“Raj and Simran also left two days back”, said Maya, “It was the seventh villa being vacated in Area 153. Now only two families are left here Amar – the Kumars and us”. Amar was just back from yet another one of his frequent business trips and Maya was bringing him up to speed on the latest news.
“Good”, Amar folded and kept the newspaper away with a mischievous look in his eyes, “gives us more privacy, even out in the open”, he finished with a wink.
Maya didn’t reply. She just glared at him and angrily placed his breakfast in front of him. She then went inside to take a shower leaving Amar alone in the sunny courtyard with his breakfast and his train of thoughts.
Maya knew that though Amar didn’t show it, he was very worried as well. They had pooled all their savings, taken out a big mortgage, and had even dipped into their retirement nest to buy this villa six months back. She still remembered the day which started it all. They had been looking for an apartment for over a year but had not been able to find one which checked their multiple selection criteria. And then one day, Amar’s colleague Imran had suggested that he go see the last remaining villa in Area 153!
Amar had baulked at the name. “Area 153”, he spoke out loud, invoking curious glances from other colleagues swarming around the water cooler. “Maya and I are looking for a home, not a concentration camp Imran. Moreover, I can never afford a villa, however silly a name it may have”. Imran smiled disparagingly at Amar and asked if the two could discuss it post-work before walking back to his cubicle.
“Area 153 is the latest villa project of Acme Builders – the most popular and respected real estate developers in the country. The name is not weird and neither does it pay homage to any concentration camp. It actually denotes that there are only nine villas in the entire community and they are arranged in a 3-1-5 configuration with three rows of three, one, and five villas respectively. The first and the third rows are sold out and only one villa remains – the one in the centre. And it has not remained unsold due to lack of buyer interest. The builders have a weird condition and they have steadfastly refused to sell the villa to anyone who doesn’t comply. I strongly urge you have a look, Amar. In fact, I am surprised that you haven’t yet heard of them given the buzz around this project.”
Amar jabbed the last remaining piece of chilly chicken on his plate with his fork, picked it up, put it in his mouth in one swift motion, gulped down his pint of strong beer, signaled the eager waiter for a refill, let out a loud belch, and wiped the few beads of sweat from his forehead on his shirt-sleeve. His lack of interest demonstrated, he looked up to face Imran.
“And what exactly is the deal-breaking condition that has hitherto dissuaded all potential buyers?”
“I don’t know. However, I can fix up a meeting this weekend. See, I will be totally honest. Acme builders will pay me to get you to visit Area 153 for a meeting. And if you decide to buy it, I will be paid 2% of the total sale amount.” He had taken up this business to earn a little extra on the side, Imran had said.
“Who are you fantasizing about mister?” Maya’s gentle rebuke brought Amar back from the reverie. He looked up to see her standing in front of him. Her face radiant, little cobwebs of light shining through her freshly washed fragrant hair, her smile infectious. He toyed with the idea of taking the day off but then remembered he had this important meeting scheduled today. With a heavy heart, he finished his now-cold breakfast, kissed his wife goodbye and left for work.
Maya’s days started after Amar left for office. The last six months had been a daze. First getting the interiors done, then negotiating and finalizing with the domestic help, then getting the backyard kitchen garden up. And then there were the queens. “Oh, the queens”, the thought brought a silent tear to Maya’s eyes. The Queens was the name of the group that the married ladies in the housing society had formed on Whatsapp messenger to share life hacks and gossip. There were days when Maya’s phone continually chimed with messages from The Queens sharing tips for all aspects of life from preventing a pest infestation in the backyard pumpkin patch to making the husband go down on you. The messages had dramatically dried up since the exodus began. Hardly anyone ever texted now. “Well, at least I don’t have to charge my phone twice a day now”, Maya shrugged, picked up the half-read Poirot paperback from the table and snuggled down on the lounger at the same spot where Amar was sitting earlier. The air carried a faint smell of his cologne and she found it mildly captivating. The smell stirred memories of the past. It has only been six months but it seemed like a lifetime ago. Maya closed her eyes.
“Are you kidding me?” Amar couldn’t help exclaiming. He and Maya had decided to have a look at the villa and were now engaged in a discussion with one of the representatives from the builder’s team at the site. “A bird? You will not sell the house without the bird? Is this the condition that has kept out all buyers? No wonder the country is going to the dogs. While the rest of the world is moving forward, we are still stuck with medieval superstitions. You should be ashamed of promoting superstitions like this.”
“We are not promoting superstition Mr Amar”, the voice at the other end of the desk had replied curtly. Maya, who till now had been leafing through the brochure looked up and saw a middle-aged, balding, bearded, mildly overweight, bespectacled man engaged in conversation with her husband. “This is an Eastern Barn Owl. It nested in the Peepal tree we felled to clear the site to construct the villa. We made multiple attempts to drive it away but it kept coming back. So we decided to let it stay. We are not forcing you to accept any conditions. My job is to apprise you of all the facts and that’s what I am doing. Owls are considered inauspicious by a large segment of our population and no buyer has yet signed on the dotted line.” He looked at his nicotine-stained nails for some time before continuing. “I am sure you know the owl is considered a manifestation of Alakshmi, the elder twin sister of Goddess Lakshmi. It is death and decays personified”.
