Anika Choudhary had very few material comforts.
A hot water bath was not one of them. Neither was sleeping in air-conditioning in the summer or waking up without cockroaches in the sheets. Nor was getting a decent wifi signal when she needed to find work.
She did, however, have the kulfi man. He arrived before sunset every day. Come rain or shine.
From her balcony, she could see the cows heading home. They ambled, manuring the potholed roads, and narrowly escaped cursing motorists. She heard the bells on the kulfi man’s walking cane, heralding his imminent arrival. She salivated in pavlovian response.
A matka perched precariously on the kulfi man's head, wrapped in a worn red cloth. The earthen-ware pot was lined with salted ice— the aluminium moulds neatly nestled inside. The low-tech cooler delivered mostly-frozen bars, even though her apartment was the last stop on the kulfi man’s route.
Those creamy condensed-milk frustums were unlike anything else in the world. Ten rupees a pop. She exercised admirable restraint and only bought one each day. She ate evenly and methodically, spinning the kulfi along her tongue so the bar held together. If she waited too long, it was a melted mess. If she did it just right, she got a mouth-full of caramelized sweet lactose, notes of pistachios or almonds, with a finish of ground cardamom and toasted saffron. Without dripping any on her bare toes.
But that Sunday evening, Anika Choudhary was staring, and her kulfi was melting.
A light had come on in the building across the road. It was in a room on the top floor. The window was veiled behind the spiky fingers of a coconut tree frond, but she could see someone moving around up there. She knew that building to be empty. Slated for demolition— unsafe for habitation, or some such reason.
Before Anika was cognizant of what was happening, she was across the road, kulfi in hand, ducking under the loosely strung rope barricade. The building’s stairwell smelt mightily of rat poop, which likely portended snakes. She ascended the stairs, the dying sun lighting her way through the broken windows. She thought she heard the kulfi man in the distance calling out her name. She had paid, hadn’t she? Yes, she had. Perhaps she was mistaken, and it was just the call of a cat, or a crow, or some creature of the night.
Something about the corridors felt oddly familiar. Despite her never having entered the building in all the years she had lived in this neighbourhood. But then again, she had never paid any attention to the empty block that her balcony looked on to. Why would she? She had a doting husband, a circle of friends, a job that paid well. But now here she was, poor, unloved, middle-aged, and living off the transient joy of sweet frozen desserts.
Anika felt surprisingly alive after having climbed five flights of stairs. She was fitter than she had given herself credit for; though perhaps it was just the sugar rush talking— she had been carefully licking the kulfi all the way up. The flat that she saw the light in was at the end of a long hallway. Daylight was fading fast, but a street lamp peeked in and threw enough light to get her there.
The door was open, but the flat was dark. Cobwebs crisscrossed the door frame. She brushed them aside and peered into the gloom. Nothing stirred. It certainly looked like nobody had been there for a long time. Perhaps this was the wrong flat? She tried the door of the flat across the hall— it was locked. Anika frowned, deflated, licking the kulfi as she walked back to the stairwell.
Behind her, a light came on. The light from the flat threw a warm arc into the hallway, beckoning her in. Anika turned and hurried back up the hallway. She felt a strange excitement as if she was coming upon the door of a dear friend who had invited her for a house party.
The flat was empty, but all the lights were now ablaze. A dazzling chandelier hung in the foyer, and ensconced wall-lamps illuminated framed art that was long gone. In the middle of the main hall, a free-standing mirror faced out towards the balcony.
Why would someone leave such a thing behind? As she walked across the expanse of the room towards the mirror, Anika felt exposed— distastefully dressed at a party for the rich and sophisticated. She walked into the field of the mirror, shyly.
She expected to see her own familiar body— dark circles around her eyes, upper lip fuzz, stray grey hair, pale skin, paunchy physique. But the Anika that stared back was ever so slightly different— she looked as if something about the world finally made sense. She stood eating her kulfi, staring for a long time, until she had reached the end and let the wooden stick drop.
