When Avi said he saw Dr Sharma’s wife’s ghost, what he meant he had seen a ravishing young woman, fairy white and buxom, sitting stark naked on the terrace of the house that overlooked his backyard. Her legs dangled onto the thin ledge as she looked ahead, her golden hair flung forward over her ample assets, awash in the pale light of a full moon. It was a heart-stopping sight that jumped upon him from the boxy, double-storied dwelling, an abode to students and painters and the disquieted spirit of its landlady.
Avi had woken up in the wee hours of morning and had gone there to switch on the submersible pump to fill the overhead tank that kept the water taps running. He shot back like a bullet through the door he had appeared, flushed more with shame than fear. Back in his house as he stood calming his racing pulse, it occurred to him that he may have witnessed an unearthly creature after all. He realised how it put him in the league of his grandparents who spoke of ghouls and spectres as if they were housemaids and cooks. Hours later, he was still wide-eyed as he gushed about it with a tremor in his voice. He kept looking wistfully at the huge poster of Brooke Shields that hung on a wall of my room, as if to help illuminate his point, when he came to me.
Although I didn’t know it when I moved into the one-room bachelor apartment on the second floor of the house for an incredibly low rent, it was common knowledge that the recently departed soul of Dr Sharma’s wife was lingering on in the precincts due to untended matters best known to her. Some said her boundless love for her adolescent children was a hindrance to her salvation. Many others thought she may have cut short her pain and despair by swallowing a bunch of sleeping pills, setting herself free much earlier than the cancer would eventually have done, but now she was doomed to live her remaining years on earth in spirit, if not in flesh, and undergo the mandatory suffering. Many sightings were reported and the early birds of the neighbourhood swore it was between four and five in the morning, the time she had died, that her presence was most forcefully felt. It was said to be quiet, her spirit, sailing past the odd ledge or window like a feather, though Balbir Rai swore of clinking trinkets, and folks agreed he was lying, and that he was unduly foisting the habits of less civilised ghouls of his native village upon the refined spirit of a city known for its culture. Rai’s house shared a common wall with Dr Sharma’s.
Dr Sharma’s bachelor flats were much sought after as he rented it out regardless of the marital status of the prospective tenants and there was often a waiting list. It was a cause of discontentment among his neighbours but then they were unhappy about his dead wife too, and he didn’t give two hoots to any of it. The first floor of his house had four such dwelling units and a tiny terrace towards the back touched Avi’s house. The second floor had a lone such unit and afforded a huge terrace, and I was its rather constant occupant, guarding my territory fiercely. Occasionally, the occupants from the floors below welled up to the top to catch the winter sun or the puffs of zephyr in sweltering summer nights.
The regional centre of National Academy of Art stood on a road close by, ten minutes’ walk from the house. The academy was a perennial haunt of art students of all kinds -painters, sculptors, moulders and weirdoes. What it also ensured was the house was never short of tenants. They appeared with their easels, canvas, colours, moulds and metals overnight and vanished in similar haste. I ran into a fresh troika one evening, smoking cigarettes nonchalantly, leaning against the parapet of my terrace. Looking around, I noticed cast off cigarette butts too and it sent my temper soaring. I gruffly asked them to stop smoking and collect the litter they had produced. One of them sported a ponytail and seemed to be their leader. He apologized profusely on everyone’s behalf, stubbed out his cigarette and picked up the butts. The other two followed him sheepishly. After an awkward pause, however, I introduced myself and they were happy to introduce themselves too.
It turned out that Biren, Sumer and Victor hailed from three distant corners of the country, spaced away like the legs of a tripod. Biren had come from Assam, Sumer belonged to Rajasthan and Victor had his home in Goa. As if to emphasise their distant origins, the artists had very different painting styles compared to each other. Biren’s paintings smacked of a land of mountains, rivers and fog, rendered in charcoal abstracts. Sumer’s paintings were crowded with dunes and temples, suffused with shades of orange and maroon; his people were ridiculously skeletal. Victor was apparently the most gifted of them all, he was a painter of women and their many moods, their fortunes and misfortunes. His drawings were varied, vivid and full bodied, and women were counterbalanced with tormentors – pot-bellied, moustachioed, uniformed, dagger-wielding and pinstripe-suited.
