Anjili entered the cavernous main hall of Chandratraal. The smell of fresh varnish greeted her. She took in the freshly painted cornices. The floor and the wooden panels gleamed with the fresh coat of wax. Today the newly installed fireplace would start working. Anjilihad insisted that the electric fire did not change the façade of the old one. After several arguments and plans, the installation engineers and restorers had come to a plan that they agreed on. As she examined the fireplace, she saw that the their ideas had worked wonderfully.
Anjili Jha, the self-appointed caretaker for her childhood home, had been coming to the mansion almost everyday for the past four months – ever since the restoration of Chandrataal started. It was her pet project, a debt that she had to pay to the house for the happy years of childhood and youth she had spent here. But as they grew and the business spread, the house nestled in the difficult mountains of Chanderpore had been left behind, becoming first a family home to visit during the university days and then merely a summer retreat. Still it was home, the place they would rush to whenever they had time.
But after Babuji’s death three years ago, and the developments thereafter, it had been left behind literally. By everyone. There was no one to claim the beloved mansion. According to her brother Arnav, it was no longer their house and the sooner they detached themselves from its pull the better. And so he had left after babuji’s death and never set a foot back in the house. He was angry. Angry with babuji, angry with Chandrataal- both of whom he had loved with all the devotion his young heart could muster, and both of whom, he felt had betrayed him in the end. Anjili understood.
Now only Malti aunty and Sheetal continued to stay at Chandrataal. Aunty had been bed-ridden for months now but she refused to move out of the house. Chandanpur would have been much more convenient with the local hospitals and Sheetal’s college nearby. But aunty persisted in staying in Chandrataal, tying Sheetal to the house as well.
Soon they might all have to part. Someone had to explain that to the old woman.
Anjili shook off the melancholy thoughts as she stepped into the west wing. Some workers were already around, holding hot cups of tea before they began the day’s work. They would be gone soon. Perhaps by next week as their supervisor Ashwin had informed her – all except Khushi. She would be here for months to come. Good for the old house, Anjili thought as she walked to the corridor where her small office waited for her. It had been too empty for too long.
Khushi’s arrival had brought some relief for Anjili. Ever since she had walked into Anjilii’s office last week, the two girls had forged a bond that was growing stronger by the day. Sitting together during the tea breaks was a common habit. Anjili knew Khushi still felt uncomfortable in the large house and she tried her best to see to her comfort during the day time. But it was too lonely and silent in the nights. And Khushi being a city girl was certainly not used to it. She often talked about sleepless nights.
Only if Arnav would return, she would breathe in peace.
He had to, soon. He had been three years too late. Their time had almost run out. Anjili put her bag on the side of the table. The inventory of tea plantation waited for her on the table. As she settled back in her chair, Sheetal entered with a hot cup of tea.
‘Good morning Sheetal. Kaisi ho?’ Anijili smiled. Sheetal was a few years younger than her, around Arnav’s age.
‘Fine, Anjili di.’
‘And how is Malti aunty?’
‘She had been slightly excited and restless over the week. Perhaps if you could bring Nisha along to spend some time with her. You know how she loves the child.’
‘Of course. I will ask their father to drop them after lunch. Anyways now that it is summer holidays, they get bored at home.’
Sheetal nodded and looked around. Anjili searched her mind to say something.
‘If there is nothing….’ Sheetal seemed eager to leave.
‘No. Nothing that I need. You can take care of the breakfast for the workers. Something special this week. Its their last here,’ Anjili said. Sheetal turned to leave. She was at the door when Anjili called out. ‘If Khushi is awake ask her to join me….and get a cup of tea for her.’
Sheetal’s jaw tightened slightly and as she had often felt through the week, Anjili felt disapproval rolling off in waves. She resents my friendship with Khushi, the irrational thought struck her with a resounding clarity. But why? We have never been close though we have lived in the same house most of our lives. Sheetal…Sheetal had always preferred Arnav’s company. It was like watching a beautiful cold stone statue come to life when Arnav was around. But she had no reason to resent Anjili’s friendship with Khushi.
