By Mahua Das Chatterji from Kolkata, India
A hot summer afternoon. Two men circled around the front of Nina’s house. From her vantage point on the terrace, it appeared to Nina that they were observing the house intently. Moments later, a swanky car pulled up and the men hurriedly got in. One of them pointed to her house, and gesticulated animatedly before driving away.
Nina wondered why strange people often loitered around the house these days. She decided to ask her father after his Sunday afternoon siesta.
“Nina! Nina! Where are you, my child?” Her father’s voice suddenly rang out as he climbed the stairs leading to the terrace.
Nina quickly hid beneath the cot, her hands clutching on to raw mango slices that her mother had seasoned with spices, and laid out in the sun. Nina loved the way the zesty spices melted in her mouth, and the juice of the fibrous mango tickled her tongue, as she bit into the tangy pieces.
Instinctively, Nina’s father looked below the cot - Nina was smiling with pickle smeared all over her lips.
“Nina, you will fall sick in this sweltering heat,” her father said, worried.
“I was just taking a nap, Baba. I went under the cot to protect myself from the sun.” With an air of injured innocence, Nina solemnly handed over the mango pieces to her father.
Nina’s father was in his early fifties. His lean, athletic physique belied his years. His eyes, the colour of dark chocolate, radiated happiness and an inner peace. Nina shared a strong bond with her father. He loved her effervescent and naughty spontaneity, and handled her moods and tantrums with rare tact and humour. She always responded with a hug, and a hearty and generous approval, “Baba, you are the best!”
“Just what do you think you are doing here, Nina?” her mother’s shrill voice resounded from behind her. “You are nine years old, but still behave like a kindergarten kid! When will you ever grow up? No wonder I dread your summer holidays!”
Nina’s olive complexion glistened in the sun, and her long hair was pulled back and tied off in a ponytail. Much like Nina herself, her flyaway hair refused to be tamed in spite of her mother’s best efforts.
“I was just playing on the terrace, Ma.” Nina’s wide smile deepened the large dimples on her chubby cheeks. She could never understand how her mother always appeared whenever she was having the most fun.
“Come on, we will play downstairs,” Nina’s father said laughingly, as held her hand and skipped downstairs.
The two storied house with its lovely architecture was testimony to her father’s wonderful aesthetic taste - every room boasted of artifacts chosen by a true connoisseur. Relatives and neighbours identified ‘Majumdar house’ as possessing a unique grandeur of its own-imposing, strong and confident.
Later that night, when it was nearly bedtime, the lights suddenly went out; plunging the entire neighbourhood into darkness. The sultry night wore a desolate countenance. The crescent moon cradled in the dark summer sky, lent a silvery hue to the atmosphere. A thin, squeaky laugh pierced the air. The flickering light from the candle highlighted the silhouette of a man wearing a black hood, with a pale ashen face, and flashing Dracula-like teeth, staring back through deep-sunken eyes. Nina started screaming and running helter-skelter in the darkness.
Her father flipped on the flashlight. His stern voice cut across the din, “Enough Chinmoy, don’t scare Nina like that. She might get hurt.”
“You are such a spoilsport, Ratan da!” Chinmoy took off his hood and slowly pulled off the mask, revealing his disappointed face.
The Dracula in question was Nina’s uncle, her father’s younger brother, whose innate artistic sense of makeup enabled him to slip into any role with effortless ease. He always took great pride in scaring Nina out of her wits, and her frenzied childish behaviour left him rubbing his hands in glee.
Nina decided to stay huddled in the kitchen till the lights came on. She could hear snatches of conversation from the adjacent room.
“Ratan da, why do you always get so upset when I scare Nina? It’s just plain fun. After all, we all wear masks, don’t we?” Chinmoy’s cool voice sounded unconcerned.
“It hurts when you speak like that, Chinmoy. You know I love you, right?” Nina’s father put an arm around his brother’s shoulders. “Never lose your integrity, Chinmoy. It is one of the greatest treasures.”
“C’mon!” Chinmoy said dismissively. “By the way, I wanted to ask you a favour.”
“What is it, Chinmoy? Hope you have not got yourself in any kind of trouble again.”
“No, Ratan da, it’s about this house. Let’s just sell it off. The real estate agents have made a very generous offer after you refused their earlier proposal. We can always shift to a flat which they have promised to provide. No point in living in a house with so many rooms, when there are only four of us. You could even pay off the loan you took for building this house,” Chinmoy said, putting concern into his voice. “How far can your Government job take you, anyway?”
“That is for to me decide, Chinmoy. Didn’t I tell you not to bring up this issue ever again?” Nina’s father sighed. “Please don’t forget the sacrifices I made to build this house in memory of our parents, who always dreamed of their own home, but had to live in a small, rented room all their lives. That’s how we grew up, remember? You should be glad I was able to build this house for us and our future generations.”
“Yeah, yeah, you said that before.” Chinmoy’s voice was rising. “But who cares for all that now? I am desperately in need of money, and I want my share without any legal hassles. As a joint owner, I have equal rights.”
"I made you the joint owner, Chinmoy.” Nina’s father sounded distraught. “I thought it would help you to ultimately give up your insecurities, take up a steady job, get married, and settle down. But I made a dreadful mistake. I realized much too late that you only love to squander away all the money you can lay your hands on. You can forget about your foolish ideas.”
“But the realtors have already acquired most of the land surrounding this house. They are planning a hotel here. How long will they wait for us?” A cold smile crept across Chinmoy’s lips. “Moreover, they are influential people, and often hang around this area. Hope they don’t try anything dangerous. You don’t know what the consequences can be, do you?”
“Don’t you dare threaten me! You can very well go and tell them we are not interested in selling.”
The two brothers stood in silence for a minute, staring into the darkness.
“I will definitely sell this house, no matter what it takes.” Chinmoy hissed. He then walked out of the room, slamming the door behind him.