(Won the Ruskin Bond Literary Award at Dehradun Literature Fest 2023)
By Moutushi Ghoshdeysarkar
“Have you noticed that man?” Viru gestures towards someone.
It is past dusk and the faint light of the bus stand is hardly sufficient to see anyone.
“No, why?” Ishfaq strains his eyes to see who Viru is referring to.
“I think I saw him last week too, he went towards the Jami Masjid, it was around midday, I had just closed the shop and was heading home for lunch,” Viru recalls.
“Out of town guy?” Ishfaq asks. Viru nods.
“Oh! One of those history buffs, wandering around the ruins – he’ll get his head severed by the spirits am sure – I am scared to go around even in broad daylight!”
Ishfaq blabbers without bothering to pay heed to Viru’s character.
Ever since the ruins of Champaner had been excavated and deemed heritage sites, Ishfaq had always had a busy day serving customers from all over the world. It meant more money but more work too.
“Don’t they have ruins where they live, why bother about old broken buildings anyway? Making my life hell!” Ishfaq yearns for the days when he happily sat daydreaming at his tea counter most of the time.
Viru’s gaze continues to follow the man – he is adorned with a backpack and a camera bag, wearing cargo pants and a loose shirt, half tucked in – definitely a tourist. The tourist walks away towards the Jami Masjid.
Viru is intrigued, the archaeological complex closes by 5 pm and there are no hotels on that side, “Ishfaq, let’s follow him?”
Ishfaq gives Viru his angriest look but that doesn’t seem to work, it never has; his expression changes to alleging, “Ammi told us to be home early today, remember?”
Viru’s brows furrowed, “Did she?” “Yes yes,” Ishfaq pulls away Viru before he can develop any second thoughts.
This works. It has always worked for the past 20-odd years, Viru and Ishfaq are ancestral neighbours.
The tourist continues on the road towards the Jami Masjid but as he reaches the magnificent structure he takes the narrow mud lane beside its high fences, the other side of the lane is lined with tall trees. There is hardly any light but for the full moon to guide his steps. He comes to a bifurcation and takes the one on the right without any hesitation, sure of his destination.
The lane becomes narrower. The trees on either side form a canopy over the lane, which makes an excellent shade for a passer-by on a sunny day as temperatures soar. The ground is uneven with an over-ripened fruit from an overhead branch splashed down or an aerial root that decided to go across the lane, maybe for better nutrients.
Finally, he finds his way into a thicket – a rather bushy and thorny thicket which he tears through and emerges at a clearing. The sight is so surreal it paralyzes him momentarily – the ‘Lila Gumbaj ki Masjid’ sitting on a high plinth, its three domes shining in pristine moon rays. The raised platform is surrounded by a lawn and the fenced grounds are surrounded by a thicket of thorny bushes all around.
One fine day the tourist while touring the heritage sites had lost his way and in turn found this gem – no one visits it as it is a bit off the road and people get tired of visiting the numerous other monuments and generally chuck this, but he is intrigued.
He is about the climb over the fence when he notices the woman – it seems she is floating down from the heavens with the moonbeam. He quickly makes his descent over the fence onto the lawns and moves closer to the platform, lying low.
For a good length of time, he ducks down and tries to listen, there is activity on the platform, and people seem to be moving around, and talking in hush tones. Then the tourist tries to take a peek – unexpectedly an ambient blinding light obscures the structure, or did the domes just vanish?
It looks like a busy market area, with people dressed in various outfits, some seemingly from faraway lands too – haggling over goods, which seem as varied as the people themselves. He is unable to view the far side distinctly, but notices a fairly large man in ornate robes and an exquisitely dressed tall delicate woman – he is intrigued and walks around the platform to be near them to catch their conversation.
‘They are unerringly enamoured by the way they are looking at each other’ the tourist thinks, ‘but who are they?’
The woman speaks in an ethereal voice, “My lord, will you build a memorial here – here where we met amidst a sea of populace one summer evening a year back?”
The large man looks around as if judging the place – finally, he says in a booming voice, “Indeed! I will build the Lilah Gumbad ki Masjid here to thank Allah the merciful for bestowing your vestal love on me.”
The maiden blushes and lowers her glance.
