Story by Lee Su Min
The Delhi Ghost
Murder seemed to be the best way to stop someone from talking. And I knew that I am being framed for a crime that I did not commit.
In order to avoid investigations, I decided to take part in a retreat in New Delhi and booked myself on a flight to the country.
I was told that room 1175 was haunted but when I arrived there, I was given room 1102. The number 1102 has no significance to me save that I was once told that November 2nd is the Remembrance Day for Death.
And so with slight trepidation, I checked in.
The room was dark when I opened the door. I saw that the curtains were drawn. Then I put the key card in the key slot to make the lights come on. I put my luggage on the bureau stool and opened the padlock attached to my Samsonite. The combination number was 2512, for 25th December. I liked Christmas.
Then I surveyed the room and quickly found the safe, hidden beneath the large LCD. I remembered being warned about passport thefts and that it was better to keep it in the hotel before I went out. So I put my passport in, setting the safe pin to 1102 the same pin number as the hotel room number to make it easier for myself to remember. I liked to simplify things.
There were also two twin beds, two side tables, and a counter top with a coffee percolator together with a kettle. Some loose packets of coffee cream and tea bags were neatly arranged inside a box. Sugar of different types could also be seen inside the box. I was surprised that there was also Japanese green tea. Then I got more curious with the supply I opened the fridge below.
Two large bottles of Coca-Cola cans stood next to three cans of 100-plus. I picked one bottle out so that it could unchill itself for me to drink it later. And then I pressed the switch on the kettle to boil some water. It was just an automatic reflex. I did that whenever I saw a kettle.
Nothing happened until after midnight, it being the first day after I have checked in, I naturally needed a goodnights’ sleep. I have eaten some food on the plane. The flight to India was a Singapore Airlines flight so that I thought I was travelling to India with Singaporean locals, rather than with a group of Indian nationals returning home. There seemed to be some mistaken identity there.
As I was on the way here, the temperature dropped as we were crossing the longitudinal zones and I fell in love with the air hostesses in turquoise jacket at the entrance. By turquoise jacket I meant the air stewardess with straight long hair tied in a bun. I could have asked for the price but something told me that I would not be able to afford it, in order not to embarrass myself I kept to watching movies throughout the journey.
I landed early in the morning.
At the Theresa Center at the New Delhi branch of the St Anthony Catholic Church, I was glad to be introduced to Father Francis. My twin-brother Joshua was not here with me for otherwise Father would have difficulty telling us apart since we were identical twins. Joshua fell down and sprained his ankle at the last minute so that he was detained in Singapore.
But that was not so serious. Late last night just before I left, Joshua had contracted high grade pneumonia and was currently warded in the Alex Hospital in Singapore. The doctor said that the virus has spread to the lungs and that if he did not recover soon enough the infection could cause paralysis to the rest of his body.
I was at the hospital and I asked Joshua if I should postpone the trip but he told me that if he did not make it the Singapore side would contact me.
“I am not going to bring too much cash to India.” I told Joshua. “But if I should encounter any problems I would need you to wire me some money.” For the purpose I gave him my user name and my password to my bank account.
The first thing I told Father Francis when I met him was that I was coming here for the specific purpose of receiving a blessing. Our old mother has just been taken seriously ill and I would like to know how long more she could last. So that at this same time I wanted to find a woman with whom I could marry to take over from her. As this was the first time I was travelling to India, I had to depend on the Google translation to help me get about, even though Father Francis could speak English very well.
“Tell me, Father, are there really ghosts in this world?” This first thing I asked.
“Of course. They are the holy ghosts,” The rather stout looking man replied.
“Then can we see them in the day? Or only at night?” “I meant, were they visible to the naked eye?” I fired him with three questions at once.
“Ghost are there all the time, depends on how you perceive them,” Father was patient. He had allocated three hours for me today. And this was the first of my lessons on this topic. Tomorrow I might present him with another. I was the only person at this time. I hadn’t met the rest of the course attendees.
“I am not sure whom you are talking about?” Father Francis said.
“I know,” I answered.
“What do you know?” Father turned the question towards me.
“I know that Satan is also a ghost,” I was happy that we were on the same thread now.
