this interview?” I pressed the record & play button on the recorder,”Sure said a firmer voice, the law of the land would demand proof.” To find a very tall white man wearing a suit that would have been a rage in the last century. Meet Sir Edwin Arbuthnot, court judge appointed by Lord Macaulay’s governing council in 1832 deceased 1857. “Pleased to make your acquaintance Sir Edwin, unconsiously i had affected his style of speaking for myself, did you get to hear about Mangal Pandey’s bullet? “He smiled a crooked smile and said two bullets got fired at the same time, one by Mangal Pandey to spark off a revolution and the second one went straight here. He said this while lifting the top hat to which was attached a judges wig & disclosed a neat hole above his ear. I was absolutely fascinated and why were you shot? On account of her he said pointing out to a startlingly sensuous sari clad woman with mud falling off her as she took each step towards us. Gangi is what they call me. She shook her head and her long luxurious hair slipped free of her bun letting loose another shower of fine mud and gravel. She came and shamelessly planted herself on my lap and casually wrapped an arm around my neck. I did not feel a thing save the brush of warm air and a musty moldy smell. Her complexion though flawless had a blue tinge and may have been in her mid twenties at the most. She certainly took my breath away and I told her Gangi you are beautiful. All of them started shrieking with laughter including the cat that was on his back with its paws in the air pedaling furiously.

Even this white banyan tree dweller thinks so she said pointing at Sir Edwin and he coordinated his visit to Bassein during my troupe’s tour. I am a folk dancer you see said she striking a dance pose that left little to imagination as to the kind of dance it was. Where are the other three? I asked and Rameshchandra the room valet the first ghost said that they have gone spooking and will be back soon. You see Gangadhar Bapat is a Bramhasmbandh…I looked confused and he explained that when a temple priest dies and became a ghost he was called so. Iltumish is a “pishaccha” and is the only one amongst us who sometimes kills. Meera despite her pious name is a “Hadal or Chudail”; one who takes a really scary form and briefly appears before humans to scare the wits out of them.

"Who has been talking about me?" said a sweet female voice in my ear and I turned back to expect a face as lovely and nearly jumped out of my chair when I saw the spiky hair, long fangs dripping blood and forked tongue. You must be Meera? Immediately it changed back to that of a girl next door and she kept changing it to that of an old woman, a middle aged one a snake, you name it for a time till Sir Edwin admonished her, enough for now Meera. And she reverted back to yet another face that was pristinely beautiful yet somehow it went with the rest of her attire. Hers was another kind of beauty that you may feel like holding on to and taking home to seek the elders blessings. She smiled reading my thoughts and said, I was fooled exactly that way. Iltumish turned out to be a dark handsome man with Moorish blood and he was eating a leg of a goat with absolute relish. No humans? And he looked at me with a straight face and said “Aaj Jumma hai” as if that explained everything. Amidst all of this came the sweet smell of camphor and the sound of tiny temple bells. Bapat, the Bramhasmbandh appeared before me and he was exactly like a temple priest of today. Pot bellied wearing the sacred thread and a watch. I was incredulous on the watch. To which he told me that he needs it to accurately map the panchang (astrological chart) such that he doesn’t step out of the banyan tree before the “Rahu kalam” has ended. There is an auspicious time for haunting too you see. I didn’t, but did it really matter?

I know now why all of you are the type of ghosts you say you are but why are you ghosts in the first place?
Rameshchandra explained that all those who had unexplained deaths or the world treated or understood their deaths as other than the real cause, become ghosts. The truth has to prevail as it is only the truth that shall set us free. Oh , you mean that the correct cause of each one of your deaths has not yet been clearly known to the world? So all of you are basically mysteries or unfinished stories? All of them now very solemnly looked at me and nodded their heads in unison. But honestly, why didn’t you haunt me and choose to tell me your story? It is a technicality that let you out laughed the judge. One you are not from the village. Two you are an agnostic and three you have been guided to where we are. Hence you become our platform of release.

