It was the spring of 1997, and I was in the first year studying a degree in engineering in a quaint town of Jalpaiguri in North Bengal. The campus was a nature lover’s paradise — the north and west peripheries abutted the verdant Danguajhar tea garden, two silvery rivers meandering along east and west boundaries. In spring, a soft breeze blew from the north — down from the Dooars, the hinterland of the eastern Himalayas. Nothing could provide a more thrilling backdrop to the spine-chilling, bloodcurdling experience I witnessed on that spring night, which I’m going to unfurl.
On the northern side of our first-year hostel, there was a common recreation room, with a TV, some carom boards and the latest addition — a new table tennis board. At the far corner, a door led to a small anteroom, filled with a long table and narrow benches, and large slatted windows opened up to the lush greens of the tea gardens. We used to refer to it as Newsroom, and it only opened at daytime between midday and 4 pm. At lunchtime, keen students would spend the lunch break in this room, soaking up the news around the world, to sharpen their general knowledge, whilst the other despotic ones would turn the TV on, or try a game of carom or some table tennis.
That year, table tennis was particularly favourite, as the hostel received a sports funding, and the boarders saw a swank new table tennis board, and some thick rubber padded new bats. We shared the hostel with third-year students, and there was an unwritten rule that they get to play first, unless some senior took pity on the eagerly waiting hapless fresher, looking dejected from the long wait. The first years started to flock around the tables after dinner, as the seniors began to go back to their rooms for coursework or bridge sessions. My roommate Tatha and I were very keen to find some time to hone our paddling skills, yet the wait seemed to be endless.
Our story begins on one such weekday evening when we had enough and decided to stay back, as long as it took, to play more than just one game. Our perseverance finally paid off, when, around 11:30 pm, the crowd started to disperse. Lights over carom boards went out first, boards covered with dark blue jackets, then a while later TV was turned off, as the last few of the TV addicts got up to get ready for bed. Just a few more of our classmates hovered around and taking turns after each game, we were not too disappointed. The last two or three went to bed about half-past midnight, leaving us the empty common room, a dimly lit incandescent lamp just over the table tennis board — struggling to illuminate past the rickety steel chairs behind us.
Tic…toc…tic…toc…tic…toc…our ears gradually got bored to the incessant din of the ping pong ball on the bat. Arms got heavier, yet high on spirit, we carried on, mastering the spinning serves or backhand smashes, and the hands of the clock on the wall nonchalantly kept telling us the time 1:00 to 1:30 to 2:00. As I stood facing the door, tired of the ball going outside the common room, Tatha shut the door and we carried on playing with the same élan. We were extremely tired, yet we continued like zombies as if we were being controlled by remote psychomotor commands, and our only aim was to keep on playing.
That state of active ennui broke, when Tatha paused for a moment before serving and looked past me, and stood still. “What’s going on? Why aren’t you serving?”, I asked. Tatha paused for a moment then said, “I thought I saw something flash around that door”. He was pointing at the door to the newsroom. Then he said it must be the light-catching something. We carried on playing and soon forgot about it. Another half-hour passed, and we decided to call it a day after the best of three sets.
It was halfway through our game when Tatha smashed a winner and the ball rolled on towards the back end of the room. Just as I picked the ball up and was coming back to the table, I looked at Tatha and saw his startled face, and the frowned eyes looking behind me. By nature, I can imagine things quite easily and be scared, nevertheless, I can still keep my logical hat on — only real things make me afraid. Looking Tatha in such a state sent a gush of adrenaline through my blood, and my body became instantly alert to witness something out of the ordinary, occurring behind my back. My heart racing, I asked Tatha again
— what’s the matter with you now?
— I saw the lock move.
— what nonsense! You must have seen the light reflecting on the lock.
At this point, I have gained my composure back. I reasoned my thoughts, that we have been playing for a long time, with the main door to the common room shut, so no one could have come in. I looked back at the newsroom door and the new lock on the hasp and staple bolts. Although the dimly lit room, barely managing to illuminate the dark corners, created an eerie sight, I decided to overcome my initial fear and walked up to the door. The lock remained as it was — the lifeless lump of metal, hanging from the latch as expected. Its stainless steel body throwing back some of the paltry light coming from the lamp over the table tennis board. I shouted back at Tatha “see there’s nothing here, the lock did not move! Let’s just have this game and get back to the room”. Tatha looked reassured as well. So I started walking towards the board, trying to reconvene where we left the game.
Suddenly my composure was shattered by a rather uncharacteristic raspy shout from Tatha
— HONU! I swear it just moved again!
With a déjà vu feeling, my composure disappeared again, and I started to doubt my logical self, thinking something sinister was about to happen. Goosebumps shot up all over my fatigued and sweaty body, yet I tried to run through all plausible explanations why Tatha saw the lock move.
— what do you mean? It’s not the time for a prank you know!
