Written by Ashwini Gangal
It's alive. Ghost-free, but alive. As alive as its solitary inhabitant, Abaka. Just one night in this leaky marvel, an illegally constructed four-storey penthouse in the heart of Mumbai’s G-South Ward area, is enough to make the lore easy to believe, but this house is not haunted. Horror mongers insist it is, but it’s not. Alive, it is.
For Abaka, the house stirred to life for the first time after she spent 27 consecutive months indoors, hiding from the plague of her century. Though she had lived here and loved here and learned here for 43 years, she met this house, an entity in itself, only now.
Like Abaka, Kumbasa Manor – that’s what this rickety structure was named in 1950 – breathes. With a past documented in legal files, it has more secrets than a pharaoh's tomb and is eager to speak to her, as a reward for living within its concrete embrace for so long. And the last two years were extra special, for this house became her dusty cocoon, protecting her from the viral miasmas that shrouded her city.
The house has four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, three bathrooms, and three terraces. Two arterial corridors connect all these chambers. The design of the place is circular – you can start walking at one point and reach the exact spot without ever retracing your steps. Visitors always left this house with a sense of awe, envy, pity and fear… and a feeling of having stepped out of a museum trapped in a time capsule.
Abaka knows the house intimately. She knows when a bucket in the bathroom is almost brimming, just by the way the sound of the tap water reverberates off the corridor walls. Blindfold her at 3:00 pm and she'll know which room she’s in based on its temperature, because the sun doesn't touch all the rooms in quite the same way at that hour – the slum-facing room is much hotter than the breezier, street-facing one.
She knows she can trick the camera into making her unremarkable face look operatic if she stands by the living room window an hour shy of sundown. She even knows exactly how long it takes for foul smell to escape the toilet vents, before it's fresh again. She, the Minotaur of this labyrinth, knows which tile a visitor will slip on, which knob a friend will struggle with and how many seconds it will take for the stopper on the kitchen door to come to a halt, when swung. Knowing the moods, intricacies and crevices of a house this well is almost spousal, she once thought, fleetingly, while bathing.
Over the years, Abaka and Kumbasa Manor had merged into one another to form one large organism; skin cells, cigarette ash and dust mites swirled around freely, like they were all particles that belonged to a single giant. Her bodily emissions, the humidity that hangs in the air around her, the fungal growth on the moist wall by her desk and the rust on the ladder she uses to clean it, are all part of the same large animal – part brick, part human.
The sighs of the furniture, the hum of the microwave, feline mating calls from the neighbourhood, the overflowing water in the tank upstairs, Abaka’s pre-dawn snores, the volume of her television set… are all sounds of the house, with no boundary to demarcate human from chemical, electronic from animal.
Cologne, perspiration, paint, liquor, sink water, soda, roof leakage… they’re all fluids native to this house. There are antique bottles of other kinds of liquid, well past their expiry date, lying around like wandering spleens. Contraptions like rat traps, mosquito nets and fly flaps are symbols that, if you pay attention, whisper tragic tales of insects, who’re as much a part of this house as the woman they live off.
After living there for so long, Abaka’s physiology, her entire being, was now a sum of the familiar visual, auditory, tactile and bacterial elements in and around 4th floor, Kumbasa Manor – yeast from the bakery across the street, germs under her cook’s fingernails, mildly contaminated water from the tank in the loft, carbon drifting up from the vehicles on the street, and the unfailing sound of the azaan that came from the local mosque and floated around the house five times a day.
So, had someone told Abaka that the malnourished thief, desperately trying to climb the bamboo scaffolding erected by the landlord of the structure, fell to his fate that day, she would not have been surprised, for it was simply the house purging itself of intruders.
The nameless dark brown intruder survived the fall, though. He lost half a leg, but crippling as it was, that did little to deter him from trying to climb the scaffolding again, for he had five more, some longer than others. And in any case, this cold-blooded creature would start regenerating the lost limb in a matter of weeks, something he had done twice already in the past. For most of his family, it took a few months for a limb to regrow completely, albeit with one joint less.
His disproportionately long antennae guided him through any kind of terrain, dry or swampy. On most days, his strength and abilities made him feel invincible, as did his ancestry. He was the descendant of a frighteningly resilient tribe that had survived all manner of hardship and trauma and was unafraid of any kind of extreme – thermal or nuclear. The first of his kind inhabited the planet well before the tectonic plates began shifting to form the continents. Knowledge of this sort of lineage made him confident to the point of arrogance. The only time this young scion felt vulnerable was when he was made to, by some cruel twist of fate, lie on his winged back. But even in that state, he could traumatise onlookers.
Actually, he didn’t even need those bamboos to reach Abaka’s grills. Usually, he simply crawled up mortar walls as easily as he walked on flat ground. But that day, as he crossed the air-conditioner outside the window on the second floor of Kumbasa Manor, the draft of hot air released by the machine, or gravity, or perhaps the invisible magnetic field around the building, pushed him down, in what was becoming a frustrating pattern. The make-shift ladder certainly made his trek slightly easier. His broken leg slowed him down considerably, though. Besides, he needed some nourishment. He would have to rest before trying again in earnest.
Unaware of this otherworldly struggle two floors below, Abaka was preoccupied. She wasn’t really alone that evening, like she wasn’t alone on most evenings. Her room was crowded and noisy.
Panting gladiators leaned against the dressing table nearly knocking down her lipsticks, a Mongol soldier prepared for a long ride ahead by drinking few ounces of his mare’s blood by the door, a group of bearded Ottoman miniaturists bent over their colourful artwork in 16th century Istanbul next to the cupboard, and right next to her, two slaves who managed to escape the cotton plantations of their trader, made passionate, celebratory love in a writhing mass of black.
