NEW FICTION:

Arthur in the rains

Literary Trails

image of mayanfiction

 

Mayank Bhatt

June 1985

T

he journey from Delhi to Bareilly in the Kashi Vishwanath Express was not comfortable, even though I was in a first-class compartment. It was hot and got hotter. I was on my way to Bahedi. I was to start working as a storekeeper at the sugar factory in a week but was already having doubts about the job. I didn’t have a choice. After my father’s death, my mother’s condition had deteriorated and she had to be moved to a sanitarium in Khandala; and though Dadi, my grandmother didn’t say anything, it was clear from her haughty demeanour that she wanted me to take up a job – “any job” – immediately.

There was rent to be paid, even if it’s just the two of us, we still need money. Your father’s pension is not enough, and most of it will go to pay for your mother’s sanitarium, she said.

I’d have preferred to get something in Bombay, but I couldn’t get anything. The storekeeper’s position in the sugar factory at Bahedi was available, and reluctantly, I had to take it. The group that interviewed me – the factory’s general manager and other officials from the head office – assured me that the job wouldn’t be difficult.  I’d, of course, have to move to Bahedi and live in the factory’s housing colony. I didn’t have good feelings about the job even when I accepted it.

So, here I was, at the end of the summer, in India’s most populated state, far away from my hometown. The only positive about my situation was that I’d be getting a salary, and my Dadi would no longer have any reason to complain. The air was damp and I wanted to get right back into the train coach when I alighted at Bareilly station; return to Bombay, if I could. As I was struggling with my bags, I saw a man with a placard with शरद written on it. I waved at him and he rushed to take my bags from me.  He led me to a car, a white Ambassador with a small fan on the dashboard that whirred furiously. I sat in the front beside Narayan, the driver.

Narayan had a big smile that showed a row of neat white teeth, which seemed whiter because he was so dark-skinned. He wore a white uniform that was rather loose. His nose was a thin straight line on his face, which seemed like a perfect circle. He was taller than I was and thinner.  He instructed me not to open the car’s windowpanes; that’ll let dust inside, he said. He tried to make the drive from Bareilly to the factory in Bahedi interesting by constant chatter. He’d been working with the factory for as long as he could remember, and was eager to tell me all that he imagined I needed to know.  Before long, I was unable to keep my eyes open and dozed off.

 

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A

strange stench woke me, and I checked my wristwatch; we had been on the road for an hour since we started from the train station.

It’s the smell of molasses; we’ve reached the sugar factory, Narayan said, anticipating my question.

I glanced outside the car’s window; it had begun to drizzle. The terrain had transformed from arid flatlands into thick foliage of trees and shrubs, but it wasn’t a natural, wild growth; the trees and shrubs were like ornaments – nurtured for their looks.  The factory was a complex of massive structures to the left of the two-lane highway, to the right was the housing quarters for everyone who worked in the factory. A line of trucks, all of them overloaded with sugarcane, was waiting to enter the factory.

Narayan turned the car to the right. The street, which had rows of houses on both sides, was lined up with more trees, and but for the horrible stench, this was a place straight out of a children’s picture book. He drove me to the farthest corner of the housing quarters and stopped the car outside an ancient-looking bungalow that seemed to be made of wood. This guesthouse was to be my temporary home. It was decrepit. The strong smell of molasses was now mixed with the smell of wet earth. The drizzle had turned into a steady downpour.

I’ll go and get the umbrella, you wait in the car, Narayan said, but I got off and I ran into the bungalow.

You’ll be living here till a house is vacated, Narayan said, as he hurriedly ran after me, carrying my bags.

The guesthouse was spacious, it had wooden floors, with a wide verandah in the front; there were many rooms along the wide corridor; at one end of the corridor was a dining room and at the other was a door.

That door leads to the field behind the house, it’s always shut, Narayan said.

He led me to a room that was spacious, with a high ceiling, from which, rather precariously, hung a fan that began to rotate and screech when Narayan turned it on. He also, unnecessarily, switched on the lights because the room had large French windows on one side, covering the entire wall, which bathed the room in daylight and gave a panoramic view of the field outside. There was a large bed covered under a mosquito net, a work desk with a lamp and chair, and a couch. A door led to a bathroom.

This is your room; I’ll serve you dinner in about an hour, nothing special – simple dal, roti. We serve mutton only during the weekends. Then, tomorrow morning, breakfast; it’ll be eggs, toast and tea. After that, I’ll take you to the factory’s office to meet Khan Saab. I’m going to the kitchen to make dinner, ring the bell if you need anything and don’t open the windows or you’ll let the mosquitos in, he said.

