‘I am lonely. This Haveli, my home is lonesome too. There was a time when this Haveli brimmed with people. Laughter used to echo in the halls. There was life.
Sigh! Now silence reigns. Everyone is gone. Everyone left, one by one; everyone, except me.
I could never have left this place. It is home. It has memories. Every nook, every cranny of this Haveli has a story that I have been a part of, which I have lived. How could I have upped and left?
I don’t mind the solitude. But, sometimes I crave company. I want people to visit me.
I wrote invitations, asking people to come and visit. But, none did. No one bothered. I also wrote invitations on currency notes and scattered them hoping that the breeze would carry them into the lane. Aah! You laugh; laugh at this old woman’s foolhardy effort. I know the question on your mind – why currency notes? Well, think about it…have you ever found a currency note on the street and did not pick it up?
Maybe one day, someone will find one of my notes and come pay me a visit. For now, I am waiting…’
The locality of Basera Chowk lies in the heart of Old Delhi. Here random lanes criss-cross each other at obtuse angles, creating a matrix of residences, all squished together. The streets are narrow, branching off into narrower arterial lanes. Abutting this maze is a quiet lane called Punjabi Mohalla. It holds an undeniable quaint vibe and houses old Kothi’s*. At the end of the lane, some distance removed from these Kothi’s stands an old Haveli.
Set on its own acreage, the erstwhile splendorous Haveli today bears a derelict look. The facade is cracking in places, outer walls are crumbling and the grounds are overgrown. Rumour has it that faced with penury, the old lady, its sole occupant, chucked out all staff. Her reclusiveness has made her the cynosure of whispers. People speculate about her sanity. The rabid rumours have played their part in alienating her from the community. She has completely withdrawn from society and never ventures out. Some claim that the old lady died a while back and her ghost now haunts the Haveli and the grounds. Mothers have fuelled this gossip in the hope of keeping their inquisitive children out of the collapsing place. In its dilapidated state, it is dangerous.
Like the Haveli, the Kothi’s in the lane too have seen better days. The lure of greener pastures made younger inhabitants move out, leaving behind aged parents and extended family. But, like the call of the wild, the call of the Mohalla too perhaps echoed in the hearts those who moved away for recent years have seen many NRI’s flock back.
Maybe that is what also propelled Mr. Harjinder Bhullar to return from London with his wife and son Surinder (or Sunny). Like the well fitting tiles of a jigsaw puzzle, the family settled back into their old Kothi.
An unassuming, easy going lad, Sunny soon made friends, the dearest being Monty (or Mohinder) who lived a few Kothi’s down, in the lane. As different as chalk and cheese, the boys soon became bosom pals. While Sunny was shy and timid by nature, prim and proper in his British manner; Monty was mischievous, inquisitive and always keen to explore. A die hard Hardy Boys fan, Monty introduced Sunny to the world of mystery books and both boys spent many happy afternoons butting heads over mystery stories.
Their friendship blossomed. Life plodded along. A few months passed.
One afternoon the boys were walking back home from school…
“Oye*, what’s this?” Monty bent to pick up something. It was a currency note, soiled and grimy but who cared. It was free money. “Wow! Fifty rupees, I’m rich…” he danced clutching it. “Come Sunny…let’s go to Nandu halwai’s* for jalebi’s*. My treat!”
“Eww! Gross. How can you touch that filthy thing?”
“Oye, Mr. Foreign returned… this is India. Here we touch anything and everything that we get for free,” Monty chuckled. “C’mon now, you want jalebi’s or not?”
Sunny fished out his bottle of hand sanitizer and applied some. Touching the note was out of the question but the lure of jalebi’s was too great. His mouth watered. In any case, it wasn’t him but Monty who was holding the mottled thing. The germs will stick to his grimy hands. I’ll make sure he uses some sanitizer. Issue sorted, he followed.
“Oye, wait,” Monty stopped midstride. “There is something written on this note. Looks like an address. See…” Eyes shining in excitement Monty thrust the note at Sunny. “Wow…a mystery.”
Intrigued, Sunny forgot his germ phobia and grabbed it. “Holy-moly, you’re right. See here…it is an address. And,” he said squinting to read better, “there is something written above that too…a few words, I think. Can’t make out, it’s too mucky.”
The boys looked at each other in stupefied awe. It was all too exciting for their thirteen year old selves. A mystery note, a hidden message…oh, wow! Maybe, there would be a treasure map too. How awesome would that be!
Monty snatched the note back, spat on the words and rubbed with his thumb. The grime washed away somewhat to reveal – ‘Come and Visit’!
