Visit to the village
As a child with a severe physical disability I was often taken to various places to see if someone could “cure” me and help me walk. Whether it was a doctor, a quack, a traditional medicine man, a priest, a yogi, an occultist, a saint or a witch doctor, my family and relatives would take me to him or her. Not many people had heard of cerebral palsy including my parents and relatives. It didn’t look like polio and once laid on the bed, or seated on a chair, nobody could tell if there was something wrong in me. Even most of the doctors had no clue about cerebral palsy.
Although most of the cures involved various combinations of medicines, herbs, oils, physiotherapy and also the so-called alternative treatments like Heliotherapy and burying me neck-deep in cow dung, many cures also involved exorcism and miracle working.
Once I almost got converted into Christianity when a missionary screamed “Hallelujah” ominously in front of me and then plunged my head into a big bowl of holy water. My grandmother would have gone ahead with the conversion but for the fear of my highly orthodox Sikh grandfather who would have cut off our heads had we returned as Christians from the gathering.
One day, many years after the Christianity conversion episode, one of my buas (my dad’s sister) came to know of a saintly person who had enabled many to walk. Although by then my parents had given up all hope and had reconciled to the fact that I would be walking with crutches all my life, whenever our relatives came to know of a miracle worker or a hakim or a phook utarne wala (the one who makes the curse go away), they would insist that I be taken there. Whether it was their strong desire to help our family or see me walking and playing around like other kids or simply achieve something for our family that hadn’t been achieved by someone else, one relative or another was always coming up with ways to cure me.
My aunt and her family were quite excited about the saint who had set up a hermitage in Pathankot and they narrated many eyewitness accounts of people being brought to the saint on stretchers and shoulders and people going back walking, dancing and running. They sent letter after letter.
We had heard of such eyewitness accounts so many times and had returned from those places disappointed so many times that we couldn’t even keep count of them anymore. Still, my aunt insisted that I be taken to that miracle worker she was recommending.
My elder sister was down with fever and the younger sister was too small, and my father worked abroad so my mother couldn’t take me to my aunt’s village. My aunt’s husband volunteered, along with his eldest son who was an active member of the village wrestling akhada. They came to Delhi and took me to Bujran, a village in the district of Nakodar, Punjab.
The glow in the window
Aside from the wrestler son my aunt had a daughter and another, younger son, Diljot. Diljot and I were very close those days. We were both around 12-13. Even when I lived in Ambala with my grandparents during my much younger days, we would always look forward to his visits and when he came, we would spend lots of time playing games and exploring the neighbourhood. But we had never spent time at his place before so we were both quite excited and joyous when we got to live in a separate room all by ourselves.
There are many abandoned houses in Punjab villages. Entire families have moved to Canada, England, Australia and America, or whatever it is possible to move. In fact, even the house in which my aunt’s family lived belonged to a family that had emigrated to Canada. My aunt didn’t have to pay rent. All she had to do was, when the elderly patriarch of the family came from Canada to spend time in his native village, make sure he was taken care of.
The house adjacent to my aunt’s was totally abandoned. The entire family had moved to Canada and they had not asked anybody to take care of the house in their absence. They just left one day, without telling anyone, not even immediate neighbours, but people somehow knew that the entire family had moved to Canada. Or maybe they had just assumed.
The house had been broken into, not by thieves, but by village urchins and it had become a norm for the village kids to hang around in the house. There was no lock at the front door; it had long been broken.
On the second evening of my arrival in the village, my cousin Diljot and I were sitting in the verandah. Being early December it was almost dark. We were sitting near the angeethi (earthen oven) that had been placed in the open so that the burning coals would lose its eye-stinging lung-choking smoke before it could be taken inside to cook dinner. Around the angeethi it was quite warm.
We were throwing the empty shells of roasted peanuts into the fire and talking about various things when Diljot nudged me with his elbow and pointed to the first floor window of the adjacent house that was clearly visible from our verandah. There seemed to be a yellow glimmer coming out of the window as if a candle was burning inside. The window was wide open and there were no iron grills.
“I have seen it a couple of times before also,” Diljot whispered as if he didn’t want anybody else to know about the incandescent glow. “If you keep looking, you will notice that the shadows that are made with the glow start moving, which means the candle or the lamp is moving inside the room.”
“So?” I asked, a bit puzzled. Most of my attention was focused on my roasted peanuts and jaggery pieces.
“Silly, nobody lives there. The house is empty,” replied Diljot in a low voice.
“But you told me the lock to the front door has been broken so maybe someone is there, upto some mischief, or maybe there is some burglar looking for something to steal,” I reasoned.
“Could be,” said Diljot. “But don’t you think it’s a bit early for a thief to venture into a house especially when he may know that people in the neighbouring houses still have their angeethis outside?”
Angeethis bellowing smoke in front of the houses was a big social and traditional norm back then. The LPG cylinders were unheard of and kerosene stoves hadn’t caught on yet. The only fuel choices were wheat hay, wood, dried up cakes of buffalo dung and coal. There was a particular time in the evening when almost all the households – at least the ones that did not have fixed earthen ovens in the kitchens – placed angeethis either in the verandahs or in the lanes in front of their houses so that the recently-lit coal nuggets would lose the smoke and turn into embers before being taken inside to cook food.
“Yes, it’s a bit early, but who cares? The house is empty and abandoned, all the stuff must already be gone so even if someone notices, nobody is going to bother,” I shrugged my shoulder nonchalantly and threw some peanut shells into the fire that cracked rapidly and contributed their own share of smoke.
My bua called Diljot inside for some work. He said, while getting up and pointing at the room, “Believe it or not, that room is haunted. That is not a thief, it’s a ghost.” Then he went inside, leaving me looking at the window.
The dim glimmer was still there and when I looked carefully, the shadows on the roof looked like moving, as Diljot had said. From that angle it was difficult to make out exactly where the candle had to be in order to throw shadows on the roof. It was not as if there was a single big shadow being made on the roof of the room. There were multiple shadows, some thin, some broad, some elongated, and some even flexible, as if writhing like a snake. To make so many shadows on the roof, the candle or the burning lamp needed to be quite close to the ground. Some shadows moved as if the burning flame was passing under the objects rather than from behind, as if someone just moved under a table or a settee or a bed, rather than from behind. Was someone crawling with the candle?
As I imagined someone crawling close to the floor in that room, holding a candle, like a snake, the shadows on the roof began to shorten, or rather, began to collapse on the floor. The elongated shadows that were writhing began to writhe more along with getting shorter. Just in a few seconds, there were no shadows on the roof as if the flame had risen above all the objects in the room. The roof grew brighter and brighter and there came a time when the roof was so bright as if the flame was touching the roof. I wanted to take my eyes off the window, pick my crutches and rush inside, but my body had grown stiff. The rest of the world around me had vanished. It was just me, and the window. I had completely forgotten about the roasted peanuts and the pieces of jaggery I clutched tightly in my hand. The glow inside the room was moving in such a manner that soon I would be able to see the flame.
“Why are you sitting like this beta?” my reverie was suddenly broken by my aunt who had come outside to fetch the angeethi whose coals had turned into ambers and all the smoke was gone. “You will catch cold and then we won’t be able to visit the babaji in the morning.”
She was talking about the babaji who had cured many and to whose hermitage I was to be taken in the morning.
I looked at my aunt with a start and then again looked at the window. The window was completely dark. There was no burning flame inside. No roof was visible. No shadows were visible. In fact, it was so dark that unless you made an effort, you couldn’t even make out that there was a window there.
My aunt took the pieces of jaggery from my hand, cleaned the inside of my hand with a cloth, and helped me stand up from the charpoy. It was very difficult for me to walk. I had become very stiff and I walked with great effort.
“You poor kid,” said my aunt while wiping tears off her eyes. “I don’t know why Sachche Patshah has punished you in such a manner. Let’s pray your ordeal gets over tomorrow and you are able to walk like everybody else.”
Since my aunt was holding the angeethi she quickly went inside while I walked slowly behind her. I reached inside and sat on a chair. Diljot was helping his father tighten the ropes of a cot while his sister was cutting vegetables for the dinner. The eldest brother had gone somewhere and hadn’t come back yet. The tiny transistor that my uncle had brought from Iraq (there was a construction boom going on in Iraq back then and lots of Indians used to go as contract labourers) was playing some old Bollywood songs and the sound was so terrible that I couldn’t make out even a single word.
I felt a strange sensation in my left hand and when I looked, my fingers and palm were covered with dusty cobwebs. It was as if I had touched something that had had thick layers of cobwebs on it. I quickly brushed my hand against the wooden chair and was relieved to see my fingers clean again. Or at least in the darkness of the room I couldn’t make out if the cobwebs were still wrapped around my fingers.
I clearly remembered that my aunt had properly cleaned my hand after taking the pieces of jaggery from me. There were no cobwebs on my fingers back then.
It was an old house, my aunt’s. 3-4 generations of the landlord had already lived in the house before they decided to move to Canada. No renovation had been carried out for many decades. The plaster had come off at many places and you could see bricks staring at you even in the darkness. There was practically no colour on the walls and on the roof – everywhere there was this greyish colourlessness that caused strange optical illusions if you looked at particular spots for a long time. The solitary tungsten bulb that glowed over the area where my uncle and Diljot worked on the cot fought a losing battle against the darkness and hundreds of shadows leaking out of the cracks on the walls and the roof.
The furniture was sparse and heavy and it was at the extreme corners of the room. There was just that solitary cot at the center of the room on which my uncle used to sleep.
It was a very big room. Although calling it a room would be a mistake. It was a rectangular hall. But everybody called it “kamra” so I will also call it a room.
The light of the bulb at the centre of the room somehow managed to give you a feel of the various things in the room and it was only during day you could actually see things inside that room. The wall facing the verandah (where Diljot and I were sitting just a while ago with the angeethi) was full of big and small windows and plenty of light came into the room during day, but as darkness descended, the room became, at least for a person like me who was not used to such dark surroundings, like a scene from a dismal Charles Dickens novel.
I realised I was shivering. Partly it was due to cold and partly because of a sudden feeling of desolation. I felt as if I had come thousands of kilometers away from my family. I wouldn’t say that we were rich compared to my aunt but back in Delhi all our rooms were well lit with fluorescent tubes, the insides of the house were freshly painted and the furniture had a sense of domestic bearing and contemporariness. Besides, our house in Delhi was by the side of the Ring Road and you could hear the noise of the traffic 24 hours and I had begun to relate that noise to the sign of civilisation. That prominent sign of civilisation was missing at my aunt’s place.
“Why don’t you come here in the light?” My aunt gestured towards another chair near the cooking area. “Don’t sit in the dark like this, it’s not considered auspicious.
“I think I’m going to sleep,” I said, not making an effort to get off the chair.
“Sleep?”asked my aunt, surprised. “I haven’t even cooked food yet. Have some food and then go to sleep, or you’ll get an upset stomach tomorrow.”
It would be the other way round, I thought to myself. Although they had made a makeshift toilet seat for me by cutting a hole into an old chair and digging a pit underneath in the backyard and filing it with sand, I wanted to avoid using that arrangement for as long as possible. The best way to delay it was eating as little as possible.
“I ate lots of peanuts and jaggery while sitting in the veranda so I don’t think I’m going to have dinner tonight,” I told her.
“About that he’s not lying,” Diljot added with a chuckle, while tightly holding the jute rope my uncle was trying to wrap around one of the legs of the cot.
“That’s a pity,” said my aunt with a dash of sorrow. “I was specially making saag for you.”
“He can eat his saag tomorrow when we’re back,” my uncle looked up and said, and then added, “there will also be an occasion to celebrate, so we will also have chicken.”