Narayan spoke in a singsong manner and in short bursts, the pitch of his voice varying, as he moved both his hands.

 

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I

walked to the large French windows. There was a large backyard, nicely manicured grass. Beyond that was a vast open, barren, field without any trees. I went into the bathroom to change into a kurta-pajama. The bathroom was extraordinarily large – almost as big as my home in Bombay. It had three half open ventilators and a small washbasin that had yellowed. The stench of molasses wafted into the bathroom, which was surprising because my room smelled only of disinfectants. The sound of the raindrops falling on the roof was constant but muted and couldn’t drown the drone of crickets outside. A house lizard crawled on the bathroom wall.

I pulled out the novel that I’d bought at the Bombay Central station and began reading, lying on the couch, which had a musty smell to it; it reminded me of the smell of my Dadi’s old trunk of knickknacks gathered and preserved over the years. There was expansiveness, certain grandness, about the whole place, something distinctly ancient, the architecture of the bungalow,its furniture, the fan, the ceiling light, and the table lamp all belonged to another era, when space was not at a premium.

After a while, the silence became oppressive, overbearing. I found it hard to focus on the novel, and before long, I dozed off. Narayan was standing beside me, calling my name, when I opened my eyes.

What time is it? I asked.

Time for dinner, he said.

He led me to the dining room; it had furniture from an era long gone. Two ornate chandeliers hung from the ceiling. Narayan switched off the chandelier at the far end of the table after I sat down on one of the high-back dining chairs; they were roomy and plush, covered in dark green leather. The dining table was dark mahogany.  An old grandfather clock, with a humungous pendulum that moved languorously, ticked tiredly near the door. From the room’s walls hung four rotating fans – two on each side and between them hung landscape paintings that depicted the English countryside. Dinner was simple, sumptuous, as Narayan had promised. For dessert, he had made a custard pudding, which was delicious but seemed out-of-place with the distinctly Indian menu.

The cutlery used to be silver and the plates were bone china, but Khan Saab switched to stainless steel a few years ago, Narayan said without hiding his disapproval.

It hadn’t stopped raining. Now, the sound of rain on the roof was louder than it was in the late afternoon; it mingled with an occasional croak of a frog. I returned to my room and lay down on the bed. I tried to read but found it hard to focus. I don’t remember when I fell asleep.

 

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A

sharp clap of thunder woke me, lightning ceaselessly snaking through the sky, lighting up the room every few seconds. The rain was now torrential, it sounded like a million pellets were hitting the roof. Then I heard a strange, unfamiliar sound; rising over the monsoon din. It came from the corridor. Someone or something was scraping the wooden floor, dragging something heavy on the floor. I switched on the table lamp and sat up on the bed, but the sound faded. It must be Narayan, I thought, moving something. But, I wondered, why he should do so at this time. I drifted to sleep surrounded by the magical music of the monsoon.

I woke up when Narayan came in with tea.

I glanced out of the window. It was still dark. The rain hadn’t stopped.

Did you sleep well, he asked.

What were you pulling through the corridor?

Nothing, he said, and then he froze. His eyes widened and he seemed unnerved.

…but Saab, that can’t be…he comes only during the late monsoon, never this early. It must be because it’s been raining nonstop since yesterday, he said, looking at the door and then leaning back to see the corridor.

Who?

Arthur hates to get wet. Those were his footsteps you heard, Narayan said, then shuddered and glanced again at the door and the corridor.

Who’s Arthur?

The ghost, Narayan said, as if talking about an old acquaintance.

What do you mean a ghost? Is this house haunted? I asked.

The cup of tea nearly fell out of my hands, the tea spilt out of the cup as I abruptly sat straight on the bed.

Don’t worry. Arthur is harmless, Narayan said, but he didn’t seem convinced himself.

You mean there’s a real ghost here? I said in nervous excitement.

Arthur doesn’t live here, Narayan said, and when he saw my face, quickly added, I mean he only comes in when it rains heavily. He was leaning again to see the corridor.

Stop leaning like that, I said, my voice at a high pitch. I gulped the tea quickly. I more scared than excited.

 

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T

he storehouse was located next to the factory; it appeared large from the outside, it had recently been painted yellow, and its roof sloped on two sides and was covered with light-brown tiles. The storekeeper, Mustafa Khan, was a small man. He was wearing a white shirt and black trousers; the shirt was starched, crisp, the trousers meticulously ironed. He welcomed me with a nod and shook my hand. I looked around as he led me to my work desk. It was a large structure with brick walls, without any dividers. The place was breezy and dry because of a dozen industrial fans that whirred furiously. There were rows of mechanical parts placed on iron racks and arranged in an alphabetical order.

