(Book 2: Hello, Can You Fear Me?)
‘I’m not welcome?’ Ravi asked.
‘Not with that device,’ their host explained, pointing accusingly at the Captura.
‘Oh, come on! Not again! I’ve had enough of this nonsense for a day.’
‘Mr. Thakur,’ Fernandes addressed him rather sternly, ‘there’s no need to be rude.’ She turned to the man. ‘Mr. Sen, we brought this device to help you out.’
‘How is this evil thing meant to help us? We need the ghosts to leave us alone, not come right to us!’
‘Exactly,’ the inspector continued. ‘We will help you with that. This device, as I understand it, is not inherently evil.’
‘Then you don’t understand it!’ the man argued.
Fernandes ignored him and went on. ‘The Captura allows us to see the ghosts. With its help, we plan to see what the ghosts are up to. Isn’t that what you called us for? You asked for our help, so let us help you. Or we can leave, if you choose, but that doesn’t solve anything, does it?’
His wife appeared through the corridor, a plate of chips in her hand. She went around offering them to everyone, then set it upon a stool and stood beside her husband. She was wearing a plain sari.
‘Okay,’ Fernandes continued, ‘can you tell us again what you’ve seen these last couple days?’
‘Mysterious things,’ said the man. ‘We live rather simple lives, as you must have noticed. Our home is a small home and we do not have a lot of possessions. So when things move around, even a bit, it is very noticeable.’
‘And they’ve been moving around a lot?’ Fernandes asked.
‘A lot, yes. Always when no one is looking. I go out for a bit and come back to find my things in a mess. I go to sleep and wake up to find things have shuffled around!’
‘It’s the same in the kitchen,’ Mrs. Sen added. ‘Some of my utensils end up in places I would never keep them in! It’s really, very frustrating!’
‘What are the objects that move the most?’ Fernandes asked.
‘Books, newspapers, pens,’ said Mr. Sen, ‘but sometimes — sometimes that whole cupboard also moves. I can tell!’ He pointed at a wooden cabinet in the room. It certainly looked a bit scary, old and damaged as it was.
‘My plates and pans and glasses are never in the same place I leave them,’ Mrs. Sen said. ‘And there are fruits and biscuit packets that go missing!’
‘Okay, anything else you’ve noticed?’
‘Well, there was something,’ Mr. Sen said, ‘but it happened only once. An evil inscription on the wall.’
‘Really?’ Ravi asked, intrigued.
‘Can you show us?’ said Fernandes.
The man pointed at the wall beside the cabinet. There was a cloth covering the part he indicated. The wife slowly walked over to pull the cloth up. Ravi saw her hands shake as she did.
There was something scribbled in red paint, a sort of writing. The letters were illegible, distorted by the paint having dripped down. It covered a good three-by-two foot area at the bottom of the wall.
Ravi approached the inscription, raising the Captura to his eye without really thinking about it.
‘Umm, we’ll be using the device to check it out,’ Fernandes told the Sens. ‘We’ll try to figure out what’s wrong here. That’s okay, I hope?’
Ravi didn’t look back to check their response. He clicked one shot of the writing, put a new plate in, and took another of the cabinet.
Fernandes approached him as he checked the InstaCopies. He didn’t look at them for long. He’d seen what he wanted to — no ghosts. He passed the shots to the inspector and turned to the writing again.
He looked at it closely. The lighting was dim, but he could see a few impressions in the paint, little ovals with concentric loops of thin lines.
Withdrawing from the inscription, he glanced at the cupboard. It was fairly tall but didn’t look very heavy.
‘Do you mind if I look inside?’ Ravi asked Mr. Sen.
The man’s nod looked less like permission and more like a slow consideration. Ravi didn’t care. He pulled open the wooden door.
Clothes, papers, books, he noted. Nothing heavy.
‘What do you reckon?’ Fernandes asked him, whispering.
‘Just a minute,’ Ravi told her. Then he turned to the Sens. ‘One more question, has any of this happened today?’
‘It happens everyday!’ Mr. Sen complained. ‘Today morning, I wasted ten minutes locating my diary.’
‘It happened in the afternoon also, when I took a nap,’ the wife said.
‘Well?’ Fernandes pressed him.
‘Well,’ said Ravi, ‘I don’t think this has to do with ghosts. Last we saw, they all got pulled off somewhere in the morning today, from all over the city. They’ve all disappeared. As you can see, they don’t appear in these InstaCopies either. If it were the ghosts, I think the activities would have stopped today, but they didn’t.’
‘But these are ghosts we’re talking about,’ Mr. Sen voiced, clearly irritated. ‘Do you really think you can understand them?’
