I was on the train speeding towards Darjeeling. I was an only child brought up with a lot of love by my doting parents. They were not very well off as my father was a school teacher. But they wanted me to have a good education, and when I showed an inclination towards arts, they encouraged me to take up English after I finished my twelfth standard with flying colours. I had got admission in the best college and was studying Bachelor of Arts with specialisation in English. I was in the middle of attending a lecture when I was sent for by the Principal. My maternal uncle, who lived near to our house, was waiting there. He had the unenviable task of imparting the news that both my parents had died in a car accident. They had gone to the hospital for a check-up and were coming back in a taxi, which was hit from behind by a truck. The driver was also killed. So now I was an orphan. My maternal uncle took my responsibility and gave me shelter and support during these tragic times.
He took up my responsibility and treated me like his own daughter and helped me overcome this personal loss. But bad luck still dodged me. After I completed my bachelors, English honours with a first class first degree and had taken admission in the University, my Godlike uncle was diagnosed with cancer. I could no longer ask him to support me as he needed every possible rupee for his treatment and future savings for his family. So I decided that I would have to stop further studies and look for a fulltime job.
A good friend of mine Rina told me that there was a position open as a home tutor in Darjeeling. She knew of my penurious circumstances and had heard of this position from her brother Kinshuk. He was the manager of a tea estate. The owner of the tea estate was Mr Joy Mukherjee, a widower. He needed a home tutor for his six years old daughter. Mr Mukherjee was a very wealthy person who owned a number of tea gardens in Darjeeling and Assam. He was always very busy shuttling between his various tea estates and needed someone to take care of his daughter Radha till she could be sent to boarding school at the beginning of the next academic year. The pay was good and I was desperate for a job and money. I decided to take up the offer. So now I had boarded the train from Sealdah station which was rapidly carrying me away from safety and familiarity to the unknown and uncertain future in Darjeeling.
I would have to get down at New Jalpaiguri from where I would take the toy train to Darjeeling station where I would be met by a car and driver. The train arrived on time in New Jalpaiguri station ,a busy railway station in the plains and the toy train was waiting there. After a coolie deposited my considerable luggage in the train, I stepped into a railway carriage which might easily be mistaken for a toy, and the whimsical idea seized me that I had accidentally stumbled into Lilliput. In spite of my recent misfortunes I was delighted on getting up on this train. With a noisy fuss out of all proportion to its size the engine gave a jerk – and started. A well-dressed and dapper looking man rushed into the station and got into the train just as it started to move. He took the only available seat beside me and sat down, panting slightly. I was irritated as I was selfishly hoping that this seat would remain empty so that I could enjoy this pleasant ride in solitude. Leaving New Jalpaiguri station the train passed through the outskirts of Siliguri town and reached Siliguri station. After a short halt the train left Siliguri station and crossed the Mahanadi Bridge over the Mahanadi River which flows from the Himalayan foothills.
After six miles train reached Sukna station from where the real ascent began. I could now notice the change in the local people who had sharp mongoloid features and were mostly Nepali. From here the blue mountain ranges of the foothills were visible and the train quickly rose from the plain passing through tea gardens and forest of teak and sal. As the train climbed up the mountains the climate got much colder. Unfortunately I did not have a sweater so I was feeling slightly cold. Noticing this, the man asked, ‘Do you need a cardigan? I have a spare one.’ I shook my head curtly to indicate I did not want a cardigan. I have always been brought up in a sheltered atmosphere and am shy and wary of talking to strangers. Not at all discouraged by my curtness, my co-passenger glanced out through the window and said, ‘Spectacular! Is it not? So you are a tourist going to Darjeeling?’. I was hesitant to strike up a conversation with a stranger, but did not want to seem rude. So I decided to answer, ‘I am going to a place called Takdah.’
The man said, ‘I see that you are from Kolkata and not used to the cold.’
‘How do you know I am from Kolkata?’
‘The way you are absorbing the beauty of your surroundings tells me that you are not from the hills. Also you look like a typical Bengali by the way you are wearing the cotton saree and the hair style. You also look like you come from a city. So I assume you are from Kolkata. I am sure that you will feel extremely lonely in Takdah. No cinemas or shops or restaurants you see!’
‘I am not so sure. I love nature and am looking forward to the splendid view and solitude!’ I responded.
‘If you do not mind, may I see your hand? I am good at predicting the future!’ The man said.
‘I do not believe in such things! And anyway I do not have any money to pay you!’
‘Who said anything about money? Just trust me – I will only tell your fortune. Do not be afraid.’
