Chandran was happy. He was still in his thirties and had achieved what most people required a life time to do. He was the owner of a house. It had not been an easy buy. He took a loan plus the down payment had cleared his bank savings. Savitri his wife had pitched in with half her gold ornaments. He had registered the house in both their names as an acknowledgement of her efforts. It was not a new house. The previous owners had got a job in Dubai and was planning on settling down there. He was not returning to Neyyarinkara. The property was going cheap. Chandran was in the right place at the right time. He grabbed the opportunity.
Chandran was from Ernakulam. That was about two hundred kilometers away. He worked at the Secretariat in Trivandrum as a section officer. There was no chance of a transfer. He was sure of working for another ten years in the same office. Ten years ago, when he had joined the office he was a bachelor. He stayed at a lodge near the Trivandrum Central Railway station. The room and the food were cheap. He saved a lot during that phase of his life. His marriage with Savitri required changes in his life style. At first, he tried to get a house on rent near his office. The rent rates shocked him. Finally, he had to settle for a house twenty- kilometers away from the office. It was a village but there were regular bus services.
“What is the name of the place?” said Savitri.
“Neyyarinkara. It is more than a village and less than a city,” said Chandran.
“Twenty kilometers away?”
“Yes. It is the only thing that fits our budget.”
“I guess for now we do not have other options.”
“It does not make sense to take a house on rent. Plus, this could be an investment in the long term.”
“That is what my father always says. Real estate is the best form of investment.”
The reference to her father irritated Chandran. The old man never contributed financially but was more than generous with his wisdom. Savitri was her father’s daughter. With her it was always ‘father says this’, ‘father says that’. Chandran seldom spoke but when he did it was after considering all a lot of thinking. Savitri would partially listen and then pip in with what her father would have said or done in a similar situation. Those were the times when he felt he could punch her on the nose but he refrained from doing so. He liked his wife but her ‘my father knows best’ attitude drove him mad. He thought he would be able to cure her eventually. After all they had only been married for a year.
The couple was not enthused when the bus dropped them in sleepy Neyyarinkara. There was no one to receive them. Not that they were expecting anyone. They caught an auto rickshaw and reached the house.
“You are moving in here,” said the auto driver.
“Yes,” said Chandran.
“It is isolated. Not that you need to worry in Neyyarinkara.”
“Why is that?”
“People here are very helpful. If you walk a hundred meters from here, you will reach the temple. The river bank is in the opposite side. There is a school here. Have you got any children?”
“No not yet,” said Chandran. Savitri blushed and look away.
“Where is your luggage?” said the auto driver.
“This is all. We are newly married,” said Chandran.
The auto driver laughed and said, “Two suitcases? You now have all the time in the world to set up house now.”
They had paid of the auto driver and entered the house. The house had a rectangular hall and a room on either side. The hall led to another room, part of which was the kitchen. Outside the house was a bathroom and a toilet. The house had a well in the compound.
Chandran placing the two suitcases on the floor of the hall.
Luckily the house was partially furnished. The previous owners had lived there for two years. They had left behind beds, sofas and curtains.
“Savi, you know, we are lucky. This house is furnishing and has a small ground around it. It cost us only one lakh rupees. If I go by market rates this house should sell for a minimum of five lakhs rupees. We are indeed lucky. This is my dream house”
“Father said he could have bargained a better deal.”
“Yes, I know. If he had bargained we might have got the house for free!”
“Why do you always have to criticize my father? He only means good for us.”
“I know. He thinks I am an idiot.”
“No! he does not. He always says that Chandran is a smart boy. He will do well in life.”
“I do not need anyone’s certificate to prove my worth.”
The argument was interrupted by a knocking at the door.
“You must be the new family which has moved in,” said a middle-aged woman standing outside the door.
“Yes. My name is Chandran and this is my wife Savitri.”
“We are your neighbors. My name is Lata. This is my husband Suvarnan works in a bank. I call him Suvi. He said you took a loan from his bank.”
“Yes, we needed a loan to buy this house,” said Chandran.
