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     Volume 5 Issue 116 | October 13, 2006 |

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View from the Bottom

Sleeping Amidst Fear

Shahnoor Wahid

The other day I was reading Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Fall of the House of Usher' for the umpteenth time. In my opinion there are not many short stories that depicted loneliness and the burden of decaying family tradition as poignantly as Poe did in this masterpiece of his. As I read on, my mind drifted away from the pages of the book and passed through the dust-filled layers of time. I went back to a dark and windy night in Sylhet town in 1974. My rickshaw halted in front of the gate of a two-storied house in an old and quiet residential area of the town. The houses looked like imposing edifices guarding some secrets. These houses were built in the thirties or forties.

I knocked on the gate. I was supposed to pass the night in that house. After a bit of knocking the gate opened. An old caretaker peeped through the half closed gate and asked for my identification. When I gave him my name and the purpose of my visit he opened the gate and let me in. Thank God he had received prior information. I looked around. All the doors and windows of the house were closed. There was no light except for a dimly lit bulb at the back of the house. I could hear the rustle of the leaves in the ancient trees on the sprawling compound. They became restless at the presence of a stranger in the compound.

I followed the caretaker to the back of the building. He opened a door. I could make out the features of a narrow staircase going upward. The man had a lantern in his hand. I climbed up the stairs behind him. On the first floor he stopped before a closed door with a big padlock on it. He unlocked it with a key and flung open the doors. Ancient smell of dust and decay hit me in the face. It was pitch dark inside. The man groped on the wall and after a while switched on an electric bulb (run on DC current). The bulb tried frantically to throw light in every corner of the room but it ended up creating creepy looking shadows everywhere. The man pointed at a devan near the door and said he would be downstairs in the servants room. Without waiting for a second he turned and closed the doors behind him. I could hear his footsteps receding as he went down. I was on my own from here on.

The wind outside began to whine a bit more loudly. Is it trying to say something? “Well, let me look around the room before hitting the devan to sleep,” I told myself. It was a very large room, a sitting room perhaps. The room was filled with Victorian sofas, side tables, small stools, a bookshelf and an easy-chair. The curtains were made of heavy materials. I could smell dust and cobwebs all around. I looked at the furthest corner of the room diametrically opposite to the door where the light was making strange shadows. I froze at the sight of a long narrow object on the floor. My throat went completely dry. I could hear my own breathing and I felt as if something was choking my voice. My eyes almost came out of their sockets as I tried to recognise in the semi darkness the object on the floor underneath a large portrait on the wall. My heartbeat doubled as I finally recognised the object. It was a coffin box! “Damn it! It's a coffin box!” I muttered in a ghostly voice. I looked harder at the portrait on the wall. It was of an old man and the eyes were looking straight at me. I felt something creep up my spine. I quietly opened the doors and went downstairs. The caretaker was still awake. He told me that the man in the portrait was the master of the house who had died in London. His dead body had been brought in that coffin box. He lay buried in the compound of the house.

I went up and stood outside the room trying to figure out what I should do next. Should I go outside the gate and walk until dawn appeared? But, isn't it true that I did not believe in ghosts or evil spirits no matter what Bram Stoker or Edgar Allan Poe or Washington Irving have written. Did I not laugh at my friends who believed in ghosts? What would they say if they come to hear of my passing the night on a road just because there was a coffin box in the room? I decided to go inside and survey the situation and put myself through a test of courage. The sight of the coffin box and the man in the portrait again sent a shiver up my spine. I sat down on the devan and decided not to go to sleep. It was already midnight. Outside, a wild wind played havoc on the treetops. When I woke up in the morning it was ten by my watch. I jumped up. No ghost came out of the coffin box! I felt relieved to be alive. I had conquered fear.

(Based on real life experience)

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