Characters from the stories she read in her solitude sprang to life at will, bringing with them their own colours, moods and climes. A modern American story of a little boy, fixated on a painting of a chained bird – an obsession that follows him well into adulthood – turned Abaka’s world yellow for some reason. An old Russian novel, written by an author long gone, about the killing of a rag picker in St. Petersburg, put her in a dull, drugged stupor. An Irishman’s stylised account of Genghis Khan’s conquests put her on horseback, galloping through time.
By some force of will, the intruder, angry and starved, made it to her floor. He was clinging to the grills with all his might, his slimy body beautifully camouflaged against the dirty ledge, and the turmeric sky beyond. He was visible from where she lay, but she didn’t notice. He gathered himself and plunged into the room, landing noiselessly, but painfully, on the floor, triumphant at last, but exhausted by his colossal climb.
Abaka read many novels at once; halfway into the first, she started the second, and after a few chapters, whimsically opened a third, then went back to the first, before impulsively starting a fourth, and so on, till her actual life in Kumbasa Manor was but the ninth or tenth story playing itself out with her as its central character, a myopic loner who hadn’t taken a lover in a long time.
That sultry August day, while the rest of Mumbai was being roasted, she read about a journalist’s misadventures in the Turkish city of Kars in the dead of winter, and it snowed in Abaka’s world. A slight vibration startled her for a second, melting the snowflakes instantly, pulling her back into the real world. But she decided it was just the family downstairs moving things around, and continued reading, absentmindedly putting her fingers under her beige cotton kurta and rubbing her soft belly. Suddenly reacting to the heat, she sat up and peeled it off. Now clad in jeans and a white brassiere, she continued reading, sprawled comfortably, unaware of the intrusion. Strangely, even Kumbasa Manor did nothing to caution her.
By then, the famished intruder had desperately begun looking for edible scraps. His injury made it difficult, but he managed to drag himself towards a rotting fruit of some kind, groaning in pain as he moved. The tiled floor felt cold against his squishy, naked belly. As he savoured his meal, a denimed limb dangled in front of his face, lightly brushing the tip of one of his antennae.
Day was turning into night and the soft dusk light, that came in from the west, touched her gorgeous wheat-like skin, momentarily turning it to marble. She caught her reflection in the mirror, one she had stared at for hours on end over the years, perfecting different expressions – angry, worried, scared, shocked… in an instant, she could rearrange her features and melt one expression into another by slackening and gathering up her facial muscles. Now ogling herself, she sat up and waved a fat book across her face like a hand-fan, changing her expression with each sweeping motion. An onlooker to her own histrionics, Abaka was amused.
Done with his moist meal, the intruder felt his strength return. He stretched his limbs and crawled around the room, staying out of Abaka’s field of vision. He dragged himself across the floor, exploring the area; it was amazing what a few morsels could do for one’s mood and morale, he mused.
Still safe in her ignorance, Abaka arched a bushy eyebrow at herself. She hadn’t been to the salon, or ‘beauty parlour’ as it’s called in India, in over two years. Despite the flattering sunlight, the delicate moustache that laced the skin above her lip showed clearly. She looked like an androgynous Ajanta Painting; her beauty was frank, real and full. When she gained weight, she felt she moved like a gajgamini – literally translated, that’s Sanskrit for ‘the graceful walk of a female elephant’. Now, looking at herself in the mirror from that angle, she was beginning to feel aroused. It was a moment to be milked.
She sighed and looked towards the sill, placing the book down. Evening prayers from three different places of worship wafted in with the salty sea breeze that brought the smell of dried fish with it. Miserable voices from the slum, an open wound with which Kumbasa Manor shared a wall, poured into the room as well. The voices quickly became loud, as they did on most days, until a glass bottle crashed or a slap resounded or some other thud or bang put an end to the family’s high-pitched cacophony, so physically close to Abaka, yet lifetimes away.
The fight for that day had begun. The shrieks and profanity permeated the atmosphere in the room but she hardly registered it, because by then she had pulled down her bra cups and was pinching her nipples lazily, her mind conjuring up a familiar fantasy. Her plump breasts were beginning to show some signs of age; they sagged a little and had a few stretch marks on the sides. But she found charm in these changes and didn’t particularly mind them. She unzipped and slid a palm inside her jeans, arousing herself with deft movements.
As her fingers worked up their own practiced rhythm, the intruder heard her moans… and panicked. It was getting too loud for him. The warring family next door had reached its crescendo too. He decided to leave and made his way towards the door. He would camp in the bathroom until morning, then make his next move. He hoped to find more food there. Or a mate, perhaps.
Sweaty and satisfied, Abaka finally got off the bed and turned a bright light on. This was the intruder’s undoing; photosensitivity was a crippling weakness that ran in the species. He tried to focus.
Determined to get away from there undetected, he quickened his pace – to the extent possible, given his injury – his fleshy form pulsating with fear. He didn’t know which direction to take and just ran blindly, accidentally tripping on the leftovers from his meal, but quickly changing course.
Abaka, breasts still hanging out, went towards the door, gasping as she stepped on a big, brown roach who was racing away from the apple core she forgot to throw out the previous night.
About the Author:
Ashwini Gangal is a media journalist from Mumbai, India, who now lives in California.
On most days she's a bumbling migrant desperately looking for her literary voice, her sanity and her own brand of genius.
She recently quit her full-time job as managing editor of a business daily to pursue her passion — words, rhymes, stories, poetry, make believe.
She’s also passionate about mental health, gender-power dynamics and all animals except humans. She’s an insatiable reader. Empathy is her super-power.