Victor seemed to have a fascination for women of Nordic descent who he claimed were the ‘epitome of womanhood’. He often talked about certain Veera and Salli, representatives of Finnish Airline who had befriended him during an art exhibition in New Delhi. They were quite struck by his paintings, he’d say, and had offered to pose as models for his ‘masterpiece’.
Veera and Salli were not the only fans of Victor’s works. Balibir Rai, who had risen from selling betel leaves to owning a busy restaurant in Ganj, was also bowled over by his talents and had bought a painting from him for an undisclosed sum. He would visit the exhibitions organized by the Academy to savour the ‘the big-busted-hour-glass-figures’ in the paintings. Victor’s art easily passed the touchstone of femininity set by him, ‘He knows omens!’
I decided to wait for a couple of days before bursting Avi’s illusion about the naked ghost but it turned out to be a bad idea for all. The very next day of his imagined tryst with the supernatural, his sister stepped out in the backyard only to see a large painted canvas positioned carefully on the first-floor terrace. It depicted an undraped woman, her legs dangling out of a rooftop in reckless abandon.
The artists would often expose their paintings in the sun but never before had they put forth such combustible stuff. It was quite a shock to Avi for reasons more than one. That, it was tantamount to foisting pornography on the neighbourhood was one, a crime unforgiveable enough. But what was worse, it shattered his illusion of having come across a beautiful spirit and he felt short-changed. The woman he had seen was apparently a living soul who had modelled for the nudist art and the canvas was then proffered to the sun for baking in the elements of its subject. And the thought that the painters had access to such femmes fatales who were clearly foreigners, smouldered him further. Using a stepladder, he quickly went up the fence and pulled himself into the balcony stepping over the railing. He freed the painting off its stand and sent it crashing to his backyard and scaled his way back. Back in his house, he shredded it to smaller pieces with a razor.
Come evening, the painters trundled their way up to my room, sombre as if in mourning. I cooked some tea and offered them biscuits but they remained sullen. Victor was inconsolable, ‘You don’t understand -It is like losing one’s child.’ His ponytail was a frizzled mess.
There was no doubt in their minds about the culprit. Avi had left succinct footprints on the colour smeared floor of the painters’ balcony. They had even wandered to the front of Avi’s house where they had found a severed piece of the canvas that Victor was still clutching in his hands. They had been quickly booed away by the family though.
‘I am sure it is crime enough and that lanky man is guilty of plundering. Tell me, why shouldn’t I call in the police?’ Victor demanded of me.
‘I am sure it is crime enough, and first rate at that.’ I spoke. ‘But I am not sure how the police will react to it all, what with public display of nude paintings and the naked foreigners wandering at night. There are obscenity laws too. More than that, you know how the police is, always sniffing for reasons to harass gentle souls like you.’
‘We know he is your friend.’ Biren said with venom.
‘Look, I know how hard it must be, like losing a part of your body, your offspring. Hope you will forgive me if I suggest you paint it again. I mean, invite your model friend once more.’ I tried my best to mollify them.
Victor didn’t touch his tea.
A month passed and the April suddenly started getting intolerably hot and stuffy. I fell to my old habit of pulling out a mattress on the terrace, fixing up a mosquito net on sticks and sleeping under the open sky. The nights were hot to start with but once past the midnight, the wind would pick up thick with the fragrance of night jasmine. Early in the morning, a batch of cuckoos would break into a duel, calling louder and louder over the mad cawing of the crows in the nearby park. But it was not till the late morning sun pinching me hard that I’d undo the camp. One night though, much before the clamouring of the birds began, I found myself awake and gazing at a pair of white sneakers, inches from my face. A pair of rose-white legs arose from the shoes and as my eyes travelled upwards, a tall statuesque figure hovered over me under the late-night sky. I stood bolt upright with a jerk, mosquito net and all, and found myself staring at two large crystalline eyes framed in golden hair. I was about to rend the night with my alarmed gibberish when her lips moved, ‘Hi! I’m so sorry! I’m so sorry! I am Veera…!’
