"Are you sure you don’t wanna come with us?"
Farahnaz sweetly asked me one last time.
"No Farah, you guys carry on."
It was really hard saying no to those large beautiful round eyes.
"Alright… if you really don’t wanna see the tide coming in… but I’m telling you it’s gonna be amazing…"
"I know… I just don’t feel like going out today."
"Ok then… I guess we’ll see you when we return…"
I could feel the sense of hesitation in Farah’s voice… like she didn’t want me to stay back at the mansion all by myself while they frolicked on the beach. But she didn’t know that I knew why she didn’t want me to stay at home all alone!
Last week the gang decided to go for a road trip - Spend a well-deserved and long overdue relaxing vacation at Farah’s ancestral home in Udvada, Gujarat for the weekend. Since she was the only Parsi in our group, she wanted to take part in the Fire Festival, the Jashn-e Sadé, as she hadn’t been to one in ages.
Renowned for its Zoroastrian Fire Temple and large Parsi population, we prepared ourselves for the trip. There were Farahnaz and Pooja from HR, Paul from administration, Shaan and me from marketing, and Teresa from Customer Relationship. Together we formed a close pack in office, always hanging out together during the weekends or even during our short lunch breaks.
When Farah suggested that we go on a road trip to her ancestral home in Gujarat, most of us weren’t very enthu, until she mailed us photographs of her so called "house". It was a freaking mansion! Old and antique, it was built during the Portuguese colonial era of 1600s!
It resembled one of those historical palatial bungalows we flipped past in our school history textbooks. It had everything right from early masonry blood-red brick walls to vintage steeples that were crumbling away at some sections of the large pre-Victorian building, with long winding dark corridors leading to the semi-detached toilets! It was a must visit!
Farah herself had been there only thrice, and the last time she’s been there was more than 10 years ago.
During the journey from Mumbai to Udvada, Farah couldn’t stop talking about the great times she used to have there with her uncles and cousins when she was a kid, and how the beach was just a few hundred metres away. She assured us that the place was still secluded and undisturbed by civilization!
After driving for nearly 4 hours, we reached Udvada. We refueled and bought groceries. I didn’t know Gujarati so I had to communicate using sign language. From the historical town we proceeded towards the mansion. Finally, we reached a towering rusty old iron gate that creaked loudly as one of the servants dragged it open. The servants were informed a week in advance about our weekend plans and they had prepared everything for us, right from clean bed sheets and mosquito nets to bottles of mineral water. Farah’s uncle had suggested that we use well-water like they had done when they were our age. We decided otherwise.
After freshening up and exploring the place for almost two whole hours, we finally relaxed in the large salon. We still couldn’t stop admiring the awe-inspiring architecture and medieval wooden furniture that looked as if they survived the Protestant Reformation era.
"Looks haunted!" Shaan suddenly exclaimed and grinned.
"Yeah, like those B-grade slasher movies, you know… where a couple of weekend backpackers suddenly started disappearing one by one in the middle of the night…" Paul joined in.
"Shut uppppp!" All the women cried in unison.
"Comon Farah," I pried. "I’m sure this mansion must have its own fair share of… unexplained stories to tell!"
"Well…" Farah hesitated.
Pooja and Teresa immediately got up to leave but we held them down amidst their cry and protest. Farah smiled and then suddenly became serious again.
"Well, there had been none of those luminescent spirit sightings and weird noises in the middle of the night…"
"But…?" Shaan enquired slowly. By now all of us including Pooja and Teresa were glued to Farah. Pin drop silence suddenly flooded the room. I thought I felt a brief gust of chilled air… but then, it could be my imagination too.
Farah slowly continued, "Ever seen those horror movies where somebody takes a photograph and later when the picture is developed, something else appears on the photograph?"
"Don’t tell me…" I cut in. "Some…thing appeared in the snap?"
"Well… not exactly…" Farah’s face was dead serious now. I could see from the corner of my eyes that Teresa and Pooja were holding each other’s hands tighter…
"The funny thing is… any photographs taken during this Fire festival inside the Master bedroom never sees the light of the day…"
"You’re kidding!" Paul shouted in disbelief.
But Farah was not the type who would play that kind of prank on us and we had known her for a long time.
"This was what my uncle told me. For some strange reasons, the negatives on their camera were always solarized… overexposed… when they tried to develop them. Of course when my father, long before he met my mom, told his college friends about this, they all came in a large group during this very festival and clicked as many photographs as they could inside the bedroom and all of them came out perfectly. But again, the next year when my uncle and his family came her for the festival, the negatives couldn’t be developed again…"
"And my uncle swore it was not his fault… Moreover, he’s a professional photographer… I know it’s weird. You may ask how come nothing happened to my father’s friends… I have no explanation for that but other than those, all the photographs that had been taken here all came out blank…"
"Any… ermmm… reasons for this phenomenon?" Paul enquired in a low voice. Our heads inadvertently moved closer to Farah.