“With the grace of Wahe Guru,” my aunt murmered while stirring the earthen pot with a wooden spoon.
It’s often difficult to fall asleep with an empty stomach, but during my trips to other places I had gotten used to not eating much to avoid going to toilet.
Visit to Pathankot
By 5 AM in the morning we were at the village bus stop waiting for the bus that would take us to Pathankot where the hermitage of the saint was located. Both my aunt and uncle were going with me. Although we were to be back by evening – with me walking by my aunt’s side, according to everybody’s expectations – I was already missing being with Diljot lying on our big bed doing silly talk or flipping through our favourite comics and magazines, although I had spent just two nights in my aunt’s house.
A thick layer of mist covered the fields around us, heaving and twirling with the impact of the wind that was particularly strong that day. The glow of the bulb over our heads could only reach the road ahead of us and due to the mist even the road was not visible. A passing by motorbike or a jeep would send the mist in a frenzy of eddies for a few seconds but then again it would come back to its usual, sleepy, and to an extent even haunting disposition immediately, as if, it was a miasma instead of mist. A giant cockroach circled the bulb with such precision as if it had been circling the bulb for eternity.
I’m hypothermic so my aunt had wrapped me in as many clothes as possible. Despite that I was feeling quite cold and every movement for me was a big effort.
My uncle had brought me to the bus stop on his shoulders. He was still trying to catch his breath when the rickety PEPSU Roadways bus came to a halt. He himself worked in PEPSU Roadways as an electrician and the bus driver knew him. Both my aunt and my uncle were happy that we were travelling in the bus without having to buy a ticket. The pain in my uncle’s shoulder prevented him from picking me up so my uncle and aunt dragged me into the bus while the conductor of the bus complained that had he been told that help was needed he would have helped, never taking a foot forward during the 5-minute struggle.
Despite a very cold draught constantly coming from the outside, I was glad that they had placed me near the window of the bus. My aunt wanted me to enjoy the countryside as she believed we city folks never get to see the vast expanses of rural landscapes. I could see the fields quickly passing by although most of the fields were covered under the mist. The fields have a thick mist when they are watered, my aunt told me.
When we boarded the bus it was almost empty but by the time it crossed 3-4 villages it was full. A few village folks were carrying milk cartons. Some were carrying bundles of sugarcanes. A woman sitting in the next seat had opened her window the moment she sat down and had stretched her neck out. My aunt was sure that she was going to vomit soon, so she closed my window properly.
There were some kids in school dresses. I immediately remembered my own special school. Had I been in Delhi by now my mother would have woken me up and started helping me with my clothes. I used to hate that morning routine but at that time while heading towards Pathankot in that PEPSU Roadways bus full of people I had never seen, coursing through the road I had never been on, I desperately wanted to be home and go through the morning routine of getting up and getting ready for school. I missed my mother. I missed my sisters. I missed my classmates and my teachers. I missed every single sensation of being in Delhi.
My aunt was massaging my uncle’s shoulder and was trying to comfort him as he seemed to have pulled some muscle while carrying me to the bus stop. A few passengers enquired what was wrong with my uncle, and my aunt told them that since I couldn’t walk, my uncle had been carrying me around on his shoulders. While my uncle kept to himself, my aunt told people around her how I was disabled by birth (jamandru) and how, despite their advanced age, they were taking me to babaji in Pathankot with great hope that I would come back walking and they won’t have to carry me.
My uncle was slightly pissed off and was mumbling something. My aunt was sitting between us so I couldn’t hear him. But I could hear my aunt who was reassuring him that on our way back he wouldn’t have to carry me on his shoulders as I would be walking. They had left my crutches home. The reason was, the walking distance between different places was anyway too much for me to be able to walk with my crutches so they would have to carry them around needlessly, and while coming back, my aunt strongly believed, I would be walking. There would be no need for crutches. They had planned on throwing my crutches in the village pond with an elaborate ceremony.
The previous night they had counted on bringing along my eldest cousin but last evening he hadn’t returned and instead he had sent a message that he had been held up due to some unavoidable reason.
I dreaded the thought of the 3 of us coming back in the evening with me still on my uncle’s back and my aunt totally disappointed with me, and disappointed with our collective fate. In fact, I loathed the idea of they both bringing me physically back so much that I would have preferred them leaving me behind somewhere by the side of the GT road, even somewhere on the GT Road; I was pretty sure I would have made my way back to Delhi somehow.
After about an hour the bus came to a halt. I thought we had reached Pathankot but my aunt told me we were still an hour away. The driver said something about the bus not being able to move due to excessive cold and got down. Within a few minutes many passengers got down too. My uncle got down too while my aunt remained with me.
Some went to the fields to ease themselves but most of the men gathered around a place where the driver of the bus was trying to stuff something under the bus. “The engine has frozen,” I heard some passengers whispering to each other. There was some smoke coming out from under the bus.
“The driver is trying to thaw the engine,” my aunt reassured me.
Suddenly I saw people moving away from the bus and many looked as if they were running in alarm. Without wasting time trying to figure out what was happening, my aunt grabbed me, picked me as much as she could and started moving towards the exit. She hadn’t even taken a few steps when we saw my uncle rushing inside. “The engine seems to have caught fire,” my uncle said in a hoarse voice. They both quickly got me out of the bus.
Since I had no crutches they placed me by the side of the road, in the slightly damp mud. My feet had dragged on the road so by the time they put me down my shoes were completely covered in mud.
People had moved far away, but the driver and the conductor were still trying to figure something out under the bus, which seemed a bit reassuring to my aunt and uncle, so they didn’t carry me far away.
Being a state transport electrician my uncle must had felt that he should go join the bus driver and the conductor so he left me and my aunt and went to the other side of the bus.
So that I didn’t completely lie in the mud my aunt stood behind me, with my back resting against her knee. The sudden turn of events had stiffened my body and I couldn’t relax my legs and bend them in order to be able to sit without falling. My uncle and aunt were not familiar with the dynamics of my body otherwise, like my father, they would have started screaming at me for stiffening so much. They took it as a normal conditioning of my body. To balance myself I had placed both my hands firmly in the ground and my fingers had sunk into the mud. The mud was everywhere on my clothes.
People were looking at us oddly. They couldn’t figure out why I was sitting by the side of the road like a destitute in the damp mud with my aunt standing behind me and my feet forcefully digging into the wet mud. I felt furious. They should have left me inside the bus, I thought. Being burnt inside the bus was far better than that humiliation. They were not my parents so I couldn’t even complain. For the first time I felt how dignifying it was to be able to stand with crutches and move around on my own. I felt angry at everybody. I felt angry at my mother for sending me here. I felt angry at my uncle and aunt for pointlessly believing that I could be cured. I felt angry at the bus driver for causing such a confusion. I felt angry at myself for being so helpless at that particular time. I was angry at that wet patch of mud that was exactly at the spot where my uncle and aunt had made me sit. Usually there is so much wild grass by the side of the road.
After a few minutes we heard the bus engine buzzing. The people started moving towards the bus. My uncle came back and told us that everything was fine and we could get inside the bus. My aunt dusted off the mud as much as she could while my uncle held me standing. All the people were looking at us curiosity from inside the bus. The conductor stood nearby, mumbling something about the bus getting dirty if I were to be taken inside in that condition.
At that time I was quite young and I hadn’t yet gotten used to people staring at me and my family. People who had emerged out of the fields to check out what was wrong with the bus had now surrounded our small family, many of them wondering what sort of games the Almighty plays on some unfortunate folks.
Even the passers-by stopped walking or stopped their bicycles, perhaps wondering why a man was holding this boy with crooked legs and why a woman was hitting him with his hands all over the place. Finally we came to our seats and the bus started moving.
A strange, sticky cobweb stuck to my fingers. I must had grazed my hand against a place where a spider had woven its web. I quickly rubbed my fingers against the seat and felt relieved when I saw the cobweb was not there. The entire mental and physical ordeal had tired me out and I dozed off.
I was woken by a sudden jerk when the bus stopped.
We had reached Pathankot and now we had to take a ride in a tempo. There was a tempo specifically taking passengers to “babaji’s” village…now I have forgotten the name of the village. My uncle somehow fitted me and my aunt in the tempo but he had to ride half-hanging behind the tempo, as it was totally filled with passengers. Even the driver of the tempo seemed like using just a small portion of his seat, the rest was taken by a corpulent passenger. My leg began to get numb within few minutes as a fat lady had placed her heavy leg upon my leg. I was perhaps the smallest passenger in the tempo and was almost crushed by the people sitting everywhere. We had been stuffed inside the tempo like hay.
Perhaps it was during this ride that I developed fear for confined spaces. There were bodies everywhere. Despite the cold weather most of the men and women were sweaty, and smelled accordingly. It was difficult to breath. I couldn’t see a thing except for the driver who sat as if he would fall off any second, although he was merrily chatting with his co-passenger. Whether it was due to exhaustion or lack of oxygen, I fell asleep again and woke up only when the tempo came to a halt.
When my uncle pulled me out of the tempo the blood suddenly rushed to my leg that had gone totally numb, and it started trembling violently. My entire body started shaking due to my trembling leg and people around us thought I was going into a trance, which was good, they said. The shadow, “oopri kasar”, that had possessed me was feeling agitated due to the holy presence of babaji and would soon leave my body, leaving me cured. Luckily someone dragged a cot near us and my uncle laid me over it instead of putting me on the ground the way he did the last time when the bus broke down. My aunt sat beside me on the cot and chanted the Sikh gurbani loudly and patted my head.
After a few minutes the numbness of my leg went away, I was relaxed and my leg stopped trembling and my body stopped shaking. People lost interest and my uncle and aunt looked a bit puzzled. They didn’t know whether they should feel good about me getting back to my normal condition or bad. Even I was feeling confused.
Babaji’s hermitage was outside of the village, in the fields. Normally where there is a watering well amidst the fields there are a few massive trees, mostly peepal or banyan, and mostly under this cluster of trees people often build brick-rooms so that they can rest and sometimes even spend nights guarding their harvests.
Although we were under the shade of the trees, the weather was quite warm and pleasant. A couple of oxen were drawing water from the well. The cups of the wheel that were drawing water from the well poured the water into a big cement tank. Through that tank the water was being directed to different fields, by small makeshift water channels. Some kids and teenagers were splashing inside the tank. I wanted to join them but I knew that would be too much trouble for my uncle and aunt and besides, the cold water would trigger hypothermia.
As the crowd around us dispersed we noticed that many people were crying while coming out of the brick house where babaji was supposedly performing, or not performing, his miracles. Babaji was inside the house and there were some people sitting in front of the house on the ground singing some sort of prayer.
The people coming out of the house vigorously rubbed their eyes and blew their noses. Whenever we could get a glimpse of their eyes, we could see that they were extremely red.
“All these are disappointed people, the unlucky ones,” my aunt remarked.
We had to wait for a couple of hours before our turn came. My aunt and uncle in the meantime exchanged stories with other families who had brought their relatives and family members. During one of the conversations someone told us that people were coming out of the house rubbing their eyes not because they were crying, but because whoever went to see babaji he or she had to put a few drops of onion water in his or her eyes as “prasad”.
My aunt put a hand on my shoulder and said, “Don’t worry beta, you have endured so much pain, this onion juice is nothing.”
Our turn came. I allowed one of the helpers to put the onion juice in my eyes before going to meet babaji. It stung my eyes so badly as if my eyes were being gouged out. My entire body stiffened due to the overwhelming discomfort and my uncle had to carry me inside with the help of one of the devotees. I had started crying loudly and wouldn’t take my hands off my tightly-shut eyes. All the while my aunt kept chanting prayers.
