Fiction

Ghost Hunters
- Debarati Chakraborty

‘How about a ghost story in this inclement weather’? chirped Vishnu, in his monotonous voice. The winds had been howling since evening, lightning streaked the sky revealing its dark purple colour from time to time along with the rumble of the thunder. There was no reason to believe that the rains would stop soon. There were four others in the town club other than Vishnu, stuck inside due to the rain and hopes of getting back to the hostel dwindled with every flash of lightning. The rain seemed to gain momentum as the hours slipped by.

 

The young men’s association was a modest club at the rear end of the small town of Kishanganj. It had some indoor games and a small gymnasium with just enough equipment to attract the few members from the only engineering college hostel a few miles away. The group comprising Vishnu, Som, Niladri and Shankha considered this place their second home, given the poor state of the college hostel in terms of the facilities it provided. The food could be an easy substitute for the meals that the adjacent government hospital provided. Hence on most of the evenings they found respite in the hot tea served in disposable clay cups along with the steaming fried stuff at Anadi’s tea shop behind the staircase on the ground floor of the double-storied club. The club was the only place that offered an environment for socialization and physical activity and in the process provided the stimulus required to keep their young minds agile … something that the small, somnolent town had otherwise failed to offer.

 

With the relentless thunder and  bad weather Anadi had long shut down his makeshift shop and left for home. He had decided to  serve one last round of tea and his scrumptious delicacies before taking leave. He was certain the young men would stay on for a while in spite of the  weather.

 

Just a while after Anadi’s departure, someone else entered the gymnasium on the second floor. He was a new face, and  the boys were sure he was not an engineering student. This was because they knew everyone at the college at least by face, if not personally. He was spectacled, thin and dark and looked almost their age or maybe a bit younger. However, there was something in his face which radiated intelligence. He looked sad, but the there was brightness behind those drooping eyelids, which the boys did not fail to notice. Like someone who was forcibly stopped in the middle of chasing his dreams.

He was Mohsin. Noticing the four boys suddenly cut their conversation short at his entry, he took the lead and introduced himself. He spoke calmly with quite a few pauses, which reflected despondency.  Cautiously, he positioned himself on the shaft that was part of the shoulder-press and looked at the boys. After introductions, they came to know he belonged to this town and was an ex-student of the engineering college, but work had taken him to the city. He had an ancestral house at Kishangunj, which once housed a big family. However, a tragic fire had wiped out all the members while he was away in the city. The house remained locked for most of the year, except for his occasional visits.

‘Do you stay all alone in the house every time you visit’? asked Som. He felt uncomfortable at the idea of spending the night in a place where an entire family had died from a fire.

Mohsin smiled for the first time. ‘I do not believe in afterlife. Such things don’t exist and are just a delusion of a weak mind … I come here once in every four months’.

 

The boys exchanged glances and looked at Mohsin with big, questioning eyes.

 ‘Yesterday marked the completion of a year for the unfortunate fire incident,’ Mohsin continued. ‘But I am yet to establish a scientific explanation for the experience I had last night’.

 

Niladri got up and opened the thermos flask put on the TT table by Anadi and poured out the hot liquid in four cups. What good was a ghost story without a cup of steaming tea on a night like this?

Mohsin seemed pleased. He took a long sip, adjusted his spectacles with his left hand, and continued. .

 

‘It was raining heavily since evening. I had employed a caretaker, Hariya, from the adjoining village, who had the keys to the bungalow and did a good job of keeping the surrounding area clean… that would otherwise have become home to weeds and reptiles welcoming me every time I walked down the gravel path. He accompanied me during my nocturnal stopovers after some persuasion, and that was the only time he entered the premises. However, the poor creature had to tend to an ailing wife and could not make it this time. So there I was, all alone with a crate of bottled water, a small torch (though there was electricity in the bungalow; I always made sure Hariya paid the bills regularly) and some dry food to last the night. I did not carry much stuff since I had my room restored after the incident. It had a bed and minimal furniture, a basic toilet and some blankets.. It was just enough comfort for a couple of nights.

 

The last thing I remember is hugging the blankets close and curling up with a book on my old wooden bed. Somewhere between the muffled sounds of the rain outside and the continuous drone of the night lamp, I fell asleep. I do not remember how long I slept before I woke up feeling slightly dizzy. Must be the food, I thought, and reached out for the night lamp.  It would not come to life even after a few taps on the switch next to the bed. Disconcerted, I got up from my bed, slipped my feet into the indoor shoes and stumbled to the bathroom.

 

The switch did not work this time either. I discovered it was a power cut. No wonder the room felt stuffy and there was a peculiar smell. I tried opening the windows as the rain had stopped. I could see moonbeams making irregular patterns on the windows. The frames were too tight from being left unused for long. Making a mental note to instruct Hariya to look after the interiors too, I opened the door of my room and stepped into the huge dining hall where I had left the bottles. My throat was dry from inhaling some strange stench, the source of which I could not quite make out in my sleepy state.

