Khushi missed her family. Usually she took it in stride. Though she loved the family, most of the times her love for work was enough to replace them. Not so today.
A soft glow of night lamp illuminated the photograph she held in her hand. It was a family portrait. Her mother had one of her arms around her son and daughter – Khushi’s siblings – Payal and Aman – over a decade younger than her. They stood between their mother and father beaming at the camera.
Her mother’s other arm was arm around her. Everyone who met Khushi and her mother first were first startled by the likeness. Khushi they said, was a copy of her mother – broad forehead, dark eyes, a button nose and a heart-shaped face that tapered into a pointy chin – if it was not for the fine lines of age, her mother could have easily passed off as her twin. Today, finally in the house that she had been trying to reach for years, Khushi wished she was miles away with her family. The photograph stirred intense longing. Sitting alone in the large room that was assigned to her – for a moment Khushi felt far more lonely than she had ever been in her life.
She set the picture on the bedside carefully and looked around. Her room was right above the picture gallery unlike the rest of the team which was living in the west wing which they were renovating. Also on the ground floor were Sheetal and her widowed mother who had been living in Chandrataal for last twenty years – ever since Arvind Malik hired her to look after Anjili and Arnav. At the back of the house were the rooms for the servants. So all in all, the house wasn’t empty. But Khushi was aware of being alone on the first floor.
‘I hope you aren’t afraid,’ Anjili had asked her when she showed her the room. It was a large room with an adjacent bathroom. ‘This is the most modernized part of the house. You will be comfortable. Arnav’s room is also here. Though he hasn’t been here for so long. And so is mine, or the one that used to be mine when we lived here.’
‘And…and your father’s?’ Khushi asked cautiously.
‘Papa had trouble with stairs. So he stayed downstairs. It was easier for Malti aunty also to look after him.’ Anjili sat herself down on one of the large blue-green tripped couches in the room. The antique teakwood furniture and bright blue-green furnishings lent warmth to the room. Khushi was already in love with the beautiful four poster bed.
‘Sheetal’s mother. She came to live here a year after us. Our caretaker, governess, mother –whatever you want to call her. She is a widow. Chandrataal is Sheetaland Malti aunty’s home too.’ Anjili said softly staring into some distance as if some other thoughts had overtaken her mind for the moment.
Khushi turned over the information in her head. Arvind Malik seemed to have gathered people around him to make a family – a widow with a daughter, orphan siblings, all living happily in this vast house. ‘Hopefully it made him feel better,’ Khushi muttered with a wryly twisted mouth.
‘Did you say something?’
‘Nah…nothing. My stuff is here. I think I would unpack later. I want to meet the rest of the team and see the pictures.’
‘Sure, they are the working in the west wing. Once you are ready, just come down. Sheetal will take you to them. It’s easy to get lost here. I just have to check some accounts of the estate.’
‘You look after the estate. Your brother?’
Anjili’s face clouded for a moment before she forced a smile. ‘He…he hasn’t come for three years. The business in Delhi is growing fast. Here it just tea and some timber. I am usually able to manage. But I don’t know for how long. We have to decide.’
‘Oh forget all that,’ Anjili shrugged evasively. This was the first time since their meeting that she was avoiding a chat. Khushi felt curious before she told herself firmly that it was none of her concern. She just wanted to see this place once. Now that she had, she would just complete her work and return to her old life in a few weeks. ‘Come down soon,’ Anjili’s voice brought her back to the present. ‘You can meet your team. And have lunch with them.’
‘There you are. At last,’ Ashwin who was supervising the restoration team enveloped Khushi in a big hug. They had often worked together in the past. Khushi was grateful to find a friend in a strange place.
‘I am so glad to find you here.’
‘Don’t count on it too much. You would be working in the picture gallery in the main house. And we are here in the west wing. Moreover, we would finish soon. Whereas you are going to take some time.’
‘Really?’ Khushi raised her eye brow in query.
‘Of course, have you seen the number of pictures in the gallery?’
Khushi shook her head.
‘Then you must. I will give you a tour of the gallery after lunch. It is fascinating. Quite a few paintings. Which means that you would be here for some time, Khushi.’
‘And she would need all her energy. Let her eat first,’ quipped Neha, another member of the team.
In a small room off the corridor that the team as working in, Sheetal along with some other helpers, served food. It was regular homely fare. Sheetal served it hot and handed the plate to Khushi.
Khushi smiled at the girl. ‘Where is Anjili?’
‘She is busy. There are other things on the estate…to be taken care of.’ Sheetal said it with a smile. It was a strange tightening of muscles. The warmth stopped somewhere between her stretched lips and blank eyes. The beautiful features took on a frozen quality. Khushi had a feeling that she had been put in place. Still she tried.
‘And you? Why don’t you join us?’
