By Arindam Maulick, from TMTL
After about a year in Chennai, Priyanka could finally get used to Idli as a standard form of breakfast. Back there in the north, Parathas were the norm, but here in Chennai, as the saying goes, when in Rome do as Romans do, and in Chennai, Romans had mainly Idli for breakfast . Priyanka and her junior from college, Shreya (both of them were incidentally recruited through campus recruitments), were working in the marketing division of a Chennai based engineering company. Their office was just half a km away from their residence, which was a two room flat in a building situated at the farthest corner of a dark and narrow alley which perhaps never had experienced the light of the day or for that matter night, as street bulbs were virtually nonexistent in this lane and never lasted for more than 48 hours.
The building in which they lived was occupied only by Tamilians and they were the only outsiders. They lived in the third floor which was the topmost floor and usually had the terrace to themselves. Like all metropolitan cities, the neighbours were never unduly inquisitive or helpful towards the two. Priyanka had shifted to this flat about six months back , she was staying in a working women’s hostel earlier and Shreya joined her about three months later.
The flat was maintained like any young middle class north Indian unmarried young women would, jeans and kurta’s strewn about, here and there, one corner kept for the TV and one corner for the various Gods and Goddesses. The cupboard had two shelves dedicated to their perfumes and toiletries as Chennai was infamous for its hot and sultry weather, and the rest for clothes. A side-table had books and magazines, and a lot of miscellaneous items strewn on it. There were two rooms, a living room and s a bedroom. The bedroom was fitted with a rented AC, which used to break down every seven days and threatened to break down every day.
Priyanka and Shreya occupied the same space in the office, their job was tedious and unexciting,and mainly involved scrutinizing a lot of documents from various sites, some in soft versions and some in hard copies, comparing them with budgeted figures and then recommending them for approval or rejection as the case may be. Their Boss was a fifty year old bald headed devout Tamilian who strived to act as a twenty year old youngster in front of these two girls. Every day around 10 in the morning he would call the girls one after the other and then individually spend time with each of them separately on the same matter. The conversation revolved around old Hindi songs, latest Hindi movies- the top favorites of young north Indian women, with work matters filling in the gaps. Lately he was finding it a bit difficult on this count, because his wife was suspicious of his sudden interest in Sharukh Khan instead of Rajnikant and his shift from Karnatic music to Hindi film songs.
Priyanka when she returned home, loved to spend a hour in isolation on the terrace, though the sights around were only that of taller buildings, this was the only bit of open space she enjoyed irrespective of the view and being used to fresh air from where she originally came from, she tried to savour the small space of openness. Thankfully unlike the houses around her, no one from that building used to use the terrace as a clothes dryer.
For the first six months she had the terrace relatively to herself, but all of a sudden on one Friday she was surprised to see a young boy of around ten years playing all alone on the terrace, this boy was thin and fair and when they both met for the first time, they were equally startled, then both of them smiled at each other and before Priyanka could ask him his name the boy ran down the stairs.
Priyanka was a bit annoyed immediately after, as this was the first time her privacy was invaded upon albeit unknowingly, even Shreya gave her this one hour to herself. This one hour was a sort of revitalizer for her, and she was slightly upset that this was slowly going to come to an end, because this little boy would soon be followed by other children and the only private place to herself would be lost to her forever.
The next few days passed off without any interruption, however the following Sunday at around 11.00 pm when she went to the terrace, she saw the boy sitting on the terrace parapet, and singing softly to himself, it was a Tamil song, and the boy, he had a melodious voice. For a few minutes, she hid from him and lost herself in the song. “He really sings well “, she thought to herself.
However, as soon as the song ended, he turned around and smiled at her as if he was sure that she was standing there and listening to him. Priyanka smiled back and said, “Hey you sing very well “, to which the boy replied in English,” Yes”.
Priyanka then started singing a Hindi song, and the boy joined her in humming the tune and both seemed to be enjoying the song very much, with the boy adding a few verses of Tamil on the same tune. Priyanka was very surprised and though she prided herself in being a singer above average, she felt she was no match to this boy. When they both ended after about twenty minutes , going through a variety of songs ,she was singing after a long time, and she had to stop to regain her breath( singing can be quite strenuous), she closed her eyes for a few seconds to relax completely. When she opened her eyes, the boy was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly she spotted him, near the window of an adjoining house, his smiling young face made visible by the moonlit night, he waved at her, and shouted out his name, “Srinivas “. Priyanka nodded her head, smiled back and pointing to herself shouted out, “Priyanka, we must do this quite often .” The Boy acknowledged and then walked away from the window. Priyanaka turned and made her way slowly back to her flat, all of a sudden it struck her, “ how did this boy in a span of few seconds travel all the way from the terrace of her building to the flat in the next building”, she did not even hear the pattering of feet!
