The house lay veiled in a thick cloud of secrecy. Despite their best efforts, Ashok and his friends never saw its inmates.
The house at the corner looked as somber as ever. A source of profound intrigues for Ashok and his friends, it always attracted furtive glances. Somebody had told them, its owner had a gun and a foul temper.
Once they had seen a few urchins running down the road for their lives, pausing occasionally to look back at the house. One of them had collided with Raju as he was about to take a spot-kick.
‘What do you think you’re up to?’ Raju was visibly upset at losing his momentum. Gasping for breath, the kid had mumbled about someone chasing them with a gun and had run off before more questions could be asked. Nor could they spot the alleged gun-trotter.
The gate, almost always, was bolted tight. So was the front door. One of the windows however, would be partly open at times. But it did not let in enough light and the inside of the house remained hazy, undefined.
Ashok, as much as his friends, strained their necks, stretched it at impossible angles to glimpse the interior. Reluctant to get nearer for a closer look, they chose to spy from the building that faced the house. That involved climbing on to the low boundary wall of the Choudhurys’. That too was not without some risk.
Once Mohan, having got on to the wall, saddled himself precariously, when he was startled by a dog barking close at his heels. It was the Choudhurys’ Doberman. The dog was merely performing its duty of keeping trespassers at bay. Poor Mohan however, could hardly appreciate its intentions. Scared out of his wits, he lost his balance and tumbled on to the pavement, sprained his ankle and was laid up in bed for quite a while.
As Ashok looked at the house after nearly twenty-five years, it appeared stale, shorn of its past aura. The gate and the door were still bolted. So were the windows. The fading sun had lent to it a touch of jaded yellow. It seemed as if the building was sick, jaundiced, tired of carrying the weight of its secret.
The only person who remained completely indifferent to the house was Chhedilal. Every summer afternoon, as shadows lengthened across the road, Chhedilal could be seen approaching their street, gently rolling his two-wheeled trolley.
He would park the trolley right across the house on the opposite pavement. Then, he would wipe his face with a red, long striped piece of cloth, flung around his neck. Settled comfortably, he would glance at both sides and cup his palms loosely around his mouth, bellowing a deep-throated, high-pitched, ‘Coooolpeeee..Malaaaiiii’.
This was the clarion call they waited for. Even if they were caught in a goalmouth melee, Chhedilal’s call would signal the end of all activity. They would sprint towards him, as fast as their tired legs, exhausted after long bouts of soccer, could carry them.
Chhedilal meanwhile, would be busy lining small earthen cups in a row. As the boys encircled him, he would slowly, almost tantalizingly, scoop out the delectable, peach-yellow, crushed sweet ice called kulpi with a steel spoon.
They would wait with bated breaths as Chhedilal meticulously filled out the pots, jamming as much as he could within their tiny bellies. He would sprinkle blood red syrup on the shining kulpi. The one at Chhedilal’s immediate right would get the first cup. Never did he violate this cardinal rule.
The place, naturally, was in heavy demand. It required a quick dash and lot of elbowing to be there. The jostling continued till everybody had his share and started lapping up the delicacy. The exercise often witnessed skirmishes.
Once Suman elbowed Kaushik in the tummy, as he was about to grab a cup. ‘I reached before you, rascal.’ The kulpi spilled as Kaushik tried to latch on to the cup for dear life. The very next moment, the two were seen rolling on the pavement, clutching at each other’s throats.
They kept probing the house while savoring the delicious kulpi. The task was made easier since Chhedilal stood right opposite to the premises. Having kulpi was a good excuse for prying unnoticed.
They also tried to rope in Chhedilal as an accomplice. ‘Why don’t you take your cart to that side?’ A few of them had suggested. That would have helped them to move closer to the house. But Chhedilal refused to budge from his place. ‘This is my lucky spot. I’ve been standing here since ages’.
Ashok looked around, as he walked down the street, trying to relive the past through the present. A lot more cars were parked on either side. With so many vehicles, road soccer would have been impossible, he thought.
Most of the spacious houses had made way for multi-storeyed apartments. A plush house filled up the vacant patch of green next to where Mohan stayed. The sprawling mansion that once belonged to Suman’s had been converted into an elegant guesthouse.
Only Chandan’s house remained as it was. A little isle of time, frozen in the vast sea of change. The building wore the same dilapidated look. The rectangular water tank on the northern fringe of the roof seemed every inch as rusty as it had been decades back.
Perched on this tank on a sultry August afternoon he and Chandan had seen the girl coming out from the corner house. They could see her only from the rear. Busy in protecting their kite from a horde of aggressors, their sights were fixed upward.
As a green and white kite swooped in and felled theirs, their gazes followed the falling trajectory of their hurt pride, and were abruptly halted by the shapely contours of a feminine figure bolting the gate of the corner house.
Chandan had gripped his arm in frenzied excitement, fingernails digging into his flesh. ‘Did you see the girl?’ Ashok nodded, his voice robbed of words by the thrill in his veins. With racing pulses, they headed for the stairs. He couldn’t recollect bounding down stairs at a faster speed.
The girl was almost out of sight when they came out. They ran after her like boys possessed, oblivious of the people around. But luck wasn’t in their favor. With sinking hearts, they saw her flaming red attire merge into the crowd of faceless forms on the busy main road.
The news spread like wildfire. For once, Ashok and Chandan were subjects of considerable envy. Their friends could hardly cease questioning. ‘Was she as old as my cousin sister?’ ‘What was she carrying?’ ‘Did she wear high heels?’ ‘Was she in a sari?’ ‘Could she make out that you were following her?’ Both of them exploited the situation to the hilt.