“Satan is not a ghost, he is a fallen angel,” Father Francis said.
“But an angel is a ghost, a holy ghost,” I was adamant.
“Apart from Satan, do you know that there are more than one ghosts in the universe?” Father Francis looked at me.
“Universe?!” This was too large for me.
I was only concerned about the earth which was the planet earth. And I cared only about the greenhouse effect and the environmental issues. I only worried about whether it was going to rain tomorrow and only in my location. As a matter of fact, I had stopped eating meat, although this was another topic altogether. Nothing to do with pollution.
After the discussion, we went back to our respective rooms. The smell of cold air greeted me, it smelled refreshing and I was not sure if it was the azaleas from the twigs in the air, or the scent of the detergent that was used to wash the bed linen.
I walked to the sliding door out into the small balcony and found that there were two chairs with a coffee table. It was getting dark and I realized that I haven’t eaten before I came up. I stared outside for a while and became bored with the scenery of the set of low roof tops.
I did not know why the retreat center refused to provide dinner. Perhaps Catholics were also superstitious people and they didn’t like to sit down and eat together as it could mean The Last Supper so that we were not supposed to share a meal together. Although lunch was filling I was only half-full. Nevertheless, I looked into the room service menu instead of venturing out again.
Housekeeper told me that room service would take at least fortyfive minutes to arrive, so I made up my mind to go out for some food. I planned to eat either downstairs at the hotel or at some café nearby. I picked up my jacket and walked out of the room, deliberately leaving the lights on so that I would not need to return in darkness.
There was a man outside the lift when it opened on the ninth floor on the way down. We made eye contact but we did not greet each other. It was not my habit to greet strangers and from the way he dressed I knew that he was a local. The man had a turban tightly wrapped, and it was a turquoise blue. I said I liked the color.
“Nice blue,” I thought to myself. I knew that Sikhs was one of the religions being practiced in India. I was sure that the color that they used represents hierarchy rather than personal choice. When the lift reached the ground floor I walked out from the hotel into the main road to find a café.
A man walked past me, almost knocking me down with his umbrella. I wanted to ask him where was the best place to have a meal, but decided against it when I found that he did not notice me, and after ten meters, I found a café on the left.
Hungry enough for a nice Indian meal, I was keen on trying out Indian dishes, but am confused by the array of foods on display at the food counter. They were so mixed that I had no idea whether they were Indian, Chinese, Muslim, American, European, and/or Continental. Studying them I became full suddenly. So I stood around waiting for someone to notice me.
A waitress spotted me but she decided to turn away to serve the other customers. Slighted, I became crossed. I sat down like a spoilt child and I started to wave my hand frantically. Finally, one waitress catching my attention, and I quickly pointed to an item on the list in the menu. Without thinking, I ordered Ceylon tea at the same time.
When the food arrived I used my bare fingers to grab at the chapatti and dip into the garnish. The orange colored sauce was pungent and I had to sip the tea before I could continue. Three minutes later, the waitress who ignored me came to enquire, “Is everything alright, Sir?” and at the same time she cleared the plate away, together with the plate which helped me scoop honey for my tea. I was annoyed.
I left the café and I walked along the streets, amazed by the masses of people on the streets without a purpose. I found that New Delhi was not my kind of city and I just wanted to complete my course and then go home. Actually Joshua was supposed to be here with me, but he wasn’t and I was beginning to miss him.
Joshua and I were in the same church together and we were supposed to travel here together. I wanted to send him an SMS but was unsure if the network was working. If it got to an unknown source it could be misread. In any case I was here on a retreat, which meant that I was to connect with God, just God, and no one else. My brother Joshua was a human being.
This morning I was having another discussion with Father Francis.
“I didn’t encounter any ghosts last night when I was out,” I blurted out immediately the minute I saw the priest.
“No, they are there all the time, it was just that you can’t see them with your human eyes,”
“Huh? I thought that ghosts were visible with the naked eyes,”
“You are wrong there, my child.” Father told me.
“With spiritual eyes, you could see them.” I tried to be clever.
