The house with secrets
The house overlooked the gorge and the jungle in the distance. It nestled among trees—picture of pastoral tranquility.
—Why don’t you buy this beauty? Sameer asked grandpa.
The old man replied: Nobody wants to own a house with bloody secrets.
—Who would invest in a scary place?
—Why? Looks good! The facade is Gothic and in shape. Perfect with a garden and a well, except few rooms in bad condition and weeds.
Grandpa said: A house of horror!
The intrepid photographer in Sameer wanted to catch the colonial mansion in its full majesty.
Homes in varied shapes, sizes and moods were his main subjects. Took his camera and entered the property from a broken wall, as the front gate was locked, displaying the usual warning: Trespassers be warned! Enter at your peril!
Sameer loved to shoot the scenes in different light conditions. Fading light made the evenings, people and buildings, look melancholic, often tragic. Ruins were fascinating. They were the stories nobody wanted to hear. Histories receding. Narratives getting lost in the whirlwind of time.
The young photographer stepped over the broken beer bottles, cigarette and condom packets and leftovers of the orgies enacted within the heart of the imposing mansion, partially in shadows; an eerie silence prevailed everywhere.
Clearing the cobwebs and treading softly the dust of years, the athletic Sameer entered the corridors and shot the outer garden from the balcony; the balcony, from the garden with a marble fountain, dried and chipped.
The late afternoon sun could hardly penetrate the trees. The gloom was thick. Melancholic air hung over the deserted rooms and the courtyards, while the trees sang a unique dirge.
He went up to the third floor and took the pictures of the sprawling property. It looked normal.
Descending, he unsettled some bats that flew off and startled him by their screeching sound. Except that nothing odd.
Two hours. Hundreds of shots.
Over dinner, he said, grandpa, he found no secrets in the house. Grandpa said nothing but smiled.
The surprise was to come in the early night.
While going through the film, Sameer saw the most incredible thing!
In the ruins of the backyard, a figure in white stood out, clearly beckoning! An outlined female figure, slightly blurred but enough for a quick identification. The camera had got the figure.
He was taken aback!
He never saw a woman, while shooting.
Who is she?
Grandpa told him a tale of horror.
It ran like this:
The mansion and nearby fields once belonged to Robert Smith, a colonel in the British Raj. He led a life of debauchery. He was fond of the dusky nautch girls and often visited the brothels in the cities posted. His favouraite was Ruksana who often travelled with him and lived down the road in a cottage in Shimla. Her brother Mushtak was a procurer and goon. Smith became wild after few drinks every night and almost murderous, if displeased. Only Ruksana or Mushtak could have some calming influence on the firangi sahib. The soldier was often joined by other soldiers in the long summer evenings or short winter nights. They were entertained by the nautch girls and liquor flew freely. Although the superiors of the Raj frowned upon such dalliances, these souls hardly bothered about such niceties. They preferred the oriental prostitutes to the European ones.
We want to spread our seed among the heathens! That was their credo.
There were whispers among the British residents in Shimla that Smith loved Mushtak more than his sister. Everything was, of course, kept secret. Their affair was hush-hush.
Things changed dramatically when Smith’s youngest sister came to visit him in India. She had heard a lot about India and its despotic rulers and barbaric practices. Once she heard a ghazal and fell in love with Urdu. Mushtak—the singer with a mellifluous voice and command over the court language—became her tutor. She learned a lot from that tall, strapping and dark man. Soon, she got besotted by his oriental charms and fathomless dark eyes. My Moor! She would sigh and the tough Pathan would melt before the Memsahib and act as her pet!
As their dalliance intensified, rumors spread fast. Smith hardly bothered about gossiping as he trusted his sister.
As the fate would have it, one summer afternoon, he came early and startled the unlikely lovers in her bedchamber.
The scene and the sudden shock unhinged him.
—If you can love an oriental, why cannot I? She asked her brother.
—You in love with a coolie? Low life?
—He is more refined than your comrades. Respects me. Devoted to me. Why cannot I love him?
—No. You cannot. He is heathen.
Smith was getting madder by the minute by her probing questions.
—Give me the reason. Why you keeping his sister as a mistress? Is it not unholy? Is she not heathen?
He did not answer her. Took out his revolver and shot the lovers in cold blood. When Ruksana came, he shot her also, shouting, whore!
Before dying, Rukasana said bitterly, your sister is a harlot! She seduced my innocent brother and others.
This made Smith insane. Shot the native servants. Buried the dead there on the property.
—What happened next?
—He was discharged by the courts on the grounds of temporary lunacy and moved to Punjab. Died there of syphilis or pneumonia or both.
–Some cousin claimed it but went mad by the blood-curdling screams and the shots heard in the nights.
—Nobody interested now?
—No. The bodies were buried there. The ghost of Catherine haunts the cursed place.
—Why she beckoned?
—Because she wants her side of the story to be broadcast.
—Oh, the horror?
—The other side of the Raj.
Sunil Sharma is Mumbai-based senior academic, critic, literary editor and author with 19 published books: Six collections of poetry; two of short fiction; one novel; a critical study of the novel, and, eight joint anthologies on prose, poetry and criticism, and, one joint poetry collection. He is a recipient of the UK-based Destiny Poets’ inaugural Poet of the Year award—2012. His poems were published in the prestigious UN project: Happiness: The Delight-Tree: An Anthology of Contemporary International Poetry, in the year 2015.
Sunil edits the English section of the monthly bilingual journal Setu published from Pittsburgh, USA:
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