Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In Loving Memory of Terra Vera

Imagine a ghost story that doesn’t scare, but manages to leave you feeling pleasurably troubled with a deep sense of pathos. An emotion with perhaps no concrete name, but a vaguely tragic, yet oddly gratifying sense of loss - sublime and redolent: a ‘What if?’ emotion. The number of ‘what ifs’ in one’s life gently purls by under the sleeping stars.
Terra Vera, a charming, yet supposedly haunted house on St. Mark’s Road appeared self-effacing; a hushed-glory amidst the high-rises, bustle, and impatience of a growing Bangalore. Deep in the soporific yellowy-mellow afternoons, you could see this withered, graceful ruin in its full loveliness. For almost a year, every afternoon, I’ve walked past this muted grandeur towards my office which was on Lavelle Road. I’ve dawdled in that street corner on quiet evenings, sipping tea or nibbling a roll, listening to the cadenced silence of this abandoned house. I was in love.

From where I stood, next to The Egg Factory in St. Mark’s Road, I could see the house clearly. Dark shapes could be discerned in the unlit rooms, becoming, as time went by, darker, increasingly fluctuating and shuddering. I forgot the rushing traffic, the boisterous sounds of people passing by; my tea grew cold as I tuned out everything except the aura of that alluring, crumbling house. The voice of silence resonated in the stillness of the air there. I strained to distinguish its broken notes, giggly trebles, sighing basses, a chilling allegro, and a soft larghissimo tiptoeing down my goosepimply spine, while a reassuring andante was suddenly replaced by a deadly pause, a drop in the wind, or an appalling, yet swooning dread. That house haunted me, whilst it whetted my curiosity, and I was truly obsessed with it. And this is that story. The story of a woman who loved a house – a haunted house, a house so steeped in a rich, mellifluous melancholy; a house that is no more.

It was almost a month after I saw it for the first time that I came to know from a colleague that this charming ruin was supposed to be a haunted house. I sieved through the internet and came across a medley of contradicting stories – urban legends, gruesome murders and demonic activities. One of the most popular urban lore surrounding this house was that if you pass by this house after midnight, you could hear someone playing the piano inside. Another more frightening legend is that the house is the abode of a demon and apparently paranormal investigators have found an upside-down crucifix and vandalized religious articles. People claimed to see things, hear noises and a group of teenagers were attacked by a supernatural force when they tried to investigate. Another legend states that a woman was buried in this house and it was she who is heard playing the piano.

The stories enhanced the alluring ambiguity of the house, and now I wanted to explore it. Oh, how I itched to creep around the overgrown courtyard, peep in through the windows, watch spectral hands playing the piano. But everyday life happened – job, chores, projects, assignments…

Terra Vera was built in 1943 on St Mark’s Road by E.J Vaz, an advocate of the Bombay High Court. It was later gifted to his two spinster daughters – Dulcie Vaz, a piano teacher and Vera Vaz, an English tutor. About 10 years back, in 2002, Dulcie Vaz was murdered in this house by an unknown assailant. She was 75 and her sister, 80. The murderer was never caught, and Vera later moved out. In the subsequent years, the deserted house surrendered to the elements. Mildew covered walls gave the house a burnt appearance, a lush climber, once tamed and loved by the two women, now grew in wild abandon, seeping in through the cracks, and  spreading its hardened stems across the tired cheeks of the house. An old Hillman car parked in the courtyard had gathered rust over a decade, the rosy tarnishes shimmering softly in the gathering dusk. The front yard still has the pots that once bloomed with roses and exotic flowers. Kind old trees, as a sign of kinship, lovingly shaded this exquisite despair.