— I swear it MOVED! Oh look, IT MOVED AGAIN!!! Come away Honu, something spooky behind that door it’s trying to come out!
Spooky and I don’t get along very well, yet out of indomitable urge to know what’s going on, rather than running away, I took a few steps back towards the newsroom door, curiously watching the lock. Time must have stood still at that moment, as I saw the lock still lying limp on the door latch…and then it happened! I stood a metre away from the door, and right in front of my eyes, the lock started to move! Not just an odd shake, it started to turn upwards. Its shackle still fastened through the staple part of the latch, the lock turned upwards — first slowly, moving only millimetres, then much faster — until it turned completely upside down when it stopped with the keyhole facing me.
There are moments in my life, which I will never forget, and can reminisce any time without a chance of that memory fading away, and that was the moment the most scared I ever felt. These are the moments, where logic bids adieu scratching its head as it had no explanation, leaving the witness in a state of utter shock and fear. Fear. That’s was all I could feel was engulfing me rapidly, the molten fear running through my veins, my heart trying to burst apart in anticipation of what’s happening next. My limbs felt all numb, even if I knew my mind is telling me to run, my legs felt as if they were filled with lead. Transfixed at the gravity-defying position of the lock, at that moment, it seemed that the lock is trying to send some message to the animate world from the supernatural, and it was the last bastion that’s protecting the barrier that was the newsroom door, between the dead and the undead.
The adrenaline in my blood must have made my perceptions of time extremely prolonged, as all that feeling and moments of mesmerising gaze on the lock didn’t last more than five seconds when I got my senses back by Tatha’s scream
— Honu, come away from that door! It’s haunted. RUN NOW!!!
That shout broke me free of the spell that phenomenon I just witnessed cast over me. Before Tatha could finish his sentence, I was running off, throwing the table tennis bats on the board. We had to turn all the light off, despite fearing the darkness will swallow us, and had to lock the common room door — fumbling with the keys with shaking hands. Outside, we were met with dimly lit foyer, strewn with the boarders’ bicycles. We ran to our room, throwing a few cycles along the way, along the dark corridor, still fearing something through the darkness would just grab my ankles. Entering our room, we bolted the door in all possible combinations and pressed our ears against the door, if they could pick up any faint movement in the corridor. Our encounter with the other side left us completely sapped of energy, courage or reason. My heart pounding incessantly, I kept running through the events that unfolded right in front of my eyes over and over, yet found no explanation to the moment of paralysing fear I just experienced. Maybe it was some lost soul trying to find its way back to the living world, maybe there was something terrible happened in the Newsroom ages ago? Maybe it was those spirits of murdered people in the tea garden or the paddy fields, who glide over the eerie tea gardens on moonlit nights. We will never know who or what it was, but that incident on that spring night has permanently been etched in my mind, although I rather wish it never happened to me. At that very moment, Tatha and I both stood dumbfounded, without any answer. All we knew is, that the next day when we tell our story, we will become a laughing stock, no one will believe our bloodcurdling experience. Yet, we will always remember those few seconds that put our existence in question — our encounter with the other side. The incident of “phantom lock” would become one of the most memorable yet frightening moments of my life, as well as the biggest mysteries, because I will never fathom out, who or what it was that lifted the lock in the air and held it up for all the duration we were there. Reminiscing of the dimly lit common room, the tic-tocs of the table tennis, the inexplicable mosaics formed by the light and shadow from the lamp and amid that background, a moving lock — it always made me wonder, what was there behind that dark Newsroom door that night? I wish I knew. I only wish. Or rather not…
PS: In fact, it was discovered what it was the next morning. As predicted, our story was met with ridicule and disdain. At lunchtime, finally, a troupe of classmates went to the door, to prove that it was only a figment of our imagination and boorish superstition. And yet again, in broad daylight, the lock began to move…slowly rising before everyone could see the keyhole right in front of their eyes. The hysteria that followed was deafening. Most of the disbeliever band was dispersed, running as fast as they can. But some brave ones stepped back and then went back to the door again. It was just then the mystery unveiled, as they noticed the door was moving. It was that spring Dooars breeze gushing inside the Newsroom through the slatted windows and pushing the door. The hasp of the latch was moving, pressing the lock to move with it. The mystery was solved, backs patted, the salvo of derision against us was quadrupled that we didn’t figure out this simple causality. Yet I will remember that night as it happened when the lights and shadows played games with our mind, and the lack of daylight smudged the defined line between the worlds of reality and fantasy. Maybe there was something else behind that door that night, but we will never know. There probably was if you believe there was, or nothing if you don’t believe…
PPS: On that night, after coming back in our room, we realised that we needed to go to the toilet, yet could not walk along the empty and dark corridor again, nor open the grilled window to do it. So we used Rahul Singh’s bucket we borrowed the previous day for a shower. If Rahul ever reads this, this is an unreserved apology for peeing in your bucket without permission, under unavoidable circumstances.