My job was to assist Mustafa in maintaining inventory; I didn’t have to move anything physically; for that, there were many helpers. There were a number of machinists in the store, and some of the helpers were assisting them in getting the parts they wanted. The other helpers, who had all lined up with Mustafa near the store’s door to greet me, were now sitting on a row of chairs near the door.

Narayan told me that you have already met our friend Arthur, Mustafa said.

Yes, I believe so, I said, and looked at him to know whether he was joking or serious.

We’ve had many new recruits leave because of him, Mustafa said.

I nodded again. Both Mustafa and Narayan spoke of the ghost as if they knew him intimately.

It is a bit disconcerting, you’ll agree, I said.

Oh, you shouldn’t worry at all, Mustafa said, waving his hand, striving hard to reassure me, but I wasn’t quite convinced. It’s one thing to read ghost stories or see horror movies with ghosts, and quite another to actually encounter one.

So, what’s the story, is this ghost for real? I asked.

Yes, if you believe and no, if you don’t. Local lore has it that the ghost is of a British soldier killed in a battle during the 1857 uprising, Mustafa said, and then he began to explain the inventory logs for machine parts that the store maintained, and how I was to update them. The ghost was no longer a subject of interest

 

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M

ustafa obviously didn’t expect too much from me, and the job, I feared would be excruciatingly boring. He busied himself with his own tasks with an air of self-assumed importance. He spoke to me only during the lunch hour when we walked from the store to the guesthouse to have our meal that Narayan had cooked. It was raining steadily, I noticed that there were no trees on this side of the factory; shrubs lined up both sides of the street.

Mustafa spoke about his interest in ghazals, and of great poets and singers. I knew nothing about ghazals and couldn’t care less, but politely kept quiet and nodded occasionally not to seem disinterested. He spoke about movies and lamented that there was only one cinema house in Bahedi, which only showed old movies.

I go to Bareilly to see the latest movies at least once a month, he said.

I nodded. All that I could think of was the overpowering stench of molasses in open pits; it was revolting and pervasive; I wondered how all these people could let it become an integral part of their lives.

After work, Mustafa took me to the factory’s gymkhana, which was an indoor sports and workout place that also doubled up as a community centre. Mustafa told me that every evening, after work, most of the families of the officers gathered here for the evening for dinner, leaving at 9:30 pm when the gymkhana closed.

Above the main door of the gymkhana, were mounted animal heads from hunting expeditions, they seemed ancient. A large wooden panel listed the names of the factory managers from 1912 onward, and the names on the panel showed that the English had managed the factory for a long time even after India’s independence from British rule.

How long will it take for a house to be allotted to me, I asked.

Generally, it’s within three months, after your confirmation, but bachelors get a room, only families get houses, I think you’re better off at the guesthouse, Mustafa said.

That evening, Mustafa asked me whether he could accompany me to the guesthouse because, he said, it was my first day, and we could both do with some conversation. Mustafa asked Narayan to serve drinks to us. He walked out to the verandah, but Narayan told him to sit inside the room.

The mosquitos will have a feast, Narayan said.

Mustafa sipped his rum and Coca-Cola quietly, perhaps too quietly for my liking. I asked him about his family. But he didn’t seem keen to talk about them.

So, what’s the story about this ghost? I asked.

A lot of it is folklore and superstition, he said. When I came here, about 27 years ago, and when I heard of this ghost, I’d gone to Lucknow to look up the local archives there. There’s nothing specific about the ghost, but historical records suggest that the factory’s complex stands on what was a battlefield during the 1857 rebellion. The Indian rebels led by Khan Bahadur Khan fought the British army’s Highland Brigade led by Captain Campbell. That’s about all that I could learn, Mustafa said.

He called Narayan to join us. Make a drink for yourself, too, and tell Sharad about your friend, Mustafa said.

Narayan was delighted at the suggestion and wasted no time in pouring a stiff drink for himself; the same as mine – Indian whisky and club soda with ice.

 

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I

t’s a long story, Sir, he said, as he sat down.

We’ve got all evening before us, Mustafa said.

Narayan smiled and began his narration.

