Sixth Avenue, one of the city’s main arterial roads, forked into two, just some fifty kilometers from the river water harbour. One road, pretty obviously led to the harbour while the other moved on to the southern extremities of the city, taking along with it, a plethora of residential complexes, a few business houses and a couple of elite schools. Once it left the hustle and bustle of the heart of the city, it ambled along, with tall trees on either side, bowing to form a canopy. The small little township that lay nestling to the left of the road, had been a wasteland piled with the city’s garbage, till some fifteen years ago. With a change in administration and the noble endeavours of some enterprising NGOs and a leading business magnate, the area had undergone a huge transformation.
On the other side of the township, lay remnants of an era gone by with the lingering fragrance of the British Raj. A row of houses in a decrepit state, which belonged to the East India Company’s employees, were now occupied by the locals who earned their livelihood, by working for the residents of the township. A red building stood amidst the houses, which had at some point, housed a government office. A few people still worked there. They were employees of the Port Trust who were never seen too often or ever seen doing much. There seemed to be a pretty valid reason too. Apparently, some kind of paranormal activity had been observed in the building and the surrounding premises, after sunset and occasionally during the daytime.
Raju Bhai, the caretaker had categorically stated that he would not go into the building to clean, except on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays, the three days on which he took a bath followed by his morning prayers. When questioned by his superiors for his negligence of duty, he had sufficient evidence in his defence, vouched for by the neighbours.
While my readers spend some time, mulling over the existence of spirits and their kith and kin, let me just acquaint them with a little account of things that had actually been happening in the old dilapidated building and its surroundings. It might help to dust off those little cobwebs of doubt that have plagued mankind for years, regarding the prevalence of ghosts and their lifestyles. So here goes ..
Prax, Prix and the Others
“Damn it!“ Prax growled, brushing off the droplets of water that had landed on his broad forehead and nose tip. “He is at it again. Holy water and all that! What does he think we are? The last time he did it, I had to throw my slipper at him. He didn’t show up for a fortnight after that.”
Prix sat up on his bed, rubbed his eyes and blinked. “Is it that nerd of a caretaker? And why on earth is he ringing a bell. Oh hell! He is burning something too. Achoo!!”
Several “achoos” later, they heard a yell, a howl, the slamming of a door and the sound of running feet, shod in probably one of the noisiest chappals ever made. A few more “achoos” followed, which subsided shortly after, leaving the two exhausted.
The fragrance of burnt chillis hung sullenly in the air and Prax got up to open the windows of the room to let out the smokiness and to let in some fresh air. Which, for some reason became the cause for a minor upheaval outside. When the duo looked out, they saw people in the vicinity, scuttling off into their houses, screaming hysterically. Windows and doors were slammed shut and curtains were drawn. Some even hung out some obnoxious looking masks at the entrance of their houses. Prix sighed and returned to his little cot atop a cupboard full of old files.
“Why are these people so weird?“ he asked, stroking his red beard. The question was quite rhetorical. Prax had deposited himself in the armchair behind a huge desk, once occupied by the Deputy Manager of the Materials Management Division at the Dock Complex.
Lost in thought, he was tossing around the decorative paperweight with its domed top and star cut base. This was a battle that they had been waging with the locals for the last sixty odd years. While they saw no reason why they could not occupy the place, the locals did not seem inclined to think so. In fact, three generations of the locals had resorted to a multitude of extremely nasty and devious ways to get rid of them. They had used brooms, sticks and a variety of pretty dangerous missiles, including kitchen knives, to evict them.
Prix and Prax had just about managed to escape these attacks, by the skin of their teeth. An eerie silence descended on the locality, which didn’t augur too well. A couple of months back, on a similar occasion, a few idiots had landed up, along with a bunch of some so called experts called exorcists and engaged in the most absurd forms of idiosyncrasies. There had been a lot of yelling and screaming and swinging of brooms, that had kicked up a massive cloud of dust.
