It was a tiring day. I had wandered off on my own when my friends were still sleeping. I was only more than happy to be going out all alone as that would mean touring the town and visiting the valley just the way I wanted. I don’t like comfortable, planned holidays. Capturing the locals when they are going about their daily lives, drinking tea from a local inn, using the local transportation—in short, colouring myself in the hues of the place and enjoying the atmosphere just like the locals—are experiences that I look forward to when I am visiting a new place.
I had started my day early and covered almost the entire town of Kurseong. I had chai and biscuits from a small tuck shop, which was but a small thela with an assortment of food items. Later, I visited the Giddha Pahar Sita Ram Mandir, the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Museum and Deer Park. It was almost 4 PM when I finally reached the Kettle Valley and decided to return. I opted for the longer route down a hillock through the deodar trees; it was a hilly terrain with winding ways and I was almost exhausted, but there was something magical about the place. The smell of mud, the cool breeze, the chirping of the birds and the majesty of the deodars were somehow making me drunk. It seemed I was walking in a parallel world—mysterious and enchanting!
I see a shop at a distance and make a dash for it. Water! My lips are parched. Once outside the shop, I realise that it is more than a shop. Somebody stays here. I call out for the inmate. Probably someone staying away from home, running a small shop, and earning less for the obvious reason that the shop is situated at this place. Dismayed at not getting an answer, I turn back to go when I hear someone call out. There on the window (or whatever it was) a lady not less than 80 years old was calling out to me “Aye”. What is more shocking is her appearance, a haggard look with plaited, matted hair and kohled eyes.
“Tapain ki chahunchu? (What do you want?)” Too occupied in my own thoughts, I almost did not hear her. Her dishevelled self, made me think twice before approaching her. No. I was not a person to go by appearances but anybody would have been surprised at finding an old woman in this place all alone, or so I assumed. I promptly revive myself and asked her for paani (water). Being from Assam and having a few Nepalese friends, I could understand Nepali and if needed manage a few broken sentences as well. I quickly pat myself on this knowledge. But someone was not too happy seeing me there. The old woman was still looking at me confused. I might now have to start using more words.
“Malai paani dinuhos (I need water),” I finally manage a sentence.
She grunts and starts making weird expressions and then suddenly points towards the other direction. “Jau. Tyanha jau. (Go. Go there.)”
I look where she is pointing to. I see that a small path beside the hut leads up to another hill. I see something else there—I see a small gate. Somebody stays up there; I wonder who but there is no time to lose. It is already half past 4 and if I have to reach the hotel before sunset, which would be in another hour or so, I should hurry. I quickly look at the window to thank the kind woman, but she is not there anymore. Without thinking too much, I trek upwards the hill. It does not look far; just a few hundred metres or so. It takes me 15 minutes to reach the top.
I get past the old, rusty gate. There in a distance I see a Dak bungalow! The path leading to the bungalow is pebbled. There are rose bushes lining the path. The grass is a shade of brown. There are huge trees all over; with leaves indicating the start of autumn. It’s a picturesque view. As a child, I was always fascinated with Dak bungalows. The various stories surrounding these isolated, British Raj lodging houses form part of our present-day folklore and that formed the basis of my fascination. But never in my wildest dream did I think I would chance upon one in this trip!
As I get nearer I notice that it is a very old structure, not maintained or renovated for a long time, unlike the other Dak bungalows in the country. The paint on the wall is chipping off and yellowing. The stone steps are also broken.
I climb up the steps and knock at the wooden door, which I am sure would give way if I hit too hard. I try the old calling bell but hear no sound. I get so upset that I just sit down on the steps; at least I will be able to rest for some time. Just then I hear the door opening with a creaking sound. I get up and see an old man, all dressed in a white dhoti, khadi kurta, and a black shawl wrapped around him.
“Ki go, bachha? Kichu chaai tomar? (What happened, child? Do you want something?),” he asks me in Bengali with a frail voice.
He looks very old with his wrinkled face, grey moustache and grey hair. He has a wizened but friendly look on his face. He must be the khansama, or khidmutgar, of this Dak bungalow. “Ektu jol chaai (I want some water),” I tell him.
“Bhitore esho (Come inside),” he calls me and moves inside and I follow him. The inside of the house is full of cobwebs and dust. The living room has old bamboo furniture and a centre table made of teakwood. There are framed photographs on the wall right in front of me. To the right is a staircase that looks shaky and old. I take out my phone to take photos and notice that it is already 5. I take a few clicks of the house and a few selfies. I finally settle down on the bamboo sofa. Through the open door I can see that it is becoming darker. I should hurry; otherwise I may lose my way and end up in the middle of nowhere.