“Ok, I know, if you like what you see, you call them saints, and if you don’t like them and they disturb your sense of peace, you call them devils,” I made an educated conclusion upon which Father Francis further elaborated.
Father Francis asked me if I had, or thought that I had done anything wrong. I dug hard into my recent past and had to confess that I was very attracted by the ladies in blue turquoise.
After confession I was made to read out loud certain chapters of the Bible for at least half an hour. Father Francis released me after I put the rosary on the table and I was set free. So I planned my own schedule. I looked at my watch and suddenly realized that my time was two and a half hours in advance. I turned the clock to the local time in India and relaxed a little, automatically I walked back to the hotel room.
The retreat was being held at the annex to the hotel and as I walked back to the hotel through a sheltered walkway, there was a slight drizzle but I need not take out my umbrella. Once I was inside I could see shops on both sides, they had mannequins like they were soldiers on a parade. I thought about the air hostesses in blue turquoise again.
The streets were crowded, people walking randomly about. They were mostly dressed with a wrap around their waist. I knew that the Indian ladies who wore the sarong had a special way of knotting the grip. I told myself I would ask Father Francis if he could teach me that tomorrow instead of going on and on about the Bible.
The hotel annex also had a massage parlor and a barber next to each other, with a revolving tube in blue and red lines at the entrance. I looked at the options and decided on the massage parlor. Since they were good at knots, they must similarly be good at untying the knots in my body when they massage me. I meant the blocked qi passages. I tiptoed upstairs, and found a darkened room with some people on the bed.
“Sir, want some?”
An Indian lady with long hair stood at the doorway, as though she did not want me to go in.
“How much is this going to cost me?” I asked her.
“It takes only an hour of your time,” woman replied.
“I only want half hour,” I said.
“No time?” woman said.
“Got, got time, but never done before,” I sounded like a little boy, naïve.
“In that case, I charge you half hour,” woman answered.
Mesmerized, I was being led into the room with the Indian charm, and the drumming sound, and I forgot that I was in a massage parlor. I lay on the bed. The bed had a hole to look through with my face downwards so that I could breathe without having to turn my head sideways.
I took my jacket off and lay it by the side. Without a word the woman put her hands on my shoulder and she began. I had no chance to protest. I relaxed after a few pushes.
“Ring, ring, ring, ring, ring,”
It was my cell phone. It was loud and I jumped up from the bed.
You want to answer?” the woman asked.
I groped for it in the jacket. I was in a foreign country I needed to be connected in case the call came from Singapore.
“It’s me!” the voice on the other end said.
“Hello,” only then I began.
“Are you Mr. Chia?” she asked.
“Yes, it’s me,” I replied instantly.
“What are you doing now?” she asked.
That was strange. A caller asking me what I was doing. I didn’t know whom she was. She had no business to ask me. But I felt compelled to answer.
“I am having a massage being done now,” automatically I reported to her.
“So you have arrived, Joshua.” she sounded pleased.
Joshua was in Singapore how could he have arrived here in India? Unless, like Father Francis had said, his soul ascended into my body, and I took over his spirit. Apparently according to the Catholic faith, Jesus ascended into Heaven to be with his Father. I am Joshua’s twin-brother, our father had passed a long time ago.
“Miss, I am Henry, not Joshua,” I tried to emphasize.
This always happened, people calling for Joshua and speaking to me thinking that I was Joshua. I didn’t know why. Perhaps we sounded alike.
“You from the headquarters?” I assumed.
I was being employed by the Hearty Insurance Company in Singapore at the time. I wanted to tell the caller that I was here on retreat and not on paid leave.
“The hotel is looking for you, wondering where you have gone to,” the woman sounded concerned.
“Could you give me your room number again,” the woman asked.
Instead of giving her the answer I decided not to trust her. I wanted to know if she were calling from Singapore or from India.
“Have you reserved my seat on my flight back to Singapore?” I tried to engage her.
The line went dead at this point. The masseur’s hand on my back.
I looked up, I saw the woman staring at me, my instinct told me that the massage parlor disconnected my line from the caller. The service provider was now the Indian even though I was using a Singapore service number.