Poor Prix, who had been asthmatic from birth, was laid up in bed for over a fortnight after that incident. The exorcists left, claiming that they had seen spirits rise and fly about, not quite understanding that it was just the dust that the moronic, lazy caretaker refused to clean. Prix had been so distraught by the entire experience, that he was too afraid to even cough. He shoved his mouth with old paper torn out from the files in the cupboards and kept them there to stop himself from coughing. Prax, confined himself to the attic, ensuring that he made no noise. He would wait till sunset, before tiptoeing out to the vegetable garden nearby to pick up vegetables for dinner. There had been occasions in the past when the two would steal delicacies from the kitchens of the locals, out of a sheer craving for good food, but the consequences had proven to be so scary, that they stopped.
There was that one occasion when the two had been lured into one of the neighbouring kitchens, by the tantalizing fragrance of an exotic fish delicacy. Prax had just about managed to lift the dish off the oven, when a vicious looking brown cat appeared from nowhere, pounced on it and made off with three big pieces of fish. The lady of the house came thundering into the kitchen with a stick to hit the marauding feline but unfortunately, it landed on the head of poor Prax. He was left with a swelling, the size of a giant Elephant Foot Yam. The pain was excruciating and he spent most of his waking hours groaning in pain.
Needless to say, the neighbours were utterly perturbed by his groans. Ever since then, Prax and Prix learnt to survive on fruits and raw vegetables, much to their chagrin. Fortunately, they were spared the ordeal of hunting for food, since they needed to eat only once a few days.
“How long can we survive like this?” Prix asked, as they sat on the rooftop one evening, gazing at the western horizon, brilliantly lit up by the setting sun. Even humans have rights and protest at the drop of a hat. Remember the rallies and the hartals that we had in those days – ‘Simon, Go Back’, ‘Bharat Chodo‘, “Inquilab Zindabad“ and what not!! And look at us. We do no harm to anyone and yet we are languishing here. All we need is a roof over our heads. Even that seems too much to ask in this wretched world! Must be karma, as these Indians say.”
“The fault is yours, actually,” Prax said.
“What the hell do you mean?“ Prix demanded sharply. “Well, had you not been so smitten by that doe-eyed Indian girl, we would not have missed the ship back to London that day.“
“Oh shut up! I was really in love with her. Extremely so. How could I leave her like that without finding out whether she reciprocated my feelings?”
“Well, you never really found out, did you? She disappeared, leaving you high and dry. She must have married that politician guy who kept hanging around her. She must have had at least half a dozen kids too, since then. In fact, I wonder if she even noticed you.“
“Stop it! Don’t torture me with those thoughts. It is bad enough that I haven’t forgotten her. Memories of her still haunt me. I have had no peace of mind since she disappeared.” Prax gave a villainous, sideways grin and continued to watch the sunset. Prix got up and stomped off, slamming the door shut. The lady, who was hanging clothes in the garden of the adjacent house screamed, hearing the noise. Prax chortled with laughter. Another scream followed and there was silence.
That night, Prix lay awake in his bed, reminiscing over his maiden and only voyage into the fascinating world of romance. It had been the most exhilarating phase of his life. Her beautiful, kohl lined eyes and the tiny little bindi along with her rubicund lips had left him mesmerised. She was the daughter of a renowned Hindustani Classical musician who often performed at parties organised by British officers. She would sit beside her father, dressed in richly coloured silk sarees, playing the tanpura. Her long hair would be braided into a plait that travelled down the length of her back and swayed as she walked. He had spent endless nights dreaming about her. He had even composed sonnets for her, in a little notebook that he kept tucked away under his pillow, well beyond the reach of Prax. The Lord, however, had other plans. The romance wilted even before it blossomed and she disappeared soon after the British left the Indian shores.
Prix and Prax, drowned themselves in drink thereafter – one bemoaning the loss of his beloved and the other driven by a penchant for drinking. Both soon, dissolved into spirits. Prix tried to stifle a sob as memories of her exquisitely beautiful face came flooding in. He quickly got up and rushed to the terrace, lest Prax heard him and started pulling his leg. Unfortunately, his flight to the top of the building turned out to be a bit of a disaster. You see, the lacrinal glands of the likes of Prax and Prix do not secrete normal tears. When they weep, little red droplets trickle out of their eyes. If the pain is deep, you can expect a stream of the red liquid.