Lata clasped Savitri’s hand and said, “I am happy that you came in here. Now I will not be bored. I came to invite both of you for dinner at our place.”
That evening it was ten by the time Chandran and Savitri walked back to their house. It was a moon lit night. The road on either side was empty and Chandran and Savitri held hands as they walked back home.
“If this was a movie, I would have been singing a song right now,” said Chandran.
“Talking of movies is there a movie theatre here?” said Savitri.
“Yes, I saw one near the Bus stand. It even plays fairly new movies.”
“That is good. At least we will not be bored here.”
“Bored? Why should we be bored?”
“Do you think I should ask my parents to come and stay with us?”
Chandran let go of her hand.
“Why do you have to spoil a night as romantic as this by bringing in your parents?”
“They could help us settle down here.”
“I can all my parents over. They can also give us equally worthless advice on how to settle down.”
That comment put the whole issue in the right perspective. Savitri was not comfortable with Chandran’s parents.
“For now, let us not call anyone,” said Savitri.
“Good idea. Have you ever thought about having a baby?” said Chandran and again clasped her hand.
“I know what you are thinking,” said Savitri and ran inside.
Savitri and Lata became good friends and soon enough were making trips to the market together. They went shopping at the local market. The options were limited but the prices were cheap.
“Have you two gone to the movie theatre here?” said Savitri.
The two friends were on their way back from the market.
“Yes, we go there every week. The theatre in the village is quite good. Cushion seats and ceiling fans all over. Why do you ask?”
“Chandran and I have not seen a movie in months. Before our marriage I never missed a single movie at home. My father is a huge fan of Sarath Babu the superstar.”
“Sarath Babu is my favorite as well. Suvi my husband is jealous of him and avoids taking me to his movies!”
Both laughed at this.
“Chandran is not interested in movies. The last movie we saw a week after our marriage. Then we were in my home town.”
“There is a new movie coming up this Friday. Get Chandran to come. All four of us can go as group.”
The two families had a great time at the theatre. Soon this became a regular part of their lives. Every fortnight they would plan on going out for a movie. At times they even got on a bus and travelled all the way to Trivandrum to watch the latest releases in the theatres there.
Then Suvi was posted from the village. He was a bank officer and had a transferable job. It was a tearful farewell that Lata and Savitri had. Savitri was now alone. Chandran tried his best to comfort her. There was not much he could do about the hours of the day when he would be in office, while she would be all alone at home. Then one day Savitri told him that he was going to be a father. Chandran was extremely happy and scared at the same time. He had no idea how to take care of his pregnant wife. With no other options left he had to call her parents over. He could have called his own parents but Savitri vetoed the idea. She said she wanted her mother with her and that was it.
Savitri’s father Chellapan was a retired school teacher. Chandran’s relationship with his father in law was never good. They treated each other with utmost courtesy. Chandran preferred to put in extra hours in office while his in laws were at home. He would leave by seven in the morning and return by nine at night. That way there was minimum scope for interaction between him and his in laws.
One evening Chandran was returning from office. At a distance he saw someone standing at the gate. As he neared he saw that it was his father in law Chellapan.
“Is Savitri ok? What happened?” said Chandran. He was worried.
“Savitri? She is ok. Guess what happened today?” said Chellapan.
Chandran stood there with a confused look on his face. He could see that Chellapan was excited.
“Let me tell you what happened. Today a movie producer came to our house.”
Chandran still did not understand what was happening.
“They are planning to shoot a movie in our house. Guess who the hero will be?” said Chellapan and without waiting for Chandran to guess, he blurted out, “Sharath Babu!”
Chandran rarely watched movies before his marriage. He liked reading books. His movie watching had increased exponentially after marriage. There were many point about his in laws that he could not understand. He never understood how a man in his seventies could behave like a teenager whenever this film star’s name came up. The man was a hard-core fan of Sharath Babu. He never missed his movies. He even dragged his wife and children to these movies. It was through him that Savitri had acquired a fascination for movies.
“So, what do you say?” said Chellapan.
Chandran had not responded at the gate but had walked in. It was half an hour since he had come in. Chandran was at the dinner table and Chellapan could not hold it any longer.