I was placed on the ground. Nobody held me so I was in lying position, still rubbing my eyes. Whatever babaji said I couldn’t comprehend. My entire focus was on the searing pain in my eyes. Someone tried to grab my face to keep it straight, but I didn’t know who he or she was. I jerked violent so that I could keep rubbing my eyes but someone grabbed my hands tightly and pinned them to the floor. I was so angry and in so much pain that I might have cursed babaji. I remember I had wildly kicked around.
I was prodded a few times here and there. Someone rubbed his hands on my arms and legs while I writhed in pain. There were lots of voices around me but I couldn’t make out whether they were chanting something or talking.
“Koi rooh ta hai bibi,” I heard someone saying. It means, “surely there is some spirit accompanying him, lady.”
By the way my aunt replied I could make out that it was babaji.
“You have the power babaji,” my aunt said. “Make this spirit leave this poor boy’s body.”
“It’s not this spirit that stops him from walking,” the voice said. “This is something new. It has not possessed him, it is just accompanying him. Whether it will leave him alone or not, only the time can tell. You can go now.”
“But babaji,” interjected my uncle, “what about curing him?”
“Who says I cure?” asked babaji. “I just transfer the energy of the Almighty into the afflicted and the rest depends on them. Now go. Let the others come.”
After a while I was brought outside and the cold air was a bit comforting. My aunt suggested that my eyes should be washed with water but someone told her that that was not to be done. The eyes shouldn’t be washed for the whole day.
They put me on a cot and let me lie there. There was a strange tingling in my hands. My aunt rub my hands with a cloth. “God knows how you got so much cobweb around your fingers.”
The food was arranged in the hermitage but I was in no condition to eat something. When my aunt asked if I would like to eat something, I refused, telling her that I was not feeling hungry. Having to empty my bowels somewhere in the fields with my uncle and aunt hovering over me had blown away even the small signs of hunger that had started stirring up inside my stomach. Leaving me on the cot, my uncle and aunt went to have the “langar” (community eating place).
When they came back, my uncle asked me to get up from the cot.
Cots are made of jute ropes and most of the cots are sagging in the middle. Once you are in a cot, you need to make some effort to get out and stand up. Imagine yourself lying in a hammock. Now imagine getting out of it. Sometimes, if the cot is not well-kept, the maneuver is more or less of the same sort.
Everybody in my family knew that I couldn’t get up on my own when I was lying on a cot. Someone needed to hold my hand and pull me upwards even when I was sitting with my feet dangling. When I was lying, I first needed to sit up, which I couldn’t, and after sitting up, I needed to push myself out of the depth of the cot which, again, I couldn’t. So if my uncle was asking me to get up from that cot, it meant he thought I was cured.
I tried, but couldn’t. My eyes were closed and I had no intention of opening them in the near future. I tried to get up, but my body just didn’t know how to perform the necessary actions to get up. I stretched my hand hoping someone would pull me up but no one did. My aunt tried to mumble something but my uncle insisted that I should get up on my own. After a few tries I said I couldn’t.
He roughly held my hand and pulled me out of the cot. My eyes were closed but I could feel a strange hostility in his touch. He made me stand and released me while my aunt mumbled in protest. She tried to hold me but I could make out he didn’t allow her to. I fell on the ground. My elbows and knees hit the ground and my aunt gave out a cry. I clenched my teeth and made sure no sound of pain came out of my mouth. I still hadn’t opened my eyes. She tried to pick me up but I was heavy. After some struggle she sat on the ground beside me and put my head on her lap and started sobbing and chanting the prayer at the same time. More people came and they all picked me and put me on the cot again.
“Let me get back to Delhi,” I thought to myself, “and I will never have anything to do with this couple.”
Within a few minutes we were again travelling in a tempo, towards the bus stop. The journey towards the bus stop was not as difficult as it was when we were coming to the hermitage. There seemed to be less people this time. Nobody talked about getting cured. At the hermitage while waiting for our turn we hadn’t come across even a single person who was cured. In the tempo people were talking about having heard of people being cured, but nobody directly knew someone who had been cured. This fact seemed to have a soothing effect on both my uncle and aunt and I heard my uncle casually chatting with a fellow passenger.
The tempo stopped at a particular place. The late afternoon was warm. My aunt asked if I would like to have a glass of sugarcane juice and I said yes. While we were waiting for the sugarcane juice I felt a water -soaked cloth being put over my eyes. My uncle had dampened his handkerchief and now my aunt was cleaning my eyes with it.
“Try opening your eyes slowly,” she said soothingly.
I opened my eyes slightly but everything seemed very blurry and it hurt my eyes so I quickly closed them. I took the handkerchief from her and kept rubbing it over my eyes. It brought me some relief.
After a few passengers had had the sugar cane juice we proceeded with our journey to the bus stop and then from the bus stop we took the PEPSU Roadways bus back to the Bujran village.
By the time we reached the Bujran bus stop it was dark. Although my eyes still stung, I could now open them. My aunt told me that they were very red.
This time my aunt didn’t want my uncle to carry me home because he was looking very tired. She told him to go home and send my eldest cousin to the bus stop while we would wait for him. He quickly agreed and left us there.
“I’m feeling very bad that you had to go through all this,” my aunt said while wrapping around me the blanket she had. “The moment they told us that onion water was being put in the eyes we should have come back. Who knows how your eyes could have reacted? Just imagine what would have happened. It was a big and stupid chance that we took. You already cannot walk. Had something bad happened to your eyes, how would have I faced your parents?”
I was too exhausted emotionally and physically to respond but I just touched her hand and let her know that everything was fine. “My eyes are fine,” somehow I managed to say. “They are feeling a bit swollen and spongy, but otherwise they are fine. I can see properly and in this darkness, I can see better than you.”
She gave out a small laugh and then we quietly waited for my cousin to come.
Both my cousins came and they carried me home. None of us talked about why I wasn’t walking home or why I hadn’t been cured. Everybody was just relieved that we were back home.
The glow in the night
“I could have really thrashed that babaji,” said Diljot once we were in the bed. “What sort of stupid person puts onion water drops in people’s eyes? Is it some sort of ugly joke?”
“I felt the same thing,” I said. “At that time I should have refused but I don’t know why I felt weighed down by all the effort your mom and dad were making. I have been taken to so many babas and sadhus by now that even if once I could have believed in a miracle, I no longer do. So I just went because your parents wanted me to go there so badly. Besides, when you are in my position, you don’t want to say no to things, you know? Just in case.”
“Yeah, I understand. Had I been in your place I would have gone too because, who knows what might work? I mean, it would be great to be able to play with you the way I play with other boys,” he sighed.
The room where Diljot and I slept was slightly away from the main hall where the entire family lived. As I have explained before, the portion of the house where my aunt lived with her family constituted of a big hall-type room where they had laid 4 cots like a makeshift hospital ward. Big aluminium trunks and a wooden sofa set had been randomly placed and despite this randomness, the room was quite spacious.
Then there was that big verandah with a roofless kitchen adjacent to the hall-type room. Across the verandah, adjacent to the entrance door, there was a smaller room that was stuffed with the furniture of the landlord. In that room there was a big bed where at least 4 people could sleep comfortably at the same time. While the rest of the family slept and spent most of its time in that bigger, hall-type room, Diljot and I spent time in this smaller room and even slept there. Since it was slightly away from the main room, we could play music or talk loudly without disturbing anyone. Even when alone, Diljot slept in that room. There was no light bulb in the room as it had fused a few weeks ago and nobody had bothered to change it. My uncle had brought a torch from Iraq that could be charged and we always kept it lighted while awake.
The evening had been quite pleasant after coming back from Pathankot. We had the leftover saag and the eldest cousin had also gotten curry chicken from somewhere although I couldn’t eat it because it was very spicy. I ate food to my heart’s content. With the help of my aunt I also used the chair with the hole and after that my stomach felt quite nice and relieved. The day’s exhaustion and the relief of some good food and emptied bowels had made me sleepy but I wanted to spend more time talking with Diljot.
An old Rafi song was playing in the cassette recorder and I was humming the song while Diljot aimlessly flipped through a magazine under the torch light.
Almost touching our bed there was a big window without grills. This was something peculiar that I noticed in the windows and many houses of the village: they didn’t have grills. If one wanted, one could enter the room or exit it through the window and in fact, I had seen Diljot using that window to enter and exit the room, instead of the door, without any reason.
There was a full moon that night and ample moonlight was coming on our bed. I’m forgetting why the window couldn’t be closed and no matter how hot or cold it was, it remained open.
I had a cotton-like sensation in my hand and I instinctively brought my hand out of the quilt to have a look. I put the hand in front of the torch and saw cobwebs sticking to my fingers.
“There’s something I keep touching unknowingly,” I complained. “I keep getting my hand covered with cobweb.”
“You must have put your hand under the bed,” Diljot reasoned. “This room hasn’t been cleaned for a long time and there are lots of cobwebs under the bed. This is why mom keeps saying not to sleep here as we might be inhaling lots of dust but I guess, the dust doesn’t affect us as much as she thinks it does. Here,” he stretched his hand and picked up a cloth from a nearby trunk, “wipe your hand with this.”
“It’s not just the place or this bed that I might have touched accidentally,” I said. “I have been getting this strange cobweb on my hand since yesterday if I’m not forgetting. I was even getting it on my way to Pathankot and your mom wiped it off even when I was at babaji’s place.”
“There are lots of cobwebs everywhere and you probably get them on your hand because you have to grab everything to balance,” Diljot said, and it actually made sense. I didn’t have that problem back in Delhi because, I assumed, places were cleaner there.
I wiped my hand with the cloth and then put the cloth on the windowsill. While putting the cloth on the windowsill, I looked at the window of the neighbouring house on the first floor that was easily visible from our window. There was an imperceptible glow inside the room. I thought I was hallucinating so I kept looking for a while. After a few seconds it became clear that I was not hallucinating and there was actually a yellow glow inside the room.
“Do you see some light in that window?” I whispered to Diljot while still looking at the window.
Diljot put the magazine aside and looked at the window. By now the light inside the room had grown a bit brighter and it had also started pouring out of the window sill.
Although there was ample distance between Diljot and me and our bodies were not touching, I could feel the quilt trembling. Since I wasn’t trembling, I assumed he was.
“Are you scared or are you feeling cold?” I asked in as low a voice as possible.
“Scared,” although his voice quivered, there was no doubt in it when he said the word ‘scared’.
“Are you pretty sure it is a ghost in there?”
“What can it be? It is the only room in the house that hasn’t yet been broken into. There is a big lock on the door and nobody has been able to break it.”
“Have you seen the lock?” I asked.
“Every kid in the village has seen it,” he replied.
“What about a window? Couldn’t, whoever is inside, have come from a window? If not this window, then maybe a window on the backside?”
“This is the only window in that room. There used to be a window on the backside, a few days before leaving, they broke the wall and then reconstructed it without a window. This is the only window in that room and you can see without a ladder or without a rope hanging from the roof it is physically impossible to enter the room. Do you see a rope?” Diljot asked.
“Do you see a ladder resting against the wall?” Diljot asked again.
“No,” I replied.
“So the only way one can enter the room is through the door and since the door is locked, the only way one can enter the door is if one is a ghost and can travel through locked doors and walls,” Diljot concluded.
The glow in the room had increased just the way it had increased the previous evening. First there were shadows on the walls. Shadows of all sizes and shapes, dancing to the rhythm of the flame. The shadows rose and fell as someone lowered and raised the flame. Sometimes the shadows were shapeless, and sometimes you could make out when the candle was passing behind a lampshade or a rectangular frame or the slats of a chair. Although no human shape was visible, the shadows on the wall moved as if the candle was moving from one corner of the room to the other corner repeatedly. This went on for a long time as we watched the spectre with bated breaths.
