Issue 7 Editor’s Prize for Fiction
GC sir first told us about the Putli Mahal project on a particularly busy day at the firm, pulling us out of our tasks at around two.
“I’ve been waiting for a heritage project like this my whole career,” said GC sir, scrolling through slides of his sketches next to pictures of the actual building we were going to re-develop. He’d been ambitious in his ideas, sensitive, and radical at the same time. “Its location is unmatched—right on the banks of the Ganga river. The perfect spot for a guest house! Just imagine the sunrises tourists would see!”
“Are we competing with other architects?” said Jeet, my co-worker. We always sat next to each other during meetings. He was like my older brother; we’d known each other since college where he’d been three years my senior.
“Well, not other architects, but developers are circling the property. If we don’t seal the deal on this project soon and start construction, well, let’s just say they want the land more than the building.” GC sir sighed; his eyes longingly fixed on his presentation. “Nobody cares about the historic architecture! I give it ten years before we lose the last historic mansion in the north of Kolkata.”
GC sir, a.k.a. Girish Chatterjee, had a face that never betrayed him. It was like clay in the hands of his will, and even though he was capable of being expressive, no emotion ever leaked out without his permission. And yet, his eyes were dancing today, darting from the images on his slides to something imaginary in the distance, as if he couldn’t wait to craft his vision into reality.
This was the GC sir I’d known and loved in college, where he had taken our architectural design classes from noon to four three days a week.
“Your design needs a story!” was his refrain. To him, none of us were pushing our tubular sheet containers enough.
“I want to see a house I’ve never seen before!”
“Boring! Bring me a museum with bolder geometry!”
“You live in Kolkata, for God’s sake! Don’t just draw some steps on the plans and call it a plaza! Give me an interplay of light and shadows where patrons come for their evening adda, not this unshaded piece of laziness which will burn their behinds in the scorching afternoon sun!”
As a teacher, he’s a bit old school. If he sensed a hint of a shrug in our work, anything that told him we’d just gotten a part of the job done without immersing ourselves in the problems we were supposed to solve, he’d rip our sheets down the middle.
“Can we see it one more time?” he’d say, deadpan.
It should’ve terrorized us, but it didn’t. He had high expectations of every student, from the boy repeating his second year for the third time to the girl who’d been designing like Louis Kahn since first-year. He wasn’t partial in his punishments. What redeemed him was that by the end of the semester we felt unparalleled pride in our work, and GC sir, for his part, forgave all past mistakes and congratulated all of us, calling us the best batch he’d ever taught.
When I graduated, he’d had a vacancy at his practice. He’d taken me in as junior architect, and I faced the reality of a creative mind like his.
“The toilet needs to be placed 600 mm from the wall.”
“Code doesn’t allow for a porch there. Scrap it!”
“You have to think about the economics. With so much circulation space, how do you expect to have three-hundred occupants?”
Architecture became a series of ‘2-Bedroom/Hall/Kitchens,’ regimented office building designs, and the occasional restaurant full of interior design clichés.
I was working for money now, and the only story our designs needed were the ones narrated by our clients, most of whom had a minimum of three gold chains around their necks and wanted more of a potboiler than literary classic for their architectural spaces. I couldn’t be so entitled to say my education had been a lie—I knew the real world had unromantic demands—but every day the flower of my creative spirit lost a petal. What I needed was an exciting project, something that demanded real design, something with a story.
The name ‘Putli Mahal’, that is, the royal dollhouse, rang more of a siren than a bell. The old palace had giant statues of three female forms on the riverside. At twilight, one could see their silhouette against the warm glow of the falling sun.
I’d prayed for a chance to participate in a project with a story. Somebody had taken my prayers literally.
It was my brother who’d told me the legend of Putli Mahal when I was seven.