‘We take care of the guests and workers first. The members of the household will eat later.’ This time Khushi nodded and moved back towards her friends, as the girl had meant her to. She noticed as Sheetal ordered around the servants and made sure that everyone was well looked after. She smiled graciously at some of the team members who tried to flirt with her. A perfect host – cool and poised, the daughter of the housekeeper was undoubtedly an interesting figure. Such a contrast to Anjili. Khushi wondered how Sheetal and Anjili got along. Sheetal counted herself as the member of the household. And why not? She had always lived here. Chandrataal was home to her.
Four months minimum, Khushi assessed as she looked around the paintings. Paintings were in different states of deterioration – some more than the others. It was clear that they had not been handled by art experts. Many of them hadn’t even been taken down once they had been put up in the gallery for the first time. Khushi would be working alone which the rest of the team was working together in another section of the house. Perhaps she should have asked for a helper. But then she had been so obsessed by Chandrataal that she hadn’t wanted to share this experience with anyone. Now as she looked around the cavernous gallery, she felt alone despite Ashwin’s friendly presence. The portraits of previous owners of the house, men, women and children dominated the walls. Here and there were smaller landscapes, even a painting of the house captured from downhill. But it was the portraits, several pairs of long dead eyes that stared down at her. They sent a strange shiver down her spine. Working here for months! She would always feel that she was being watched. Khushi looked around uneasily till she spotted a small alcove in the far corner. It offered a view of the hillside. Perhaps she would work there.
‘That was the last owner of the house,’ Ashwin’s words caught her attention. Khushi went to stand before the portrait he was pointing to.
It must have been painted in his youth. For Arvind Malik looked young – young, handsome and suave – a man of the world. Dressed in formals, looking straight at the onlooker, the lips caught in a strange half smirk as if he knew that he was far above all those who stood admiring him. Khushi stared at the man.
‘He quite handsome, isn’t he?’ Ashwin must have noticed the way she was staring.
‘And quite a Casanova. According to the rumours, he had numerous affairs. There is even a scandal surrounding him and a girl from the town. His parents, there they are, were angry…very angry. They sent him away to study in America, they say. The real purpose was to keep him away from…sowing the wild oats.’
‘Not a very admirable character then. What else do the rumours say?’
‘Hey, I don’t go looking around for gossip. This we just learnt from Hariprakash, the man who does odd tasks here. Anyway, if you want to know, Arvind Malik did come back. He died here, on this estate three years ago.’
‘And what about the girl.’
‘who knows!There isn’t much known about the girl, or any other woman in Mr. Malik’s life. You know that Anjili and her brother are adopted.’
‘That is common knowledge.’
‘Yes, lucky guys – Anjili and her brother – to inherit this estate. Apparently they lost their parents in a car accident during a landslide in the mountains. Even Malik’s car was smashed. But not as badly. He saw the siblings there and brought them over to Chandrataal. When no one turned up to claim them, he adopted them officially.’
‘And you said you weren’t a gossip!’
‘I am not. Everyone knows all that. I was telling you all because you seemed quite taken in by handsome Mr. Malik.’
‘Handsome and spineless,’ Khushi muttered and quickly checked herself when she felt Ashwin’s startled gaze. ‘I mean if it is true that he left the girl when his parents ordered him to march.’
‘Still compassionate. I mean he brought up two orphans.’
Khushi shrugged nonchalantly. ‘Enough about the man! Let’s see other paintings. How long do you think your team would take?’ She was somewhat taken aback when Ashwin told her that they would finish in three weeks.
‘Perhaps you should ask the institute for someone to help you. You are going to take months.’
‘Perhaps I will ask for some one.’ Khushi said moodily. She usually liked to work alone. Working with someone else was distracting. But then she had never taken up such a long assignment till now. Khushi wandered around observing other paintings, already absorbed in the task. When Ashwin told her that he should be returning to the west wing where his own team was waiting, Khushi waved, already immersed in a mountainous landscape that she would work on first.
She had taken down the landscape and some other paintings, that were least damaged. Perhaps she would begin with them. But that was still a few days off. Khushi carefully numbered the paintings, assessed the repairs they required, all the while making notes about the paintings and the methods she would be using. Tomorrow she would get down her material.
She had been working for nearly two hours when she felt a presence. Perhaps it was the number of eyes in the room. They made her uncomfortable. She would have the paintings carried to the alcove, Khushi tried to shrug off the feeling. But it didn’t go away. Fifteen minutes later, it was still there, like a spider scuttling down her spine.
‘Is there someone?’ she felt foolish calling out in the empty room. She walked towards the entrance. ‘Hello?’
The sound of a giggle was almost unnerving in the silence. Khushi felt her heart rise to her throat as she stared around before spotted a pair of small pink clad feet near the door.
‘Who is it?’ her voice sounded nervous.
‘You are scared, aren’t you?’ the little girl stepped out from behind the door. ‘You were afraid.’
‘Well. Normal people do get scared when strangers creep up on them silently.’ Khushi answered in a mix of annoyance and amusement.