I heard it when I came here from Belgaum, he said, his voice quavering. I was surprised that the management wanted me to sign a three-year bond. You see, the other housekeepers had left hurriedly; one of them even left his bags behind. I remember the first time I saw him was when Doctor Chouhan was here, he said and looked at us to see our reactions.

YuvrajChouhan turned the factory’s dispensary and the first-aid centre in a hospital, Mustafa said, he was a fine doctor, a bachelor…

Narayan, I want to know about the ghost, I gently nudged him.

Oh yes, yes. It was raining. I was doing the dishes. I heard footsteps in the corridor and came out of the kitchen to check. I froze at what I saw. There was this tall gora officer, wearing a red coat, white trousers. His trousers were covered in mud, and blood dripped from his coat. I stood rooted to the ground, Narayan said and shivered.

You actually saw see him. It wasn’t some kind of a mirage, I asked.

No, no, real. He walked up to me, from the far side of the corridor, and even spoke to me, Narayan said, gulping down the drink hurriedly; clearly, the memory of that encounter still rattled him.

What did he say? I asked.

My wound hurts more in the rain, he said and as he was turning back, DrChouhan came out of his room.

What is all this commotion? he asked me.

I was speechless. But the soldier walked up to him and said, I am Arthur Birkenshaw from the Highland Brigade.

Both of you must have peed in your trousers, Mustafa said with a chuckle; he wasn’t taking any of this seriously, perhaps because he’d heard this on many occasions.

Narayan was now deeply involved in his story and poured himself another stiff drink. He sat down to continue with his tale. Now, this DrChouhan had the presence of mind. He offered his hand to the soldier, but the soldier was clutching at his stomach.

You’re bleeding, the doctor said, looking at the soldier’s wound.

My wound hurts more in the rain, the soldier said.

I’m a doctor, do you need help? Doctorsaab asked him.

My wound hurts more in the rain, the soldier repeated.

Doctorsaab turned to me and said, Narayan, let’s leave the man alone. Come inside.

I was shivering so intensely and was rooted to the spot, and the doctor had to drag me in, Narayan said, his voice rising to a high pitch. He looked at us again, studying our faces for our reactions.

That’s it? I asked, unable to hide my disappointment. This was rather staid and anticlimactic.

What did you expect? Some more flashes of lightning and thunder? Mustafa said, and chuckled.

If you’d seen him you’d react differently, Narayan said, a bit defensively. After that night, I often heard the walking in the corridor but didn’t see him. He frightens me always, but I gradually taught myself to ignore him, take no notice. I don’t get in his way, and he’scrossed mine. He comes inside only when it rains heavily.

 

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T

he door to my room was wide open. I couldn’t be sure what time it was but was well past midnight. I remembered closing the door to my room after Mustafa had left in a drunken stupor; it was ajar now. I got up to shut it again. As soon as I did, I heard the footsteps in the corridor. The sound was distinct, sharp and uncomfortably close; someone was walkingoutside and had stopped right outside the room. A moment later, the door swung open.

My heart was pounding and I was sweating, shivering. I clutched at the door for support and stood transfixed, rooted to the spot, too frightened to move. I didn’t see anyone but I heard footsteps; someone or something had entered my room and had walked from the door to the French windows.  I still couldn’t see anything, and after standing at the door for what felt like a long time, I forced myself to slowly walk to the bed. I was determined to talk to Narayan, and to Mustafa, too. I couldn’t possibly be living in this place.

I lay awake for a long time and then drifted back to whisky-induced sleep. I woke up some time later that night when I heard the growling rumble of thunder outside; streaks of lightening lit up the room sporadically. I got up and walked to the water pitcher that Narayan had placed on the table, poured myself a glass of water. That is when I saw a silhouette of someone standing beside the door. The glass of water fell down from my hand and crashed on the floor, breaking into pieces. The man walked away from the broken pieces, his heavy breathing was audible over the monsoon din.

I couldn’t be out in the rain. I have this wound that hurts more in rains, , the man said, his voice soft, in an English accent.

I heard myself scream before I fainted. Moments later, when I opened my eyes, Narayan was beside me. He helped me to the bed. It was still dark and it was still raining.

It’s OK. He was here. I heard him, too. He’s gone now. Your scream must have scared him, Narayan said and smiled at me sympathetically, trying to comfort me.

I can’t live here. I’m going, leaving tomorrow, I said.

But why?he asked, sounding incredulous.

What do you mean why? I just saw a ghost.

But you scared him away!

 

Mayank Bhatt is a Toronto-based author. His debut novel, Belief was published in 2016. View Bhatt's blog: www.generallyaboutbooks.com here.


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