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Andaleeb Wajid’s new horror fiction House of Screams promises to be a chilling, blood curdling, story set bang in the centre of Bangalore.
Blurb: When Muneera finds out she’s inherited her uncle’s old house on Myrtle Lane, she decides to move in with her husband, Zain, and their three-year-old son, Adnan. The promise of saving money and living in one of Bangalore’s nicest areas has them packing up their old lives at their tiny apartment and shifting to this sprawling bungalow.
But they soon realize there’s more to the house than its old-world charm. Bloody hands reach out of the walls; there’s a boy whom only Adnan can see; and every night, they’re woken up by loud, blood-curdling screams. As the terrors threaten to tear their little family apart, they discover the shocking extent of the house’s gory history. And unless they manage to leave, they’re going to become a part of it.
Zain called up the owner of their previous apartment from the shop. He was supposed to get back their security deposit today. The landlord asked him to come in the evening to pick up the cheque and that irritated Zain.
‘Can I just pick it up now? I won’t be going back this way in the evening,’ he told the landlord. He had hoped to pick up the cheque and deposit it the same day.
‘Why? Where have you shifted?’ the landlord asked the dreaded question.
‘Richmond Town,’ Zain answered cautiously, knowing the consequences.
‘What? How are you managing the rent? It’s very expensive there, isn’t it?’
Zain didn’t want to tell him the truth. Not only would it mean that he was living in his wife’s house, but the landlord would now think them to be very rich and might delay returning the deposit.
‘We’re actually staying in a friend’s house. He’s travelling for a year and has asked us to stay there until he comes back,’ Zain said finally.
‘Lucky you! No rent for a full year!’ the landlord chortled.
Zain felt irritated and wanted to just end the conversation. His eyes were itchy from not getting enough sleep, and he wanted to go back home to his wife and son and sleep the day away.
‘So, can I come now?’ he asked. The landlord finally agreed and Zain shut his shop to pick up the cheque. It took him nearly two hours to collect and deposit it, and it was lunchtime when he got done. When they had lived in HSR Layout, he would shut the shop for an hour every day and go home for lunch. Muneera had assured him that from now on she would pack a tiffin box for him but today it hadn’t been possible, what with all the shifting and the happenings of last night.
He felt uneasy when he remembered the previous night’s episode and how he had woken up to Muneera’s worried voice. He wanted to go back home and investigate those screams, but he knew he had to stick it out in the shop till evening to not lose out on the few customers who might walk in. His attention then wandered to the money he had just deposited and how he would use it. Should he invest it in the shop or elsewhere?
Zain wished he could consult his father, but he had developed so much antagonism towards Muneera, fuelled by his mother’s and sister’s words, that he couldn’t even bear to talk to his son. Zain hadn’t spoken to his family in more than two years now, and sometimes, the ache was palpable and real.
He wished for the times when he would put his head on his mother’s lap and she would smile and push his hair back; he wished for the easy camaraderie that had existed between him and his sister. Why had everything changed? He thought about it often and always circled back to the conclusion that it was because his mother and sister wanted to mould Muneera into someone like them but she was too much of a free spirit to let that happen. She was very individualistic and that was one of the things he loved about her. She wasn’t afraid or shy to share her opinion on any matter, and she didn’t care who she shared it with. During family gatherings, when the men sat together and discussed politics, she was the only woman who would join the conversation even as she walked past them doing this and that. Maybe her intelligence had made Ammi and Apa uneasy, he thought.
That day, he locked up the shop earlier than usual. It was certainly different, travelling towards the city instead of going back in the other direction. The traffic was the same either way — awful. But he reached the house a little earlier than he’d expected.
He frowned when he saw how darkness had enveloped the house, like a cloak. He had to instal more lights around the portico, he decided. He wondered what the electrician had done about the lighting problem as he parked the scooter inside the gate and looked around the garden.
Muneera opened the door before he could unlock it with his spare key. She had found it among the bunch of keys the lawyer had given her. Muneera smiled at him. Adnan was on her hip, and he reached out to touch his father’s face.
