A suitcase in his right hand and a travel bag around his left shoulder, Shantanu made his way into the crowded compartment of the Mumbai-Nagpur train. He checked the number of every seat he passed, failing to notice the blood shot eyes of people sitting and staring at him. He entered another compartment, looked at the seat number and stopped. His seat was already occupied. He looked up at the man in his seat. Then at the other people around him. He studied each one of them carefully, trying to find out if it would be difficult to get the seat he had reserved.
He heaved a sigh of relief as the ticket checker came along. The T.C. checked his ticket and ordered the window seat to be vacated. Shantanu moved to his seat, tucked his suitcase under the seat and sat down with the travel bag in his lap. He took a deep breath and relaxed.
As the train started its journey through the night, he closed his eyes. But he was unable to sleep. He stayed awake and watched the people around him. There was a newly married couple to his right. Another married couple, with a seven-year-old and a newborn baby girl, sat opposite him. Across the aisle, there was an old couple, sitting in opposite seats and munching snacks.
The newborn was crying continuously and everybody was irritated with her. But after a while, she stopped and everyone breathed a sign of relief and went to sleep.
Shantanu closed his eyes.
In the middle of the night, he felt as if the train had stopped and he opened his eyes. The train was still in motion. The lights in the compartment had been switched off. He looked around and found everyone asleep.
He was about to go back to sleep when he realized that there was a new traveller in the compartment, in the opposite window seat. But his face was not clearly visible as he was resting his head back, away from whatever little light that was streaming in through the window.
Shantanu looked at him carefully, straining his eyes, wishing to find someone he knew. He was about to go back to sleep, when the traveller bent forward. He smiled and extended his hand.
“Hello, I am Anaath Mukherjee.”
Shantanu moved forward and shook his hand. “Hi. Shantanu Dasgupta. Which station did you board the train? I did feel the train slowing, but…”
Anaath Babu sat back in his seat. “Jalna. I took it from Jalna, about 15 minutes ago.”
“Jalna! What’s the time?” He glanced at his watch. “My God! It’s two o’clock! I slept a lot.”
Shantanu looked out of the window into the dark, trying in vain to find out where they were. Then he settled back again. Anaath Babu adjusted his glasses and looked at Shantanu. “Where do you live?”
Shantanu turned his head towards him. “Sitabauldi. It’s near the Nagpur station.”
“You are coming from Mumbai, right?” Anaath Babu probed further.
Shantanu hesitated a little. “Yeah.”
He took a good look at Anaath Babu and felt reassured. “I just finished my engineering from SP College of Engineering, Mumbai, and am returning home. I’m really excited to be back after four years.”
“What are your plans for the future?”, asked Anaath Babu.
“I hope to get a job in Nagpur. But I wouldn’t mind settling down in Mumbai. It’s a great city. And I have lots of friends over there.”
He watched Anaath Babu carefully for some time. He was wearing a red striped shirt and a dark brown trouser. His steel-rimmed glasses down on his thick nose. He was clean shaven with a streak of grey hair to the left side of his head. “You are a professor, aren’t you?”
Anaath Babu gave a wry smile.
“No? Then you must be a writer.”
Anaath Babu’s smile broadened, “I think you have read a lot of detective novels. I am neither a professor, nor…”
“Horror.” Shantanu cut in. “I prefer horror novels and I’ve read a lot of them.”
Anaath Babu leaned forward with curiosity.
And smiled. “Interesting. You know, both of us would make a great team. You have read a lot of horror novels and I am carrying out a research on ghosts.”
“What?” Shantanu almost jumped out of his seat.
“Really? Unbelievable! What kind of research? What have you found out until now?” Shantanu was eager to hear about Anaath Babu’s research. His face lit up and eyes were wide open. He listened attentively.
Anaath Babu leaned back and his head was hidden by the darkness again. “Frankly, I’ve found nothing yet.”
“What do you mean you found nothing?” Shantanu asked disapprovingly.
“I’ve been carrying out this research for five years. I’ve read a lot of books, newspapers and magazines. I’ve met people who say they have seen ghosts and I have investigated a lot of haunted houses, but I haven’t come across a single ghost. Not one ghost!”
Shantanu felt disappointed. “What a pity! You know, we used to hear ghost stories from the people of my village. Although I didn’t believe in ghosts, I would listen to them carefully. Ghosts, spirits, black magic, all this is so frightening and exciting. Isn’t it?”
Shantanu looked at him with hope. “So, do you believe in ghosts?”
Anaath Babu raised his eyebrows and nodded.”I don’t know. I am a bit confused. If I don’t find one, then I guess I have wasted these five years doing research on them. On the other hand, I don’t think I really believe in ghosts. They don’t exist.”
“If you don’t believe in ghosts, then why are you carrying out this research?”
Anaath Babu sat back. “At least my research will prove that there is no such phenomenon called ghost.”
“Come on, Anaath Babu! Didn’t you ever feel that ghosts could be real? That they do exist?”
Anaath Babu put up his hands. “Okay, okay. I agree. But suppose I come across a ghost, what then? What?”
“Then you’ll be famous, maybe rich as well.”
“Shantanu, you’re missing the point. If I do come across a ghost, how would I prove it?”
“You could take pictures or record videos.”
“I have all kinds of equipment with me. I carry it with me all the time. But what if ghosts are really what people believe they are, invisible?”
“Why don’t you take someone with you? You’ll at least have a witness.”
“I started out with some of my friends, but they lost motivation.”
Shantanu got lost in deep thought for a few moments. “I can come. Where are you going now?”
“Bori, 20 km from Nagpur. It’s a small town. I’ve got information that there is a haunted house in that town. I’m going there to investigate.”
“What? Bori? It’s near my uncle’s village. We used to go there very often. Bori! Wow! A haunted house in Bori!”
“I want to come with you.” He said after a lot of deliberation.
Shantanu was now up on his seat and leaned forward. He was really thrilled at the news. He started to breath faster and was sweating with anticipation.
“Will you go there directly?”
“Yes. Are you sure you want to come?” Anaath Babu seemed a bit encouraged.
“Give me the address of the house. I’ll come there in a couple of days. I have to go home first.”
“Are you sure about this? I mean it could be real frustrating.”
“Hell! It might turn exciting. You’ll stay there for a couple of days, right?”
“Yes. At least three to four days. It will take a day to set up the equipment. If I find anything out of the ordinary, I’ll have to stay longer. Here, write down the address.”
Anaath Babu removed a diary and gave the address to him. Shantanu noted down the address. As he was writing, he began to think about the upcoming adventure and stared at nothing outside the window.
He looked ahead after a minute or so and then rocked back in his seat!
The seat opposite to him was empty! Anaath Babu had disappeared!
Shantanu was startled! He looked as if he was suspended in time. His mouth half open. His hands up in the air. His eyes wide as if they had seen a…
For a minute or so, he just stared at the opposite seat. Then he stared down at the diary.
A few seconds later, Anaath Babu appeared in the aisle. He walked towards his seat, much to Shantanu’s relief.
He wiped all the sweat from his face and put on a smile.
“Gosh! You just scared the shit out of me.”
Anaath Babu took his seat.
“I should have warned you that it could also get dangerous. Once, I was in Calcutta…”
End of Part 1…