It has been raining heavily in Hyderabad over the last few weeks. I have never experienced such rains here, at least not for last seven years that I have made it my home. The plot came to me as I sat this evening with the rain pounding on my window.
Rohan was a passionate traveler. He worked with film industry and his job was to identify locations for films. He was happy that his work gave him ample opportunities to travel to many new places. One such assignment brought him to Coorg*. The hero of the film-in-making had spent his childhood in a coffee plantation. And his childhood scenes had to be shot in the backdrop of coffee plantation.
Coorg and coffee plantation are synonymous, so Rohan decided to spend few days in Coorg and short-list locations for all the scenes. In order to get a good perspective of the lives of coffee planters, Rohan decided to go for home-stay instead of a hotel. He checked with a travel agent in Bangalore; who gave him several options. After checking few details, Rahul quickly narrowed down on one home-stay: Rani Manzil. The name was intriguing, with a touch of Urdu, not too common in Southern part of India.
Rahul drove down from Bangalore in a rented car. Within 6 hours, he reached Coorg region with its spectacular winding roads, thick vines and vivid greenery all around. It took him another hour to reach Rani Manzil, a coffee estate spread over 500 acres of land. Even though it was only four in the evening, it was almost dark; what with the thick vines and semi forest all around. The darkness was accentuated by the rain clouds that had begun to gather in the sky. Rahul was happy that he had started early and reached his destination before the night set in; last thing he wanted was to drive in darkness in an unknown place!
The owners of Rani Manzil, Mr. and Mrs. Potti extended a warm welcome to Rahul. Rani Manzil was a two storied house; with two bedrooms in the ground floor and three in the second floor. It was a beautiful house, quite old, but well maintained.
He was shown to his room in ground floor. It was a nice spacious room with a beautiful verandah. The room had heavy teakwood furniture, the kind that one rarely gets to see these days. Most beautiful of all the furniture was the four-poster bed and the antique chest of drawers. The verandah had arched shades that gave an antique look to it. Two large armchairs (that tempted one to sink into them) with a tea table were parked in the verandah. It overlooked large trees and the plantation beyond. Rahul instantly fell in love with the room, specially the verandah. He resisted a strong temptation to sink into one the armchairs and ask for tea inside his room. He did not want to be rude to his hosts; they seemed to be friendly people. And wanting to make his stay memorable for him.
After a quick change, Rahul went back to the drawing room. He was served a cup of aromatic Arabica coffee from their plantation along with yummy mixed pakoras**. During the course of conversation, he got to know that the three children of the family had moved out of Coorg. They were pursuing their careers in Delhi and Mumbai. None of them were interested in the plantation. Rahul could sense a tinge of sadness in the couple’s voice. Rahul came back to his room; checked his e-mails, updated his status on facebook and chatted with a couple of friends. By this time, it was completely dark and a light drizzle had started. The place was silent, except for the voices that floated from the kitchen and the servant quarters beyond. There was no TV in Rahul’s room, but he did not miss it. He was enjoying the solitude and the quietness around him.
Around 8:30 pm he was called for dinner. The dinner was delicious and included some authentic Coorgi dishes. The couple invited him to have coffee post dinner, but Rahul declined. He wanted to go to bed as he wanted to begin his work early the next day.
Rahul returned to his room and found his bed made, with a white laced mosquito net. He immediately turned in with a book in his hand, The City of Djinns by William Dalrymple. The soft sound of the drizzle was like lullaby to him. Within minutes, he started feeling sleepy, turned off his bedside lamp and fell asleep.
Rahul was not sure how long he slept. He was suddenly jolted out of his sleep by the shattering sound of a thunder. The light drizzle that had lulled him into sleep had now turned into a heavy downpour. Every few minutes, the sky would become bright with lightening; roars of thunder frequently followed. Rahul checked time in his cell phone; it was 12:30 am. He lied down in his bed; hearing the heavy downpour and tried going back to sleep. In half hour, the downpour reduced to a soft drizzle, but sleep alluded Rahul. Finally he gave up! Instead of tossing and turning in bed, he decided to get up and make a cup of tea or coffee for himself. Fortunately, there was a tea maker in his room. He made a cup of tea and stepped out to the verandah. By this time, the rain had completely stopped; he could hear the frogs croaking and sounds of insects. He sat on one armchair, started looking into the forest beyond and quickly was lost in his thoughts.
