Unaware that he was to fall in love with its oldest dweller, the student looked at the house on the riverfront. He was simply curious about its dated façade. It was once a grand two-story mansion, built by an Armenian merchant, in a time when the city was much quieter and one could hear the Buriganga river hum toward the south. In its heyday, it had more than fifty rooms, an elegantly designed dance hall with wooden floors at the center of the upper floor, and ceilings decorated beautifully with glass and wood. They all disappeared in the span of two centuries, and its dance hall and private rooms were now moss-ridden. New establishments dwarfed the house on all sides. It was hard for an outsider to find it through the confusing neighborhood streets, which consisted of decrepit houses built during colonial times and a buzzing spice market for wholesalers.
In fact, the young student had found it quite coincidentally when he was walking in the neighborhood. He approached the neighborhood tea seller and queried about the house. The tea seller looked at his lanky frame, shaggy hair, and big outmoded glasses, and thinking that he was the usual poet or writer looking for accommodation, he told the young student that some rooms in the house were for rent. When the tea seller introduced him to the landlord, a spice merchant in the neighborhood, the young student found out that the rent was cheaper than at any other place in the capital. Perhaps it was the sheer sense of mystery about the house and the idea of living in ruins that interested him. Perhaps he wanted to imagine himself in the remnants of the old palatial glory. However, contrary to his expectations, all he found at night was a measly, ill-lit room filled with incense. It had only two pieces of furniture: a camp bed and a wooden stool. Both were rickety and termite-eaten. He realized that the landlord had cheated him because no one would be interested in staying a night here, much less renting it for months. He called himself a fool, but decided to give it a try.
The house seemed to be riddled with mysterious happenings. One evening, while he was climbing up the stairwell to his room on the second floor, he felt an unexpected gust of cold wind. It was the last spell of winter, and he knew there could not possibly be such a wind from the south, yet he could clearly feel its bite. He saw the evening sun kiss the inky water of the Buriganga. A strange fog formed by a purplish smoke and black dust hovered over the semi-square yard and the Doric columns that were surmounted by a large triangular pediment. Soon, more wind gathered and the entire house was covered with the mysterious dusky fog, blocking his view. Moments later, pulled by a strange force, the student came out on the balcony and slowly headed to the south, to the abandoned part of the house. He wished to see where the cloud and dust were coming from, but before he could reach the stairwell that connected both parts of the house, the sun dropped quickly behind the black dots of the shanties on the other side of the river. An uncanny darkness enveloped the horizon. He lost his wish to step any farther and hastened to the loneliness of his room.
That night, as he was about to enter his room, he saw his neighbor trying to unlock his room. He was plump for his age and shorter than the student had previously assumed. The old man waddled up and down on his flat duck-like feet. The young student had seen him wearing the same white panjabi, a shabby brindled sweater, and black pants since he had arrived at the house. He must be a proofreader at one of those publishing houses nearby. He guessed it from the stacks of paper he brought every evening and the dim yellow light that seeped through the chinks in his door almost overnight. The student had tried to talk to him, but the man pretended not to hear every time he greeted him. He stood at the door now, burdened with the papers fastened clumsily under one arm, agitated at the rusty lock that wouldn’t open. Like a skittish bird he flapped around, cursing the lock loudly, even as the stack under his arm fell onto the floor. The young student quickly approached him, wanting to offer his help, but he didn’t seem to recognize him and hastily collected his papers from the floor. By the time he was finally able to open the door and enter his room, the yard and the sky had turned darker. He glanced at the sky over the young student’s shoulder, the agitation still evident on his half-parched face, and to the student’s surprise, he invited him inside the room with a slight nod.
The room was stuffy: paper shards scattered everywhere, as if somebody had raided it only a while ago. There was a plate containing half-eaten bakarkhani, shells of groundnut, and a yellow candle in the wall niche. A mosquito net hung above the small bed, the middle of which seemed badly sunken. A table at the head of the bed was on the verge of collapse, with stacks of papers wrapped in white laces and threads. Old copies of Baheshti Zewar and books on biblical criticism and interpretation were piled up haphazardly against the wall. A dry gourd containing toothpicks and empty bottles of attar lay on the window ledge. There was no phone or any other electronic devices, only an incandescent bulb at the entrance.
The young student introduced himself and sat on the single chair the old man pointed him to. He sat on his bed, his face lit with a ghostly light. “That’s the gardener’s ghost fumigating the house. We shouldn’t worry about him,” he said, after a long silence. “This is a sinister house. There’s a wicked thing that lives in that small room!” He seemed afraid to point to the abandoned part of the house, raising his head, instead, to indicate its location. “That room,” he continued, “has been abandoned since the Partition of India. Or even before. Who could really tell? We call her Grandma Stone but nobody in the locality is sure how she got this name. Her room is nothing but a prison cell, separated from the rest of the world, full of parasitic trees and insects that could only live in the dark. Nobody hears her footfalls as she walks, for she always moves like a serpent! Yet, I know she is there all the time, overcoming the troubles of age and senility. Her hair, which assumes different colors and lengths in different seasons, is the only source to know about her presence.” The old man paused, his eyes half-closed. The young student failed to notice any particular motive on the old man’s face.
