An inconspicuous path led away from the main mountain road. Had they not been looking for it, they would have definitely missed it. Earlier, Swarna had espied a quaint looking red building at the top of a hill and encouraged Manas to find a way to reach the house, or whatever it was, so that she could take a few photographs.
“We have passed so many other brightly colored and interesting edifices but what’s so attractive about that building that you want to actually go knocking on the door?” Manas was always surprised by the obscure things that caught Swarna’s eye and how she always wanted to tread the unbeaten path. Although he readily agreed to most of her plans, he sometimes felt disconnected from her when he couldn’t share her passion for the wild and the weird.
“I was just imagining the scenic splendor that must be visible from that height. Just think, the kind of fun the people living up there must be having, enjoying the fresh mountain air and looking down at the world below.” Swarna answered animatedly.
Manas smiled at her enthusiasm. He stopped at a roadside eatery and asked the onlookers about the way to reach the red building. The bunch of local people remained quiet and then one person asked him, “Babuji, why do want to go there?”
“Just like that! In fact what is that structure?” He answered and inquired in one go.
“It’s supposed to be an old summer house of a military officer, and has been uninhabited since a long time. I would suggest that you don’t go there.”
“Why?” Swarna leaned over Manas.
“Bibiji, there are stories regarding that area, about strange sightings and sounds. Moreover, the path leading to the house is tricky and uneven.”
“Wow!” Swarna’s eyes lit up instantly. She prodded Manas, “Take the directions, we must go there and see for ourselves.”
After Manas had taken the directions, he teased her that she was a witch because she had picked up the strange vibes of the place and had entrapped him to take her there. Their conversation stopped as they started looking for the narrow path that would appear at the side of the mountain road. They nearly missed it and had to reverse the car to finally hit the path. The way was rocky, constricted and was a long uphill drive and Manas had to concentrate on the driving.
They eventually came to a fenced area, and wooden gate lay invitingly open before them. Swarna clapped in glee. Manas drove into the wicket gate, and before them rose an imposing house, that was spherical in shape. They parked the car, and walked up the steep climb to the two pillared open gateway that was the entry point to the house.
The chaste mountain sun was glaring down at them, but a cool, rather cold wind was also blowing. They thought it was the altitude but there was a distinct change in temperature since they had parked their car and trudged towards the house. The house, rather a red-brick bungalow, was at an elevation and they climbed up the stairs to the high plateau. It was a glorious sight from there. They could clearly see the play of nature, as one hill was lighted up by the sun, and another was hidden behind a growing mist, that implied that it was raining on that part of the ranges. The opposite side, had a rich growth of cacti and a mountain range dotted by dwarf-like city structures, was clearly visible. They stood spell-bound for sometime till Swarna took out her camera to take photographs.
Manas, in the meantime, surveyed the spherical premises of the building. The exteriors were clean and well kept, and on treading the narrow path around the bungalow, he came upon a flourishing flower garden. He called out to Swarna to capture the beauty of the mountain roses and lilies. Swarna’s attention was captured by the garden and then by the red house.
“This place is well-maintained. There must be a caretaker or even occupants. But that man at the dhaba said it was uninhabited.” Swarna thought aloud.
“May be it’s been recently occupied, or maybe that person was only scaring us, or else wasn’t even aware of what’s going up in this misty abode.” Manas offered some reasoning.
“Let’s go and see if someone’s around so that we can get some more information.” Swarna’s eyes were lit up as if she had stumbled upon an adventure.
They encircled the house and peered into the windows, but all were heavily draped. They went along testing the doors but each one was padlocked.
The sound of a door creaking behind her made Swarna stop in her tracks. She had heard the click of a handle and the distinct sound of a door opening, very close to her, but she was sure that the door that was few paces behind her was firmly padlocked. Swarna hesitated for a moment and then carefully looked over her shoulder. A man was staring directly at her, a blank expression on his face. She wanted to scream, but only a whimper escaped her lip. Almost instantly, she saw Manas appear from the bend, and she relaxed a bit.
The man turned towards Manas and said in a clear and deep baritone, “I heard some sounds in the garden, and then you probably knocked on the doors. I woke up from my afternoon siesta, a little surprised, because no one comes this way.”
“We apologize for disturbing your sleep, and trespassing on private property. We were inquisitive and also attracted by this beautiful house that you have so high up on the mountains. But, we will leave now, and not bother you further. Come, Swarna.” Manas apologized, and gestured at Swarna to join him.
