Khushi pushed her glasses up her nose again as she looked up at the ruin in front of her. And shivered. Thank god Jiji had the foresight to put a shawl in my bag. I had not expected it to be this cold.
Khushi was about to step onto the porch when three girls pushed past her causing her to lose her balance and almost fall to the floor. She managed to save herself but not her bag which fell with a resounding thump, scattering books and papers everywhere. Khushi kneeled down with a sigh to gather her things.
“What use are those glasses, Chamkili, if you still can’t see where you’re going?” asked one of the girls nastily.
Khushi ignored her. Like she always did.
The girls turned to leave without even attempting to help her. Not that Khushi had expected them to. However she couldn’t help looking up with a rather hurt expression as she caught the tail end of the girls’ conversation, as they walked into the place.
“…she’s such an embarrassment!”
Khushi swallowed her hurt and got back on her feet. Setting her glasses firmly on her nose again, she walked in after the girls.
She had always known that this was going to be difficult. That she would probably never be accepted by the other posh, well off students of Delhi’s elite Imperial School of Fashion Technology. But this was not about being liked by a bunch of snotty rich kids. It was about her dreams. It was about a better life for Amma, Bauji and Jiji. Khushi’s father owned a small sweet shop in Lajpat Nagar. Her mother looked after the house. Her sister had an ordinary graduation in arts that had qualified her for the clerical post she held in a medium sized printing company. Money was often an issue. So when Khushi had won a scholarship to ISFT on the basis of her fantastic score on the entrance exam, she’d jumped at the opportunity. She knew she had talent. It was just a question of recognition. And she’d be able to pay her parents back for every thing they had ever done for her. At the end of the day, Khushi could never quite forget that she was adopted.
Khushi had dealt with teasing and antagonism from the other students from her very first day. She stuck out like a sore thumb in her plain salwar kameezes and glasses among the other well-heeled students. Chamkili they called her– a cruel reference to the garish clothes often worn by women in her neighbourhood. Khushi had dealt stoically with the dislike that had only intensified when they realized that she was actually good at what she did. Now on the eve of graduation, Khushi could almost taste her dream. If she pulled off a spectacular final project, she knew she would be recruited by Sheetal Kapoor Fashions as a design intern and she would be on her way to becoming the designer she’d always dreamed of becoming. She would not allow her classmates to distract her when she was so close to achieving what she had worked relentlessly for 4 years for.
Khushi wandered around the dilapidated and crumbling mansion making notes in her diary. The cobwebs, dust and stains couldn’t entirely hide the charm and grandeur that the place must have once exuded.
She had just walked into what had obviously been a study when the door shut with a resounding crash behind her. She jumped and ran back to the door trying to open it, but it refused to budge. It had been bolted from the outside. She could hear a muffled giggle and the sound of quick footsteps running away.
Khushi huffed in irritation.
“This isn’t funny, guys, let me out now!”
There was no response.
Khushi continued calling out, her irritation gradually giving way to barely concealed nervousness. She was locked in a remote corner of this massive dilapidated building. No one knew where she was. She had no idea when her captors would let her out, if they ever did. Soon the sun would set and she would be locked in here for the night. The thought of being locked overnight, alone in this god-forsaken place made her sob out in despair. The room was becoming increasingly cold. She wrapped her shawl tightly around herself and continued pitifully crying for help.
A sudden footstep startled her.
She looked up in fear. She was about to scream when a figure stepped out of the dark– a man in a pair of faded blue jeans and a white button down shirt. His hair was slightly long and unruly and fell into his eyes. He had a stubble that looked a few days old. And his brown eyes shone with the warmest light she had ever seen. He was undeniably handsome. The unknown handsome man was staring at her with mixture of concern and kindness.
“I’m sorry, I couldn’t stay quiet any longer. You’re obviously very upset. What’s wrong?”
Khushi looked at him blankly.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?”
“I’m sorry, how very remiss of me. My name is Arnav and I once lived here.”
“Here? In this hell hole?” The words slipped out of her mouth before she could stop them. “I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have said that. I’m just a little stressed out right now.”
Arnav however didn’t seem offended at all. “It does seem impossible, doesn’t it? I promise you however, when I lived here, it was a beautiful place. I come back here sometimes, to look for something I lost long ago. I’ve been in this room all this while but I didn’t want to disturb you. The question is, what are you doing here?”
“My name is Khushi, I’m a final year student of Delhi’s Imperial School of Fashion Technology. I’m here for my final project. We’re supposed to seek inspiration from the old houses in Lucknow to design a traditional bridal outfit. I’ve been visiting old houses in Lucknow for a week now. I think a few of my classmate’s locked me in and no one knows where I am.”
“Why would they do that?”
“They don’t like me very much I suppose. They’re rich, I’m poor. They’re pretty, I’m plain. They’re fashionable, I’m nerdy. They live in places like Chanakyapuri and I live in Lajpat Nagar. There are a bunch of reasons.”
