Atmaram Nana was alone at home. Having lost his wife, Supriya, two years back, he stayed with his son’s family at their house in the town of Kankavli, in the Kokan area of Maharashtra.
Atmaram was very proud that he had been able to buy this house from the original owners, the Nene’s when he was quite young.
His son Raghuram, Raghuram’s wife, Revati and their 6-year-old son, Rahul had gone to Mumbai to attend the wedding of one of their relatives from Revati’s side.
Atmaram Nana was quite sprightly even at the age of 72. He had kept himself in good health by gardening every day, in their small little garden, his darling cat, Mani, following him everywhere.
Today, Atmaram was feeling quite lonely. On top of that, he had not been able to sleep properly. The creaking sounds from the attic had been quite loud during the night and Atmaram blamed it on the withering timber, as always.
He decided to investigate. Anything to pass the time. As he made his way up, he put on a cloth on his nose, to protect himself from the dust and cobwebs. After all, he didn’t want to descend into bouts of sneezing.
On reaching the top, he crinkled his eyes to see better in the darkness. Then, he reached for the light switch and put on the light.
Like most of the households in the town, the attic was used as a storage place for drums of rice and wheat. And where there is food, rats are bound to follow. This is where Mani made herself useful.
Crouching to avoid hitting his head against the low ceiling, Atmaram made his way across the attic, his footsteps causing swirls of dust to rise and then settle back on the attic floor.
Most of the floor was occupied by various household items like a broken chair, Rahul’s childhood schoolbag, his broken toys, old utensils and the like, which ideally should have been disposed of to some scrap dealer.
Suddenly Mani screamed, “Meowww…” and something swung down from the ceiling, hit Atmaram in the face, making him lose his balance and fall. Fortunately, not much harm was done except for soiling of his clothes.
Looking up to see what had hit him in his face, he saw a rag doll, it’s head held to its body by a few threads, hanging upside down from the ceiling. Perhaps belonging to Rahul he thought; though he could not remember anyone gifting or buying a doll for Rahul. Cursing Raghuram for placing the doll on the ceiling, he espied a tin trunk in the corner where he had fallen.
Like his cat, Atmaram was overcome with curiosity. What would this trunk carry? What memories will it hold? And he had time to kill.
He saw a lock on the trunk. His memory scanned through the recesses of his mind, but couldn’t remember whether he had the key for it or not.
So he took the next available option, reached for the spade lying in another corner of the attic and hammered on the lock. In a few strokes, it gave way.
All this while, Mani was doing a big din with her meowing, Atmaram couldn’t fathom why.
As he prised open the trunk, Mani fell silent. In fact, she jumped inside the trunk and started her sniffing routine. Atmaram gently picked her up and put her down outside.
Inside was his old camera! And some photo albums! For the next few minutes, he got lost in his past, for the photo albums held many memories, especially of his wife, Supriya and their child, Raghuram.
Raghuram and his family were back from Mumbai the next day, a Sunday morning. Once they had settled down Atmaram placed the camera on the table. Rahul was sitting on his lap.
“Wow! Nana, that’s your favourite camera. Where was it all these days?” exclaimed Raghuram with surprise.
Like a person who has been gifted a new smartphone when he least expected it, Atmaram’s eyes were twinkling.
“You know, it still has a film in it, I think it must be half used. Oh, how I loved this camera. It is a Rolleiflex! It had been gifted to me by my uncle, Sakharam kaka. I understand he bought it in Mumbai….no, Bombay, in those olden days” the words rolled off Atmaram’s tongue in his excitement.
Raghuram was happy to see his father so happy. He had not seen him so enthusiastic and talkative for a long time.
“But why did you suddenly stop using this camera? I faintly remember you using it when I was but a child”
“I don’t know. Actually, I don’t remember it. Why did I stop using?”
Atmaram tried to recall but in vain. All the while his fingers were busy in re-familiarising themselves with the various buttons and knobs of the camera.
As he pressed a knob, the lens side slid open. With shivering fingers, Atmaram prised open the side and the lens protruded out, sliding on the bed so formed. This was the zoom-in zoom-out feature of the camera.
With child-like excitement, he took the camera near his face to look into the viewfinder.
He pointed the camera at Raghuram, who was busy giving a false smile. The viewfinder was a little yellowed now but he saw something hanging from the ceiling in the background, where Raghuram was standing. All this while, Mani was making a cacophony, looking at Nana.
But when he put aside the camera to see what it was behind Raghuram…there was nothing. Again he tried to click his son’s photo but the button would not budge. And the apparition remained in the frame, though he could not pinpoint what it was. Perhaps a spec of dust?
“I think that’s why I stopped using the camera. It’s not working. And who will repair it in a small town like Kankavli?”
“No worries Nana. So what if it’s not working now. We are the proud owners of an antique camera like Rolleiflex. And let’s develop the film inside. At least we will be able to re-live some old memories”, so saying Raghuram took the camera from his father to retrieve the film.
However, he was not able to do so.