His eyes now fully closed, the man continued, “Her hair announces her presence. In winter it turns onion white; in summer, it becomes yellow like mustard flower. In autumn, her hair looks like fresh hay. In spring, it regains its original color. Black. Blacker than a raven’s feather. And the house, the street, the neighborhood gets filled with her hair, as though bound by some imperious law. Then you’ll hear her cry, like a real enchantress, to her quickly growing hair: ‘Out! Out of this room!’ and the locks and tresses of hair slither at her command into a thick coil through her window down the narrow street. The wig sellers and hair collectors scramble to cut the shiny hair. She opens her window and looks at the world outside: the streets that otherwise remained drab and dusty throughout the year are now dancing wildly and thousands of tresses are snaking up the walls of the house, latticed casements, cast-iron grills, utensils, old motifs, the living, and the dead. The hair multiplies a thousand times in the blink of an eye, stretching far and wide and sweeping away cobwebs that lodge onto our ceilings while she stands before the open window, riddled with an evil force, smiling at her own creation! Sometimes, she weeps, mourning the death of her lovers—the bandsmen, the buglers, the wig sellers, all young men like you, all dead! Her hair still crawls down like a swarm of insects and occupies everything on its path. Then begins hunting. The hunting of lovesick men on the street, who’d be attracted to her nubile figure, pomegranate skin, and melancholic face. She reminds the lovesick men of some long-forgotten dream, someone they have failed to love. To their agony, Grandma Stone sings a nostalgic song, sitting on the worn floor, in a heavenly voice that is bound to confuse the most dispassionate man on earth. Once someone steps inside her cavernous room, she closes the door and windows.”
The man shuffled up to the young student, placed his hand on his shoulder, drew him closer, and looked closely at his face. Then he whispered, “For decades man after man has died in her wicked snare. Young men like you. But before you hear about their misfortunes, I must tell you about her first captive.”
He repositioned himself on the bed and flicked a lighter. A cigarette dangled from his chapped lips. “Like other residents who’d left the house long ago, I didn’t consider her presence seriously when I first moved to this house forty years ago. It was because the house itself is full of jinns! It had seen its lusty days of youth in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Its former owner arranged ballroom dances in honor of Lord Dufferin, the eighth Viceroy of India. He was fond of jinns. Afterwards, private baijis, musicians, wealthy merchants, public officers, profligate youth, all committed many sins in this house. I once saw a pretty young girl—must have been a whore like Grandma Stone—having sex with a British soldier, his scarlet pants pulled down to his ankles. The soldier called me ‘a greasy baboon’ for disrupting his business. On another occasion, a drunk merchant, who sold contrabands in the city and slept with many baijis, mistook me for his servant. He flogged me for forgetting to fetch his hookah and called me ‘dwarf’ and ‘scoundrel’! But these were petty issues known to the residents, for the future was reduced here, and the past suspended over us like some kind of punishment. It was Grandma Stone’s hair that caused our real troubles.
“First, we saw her hair in our yard and balconies. It was innocuous and, to a condemnable extent, we welcomed it in our lives. Soon, it found its way into every mundane object we had ever owned—pillows, bed sheets, clothes, shoes, kitchenware, books, and papers. It covered the walls of the house, glowing mysteriously in the bright morning sun. Then it also began to encroach on our spiritual life. We discovered our scriptures—dusted off and shaking for attention—fastened with her wicked hair, as if she wanted to reconcile with something irreconcilable. Her hair would bring us the Quran and prayer rugs, help the blind Hindu woman to water the tulsi tree planted in the pujamandapin the yard. It would prevent Muslim boarders from sleeping with their legs facing Mecca. It did not differentiate between religions, between the mundane and the holy. Eventually we realized that we had reached an impasse and had to see the end of it. Droves of us stood in the forsaken yard. We were, of course, afraid of what was to come. But we waited for hours until Grandma Stone came out on the balcony.”
The old man opened his deep-set eyes now. The young student sat in silence, his arms crossed, waiting for him to speak. A ceiling fan from a distant room whirred, adding rhythm to the silence. The old man continued: “It was early evening. Everyone brought something to fight Grandma Stone: canes, sticks, knives, brickbats. Some also carried torches, thinking that the fire would scare the devil out of her. I carried nothing and stood on the outskirts of the crowd that stretched to the portico supported by large colonnades. Then some young men pelted her closed door and windows with brickbats. I thought they were going to set her room ablaze. They fumed in impatience under the June sky. Nothing stirred inside that room for a long time; then a rooster crowed from some distant coop. We heard, almost indistinctly, the feeble cry of a deeply wounded woman, suffering from some deep anguish. But we were not moved by it. Witches cry like this, we thought, though we had not seen one in our life. When she came out finally, followed by an old mustachioed man, whom we had never seen before, it looked as though they were nothing but two cadavers struggling to stand still. The old lady came out first, wearing an antique piece of sari and a pair of conch-shell bangles. There was a sickly smile hanging around her lips. Her vermillion paled. Her hair flew in a halo in the monsoon wind. Her face, wrinkled with age, had the remnants of her wretched youth, hidden in her large round eyes. I couldn’t help but notice a strange watery emotion in her eyes, though I ignored it eventually.”