Two hours later I walked back to the hotel. I went to the gift shop to see if I could buy anything of value. A girl was sitting behind the counter. I picked up a postcard, the scenery of Taj Mahal was exactly as it should be. I bought the card and paid the cashier in Indian Rupiah.
With some amount of satisfaction on my purchase, I walked out of the shop. My purpose became aimless again. The people around me paid no attention to me. I felt every bit a stranger in a foreign land. A taxi stopped in front of me and the driver asked me if I would like a tour around the city. I made a calculated risk and decided that there was no harm.
The driver who took me through the streets was a man without a turban. The car was old and rattling, maybe because the roads were lined with pebbles at random. I could feel a layer of dust on my face as I wound down the window. I dared not ask for air-conditioning in the car as I was at the mercy of the driver. I allowed him to drive me until the point where he decided that I could get down and took some pictures. I made it clear that I was not here to shop.
At the market place the driver told me to alight, “fruits,” he said. I didn’t travel all the way to India to look at fruits. As a matter of fact, I was told that if I were to eat food by the roadside stalls I could get diarrhea so I merely glanced at the fruits displayed at the stalls, and made no attempt to get out of the car. Then my cell phone rang again.
“Hello,” I answered. I was an insurance salesman by profession. I picked up calls as a matter of habit even if they were unknown.
“What time can you come back? Joshua,” she sounded like an Indian lady, not at all the contact I expected.
“I am outside now,” I said.
“Come back by 7:00 p.m., Joshua,” she ordered.
I was being addressed as Joshua again. What has happened to my twin-brother Joshua?
Then I saw a woman with long slim legs. Her shoes a stark white so that I could follow her easily. They were tall and striped on her thin bony feet. Her flare skirt swung about against the light wind. I almost forgot that I was by myself in India, as I often brought Joshua with me everywhere I went even though he might not have been physically present.
Again my cell phone rang. “Hello,” I said.
“What time will you be back at the hotel? Joshua,” she asked. It was the same woman.
“Who are you?” I decided not to talk to strangers now, since she could not tell me how Joshua was doing. I had decided that she was not a genuine caller.
“I am Judy, your companion for the trip, thank you for asking, Joshua,” she said.
“Listen, I want to know how Joshua was doing,” I began to get a little worried. I knew that he was ill, he could be dying.
The woman in front turned into another lane. I followed suit and walked faster.
“Could you receive some money for me? Joshua,” the woman on the line continued.
“Of course, anything you ask.” I was a sucker for pretty women. I had begun to perceive the woman on the line to be the lady walking in front of me. And there was no harm in agreeing. I could always turn her down later. Oral agreements were unenforceable at law.
Three minutes later I saw the lady with the white shoes standing by an ice-cream man.
I ran towards the stall. She could disappear anytime. I didn’t want to be detained by the woman on the phone.
By the time I got back to the Waterloo Inn I was considerably fagged out, my legs tired from too much aimless walking. Exercise was good, but I didn’t want to collapse in a foreign country. I turned on the television and sat around. Finally, I was tired enough to fall asleep on the bed. The sky outside was getting dark, and the curtains were left open.
At dawn I chanced into the housekeeper at the corridor when she was cleaning the next room. Her housekeeping trolley which kept all of her tools was standing prominently along the corridor. The expensive Dunhill soap stared at me, and I found myself taking one bar. I walked back into my room to put it back into the soap dish. I told myself I wanted to change my image.
I have turned over a new leaf, when I return back to Singapore, I am going to be myself once again. “I am not Joshua, I never was, has never been and will not be,” I said out loud to myself and rejected all notions that I was Joshua.
Since I denied the fact that I was Joshua, I had better do something to my image. Perhaps having a new hair-do would be the best solution. I was not a woman so I couldn’t put on make-up to change the way I look.
The meant that I must go back to the salon again. T
he lady leaning by the door was too happy to welcome me in.
“Do you sell fake hair?” I enquired before I stepped in, hesitant.
“Yes, of course,” lady walked over to the side, signaling me to come in.
She went to a row of hair wigs, of different colors, and I had to admit that they look rather nice.
“Which color do you want?” lady asked, flipping the silky brown linings.
“I like a dark brown,” I said.
“So you don’t want to change your hair color?” lady seemed surprised.