“The babu of the palace had a special—some may say excessive—appetite for women,” he’d begun. “He collected them like dolls till his palace brimmed with the kept women he played with and discarded at will. At night, there was music and dancing. Other babus of the city, just as rich and corrupt, were entertained in the courtyard as the dolls danced ‘til their feet bled, their gold anklets breaking and their pieces scattering on the floor. People noted the desperation behind the dolls’ eyes through the silky veils of their dance attires. Some complained of a feeling of dread during these lavish sessions and vowed to never return. Others, sadly, were no different from the babu of Putli Mahal, drowning their senses in alcohol ‘til they felt little shame dragging the dolls behind closed doors.”
“Why did they close the doors?” I’d asked.
My innocent question hadn’t been conducive to my brother’s storytelling. He’d ignored it.
“Over time, the number of dolls dwindled. Nobody knows what the babu did to the dozens of girls in his house of horrors. All we know is that there were three who couldn’t bear it. They climbed up the boundary wall, their nails digging into the bricks, their fingertips and toes bleeding. They looked down at the Ganges and then at each other. With no doubts in their heart, they jumped. Their bodies were never found.” They climbed up the boundary wall, their nails digging into the bricks, their fingertips and toes bleeding. They looked down at the Ganges and then at each other. With no doubts in their heart, they jumped. Their bodies were never found.”
I’d covered my eyes in fear. My brother’s eyes had remained illuminated by the cold light from our old plastic flashlight. Through a gap between my fingers, I’d watched as shadows shifted on his face.
“They thought they’d be freed,” he’d continued. “But their souls had been tarnished, cursed to roam the palace forever. The babu knew his sins were now too grave to be forgiven. To atone, he built the statues of the three dead dolls on his grounds, facing the holy river. The spirits accepted his atonement and left him in peace. He died soon after, believing the legacy of his dollhouse to have died with him. But even today, some say they can hear bangles and anklets in the corridors, clinking as they would if their wearers were dancing in a desperate frenzy.”
I’d screamed. My mother had come into the room, her eyes filled at once with sleep and anger. She’d switched on the light as my brother fumbled with the torch in his hand. Before I knew it, my mother had taken the torch away and was twisting my brother’s ear. He may not have been scared of the spirits in Putli Mahal, but my mother’s wrath made him whimper.
“Why do you scare your sister all the time?” my mother had said. “I told you not to play with the torch! Batteries don’t grow on trees. What if we have a power cut tomorrow?”
Eventually, my brother’s ghostly stories got replaced by the plots of the detective novels he read. When we played, he was the macho detective with a gun, and I was his happy sidekick.
The day we got the Putli Mahal project, my brother called from Gurgaon. “What story?” he said. “Oh, that one. All the children were talking about it then. I wonder who came up with it. But remember the time you pretended to get kidnapped and got into an unwitting stranger’s van?”
The kidnappers, smugglers, and murderers in our later make-believe games had never really scared me, but somehow—and I wouldn’t admit this to anybody—the ghosts of Putli Mahal still did.
Putli Mahal presently stood as an odd mishmash. Only half the building, where tenants still lived, was painted, and had some signs of life. The other half, which had plants growing out of the mortars between its exposed moldy bricks, ended in a tall bell tower marking its corner. Even from a distance I could see rust on the bell. The windows were too broken to be called windows anymore. The contrast between the two halves was enough to convince a casual observer that each half belonged to different timelines.
A man emerged from the main wrought iron gate. He saw us staring, with measuring tape and clipboards in our hands. His eyes widened, but he said nothing before he turned his back on us and walked away down the street.
“What was that?” I said.
“What?” said Jeet.
“He just looked at us funny.”
Jeet narrowed his eyes. “Who?”
“That man in the white shirt and grey pants. He had a mustache. He just came out of Putli Mahal!”
Jeet’s eyes grew back to their normal size. “You know, your feminine powers of observation astound me sometimes.” He placed his finger in the space between my eyebrows. “You see everything, don’t you?”
I swatted away his hand and the image of the strange man. “Let’s just work,” I said.
“Wait, are you angry?”
“I. Said. We. Should. Work.” I was mildly annoyed, sure, but work would be a lot less fun without Jeet teasing me. He threw his hands up in mock surrender.
