I’ve been down that pathway a number of times in recent years. It’s on the outskirts of Bassein, a small town hugging the northern tip of Mumbai. As my steps sound on its mud-strewn surface, I catch sight of Shanti Kutir, a place I once called home. It lies desolate now, almost in ruins, but there’s something about it which pulls me back towards it, tugging at some abstruse corners of my soul.
I lived there for seventeen years of my life with my father and my younger brother, Soham. My mother, a beautiful woman, I’m told, died there after childbirth. My father, they say, went mad with grief at the loss of his beloved. Unable to cope with the loneliness, he spent most of his evenings drinking at home. I can’t say I had an unhappy childhood though. I spent my days talking with Soham in the backyard. I remember laughing a lot. Yet, sometimes, when the laughter stopped, I thought I could hear an echo in its wake, like a choked sob.
And I know that Soham could feel it too, I could see it in his eyes. Of course, he couldn’t tell me about it. You see, Soham was mute. As my mother bled precariously in childbirth, it seems Soham’s brain was deprived of blood and he was crippled as a result. Unable to talk or walk, my twelve-year-old brother was unable to attend school and needed the care that an infant requires. I’ve often wondered in later years if Soham would have told me about what haunted him if his mind hadn’t betrayed him….
Of course, none of this was palpable once the sunlight streamed in through the wood-paned windows at Shanti Kutir. My father told me that we light candles to eliminate the darkness. What he didn’t realise is that where there is light, there are shadows. And unlike the darkness which you can flee, the shadows follow you…
Going to school and later college made me feel guilty as I’d leave Soham in that wretched house. So I’d come home and tell him about everything that happened in school. I wonder if he understood what I said. But I’m glad I did. If I hadn’t, I’d never have noticed the blood.
It wasn’t a lot, you know, just a speck or two. On the seat of his wheelchair, trailing off. As if someone had carelessly tried to wash it off. I didn’t get it. I asked Soham about it…he only grunted in reply.He never answered my questions.
I’d probably have forgotten about it if it hadn’t been for that Sunday when the bai took leave. The bai’s leave meant that I had to wash all the clothes. And there they were again, those crimson drops, this time staining the seat of Soham’s trousers. This time, there was no doubt. And in that moment I felt a surge, whether it was fear or rage or resolve, I don’t know…but I knew I would go to any end to protect my little brother from the horror that seemed to be upon him.
And I tried. I dismissed the bai, hid in dark corners when I was supposed to be in college, questioned Soham…in vain. I tried discussing it with my father who dismissed me, muttering about my imagination. And so, answers eluded me.
It’s been a long while since these events. A year after they happened, my father went missing. Our tiny galli was flooded by the media- ‘Man disappears leaving behind two orphans’ cried the newspapers. Soham and me lived on social support till I could take up a small job.
Today, I live with my wife and Soham. I no longer live at Shanti Kutir. I may sell it some day. Or maybe I never will. But I’ll never live there again. That house, the shadows in it’s candle-lit hallways haunt me. As does the colour red. But I keep going down the path leading to it. Something pulls me back.
I sometimes think of my father.There was no sign of him after he disappeared that Monday. He had come home early from work that day, unknown to anyone. I was supposed to be in college, but had run home early to check on Soham as had become my habit. It was from behind the door that I saw what I did.
They say there was no trace of my father after that day. There wouldn’t be. You see, it was deep in the backyard soil that I buried him.
(This story popped into my mind when I clicked on the WordPress Inspire me feature. I was shown the picture of a haunted house and asked to tell its story.For me what haunts a house isn’t ghosts or ghouls, but the monsters of our minds and memories. Loud bangs and flashes startle us, but they don’t live on in our minds like shadows. I’m not sure if the explanation is necessary but hence the title.)