Saying this he lightly held my hand and gazed into my palm. ‘Hmm I see you are starting a new phase of your life!’
‘That I think anyone could guess based on our conversation!’ I cynically responded.
He ignored my comment and continued, ‘I see that you are going to stay in Darjeeling for a long time and are taking up a new job, maybe as a teacher?’
‘That you are guessing seeing my luggage. What if I told you that I am going to visit some relatives?’
‘I would say that you are not a very truthful young lady. I see a big lonely, sad house, surrounded by trees. I see a little girl, and a tall dark man, hmm maybe her father? And I see a young woman in the background separated from these two… yes I think she is dead.’ – his tone rather than his words spooked me. I snatched my hand away and said, ‘What utter nonsense!’
He ignored me and continued in a deep voice, his eyes half closed, ‘You must be extremely cautious. You might be in grave danger. I see a shadowy presence of a woman whose name starts with A near your vicinity. Take great care’
I felt a chill down my spine and I felt cold. Then I felt angry. Was it so obvious that I was going to take up a teaching position? Did I look like a typical teacher? Was it evident from my clothes that I was not very well off and circumstances were forcing me to take up a job of a home tutor? Was he laughing at me thinking that he had successfully fooled me and scared me? He sat with his eyes closed while I looked out of the window staring unseeingly at the beautiful scenery outside, trying to pretend that I was not in the least affected by his ridiculous fortune telling.
He opened his eyes looked outside and then said, ‘I think Ghoom station is coming. I have to get down here. Have a safe trip and take care.’ By that time the train had stopped at the charming little platform of Ghoom. The man got down and giving me a little wave vanished into the road outside.
Leaving Ghoom the train descended towards Darjeeling. On the way the train passed through Batasia Loop with its memorial to the Gorkha soldiers. From the Batasia Loop I got a spectacular view of Darjeeling town with the Kanchenjunga and other snowy mountains in the back-drop. Finally the train entered the Darjeeling Station.
A uniformed chauffeur was waiting with a signboard with my name written on it. I went towards him. On seeing me he gave me a smile and told me that his name was Ramesh and took my big trolley bag from me. He led me to the place where the car was parked. It was a big and expensive range rover. Obviously my perspective employer was a very rich man.
‘How far is the house from here?’ I asked.
Around 28 km Ramesh informed me. After making sure I was seated comfortably in the luxurious interior, he started driving. Soon we had left the city behind and were moving along the misty meandering road and I could hear the chirping of birds. There was dense forests surrounding us and I could hear and sometimes see fountain streams coming down the slope of the mountains. It was a wonderful sight and I was mesmerised.
We reached Takdah within an hour. The house was located right in the middle of vast stretches of tea gardens. The area is surrounded by luscious forests of pine and cedar trees with beautiful gardens of local orchid flowers. But I was conscious of the man’s words in the train about seeing me in a big, lonely and sad house. I wondered if he really was a great palmist who had seen my future accurately. Was I really in danger? Who was the woman of whom I would need to be careful?
Feeling slightly frightened, I went in though the main door which was opened by an elderly and homely looking housekeeper. I was shown into the beautiful drawing room furnished with antique furniture. I went to one of the French windows and looked out. I could see the tea gardens and also the mountains looming beyond the tea gardens. It was beautiful yet lonely and quiet. What really struck me was the silence of the place. I have been born and brought up in a noisy city and the absence of any kind of noise made me uneasy. Soon a tall, dark and handsome man entered the room with a small child around 7 years old and I was again reminded of the man in the train who had predicted my fortune. I felt a little spooked, but I looked at the child and felt a smile coming on my lips on seeing her. She was very pretty and had beautiful eyes and long thick hair which was kept loose held back by a headband. I dragged my eyes back to the man. He was inspecting me quite closely and gave me a smile. I returned the smile a trifle uncertainly. Then he said ‘Namaskar. I am Joy Mukherjee. I hope you had a pleasant journey. This is my daughter Radha.’
I looked at Radha and said ‘Hello Radha!’
She gave me a shy smile and said , ‘Hello’
Mr Mukherjee continued, ‘Today it is already 5 pm and I suggest you have tea with us, see your room take some rest for today. Tomorrow onwards you can teach Radha. Her study times are 10 am to 12 noon. Let us have some tea now.’
The house keeper entered with a tray of tea and another housemaid came in carrying some cake and sandwiches. While we had tea, Joy asked me about my education qualifications, expressed regret about the circumstances that had forced me to take up a job.
