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The wooden horse

Arunava Chattopadhyay |

The large Victorian edifice of my mother’s grandfather was a two-storied building of brick and mortar built in the late 19th century. It had thick walls and wide pillars holding aloft peripheral arches and the central dome.

On the outside ancient gargoyles looked out from below the parapet. Large evergreens surrounded the building and had taken over the sprawling grounds. They were mute witnesses to whatever had happened within the boundary walls.

Smaller buildings meant for mundane purposes were located in various corners of the surrounding grounds. Their tiled roofs were stained with lichens and the crumbling walls were covered with mildew.

The grand structure of the building was discoloured with age, with thick creepers and bramble shrubs surrounding it from all sides. Homely lizards crawled up dark crevices. The grounds looked unkempt and the smell of grass and wildflowers added a certain mystery and nostalgic attraction to us children.

One spacious area to the left of the building was kept tidy enough for the children to play and elders to laze in the mornings and evenings. There was also a small lake where lesser whistling ducks checked in during the winter months.

After sunset, lamps fixed atop ornate iron stands were lit. The yellow light from these lamps cast myriad shadows on the walls and the dark foliage all around. The marble statue of an angel looking towards the building glowed in the dim light and her face looked morose and sad.

The cobbled pathways were covered with dry leaves, which crackled under our feet. Behind the house were located the servant quarters and kitchen block, full of clamour and noise throughout the day. With nightfall an eerie silence descended on the premises, and from the outside, the vague yellow lights from the windows created a fairytale ambience around the house.

The building was located on Khelat Babu Lane in north Calcutta, near the large water tank of Talla and I was always keen to visit it with my mother whenever the opportunity arose. My forefathers were wealthy enough to splurge on artifacts and paintings, and the large building full of antique furniture.

Eccentric tastes went into procuring fantastic curiosities, creating a marvellous collection of Talmudic, occult and cabalistic articles. Scrolls, withered manuscripts, testaments, amulets and large clocks were located all over the sprawling building with its lofty halls, long corridors, array of pillars and perhaps secret passageways.

The walls were lined with shelf after shelf of books ranging from the ancient to the modern. There were some books, which I was allowed to read. I was then in Class IV and the year was 1964. Even at that young age, I was attracted to the subtle smell of old books wafting into my nostrils. Dusty portraits of my forefathers hung on the walls of the large hall. The carpets and tapestry were worn out and a hushed silence prevailed within the premises of faded opulence.

The building had several occupants — all my uncles and their families — and the home was full of the cheer of young people, my cousins. We grouped when we met and the days passed off with enough laughter and boisterous joy, especially during school holidays.

The greatest attraction to us, however, was the vaulted room situated in the north-east of the building; dark, musty, and fully curtained off from the daylight streaming in through the single window, with a slanting skylight throwing in some brightness during the daytime and in the centre of the carpeted floor stood the huge wooden horse on a stand.

On every opportunity we got to enter that room, we stared in awe at the uncanny animal as large as a full grown stallion, with muzzle, bite, reins and leather stirrups hanging on the sides. It was complete with fuzzy hair on the neck and a furry tail. The large statue was fixed by strong springs to the thick wooden base about a foot in thickness.

The large saddle was strapped on the huge body, but what drew my attention every time I looked at the horse were its eyes; so large, with lashes and a most menacing look. The head was turned slightly to the left, as if it had heard us enter and was just about turning to see us. On the whole the experience was exciting but at the same time fearsome.

I clearly recall the incidents of that day in June 1964, during the summer vacation, when I accompanied my parents to that grand building to spend the day. Most of my cousins were away from Calcutta on holiday with their parents.

As we entered the silent building in the morning on that sultry and humid day, I had an uncanny feeling of excitement and was immediately drawn towards the room with the wooden horse. I dared not go outside the house because of the oppressive heat and decided to see the great horse in the afternoon.

After a sumptuous lunch my parents lounged in the large hall with some aunts and other relatives. They were worried about the condition of an elderly uncle who had been bedridden in one of the rooms upstairs, suffering from some terminal illness.

