As the car sped along the dusty road to my ancestral village, my mind went back to my last visit as a young boy of five years with my dad to my grandpa’s home. Vague memories of a spacious home lingered with its long open courtyards with shining wooden pillars along the corridors on each side leading to several rooms. I distinctly remember the darkish triangular cavity on the wall outside each room for placing the oil lamps and my running around the corridors touching each of the countless pillars as I ran past. Nothing else came to my memory save the wooden carved idol of goddess Lakshmi above the large ornate front door.
A relative of my grandpa was residing with his family in a couple of the rooms at the rear and taking care of the house. My parents who were in Penang rarely went there as a family, as my mom a Burmese never showed much interest in visiting India. It is almost three decades since I had been there with my dad. I was in US studying in a college, when my dad died. We wound up our home at Penang and my mom came to reside with me. There were some legal issues with one of my cousins laying a claim on the paternal house till it was finally decided in our favour. My visit is primarily to take stock of the situation and arrange for disposal of the house if a good offer came along.
As I stood in the courtyard and surveyed the encircling wide corridor and the well maintained dust free furniture, I could not but exclaim, “Uncle, you have maintained the house so well with not a speck of dust anywhere or broken plaster on the walls. The paints also look fresh and the varnish on the pillars shining.”
“Your dad had left a corpus and the interest from it is used for maintenance of the house,” the relative said.
“That is thoughtful of him though he had not mentioned it to me,” I said as I looked around with pride at the beautiful old heritage house, a relic of the fading past.
“I will show you around the house in the morning. The room with the light on is meant for you. You may like to wash and change the dress before dinner. It is ready,” he said as he carried my box to the room. I looked at the triangular pirai(cavity) on the wall by the side of the door and asked “Do we still keep oil lamps here?”
He smiled and said, “No, the old practice is gone. It dirties the wall with smoke and there are no occupants too.”
The dinner was typical South Indian type a bit spicy and hot for me but tasty nevertheless. Aunty, a soft spoken lady, smiled with pride when I said that I had never tasted a meal like this in my life and that the food served at Indian restaurants in US was a pale apology to this authentic version.
“What is that chair covered with a yellow bedsheet over there?” I asked pointing out to a chair on a corner by the side of long sofa with side chairs. It looked as an old model reclining chair with swing out foot supports.
“Oh, that one, “ he remarked patting his cheeks with his hands in reverence and continued, “There was a saint and a siddha purusha known as Pambu siddhar with control over snakes and great mystic powers whom your grandpa held much in reverence. He visited this house once and occupied that chair. Ever since your grandpa’s prosperity grew vastly and his philanthropic activities also took a pronounced turn. Your grandpa gave the chair an exalted status and never allowed anyone to use it. No one occupied that chair ever since save on one occasion after the old man’s demise someone by mistake occupied that chair.”
“Why what happened to him?” I interrupted hastily.
The uncle remained quite lost in thoughts before he mumbled,” He was found dead the next day in mysterious circumstances though he was hale and hearty. Ever since we had the chair covered by cloth to prevent a recurrence.”
“Bull shit,” I said in disgust at the credulity of the people here and added, ‘It could be a coincidence. Personally I do not believe in the occult powers of saints and simply because someone sat in that chair, it gets power to kill others who sit on it. Come on, please remove the cloth,”
“Pray, do not make any irreverent comment. It was because of the revered chair with its mystic powers, many potential buyers are hesitating to buy this house. They shudder at the thought of what would befall if the chair was removed from the existing place,” he replied with folded hands.
A thought struck me whether this would be a ploy to prevent the sale of this mansion and who could be the beneficiary. Would it be the poor uncle or a wily prospective buyer to prevent others from buying and to depress the price by making it a distress sale? I decided to explore the matter further and if need be by discussing with other village folks.
I did not pursue the matter further and after dinner went to my room by the side of the sofa set and the chair to retire for the night as I was tired. I could not sleep. There was the stale smell of an unused room coupled with the pungent incense of a joss stick. The ceiling fan was slow and noisy. It was then a kitten came to the room meowing gently. It scrambled on to the bed possibly as it was used to find a stranger occupying it. I held it in my hand and gently stroked it even as it purred in contentment when a vicious idea struck me suddenly. I came out of the room with the kitten in hand, removed the bedsheet slightly from the chair and laid the feline on the chair and came back to my room.
I was woken up early morning by some noise outside and came out to see aunty crying inconsolably with uncle trying to calm her. On seeing me, he stood up and said, “There had been a mishap last night. A pet of my wife and much loved by her, a kitten was found lying dead outside our house. I wonder how it could have jumped up to the high window to go out of the house. It has never done earlier. Further what killed her is unknown. What adds to the mystery is the bedsheet covering the chair has been meddled with by the kitten as no one else would touch it. Could it be that the dreaded fate had befallen her for daring to climb on to the chair?”
There was a sense of guilt and bewilderment at the tragic denouement. Maybe there is an element of truth about the jinxed chair. It cannot be coincidence second time. But my rational mind as a teacher of science would not subscribe to the jinx associated with the chair. I simply said, “I am sorry to hear about the sad end to the kitten. Could it be, it was run over by some vehicle or speeding cycle?”
During day time, I went around the village talking to the people about weather, the facilities in the village, the absentee land lords and the difficulties it caused to the local economy, and the falling prices of buildings with no new buyers. Only a couple of neighbours mentioned about the spell around the chair in my house but denied any knowledge of its putting off the prospective buyers.
I decided to break the jinx around the chair and was even prepared to throw it away. That night when everybody had retired to their bed, I took out the bedsheet and reclined on the chair resting my feet on the swing outs. It was a comfortable chair and the cane back gave a cozy feeling. I left the chair after sometime leaving it uncovered. The aroma from the flower plants wafted in through the window.
As I returned from the walk the next morning, there was a commotion outside the house with a crowd of men and women standing around at a distance and gazing at something. I saw my uncle and aunty looking crest fallen and standing with their arms folded at a distance from a long cobra with its raised hood on the steps of the house. The mention about siddha purusha’s professed control over snakes flashed in my mind. Could the presence of cobra be just a coincidence as it seemed to my rational mind or a warning to me that his powers have been tested in total insouciance?
I was not sure but my immediate aim was to get rid of the cobra and assuage the hurt feelings of uncle. I folded my arms in obeisance towards the cobra and prayed for it to leave. To everyone’s relief and to my great surprise, the cobra shrank its hood and slithered away. It was then I realized that there are things beyond the ken of human understanding and my scientific mind could offer no ready answer to what happened before my eyes.