Well, Prix was deeply sad that night and the red tears gushed out silently. He stood there, a lone figure silhouetted against the starry night sky, looking magnificent and intimidating. As the church bell clock struck midnight, he sadly went back sleep. A huge, blood curdling scream woke Prix and Prax, barely an hour or two later. They rushed to the window. A crowd had gathered below, screeching hysterically and pelting stones at the window just above. It seemed that blood was dripping from the floor above, creating a little pool on the pathway below. It was first noticed by Posto, the sweeper, when he woke up to answer Nature’s call. He hauled up the neighbours and soon all hell was let loose. Someone came rushing with a blazing torch, shouting out to the others to set the building on fire. Prix and Prax, stared at each other in horror.
“That’s it!“ Prax declared. “We just can’t stay here any longer. We need to find a way out. “Meanwhile, the overzealous bearer of the torch had been held in restrain by the others and a chanting of sorts had started.
“But where do we go?“ Prix demanded.
“Somewhere,” Prax replied, looking grim. “We will find a way out.“ Both stared at the crowd below. Anxiety was mounting by the minute. While they had had some very unpleasant encounters with the neighbours in the past, this was by far the worst. Never before had the neighbours tried to burn down the building which had been home to them for over half a century.
“We need to leave the country,” Prax announced decisively.
“You mean…“ Prix trailed off. Prax nodded grimly. Below, the people had squatted on the grass and were chanting loudly, their voices rising in a crescendo with each passing second. A tinge of red had spread across the Eastern sky, that eclipsed the glow of the waning moon on the other side. Suddenly a gust of breeze swept past the seated crowd, causing the dew drenched leaves to sway unsteadily and the sleeping birds to wake up and break into a chorus. The incongruous blend of human and avian voices rend the air and a few families from the complex across peeped out sleepily. A few stray dogs barked in sheer annoyance. It took a while and several “bhaands“ of tea, for the cacophony to finally taper into silence.
The neighbourhood, slowly limped back to a normal pace of life in the days that followed, though it remained oblivious of the fact that the spirits had departed. The inhabitants merely believed that they had managed to terrorize the miscreants into behaving themselves for a while. The red Government building continued to wear a rather abandoned look, though too many untoward incidents were not reported. There had been instances of strange sounds and movements, but the furor melted down to a murmur when the culprit, a little feline (yes, the same fellow who had made off with the three pieces of fish ) was caught red handed on the third floor of the building, catching mice. Occasionally, the tables and chairs were dusted and files pulled out when Inspectors came on their rounds.
Meanwhile, Prix and Prax had hopped onto a ship and were now safely ensconsed in a little loft, just above the Captain’s cabin. Unfortunately, it wasn’t a ship bound for London. It happened to be a combat ship that guarded the country’s territorial waters and kept unwanted visitors at bay. Life was pleasanter and less intimidating for the duo. The ship’s occupants were not really interested in them. They were more intent on practising their combat exercises. Having served the British Navy in days gone by, the two did attempt to put their knowledge to use but defence technology had made way too much progress for them to cope.
So they spent their time, lolling on the deck. They helped themselves to food and drinks, that were available in plenty. They joined the parties that were held onboard and danced away, though unobtrusively. On pleasant, sunny days, they took a dive into the waters for a leisurely swim. Life seemed like an endless picnic. After the initial phase of pleasurable idleness, Prax got down to writing a motivational book about rising to meet and overcome challenges. Alongside, he mulled over the idea of setting up a worldwide organisation to help kindred spirits in distress.
As for Prix, the die hard optimist that he was, he never missed an opportunity to stand on the deck, each time the ship sailed past the mainland, in the hope that a certain Indian girl might be waiting on the shores with a willow in her hand, like Dido, the Queen of Carthage. Well, that is the untold tale of two astral buddies, dear friends and as we let the curtains drop on that little saga, one can only say, on a final note – May the Good Lord Bless and keep them – Whether near or far away!