We spent the next hour surveying the ruined half of the palace. It was our job to figure out what was salvageable and what needed a complete do-over. In addition to our notes, we needed hundreds of photographs GC sir could refer to. It was a hot day, but old buildings in Kolkata are typically designed to keep cool throughout the year. Putli Mahal was not the best place for me to be experiencing this architectural advantage. The ventilation’s design directed breezes from the river into the house, and sometimes, a draft would run through the corridor we were in, sending a chill down my spine.
“Go photograph somewhere else,” said Jeet, examining an overgrowth of moss on one wall.
“What if the ceiling collapses on you while I’m gone?” I say.
“You’re unnecessarily making this a two-person job,” he said, gesturing towards his immediate surroundings.
“What if you slip down a half-broken staircase and die?” I said.
He turned his head around. “You’re scared, aren’t you? Oh, is it because of the dancing dolls? I love that story. They should make a movie out of it.”
“I’m protecting you, you idiot.”
“I heard it wasn’t a suicide. The babu had them killed.”
I turned and instinctively took three hurried steps back ‘til my back hit Jeet’s chest. There was nothing to look at.
“You’re scared,” he said, laughing, but after that, he never asked me to work alone in Putli Mahal again.
I knew from my work in the city that many illustrious families had been forced to rent out rooms in their mansions when the old orders fell apart, making one’s family history and prosperity under colonial rule matter less. The mansions were now rentals which were subleased repeatedly ‘til nobody knew who had the right to live there. Putli Mahal was no exception to this rule. The mansions now served as reminders of how quickly the mighty could fall, and how far.
“What’s going to happen to the tenants once the hotel is operational?” I asked GC sir.
He was poring over some construction drawings I’d prepared for a different project. He didn’t look up, but I saw the back of his neck stiffen.
“If the project happens, they will be rehabilitated. There are new flats in the outskirts of the city for the tenants to move into.”
GC sir was giving me the best-case scenario: the tenants would be relocated in a multistoried apartment building far away from the city center, consequently either losing the blue-collar jobs or having to commute several hours every day to get to work. The worst-case scenario was them being left to fend for themselves.
“Sir, when will we start the design process?” I asked.
“Have you finished surveying the tenant-occupied side of the house?” said GC sir, eyes still on the drawings.
“No, sir,” I muttered, taking my cue to return to the work that fed us.
Both Jeet and I had heard about hostile tenants. They were mostly impoverished families scared that some developer would buy out their homes through some legal loophole they weren’t educated enough to understand in order to build a shiny glass-enclosed building in its stead. However, soon it would be time to encounter them.
Nobody objected as we entered the tenant-occupied side of Putli Mahal. The first person I saw was an old man reading on a bamboo and jute chair. I only knew he was old because his arms had an abundance of white hair. His face was covered by the black text of Andandabazar Patrika, the most popular newspaper in Kolkata. A woman in her 30s—I assumed it was his daughter-in-law from the vermillion in her middle parting—emerged from their room with a china cup on a steel saucer. Her eyes met mine before she turned around and went back in. Next, we saw a man smoking a biri in a corridor overlooking the courtyard. He didn’t react to us. As we passed by the rooms, I braved peeks and saw families, with their cotton-stuffed mattresses, mosquito nets, old chests of drawers, gas stoves, and pots and pans, making their way through their daily lives. They were completely unperturbed by the strangers in their home. Perhaps, to them, home was limited to a 10’ x 10’ room with jalousie windows, as that was all they could afford. I wondered how bad things would have to get for someone to go from being rich to sharing their home with the poor. I couldn’t fathom the thoughts of whoever was the last heir of Putli Mahal as he watched his family’s fortune slowly run out and his palace become a shoddy rental.
“Aren’t they afraid we might be representing developers?” I said to Jeet.
“Let’s not worry about that,” he suggested. He was less cheerful than usual.
The tenant’s side of the mansion was less damaged, and in the presence of other human beings, I was less childishly wary of spirits. I made notes on my clipboard as diligently as I could. When that ended, I sketched out ideas for what we could do in our design—something I was not getting paid for just yet. I entered a state of flow, similar to one I’d experienced in college before my work became about material specifications and tender notices.
