It is no use saying no, she means to go. Even at eight, Mehrunissa shows a stubbornness Noor can recognise. The same mad determination that brought into existence the House of Animals, or as the locals call it now, “The Haunted Zoo”. The plan is made, tomorrow they set off after an early lunch. Very well, only she must never know, Noor decides. For the hundredth time Noor blames herself for relenting into a vacation at Azmangarh. After twenty-nine years, why let a little child’s whimsy rub irons over faded ink? But saying no would have meant giving an explanation. Noor cannot think of anything more impossible.
An artificial ecosystem for cohabitation of wildlife and humans? Who ever heard of such an idea? An experiment trying to overturn a million years of civilisation? A house, a goddamned house where all kinds of species live together? Preposterous! This mansion will be cursed. Noor remembers her grandfather narrating the story of how the House of Animals came into being – a large mansion of fifty-seven rooms converted into a strange universe, where a little girl’s bedroom was next door to the lion’s room; the horse lived next to the hyena; Abba and Ammi lived in the room on the roof, next to the birds- pheasants, white and coloured peacocks, magpies, doves, and countless others. The birds of prey had a different room. Only Rani, the elephant, lived in the garden shed because the roofs of the rooms weren’t high enough. Only a mad genius like her grandfather could create this world. And yet, Noor, who was born into that unusual family, never knew it was odd. Like in every family, there were rules, one of them being she could communicate with some animal members only through the glass windows of their rooms. Only the feeders and cleaners were allowed to enter the quarters of the carnivores. The only animal she let into her own room was Shabnam, the spotted deer calf. Shabnam slept with Noor, and played with her in the extensive estate of the mansion.
By the time she was old enough to go to school, there was only one thing that Noor knew was strange about her family. Not a single person who lived in this house belonged here. Often in the evenings, her Abba would speak of “our home” and “those days”, of a place which was apparently not a part of the country anymore, some small beautiful village across the border. Something awful must have happened, for these reminiscences usually would end with streams of quiet tears down the silent wrinkled features of the ageing man. Noor would watch, scared to ask questions. Even Ammi would be tear-eyed, but for a different land, a land of her childhood, far away in a different corner of the country, which she left when she married Abba. And in the quiet sad eyes of every animal in that household, she saw the same yearning, for the forest. On certain nights, Rani would grow so restless, one thought she might tear down her shed. Who knows what memories lay behind each pair of silent eyes, always sad? And yet, they were happy. A well-fed busy home where quarrels and fights were rare, as long as you made sure the African lion had the door well-locked on the outside.
But she has very few memories left, that is a relief.
It is a tourist attraction now, the abandoned house, a work of history. The fact that its origin remains a mystery adds to the charm, making room for some very ingenious tales. A couple of years ago, some adventurous youngsters decided to camp for the night in the house, and every since the tag of “haunted” has increased the tourism. The local authorities even set up a ticket collection kiosk to manage the number of curious visitors and campers.
Mehrunissa is at the age when you grow your addiction for ghost stories to laugh aloud at them, and then refuse to get up to pee at night alone. She has watched a video about this house somewhere, and is determined to see a real ghost and laugh in its face. As for Noor, it’s a trip she is trying not to think about at all.
The sunset is marvellous; from here, one can see the whole area for miles, the abandoned estate which is almost a small natural forest now, the little shops and hawkers at the gates far in the distance, and beyond that, the no-man’s land for miles cut in half with the fire-like waters of the river Khwab, and the mountains, the oldest soil of the continent, rocks older than the oceans, now slowly obscuring in the leaving light. This view, it is enough to make you forget everything, even ghosts, thinks Noor, as she leans over the rails a little to see if Rani’s old shed can still be seen from the terrace. At once comes Jai Singh’s warning: “Don’t lean on those, they must be fragile and dangerous.” Jai Singh is one of Noor’s oldest friends, almost one of the family, and the culprit of putting the idea of camping in Mehrunissa’s head.
Turning around, Noor realises Mehrunissa is missing from the trio. In a moment’s panic, her shout breaks the silence of the twilight. The little girl runs over from the end of the terrace- “What is it, Ma? I was looking into the room in that corner. I heard a bird and the fluttering of feathers. Do you think there’s a nest there?” Already, an icy thought has gripped Noor’s heart- the room of the birds? Aloud she says, “Why not? It’s an abandoned house. Obviously, there will be nests around.” Even so, she strides forward with her torch to take a look. It is as she suspected, there are no nests, not the sign of a bird. Coming out, she says casually, “Don’t step in there, it’s a mother raven with her chicks. They can be wary of strangers.” To Jai, she says, “Jai, let’s tuck in for the night downstairs. It’s getting dark here, it’ll be tough navigating in this broken-down place soon.”