"Well… supposedly… one of my great grand uncles died during a family photograph many years ago during this Fire festival. They had called a professional photographer all the way from Daman… Since he was almost bedridden, they set up the bedroom itself for the family photography…"
Fear had well crept into the eyes of Pooja and Teresa.
"And then just as the cameraman pulled the plug, that sudden bright magnesium flash from the 19th century camera gave great grand uncle a sudden shock and he died on the spot…"
"Ah, those large cameras with a tripod stand and black cloth covering the person behind it?" Pooja had barely managed to ask coherently.
The room went through yet another round of deafening silence and then Farah continued.
"Anyway, that was the only story this mansion had. Other than that, no eerie apparitions walking through walls or mysterious women sobbing by the well in the middle of the night…"
"Or headless babies crawling in the corridor!" Paul added.
Farah smiled, Pooja screamed, Teresa threw a pillow at Paul and we laughed, although a bit uncomfortable.
We soon changed the topic, brought out the beer and played dumb charades. Soon the alcohol kicked in, the volume on the stereo pumped up and we started dancing, although we all went to the loo in pairs as the toilet was situated at the end of the dark corridor far away from the main room.
When it was time to sleep, we all slept together in one of the five bedrooms. But none of us dared to sleep in the adjacent Master bedroom, although surprisingly, we all slept soundly that night.
The next morning, Farah went to the Atash Bahram Fire Temple while the rest of us nursed a hangover. Parsi food was served by Garima, the residential servant who had seen 4 generations of Farah’s relatives undergo their sacred thread ceremony in this mansion. The food was surprisingly pungent for a Parsi dish, but we later found out Farah had informed Garima to make it extra spicy as she was afraid we wouldn’t like the traditional bland taste.
Farah came back in the afternoon and by then we were all fresh and ready to go to the beach, which was just a few hundred metres away.
It was then that a strange thought suddenly overcame me. I needed to see this photograph black-out phenomenon with my own eyes!
I know it might sound stupid to some, but being a horror movie buff and extremely inquisitive about unexplained mysteries, I suddenly had this immense urge to see with my own eyes if this story could be true!
"So are you sure you don’t wanna come?" Farah asked me one more time.
Paul too beckoned, "Dude, it’s gonna be fun!"
"Seriously guys, I don’t feel like going out in the sun right now. Bloody hangover. Anyway we are having the bon-fire party tonight right? Lemme save my energy for that."
Farah pleaded with me one last time with her eyes and then said, "Alright then, we’ll catch ya later for lunch. We won’t be long anyway."
And they all started walking towards the gate.
"Hey one last thing!" I shouted.
"Those two kids playing there, they are Garima’s kids right?" I smiled.
"Yes." She replied with a puzzled look on her face.
"And that old man in a white inner vest is her husband?"
"Yes." She smiled back.
"So other than the four of them, there’s nobody else here correct?"
"Correct." She was about to laugh now realizing why I asked.
A silly grin appeared on my face.
"I just don’t wanna be talking to some strange kid or man, and then you coming home later and telling me the person I’ve just described that I was talking to, had been dead for 100 years!"
Farah laughed out loud.
"Dude…" Shaan shouted, "If you ever come across any ghost, believe me, it’s not going to be THAT clichéd!" And they all laughed, turned around and disappeared behind the gate.
As soon as they were out of sight, I ran to the bedroom and opened my bag. My hands trembled a bit… With a heavy breath, I whipped out my trusted Sony Cybershot digicam!
Now we shall see if the legend is true or not…
As I switched the power on, I felt a little bit dizzy because of the excitement and suspense. I sat down for a minute and closed my eyes.
ok, this is it. It’s now or never!
I tried to convince myself - Farah’s relatives had used the old-fashioned film cameras… the negatives could be overexposed due to various reasons like the moisture in the room and direct sunlight from the mosaic windowpanes. I was using an advanced digital camera, something that could not be affected by… "ghosts".
unless of course, the ghosts these days are tech-savvy! I joked.
However, I couldn’t even bring myself to snigger at that joke inside my head.
