IN 1995 A FAMILY IN ASSAM MOVES INTO A HOUSE ONLY TO BE PLAGUED BY SOMETHING UNSEEN.
In 1995, my mother had started teaching at a college in Jalukbari, so she, my brother and I moved to this locality that was then on the outskirts of Guwahati in Assam. As we were moving into the new house, my mother announced that there was something unusual about its design. It was a gabled tin-roofed structure, with a living room, a large bedroom meant to accommodate two king-sized beds and a dining room with blue coloured walls. But the strange thing about the house was that each room had four doors; as if it was not designed to live in, but to escape from.
Each of those doors led us to a different world. The front door opened into the living room, which provided us with four other exits: the door straight ahead ushered one to the backyard where a guava tree bore fruit for most of the year. The door to the right opened out onto the exterior of the house of our landlords – an elderly couple. And the one on the left led to the dining room. We covered most of those exits, or entrances, with tall, broad wooden bookshelves. Only the front door and the door leading to the backyard were left unblocked.
But there was also a curious appendage to the house: a lone, thick, towering bamboo plant stood next to the kitchen, its body pressed against the wall. “Who plants bamboo just beside a house?” I remember Ma had commented. On windy nights its branches thudded against the tin roof and once I watched the plant shaking her head during a storm, like a crying woman who had just lost her husband.
Almost immediately after we moved in, strange, inexplicable sounds started to descend upon the house at night, which were different to the thudding of the bamboo branches. These terrified us, as did the more disturbing incidents where an unseen “thing” that we started to blame for the happenings, made itself more known – once attacking a guest as he slept. We felt that this thing must’ve been there before we came, and it was as though it didn’t like that we’d blocked the doors, somehow curtailing its freedom to move in and out of the house. Back then, I was 11 years old and, with my father based in Shillong with his job, it was just the three of us living in the house, along with two girls, Swapna-baideo who cooked, and Bhabani-baideo who cleaned. Mostly, we endured eerie noises, and during those terrifying nights, Ma, my brother and I would huddle together in the bedroom, while the two girls lay awake in another room. None of us would be able to sleep.
The first incident happened the very night we moved in after all but the two doors were blocked with wooden almirahs. Someone knocked on the front door. As it was midnight, Swapna-baideo and Bhabani-baideo who were sleeping in the living room didn’t open the door to the mysterious visitor. But then the knocking sounds started moving around the house, coming from the windows, the other doors and the walls. We could hear a man’s voice calling out, “Ganesh!” It lasted for hours.
The next day, while having tea with the landlady, my mother asked her if one of her four sons was called “Ganesh.” The landlady stood up suddenly, her face pale. But my mother hadn’t noticed. Laughing loudly, Ma said, “The two girls were so scared. I told them to not worry, and said maybe it’s someone from the landlord’s house.” The landlady said she didn’t know anyone named Ganesh. But she looked uneasy.
The thing returned soon enough, knocking and making other sounds, with more intensity on Tuesday and Saturday nights – the days of the week that people here believe spirits are at their strongest. My brother and I were petrified. We tried to ignore the sounds. But my Ma, clever and brave, wasn’t scared, and she began to concoct explanations for what made those noises: the tapping on the roof, she said, was just the birds that were nesting in the bamboo plant hopping around, or it was bamboo leaves rapping against the tin. But when we heard what sounded like handfuls of sand, pebbles or water being thrown onto the roof, and then sharply trickle down, she grew silent. She had no explanation for this, or for the unseen something that moved around the dead of night, slowly knocking all over the outside of the house.
It wasn’t long before Ma decided we’d had enough, and she and I went to visit her colleague from the college, a Brahmin she trusted who knew certain protective chants. “Don’t tell anyone in the house about this visit,” she said. “You are the man of the house in your father’s absence so you will have to be brave.” She said this again on the way back, when we returned with a packet of charmed mustard seeds. Ghosts, she said, are afraid of mustard seeds, iron rods and the smell of fire-roasted red chillies.