Then, as it had happened the previous day, the shadows began to get bigger and bigger until they had reached the roof of the room. Because the room was on the first floor and we were on the ground floor, from our position a big portion of the roof was visible.
The shadows on the roof appeared in such a manner as if now someone was moving under the furniture, as if crawling on the floor, while still holding the candle. A macabre dance of the shadows started on the roof. Either it was too windy on the floor or someone was breathing hard close to the flame.
A strange thing about the movement of the shadows was that they moved smoothly. There was never a halt in their movement. When the shadows moved from left to right or from right to left it was a smooth motion as if whoever was holding the candle had no problem moving under the furniture. By the movement of the shadows, it seemed, not a human, but someone like a cat or a snake was moving on the floor of the room, holding a candle.
Then within a second the shadows collapsed. They didn’t disappear, they fell, as if someone had raised the level of the candle above the furniture. The roof of the room grew brighter and brighter as if the light was very close to the roof, almost touching it. The brightness on the roof grew to such a level that it no longer seemed like a candle. It was more like a fire.
“Maybe this is not a candle or a lamp. Maybe something inside the room has caught fire?” I said, trying to present another possibility that didn’t seem as alarming as the thought of a ghost walking around with a candle or a lamp. “Besides, why would a ghost need a candle? If it can walk through the walls and locked doors, I don’t think it needs light to find its way around.”
“Don’t you know if there was a fire there would be lots of smoke?” Diljot gave quite a logical reply. “Just imagine, there must be so much old furniture inside the room and if it starts burning, it will be like a furnace. It HAS to be a candle or a lamp,” he gave a special emphasis on “has”.
The glow inside the room had stabilised. It neither increased nor decreased. There was no flicker, like it happens with a candle. Nobody seemed to be breathing close to the flame now. One could have easily mistaken it with an electric bulb if one had not witnessed the dance of the shadows just a while ago.
“What should we do?” I asked.
“What do you mean?” Diljot asked.
“Should we just keep on lying here doing nothing?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Diljot replied.
“What did you do when you saw the light in the room for the first time? You told me yesterday that you have seen the light before too.”
“I was lying just to scare you,” Diljot’s voice trembled when he talked. “It was only yesterday evening that I saw the light with you. It’s the second time I’m seeing it, and again, with you.”
Thick fog came out of his mouth when he talked. We hadn’t realised that the light of the torch had dimmed to a considerable level and we could only see each other’s outlines mainly due to the moonlight. We were both shivering inside the quilt and I couldn’t make out whether it was due to sudden drop in temperature or because of fear.
When we had come to sleep there it didn’t matter whether we could close the window or not but now I really wished we could. My right leg started trembling and I knew that if I didn’t control it, I would be literally jumping on the bed. I put my left leg on my right leg to press it. I could have controlled the trembling had I sat up but I didn’t have the courage to suggest the idea at that point. I wanted to cover my head with the quilt but the prospect of not knowing what was happening was more terrifying.
But it seems as if the earth had decided to cover its face. I noticed the moon that was shining brightly just a few minutes ago had vanished behind thick black clouds. There were also some glimpses of lightning somewhere inside the depths of the clouds, and I could hear the rumble in the clouds as if coming from thousands of kilometres away. A cold wind had begun to blow.
“I think the mist from the fields has entered the village,” Diljot whispered.
The view outside had actually begin to get blurry due to the mist. The swads of mist twisted in the wind in the veranda. The mist had also started blocking the view to the window. Although we could see the light coming from the window, the brightly contrasting rectangle that had existed before the mist had changed into a shapeless source of light scattering among the particles of the mist. If there were shadows again on the wall or on the roof, we couldn’t see them. In a way I was relieved that we were no longer able to see the window clearly and whatever was happening, was happening behind the eerie shroud mist.
Soon the mist was so thick that we could no longer see the window. We had no idea whether the candle in the room was burning or not. But now the latest problem was that the mist had started coming inside. Even in the darkness we could feel the room being filled with frightening whiteness.
“If the mist keeps coming in,” I asked, “don’t you think our bed and quilt will get damp, or even soaked?”
“Mist like this is passing,” Diljot said. “The wind is so strong. It brought the mist here, it will also take it away before it can dampen the room. Don’t worry about the mist.”
On one hand it was nice to know that the mist would be blown away soon, but the prospect of again looking at the glowing window was quite harrowing, now that it had been hidden by the mist for some time.
“Don’t you think we should move with the rest of the family?” I advised.
I don’t know why he didn’t come up with the suggestion earlier. It hadn’t come to my mind too, we had been so caught up with what was happening.
“Let’s go,” he said without wasting a single second.
I got up from the bed as fast as I could, but when Diljot tried to put on my shoes, my feet were so stiff that they had twisted backwards and it was not possible to insert them into the shoes. Without my shoes I couldn’t take even a single step. The more I tried to relax, the stiffer I became. The stiffness increased to such a level that my legs stretched forward and I fell backwards on the bed. Diljot had to quickly move away otherwise I would have kicked him in the face.
“What are you doing?” he exclaimed, trying to make sense of what was happening. “Are you getting possessed?”
“No I’m not possessed,” I replied with clenched teeth. “I’m just stiff.”
“You are scaring me, I’ve never seen you like this before,” said Diljot, standing cluelessly. For a while we had both forgotten about to glowing window and the ghostly mist.
“It happens sometimes,” I explained. “When I’m very scared, or very excited.”
Somehow I needed to stop thinking about relaxing. I knew that the more I thought of relaxing the more difficult it would be to relax. I tried to think about the window. Who was inside the room? How did that person enter the room if the only door the room had was locked and the lock wasn’t broken? Why was he or she roaming inside the room holding a candle? Why might he or she be slithering on the floor so smoothly? Were Diljot and I really witnessing something supernatural?
I had seen horror films. I had read stories and novels about ghosts, spirits, demons, or possessed people and haunted mansions. I remembered reading a comic in which evil spirits get accidently released from ancient caves and they almost possess the entire world. The comic had kept me awake many nights. I had even been taken to various witch doctors, exorcists and godmen who claimed that I was possessed but neither did I nor my family took those claims seriously.
But I had never thought that one day I would be seeing something that might be straight from such stories, or something that those babas and padris said might actually be true.
“Here,” Diljot extended his hand, “Try to relax and get up.”
Without paying much attention to the word “relax” that he had just used, I took his hand and pulled myself up to the sitting position. This time when he tried to put on my shoes he succeeded.
When we knocked at the door of the main room and when the door was opened by my aunt, we didn’t tell her about the window of the neighboring house. We just told her that there was too much mist and we were feeling cold in Diljot’s room.
The visit to the room
The next morning Diljot and her younger sister went to school, my uncle went to his job and the eldest son had to visit some office in the city, so I was left alone with my aunt who was busy in the sunny verandah sewing clothes. She made some extra money sewing clothes for women in the village. I sat on a cot near her. I had read the comics I had brought from Delhi. I had also gone through the old film magazines they had. Some old Punjabi songs were playing on the radio. I was bored.
“I’m going to go out in the alley for a short walk,” I told my aunt while swinging my upper body like an inverted pendulum.
“OK, but don’t go too far,” my aunt said. “Be careful of the dogs.”
“I will,” I said.
I used the force generated by my swing to get up from the cot with a jerk. My aunt thought I was going to fall forward but then she soon realized this was how I stood up from a lower sitting place.
The village street dogs barked at me and sometimes even menacingly lunged at me because I wasn’t just a stranger, I was a stranger who walked differently, and to make matters worse, even held two “sticks” in the arms. Or maybe they thought of me as a human-like four-legged animal who should be barked at, or bitten in case there was a chance. As long as I faced them there was no problem because they wouldn’t come near me due to my crutches, but if they came from behind they could easily attack me because I couldn’t turn around quickly to ward them off with my crutches. They mostly came in packs. But a good thing was someone or the other always came to help. The passers-by would either shoo them away with a slipper or a stick or kids would throw rocks at them.
When I came into the alley there was no dog in sight. Being early afternoon the place bore a deserted look. Men were either in the fields or at their jobs. Women were working inside their houses or sitting in their sunny verandahs. Kids had gone to school or playing somewhere. It was a narrow alley so even if some dogs came running, I could easily rest my back against a wall and tackle the dogs with my crutches until help came from the nearby houses.
Once outside I couldn’t recall why I had come out. I could just randomly walk till the end of the alley and get a view of the corn fields or I could go to the other end of the alley where a row of smaller houses started and people had tethered their cows and buffaloes. I loved watching cows and buffaloes being taken care of. It was difficult for me to walk on the rough, cobbled surface. So instead of going towards the fields that involved at least a 20-minute walk at my pace, I decided to go towards the village.
I had just walked a few steps when I found myself standing in front of the neighbouring house with that particular room at the first floor. Both the doors of the house were wide open. A dog came out from inside and ran away without giving me even a single glance. As was the norm with almost all the houses in the village, the main door led to a verandah that shone brightly under the clear sun. Across the verandah I could see a couple of more opened doors, perhaps leading to rooms. Partly visible from my standing position was a staircase with railings on both sides.
I stood there in front of the house contemplating my next move. I wanted to go inside because, as Diljot had told me, the village kids often played inside the house. So there was nothing wrong in going inside and checking out that abandoned place. But those kids didn’t know about the room on the first floor – I knew about that room. I knew that what Diljot and I had seen in the past couple of days was not an imagination. It could have been an imagination if just one of us had seen the light inside the room. Both of us had seen the same thing so it was as real as it could have been.
I had never entered an abandoned house before. I had always wanted to visit old, abandoned places but due to my disability I was mostly confined to easily accessible places. Now the opportunity was right in front of me. There were just a couple of steps at the door and I could easily climb them. I looked on both sides of the alley and didn’t see anyone. “Before someone sees me I should go inside,” I thought to myself.
The steps were broken and some of the bricks were jutting out. It would be difficult for me to step on them and it was not possible for me to avoid stepping on them. The upper hinge of one of the doors too had broken loose so the door was slightly hanging towards the alley, and this door came to my rescue. It was easier for me to grab the door instead of completely depending on my crutches. Lots of dirt from the door got stuck onto my clothes and on my hands, but I was able to climb the steps without falling.
A layer of dirt, dried leaves and all sorts of other stuff had carpeted the floor inside the house. By tapping with the tip of my crutch I made sure it was not slippery. Floors covered with years of dirt can be unpredictable, especially when it has rained recently. If the dirt is dried and crystallized it can be quite slip-resistant, but if it appears dried at the top but is moist and loose from beneath one can quickly slip. Although there were greenish, blackish, greyish flakes everywhere as if I was standing on a carpet made of crocodile skin, it felt quite solid under my feet and crutches.
A wave of chill and an oppressive stench of decay hit me as soon as I entered. Although there was no sun in the alley outside and it was almost like a narrow wind tunnel, my body was feeling quite warm before entering the house, due to the effort required in walking on the cobbled and ill-maintained path. So I was taken by surprise by that sudden onslaught of chill.
There was a roof over the entrance and I had to walk 5-10 steps before I could reach the verandah and be under the sun to warm myself.