Suddenly she looks up again but this time straight at the tourist – he stoops but she has already seen him. He waits with bated breath then raises his head slowly – there isn’t a soul in sight, no sound, all lights are out and the domes are back.
The tourist is scared but also enthralled, he pulls himself up the plinth and faces the small mosque with the three entrance doors under the archways topped with the domes. ‘Where did they all vanish?’ he thinks.
He slowly approaches the mosque, but once at the entrance, he hesitates. A crisp voice shudders the prevailing silence, “Who goes?”
A chill runs down the tourist’s spine and he turns to face the voice – but there is none – no body!
The tourist tries to answer, his voice quivering as he talks to thin air, “I am a tourist.”
“A tourist at this hour? Even the locals don’t come this way after dusk.” The crisp voice sounds surprised.
The tourist earnestly says, “I am intrigued by this isolated mosque and keep coming back to find out why this chic structure came into being. It is hardly 600 m from the magnificent Jami Masjid – it is beautiful but not as ornate or grand as the other mosques, it seems like a private place and yet it is not part of a castle or haveli…”
There is momentary silence and then the surrounding is pierced with a booming laughter. The tourist can feel sound waves flowing through his veins, fear seems to be tightening its grip on him by the minute.
“I Mohammad Begada built this place to show my gratitude to Allah for giving me the love of my life and even though my mortal remains were buried in ‘Sarkhej Roza’ in Ahmedabad, my soul remains here with my beloved. It was meant for just us, a cosy little place of worship and also our clandestine rendezvous.” the booming voice proclaims.
The tourist is befuddled beyond words to react.
The formless booming voice continued, “We recreated a scene from the time when this place was a buzzing marketplace to celebrate the inception of this beautiful structure – in thought… we amuse ourselves thus from time to time… the locals are scared to be here after dark as we haunt our favourite jaunt.”
The realisation that he has discovered the truth – a passion that has driven him to this God-forsaken place time and again – makes him ecstatic; yet moments later he realizes the truth of his situation – he is amidst ancient souls that have lingered for centuries, ‘would they let him go? never!’ he shudders at the thought.
“No, we won’t – how can we tourist?” a honeyed voice says as if reading his thoughts, “First it was just the two of us, my lord and me; then over the years someone or the other would stray into our dominion either having got lost or trying to be adventurous like you, to find out!” a cruel laugh follows.
The tourist freezes, he knows the inevitable, it is a matter of time now, before long he will join the assemblage, and become part of the populace. He feels suffocated, suddenly there is no air to breathe, and he gasps for breath. There are loud noises all around, his head feels heavy, and he can hear his heart beating like a trumpet as if to add to the humdrum – he shuts his eyes, hugs himself and stands there shivering to his bones.
After what seems like an eternity, there is absolute silence, he opens his eyes ever so slowly unsure of what to expect – he sees a circle of people around him, all looking at him intently.
He then realizes they are talking to him, trying to wake him up from the trance he had gone into. One of them, a large man comes closer, “We are sorry to scare you so much, are you okay?”
“What?” the tourist suddenly finds his voice.
The woman standing beside the large man speaks in an apologetic tone, “We were rehearsing for our play for the performance next week you see… this is an isolated place, seemingly haunted so keeps away disturbance, but then we spotted you and wanted to have a little fun, we are so sorry.”
“But the woman, you – you floating down… the light, the dark, and the voices?” the tourist asks still shaken.
“Those were props…” the large man says genuinely repentant.
Slowly the tourist stops shivering, he adorns a faint smile, and a sigh of relief leaves his lips.
The large man comes forward with an extended hand, the tourist extends his too – but then the large man shrieks loudly as he takes a step back.
All the ten supposed ghosts turned out to be humans turn blue – the tourist’s hand cannot be held!
The 10 boys and girls start running, they jump over the fence, wrestle through the thicket and make a straight run to Bhajji’s outhouse within the citadel gates. They spend the rest of the night huddled together with the lights on.
The next morning Bhajji and his group members head to the police station for answers. The inspector is reminded of the ‘tourist’ Viru spoke about last night as they were playing carom at the club.
It took them a little over a day and a half to find out that there had been an accident last week, right in front of the Jami Masjid – a truck ran over a tourist around mid-day and fled, the ensemble of crushed body, bag pack and camera was found rotting in the ditch next to the highway.