“Come and visit – That’s what’s written?” exclaimed Sunny. “Odd…very odd. Come and visit, but where?”
“Duh!” Monty scoffed, “Obviously, at this address. Why else would someone write ‘come and visit’ and then write the address right below that?”
Monty rolled his eyes, “I swear Sunny, sometimes you…are you sure you are London returned?”
“Oh, sod off mate. ‘Course I am. My accent’s proper British, isn’t it?”
Monty ignored Sunny’s bout of righteous indignance. He was bubbling with feverish thrill. A true mystery right in their lane…wow! It was riveting for the mystery buff. He took a closer look at the note. “O teri*,” he said, smacking his palm on his forehead. “I know where this address is.”
“Blimey! You do?”
“Yes, yes. It’s right here.”
“Here…” a perplexed Sunny looked around. All he could see were Kothi’s in various stages of neglect. “Errm…do you mean one of the Kothi’s?”
In exaggerated irritation Monty glared at his friend. Hey Waheguru! Give him some brains. “I don’t mean here…here,” he explained as if explaining a particularly difficult algebraic equation to a dim-witted child. “I mean ‘here’ as in at the end of the lane.”
Sunny turned to look at the far end. “You mean beyond that rusted old gate?” he asked, a twinge of fear creeping into his voice.
Sunny’s face paled. “Crikey! That’s the haunted Haveli.”
“Yesssssssss…I know.” Monty’s eyes sparkled. He rubbed his hands together in glee. “So exciting, right? I have always wanted to explore that.”
“Oh bollocks! I was ‘fraid you’d say that,” Sunny groaned. “You listen now; I’m not going in there,” he averred in diffidence, “absolutely not! My mother forbade it. She said the old woman’s ghost haunts the Haveli. The woman roams the grounds at night. Sometimes she howls. I have heard her.”
“Argh! How dumb can you be? Seriously, Sunny! That is a story our mothers tell us to keep us away from that place. It’s crumbling and they don’t want us getting hurt,” explained Monty in all earnestness. “And, as for old lady, she lives there – alive and well. But, she hates visitors. That is why the ‘keep out’ sign?”
Monty ground his teeth. Waheguru! “Dumbo, how can an old lady howl? Is she a wolf or what?” he scoffed. “It’s the wind. Nothing else,” he stated with conviction. “There is no ghost. Had there been one, would we be living in the same lane?” he reasoned.
“But… but mother said that her ghost haunts the grounds at night and no one who went in, ever came back out. They disappear…forever.”
“Bah! I’m telling you, it is a story to scare us. Now, stop making excuses. The woman clearly wants someone to visit. It says so right here on this note,” Monty asserted, extending the note. “We will go today evening. It will be an adventure.”
“Today? Mother would never…”
Patience Monty! “Why are you so scared of your mummy?”Monty bristled after taking a deep breath. “Fine…tell you what, not in the evening then. We’ll sneak out after bedtime. You mummy will never know. You better not go to sleep. I’ll come and fetch you around 10:30.”
“Fetch me? How? Mother will kill me if you ring the bell so late.”
Bu God, how dense can he be? “Duffer! You think I’m an idiot or what? Obviously, I’ll sneak in. No one will know, don’t worry. You be ready. That’s all.”
“But, how will I know you have come,” Sunny persisted. The plan seemed less appealing by the minute. Dear Lord! I don’t want to visit some scary old crone. What if she is a ghost in reality?
“You’ll know,” assured Monty rather cryptically and proceeded to outline the plan in detail. Sunny’s trepidation rose with each sentence. Although he tried his best to think of an excuse, he knew Monty would not back out. Left with no choice, he acquiesced. “Okay…fine. We’ll go tonight.”
That Night, 10:29 pm.
Monty threw a few loose pebbles at Sunny’s bedroom window on the first floor. The stones clanged against the glass and ricocheted off. Sunny pretended not to hear but soon the racket became unbearable. Oh bugger! He won’t leave me alone.
He opened the window, peeked out and hissed, “Shush! I’m coming.” This chap for sure is off his trolley. Darn it! I guess I’ll have to go with him now. Why did I ever agree to this scatterbrained plan?
Sunny grumbled and cussed under his breath but appeared at the front door. Side by side, both boys snuck off down the lane towards the Haveli. They stopped outside the imposing gate. Made of wrought iron and topped with sharp spears, it loomed a few feet above the outer wall like the entry way to hell. On full moon nights like tonight, the entire grounds looked lit by an eerie light. Clutching the note in his hand, Monty pushed open the gate.