She was trying to hold my hand through the net. I was returning from my somnolence quickly, beginning to realise she was probably the famed model I’d been hearing about. I pushed the net away from my body swiftly, wide awake by now, trying to look smart in whatever I was dressed in. I realized how truly beautiful she was, like Brooke Shields come off the wall! But she seemed deeply upset about something.
‘Help a friend, please! I know you’ve got a bike. Will you drop me to the airport, please? I will pay you —please?’ She was speaking very quickly. Like those girls in the movies.
‘I don’t want to be paid!’ I found my voice as her words hit me. ‘Aren’t you the model they keep talking…. Where is he?’
‘Jeesus! Victor —he is sick! Drop me to the airport, please. I will pay you. I will pay you….’ She began fumbling with her large handbag frantically.
‘Wait, give me a moment.’ I said, thinking hard. The painter must be as crazy as Avi thinks he is. I heaved the mattress and the net back into my room. I slipped into a pair of jeans and t-shirt briskly, remembering to pocket my driving license, all the while thinking what Victor might have done to perturb her so. Did he …? My heart was thudding away at the thought. She knocked and came in and looked around as if searching for something. She rushed at the water keg and poured several cups of water and drank in large gulps. Her fingers trembled as she held the cup. I hoped the water was still cool. I hoped she was not hurt by the lunatic who had done God knows what to her.
“Hurry, please, hurry!” She implored.
Soon we were shooting like a rocket through empty streets, the wind roaring in my ears. I was still wondering if it was a lucid dream but there were Veera’s hands, digging hard into my shoulders, and I could feel her wispy embrace at my back, almost expecting it. I knew the exact spots where the police check posts were set up for the night and skirted clear of them, turning into sub-streets. The police were sure to have stopped us and unleash a barrage of questions just for the heck of it. We entered the airport building within an hour with the first light of dawn.
Veera didn’t have much to say nor did she waste time getting off the bike. She had pulled out what appeared to be foreign currency notes from her handbag but I told her firmly that I would not be paid. She grabbed my arm and shook it vigorously as tears rolled down her cheeks from under the goggles she had slipped on. ‘Goodbye! Kiitos ystäväni…. Näkemiin!’ I didn’t know what she was mumbling except that she was grateful and relieved as hell. Then she spun and rushed towards the security guards at the entrance.
I could still feel her palms on my shoulders as I rode back, my back dreaming of the touch it had felt moments ago. There was no reason to hurry. I had just helped a foreign fairy escape the clutches of a local fiend. I was transformed to a knight of global calibre.
As I cut into the last lane to my house, I was shocked to see a large crowd gathered under our building. A grim looking police van was parked next to a white-coloured ambulance close to the gate. My heart leapt to my mouth as I killed the engine of my bike, pulling it away discreetly at some distance. I looked for familiar faces in the ominous crowd. Balbir Rai stood at the gate of his house, clutching a newspaper in one hand and his lungi with the other. With leaden feet, I moved closer to him searching his face for answers. Presently, some people emerged from the front holding a stretcher, carrying a large body covered with a sheet and I could just spot a ponytail peeking out at one end. Biren and Sumer followed it with bowed heads.
‘Suicide!’ Balbir Rai said balefully, pointing at the stretcher with his poorly shaved chin. ‘Love with phoren omens.’
I am clueless what to comment. Superb fiction that kept me gripped till the end. I am still trying to make sense of what happened. I actually searched for ‘Kiitos….’ to get more clue.
Many thanks, Jas. It is heartening to see ones’ efforts being acknowledged by writers like you. Kiitos, once more!
