Authors note: All characters and events mentioned in the story are not entirely fictitious. Any similarity to actual events or persons, living or dead, or living after death is purely incidental.
There are some places that make you a writer even before you know how to write. There are stories looming at every corner of Mussoorie, just like the old town of North Calcutta, you would find a story anywhere you look. But unlike Kolkata, Mussoorie is cleaner, greener and prettier.
Like every tourist destination, the Queen of Hills has its favorite spots like ‘Mall Road’, ‘Chaar Dukaan’, ‘Sister Bazar’ and few other, which are like the ‘watering-hole’ for social animals. However, there is much more to Mussoorie than that. One of such places is the majestic and glorious old bungalow of my dear friend Natasha.
Belleview Estate is a 300-year-old bungalow on Tehri road, about 15 minutes drive from Landour, built by King of Nepal who used it for Summer vacations.
The King is long gone and the place was bought by my friend’s grandfather and made into a two-story house. It is about 25-30 meters trek down from the road at the slopes of the hills. The building is divided into two sections, the upper section is the residence bungalow and the section below has been converted into a small school for the locals. It is a modest little school with a big heart, they have students from Kindergarten till class 8, beyond that the students are sent to bigger schools. A long and narrow cemented staircase at the entrance of the building separates the two sections. During the vacations, that section of the building remains closed.
I reached Mussoorie early morning after a 2 hours drive from Dehradun which is just 30 odd kilometers away. Covering the distance of 30 kilometers in 2 hours in the hills is impressive, usually, it takes a longer. However, there was another taxi waiting for me when I reached. Natasha had booked it for me to drive me down to their place as the driver was well acquainted with the roads in Mussoorie. So I changed shuttle and after another 20 minutes, the driver dropped me at the turn of a narrow road. I was standing at about 5000 ft. above the sea level in a road middle of the hills. Wherever I looked I could only see the hills and greens. There was not a single house or soul in my vicinity. It was as if a mantle of green had cloaked the hills. I asked the driver what is this place? Why did he drop me here?
He said, “This is it.”
I looked at him puzzled.
He saw the confused look on my face and pointed his fingers towards the edge of the hill.
I stepped closer to the edge hesitantly and looked down… and there was at about 100 ft. down a 700 ft. wide bungalow at the middle of the hill surrounded by trees.
How interesting I thought to myself but how does one get down? I looked back at the driver and this time he pointed his fingers towards small, cemented stair leading a long and curvy zigzag slope down hill to the bungalow.
After a good 15 minutes walk and 6 zigzag turns, I reached the entrance of the house and the first thing which came to my mind was ‘I hope there’s a lift for getting back up’. Getting down with the bags from the main road was effortless, thanks to the gravity but I really hoped to find a permanent place in the house because with these bags I was never going to get back up there. The best part about living in hills is that if you are going anywhere then you are either trekking up or trekking down. You would never have to pay for the gym in your life. No wonder people in hills are so happy and healthy.
At the main entrance of the house, Natasha and her fiancé Prabhanjan greeted me. Prabhanjan is in early 30’s and is a doctor by profession. Natasha is in her late 20’s and she works for a financial institution, both of them work in Delhi. They frequent Mussoorie all round the year especially during the winters to celebrate Christmas with her family.
They escorted me towards the house; it is a huge place with an equally huge porch in front of the house facing the valley from where one can see the entire city of Dehradun. The view was as breathtaking as it was scary, good scary, kind of which lets a shiver down your spine. The one that makes you feel alive. After I finished admiring the view I was introduced to Gautam and Chandani and their 5 years boy Rishab and his caretaker a 16-year-old girl Payel.
Gautam is a tall, handsome, good looking Punjabi man and is working as a service delivery manager in a company in Delhi and Chandani is beautiful and has a kind face, she is very close to Natasha and also both of them worked together in the same company. Rishab is 5 years old adorable little boy, he stutters while speaking which makes him even cuter than he already is.
They had arrived a day before and other friends were to join later. In the end, I met Natasha’s mother, like all mothers are, she too, is one of the most charming and sweetest person you would ever meet. But more than that I was impressed with her strong and admirable personality. At the age of 62, she lives alone and takes cares of the house and the school all by herself. After Natasha’s grandfather passed away a few years ago she stepped up to the responsibility of the school as a Principal and a teacher.
Prabhanjan picked up one of my bags and lead me towards my room. Mine was a separate room at the west corner of the bungalow. It was an independent room little away from the main house. The room had two big windows, and I was told not to keep the windows open as the monkey are menacing if they enter the room and pretty hard to chase them out of the room. There are two ways which led to that room, one at the west end where a small iron staircase leading up to the side of the room and another one from the back. Next, to that room, there was a long corridor that led to the rooms on the second floor. Some old, unused furniture lay on either side of the corridor and among them was one old rickety rocking chair, which felt like it moved as I walked past it. The corridor went all the way to the main gates of the bungalow, and at about half way there was a door, which opened up to a big living room. The room was stuffed with ‘antique looking’ furniture, and the walls were decorated with old portraits and family photos of people who looked from some royal family. A big deer antler trophy dangled over the arc of the fireplace. There were couple bedrooms at either side of the living room. And the one to my right was occupied up by Gautam and Chandani. Their room had another exit which led to an uncomfortably small but steep stairs down to the side of the main hall and to the front porch.
