Akbar Manzil was once the most grand mansion on the east coast of Africa. When ships came into the harbour, those on board would catch sight of the outrageous manor with its Palladian windows, marbled parapets, Romanesque towers and golden domes. The astonished travellers would point to the strange structure on the hill and declare amongst themselves that there was indeed hope for the Dark Continent if one could find such development right at the bottom.
It was a sign that civilisation (however bizarre) was possible.
But as with many great ambitions in the world, the house was abandoned and soon fell into neglect and began to deteriorate. With an overwhelming responsibility the house passed hands from auction to auction until the local municipality made the financial decision to convert the giant structure to hold tenants. The contractor, a cheap draftsman was called in because no architect would agree to a project involving such mutilation.
After thirty years of lying abandoned, the house was reopened and a group of workers with hammers, tape measures and pencils made their way up the hill. The designs of the new apartments were awkward, flimsy and downright peculiar. Trembling rooms were hacked into, misshapen bathrooms were pushed into corners, kitchens rose up inside of bedrooms, walls were broken into to make way for plumbing and passages were squeezed between rooms like struggling arteries. Smoke rose out from the windows and the walls began to stretch, then crack.
Outside on the hill, the house began to swell slightly like a mouth after treatment at the dentist.
The project was a failure. Those who moved in quickly moved out. People complained; the electricity was unpredictable, the water unreliable, there was damp in the walls, pipes leaked, doorways were too narrow, rooms were unfinished and the designs were absurd, but mostly, they said, it was just that the place didn’t feelright.
It felt, one tenant ventured to say, like the house was watching her.
In their apartment Sana felt squashed and caught in corners. Walls presented themselves to her suddenly and thrust her into the bedroom or tossed her into the kitchen or sometimes she found herself pushed and pushed until she was out of the apartment completely and left standing in the main original house.
It was there that the pushing and pulling abruptly stopped and everything became quiet. The silence was heavy, broken only by the groan of pipes and the occasional trickle of water. Shadows deepened and the carpets smelled faintly of tobacco. Worn curtains ran over long stain-glass windows. Sana had the sense that things were moving around her quietly but if she turned around suddenly everything was still.
Of course such places have secrets. Sana knew it. She could tell it from the day she entered and even before she entered. Such intuitions collected with other unknowable knowings, like sensing when a phone will ring or a dog will die. She knew there were all sorts of things to uncover and discover and recover.
All the uns and dis and res throbbed in the house like waiting packages at the post office.
She walked through the passage and made her way downstairs. The staircase ran in two separate lines along the wall and become one at a landing just before the ground floor. An ornate glass chandelier with missing lights overlooked the staircase and except for small sections where light passed through grimy skylights the house was dark and this made distances in the house indistinguishable so that passages seemed to go on forever.
On the stairway landing Sana noticed coloured light on the carpet coming through a tattered curtain along the wall. She peered behind it and found a long stain glass window that overlooked a stone courtyard at the back of the house. In the early morning light, she could see a man in frayed overalls and a straw hat painting something behind a tree. His fingers moved deftly, dipping a brush into a pot of white paint and moving his hand in small-scattered strokes. Suddenly he stopped painting and turned his head up and looked directly at her, his eyes bulging and yellow. Sana quickly pushed herself against the wall away from the window, breathing hard. When she looked again, edging slowly around the corner, the man was gone; she peered through the curtains and tried to see where he was and as she strained her neck and pulled at the curtains, the heavy material suddenly gave way from their rail and fell down in a rush of dust and moths. In a tangle of material, the coloured light rushed into the house in a blaze of red blue and green.
There was a shrill scream and a deep voice called out, ‘Ya Rabb! Save me! Save me! She’s come to kill me! Oh help! I’m going to die!’
Sana looked around bewildered and was blinded for a moment by the dazzling light. Then someone at the bottom of the stairs laughed. As her eyes settled from the flashing light, Sana saw a thin woman with hunched shoulders and narrow hips drift out of the shadows towards the stairs. In her hand she held a small sharp knife and a black scarf draped loosely over her greying hair. Her face came into the light and Sana saw that she was smiling wryly.
‘So you found our little friend?’ The woman asked. Her voice crackled like a radio that wavered between stations.
‘I’m sorry. What?’ Sana asked as she untangled herself from the curtains.
The woman gestured toward a dark corner on the landing. In the dim light Sana made out a large metal cage half covered in black cloth, housing a small green creature that watched warily from beady eyes. It gave a small squawk, almost mechanical.
‘Our jaan, our beloved, our light of our eyes, don’t you know? Our baby…’ the woman cooed.
‘That’s enough,’ snapped a voice from the top of the stairs. A small and round woman wrapped in a yellow sari, a purple knitted jersey and multi-coloured woollen gloves appeared at the top of the stairs. Her face was as round as her body and her red lips were turned down in distress. Gold bangles clattered around her wrist as she marched downstairs.
‘Arreh wah, look at that! Our queen has arrived. Her majesty has come from the great land of Upstairs! Welcome!’ said the thin woman at the bottom of the stairs, as she bowed dramatically, sweeping her long arms on the floor.
‘That’s enough,’ the small woman said softly. Her voice was soft, almost squeaky, like new shoes on polished floors. ‘I told you to leave him alone, Katy Bibi!’
The woman at the bottom of the stairs crossed her arms over her chest.