“Call that photographer, Aniket. He should be able to retrieve” advised Atmaram.
“I will do one thing. I will take the camera tomorrow while going to the office and drop it off with Aniket. In evening, I will get it home with the developed film”
The next day Raghuram came home in the evening with the camera and the developed prints.
As soon a Raghuram entered, Mani became agitated. The hair on its body stood on end; she arched her back and bounded off, out of the house.
But Raghuram hardly registered it, he was eager to show the photos to his father. In his haste to come home, he had not yet seen the prints and wanted to observe his father’s reactions to the old photos, which had not yet been seen by anyone.
There were total of 10 photos. Nana was so happy to see his young wife, Supriya smiling into the camera. In some, she was alone, while in some she was carrying the child, Raghuram.
Those were the days! Reminisced Nana fondly. Raghuram was watching the varied emotions fleeting across Nana’s face.
The last few photos were from this very house. It seemed to be someone’s birthday.
Then Nana remembered. It was Raghuram’s 5th or 6th birthday. It was the first birthday to be celebrated in this house.
Nana remembered; he had bought the house from the Nene’s. He had been lucky. The Nene’s had sold it off to him in haste and at less than the market rate of that time, and Nana had been so happy about this unexpected windfall. Before shifting to Kankavli, Nana had been staying in the interiors of Malvan and had made enough money from his fisheries business.
After selling it off to him, the Nene’s had left Kankavli for good.
The eighth, ninth and the last photo caught Nana’s attention. For standing behind a posing Raghuram, was a girl who appeared to be slightly older than the child Raghuram.
Nana did not recall any such girl visiting their house. But it could be the failing memory of an old man. She must have been someone from their neighbourhood.
However, Raghuram who had been silently watching the photos and his father’s reactions to them did a double take on seeing the girl.
He plucked out the photos from his old man’s hands and stared intently.
“I remember this girl Nana. She used to come to my room very often to play with me. And I remember, she had this same rag doll, with its head hanging by some threads” smiled Raghuram, as he pointed out the rag doll in the photograph.
Suddenly Nana’s throat felt parched. “Revati, bring me some water”, he felt goosebumps on his hands, as he suddenly remembered the rag doll which had swung from the ceiling in the attic and hit him on his face.
With shivering hands, he reached for the box of medicines lying nearby and took out his hypertension medication. He gulped the tablet with the water offered by Revati.
“But Raghuram. I never saw any such girl entering our house, at least not when I was at home” exclaimed a puzzled Nana.
“Yes, Aai also said the same thing to me. In fact, she used to say that I talk to myself like a madman. She felt that I was play acting. But here is that girl!”
For some moments both, father and son stared at each other, transfixed by what Raghuram had just said.
Then Nana grabbed Raghuram’s hand, “Take me to the attic. I want to show you something”
Raghuram supported his father, as both of them went towards the attic.
“Revati, please prepare for dinner. We are coming back in a few minutes”
Reaching the top, Raghuram put on the lights. Both of them entered inside.
“That day, I entered the attic and was trying to see what all is kept here since I had come up after many months. And, while walking in this very corner, see there…”, and pointed upwards towards the ceiling. It was empty!
Raghuram looked at his father with a puzzled look.
“But…but, it was here only. Where is it gone?” Nana got very agitated.
“What, Nana? What did you see?” Raghuram was now losing his patience with his old man.
“Raghuram I saw the same rag doll! The same one with its head hanging by a few threads. But where is it now? I did not remove it. Has it fallen somewhere”, so saying Nana started searching on the dust-laden floor? But it was nowhere to be seen.
“Leave it, Nana. Why search for a useless doll. I am hungry. Let’s go for dinner”
“Ok, let’s go. But it’s surprising, isn’t it? Perhaps Mani….Mani carried it away?” Nana was still puzzled by the mysterious disappearance.
After putting off the attic light and locking it, both of them descended below.
As they passed a room, they heard Rahul talking to someone. “I have no one to play. Will you come often? Shall we play hide and seek?”
Eager to see whom Rahul was talking to, Raghuram entered the room, followed by his father.
“Won’t you introduce us to your new friend, Rahul. Who are you playing with?” asked Raghuram.
“Later Baba. She is hiding now”.
Smiling at Rahul, amused with his play-acting as both turned to leave; there in the corner where Rahul was staring, was the same rag doll…with its head attached to its body by a few threads!
Both father and son stood dumbstruck as they saw Mani in the window, hissing in the same direction, where the doll lay!
Oh! What entity had the camera let loose? Perhaps till now, it had been held inside the unprinted film.
The Nene’s; or rather the wife, now stay in far-off Kolhapur. The mother still feels extreme remorse at sacrificing her daughter in her mad quest for a son, which remained unfulfilled.
Her husband, Shripatrao Nene had a horrific accident during their journey from Kankavli to Kolhapur when the bus in which they were travelling passed very near to some trees, and one of the branches got caught in the window in front of him, causing a whiplash action decapitating his head, but held from falling off, by a few muscles which acted just like threads!