The rusted hinges protested at the disturbance, screeching in annoyance. The clangour echoed in the night. Sunny jumped and cast a furtive look around. Crikey! That was too loud…
‘What is that sound? Could it be? Aha! Yes, it’s the main gate. Someone has opened it. Is someone coming?’
“C’mon Sunny, let’s go before someone sees us,” Monty whispered. “No, no…Leave the gate open. It made too much noise. C’mon…hurry up.”
The foliage and shrubs cast misshapen shadows on the grounds. This bloke is crazy as hell. Sunny gulped but followed. Yikes! It’s so dark. Thank god, he has a torch.
At Monty’s insistence, Sunny quickened his pace. I might as well follow him. Not like I have a choice. “Yeah! Let’s go.”
They reached the main door. It was ajar. “Monty look, the door is open.”
“Of course it’s open. The lady must have left it open. We can’t expect her to open the door again and again for visitors,” retorted Monty. “Still, we should knock.” He rapped hard on the door.
‘Is that a knock? Oh yes…yes. Someone has definitely come to visit. I am so happy. Finally, some company. I have been so lonely. Well, not tonight, it seems.
Oh, hello…The door is open, come in…come in. Oh dear, my voice is too feeble to reach the main door. Darn it! Curse this old age.’
The hard rap received no response. Monty pushed open the door. It whined as it swung open.
“No,” Sunny dug in his heels. “See now, you’ve had you mystery and stuff. Let’s go back now. It’s dark. This place is giving me the jeepers.”
“Yaar* you are such a fattu*.”
“I’m not a fattu,” Sunny flared, “Look at the place Monty. It’s scary. There is not a single light on in the house. It’s clear that no one is home. Let’s go,” he insisted. The place was giving him the willies. This place must be crawling full of spiders and creepy-crawlies. Ugh!
Monty grunted, disregarded his friend’s counsel and marched in flashing his torch. He checked out the outer hall and then proceeded towards the interior of the house. There was not a soul about. The dust made his nose twitch.
What the effin! Sunny bridled. What’s he up to? Such a git he can be. He was about to follow when something brushed against his leg.
“Yikes! Mice,” he squealed.
Monty howled. “Ha…ha. You’re scared of mice, Mr. London returned. Ha…ha.”
What an arse! ‘Course I’m scared of mice. Who isn’t? Sunny shot his friend a hateful glare that the darkness swallowed.
‘What’s that? Is that laughter? Have children come to visit? Oh, I hope so. It’s been too long since laughter rang out in this old Haveli. I wish I could run and welcome them. But, my arthritic bones…’
“Hello…hello…anyone here? We got your note,” Monty called out as he pushed open the door to a bedroom.
‘Oh, yes. They are children. And, boys! Like my own! They got my note. Is it possible, after all this time?
No, no…no, it can’t be, not after all this time. But, I wonder… Is that why they came? Did they really find one of the notes?’
“Shush, must you yell so loudly? You gave me a scare,” grumbled Sunny placing a hand to calm his racing heartbeat. “See, just as I told you. There is no one here. The room is empty. Someone played a joke. We are such fools to fall for it. Let’s go now. This place smells weird.”
‘Oh no, are they going back? Wait. Oh dear, poor things can’t see me in the dark. I am too frail to get up. Hello…hello. Oh God, My voice cannot reach them. It’s too weak.
I wish the Haveli had lights. But the electric bills…Sigh! Alone I could not…’
Monty’s face fell. Sunny was right. There was no one in the Haveli. All the rooms were vacant. Even the old lady was not there. What a waste.
Disappointed, he flashed the torch one last time in the room. The beam caught a few dust mites before its glare settled on a rocking chair by the closed window. The drapes were open. Through them silvery moonlight sprinkled in, bathing the room in a spectral glow.
Monty peered. Is there someone on the chair?
“Hello?” he called out. “Hello?” Not getting any response he approached with caution. The chair swayed the slightest bit. It rocked on its haunches before creaking like aged bones popping their joints.
‘Oh, there you are child. Thank God, you found me.’
Monty’s blood curdling shriek echoed in the Haveli.
Kothi and Haveli – Old sprawling bungalow’s that stood on their own grounds.
Oye – An exclamation in Hindi meaning ‘Hey’
Halwai – a sweet vendor
Jalebi – An Indian sweet
O teri – An exclamation in Hindi/Punjabi
Hey Waheguru – Waheguru is a term most often used in Sikhism to refer to God, the Supreme Being or the creator of all.
Yaar – Hindi slang for buddy/pal
Fattu – Hindi slang for a coward