Yes, I know. It has been twenty years. But you still remember us, don’t you?
Bhaskar says hello. He asks whether the lilies in the garden have begun to droop. The monsoons have not yet arrived here in Dhavaleshwaram. They say there’s going to be a drought this year, that food prices are going to go up. Our pensions are about to run dry, both Bhaskar’s and mine, so we may have to stay away from the more expensive vegetables. Tomatoes are always affordable. So are beans. We’re shunning onions this year. Well, maybe just for Bhaskar’s birthday I will make him some crispy rings.
Medicines are getting costlier too. That worries us more, because as you know, we eat more tablets than food.
My knees are a little more bent now than when you last saw us, though the pain has eased a bit. I’ve been using some white natural pills that seem to help. They taste like little balls of sugar we used to eat when we were kids, but Bhaskar assures me that they contain some secret medicinal herbs. He knows more about it than I do.
Has it rained in Palem yet?
Has Rama Shastri finally gotten his temple painted the right colour?
Did they take Chander to the hospital, or does he still mill about the temple in tattered clothes?
Has someone come to live in you? People in the village had begun to talk even when we were there, though we did not spread bad words about you. We promise. You’ve been the best house we’ve ever lived in, bar none. I know I have said this to you in person as well, many times, but it never hurts to repeat a truth.
Still, people talk. And once we left you, there must have been reports of all kinds of sightings in the compound. Did Sangayya, the mad fellow, assemble everyone at Mandiramma Banda and tell stories of being chased by Ranganayaki’s ghost at the gate? She must have been wearing a white sari, I bet, and loud anklets, with her legs twisted around the other way.
It’s been a year now since we moved here, and already the house we live in – a modest two-bedroom cottage with a small paved yard in the front – is showing signs of coming alive. It’s strange how they always wake up in a year. You took a little less than that, I remember. We moved in at the end of March, and I think I heard the scratching sound on the kitchen door in the middle of November.
Yes, about seven months.
All our lives we’ve moved from house to house. First they come alive, then you think maybe they will like you, and at the beginning it seems that way too, but soon they begin to get on your nerves, and then they drive you out. It’s been the same story for twenty years now, and at eighty (Bhaskar turns eighty two this month), I no longer have the patience to pack up and move every year.
We heard a cat mew from the bathroom last night. We were all watching television – one of those dance reality shows – and the volume was right up, but none of us missed it. Bhaskar gave me a look as if to ask, ‘Already?’ and I just sighed and got up to investigate. Of course, there was no cat. The door was bolted from the outside, and we keep the window shut.
He said perhaps that we should stop this mad moving and return to Palem. The cost of living would be cheaper for sure, and we know for certain that you would at least not try to kill us.
* * *
Uttam and Unnat agreed this morning that it was time for us to leave the house. Every day, after Bhaskar has his morning tea and steps out for his walk – he says ‘walk’, but I smell cigarette smoke on his shirt when he returns – Uttam helps me with the breakfast utensils, and Unnat keeps prattling away about this and that. Today he said that one of the contestants of the dance competition we had been watching the night before was cute. I did not agree with him. But you do not stop Unnat when he’s in the mood. You just listen, and smile and nod now and then.
After the utensils were done, they sat me down on the living room sofa. Uttam dragged one of the dining chairs over, and Unnat fell into the armchair, with his leg dangling over the armrest. ‘It’s time to move, mummy,’ he said, though he knows I hate that word. He cocked his head to one side and grinned.
Uttam was more serious. ‘Do you not hear the sounds this house makes? It obviously wants us out of here.’
It’s not just sounds. Two nights back, Bhaskar found himself locked in the bathroom, and the lights went out. If we had not spent so many years of our lives in haunted houses, it would have made him crazy. Last night, all of us heard the laughter of a young girl from the kitchen. All four of us got up and looked at one another.
Soon, it seems, we will be able to talk to the walls. Did I tell you? One of the houses we lived in, overlooking the beach in Vishakapatnam, spoke to us through baby scrawls. We would stand in front of the wall and ask a question, and the answer would appear, often in coal black, but when the house was annoyed, in crimson, and when it was downright angry, in blood red.
We found Unnat and Uttam’s photograph in the carton labelled ‘books’ (Bhaskar and his senility). It was from way back, when they were both in school. Both had short, porcupine-like hair, and Uttam was picking on his thumbnail. Milton water bottles slung on their arms, a bigger one for Uttam, a smaller one for Unnat. Both green. Uttam smiles in that photograph like he does now, with his mouth closed, the corner of his lip falling away to one side. Unnat tilts his head to one side and grins.