I slipped away towards the room in the north-east. The large clock had already struck two when I reached the wooden door where I heard a strange kind of shuffling and a low whine, but it must have been a child’s imagination floating on fantasy or excitement.

The large door was not locked and I could push it ajar. It moved with a groan and creak. I waited for some time, uneasy and afraid; inquisitive and excited. It seemed as if I could hear sounds of weeping, wailing, hissing and laughter from the different directions of the great hall. I pushed through and entered the room.

Immediately a musty smell struck my nostrils; an odour of something pungent, sordid and stale. I stared at the huge beastly form in the centre of the room looming unusually large and ominous, and a disgusting feeling compelled my childish mind to believe that it seemed to be alive.

The room was dark with the light from the curtained window creating deep shadows in the obscure corners. I looked round in wonder at the scene, as the beast seemed to be swaying its black neck, when I clearly heard a louder shuffle beyond the wall in front and the slow but heavy steps of something moving towards the room; there was a thud and a shuffle, a thud and a shuffle, like the sound of an approaching animal.

I froze in terror as suddenly there appeared a large gap in the wall, with a sound as if something was ripped off with a grating noise, and I saw the grim and pathetic face of an old man who I recognised to be the sick uncle who lived upstairs.

He was wearing a dirty white shirt and pyjamas and was limping and shaking as he approached and I felt like turning and running out of this room of horror but my feet seemed to be cemented to the floor and a cold current flowed through by body. I tried to yell but no sound came forth, as the dirty old man came forward and pulled me up by my shoulders and hauled me atop the great horse. The room was filled with a nauseous odour of vomit.

Nature has its ways of shifting paradigms; the salubrious becomes odious, intelligence transforms into stupidity, the obvious becomes pathetic. I was transformed into this cathartic mindset, helpless in a vulnerable, extraordinary, medieval situation.

The sick face of my uncle grimaced and fluttered like that of a wounded animal and he moved towards the nearest wall from which protruded a set of metal handles, like gears in motor car.

He looked in a ferocious manner and pulled down one of the levers; and almost immediately the wooden horse started lurking to and fro, with the grating of the metal hooves on the pedestal.

I could only see what was happening but not a sound came out from my mouth. I was repenting and relenting, breathless with my heart pounding, and clung onto the shaggy mane on the neck with bruised fingers; and as I glanced down, was terrified by the height of my perch, while the beast started galloping in a furious pace.

In a frightening gesture it turned its ferocious head and I saw the blood shot eyes shining like balls of red phosphorus in the deepening gloom, and teeth bared like that of some pre-historic creature woken up from its sleep.

It was evident that the beast was trying to tear away from its cell of captivity with all its muscles bulging, but the legs transfixed to the pedestal provoked a severe bout of fury that transformed the room into a hot steam bath.

My legs were dangling helplessly and I could see its dark skin quivering, and the neck moving up and down frantically with the shaggy tail beating upon my back like whip lashes.

Tears rolled and my head swung in a tizzy of weakness, fear and agony as I knew that I would fall any moment now. There was severe pain in my buttocks, as if they would be ripped off, and the frenzied galloping sounded like drumbeats heralding doom, with the stirrups flying about in unrestrained swings.

After moments that seemed too long, the wicked man who had been looking on with pleasure, pulled another lever and limped away into the passage from where he had come in. So intense was my fear that even in that tender age I apprehended death.

I remember no more of what happened in that room. I woke up lying on a hospital bed with anxious faces of relatives staring, some smiling, mother crying and my father grim as ever. I could not help them with the story, which I am narrating today since I was dumbstruck for a long time, missing school and studies, so deep was the impact of the terror.

I came to know after I recovered that my unconscious body was found lying in the large hall with marks on the floor, which indicated that it had been dragged out forcefully from inside the room of the wooden horse. I also learnt that the sick uncle who lived upstairs died that night after the afternoon’s incident. I had survived with a broken collar bone.

Many years later this ancestral house was sold off along with all its paraphernalia. Gone were all that was odd and macabre, including the wooden horse.