My immersion in my sketching caused me to yelp and drop my clipboard when a tiny body ran into my legs. It was just a little child with round cheeks and black ringlets for hair hugging my legs so tight I couldn’t move. Jeet was down in the courtyard. He heard me and looked up, shading his eyes with his hands. I was barely a couple inches from the balustrade on the first floor. I looked down at the child and then at Jeet, shaking my head with a smile.
“The ghost is coming,” whimpered the child. I picked him up. He was lighter than I’d expected. His sleeveless shirt was threadbare.
“There’s no ghost here,” I said. “See? It’s just me.” I poked my own cheek, right in my dimple. “Flesh and blood, just like you.”
The child wiped his tears.
“What’s your name?” I said.
As if on cue, two more children, both older than the one I was holding in my arms, turned around the corner, and dashed in my direction. I swore this building was like a maze with its infinite bends and corners. But so far one was more likely to run into mischievous kids than malicious spirits.
“Kaju! Kaju!” yelled the two kids. “Didi, put Kaju down!”
I narrowed my eyes. “Are you two scaring Kaju?”
One of the kids—a boy, or maybe a girl with short hair—shook their head. “We just told him the story of the three women who jumped off the big wall.” He pointed behind him, not in the direction that faced the river, but enough to remind me of the suicide story. I stopped being me and became Kaju, having been schooled on the horrors of Putli Mahal by my older sibling. Schooled on the horrors of Putli Mahal by my older sibling.
“They come at night,” said the other child, decidedly a girl.
“Who does?” I said softly.
“The dancers that died. We can hear their music.”
“Yes. The music she dances to,” said the boy/girl.
“They’re just beats. Thuk-thuk-thuk-thuhthuh-thuk-thuk-thuk.”
I held Kaju tighter. At least my brother had told me the story without sound effects.
Jeet touched my shoulder, giving me a start.
“Are you okay?” he said. He had a smile on his lips but a furrow between his brows.
“They’re running around,” I said, giving all the children a once-over. “The little one’s crying.”
Jeet retrieved Kaju from my arms. “Let’s find their parents.”
Kaju belonged to the woman in her 30s who we’d seen before. “I told you to stay on this side,” she said, patting dust off of Kaju’s body and then patting his cheeks. She turned to me. “You know children na, didi? They never listen.” She sent Kaju inside their room where he went and joined two older brothers.
“Who told the children the story of the three women who jumped?”
“Oh, we’ve always known,” said Kaju’s mother. “Never felt them in the house though.”
“You felt them?” I hoped this was just the imaginings of impoverished families with limited exposure to scientific education. “You must be mistaken. Ghosts aren’t real.”
“Then what are the sounds?” said Kaju’s mother. Is saw no terror in her eyes; just resignation. “We hear them every night. They are like the beats of a dance master teaching a pupil.”
Jeet returned from the rooms of the other children we had met. “What’s going on?” he said. I held up my hand to pause him.
“Have you checked what it could be?” I asked.
“Who dares go to that side at night? All we have is our lives, you know. Besides, we know we’re moving out anyways. The hotel people told us about the flats in a newer part of town.” Kaju’s mother shrugged.
“The newer part of town is very far from here,” I said.
“They say it’s better,” she said.
“Not for you.”
Jeet put a hand on my shoulder. “We should be working,” he said.
We did get back to work, except this time, the tenants acknowledged us. Kaju’s mother even offered us tea and I didn’t have the heart to tell her I didn’t want any due to the heat. When it was time to leave, the little children followed us out all the way to the autorickshaw stand and waved as the autorickshaw driver drove us away.
“Cute kids,” I remarked, waving back.
“What were you doing?” said Jeet. I turned to him. He was looking down at his hands, avoiding my gaze.
“We’re not supposed to talk about rehabilitation schemes,” he said.
I felt defensiveness rise up in my throat. “Don’t you think—”
“I think we’re architects. We’re not social workers. We don’t have jobs because of families like that. It’s sad, but it’s true. Our clients are rich people. The fact that someone is even giving us a shot at saving a building instead of razing it is a miracle, but that’s all the goodness we can hope for.”
