The Ghost Hunters of Dhaka
- Jayanti Chakraborty



The Ghost Hunters of Dhaka

Sep 1971, Dhaka

Billal and Shyam raced up to the iron gates that guarded the house. The house seemed imposing and dilapidated at the same time. Had the boys not agreed to the bet, they would have never have come this way. But Billal and Shyam were determined to show the other boys of their colony that they were brave and that whatever ghosts lived in this abandoned old mansion would not be able to scare them. But now, in front of the house, they could feel some fear and anxiety. They wished Masood had not started this game to begin with so that they would not have faced this predicament. Billal looked at Shyam and gave a grin that conveyed they were in this together and would get through it. Shyam responded with a shrug.  They had been friends from their cradles, sons of neighbours who had lived in southern Dhaka for centuries, and now at the advanced age of twelve, they were confident of their partnership which had seen them get out of scrapes many a time, much to the exasperation of their fathers and mothers.

They opened the gates whose hinges creaked and started walking up the path that led to the heavy teak double door entrance. It was a bright sunny morning. Nothing seemed scary or threatening; only abandoned and neglected. The sense of abandonment was very strong. A sense of misery and sorrow began to prevail upon the boys. In an effort to shrug off this feeling, Bilal spoke up. ‘Abba says this house used to belong to a landed Hindu Brahmin who had property all over the Sylhet and Firozepur.’ Shyam nodded and said ‘Yes. Baba told me. They were very rich, but they left overnight in ’47 because they thought you all would kill us, which was of course very foolish.’ Bilal laughed. Jumping upon the edge of the big fountain that formed the centerpiece of the driveway, he took out an imaginary sword and shouted ‘Die, you son of an infidel Hindu!’ Shyam took out his imaginary gun and made a ra-ta-ta sound, as if shooting Bilal. Bilal ducked behind the eight-foot statue, shouted, ‘Missed!’ and ran up to the doorway, chased by a laughing Shyam.

Once inside the house, however, their laughter died. The great hall into which the double door opened was a piece frozen in time. The doors had disturbed the dust that had lain quietly for twenty-four years and cobwebs that had been woven from the high beams over generations. They were suddenly dislodged and fell away. The light had lost the battle against layers of dust on the windows, some of them curtained, and now barely penetrated  into the house. Shyam tugged Bilal’s shirt and pointed to the ceiling. A great white glass chandelier, the kind they saw in the movies pirated from India, hung from it.  Directly below  was a huge round table on which stood a bronze vase with dead weeds. Small insects had made their home inside it. On the left on the hall was the ‘baithak khana’ – the drawing room as the boys were taught in their English-medium schools. There seemed to be a red carpet in the middle that was now moth infested as was the upholstery of the sofas. The sofa set had sixteen pieces.

Shyam said, ‘They must have been rich to have all this,’ and made a sweeping gesture with his hand. Bilal nodded and replied ‘How foolish to leave all this behind! Who was going to kill them? Your family stayed on and so many others. How could they think such foolish things and leave their own home behind?’ ‘I don’t know’ replied Shyam and then added hesitantly ‘Baba says those were scary times and a lot of people did not know what to do. And there was so much of killing.’ Bilal turned, looked at Shyam and said, ‘But that was in Calcutta. Why flee Dhaka?’ Shyam nodded and said, ‘I don’t know. But I am glad we stayed’. Bilal smiled and replied ‘Yes. Let’s not talk about it. Old History and that is all in the past. Let’s go find Masood’s Ghosts.’

The boys raced up the broad staircase at the end of the hall and opened yet another double door to what seemed to be the central room of the first floor. It was a large, circular hall with dewans and moth eaten cushions. The carpet, like in the drawing room was threadbare. Droppings of rats covered them. The rats seemed to be the only inhabitants. The two boys tried to make out shapes as most of the blinds were drawn and it was ghoulishly dark. As their eyes adjusted to the dim light, they could make out a tanpura, a veena and a tabla placed on the adjacent divan. Bilal spoke up ‘This must have been the music room. They must have had all the parties here’. Shyam nodded; he knew that the Hindu landlords, while disdaining their Muslim peasants, were not averse to the nautch performances of the Muslim dancing girls. This room must have been built for the same purpose. Unlike the hall and the drawing room, it was eerie and the boys stepped out quickly and turned to the first room on the right. As they walked inside the large space , they felt as if a child or maybe children laughed. Both the boys turned around and were ready to run out in a fraction of a second when they realized that the laughter was floating in through the open windows from the playground of the newly built school next to the property. Both the boys grinned at each other sheepishly and stepped forward to inspect the place. A book was lying on the floor; Bilal a bookworm, gingerly picked it up and blew the dust from the cover. It read Anne of Green Gables. Bilal knew the book; he had seen Shyam’s younger sister reading it. Looking over the room with its dressing tables, now torn pink cover and the chest of drawers covered with  decrypt dolls, he realized it must have belonged to a little girl. Shyam had walked over to the chest of drawers and picked up the dolls. They seemed to have been brutalized – dresses torn,eyes gouged out and arms broken. If this house had been truly abandoned, who would do this to the dolls? -- both the boys thought simultaneously. As they held the broken dolls in their hands, there was a sudden noise of the fluttering of wings and the cries of ae dove broke the silence. It sounded  as if someone was crying out their sorrow and calling out vengeance at the same time. Both boys dropped the dolls and ran out, down the staircase, across the hall and finally out of the iron gates. They did not look back, but just kept running.