“No, no, be my guest. I get to meet hardly any people and I would like to enjoy your company. In fact, I was going to set up a barbeque and it will be good to share.” The man answered in the same stern baritone and his request seemed almost compelling because of the lack of warmth.
Manas looked at Swarna, who had regained her spirits, and was once again feeling adventurous. She also felt bad for the lonely occupant of the household. She smiled at Manas to express her approval for accepting the invitation.
“If you say, Sir, but we don’t want to intrude or trouble you.” Manas could hardly believe what he was saying. For a moment, he felt strange under the scrutiny of this man, who displayed neither emotions nor expressions, and yet, he didn’t feel like declining the invitation.
“Please, join me, inside.” The man signaled. As Swarna crossed the threshold, she glanced at the door handle, and saw a lock hanging from the latch. “So, this was it; a camouflage and I thought the door was actually locked.” She assured herself.
Inside the bungalow, they were surprised to see polished antique furniture. The house offered an old-world charm, as if they had stepped into a house that was first furnished and equipped, nearly half-a-century back. They had entered directly into the dining room, and followed their host across the room into the mahogany furnished, musky-smelling living room. The room was neat and they settled in the plush yet worn out sofas. The tables were decorated with crocheted dollies, which had taken a distinct yellow color. Gilded photo frames hung on the walls, and displayed black-and-white photographs from another era. Their host occupied a rocking chair, and fixed a steely gaze at them.
“I am retired Colonel Kamdar. This has been my home, since I came to this hillside years ago leading troops to guard the surrounding hills from the rebel Rajas.” He offered information about himself.
Listening to him, Manas, wondered about Colonel Kamdar’s age. He must have seen at least sixty decades of his sunrise and sunset, and yet, there was not a wrinkle on his face. The slight graying of the hair at the temples was the only giveaway of eventually fading youth. His hands were clean, manicured and oddly free of wrinkles, though not plump, and the blue veins were clearly visible. Manas thought that the mountain air, free of pollutants, and invigorating, was the perfect antidote to advancing age.
Their host got up and walked out of the room with steady steps. Manas and Swarna sat there stupefied and silent, only extending their hands to grasp each other’s palms. Their eyes darted over the place, looking at the photographs, artifacts and antiquity, their reverie broken by the sound of thunder and the unexpected gush of slanting rain against the window panes. Manas went to the window, facing the garden, lifted the heavy drapes and peered outside to witness a darkening sky and heavy rains. Within minutes, a pleasant and bright evening had turned into dusk.
“Rains in the hills are sudden, but fleeting.” The voice left a shiver down his spine and he turned abruptly to face his host. Swarna got up to take the tray that he had carried into the room. The tray held a crystal decanter and three crystal glasses.
The retired Colonel settled in his rocking chair, requesting them to help themselves to the vintage drink. They politely filled their glasses and slowly sipped the grape wine, making small conversation. They waited patiently for the rain to stop, but it continued to pour cats and dogs. They debated on the danger of driving down with sheets of rain obscuring their view, but they didn’t want to overstay the Colonel’s hospitality. However, the Colonel insisted that they should stay back for dinner and spend the night at his house.
“Once the rain stops, the skies would be filled with the most enthralling view of brilliant stars, and the garden would be lighted up by fireflies. Though, we will have to make do with some light meal as my cook hasn’t come in because of the rains.” The Colonel took out a jar of pickled deer meat, loaves of bread, and dried apricots. Manas and Swarna had a packed a meal for the way, which was in the handbag that Swarna carried. They laid the table, and sat down to eat. The Colonel nibbled at his food, but regaled them with tales of valor and war.
When the conversation, slowly died down, Manas asked, “We met some locals on the way and they nearly believed that this place was haunted.” A glaze came over the Colonel’s eyes and his posture become stern and tense, as if it would unexpectedly give away under an unseen pressure. “The untaught make up stories to vile away the already wasted time in their lives.” He responded in an equally stern and tense voice.
When Swarna and Manas saw that the thunderstorm had failed to abate, they reluctantly agreed to spend the night in the red house. They were led into the guest room, which once again gave a smell and distinct feel of the distant past. They quickly retired for the night and as a cold draught entered the room and the night howled outside, they snuggled into each other for safety and warmth. Thus, nestled they let the night and the wind play on the throes of their passion, and the magic of the hills beyond brought them together in pure ecstasy.