The charmed mustard seeds worked and we slept peacefully for five nights. But the sounds returned on the sixth night. My mother and I hurried back to her colleague. He asked her to check whether the mustard seeds had germinated; on the third night, there had been rain. How beautiful the light green, curved shoots were, I still remember.
Things took a sinister turn when Baneshwar-da, one of my mother’s favourite students, came to stay the night to attend a job interview in Guwahati the next day. That evening he turned in early. He’d travelled a long way and was exhausted. We set up a bed for him in the living room and the girls moved into the dining room for the night.
In the middle of the night we woke to his screams. Ma instinctively thought a robber had broken in, and started shouting, trying to alert our landlords. But that wintry, foggy night was too powerful and trapped people in their dreams and quilts.
When we heard what had happened to Baneshwar-da, none of us slept for the rest of the night.
“I couldn’t breathe for a long time. He was hairy, heavy, red eyed, long nailed, too-tall-too-tall,” he said, sitting up in bed, drenched in sweat, though it was such a cold night. “It was only after I promised that I would sacrifice a black goat in Kamakhya Temple that the thing took his hands off my neck.” Ma later explained to me that you could appease angry spirits by sacrificing a goat at this temple in Guwahati.
Ma tried to reason with him, saying that he must’ve imagined it all, and he was just tense because of the next day’s interview. But he wouldn’t calm down. He jumped up and started to pack his bag to leave as soon as the sun rose. “I’m sorry I won’t stay here anymore. That thing kept calling me Ganesh. There is something in this house. Someone has committed suicide or has been killed here.”
That weekend, my father came to visit from Shillong. It was the first time he had visited since we’d moved into the house, and it was only now that he was told about the strange incidents.
The sounds that night were different. We could hear a woman outside weeping incessantly. Then the sounds started to sound like they were drawing closer to the house. It was around midnight, and my father got out of bed, irritated, tying the knot of his loongi as he walked outside into the courtyard. “Oo ghost, come out, let’s have a conversation: one on one.” Swapna-baideo watched him, terrified that the thing would kill him. But my father’s making light of the situation gave my mother courage, and she started to laugh and joined him. “Oo ghost, where are you? How many legs do you have? What do you wear? Diapers or trousers or a royal turban like the Ahom kings?”
The sounds died away, weakening like echoes. And I felt relieved; there was nothing to be afraid of now because my father was here.
We cooked fish the next night for dinner, and the smell emanated from the kitchen window, out past the bamboo plant and into the cold night air. As we sat down to dinner we heard the sound of a galloping horse outside. Then suddenly, every door and window in the house burst open, swinging outwards with a swift, synchronised movement and with great force. Shocked, we all jumped out of our chairs and moved into the kitchen, deliberating what had just happened.
The kitchen window overlooked a murky pond with snaky hydrillas clumped inside. There is believed to be a type of ghost called a “baak” that inhabits quiet, swampy ponds, and is fond of fish. An hour must’ve passed before someone wondered out loud, “Could it be a baak?” And when we walked back into the four-doored dining room the fish was gone, and someone had left a clump of curly hair on the rice; hair that my mother would pull from her brush, and roll between her palms before throwing it away.
My aunt who knew how to deal with these things, was called first thing the next morning. After my mother hung up the phone, I faintly heard her saying to my father in another room, “You will be happily living in the land of clouds, but what am I to do with these young kids? One day you will find all of us dead of a heart attack. Do whatever you need to but solve this before leaving for Shillong. I have tried once, and now it’s your turn to take stock of things in the family.”
When she arrived, my aunt thoroughly inspected the house. I told her what had been happening. It couldn’t be the wind, added my mother. And when we told the landlords about the doors opening, she said they told her that as the house had been built so long ago the doors loosened in the wind sometimes. The sounds on the roof, they said, were made by vultures that lived on a nearby hill or by bats that would come to eat the guavas. And they simply didn’t believe we’d heard a galloping horse.
My aunt took my parents to visit a bej, a man who knew the art of dealing with spirits and supernatural creatures and who lived in a remote village. My parents returned after dark from their visit. My brother and I had been scared to stay inside the house and our eyes had darted from door to door, worried something would burst through one of them, toppling an almirah in its wake.