The old man closed his eyes and said something inaudibly. The student watched him closely. He had a well-shaped nose, a wide forehead, and a prominent jaw. He must have been very handsome in his twenties and thirties. The lines and wrinkles on his forehead and cheeks made him look like a man who had suffered from keeping many secrets.
Then he opened his eyes again. “I ignored her emotion of course. Like everyone else did. But I noticed the mustachioed man with her. Frightened to his bones, the man flopped down on the floor, clasping the cast-wax railing of the balcony. The young men among us brought him down to the yard while Grandma Stone hissed and spat on us. As the night deepened, we were more willful than ever. We were not sure if the man was made of flesh and blood. We were men with a concrete purpose—we didn’t want any wicked spirit to live in the house, disturbing our lives and spiritual affairs. We circumambulated the mustachioed man, scaring him to confess his sin but it didn’t work. So, the young folk gave him a good beating, walloping his back and head with everything they brought, cursing violently. Whimpering with the last of his energy, he confessed that he had married a whore, and fainted! He spoke a strange Hindustani dialect. She seemed to be in some kind of repose, and was unaware of the rain plastering her hair in strings. Rain soaked us to the bone in the yard. It dripped down her hair and shoulders. She stood like a brass idol, without any sign of life. Her shriveled, metal-like breasts no longer heaved. Her needle nose melted by some invisible force. We thought she would lose her flesh and turn into a bleached skeleton. In fact, we wondered whether she’d vanish into the dark sky above. We blinked, but she was still there. The mustachioed man told us about her afterwards.
“He was the last Marwari trader in Dhaka and was a tall, handsome man in his youth, but now, only skin and bones. His eyes were sunk so low into their sockets that they reminded me of Shaitan. He seemed to have forgotten about his origin and the time and age we lived in. In the old days, when the land was yet to be sliced into many parts, he had come with his caravan and met Grandma Stone in one of the whorehouses. That was why I couldn’t blame him fully. He must have been infatuated with her blooming youth and decided to lower his standards and exile himself with that scum. It was a miracle that he managed to survive the demands of that wicked being who slept with god-knows how many men. One spring morning, as the wilted plants turned upright, she told him that something was moving inside her. Her evil spirit, of course! She felt higher than the things around her. It was then that he noticed her hair crawling around the room, trying to find a way to the sunny world outside. It wouldn’t stop growing even though the poor man began to cut it with scissors. It grew overnight. It was not satisfied to live in the dark anymore and wanted to experience the outside world and reveal its wretched presence. That’s how it claimed a share in our lives, sneaking into our rooms and listening to our secret conversations. Remember, if the body possesses some inherent wickedness, it will come out and show its ugly face to the world.”
The old man paused, as though giving the young student a chance to ruminate on his narrative. Eventually, he spoke again. “One of the dwellers had a relative whose maternal uncle was a police constable. The constable came the next morning in a blue jeep and barged into her room. First, he decided to find out about her grasp of the world. But she of course couldn’t tell the constable the year of the first manned mission to the moon or the war that continued for more than nine months in our country or about Sputnik orbiting around the earth like a demented devil! She only listened to him vacantly—the way we do to street vendors. He got nothing from her about her marriage to the Marwari trader. She only said that it was an act of love. It was her only reply throughout the session. And when the constable told her that her Marwari husband, who was taken into custody for failing to show papers for his extended stay in the country, would disagree with her, the witch collapsed on the floor. All day tears dripped down her hair and flooded the house, the balcony, the yard, the streets, frightening the constable, who was confused if such a case was within his jurisprudence. He decided to leave things as they were and never came back. The residents fled and the house was deserted in a year.
“I could stay here only for the blessings of Saint Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti who had appeared in my dream and granted me his protection. I don’t know what happened to that Marwari trader afterwards. She had ruined the poor man with the fever of her lust. Some say he returned to his desert life and married a young Rajasthani girl before he died of some venereal disease. Her lust didn’t subside even after the death of her poor husband. Decade after decade men like you continued to lose their ways into her narrow room, into the spring of her evil hair! The last man who died in her prison was a bugler from Narinda. Now you must decide if you want to live in this house anymore because the blood of youth feeds her hunger for life.”
The young student suspected the whole story to be some ploy of a solitary old man to keep him out of a ruined house he had come to adore. He decided to wait till the spring and see if Grandma Stone’s hair bloomed like wildflowers.
Photo by Victor Chaidez on Unsplash