Wednesday, September 29, 2004

House on the corner

<>[This is one of the little background stories that I'll use to build up the atmosphere for a novel-like thing I'm working on. ]


The brick-and-stone house at the corner had an evil reputation. For whatever reason, it hadn’t been condemned though it was older than most of the other houses on the street. It had been old the last time I’d lived here, too, and no one had lived there for more than a few months. It called to random people on the street; it cajoled them into thinking that all those beliefs were just superstitions. The unlucky ones would buy the house from the previous owner; both sides of the deal would think they’d been fortunate. Then it would start playing with their minds. People had committed murder, incest, suicide, worse – and those were just the deeds that became public. Some months later, the terrified owner, if still alive, came up with the strangest excuses to leave and sell off the house- whatever his desperate mind felt were the most plausible reasons. Neighbours, when asked about the property value of the house, invariably counseled against buying it. Not that it was any use.

Besides being aware of the houses reputation, Khajurilal was a canny businessman. The idea came to him one day when he glanced at the house from his balcony, a few houses away. “That house has caused too much mischief – it ought to be torn down.” The businessman in him realized that doing so would increase the property value of the plot, and he swung into action.

His wife had died a few years ago, and his children were all out of the city. Neighbours tried to talk him out of it, but stopped when he told them his idea. They would be glad, too, to have the house gone. He bought the place within a few weeks.

Then he hit his first roadblock. It was extremely difficult to get labourers to do the job. Local workers, when recruited, refused to work after a day on the job. Once he tried getting migrant rural labourers, newly arrived in the city, but they slept in the house the first night, and fled in the early hours of the morning without telling him what had happened. Against his judgement, Khajurilal tried spending a night in the house. Nothing happened to him, which led him to the crazy belief that the house wanted to be torn down, and so it was his friend.

Thinking about the house had distracted him from his shops. As it was, his munshi was taking care of most of the business. He decided to try to do some of the demolition himself, to prove that it was just a house. He took a few days away from work, bought hammer, pickaxe, shovel, and chose a couple of walls to demolish. They came down easily, and the progress was apparent. The neighbours were whispering about his obsession with the house already. He showed them how easy it was to break the house – it was so old after all – and they agreed that the workers were ignorant louts. But he could still find no one to complete the demolition for him.

The businessman in him was furious at the idea of such an easy deal going down the drain. Almost idly, he thought that if there was no one to do the job, he’d just take a week’s break from his work and finish it himself. The idea took root in his mind. Soon, he found himself standing in front of the house, hammer in hand. A saner voice within him raged against this nonsense, but he kept saying to himself – it’s just a matter of a week – it’s just a few days – the exercise will be good for me.

The work started off easily enough. A couple more brick walls went down like cardboard under his pickaxe. But at the end of the week, the house wasn’t even half down. The older brick walls had been easy, but the newer ones - made of stone - were harder. He decided to devote another week to this.

At the end of the second week, he decided on trying till the end of the month. Somewhere in that month, there was an accident – he was trapped under some rubble. He was rescued, but it meant he would limp, and his left hand wasn’t as strong as the right. In his feverish dreams the house seemed to mock him, challenge him.

After he recovered, he went back for a look at the house and was appalled – had he demolished just the one stone wall in those past few days? There was certainly a lot of work left to be done. He ignored the neighbours and his munshi entirely now, and went back to work. His injuries had slowed down his work considerably.

Soon, he was tanned black from the sun, had grown muscles, and couldn’t be distinguished from any common labourer. He’d almost forgotten all about his business. The only thing he’d talk about was how he was going to be really rich when he completed this demolition. Everyone who was willing to come was shown how little was left. It was obvious to everyone that his pace of work was almost nothing now, he spent more time gibbering about the ruins, talking about his upcoming fortune, than actually working. Most days, he’d just clear the rubble and weeds from the clear portion, muttering about having the plot presentable for buyers. One boy claimed to have actually seen him rebuild a small wall, muttering to himself that the wall was scheduled for later.

As years went by, Khajurilal was known only as the street lunatic. No one was even sure when he died. No one knew, at the end, whether he understood the immense trick that had been played on him.

After he died, Khajurilal’s lawyer sent a letter to his son, telling him the house was now his. The son, sensibly, instructed the lawyer to put up a “For sale” sign and dispose of the house as soon as possible.

The house, of course, is still waiting. Part of its job is done; it just needs someone who’ll like it again, and rebuild the faulty brick walls for it - properly in stone this time.

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