After the short tour of the bungalow, Prabhanjan asked to take some rest and meet them for lunch at noon.
Later that evening we were joined by another couple Jeet and Lisa. Jeet was friends with Prabhanjan from the medical school and practiced in the same hospital in Delhi with him. Lisa is a beautiful Bengali woman, she is also a doctor and she is from Agartala. She met Jeet in Kolkata during an internship, fell in love and soon got married. Then the couple moved to Delhi and living there since last 8 months and it was their first time in Mussoorie.
They were the last guests to have arrived that day. They put up in the room opposite Gautam and Chandani’s.
Later that evening after dinner we all sat down in the living room with old friends catching up and new friends getting acquainted. Prabhanjan poured the drinks for us. We all took our glasses but Gautam refused, ‘You guys go ahead I’ll join you later.’ Natasha quickly added ‘he won’t start without Chandani’ with a wink.
Where is Chandani Lisa asked?
“She is putting Rishab to sleep, she’ll join us soon,” Gautam said.
We teased Gautam about being so cute; poor guy looked a little flushed.
Meanwhile, having all the fun we were completely oblivious to the presence of another person in the room who was sitting at the dining table having dinner and quietly observing everything. Natasha noticed that and told her to finish her dinner and attend to Rishab so that Chandani can come and join us.
Payel nodded and got up, kept the plate in the sink, washed her hand and disappeared into the darkness of the adjacent room.
Chandani came down soon after and joined us in drinking and conversation. Natasha was telling us about the history of the house. She told us how it used to be a summer destination for the King of Nepal and how he would hunt from the small windows in the first floor.
I asked Natasha “this is such an old house and Aunty lives here alone, isn’t she scared?”
Before Natasha could say anything Prabhanjan said, “Oh yes this part of Mussoorie is a spooky place” winking at Natasha and Jeet, he told us all kind of spooky stories about the house and this area around where the house is located. Lisa looked little uncomfortable, and though she curled up at the corner of the couch but was still listening to the stories intently. I too was listening to it enthusiastically until I realized all of those stories were made up just to scare Lisa. And as if the spooky stories were not sacry enough Gautam suggested that we should do planchit, everyone jumped to the idea except Lisa of course and me. I wasn’t a big fan of it but I went with the flow.
Natasha got the candles and Prabhanjan got the paper with all the alphabets and numbers written on it. Gautam made the pentagram on the paper, we switched off the lights and lit the candle. Gautam asked us to sit around the candle and hold hands. We did as we were told. We were given set of instructions like not to break the chain and to be serious and to concentrate and not to laugh or talk once we start the process.
We kept quiet as instructed — the ambience of the room seemed a bit eerie. I could only hear the sound of my heart beat. Gautam said, “if any spirit is passing by, please give us a sign”… we waited… but nothing… he repeated the same lines… and nothing… he then it twice more… by this time all of us seemed a little intrigued even though we knew it was just a façade, a show to scare Lisa. For the fifth time just as Gautam said, “if any spirit is passing by, please give us a sign” the door to the side room open and the curtains blew in the air, Lisa let out a shriek and it startled us all even Gautam looked surprised… turned out it was Payal got up to get a glass of water.
Trying to disguise the panic from our faces we laughed it off and Gautam said let’s continue, but Lisa jumped out of her place saying that we had enough and it’s time to sleep. She convinced Jeet to go back to their room. It was getting late so I also went back to my room and fell asleep.
I woke up the morning with the sun shining down the window. It was a beautiful day to stay inside the house so I decided to take a walk around to see the place. At breakfast, aunty told me that she would be going to the market post lunch and I should go with her so that she could show me around and also help her shopping. After the breakfast Prabhanjan and Natasha went out for some work in the bank, Gautam, Jeet, and Lisa went out to get wine for the party and aunty and Chandani along with the domestic help got busy in the kitchen. I took my book and cup of chai went out on the porch. I love reading and any opportunity I get I would read a book. And I thought this would be a good time sit in the winter sun and read my book. Rishab was running around the house playing and Payel right behind him keeping a close eye on him, he would sometimes play with the dog but mostly bombard us with his unending questions… like “Shoumik uncle why are you sitting here? Why are you sitting in ‘this’ chair? Why are you not sitting inside, on the sofa? What are you drinking? Why are you drinking? Why don’t you drink something else…” etc and etc.
Thankfully his attention span was very thin and he would be distracted by the dog or by a butterfly and run around chasing them. I continued reading my book sitting on the chair by the boundary wall keeping my legs on it. I didn’t even realize when Prabhanjan and Natasha came back home and it was time for lunch. Gautam, Jeet and Lisa had driven down to Dehradun to buy wine for the party so we decided not to wait for them. We had lunch, Prabhanjan and Natasha sat down in front of the TV watching their favorite show, and Chandani lay down in the divan watching TV with them while Payel took Rishab to their room for his afternoon nap.
