Startled, his wife turned and asked ”Are you travelling? You did not tell me about your trip.”
“I had casually mentioned a fortnight back to amma about a likely trip to Bengaluru. It was finalized only this afternoon,” he told her. Turning to his mother, he said, “Next week, is there anything you want from India?”
“No, I need nothing. When you happen to be in Bengaluru, why don’t you visit our village near Karaikudi for a day and have a look at our ancestral house. It is several years after your father’s demise, we haven’t visited it. True, a distant relative is there as a caretaker. I wish that you see personally whether it is well maintained and if there are any willing to buy it. No point in retaining it when there is no likelihood of your going back to India” said his mother.
“I will try if I get the time,” he assured her
As he was travelling by car in the dusty road towards his village, he recollected his childhood trip as a young boy of seven years and vaguely remembered the spacious house with well polished wooden pillars in the front porch and inside in the large central courtyard that opened to sky in the centre. It had several big rooms adjoining the corridor that ran along on all the four sides. There was a large garden with several trees and a large well on the rear of the bungalow. The floors were tiled in various patterns and colours giving the whole house an old world charm.
As he had informed the caretaker relative in advance, he and his wife received him deferentially on arrival.
As he stood in the courtyard and surveyed the encircling wide corridor and the well maintained dust free pillars and doors, he could not but exclaim, “Uncle, it is more than two decades since I visited this place. 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 is shining.”
“Your grandfather (Aiyya) had left a corpus before he went to Penang and the interest from it is used for maintenance of the house,” the relative said.
“That is thoughtful of him though I wonder whether my mother is aware,” he said as he 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 his box to the room. He looked at the triangular pirai (niche) on the wall by the side of the door and asked “Do we still keep oil lamps there?”
He smiled and said, “No, the old practice is gone. It dirties the wall with smoke.”
The dinner was typical South Indian type a bit spicy and hot for Annamalai but seemed tasty nevertheless from the way he relished the food. Aunty, a soft spoken lady, smiled with pride when he said that he had never tasted a meal like this and that the food served at Indian restaurants in US was a pale apology to this authentic Chettinad version.
When he walked along the corridors to his room on the other side, he found all the doors of the rooms just closed while the one next to his was locked with an unusually big brass lock.
He lingered for a moment outside the room and asked, “Uncle, why is this room alone locked with a big lock. Does it contain anything precious?”
“There is nothing precious inside though there is a big story behind the locked room. I can tell you tomorrow morning,” he replied.
“Why not now?”
“There is no light there and there is a story revolving around a strange mirror inside. It may be dusty too as it is opened only occasionally. I will have it cleaned early in the morning. Kindly wait.” Annamalai did not press further.
As they sat in the well-furnished room and chatted generally about the village, weather and crops, Annamalai abruptly asked,” It is agreed that we shall be seeing the mystery room tomorrow. But what holds you from telling me now what the story is about the mirror. I am very curious to know.”
“No problem in telling,” said the uncle and turned to his wife to tell, “You may go and close the kitchen.”
He kept silent for a few moments before he started speaking, “There is a big mirror in that room 2.5x 5 feet in an artistically sculpted wooden frame. I think this was brought by aiyya (grandfather) from Penang where he did business when he finally returned to India. It is a high quality mirror and kept in his wife’s room for her use. Your father had already settled in US. This adjacent room it appears was used by your grandmother.”
“What have these things to do with the mirror?” interrupted Annamalai.
“Let me quickly finish. Be patient. After your grandmother’s demise, aiyya managed to live alone with a cook to assist him. I came here to help aiyya just a couple of years before his demise. Aiyya did not enter that room often and it was mostly locked. Once an elderly relative of aiyya from his wife’s side visited him and stayed for a night. He was allotted this room for his stay as it had good bed. It seems the next day when the relative was about to leave, aiyya went to his room and saw the relative standing before the mirror. Aiyya noticed the relative’s reflection on the mirror was strangely very dull almost blackish grey. Aiyya was shocked but did not express anything.
