The Unadorned

My literary blog to keep track of my creative mood swings with poems n short stories, book reviews n humorous prose, travelogues n photography, reflections n translations, both in English n Hindi.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Room Number Three

A week back 'Dakshin Bharat Rashtramat", a Hindi daily published from Bangalore, ran a story of mine, "कमरा नंबर तीन". I thought I can bring it onto my blog in a translated form for those who would like to read it in English. It's a story people liked it in its original form, even though there were critics pointing out that ghost stories do not match the modern taste. I don't agree with them. It's rather Ruskin Bond who had solved the confusion of those progressive writers once for all: "One need not believe in ghosts just to enjoy a ghost story." So, it's readers pleasure that matters. And I'm happy that those who criticised it also admitted that the story ensures readers' enjoyment. In fact I loved creating this so much so that in my next book "एक साल बाद" I wrote another story to extend the original one in "विरासत". 
Room Number Three
Moorie, a fascinating tourist destination of the country, is now at the peak of its popularity. It is a hill station of exquisite scenic beauty and unpolluted environs. Come April tourists just rush there in great numbers and the flow remains unabated until the harshness of the summer abates in the plains. Some tourists reach here for no other purpose than affording their minds some well-deserved rest but there are many that choose to stay here for the entire duration of the tourist season just to gain health and sink into a state of torpor. Some of them visit the spot regularly, almost once every year.

Here at Moorie, the Department of Post has made an elaborate arrangement of boarding and lodging for its employees. The guesthouse run by the department is known to be one of the most elegant structures of the town. It is a landmark building and no visitor can afford to miss its sight. Its decorated porch, its windows with attractive sun sheds, the colourful stained glass fitted to the window panels are the talking points among those who have once visited the hill station. It is a heritage building of sorts and its age should be at least one hundred years, if not more. Among the materials used in it, one can spot many that are of English provenance. Then use of concrete was only few and far between and mostly people used to cast their roof using homemade mixture made of molasses and ground limestone. There was no concept of reinforcement at that time and what they used to produce in the name of roof was just a platform of iron and timber on which the limestone mixture was delicately spread.

The ownership of this building was transferred from a British Sahib to a Marwadi businessman and then to a Bengali gentleman and finally to the department of Post. Be that as it may, it is being regularly maintained by the department for last fifty years. There were occasions in the past when senior officers had thought aloud to demolish the old structure and raise a new one in its place, but nothing has actually progressed beyond that. Maybe, it is due to the department’s excessive attachment to old and heritage structures. All share the sentiment, ‘Let the structure continue to exist as long as it does not prove absolutely dangerous to the occupants.’

There is another reason why the structure is allowed to continue in its old shape. The guesthouse is the subject matter of many stories and that too, all of them are concerning ghosts and goblins. Often the senior employees of the department narrate these stories to their junior colleagues and that is how the stories have been handed down to the successive generations. Once a gentleman officer, by telling those stories, frightened his lady colleagues to such an extent that even to this day they do not dare to stay in that guesthouse whenever they happen to visit Moorie. The hotel may be expensive, yet they do not mind staying there. And if anybody ever suggests them to stay in the guesthouse to save on their hotel expenses, they would just snub that suggestion, ‘Oh no, we’re better safe here and would not mind paying a piddling little extra for that!’

If one ever tried to probe into the whole thing, he would easily find the whole matter an unmixed hoax. Only one question would clearly shed light on the matter: ‘What have you seen there—a he-ghost or a she-ghost?’ In reply some would confirm the belief yet cleverly gloss over the question on its sex, ‘Look, there’s a ghost...and that much is not to be doubted,’ and the others who liked to precisely respond the question would say, ‘Well, there’s a she-ghost along with a he-ghost’. Some would say, ‘The she-ghost wears a sari very much like a Bengali lady,’ whereas some other would insist that the she-ghost comes out wearing a salwar and kurta. There could be as many versions as there were people. In fact they simply loved to make up a story just like that and improve it on the fly, as though a procession of storytellers were on the move across the generations.

Shamim was only a new recruit in the department as an officer. While in the training college, he came to know about that particular guesthouse at Moorie, especially about those spectral stories doing rounds. He himself did not believe in such stories—not that he had adopted such a negative posture out of some religious compulsions; he was, in fact, a courageous young man who hated superstitions.

One day Shamim thought, how about visiting this guesthouse? ‘From a distance so many things are heard about it, and what all things would not greet me if I go there?’

The day Shamim actually visited Moorie, the guesthouse was entirely vacant. Only the caretaker was there, waiting for Shamim to reach and check in. Shamim reached Moorie and occupied room number 3 which was reserved for him. The room was clean and the bed and furniture were properly dusted. There was biting cold outside, for it was the month of November. Shamim checked the bed and blanket and became satisfied that the room had everything necessary for a comfortable night’s stay.

