It was years since I had left Kochi. Sitting on the shore of the Vembanad backwaters sipping beer with an old classmate, I remembered those days of my life as a college student.
Professor Leela Menon wafted into our conversation as naturally as the breeze from the lake set the coconut leaves nodding gently. “She retired more than ten years back,” said Mohan. “She now lives all alone in a villa facing the Vembanad.”
I decided to visit her. I was one of her favourite students. I adored her poems as well as her lectures on literature. I participated in every essay competition to which the college was invited; I participated more to please her than anything else. Professor Leela Menon was a poet and a social activist. She did not marry; her life was dedicated to social causes. She was bitterly opposed to the kind of development and that was overtaking the city. She hated people cutting down trees in order to widen the roads. She deplored the roar of the traffic, the rush of insanity, and the illusion called progress.
“People say that she bought a villa that was known to be haunted by ghosts,” said Mohan.
I was amused. “All the more reason I should visit her,” I said.
The auto rickshaw stopped at the gate bearing the Professor’s name beneath the name of the villa: Valmikam.
To my surprise, Professor Leela Menon recognised me instantly. We discussed the same old issues that were her passions: environment, human greed, meaning of development and progress... “The planet is dying,” she said. “We are killing it. We are blood-sucking ghosts fattening ourselves on the vital sap sucked from the planet’s veins.”
She went on talking and reciting poems. About the market forces that had converted parts of the Vembanad Lake into resorts and commercial centres. About the imminent death of the Lake. About the endlessness of human greed.
As the sun began to set beyond the horizon, I said, “Somebody said you had a bought a villa that was haunted.”
She laughed gently. “Stories people make. I didn’t try to suppress them. They kept people away. I’m doing tapas in my valmikam. I’d prefer not to be disturbed.”
When the rainclouds gather the peacock dances with all the brilliant colours of his plumes spread out. The hen is attracted. They mate. Dancing, mating. Eggs are the consequence. More peacocks and hens. More dances, more mating. One day the peacock was tired of dancing and mating. He said, O, God, let my plumes vanish. I don’t want hens anymore. The plumes lost their sheen. But the hens continued to come. Let me become an egg, prayed the peacock. I want to do tapas.
I remembered one of her poems.
“Why don’t you spend the night here and experience the ghosts yourself?” she asked when I got up to leave.
“I have booked a room in the hotel,” I said.
“Never mind. You can go there in the morning.”
When the light was switched off and I was in bed, I realised what Professor Leela Menon meant by the ghosts. The light from the traffic that flowed relentlessly outside cast bizarre shadows on the walls. The sound roared like ghosts. Every now and then a train passed – too often, in fact, roaring monstrously, shaking up the very ground... Ghosts, too many ghosts, I mumbled as I turned over in bed restlessly.