On my transfer to Rajah Ali, this being the mistry sahib’s abode, I was allocated the chang bungalow which was all of a stone’s throw away from the factory. The bungalow which at some point of time way back in the dark ages must have been a lovely structure had, it was apparent, seen better days. When we moved in, one would have safely assumed that the bungalow was likely being held together with a liberal usage of bubble gum, staples and cello tape. Being in an obviously precarious condition and liable to come tumbling down sometime in the not too distant future, it was assigned to me as an interim accommodation while the other assistants bungalow on the estate, which was unoccupied was under renovation.
Bottom line being that Kitty, our little Madhav and I were in the chang bungalow for all of two months before we moved to the more stable and habitable plinth bungalow.
Chang bungalows are built on a wooden platform raised about eight feet off the ground with the entire structure resting on a series of wooden pillars. It follows that the flooring of all such bungalows is also all made of timber which, since these were all old structures, was just about hanging in there. With the floor of this particular bungalow, the fallout of decades of quick fix-it repair jobs, giving the appearance of being a massive patch work quilt, it was also apparent that while doing the many patch-up jobs over many years, special attention had been paid to the floors of the master bedroom and bathroom which were both somewhat akin to works of modern art. Besides the visual delight, walking across the floor was always a unique entertaining experience with each step being accompanied by a range of musical sound effects, creaks and groans.
Being positioned on a box like raised platform and obviously an add-on during a major overhaul of the bungalow, the w/c in the master bathroom but for the fact that it was in the loo, could have been passed off as the throne of the lord of the manor. While I’d refuse to testify to the veracity of this under oath, the story going the rounds was that this particular refurbishment had been necessitated during the tenure of Sukhi Dhillon (by then a senior manager of Warrens posted on Deamolliee Estate) while he was the mistry sahib on Rajah Ali. Sukhi, a rather prosperous looking gentleman built along generously rotund lines, had been the factory assistant on Rajah Ali very many moons before my time. The story, being a part of Warrens lore which was gleefully repeated and narrated was that one fine morning the wooden floorboards on which the thunder box rested had thrown up their hands in having to support the burden and had given way while Sukhi was comfortably seated on his throne. The gentleman, besides whatever else he may have been busy doing at that particular point of time, who had just a second before been reading his newspaper in the privacy of his loo, had found his quiet solitude rudely interrupted by suddenly finding himself still seated on the thunder box with his newspaper in both hands. The only difference being that now he was one floor down, on terra firma.
After having taken that diversion…………….
Well before we’d moved to Rajah Ali we had been told by all and sundry that the chang bungalow we were going to be living in was haunted. While every old estate bungalow was in some way linked to some ghostly tale, the one we were to be moving into was the one which topped the list and was always spoken about with a tinge of awe in the relater’s (more often than not this being one of the ladies) voice. With age my sense of cynicism about almost everything having also grown, it was no different back in the day so that I would simply shrug off all the horror tales as a load of hogwash. Kitty Khanna however was another kettle of fish altogether. Being extremely gullible and receptive to believing almost anything, folk took sadistically ghoulish pleasure feeding her with all sorts of implausible gory tales about the Rajah Ali chang bungalow with the details becoming more and more horrific with each repeat. The upshot being that by the time we actually set foot in that bungalow, my wife was already a bundle of nerves always clutching Madhav to herself as though he was, at any moment, liable to be plucked off from her side to end up with either his head or his feet facing the other way. This being only one of the many idiotic and implausible possibilities she had been fed with, all of which she readily believed, and which she had shared with me as being the most likely gruesome fate which was awaiting our family in the supposedly haunted house.
Factories in Assam start the ‘days’ work at midnight with the mistry sahib being required to be in attendance till such time as the first batch of tea would come tumbling out of the dryer from which a sample would be drawn and infused to satisfy oneself that all the manufacturing parameters set up for that session were spot-on. This meant that one usually managed to get back to the bungalow sometime around five or six in the morning for a short nap, a shower and breakfast before heading back to the slave labour camp just short of eight. Eight O’clock being sacrosanct since that was the hour at which the artisans and other general workers reported for duty.
While heading out at midnight, so as not to disturb Madhav or Kitty at the unearthly hour in the morning when I’d come back to the bungalow, I would lock the bedroom door from outside so that whatever be the time I came in, I could simply sneak in. Perfect plan which never really worked because regardless of whatever time it be, on opening the door I’d find a wide-eyed and terrified Kitty sitting on the centre of the bed with her arms protectively wrapped around Madhav who would literally be pinned down in her lap. That this irrational behaviour irritated me no end would be an understatement.
My questioning her, night after night as to why she would not relax would simply end up as another argument with her insisting that what was keeping her awake all night long was an eerie repeated thud which she could hear all night long and that could I not understand that our resident sceptre was simply waiting for her to let her guard down, so that he/she/it could pluck Madhav off her lap and spirit him away to inflict all sorts of unbelievable horrors on our child. On being prompted by his mother to “Tell Dada what happened at night” Madhav would parrot-like repeat her story, though very often with a slight smile. Needless to say that I simply dismissed the whole thing as unadulterated bullshit. The standard fallout of my disbelief being an ensuing argument. Squabbles which had my wife becoming more and more hysterical with each passing day so that, wanting to escape the daily tirade, I found myself spending most of my waking hours in the peace of my factory.
About three weeks into our Rajah Ali stay, having locked the bedroom door from outside while heading out at midnight, around two O’clock I realized that I had forgotten to bring along the keys to my office desk. Having been blessed with a brain which was mathematically challenged and needing my calculator, I marched back to the bungalow to fetch my keys. On opening the bedroom door, very much in line with what I had expected, I found mother and son in the middle of the bed with Madhav pinned down on his mums lap, being rocked back and forth. By now fed up to my ears with the constant whining all I wanted to know was why, while she was welcome to stay up all night imagining all sorts of ghouls to be creeping in from each one of the crevices in the floorboards, she was refusing to allow Madhav to get a proper night’s sleep. The answer was “If you think I’ve gone mad and have been lying to you, just keep quiet for a bit and you’ll also hear the ghost.” Not wanting to get into another argument I sat down on the edge of the bed. All three of us quiet and waiting in anticipation.
About ten minutes later, sure enough! There it was! A soft thud being repeated at irregular intervals. My response to Kitty’s “See! I told you!!” was that here had to be some logical explanation for this strange and obviously unnatural sound.
Walking out of the door I made my way across the creaking floorboards, down the even louder creaking staircase to find our night chowkidar, a strapping Nepali boy, with a football at his feet which, every time it bounced back to him was despatched with a well directed kick to the wall of the downstairs store room. The cracks and the damage on the plaster which was visible around the target area made it obvious that this particular section of the wall had been accosted regularly over an extended period of time.
Being hauled up to explain what the bloody hell he was up to, our friend Mr Bahadur had the simplest of explanations, “I find it very difficult to stay awake all night long doing nothing. If I go to sleep and you find out, I’ll get bollocked. So I’ve found this method to keep myself from nodding off!” How could I possibly argue with that earthy logic?
Going back up to explain to Kitty that her ghost was a bloody football, the illogical response I got was that I simply did not understand the ways of the ‘other’ world!
Two whole months of merry hell and sleepless nights for Madhav till such time as we gratefully moved to the plinth bungalow which, thankfully, being a relatively newer construction, had not yet had the pleasure of becoming possessed!