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by Rachita Raj

The moon sat suspended low in the night sky, fat and bulging, like a luminescent orangey-grey egg yolk. I leaned back against the pillow and looked around the room. Dull walls of an indeterminate colour stared wanly back at me, a heap of flaky paint-plaster in a corner where the rainwater had seeped in, moths dancing dangerously around a naked bulb. I sighed, satisfied, lying easily in my favourite blanket, and allowed myself a brief smile.
It was the end of week one in the new flat. My last landlord’s wife had caught him in bed with the maid and thrown him out, bringing my tenancy to a swift and abrupt end. Broker John, real-estate agent extraordinaire, had come gallantly to my rescue and found me this gem: a little third-floor flat in a quiet backlane of a leafy old neighbourhood. ‘The landlords are an elderly couple and live on the ground floor. Bade non-interfering hain, aur flat ka separate entrance bhi hain. The rent is low.’
My antenna had tingled for an instant, heart beating with a twinge of hesitation: How did the house just happen to be empty? Who had moved away? Is the area secretly unsafe, prone to house robberies and murderous help? Why was the rent so low? Why doesn’t anyone live on the first two floors? Whatever, maybe the owners are nitpicky about whom they rent to. Good thing I am such a good girl.
Anyway I had convinced myself and moved in immediately with my meagre belongings: the frames on the wall (Nicholas Roerich Himalayan sweeps and inky-charcoal Gond art on parchment paper), a giant hotel-quality mattress (the only thing I had splurged on in this new city, my only piece of furniture, really), toiletries and sundry household items and, finally, Alexa, my brand-new Amazon speaker thingamajig. I don’t have much. I’m low-key like that. Music and rest for my bad back are all I need.
I just moved here to this bustling metroscape from sleepy Coonoor, eager to escape the well-meaning yet cloying arms of my protective parents (I am an only child and have rendered them empty-nestees). I am, in essence, a hermit, in my own head all the time, used to staring out the window at misty mountains, cocooned in Led Zeppelin and Middle Earth reveries. But I realized I had to get out in the real world, and to effectively assimilate (and not be scared by) this new physical space I had consciously thrust myself in to, I decided (very conveniently) I needed to temper my excursions out. I had convinced myself that nifty little Alexa was my buffer, till I was ready.
My new colleagues are nice but I demur their polite invitations for after-work drinks at the nearby bar, preferring, instead, my solitude. And Alexa. Music has been my refuge and harbour in the stormy seas of anxiety and social interaction. I have plowed through bulky Sony Discmans in my adolescence, iPods and cheaper MPplayers, all in a quest to drown out the voices in my head telling me I should go out more. Music is all I need, man. And now, with Alexa in the picture, it is easier than ever.
Alexa sings from day to night, blaring strains of this and that, transporting me aurally through small towns and cities and seas and prairies and moonland—Springsteen and Cohen and Joni and Björk  and Bowie. Themes of freedom and escaping small-town mind-numbness course through my brain.
I worry the neighbours will complain about the ceaseless walls of sound that stand guard for me and disrupt the night air. But then I remember I’m the only tenant. Everyone on the two floors below mysteriously moved out a month ago. The twinge in my heart again, heartbeat quickening. Why? White noise plugs my ears for a nanosecond but Björk’s eerie melody resounds: I’ve seen it all / I have seen the trees /  I have seen the willow leaves / Dancing in the breeze.
Jesus, I am getting the creeps. The hair on the back of my neck rising and gooseflesh appearing spontaneously on my arms. Cigarette peete hain, fuck this. I grab my smokes and light and swing the door open to the terrace, all mine.
I can see the tops of trees and other houses, their rain-mottled walls looking weird and veiny in the streetlamp-light, but it’s okay, it’s the monsoons—which have gone on forever now, fuck. I am grateful for this place, though, in spite of its singular dinginess. It’s close to work, autos are easily available and, most importantly, it was there when I needed it! Anyway life goes on. Work is hectic and I have that to deal with. I can hear Björk continue, a little muffled: I’ve seen a man killed / By his best friend / And lives that were over / Before they were spent.
Thank God, Alexa is working better now. Ever since I moved in I sensed her being a little off: voltage fluctuations, maybe? Do speakers even get affected by stuff like that? But this is a ratty little room on the top floor, probably faulty old wiring gluing the circuits together. See, this seemed to be an ancient house, falling apart at the seams, so I figured it had something to do with that. The bad-volatge juju must have fried the WiFi and thus Alexa? Because she even started switching off. At least I had to tell myself that to feel better.