She shuddered and rang the bell of her of her flat, it was opened by Shreya all bleary eyed and with a frown, “It’s past 1.00 AM, what took you so long, Priyanka? “ Priyanka looked at her, nodded and said nothing. Within a few moments, she was caught up in the comforting arms of slumber and eventually was fast asleep, ,with her thoughts of “how and why” kept aside.
Next morning, she asked Shreya whether she noticed a fair complexioned young boy around nine to ten years old , in neighborhood. Shreya whose entire thoughts were focused on heading out to work in the shortest possible time , replied in the negative.
The next few nights were uneventful, however on a Friday night when she went up to the terrace, she spied him sitting near the water tank, sitting cross legged and gently humming a tune. Seeing her, he smiled and she smiled back and walked towards him. Upon reaching near him, she sat down beside him and asked him where he had been these few days. He said he had gone out. Priyanka pointed to the house where she had seen him last and asked whether he lived there? The boy replied in the affirmative and then asked Priyanka from which part of N India she belonged to? Priyanka replied that she was from Uttarkhand and the boy said, “I was there yesterday “. Priyanka laughed and said that he was joking, to which he replied that he was not. She then asked him how it was possible; he smiled and then in a flash of a second disappeared. Priyanka was startled and then only heard his voice and a tinkle of laughter suggesting that now she should believe him!!
Surprisingly Priyanka never felt frightened though she understood the implications of the event, and asked him to reappear and he slowly appeared however near the doorway to the staircase. Priyanka she was dumbstruck for a few moments but finally after regaining her voice asked him with a perplexed note, what was he doing here? He replied that he was one of those fortunate few of the netherworld who could remain in earth as a spirit. She then timidly asked him whether she could touch him, he laughed and said, “yes, but you’ll just feel the cold and nothing else” She then tentatively stretched out to touch, and the moment she made contact, it was like caressing “ice”. She immediately withdrew her hand. Srinivas smiled and then waved good bye, the next moment she again saw his face at the window of the next house, waving to her.
It was then that full realization struck her but amazingly there was no fear, only a feeling of confusion. She slowly made her way back to her flat. Shreya was reading a “Mills and Boone “story, she smiled and asked her that lately she was spending more time than usual at the terrace. Priyanka, once again asked her whether she had seen a boy, slightly fair, with a crop of curly hair, in the vicinity recently. Shreya smilingly replied, “ No Priyanka and it looks like you are in love with him” Priyanka did not reply, went to the corner where the Gods were kept and said a few words of prayer before retiring for the day.
Next night, around ten, in the night, Priyanaka opened the door to move up to the terrace, she saw him sitting at the staircase smiling at her. Priyanka turned back and called out to Shreya , Shreya however when she came to the door saw nothing, no one sitting on the stairs, Priyanka remained silent and walked slowly up with Srinivas following her, Shreya could only see Priyanka moving up the stairs and glancing backwards at times at no one in particular. She was perplexed, but did not think much after a few moments, of her friend’s actions.
On the terrace, she asked him to sit beside herself near the water tank. She then asked him when he had left this world. He smiled and said about three years back, he was staying along with his parents in the adjoining house, where he contracted Jaundice and died in that very house.
Immediately after his death, he felt himself moving in the air, invisible to all, along with his body to the cremation ghat somewhere in North Chennai, Like human beings he also slept during the night at the cremation ghat in some corner and then from day to midnight moved around rather flitted around here and there, he could travel as far as he wished and spent the three years moving around in India.
Priyanka was incredulous hearing this, but then since this boy existed before her very eyes, she had to believe what he said. Srinivas further elaborated that unlike popular belief, spirits were rather harmless but he was yet to come across another one. He was unable to explain why he was the only one spirit around in the whole of Chennai. Priyanka then asked her whether he could reveal himself in front of her friend Shreya to which he replied that he did not know, because as of then Priyanka was the only one who could see him. However, if he tried he could move things in front of others, which he attempted once or twice earlier, but it gave such a frightful start to the living persons concerned that he stopped that totally.
