He was in deep sleep when he felt someone shaking his bed. Waking up with a start he realised that it was quite dark and the glow of the night lamp barely managed to illuminate the room. Tom did not believe in ghosts or even supernatural phenomenon, although his relatives had told him that there was a woman in the neighbourhood, a woman in white who walked on top of the buildings at night. She started her journey from the neighbouring building adjacent to the one in which he was sleeping and then would walk on to the next one before flitting on to the one where he was sleeping that night.
Tom was pursuing his B.A. (Hons) English course from one of the colleges in Delhi and had come to Gurgaon to spend the night at his grandmother’s house because she had gone to visit her son, his uncle in Jodhpur. He had agreed reluctantly to his grandmother’s wishes because he had planned to take his girlfriend to a movie at the PVR in Saket, but then of course, you had to listen to your grandmother after all! It was for one night and that too a Saturday, his grandmother would be back the next day. Groaning with disgust, he turned to his mobile phone to check the time and realised with a shock that it was twelve midnight, not that it affected him in any case for he was not superstitious, nor did he believe in ghosts after all!
Even as he lay on the bed, unable to sleep, he remembered how Gurgaon had once been a small town which had turned into a huge city seemingly overnight with all the top corporate head offices headed to it. Realty prices had shot up and the only thing you could find were buildings and more buildings. The greenery, farmlands, and fresh water bodies had all disappeared from sight even as they were swallowed up by builders who wanted to build apartments on them. His grandmother’s house a huge villa and a few others houses were the remaining homes from the sixties the rest had all been broken up and turned into commercial complexes, shopping centres, showrooms and even hospitals! Tom remembered how in earlier days all his uncles, aunts and their family members would gather at his grandmother’s house and then his cousins along with him would all have a gala time playing on what had now become a two-lane road. They told each ghost stories, played hide and seek, police and thief, and even hop scotch. They had been six cousin brothers and four cousin sisters. Now most of them, elder to him of course, had settled in faraway places, a couple, even settling down in America with their families. The house that had once been noisy and overcrowded was now rather quiet and a bit lonely. He wondered how his grandmother managed to live alone – although she was visited during the day by the family members of two of her sisters who lived nearby, in spite of this it must have difficult for her looking after the house all alone. He was not however very surprised because in any case his grandmother had been a veritable iron lady who managed things on her own.
It was in the midst of all his musings that it happened, rather randomly, not something to be frightened of, an innocuous tug on his foot. Then it happened again, this time the tug was more insistent, somebody had pulled his right foot. He flung his blanket off himself and then jumped out of bed. His heart was beating hard against his chest as he fumbled for the light switch and managed in the process, to knock off the table lamp from the side table. ‘Heck what the heck!’ he exclaimed as he gingerly felt for the light switch. He found it but the moment he clicked on it, it wouldn’t work! ‘No, no!’ he shouted to himself, ‘the MCB must have tripped when the lamp fell down causing the bulb to short.’ He knew he was in trouble; for to fix the MCB switch, he would have to step out doors in the dark, a prospect he did not really look forward to! The door from his room opened into the sitting room and from the sitting room he would have to walk all the way to the landing place. He would have to find his way through the furniture that literally overflowed the place. His grandmother’s house had literally become a dumping ground for all of his uncles’ and aunts’ unwanted furniture and stuff. Grumbling to himself, Tom shifted his attention towards locating the mobile phone he had left on the bed. It was just when he had turned back to the bed to look for the phone that he heard a woman calling his name!
‘Tom, Tom, listen to me, why don’t you just follow me, I will lead you to the MCB switch!’ the woman said although he hadn’t seen her as yet!