‘I agree,’ said Fernandes. ‘You’re assuming that disappearing from the images means they’ve vanished for good. How can you be so sure?’
‘I can’t,’ Ravi said. ‘But tell me, do ghosts have fingerprints? Because I see some in that paint there.’
‘Ohh?’ Fernandes responded. She quickly rushed back to the inscription, pulling out a small flashlight from her pocket. ‘You’re right,’ she said as she shone the light on the writing.’
‘So you’re saying it was not a ghost, but a man?’ Mr. Sen asked.
‘Not quite a man, I think,’ said Ravi. ‘The fingerprints are rather small.’
‘No one would just break into our house for a prank like this and then leave! Not every day, unless…’ His eyes narrowed. ‘Unless you are suggesting that we did it ourselves!’
‘That’s not what I’m saying,’ Ravi told him. ‘I’m going to move this cupboard a little.’ He went on to grab the edges of the cabinet.
‘Why? Just what are you up to? Stop this nonsense!’
But Ravi had already pulled the cupboard out by a foot with relative ease. It hadn’t even made much noise. He looked at the wall behind it and smiled. ‘Looks like I was right,’ he said. ‘Come, see this.’
Fernandes was the first to look at it. When she saw it, she simply said, ‘Oh.’
The wall behind the cupboard had more inscriptions on it. They weren’t in red paint, though. These ones had be done in various inks — blue, black, ballpoint, fountain.
The writing was bad, but more legible than the version in paint. Studying it for a little while, Ravi figured out what was written. Random phrases, news headlines, titles of books and the name of a newspaper were scribbled there.
As the Sens approached, Ravi and the inspector had to make way as there wasn’t enough place. Ravi took the moment to look in through the corridor in the other wall. He saw a face in the distance, just before it vanished. Hushed voices came from that direction.
He walked into the narrow, dim passageway, making for a door to the left, where the face had gone. He found himself looking into an even tinier room. There were three kids inside. A young girl was standing on one side, nervously looking down at the floor. An older boy was on a small bed on the other side, fast asleep. Another girl, youngest of the lot, was hiding behind the bed, only her head visible as she peeked.
‘Umm, hi,’ Ravi told the girl who stood closest to him.
She shook a little on hearing his voice, then said in a small voice, ‘Hello.’
‘Don’t be afraid. You can trust me. I’m here to help you.’ He smiled at her. ‘Can I come in?’
She looked at him nervously, then nodded.
As he walked in, the younger girl hid herself completely. He noticed a desk. There were notebooks, some stationery and a school-bag on it.
‘Whose are these?’ he asked.
The girl pointed at the sleeping boy.
Just then an angry voice sounded from outside.
Mr. Sen entered the room, his teeth clenched. ‘What is the meaning of this? Have you no manners? You can’t just walk around someone’s house without permission! Please leave!’
The boy who had been sleeping woke up with a start.
Fernandes arrived behind Mr. Sen, but she didn’t reprimand Ravi. The others followed, standing behind her.
‘Calm down Mr. Sen,’ Ravi said. ‘I’m sorry about the intrusion, but I’ve found your ghost.’
‘What?! Here?’ He looked suspiciously around the room.
‘It’s your daughter.’
From the corner of his eyes, Ravi could see the elder girl freeze.
‘What are you saying? My daughter is possessed?’
‘No, no,’ Ravi replied, taken aback. ‘I mean there is no ghost. Your daughter is the one moving things. She’s the one writing on the walls.’
The girl took a few steps back.
‘Is this true, Juhi?’ The man asked sternly.
The girl did not respond.
‘Answer me when I’m asking you a question!’ Mr. Sen’s voice thundered in the small room. ‘Is what this man saying true?’
Ravi looked at the girl. She nodded once, then shook.
Her father took one long, angry stride into the room. The girl darted, joining her sister behind the bed.
Ravi got in the man’s way. ‘Hold up,’ he said.
‘Move! Are you going to lecture me on how I should punish my kids, now?’
‘Well, I don’t really see a reason to punish, actually.’
‘Then you are too lenient! I am not one for soft measures. If I don’t punish her now, she’ll think it’s okay to continue. Not being stern makes them spoilt. I do not want that. Now move!’
‘No, listen, will you? Anger is not going to resolve anything. Calm down, take a moment to think this through. Consider why she is behaving like this.’
‘I agree with Mr. Thakur,’ Fernandes told the man. ‘There’s no reason to be harsh. I think your daughter is a smart girl. She’s doing her best to learn new things with the limited opportunity she has.’
‘What are you talking about?’ Mr. Sen asked. ‘Learning new things? What has she learnt? To spoil walls? I don’t want her to learn such things.’