After a while the caretaker came to Shamim. He stood there in silence for a minute. Finding his posture only too peculiar, Shamim reckoned that the fellow was interested in drawing his attention so that he could say him something. Anyway, instead of enquiring him as to what was that he wanted from him, Shamim waited for him to open his mouth.

Sir, I’ve a wedding to attend at my relations’ tonight. If you’re so kind as to grant me permission, I’ll remain absent for a night only.’

Shamim would, in fact, welcome an opportunity like this. He was interested in a state of total silence to prevail in the guesthouse. As per the popular belief, whether it is a he-ghost or a ghost of the opposite sex, they look for a completely silent night to haunt. In case the prevailing ghost-related stories about the guesthouse were simply the figments of imagination, there would be no ghost at night even though there was a complete silence. On the whole, what Shamim desired was an authentic experience to buttress his disbelief of ghosts and goblins, so that in future if he were called upon to counter a ghost story relating to the guesthouse, he would put forth his argument with authority.

‘Oh yes. By all means. You can go out for the night. Just do me a favour: buy me a loaf of bread and that’s all. I’ll manage.’ Shamim, thus, readily complied with the request of the caretaker.

Now a happy caretaker went off after expressing his gratitude. While going away he stared at Shamim in such a mysterious way as if he were condescending to his benefactor. But Shamim hardly had the time to take any note of this, now that his mind was completely preoccupied with ghosts and goblins.
Evening wore in. It was darkness all around. While going away the caretaker had seen to it that all the lights of verandah were on. Maybe he did so just to prevent ghosts from straying into the campus. But no sooner did the caretaker leave the guesthouse than Shamim put the lights out. He did not even switch on the radio set or the television of the guesthouse. On the whole Shamim shaped the ambience in such a way that if something strange were to happen, it definitely would. And then he waited for the ghost to materialise.

The night thickened. It was about ten o’ clock when a car came into sight in front of the gate of the guesthouse and tooted its horn. The caretaker was already gone and so who should open the gate? In fact the gate was not properly locked; rather the lock was so suspended from the latch that anybody would be tricked to think that it was closed. Finally Shamim had to switch on the lights of the verandah and come out. He then opened the gate and let the car in. It was a very old car as though the visitors were coming straight from a vintage rally!

Now Shamim was unhappy finding his plans fizzling out. He tried to cheer himself, ‘Now no ghost would appear, but then what else could be done? It’s a guesthouse only, and so people will come and go as per no fixed pattern. Anyway, the experiment could be tried again at some other time.’

As he returned to the guesthouse after opening the gate, he found that the caretaker had also come back. He was not happy in that he could not finally attend the function at his relation's. He was asked to return to the guesthouse immediately since a certain senior officer’s daughter and son-in-law were coming to stay in the guesthouse.    

Even though Shamim was trying to remain aloof from those two guests, he could not do so for long as he found them to be very friendly. One was Prem and the other was his wife Yamini. Yamini liked Moorie so very much, especially the departmental guesthouse in the town. Years ago they had celebrated their honeymoon in this very celebrated guesthouse in room number three.

 ‘R-r-room Number Three? But then...yeah! I’m already staying there,’ stuttered Shamim

‘No problem, Shamim Saheb. We’ll stay in room number two then,’ Yamini said. 

She had no sign of displeasure on her face as she uttered so, yet Shamim read between the lines. It appeared as though Yamini was up to gauging the attitude of Shamim as to how prepared the young officer was to empathise with them. In the soft gleam of an incandescent bulb inside the room, Yamini’s face exuded a delightful radiance, as though she were about to shower her romance on anyone that touched her excited sensibilities.

For a minute Shamim reflected on the whole situation. He thought he should not be so selfish. By now he had realised how important was Room Number Three for Prem and Yamini. Every year on this very day the love-stricken couple used to come to this guesthouse to stay here in room number three and refresh their memory of honeymoon. The time had passed and it would not come back. Only they had retained the sweet memory of the event and they wished to relive it. Once again Shamim thought, ‘Now I should respect this delicate feeling of love, or else why am I a young man?’

 ‘Premji, don’t worry. I’m going to vacate room number three for you. Just allow me two minutes,’ Shamim said.

Very promptly Shamim changed his room. He got room number two and the couple got his room: Room Number Three. Now the romantic couple would rekindle their sweet memories and nobody would bother them.

Ten clear minutes gone, Prem knocked at the door of Shamim. As Shamim answered the knock and opened his door, Prem came in. He had come to invite Shamim to come to their room. He just disclosed that they were going to propose a toast and Shamim should grace the occasion by his sweet presence.