Good to see you are finally back with yet another intriguing tale. Fascinating as usual with vivid descriptions of the background.
Thanks for approving, TF. Glad you liked the descriptions, background and the intrigue.
Engrossing, eerie and different….very well conceived and presented. Loved the painting. Its a masterpiece.
I am happy to find the story having the desired impact. Thanks a lot Alka. Yes, that is a cute painting by Pino Daeni.
Well crafted story….specially the ending is quite intriguing … was it suicide, or…?
Thank you, sir! Once the writer is done with the story, it is for the readers to surmise the end. Have fun!
I will have to come back and read it again to grasp its full beauty! What can I say…
The story awaits you….
That ability to draw the reader into your fictional setting and keep him captivated there is very rare and priceless, Uma! Superb!
Thank you for the captivity -it will be cherished.
An outstanding story telling! Was hooked till the end. A glimpse into a cross-section of passions that drive us all. Loved your characters.
I am thrilled that you liked the story, Ilakshee! Thank you so much for the compliment.
My comment on this story is just a smiley. That was my reaction a genuine smile.
Thank you for that, Asif. Your smile means a lot.
The intrigue of O.henry combined with RK narayan simplicity with that very special USP touch…loved this story absolutely 🙂
Those are generous words from someone who is an excellent writer herself. Thanks a million!
Errie!! You are an amazing story teller.
Thank you, for the compliment.
USP, that was another truly engaging story. What a pleasure it was to read it. I like how you make our imaginations run wild a little before the ending and long after. 🙂
Divya, I am happy you liked it so! It is indeed heartening to learn that the story lingers on long after it is read. Many thanks to you!
I posted my comments here yesterday which seem to have disappeared
I apologise for that, Chowla saheb. Sometimes genuine comments also get filtered away by the spam net. Do write it again.
an engrossing read Umashankar ji –such an interesting narration —could almost visualize .
I am happy it captured your attention. Many, many thanks.
Another good one brother……..excellent writing like always, was chilled & hooked till the end. Characters choice unique and fantastic…….very interesting……..keep it up 🙂
I am thrilled by your words, Samir. I am happy that my labours have borne fruits. I’ll keep trying from time to time. Thanks a lot.
A gripping tale from a gifted writer. The flow was outstanding . I felt as if I was seeing everything happening right in front of my eyes. Your style almost reminded me of Roald Dahl and Edgar Allen Poe. This genre suits you. The finish is most extraordinary. Keep writing buddy. I proudly recommend your blog to many .
Coming from a voracious reader like you, those words are precious and cherishable. I am thrilled that it passed your touchstone, and that it pleased you so much. Million thanks to you!
Great thriller. Loved it.
Thanks for the stamp of approval.
Wow, very gripping thriller with a shocking ending. Great job!
Thank you for liking it so, Dark Night!
a great story very well narrated!!
Thanks for appreciating.
A great story. My first visit here and I am hooked!
Thank you and welcome to the blog.
read it twice, very gripping, your narrative is so vivid as if watching it playing out infront of eyes!
I am happy you liked it so. Thanks for the kind words.
Wow what a story! I loved the last two words the most. fabulous punch line.
Honoured to receive those words of appreciation. Many thanks to you!
Very gripping, Umashankar! This is your first piece of fiction I’ve read and boy! it is good. 🙂
Thanks for the compliment, Corinne -it means a lot. Do read the other stories too! 🙂
Wow!!! It was magic with words…. imagery at its best. Loved the way the characters were so well sketched out.
Many thanks for those kind words, Nirvana! I am happy you liked it.
A wow for the language and plot. I am guessing the phoren girl killed the pony tail guy 🙂
Thank you, Ghazala, for the approval. Once the story has flown out of the writer’s pen, it belongs to the reader’s imagination! 🙂
Amazing.. it kept me hooked all along.. thought I was reading a grey plot of a book.. 🙂
I am happy it appealed you so. A million thanks to you!