Bhaskar suggested that we mount it on the wall, but I refused. Let it go back into the carton, I said. We will be moving soon anyway.
At lunch, Uttam asked me why we had such bad luck with houses, why every house we move into gets haunted. I did not answer them, because I don’t know for sure myself. Now we don’t question these things, Bhaskar and I. Once something becomes part of your life for twenty years, you accept it and take it along. You don’t ask it questions. This bad luck we’ve picked up, where must it have come from?
I’m not sure, but I find that my mind keeps taking me back to Tillu.
* * *
I stopped my last letter abruptly because Uttam wanted some lemon-juice. And there were no lemons in the house. And he wouldn’t go and get any lemons – you know how college students are – so I had to walk all the way to the corner of the street, only to haggle with the lemon vendor for ten whole minutes only to give in to his price. He knows that I buy lemons from him every other day, and yet he doesn’t smile when he sees me.
Dhavaleshwaram is not as friendly as Palem is.
I’ve been thinking of Tillu, how nice it would have been to have him with us. Uttam, Unnat, Bhaskar, Tillu and me. One happy family. Chaotic, yes, because Tillu liked his vegetables fried whereas the ‘U’s like them boiled, so I would have had to slave away in the kitchen. But that would have been okay. At least I wouldn’t be sitting here today, wondering where he is now, or what he looks like, or if he remembers us.
Bhaskar was saying this very thing last night, that perhaps we killed the wrong person.
Sometimes it is as though he can peep into my mind and say the exact sentence I’d been ruminating over. He’s right. We did kill the wrong person.
Uttam laughed when I suggested this. ‘Amma, you have two sons and a husband. You’re eighty years old. Why do you need another son?’
And I told him, with as much seriousness as I could muster (because young men sometimes don’t see things as seriously as they ought to): A woman can never have enough sons.
‘I hope you don’t say a woman can never have enough husbands,’ muttered Bhaskar from the corner, and the boys laughed. Bhaskar has always been that way, making everything into a joke, and just because his sons laughed at what he said, he thought the jokes were good.
I remember we – Bhaskar and I – took Tillu to the fair in Palem during Dusshera of 1994. Twenty-one years ago, and yet how well I remember. He walked between us and held our forefingers. Every four or five steps he would propel himself into the air, and Bhaskar would pretend as if his finger had broken. ‘Oh, Tillu,’ he would say, ‘how strong you are!’
‘Bruce Lee, thatha, Bruce Lee.’
He ate cotton candy that day. I bought for him one of those toy guns that Uttam used to love. You inserted those plastic arrow-like things into the barrel and pulled the trigger. I think they stopped making them after a bunch of kids lost their eyes or something like that. I remember reading the news. On that day, though, there were many orange and blue and yellow arrows flying everywhere. Bhaskar and I had to step warily.
He went on the giant wheel, and returned with soiled underwear. (‘I couldn’t hold it, Ammamma!’) Then he rode a black-spotted white pony that went up and down, round and round.
Bhaskar and I were lonely that Autumn in 1994. Uttam and Unnat had died that July. We had moved to Palem because we thought it would be quiet, and we found you, dear house. We found you, and we found Tillu.
* * *
Today, even Uttam agreed with me that we killed the wrong person. Ranganayaki had no husband, no family; she did not even know who Tillu’s father was. While Tillu slept over at our house between Bhaskar and me, Ranganayaki entertained men in hers, and the smell of toddy would come all the way from the end of the street. Only on occasional afternoons she would come and ask if Tillu was there, and the boy, the poor boy would look over his shoulder at both of us as she dragged him away.
Rangi did not deserve him. He did not deserve Rangi.
What did she have? No money to give him an education. No moral character to raise him upright. No father. No grandparents. Tillu saw a different man enter their bedroom every night. Some of them patted him on the cheek and gave him a five-rupee note to buy chocolates with. Some of them asked her to get rid of him. Most of them did not even notice.
When we asked Tillu if he would like to live with us for good, he nodded. When he went to sleep, he liked to roll the end of my sari around his forefinger. He played ‘match the colour’ with Bhaskar, and when he got tired they took a walk to the shivalayam and back, the boy seated on the old man’s shoulder, waving at Rama Shastri as he came out to dry his waistcloth.
The only thing standing between Tillu and us, we thought, was Rangi. No one would notice the disappearance of a prostitute. Everyone behaved – during daylight, anyway – as if she never existed. Doing away with her was as simple as calling her home one moonless night and sinking a knife into her spine. Bhaskar held the knife, I closed her mouth. She did not scream, but she did bite into my hand hard enough to leave a scar. I still have it, on the web between my thumb and the index finger.
Tillu was in the bedroom, then, practicing a magic trick that Bhaskar had taught him that afternoon.
