By: Antara Roy Oruganti
It was an old bungalow on a hill. In and around it, there was much to see, much to hear, and much to love; especially on sunny, summer days. Less of a standing structure, and more of a friend; the old bungalow was a cheerful friend, one who always welcomed you in with its many smiling, glittering windows. One walked up or drove through the uphill path, lined with trees on both sides, to reach the bungalow, and then the garden appeared; the garden with the lovingly tended flowers. And here the eyes rested, and the heart lightened as the sun streamed down through the leaves of tall trees. The postman, who walked up to deliver letters, often sat by the garden, sipping tea offered by the lady of the house. A resting abode, the old bungalow brought joy and relief to many. And poems and stories to those who loved it dearly.
Children played around the many fruit trees surrounding the bungalow; young boys and girls sat on the red tin roof reading their favourite comics; the gardener tended the plants; workers helped; birds sang in the bushes, butterflies flitted around; and the master and mistress of the big house lived their days in restful contentment. Well, almost all of their days, and nights, leaving out a few extraordinarily eventful ones.
And what did the bungalow look, or feel, like on cold winter nights? When the moon hid behind a veil, and a mist swept round the house, like a sea of cloud? One would say, it looked very different indeed. So different that you could not tell one from the other-the bungalow in the sun and the bungalow under the moon.
The trees that gave shade during the day now threw their tall shadows around; unseen creatures of the night sang their sometimes plaintive and sometimes ominous songs; a restless wind hissed and sighed and cradled the tall blades of grass by the side of the walls. The bungalow, a genial friend in the sun, now felt mysterious and unknown.
And this is the story of one such cold, winter night. The night when Shamu barged into the old house, with both relish and reluctance.
Shamu was often seen in and around the old bungalow, raking up leaves, mowing the lawn, plucking fruits, or sprucing up the old red tin roof. His work kept his hands full but whenever he could, he sat down on the lawn and bit on a juicy fruit. He loved the old bungalow and the many sunlit corners. He felt a warm familiarity with the place, and the warmth felt warmer, thanks to the good old lady of the house, who he addressed as Aita.
Aita treated him with tea and sweets, and occasionally, with a hearty meal. She chatted, and went about her cooking, and he listened and sat close by on a low stool, relishing on freshly cooked curry and rice straight out of the stove. Shamu knew she missed her children and grandchildren, and his company helped to chase away some of her loneliness.
Shamu felt a twinge of guilt every time he thought of his unworthy plans. How could he do this to his dear Aita? How could he barge into her beautiful home and rob her of her valuables? But eventually, he convinced himself. ‘It will only be a small time thieving expedition. I won’t rob her of a fortune.’
Shamu had fallen into bad company, and was beginning to enjoy the forbidden pleasures of gambling. It was to free himself from the mounting debts that he had resorted to thieving.
But, wait a minute, what about the old man of the house? Major Borguhain? Shamu’s thoughts drifted to the remarkable figure. He was truly one of a kind; a kind that nature doles out to humanity only once in a while. It stupefied him to just be in the old man’s presence. For Major Borguhain was tall, handsome and commanding, and in the living room of the bungalow lay the proof of his fiery spirit-the skin of a slain, hunted tiger. Shamu trembled when he first saw the ferocious glass eyes of that tiger, and the old man often sat close by on a grand wooden chair, sipping tea, observing passers by with a shrewd and sharp eye.
Once Shamu had been walking across the front room on an errand, and on seeing the old man beside the tiger, had bowed down in respect: ‘Good morning, sir!’
‘Good morning, young man!’ boomed the voice. ‘Why do you slouch and walk that way, as if you were a thief? Walk straight! You have nothing to hide, have you?’
Shamu had frozen on his tracks, grinning foolishly. That was the thing about Major Borguhain, he always made everyone grin stupidly.
And at last, the opportune moment came, when on that very eventful cold, misty winter night, Shamu jumped into the compound from a low wall. He was struck by the unfamiliarity. He had never been to the bungalow so late in the night, and where were all the happy, bright flowers, and whatever happened to the rich green of the lawn? There were shadows all around, a sense of secrecy hung in the air. Silence echoed within silence; an atmosphere of unease. The wooden swing, close to the bushes and pine trees, lightly moved in the wind. Shamu had a desperate urge to turn back, slip into his bed, and snuggle up to his dear old blanket. Never had he imagined thieving to be this bothersome!
‘Come on, now, don’t be a coward,’ he coaxed himself.
It was two in the night. The moon was now slowly coming out of its veil. The wind blew, the shadows trembled, and suddenly, there was a sound. It was the wooden swing! Swaying briskly to and fro, all on its own, and not a soul in sight. The sound tore through the silence of the night, and it was enough to make Shamu drop all his plans, and run back home. He had heard stories of a ghost sitting on the wooden swing of the bungalow, but he never knew that it was invisible too! But how could he go? Running back home meant crossing the path of the swing. There was no other choice, he had to barge into the bungalow.
Shamu swiftly climbed up to the roof, and found the opening to the chimney. Now was the time. He drew in a long breath, and landed inside the bungalow with a thud. Much relieved to be away from the invisible ghost on the swing, he let out a relieving breath. And now he felt strangely exhilarated to be inside the big house. ‘Yes, I shall carry out my plan, for sure,’ he resolved. He took off his shoes, lit the candle that he had carried in his pocket, and tiptoed his way in. Walking towards the master bedroom, he hoped to find a good treasure to take back home. He could have got anything from any of the other rooms, but the ghost on the swing had made him yearn for some human company, and even though Aita was peacefully asleep in her bed, all he wanted was to be close to another living soul.
