Dr Abhijit Rabha
The wrought iron gate with flaked-off paints guarded the main view of the building that I was curious about. Outside, one of the gate pillars held a name plate, which gave an impression of being tilled well by a time tractor. But, the name still stood there, maybe of the building: The Rosemary Villa, 1927.
Outside the gate, I paused behind it with a strong sense of fear in my mind for a long while. What if a slinky looking hound isscampering in some obscure nook of the sprawling well-manicured garden? There was no way to confirm this as the hedges around the building, which were of a full grown man’s height, blocked the view off from all the sides.
Mustering considerable courage, I hesitantly opened the wrought iron gate, which was locked with a long, bolt-like contraption. The gate creaked in the soulful manner of a lost puppy. Maybe the hinges had not been very well oiled over the years. Maybe, the crazy owner kept the gates in that way itself, so that they creaked as an early warning signal to safeguard him or her from unwelcome visitors. From the gateway to the green-roofed car parking area, the roundish pebbles strewn all over the distance grated under the soles of my new jungle boots. By this time, I had a good gaze at the colonial style architecture of the ancient-looking building. Well, the car parking had sloping green-coloured corrugated iron plates descending from a singular point like an oriental hat.
The villa had the same roofing system, putting up the show of a bygone era’s old Public Works Department’s roadside comfortable inspection bungalows. But the chimneys jutting up from the rooftop really imparted a cool look.
It was the month of June in that sultry year. I was new in town and had to put up in a bed-and-breakfast kind of arrangement for about a month. Everybody in the town did not think that it was a fair idea to rent out an accommodation to a bachelor. Spicy food two times a day and the marauding bed bugs swarming all over the body during the nights… I was going crazy. The pay-slip from the Accountant General’s office kept getting delayed and there was hardly any money left with me to enjoy a good roadside snack.
It was then that I spied a local vernacular paper bearing an advertisement: “Outhouse of the main bungalow to be rented out to suitable single salaried persons. Contact Mrs. S. Smith. Rosemary Villa. I bought a copy of the newspaper and now, I am here, sweating and anticipating that things would turn out pretty nice. Hopes cannot be invented and God is the conjuror that translates the ideas into action.
I looked at the nameplate, which remained hanging skewed to one side, and which read:’Mrs. S. Smith.’ There was an array of old fashioned switches made of brass metal and I went right through nine of them before hitting the right one that made a jangling noise somewhere in the interiors of the house. I squirmed: it was mighty impolite to be so noisy at this very early morning hours.
“Who is it?” A sweet feminine voice that carried itself a little too far brought my meandering mind to a halt.
I was looking at a middle-aged lady, quite fair looking and with a pair of radiating bluish eyes. Her hairs were tied neatly into a bun and reminded me of the black and white photographs of our “HawaiSundari’s of the Indian Airlines back in its heydays.
“I am RabijitBoro,” I introduced myself. “I amlooking for the rented out accommodation in the premises of this bungalow which had been advertised in the newspaper. Can I see the owner of this place, please?” I forced the words out of my mouth carefully, albeit with an appeal in them. It was mighty important for me that the deal had to go through. Who likes swarming bedbugs in the middle of the nights anyway?
“Oh, please step in and get inside please, we could sit down and negotiate,” said the middle- aged lady who was dressed in a stunning maroon-coloured saree. The colours of the saree reminded of the blossoming ‘Flame of the Forest Flowers’ that abounded near a village grazing reserve near our ancestral village.
The tall colonial style doors displayed an incredible use of precious Teak Timber in many unmeasured cubic feet. Inside, we had stepped into a very regal-sized sitting room. The diffused light filtering in through the large windows, where the draperies were pinned to one side, illuminated the interiors of the house. The walls around were lined with teak timber plates and they converged on top of the fireplace. Large paintings of about six feet tall by four and half feet width were interrupting the flow of the teak-lined design of the wall. One of them was a very realistic painting of the one of the forerunners of the family. He held a gun with a tiger he shot on the foreground. The appearance of the gentleman of the bygone era reminded me of a Walrus. My keen eyes could discern that his eyes were hued in blue.
“Sit down, young man, no need to stand like a scarecrow in the vegetable garden,” She was speaking in English, with the unmistakably obvious slant of Assamese. “You said, you would like to stay in our outhouse on rent?” She continued, “Anyway, nobody stays there. You pay as little as eight hundred rupees for the house and water and other facilities are available for that amount. You cannot bring in your friends. If you break that rule, you have to quit the room that very moment, paying the rent for the days occupied in that very month.” It was a deal. So I mumbled a word of thanks.
“But, but…” She paused… “You must go through a series of tests, to prove that a hunk of a guy like you can be accepted in our premises.” Goosebumps swarmed all over my body. No way, I thought, I cannot miss this deal. What,even if I have to cook and do a bit of cleaning? I am a village-bred boy and these chores are just nothing for me!
Maybe, the rage showed up in my face. The lady smiled and took out an old fashioned bell with a long handle. The bell chimed and tinkled. The draperies covering the large and tall door opposite to me parted and two young teenaged ladies stepped in, both draped in multi-hued sarees. Both of them were of considerable beauty that could have caused hundreds of broken hearts in these days of the Facebook and the likes.
