A mysterious woman in a lonely house… a story by Sohana Manzoor
The ride from the train station to their old house would take about fifteen minutes. Tana’s eyes tried to understand the changes which did not seem to be too many. Things in the cities change fast, but here, in the backwaters of their old town, the houses and the narrow alleys seemed pretty much the same. There were a few changes, of course. The famous Neeldubi Pond seemed to have shrunk in size and the waters did not seem as clear as before. She also noted that even though it was around noon nobody was washing at its banks. Tana could understand that the old custom of washing and bathing at the pond was probably gone.
The auto-rickshaw turned to the very familiar lane where her grandparents’ house was. And her heart stopped beating for a few seconds. The small brick house of the red witch down the alley was there still.
Tana had not been to Tushapur for over ten years now and even this visit too was purely out of necessity. Their old ancestral house was being sold. It has been many years since she and her siblings had moved out. After her grandmother died about eleven years ago, Tana had not had a chance to come back. The years went by too fast, but the memories of Tushapur were frozen in a globe of timelessness. The shuttered house made of red bricks where once upon a time a lone woman lived did the magic of opening the memory box.
Tana had not thought about her any time in the recent past. She had lived there as far as Tana could remember. When Tana was a little girl, the woman never came out of the house. But once every month a man used to visit her and buy packets of things. He would also deliver some large packages and boxes. Once, someone had whispered that she used to sell herbs and magic medicines. She did have a small garden at the back of her house where she grew vegetables, flowers and strange smelling plants.
Tana and her friends found this lonely woman really strange. Everybody knew her but avoided her for no palpable reason. Moreover, she lived just by herself. There were no children, no husband and no elderly parents. In those days, there was no other woman in their vicinity who lived all by herself. It was strange indeed. There was some kind of secret, the children could sense it, but nobody told them anything. The adults and children might have lived side by side, but they always had their very own secrets which they jealously guarded against the other.
Hence one dove-cooing noon, three curious children jumped over the mossy brick wall to walk around the strange grove. The cluster of mango and tamarind trees had cast a spell of shadows and light in the garden. A tall acacia seemed out of place with sunlight reflecting on the topmost branches. There was a bushy bokul at the corner of the garden with small pale-coloured flowers which one could smell from afar. They wondered what the creeping vines of orange and blue bulbs were. Then there were those herbs that emitted strange smells– some pungent, some intoxicating and some dizzyingly sweet. They all recognized amla and bay leaves. Shojon whispered the named the haritaki tree because his grandmother used to have the fruit on a daily basis. But what were the others? Then, Husna, who was always a bit jumpy, noted the bats hanging upside down in the branches of a shaggy tree. And a strange voice said, “Wookkuuu!”
They ran for their lives. Tana looked at the house one last time and saw a black cat sitting on the sun shed as if keeping vigil of some kind.
Later Husna swore that she saw a small dome-like thing sticking out of the ground. Stories grew after that– strange stories that made no apparent sense. Rokon said that creatures walked upside down in that garden. Piyal was sure he had seen a large caterpillar the size of a side-pillow crawling on its walls. Nobody wanted to go around that house after dark. They called her ‘the woman who lives down the lane’. Mushfique was ready to swear that when he was passing by that house late one night with his father, both of them had heard sounds of crying. His father had later said that it was either a kitten or a bat, but they all sat silent with apprehension as Mushfique regaled them with his tale. Some went as far as calling her ‘the red witch’.
As years passed, the stories grew longer and darker. However, no matter what they said, the adults seemed either unconvinced or oblivious to their fears. But she was nobody’s aunt and only once Tana’s mother had mentioned casually that her name was Surma and in a long forgotten past they used to go to school together. Then Tana’s grandmother hushed her up. The information sounded so foreign to little Tana that she pretended not to have heard it. She certainly did not want to destroy the web of enchantment they had woven around her. So, the little shabby house down the lane grew shabbier and darker while its lone inhabitant continued to be an enigma.