I didn’t reply, but he was right.
“What do you expect to achieve by informing them of the downsides of relocating? Nothing! If the client goes through with this project, those families will have to move. They don’t have proper rights on their homes. At this point, they’re basically squatters. They can move with some hope or they can move in a fit of resentment. Those are the two options. My advice? Don’t inch them to the latter. It gives them no solutions while creating problems for us.” Jeet turned away from me, silently looking out the vehicle for the rest of the journey.
Saying sorry felt juvenile, so I said nothing. In spite of all our joking around, I was suddenly and painfully aware of Jeet being a few years my senior.
The following week, GC sir gave us the green signal for the design work on the Putli Mahal project, and I forgot about my childish embarrassment.
There was new energy in the office. Or maybe I was imagining it because a lot of the employees were still engaged in their routine projects. Only Jeet, a senior architect called Pubali, and I were assigned to Putli Mahal.
GC sir drew out his ideas for us, his hands moving in swift, masterful strokes as we converted them into real computerized models and drawings.
“Let’s make the reception minimalistic so we don’t overwhelm this beautiful courtyard!”
“How dare you put a wall there? Don’t you want people to look at the Ganga?”
“I wonder how close we can get to the ghat. We need to tie the building to the rest of the site.”
I’d never witnessed this version of GC sir outside of the classroom. It was as though we were breathing life back into an inanimate object, imbibing it with a personality, and sending it off to socialize. What was more, it could have even shed its alleged traumatic past!
“I need more pictures of the balconies facing the river,” he said one day, flippantly, as if he had no time for delay. Jeet had taken a day off for an exam he hadn’t studied for but his parents had insisted he take. Pubali was too much of a senior in the office to accompany me. I picked up the camera, got in an autorickshaw, and made my way down to Putli Mahal.
This time, Kaju jumped in my arms with a beaming smile, and his friends followed. I squeezed him tight before letting him down again.
“What will you draw today?” said a little girl, jumping up and down.
“Just here to take some pictures,” I said.
The balconies facing the river had long stretches of geometric flooring shaded with ornate screens. From there, I could see the statues of the three dolls. I squinted to conjure up the image I’d always carried with me: their dark silhouettes against a foreboding twilight sky in the harsh afternoon light. They were undaunted pieces of stonework.
Kaju’s mother gave me tea before I left.
“Do you know where they’re sending us?” she asked, full of hope.
“I don’t,” I said, avoiding further discussion.
For weeks I stayed late at work, finishing the work assigned to me during normal hours and working on a model for our final proposal after everyone left. I’d take my desk light down to the ground, retrieve the model-making materials from our storeroom, and cut and piece together chipboards and acetate sheets to create a physical 3D representation of our ideas.
I was often restless when asked to go back to regular work for a while. But I corrected myself because I didn’t want GC sir to take me off the project.
When I thought about the history of Putli Mahal—what I had seen of it and what we were creating—I would lose myself in a story of death, decay, and eventual rebirth.
I was living a professional dream. It didn’t come with a very big salary, but I wished more of adulthood could be this way.
The news first hit me in the form of an email from GC sir.
Stop all work on Putli Mahal. Meeting tomorrow.
I sat up in bed with my phone in my hand. My feelings were inexplicable. Since the spirits of the dancing dolls hadn’t appeared before me, I’d grown to be fond of Putli Mahal and the families that lived there. I’d begun to harbor design dreams of what it could become. I’d even fantasized about the international tourists that would come there, marveling at Kolkata’s colonial history and architecture from the unmatched spot overlooking the Ganges. Perhaps the horror story would be forgotten, or better yet, live on as a quirky mystery to attract adventurous people. However, I was used to the sudden suspension of activities on a project. We worked in a competitive profession. We worked on every project as if we’d gotten it only to find the client had gone for a different—usually cheaper—vision.
I sighed. As a compromise for my mixed feelings, I hoped the client simply wasn’t paying us at the moment (“The economy is bad.” “My last project isn’t making enough money.” “Your office is too expensive.” “So much money for some simple drawings!”) and we’d go back on track once that was resolved.
