Mr. Barlow's Bungalow
by Geetashree Chatterjee
When we were young, thank God, there was no television in our house though the idiot box (black and white) had already invaded the market. As a result there was much socializing. We would visit our friends and relatives and be visited by them in return. Idle noons and evenings were whiled chatting, gossiping, exchanging views and notes on mundane as well as serious issues. Bengalis are as it is known for their addas - a sort of gregarious chats. Addas are of various kinds befitting every occasion under the sun. For example, during cricket season addas would be dominated by loud talks and debates on sports. In the festive season it would be on food, fun, travel, latest fashion etc. But it was during the rainy evenings/nights coupled with power failures when the adda would be at its peak with the participants coming out with their own version of ghost stories and weird anecdotes far removed from reality and difficult to explain by pure logic or rational analysis. My mamaji (maternal uncle) was an excellent story teller. But I heard this one from my father.
My father (I addressed him as Babuji) wanted to be a doctor. But due to various familial constraints and pressures he could not follow his dream. So he chose the next best option that of pharmacology. He started his career as medical representative or sales executives as they were called in those days and rose up the organizational ladder. As a sales executive he had to tour extensively even to remote and backward locations. On one such occasion he landed up in a place called Saaisganj or Sahisganj (name changed) located somewhere between Bengal-Bihar borders. He had a day's work but as was late in finishing the same he decided to stay back the night. To his astonishment he soon learnt that the locale did not have any suitable accommodation for overnight boarding except one Daak Bungalow miles away from the railway station. Though he wanted to stay close to the station to catch the early morning train back to Calcutta he did not have much option. The station was too small and did not boast of a retiring room.
It was late noon. In those days, horse-driven tongas were the most readily available transport in such back-of-the-beyond areas. To his irritation none of the tonga-pullers wanted to travel so far. After protracted haggling, one of them agreed to drop him on one condition that he paid him the fare in advance. Babuji again did not have any other choice but to accede to his demand. By the time they reached the bungalow dusk had fallen. Before he could properly alight, the tonga puller had reined his horse for the journey back. He seemed to be in a mighty hurry and soon disappeared down the bend in great speed.
The bungalow, though not dilapidated, definitely looked unattended. However, there was a chowkidar who appeared after much hollering. It appeared he doubled, nay tripled, as the caretaker-cum-cook as well. The little that he took care of seemed uncertain and insufficient. The bungalow once belonged to an Englishman named Mr. Barlow who stayed in India for a short time during British Raj. The property now bequeathed to his nephew stood orphaned as the inheritor did not have much resource or interest to maintain the same. As a result, there was no electricity and very meager water supply. These were some of the information that my father gathered from the chowkidar Dhaan Singh as he instantly made one room habitable for the unexpected guest. After readying the bed and preparing a quick meal of daal and roti he too hurriedly took leave as his residence was quite a distance away and it was getting steadily darker outside. Before shutting the wicker gate he glanced once at Babuji with an odd expression and then retreated into the dark to return again only the next day. My father was left alone in the otherwise unoccupied bungalow for the night. ***
Having nothing much to do in candle light, Babuji decided to retire to bed early. In the absence of a mosquito net, he closed the doors and the windows tightly shut so that he would not be pestered by the steady drone and bite of the insect throughout the night. It was late November. The cold had already set in. Therefore, the room was
made cozier and more comfortable with the closed windows and doors.
However, he was woken in the middle of the night by a cold draught of wind which he found was blowing in from one of the windows left open. Surprisingly, the connecting door to the adjacent room was also slightly ajar. Though he was quite sure that he had shut the door and the window properly he thought perhaps he had not bolted them tightly enough. Getting up he not only latched the window and the door with care but also left a chair next to the door thinking if this was work of some miscreant then tried a second time he would wake up by the movement of the furniture.
The second time he did get up but due to muffled noise emanating from the room next as though somebody were dragging a chair and shuffling his luggage about. He thought he even saw a faint light streaking in through the slit underneath the doors. He went back to sleep with a smile that at last there was a co-habitant who had thought it wise to spend the night in the bungalow.
My father had always been a light sleeper. The third time he woke up discomforted by another open window which he distinctly remembered having latched properly. As he was about to shut the window once again he saw a tall man in a white suit striding past the garden which the window faced. His face could not be distinguished in the dark. Surprised that his co-boarder was still awake he attributed the stranger?s sleeplessness to difficulty in not being able to adapt to the new and not-used-to environs
The rest of the night was spent uneventfully. In the morning Dhaan Singh was well nigh amazed to find my father still in the bungalow. Sipping his morning tea when my father enquired after the other gentleman spending the night in the bungalow, Dhaan Singh exclaimed in horror. After sometime getting back his composure he explained that there was no one else there and that nobody did ever stay the night in the bungalow because it was supposed to be haunted. Mr. Barlow, the owner of the house had committed suicide in the room next to the one which my father had occupied and it was feared that his spirit stalked the premises after nightfall.
Dhaan Singh was quite sure that the tall man in the white suit was none other than the ghost of Mr. Barlow whom my father had seen prowling in the untended garden.***
I had heard my father often recount this story which had understandably shaken him and given him sufficient grounds (read experience) to believe in the super natural. One such occasion was during our visit to Rishikesh. We were a gathering of eight - me, my parents and sister and our family friends - uncle, aunt and their two siblings. We were putting up in the rest house of a then famous pharmaceutical company. It was a rambling estate with five-star-hotel-like structures with quiet and tranquil surrounds. We could not get accommodation in the main building and were quartered in the annex which was a huge E shaped building with swimming pool and tennis court. Most of it was unoccupied.
It was again the pin-drop-silence of the place which incited another ghost story session one evening. We gathered in one room and the lights were put off to build up the atmosphere. The door to the corridor was left an inch ajar to let the dim lights filter in. My father was a good narrator and as he came to the part where he saw Mr. Barlow's tall figure draped in white walk past we all gasped in fright because at that very moment a white apparition did pass by the corridors. It was strange that all our attention was focused at the slightly open door when the electrifying moment was being narrated. The story came to an abrupt halt as a few minutes later there was a knock on the door. I shrieked. The rest were I believe just rooted in shock. It was my sister, the bravest of all, who got up and let in the man in white. But to our utter dismay, he was no spirit but the room service dressed in white who had come to ask us for dinner. The End