The uncomfortable train of thought was interrupted by Khushi’s arrival and the remainder of the hour passed in their usual morning talks. Khushi had made some progress with the paintings. She mentioned the landscape she would start working on today – deframe it, perhaps begin with light cleaning and go on from there. Her eyes shone brightly as she described the procedure to Anjili. After exploring the paintings for nearly a week of, Khushi was eager to begin. Her passion was obvious.
‘You are right to begin with the landscape. Perhaps Arnav should come and take a call on portraits and all…see what has to be done about them,’ Anjili sighed.
‘I don’t understand. I thought I was here to restore them all.’
‘Of course. You must restore them to some extent, make them presentable at least if we have to sell them or give them to some art collectors.’
‘Oh. You plan to sell…they are such a treasure. All your ancestors…’
‘Not ours. I am sure you must have heard that Arnav and I are adopted. Anyway, Baba never liked those paintings.’
Khushi asked off-handendly. ‘Disliked? The paintings of his ancestors?’
‘Yes.He hated them. Just stowed them away in the attic when his father died. After some time, they were put in the gallery but he never saw to them himself. The gallery was locked thereafter. It was…was like he couldn’t stand seeing them at all.’
Ungrateful man, Khushi mused. To have inherited their wealth, their house and still shunned the family. She did not say it aloud. There was a wealth of love and respect in Anjili’s voice when she mentioned her Baba. No point hurting the daughter’s feelings for the long dead father.
‘And you feel the same,’ she said instead.
Anjili shrugged. ‘We were old when we came here. I was 12 and Arnav was almost 10. THe portraits had been stowed away at the time. And we knew we did not belong to the family. But we belonged to Baba, and he, to us,’ Anjili looked at the landscape outside for the moment lost in her thoughts. ‘Only if he hadn’t showered such love on us, perhaps it would have been easier in the end.’ She had forgotten Khushi’s presence.
‘what do you mean in the end?’
Anjili looked around with a start and flashed an embarrassed smile. ‘Stupid me. I was just thinking aloud. You begin with the landscapes. The rest Arnav can decide.’
‘Is he going to come soon? You said he hasn’t been here for three years.’
‘Yes. But our time here has run out. He has to come. And before that I should finish my bit….and you should do yours. ’Anjili picked up a file on her desk and smiled.
With that enigmatic statement, Anjili returned to her work eagerly. They are going to sell this beautiful mansion, Khushi concluded as she walked towards the gallery. But what did she mean by saying their time had run out? It was of no concern to her, Khushi told herself firmly. But over the week she had spent here, Khushi had grown used to the old place. She still got lost and came upon unexpected rooms and passages. But the mansion was exciting, full of treasures she longed to explore. For instance, the wall in the bedroom in the west wing that Aswin had shown her. She agreed that there seemed to be a mural behind the layer of paint. If only she had time and freedom to work on it…Perhaps she would ask Arnav Singh Raizada, if and when he came.
Lunch was a pleasant affair with the twins and Anjili served in one of the small rooms near the kitchen. Sheetal joined them often. Aditi was garrulous as usual, and Nisha quiet as always in a gathering. She would talk only when spoken to. Sheetal, on the occasions she joined them, behaved like a member of the family, at times reproving Aditi of her exuberance and coaxing Nisha to speak and eat. It was clear which twin was her favourite. Not that Aditi minded. She was a comfortable, happy and secure child. So seemed Nisha – but their was an added air of mystery in her silence. Khushi often felt Nisha staring at her though the child would turn away as soon as she turned to her.
Post lunch that day, Khushi returned to the landscape. Deframing the painting had taken a lot of time. The nails on the frame had rusted in the moisture of the attic. Though she had used her pliers and chisel, her hands were still raw. She decided to some light cleaning and call it a day.
In the early hours of the evening, she took her book and found her way out to the garden that had been beckoning her eversince she had arrived. It was on the hillside, some way below the house. Khushi turned around to take in the sight of the mansion framed against the setting sun. Its gleaming white walls offset by the multicolored profusion of rhododendrons, primulas and jacaranda. Flowers scented air and the breeze filtered through the towering Deodars. Near the boundary of the estate, a sheer slope gave an impression of standing at the end of the world. A seat waited for her there.
Khushi tried to read but found it difficult to concentrate. The beauty of the scene was mesmerizing. She sat back absorbing the sight, sounds and smell.