‘How, Fancy Bhabi! I’m just introducing him to our new neighbour. I was just saying how sweet he is,’ she turned to Sana and continued, ‘tell her, tell her, how I was saying how sweet he is. So cute. So bichaara.’ She scrunched up her face in an expression of seemingly being unable to bear the cuteness.
The small woman lifted her hand and shook her bangles as she spoke.
‘Stop it I tell you! Stop making fun of him. He understands everything! You know he’s sensitive.’
‘Sensitive? Sensitive?!’ The thin woman uncrossed her arms. ‘Ha! Please. That thing is not sensitive. Did you hear what it screamed now? Arre bapre, it said God’s name in vain! How it can say like that? Even a deaf thing like you must have heard it upstairs! It was… outrageous, outrageous I tell you!’ she said suddenly clinging to the dramatic English word she had unexpectedly discovered in her vocabulary. ‘I wont have God’s name taken in vain by a Hindu bird in a decent Muslim house like this!’
‘Oh shut up, shut up, shut up! I said that’s enough! You’re upsetting him,’ said the other woman. Her lips were trembling now. ‘Mr Patel doesn’t know what he’s saying. Obviously he must have heard you! You know he repeats things!’
The woman at the bottom of the stairs quickly strode forward and thrust out her neck. ‘All I know is that good for nothing bird keeps screaming for everything and I can’t get any work done in peace!’
Fancy Bhabi was trembling now. ‘I’m taking him upstairs!’
‘Yes! And keep it there! Until it dies! I hate it on the bloody stairs! I hate seeing it’s stupid face! Woh jara kabuthar thera jaisa lagtha hai!’
Fancy Bhabi looked tearful. ‘You know – you know he likes to look out at the courtyard at the pigeons, Katy Bibi! You know he doesn’t like being cooped up in my small room! He gets depressed when I keep him there for too long!’ And with that she grabbed the big cage and marched up. A few seconds later a door slammed somewhere upstairs.
Katy Bibi scowled.
‘Sensitive as her bird, that one.’ She turned to Sana now and appraised her. ‘So, you’re the girl who just moved in. Father-daughter combo, hai? How old are you, fifteen, sixteen?’ She clicked her tongue and snorted. ‘I don’t know what Khaled Bhai was thinking,’ she said beginning to mutter to herself. ‘Thinks he can make all the big-big decisions here without even asking us. I told him, I told him, nowadays you can’t trust anyone. If we take any Tom, Dick or Harry off the street, what will happen?’ She turned now to Sana and looked up at her as if she had asked the question. ‘I’ll tell you what will happen! This place will become a drug den! It starts with just letting a father and daughter in, oh yes, it all seems very innocent, yes, okay so they’re Indian like I made Khaled Bhai promise, but then soon the drunk down the street is knocking at the door also asking for a place and then you’re letting in anybody and next thing you know the vagabonds are selling daggaout the backdoor! Oh, don’t think I don’t know! I know all the latest things! I know what Durban poison is, even! Yes I know! And I mean really, look at your family. Who would trust you? A father with no proper job! And no mother! Tsk!’
‘Well… my mother died,’ said Sana reasonably.
‘So what? Whose mother doesn’t die? Which normal man doesn’t get married again? Tell me! From what I hear it’s been years now! You can’t trust a man without a woman! And tell me, why did he move here? It’s all very fishy, you know.’ She climbed the first few stairs and brought her face close to Sana. ‘Tell me, are you and your father up to something fishy?’
Sana shook her head.
‘Well,’ Katy Bibi said moving back to the foot of the stairs, ‘you just remember that I may look old but I’m the sharpest one here and I don’t stand for nonsense. I know everything. You and your father get up to any masti and I’ll know it! I have the nose you know,’ she said tapping her undeniably well-defined nose. ‘Carried down from the Persians, this nose. GoolamHussein ancestry. Tell your father no strange women are allowed to visit! And no loud noises. And no smoking! And no visitors! We’re very strict about all that here.’ Then she lowered her voice and said more to herself, ‘Anyway I shouldn’t worry, you’ll leave soon enough. This is a crazy place! With crazy people.’ She raised her voice in the direction of upstairs. ‘Especially that old one upstairs!’ She continued, ‘Anyone who comes here, leaves. Trust me, I’ve been here from 1988 and I’ve watched them all come and go. Only the crackpots get left.’ She laughed suddenly then. ‘Even that bloody bird is crazy. Did you hear it? Imagine, ha! She says it’s sensitive!’ she sang the last word out. ‘Have you ever heard such bakwas? Did you hear what it said? Tell me, where you come from, do birds say these things?’
‘No,’ Sana answered truthfully.
‘Of course not! We should get rid of it. It’s bad luck. My nani said keeping a bird in the house would cause trouble. My goramamoo, he was eighty-five – fit as a fiddle, not a single problem, not even arthritis and you know how much that runs in the GoolamHussein family – his bloody grandson, that damned Nafeesa’s boy brought a parrot in the house and just like that,’ she snapped her fingers, ‘the next day, goramamoohad a heart attack and died! Curse of the bird I tell you!’
At that point the grandfather clock suddenly began to chime loudly in the foyer. Katy Bibi threw up her arms in the air.
‘And that bloody thing! Loud enough to wake the dead! That clever-for-nothing Joseph can’t even fix it. It sets that bloody bird off every morning! I can’t get any peace here! All I want is some peace! Is that too much to ask for?!’ she wailed. Before Sana could answer, she continued, ‘You’ll find out soon enough! This is a mad place! And then you’ll leave like everyone else! Mark my words!’
And with that, she scowled and walked away, disappearing around a corner.