Suddenly my phone starts ringing. It is shocking as there was no network all throughout the afternoon. I look at the number; it is customer care, I reject the call. I update my status on Facebook “Finally my dream comes true. Yes I am in a Dak bungalow! It’s eerily exciting…” and also post a selfie I clicked sometime back.
I hear some noise and look up. I see the old man coming out of, what I assume, the kitchen with a tray filled with eatables. He places the tray on the centre table, gestures me to take whatever I want, pulls a stool from somewhere and sits down in front of me. I finish the glass of water in one gulp. He starts laughing.
“Lagta hai bohut din se jol nai khaya (Looks like you have not had water for a long time),” he speaks in a mixture of Hindi and Bengali.
“Actually, uncle, bohot der se ghum raha hai. Ektu thak gayi thi; aar bottle’r jol tao sesh. Aapnar bari ta aamake niche ek aunty dekhie dieche (Actually, uncle, I have been roaming about for a long time. I am a little tired; and the water in my bottle got over. An aunty showed me your house from below),” I fill him on in my not-so-impressive Bengali.
“Hmm. Aar tumi ekhane ghurte esechhile? (Hmm. And you came here for a trip?)” he asks me the obvious question. As I turn to answer him, I notice that my phone has no signal again. That is strange, I think. I answer his question and add how I always wanted to visit a Dak bungalow.
The next question rattles me a little. “Bhoi korchhe na? (Aren’t you scared?)” he asks. What is he talking about? What should I be scared of? However, the intent of his question finally dawns on me. He must simply be asking as I am alone. He is obviously concerned. I answer him that nothing scares me. I write horror stuff and have authored 3 horror novels. I also tell him how I always had a fascination toward Dak bungalows and the stories related to them. He is amused, which I can make out from the way he laughs.
He finally stops laughing and tells me to have the tea before it cools down. “Tumi cha ta kheye nao. Aami ektu aschi (You drink tea. I’ll come in a while),” and he goes inside again. I take the cup and take a sip of the tea. I almost spit it out. I look at the contents. The tea looks red. Then I remember the famous red tea of the mountains. Maybe I am not used to the taste and that is why I didn’t like it at first. I take another sip.
I wake up with a jolt. I am sitting on the stairs outside the Dak bungalow. Had I been dreaming the whole sequence? I look around; it has started to get dark. I think hard, was I actually sleeping this whole time? I remember how after knocking at the door for long I had sat down on the stairs. I check for the time on my phone and it shows 5.
Without losing another minute, I knock at the door. And this time the door opens on its own. I push it open and go inside. To my horror, the inside of the house is exactly the same that I had seen in my dream—the furniture, the photographs, the staircase, the centre table, everything except the old man. “Uncle,” I call out to an entity I had only seen in my dream. I go near the photographs. Each one had the year written beneath. Suddenly my phone starts ringing; just like my dream, it’s the customer care. I reject the call. I quickly glance at the last framed photograph and jump with a start. It has the old man in it. Same clothes, same look and the year 1885!
I rush out of the house. I run toward the gate and as I run down the path, at a distance, I see the old lady who sent me here. I call out to her, “Aunty!”
I wake up again. I am sitting on the stairs of the bungalow. Am I losing my mind? Everything seems like a dream. Maybe it was. I get up, go to the door and try pushing it open. It opens without any resistance. I peep inside and everything looks the same. My phone starts ringing. Customer care calling! I get a fright. I rush out of the house and past the gate. At a distance I see her, again. “Aunty!” I shout. This time she looks back. She doesn’t have a face!
I wake up with a start. I am on the stairs outside the bungalow. It is dark. I take out my phone; it still shows 5!
“Famous Horror Author Chandana Bezboruah Still Untraced”
Mumbai, 6th June: It has been 10 days and there is still no sign of the author. She had gone out alone on 27th May telling her friends she would be back in the evening. When she failed to return, the local police was informed. Many have claimed to see her that day but with no definite clues. According to sources close to her family, in her last update on Facebook she claimed to be in a Dak bungalow with a blank photo attached to it. However, villagers in the area said there are no Dak bungalows in the vicinity. The last one of them was demolished in the 1900’s. So where is this young author? Is Chandana doing a disappearing act? Is it some kind of a publicity stunt for her latest novel? And what does the Facebook update mean? Where is the Dak bungalow? And what does that photo signify?