At her words, Arnav came closer and stood gazing at her with unconcealed admiration and a look akin to… could it be? Khushi gave herself a mental shake. This was a stranger. A nice one undoubtedly. But she was imagining things. For a moment there she thought she’d seen love reflected in his eyes. That was crazy of course.
“I don’t think you’re plain at all. I think you’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen. Your classmates must be blind.”
Khushi blushed a little.
“Thank you. You’re very nice.”
“So Khushi, since your classmates have clearly locked me in this room along with you and are probably not going to come back anytime soon, I suggest we make ourselves comfortable.” He sat down on the floor and smiled warmly at her. “Alright, the floor isn’t the most comfortable but this is the best there is right now, I’m afraid.”
Khushi didn’t really care. She wasn’t alone. She’d found a friend. She didn’t even feel the hardness or coldness of the marble floor.
“So Khushi, tell me about yourself. Other than the facts that you live in Lajpat Nagar, are a fashion designer, and have extraordinarily short-sighted classmates.”
And Khushi found herself opening up to him.
Arnav and Khushi talked through the night. Khushi told him about her family, the death of her biological parents. She told him about how she loved the sound of raindrops on the roof. The smell of jalebis frying in her father’s shop. The vibrantly coloured glass bangles sold in the marketplace.
He in turn told her about his family. His beautiful mother. His loving father. His patient and sweet sister. They’d all gone away years ago from Lucknow. His love for plants and horses. For his mother’s cooking. His sister’s gentle teasing. His voice had a strain of sadness that made Khushi’s heart ache.
They finally stopped as they saw the first faint light of the sun peep through the window.
Khushi said regretfully, “They’ll probably be coming back to let me out now. Isn’t it funny, but I don’t particularly want to leave!”
“Then don’t.” Arnav said simply.
Khushi looked at him in some surprise.
“Do you trust me Khushi?”
She didn’t have to think at all. Somehow, in the space of one night, she’d realized that she could trust this man with her life. “Yes, I do, Arnav.”
“Will you come with me?”
Khushi looked at him for a long silent moment.
“Amma- Bauji will understand. So will Jiji. For once, I want to be selfish.”
She slipped her hand into his waiting one, and smiled into his eyes.
Arnav returned her smile.
“So did you find it?”
“You said you came back looking for something. Did you find it?”
The following day, this excerpt appeared in the morning paper.
The body of a young girl was found under mysterious circumstances in a room in Lucknow’s Sheesh Mahal. The girl has been identified as Khushi Kumari Gupta– a final year student at Delhi’s Imperial School of Fashion Technology. The deceased had come to Lucknow a week ago on a field trip to work on her final project. Two of her classmates admitted to locking her up in Sheesh Mahal overnight as a practical joke, and when they went to let her out the next morning, they found her lifeless body on the floor. The police are puzzled by this case. The cause of death is ambiguous. Although the post-mortem will reveal conclusive evidence, so far it appears as though a perfectly healthy 23 year old girl dropped dead on her own.
This incident has sparked fresh rumours of Sheesh Mahal being haunted. Sheesh Mahal had originally belonged to the Raizada family of Lucknow for generations. A hundred and thirty years ago, a terrible tragedy on the wedding day of the Raizada heir– Arnav Singh Raizada, had wiped out the entire family. Arnav Singh Raizada had been married to his childhood sweetheart– the daughter of the haveli’s care-taker. Unfortunately the Raizadas and the newly wed couple tasted joy for only a few hours. An unidentified man who is said to have been obsessed with the beautiful young Mrs. Raizada had in a fit of jealous rage slipped into the haveli at night and murdered every member of the family in cold blood, while they slept. The tragedy not only destroyed the family, but seemed to have cursed Sheesh Mahal as well. It has since changed hands a number of times and currently lies in ruin while its present owner lives abroad and allows the grounds to be used for tours and field trips. The spirit of the grieving bridegroom is said to haunt the passages of Sheesh Mahal in search of his bride.
The police however are thankfully not attributing cause of death to a grieving spirit. The deceased is survived by her adoptive parents and elder sister.
Halloween or All Hallows’ Eve is celebrated on October 31 in a number of countries (on the eve of All Saints’ Day). While the exact story of its origin is ambiguous, Halloween is believed to be a Christianized version of earlier pagan harvest festivals and festivals of the dead (like Dia de los Muertos– Day of the Dead in certain Latin American countries or the Celtic Samhain).
Today, Halloween is celebrated all over North America and certain parts of Europe with elements of horror, death and the afterlife. Costumes, trick-or-treating, pumpkins, candy, autumn decorations aside, Halloween is synonymous with all things otherworldly. A night when the border between the mortal world and whatever else there might be out there, blurs.