‘No, Mr. Sen,’ Fernandes said. ‘She’s learning to write. Those weren’t random doodles on the wall. They were her attempts at copying words from books, from newspapers.’
‘She hasn’t been enrolled in a school, has she?’ Ravi asked. ‘All the books here are the boy’s. She must be seeing him study everyday, wanting to learn about things herself.’
‘But without schooling,’ said Fernandes, ‘without books of her own, she resorts to writing on walls. She steals books and newspapers when no one is looking, moves the cupboard to get to the wall behind it and tries to copy the words. From your reaction just now, I can see why she hasn’t owned up to it before.’
The man stood silent. He appeared close to yelling again, but seemed unable to find the words. Finally, he grumbled, ‘She can wish all she wants, but it doesn’t put the money in my pockets to grant them. People have to make do with what they have. Just because I can’t educate her doesn’t mean she can go about spoiling my house!’
‘There is free education in this country, Mr. Sen,’ Fernandes said.
‘Oh, but it’s only the education that’s free! What about the books? The uniforms? The stationery? They have costs too. I know exactly how much. My son’s education leeches money from me every month!’
‘There are government grants you can look into,’ Fernandes suggested. She was surprisingly calm. ‘If you go about it properly, I’m sure you can figure out a solution. There are people you can talk to if you need help.’
‘I don’t have time to meet these people. If I started taking leave from my work, this family is done for!’
‘Well, sounds to me like the only thing stopping you from solving your problems is yourself. You’re hiding behind excuses, Mr. Sen. But, then again, giving advice is not in my job profile. This case is solved. We’ll get going.’
‘What?’ Ravi asked bewildered. ‘You’re just going to let this go?’
‘Mr. Thakur, it is not my duty to force a citizen into making decisions regarding his family.’
‘Forget authority. You don’t feel guilty, leaving him here like this? He’s going to take out his anger on the kids when we leave, I know it!’
‘Why don’t you mind your own business?’ the man said condescendingly to Ravi. ‘Be a good boy and follow the inspector. Get out of my house!’
‘I have to keep my job, Mr. Thakur,’ said Fernandes. ‘I don’t get to make rash decisions. What I can do however, is send an inspection party in a month to check whether the girl is in a school or not. Not educating your child is an offence, after all.’
The man shook with rage. ‘Get out! NOW!’
Ravi stood where he was. ‘That doesn’t stop him from hitting the kid right now!’ he said.
‘Trust me,’ Fernandes replied, ‘if I hear one report of violence, whether it is from someone in this room or from a neighbour, I can arrange for some strict action to be taken against him. I’m powerless to act before there is any proof of an incident, you see. Now let’s go. We have other things to do.’ She stomped out of the room. Rehan followed her.
‘It’s not fair,’ Ravi muttered, but he followed nonetheless.
‘What about the kitchen?’ Mrs. Sen suddenly asked him as he passed her.
Ravi turned around. ‘What?’
‘You explained the books and the walls, but what about the kitchen? My utensils also move around. There are still ghosts in the house, aren’t there? What can we do?’
Ravi sighed. ‘There are no ghosts here, madam. Why don’t you sit down and ask your kids about it nicely? I think they must be feeling hungry at times and stealing food, that’s all.’
She considered it but didn’t speak again.
Ravi continued walking.
As he joined the police officers inside their car, Fernandes said, ‘Thank you for your help here, Mr. Thakur.’
‘You’re welcome, but I don’t see why I was involved. This should have been an easy case for the police.’
‘It should have, yes. I’m sorry if I wasted your time.’
‘That’s alright. I’d like to get back to my friends then.’
‘Mr. Thakur, I’d urge you to accompany us on one more case.’
‘What? The deal was just one! Besides, since there are no ghosts, you don’t really need me for anything.’
‘I know this sounds unfair, but I admit I’ve made a mistake here. We’re short-staffed, so it seemed like a good idea to make a fresh visit. I was thinking in terms of bringing down the number of cases we’re dealing with. Unfortunately, this one was a false alarm, but that does not necessarily mean that the others are also.’
‘It does! Trust me, the ghosts are gone. I’ve seen it.’
‘Mr. Thakur, please, come with us on just one more visit. I’ll tell you what, we’ll make sure that this time we go somewhere the police have already been. Help us explain a haunted house that we haven’t been able to figure out, and you might convince me that you’re correct.’
‘Whatever the result is after this, I assure you, I will drive you straight to your company or wherever else you wish to be dropped. No further persuasion. You have my word.’
Ravi thought on it. He slowly nodded. ‘All right. One trip.’
‘Thank you.’ If she was relieved, she didn’t show it. ‘Rehan, take us to the toughest case on the list.’
The car started and they drove out of the dreary area.