Thankful that Major Borguhain was nowhere close to the hills, all that Shamu feared now was the ghost on the swing, and all he needed to do was pocket a few treasures, and slip out of the back door.
He felt a surge of pride in himself. ‘Tonight will be a triumphant night.’
Tiptoeing inside into the middle of the room as softly as he could, Shamu noticed Aita shifting in her sleep. He wondered why she was so restless in her sleep, and felt the urge to massage her head. He also noticed that the quilt had fallen off the bed, and unable to see his dear Aita sleeping in the cold, he bent down and gently lay the quilt over her.
And then it was time for business again. He looked about the room in the dim light of the candle and saw the long full length mirror on the other side of the wall. He tiptoed towards it, and looked at his reflection. ‘My, how handsome I look in candle light!’ He stood admiring himself, for surely the candle light complemented his young, robust looks. Shadows played about his sharp featured face, and his strong hands. He looked like a painting stuck to the mirror. And lost in his thoughts, he wished that somebody would write a book about a handsome thief like him, and this beautiful reflection in the mirror would make a wonderful cover for that book. ‘Ah! If only!’ He imagined someone writing a book about the thieving adventures of the handsome thief, Shamu. And why not? People wrote books about Gods, leaders, scientists, ghosts, and, even dacoits! Then why not thieves? His brow creased as he contemplated on the unfair plight of small time thieves.
But at that very moment, he leapt back in horror. Gone was the beautiful image of himself in soft candle light. What stood behind his reflection now made him tremble furiously, like a blade of grass in a strong wind. And no, it was not the ghost on the swing that had decided to show its bodily form; that would have been easier on Shamu. It was… it was…
Oh Major Borguhain! Wasn’t he supposed to be out of town? And here he was, tall and erect, and what was more-with a gun in his hand! And, the gun pointed directly at Shamu’s chest! A formidable, unconquerable enemy! What could Shamu do? He was just a small time thief. He did not know how to put up a brave fight. To be fair, this was only the beginning of his thieving career, and only the second home he had barged into.
And so it happened. Shamu did something that he had never done before. But it was involuntary, beyond his control, and the very look of the gun triggered the whole event. He should have pleaded and excused himself to visit the toilet. But could a thief do that? More so when he was at gun point? Even more so when the opponent was Major Borguhain?
And it all came streaming down, hot and uncalled for. His bladder relieved, he looked down at his trousers, and the pool of embarrassment that had gathered on Major Borguhain’s clean and glossy wooden floor.
‘Now what on earth are you doing?’ boomed the voice with the gun. ‘What kind of a thief are you? I was expecting a good fight, and this is all you could come up with?’
Shamu was unable to utter a word. Hot tears streamed down his cheeks.
‘Good Lord! Young man! You are pouring out water from all sides of your body!’ And Major Borguhain laughed uproariously, upsetting the silence of the night. ‘I saw how you got a fright outside when I had pushed the swing and quickly hid behind the bushes.’
‘Oh! It…it…was you then?’
‘Then who do you think it was? I heard a sound, jumped to my feet, and stepped out and hid myself. I have hunter’s ears, you forget?’
‘Hunter’s ears!’ It was all that Shamu could say, looking down at the pool wetting his feet.
By now, Aita had awoken, and briefed about the incidents of the night. She looked sympathetically at him.
‘It was you, wasn’t it? You put the quilt back on me. I was half asleep and felt someone do it.’
‘Do forgive him,’ she said, looking at her husband. ‘He is young and harmless. I doubt he would have stolen anything of great value.’
‘Forgive him, Shyama? No, I won’t! I’m calling the police right away.’
‘Oh, don’t bother! Come now, Shamu, do say you are sorry. If you were in need of money, you could have asked me. Has your Aita ever refused you anything? Come and work here as a full time help. You can do what you like, even learn driving, and drive me around.’
At a time when he was desperately and uncomfortably wet and cold, Aita’s words came like the warmth of a bonfire. He readily agreed.
‘Dear boy!’ sighed Aita, looking at him. ‘ Now change into some warm, comfortable clothes, and have some tea.’
Shamu could not believe that the grand and awe inspiring Major Borguhain was so easily silenced and softened by the kind, gentle lady. What he had heard about the roughest of husbands being tamed by their wives was really true then! As he changed into a new set of dry clothes, he vowed to never get married.
Shamu promised Aita that he would never pursue thieving again, or indulge in gambling, and till his last days, he kept his word, and worked in the old bungalow; and soon with his perseverance earned the comforting respect of the master of the house.
And to this day, people in the hilly and picturesque town of Shillong sit around a bonfire and talk about that cold winter night when the master of the old bungalow had pointed a gun at the young, reluctant thief-the thief who could not answer the call of nature in good time.
Shamu’s life, like those fairy tales, came to a restful end. His life ran a full circle, like the garden that circled round the bungalow. From a part time helper, to a hesitant thief, and then to a full time, full hearted helper. During his last days, when Aita and the old master were no more, he occasionally remembered that eventful night, and it no longer gave him pain or embarrassment. In fact, he narrated it merrily to whoever gave an eager ear, and everyone laughed, laughed in the sunshine that ever so often splashed down like a glorious waterfall over the good old bungalow.