Sudden chill, coupled with a totally alien environment under the tips of my crutches, froze my body. My arms stiffened and the fingers of my hands and feet started twisting inwards. My toenails started biting the tips of my toes and adjacent fingers. There was nothing within reach I could hold. I couldn’t turn back and hold the frame of the door because I had already taken a step forward while checking the floor whether it slipped or not. Although I had checked that the floor was not slippery, I didn’t know whether it was slippery a couple of steps ahead of me or not. This sort of uncertainty always stiffens my body and the same was happening at that time. I was really mad at myself because I should have thought of that before entering the house. I knew I often got into such situations. I tried to distract myself but it didn’t work.
I called out to my aunt but although she was just next door she couldn’t hear me. I called out again and again but there was no response. My only chance was someone passing by and coming to my rescue. That didn’t happen. It was as if that particular day nobody would come in that alley.
My body had stiffened so much that I started feeling hot and I could even feel sweat on my body. Every muscle ached. The nails of my hands dug into my fingers and the fingers of my feet pushed so hard against the soles of my shoes that I thought soon my toe nails would break. I was sure that I was going to fall. All I had to do was just give up and let myself fall. It wouldn’t hurt much. There was lots of open space around me so my head wouldn’t bump into anything. The crystallised dirt had also cushioned the floor. At least after falling I could crawl up to the door, grab it and then stand up. This relaxed me a bit.
Then I also thought if the floor under the roof was completely dry and solidly attached to the concrete underneath, it should be more solid in the verandah under the sun. The more I moved forward, the less there was a chance of me slipping. This further had a relaxing effect and soon I was walking again. The thought of using this opportunity to quickly get out of the house crossed my mind but now that I was feeling relaxed, I decided to explore a bit.
There was a pungent smell inside the house. It was the smell you encounter when you suddenly open a room that hasn’t been opened for ages and there are dead, dried up rats in it. Perhaps Diljot had exaggerated the kids regularly coming there and playing bit. The place was regularly visited by animals and birds, not by humans. The verandah was quite sunny so I assumed the smell was coming from the rooms. Across the verandah there was a line of four rooms, all the doors opened. It was dark inside the rooms so I couldn’t make out what sort of rooms they were.
Another thing that I hadn’t thought of before was that all sorts of stray and wild animals start living inside abandoned houses and some of such animals, especially dogs, might had made an abode inside those rooms. It wouldn’t be safe to enter the rooms.
The row of the rooms didn’t stretch from one end to the other end completely. The staircase was on the right-hand side, attached to the wall behind which my aunt’s family lived. On the first floor there was just one room and the rest of the roof seemed to be vacant. One of the rooms on the extreme right was right beneath the room on the roof. On the left, after the row of the rooms ended, there was some empty space that perhaps led to the back side. Across that empty space there was a row of wooden-sheds, perhaps to keep buffaloes. A rotting carcass of a small animal lay in front of the last room on the left and thousands of giant black ants were devouring the body.
There were signs of decay everywhere. The outer layer on the walls had peeled off everywhere and a greyish soot covered every nook of the house. On the left, just a few steps away from the animal carcass, there was a hand pump that was covered with rust and some wild plant. Grass and other plants had sprouted everywhere. There was a big hole at the centre of the verandah; I couldn’t decide whether it was created by an animal or the place had just sunk in. A snake could come out of that hole anytime, I thought to myself. There was a cot near the staircase but only the frame remained as the ropes had rotted away.
A tingling on the fingers of my left hand made me look at my hand; by now I had begun to expect what to see. My fingers were covered with cobwebs. I looked here and there to find something I could rub my hand against and found a comparatively cleaner spot on the handrail of the staircase. I moved near to the staircase and rubbed my hand on the handrail to get rid of the cobwebs.
A strong desire to climb the staircase raised its head inside of me. My aunt’s house didn’t have a staircase. I had seen everybody using a bamboo ladder to go to the roof. Many times I had wanted to view the village from the rooftop and this staircase presented a good opportunity. Although there was that room on the roof but I could easily stay away from it. I could see from where I was standing the room was slightly away from where the staircase ended on the roof. In fact, the room was constructed at a very peculiar location on the roof. The door of the room was just slightly away from the edge of the roof and there was no railing or parapet on the edges.
My physical inability to go to the room was quite reassuring. I started climbing the staircase. The handrail was higher than my shoulder so I had to grab the balusters when climbing. Rust, grime and cobwebs came off them and stuck to my hand but I didn’t bother much and kept climbing. It rarely happened that I could climb a staircase so easily. The feeling that I was climbing a staircase without sweating and huffing and puffing and no one was even aware that I was climbing a staircase, was exhilarating.
Although the steps had broken at various places the handrail and the balustrades were very strongly fixed and even when I stumbled I easily gained my balance in a second. With my left hand I grabbed the balustrades while my crutch loosely hung from my arm and on the right hand side I supported to myself with my other crutch. Within no time I was on the roof.
The effort had made me hot so the cold wind blowing on the roof provided immediate relief. It was a big roof made of bricks. Compared to the verandah downstairs, the surface of the roof was cleaner. No layer of solidified dirt covered the bricks. There was no dampness and no green algae that often grows on on a brick-laid surface. In fact, the roof looked as if it had been recently washed.
Even if I tried my crutches wouldn’t slip on the roof due to the rough but clean surface under the tips of my crutches. I quickly walked to the other side of the roof anticipating green fields and trees up till the horizon. I purposely avoided looking at the room that was on my right hand side.
When I reached the other edge of the roof, to my disappointment, all I could see was the rooftops of other houses. There were kuchcha and pukka houses everywhere. Some houses were even higher than this house, completely blocking the view. I could see some verandahs and backyards of houses where people were engaged in various activities such as brooming the house, preparing fire, cleaning wheat and tending to the livestock. It was hard to imagine that amidst such normal surroundings, I was standing near a room that was most probably haunted. This made me look at the room. A plain wall, saturated with colorlessness, stared at me. A strange sort of gloom enveloped the entire structure. A bamboo ladder laid near the wall but most of its steps had broken. With a clammy feeling I moved towards the stairs from where it would be easier for me to have a second look at the door.
From the edge of the staircase where I stood, I noticed the way towards the door was not as replete with danger as I had perceived downstairs. There was enough space between the door and the edge of the roof and even if I slipped or fell, there was a remote chance that I would topple over the edge and fall down.
I was caught in a strange vertigo of indecision that almost threw me off, physically. The next early morning I was going to Delhi and if I could resist the overwhelming pull towards the room, I could be safely sitting in my favorite chair in front of the TV in less than 30 hours. All I had to do was, just quickly go downstairs and get out of the house as fast as possible, even if there were 10 dogs waiting for me in the alley.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the opposite side of mine argued. When would I get another chance to explore a haunted place?
Besides, the room was locked and it was such a big lock that many kids had tried but failed to break it. All I had to do was, just go to the door and then come back.
But what if the “thing” inside it came out of the locked room? What if it pushed me over the edge? What if it drew me in and then I would remain locked inside the room for eternity, myself turning into a ghost or getting trapped in some different form of existence? Nobody would ever know where I had gone because no one had seen me entering the house.
Was it so important for me to go to the door, just because there was nothing to stop me? There was no step to climb and there was no floor on which my crutch would slip. Going to the door would be just like having a stroll.
My entire being advised me not to go towards the room but my body moved on its own.
An invisible miasma seemed to have surrounded my body and then it was edging me towards the door of the room.
I was still struggling with going-and-not-going when I found myself standing in front of the door. A strange, chilly smell imbued the air and I felt breathless. I couldn’t make out whether it was due to physical exhaustion or the evil smell that seemed like coming from behind the door.
As Diljot had told me, the door was locked. A big lock hung there like a formidable sentinel. A gust of relief hit me. Now that I had seen with my own eyes that a big lock hung at the door there was no reason for me to stand there. The objective had been achieved, the hurdle had been crossed. I had come to the door and with my own eyes I had seen the lock. Now even if I wanted to, I couldn’t go beyond that. I couldn’t break the lock with my crutches even if I wanted to and there was no heavy object on the roof that I could have used. The only thing that I could do was turn back, climb down the stairs and get out.
I was about to turn when I thought of scandalising my aunt from the rooftop, or at least have a look at her from there. Beyond the door where the front wall of the room ended began the wall that touched my aunt’s verandah. I went to the edge and looked into the verandah. Although her sewing machine was there and her entire paraphernalia lay spread, my aunt was not there. Maybe she had gone inside and maybe she had gone out into the alley to look for me. I called out her name, but just like before, there was no response. I stood there for a while, aimlessly waiting for her, and then came back to the door when she didn’t turn up and my legs began to hurt.
While I stood in front of the door, the thought of some supernatural being observing my movements from inside made my stomach revolt and I had to swallow imaginary spit in quick successions in order to suppress the nausea. But no matter how bad I felt I couldn’t get myself move towards the staircase and go down. I had never experienced that feeling before – wanting to do something but not doing it despite nothing stopping you from doing it.
The more fearful I grew, the greater the amount of fear I wanted to experience. I balanced myself with my right crutch, raised my left crutch and with the tip of the crutch I softly jabbed at the door. Nothing happened. I pushed a little harder. There was a small creaking but I couldn’t feel any movement. Big crusts of dust fell off the cracks of the door. Other than that, nothing happened. I hit the door repeatedly, especially around the lock and sometimes even strongly, so strongly that I could have pushed myself backward and would have fallen had I not checked myself in time. The dust rising from the door made me cough.
I noticed there was a round patch of cement on the left-hand side of the door. It was as if there was a whole in the wall and it had been covered with cement or some other grime. It was a wide patch, enough to cover a whole that could have allowed an adult’s arm to pass through it.
With nothing happening, I caught my breath for a while and decided to go down. I felt peaceful from the inside. My hunger to explore an abandoned house all by myself without encountering a major hurdle was satiated to a great extent. Unbeknownst to anyone, I had roamed around in an abandoned, most probably a haunted house. I had even climbed the stairs and had had a look at the village from the roof. I had knocked at the locked door and I had all the reason to believe that something supernatural existed behind that door. I had had my adventure without anybody’s assistance. It was time for me to go back to the natural world.
I again felt a tingling on my fingers and this time the feeling was so strong that my hand began to hurt. It was as if hundreds of tiny ants bit my hand at the same time. All the fingers of my left hand were covered with cobweb. For the first time the cobweb was so dense that I couldn’t move some of my fingers away from each other. It was like a tightly woven mitten. It would even be difficult to hold my crutch and walk with so much cobweb between my fingers.
How had I gotten so much cobweb around my hand, I thought? I hadn’t touched anything. When I was banging at the door I knew I had no cobweb on my hand because that was the hand I was using while balancing myself on the other crutch. Ever since I started getting my hand smudged with cobweb for the first time I realized I hadn’t been touching things in order to get the cobweb on my hand, it was just appearing out of thin air. A clammy rush of terror engulfed me as I stood there looking at my hand and balancing myself with the other crutch. The tingling was gone but now it was replaced by a very cold, chilly feeling. It was as if I had plunged my hand into an icy slush. I didn’t want to hold anything with that hand, I didn’t even want to hold my crutch with that hand.
Up till now I had been an observer. I saw the light in the room from my aunt’s house. I visited the house and had a look at the room from the outside. Nothing unnatural was happening to me. But now I suddenly realized that ever since I started getting the cobweb on my hand, I was a part of something unnatural around me. Whatever was happening, I was not untouched. Had I been touched by some evil? Was I possessed?
The babaji had said to my aunt, “Koi rooh ta hai bibi.”
All my life different people had told my parents and grandparents that there was some “oopri hava” that stopped me from walking but it had all been just talk. I had never felt any influence of some “oopri hava” – some demonic possession – on me. It was always some conjecture. It was always half believe.