If I didn’t want a new color I supposed there was no reason for me to put on a wig. People bought fake hair because they wanted to try out a new color, and wanted the option to change back.
“Ok, this one is nice,” she quickly flipped another set, before I changed my mind.
I sat on the chair. A little unsure.
The shop was small. I was on the only chair with a mirror in front. The one next to me was reclined, and a woman was resting on it. Her face was being made over as her eyes were shut, and I could see that there were no eye brows. She was not dead, I could see that from the tone of her skin, there was still some moisture on the open pores, and I could see breathing from her chest.
I quickly turned my head away.
“There, this is nice,” the lady proceeded to clip a patch of the fake hair onto my scalp, using some of the hair already stuck together. I saw some with tiny curls and they did look the same color.
“I think it is a little too long,” I complained.
“I could cut it for you,” lady took out a pair of scissors.
“Let me think, err …… ok!” I made my decision.
I saw my hair being snipped off, it didn’t feel like it at all as it wasn’t my hair.
“Don’t worry, this haircut is free of charge,” lady said.
Nothing was free. Time to ask for the price.
“How much is it?” I was prepared for the worse. I should have asked for it before I began. I
was being slaughtered now in India. In Singapore we used the term loosely. She had performed the services, and I needed her to let me off. I couldn’t leave the shop without paying her. This was India. And the lady owned the salon.
“Wait,” I saw the woman beside me got up from her reclining position, walked to the counter and just at the time, a young man came in and paid for the bill. Subsequently both of them walked off without saying a word. I observed them and took a hundred-dollar bill equivalent to fifty million Indian Rupee.
“Is that enough?” I asked casually, trying to hide my ignorance.
The lady grabbed the money, put it in her pocket and said, “off you go.”
With that, I walked out of the shop, back into the rays of sunlight where the evening sun cast a shadow on the floor. I saw a cat sitting by the steps just right in front of me. I wondered if he spoke Hindi, and I wondered if it belonged to the lady the owner of the salon.
I thought of Joshua and his sprained ankle. And then Judy ringing me calling me by his name Joshua, and my conversation with Father Francis last night: that no two souls could be the same, even if for all intends and purposes as human beings, they appeared to be the same in outward appearances, the souls were the inborn character, the inner self, and how they treat another.
I thought about it, and I asked myself how different Joshua could be from me? Joshua and I have been passing off as one and the same person. So that if he died, I would take over his persona.
So that Father Francis made me say a short prayer, and then he brought me to a fountain somewhere in the retreat premises whereby he said a prayer. I had no idea what he was muttering as it was in Hindi. I submitted to his super natural link, and made a silent petition: Let Joshua be Joshua, and Henry be Henry, let the two of us, Joshua and Henry, be separated henceforth. We were born on the same day, we shared the same set of parents, but we were not one and the same.
I didn’t know how I linked it up. But fact was that I did, and that I had now come to the conclusion that Joshua could have been dead by now. For if Joshua were still alive, why would the caller the woman presumably from Singapore kept ringing for me and calling me by Joshua? She must have been looking for his next-of-kin, none other than myself.
In that case, I must fly back to Singapore at once, to claim the remains of Joshua. Should I take the next flight out or waited for my original departure date which was the day after tomorrow? But at the same time I needed to verify if Joshua was dead, and at the same time verify myself. I suspected that I was being used as the soul of Joshua. For the caller kept calling me Joshua.
Where was Father Francis? Father Francis was my only help. He knew who I was, he had been engaging in conversations with me for the last two days. I was registered with him as Henry Chia. He had all my details he couldn’t have mistaken me as Joshua Chia, unless he was sick. I panicked and rushed back into my room. That was my abode for the time being.
Nothing happened until midnight, as it was the third day after midnight, I had eaten my meal at the same café, with Father Francis this time.
Back at the hotel I automatically went to the concierge to pick up my keys.
“What is your room number?” the receptionist asked. She was wearing the traditional sari. Her face white ashen. I was wondering why.
“1102.” I said.
“One-one what?” she asked.
The receptionist handed me the keys to 1175.
I picked it up, and I started to walk away.