Maya awoke with a start to find her face wet with perspiration. The summer sun was high in the sky now and was raging down with full fury. Maya walked indoors, latched the door, fixed herself a lunch, and lay on her bed, still thinking about the past.
“It is death and decay personified”, mimicked Amar while he sipped his sixth beer. Maya and he had decided to purchase the villa and had paid the booking amount. They were in a party they had thrown to celebrate the occasion. They had booked the terrace lounge of the poshest pub in the city. “Oh come on!” Maya began, but before she could say anything further, they were distracted by a loud high-pitched shriek. “What happened now? I am sure Sana is up to something again”, Maya whispered to him and made her way to the source of the noise. Sana, Imran’s wife, was quite infamous in their friends’ circle for getting very drunk and creating a ruckus in every party. And confirming her fears, Maya found Sana clutching the terrace railing and crying out loud. By now, there was a melee of other party guests and servers around her. “I promise, this just fell on me from the sky”, Sana uttered mid-sobs, face streaked with her now-smudged mascara. “It’s just a dead mouse ma’am”, a helpful server offered, “probably some poor owl dropped its dinner and would have to sleep hungry tonight”, he continued in an attempt at hilarity. Maya’s ears perked upon hearing the word owl. “This is just a coincidence. I probably shouldn’t give it any further thought”, she thought. But she could swear she saw, at that very instant, a pair of dark eyes glaring at her through a white, heart-shaped face. “This just can’t be!” she ran inside. The rest of the party was a blur. Later that night she confided about her fears in Amar but he just laughed her off. “Maya, we are conditioned to believe this crap. Don’t worry, everything is fine”, he said and went off to sleep. Maya had tried to explain that owls now made an appearance quite regularly. She had seen one perched atop her car the other day, then one had crashed against the window at home one day, and then this one today. “Amar is right”, she thought before hitting the bed, “maybe I am just noticing owls more now and there is nothing more to it.” Sleep didn’t come easily to her that night.
“Who are you kidding, it’s the same owl. The one you saw at the villa in Area 153. It’s an ominous sign”, a voice inside her head said.
“Yeah right”, another voice inside her head countered, “owls can now track potential buyers of land on which their home once stood”.
“Everything cannot be explained rationally”
“Well, the only reason why it cannot be explained is that it is not true”.
The voices continued their argument through the night. Next morning, a puffy-eyed Maya reached the baking class she had signed up for and trudged through the day. Her eyes drifted towards the window multiple times. It, however, was quite an uneventful day except for the fact that she horribly burnt the cake she was trying to bake. The smoke from the oven sent the fire alarms blaring and for a moment, it looked as if the sprinklers attached to the ceiling would come to life but thankfully, the instructor was able to manually shut the alarm down. That evening, Amar and she went to sign the purchase documents and hand over the cheque to Acme developers. They now officially owned the villa. They moved in next weekend and soon came to terms with a big white owl visiting their courtyard twice a day. It took some getting used to but Maya now no longer feared the bird. She had even started feeding it. Amar, ever the fan of JK Rowling had even christened the owl Hedwig. The name stuck. With time, the owl became quite the magnet for children from other villas. The childless couple loved the time they got to spend with the children. They couldn’t be more thankful. The new place also proved quite lucky for Amar professionally. He got promoted twice at work in the last six months. Amar’s promotions meant he now had to travel away on business trips quite frequently. Maya had to take the entire ownership of getting the interiors done and set up the house. Not that she minded it though. Little did she know that the joy would be very short-lived. The problems had started soon afterwards.
It had started the day after Amar went away on his first trip. The elderly Mrs Kapoor found a swastika drawn in blood at the entrance of her villa. The poor lady gasped and fell so hard that she suffered multiple fractures in her hips and legs. Even after the long and painful physical recovery, she refused to venture near her own house’s door alone. Not too long after that both she and her husband left the city and moved in with their son.
The story of Victor and Sheryl was a stranger. Their ever-curious children were digging the soil in the kitchen garden when they found a casket filled with human bones. The children were quite amused by the “treasure” they found. However, Victor, the devout Catholic was not amused at all. He was convinced it was the handiwork of Satan himself. He put the house up for sale and moved his family back to their old 2-bedroom apartment in the old city. All that within a span of three days! Maya was sure Amar would have convinced them to stay had he been present but he was again away on one of his trips.
Maya sat bolt upright in her bed. “Why are all problems happening when Amar is away?” she asked herself, now very curious and worried. She took out her notepad and started jotting down the details.
