In which Veena wanders around the abandoned Mahal until she sees the mysterious princess who troubles her dreams step out of a painting!!!
THE ABANDONED MAHAL
The light from Amma’s phone light threw up many shadows, but nothing moved. So we entered the house. At first, the five of us stuck together. Then Appa cleared his throat. “We’ll be fine. It is safer to be inside this house than to be out there, in the van.” He brought out his phone, and so did Naren. Now we had more light to look around.
“Wooooow!” I thought. It was a grand room that glimmered from wall to wall. Even in the dim light, we made out the beautiful carvings on the tall wooden pillars. Flowers, parrots, peacocks, and horses ran up the post, right up to the arched ceiling. Where the wall and the ceiling met was a gold border with more of the same designs. The crystal chandelier that hung in the middle could hold several hundred candles. What a pity there weren’t any candles on it now! Men and women dressed like the Rajahs and Ranis from long ago stared at us from the pictures peppered on the wall.
I spun around slowly, spellbound by the riches in the room. Light, airy silk curtains covered the arched glass windows. Wooden chairs and tables inlaid with ivory were scattered here and there. My eyes were drawn to the floor. I was standing on one petal of a giant lotus flower in the middle of the room.
“Where are we?” Amma whispered.
“It must be a..ahem, it must be one of the old palaces ready to be converted into a hotel. I don’t remember seeing anything on the map,” Appa spoke loudly as if to chase away his doubts. “Let’s eat something, and then we’ll choose a room to sleep in.” It was some time before we cleared up the food boxes.
I don’t know what came over me. I picked up Naren’s phone, turned on the light, and went out into the corridor. Some instinct told me to push open the first door. It was a room with blue walls. The ceiling was painted to look like the sky, with the sun peeking from behind the clouds. Colourful birds flew in all directions. There was a giant bed with lace curtains by the wall. The windows looked out into a very wet garden. At the corner of the room was another set of doors. A great desire came over me. I had to go there! I needed to find out what was on the other side of those doors.
And I did! I followed my instinct until…WHAT WAS THAT?
I heard it again, a little louder this time; a gentle ring of bells, anklets. Who was there? I raced behind the sound only to find myself in another grand room. There! A swish of a skirt behind the pillar.
“Veena! Veena! Where are you?”
I jerked back. I was all alone in that room; I was sure of that now.
“Amma! Here!” I answered. The hurried footsteps came nearer. Amma’s long shadow fell on the wall as she walked in.
“Veena, come back, dear. Don’t go wandering on your own in this strange place,” she said as we walked back to the main hall. Two pools of light spread around the room from a pair of hurricane lights. My parents had been busy setting up!
I fell on the giant bed, staring tiredly at the wispy curtain above me. Sheela curled up on one side of the bed. Exhausted, I fell asleep in a few minutes.
A girl was sleeping on the same bed on which Sheela and I were sleeping. My eyes opened wide. I turned my head inch by inch, afraid to make any noise. Well, here’s Sheela, and there’s Amma beside her! Oh! It was just a dream, although not my usual princess-themed dreams. I unwound my tight limbs and rolled over to the other side. But sleep eluded me.
That girl had been asleep on this bed. I’m sure of that. She wore a saree, but something about her looked so weird. No, not weird, but different, like someone from the pictures from long ago. She wore a red saree over a blue blouse. Her long black hair was braided and inlaid with white pearls, like some princesses from a long time back. Oh! The girl must be a princess! Was there a connection to my dreams? I shivered.
This mansion was old. Appa had called it a Mahal. Had she been a princess here? But then, I’m sure she wasn’t a ghost. Didn’t they say that you can’t see the feet of ghosts? I saw a foot wearing a thick silver anklet under that skirt. But if she was a real person, who was she? And why didn’t she come forward? Even as question after question popped into my mind, my eyes closed.
THE PRINCESS IN THE PAINTING
I saw her painting in the morning. Appa brought back a basket of mangoes from the van, braving the torrential rain. Our breakfast done, I slipped away before anyone noticed. It was a while before I found the room where I’d seen the disappearing foot. As I turned around the pillar, my eyes landed on a painting on the other side. It was the girl in my dream! Despite the shock at seeing her picture, I had to smile! She looked like a model for a jewellery store, covered in gold from head to toe. Her white saree had a thick gold border, and the blouse had gold bells hanging from the rim. But that’s not all the gold on her. The jewellery looked like the kind that Bharatnatyam dancers wore, but I knew that these were real gold with pearls, rubies, and diamonds. “Who is she?” I wondered aloud.
“Don’t you recognize me from your dreams!” The painting spoke to me.
I stopped breathing. Then I picked up my skirt and ran.
“Come back. You are in danger!”
Oops! I was caught, hook, line, and sinker!
I looked around. The painting was talking to me. Not talking, talking, but I could sense what the girl was saying.
“You have been sleeping a lot and dreaming of a princess almost every day, haven’t you?”
My head bobbed up and down.
“That’s because our lives are connected. We must help each other!”
Okay, I am stupid sometimes, but not that stupid! This has to be one of Naren’s tricks! I stood on my tippy toes and tilted the picture to look behind. A chill spread down my fingers. I snatched my hand away, rubbing furiously.
“I tell you! That’s why you are in danger!” I felt her yell as I marched out of the room.
Amma and appa were making a list of things needed from the van. Sheela was bent over a book. But Naren was watching me suspiciously. I stared back at him coolly.
“Is the van still there?” I asked.
“What? Yes, why?” That got them all talking about the van, and no one asked me any questions about where I had been. I sprawled on a divan and fell asleep.
I twirled gracefully on the painted floor. A man and woman wearing beautiful silks smiled at me. I caught my reflection in one of the mirrors and stopped mid-step. Goodness! I looked like a jewellery store model, covered in gold. Me! I hate the itchy feel of necklaces and chokers around my neck!
“The locket! You must find the locket! Otherwise…!” A soft voice whispered in my ear.
“Aaaghgbbrulllma” I pulled at the necklace around my throat and sat up.
My brother knelt down beside me while my sister sat by my feet.
“Something’s the matter, isn’t it, Veena? Tell us what is going on, and we’ll help you,” Naren spoke softly.
“It’s nothing, nothing at all! Just a nightmare!” I protested.
Uuuurgh! It was the longest day of my life. We were stuck in an old house with hurricane lamps. There was no TV, internet, or mobile phone. I suppose we were lucky that we had tamarind rice and more mangoes in the van.
Appa and Amma pulled us in to play games, but my mind wasn’t in it.
“Ada! Let her sleep if she wants to. What is there to do in this weather?” Appa took my side when I wandered into the bedroom.
I dozed off again. There were no troublesome dreams this time.
I woke up to the sound of hard rain. There was an eager stillness in the house as if it was waiting for me to act. I knew I had to go back to the painting. And so, I did.
A faint glow of light at the entrance of the room lit my path. I grabbed the hurricane lamp and made my way through the maze of corridors.
Now, I know faces don’t change in paintings, but that girl, she certainly looked smug!
“Okay, you have my undivided attention. Tell me all your secrets,” I felt foolish talking to a painting, but, hey, what could I do?
That’s when the image rippled, and the girl stepped out.
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