Zain smiled but shook his head. ‘I need to wash up first, Adnan,’ he said and walked in. Muneera had switched on the dim, yellow lights in the living room which gave the house a soft, mellow glow. He could smell the delicious food as he neared the kitchen.
He turned to Muneera and kissed her lightly on the forehead before walking towards their bedroom to freshen up. Half an hour later, the three of them were sitting around the coffee table, ready to eat.
‘So, what else needs to be done around the house?’ he asked.
Muneera shrugged. ‘I’ve called the cable TV guy. He’ll come and set it up tomorrow. I spoke to the electrician too and he said it could be because of the wiring.’
Zain made a face. The electrician was quoting an exorbitant amount of money to redo the wiring, saying it had been done more than fifty years ago and probably never been changed since then. Or he was fleecing them because he thought they were loaded since they lived in this house.
‘You’re looking all bright and fresh,’ he told Muneera. She shrugged.
‘We took a nap,’ she replied. In a softer voice, she muttered, ‘Or maybe it was the cold water bath I had.’
‘What? The geyser isn’t working?’ he asked, frowning.
‘No,’ she sighed and told him what had happened. His face contorted with worry. What had caused hot water to turn cold within seconds? And what if the opposite had happened? What if the water had turned boiling hot when she poured it on her head? Alone in the house with just Adnan . . . he shuddered at the thought.
‘From tomorrow, have your bath while I’m still in the house,’ he said.
‘Why?’ Muneera looked at him, confused. He didn’t want to tell her about his fears; fears that were irrational and confusing to him as well. It looked like the plumbing was another problem of this house.
Maybe once Muneera saw how hopeless everything was, she would talk to the lawyer and they could give the house to a builder for the joint development agreement. Then they could rent out some of the apartments from their share and live a comfortable life. He glanced at Muneera, hoping she would give in eventually.
After dinner, the three of them sat down together in the living room, and Muneera and Zain talked softly. Zain looked around the house, at the way Muneera had tried to make it liveable for them, and he felt great affection and love towards her. She had kept flowers in a few vases and even put up curtains. This large old house was finally beginning to look like home.
However, from the window, he could spot the lights of the building next door, the symmetrical balconies, the posh cars in their parking lots, the smooth hues of the apartments, and he had that distinct feeling once more that they didn’t belong here. But as Adnan clambered on to his knees and wrapped his tiny arms around his waist, and Muneera rested her head on his shoulder and pulled up her feet on to the sofa, he felt a deep sense of gratitude to have his family happy and healthy around him. All the other problems seemed to fade into the background.
Muneera snuggled closer and told him that she had hired a maid, someone called Asha, who would be coming every day to clean up the house. He wasn’t pleased to learn that she was charging them more than double the salary they had paid their previous maid.
‘She asked for more. I managed to get her to agree to this,’ Muneera said. Suddenly, Adnan slithered out of his grip and went and stood before one of the walls in the living room, cocking his head sideways. He turned to look at him, and Zain had the feeling that his son was trying to say something. But Muneera’s next words brought him back to her.
‘Do you think that person will scream again?’ she asked, getting up from the sofa. She bent down and picked up Adnan, who seemed reluctant.
‘God, I hope not. I’ll be a wreck if I don’t sleep tonight,’ Zain said. ‘Did you ask the watchman?’
Muneera shook her head. ‘I meant to, but . . . it just slipped my mind.’
Zain nodded. ‘We’ll talk to him if it happens again,’ he said.
‘I didn’t ask the maid either. She seemed . . . a little stand-offish. I didn’t want to put her off already,’ she continued. He nodded as they walked back to their bedroom.
The zero-watt bulb glowed dimly in the corner as they turned in for the night, with Zain’s arm around Muneera’s waist. He couldn’t sleep at first, his ears aware of every sound the house made, every creak and grunt. But the exhaustion of the day soon caught up and he fell into a deep sleep.
His eyes flew open an hour later when he heard the screaming.
This is an edited extract from House of Screams by Andaleeb Wajid, available now through Penguin Random House India. Published with permission.
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