My name is Manjeet, Manjeet Chawla. This anecdote is from the time when I, along with Arjun Gill, my closest friend, was a B. Com. second year-student at SRCC (Shri Ram College of Commerce), Delhi. Back then, we even shared the same hostel room.
I am from Amritsar, where my middle-class family had a modest and ancestral business of paapad (a spicy, thin cake) and vadi (spicy nuggets). Arjun, on the other hand, belonged to a very affluent family from Jalandhar, where his father, Mr Ranveer Gill, had a lot of agricultural land in the outskirts of the city. When alive, his grandfather used to be the Sarpanch (head) of the village where most of their land is. This well-off family of landlords, thus, enjoyed a very good reputation in the entire region.
During all college breaks, both of us used to travel together to our respective places. Arjun used to alight at Jalandhar railway station, and I would continue my journey till Amritsar. Quite often, he used to rave about his village, lush fields, water pumps, fresh crops, the very fragrance of the soil, and above all, the mansion that they had there. Since I had never witnessed anything like this, I always longed to visit his place. And this was notwithstanding the fact that they all had moved to the city over the last few years.
My dream finally came true during the next vacation over Christmas…
I had planned to break my journey at Jalandhar for a day or two, to be able to spend some time where I always wanted to. As usual, a luxurious car was there with the driver waiting for Arjun at the railway station. We were driven to a beautiful bungalow situated in the posh Model Town area of the city. Seeing the awestruck expression on my face, Arjun made it a point to inform me that their mansion in the village was even more magnificent!
As a routine, his dad was away supervising the fields and all other activities. His elder sister had migrated to Canada after her marriage last year. Amidst a brigade of servants, only his mom was there at home, who, despite my seeing her for the first time, met me quite affectionately, and served us tea and snacks herself.
After the refreshment, while we were enjoying a lazy chat on the garden-swing outside, Arjun said, "Look buddy, I'm home after long, and would like to stay with my parents tonight." He added after a pause, "Why don't you stay back too, and we go to the village tomorrow?"
"No way!" I said. "I would love to be at your village today itself. And besides, I am to proceed to Amritsar tom tomorrow, as you know."
"All right then," Arjun agreed. "Let me arrange for a driver to take you there. I'll join you tomorrow, be with you the whole day, show you all around, and then drop you at the bus stand in the evening."
"Perfect!" I said. "By the way, I hope there will be someone there to take care of me…"
"Of course, my dear! Don't you worry… and I'll join you tomorrow morning, anyway!"
And a short while later, sitting again in a chauffeur-driven car, I was on my way to Balrajpur (the village Arjun belonged to, and which, I think, derived its name from his grandpa's). Naveen, the driver of the car, kept updating me about every important landmark on the way. And then suddenly, there was refreshing greenery all around… followed by some narrow lanes, crossing which, in slightly over an hour, we were standing in front of a sprawling mansion. Naveen escorted me inside and introduced me to the elderly Shibbu Kaaka, the caretaker, "Kaaka, he is Manjeet, Arjun's friend. Please take very good care of him." With this, the driver left.
Kaaka made me sit and be comfortable, before offering me deliciously thick lassi with a floating layer of cream (a cold drink made from home-made yogurt, water and sugar) in a huge glass made of brass.
Indicating towards a washroom at a side of the hall on the ground floor, he said, "My dear son, you can freshen up there while I get a guestroom fixed for you on the first floor." And then he swiftly left to give instructions to a servant.
Two storeys of that huge mansion seemed to have innumerable rooms and a tall tower, attached to one corner of the building. There was a narrow staircase, revolving around the tower, all the way to the top. At the very start of this staircase I could see a closed door with a heavy padlock dangling over it.
I reached upstairs to discover a clean room ready for me on the right side of the corridor. I went inside through the open door and looked around curiously. There was a fresh bed sheet spread over the double bed on one side. All furniture in the room was made from ebony. There was a center table with a couple of chairs around it, on one side of the room, and on yet another, lay a huge study table, with a vase full of fresh flowers, and a beautiful table-lamp placed on it. There was a window, through the glass panes of which I could see the twilight. I walked up to it and opened the window. There were vast green fields all around, as far as I could see, at the backdrop of which was the glowing sky making it a visual treat. The cold breeze quickly forced me to shut the window, however.