“About letting them shoot the movie here. In this house,” said Chellapan.
“No!” said Chandran and continued eating.
“Why?” said Chellapan. He could not imagine anyone saying no to an opportunity to see Sharath Babu at close range.
“What do you mean why?”
“Why do you not want them to shoot the movie here?”
Savitri was six months pregnant and showed it clearly. She came in slowly with some water for Chandran. Chandran pointed at her growing stomach and said, “That is why. Where would we stay if they are shooting here?”
“We were planning on taking Savitri to our house next month. That way there will be no problem for Savitri.”
“What about the inconvenience I would be facing? Where will I stay with a hundred-people roaming around the house.”
“They are ready to pay you twenty thousand for a week’s shooting,” said Chellapan.
He said that in a low voice but it still had an effect on Chandran. He swallowed without chewing and had to cough to clear his throat.
“Twenty thousand per week!”
“Yes, and the shooting will go on for a minimum period of a month.”
Chandran calculated rapidly in his mind. That would mean that he could clear his bank loan in a month’s time. If Savitri was not going to be there, he could stay for a month at his old lodge.
“Plus, if there were any damages to the house during the shooting the studio will pay the complete repair cost. They are ready to give this in writing.”
For the first time in his married life Chandran agreed with his father in law. This was a sound financial proposal. He could be near his office. Savitri would be with her parents during the crucial stages of her pregnancy. As if all that was not enough he stood to make a lakh on this deal. He agreed immediately.
A week later the deal was signed. It was a legal document so Chandran was not worried. He agreed to hand over his house to the movie studio for the duration of the shooting. The rates were as Chellapan had mentioned – ten thousand rupees per week for a minimum of four weeks. The deal became sweeter after that. Any additional week would be charged at fifteen thousand per week. There was a clause of payment for damages caused to the structure. Chandran read the document four times. He ensured the numbers and the number of zeros were correct and then signed it. Savitri left along with her mother the same day. Chandran went with them. Chellapan stayed back in the house. He said it was to keep a watch over the house. He was not fooling anyone for they knew he wanted to watch his favorite star in action.
The movie shoot got extended. The team stayed for two months. After a week they asked Chellapan to leave as he had become a nuisance on the set. Chandran stayed in his old lodge for the duration of the shoot. The charges at his lodge had increased but the standards remained the same. After two months Chandran got the news that the movie studio was done with the shooting. He could now return to his house. The first thing he did was he went to his bank and checked his account. The balance was substantial. Savitri was not due for a month so Chandran was alone in the house. The first day itself he wrote a letter and informed the bank that he would be making a prepayment of the loan. The number he had seen on his bank account was more than enough for him to write off his loan and still have a decent balance. He was happy. For once Chellapan had come with a good suggestion. Now he waited for Savitri and his child to come home.
Two months passed. Chandran lived alone in the house. He perfected his cooking skills. He knew Savitri would need some time to get back in the kitchen. He found a girl who could help with the cooking and washing. For the first three months it would be important to have someone full time in the house. Chandran had the money and could afford a full-time maid. Savitri had a boy. It was a momentous occasion for both the families. The boy was the first grandchild for both the grandparents. After two weeks Savitri returned to her house. Her parents came with her.
The boy was named Arjun. On his sixteenth day of birth Chandran’s father whispered the name in the baby’s ear and formalized the naming. Chandran and Savitri had named him Arjun after the hero from the Mahabharata. Chellapan had his own reasons for being happy with the naming.
“In the movie ‘Inspector’ Sharath Babu was named Arjun!”
Chandran had a strong desire to change the boy’s name there and then but with a supreme effort controlled himself.
Chellapan and his wife returned to their house after six months. It was the longest six months of Chandran’s life. Had it not been for the baby he would have preferred to return to the single room in the lodge. Arjun, his son was a bright spot in his day. Every day he would look forward to the time he got to spend with the child. After Chellapan and his wife left, Chandran set about making the house safe for Arjun. He had started crawling and that increased his range of activities. The girl whom he had hired was now working full time in the house. Savitri had returned to the kitchen and Chandran’s life was slowly getting back to normal.