It hadn’t been long when the curious sensation of being watched crept down her spine. She tried to shake it away. It was all in her mind, she told herself. Perhaps the sensation had become her constant companion since she started working in the gallery with the old Malik ancestors peering down at her through the day. Or may be it had to do with the windows of the house overlooking the garden. She would be clearly visible even from ground floor of the mansion. Khushi looked up at them. who would want to watch her? And if someone did, how did it matter? You’re being absurd, she chided herself.
She tried to go back to the book once again. But only a few minutes had passed when she was startled by a pair of hands placed over her eyes. Unable to repress the shudder, she said sharply. ‘Who is it?’ Khushi touched the hands. They were small and smooth. A low chuckle from the side of head said: ‘You have to guess.’
The child rushed in front of her. ‘Wrong.’
‘Really? I don’t think so.’
She shrugged. ‘How can you be sure?’
‘I knew it is you.’
‘It could be Nisha.’
‘But Nisha wouldn’t do something like that. She…she is a bit shy, I think.’
‘Perhaps you are wrong. I am Nisha,’ the girl jumped up on the seat next to her. ‘You sounded scared.’
‘I was startled. Do you twins make a habit of creeping up on people?’
‘Nah, only me.’ She stood still, her eyes narrowed as she watched Khushi carefully, looking searchingly into her face. ‘Remember I told you, I had seen you somewhere.’ She put her face so close that Khushi could see her reflection in her eyes.
‘Yes, you did, Nisha.’ It was Nisha who had made that startling announcement the first day in the gallery.
‘I have seen you in a painting.’
‘Yes, somewhere. I don’t remember. wearing Red. In a garden, here among the mountains.’
‘Now I know you are telling me stories. I have never been here. Ever.’
‘It isn’t a story. I am telling you. I have seen you.’
‘Then where is it? Where is that painting? Show me..’ Khushi folded her arms and looked at the child. Nisha had an overactive imagination.
‘Perhaps in the gallery,’ she scrunched up her eyes in an effort to remember.
‘Not possible. There is no such painting in the gallery.’
‘Then somewehre else. But I have. I have.’
Khushi smiled at her vehemence. Ever since they had met, Nisha had been trying to startle her. This story was her latest attempt.
‘You don’t believe me,’ Nisha was piqued. ‘Ok. Laugh at me. But I will find out, you know. I am good at finding things…and hiding them too.’
‘And at watching over people.’ Khushi was sure it was Nisha who had been watching over her from the house.
‘I was in Malti Dadi’s room,’ the girl shrugged not bothering to deny. ‘We like to watch this garden,’ Nisha was offended by Khushi’s refusal to belief her. She had been watching her with Sheetal’s ailing mother. Khushi hadn’t met her.
‘Nisha!’ someone called out. Nisha and Khushi turned from their perch on the mountainside. Anjili and Aditi were waving from the gate of the mansion. ‘Time to go home’ Aditi cupped hands around her mouth and called out.
Nisha jumped down the seat and dusted away her pink skirt demurely.
‘You guys are leaving early today,’ Khushi muttered, uneasy at the thought of an empty evening.
‘We have to go to a birthday party. ’ Nisha rushed along but turned at the edge of the garden. ‘I will find out and then you will know. I don’t lie.’ With that, she ran away to join her mother and sister who were already waving a goodbye.
Khushi trudged along the deodar lined path as the car drove off. Bright sunlit of the afternoon was fading fast. Dark grey clouds gathered over the horizon. There was a flash of lightening. Khushi flinched. She had never been scared of some lightening or thunder or even storms for that matter. But then she had never been alone in a nearly isolated strange mansion. The thought made her uneasy. The sound of swaying deodars sounded eerie in the silence. Goosebumps rose as she felt the cold air against her skin. Khushi pulled her jacket closer as the dusty breeze blew in the rain laden clouds. The surroundings darkened some more. Khushi hurried on. It was going to be a long night.
Here is the next chapter…after a long long time. I faced a story block and lack of inspiration plus real life happening. But things have settled a bit and I am back. I know I must have lost many readers in the last few months. But who so ever is still around, please comment.
As you can see , I have turned this into an Arnav Khushi story. To inspire myself to move ahead and to lure the readers as well . 😀 A very different genre though. Again it is not horror, not supernatural, just some suspense, thrills and chills.