One had a green hairband to discipline her long straight hair and the other sported a nice looking freshly plucked rose in a similar hairdo of the lady with a pair of blue eyes. I was, in my school-days, a famous inventor of names. A similar one crossed my mind. I named, instinctively, the girl with the rose as the Homo sapiens Roseus. The young girls greeted me in unison like class students, “Good morning, Uncle.” And broke into teetering laughter. “Excuse us, sir, you are too young to be an uncle of ours.”
The lady clapped her hands to attract my attention. “Which one of these two do you happen to like?” I unabashedly pointed out to the one sporting the freshly plucked red rose. Then the lady motioned to the one with rose in the hairs tied in a bun and told her to bring in the displays. From one end of the corner of the room, they started lifting something heavy metallic things and putting them in a wheeled cart. The metallic things must have been heavy as both the young ladies had to push the wheeled cart to the center table.
“Uncle, please come over here.” The elderly lady got up from her seat and walked briefly towards the spot where the cart had stopped. “Young man, please identify the exhibits, take as much time as you can. But you cannot leave anything un-identified. Otherwise the old uncle over there will throw you out!” The elderly lady giggled helplessly.
In two minutes and thirty seconds down, I produced the names of the exhibits in a nicely written handwriting on a piece of paper and handed it over to them. You should have seen the shocked looks on their countenances. But the expression soon changed into that of an inquisitive friend. Then they looked at the painting of the man with the Walrus moustaches and said: “But what do you say, granddad?”
Suddenly, the face of the painting started morphing. The expression of the man with the tiger changed from a grim one to a quick bright smile.Horrors! I nearly passed out when the entire frame fell off from the hooks and created a booming din inside the room. I do not know how long it took me to come back to my normal state. This time, the void behind the place where the painting stood a few moments earlier, was flooded with lights from flaming torches. A long line of people of various descriptions – from oriental to occidental looks – stepped in from there, extinguishing their torches, one by one. They looked handsome and wore exquisitely cut and expensive looking jackets. Their ages could not be fathomed nor did anyone sport any forms of moustaches.
“Welcome to the house of the Rose,” They said, smiling. “From now onwards, we designate you the keeper of this dwelling. Only, do not break the rules as you have been told.” Then the people sat down. Teapots and biscuits arrived from the interiors of the house and a high tea ensued. After that, they walked me up to the gate to say bye.
I had a nice sleep that night. Surprisingly, even the swarms of the bedbugs were gone. No mosquitoes were pinging around. My room in the hotel masquerading as ‘Bed-and-Breakfast’ had a faint smell of some distantly blooming roses.
The next morning, I approached the gate of the Rosemary Villa. It was odd. Two smart security men approached me. “Hey, what are you doing in this place.”
“What am I doing, eh? The landlady rented me in that outhouse.”
“Are you crazy? What landlady you are talking about?”
“Mrs Smith, I met her and her family members yesterday around the morning hours.”
“Look, Mr Crazy guy, we are looking after this property for the last ten years and nobody has been living here for the last twenty years… you get me? Now get lost.”
“You guys are the oneswho are crazy and daft as hell,” I spat out a swear-word. I took out the newspaper carrying the advertisement for the outhouse for rent and showed that to the security guards.
The elderly guy with spectacles, who must have been an ex-serviceman, read the entire newspaper and shook his head. “This is really sick… I mean SICK…this is the month of June and the newspaper shows its date as Sixth of December of this very year, 1983.”
I hurried back to my office, stunned. I blurted out the story to my boss who listened to me intently. He smiled. “Yes, I know of some of the stories associated with the Villa you had been to, Rabijit. On that night of 6th December of some forgotten year, the entire family residing there vanished without a trace. Better, you put up in the resting facility of the office here and you do not have to pay those eight hundred rupees every month. That could be your contribution to the General Provident Fund.”
I never again dared to go to that old corner of the quaint town, ever. If you asked me what should be the good living and growing adornment in your sunny front garden, I would never recommend anything that bloomed like the flame of the forests. Roses? No way, and you know the reasons why!!!
Epilogue:The strange bungalow with its out-of-the-worldly attributes, I was told years later, remained in much decayed conditions for another five years after my departure from the town. One day, a huge fire engulfed the building. Despite the timely information to the Fire-Brigade personnel, nothing could be done to save the heritage building from being reduced to the ashes. I met one of the security guards who were guarding the Villa a few years ago. They had lost their jobs for not being able to protect the heritage bungalow. The oddest thing they noticed was that every damn rose bush blossomed in ten days after the devastating fire. As the fire raged, somebody appeared to have been singing from inside the burning house. Being an ex-army man in the Gurkha regiment of the olden times; he said, he could recognize the tune. It was, “Abide by me.”
Not too many days ago, I bumped into one of my Richie-rich friend, Pradipta. He had constructed a shopping Mall in the place where the Villa once stood and it was doing a booming business. Only thing, yes, the only thing, which was bothering him was to keep on finding a host of security companies to guard his property as nobody seemed to be ‘happy’, despite being paid a hefty salary and other perks as admissible. He laughed. He recounted that our Naga classmate from the Sainik School days, who now owned such a company,had written to him: “Dear Pradipta, it is possible to smack a thief with a night-stick on the head. But what do you do when some of them walk right through my guards? Boys will be boys and ghosts will be ghosts, the twain should ne’er meet!”
(Dr. Abhijit Rabha (IFS) is Principal Chief Conservator of Forests, Karbi Anglong Autonomous Council)