Many years ago, my father used to work with a small newspaper which operated on a shoe-string budget. This was in the early nineteen-eighties.
Money being an issue, they used to try to do out-of-town stories in areas where employees already had some resources– the logic being that if you had board and lodging, your expenses on the story would be considerably reduced. This was how my father found himself in the town of Hazaribagh one rainy monsoon night.
Hazaribagh was at the time much smaller than it is now, and considerably less important in the political scheme of things. It was also in Bihar (it is now in Jharkhand, by some complex process of gerrymandering that is irrelevant to this story). What is relevant is that my family had a house in Hazaribagh, and this was where my father was due to stay while he worked on the story he had gone to investigate. However, it was late and visibility quite low, and the only way for him to cover the 8 odd miles to our house would be by rickshaw. Unsure of the house caretaker’s whereabouts, my father decided to find a place to stay for the night as close to the station as possible. Tomorrow would be drier and sunny, and then it would be contingent to make the journey to our family house.
He stepped out of the one-shed station at Hazaribagh road into the pouring rain, looking only for temporary shelter for the night. But a small town in Bihar in the nineteen-eighties was not about to yield its secrets so easy, and the hazy slice of township he could see through the pouring rain was all closed. There were no streetlights, which was normal at the time, but there were also no lights visible at windows, which was not. Clearly, the town had used the rain and the lateness of the hour to retreat completely into itself; leaving only a very cold and tired young man on the streets without food, shelter, or any prospect of succor.
The way Baba tells it (and i have heard this story many times since i was a child), he was resigning himself to spending the night in what passed for the station, when a rickshaw pulled up. The whole of the vehicle was swathed in plastic sheeting, which was normal, as nobody in their right minds would be in a late night monsoon downpour without protection. The driver of the rickshaw asked my father where he wanted to go
(and i reconstruct. I was about eight at the time, and safe at home with my mother in Calcutta. I only remember the quite scary aftermath of this story)
Baba said that he was only looking for a place to stay for the night, just the one night. He would be on his way in the morning. Did the rickshaw driver know anywhere he could find shelter, and perhaps food, for just one night? he was prepared to pay, no questions asked.
The rickshaw driver said yes, but it is not safe, and it will need money. Food, you will have to discuss with the caretaker of the place.
Standing in the rain with water pouring down his face, looking at a prospective savior under plastic sheeting, Baba says he heard everything the man said, but truly registered only the ‘yes’.
So he got into the rickshaw, with the driver whose face he had not properly seen, and was driven off into the night. One thing you must know about a rickshaw swaddled against the rain is that while complete cover is very effective in keeping rain off you, it is also very effective in keeping you in the dark with regard to where you are going. Any chink in the plastic sheet to look out through is also a gap through which water can get in. So, baba was completely disoriented when the rickshaw stopped after about fifteen minutes.
The driver said that this was the place, and that he could not stop, it was already too late. Left without a choice, my father got off the rickshaw with his small bag and walked up a set of stairs to a collapsible gate, behind which was a largely empty room with an old desk, a chair and a flickering neon tubelight with not a caretaker in sight. The path ahead blocked by a closed gate, and the path of return removed by the rickshaw driver, baba proceeded to lean on the bell as hard as he could. It rang, and rang, echoing hollowly from the insides of the building.
After an approaching-panic five minutes of this, a person appeared. He said nothing for a while, just Baba and the person regarding each other through the gaps in a locked collapsible metal gate. Then he asked what baba wanted.
‘A room for the night, cash in advance’.
‘This is not a good place’, said the man.
What did my father care? They could be cavorting in burgundy velvet around him, all he wanted at the moment was somewhere he could dry off, and a bed.
‘Sure’, said my father. ‘I understand. Can I have a room?’
‘Can I get the cash?’
‘Unlock this gate. Its raining’
So the gate was slowly unlocked, and cash changed hands. Then the man asked my father to follow him. Dripping water and in a very bad mood, baba followed the man up several flights of stairs. Imagine this, if you can.
It is dark and cold. The only sound is rain. The building is clearly old, with high ceilings and pillars. No one has bothered with maintenance for a long time: sections of the wall have crumbled and not been swept off the floor where bricks, mortar and whitewash lie unregarded in corners. The only reason you can see any of this is because the surly person in front of you, holding a single lantern, is inadvertently throwing light over things as he passes. The other thing he is throwing light on is the doors that line the corridors, all of which are shut and padlocked. Not only are these padlocked, they have the government red seal over the keyholes of the locks. None of these locks can be opened without breaking the seals.