He said, ‘My daughter Radha will go to Loreto Convent – she has got admission in second standard and will stay in the hostel from May next year. Till that time I request you to take care of my daughter. I will try to find you another position by that time.’
I found Mr Mukherjee and Radha very pleasant and thought that I would be reasonably comfortable for the next one year. After tea, Mr Mukherjee said, ‘My housekeeper, Bharati will show you to your room and you can join us for dinner at 8 pm today.’
He rang a bell and Bharati came in and guided me to the third floor of the house where my room was located. It was a huge house and it would be very easy to get lost here. I mentioned this to Bharati who smiled and said – ‘You will get the hang of it very easily do not worry – for today I will send a maid to guide you to the dining room. In the meantime you can freshen up – attached bathroom is here. I was shown into a huge bedroom beautifully decorated in pastel green and cream and with an attached equally big bathroom. The bathroom was also beautifully decorated with matching green tiles, a bathtub and a shower cabinet. I was overwhelmed by such luxury. My luggage had already been brought up by someone and was standing in the middle of the room. Bharati left me to unpack and rest. Before leaving she showed me the study room which was next door. Beyond the study room was another bedroom currently empty.
After Bharati left, I was again struck by the eerie silence all around me. I kept remembering the man in the train and his words of caution. He had been right about the owner and Radha. I said sternly to myself, ‘Do not be so foolish! He was a fraud and probably did a few lucky guesses. You have been given such a wonderful room and such beautiful surroundings. Enjoy while you can!’ That man in the train and his stupid warnings! That must have made me feel afraid. I tried to shake away that man from my mind.
It was already seven. I started to unpack my bags. After that I went to take a bath and changed into a fresh dress. By that time it was 7:45 and there was a knock on my door. Opening the door I found a maid smiling at me. She was slightly younger than me and was quite friendly. ‘My name is Rupa. I have been sent to take you to the dining room’ she said.
I was ready so I went with her. She took me down the stairs to the first floor and through another door went into another smaller drawing room than the one I had sat in in the morning. Then there was a gallery like room where there were a number of paintings. After this we entered a dining room. Rupa mentioned that this was the smaller dining room and there was a bigger dining room which was used when parties were given. ‘Now that Anuradha didi is dead, we did not have parties for a long time.’
I felt dizzy suddenly. I remembered what the man in the train had said, ‘You must be extremely cautious. You might be in grave danger. I see a shadowy presence of a woman whose name starts with A near your vicinity. Take great care.’ His words, combined with the strangeness and loneliness of this isolated and quiet house really haunted me. I must have looked pale as Rupa said, ‘What happened? Are you alright?’
Pulling myself together I said, ‘I am fine.’
At that moment I heard voices and Radha and her father entered the dining room. I felt more comfortable. Mr Mukherjee was a nice and kind gentleman. But there was sadness about his face. Maybe because it was less than a year his wife was dead. I thought that Anuradha must have been a beautiful woman as Radha was so pretty, but did not look like her father. Radha also looked quite sad. It was obvious that father and daughter were struggling with the sudden death of Anuradha and they were consoling each other to tide over this grief. I asked Mr Mukherjee, ‘Why are you planning to send Radha to Loreto Convent?’
‘Because there are no good schools here. Also her mother herself studied there and it was her wish that Radha should also study there. I travel a lot and there is no one to take care of Radha at that time. The last tutor we had left within three months. Before that another tutor also left within two months. They find it difficult to adjust to the lonely surroundings. I hope that you will stay at least till May and bail us out of these stressful times.’
I remembered an oft repeated quote by my father, ‘Be a beacon of light in someone’s darkness’. I immediately resolved that I would not abandon this father daughter pair till they overcame their tragedy. I smiled at Mr Mukherjee and said, ‘Of course I will stay with you as long as you need me’ and was rewarded by a sweet smile from Radha. After a delicious dinner, I went back to my room. Radha slept in a room next door to her father in the second floor.
The thought of me sleeping alone in the third floor filled me with dread, but telling myself to be brave I went up to my room. I got ready and then switching off the light I got into bed. The moonlight fell directly into my room and in the semi darkness I felt as if someone was watching me. Also the wind was blowing and it seemed to me that it was whispering ‘Anuradha Anuradha… where are you?’ I tossed and turned the entire night before finally falling asleep at dawn when daylight gradually started filtering into the room.
I was woken up by someone knocking on my door and on opening I found Rupa standing outside. She was smiling and seemed to be so normal and matter of fact that I felt all my fears of last night evaporating at the very sight of her cheerful face. She had brought a breakfast tray with her and while I was having my breakfast started to dust my room. She said, ‘It was quite windy last night was it not? It makes such strange noise like Ah Ah Ah, it keeps me awake.’
