(Published in Zeitgeist, The New Indian Express, dated 25th December, 2010)
I’m one of those people who’s never lived in a flat; and every house I’ve lived in has had a well.
The residue at the bottom of most of these, one would expect, includes mud off the Ganesha statues we’ve thrown in at Vinayaka Chaturthi, turmeric from the various threads the women of the house have worn to pray for the longevity of their current and future husbands, and fabric from the poonals the men of the house have discarded at Avani Avittam.
You would think the well was anointed thoroughly enough to ward off evil spirits.
Which is why a gurgling moan that crept through the air as I was drinking a glass of water from the bubble in the verandah, on the stroke of midnight, made me jump out of my skin and land up in my parents’ room.
“You must have imagined something,” my mother said, crossly, “writers always live in their imagination.”
“I don’t write horror!”
“Say Narayana, Narayana and go to sleep.”
“That would have done nicely twenty years ago.”
My brother came in, frowning. “Is someone moaning from near the well?”
I couldn’t help feeling immensely relieved that my brother had heard it. My parents tended to trust his lack of an imagination more than mine.
Suddenly, it struck me. “Oh, my God, has someone fallen into the well?”
That got my family scrambling to the verandah.
“Do you think it’s the tenant?” my brother asked, “I didn’t see him leave.”
“He did swear he’d never leave the premises whenever we asked him to vacate.”
“Why is everything you say in bad taste?” my grandmother had entered the verandah, reasonably convinced it wasn’t a banshee.
“Paatti is the only one who’s been threatening to jump into the well for as long as I can remember,” my brother said.
“Look, I’m ready to jump in even now,” my grandmother offered.
“Good luck making it over the wall with your arthritis,” my brother said, as he and my father set off to investigate.
“Be careful you both don’t fall in,” my mother called out, causing my father to turn back to retort, trip over a weed and land up at the edge of the well.
“See, I told you,” she added, with a note of satisfaction.
“Is anyone there?” my brother called out.
“I’ll ask the watchman to come. Watchman!” my mother called, moving towards the gate
Two watchmen from the neighbouring houses peered in.
“Amma, anna got drunk and said he was going to have a bath.”
“Our ghost is singing Kilimanjaro,” my brother called.
“Amma, that’s his favourite song,” one of his comrades said, fondly.
“Oh, God! I think he’s fallen into the well! Quickly, go get him!”
The two watchmen looked at each other, until one said, “go, thambi.”
“No, anna, you’re stronger. I can’t pull him up.”
“But you’re lighter. The rope will break if I go.”
They studied each other again, and then chorused, “let’s get some automen.”
Ten minutes later, an autodriver slipped down the well on our garden hose, while another lowered it, and four others watched, along with the two watchmen and the five of us. After two minutes of silence, the rescuer emerged, dangling on the hose, with the watchman wrapped around his shoulders. If the latter hadn’t been screaming, “Kilimanjaaro!”, we might just have heard a conch blow, followed by “Mahaaaaa...bhaaaaarat!”
Six hours later, the watchman rang the bell.
“Amma,” he said sulkily, “two hundred rupees.”
“Some fool attacked me and stole my slippers last night. I saw one floating in the well just now.”