“Amar travels for at least one week every month and it is just a coincidence that the strange events always occur in his absence”, she tried to convince herself. “Didn’t he, despite being a vocal rationalist, bring in a tantrik to allay the fears of other residents after the incident with Victor and Sheryl?” she reasoned with herself. “Yes, exactly”, the nagging voice inside her head refused to die down, “HE brought in somebody to parrot what HE wanted the people to hear. Didn’t the tantrik say that the whole area was cursed – There was a sinister force which was adamant on making people flee? And when the tantrik saw the owl he got very agitated and warned them that Alkashmi had set her sights on this place and would not rest till everyone leaves. The episode with the tantrik did more harm than good. There is definitely more to the story than what meets the eye.”
“What should I do to solve this mystery?”
“Read his diary. Maybe you will find some clues”
“Stupid suggestion, he doesn’t even write a diary”
“Insist on going with him on his next trip”
“He may get suspicious”
“At least insist on dropping him off at the airport”
“What purpose would that serve?”
The doorbell sound made Maya almost jump off the bed. She had not even realized she had spent almost the entire day in the bed. It was still early evening but the dark clouds that had gathered suddenly made it look like night already. She went to the door wondering who it could be and was surprised to see her husband back home.
“What a pleasant surprise Amar! Why are you back so early?” she managed to ask. “I have an urgent meeting to attend at the head office tomorrow morning and hence have to fly tonight. I am here just to pack an overnight bag and leave. Don’t worry, this will be a short trip. I will be back tomorrow. Now please bring me some water while I pack”. Her fears momentarily forgotten, she went to the kitchen and decided to prepare some tea. It was then that the realization hit her like a truck. “The notes”, she thought with despair, “they are all spread on the bed. Amar would now know that I suspect him somehow”. She quickly ran towards the room to find Amar busy selecting the perfect necktie for his meeting. The notes remained spread on the bed, apparently untouched.
A cup of tea, some snacks, and 20 minutes later, Amar left for the airport. His departure was the cue for Maya. “It’s happening today”, she said aloud to herself. “Something sinister will happen at the Kumars’ house and they will have to leave too”. Hysterical, she ran barefoot to the villa where the Kumars resided only to find it locked. “Have they already left?” she thought through her panic and then immediately discarded the idea. It was a weekday. “They are probably at work. I am overreacting. I don’t even have a reason to suspect my husband. I should go back and finish my book”. She started walking back but the clouds at that very moment decided to open up in a loud and violent outburst of rain. Maya took shelter in the gazebo outside the Kumars’ villa. The clouds, however, were not in a mood to relent. The downpour continued. By now it was dark. Maya resigned to her fate and walked to her home through the rain. She was surprised to see her house in darkness except for a faint ray of light wafting out through the curtains. She unlocked the door and walked inside only to find over a dozen lighted candles arranged in a pattern on the floor.
“Welcome back Maya, I didn’t expect you home so soon”, a voice boomed from darkness across the room. It hit Maya like a bolt. This was a voice she could recognize in her sleep.
“Amar! What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be on a flight?”
“Don’t you know better? The problem with reading too many mystery novels is that one starts thinking that she is a sleuth. However, unlike in books, there are no happy endings in real life”, Amar sneered as he stepped out from the dark.
Maya gasped with horror at the mere sight of Amar. He looked delirious. His hair, normally tied in a bun was loose now. He was stripped to the waist and his torso was shimmering, perhaps with sweat, in the candlelight. He sported a black tilak on his forehead and held a ceremonial dagger in his hands. Froth forming at his lips, he continued, “How do you think I got two promotions in a span of six months? I had started reading up about Alakshmi after I first heard about her. I realized I had stumbled upon a very powerful primitive force. A force, which if harnessed, could do wonders for me. Yes, I know that Alakshmi is considered as the harbinger of the death of destruction. But if satisfied, she could also bestow riches. I came to know that the Peepal tree which stood here was where Alakshmi resided in spirit. All she wanted me to do was to ensure that I drove out everyone from here so that she could come back. I negotiated with her to let us stay here, in this house while making sure everyone else left. I would have got the coveted position of the General Manager once everyone left. You and I could have lived here in comfort. But alas, that was not to be. Why did you have to start getting suspicious?”
“You have gone crazy Amar – hard work brings about prosperity and riches – not praying to some non-existent god. And how did you even come about the requirements of this god of yours – this Alakshmi?” Maya walked slowly towards Amar despite her fear.
“You won’t believe even if I told you”, Amar also took a step towards her.
“Try me, I am sure we can work something……..” Maya began but couldn’t complete her sentence as the dagger pierced her heart. “I am sorry Maya, but ambition trumps everything”, these were the last words Maya heard before everything went dark.
“Your plan got interrupted today”, a shrill voice rebuked Amar. “You need to drive the Kumars out. Don’t you want to become the General Manager?”
Amar took a deep puff. Putting his chillum aside he said, “All in good time. Now that I have taken Maya out, there is no need for me to be cautious. One way or the other, the Kumars would be gone by tomorrow”.
“Good!” the shrill voice continued, “Now feed me”.
“Of course”, replied Amar, “let me find you a good fat mouse my dear Hedwig, or should I say, my revered Alakshmi!”