The next day evening he got a telegram that the relative passed away suddenly with no ailment whatsoever. Those days there were no great medical facilities and people relied on local Ayurvedic doctor, mostly a quack. Aiyya was greatly shocked and the thought of his relative’s dull image on the mirror came to his mind. He instructed the cook to cover the mirror with a bedsheet and keep the room locked.”
“This is crazy. Let me see the mirror tomorrow,” Annamalai said
“Surely, let me finish. Six months later a Tashildar friend of aiyya visited the village on some work and expressed a desire to stay with aiyya. He could not refuse his friend and gave the only furnished spare and locked room for his night’s stay. The next morning when aiyya went in, he saw his friend standing before mirror after removing the bedsheet. Aiyya craned his neck to find to his horror Tashildar’s image very dull as he saw once earlier. He led him out immediately to the dining table for breakfast. He was a worried man after his friend left though he remained silent mostly. It was on the third day aiyya got the information that his friend Tashildar was bitten by a snake in the field and had succumbed to it.”
“My god! It seems a strange coincidence. What happened next?”
“Aiyya was now certain that the mirror was ill fated and reflected a dull image of persons whose death was very close. This information had leaked out in the village and no one entered the room even when the mirror was covered. This gradually turned mischievously into a story that a maid who worked in aiyya’s house had committed suicide in that room for reasons not known.”
“Have you seen any ghost movements or unusual happenings here?”
No, not even once. After aiyya’s death, your dad wished to sell the house. Some parties expressed interest initially to buy the property but backed away once they heard the gossip from local villagers. One or two who were ready bid a very low price. Your dad decided not to sell immediately but sadly passed away in two years before disposing the house,” he concluded.
A faint thought crossed Annamalai’s mind whether the caretaker would have had a hand in the floating of rumour and the mystery behind the mirror with an eye on the property remaining unsold.
“OK, let me sleep. We will examine tomorrow though I think the mirror has nothing to do with deaths. One thing, do keep the lights on in the corridor, “said Annamalai.
He got up at 7 am and quickly surveyed his grandfather’s room. He must have been a methodical and organized man. He found the writing table with a few books neatly kept, a type writer, pen stand with pens and sharpened pencils, writing pad and a sunglass. There were two wooden bureaus with his clothes neatly kept. His esteem for aiyya went a notch higher.
After breakfast, the caretaker-relative took him to the adjacent room. It was evidently swept clean and dusted. The mirror stood prominently in one corner adjacent to a dressing table. It was still covered with a bedsheet. Annamalai removed the bedsheet and found the mirror spotlessly clean. He had suspected it might have been dust laden and dirty but It was a high class mirror and the reflection was excellent. He wondered how this mirror can reflect a dull image. His logical and rational mind could not accept any mysterious power to the mirror.
He turned to caretaker and asked him,” Uncle, how was aiyya’s eyesight? Did he comb his hair regularly before the mirror? Did he use any spectacles?”
“Aiyya was totally bald and had no hair. He never came to the mirror. I think his eyesight was good.”
“Did he go out much during day time as I saw a sunglass on his table?”
“No, he rarely went out but had the strange habit of wearing the sunglass during his waking hours possibly to hide the squint in his eyes. He removed it only when he went to bed.”
Annamalai laughed loudly and said,” I think I know now. Anyway do not cover the mirror or lock that room. Bring the mirror now to the corridor and keep near the entrance to enable every visitor see the mirror. I do not foresee a dull image anymore.”
The mirror was brought to the corridor near the entrance and remained uncovered.
Annamalai was satisfied and ready to leave to catch his flight later in the day. He thanked the caretaker couple profusely and took a final look at the mirror. The caretaker too joined him to face the mirror. Lo, what is happening and why is the mirror dim and our images dull worried Annamalai with his eyes narrowing in fear. There was a stunned look on caretaker’s face too.
The horn from the waiting taxi hooted in hurry.