Priyanka, unable to comprehend all this lost herself in her thoughts about this situation, was gently brought back to the living rather “non living “world by Srinivas who coughed softly. Priyanka looked at him and then smiled; there she was sitting alongside a spirit, with no sense of fear what so ever. Priyanka then requested him to accompany her to office the next day to which Srinivas replied that he would try as he was not very comfortable in moving to such places. Then with a good bye, he moved away, it was exactly at that moment Shreya came to the terrace. She was dressed in a salwar, kurta with a dupatta wrapped around her waist.
Priyanka saw Shreya, Srinivas had still not left by then, she gestured to him to stay on and then smilingly told Shreya , that she was waving to her new boy friend. Shreya frowned and replied that she could see no one! Priyanka laughed and asked Shreya whether she would like to see her dupatta to be removed on its own! Shreya could not understand what Priyanka meant , after this she could hear Priyanka mumble a few words to nobody in particular and she could make out: “ please, just this once “
She saw Priyanka, waving her hands at no one in particular, and she shouted out,” Priyanka whom are you waving at?”
Priyanka, after having seen what happened, told Shreya it was just a gust of wind and not to worry. She also requested Shreya to forget about this whole episode. Then, putting her hand around Shreya, they both went downstairs to their room.
Priyanka prepared a glass of hot milk for Shreya and told her to go to sleep. A frightened Shreya whispered to Priyanka, “Let‘s move out of here, Such things can never be good, tomorrow itself we should move out”. Priyanka reassured Shreya that nothing further will happen and that she would vouch for it. A doubtful Shreya, still not able to fathom what happened closed her eyes and tried to sleep.
The next three to four days passed off without any further incident. Srinivas also did not turn up anywhere near Priyanka. Meanwhile one of Priyanka’s close friends had come to Chennai for some work, he was a resident of Delhi and had been good friends of Priyanka in college, in fact Priyanka was actually seriously thinking of cementing this relationship, into something more long lasting. Aditya was good looking, interesting to talk to and was doing very well in his job. Though he was never verbal about it, he had an even stronger liking for Priyanka, but was waiting for her to make the first move.
The two nights he was in Chennai, all three met up and then used go for dinner in some good North Indian restaurant. Though the two girls made enough noise of sharing the bill, Aditya would have nothing of that. Incidentally Priyanka never saw Srinivas around; rather Srinivas was never in her mind then.
The next evening after Aditya had left, Shreya jokingly told Priyanka, that she had her permission to go ahead with Aditya, Priyanka blushed and tried to evade the issue. But Shreya , was insistent that she talk to Aditya about her feelings for him . Priyanka being a shy girl by nature, naturally felt a bit embarrassed and wanted the privacy of the terrace.
As she opened her apartment door, she could see Srinivas sitting on the steps smiling at her. She smiled back and then walked up with Srinivas at her side. When they reached the terrace, Srinivas asked her about Aditya. Priyanka was taken aback but then Srinivas smilingly cut her short and pronounced that he saw her with him and Shreya moving around at the Marina, the previous evening.
Priyanka then asked Srinivas how did he like him? He smiled and did not reply. When Priyanka insisted he only said that he will attend their wedding. Priyanka tried giving him a hug but then could only feel the cold. Srinivas laughed, sang one of his melodious Tamil songs and then vanished.
About eight months later, Priyanka and Aditya tied the knot in Dehradun. The marriage was a splendid affair with the guests divided between them as to who looked the best? Was it the bride, the bridegroom, or the venue and its arrangements? However there was unanimity in one thing, they all praised the singing of a sweet ten year old boy who sang a hauntingly beautiful song in Tamil for the couple. While both the groups (bride’s and the bridegroom) vociferously called him one of their own, they were actually unable to recall whose child he was? There were a few south Indian families invited for the marriage from both the sides. There was also another curious but humorous incident, Priyanka while dropping Shreya to her room suddenly found Mr. Vishwanathan’s (Priyanka’s and Shreya’s boss in Chennai) ring on the bedside table. A red faced Shreya was just not able to explain how and why the ring landed up at her bed side table. Priyanka handed over the ring to Aditya who then went around to Mr Vishwanathan’s room to hand over the ring to him and to tell him that it was found in Shreya’s room. An equally red faced Vishwanathan was obviously at a loss to understand how it reached Shreya’s room. While Aditya smiled unknowingly, Priyanka smiled knowingly.
(Illustrations by Rajeshwari Seetharam, TAFE Corporate Communications)