Aunty and I went out to the market. She climbed up effortlessly while I was out of breath and was panting like a dog. Reaching the main road from the house was quite a task while it looked like a piece of cake for Aunty. When I finally got up we took the left towards the market in Landour. It was a long walk to the market place, we crossed small shops and few houses on the way. Once in a while a car or bike would drive past us. It was amazing how they carved zigzag roads in the middle of the hills and even more amazing how have they built the shops and houses on the slope of the hill. It looked so fascinating it was as if I was transported to a different world. The market place was little crowded and even more fascinating. It was always down hill or uphill. Narrow cemented roads hosting endless shops on both ends, going down was fun but coming back up carrying the shopping bags was not so much. It was 4:30 in the evening when we were homeward bound. By the time we reached back, it was 5 in the evening, I handed the bags to aunty and told her to go ahead I wanted to explore the other side towards the right.
While she went down to the house I walked towards the other side. It was similar walk towards the other side only lesser people and shops. There were a couple of chai and Maggie shops at the edge of the road with a couple of old people sitting outside enjoying the evening tea. I went further ahead and must have walked about 15 minutes when I reached a turn where the one small path diverged up in the hill while the main road went straight around the endless hills. I took the road that looked less traveled… up the hills. It was another steep climb ahead. I kept going up and after an hour of climbing I reached a small clearing, I turned back to look how far I had come. I could see the main road from there, satisfied that I can find my way back I ventured ahead and just a little bit ahead I spotted an old building. I went towards it, it looked like an old abandoned bungalow surrounded by lofty deodar trees. It looked so magnanimous must have been a beautiful place at one point of time in the past. There was an old rotten iron gate and few pillars surrounding the bungalow that probably supported the fence once. Today the fences were gone and the old Iron Gate was hanging loose and could barely hold their own weight. A carpet of dry leaf litter covers the ground with the mix of bushes and plants. I stepped closer to the house there was no door neither was there any roof and there were old wooden beams across the room other than that there was nothing. The floor was similar inside, covered with a thick layer of leaves and bushes. I decided not to step inside instead I walked around the house. I was surprised to find a small shack behind the house and it looked like someone was staying there. My curiosity got the better of me. I went ahead to inspect it, the door was ajar, I looked around and found no one in the vicinity. I said “Hello” a couple of times but there was no response. I stuck my head inside and took a peek inside — there was a bed with a pillow and a blanket at one corner next to it was an old iron fire place which is found in every house in Mussoorie. There was a dented aluminum pot and a sigree (Indian oven) but what caught my eye was in the other corner of the room. A table with a stack of old books. I walked up to the table. There were many old magazines and few old novels and among them, there was a book called The mysteries of Mussoorie. If you’ve ever been to Mussoorie or a fan Ruskin Bond then you must have heard the paranormal activities of Pari Tibba. I picked up the book and started flipping through the pages. I was startled by a voice which said: “fascinating isn’t it?” I looked back and there was an old man must be in his 80’s and he was bald, clean shaved about 5 ft. 6 inches warning a long old dusty faded green over coat, a loose khaki pants and wore a thick round black-rimmed glasses standing at the door.
I was embarrassed for breaking and entering. I apologized, “I am so sorry, I was just passing by and the curiosity got the best of me.”
He smiled and entered the shack and while keeping his bag in the bed and said, “would you like some tea I am making some for me.”
Oh no thank you I should be going back it’s late.
Haven’t seen you around here? Where are you from?
Oh yes, I am visiting my friends, I am from Kolkata and I just came out for a walk.
Oh, how interesting. By then he put the sugar into the tea. Kolkata the land of black magic! You Know I never had an opportunity to visit Kolkata, as a matter of fact, I never been anywhere except these hills he said while pouring the tea in the small little cup. Then he extended one to me.
I took the cup and said, “It’s a myth you know.”
“The land of black magic as they say.,. it’s a pretty safe place.”
“Is it? If you say so but you shouldn’t walk alone here in the evening you know. Even the locals sometimes lose their way. It’s not safe here.”
“Yes I should get going,” I said while keeping the cup on the table next to that book and started walking out. I stopped at the door and turned to him and said, ‘Thank you for the tea and sorry for intruding’.
“Don’t worry about it and don’t forget the book” he said.
“No thank you, it’s ok I was just looking.”
“Don’t be silly I’ve read it hundred times you can take it. I really don’t mind.”
I smiled and said ok. I took the book and said ‘I will return it before returning I promise.’
“Don’t worry about returning it…. It will come back to me. It always does.”
I am sure it does I thought to myself it’s a small place after all everyone knows everyone. I smiled at him and left.
It was already dark when I reached back home. Aunty showed some concern at my late return “Where were you so late we called your number but it was unreachable” she asked.
Rishab came running to me holding his drawing book.
“I am sorry Aunty it was so beautiful I lost track of time. And my phone must be out of reach.”
Rishab looked irritated as I was not looking at his drawing.
“Yeah cell reception in this area is horrible and it’s ok as long as you are fine.”
I bent down and pulled Rishab closer looking at the drawing I said, “Oh wow this is so beautiful, did you make this?”
“Yesh,” he said bashfully stuttering cutely.
“So where did you go and what did you get?” Natasha asked from across the room.
I didn’t understand much of his drawing but I said: “it’s so wonderful Rishu go make more” and then turned to Natasha and said, “I went up all the way to that old bungalow it was beautiful. And I borrowed a book from that old man…”
“Old man? What old man?”
