Aparna was against the idea of moving into this magnificent but old house. She wanted to live in the posh apartment we had purchased the year before. Her job at the art gallery would be easier that way. But the architect in me had instantly fallen in love of this bungalow. So what if it was a little away from city? A dirt road for just a mile or so, and then the highway would take me quickly to my office. Aparna need not leave the house, for now at least. She had received a scholarship from a foreign art society and her job was to paint a few landscapes for the society’s show in December this year. That was four months away. She had taken a furlough from the volunteer work at the art gallery. That actually helped me in persuading her to move to the secluded house. She would get all the time and solitude she needed for her work there.
I whistled as gravel crackled underneath my car’s tires as I swung into the dirt road. I rolled down the windows to breathe in the faint smell of damp foliage coming from the woods that lined the dirt road. Moist warm air invaded the car interior. And then the bungalow itself, coming suddenly in view as the woods cleared. Regal, imposing, though in need of some paintwork. I had already got it cleaned and repaired. The paint job will have to wait until the monsoon is over. Aparna was looking around wide eyed as I stopped the car. Her painter’s eye did not miss the hills in the background. “Liked it Appu? Go and paint this landscape. See those clouds resting on the hill tops! Wonderful, eh?” I said as I opened the trunk.
Most of our furniture had already been moved here. Picking up the two cases of clothes and such, I walked to the front doors. Aparna was still engrossed in the view. I opened the doors and called her. With a glint of mischief in my eyes, I scooped her up in my arms and entered the cool dark inside. How light she was, even after five years of marriage! “Put me down” she was screaming and laughing. I didn’t plan to, but we were startled by a sudden gasp coming from a shadow in the doorway. Putting a confused Aparna down I turned round. “Oh, this is Radhabai. She will cook and help you keep the place going. She lives in the nearby village.” I introduced Aparna to our new help.
Stifling her laughter at the spectacle she had just witnessed, Radhabai hurried inside and we joined her on a conducted tour of the house, mostly for Aparna’s benefit. A huge drawing room, store, dining, kitchen and a few large rooms on ground floor. Two bedrooms on upper floor. “I will make this one my studio” Aparna exclaimed as she marveled at the view from upstairs room. Then moving to the window she looked down and called Radhabai, “what is that?” pointing at a single storied structure at rear of the house. “Servants quarters” replied the middle aged heavyset woman. Then she went downstairs to make tea for us and I embraced Aparna and planted on her lips our first kiss in this house.
“Are there any servants living there?” Aparna asked me looking down from the window. “Not now. But soon we will have some more help. A watchman, a gardener and a nanny perhaps?” I answered mischievously as Aparna glared at me. It was our pact not to even talk about having children for another five years. Not before she achieved her own place in the art world. She never has been fond of children in our previous neighborhood and just about tolerated the way I entertained them on Sundays. ‘I am prepared to wait’, I said with my apologetic look.
Rest of the day was spent unpacking and doing the things people do upon moving into a new house. By evening, we got quite hungry and we decided to have dinner before the sunset. Radhabai served a simple dinner and went home. Aparna suggested we take a walk. The rain had stopped too. Taking an umbrella in one hand and her hand in the other, I took Aparna behind the house, to a spot I had noticed earlier. The view was great. The hills in the distance had turned dusky blue, gray clouds hanging on their tops. A small rivulet running in the valley between those hills and our house. We decided to return as it began to get dark. On our way back, Aparna had a look at the servants’ quarters. They were locked.
We had chosen the other room upstairs as our bedroom. From this room too, the hills were visible but not those servants’ quarters. We made passionate love and then fell asleep in each others’ arms. I must have slept soundly but Aparna complained in the morning that she kept hearing cries of wild animals, may be hyena for whole night. No problem though. She was not afraid. I helped her set up her studio and then went to work.
We settled into a nice routine. I spent the days at my office and returned well before sunset. She painted during the day. In the evenings we went on walks or watched the rains from our perch in her studio. Both of us hated TV and didn’t miss it. Radhabai cooked and kept the house clean. We didn’t get around to employing more help, though I told Radhabai to look for suitable candidates. Aparna said she didn’t need any more people in the house. Her first landscape was halfway done by the third week. Then she had another idea, to paint this house into one of her landscapes. On a Sunday we went on a long trek and reached a spot among those hills, from where the house was visible. Even from this distance, the house atop a small hill itself was quite picturesque. Aparna did her sketches as I clicked a few snaps and sipped beer. We had a fantastic picnic.
She started work on this new painting ignoring the one half finished. The house and the servant’s quarters began taking shape on canvas. “I will paint the hills around the house later” she said. Fine with me. She was falling back on her schedule and now started painting at nights too. I was used to her artiste’s moods and didn’t object. But I noticed her fascination with the house on canvas. She had painted the open windows on the servants quarters and even shown some human figures in those windows. Whereas we had never opened the quarters and all its windows had been closed since we arrived here.