My aunt told us the story the next morning, while Ma and Swapna-baideo were digging four holes around the house, to the east, west, north and south, to bury four porcupine quills that the bej had charmed with holy water and crocodile teeth. The quills, he’d assured, would keep away the spirit – one that had many things to fulfil for it had left its body far too young. “It’s a teenaged boy who worked as a labourer during the construction of this house,” said my aunt slowly in a low voice. “He hung himself in this house.”
“We went to the bej’s house,” my aunt continued, “but he initially turned us back because the steel plate where he sees the past and future only sticks to the bare back of a man whose sun-sign is Libra. He tried on your father who’s a Leo, but it wouldn’t stick. So we got your cousin who’s a Libra; it stuck to him immediately.”
“Did you look into the steel plate?” my brother asked.
“No we were too scared to see, even though it’s just like any steel plate you serve rice on,” my aunt replied. “But don’t worry, if it is the boy’s spirit, or whatever else, the thing won’t be able to trouble you anymore,” she said, a slight quiver in her voice.
My mother wanted to ask the landlords why they’d hidden this secret from us. But father told her to let it go, saying asking questions may lead to more trouble. Many things remained a mystery – why the voices oscillated between a man’s and a woman’s on different nights, what could’ve happened to the fish. But the sounds and incidents stopped right after the charmed porcupine quills were buried.
We lived peacefully in that house for a couple of years. But trouble with the landlords eventually did come. They wouldn’t fix the damages and increased the rent by many times. Toward the end, we were almost not on talking terms with them and we wanted a change from the suburban life of Jalukbari. We were looking for a house more centrally located in Guwahati, where my father’s workplace was now based. Shillong was a thing of the past, of the days when the “thing” was around. By the time we decided to leave the house, I was still scared of ghosts, but I was no longer 11 years old and was thinking about girls, not ghosts, at night.
A day before we left, the mother of Sajidur, my brother’s friend, came to visit. She was a ruddy-faced woman, who almost always chewed betel nut and wore a red-bordered cotton gamusa around her neck. She said she was sad to see us go.
That day Sajidur’s mother told us about the boy. “We have only heard that your landlord’s family was somehow responsible for driving the boy to suicide, you know,” she said. “Your landlord was a police officer, isn’t that right? He apparently suppressed the case from the public. It’s a mystery why the boy hung himself. His soul hasn’t gotten any peace, and that’s why he takes on different forms and disturbs anyone living in this house. That’s why the house lay abandoned for eleven years. We were surprised when you all had come. We thought, don’t these people know?”
We left that house some time in 1997, leaving it the way we had found it when we first moved in, with the doors unblocked and open, banging slightly in the wind. Before leaving, I went to have a look at the remnants of what used to be the tall, thick bamboo plant. After the porcupine quills were buried, the bamboo had shrivelled up until nothing but its roots remained. I still remember the landlady fighting with my mother and accusing her of poisoning it. “Poisoning a bamboo shrub? I am sorry, how does one even do that?” Ma had said.
While driving toward the city with our packed belongings, my mother stopped the car at Kachari, on the banks of the Brahmaputra River. She opened a small packet with soil and the porcupine quills. Before throwing the contents into the river, she said to us: “The bej had said we would not be able to keep the thing away from the house forever. If we didn’t return his usual hideout he would haunt us everywhere we went.”
In 2002, my parents returned to Jalukbari to attend a wedding. There my mother met two sisters who’d lived in that house. “How did you all stay there for so many years?” they asked her. “Sajidur’s mother tells me you didn’t have any problems.” They relayed their experiences with the noises at night, someone called Ganesh, and reported that in the last five years not a single tenant had been able to stay for a sustained period in the house.
People would leave before the lease was over, or as soon as the lease expired. In one year, four families came and left. My mother just listened, but she was only too eager to visit the house to see what had become of it. So she and my father visited for one last time, and what they saw, she later told me, was that the bamboo plant was at the prime of its life, all grown up, better than before and much healthier.
Byline: Aruni Kashyap
Illustration: Reshi Dev