Then I thought about the salon again and the woman lying on the reclining couch next to me. And then later on the woman in white shoes. Could someone have passed? Could this woman be a corpse from another dimension? The ghosts which Father Francis and I have been talking about? And then it occurred to me that Joshua has died and that I had been the lead to the perpetrator.
I was being used as the brains of that killer! As far as I was concerned, I was now in India when Joshua’s death took place, I used my own passport to enter the country so there was no way in which I could have been the murderer. The hotel also checked me in as Henry Chia.
At this juncture I realised that I must locate my travel document immediately. I used the key card to tap on the wi-fi operated front door. The lock gave a beep sound and it opened immediately as usual. I went straight to the safe. I remembered the pin very well; I had used the room number which was a number I would never forget., and I pressed the digits 2512 on the keypad. I pulled the catch, but the door did not open. It was jammed! I pulled again. But nothing happened.
Omg! Could the hotel cleaners have broken into the safe and taken my passport?
I quickly went down to the receptionist to tell her that my safe could not open. I walked into the ground floor hotel lobby and found the receptionist counter full of guests all wanting to check in. I saw several people having food in the courtyard. One waitress saw me and she came up to make me an offer, “Sir, outside or inside?” She asked. “Inside,” I replied. The air was slightly chilly and I was wondering if I should remove my jacket.
More people were inside rather than outside. I could hear generally that they were speaking in Hindi. I didn't understand a word and so I had better use sign language. I drew a square sign in the air to signal that I wanted the menu. It came, but everything was cursive, a little bit like the Chinese calligraphy that I did not understand. So I decided on the food according to the pictures.
Most of time I was wondering when I could go back to Singapore: whether I should take the next flight out or wait until my original departure date which was the day after tomorrow. I wanted to verify if Joshua was dead, and at the same time verify myself.
I knew that I was not Joshua, and Joshua knew that he was not me. Father Francis and everyone in India had not been acquainted with the relatives and friends of Joshua. So only Joshua would know that I was not Joshua. But right now Joshua was not in India and it was not possible to get hold of these people to act as witnesses. I was a little lost.
The next best thing was to go to the High Commisison of Singapore to report the loss of my passport. I had no identification papers with me except my credit cards. I arrived at the concierge again, asked for a hotel limousine to bring me to the High Commission of the Republic of Singapore in New Delhi. The man seemed to know whereabouts it was, for he took out a piece of paper and wrote something on it. I thought it was the local address.
“Could you get me a taxi to go to the High Commission of the Republic of Singapore?”
“Certainly, anything you say, Mr Chia.” The Indian man replied politely.
I did not have to wait long before I was ushered out into the cold air of New Delhi and the Indian taxi driver was extremely polite. He picked up the luggage and opened the boot, put my luggage in after confirming with me, “The boot, Sir?”
I nodded my head as I was keen to report the loss.
The taxi made three turnings before he hit the main road. I could see that the traffic became heavy at this point as many cars were competing with the use of the same road. How much taxes do they pay? I tapped on my App for the exchange rate on the Google. With Google you could never go wrong. I decided to use the Google map this time.
The road signs were in English, but when I looked up I found the street signs all in Hindi.
So I immediately turned to the driver, “How much longer would I take to arrive at the High Commission?”
“High Commission?” he asked.
“Yes, the High Commission of the Republic of Singapore.” I replied.
“I thought you want to go to the airport.” The man was looking a little cross.
“No, not the airport. The High Commission.” I answered.
“But the hotel told me you want to go to the Indira Gandhi Airport.” He said again.
“No, the High Commission of the Republic of Singapore in New Delhi.” I raised my voice a little.
“What is the address?” He asked.
“GOD DAMN IT! I DON’T KNOW!” I started shouting, angry.
“Don’t shout.” Driver was very calm. And then he turned up the volume of the radio on his vehicle.
The sound of the drums disturbed me now.
“LOWER THE VOLUME.” I was beginning to lose control.
“No worries, Mr Joshua Chia.” Indian man replied.
My name is Joshua.
Today was 5 December 2016, and I was still in India. But at least I had not been charged for the crime I thought I would commit. And I had no idea when I would be Henry again.
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