• Writer's Collective

The Hidden Steps.

The boy had found out those hidden steps one day when his mother was asleep in the bedroom and he had crept out to explore the house. They came there very rarely. It was his mother's paternal home in her native place near Darbhanga.

Dar is main door and Bhanga is broken in Bengali.

His mother's father had gotten this big and rambling mansion as a settlement of a debt from another zamindar who had since then retired to the big city of Calcutta.

The old zamindar had his own quirks and one among them was populating the mansion with steps all over for various uses. The central entrance steps were for the grandness of an entry. Carriages would stop. People would disembark and then sweep up the steps. The men sturdily and the women daintily. The staircase within the mansion was for the family. You went up and you came down from all the assorted bedrooms, studies and store rooms. Two side stairs on both sides of the mansion were for the lower caste workmen and women who did all kinds of work in the mansion. From carrying in water to cleaning to cooking.

The last of the stairs wound down straight from the terrace to the backyard and an offshoot led to a small passageway via a parapet behind a few bedrooms. The zamindar may have been naughty and a few nautch girls may have gone in and out of his bedroom through this path in his time at the mansion.

It was this hidden steps and passageway that the boy discovered. Green with algae from rains and brown from decay of the bricks and limestone. But very mysterious and thrilling for a nine year old.

He made this place his home every afternoon since he discovered it.

One day his mother found that her son was not in the room during her siesta.

She came out and asked everyone around if they had seen her child. No, they hadn't.

Then, the washerwoman, who was wringing out the clothes in the huge backyard, said that she had seen the boy go up the back staircase.

The mother promptly went up the stairs that she had last visited when she was a teenager. After a few bends, she could hear her son, talking to someone.

"So, how many jumped that day?"

There wasn't any answer. Not that she could hear. And she burst through the doorway to the secret stairs and saw her son sitting on the fifth step and looking out at the roof of the third floor back verandah.

She shouted, "Dipu, what are you doing here?"

Dipu got up and stood with a shocked face. He had not expected to see his mother there. She pulled him to herself and patted his head.

The household had gathered at the base of the stairs as she came down with the boy. Somehow, everyone seemed to be more concerned than necessary, the boy noticed.

That night, while sitting beside his mother while she knitted in the yellow light of the lantern that had been provided by the evening mashi who came to work at 5 pm, the boy asked his mother.

"Why were you afraid today that I went up the secret steps?"

The mother decided to tell the boy.

"It's said that the badi rani of the earlier zamindar who stayed here had jumped from those steps and killed herself. Then on, some eight deaths have been reported there by my family and our relatives. It's said that people are found talking to each other on starless nights."

The boy kept quiet for a while and then responded, "But Ashok was so forthcoming. He told me that he and Duli used to sit there all day and play together. He also showed me the play carts and utensils that they used to play. He said that they had married there secretly and they wanted to only be with each other. Only her Raavan father had intervened and she had to go away."

The boy turned to the mother. She sat, looking at the flame of the lantern, as if struck by lightning.

Ashok had jumped from that parapet. Fourteen years ago. She had been named Sandali by her father and mother had shortened it to Duli.

And her son, had talked to her only love in life.

She couldn't.

- Indraneel Majumdar

Image Courtesy: John North, GETTY IMAGES

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