I also remembered babaji telling my aunt that there was a spirit accompanying me but it wasn’t stopping me from walking. It may or may not leave me. When I remembered that, and when I looked at my cobweb-covered hand and when I remembered all the instances when I found my hand covered with cobweb, I had a strong urge to pee. Whether I was possessed or whether some sort of spirit was just accompanying me, didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that I was actually going through some supernatural experience. The thought was terrifying as well as thrilling. My legs started trembling. My fingers began to twist inside my shoes and as it happened during such fits of stiffness, my toenails started digging into adjacent fingers.
Soon I would fall if I didn’t do anything. I realized I was so far away from the door that if I fell backward, I would go straight down, head first. The thought of the impending fatal fall stiffened me further. Even my right arm, the arm with which I held the crutch that supported me, began to coil. I stood in a zigzag position, with massive streams of pain erupting from all parts of my body, especially my pelvic area, neck, shoulders and lower legs. The overwhelming physical discomfort and the prospect of falling backward and then tumbling off the roof somehow, even if momentarily, had overshadowed the fear of the unnatural. I wasn’t sure whether the paranormal experience I was going through was causing more harm to me at that moment, or my own body. My only option was to let myself fall towards the door and then grab the door. I estimated that the door would stop my fall at a 45° angle. Even if I couldn’t grab the door during my fall at least I would be falling towards the door instead of away from the door. Then later on I could get up by grabbing the bolt of the door and pull myself up.
I let my body fall towards the door. I had misjudged my position vis-à-vis the door. When I fell towards the door, I wasn’t standing in front of the door, I was standing slightly on the left-hand side. Since my right hand is good for just holding the crutch, even my mind doesn’t know that it should be used for grabbing things, even during matters of life and death. So I could only hold onto something with my left hand one my right shoulder hit the door with a loud bang and lots of dust came straight to the right side of my face. Fortunately, I didn’t bang my face against the doorframe. My left hand instinctively grabbed the wall because there was nothing else to grab. My hand sunk into the grey patch on the wall that I had observed a while ago. Whatever it was, it wasn’t cement or anything hard like cement. My hand was easily able to go inside the hole and I was able to grab the edge of the hole to bring myself to a standing position within a couple of seconds. When I drew my hand back, there was no cobweb on my hand.
I held onto the hole for some time to experience a sudden rush of respite because my body had relaxed. The thought that I could have fallen off the roof just a few seconds ago but instead I was still standing there made me laugh with relief. I had just been given a second chance at life and I wanted to savour it for some time. Soon I was able to stand using both my crutches.
The newly-revealed hole caught my attention as I prepared myself to head towards the staircase. What had seemed like cement was actually a very dense cobweb. There was a hole in the wall and the cobweb had completely covered it. Whether the hole opened on the other side of the wall or not, I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to go downstairs and then get out of the house and then never come back. It had been a very bad decision to explore the house no matter how physically easy it was to explore it. I should have never gone to that place, I thought. I should have gone towards the fields instead. It wouldn’t have been as nerve wracking as this experience I had just had.
As I started moving away from the door, I again felt the tingling on my hand. Without even looking at the hand I knew what was happening. A sinking feeling hit me. Was I cursed with that cobweb? Would I keep getting it on my hand? Or maybe it would get better once I was back in Delhi? Or was it to remain with me for all my life or for a very long time? It was not about proximity to this house, that much I had come to understand. I was getting my hand smeared with that even when I was on my way to Pathankot, and even when I was in Pathankot, at least more than 100 km away from my aunt’s village.
I remembered the cobweb had vanished when I had grabbed the hole in the wall. Had it something to do with the hole? The hole was covered with cobweb. Was this relationship with my hand getting smeared with cobweb all the time and that hole that was covered with such a thick cobweb that it had appeared like a solid mass? In fact, it wasn’t just covered, it was filled with a thick, congealed gob of gob web.
I wavered between leaving the place or turning back. Leaving immediately meant not being sure whether I was going to get rid of that cobweb on my hand or not. There was a possibility that I may take that scourge back to Delhi and it may even worsen. I may even lose my hand, or both my hands, or all my limbs. I may even pass on the curse to my other family members. I was already enough trouble for them.
Turning back would be like keeping myself in the company of whatever it was behind the door for more time. For how long? The cobweb had vanished when I had partially put my hand inside the hole while trying to balance myself. Did it mean as long as I kept my hand inside the hole I won’t have it covered with cobweb but as soon as I moved away, the problem would come back? I couldn’t keep my hand inside the hole forever. Sooner or later I would have to leave, cobweb or no cobweb. What had I gotten myself into? But I hadn’t gotten the problem of the cobweb after entering that abandoned house, I reasoned. I had been getting my hands smeared since the past couple of days, since the evening I was sitting outside and for the first time I saw the light in the room. That subdued the sense of guilt that had begun to grow inside me.
I turned back and came in front of the hole. Slowly, I rested my crutch against the wall and extended my hand towards the hole. I didn’t put my hand inside entirely, I just let the fingertips touch the insides of the hole. The tingling stopped. I didn’t see the cobweb dissolving into thin air, but it was no longer there. I kept the hand in the same position for some time without giving much thought to what I was going to do now. Then, having nothing better to do, I started fiddling with the dangling threads of the cobweb inside the hole. It felt very soft. How did such a dense cobweb come to be there? It had to be a very big spider or if it were a small spider it must have taken months, even years to build so much cobweb. I only knew that the family left suddenly, but I didn’t remember asking Diljot when the family left. How many years had it been since the house had remained abandoned? I had no idea. The thought of a spider lurking inside the hole made me pull back my hand. There was a strong desire to clear the hole of the cobweb.
It’s second nature to me to use the tip of my crutch whenever I am unable to touch something with my hand, especially when something is out of reach of my hand or if something is on the floor because I cannot lower myself. Instinctively I moved back, created enough space between the wall and myself so that I could raise my crutch and put its tip inside the hole, and cleared off all the visible cobweb in a couple of scoops. The complete hole was right in front of me gaping at me mysteriously. There were chunks of cement and paint coating around the hole – it must had been closed once but later on, maybe due to rain or wear and tear, the hole must had reappeared.
With great trepidation I let the tip of my crutch go further into the hole. The entire rubber tip disappeared and even a small part of my crutch disappeared into the hole. Lots of effort was required to move my crutch forward as little as possible because at every moment I anticipated someone from the inside grabbing the tip of my crutch and pulling it in. I was standing in shade and a cold wind blew but still I had started to sweat with the effort and the nerve wracking anticipation of something or someone grabbing my crutch from the inside.
I was relieved to realise that beyond a point my crutch wouldn’t go further in. The hole was not opening on the other side of the wall. My legs ached because I had been standing on just a single crutch for a long time and just a while ago I had strained my legs trying not to fall off the roof. I pulled my crutch back and felt a great rush of relief when I shifted a big part of my weight onto that crutch.
There was no spider in the hole and the hole didn’t open on the other side of the wall. Nobody yanked my crutch with half-rotten hands. This gave me enough courage to move near to the wall and explore the insides of the hole with my hand. The hole was not big enough to allow a peep inside. Even if I could bring my eye to the level of the hole by pressing my head against the wall there wasn’t much I could have seen. There was just enough space for a hand to go in. I put my hand inside the hole and randomly moved my fingers in all directions. I could feel nothing. I simply scraped chunks of cement, brick and grime inside the hole.
While probing the roof of the hole I felt like touching something that was different from the materials that so far I had been touching. It wasn’t cement, it wasn’t rock or brick. It wasn’t even cobweb. It felt like a piece of cloth. I tried to pull it out but I couldn’t.
Although I can manage my day-to-day affairs with my left hand and compared to my right hand it is quite functional, still, its movements are restricted. I cannot twist and turn my hand and maneuver my fingers the way everybody does. I was already standing in a skewed position with my hand inside the hole and my body was entirely focusing on maintaining the balance. I couldn’t turn my hand upwards and then bring a couple of my fingers or a finger and the thumb together to hold the piece of cloth. All I could do was press the piece of cloth between my finger and the roof of the hole as hard as possible and then somehow pull it. This took lots of effort and I had to take out my hand a few times to relieve the pressure on my legs and shoulders. I had to see what that piece of cloth was and why it was there. Maybe it got mixed with the cement just like that or maybe it had some reason to be there.
My hand was being covered in cobweb again and again for the past two days, and that hole in the wall was hidden behind the cobweb. The cobwebs on my hand vanished when my hand came in contact with the hole. There was definitely some connection. Now that I had cleared it, and with nothing else inside the hole, the only thing that remained unexplored was the piece of cloth that I could touch with my finger but couldn’t retrieve. So I needed to continue my effort, and I did.
I have no idea how much time it took to loosen the piece of cloth to an extent that it was dangling low enough to be able to come between my finger and thumb. The moment I was able to hold it, I pulled it. While I still held on to the piece of cloth, I heard a cling inside the hole and when I pulled my hand out along with the piece of cloth, it was tied to a heavy key. I held one side of the cloth with my fingers and on the other side dangled a key. It didn’t even take me a second to realise that the key was for the lock that was on that door. I just knew it.
The key was covered in mud and while holding the piece of cloth, which was like an older ribbon, I repeatedly hit the key against the wall to get the chunks of mud off it.
I stood there for a while, cluelessly, holding the cloth, still not touching the key. By now I had no idea what path to follow. If I went away I didn’t know for how long I was going to have to deal with the problem of my hand getting smeared with cobweb again and again. Would it get better or worse? But one thing I was sure of: I didn’t want to take this problem with me back to Delhi. Whether it was a curse or a spirit that had started following me around, I didn’t want it to accompany me to Delhi. More than that, I didn’t want to expose my family to whatever was happening to me. My disability was enough of a problem and they were dealing with it the best they could. Now this? No way.
Should I use the key and unlock the door then? After that, what? What if something dragged me inside? What if I got locked myself? Although the window of the room opened towards my aunt’s house, there was no guarantee that I would be able to call for help from the window. What if I’m never able to reach the window, I thought?
Another option that I had was tell everything to my aunt and then take her advice. She was quite superstitious and she would believe. She might also take me to another babaji, or an exorcist who might be able to help. Villagers readily do such things. If I went to Delhi with this problem, where would my mother take me? It was easier to solve the problem in the village itself.
That seemed to be the best decision and I felt quite relieved. I wound the cloth around my finger and let the key hang at a distance and then started walking towards the staircase. How excited would Diljot be to see the key, although he wouldn’t be too eager to unlock the door knowing what had been happening inside the room for the past two days.
The previous day when I was travelling towards Pathankot I was sorely missing my home in Delhi and now, when I was standing on the roof of that abandoned house, in front of, by all probability, a haunted room, I missed being at my aunt’s house. How safe the thought of me being at my aunt’s house felt at that time. At that time, I would have hugged even my uncle had he come in front of me.
I couldn’t open my fingers to hold the grip of my crutch with my left hand. A thick layer of cobweb covered my entire hand along with the portion where I held the cloth to which the key was tied. The entire cloth was covered with cobweb and just the key was visible. It was as if somebody had wrapped a very tight cloth around my hand. I could see the tips of my fingers and they appeared white. Blood had drained out of my hand due to the pressure. I felt immense pain originating from the palm of my hand and travelling towards the elbow. It was as if something was squeezing my hand with immense pressure to squeeze out everything including blood, veins and bones. I shouted loudly half in pain and half in expectation that someone would hear me. I was sure that if my aunt was in her verandah she would be able to hear my scream.