Then I moved towards the attached bathroom. I opened the door to look inside. We were not in a city but the toiletries that one can normally ask for in a washroom had all been arranged very systematically. A side rack had fresh and clean towels placed on it.
I came out and started lazing around on the bed. As a habit, I unnecessarily started relating the total setup to some house on a haunted hill in some spooky, horror story.
Only moments later, a knock on the door broke my reverie. Shibbu Kaaka came in, "Would you like to have some tea or coffee?"
I thanked him for asking and opted for a cup of coffee. While going back, he said, "I was just wondering if you take non-vegetarian food and would like to have country chicken tonight. There will be other dishes as well."
Country chicken and that too in such a rural ambience! I immediately said yes to it.
Five minutes, and Kaaka was back with coffee and some biscuits on a tray. I had barely lifted my cup when he said, "Arjun will anyway show you all around tomorrow, but it's still not very late. If you wish, you can go and roam around. By the time you return, we'll have the dinner ready for you."
That was a great idea. I left my emptied cup on the tray, got up and moved out. For around an hour and a half, before it became dark, I kept strolling around. I don't know if they already knew that I was a guest at the haveli (Gills' mansion), but everyone I came across on the way, was remarkably courteous. It was a wonderful experience… breathing in the pollution-free, fresh air around, far from the annoying commotion and the maddening crowd of the city!
By the time I decided to return, I realized that I was lost. When I was about to stop for asking directions, a young girl, aged around 15-16 years, appeared from somewhere and volunteered to escort me back.
Thanking her, I looked at her to find that she was an ordinary looking girl, dressed in bright and colourful lehenga-choli. There was a characteristic tinkle in her voice. And in addition, there was a soft musical sound emanating from her anklets.
Asking me to follow her, she immediately started moving ahead of me. I stopped her to ask, "Do you even know where I have to go?"
"Yes, bhaiyya (brother), I know that you are a guest at the haveli."
At least, there was no inkling of the haveli being haunted! I had nothing more to talk about while trying to match her rapid pace all through. Rather she kept asking me a lot of questions about the city-life, with a natural, child-like inquisitiveness.
When my destination was finally within the sight, she stopped, maybe to return. I thanked her once again for her help in showing me the way back, which she acknowledged with a sweet smile and a wave of hand.
The dinner was too good, with everything very delicious, especially the chicken. I was already tired, so I went into my room and then to the bed soon after my meal. Around midnight I briefly woke up once at a musical sound, which I thought resembled what I had listened to in the evening. Rebuffing it as a dream, I slept off again. I was in fact so exhausted that I did not even bother to get up for shutting the door.
"Bhaiyya, tea for you!" a tinkling voice, in addition to the chirping sound of the birds outside, woke me up the next morning. I was really surprised to see the same girl standing by my bed.
"You?" I asked, taking the cup of tea from her. "Thanks, but what are you doing here?"
"Why? I stay here," she said calmly.
"What?" I wondered. "But you never told me this last night."
She kept smiling while I sipped my tea, "you never asked me that." She was wearing the same dress I had last seen her in. I could not, however, figure out why she had not accompanied me all the way in to the haveli then, or why she was not seen anywhere inside later.
"OK," still confused I said, "then tell me who you are."
"I'm Shibbu Kaaka's daughter, bhaiyya."
"I see!" finally convinced I said. "And what's your name?"
Hearing some footsteps out, she smiled at me, and with a finger on her lips, asked me to keep quiet. Then she quickly ran and hid herself behind the opened door. Taking it as some prank, I noticed Kaaka walk through the open door, with a tray in his hand.
"Who got you this tea, son?" he kind of thought aloud.
"Your daughter, Kaaka," I smiled back and said.
"What? Who did you just say?!" he sounded astonished.
"Bitto, your daughter." I clarified casually.
Suddenly there was a loud noise of the breaking crockery as the tray slipped out of Kaaka's hands and fell on the floor. His face had turned ashen in horror, and he was just staring at me, as if in total disbelief.
"Why? What happened Kaaka?" I jumped out of my bed and moved towards him, "Are you all right?"
It took a while for him to overcome the initial shock, after which he muttered, "It's been almost thirty years…" he continued… "Bitto had fallen down from the tower right here in this haveli. Some people still believe it was a suicide…"
Startled, I looked towards the door.
There was no one there!