“Hey, guys check out what we got.” Gautam interrupted our conversation as he entered with carton filled with wine bottles and Jeet and Lisa behind him with more boxes.
“Looks like we can open our own little wine shop here,” Prabhanjan said as he got up to give them a hand.
“Yeah we got little extra just in case,” Lisa said, “and who would wanna go so far again when it gets over?”
”Aunty, can we get a nice ginger tea?” Jeet inquired while keeping the boxes in the corner.
“Yeah yeah, teas and pakora are coming up you guys freshen up.”
Gautam, Jeet, Lisa and I went to our rooms respectively to freshen up and change into something comfortable. It was pitch dark as it was a cloudy night I took out my phone and switched on the flashlight in the phone. As I entered my room I kept that book on the table, which was right next to the door and just above the table was the light switch. I switched on the lights and entered the room closing the doors behind me. Right opposite the table was my bed on the floor. Next to the bed was my travel bag wide open with most of my things on the bed. Who wants to be organized when in vacation? Both the windows didn’t have the grills on them so I always kept them shut and hung my jacket on the latch. I changed and freshened up and closed the door and started to go back join everyone else in the main hall. Since it was dark outside I thought I should take the back corridor. A small little bulb hung in the middle of the corridor was the only source of light there. I hurriedly walked the corridor but as I crossed the rocking chair kept at the side of the corridor, it appeared to start rocking slowly. My heart skipped a beat. However, I noticed the wooden flooring and realized one loose strip of the wood when stepped on it made it move a little. Well, it was no rocket science to figure that out but the entire setup of the corridor made it a little spooky. I decided not to investigate any further and rushed down through Gautam’s room and reached the living room where everyone was already there enjoy the evening chai. I took a cup and sat down next to Chandani.
Natasha shouted, “Mumma we need more pakode.”
“Coming up beta” Aunty shouted back from the kitchen.
“Damn we are sitting and enjoying chai pakode and aunty is alone in the kitchen, not fair” I said.
Lisa said “Payel is helping aunty don’t worry” saying that she got up saying ‘let me check with them anyway.’
“Good idea,” I said as I took a bite of the pakoda.
Chandani asked, “Where is Rishab if Payel is helping aunty in the kitchen?”
“Must be playing outside with the dog,” Gautam said.
Chandani got up and called for Payel… ‘Where is Rishab?’
“Didi he must be sleeping upstairs” Payel replied.
Chandani turned to me and asked, “you just came from there. right? Was he there?”
I was in such a hurry to get down from that spooky corridor that I didn’t notice anything else. I said, “the room was dark I didn’t notice him, Sorry.”
She said “oh never mind that” and turned to Payel and said, “Go wake him up and bring him down it’s already 7 he won’t sleep in the night if he oversleeps now.”
Meanwhile, Lisa and Aunty come out of the kitchen with more pakodas.
Prabhanjan taking a handful of it said, “Garam Garam Pakoda and chai tastes heavenly especially in winters.”
“Must be tasting heavenly round the year as it’s always winter in the hills. I heard it snowed in March this year?” I said little jealous.
Aunty replied, “Oh yes end of March I got up one morning and looked outside it was there was a layer of white coat everywhere.”
Natasha browsing through her phone said, “here check it out.” Showing the pictures of the snow on her phone.
“Oh wow it’s looks so incredible,” Jeet said.
Lisa agreed, “Wow it is so beautiful, I wish I could stay back here forever.”
“It’s so unfair that you live in such a beautiful place and we live in a place where it’s not even cold in winters. I think…” I could not complete my sentence when Payel came running in and said: “Didi Rishab is not in the room and around I looked everywhere.”
Gautam said, “Check out properly he must around.”
Chandani got up and went upstairs with Payel. Gautam went up behind her followed by Natasha.
“He is just a little child where will he go, he must be playing somewhere around,” I said nonchalantly.
Prabhanjan said, “When he wakes up and finds no one around he starts crying, he is afraid of being alone and it’s dark I doubt he’d go anywhere from that room.”
Natasha came running down and said, “He’s nowhere to be seen, not even the toilet, or adjacent rooms.”
“Did you check the back corridor?” I said keeping the chai cup down.
“The door is closed there’s no way he can open it and go outside. He won’t reach to the latch.”
Jeet said, “Still we should check everywhere.”
Chandani came down with teary eyes and clearly panicking. Prabhanjan said “Don’t worry Chandani we’ll find him, he couldn’t have gone far. Gautam and I will search the east side, Jeet and Shoumik would look towards west.”
“And I’ll go up to check the corridor and outside the main gate,” said Natasha and ran out of the room.
Payel sat in one corner with tears rolling down her eyes, she seemed more worried that maybe it’s her fault. But there was no time to comfort her. It was dark outside and we had a missing child.
While Aunty and Lisa were sitting with Chandani comforting her Jeet and I went west of the house using the flashlight from our phones shouting Rishab’s name. Rishab was the only baby in the house and was adored by everyone. We were all equally concerned but we could only imagine how his parents must be feeling. It’s very unnerving and discomforting trying to find a missing child in the dark of the night. It’s one experience I wish no one goes through. The boundary wall of the porch surrounding the house was not very high and beyond it was the unending dense valley. If something falls there it was next to impossible to retrieve especially in the dark. While these thoughts crossed my mind we heard a loud shriek. We ran towards the house expecting the worse and as we entered we saw Chandani was holding Rishab tight and crying.