Tana reached the two storey-house, where she had spent her childhood. Two of her cousins still lived nearby. Tana was supposed to live with them till the papers were signed. Her other siblings lived abroad, and Tana was carrying documents that gave her the power of attorney to sign on their behalf. Ruby, a daughter of her phuppi (paternal aunt) had mentioned that she had a few trunks that belonged to her parents and Tana would have to go through them to see if there was anything valuable. Tana went to stay at Ruby’s house that was right beside their old home. After lunch, they sat down for a cup of tea at the veranda. Tana asked, “Does she still live in that house at the end of our lane?”
“What house and who?” Ruby seemed to have forgotten all about the red house.
“That old red brick house. Remember, we used to call her ‘the red witch’?”
“Oh, her!” Ruby said. Then she shook her head. “She died two years ago.”
Tana said, “And her house?”
“The house has been sold. They are going to demolish it soon and turn it into a fancy cottage we hear.”
“Who sold it?” was Tana’s quizzical question.
Ruby knitted her eyebrows as she said, “There was quite a hubbub, actually. It seemed that she was a cousin of Mahbub chacha(uncle). But for some odd reason, there was no connection. But after she died, his mother started to cry claiming her as her niece. And some of the older people seemed to know all about it. So, they buried her in their family graveyard and Mahbub Chacha’s sons later claimed the property as theirs.”
Tana was suddenly at a loss. All those stories of ghosts and witches around that house suddenly had such an ordinary ending!
“But why were they estranged?”
“I have no clue,” Ruby shrugged.
Tana looked at her cousin a little distastefully. Ruby never had any imagination. Even now as she was telling Tana the tale of the strange woman, there was no excitement.
“Such a bore!” Tana muttered to herself.
The few days that Tana stayed at Tushapur were devoid of any extraordinary events. People seemed to have accepted that the mysterious woman whose real name was Shahanara Khatun, and who went by the name Surma, was a cousin of Mahbub Talukdar. Apparently, there was some kind of family feud. Then her husband died as did her baby boy. But she continued to live alone.
Tana felt there was a missing link somewhere. And what about all those weird creatures and crying in her house?
As Tana was going through the trunks, she wondered at the discolored brass trinkets with greenish hue. Some of them were ashtrays and ornate cups. An antique coffee pot with turquoise stones raised its head from the mass of junk. There were some wooden dolls and boats. She touched the trays of dull silver and wondered if they were real silver. At this point, she espied a diary. A leather-bound diary that was faded with age. The front cover was badly discoloured, as if someone had spilled liquid on it. Tana’s eyes widened as she opened and saw the name on the first page — Gul Nahar Sultana. It dated from the 1980s, more than thirty-five years ago. Gul Nahar was her mother’s name. But Tana could not recall ever seeing the diary before.
Finally, when Tana left Tushapur, she had reduced the three trunks into one. She still was not sure why she was even taking this one back, but she did. The relics of the past were not easy to give up.
After another month and a half, Tana finally found some time to look into the things she had brought back from Tushapur. The first thing she picked up was the diary. Two poems. A fragment of a story. There were some sketches of human figures. Tana felt a pang as she knew her mother once wanted to be an artist. Most pages were clean, just slightly yellowish. She thought that was it. But then she saw some pages at the end, filled up with closely knit writing.
The name “Surma” caught her eyes.
“I went to visit Surma yesterday. Amma tells me not to go again. She is an outsider now. A high price to pay for marrying a man of a different religion. But I had to go and help her with the last rituals of her baby. They did not allow her to bury the child in the graveyard because his father was not Muslim. With Tapan dada gone, what can she do by herself? She buried the poor thing under the Bokul tree in her garden. I can hear her cry at night. And all those cats in her house wail through the night too. Sometimes I think, I can hear the baby cry. She could not even get a doctor for the mite. Am I going crazy? Perhaps I should not go. Sometimes, it is wiser to shut our eyes and not see others suffer. That’s the only way to be happy, they say.”
Tana sat there immobile. The mystery of the woman who lived down the lane was finally solved. But how will she ever remember the magical childhood now without feeling guilty? The days of innocence are not so innocent after all.
Sohana Manzoor is an Associate Professor, Department of English & Humanities at the University of Liberal Arts bangladesh. She is also the Literary Editor of The Daily Star.
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