“So tell me I urged them. With a soft purr Bajirao the cat came and brushed itself against my foot and passed right through it. Peter Machado thought his cat had run away but Bajirao was hit with a rock out of a sling shot when he was sunning himself on the tamarind tree. There is a woodpecker hollow on the upper branches and his body slid into the hollow and he has been there ever since, recounted Rameshchandra.

I used to work in the Taj Mahal hotel and was coming back home to Bassein. I was standing on the footboard of the train and adventurously leaned out. It was night and did not see the pole near the tracks which smashed into my face. My body too was discovered after four days. In those days I was feuding with Prakash Furtado over a banyan tree planted over my land. It was assumed I was killed over that so I found myself on a banyan tree. When they felled that tree during redevelopment I came onto the only banyan in Bassein which is this one.

In a resonant voice Sir Edwin said “I was assassinated by Gangi’s admirer who found that Gangi had developed feelings for me. Pahhhh came a sound and some more dirt and pebbles tumbled out of Gangi’s hair but she was smiling coyly. Sir Edwin continued “ Then he strangled Gangi and buried her. No one found her and it was assumed that I made a fool of myself over a native woman and shot myself. A murder got disguised as a suicide.”

Meera said that the village headman’s boy fell in love with her and expressed a wish to marry her but she came from a caste lower. The headman called her over to his bungalow apparently agreeing to their marriage, raped and killed her. Then threw her body into the river tied to a rock. Meera’s body changed form almost every day under the water as creatures took bites of her, she bloated first and then shrunk. Once her body dissolved away she became a Chudail / Hadal and proudly said that the first person she scared was the headman himself. She appeared before him in her most frightening form , at the very moment he was sitting in the field for his ablutions. Scared shitless was he, as he died of shock.

Iltumish said that he was a slave in a sea vessel that landed here in Bassein from a far off land in the west. He wasn’t fed regularly and one day he escaped out and found himself near this village. There he saw a goat tied to a stake in the field. He stole the goat and ate it. The goat was poisoned, as it was bait for a jungle cat that was troubling the village. So now he considers his mission to scare everyone from the village who robbed him of a life.

Bapat was the village priest, the kind who performed only the last rites for Hindus. without his blessings the spirits would not attain moksha or nirvana. He was an extremely money minded priest and unless he was compensated properly in advance he would not venture out. This proved to be his downfall in Durga Pindhari’s case who had accompanied her husband to the village. They were highway robbers by profession. The husband was ailing from an earlier injury and died here. She desperately searched for a priest. Bapat refused to come as she had no money. The incensed woman first committed the body of her husband to the pyre in the early morning pyre without Bapat’s absolution. And lay in wait for the priest. When he came out for his morning bath there waited the woman with a heavy rock which she cracked on his skull , dragged him to the same pyre and threw him in.

I noticed that the tape recorder was running. Ask us the question that you have in your mind boy, commanded Sir Edwin and I found myself uttering “Is this the absolute truth?” Thank you my man. And like wisps of white smoke moving heavenwards I saw seven streaks merge into one over the lightening sky.

Mumbai - Present Day

Absent mindedly I picked up the tape recorder.  Then plugged the power cord into a socket and cleaned the sensing head with a kerchief. After a few hisses and a crackles the tape moved. I heard a reedy voice emerge from it & strained to hear it…It was a single persons voice...no other sounds could be heard …only questions. As the tape approached the end the sound just rose up a notch “Is this the absolute Truth?” I heard my own voice come through the speakers. 


dotcomgirl said...

Enthralling story kau... but why didnt the guy listen to the cassette 26 years back when he returned to Mumbai then?

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

He did..he stashed it away & forgot about it :-) till the nephew fished it out again

veena said...

Lovely pics. Brought back memories of huge leaf laden trees with stilt roots plus the narrow wet mud lanes... at a friend's house in Vasai. Spooky narrative but intriguing...with real world liners like'..the kind whom you took home for blessings from elders'...:))

Kau Kau goes the Crow said...

Had they uttered lines from out a this world then would have been able to include them wouldn't I...till then real world lines for us wonlee :-)

The house exists though Veena :-))) its been a while since i was there and am told its not yet gone