Me: Oh you found him!!! Is he ok? Where was he?
Prabhanjan said, “yes he is ok Natasha found him.”
Natasha who was sitting next to Chandani patting both Mumma and the baby on their back got up and said ‘I was just randomly checking main exit gate and chowkidar’s shed next to it that’s when I saw the chowkidar carrying Rishab coming towards me. Apparently, he wandered off towards his shed crying and scared. Thank God the Chowkidar saw him.
“There’s a chowkidar? I never saw him” I said.
Natasha said, “yes he comes at night and mostly he doesn’t even show up. Stay drunk most of the time.”
Jeet asked, “why to keep him at all?”
“He is a harmless old man and mom lives here alone so we thought that someone staying here would be no one at all.”
I said “but why would Rishab go towards that side, it’s not even convenient for him and it’s dark? Did you ask the chowkidar where exactly did he find him and what was he doing so early? You said he comes at night.”
“He does sometimes come early to take or to keep his things in the shack. And anyway I was just happy to see Rishab I didn’t ask him anything after that.”
Later that night the discussion over dinner was the mystery of how Rishab got out of the bed and walked all way to the main gate without anyone noticing him. Everyone had a theory about it. When everyone ran out of ideas Aunty asked Chandani and Gautam ‘does Rishab has a sleepwalking issue’? We all looked at the couple, they were looking at each other in a shock. Chandani turned pale and was speechless but Gautam cleared his throat and said: “No aunty absolutely not, he has never done that before.” Then he turned to Chandani and confirmed ‘Has he?’
Clearing her throat she replied “aaa.. aa of course not.”
Aunty said, “it’s ok beta I hoped not, I was just asking.”
Rest of the dinner we were all silent. After that incident, we all decided to retire to our rooms and call it a day.
I went back to my room and thought it’s a good opportunity to read my book. So I locked my room, checked the windows, they were tightly closed, lied down my bed and started reading the book.
Mussoorie is all about pleasing sights and peaceful leisure. But underneath its picturesque beauty and old world charms are hidden numerous tales of sinister entities that come to life once darkness descends on the hills….
I read about LAMBI DEHAR MINES, it is one of the most haunted places in the country and MULLINGAR MANSION. It is Mussoorie’s oldest building built circa 1825, is still haunted by the spirit of the man who built it. Third chapter was about PARI TIBBA a densely wooded hill south of Mussoorie’s legendary Woodstock School, allegedly a paranormal hotspot. Incidentally, Pari Tibba is unusually prone to lightning strikes, and locals attribute this uncanny anomaly to supernatural forces. There are lot of things you will come across which you should just leave alone and never to engage in conversation or indulge with…
I was very sleepy by then so I switched off the lights and kept the book on top of my bag, which was beside the bed and I fell into a deep sleep. It was getting dark and I was running down the hill desperately trying to find my way back to the main road. I could see the road from the hill through the dense trees but I couldn’t find my way to it. I kept running and reaching the same spot. I could hear people talking on the main road and I wanted to shout for help but my voice won’t come out from my throat. It was completely dark and I could still hear people talking very clearly. I ran straight towards the road but couldn’t see anything. I decided to follow the voices, I blindly ran towards it when suddenly I missed a step and fell and I kept falling,,, I woke up panting on my bed. The sun was shining outside and it took me some time to realize that I had a nightmare but I could still hear people talking I looked around and noticed that both the windows were wide open. I instantly looked at the door, it was still locked from inside and then I looked around, nothing was out of the place and nothing was missing. I got up and looked out of the window and saw some people putting up the Christmas lights and the maid was cleaning the porch. I closed the windows and I thought to myself maybe the servants or electricians have opened it while putting the Christmas lights. But how? It was locked from the inside, may be strong wind or monkeys might have opened it but then nothing was taken or out of place in the room. I decided that I would ask the servants and the workers about it later.
When I reached the living room Prabhanjan, Gautam, Jeet and Aunty weren’t there, Rishab was crying and Payel was trying to make him stop by distracting him with her cell phone. Girls were sitting quietly at the dining table having tea. I said ‘Good Morning people’ while pouring a cup of tea for myself ‘is Rishab still upset about last night? And where is everyone else?’
Natasha looking little sad said, “the dog died last night and Guys and mom have gone to bury him.”
“What!!! How?” I wasn’t expecting it at all.
Chandani said, “we don’t know, the maid found him lying down near the stairs near the main gate in the morning when she came in for work.”
“Maybe it was very cold outside last night.”
Natasha said, “No the dogs in this area are used to the cold, he’s seen far worse.”
“May be he was old or sick.”
“May be,” said Natasha.
Meanwhile, Aunty and the guys came back… they looked exhausted. We didn’t ask them anything and they also didn’t say much. Christmas was a few days away and the ambiance was already depressing and morose. In such conditions, I didn’t want to bring up the matter of ‘ambiguous windows’. I decided it was best not to discuss that now, may be will ask about it when things settle down a bit.