Photographs posted on various blogs by daring teens and amateur paranormal investigators who have ventured into this house showed beautiful rooms now covered in dust and cobwebs. Exquisite and antique articles were strewn around – old tureens, wine glasses in deep blue and green, delicate tea cups, trays, and old wine bottles. Every room had large cabinets, tables, cupboards, and beautiful mirrors all broken and covered in dust. The photographs helped me know the house better. I knew the layout of the rooms, and how the cheerful kitchen must have once looked, with the piano that supposedly played by itself in the night.
I watched Terra Vera in all seasons – looming in quiet grace, oozing with a strange silence that nothing else around it seem to have. On breezy summer nights, I imagined those forgotten, cobweb-infested rooms rotting away in loneliness. The gentle stir of an echo, deep in a fragmented cabinet, as a broken hinge whined tenderly in the hesitant breeze and a begrimed sheet of notations slipping away from a table, falling down – unnoticed, uncared.
During monsoon, after the rain, I saw the lilting drip-drip of rain, tumbling off the wild leaves growing out of the broken pots. The windows would appear darker under the darkened skies and then, suddenly, a golden evening would burst forth – submersed in the blushing post-rain hue. The house looked its best then, like a Pre-Raphaelite painting, diffused in tints of rose and gold. In that hauntingly dim light, the shadows in the darkest part of the house appeared to shift and shiver. The sun would have just slipped the horizon, and I could see the slanting rays filtering in through the orange, green, and blue stained glass window, now grimy with dust. The last golden ray would hit the furthest corner where amidst the restless shadows stood an old rocking chair in a delicate medley of colors. Did it move? Or was my mind playing tricks on me? The room dazzles briefly in the richest hues and suddenly an unlived memory rushes in, imperceptible, but palpable - like a pure blue peak through a winter mist:

A thoughtful woman playing the piano. Alongside, a mirror brimming with the reflected image of a neat, feminine dressing room. A pot simmering in the kitchen. A stack of carefully folded handkerchiefs. A cherished front porch where another woman dreamily sat, reading and playing with a loose strand of hair. A luxurious garden carefully tended with loving hands. A fresh-washed car gleaming on the porch, and a tender voice announcing tea…

Soon, the sun slips away as darkness falls. I’m back to the reality.

It was time to leave. My tea had grown cold and people were giving me weird looks. The house now loomed dark and forlorn. I clench my molars, a cold marble rolling down my throat. It’s not easy to think of ghosts and spirits without feeling a bit unsettled.

Since I was working the evening shift, there were days when after dinner, I could walk past Terra Vera, just to get one glimpse of something ghostly. But I never saw anything, or did I? One could be oblivious to the paranormal activities around him if they are so indirect, so delicate, so understated. I wondered if this was same in my case. Was I not noticing something? The shifts, the soughs, and sighs that settle over things at night were tangible, and suddenly I would notice that a blurred outline against a window is ever so slightly askew, a door is a little more ajar and every time I go near the rusty gate, did I see two dark shadows reflecting momentarily on the leaf-littered ground?
My office decided to shift to a different locale around November last year. It was so abrupt that in the rush to clear my desk, worry about commutation and meeting deadlines, I almost forgot that my tryst with the haunted house was coming to an end. On that melancholic Thursday evening in early November, I stood close to the rusty gates of my beloved haunted house unmindful of the curious stares. I wanted to imprint it into my memory, every tender detail dazzling in the sunlight. With a pang I realized that I may not see it again in a long time, and that there were still a thousand little things about that place that I haven’t noticed – an inconspicuous corner with ferns growing from a crack, a window ledge with a dusty blue porcelain cup, a little carved roof-beam and something, like a pattern that was painted over, has now become faintly visible. I became aware of an infra reality, of an emptiness, of the memories lingering in the air, staining it, a string of laughter hiding among the silhouettes, an imprint of a shadow slipping quietly under a crack on the floor, a whiff of the past preserved in the very air, and in the curtains. Their sighs memorized by the outlines. I noticed those little strangenesses with heaviness and walked away.

Since moving to my new office, I hardly got a chance to visit the haunted house. I dreamt about it, planning to explore it one long weekend, but I was too late. Two months back, while passing St. Mark’s Road, I saw that Terra Vera was demolished, razed to the ground! I think my heart splintered when I realized that those forlorn stain-glass windows, the dusty crockery whispering among themselves in the shadows and the haunting aura have all been destroyed. My disappointment was met with derision. It was a part of life I was told. “How will the country develop if you keep holding on to useless old things?” they asked, always pragmatic.

The loss of that house was the loss of a notion, a loss of a sense of wonder, loss of romance, of aesthetics. In some part of my mind I knew this would happen, just like so many old buildings in Bangalore. But it still broke me. I am not against modernity or development, but I am against those who have enough to want more, and who are determined to get it at the cost of beauty and love. I wish these developments took place in areas that really needed attention. I cried for the loss of the subtler things in life – slowness, tastefulness, and mystery. I despaired for the loss of love.


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This article was written in 2014 and has appeared in Helpost Read (http://read.helpost.com/2014/09/loving-memory-terra-vera/)

Image: Google