by Geetashree Chatterjee
Our house in Kolkata (then Calcutta) was a huge mansion like building having several floors. Ground floor was occupied by us whereas the landlord resided in the second floor and the first and third floors housed a Bengali and Kashmiri family respectively.
A long, rectangular hall ran through the entire floor flanked by spacious, high ceilinged rooms with big, old fashioned windows. The hall bifurcated into a thin lobby which separated the pantry and the kitchen from the main quarters. There were two sets of bathrooms one on either end of the hall. While the hall on one side was lined by rooms - the drawing room and three bed rooms - on the other side it overlooked the back yard which was once upon a time a garden but with time had deteriorated into a jungle due to lack of care and attention. The unkempt garden was visible through these huge grilled windows lining the wall of the hall, taking a perpendicular turn and stretching till the far end of the lobby which connected the kitchen to the dining area. The architectural arrangement of the house was such that coming out of the master and other bedrooms one straight away faced the back garden. Groves of trees, bushes and undergrowths huddled together in disorderly fashion and almost blocked the sun from streaming into the house.
We were a joint family. But even after accommodating seven to eight members (and even more when guests piled in) the house somehow managed to give an impression of unoccupied, empty, spaces. I am narrating an incident which took place before I was born. But being one of my favourite stories I have heard this one from my aunts and sister so often that every line is learnt by heart.
My parents occupied the master bedroom while the one adjacent to it (with a connecting door) was occupied by my aunts (my father's two sisters then unmarried) and my elder sister (my Didi). The third room belonged to my grand parents while my paternal uncle (my father's younger brother) slept in the drawing room which was converted into a make-shift bedroom in the night whenever he was in town. The story goes like this -
In the middle of one night my aunt got up to visit the bathroom. As she came out into the hall she was shocked to see a man standing under the shade of one of the leafy trees in the back yard and staring straight into her eyes. Bathed in moonlight he looked more like a spectre than human. He wore a white robe which swayed softly in the light breeze that blew the leaves off the branches of the trees. The man must have clambered up the wall on the other end of the garden or sneaked in through the rickety back door which led to the garden by the back side of the house. It did not take much time for my aunt's knees to turn into jelly. She wobbled back to the bedroom and shook my sister to wakefulness.
My sister was much younger to my aunt but has always been an enviable possessor of cool logic and rational thinking. My aunt pleaded my Didi to escort her to the bathroom. My sister, well aware of aunt's predicament, accompanied her, diligently averting her eyes from that side of the hall which faced the garden. Her obvious logic being if the man needed help he would call out but if he was the notorious kind he would be more interested not to get caught and hide himself behind a bush or a tree. In either case, prevented by the grills he would not be able to accost them even if he had evil plans.
But while returning to the bedroom my sister had this irresistible urge to investigate the matter thoroughly. In spite of my aunt's protests she drew near the grilled window to have a closer look. To her astonishment there was nobody. However, a yard of white cloth had flown in, most probably from the upper tenements and lay smoothly like a drape on one of the trees. A strip of moon had leaked on the creaseless sheet. The interplay of shadow and light bestowed almost an ethereal quality to the whole spectacle. As the tree swung to and fro with the motion of the wind, from a distance seen with groggy eyes, it gave the semblance of a man swaythed in white standing under the tree.
Of course, the matter was clearer in broad day light when next morning the episode was narrated by my aunt with exaggerated spice and the incapacitating fear experienced the night previous was forgotten in fits of laughter and humorous jibes. End