A Box of Sweets

“I wish I could tell you I was brave but I’d rather tell you I am still alive…”

This is from a few years ago. I was just out of college, jobless, and broke. Seduced by the promise of a big city, I decided to try my luck in Mumbai and rented the cheapest room I could find. A dump. But it had a bed and an address I could put on my job applications. That was all I needed.

The building was really a set of single rooms. You’ll find many such contraptions in the suburbs of Mumbai. Somehow standing erect, flouting every safety regulation. But there always were tenants ready to move in. Thousands poured into the metropolis daily, driven by the promise of a better life, and finally settling for the reality of just a roof above their heads.

The room next door to the one I occupied housed a young couple. A nameplate on the door indicated the husband’s name was Shyam Sharma. The walls in the building were paper thin and I ended up knowing their voices before I knew their faces. Every night I heard them talk. I couldn’t make out the words — the walls were good at garbling the sentences together — but the hums of their voices soon became my lullaby.

In the six months that I lived there, I never saw the wife but I met Shyam on the stairs sometimes. We were on the fifth floor. There was no lift and the staircase was almost as cramped as a ladder. We rushed out of our doors in the morning daily — he was perennially late to the office and I was always late for interviews — and we tried not to get entangled as we navigated the way down. On one such descent, he told me his wife was pregnant.

Sure enough, I heard a new lullaby next week. The baby’s high-pitched crying permeated through the brickwork at night. Many would have had an uncomfortable sleep, disturbed by the baby’s screams, but I slept like a drunk dog. The next morning, I knocked on my neighbor’s door to congratulate him. Shyam opened it with new-Dad eyes. Sunk in due to lack of sleep but still gleaming with joy. He promised me a box of sweet laddoos.

But the sweets had to wait. I spent the next week in Pune, another city a hundred and fifty kilometers away, trying my luck in the job market there. It wasn’t a very fruitful trip. There was always someone a bit more qualified, a bit more experienced, with a bit more cash for a bribe. By the time I got back to my Mumbai bed a little past midnight, I had buried myself in a pit of frustration. Tired tears streamed down my cheeks.

I had barely cried myself to sleep when I was jolted by an urgent knock. Shyam was at the door, his chest under his unbuttoned shirt heaving hard.

“Help me, bhaiya,” he hissed. “My wife is not breathing at all. She is bleeding from down there. So much blood, bhaiya, please help!”

I could hear the baby shrieking. Shyam rushed back and I followed him through the dark corridor to his doorstep.

“I will go get an ambulance,” I told him. “You stay here. I will be back in two seconds!’

I skipped down the steps, almost tripping, almost falling, but not caring. This was a time before mobile phones, a time when getting a fixed landline telephone meant you had to be on a wait-list for a year. I had no money for even a payphone, and I did the only thing I could. I ran.

The nearest hospital was a couple of kilometers away but I got lucky. Just a few hundred meters down the road, I saw an ambulance parked on the side, its driver asleep in the back. I pulled him up and fell to his feet. I begged him to come with me but he was in no mood to oblige. He was off-duty. When I promised him my watch as a gift, he conveniently became on-duty.

The street leading up to our building was too narrow for the ambulance. I persuaded the driver to unlatch his stretcher and we carried it to the building and up the stairs. The child was still howling. We reached my neighbour’s door and I pushed it. It was bolted from the inside. I thumped my fist against the wood. No answer.

Something must be wrong. Maybe Shyam wasn’t able to leave his wife long enough to open the door. The baby’s cries were louder than a whistling local train. Where were all our other neighbors? How could they just sleep through this din? I pushed the door with my shoulder. Once. Twice. Again. I could feel the latch trembling.

Arre, what is all this commotion?”

A bald man with a round, swollen tummy stood at a doorway down the corridor. He strode towards me.

“Why are you making so much noise at this time of the night? Has your brain turned into curd?”

I explained the situation to him as quickly as possible, interrupting myself only to bang on the door repeatedly. The man rolled his eyes and stepped closer. He pointed with a stubby finger.

