That Was Haunted Retiring Room

In Snow, a novel by Nobel prizing-winning author Orhan Pamuk, there’s this central character named Ka, a poet and a journalist, who unerringly senses when a poem dawns on him. Like the birth of a child, it may be not only at odd hours but at odd places too, and it has to be attended to. So wherever he is at that moment, he somehow makes a little room for himself, and scratches away on a piece of paper non-stop until the natural birth of the poem is complete.

Not exactly Ka-like, there’s a time in my life when I had to look for solitude and anonymity elsewhere and give shape to my thoughts on a particular subject or on a certain strand of experience. So I used to frequent places like National Library, Oxford Book Store and some such places.

Once I went to Bandel Church on a nippy Sunday afternoon, sat on the ground adjacent to it and started putting finishing touches to an article on writer Virginia Woolf to be submitted to Amrita Bazar Patrika. Just past 1 pm, the likely visitors probably busy partaking of lunch, there was mercifully no one there. But a cow came out of nowhere and would not go away without chewing part of the MS. Perhaps it thought the article was not worth publishing. Its menacing horns notwithstanding, I could shoo it off as I cared for my MS more than my life!

On another occasion, I was working on a few poems that showed some promise but continued to fox me at the point of resolution. So, on an impulse, quite unplanned, I took a night train to Chakradharpur. When I landed there in the morning, I did not feel like going out of the station in search of a hotel. Instead I went straight for the Station Master’s room to see if any retiring room was available.

“Yes, it’s available”, he said. He then looked at me with a bit of concern and said: “The station compound gets deserted during the night. Don’t move out of the room when it’s dark.” From the station I could see a hint of hill beyond. The weather was sunny. The pace here was unhurried. That’s exactly what I wanted: to be utterly alone and anonymous.

Then the care-taker took me to the next floor to my allotted room. What took my notice first was the fleet of butterflies on the chipped wall above the door. As the care-taker opened the door, one could see the room had not been in use for quite some time. Like any railway retiring room it was spacious but mostly uncared for, maybe because there was hardly any visitor. I was taking a look around when I noticed the thick iron net in the window opening on to the balcony had a gaping hole in it. When I pointed this out to him, he said nothing could be done about it. For the first time I had a close look at him and instantly I felt uneasy. His eyes were small and deep-socketed. They had a paleness that heightened his shadowy look. I let him go and set about arranging my notebooks on the bed.

All through the afternoon and the evening I walked around the station and contemplated over the poems afresh, went on a trimming and pruning spree and I could gradually untangle the parts that looked like twisted-up ropes on the page and breathe fresh life into them. Up till then there was only the sound of the occasional passing trains. But as the night approached the silence intensified. I thought it better to retire for the night at around 11 pm. But I could not sleep. The moment I switched the light off, I felt unseen presences all around me. About half an hour later, I heard a few faint knocks on the door. At first I thought it came from somewhere else. But after a while the knock repeated itself.

I got up from bed and opened the door expecting someone waiting outside. There was none. I ventured out on to the balcony. The butterflies were still there on the wall, too many of them, stationary. I moved back into the room with a strange sensation coursing through me. As I sat on the bed, my sight suddenly fell on the window. There was a silhouette of a person peering at me through the yawning gap in the window. My blood ran cold. It’s the kind of fear I’d felt while reading Dracula by Bram Stoker in my childhood days. “Who’s there?” I called out. The image just dissolved in the dark. The window could not be closed. Like the tongue that, despite itself, keeps touching the caries in a tooth, my eyes kept going back to the window. Well past midnight, the faint knocks returned. I waited a few minutes. Then, my heart going thump-thump, I placed myself right near the door with my finger on the bolt. As soon as the knocks sounded again, I flung the door open. Lo and behold, not a sign of life anywhere except the silent butterflies that seemed to have forgotten how to flit about.

The knocks came again during the remains of the night. I could not manage to have a wink of sleep. At dawn, when I was on my way out to catch the first train back to Kolkata, I found a couple coming out of another cabin. “Did you hear something last night”, they asked me.

“Someone repeatedly knocked on our door but we found no one out there. There must be ghosts lurking here. We passed the night sleepless throughout.”

First Published in Cult Current

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