There was complete darkness, and to my annoyance I discovered that I left the torch under my pillow back in the room. There was no other way than to grope in the darkness to find my way to the bottles on the table at the rear end of the hall. So I staggered forward somehow, telling myself not to fall down on the dirty floor. The stench was now becoming unbearable. Yes,  I could distinctly make out the burnt-charcoal smell now. Flustered, I kept walking in the hope of quenching my thirst, when suddenly I felt something. On my right arm. As if someone had swept past me. I rememberquite distinctly it was a human touch. I can still feel the heat at the base of my elbow. I stopped in anguish, my mind racing back to the series of events from the moment I had arrived at the bungalow. I remembered opening the front door with the master key. That was supposed to be the only entrance. The windows were latched and bolted from inside. Was someone playing a trick on me? Had Hariya compromised my trust and lent the keys to some local goons? Could they have occupied the place in my absence? I could not think any more. The stench made it difficult for me to breathe. I tried to call out to the intruder under the same roof, but could not utter a word. I started coughing.

 

In the morning I found myself asleep on my couch in the same position I had gone to bed in the night before. I had no idea who or what had brought me back.’

 

Niladri was the first one to speak.

 

‘Would you mind if we accompany you to stay at your place tonight?’ Vishnu showed him a poker face, but Niladri ignored. Som and Shankha voted for the suggestion. A decision was made.

 

They took sufficient candles and matchsticks apart from torches and paraffin lamps in case the ghosts had an allegiance with artificial light, and carried playing cards to keep themselves awake. Shankha was a budding photographer and carriedhis bulky handy-cam his maternal uncle had gifted him for securing top marks in his final semester. The handy-cam had an infrared night vision camcorder which he planned to fix to the entrance of the dining hall to capture any presence, normal or paranormal.

 

By the time they reached the small brook separating the main road from the wilderness, they could see the mansion standing like lone survivor in a battle with Time. The lazy winter sun reddened and threw slanting rays as it prepared to settle into the earth’s bosom at the horizon. It was dusk by the time they reached the bungalow entrance. A huge nocturnal bird screeched past almost throwing Vishnu off guard. He muttered something to Som walking beside him and he laughed. Stopping in his tracks he called out to the others, cupping both his hands over his mouth.

‘Vishnu feels that’s a bad omen. Which means there is a good chance the bungalow ghosts will show up tonight and grace our visit.’

The other boys had a hearty laugh.

 

Mohsin tried to place the key in the lock, but the door was already open. He mumbled something to himself about forgetting to lock it while leaving. The boys flocked inside. Mohsin showed them to the huge drawing room that now had only a rusty iron couch, as rest of the furniture was completely burnt and had had to be removed. It had a table too which Mohsin had brought from the city and they put their luggage on it one by one. As it was already quite dark, Niladri lighted a candle to go with the surroundings and cracked a small joke about candles and haunted villas. Everyone except Vishnu laughed. As the others looked around the room, Shankha tried to fix his handy-cam at the dining hall entrance. There was no point trying to explore the house now, as there seemed to be a major power failure and the boys postponed it for the next morning.

They decided to spend the night in Mohsin’s room and place a candle in each of the other rooms in the house. The handy-cam would be working full swing in some time, Shankha assured his mates.

 

Winter was just setting in and it was colder on the outskirts. There was a nip in the air and the coziness of the small fire in the hearth lulled the boys to sleep. The cards lay on the bare table and the cups of coffee turned stale. It was past midnight when Som sprung awake. They had to go to the room as per the original plan and he woke his friends. Mohsin had already retired to his room when he had found the others asleep.

Niladri carried the candle and gave the torch to Shankha. Vishnu and Som followed. They walked through the door to the dining hall where Shankha had fixed his camera and kept walking to the other end towards Mohsin’s bedroom. There was an iron table on the other side of the big room where an unopened crate of mineral water rested. Mohsin had referred to it while talking about the night before.

 

Something else lay on the floor, beside the table. Niladri was the first one to notice. A human form. It was badly charred and gave out a nauseating stench as they moved close. Though most of the face was burnt, they recognized the frail and emaciated form. The spectacles with a broken rim lay a little distance away. Mohsin.

Vishnu let out a groan. The others stumbled towards the entrance.

The cause of death was later believed to be a fire from a short circuit as no other discernible cause could be established.

 

The camera on the door had captured a silhouette close to each of the boys at a time, as if trying to communicate something as they howled and groped for the main door. It then settled down by the iron table hanging its head.

Mohsin had never believed in afterlife, nor in ghosts.

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Debarty Chakraborty is from a software background. Short stories, memoirs and travelogues are her forte. She has previouslybeen  published by Readomania. She was a winner in the short story section in Uncle Babji's 24th Annual Children's contest, Roorkee while in school. She has also written for a few magazines.