I even checked with the old landlord couple, who said their electrical appliances were playing okay. But that aunty looked shifty. Maybe it’s the squint in her eye and sour smile. Anyway, but then the music started getting switched up. Randomly started playing different songs. Ghazals start playing. Shit I never hear otherwise. Aaj jaane ki zidd na karo. Farida Khanum’s voice, mellifluous but unwelcome, clashed like angry cymbals in my confused head the first time. And then, immediately after, there was this weird cackling . . . laugh? Was that that fear that made me gasp and flinch at the sound, as if a physical blow to my back? BS. I decided to pooh-pooh the feeling away. This bloody Alexa is just being a creeper. Come on, ya, Alexa, don’t be a bitch now, I had said aloud, feeling foolish at my initial fright. But I hadn’t slept a wink that night.
I had obviously turned to the Internet gods to quell my fears. Whew. Hundreds of people worldwide were facing this issue too—Reddit threads that extend for miles! Hallelujah! Amazon had issued an official advisory to the Alexa owners: Yes, there have been a few instances but we are acknowledging it as a bug in the AI, a technical glitch. A hard reset will fix everything. There is no cause for worry. I’m soothed by the answer, at least there’s an explanation for it.
At least I will rest well tonight. I’ve been sleeping fitfully ever since I moved in. I wake up exhausted and nervous from dreams too fuzzy to remember. It’s like I’ve been running marathons or brawling with invisible foes overnight, while asleep. I’ve pegged it to moving stress and no alcohol on account of being too busy. I will fix this tomorrow, it is Friyay. I’m done with my smoke now and flick the cigarette butt into the distance. The screendoor slams shut behind me as I walk into my humble digs. Alexa, glowing grey-white, occupies a pride of place on my still-unarranged mountain of books. I have unplugged her completely and will be leaving her off for the night. Let her rest a little. And me too.
Silvery moonbeams are seeping in from a giant window, the only feature of note in the room. I have not yet bought new curtains to fit its frame. Alexa glistens, almost rippling like water in the stillness. I shudder for no reason. Shaking my head, punctuating it with a nervous laugh, to make myself feel more brave, more brazen, I grab the garbage bag and head downstairs to keep it out for the kooda-wallah’s visit the next morning.
On my way back to the flat, I pass Tinku, the maid’s child, on the stairwell. A quiet little thing with bulging eyes. ‘Didi ko hello bolna,’ he says. Kaun didi? Woh didi jo yahaan aapke pehle rehti thi.’ Okay bye, ha, kal milte hain. I bolt up the stairs, running the rest of the way up. What a weird fucking child, dude. Damn.
I walk back in and secure the door behind me. Tinku’s words have unsettled me. My heart is quivering again. What did the landlords say when I casually asked them who lived here last, before me? They had stuttered and ummed and aahed and said there was a girl who left overnight. ‘We don’t know why.’ I had even sauntered over to Tinku and obliquely put questions to him: Who was she? When did she leave? ‘Didi ko puraane gaane bade pasand the.’ When questioned about said didi’s whereabouts, bug-eyed Tinku gets evasive and tells me, eyes darting around like a hunted animal, that he doesn’t know, that she left suddenly one day.
Why, though? I contemplate, looking again at the same fat moon, grey and morose.
I can see myself in the humongous glass window, dull bulb glowering faintly on, Alexa behind me, and my beloved mattress-bed too. There’s suddenly some movement, a reflection, a dash of wispy black cloud, I can’t really tell. My stomach plummets to my shoes and I dart around, heart beating in my ears. Nothing. There’s nothing. Hahaha. God, what a scare. I should go to bed sleep, bury myself in my blankets, emerge only in the safety of daylight. I grab my phone and start walking towards my phone charger, when music pierces the night quiet.
Aaj jaane ki zidd na karo.
Silence. Five long seconds. Nothing. And then the laughter again.
***
Brutal Suicide Shocks Residents
11/06/2018
According to police, a young woman living on the third floor of a residential complex in Anand Nagar allegedly committed suicide late last night. An out-of-towner who had only moved in a week ago, she jumped to her death through a large window in her room, pummelling through it like a bull. Investigations are continuing.

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