Rahul was jolted back to reality by a gruff voice coming from his right. An elderly gentleman in his mid-seventies was standing next to him. He was wearing an old mackintosh. Rahul caught unawares, quickly got up to his feet. Though the man was old, he stood straight. He seemed six feet plus, towering a good 3-4 inches above Rahul. He extended his hand to Rahul and said ‘hello’. As Rahul took his hand, a cold shiver passed through his spine. The old man’s hand was stone cold. Rahul looked into his eyes; they were bloodshot and sunk deep inside the sockets. He had a mocking smile on his lips. Rahul managed to say a hello and stood dumbly. The old man settled comfortable in the armchair and asked Rahul to sit. He went on to introduce himself, “I am Raghu Potti, owner of this estate, welcome to our estate Rahul.” Rahul was taken aback for a minute, and wondered “how does this old man know my name.” As though reading Rahul’s mind, the old man said, “I heard my son talking about your arrival. You met my son and daughter-in-law in the evening. They are nice couple; they are doing their best for my plantation.” Rahul wanted to check where he was in the evening. The old man interrupted him impatiently and started talking about his plantation. He told Rahul stories about how he began with a 50 acre land; how he gradually acquired land and grew it to the estate it was today. He told him stories about the rogue elephants that used to barge into the plantation and how he had to fight them out every time. The old man was sitting only a foot away from Rahul, but his voice seemed to come from far away. Every time his eyes met Rahul, a shiver would pass through Rahul, an unknown fear would rise from inner depths. Rahul chided himself as the old man seem to be friendly and was an engaging story teller. But, however much he tried; Rahul could not shake off the nagging fear.
Rahul spent more than an hour listening to the stories of the old man. The rain that abated for a while came back with vengeance. The breeze brought in gusts of rain into the verandah. Rahul stood up to return to his room. Mr. Potti wished him goodnight and to Rahul’s surprise stepped out in the rain. He gave a quick glance at Rahul with his bloodshot eyes and said, “I have lived here, I know my way to my room; this rain can do me no harm.” He stepped into the darkness and mingled with it. Rahul quickly stepped into the safety of his room and locked himself. Though he could not reason it, he felt safer inside his room. He pulled the curtains, blocking off the view of verandah and got into his bed. To his relief, he fell asleep soon.
The next morning, Rahul woke up to the sounds of birds chirping outside his room. Rahul stepped out of his bed and pulled back the window curtains. The fragrance of last night’s rain lingered in the air, but the sun had risen. He could see the blue sky, clear of any clouds. Rahul brushed his teeth (he could relish his morning cup of coffee only after this, a good habit learnt from his mother). He stepped into the drawing room, where Mr. Potti was already having his coffee. The room was filled with aroma of coffee. Mrs. Potti was in the kitchen making breakfast. In couple of minutes, she poured Rahul a steaming cup of coffee. Rahul chatted with Mr. Potti about his work and his plan for the day. All through, his mind kept going back to the old Raghu Potti. He waited for the tall old man to walk into the room any moment.
Rahul waited for thirty minutes, still there was no sign of the old man. At last, he could not hold back his curiosity and asked Mr. Potti, “Is your father not going to join us for coffee?” Rahul’s seemingly innocuous question made Mr. Potti practically jump out of his chair. The cup half full with coffee fell from his hand. Hearing the commotion, Mrs. Potti rushed into the room. Wide eyed, Mr. Potti asked Rahul, “Who are you talking about?” Rahul quickly explained his nightly encounter with Raghu Potti. The couple sat wide eyed and heard Rahul’s story.
The couple could not speak for few minutes; they just kept shaking their heads. In the end, Mr. Potti said, “My father Raghu Potti bought this plantation as a young man and grew it to what it is today. He was a learned man, and knew many languages. Urdu was his favorite. He had named this plantation Rani Manzil, my mother’s name was Rani. He was very passionate about the plantation. He was very happy when I was blessed with three sons. He was happy that with three grandsons, his plantation will only grow. Now that all my sons have moved out of Coorg and do not want to manage this plantation, my father’s soul seems to be really worried. His sole purpose was….”
Rahul interrupted Mr. Potti and cried, “What do you mean my father’s soul? I chatted with him for over an hour last night, a man in flesh and blood.”
Mr. Potti shook his head gravely and said, “My father passed away 10 years back. You must have chatted with his soul last night. Since all my sons left the plantation, several people have seen him taking nightly rounds on the plantation. However, you are the first house guest to have seen and talked to him. Wonder what made him talk to you.”
It was Rahul’s turn to jump out of his chair! How he wished old Raghu Potti had not singled him out for the encounter…..
*Coorg: A region well known for Coffee plantation, it is located in the southern part of India, about 350 kms from Bangalore, the silicon valley of India
** Pakora: Crispy fritters