The pain was so immense that I couldn’t wait for someone to appear. Fortunately, the current affliction occurred before I could take a couple of steps away from the whole. The mix of pain and panic had stiffened my body and even if the cobweb hadn’t constrained my hand, with so much discomfort I wouldn’t have been able to turn around and come back to the hole. I put my hand inside the hole and there was an explosion of relief that made me scream louder than I had screamed because of the pain just a few seconds ago. The cobweb was gone and the key was loosely resting on the floor of the hole with the cloth still in my hand. I laughed uncontrollably. I had no idea whether to feel good or bad. I had no idea whether it was a hysterical laugh or a joyful laugh. Drops of sweat had crossed my brows and were proceeding towards my eyes. I quickly took my hand out of the hole leaving the key there, wiped off the sweat and put the hand back.
I was stuck at the place. Moving away from it would cause unbearable pain. I would just have to stand there until someone came looking for me. I was sure that if nothing bad happened to me while standing in front of the door, Diljot would come looking for me, not finding me at home and somehow he would be able to make out that I was there on the roof. There was no way I could have vanished somewhere in the village and the only place appropriate for me to manage was that house. Even if nobody knew, he would.
I didn’t know what was the time. When I had stepped out of my aunt’s house it was around 11:30 in the morning. Even if I had spent an hour at that abandoned house, it would still be a couple of hours before Diljot would come back.
Maybe before that my aunt would get alarmed at my prolonged absence and would come to the alley to look me up. But then what would make her think that I might be in that house? Nobody would expect me to be so adventurous and besides, she would think that the place was so ill-maintained that physically I won’t be able to enter the place on my own.
Thinking all that made me panic. I started screaming loudly thinking that by chance if my aunt was in the alley, she would easily hear my screams.
I must had screamed for good five minutes but nobody turned up. I would have understood this predicament had I been on one of the roofs in Delhi where we lived because we lived by the side of the ring road and usually there is lots of traffic and it is difficult to hear someone from the rooftop. But the village was a quiet place. How could nobody hear me?
I was tired. I was hungry and I was thirsty. My tongue was so dry that it felt like paper. I had been standing for more than an hour and I had gone through so many stressful moments during that hour that my legs were no longer ready to take my load. Soon I would collapse on the floor of the roof. Maybe then I could drag myself to the edge and give a shout at my aunt. Even if she had stopped sewing, she had to cook lunch and the kitchen was in the verandah. Whether to cook, or to sew or to just laze around, unless she was out of the house, she HAD to be in the verandah.
I realised there were clouds in the sky when a few drops fell on me. My emotional and physical effort had made me hot and I was sweating so I didn’t notice when the sun was gone and the sky was covered with dark, bloated clouds. I was startled to see everything suddenly covered in the pall of greyness. I remembered the same had happened the last night. Suddenly ominous clouds had gathered when Diljot and I were lying in the outer room and watching the glow inside the window on the rooftop. A thick, creepy mist had accompanied the clouds, and it seemed there would be a heavy downpour. The same sort of clouds had gathered. The drops provided some comfort, but soon it started raining as if it was in the midst of the monsoons.
Being hypothermic I knew that if I got drenched I would start shivering beyond control and then fall. Shivering triggered by hypothermia also sets off a series of cramps and even breathing is made impossible unless immediate comfort is provided. Although the wall of the room provided some shelter but it was getting windy. The wind was changing direction in all sorts of ways and soon the shelter of the wall would be of no use as the raindrops would be getting a straight away.
Small puddles of water had already started forming and a sinking feeling that now I would have to be carried out of the house filled me with an overwhelming sense of dejection. I had entered the abandoned house unassisted, I had also explored its surroundings without anybody’s help. I had gone to the roof, roamed around freely. Had even found the key that nobody had been able to find. But ultimately, someone would have to physically carry me out of the house because I was sure that the rain had caused a slippery slush downstairs. The floor downstairs, and to an extent even the staircase, was carpeted with dried up crusts of mud, grime, leaves and other stuff. Such things get lose immediately when water falls on them and then they form into a slippery slime. Even people who can walk properly have to be very careful walking on such a surface. I stood no chance. Even if I stopped getting the cobweb on my hand, there was no chance I could have walked on the wet surface without slipping. Even if I didn’t slip, I couldn’t walk in the rain, especially in the cold weather, without shivering myself to death.
Despite the effort needed to keep standing pressed against the wall and keeping my hand inside the hole, I started feeling cold. The upper part of my body was dry but my pants were wet. The water had gotten into my shoes and also into my crutches. With every gust of wind small bouts of shivering started occurring. The spells of shivering would be persisting for longer durations and soon there would be one spell that won’t go. I imagined myself lying on the floor, the raindrops mercilessly hitting me, and the violent shivering triggering cramps that wouldn’t allow me to breath. A very painful and uncomfortable death became real possibility, all alone on that roof, hundreds of kilometres away from my family. How would my mom feel? Travelling all the way from Delhi to Punjab to take care of the body. Even the thought of she going through so much trauma for such a long time made it hard for me to breathe. Would they perform the last rites in Punjab itself or would they like to take the body back to Delhi?
As I saw the key in my hand, I thought, was it all worth it? Was it the fear of death that was stopping me from opening the door and getting inside the room, or was it the fear of something worse than death? The fear was something worse than death. Even at that age I understood that there might be conditions under which you might not be alive but you might not also be dead. That could be worse than dying. Or was it? I had no idea. More than dying I was scared of coming face to face with someone or something from the world of the dead, if such a place exists. It was the fear of the unknown.
But then at that moment when a severe hypothermia was just a few minutes away and when I clearly knew what was going to happen, the hypothesis of something unknown happening to me didn’t seem very scary. The real-world problem I was aware of, and I was 100% sure that I was going to encounter in a few minutes. But the unreal-world problem that might be existing inside the room was less of a reality and more of a probability. Yes, the cobweb kept engulfing my hand and the previous experience was quite alarming, but it didn’t mean that something extraordinarily diabolical would happen. Maybe nothing would happen if I used the key to open the lock and went inside the room. Maybe something terrible might happen. But that “maybe” could be a great deciding factor. Standing there, shivering, my teeth clattering, I had to choose between the eventuality and a possibility. Standing there, according to my evaluation of the situation, I knew that eventuality might kill me but the possibility could turn out to be anything.
I took my hand out of the hole. Keeping the tips of the crutches pressed against the base of the wall because otherwise they would slip due to the wetness, I moved in front of the door, and with trembling hands, inserted the key inside the lock. I was glad that I had wrapped the cloth to my finger because I would have dropped the key had it not been tied to that piece of cloth. Turning the key in a dangling lock with one hand can be tricky sometimes. I couldn’t hold the lock with the other hand while trying to turn the key. Every time I turned the key the lock would get upside down.
After a few tries with my trembling hand, I heard a click and the lock opened. I removed the lock from the bolt and let it drop on the floor, and then unbolted the door. To my great surprise the door opened effortlessly. It was as if it was just loosely hanging on to the bolt and as soon as I unbolted it, the door simply swung open. The smell that erupted from the inside made me choke and I had to tilt my head sideways, away from the door, to catch my breath and stop myself from retching. I had had the experience of standing in front of rooms that had been opened after months and I had some idea of the smell that came from such rooms, but this was totally unexpected. It was like 1000 rats had died, rotten and then dried up inside. The smell was so strong as if it had acquired a heavy, physical state, and had rushed towards me to throw me off my feet. That smell had the ability to explode my head if I had to expose myself to it even for a few seconds. Just to give it another try, I brought my head in front of the door again. Luckily, as far as the smell was concerned, the wind had drastically changed its direction and now it was pushing me from behind and it must had pushed the smell back because by the time I brought my head back in front of the door, although the smell was there, most of its power was gone.
From the door itself I could see the window that opened towards my aunt’s verandah. The strong wind that entered from behind me and exited from the window created a sort of riot inside the room. The entire room came alive. It was a big room with lots of heavy furniture and every piece of furniture had something on it that could contribute to the squally meyham. Whatever was flexible and flappable went into a violent trance. Almost every piece of furniture and shelf was covered with one or another cloth and all the loose ends of those clothes started fluttering and flying around vehemently, finally released from years of inactivity. Many things, I couldn’t make out in time what they were, simply blew out of the window. Things began to fall and I heard lots of crashes. Agitated, sibilating sounds originated from everywhere. I had to grab the door otherwise the wind would have thrown me on the floor. Not all the wind that was entering from the door could exit from the window so most of it was in a confusing tizzy creating a whirlwind inside the room.
My crutches were slippery so I couldn’t use them to balance myself. The force of the wind was so strong that the water was directly hitting my body from behind and falling ahead of me. It was as if someone had unleashed a water canon from behind. The floor of the room had so much water that ripples were being created on the puddles that had formed inside. The only thing that saved me from a fit of hypothermia was the extraordinary effort required to stop myself from being thrown on the floor either by the wind or by the slippery tips of my crutches.
I stuck the tips of my crutches in the base of the door while it tried to slam into me due the force of the wind. Behind the door there was a heavy table made of some dark, expensive wood, with lots of cupboards. The table was below the window that opened towards my aunt’s verandah.
Moving away from the door I put the tips of my crutches against the base of the table. The moment I moved away from the door it slammed shut, but before I could get even a single breath of relief, it slammed open and hit me from behind. The upper half of my body fell on the table while the door again slammed shut. This time when it opened it hit my heels and since I was wearing shoes, it couldn’t do much harm. Leaving the door to its madness I moved a bit farther from the entrance while half-lying on the surface of the table. Since I was mostly staring at the wall behind the table and trying to make sure I didn’t fall, I hadn’t had even a single glimpse of the room so far. I just knew by the sounds that everything was crazy inside the room. The room gave out macabre wailings as if thousands of demons had been awakened out of their primitive slumber.
Things were falling and flapping and crashing while the wind inside and outside hissed ominously and the bullet-like raindrops came inside as if the door was facing the clouds instead of simply facing the outside world.
A baneful sound of suction came somewhere from the outside followed by a flash so strong that the entire world turned into a surrealistic white glow for a second and then this glow was immediately followed by an ear-splitting sound as if a mountain-sized sheet of glass had been smashed against the surface of the earth. Was the world about to end, I thought?
The lightning seemed to have jerked the wind and the rain out of their madness and suddenly the violence around me ebbed. The lightening had acted like a shock treatment. It had fallen somewhere nearby, maybe ripping apart a tree, or worse, roasting someone or something alive.
For a few seconds I thought I had gone deaf and that is why I was not able to hear the sounds but even the physical sensation of the rain and the wind and the movements of the door and the things around the room indicated that the lightning had succeeded in establishing at least some sense of law and order. The wind still blew with great intensity and it still rained heavily, but the constant banging of the door had subdued and the raindrops were falling on the threshold rather than invading the entire room.
This sudden lull gave me some reprieve and also allowed my body to relax enough to start feeling the chill. Never in my life I had been exposed to cold water in winter. I always thought that if ever someone poured on me a bucket of cold water in winter (in terms of physical contact with cold water my winter started in the beginning of September) I would shiver myself to death within minutes. And now there I was, totally soaked, still not dead. Shivering, stiff, but standing.
It was a big table, against which I stood. Whatever could have been blown away by the wind, had been blown away. The shards of a porcelain vase or jug lay scattered all over the table. There were some other big and small pieces on the table, but in the darkness I couldn’t figure out what they were, or whether they were hard or soft.
It wasn’t possible for me to look out the window while standing on the floor. In order to be able to stretch my neck out the window and call out for help I would have to climb on the table and even after climbing I would have to drag myself at least a foot in order to be able to stick my head out and scream. There was nothing to hold on to that would allow me to pull myself atop the table. I tried to pull out one of the drawers so that I could use it as a step to push me up but all the drawers were stuck. Even if they hadn’t been stuck, now the wood was surely swollen due to the water.