December 1992, Dhaka

Ali and Akhtar gingerly stepped inside the courtyard of the single-storey house. It had been abandoned for twenty years now and the weather had done its worst to the structure. However, it also bore more recent marks of having survived an assault and yet another attempt to deface it: windows broken, fresh graffiti on its dirty white walls, and crude dolls with pins stuck on them thrown into the courtyard. The front door lay open, constantly creaking in the direction of the  winds. The garden in front was now covered with weeds.  The sunflowers and rose bushes were dead. Even the mighty mango tree in the corner had withered and died. However no one had come to take it down. The house was haunted. People claimed they could hear humans crying at odd hours and no one dared to step inside. Ali and Akhtar had heard about the the noise, but they had a point to prove. They wanted to show their friends that they were just as brave as their father, and had thus agreed to this dare.

Now inside the courtyard, they were having second thoughts. There was a sense of sorrow and despair that pervaded the atmosphere. The boys were not sure about what to do next. Finally, Akhtar walked ahead and went up the patio steps but Ali did not follow him. He turned around impatiently and called to his younger brother. ‘Ali, are you coming or not?’ Ali who was looking up  at the terrace of the house, turned in his brother’s direction and replied, ‘I am not sure about this at all. I never thought this was a good idea.’ Akhtar made a derisive sound. ‘You are just scared.’  Ali looked directly into Akhtar’s eyes and said, ‘No! I am not. I just don’t think Abba will like this.’ Akhtar knew his brother was, in fact, very brave. More importantly, his argument was right; their father would not like or excuse this adventure, but he pretended to be nonchalant and said, ‘Abba is too fond of these Hindus. Ismail Bhai is right; we should teach them a lesson.’  Ali kept quiet; he did not want to argue, but he knew how his father felt about these things. When everybody was asleep at night, he had heard Abba telling Ammi about his Hindu friend and how they used to spend their boyhood days together and how suddenly his friend and his family had left. Ali had heard the whole story. While his brother slept and his parents thought he too was asleep. They would reminisce about the old days, the days before Bangladesh became independent. He felt in his bones that this was not right. However, he was conditioned to always give company to his elder brother and hesitantly followed Akhtar who had now entered what was once the drawing room of the family that lived there.

The white table runner on the center table was now black with soot and dirt. The pictures on the walls were broken and hung at awkward angles. The sofas were mouldy and filled with insects.  The chairs looked moth eaten and some had toppled over under the assault of termites. There was no carpet, but the years of accumulated dust made for a natural carpet that absorbed the sound of their footsteps, making the place unearthly quiet. The boys turned to the kitchen and saw that all the crockery lay broken. Rats and mice had made their home everywhere. of the arrival of boys sent them scurrying for shelter. The boys turned around and then continued walking across the hall. They reached a bedroom,  peeped inside and spotted a big bed in the centre, much like the one their parents had. On the left of the bed was a huge cupboard and on the right a dressing table. On the surface, it looked a lot like their own house, but as they entered the room, they realized that the similarity ended at the placement of the furniture around the room. There was a deep cut in the mattress and the filling had fallen out. The pillows were also similarly mutilated and thrown across the room with the feathers all over. They were a bizarre blackish red. The same colour was splashed on the dressing table, where the cosmetics that were once in use still stood.  As the boys looked into the mirror, they noticed the colour splattered all across.  Suddenly they became aware of it all over the house, across the walls, the broken furniture and on the fine white china crockery. The realization made the hair stand on their heads.b Slowly, they started tracing their path back. Then, out of nowhere there was a sudden noise of the fluttering of wings and the cries of a dove that broke the silence of the house, as if someone was crying out their sorrow and calling out vengeance at the same time. Both boys scrambled out and ran-- across the drawing room, across the garden and finally out of the gates. They did not look back, but just kept running.

Author’s Bio –

Jayanti Chakraborty was born and educated in New Delhi.  She has diverse degrees in far ranging subjects like English and International Politics. After a brief sojourn into the academia, she changed her career and began working for a financial conglomerate, with whom she has been employed for the last 12 years. In between reading voraciously, and constantly traveling, she tries to find time, doing what she really loves, writing.