Now Shamim had nothing to spurn; rather he happily accepted the invitation. He was now agog with romantic feelings. Aha! He was completely besotted with the gracious lady living just the next door. He thought, ‘A lady of Yamini’s elegance would attract one’s attention all the while.’ Really, his thirst was so intense that he just wished to quench it by letting his eyes sip the wine of bliss flowing from her gorgeous body. The flow of event was taking a strange turn—a scientific expedition was about to enter the sweet alley of yearning and passion.

Room number three: Shamim could not recognise the room he had occupied just twenty short minutes ago. It was all dreamy and hypnotic all around. There were a few colourful lights inside and in that soft light Yamini was seated on a bed like a fairy perched on an enchanted tree in bloom. There were three glasses on the table and the glasses were filled to their brim with red wine of Johny Walker brand. Shamim could not decide for a moment which one of the two was really intoxicating: the red wine in the glass or the overflowing youth of Yamini.    

Prem lifted his glass and proposed the toast, ‘Let this 150th honeymoon bring back the colours of youth.’

Shamim was amazed. One hundred and fiftieth honeymoon! What’s that! Could any couple on earth live that long to celebrate its 150th honeymoon? Nevertheless, responding to the demand of courtesy and formality, he just perfunctorily repeated the trailing words, ‘Let there be a colourful honeymoon.’

Probably Yamini could gauge the ambivalence in Shamim. She asked, ‘Couldn’t you understand the idea of 150th anniversary of honeymoon? Have you forgotten that the Department of Post is celebrating its sesquicentennial year now?’

On being reminded of the significance of the year, Shamim realised how forgetful he had been these days. This was rather a delightful realisation to dawn on him and so he laughed sonorously. Accepting a second peg of that beverage he said in a raised voice ‘Bravo! Young hearts! Bravo! Let there be a kaleidoscopic honeymoon for you!’

It was till midnight the boozing session went on. Shamim just lost count of pegs he guzzled. Inebriated, he shed the last particle of inhibitions and just gawped at Yamini on and on. And Yamini, too, was at her high after she took her first peg, but then again, she just continued. Presently, she was even unable to take care of her sari that flew unruly and loose. However, nobody was willing to concede a defeat in that drinking bout.

Shamim did not know when he passed out. He had only the remembrance of the fact that he was almost in the petting proximity of Yamini before he fainted.

In the morning when the caretaker came, he found Shamim lying on the floor. He went near him and tried to wake him up. Shamim woke up but for a few seconds only. And then with a head that was reeling, he went back to sleep on the bed.

By afternoon Shamim was out of the state of stupor. As he woke up, he found himself alone in room number three. There was none by his side. Then he called the caretaker and asked him about Prem and Yamini.

Listening to the whole episode the caretaker gave a knowing smile and said, ‘So, this year, too, they came as Prem and Yamini?

‘Who were they?’ Shamim demanded. He was only too eager to know the whole matter.

Finally he came to know all about that. The three fellows that came to that guesthouse the previous night were ghosts. From among the trio, one had come in the guise of the caretaker, for the real caretaker had gone away on the plea that he was required to attend a wedding at his relations’. He knew that on that particular night ghosts would be on the prowl in the guesthouse and he had already planned to escape. Poor Shamim got no scent of it.

Now Shamim, the possessor of a robust scientific temperament, began to wonder, ‘At the end of the day, is there any difference between a party arranged by ghosts and another thrown by living fellows?’
A. N. Nanda

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Tuesday, April 10, 2012

All My Tomorrows

Poetry has to draw a lot from philosophy, but then essentially it is one's feelings concentrated. Serving too much of philosophy in poetry is like forcing a beautiful woman to wear loads of ornaments that do not enhance her beauty but distort it. I know this, yet a poem such as this had once flowed out of me.

All My Tomorrows

Future, a condensed mass of possibilities
Tomorrows stacked upon
the tangled bed of chances
Events trickle, clocks tick,
Loves sprout, and lives dawdle
Step by step, nanoseconds.

The repetition cycle
called the future, the self-propelled
rhyming like a meaningless metred verse,
It has one for everyone
measured to be meted out
by turn or on demand.

Who says it is all surprises,
unthinkable that defies prediction?
Is death an unpredictable phenomenon?
Those that baffle are the uncountable trivials
Of giving and gaining, and losing or leaving
Repeated for a billionth over.

Future, the abode of hopes
A receptacle that holds today’s wants sidestepped
frustrations sweet-coated and vendetta carried forward,
It is elusive like dreams and dreamy like illusions.

So, the future is here for everyone
It’s here to end the tyranny called the present.
A N Nanda