Absolutely brilliant. Vividly fascinating imaginations while reading your posts, as always. I liked many parts of this post, especially this line, “…..as spaced out as the legs of a tripod.” 🙂
‘Kiitos’ for this wonderful piece. 🙂
Your words were much awaited, Akshay! I get anxious when your input is delayed. Kiitos, ystäväni! 🙂
Gripping…..eerie…captivating story, Umashankar! Brilliant in the execution of language, structure and spirits….Kiitos, yystäväni for this fabulous story!! Loved this~
It is an honour to receive those words, Panchali.
Pony-tailed Man and Phoren Omen a vicious cocktail make! But these two didn’t mix well it seems.
I’ve said before that you weave words well and like to flesh-out the characters.
The next step is to work on a larger canvas. Waiting for that book from you … isn’t it time?
Thanks for the encouraging comment. Yep, something happened in the story! And the fire to write more roars on….
A good tale that didn’t go the way I expected. Are there any more stories set among these apartments?
Life is unpredictable, so is the tale and tales lie everywhere waiting to be told! Thank you.
Wow.. that was splendid story telling! A brilliant story with a strong narrative. The way the story gradually unfolded with a gripping eeriness to it was great. A great read and wonderfully written! The way you weave a complex narrative to slowly grow on the reader is sheer talent!
Glad to have wowed you, Raj. It is especially pleasant coming from someone who is a grand storyteller himself. Million thanks to you!
As usual you leave us guessing. Did the phoren girl kill the painter or did he really commit suicide? Brilliant weaving of words and a great climax.
Thank you for the reassurance, Richa. Glad to have intrigued you! 😉
Loved the way it all unfolded!and so beautifully narrated.
I am a fan now!
Dear Nabadip, please be my friend instead! I am glad you liked it so. 🙂
That was indeed a fascinating story! And superb narration! I enjoyed it very much 🙂
Wonderfully narrated and such a well crafted story. Loved reading it.
Thank you, Subroto.
Intriguing as always US, prompting the reader’s thoughts into action.
On the subject of ghosts, I would expect – with so many gods – that India would certainly have more than her share (?)
A great read,
This is my second attempt here, as I suspect my first went to one of your many gods.
& re: your reference to ghosts, does it follow that India has many of these also? I did find this post intriguing as is often your way. It left much food for thought with the reader; & that’s a good thing. All part of the magic.
btw. I did like the Daeni.
You see, Ian, I appealed to our gods who promptly sent your comment back! (They call this god ‘Akismet’ -incidentally, ‘kismat’ is the word for fate out here.)
We may have travelled a fair way since 1947 but the ghosts still have a lot of sway in the Indian outback! In this case though, the actual ghost never materialises. Happy to have intrigued you! 😀
Umashankar, the suspense was riveting as I was glued to my seat with all the twists and surprises in your expertly crafted story. Well done! I could envision the characters so vividly. Ah, such a bittersweet ending but such is the way of omens! That painting by Pino Daeni is lovely too.
I am thrilled by those words, Madilyn! Thanks for thr encouragement.
Pino Daeni is amazing.
Enthralling tale. You weave your stories with such finesse!
More more more..!
Thanks Dagny for approving and wanting more!
Kept me hooked till the end! Superb fiction
Thank you, Saurabh. Much appreciate your compliment!
Very intriguing! The beginning pulled me right in, and followed by many unexpected turns. Love the way how you touched that “pony tail” in several different occasions. The end echoes beginning perfectly. Well done!
P.S. I also enjoyed you detailed image of sleeping outside with mosquito net under open sky in “sweltering summer night”. My childhood had so many nights like that.
Yun, I can’t tell you how happy that comment has made me! Gives me a feeling I wrote a perfect story.
Nothing beats sleeping under the sky in summers! Glad to know you have done that too. 🙂
Excellent! Fast paced, well-developed plot. Really liked your story line.
Many thanks for the stamp of approval, Linda.
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