The mayhem outside had abated a bit more. The door no longer banged itself against the threshold and against the table but it was shut. The rain seemed to have turned into a drizzle and the wind seemed to have mellowed down. I could hear sounds of birds and there was also a dog barking somewhere far away. I could also hear someone using a water hand pump but the sound wasn’t coming from downstairs or even from my aunt’s veranda. I gave out a couple of shouts hoping that someone would respond but no one did.
I had been standing ever since I got up from the cot at my aunt’s place. Although I was leaning against the top of the table, and most of the weight of the upper part of my body was on the table, I desperately wanted to sit.
My other option was to let myself collapse on the floor and then drag myself out of the room. The thought of dragging myself on that extremely dirty floor was repulsive, but it seemed better than having to stand for another five minutes and let the veins in my legs explode with strain and tiredness.
I freed both my arms of my crutches and rested the crutches against the table so that I could place both my elbows on the surface of the table. For a few seconds I pressed my elbows hard against the table and lifted myself up to get the weight off my feet. A flux of relief ran through my legs and calves with great speed and both my legs started shaking violently. I couldn’t hold my weight on my elbows for long. When I put my feet back on the floor again they resisted the sensation of the impending weight instinctively. With a jerk both my legs contracted and my knees hit the drawers of the table. My elbows slipped on the wet surface of the table and in a blink I was on the floor and as are the dynamics of my body, my head hit the floor first. There was so much water on the floor that it created a splash when my body hit the floor. The grime and water also acted as a cushion and my head wasn’t hurt much. Whatever giddiness I felt it was due to violent wrenching my head had gone through, rather than the impact with the floor.
I lay on my back for a few seconds, coming to grips with my new position. I could now see the room from a totally different perspective. Before falling, when I was standing, my back was towards the room, but now I could see almost everything. The first thing that I saw was the roof, the same roof I had seen glowing in yellow light from my aunt’s verandah and from Diljot’s room. From there the roof hadn’t looked as dirty and decayed as it looked from my current position. There were black, shapeless spots everywhere. Threads of grime dangled from everywhere. Water was dripping from multiple places. At a couple of places so much plaster had come off that iron beams behind the bricks were also visible. No fan hung from the roof. I couldn’t even see fittings for a bulb or a fluorescent tube. The room was perhaps supposed to remain in a state of darkness and disuse.
On the right hand side, under the window, was the table I was standing against just a minute ago. If I stretched my right arm I could touch it. In the center of the room there was a chair. Just like the table the chair seemed quite heavy. Had I seen it before I would have tried reaching it while I was still standing. Now, while completely lying on the floor, it wouldn’t be possible for me to pull myself onto the chair. The chair was covered with shreds of different things.
The entire room was a scene of destruction. I didn’t know if the destruction had existed before I had opened the door and let the storm in, or if it was the doing of the storm. Everything that could be broken, was broken. Everything that could be torn and tossed, was torn and tossed. I thanked my stars for not landing on some broken shards of glass or pottery, or anything sharp and pointing. When I looked around I could see pieces of glass, wood, plastic and other objects scattered around me.
Above my head was the door that was now shut. I observed in utter horror that the door was not just shut, it was bolted from inside. The last impact must had freed the latch. Now if I wanted to drag myself out of the room I couldn’t have done so. Even while standing, the latch was so high that I couldn’t have reached it because I cannot stretch my arms upwards. Without realizing I started crying and I even howled for I don’t know how long. I screamed till no sound came out of my throat.
A fit of claustrophobia started choking me and I felt as if the room was quickly running out of air. If nobody came looking for me I was trapped inside the room forever and the thought made every next breath difficult. Despite lying in water my body felt very hot.
The claustrophobia subsided on its own as my mind got used to the fact that I was locked inside the room. Looking at the window also reassured me that enough air was there to breath. The gasping for breath and the screaming had tired me and the tiredness had a relaxing effect and I again started looking at various things in the room.
On the extreme left hand side, opposite from the table, was a cot. From my position I could see that different metallic boxes and trunks had been placed under it, as is the norm in many households. It was one of the oldest cots, or rather, one of the oldest things, I had ever seen. If any furniture in that room deserved to be a part of that decaying room, it was that cot; it felt as if it had been reconstructed by various rotten parts of the room by reshaping them into various parts of the cot. There was not a single place on the cot – whatever I could see from my position on the floor – that was not damaged. It looked as if it would crumble anytime. Every part of the wood was eaten by termites or by age. There were big gashes in the wood everywhere. One leg of the cot – the leg nearest to my head – had broken into two pieces and remained standing with the support of just a disjointed lump of wood. Innumerable strands of the jute rope the cot was made of hung from the sides and under the cot. The cot must had been totally drenched as droplets hung from almost every strand. There was a downward bulge under the cot. The centre of the downward bulge almost touched the trunks and the boxes underneath. Something was on the cot that created that downward bulge.
I heard numerous footsteps outside the door. For a few seconds I was confused whether I was imagining the voices outside or there were actually people outside and I was about to be found. Many people were talking to each other in a highly agitated manner. Some of the noises were familiar – they were of Diljot’s and my aunt’s.
I shouted at the top of my lungs and for a few seconds all the voices went silent.
“Pali are you inside?” asked Diljot’s high-pitched voice.
My aunt too asked the same question while a few other voices talked about the lock on the door being broken.
“Yes,” I said. “But the door is latched from the inside so I cannot open it. And I fell, so I’m lying on the floor.”
“Are you hurt?” asked my aunt.
“No, I’m not hurt,” I replied.
“Don’t worry,” said an unfamiliar voice of a man. “We’re going to break open the door, you just move away from it.”
“I have been searching for you like a mad woman,” cried my aunt hoarsely from outside.
“And I have been calling out your name for the past hour,” I replied from inside.
“Just move away as the door may fall,” said another unfamiliar voice of a man.
I was glad that I couldn’t hear my uncle’s voice otherwise he would have been really pissed off at the stunt I had pulled and the inconvenience I had caused.
I rolled over and moved under the table as much as I could while I could hear multiple people hitting the door. By the sounds of the thumps I could make out that they were hitting the door with their shoulders and legs. After a few tries the door came crumbling down with a loud crash. It had been a very good decision on my part to move under the table otherwise the door would have surely fallen on me. A few people hurriedly entered. I could immediately recognise Diljot’s legs from under the table and very soon his face peeped under.
“There you are,” he said with a smile as he instinctively extended his hand to grab my arm and pull me out.
While he and a few other village folks were trying to get the door out of the way and pull me from under the table, I heard my aunt’s scream.
“There is a corpse on the cot,” she half-choked and half screamed.
In panic or whatever she or someone else must had hit the almost-broken leg of the cot. It was as if for many years the cot was waiting for that final nudge and now wanted to let go of the weight it had been enduring for so long. It simply collapsed from one side and then from the other, and whoever was on the cot, came rolling down, half on me and half on the floor. All hell broke loose in the room as everybody jumped around to avoid contact with the dead body. Everybody ran out of the room, including my aunt and Diljot. They left me there, half-buried under the dead body.
I pushed the body – it felt weightless – aside, came on my hands and knees and crawled out of the room as fast as I could. I didn’t crawl out of the room in fear or because I wanted to get away from the body as fast I could. The body had felt like some corrugated, sodden piece of wood. I don’t remember any sense of repulsion at the touch of that dead body. In fact, the contact, although I couldn’t define this in words, seemed like deliberate. It was some sort of communication of a feeling.
I crawled out also because I saw no sense in lying there as the door was now open. I was always shy of crawling in front of relatives and outsiders but that hardly mattered at that time. I was already covered in grime so I couldn’t get dirtier, and there was no longer a danger of slipping and falling. Fortunately I was wearing winter clothes and shoes so I wouldn’t bruise my body as when I crawled, I couldn’t raise my knees and feet in the air, I had to rub them against the floor. This was also a reason I crawled only at home in Delhi where the floor was very smooth.
Nobody wanted to touch me when I came out. I had been touched by a dead body. I was covered with water and grime of the room in which a rotten dead body had lain for years.
My aunt sobbed at a distance. She couldn’t bring herself to come near and touch me. Diljot stood there looking extremely uncomfortable and unsure. There was a talk going on about bringing a cot from somewhere and then carrying me on the cot.
The clouds had parted and the sun had begun to reach the part of the roof in front of the door. The sun shone brightly, as it does after rain and strong wind. The warmth was comforting. It was as if someone had wrapped me in a warm blanket. My aunt told me to wait as someone had gone to fetch a cot, and then she went home after telling me that she needed to warm lots of water to bath me.
When the cot came it was placed near me and I climbed onto it. When they picked the cot up I wanted to tell Diljot to pick up my crutches that were lying inside the room but I knew it was of no use. He won’t be able to go inside and pick them up while the dead body lay there. They’d have to be picked up later.
I was bathed with warm water multiple times. The clothes I was wearing were, I was told later, burned. They didn’t burn my shoes because purchasing a replacement would have been very difficult and I couldn’t stand even for a minute without those shoes. They were washed multiple times and then left to dry in the sun. When coming back to Delhi I wore damp shoes because they didn’t dry in two days. My crutches were retrieved from the room by one of the policemen who had come to pick the body. The crutches too couldn’t be disposed off because elbow crutches were not easily available those days. They too were washed multiple times and water kept dripping from them for many weeks.
In the afternoon I was taken to the neighbouring village where an exorcist of repute lived. My aunt wanted to make sure that the contact with the dead body hadn’t left me possessed by some evil spirit. Besides, ever since that babaji in Pathankot had told her that a spirit, although it didn’t possess me, or didn’t prevent me from walking, was accompanying me. He had also said that the spirit didn’t mean to cause any harm. But a spirit after all, was a spirit, and especially after what had happened in that room, she didn’t want to send me back to Delhi without ruling out.
To her great relief the exorcist said I wasn’t possessed.
I wholeheartedly believed the exorcist because the cobweb no longer afflicted my hand.
Our initial plan was to leave for Delhi the next day but my aunt was told by a policeman that I couldn’t leave before talking to the police. They wanted to know exactly what had led me to the room. I gave the account the next day when an inspector visited us. I left out the cobweb part because something told me they won’t be able to understand. I told him that one thing led to another and just by accident I ended up unlocking the door and then suddenly when a storm broke out I had no choice but to go inside and once there, I got stuck and couldn’t come out and then how the dead body was discovered by my aunt and then how the cot broke and the dead body fell over me. He was satisfied and told my aunt that I could go back to Delhi.
After about a month I received a newspaper clipping in the post. It had been posted by Diljot. The newspaper clipping had a long article on the incident.
Nakodar, December 15, 1981: A disabled boy who had come from Delhi to visit his aunt discovered a dead body when he went exploring a supposedly haunted house. The dead body was of a girl of about 20 years. The incident was immediately reported to the local police station and the body was sent to the Jalandhar hospital for autopsy. According to the autopsy report the girl had died of hunger and dehydration.
When this reporter talked to the neighbours he was told that the family had suddenly left one night and it was only later that they found that entire family had moved to Canada.
The girl whose body was found in the abandoned house had suffered from paralysis. She had fell from the roof when she was five and ever since then she was bed-ridden. Nobody knew that the family had left the paralytic girl behind.
The neighbours are still coming to grips with the fact that all this time there was a dead girl in the house and nobody came to know of it. Nobody heard the girl’s screams — she was able to talk — and nobody noticed the smell after her death. The house has been sealed by the police. The police is also trying to trace the family in Canada.
The villagers cremated the girl after the autopsy and a small prayer was organized in the village gurudwara.