You saw us bury her that night, in the backyard. Twenty years ago, we had enough strength in our limbs to bury a full grown woman. The next day Bhaskar brought some lily seeds and sprinkled them on the fresh brown earth. He watered them daily, until the shoots came out and leaned to one side.
We have to remember the dead, he said.
Tillu never asked after his mother. I often wondered if he had watched us from the slit in the door. Maybe. Maybe not. For a time the village asked questions about where Rangi could have gone, but time passes quickly in Palem. Besides, Rangi was one of ‘those women’. Men pretended never to have heard of her, and women turned their noses up at her mention.
‘Rangi? Who Rangi? Oh, that woman who used to live in the broken shack down the street? Her name was Rangi? I didn’t even know.’
‘Good riddance. Wherever she went, I hope she never comes back.’
‘A stain on the whole village she was.’
And so on it went. Tillu lived with us for a whole month, and when the lily shoots blossomed into flowers, we thought we all got what we wanted. But then, that man came from Vizag, said he was Rangi’s brother (though I could not see any resemblance), shoved some papers into Shubhalakshmi’s face, and took Tillu away. He said he would take good care of him, but he also said he had a wife and two other children. I suspected that Tillu would be no more than a servant in that house. A brother who never cared for his sister was now so concerned for his nephew.
Bhaskar was saying this morning how shady that uncle looked, with his clean-shaven face and inserted shirt and black briefcase. The more I think back to that night on which we buried Rangi, the more I wonder how we could have been so stupid. If we had wanted to keep Tillu for ourselves, we thought we could do that by killing his mother. She was the wrong person to kill.
We should have killed Tillu himself. Then he would have been with us now, with Uttam and Unnat, seated on the floor and turning over cards to match colours and shapes. The boys would have had their own younger brother. Bhaskar and I would have had our youngest son.
‘You should have killed Tillu,’ said Uttam this morning. Unnat nodded from the armchair. Bhaskar said, ‘Hmm’, from his place on the couch, with his feet on the teapoy, toes stretching out.
I agree with them. You see, the dead never leave us.
* * *
The dead don’t grow old either. In the last twenty years that Uttam and Unnat have lived with us – they turned up together at Palem, the day after Tillu left – they have not aged a day. In the last eight months, ever since he slipped on the bathroom tiles, Bhaskar has stopped ageing too.
They don’t do any work around the house, so all the packing is left to me. But the decision has been made. All three of them said they wanted to return to Palem. There is a woman stuck to the wall in the guest bathroom here who looks a lot like Rangi, and she keeps asking me whether she can take her boy home. I told her to wait, then locked the door from outside. I told Bhaskar about it and he just made a gesture to let it go.
‘We’re leaving in a day or two. Why worry?’
‘Yes,’ said Uttam and Unnat together. ‘Let’s not worry.’
Twenty houses in twenty years, and we’re returning now to where it all began. We’re coming back to you, house. If someone is living in you, we will get them evacuated. Avadhani is a close friend. (It just struck me that he may be dead too, in which case I have to speak to his son, or grandson.)
Today, when I was packing the clothes, I asked myself again why we have been so unlucky, why we have been only finding haunted houses ever since we left you. There is a paper mill right next door where we live, and machines drone throughout the day. Sometimes they drive you mad, as though a saw is being used on the soft tissue of your brain, but at other times, the sound is quite soothing. Makes you think.
It made me think today.
It made me wonder. Are you haunted, house, or are we?
Did the houses we live in haunt us? Or did we haunt them?
I used to think that it took a year for the evil in a house to awaken. I used to think that the good in us fights against the evil, but after a year, it just gives up. Maybe I have been looking at it all wrong. Maybe it takes a year for the evil in the four of us to awaken. Maybe the house fights the good fight.
It is possible, isn’t it?
I have not told Bhaskar or the kids about this. They will just laugh at me. They will say I’m going cuckoo in my old age. When Unnat says that, he does a very convincing impression of a real cuckoo. He makes me laugh.
Rangi will be there waiting for us, won’t she? She will ask us if her boy is there, if she could take him home. I will have to sit her down and tell her that she’s dead. She will get her son only after he dies, and who knows where Tillu lives now in Vizag, with that shady uncle of his.
It will be nice if he visits Palem again. This time we won’t make the same mistake.
Okay, listen, I am about to go and finish off the rest of the packing. Bhaskar and the kids are just sitting around munching on apples and giggling like schoolchildren. We will talk more in person, once we’ve arrived. We leave by the eight-thirty bus, tomorrow. We should alight at Palem at seven in the morning the day after.
You will welcome us, won’t you?