The first light of dawn woke up Manas, and he peered out of the window to witness the sky was clear, and the sun was rising from the embrace of the emerald mountains. The tree outside the window was crystal studded with the last drops of last night’s downpour hanging in blissful union with the jade leaves. Manas stretched his arms wide, took a full-breath of the air, and reached for the bedroom door, with shuffled steps. As he opened the door, his heart skipped a beat, and a cry rose up his throat.
Sitting at the dining table, staring straight at the guest room door, and now at Manas, was the glaze eyed Colonel, his white shirt unbuttoned, nursing a long-untouched drink. When Manas realized it was only the Colonel, he said a hearty good morning. The Colonel responded with a nod, and reached for the collar of his shirt, to cover up his bare chest. Manas followed the movement and for a split second he glimpsed at a raw, red, and scarred flesh on the Colonel’s chest. He gasped but when the Colonel fixed his shirt and rose in a swift movement, Manas shrug away the memory of what he saw, and went back into the room to wake up Swarna.
Somehow, in the bright light of the golden sunrise, Manas and Swarna felt an urgency to get back on the road. The Colonel also didn’t extend his hospitality further and they thought that they had already overstayed their invitation. They quickly went about their business, bid a hasty yet warm good bye to the Colonel and went down the steps to their car. As they closed the car doors and strapped their seat belts, they didn’t hear the soft click of key in a padlock, as the door to the dining room of the bungalow was locked once again.
When Swarna discovered she was expecting, she wasn’t very happy. The unplanned pregnancy threw water over all their plans for a world tour in December. For a long time, Manas and Swarna contemplated a termination of the pregnancy, but each time a fear of karmic debt made them change their mind, for they had been deeply involved in spiritual pursuits.
So, they decided to bring the child into their world. All went smoothly for Swarna, except for the sudden chills that shook her body, and for which the doctor didn’t have any diagnosis, except for fatigue and weakness. In the second trimester, Swarna would get up in cold sweat almost every other night, and said that she felt that somebody was watching her while she slept. The doctor attributed the delusional beliefs to anxiety and sometimes to excitement. When her figure had become definitely rotund, and her belly proudly proclaimed her pregnancy, Swarna swore that she felt strange external movements on her stomach, as if somebody was caressing the taut skin. The doctor said it was psychological fear of stretch marks.
Finally, all doubts, fears, anxiety, and impending excitement, led to the birth of a healthy and active baby boy. Swarna and Manas were elated by the new addition in their family, and little Swapnil became the cornerstone of their existence. Swapnil was a strong and active child but sometimes he had a faraway look in their eyes. They attributed his dreamy nature to the fairytales Swarna loved to believe in and read during her pregnancy.
As Swapnil grew up, Swarna and Manas rekindled their adventurous streak. When Swapnil was four years old, they planned a trip with another couple to the hills. On their way back from an exhilarating and relaxing trip, Swarna recalled the red bungalow at the top of a hill. She insisted that since it was on the way they must pay a visit to the elderly gentleman, who lived there. So, they took a detour and soon the red bungalow was in sight. The house and the surrounding area looked unkempt. The garden had dried down, the fencing broken and moss had grown on the walls. Manas said a prayer quietly, and whispered to Swarna that the Colonel might have passed away. Swarna nodded her head, but went directly to the door that led to the dining room. She sadly looked at the rusted padlock, and then saw a broken wiring in the mesh of a window. She shielded her eyes with her palms and looked inside through the peephole. A wall in the drawing room was clearly visible over the hazy silhouettes of the dining chairs. The gilded photo frames were rusted, and old.
Swarna gazed at the photographs in her limited line of vision, and her eyes fell upon a photograph that she didn’t recall seeing before. It was the photograph of a young uniformed officer. What captivated her was the striking resemblance of the photograph, with some she knew. She realized that it looked like the photograph of Colonel Kamdar in his younger days of conscription. And yet, the photograph resembled someone else, too. She stood their raking her mind, and when she could place the recognition, her heart started pounding against her ribcage. She called Manas, and whispered something in to his ear. Manas also peered inside, looked at the photograph and his face grew pale. He quickly pulled Swarna aside, called his friends, scooped Swapnil up in his arms and hastened away from the premises of the red house on the hill top.
That night, Manas helped Swapnil changed into his nightclothes, and gently touched the red colored birthmark on the right side of Swapnil’s heaving chest.