Thankfully there were few friends coming over for lunch so we all got busy with preparations. At lunch, everyone looked happier the mood was certainly lifted. Tanmay and his wife Bali were a delight to talk to and the prankster of the group Magan made lot of jokes, which helped, eased the tension. Soon everyone got involved in the conversation and was having fun, it looked like the gloomy fog has been lifted with every smile and laughter. It’s amazing how quickly we moved past the problems and started having a good time. I was happy that everyone got over the death of the dog and things were getting better… but I was never been more wrong. The situation was about to get even worse.
Magan who was sitting right opposite Chandani cracked another joke which made us all break into laughter, Magan raised his hands seeking a high-five, Chandani acknowledged, she got up from her chair and high-fived Magan and while getting back her elbow hit the bowl of custard and it fell on the floor and broke, making a mess. Chandani and Aunty quickly got up to clean it.
Gautam was unusually quiet so far shouted, “you are always so clumsy Chandani, why can’t you be little more careful?”
We were all little surprised by his sudden outburst.
Aunty tried to calm him down saying “relax it’s not a big deal, it’s a small table.”
“No Aunty it is always like this I am tired of her carelessness. “
Chandani who was quiet so far couldn’t stop herself, she snapped back at Gautam “WHAT? What are you talking about?”
Others on the table tried to step in and asked them to calm down. But Chandani felt really insulted and was not about to keep quiet.
She continued, “tell me when was I careless before? Gautam you always do this when we are having a good time. Say what you really want to say don’t make up stories about my carelessness. I know what really is your problem” she said briefly looking at Magan.
Gautam pushed the plate and got up from his chair in a rage saying “Oh really? Should we make a list of how careless you have become Chandani? The biggest example is that you lost Rishab…”
And if there were any hopes of calming them down it was lost by the mention of that incident. Natasha got up and took both of them out of the dining room into another room.
We were done with the lunch as we lost our appetite, after clearing the table we all sat by the TV pretending to watch it while the argument between the happy couple continued for another couple of an hour. And then suddenly Chandani stormed out of the house, Lisa got up to go after her but Natasha stopped her saying ‘Let her be, give her some time alone.’
Prabhanjan tried to control the situation, he said, “I know how to fix everyone’s mood… let’s do bonfire tonight!!”
The best part about Mussoorie is one can have a bonfire anytime of the year. After the evening tea Prabhanjan, Jeet and I started preparing for the bonfire, we went to the market to get the snacks and beverage. After coming back we collected the logs from a small store that was right under my room at the west end of the house. Prabhanjan showed us the right way to set the logs for the bonfire.
Chandani was back by then and had calmed down. She came back and apologized to everyone for the little outburst before.
Things looked normal with Gautam and Chandani but one can still see the lingering tension between them.
By 8:30 in the evening Pranbhanjan started the fire and people started settling down around it. Chandani and Natasha took one corner, Jeet, Gautam, and Prabhanjan got busy with making their drinks, Tanmay and I were finding it difficult to sit at one place as the smoke kept coming towards us. Bali came out little late and sat next to Chandani. Magan came out of the house with Aunty and settled down next to Bali.
Rishab was sitting on Payels lap and was unusually quiet. The fire grew bolder and was going strong, drinks and conversations started flowing, that is when Natasha noticed Lisa is missing. She asked,
“Jeet where is Lisa?”
“She had a mild headache so she went to take a nap when we were leaving for market”
“Call her and ask her to come down.”
“I did a little while ago she was getting dressed and she said she’ll be down in 15 minutes.”
“How long ago was that?”
“I don’t know exactly but it’s been a while now.”
“Ok let me call her then.” Said Natasha and took out her phone from the pocket and dialed Lisa’s number. The call went unanswered, she tried, again and again, it went unanswered.”
Jeet said “let me try” and dialed his wife’s number. It rang for a long time and went unanswered. Jeet looked at Natasha and said, “let me go and check.” He got up and left for his room, he went from the west side of the house, getting up the small iron stairs, crossing my room and through the dimly lit back corridor.
On his departure, Magan said, “I hope he comes back quickly, not picking up calls is an old trick to call the hubby in the room away from the crowd” and winked.
“Shut up… Mag..” Natasha was interrupted by the phone call. “It’s Jeet,” she said and picked up the call.
“Oh my God how?” she got up saying that… then she said and “ok” ran towards their room telling us to follow her.
Chandani asked, “What happened?”
“I don’t know, Lisa fainted.” Natasha said while running towards their room.
We all instantly got up and followed Natasha, as we crossed my room and pushed the corridor door open we saw Jeet trying to pick Lisa up from the floor. She was lying on her back near the old rocking chair. We rushed to help Jeet. After putting Lisa on their bed Aunty got some water and sprinkled on her face she gained consciousness and took a sip of water. Moments later when she came back to her senses she shrieked and sat back up and curled her knees to her chest.
“It’s ok beta it’s ok,” Aunty said stroking her hair “it’s just us. You are fine, it’s ok”
She looked really frightened, lost the color of her face. She looked pale.
“Why you look so sacred? Have you seen a ghost?” Magan joked.
She had tears in her eyes, looked up at Magan. Magan took a step back sensing things are really serious and it’s not a good time for a joke.