One day Chandran was on his way back from office when he saw a movie poster. It was a new movie. There was the photo of a house on the poster. Chandran thought the house looked familiar. He had walked a few steps when he realized that it was a photo of his house. The movie was the same one which was shot in his house. He hurried home to tell Savitri.
“Let’s go to see that movie. It has been more than a year since I saw a movie. The last time was when Lata and her husband were here.”
“What about Aju?” said Chandran. They called the boy Aju at home.
“He will come with us. do not worry about him. He will be fast asleep by the time the movie starts so would not be a problem in the theatre.”
Chandran did not want to refuse Savitri’s wish. Besides he wanted to see how his house looked in the movie. The Movie theatre was packed. The villagers of Neyyarinkara flocked to see the movie shot in their village.
As they returned home that night the couple was silent. It was not because they did not want to wake up Arjun. They boy had slept through the movie as predicted by Savitri. He preferred waking up at night and also keeping his parents awake. His parents were quiet because of what they had seen in the movie. The story was different from the usual Sharath Babu ‘thrillers’ where he played the handsome cop who wooed the beautiful heroine with songs and dance. This was a horror movie. The story was about a family involving a husband, his wife and their child. They live in a small house in a desolate area. The house was haunted. The ghost mercilessly kills first the baby, then the wife and finally the hero! The audience loved it. They were clapping and whistling when the movie ended. Critics had claimed it as an award-winning performance by the hero. Everyone was applauding except for the family which now made its way home.
It was ten in the night as they walked down the street. Savitri had walked down this road a thousand times before. Earlier she had not noticed the long shadows that the tall coconut trees cast on the road in the moon light. In the stillness of the night she could hear the sound of their slippers on the tarred road. She heard the jingle of anklets and for a moment froze. Then she realized it was the sound of the anklets on her feet. Never before had she heard the sound of her anklets so clearly.
“Walk a little faster,” said Savitri. Chandran was holding Arjun and a few steps behind her. It was not Arjun that was slowing Chandran. He was deep in thought. The movie had disturbed him.
“Close the gates and lock it,” said Savitri as she rushed in.
“Lock? We do not have a lock,” said Chandran.
“We will have to buy one then.”
Normally Chandran would have argued the point but instead he thought she had a point.
“I will get one first thing tomorrow. Here take Ajju. Let me take a bath.”
“I will never understand this habit of yours of taking a bath whenever you come back home. It is ten in the night. You might catch a cold if you take a bath at this time.”
“I have this habit since I was a child. Too late to change the habit.”
The bathroom was outside the house. As Chandran walked up to it he noticed the massive banyan tree behind. He had never noticed it before. It had huge roots which hung from its branches. In the movie the banyan tree was where the body of the heroine was strung by the evil spirit. The blood from the body had dripped on to the bathroom below. Chandran wondered how the movie escaped with those gory murder scenes. As he turned on the tap he noticed a stain on the floor.
“Is that blood?” said Chandran. He touched the spot with his feet and poured some water over it. He looked again and now there was nothing there!
“I must have imagined it” he said to himself and turned on the shower.
Inside the house Savitri hugged Arjun close to her. The ceiling in the house was made of huge logs of teak. The logs had a deep coat of varnish which made them look dark brown in the light from the electric bulb. Coconut wood planks were arranged across the teak logs. The tiles in the roof were arranged on the planks in neat rows. The house was hardly three years old but the effect of these planks and tiles made it look a hundred years old. Savitri stood in the middle of the room with Arjun in her arms. She looked all around the room. She felt as if she was seeing the room for the first time. In the movie in the last scene the hero’s body was found hanging in this room. Savitri looked at the ceiling. For a brief moment she could see the body dangling, swinging gently in the breeze blowing in through the open window. At the moment there was a power failure.
It was the sound of Savitri’s shrieking in horror that made Chandran rush out of the bathroom. He had just finished his bath and was wiping himself dry. He wrapped the towel around him and ran out. For a few seconds he could not see in the dark. He could hear Savitri screaming. He could hear Arjun crying as well.