Indeed, stepping across the terrace threshold and into the house, they enter a different world. Shrouded in dust, cobwebs and creaks, and the extravagant chiaroscuro from the bright concentrated light from the torch, into each heart stole in ghosts of strange thoughts. Would make an extraordinary Baroque painting, if only we were clothed in flowing silk, with a few cherubs overhead, thinks Jai, an art historian, ready always to create a painting from the broken jigsaws of reality. Has Jai guessed that this house was mine? Am I behaving oddly? I should never have brought Mehru here. Why do I feel we will all die here tonight?…Noor muses. Only Mehrunissa is tingling with a mixture of fear and excitement. This is better than the movies, this place smells of spirits, what if we do meet a ghost?
Noor tries hard to recall a map of the house in her mind. She wants to spend the night in her own room, for safety, for her room was on the ground floor, at least there couldn’t be loose floorboards. She refuses to admit to herself, but as the ominous fear refuses to drown in her bosom, in this frantic search in the dusty corners of her practical scientific mind, she is submitting to nostalgia, and a strange hope that if indeed this is the crazy zoo of ghosts, she may find the ghost of little Shabnam in her old room. With the growing darkness and the rooms in such bad condition, it is hard to recognise, but finally after an incredible fuss over choosing a room for the night quite incomprehensible to Mehrunissa and Jai, she finally settles with one.
The house is indeed full of strange sounds. The sound of the spring winds through the rafters can create eerie imitations, and more than once, while looking at the rooms, there are distinct noises of the neighing of horses, trumpet of elephants, sounds of hooves, of footsteps. Once even a roar. Neither Jai nor Noor care to speak aloud of such weakness of theirs as to imagine sounds in a so-called haunted house, and Mehrunissa, being the brave one, only clings to her mother tightly, but says nothing. In this room at least, there aren’t any of these noises, probably the walls are still in good condition, shutting out the wicked wind.
Laying out their quilts, the three of them huddle together cosily. In the light of the powerful torch, they eat their meal of sandwiches in silence. Jai tries to make some conversation, but clearly, both mother and daughter are lost in thought.
It is long past midnight before Noor gets the first hint of her mistake. All of them had dozed off some time in the first quarter of the night, before the moon was up. Now, suddenly woken by something, the first thing Noor notices is the room flooded with moonlight. The next is a sensation of someone in the room, someone other than Jai and Mehrunissa, both of whom are lying against her. Her first senseless joyful thought is Shabnam! But next moment she is fearful, the creature is standing near the window, and the silhouette is large. The ethereal feeling of sleep having completely passed, Noor is wide awake now. There is a stench in the room, a rawness, of meat and the likes. Suddenly, she hears a low growl, and all is clear. The lion is circling them. The ghost of the lion. It was the wrong room they had entered, the forbidden room.
Sweat breaks out on her just the way it would as child when a sudden roar from the next room would wake her in the middle of the night, and in her sleepy eyes would be the illusion of the lion circling around her bed. This too is an illusion. But how dangerous? Can a ghost lion kill? It must have been hungry that night when the waters rose. All these mad thoughts race through her head, but her hands are numb, her voice dry. She wants to wake Jai, and hold her daughter. But all is quiet, save for their soft breathing and her own heavy staccato breaths; a hungry ghost circles her. In this haunted villa of fifty-seven rooms, she had to choose this one to spend the one night in.
Unknown to herself, her lips start moving in prayer. What is she praying for? Water. The ghost of water. To rise from the river on this moonlit night, to swirl in to protect her, her family. Drown this hungry beast, ever so real, circling around her bed. Tonight, she is scared to sleep alone, and braving the dark, runs to the room on the roof, where Abba and Ammi are asleep, unconscious of the rising waters. On this dark thunderous night, she catches one glimpse of the silver streak in the distance before she cuddles up to her mother. It rises, unknown to all but the restless animals in the crashing thunder of that cavernous night, to swallow the two lower floors of this house of lost bodies. Maybe, finally, from the forest and across the border and the land of childhood, the ghosts have returned.
About the Author
Hridi is an Indian artist and writer currently based in Belgium, working as a research intern in art conservation at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts Antwerp, Belgium. Being a deeply sensitive and introspective person, words serve to anchor the aspects of her internal journey that colours may fail to grasp. In the world around her, she is constantly searching for the evasive, whimsical acts of nature and society, attempting to touch them through abstract impressions of reality as she perceives it.
Her literary works have previously appeared in The Bitchin’ Kitsch, Chai Copy, The Sunflower Collective, Aainanagar, Contemporary Literary Review India, and upcoming in The Piker Press.