The Room Below

Mira was scared as they were all over the place; the men in white wearing stiff black caps with huge black pistols hugging their waists. She did not know why but the sight of uniformed police men swarming her neighbour’s compound made her go cold.

“There! There! Can you see his legs hanging? Can you see it Mira?” Latika, her maid, was pointing out to her excitedly.

“Stop it Latika!” her mother had chided the maid. “Take Mira downstairs. Can’t you see she is scared?” Saddened at having to leave the scene of action, Latika reluctantly obeyed her mistress and gave an angry tug at little Mira. Mira was relieved to leave the terrace and desperately clutched at Latika’s dress as she went down the stairs. The whole day was a nightmare for her. Police came over to their house for their routine enquiries. Her mother, sensing Mira’s discomfort, packed her upstairs. She scampered into the comforting arms of her father.

‘What’s wrong Mira? Why are you so scared? It is just the police doing their routine job” said her father calmly.
“Why did he have to kill himself father?” asked Mira

“People do that sometimes, for various reasons. Besides, Pratap was never a man in his right mind” said her father sadly.

Mira vaguely remembered Pratap, the ‘Pagol’or madman as he was known in the locality. He was mentally unstable and lived indoors most of the time. He lived alone with just a male attendant. His apartment was immediately below the one her friend Dabboo lived in. Both Mira and Dabboo had been neighbours since forever and there also existed a common boundary wall between Mira and Dabboo’s house. Pratap’s room was directly visible from Mira’s terrace. Whenever they went to the terrace to play Mira and Dabboo used to come over to tease Pratap. The poor man however, never got angry at them. Rather he seemed to enjoy the teasing and would participate by laughing loudly and clapping his hands. Mira often felt sorry for Pratap and asked Dabboo to stop the cruel game. Dabboo however enjoyed the sport and came up with innovative ways to tease Pratap.

When Mira was alone she would often creep up to the parapet at the corner of the terrace and try to get a glimpse of the room where Pratap lived. Being an observant child, she knew every person was different and identifying these differences was an attractive game for her. Looking into people’s rooms helped her understand the kind of person who lived in that room by observing the things that were used to set up the room. The colour of the walls, the furniture they used, the lights and even the colour of the bed spreads she thought gave her interesting insights on the life of the person who lived there. Pratap’s room was particularly interesting because it only gave her a very brief view from beneath the faded curtains that hung to cover the window. It is the things that are barely visible that arouse the maximum interest. Most of the times, Pratap would be standing at the window, his huge frame covering the whole view. If by chance he caught sight of Mira or Dabboo, he would wave wildly at them and call out to the kids but they would run away laughing loudly.

Dabboo lived in a three- storeyed house that his grandfather had taken on rent ever since they moved to India in the Post-Partition period. They lived on the top floor. As there was no elevator in the building, Mira used to climb up the stairs to visit Dabboo. She loved the old archaic atmosphere the house exuded. However, ever since that fateful morning Mira refused to visit Dabboo’s house.

The house had two apartments on each floor. While Dabboo had a noisy, irritating neighbour on his floor, Pratap, was the only occupant in his floor. Following Pratap’s death, Dabboo’s landlord had decided to keep the floor lights switched off on that floor, to cut cost. The thought of crossing the dark, ominous floor in order to reach Dabboo’s apartment was sufficiently scary for Mira. She used to call him over instead. Despite Dabboo’s constant teasing, Mira refused to budge. So it continued till a rainy afternoon when fate decided to take things in its own hands.

It had been raining incessantly all morning. Mira was bored as school was closed and Dabboo was recovering from a bout of flu and was still very weak. As he could not visit her, Mira decided to pay her friend a visit. Her mother was happy that she was finally overcoming her fear and gave her a bag of sweet lemons and Bourbon biscuits to share with Dabboo.

As she reached Pratap’s floor, she was surprised to see the door to the flat ajar. The police had not locked it up properly and the owner had not been bothered anyway. From where she stood, Mira could see the same faded curtains fluttering in the moist monsoon winds. The elusive interiors held mysteries that Mira had always wanted to explore. Could she do it? Should she do it? Mira knew it would have been better if Dabboo was here with her. Would it not be better to call him first? But he was not well. Maybe he was sleeping. Moreover, Dabboo may not be interested. So Mira let her curiosity override her fear and ignoring the fact that she may be trespassing in someone else’s property, Mira stepped into the apartment.

All the units in Dabboo’s apartment were designed such that on entering through the main door, visitors would stand at the head of a long L-Shaped balcony. On crossing the balcony, they had to turn right to enter the bedrooms. The kitchen and the bathroom lay along the balcony on the right. The room where Pratap lived was the first of the bedrooms and lay at the end of the balcony. As she began moving towards Pratap’s room, she justified herself saying, “Just one look! What harm could one look do?”

Soon Mira was standing in front of Pratap’s room. The police had left it untouched and Mira was transfixed with what she saw. The walls of the room were plastered with sketches. They were images from everyday life. The life Pratap would view from his little window. There were so many that it was difficult to see the colour of the wall behind it. One was piled on top of the other. However, what caught Mira’s attention were sketches of Mira, Dabboo and …Pratap!

Mira could not believe her eyes. The sketches had beautifully captured their various moods while playing. In one they were looking up laughing loudly at the sun, in another they were floating paper boats while in another they were holding hands and running. Several of these were plastered on every wall of the room. The scenes were familiar to Mira as she could remember herself and Dabboo frequently engaging in these activities. However, she was fascinated with how seamlessly Pratap had blended himself into the sketches. It looked so alive and real as if the three had actually been together. The sketches, in addition to being a proclamation of Pratap’s immense talent, were also a call for his need for a life beyond this room.

Mira realised too late that had she responded to that call from the room below, the sketches could have added a whole new meaning not only to the wall behind them but to their own lives as well.

Photo by Min An from Pexels

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