“I am coming… I am coming,” said Chandran as he stumbled towards the door. He feet struck the stone steps in the dark and he winced in pain. He stumbled in the house. In the dark he could dimly make out the shape of a woman standing. The sound of screams was coming from her. In the movie there was a similar scene where the hero mistook the evil ghost for his wife in a dark room. For a moment Chandran hesitated. Then he heard Arjun wailing and he forgot all about fear and dashed in. At that moment the electricity supply was restored.
“Where were you? You left us alone,” said Savitri tears pouring down her cheeks. Arjun was crying. Chandran reached out to take him in his arms. Then realized his towel was slipping and tied it firmly. He took Arjun in his arms. The child was reassured to see familiar faces around him and stopped crying. He reached out for Chandran’s face and said, “da, da.”
For a few minutes there was silence in the room.
Then both husband and wife said, “He spoke his first words!”
Arjun’s first spoken words was the top news item for the next week. Savitri ‘s parent came over and a day after they left Chandran’s parents came over to celebrate the achievement. After they left, the house was back to its normal occupancy of three. The servant girl would come in the morning. She would stay during the day and leave at five in the evening.
Chandran returned from office by six.
“Can you come in a bit early. The girl leaves by five. I asked her to stay a little late but she says she has to catch a bus which leaves by five fifteen.”
“You know that is not possible. The buses are jam packed between five and seven.”
“Can you at least try to come early? It is a bit difficult to be alone in this house after dark.”
A week later Arjun had a fever. The child was shivering and coughing. Chandran took a day off from office to take care of his child. They took Arjun to the nearest doctor in Neyyarinkara, Dr. Shivaraman.
“You do not have to worry. He has a chest congestion. Have him inhale some steam. Do you take him out after dark? Be careful while you do it. It is a bit chilly after dark. Have the child wear some warm clothes. A woolen cap if possible.”
“I do not trust this doctor. Let’s take Arjun to the city and have a proper Doctor examine him.”
“Do you know he retired as a professor at the Medical College in Trivandrum?”
“That is why I want to go to a doctor who is still practicing. Not someone who is retired.”
Chandran did not argue and they went to Trivandrum. There after waiting for three hours in the reception of a pediatrician they got a similar diagnosis.
“Did you notice that the Pediatrician told us exactly the same things what Dr. Shivaraman had said. Only he charged us a hundred rupees more.”
“You are counting money when you son is suffering?” said Savitri.
“I was just mentioning that. You know I would not compromise on Ajju’s health.”
Then Chandran feel silent. After a few minutes he turned towards Savitri and said,
“Do you remember in the movie the child had a fever. The fever subsided when the snake came into the house.”
“Do you have to remind me of the movie?”
“I just remembered that scene.”
That evening Chandran was on his way to the bathroom when he saw something glow in the dark. At first, he thought it was a log. He shone his torch in that direction. It was a long, dark colored snake.
“I will not stay in this house with my child,” said Savitri, “buy me a train ticket I will leave for my parent’s house first thing in the morning tomorrow.”
Chandran did not try to hold her back. The circumstances were such. He called Chellapan and sent Savitri and Arjun along with him. He had his office to attend. After a few days alone in the house Chandran decided to stay at the lodge. He locked up his house and return to his own haunts. Days passed. Whenever the subject of returning to the house came up Savitri would reject all suggestions.
“What are you doing?” said a man passing by the house as he saw Chandran nailing a board at the gate.
“This house is for sale. I am putting up a board.”
“This is the haunted house from that movie, right?” the man said. “the house where three people were brutally murdered.”
Chandran did not reply.
“Good luck with your attempts. I would like to meet the person who has the guts to buy a haunted house.”
The man laughed and went on his way. Chandran checked all the windows and locked all the door’s. Then he nailed the ‘For Sale’ at the gate and walked away.
It is said that Chandran or Savitri never returned to that house. The house remains locked with a fading ‘For Sale’ sign dangling on the front door. To this day no one dares enter the haunted house.