I followed his gaze and for the first time, I saw a gleaming lock on the door latch. It was locked from the outside. Huh? What did that mean? Perhaps Shyam had gone out himself to get help. Before I could say another word, the bald man put a hand on my shoulder.

“No one lives here. No one has lived here for five years.”

“No, no,” I shook my head. I had heard this about Mumbai. People were so busy in this city they didn’t even know who their neighbours were. “Shyam lives here. Shyam Sharma. His wife just had a baby and he even promised me a box of swee — ”

My voice trailed away. I realized the baby was no longer weeping. I stared at the door and it somehow looked a lot older than I had remembered it. The nameplate had vanished? By this time, a crowd of about a dozen people had gathered. They all nodded knowingly. One of them brought me a stool.

As I stepped on it, I felt like I had been caught up in one of Mumbai’s dreaded showers, only it was cold sweat and not rain drenching my shirt. My intestines had knotted themselves. I already knew what I would find when I peeked through the skylight into my neighbor’s room. Cobwebs. Dust. No furniture. A room that had been abandoned for five years.

My legs went numb and I leaned against the wall for support. No Shyam. No wife. No baby. But I had seen him, talked to him. Was this just a bad dream? I had seen enough horror films for my imagination to provide an answer.

The bald man turned to the gathered crowd. “Chalo, chalo, the show is over. Do you have no work tomorrow? Go back to sleep.”

The people dispersed and the ambulance driver left as well, not before strapping my watch to his own wrist. I tried to protest but speaking required strength I no longer had. The bald man walked me to my door.

“You are not the first person,” he said with some sympathy. “And you will not be the last. It is a very sad story. Shyam used to live in that room with his wife and baby. One day, he came back from work and found his wife to be very ill. He went out to find a doctor but before he came back, she had passed away. Poor man. He found life too hard after that. Drinking. Depression. One amavasya, who knows what demons got into him. He killed the baby and committed suicide.”

“Th-this building is haunted?” I stuttered. “You know this building is haunted and you still live here?”

“This is Mumbai, bhaiya,” he smiled. “You live where you can. And the rent is now so cheap because of Shyam, who would want to leave?”

The man patted my back and left. Needless to say, I lay awake the rest of the night, imagining knocks, voices and baby cries. I recalled every conversation with Shyam. I had shaken his hand. He was a ghost. A ghost! If I could, I would have left right then but I had already paid that month’s rent in advance and it would take time to find another place.

For the next week, I stayed holed up in my room, too afraid to venture out. I peeked out into the corridor, expecting to see Shyam but he never appeared. But as the days passed, my fear began fading. Shyam’s apparition had never harmed me. He had been pleasant and warm. A good neighbour. I thought of the tragedies that he had suffered and his poor soul trapped in between worlds. I thought of the day he must have struggled to find a doctor for his wife. I had got him an ambulance. Would that help free his soul from the chains that bound him? I hoped it did. He didn’t deserve it. No one deserves it.

I began sleeping soundly and filling in application forms again. For some reason, I felt a surge of confidence. Perhaps helping Shyam had given me some good karma. Well over a month passed since that strange night when I got a call for a promising interview. Deciding to leave nothing to chance, I set my alarm clock well before the prescribed time and just as I was getting out of bed, there was a knock on the door. I pulled it open and peeked outside. No one. Then I looked down. The air I had inhaled wasn’t exhaled for an eternity, for next to my feet was a box of laddoos.

I wish I could tell you I was brave but I’d rather tell you I am still alive. I instantly locked the door shut and pulled out my suitcase. The knots returned. My stomach churned last night’s dinner into vomit. The full set of my belongings only included a few clothes and some utensils. Stuffing them into the bag with the haste of a man who had just seen a ghost, or at least a box of ghost sweets, I emptied the room.

With the benefit of hindsight, I guess it’s possible the kids in the building decided to play a joke on me. In fact, there could be any one of a million perfectly logical explanations. Maybe the sweets were Shyam’s way of thanking me, or fulfilling an old promise. But I didn’t want to know. Curiosity has killed too many cats and there is no need for humans to join in.

That afternoon, I got the job. I never returned to that building again.