i am quietly freaking out right now.
ever since yesterday, i’ve been thinking of a “ghost story” my mother told me years ago. i’ve been pondering whether to write it or not since the one i just posted about bungalow no. 7 in digboi was liked by so many people.
my mother didn’t believe in ghosts. no, not at all. she worried much more about human beings. people. and maybe she was right. in fact, she was. still, i can’t help but get the shivers, that funny feeling back of my neck, a sudden need to just get up and run, when i think of spirits, apparitions… that girl on the terrace.
and yet i tarried. i kept thinking, yes, it’s a creepy enough tale, but really, should i write it? finally i decided, maybe not.
this morning i opened facebook and saw a lovely picture of a dear aunt with her friends. they were all dressed up; matching sarees, lots of flower in their hair, smiling cheerily. as i read her post, i realised the shot was taken at the very place where that story is set.
now what are the chances that on the day after you’ve thought innumerable times of a mysterious girl and a particular old mansion, your aunt would post a picture taken at that very mansion?
do you understand why i am freaking out?
this is not an everyday destination. it is a rajbari, an old one, that once belonged to a wealthy zamindar. and it’s quite a hike from where my aunt lives. you don’t just happen to be in a rajbari, you go there for an occasion. in this case, it was their club’s celebration of some sort.
zamindars, or jomidaar as we say in bengali, were feudal chiefs under the sultans of bengal and owned large tracts of land which they administered and grew rich from. the zamindars of bengal thrived under british rule, later contributing much to the making of calcutta; also to education, culture, music, and art.
many of them, however, had a great time doing what they pleased, enjoying excesses, not being too concerned with morality or anything as mundane as that.
they also often gave themselves honorary titles like raja or king, maharaja or great king. these were recognised by the british royal family itself, no doubt for their own reasons, which had nothing to do with them thinking you were indeed a royal. history… always full of wondrous shenanigans.
anyway. thanks to those titles, the old, massive, often magnificent, mansions belonging to zamindars came to be known as rajbari, literally, king’s house.
shobhabazar rajbari is one such palatial manor, it was built by the well known zamindar raja nabakrishna deb, back in the late 1700s. most of these aristocratic residences are in the northern part of calcutta, the south came up much later.
it was a winter month, in 1964 or ’65. one of my mother’s cousins was getting married and as happens many a time, on the very same day she had to attend another wedding. a cousin of my father’s was tying the knot as well.
weddings take place at the bride’s home usually. but even in those days, spacious venues were often rented for the nuptials. my mother’s cousin was getting married at the shobhabazar rajbari. by then, the zamindari system was over and many of these grand homes were being hired out for weddings and other festivities.
ma had never been to the rajbari before and was naturally looking forward to seeing it, but she would have to get there pretty late, after attending my father’s cousin’s biye… wedding.
she must have arrived there around eleven in the evening, the ceremony was to be conducted even later, at the auspicious hour as per the bengali almanac.
she remembers the moment she walked in, a couple of her cousins, younger than her and as yet unmarried, came over and told her they had seen a ghost. my mother rolled her eyes. they laughed. yeah, rajbaris got to have their spooks, it’s only aristocratic, after all.
then they said, well ghost or not, there was this young woman who kept coming and standing by the low railing of the second-floor terrace every now and then. she looked at the proceedings silently and walked away, but she had already come by a few times. who was she?
in a giggly, let’s have silly fun wedding mood, my mother went to one side and waited with her cousins, hoping to catch a glimpse of the girl the two young men insisted was somewhere there. it was a cold, dark night, the building was lit up for the occasion, but the spot where the girl had been seen was in the shadows.
that night, alas, no girl came and took a peek at the wedding again.
the cousins were teased roundly. hallucinating about a beautiful mysterious woman on a wintry night, who looks on forlornly at the gaiety below, hair open and blowing gently in the chilly breeze…
the story was forgotten.
years later, my mother was chatting with one of her closest friends. she told my mother a sister of hers had had a strange experience recently.
she was visiting someone who lived in a rented flat on the upper floor of shobhabazar rajbari. the door of the apartment had been left slightly ajar for some reason. as they spoke, she could distinctly hear a door close somewhere, then the sound of anklet bells as someone came down a set of stairs and approached them along the corridor outside. quite unconsciously she looked toward the door to see who was passing by. a young woman walked past and down the steps to the floor below. the sound of anklets could be heard receding, going further away.
her host said nothing, the conversation continued. however, soon, one could hear the anklets again. the girl came up and went past the door as before, without stopping or looking in, and went up the steps. a few minutes later, she walked by on her way down, her anklets clinking, a beautiful young woman, eerily silent all the while.
this occurred a couple of times more.
finally, my mother’s friend’s sister couldn’t stop herself. she had to ask who the girl was.
she was told: oh, she lives here, nothing to worry about. they say, she died in one of the uninhabited rooms in the basement of the rajbari, a long time ago. she just walks around the place at times, coming up from the basement, going to the terrace, then quietly descending to her room below. she never speaks or does anyone any harm. the people who live here are quite used to her.
i really don’t know if what they say is true. but two of my uncles did see someone there that night. and this morning, that picture was there on my facebook.
thanks for reading. i am still a bit gobsmacked by what happened. maybe it was nothing. yeah, that’s it. if you’d like to know a bit more about zamindars and their way of life, you might want to see two wonderful films: satyajit ray’s jalsaghar/the music room, and guru dutt and abrar alvi’s sahib biwi aur ghulam.
originally posted on 8/22/2016