Natasha asked “What happened Lisa?” sitting close to her with her arm around her.
Lisa said “I… I …. I do n’t… know… “ her words came out in short bursts of staccato. Aunty offered her some more water and asked her to calm down and tell us what happened. She drank some water and took some deep breaths and continued… “I don’t know what was it… I usually go through Chandani and Gautam’s room to go down but their room was closed from inside so I had to take the corridor” saying that she bursted into tears and was visibly shaken. Aunty and girls comforted her.
Chandani looked at us and said, “we keep the door locked since the incident with Rishab.” We nodded in agreement. Meanwhile, Lisa calmed down a bit and composed herself.
The corridor has a one dimly lit bulb with a shade hanging top of it which makes the makes the light fall in a 45-degree angle on both sides and beyond that is darkness.
Lisa continued, “As I stepped into the corridor I felt very uncomfortable and I definitely felt someone’s presence. But I ignored and walked towards the exit. As I stepped ahead I felt someone walking behind me. I didn’t have the courage to turn back but as I walked passed the rocking chair I felt like it moved and I turned back to check it and I saw… oh my God… I saw a pair of legs and as I turned back it stepped back into the darkness. I panicked and as I turned quickly and tried to run missed a step and everything went dark.”
“What kind of legs Lisa?” Jeet asked? “Some animals perhaps a dog?”
“No no it was human legs. I clearly remember… bare feet, dirty, very dirty, pale and and… I don’t know… very scary.”
Lisa was quite shaken and didn’t want to stay up there so we moved her down. The bonfire was still burning handsomely, but no one was in a mood to sit around it. We sat in the living room for a while, Lisa wanted to lie down, Aunty suggested that she should have the dinner first and go to bed early. Everyone else had dinner little earlier. After dinner Magan, Tanmay and Bali left a bit early than they had planned.
Natasha and Aunty tucked Lisa to bed and since she didn’t want to stay alone Natasha stayed back with her. Chandani and Gautam took the Rishab and Payel and went back to their room. Prabhanjan, Jeet and I remained in the living room. Jeet was lying on the divan while talking to us soon dozed off while Prabhanjan and I continued talking, we were in no mood to go to bed that early.
Prabhanjan said, “Weird things are happening since the last couple of days, isn’t it? First Rishab wandering off and then Gautam and Chandani’s brawl, I’ve known them for ages and I have never even seen them in a heated arguing let alone fighting and name calling and then this.”
“There’s one more thing which I didn’t tell you guys.” I said.
“What?” he looked at me surprised.
I told him about the book and wide-open window and how I got up to find that the dog died that night.
Prabhanjan got up to make a drink for himself while pouring the drink he asked me if I want one I said yes. He made two glasses, gave one to me and sat down opposite me and said: “may be the guys putting up the Christmas lights opened it while working?”
“But it was bolted from inside.” I said.
“If one pushes once or twice the latches come loose and open up.”
“May be but the sound of banging on the window would have woke me up from the sleep, no?”
He thought for a while and said “hmmm” and then he took a sip from his glass and asked me “what book is this? Where did you get this”?
I told him all about how I got the book and about the old ruins of the bungalow up in the hills the old man who gave it to me.
“I know that place, I’ve been there a couple of times with my friends for seeking adventure but it’s deserted, no one lives there,” said Prabhanjan.
“What about the old and the small shack behind the bungalow?” I asked.
“Dude there’s no shack there and there’s no old man there. You can ask aunty in the morning. If there’s anything she would definitely know about it.”
We talked and drank till 2 in the night and then went to sleep. I went back to my room, closed the door behind me, changed into night dress and took the book from my bed and kept it on the table, switched off the lights and went to sleep.
I woke up in the morning and immediately looked around, the windows were thankfully closed, I got up from the bed and looked out of the window, it beautiful sunny 24th December morning. Breathing a sigh of relief I freshened up and went down for the morning chai and breakfast. Everyone was already there having the morning tea. I took a cup of tea and walked out on the porch, Lisa was standing near the boundary looking down the valley, lost in some thought, I thought she was basking in the sun. I went close to her and took a sip from my cup and then turned to her and asked, “Are you feeling better now?” She smiled and nodded positively but her smile wasn’t entirely convincing, I didn’t dig any further. There was a pregnant silence between us and I was wondering how to start a conversation when Aunty called me from the house. I went back inside and Aunty took me to her room, Natasha was already there and Prabhanjan entered the room behind us. Aunty asked me “Where is the book?”
“It’s in my room,” I said.
“Can you go and get it?”
I said “Sure” and immediately left to get it. I reached my room and opened the door and went to the table where I kept it last night. The book wasn’t there. I looked on to the other table; it wasn’t there as well. So I looked at my bed, inside my bag and everywhere else… everything was in its place except the book. The first thing came to my mind was that Prabhanjan took and book and trying to pull a prank on me. I looked around once again; under my pillow and my bed I found nothing. I went back to Aunty’s room and said: “Ok very funny, where is the book Prabhanjan?”
“How would I know?” He replied.
“It’s not in the room, last night before sleeping I kept it on the table and didn’t move it after that.”