I am not so sure. I love nature and am looking forward to the splendid view and solitude!
Finding her to be friendly I asked, ‘When did Anuradha madam die?’
‘Well it will be eight months since she died. She went for a walk in the mist and fell down the cliff. Sir was very sad when she died. We all feel so sorry for Radha. She is such a pretty and well behaved child. Her mother used to love her very much! We hope that Sir will marry and get a nice woman as a wife who will take care of Radha and have more children – this house is so big that it needs children to fill the emptiness and the sadness.’
‘Was Anuradha a very nice and kind mistress? Do you miss her?’
‘She was very nice and took great care of me. Both my parents were working in the tea estate. But they died of fever and Madam took me in the house and took care of me. She taught me to read and write and wanted to send me to the local school, but I was not interested in studying. Before she fell down the cliff, she was trying to arrange my marriage. But now I do not know what will happen!’ Her eyes looked troubled and sad. I also felt sorry for her, but she smiled again before I could say anything and taking my empty tray said, ‘I have a lot of work downstairs – must not stay here talking or Bharati didi will scold me!’ She hurried out of the room.
At ten Radha presented herself for studies and after teaching her simple words in English and maths I let her go. Though she was obedient, Radha was not very interested in studies and after 12 she vanished somewhere leaving me to my own devices. Rupa came and told me that lunch was served, and after eating my solitary lunch I went back to my room. The loneliness and the absence of noise was again making me restless and to overcome this feeling I went out for a walk. It had become misty, and I heard footsteps and then out of the mist suddenly loomed a man who seemed vaguely familiar. The man also gave a start on seeing me and then slowly gave a smile. When he smiled, he suddenly looked charming. It was the man I met in the train.
‘So we meet again. I am so sorry but when I saw you in the train yesterday looking so prim and composed, I thought I would pull your leg a little. I must confess that I know nothing about palmistry. I am Jharna’s younger brother Kamal. My elder brother Kinshuk is the manager of this tea estate. I stay in Kolkata and work in Tollygunge Film Production Company. I had gone to Ghoom yesterday to scout for location for our new film. Jharna had told me that a new tutor was coming for Radha. When you said that you are going to Takdah I immediately knew you are that tutor and pretended to tell you your fortune. It was funny to see you get scared! I am sure that you must have thought about me quite a lot’ he said chuckling.
‘I was not at all frightened and I did not think about you at all!’
‘Then I must say that you are a very untruthful young lady!’ He said smiling broadly. ‘I do not know if a young woman who has so little regard for the truth should continue to teach our little innocent Radha.’
‘Then you must advise Joy Mukherjee not to retain me as Radha’s teacher!’
‘What and lose such a charming and beautiful lady! I visit my sister quite often and would miss you terribly if I do not continue to meet you during my walks through the forest!’
‘I see that you are quite a flirt!’ I retorted back but with a lighter heart. ‘But tell me why did you ask me to be beware of a lady whose name starts with A’
‘Well I feel that the house where you are staying has a very ghostly atmosphere. And they say that people who die of accidents continue to haunt the place. So Anuradha’s spirits might be haunting the place!’
‘Now you are trying to frighten me. But I am a woman of with a lot of common sense. I will not be scared by your talks!’ I retorted.
‘Well Jharna’s house is about half an hour from here. You can always come down to meet me if you feel frightened. I will be your knight in shining armour! How does that strike you?’
‘Without any great force’ I retorted.
He said, ‘I see you are untruthful as well as cruel!’
I laughed at his mock sorrow but felt lighter in spirit. I now felt less spooked about his fortune telling and I was sure that the house was also not haunted. It was just a sad and lonely house.
I said, ‘Well I must leave now. See you!’
I moved with a lighter feet towards the house which seemed far more warm and welcoming now that I had overcome my unreasonable fears. Old houses trigger the imagination of most people, including me. If the walls could speak, they could have told fascinating tales of love, suffering and other emotions of several generations who lived in this house. So it is easy to imagine that Anuradha’s spirits still haunts this house just because she died in a tragic accident at a young age. Well I am a very sensible woman and believe that life is stronger than death. I looked forward to taking care of Radha and making the life of Radha and her father a little better. We are born, we suffer, we enjoy our brief stay in this wonderful world, and die. Nothing remains I thought but the earth and the mountains. People come and go, but the mountains remain. They are forever.