That Friday began like every other one in Ahmed’s life. The sun rose above their two-floor house in Malay, a small town in India. Ahmed and his family were originally from Mumbai. They had moved when Ramu Kaka, Ahmed’s father’s friend, had offered Abu, Ahmed’s father a job in a toothpaste business. While waiting for their new house to be built, they had lodged themselves in this house which had previously belonged to Ramu Kaka’s friend Kalesh Kaka, who had sold the house to Abu for a loss, saying that the house was haunted.
“Flower petals in my cardamom tea Bhabhi!” Kalesh Kaka had exclaimed when Rehana, Ahmed’s mother had questioned his sanity. “Huge gaping holes burnt into my clothes by a hot iron when I went to the bathroom!”
“What kind of clothes, Kalesh Kaka?” Ahmed had inquired with all the natural curiosity of a ten-year-old boy.
“You wouldn’t want to know beta.” Kalesh Kaka had replied darkly. “It will suffice to say that I was very glad that I don’t need to wear a dhoti to work, which might fall off if I step on it by mistake. All because of that stupid thing!”
“If it’s just a stupid thing why would you run away from it Kaka?” Ahmed asked innocently.
“Pah! I don’t need to explain every little thing I do to you! Move away boy! Let me leave this demented house. But, rest assured I will attend all your burials.”
Six weeks have passed since Kalesh Kaka went off, dragging one leg behind him. Apparently the Pret had dropped a metal cooking pot on his leg. Today, Ahmed’s parents were going to a movie with Ramu Kaka and his wife, Leela Aunty. Naturally, Ahmed was to remain at home. His parents couldn’t have him begging for popcorn or salted peanuts or any of the other delicacies that were coveted by his boyish mind.
Usually. This would have served as the reason for Ahmed’s daily tantrums for a fortnight at least. But this time, Ahmed didn’t cry or crib; he was a man with a mission. His aim was certainly not lowly – he wanted to buy the sticky peanut candy, which Malay was famous for.
With his meagre pocket money of two rupees a week, it would have taken forever to save enough to buy this much-desired treat, which was spoken of with lover-like tenderness among the boys of St. Augustine Primary School, which Ahmed had been attending since he came here.
Thankfully, Lady Luck had smiled upon Ahmed and opportunity presented itself in the form of Kalesh Kaka’s foolhardy son, Karthik. With firm belief in his father’s word, Karthik had placed a bet with him, saying that he would cough up fifty rupees if Ahmed could prove that the house was not haunted.
“Fifty whole rupees!” Ahmed thought to himself. “I can buy way more than one square of candy with that!”
And with that pleasant thought, both parties agreed to the bet.
Today, he was determined to finish his task, so that he could buy the candy on his way to school on Monday. How his friends would envy him! How Lallu, the most popular guy in school, would beg him for a piece!
Head full of such pleasant thoughts he waved his parents goodbye as they went out the door.
“Take care Ahmed. Don’t mess up the furniture!” Rehana said as she kissed him goodnight.
So saying they turned around and glided out in the moonlight, the very picture of a happy couple.
As soon as he had locked the door, Ahmed rushed to the laundry room which was were Kalesh Kaka’s underclothes had allegedly been burnt by the Pret.
Keeping the door open behind him just in case, he tentatively stepped into the room only to fall flat-face into a pile of dirty laundry. Betrayed by my own favourite sock, he thought, eyeing the pink and yellow ankle length sock on which he had tripped.
“Hello Pret! My name is Ahmed. I think I’ll name my babies after you, because Pret is a very pretty name. I only have one doubt. Is it a boy's name or a girl's name?”
The only reply he received was silence.
Ahmed was hurt.
“Hey! Why won’t you answer me? I think you must have had a bad teacher, because my teacher taught me that it is very rude to ignore people. What did yours teach you?”
“Alright then. I’ll just try again later. But please understand that my peanut candy depends on you. I’ll share it with you. How big a share would you like?”
The reply was irritatingly similar to the previous two.
“Alright Pret. If you don’t respond to me within the next five minutes, I will conclude that you don’t exist.”
Looking triumphant, Ahmed exited the room with a firm belief that Karthik would keep his word.
The next day, he rode over to Karthik’s house on his bicycle – dark red with a black stripe and the apple of his eye. Rapping thrice on the door smartly, he stepped back and waited. After ten seconds, he lost his gentleman like demeanour and pushed open the door.
Entering with a cautious footstep, he found himself in an empty, luxuriously furnished house.
“Wow! And Kalesh Kaka was saying he can’t afford a good house! He lives in a mansion! Then why did Karthik say that they were now staying in a two-room hotel?” Ahmed thought out loud.
“Kalesh Kaka? Jeenal Aunty? Karthik?” Ahmed called out, listing the names of the household members one by one.
In a sudden fit of inspiration, he screamed out, “Pret? Is this where you live now?”
As soon as he had uttered those words, he realised that he had made a big mistake. Like Karthik had said to him,it is no child’s play to face a ghost.
A pale yellowish-green floating thing walked towards him in slow motion, like the hero of an old Hindi movie. As it approached closer, Ahmed saw that it had bloodshot eyes, and greasy black hair. A pale shawl enveloped what it’s body should have been, if it had been a person. The face was covered in grease, as if the ghost had been working part-time as a car mechanic.
“Ahmed,” the Pret said in a boyish, monotonous voice which sounded like it wouldn’t be very useful while haunting people. As if that one word explained everything.
Ahmed was frightened enough to see this unearthly being appear in his friend’s living room. To hear it utter his name was too much. Dropping twenty-five rupees worth of coins on the floor, he ran for his life saying, “Please tell Karthik I will pay the rest later”.
In his hurry, he had failed to notice that the Pret was wearing the bright blue sneakers favoured by Karthik which made quite a fashion statement with his mother’s pale yellowish-green shawl. Neither did he see Kalesh Kaka enter the room and divide the money fifty-fifty between himself and the “Pret”, who bore a striking resemblance to Karthik when he took his shawl off.
On Monday, he stopped by the little shop from where he was planning to buy the candy.
He saw that a little crowd had gathered around Karthik who had apparently just purchased 2 kg of the peanut candy. Seeing Ahmed approach, he smiled and said, “Come on yaar. Where’s my fifty rupees? Pret told me you met him, and you refused to pay. Why didn’t you give him the money to give to me?”
Ahmed just stared at him, dumbstruck.
“You should have kept your side of the bargain.”
Karthik turned around and paid the shopkeeper twenty-five rupees, wearing electric blue sneakers that would have looked suspiciously familiar to anyone who had seen the Pret, but Ahmed in his innocence thought to himself “It must have been a corrupt ghost.”