‘What happened? why are all these rooms locked?’
‘Don’t know, sarkari business, before my time’
My father figured that the hush-hush was due to some bureaucratic problem with the premises. Perhaps it was not a guest house at all, but some kind of an office building, thats why it was all locked up. This also meant that the caretaker could be in trouble for sheltering him for the night. Which went a ways towards explaining why the man was being so jittery.
The caretaker led my father to the very top of the house. On the roof was a single room which was unlocked, and the sight of which made all the questions building in my father’s head disappear in an instant. In the middle of the room were two single beds, passably clean, separated by a small bedside table. The little table had nothing on it. The only other furniture in the room was a small three-legged stool in the corner, which held an earthen pot of water- ‘for drinking’ said the caretaker. Attached to this improbable haven of a bedroom was a bathroom with regular fixtures, also a bucket and a mug.
‘Is it possible to get something to eat, i’m very hungry’
‘Let me see’
The caretaker left, and came back twenty minutes later with a metal plate, on which were two rosogollas. Engaged in gulping them down, and deafened by the rain drumming on the asbestos roof, baba says that he did not notice the caretaker leaving the room, pulling the door completely shut behind him. He said later that he thought he heard a bolt slide into place, but could not be sure. In any case, the impression was not strong enough for him to get up and check the door at that moment.
All he wanted was sleep, there was travel and work to be done on the morrow.
But the almost-not-heard sound that made him think that the caretaker may have slid the bolt shut niggled at the back of his mind. Very little was impossible in such an alien situation. The caretaker may well have locked him in. He may be used to sliding the bolt of this room behind him, and done so by reflex, or there may be a reason: if he was planning to rob a traveler at night, and needed the person to be locked in, and access at any time.
The thought of robbers foremost on his mind, baba pushed at the door. It was clearly bolted from outside, and also locked, with a lock that was just glint-visible through the crack of the not very solid door. It was the visible fragility of the door that reassured him. If there was really a need to leave the room, he reasoned, this door was unlikely to be a substantial barrier. Then in his early thirties, baba was fairly large and quite strong; and while the prospect of being robbed was not attractive, he did not seriously believe that the situation could unfold in a manner that he would be unable to handle.
He considered shouting for help, and dropped the idea because of the evident futility of the exercise. The house was very large, located god-knows-where, and he had been locked in by the only person whose face he had been able to see in the last few hours. It was still raining quite hard. It was unlikely that there were people waiting around on the roof to find out if he would prefer to be let out. No, really, what could possibly be the worst that could happen?
Bathed and changed he tested the door again, on the off-chance that the caretaker had had a change of heart, but it was still resolutely locked. The only thing to do was to keep within arm’s reach a heavy object that may be necessary when the robbers came, as they certainly would. The heaviest thing he was carrying was a flashlight, one of those big metal-and-glass dumbbell-shaped torches you saw when you were younger, that hold four large batteries. They’re of some consequence, prospectively a formidable weapon — light and artillery in one shiny, weighty package. I don’t think they’re mass manufactured anymore; perhaps the world has become a safer place.
The right thing to do, of course, would be to keep on the lights and stay awake. But the days travel and the uncertainty of the evening had taken its toll, and baba didn’t think that staying awake in an advanced state of exhaustion would help when the robbers came. Also, putting out all the lights would a good idea. Complete darkness, to which his eyes would become accustomed, may actually act in his favor. Choosing the bed further away from the door and the robbers to come, he put the torch under the pillow and lay down. In a little while, he was asleep.
Some time passed.
The ambient glow of the bathroom light became annoying, and he stumbled muzzily to put it off. But this was surely something that had been taken care of before falling asleep? Never mind, he was so tired at the time, and who could be sure of light switches in such a situation?
Some more time passed.
Lying flat on the bed, barely awake, he registered three separate impressions. First, the rain had stopped. Second, there seemed to be people in the room, and third, the door was shut. It had evidently been opened, and people had come into the room while he slept. Instantly conscious, baba started feeling very angry with himself. How could he allow this to happen? He had been fully aware that this situation was likely to be difficult, how could he have fallen so deep asleep that people could have entered the room, and shut, possibly locked the door behind them? This time, hopefully, they would have locked it from inside, since they now seemed to be in the room with him.
Lie still, he told himself. They’re after money and valuables, let them take anything they want from the bag, and, if you’re lucky, leave. In any case, you don’t know how many people there are, you don’t know in what manner they’re armed, or how desperate they are. Just lie still, and this will pass. Breathe deep, so they think you’re still asleep. Keep your eyes shut most of the way, but see if you can get visual impressions that may be of use if you have to run and break through the door.
