Illustration by Nahal Sheikh
IT WAS some hours past midnight and the struggle to stay awake finally stopped. The little boy’s eyes snapped open as the stirrings of a tune wafted into the room. He stood up and gingerly tiptoed towards the window, where he leaned out to listen. A snatch of song. Ankle bells jangling, bubbling laughter. They were awake, and they were dancing. This excited the boy. He was curious, of course, but more than that, the fragments of song he heard, sometimes accompanied by soft percussion, made his heart beat in rhythm, his head sway from side to side and his hips swing. He raised his toes and delicately stretched his arms out, as if to catch a strain or two and keep them locked in his compass box to be visited during recess at school.
The music came only at night. Everyone else in the neighbourhood denied it even happened. It came from the abandoned kotha — covered by dense trees and fragrant bushes — next to his two-story house. It stood, in all its dilapidated glory, at the end of a quiet street that tapered off from the bustling Gul Mandi at the center of town. In its heyday, the kotha had housed the most elite tawaifs in town, so dignified in their skill that many of them were called to perform in Benaras and even Lucknow. Over the decades, as the profession fell into decline, remaining descendants had moved to Bombay to become bar dancers or married high profile patrons, and the kotha had grown locked in a never-ending property dispute. It had been some thirty years since any potential heir had set foot in town and even then, when the shimmering, gorgeous Pinky from Dubai had come to town, she had preferred to stay in the boutique hotel across town, on the clean side of the river.
The kotha’s reputation as having harboured and being owned by these women of ill-repute wasn’t the only reason men never crossed its gates at night and mothers forbade their sons from loitering around it. The house was widely believed to be haunted. Older gentlemen in the area claimed to have heard tawaifs of yore dancing and singing in the kotha even as dawn broke, as if entertaining a mehfil, and once, when a lusty youth had climbed its walls and snuck in to “investigate”, he had been found passed out at the gate, head and penis bleeding. Now, he sat outside his mamu’s paan shop all day with vacant eyes, the occasional spit dribbling down into his grey and white beard.
Nowadays, no one heard any singing. They mostly chalked up the haunting to be an urban legend. And yet, decency prevailed and young mothers dutifully warned their sons about the perils of being curious about that place.
So, when on a rainy afternoon after school, the little boy expressed a desire to visit the house next door to meet the women who sang, his mother was reasonably scandalised. When he told her about the music he heard through the window, and how it made him dance, her eyes swam with tears. I should’ve kept him with me for longer, she whispered to herself. And boys of good families didn’t dance. Through gritted teeth, she reprimanded him, told him to stop hanging around the brash men outside the shops and lapping up their lurid tales, and spend more time on his books instead. Before he could get another confused word in, she dismissed him. When he told his brothers, they giggled, the older ones joking about how his balls needed to drop before his imagination started taking salacious turns. The little boy didn’t dare go to his father.
From that day onwards, the singing stopped. The little boy waited. He pinched himself everytime he caught himself dozing off, staying awake until dawn, stealing winks in school.
And after five nights of staying up, he heard it again.
This time he did not wait. Once he was sure of what he was hearing, he stepped out of bed and slipped out of the room. Careful not to make a sound, he quietly walked out into the courtyard, past his snoring grandfather and unwed uncles and out the backdoor. Quickly, he circled his house and made his way to the kotha. The gate was locked, but he stepped in through a hole where the surrounding wall had caved in. Then he paused.
He could hear the music more clearly now, and in the background—the hushed chattering of female voices. He caught a light in a window upstairs, but it was too dim to reveal anything. His heart was pounding. What would they do to him if they caught him? Chudails eat little boys, he had been told. The women who had lived here were chudails, he had been told. But what chudails could sing so well? What chudails could make his heart so happy? If they caught him he would tell them that he only wanted to watch and learn, he resolved. They would look into his eyes and see that he told the truth.
The smell of champa and raatrani overpowered his senses. Finally, the excitement overcame the fear and he stepped through the mini forest, following the sound. He climbed up to the verandah and cautiously pushed the door open.
He entered what seemed to be a large room with a giant chandelier swaying. There wasn’t much more he could see—the room was shrouded in darkness. He could make out odd shapes but as his eyes adjusted he realised it was just old furniture. There was nothing here. The music came from upstairs. Steeling himself, he walked through the main room towards a staircase. As he climbed up, a faint light began to fall on the steps and the voices grew louder. He came up to a large corridor and followed the music all the way down to a door that was slightly ajar.
Heart thumping, he crouched behind the door and peeked inside. He saw the lights first. Multiple candles on the floor, softly blinking, lovingly wrapped the silhouettes of delicate figures in movement. He forced himself to watch them one by one. He saw the little girl, with her back turned to him, closely examining a ghunghroo as if counting each golden bell. On her head she wore a crown of mogra and orange chameli. Next to her was an older woman singing. So sweetly she sang—her voice like rain falling into a river—occasionally letting a giggle interrupt her notes. A younger girl sat beside her, tapping a solitary ghunghroo in time with the woman’s singing. He couldn’t see their faces in the light but he saw that they were both covered in shimmering jewels and flowers. Then he looked up at the whirling figures—some seemed to be singing along, some were laughing and others were tapping their feet loudly. Two women closest to him had their sarees partly undone and they trailed their pallus behind them like drooping wings as they twirled. Everyone seemed too engrossed in their own little world to notice him.
Intrigued by how free the women appeared, the boy shifted forward to get a better look. In the far corner was a large mirror. A few women crowded in front of it, fixing sarees and hair. As they moved away towards the swaying circle and the space cleared, one woman lingered. She stood there, transfixed by her own reflection. When she moved, he saw her face and froze.
The music stopped. The ghughroo percussionist had seen him. She stopped and pointed. An instant hush. The woman in the mirror met his gaze, and the horror on his face was reflected back at him. With a start, his mother whipped around and strode to him. Wordlessly, she took off the flowers she wore and with a single shining tear adorning her cheek, she took his hand and dragged him out. His kakima, choti’s mother and the others watched. He didn’t look back.
He never heard the music again.
Years later, when the little boy was big, he would sit with other men outside the shops and brag about how he single-handedly chased away the chudails of the gul mandi kotha.
Jessica Jani is a writer, photographer and multimedia journalist. She is based in Mumbai.