It was a Sunday. I took a seat next to my father on the verandah and picked up one of the newspapers on our coffee table. My mother brought us tea and the three of us sat down to enjoy the fleeting moments of relative coolness in the air as birds chirped on the mango tree in our small front yard. Joggers and breakfast vendors passed our house. I skimmed through the headlines, taking measured sips from my cup, ‘til a particular headline made me stop mid-sip.
KOLKATA’S INFAMOUS PUTLI MAHAL COLLAPSES
3 dead, 13 trapped; foul play suspected
The paragraphs that followed were dedicated to blame. The decrepit infrastructure of this glorious city! What was the government doing? It’s the developers! A classic case of land grab sabotage! Those families had no right to be there; authorities had repeatedly noted it to be unsafe.
It was the ghosts, said one brave woman. They showed us who the mansion belonged to in the end. Hell hath no fury and all.
All I could focus on was that 2 of the 3 dead bodies belonged to children. They’d been playing hide and seek in the more decrepit part—the part that fell first.
On Monday, GC sir gave us a short speech about how the tragedy had affected us and then made me do plumbing drawings for a soulless four-story apartment building.
I kept my head down and worked hard. Work was more challenging now that I knew how long it could take for another project like Putli Mahal to grace our office. Jeet was sensitive about my mourning—it felt stupid to call it that even though that was how it felt—and didn’t bring up the collapse.
“I have some news,” he said at the end of the day. “My exam results came. I’m going to the National Architecture and Planning School.”
“Wow!” I said. Jeet was leveling up from the college we’d gone to, moving to greener pastures in the country’s capital. “What subject will you be studying?” I asked, hoping his answer would be ambitious, like ‘landscape design’ or ‘heritage conservation.’
“Building engineering management,” he replied with a grin, disappointing me.
“You’ll be making a lot of money in two years,” I said, patting his back. He shrugged bashfully. His family had never known money beyond what it took to get through the month.
“I’m sad you’re leaving, though,” I said.
“Well, Kolkata will always be home,” he said, not meeting my eyes.
I returned to my screen, the workday weighing even heavier now. “I better show these drawings to GC sir,” I said, pushing CTRL+P on my keyboard.
GC sir sat in his office, his chin resting on his hand, his elbow resting on an armrest. He looked up from the zoning laws manual when I came in.
“I’m sorry about Putli Mahal,” he said.
I nodded. I didn’t feel quite entitled to sympathy.
“You’re doing well here,” he said, putting red marks on my printouts. “When you first came, this whole sheet would be red with your mistakes. You’ve grown. Be proud of that.”
“Thank you, sir,” I said. He was right. I felt the pride that came with competency. Maybe I needed to pay attention to that feeling more.
“Good projects come and go,” he said. “It’s all a part of growing up.”
He returned the printouts to me and I started to leave.
“Listen,” he said, and I turned around. He hesitated for a second, squeezing the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
“Sometimes buildings fall,” he said, his hand still hiding his eyes. “It happens, and it happens faster if someone steals the parts that are holding it up.”
Saying so, he went back to work.
I closed the door to his office and stood at the threshold, fighting to ignore the ache in my heart. The thud-thud-thud at night, like a dance master imparting rhythm to his students. It wasn’t the dancing dolls after all. It was someone paid to hammer out the bones of Putli Mahal ‘til the skin and organs could stand no more.
I went back to my desk and stared at my latest project. Jeet shut down the desktop and gave me a pat on my shoulder before he left. I sighed and shut down my desktop, too. Tomorrow would be another day of blue-collar work disguised as white—respectable and important but with little room for heart. Sitting in darkness, I mourned the loss of my childhood haunted house story, but the loss wasn’t without replacement. To me, the house would still be haunted but not by dancing dolls. The villain would be no babu devoid of humanity but some developer sitting in an air-conditioned office, looking for business. There would be no music of bangles and anklets in the corridors, clinking as they would if their wearer were dancing in a desperate frenzy. Instead, there would only be an eerie childlike call: “Kaju! Kaju! Kaju!”