We moved to Mussoorie in May, 1997, the hottest month of the year. We previously lived in Delhi, where our mother had been a high school biology teacher. But despite nearly twenty years of living there, she was not happy, and since our father's untimely demise had contemplated moving back to her hometown.
When she first told us (my elder sister and me) of this plan, we violently opposed it. We grew up in Delhi—we didn't like leaving our familiarities for a place only our mother knew. But she was firm; she had lived in this hot, dry city long enough.
And so we decided, like the kids we were, to be as difficult as we possibly could in order to get back home. We toyed with the idea of asking mother to put us in a boarding school. This plan fell flat as soon my sister set eyes on the new house. It was evidently quite old, made of stone. It was built sometime in the early 1900s; the former residence of a retired Anglo-Indian civil servant. After living our whole life in a three-bedroom flat, this house seemed huge, mansion-like. It had creepers hanging down on one side, with a sloping red-tiled roof that glowed in the afternoon sun.
My sister was a bit of a romantic lot. She had read enough fairy tales to believe that all old houses contained some sort of secret, or treasure. Left to herself she would have probably thumped the back of every cupboard in an old house, looking to discover another Narnia. The fact that they did never turn into trees and snow didn't faze her. She scrounged and raked up what little history she could find with a tenacity that would have been admirable had it not seemed so silly.
The inspection of the new house proved futile. There were no new discoveries, not even some old toy a child might have been careless to leave around. There was a gorgeous stone fireplace, but that was all. My sister felt bitterly disappointed, and I began to entertain hopes of Operation Tantrum being put into action after all. Ironically, it was my mother who brought on a bit of a damper, as my sister sat complaining throughout dinner.
'Haven't you seen the attic yet? The old owner said there were all sorts of junk up there.' My sister's face lit up.
'Attic? What attic?'
'The one at the end of the stairs above the first floor...'
My sister was off like a shot. She tripped on the stairs, sprained her ankle, busted her toe, but eventually made it , limping but undefeated, to the old wooden door with a tiny staircase leading up to it. I followed, more to protect her from other unprecedented injuries than anything else. An old trunk, fashioned from the blueprints of my sister's imagination stood quietly in a corner. She immediately pounced on it in a manner that would have one wonder if the trunk was magicked to disappear at the touch of a human. I stood a little behind. The trunk was surprisingly unlocked and as she opened it there was a cloud of dust. A great deal of coughing later (we both had mild dust allergies) my sister gasped.
'What is it? Spell-books, sorcerer's secrets, charms? Wicked witch-esque deeds in print?'
'Old books. Novels. My day is made!' And off she went, her hands full of books, happy as a cricket.
I peered into the trunk. In addition to books, there was a funny-looking box and a rusted old cage. I took it. I loved birds and had always wanted one of my own, but our former apartment had too stuffy an environment to keep a bird in. The new house, with its extra space, was perfect, so I took the cage downstairs and left it on a little table in my room.
In the middle of the night, I awoke to the sound of a horrible, high-pitched chirping. I remembered my mother saying that some of the foundations creaked, and although the chirping didn't sound anything like creaking, I decided it was and went back to sleep.
The next morning I cleaned up the cage as best as I could and bought a pretty white pigeon at the local pet store. The cage, in my eyes, looked brand new. But the pigeon struggled as I tried to put her in it, screeching as if she had seen a ghost. After a few failed attempts, I gave it up and let her have the run of the house. She was quite tame and soon got used to her new environment. I dumped the cage back in the attic, having no more use for it.
The same night, I was again awakened by a shrill chirping. It was louder than before, and I assumed it was the pigeon. I yelled for a bit and bade her to be quiet. The sound stopped abruptly.
Back from work the next day, my mother announced her new plan to get rid of all the things we weren't using, or hadn't used, in a long time. She wanted to donate to a nearby orphanage.
“I was also thinking we could get rid of all those things upstairs.” She gestured vaguely to the ceiling.
So next morning we cleaned up the attic and stuffed all the items into cardboard boxes, and my mother drove off to the orphanage with them. Her eyes sparkled with goodwill when she came back. “Its quite different, being happy because you made someone else happy. Its somehow better than receiving gifts yourself,” she said.
The same evening, before I went to sleep, I gave what I believe now to be the silliest speech—a lecture to a bird. I told the pigeon sternly to not, under any circumstance, wake me up by making loud sounds.
At the point where I threatened to lock her up in the attic with nothing but breadcrumbs, my sister walked in to the room. She stopped, stared, and her face cracked into a hideous evil grin. She didn't let me forget it for weeks.
But that night, I slept undisturbed. I concluded that the bird had learned a lesson.
Author's Bio: Kaveri Murthy, a 2nd Year student studying English Literature at Madras Christian College, Chennai, (India) has interned at The Hindu Metroplus, for whom she wrote three articles. She has also illustrated a book 'Where is The Button', published for visually-impaired children. Her essay, a take on Bernard Shaw's statement "Science never solved a problem without creating ten more" won a bronze in the Royal Commonwealth Society Essay Competition (2010). Kaveri's interests (apart from writing) include Carnatic music, which she has been learning for the past thirteen years, and painting, which is self-taught.
This story is inspired by Kaveri’s a month-long trip to Mussoorie in May, 2004 where she had stayed at a resort, the former mountain residence of an old army major. The romantic story attached to the place as well as its general antiquity left her enthralled. Her assiduous (but futile) search for secret passageways, documents, etc., inspired her, many years later, to write a story on it.
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