I still felt a bit shaky and my knees didn’t exactly feel sturdy when I stood in front of the tall hand-carved Elizabethan door. With one swift but anticipating push, the door creaked open and a forceful leap took me across the threshold…
So there I was, standing in the center of the infamous Master bedroom. Long slender rays of sunlight beamed in from between the mosaic glasses above. There was no dust on the wooden vanity or the antique mirror, nor were there cobwebs covering the roof beam. The servants had done a good job stripping the room bare of its undesirables and eeriness.
It looked just like any of the other bedrooms inside the mansion, except this was bigger and it had a "history".
I looked into the display lens of my digicam and aimed it across the room.
Remember… there are no ghosts… there are no ghosts…
With great trepidation, I clicked on the camera… the sudden flashing lights from the camera shocked the hell out of me. The room suddenly felt… darker, hence the reason why the flash felt brighter than usual.
It’s all in your head you idiot… comon be strong…
I looked into the display… everything felt like slow motion… time seemed to stand still and all sound ceased to exist, as if I was living in a vacuum…
The display slowly loaded…
It looked like one of those photographs in a National Geographic magazine! The exposure and color settings were perfect. Nothing blurred, nothing unfocused. It was one of the best natural snaps I’ve ever taken!
I laughed at myself. First a grin, then a chuckle, until I ended up laughing out like a madman permanently lodged in a forgotten asylum.
How silly of me to think I was actually going to see a ghost or a blank screen!
I clicked a few more times, capturing the room from different angles and perspectives. I wondered how it would feel like had I been able to capture the past in my camera. I looked at the pictures again and again, making sure they didn’t disappear mysteriously! And then I chuckled like before when I tried to imagine the supernatural trying to erase the data in my memory card!
A haunted memory card! Now that is hilarious!
What if the intensity of the haunt depended upon whether the memory card is a micro SD or CompactFlash card! Would the memory card ghost spread via USB port? Could anti-virus remove them?
All I could feel now was laughter.
20 minutes and 30 photographs later, I walked out of the Master bedroom and explored the rest of the mansion one more time. I took pictures of the cobblestone, the ancient well next to the servant’s quarter and the beautiful flora surrounding the mansion.
As I was focusing my camera on a rusty old bicycle semi covered with shrubs and roots that was probably used during World War II, a childish giggled startled me. I turned around quickly and heaved a sigh of relief. It was one of Garima’s kids. Upon seeing me, he laughed again and ran away.
I ran after him until I reached the servant’s quarter, where Garima and her husband were both preparing the lunch. They stopped what they were doing and smiled at me.
I waved to them using sign language, asking them to move closer to each other so that I could take their picture. They gave a puzzled look and smiled again, so I had to repeat my gesture. Finally but slowly, they huddled together by the cooking pot.
I guess they had never seen a person of oriental origin or a digital camera before, or even both.
At least one good thing out of this was that I didn’t have to tell them to smile. They couldn’t stop giggling at me! Hence I didn’t have to figure out how to say cheese in Gujarati.
I love these folks!
After I took their picture, I waved bye to them and walked back to the house. I could still hear them giggling behind me. An hour had gone by since the guys left. They should be back any moment now.
I sat on the large wooden dining table and Garima laid the plates, quickly followed by her husband who carried a large vessel of steaming curry.
"Mutton dhansak!" he proudly proclaimed in a highly accented English. I nodded my head politely and smiled.
After all the dishes were laid on the table, resembling a medieval banquet fit for a Nawab, the servants left, still giggling and I could hear the voices of Paul and Shaan in a distance.
Finally, they’re back, just in time.
I looked at the camera one more time. Although a part of me knew the photographs were not going to "black out", I just felt like browsing through all the pictures I just took.
As I put the camera down next to me on the long wooden bench, Pooja’s unmistakable laughter followed by the sweet giggle of Teresa and Farah filled the hall. Shaan and Paul too laughed hysterically.
In a matter of seconds, they walked into the dining hall. Their feet were wet and covered with sand.
Farah immediately asked, "So Garima told me you were trying to socialize with them using sign languages?"
"And what was that strange stunt you were trying to pull? They still can’t stop talking about it!"
"What stunt?" I asked perplexedly
"I don’t know. I just assumed you were up to your tricks playing with people. But you sure made them laugh a lot. They really liked you!"
We all laughed.
"I guess they found it strange that I was taking their picture," I replied nonchalantly.
Paul who was already sitting and pouring a glass of water gave me a dumbfounded look.
"Dude, what picture?"
"Photographs, duh! With my digicam." I replied.
Farah’s eyes froze. "What do you mean your digicam? I took your digicam with us to the beach." And she pulled out my digicam from her handbag…
I looked down at the bench…
There was no digicam.