The little girl was dressed in all pink. Her large eyes stared at her inquisitively. ‘What were you scared of? Of the dead people in the gallery?’
‘They aren’t dead people. These are paintings.’
‘Still they look at you. They don’t event blink.I like to play who blinks first with them. And I talk to them when I am alone here. They are my friends.’
Khushi stared at her impish face. A jaunty ponytail stood still as the child herself – her solemn eyes that played ‘who blinks first’ with the dead were now fixed on Khushi . What a morbid game for a young child.
‘I have seen you somewhere,’ the little girl announced suddenly, still peering in Khushi’s face.
‘yes. I have. But I can’t remember now. I will. Soon.’
‘But I haven’t seen you. Who are you?’
‘Aditi. I know you are the painter.’
‘No. An art restorer.’ The little brow furrowed. A first genuine childish expression. Khushi smiled. ‘Forget it. What are you doing here?’
‘I came here with Mom. It’s our school holidays, you know.’
‘And where is Mom?’
‘Downstairs. I think she must be looking for me. I wanted to see you. Since you would be working with these people.’
‘Paintings.’ Khushi said firmly.
‘Yes. I will go now.’ Khushi watched the child in fascination as she moved towards the entrance to the gallery, before she turned around with a strange smile. ‘Don’t be afraid of them, Khushi. If you are afraid, they would scare you even more.’ She gestured around the gallery. ‘I will ask them not to scare you. They are my friends.’
She tripped along after those startling words. Khushi tried to shrug off the childish behavior, but the girl’s smile lingered. Her words kept coming back. An hour later she decided to call it a day. Perhaps by the morning she would be able to shake off this strange melancholia.
She stepped out of the gallery, turning towards the direction where she thought the kitchen would be. A right turn, and she found herself in a dimly lit corridor. Clearly she was mistaken. She was about to trace her steps back, when she heard Anjili’svoice from one of the rooms.
‘Eat fast. Where is your sister? You girls will drive me mad one day.’
‘I am eating.’ A childish voice interrupted the tirade.
Khushi walked in. It was a small office. The fading rays of afternoon scene lit up room. A large table with neat stacks on papers and files on the side, large book shelves behind it were also stacked with books, files and ledgers. On the couch near the entrance sat Anjili with a little girl. Aditi! So she was Anjili’s daughter.
‘Uh! Sorry. I lost my way from…from the gallery.’
‘No problem,’ Anjili invited her in. ‘I usually work here. This is the estate office.’
‘I hope I am able to find it next time. The house is so huge, and confusing.’
‘I am not confused.’ the little girl quipped.
‘Because you have been coming here for so many years. Khushi will also learn. Come Khushi, meet my daughter, Aditi.’
‘But we have already met.’
The girl looked puzzled. She stared at Khushi, turned back to her mother and shook her head. ‘No. I haven’t.’
‘But…but you came to the gallery. And you ..tried to scare me.’
‘No I did not!’ the reply was emphatic. ‘She is lying, Mom. I didn’t do anything today. I was with you.’
Khushi stared at the rude child before Anjili chuckled, puzzling her further. ‘It must have been Nisha.’
‘Aditi’s twin sister. They are identical twins. Usually it is difficult to tell the difference.’
‘But…she said she was Aditi.’
Anjili shook her head. ‘This is their favourite way of playing mischief with newcomers. Apparently Nisha must have seen you and decided to play the trick.’
‘But you can tell the difference. And Papa and Mamu. We can’t have any fun with you.’ Aditi pouted before her eyes turned to Khushi alit with unholy humour. But we will have our fun with you, they said clearly.
‘Very naughty!’ Khushi ruffled the girl’s hair accepting the challenge. Aditi smiled back openly, unlike Nisha who had left her with a strange smile and mysterious words. Like the twins, they seemed to have different temperaments. Perhaps she would be able to tell them apart soon. Khushi turned to Anjili. ‘I…I was looking for the kitchen. For a cup of tea. I shall begin with the paintings tomorrow. They…they are going to take some time. I am making notes and so on. Will give you the time and cost assessment once I have gone over them in detail.’
‘No problem. Come, we will have tea. I have to go home after that. It is going to be dark soon. Aditi go and fetch Nisha….’ Anjili’s chatter had an effect of making Khushi comfortable. Khushi let it wash over her as Anjili called for tea.
In the quite of her room that night, Khushi put away her stuff, the pictures that made her feel nostalgic, the book she attempted to read. Nothing worked. Sleep was miles away. She turned towards the window. It as a new moon – large and silvery – half obscured by the clouds in the sky that merged with the mist in the mountains. Far below there were smudged globes of light –perhaps from lights of the highway. It looked eerie. For a moment – she had a feeling that it house itself existed in another otherworldly dimension – somewhere hovering between the reality and dream. So much had happened since she set out for Chandapur yesterday (was it only yesterday?). She had thought that it would be an end of a long journey; and yet instead of serene restfulness, she felt as if she as embarking on a new strange path.