Hawa Manzil

'Hawa Manzil' was selected as one of the winners for Star Literature's Winter Night Ghost Stories competition
Collage: Maisha Syeda

When I think of those dark cold eyes staring blankly at me, motionless for hours through the  dead of the night, my blood still runs cold several decades later.  

In the late 70s, I was attending St. Gregory's school for boys, in what is today known as Puran Dhaka. I was living at my Aunt Rumi's palatial home in Sutrapur for its close proximity to my school. It was an ancestral home of my Uncle's which he inherited; an ageing but grand haveli, called Hawa Manzil. Ahsan Uncle came from old money with Nawabi ancestors. I believe Rumi Aunty and Ahsan Uncle invited me to live with them under the pretext of better schooling, but it was actually because they were lonely when their two sons had moved to the UK for college and subsequently settled there.  

Like all old houses, Hawa Manzil came with its customary ghost stories: footsteps in the corridors, a silhouette with their feet backward roaming the grounds at night, the scent of sweets in unlikely places, the widespread superstition that fire or lemon peels warded off the Jinns, and so on. It was fun to indulge in these stories with my cousins as children, but during my teens, I grew uninterested in such tales. I was simply unmoved by the genre, while my interests grew stronger in scientific study. I  was considered an introvert for spending hours reading books on famous scientists from my Uncle's vast book collection, though I occasionally went fishing with others as well.  

A family favourite story over cha and toast in the evenings was that of Ahsan Uncle's very own experience. Years before I moved in, one winter afternoon at Hawa Manzil, he was sitting in the balcony that faced the back gardens, which led to a lake downhill. He had seen Rumi Aunty walking up the path through the gardens and entering the house. About fifteen minutes later, he saw her strolling up the same path once again and entering the house! Bewildered, he went down to  question her. But according to Rumi Aunty, she was by the lake with her friends for two hours and had only just returned. 

In the summer of 1978, I found myself mostly alone at the haveli, while my aunt and uncle were visiting their sons in London. I had just ended my 10th standard exams and had all the time in the world to return to my books on scientific discoveries. Most of the house staff took leave in their employers' absence, so I was left alone with only three others: Liton Mia, the gardener who lived in a cottage in the grounds with his wife Shumu Apa, the house cook; while Hasu Dada, an old and trusted caretaker, lived in a room on the ground floor. 

Apart from reading, I was also regularly fishing with Liton Mia at the lake nearby, which once belonged to Hawa Manzil but later became a common space shared by the neighbours. Being the prime fishing hour, Liton Mia would often wake me up before dawn to rush down to the lake. It was always a good time gathering with the neighbourhood fishing enthusiasts. I took up smoking that summer too, to fit in with the others while fishing. It was like a bonding session, especially for an introvert like myself.  

One morning, or what I thought was almost morning, Liton Mia came calling for me like he usually did. I woke up to sense a light drizzle. Rain meant more fish would rise to the surface. I  jumped out of bed, got dressed and ran through the back gates following the silhouette of Liton Mia in the distance. As I neared the lake, I noticed that it was completely empty. At first I was elated thinking that I would get first grabs, but then I fell short on my tracks–something didn't feel right. I sensed a sudden eeriness. I checked my watch and it was 2:30 am. My heart sank. 'That can't be right', I remember thinking. We were at least two hours early!

Shrouded in the darkness, Liton Mia was the only one by the lake. I couldn't tell if he was facing the lake or me. As I got within five metres of him, it was his feet that I noticed. Now I could clearly see him facing me, but I couldn't see his toes, it was only his heels! I took a few steps back. What was going on? I couldn't find my voice to question him. I was struck with fear and went numb as we both stared at each other.  

The drizzle hardened, jolting me back to my senses. Whether it was my conscious mind or my subconscious held onto old childhood stories of fire repelling Jinns, almost by reflex I took out my lighter and cigarettes. It took more than one attempt in the light drizzle, but I lit it just right and began inhaling. My knees didn't have it in them to move and I knew in my gut that I  couldn't turn around. I smoked and we stared. We stared and I smoked. One cigarette after another. To this day I'm not certain how the next two hours had passed, but I will never forget the blank look in its eyes and something that resembled a sneer that I never saw on Liton Mia's face before.  

Eventually, people began gathering and Liton Mia was no longer in sight. It was as if he evaporated, but I couldn't tell you how. I continued to stand still while the neighbours called out. I weakly motioned back that I'll join in a bit. But as the Azaan sounded, I finally found strength in my  legs to run back to Hawa Manzil. Hasu Dada found me as I collapsed upon entering, but I was too shaken to speak. Later in the day, Shumu Apa came with breakfast, telling me that Liton Mia had been down with a fever all night while she nursed him through the dawn.

Jennifer Rehana is an artist, photographer, animal welfare activist, the fearful F for feminist and an avid book reviewer. Check out her book reviews and art on her Instagram: @jenn_n_tonik.


ওডিশায় ট্রেন দুর্ঘটনা
১ ঘণ্টা আগে|আন্তর্জাতিক

নিহত বেড়ে ২৩৩, আহত ৯০০

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