When I was in my early twenties, a struggling freelance writer, I rented two small rooms above a shop in Dehradun, and settled down to make my fortune as an author. Or so I hoped.
The rooms were without electricity, the landlord (the shop owner) having failed to pay the electricity bills for several years; but this did not bother me. Dehra wasn’t too hot in those days, and I had no need of a ceiling fan. And I thought an oil lamp would be sufficient and even quite romantic. Hadn’t the great authors of the past penned their masterpieces by the light of a solitary lamp? I could picture Goethe labouring over his Faust, Shakespeare over his Sonnets, Dostoyevsky over his Crime and Punishment (probably in a prison cell), and Emily Brontë composing Wuthering Heights by the light of a flickering lamp while a snowstorm raged across the moors that surrounded her father’s lonely parsonage.
Many geniuses would have written by lamplight— Premchand in his village, Keats in his attic, poor John Clare in a madhouse.... Well, I was no genius and I had no wish to enter a madhouse, but I liked the idea of writing by lamplight, so I invested in a lamp and a bottle of kerosene, set up the lamp on an old dining table (I took my meals at a dhaba down the road), brought it to a fine glow, and wrote a new story under its benediction. I don’t remember what the story was about, but it wasn’t a bad effort, and I sold it to a Sunday magazine. Every evening, after taking my meal in the dhaba, I would light the lamp, settle down at the table, and toss off a story or an article. I enjoyed the lamplight, even when I wasn’t writing. There was something soothing about its soft glow. It threw my shadow on the wall on the other side of the desk; and whenever I got up and paced about the room (as I often do when writing) my shadow would follow, prowling about on the walls of the room, almost as though it were taking on a life of its own.
The shadow was always a little larger than life. The lamp seemed to magnify my image. Probably this had something to do with the glass or the position of the lamp. And late one evening, while I was in the middle of a story, I chanced to look up—and there, beside my shadow on the wall, was another shadow. It was the shadow of someone who was standing behind me.
Someone was in the room, looking over my shoulder, reading what I was writing.
It is always irritating to have someone watching you while you work. Even in an exam hall I could never proceed with my essay or answers if the supervisor was standing over me; I would wait for him to move on, so that I could concentrate properly.
So now, disturbed, I turned around to see who was looking over my shoulder.
There was no one behind me, no one was in the room. I can’t say I was frightened. But I felt extremely uneasy. Had I imagined the shadow on the wall—the shadow of the watcher? I looked again. It was no longer there.
I returned to my writing. But I was uneasy. I couldn’t help feeling that I was not alone, that someone was reading my manuscript even as it was being written.
Well, doesn’t every writer cherish a reader? Why complain? If there can be ghostwriters, there can be ghost readers.
And when I looked up again the shadow was there, standing beside my own seated shadow, very still, studying the page, my words, my stream of consciousness.
It was the shadow of a woman, of that I was certain. Her hair fell to her shoulders, the outline of her figure was feminine, and she was wearing a gown that trailed behind her. All this the shadow told me; but no more.
I put down my pen, covered my manuscript with a paperweight, put out the lamp, and went to bed. In the dark there are no shadows.
The dark has never really bothered me. With my poor sight I am just as home in the dark as I am in a well-lit room. That’s why I like the lamplight. It is not too harsh, too intrusive; and beyond its circle of light, there is darkness, the friendly dark that is home to little bats, timid mice, and shy humans.
But lamps throw shadows. And when I sat down at my desk the following evening, I was expecting the shadow of my solitary reader.
I had written a page or two before I became aware of her presence. I knew she was there without looking up to see if her shadow was there on the wall. The room had become suffused with an unmistakable fragrance—attar of roses! She was speaking to me through the perfumes of her favourite flower.
But I was not to be seduced!
I carried on with my story—‘Time Stops at Shamli’— completed a few pages, covered them up, put out the lamp, and went to bed.
My visitor must have been annoyed, because the scent of roses vanished, to be replaced by the strong odour of crushed marigolds. I covered my head with a blanket and shut out all scents and shadows.
Next morning I found the pages of my manuscript scattered about the floor of my room. Perhaps the dawn wind had disturbed them. The window was half open. Could my visitor have disturbed them? She was doing her best to make her presence known.
I started working in the mornings instead of at night. The lamp would be given a rest except when really needed. Let the shadows rest. Let the phantom lady rest....
She did not like being ignored.
Late one night—it must have been about two in the morning, the witching hour—I was awakened by the most terrible shrieks. The room vibrated with the sounds of a shrieking woman.
Scared out of my wits, I leapt out of bed and lit the lamp, which now stood on the dressing table. The shrieking stopped. And shadows scurried about on the walls.
This happened night after night, for almost a week. Shrieks would wake me in the middle of the night, and would stop only when the lamp was lit. No longer did fragrance fill the air; just the smell of oil and something burning.
Excerpted from Song of the Forest: Tales from Here, There, and Everywhere by Ruskin Bond (pp. 256, Rs 499), with permission from Aleph Book Company
(Ruskin Bond is the author of several bestselling novels and collections of short stories, essays, and poems.)