Then one night I woke up and noticed she was not in bed. I remembered her sleeping next to me. I tiptoed to her studio and there she was. Brush in hand, but not painting. Just standing before the canvas with tears in her eyes. “Aparna, Appu!” No reaction to my calls. I went in and embraced her, “What’s the matter Appu? Why are you crying?” I asked softly. She didn’t answer. On the canvas, there was a young woman holding a baby to her breasts, standing at a window of the servants quarter. Not details. But Aparna had managed to create the scene with just a few rough brush strokes. The woman seemed to stare right at us through the canvas. I took Aparna back to bed, but she was in sort of a trance. She went back to sleep in my arms.
In the morning, I made tea for her and woke her up. She smiled brightly. No trace of last night’s trauma. She finished the tea and said excitedly, “I dreamed something strange last night. I had told you about those cries of hyena in the woods, didn’t I? Well, I dreamed that those were not hyena cries. It was a baby crying in the woods. I felt so sorry for the poor thing!” I just looked at her with unbelieving eyes. Doesn’t she remember anything from last night? Without showing the concern on my face, I took the tea cups and on my way downstairs, peeked into her studio. The painting was there alright. But the woman and the child were missing. Just a smudge in their place as if erased by thick stokes.
I didn’t mention this to Aparana. It was her painting. She could have erased it while I was asleep in early morning. On my return from work that afternoon, I found Aparna so engrossed in the painting again that she didn’t even notice me standing in the door of her studio. I tiptoed back and found Radhabai in the kitchen downstairs. She stalled and dodged my questions but my firm queries got some sketchy answers after all.
The previous land lords of this house were once far more richer and powerful than their indebted descendents, from whom I had purchased this house. As was customary in those days, the female domestic help in the house was not out of bounds for their landlord’s insatiable sexual appetite. Most matters would be literally buried in the backyard, after a forced abortion and a small sum will be paid as compensation to the family of the girl.
But one girl had resisted all attempts at extinguishing the life in her belly and given birth. She wanted not a paltry sum but the just share in property for her baby and her place in the palatial house. Radhabai didn’t know what happened to the girl, only that she had vanished suddenly. Her baby was left in the servants quarter and was alive for two days. Nobody dared feed it as they were afraid of a backlash. The baby must have died of hunger.
However sad the story was, I couldn’t tie it with Aparna’s strange behavior last night. I warned Radhabai not to say anything about this to Aparna. Must be one those moods these artistes experience. I convinced myself and went to work. But I returned early and spent the rest of the day with Aparna. She was in quite a jovial mood and we chatted while she painted the hills around our house on the canvas. We dined and had some brandy before going to bed.
The brandy must have made me thirsty. As I woke up well past midnight for a drink of water, I noticed the empty space on bed where Aparna had slept. Oh God! not again! Rubbing my eyes I walked to her studio. But she was not there. I called out loudly for her. No answer. The painting was on the stand. And instead of the smudge, now there was a baby painted on that spot. Even from the minimalist strokes, I could distinctly feel the pain, the agony of the baby’s cries.
Suddenly I broke into a cold sweat. Where was Aparna? Check the toilets. Upstairs. Downstairs. Kitchen, store. Calling her, now screaming her name I ran frantically around the house. Finally I noticed the front door ajar. I stepped outside. Where has she gone in the dead of this night? And without any apparent reason I started running to the rear of the house.
Full moon casts sharp shadows. Now why am I thinking of that? Has she jumped from her window? Look. Search the ground below her window. No. Nothing there. Further ahead, the servants quarters. Its doors and windows shrouded in pitch dark shadow. Locked they were last time I saw. She doesn’t have the keys. No use searching there. As I turn, a sob. Stifled. Very feeble. But enough to carry in this quiet night. Can’t be her. Some wild animal. Again a sound. A whimper of a child?
I feel very reluctant to turn around and look in the shadows. But must do it. Have to find her. Slowly I turn and walk in the cold air. Towards the sounds. To the servants quarters. Door still locked. But from inside. The tricks the mind plays! Assuring myself I walk around the quarters and approach a window. A moon beam probably from some missing roof tiles. Nothing in there. In my relief I almost forget to ask the question, but why the window is open? In that dazed state, I call out, “Aparna, Appu!” Softly, as if I don’t want to disturb the moon beam.
A scratching sound. Somebody sliding on the floor. A hoarse and loud whisper. “Shhhh Don’t make a sound. The baby is sleeping.” Not a human sound from the texture of it though it reminds me of her. She screams in such whispers when I reach deep within her, at the height of our passions.
Now the thing that was once her, slides into the moon beam. No clothes. Clutching a bundle in dirty cloth to her naked breasts, she signals me to silence by putting a finger to her lips. Winks and then the hoarse whisper again, “See how sweet he looks? Was so hungry! That’s why my baby was crying. I fed him and now he sleeps. Here, take a look at our baby.”
As she lifts the bundle from her breasts, I see the blood leaking from her nipples, making its way over her belly into the dark valley below and spreading in a pool on floor. I don’t want to look! But she turns the bundle around and shows me. She must have dug it up. Soil still clinging to the rags. The tiny skull smeared with blood that looked strangely dark in the moon light.
© Rajendra Pradhan