New Delhi, October 8, 2014 (Alochonaa):
The sky was clear, the wind freezing and the roads deserted; only a few souls were visible here and there. It was a typical December night in Delhi. A fog cover had begun to engulf the streets. Vagabonds under the bridges were desperately trying to cover themselves with tattered clothes. Guards on night duty were arranging for a bonfire, and street dogs around them were patiently waiting for it. I was on my way to the radio station for my transmission with the Trans-Atlantic Services (TAS) of Radio India (RI), a cultural diplomacy program of the Indian government. This explains the odd time of our transmission; our target audience was across the Atlantic and so for them it was day while it was night for us.
I was feeling unusually cold despite a thick woodland jacket and the heater in the car. There was something that made me feel uneasy that night. I was sure it was not the exhaustion caused by my day long whistle stop tour schedule. I could feel the presence of a third person or thing being around me, I could not see it but only sense it. The only person in the car apart from me was the driver. I deliberately kept myself occupied in a desultory conversation with the cab driver, to divert my mind. This was not first time I felt this eeriness, as a matter of fact mostly on my way to the radio station and while being in the radio station I got an uncanny feeling. That particular night the feeling was exceptionally strong.
I had heard rumors about an employee, who was suffering from depression, and had jumped off the eight storey radio station building. This was before I had joined the radio station. My husband had told me hearing such stories my mind had started playing games with me. My instincts reluctantly agreed with his explanation. I had felt the heaviness in the air around the radio station even before I had heard the rumors. Just that since I had not witnessed anything for real made me doubt my intuition.
By the time we reached the radio station the fog cover had thickened, I carefully trudged my way through the steps leading to the RI building. Even a few seconds long exposure to the freezing wind made my nose numb and my hands like blocks of ice. I could still feel the unexplained presence, and for a second felt someone was climbing the stairs with me; only to find a stray dog trying to slip inside the centrally heated building; the guard shoed him away. My asthmatic condition left me gasping for air after a short flight of stairs; so I took the elevator for the studio on the third floor. I pressed the button, but the doors closed only after a minute. It felt as if they were waiting for someone else to enter. I purposely stared straight at the doors avoiding encountering anything unusual in a claustrophobic surrounding. I would have never taken the elevator had I not been an asthmatic.
I felt a sigh of relief when the doors opened at the third floor. I quickly stepped out of the elevator and rushed to the duty room to report. The door of the duty room was partially open and the room dimly lit; a chair kept close to it was visible. I assumed the duty officer might be sleeping on the small sofa adjacent to the door, so I gently pushed the door making minimal noise. The sofa was empty, I presumed the duty officer might have gone for a stroll or to attend to natures call. My heart skipped a beat when I turned towards the table to collect my cue sheet and found a man sitting across the table wrapped in a thick dark brown blanket; only his eyes were visible. It took me a while to realize that it was the duty officer; he was feeling feverish.
An hour was left for my program, so I collected my cue sheet and went to the waiting room on the same floor to write my program. On my way I heard a strange sound; a fat rat ran down the carpeted corridor. Fat rats making bizarre sounds at night, mistaken for ghostly whispers, was common in the RI building. As I put the date I realized it was Friday and 13th of December. Again I felt something was not right, but then thought I am giving too much heed to such ideas; so I concentrated on writing my program. As usual the program was starting with fifteen minutes of devotional music from the artist Vani Jairam, someone I had always enjoyed listening to. This was followed by the news. I smiled looking at twenty minute slot dedicated to film music; but then the program was ‘Chosen Movie’ and the movie was ‘Gumnaam’; an Indian adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None”. Gumnaam is one of the classic Hindi thrillers. Its narrative style had given goose bumps to many, and I had experienced it each time I watched it. Its title track ‘Gumnam Hai Koi’ has an unnerving feel to it. I took a deep breath wiped off the sweat from my forehead and pacified myself thinking; midnight transmission, 13th December, Friday and Guman were mere coincidences. I tried to remain calm and look for a solution so I checked which all songs of the film are available in the dalet in the waiting room computer. To my horror only three songs from this film were available including the title track. Playing songs of a different movie was also not an option, as the announcement about this movie had been made in the previous transmissions and listeners will be waiting for the songs.
I so did not want to play the title track, knowing that playing it, sitting alone in the studio at midnight my mind will certainly start hallucinating. The fact was I did not have an option. I decided to finish writing my program first, and then to ponder over what can be done. As I was winding up writing I occurred to me that I can always make an excuse about a technical error for not playing the song. I decided to play the other two songs from the film and then some other song; later explaining it as a technical problem. The plan assuaged the tension, felt I had conquered the Everest.
It was 11:00pm, time for my show. With optimism I strode towards the studio and set the computer carts for the transmission. The transmission began, and I began to hum the soothing devotional music as it played. After a few minutes someone peeped through the glass on the studio door. It was Akash Trivedi the newsreader. I waved and he came in. Akash had always taken pleasure in scaring me with horror stories. Again for a second I thought ‘midnight transmission, 13th December, Friday, Gumnam and now Akash Trivedi’ isn’t it too much of a coincidence. But then with a short lived hearty casual conversation with Akash my fears took a backseat. Soon it was time for the news so he moved to the news booth inside the studio.