Aunty went to her bed and picked up the pillow and took out the book saying, “Here it is, it was found on the stairs near the school this morning at 6. How did it reach there?”
I was dumbfounded.
She continued “You guys were awake until late last night, drinking, you must have taken it there and dropped it.”
“Not at all Aunty,” I said quickly “first of all we were not that drunk, we just had a couple of drinks and why would we go towards that side in the dark?”
Natasha said, “perhaps a monkey took it from your room and dropped it there.”
“The windows and door were closed and if a money were to enter the room why would he just take the book, there were so many other things which were untouched? And moreover look at the book’s condition it doesn’t look torn or disheveled. It must be a very sophisticated monkey” I said sarcastically.
They didn’t look amused. Prabhanjan said, “tell Aunty how you got the book.” They all looked at me so I narrated the entire story again. They didn’t react for a while and then Aunty said, “How did you say that old man looked?”
I described the old man “he looked like he must be in his 80’s bald head clean shaved about 5 ft. 6 inches wearing a long old dusty faded green over coat, a loose khaki pant and had a thick round black-rimmed glasses on his nose.”
Aunty got up without a word went to the cupboard on the wall and took out old albums from the bottom shelve. Flipped the pages and stopped at one and brought it to me and said pointing at an old picture “is this him?” Prabhanjan and Natasha came around to have a look as well. It was an old pic of Aunty’s school with old school teachers and staff standing in a straight row. At the extreme right stood an old, bald man wearing a green over coat khaki pants and thick black-rimmed glasses.
I was flabbergasted, scared and all sorts of emotions going through me and I said “YES” enthusiastically. Listening to that Aunty sat down on the bed looking either worried or scared I couldn’t tell the difference. Natasha sat down next to her and asked: “What happened, mom?” Prabhanjan also sat down next to her and asked the same question.
Aunty took a deep breath and said. “It was a long time ago. His name was Fagu and he was the caretaker of the school, he loved the children, he would play with them and he would tell them stories whenever the children had a free period. He used to stay in that small room near the main gate. He was found dead one morning on the school stairs. “
Natasha turned the picture and found the date stamp of the photographer “Oh my God 1992, that’s 25 years before. When did he die?”
“He died 3 years after this picture was taken, in the winters of 1995.”
“That’s still 22 years ago, so why now?” Natasha asked.
Aunty didn’t have any answer for that, she was quiet for a while and then she said “Fagu use to work for Darrel Messy, a missionary, he lived up the hills in a bungalow. He passed away in 1963 and his children and wife moved back to London leaving the old and bungalow behind.” Looking at me she continued, “It must have been the same bungalow you found that day.” And then she turned to Natasha and said: “your grandfather found Fagu living at that old bungalow alone so he got him here and gave him a job in our school.”
When she stopped speaking we were all quiet for a while, didn’t know what to make of it or what to do.
I asked all three of them “what shall we do with the book?”
“Don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of it” saying that Aunty got up and while leaving the room she turned to us and said “don’t look so worried, it’s ok, let’s prepare for the Christmas Eve. Let’s rejoice and celebrate for the Lord shall take care of everything.”
“Amen,” said Natasha.
That evening we all decorated the Christmas tree and gathered around it. For the first time of the year, it started snowing and it added to our Christmas spirit. Aunty lit up the Bukhari or the fireplace and it felt rather nice. Few of us went close to it to get the warmth of the fire and I noticed few pages and the back of a book burning with the logs. I immediately recognized the book, I turned to look at Aunty, and she was busy singing Christmas carols with Rishab on her lap. I joined them in singing and dancing. At the stroke of midnight, we all joined hands while Aunty prayed for all of us and thought she didn’t say it loud but I know she prayed for the Fagu’s soul to rest in peace.
We celebrated till late night and went to sleep quite late. but all of us got up early and went to the Church on the snowy Christmas morning. Rest of the stay was uneventful and happy. Lisa looked a lot better and confident, Rishab was back at his naughty self, playing around, asking a million questions, and everyone else looked happy.
Soon it was time to say goodbye, my flight was at late in the night on 26th. I bid farewell to everyone at 9 and drove off to the airport in a taxi. The driver took the road on the right, as there would be less traffic. The roads were dark and curvy and barely 10 minutes on the road at a turn the taxi’s headlight fell on a man walking at the side of the street in the dark. He was wearing a green over coat and khaki pants, that’s all I could see from behind. My heart skipped a beat. But the curiosity got the better of me and as we drove past him I couldn’t help but turn while trying to get a better look at his face, but I couldn’t as it was dark. However, I kept looking and at that time an on coming car’s headlight fell on his face for a couple of seconds… and I got a quick look, he was wearing a money cap, had a thick black mustache and a beard.
I heaved a sigh of relief and smiled at my predicament, and then I realized probably all the Gorkha’s or the chowkidar’s or locals wear a dress like that and I might have met someone else that day. As a matter of fact, all the incident that happened seemed coincidental. Lisa scares easy so she must have imagined things, Rishab is naughty he must have gone running behind the dog. The dog must be old and died a natural death. But I didn’t have any explanation for the book. How did it end up at the school stairs was beyond me? Then I thought let it be, let some mysteries remain mysterious after all that’s what makes Mussoorie what it is… mysterious and beautiful.