‘Shit,’ he exclaimed to himself as he desperately began looking for the phone, he needed light to see beyond the lurking shadows, moreover the presence of the woman in the house surprised and shocked him! He was sure he was going barmy. The more he thought of the voice, the more he began to panic, wondering where the mobile phone had gone – it had been on the bed but it wasn’t there anymore! He must have flung it off the bed along with the blanket. Now he began to sweat even more although it was still the middle of the winter season. He became more frantic looking for the mobile phone and then he stepped of a fragment of glass, the remains of the bulb that had smashed when the lamp had fallen. ‘Ouch!’ he shouted again as he felt for his foot. His hand came off wet; the glass shard had apparently cut into his foot – his left foot. Shaking with anger and fear, Tom just collapsed on the bed and stared into the distance from where the woman’s sound had come.
‘Are you looking for this, Tom?’ asked the voice – it was the same voice, the one that had spoken to him earlier!
He began to shake even more, but then when he looked carefully he saw his mobile phone lying on the ground, its pilot light winking in a welcoming manner he felt reassured. Taking a deep breath of relief, he moved towards it, but before he could reach it he was stopped by the woman’s voice.
‘You will have to listen to what I have to say, before I let you have your phone, Tom, will it be OK if you just sit on the bed calmly, without the lights and listen to me?’
‘OK, fine….I guess I might as well sit down, but then what do you want from me, just let me get my mobile phone, I have already smashed up my grandmother’s antique lamp and I will get a shelling from her!’ He mumbled rather incoherently as he sat down rather reluctantly on the bed.
‘Would you like to see me, Tom?’ said the voice close to him now.
The proximity of the voice sent shivers up his spine, ‘No,…no, I mean,…yes, if it’s OK with you!’ He replied, changing his mind lest she might be offended by his refusal.
And then he saw her mere four feet away from his bed, a woman who was in her early thirties, dressed in simple white, she was one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen. There was something serene about her face which was filled with innocence and yet, sadness! She was simply gorgeous in a way that the girls he had known were not, could never be! He had heard about her, from many people, relatives and neighbours alike, but had never known her to be so beautiful. He knew somehow, that he would have to control himself lest he should begin treating her like a real human being. Even as he thought his thoughts he felt helpless knowing very well that the woman had already bewitched him. He thought suddenly about Sonia his girlfriend the girl with whom had been madly in love and then he felt a little guilty.
‘Can I sit beside you?’ she continued.
‘Ah… oh…yeees… OK, I mean, sure, why not?’ He answered her stammering rather uncontrollably at a ghost that must have been, what like centuries old?
There was a slight shift in the mattress, as if someone was sitting down, and there she was sitting on his left side. The scent of Cinnamon and citrus wafted from her, close by he could see that she had light golden hair, and her complexion was milky white, not the colour of death, rather the colour of health with the lightest tinge of pink in it. Her dress, now that he saw it from close was white silk and muslin, rather like a marriage gown! Even as he was observing her with a complex mix of disbelief curiosity and fear, she shifted a little closer to him and put her hand on his shoulder! He shuddered involuntarily believing that it would be the touch of death, for to be touched by a ghost would mean you had lost it! To make matters worse, he had felt the tug on his toe, then he heard her voice, then he smelled her perfume, and now this touch. It was however a rather light touch – the wind caressing him, and surprisingly enough, after the initial fright, he was somehow more comfortable.
Now that she was next to him, she addressed him, ‘Look, Tom, you know who I am, a ghost in your terms, but in my language, I am a spirit that has been roaming this place for ages, trying to get someone worthy enough to listen to my story and help me out. I was the wife of the British Garrison Commander, Richard Black who was based in Gurgaon from 1880 till 1905. It was towards the end of my husband’s term that a great tragedy struck the family. In the year 1905 the whole country was affected by a cholera epidemic. Our two sons, Antony aged five and Jack aged three were struck by the epidemic. They fought the disease bravely but then little could be done to save them. Alas! They died of the disease – Antony on the fifth of March, and Jack on the seventh of April, a gap of barely a month. We were broken up by this tragedy, my husband and I! Richard was so broken up that he did not want an extension for his term, so when his term came to an end in the month of December, 1905, he decided that we should leave for London in a month’s time. I however did not want to leave my children behind; I wanted to stay back just to be close to their graves. We fought a lot, Richard and I but then I just did not want to return to England. Finally on the day of our departure from Gurgaon I simply disappeared from the garrison. I took my horse and rode to the hamlet of Baas, where the officers went hunting for tigers and other animals. I stayed in that hamlet with the good headman and his wife for a fortnight. The soldiers came looking for me, but then I managed to hide from them. Finally after the fortnight was over, I took my horse and then rode back to Gurgaon. When I reached the Cantonment area, I was apprehensive about being caught by the soldiers so I decided to find shelter in one of the fields close to the main bazaar. Leading my horse to one of the fields, I happened to come across a well. Being thirsty, I bent down to see whether it had water or was a dry well. Somehow I tipped too far and fell into the well. There was no one around although I shouted on top of my voice! I swam in the water for as long as possible, until finally I had to let go because of exhaustion. I remember that my last thoughts were that ultimately because of my stubbornness, I had lost both of my sons and my husband!’