While Akash was reading the news I heard a knock, but there was no one. I looked through the glass divider at the adjacent engineer room, it was dark, I could only see my own reflection on the glass divider. Studios and engineer rooms are always set up adjacent and interconnected, so that help could be rushed in as soon as possible in case of any technical problem. It was a norm, except for the radio jockeys hardly anyone would be found awake during midnight transmissions. The creepy feeling once again set in. I took out water to maintain my composure; but then did not drink it. Just thought it would urge me to go to the dingy washroom at the end of the corridor; and I used the washrooms in the building only in exceptional emergencies, even during daytime. Stories about strange shadows appearing on washroom mirrors had been making rounds since quiet sometime. Adding to the horror was the exhaust fan in the washroom which occasionally made tapping sounds. The case was really strange with one of my colleagues whose mobile phone would always conk off the minute she entered the washrooms in the building. Fifteen minutes flew past and the news was over. Akash left and mischievously switched off the studio lights while on his way out, to scare me and tease me. I yelled at him, telling him “Will see you in the 12:25 bulletin” and then switched on the lights.
I continued with my transmission. The next program was half hour ‘Classical Music Vocal’, from 11:30-12. This was something I always found difficult to sit through; primarily because of my lack of knowledge about it. Anyways, I had to play it and it certainly sounded better than those weird unknown sounds I had heard in the building. Sometime later the engineer walked in the adjacent room to check the program was running smoothly. I had thought of striking up a conversation with him to ward off my fears; but before I could do so he left. To ease myself I started playing some peppy songs from the stand by on the Pre-Fade Listener (PFL). It helped. I began to saunter in the studio, with one eye on the program clock.
Two minutes were left for the classical music program to get over and for ‘Chosen Film’ to begin, so I took my position on the chair to make the announcements. As I was about to do so, I felt fresh air on my neck and I panicked. Still, I gathered all my courage and as the clock struck 12:00 I closed the classical music program and made the opening announcements for the next program. I tried my best to be calm but the quiver of fear in my voice was noticeable. I quickly pulled down the announcer’s fader and began playing one of the songs of Gumnaam. I was heavily perspiring and found it difficult to breathe. Just then Akash peeped and rushed in thinking I was having an asthma attack.
Once I calmed down I told him what had happened. He dismissed it, saying my work was taking a toll on me. To reassure me he looked around the studio, in the news booth and the adjacent engineer room to make sure no one or nothing was there; and whatever had happened was just an illusion. Soon Akash took an extra chair in the studio for himself. He realised I was playing songs of ‘Gumnaam’ and ridiculed me saying, “You play songs of thriller and horror movies and then start hallucinating.” “Hey this is not out of choice” I tried explaining to him, showing him the cue sheet. I even told him that, it is strange that it is a Friday and 13th December plus this movie. He laughed saying “Your Program Executive has good horror timing…Friday…13th December..and Gumnaam”. Akash laughed uncontrollably. After a while even I started laughing and thought, it was good that news was the last thing in this transmission and I could have the company of the newsreader; otherwise tonight I would have left the transmission midway. Akash offered me biscuits saying, “An empty stomach can also be a devil’s workshop.” Since he insisted, I took a few.
Then just to lighten up the situation Akash said “How about playing with the talkback button. I will sit in the news booth and you can converse with me using the talk back button on the console”. This had been one of our favourite games in the studio to kill the monotony of our jobs. It was fun. Once we were copying American movies and how prisoners talk to their lawyers, wives and all using a phone. We enacted it using the talk back button. Human company had never felt this good. Akash was laughing in intervals so I told him “Enough stop laughing at me… let us start the talk back game”. We had decided Akash would play an aspiring singer in a reality show and would sing from the news booth; and I would play a judge who will make fun of him. Akash borrowed my jacket saying it would give him the rock star look.
It was six minutes to the news at 12:20. Akash naughtily started singing the title track “Gumnaam Hai Koi” in a squeaking voice. I responded with a witch like grin and told him “You rascal”, but he continued with other horror songs simply to tease me. It was four minutes to the news when someone peeped in the studio and walked in. I froze in my chair and my jaws dropped. It was Akash, walking in with the news boards, he said “Sorry it took me long to come…blame it on the last minute additions to the bulletin”. The news booth was empty and I was wearing my jacket. There was pin drop silence as I looked at Akash with fear and disbelief and he looked at me puzzled. I had biscuits in my hand which I clearly remember I had not brought. The song “Gumnaam Hai koi” began playing.
* Eva Loreng is a radio artist working with the External Services Division (ESD) of All India Radio (AIR), New Delhi. She is a qualified International Relations lecturer and has previously worked in a number of different colleges at Delhi University.
Categories: creative writing