How My UP House Was ‘Shaken’ By ‘Ghosts’ Of Christmas Past
“Fair is foul, foul is fair, 2020 is quite a scare. Here’s a ‘bhoot bangla’ story with a twist,” writes Revati Laul.
Christmas day was finally done and since no one else in the industrial wasteland of Kandhla town where we lived seemed to care, ‘A’ and I outdid ourselves celebrating. In our office-cum-home we put up our fake Christmas tree ten days in advance. And also hung our large paper star in the porch that shone gold onto the narrow street below. We ate the last of our Christmas feast — pudding and sauce, chicken pulao and koftas. ‘A’ retreated to his room on the first floor and I turned off the living room lights, went up the spiral stair to the barsati I occupied on the second.
The Sound & The Fury
It was a cold night. I turned on my heater and dived under my quilt, with my big blue sweater on for added warmth. I was in a deliciously deep sleep when a loud, grating sound woke me with a start. It was deafening and it was distinct. Someone was drilling and at 2:30 am in a town that goes to sleep before ten, this could only be thieves trying to cut through the grill on my balcony and break in. I was frozen with fear. I sat up in my bed, blinked hard and did not move.
But the sound was so disturbing, of metal grating or being sawed away repeatedly, that I had to do something.
I called A once, then twice, ten times, but there was no answer. He was young and a sound sleeper. This meant he was deaf to the world. God damn it, A! I was annoyed and envious at once for him being half my age and for getting such good sleep. I called our landlord, who is a biryani seller and only gets back at 2 am after closing down his stall. But there was no answer. I called his wife, their sons, their daughters. The drilling went on unabated.
It was so loud, I wondered how the neighbours could sleep through this metallic sawing when my wall was shaking from the sound. I opened my bedroom door and looked out from the balcony. There was nothing to be seen.
Could It Be Thieves?
Kandhla is a polluted town in western UP in the district of Shamli. The night air is always covered with a thick grey soot that blocks the stars and makes the moon look like old grease paper or the burnt bottom of my Christmas bread pudding. Anyone could hide in this dull, luster-less lane. But how did no one else hear the drilling?
I opened my other room door that led to a massive terrace. I turned on all the lights. The sound stopped briefly and then started again. Now I was very scared. I remembered what our neighbour, the dhobi had said last month. That there had been thieves in his house at night and could we please check our CCTV? We had belittled him because he was in general a double crossing wife-beater so nothing he ever said could be credible.
But what if he was right about the thieves that came out after midnight?
Maybe they had drilled under his door as well and nobody had heard then, just like the whole town was tone-deaf to the trombone like B Flat that was so loud and so warped, right under my roof. That’s just how it was in this godforsaken town.
Time To Call The Cops? Or Check CCTV Footage?
Four nights ago, the neighbours had a wedding in their home that spilled out into our lane and main gate. The DJ planted his giant black speakers defiantly under our roof and blasted them till the sound of my windows rattling was louder than the music. But did anyone in the lane care? Of course not. Two hundred of them were part of the noise, an all-male dance and display of testosterone – common in weddings in a Muslim home where the men danced in the street and took their shirts off and exhibited their most audacious pelvic thrusts, while the women did the same indoors, in a closed room, but with equal gusto.
Why would the sound of a drilling machine matter in a lane so insistent in its display of noise?
I would have to call the police. It was now 3 am and the drilling had gone on for a good half hour. I put my face against the gate to my terrace and yelled for A, my voice travelling down the stairs to the first floor. `Haan,’ came a voice from the other end. I was relieved. He had heard me. ‘Yaar mai kab se call kar rahi hoon,’ (I’ve been calling you forever) I said chiding him, my anxiety totally taking over. ‘What’s happened?’ he said, turning the key in the door. ‘Go check the CCTV in your room, quick, by the time you get to it, the thief might already have broken in,’ I said, without filling him in on how I’d come to this conclusion.
A Quaking Revelation
Obviously the sound was directly under my wall and he couldn’t hear it where he was, I gathered. ‘Please turn on your phone, I am going back into my room and calling you,’ I said and ran back in. I told him about the sound and once he was on the stair, he could hear it clearly. His forehead twisted into a frown as he walked into my room where the sound was the loudest of all.
We both shone the torch-light from his mobile phone out onto the street. But there was no one in sight. We looked around the perimeter of our building but there was not a soul to be seen. Not even the stray dogs. It was 4 degrees Celsius — too cold for them to be out in any case. We ran up the terrace stair to an even littler terrace on top, where our water tanks were placed - one white, one black — two cylindrical eyesores thumbing a dull grey horizon. Whoever it was could not be seen, only heard.
We came back to my room and A put his hand on the back wall of my bedroom. It was throbbing with the sound directly underneath.
A then put his hand on the big wooden cupboard standing against the wall that was in turn shaking from the sound. “Aisa lag raha hai ki cupboard ke andar se kampan si aa rahi hai – It’s as if there’s a quivering coming from inside this cupboard.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when a shudder went down my spine.
I opened the cupboard, reached behind the row of lingerie folded on the shelf, to the vibrator pushed to the back. It was turned on.
From Paris To Shamli
My vibrator was pulsating wildly at the back of a thick wooden closet. A ten inch metal device against heavy wood. Closed cupboard doors made the sound echo infinitely and transfer the vibrations onward, to the wall. That was the deafening drilling sound that with one click, I put to a stop to.
I looked at A. ‘Haan yaar, you’re right. There’s a battery operated device in my cupboard that was switched on and making this sound. I’m really sorry,’ I said to him. He had no particular expression on his face as he turned towards the stairs. ‘Haan, mai soch hi raha tha, yeh cupboard me kuch vibrate kar rahi hai (I figured there’s probably something vibrating in the cupboard.)
My trusty vibrator had fallen a few nights ago and the knob at the back had come loose.
The big golden object is one I have taken from cupboard to cupboard since I bought it in Paris, just after Christmas, twelve years ago.
It was a cold, damp night and I was walking down Montmartre alone and lovelorn. I walked past the famous artist district of a famous city to the infamous quarters abutting it – Pigalle. Also known as the sex district of Paris. I had walked into a brightly coloured sex mall and bought ‘The Gold Digger.’ That’s what the box said, rather aptly, I thought.
‘It Came Upon The Midnight Clear’
Twelve Christmases later, in a town that would be shaken out of its sensibilities by the mere mention of it, the vibrator, an instrument developed by a Parisian physician in 1878 to ‘cure women of their functional disorder’ had caused quite a stir.
“It came upon the midnight clear / That glorious song of old / From angels bending near the earth / To touch their harps of gold…”
(From the Christmas carol ‘It Came Upon The Midnight Clear,’ composed by Edmund Sears in 1849)
(Disclaimer: This piece was first published by the author on her Facebook page. It has been republished with permission. The original post can be accessed here.)
(Revati Laul is an independent journalist and human rights defender who lives and works in Kandhla town in the district of Shamli in Western Uttar Pradesh. She is the author of `The Anatomy of Hate,’ published by Context/Westland books. She tweets @RevatiLaul. This is a personal blog. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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