There was a pause in her narrative as Tom tried to assimilate what he had been told by the woman, not spirit who was sitting next to him. He now looked at her with a new sense of respect, she was not just another woman, but rather a woman who had suffered a lot, and now she regretted abandoning her husband. But still, he thought, ‘She is a sprit, a ghost, and I should stay away from her as much as possible.’ He remembered being told by someone in the family that ‘if you heard your name being called out at night even when there was no one,’ you were not supposed to respond to that name. They had been warned by some of the elders in the family that when a dear one passed away and then happened to return to anyone in a dream or vision and asked him or her to accompany him on a journey, one was supposed to refuse point blank even if it meant one was being rather too forthright!
His thoughts were brought to a standstill when the woman continued her narrative, ‘No one knew that I had fallen into the well and before long, the water in the well mysteriously dried up and then debris and mud was thrown into the well to fill it up. Soon that land was sold and a house constructed on it. The well is incidentally located in the neighbour’s plot adjacent to your grandmother’s house. The well is close to your neighbour’s kitchen in the backyard. There is a square platform over the opening of the well where your neighbour has placed a few flower pots.’
Tom broke into her narrative, ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘I want you to go to your neighbour and tell him about my story. After you do this, you are to go to the well, remove the slabs, (they will slide away) of course with Mr Kamal’s permission and then you are to dig out at least a handful of dirt from the well. Please bury this handful of dust in the graveyard and ask your Presbyter to say a prayer for my soul.’
‘But what about your name, I need to know what you are called!’ Tom said to the woman, knowing well that he would have to give the Pastor a name or so.
‘You never ask a spirit her name; let it suffice you to know that I might be referred to as Mrs Richard. You must also be wondering why the elders in your family have been talking about me, well for all those years I have been wandering in the neighbourhood looking for someone to get me a release from this existence, however each time I stepped out, whoever saw me would flee indoors looking for the company and safety of others. You happened to be around this night and so I thought of communicating with you, I just hope you don’t mind the imposition!’ she remarked gently.
‘No not at all,’ Tom replied with enthusiasm and confidence for now he was sure that her intentions were not bad, and anyway he wanted her to get a release from the kind of existence that she had been leading all those years.
‘Your helping me out will ensure that I will be able to achieve final rest, and yes I will not haunt you people any more though God knows it was never my intention to cause anyone any kind of harm! I have known each of the members in your family having seen them for so many years. Somehow I have felt secure and comfortable when all of you used to come home to enjoy your holidays. Now however hardly anyone come here, and your grandmother is growing old. I fear things have changed, and the loneliness of sharing the space with only your grandmother and Kamal, not getting to listen to the voices of children has made me tired.’
‘Don’t worry, Mrs Richard, I will do as you have told me, and I am sure you will achieve peace!’ Tom assured her.
The moment he gave her his assurance the woman disappeared as if she had never been there. There was, however the linger smell of her scent, Cinnamon and Citrus blended together. The next day was a Sunday and Tom did as he had been told. The pastor agreed to perform the ritual and the handful of dust from the well was buried in a hole dug in the graveyard. The private burial took place after morning mass and it was attended by his grandmother, the Presbyter and Mr Kamal, their neighbour.