Ashok smiled, as he thought of the generous helpings of Chhedilal’s kulpi that they were treated to, in exchange for information. They also took the liberty of coloring their account with fertile adolescent imagination. The others were convinced that the girl was the most beautiful being ever seen by mortal eyes.
The already mysterious house now became even more intriguing for Ashok and his friends. Their curiosity about its lodgers increased manifold. Long afternoons were spent eyeing the yellow structure for human presence. Even when soccer was on, eyes would move surreptitiously towards the house, in the hope of sighting the girl in red.
Nearly a fortnight passed without anything happening. The boys had almost given up hope of seeing the girl again. To Ashok and Chandan, she seemed the fleeting image from a vague, unknown dream.
One afternoon, they had crowded Chhedilal as he filled the cups. ‘She was here yesterday,’ Chhedilal stated casually. The import of his statement failed to reach them initially.
‘Who was here?’
‘The girl that you talk about. She had come to the house.’ Chhedilal was completely nonchalant.
They peppered Chhedilal with all possible questions. He was, however, not very revealing. All that they learnt was this. She was seen leaving the house late in the evening, when Chhedilal was about to wind up. She bolted the gate and walked away briskly towards the main road.
He couldn’t say anything about what she wore and how she looked. But he had reserved his best for the end. ‘There were two of them,’ he announced. Ashok could distinctly remember the glint of a mischievous smile on his lips as he dropped the bombshell.
Chhedilal’s story left the boys utterly confused. As it is, the house treasured deep secrets and had remained a puzzle to them for years. Now there were two girls to complicate matters further. This was too much for them to absorb.
A few days later, while returning home in the evening from his music lessons, Ashok and his mother were surprised to discover several people outside the corner house. A few policemen were around; a police jeep was parked nearby. From a distance it was impossible to make out what was going on.
Ashok tried to take a closer look but was firmly pulled back by his mother. ‘You don’t have to poke your nose there. Come on, we’re getting late.’
Ashok kept looking back at the scene with the hope of spotting his friends in the crowd. He could see none. Chhedilal too, couldn’t be seen. His trolley, however, was stationed at its place. That was the last time he saw Chhedilal’s vehicle.
A host of accounts were doing the rounds the next day. Some spoke of the house as the scene of a suicide. Others spoke of murder and robbery, of rich hordes of looted items. The strangest development was Chhedilal’s disappearance.
He never turned up again. Giridhari, the neighborhood laundryman, informed the boys that the police had summoned Chhedilal. Apparently, he was witness to whatever had happened that evening. But Giridhari also had no clear idea about what it was.
A week later, Ashok’s father received his transfer orders. They had to leave shortly. The hectic activities of the last days took his mind away from the house and Chhedial.
After leaving the city, he was in sporadic touch with Chandan and Kaushik. He remembered Chandan writing about Chhedilal’s continued absence and about the house being doubly bolted.
Retracing his steps, Ashok walked back towards the house. It looked mournful in the dull hue of the departing sun. The plaster was peeling off at various places revealing the brick skeleton. Years of rust had ashened the iron gate. The door and the windows looked painfully colorless.
He felt sad for the aging mansion. It was now a despondent reminder of its glorious days. The times, when it used to mesmerize, and cast haunting spells.
A vending trolley, standing where Chhedilal’s used to, caught his attention. The vendor had bent inside making only his lower half visible. He straightened, as Ashok approached, and glanced at him inquiringly. ‘Ice cream?’
‘No,’ Ashok replied. ‘Do you sell kulpi-malai?’
The man grinned. ‘I used to. But nobody wants kulpi-malai these days, babu. Now people like only ice-cream.’
‘How long have you been here?’ Ashok asked.
‘Nearly twenty years,’ the man replied. ‘When I began selling on this street, there used to be a big house here.’ He motioned backward. ‘They had a huge black dog.’
The Choudhury’s Doberman, Ashok smiled wryly. He recalled Mohan’s escapade with the dog.
‘A man called Chhedilal used to sell kulpi-malai here. Do you know him?’ Ashok asked. The man shook his head.
‘Who stays there now?’ Ashok pointed to the corner house.
‘That house? Nobody. It is always locked. Actually,’ the man lowered his voice, ‘It’s a strange house. A lot of things had happened there. Many years back, I’d seen…’
The decaying structure stood silent, as dark as the evening itself. It had a pleading look on it. Was it afraid of its secrets being divulged?
Ashok dissuaded the vendor as he was about to launch off into his account. He picked an ice cream, paid the man, and moved away. As he looked back from a distance, the house seemed to smile at him.
Ashok felt relieved. He would be able to go back with the same old memories that he had of his tender years. Uppermost among which, would be the mysteries surrounding a pale-yellow house.
He reached the main road and looked back again. The house could be seen no more. Nor could he see through the enigma that cast its impregnable shadow over the house.
Would it have helped if he gained extra-sensory perception? “Better,” he told himself, “to have imperfect vision that keeps the mystery alive. Rather than the incisive X-ray vision that dispels mystery and erases the link with the childhood days!”
This short story was first published in meghdutam.com (between 1999 to 2003).
Read other writings by Amitendu Palit
Rahul and his T-shirt (Short Story)
The Dark Evening (Short Story)
A Strange Darkness (Poem)
A Poetess and her Innermost Being (Book Review)
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