Lost in these fearful, confused half-thoughts, evaluating the risks of making a run for it, my father remembers registering another impression. If these were robbers, they appeared to be unusually unmotivated. There was no movement at all in the room. In fact, what had initially felt like several people now seemed to have coalesced into only one person, and that person was doing nothing. Nothing but breathing, and standing still, somewhere near the foot of the bed on which my father lay.
This, baba says, was when he started to get really afraid. He remembers telling himself that there was nothing to be scared of. One person, no matter how heavily armed is after all only one person. There was no reason for this irrational wave of fear that was washing over him, leaving the darkness fraught with invisible danger. The person was just standing there, after all, in the dark. The man, for it must be a man, did not seem to have malevolent intent, or surely he would have attacked by now. As fear made his breathing ragged, baba become more and more convinced that the person was, in some intangible way, not actually there. There did not seem to be a shape, or an outline, or even a thickening of the darkness at the foot of the bed, as if all that represented the person in the dark room was his breath. In, out, in, out, a heavy, strained rhythm, as if the person had asthma, or was under a lot of stress.
Paralyzed with fear, unable to reach the torch, unable to grasp what he might see if he were able to shine a light, baba sank into a trance of slow terror.
Then, the presence in the room began to move. It started to walk, up and down the room. Eyes now shut tight, baba knew what it was doing because he could feel a slight disturbance in the air, like that made by a passing person, on his left arm as the presence passed, walking the length of the room. Between the two beds, through the bedside table like it wasn’t there, to the far wall, and back again. Breathing, heavy and rough, pacing quite fast, in what felt like agitation, and maybe anger, maybe fear, maybe despair; just passing through between the beds, again. And again. And again. And again. It was impossible to count how many times the presence passed, each time almost brushing my father’s arm. Almost, but not quite.
Through the haze which enveloped him, baba remembers hearing the chink of the metal glass being taken off the earthen pot of water in the corner of the room, the sound made by water as it is poured out of a pot and into a glass, the sound of water drunk in haste, perhaps spilled because the person is otherwise mentally occupied. The sound of the glass being replaced. Quiet. Ragged breath. Resumed pacing, up and down, a complete absorption in its own predicament, whatever that might be.
At some point in this interminable darkness, my father lost consciousness.
The next thing he remembers is the caretaker’s face. The face was concerned, clearly, and talking quite loud; urging him into revival. But a fever had set in over the night that made movement, hearing and speech very difficult. So while what baba really wanted to do was to hit the man, who had certainly had some idea of what the room contained; all he could do was ask him to – please – arrange some kind of conveyance back to Calcutta.
The caretaker helped him down the stairs. From within the cloud of sensory loss that cocooned him, baba asked the man why he had done this, locked him with the thing.
‘You needed a room’, said the man. ‘You had nowhere to go. I thought, it doesn’t always show itself, and in any case it never does anything, you may sleep through it all. But the door had to be locked, because sometimes people get scared and run out onto the roof and jump off. It’s a high building. That happened one or two times, so I lock the door.’
There’s several questions here, thought my father, and decided that he was in no condition to ask them all. He decided to go with the obvious
‘What happened here? Why did they lock all the doors?’
‘Because of the suicide of the caretaker. He gambled a lot, had lots of money problems. They say there was money owed, to bad people. Then he killed himself in his room, the one on the roof. Its not like they would shut down the building because the caretaker killed himself, but then people started seeing things’
‘Who knows, then one or two people jumped off the roof, and they shut the building down, sealed all the rooms. I get very little salary to mind this whole building. sarkari business, what can you say?’
‘That room where it happened, why is that room open?’
‘I don’t know, it was open when I came here. Sometimes they will come from the municipality to check the locks of the doors, but they never climb as high as the roof. Then someone will need a place for the night, and the room is open… its not like it shows itself all the time. But I always lock the door.’
Baba does not remember how he got to the station, but someone must have taken him, since he was clearly in no shape to go himself. Someone got him a ticket, then, and put him on a train home.
I remember ma going to the station because baba had called and was coming back from somewhere, sick. I remember ma being very worried, and baba being very ill for a while. He didn’t talk much for a while, not at all about what had happened for a long time. I heard it first many years later.
A few years after the encounter, he went to Hazaribagh with the specific intention of locating the house. He took rickshaws and walked, covering as much ground as possible, looking at buildings that fitted his very fragmented memory of the place. He did this more than once, combing the town, asking people if they knew of places that fitted his description.
He was never able to locate the house.