The area of Mumbai where my uncle lived could easily be pegged as ‘suburban squalor’. It was a while before I knew better – that in the right part of Mumbai, even squalor required wealth. The building where he stayed was a squat, two-storied mess with a long balcony running all down the front. When we were kids, my cousins and I used to run up and down it, hiding behind any doors that happened to be open.
For me, this building, standing in the middle of a forward-looking city, exuded quaintness. It was musty, nigh-communal, and the insides of all the flats looked like they just might have been a century old with fittings bolted on when the electrical revolution reached this bit of the country.
It had its own legends. We kids never went up to the second floor, because we didn’t know what might be there, although we saw people passing our floor to go up there. Some nights, I heard the jangling of payals after everyone else had gone to sleep. By then, I no longer believed in ghosts, but I was haunted by the idea of these payals. Calling my friends into a huddle after playtime, I told them my theory about the wearer, making it up as I went along. They all believed me. The next time I came around, my uncle told me the story of the woman who was beaten to death by her husband because she danced – and dancing, back in the days when she lived, was the activity of whores. Now she was dead, she was free to dance.
That night, I heard the payals again. I never asked my uncle if anybody had even actually heard them, but I lay in bed with the idea of a ghost, both of us laughing at our private joke.