The workweek began again— Anika manned the telephone at a local printing shop. It was a mind-numbingly boring job but it paid her enough to survive. This Monday however, for the first time in days, even years, she felt something approaching happiness. After work, she found herself looking forward to going back home. She hadn't felt that way since her husband was still alive and welcomed her with samosas and chai.
The kulfi man carefully removed the bar from the mould— expertly spiked on a wooden stick— and handed it to her. He hesitated before accepting the cash.
“That building is haunted, madam. You shouldn’t be going up there after dark.” He frowned darkly at the abandoned block. Anika noticed that no lights were on tonight.
“Nonsense. There’s nothing there. Nobody. Probably rats. I was just curious. I get bored sometimes on Sundays.”
He pressed on, genuinely concerned. It had been an upmarket apartment once, but somebody had died there many years ago. Many people who had moved in since had mysteriously disappeared. So people stopped renting there. Prices fell until people had stopped buying property around here altogether. That building was cursed. He reminded her that he had been walking this route for years— he knew what he was talking about.
“Oh, please,” said Anika, through a mouth-full of kulfi, “Everyone dies. It doesn’t matter where they live.”
It hadn’t been too long ago that Anika had briefly considered walking off her balcony and ending it all. After much deliberation, she decided that as her luck would have it, she would probably end up only being crippled— persisting in a wheelchair to the end of her days, on top of all the other misery.
She waited for the kulfi man to leave, idly surveying the sunset reflecting off the parked cars. She felt a girlish urgency. As if waiting for her parents to go to sleep so that she could phone a boyfriend under cover of night.
The flat was dark, but she instinctively knew where the power mains were. She switched on the chandelier in the main hall, feeling almost like this was her flat. She froze.
There was a woman standing in the middle of the room.
With a jolt of pleasure, Anika saw that the woman was holding a kulfi too. She moved closer. She realised it was just herself— reflected in the mirror. She watched herself walking into the room. Was that really how she walked? It was graceful. The curve of her shoulders softening with the roll of her hips. She didn’t remember turning the mirror to face the door last night. But she brushed the thought aside as she admired herself.
Anika had dressed up for tonight and felt more at home in the mirror. Her eyes looked brighter, and the corners of her mouth held an invisible smile, as if it lurked just out of reach. She looked alluring, mysterious. Her saree enveloped her perfectly. It was fitted at the waist and hips, billowing over her shoulders and around her ankles. Anika hadn’t felt this beautiful in years.
“Hello, beautiful,” she said to herself, raising her eyebrows provocatively.
“Welcome home, darling,” came a voice from behind the mirror. Anika froze again, feeling stupid at having been caught talking to herself. She stepped out from behind the mirror, ready to face—
There was nobody there.
As far as she could tell, she was the only one in the room.
A week passed. Anika awoke, having slept better than she had in months. She had had beautiful dreams she couldn’t remember. Her dark circles had started to fade, and she felt a little hop in her step.
The kulfi man’s bells rang out in the smoky dusk. Anika had been waiting for him downstairs, ready for her daily visit to the mirror. She grabbed her kulfi, waited for him to leave as usual, and dashed up the stairs.
The lights were on tonight, and there was music coming from within. Had someone moved in? Of course not. The building was still abandoned. She rubbed her palms —clammy with nervousness— against her velvet skirt and entered.
“Anika, darling! We have been waiting for you. What took you so long? My, you look fabulous!”
A gorgeous woman, long black hair cascading down to her chest, reached a perfumed arm towards her and steered her into the hall. The lights were dazzling, and the room was full. Silver vases bore sunflowers, wild tulips, and roses. Oil paintings of pastoral scenes, fruit bowls and saree-clad women hung on the walls. Fashionable men and women draped easily across plush sofas, drinking wine out of crystal decanters, or dancing in pairs, shiny shoes clacking on the marble floor. A handsome man sat at a piano, his dark fingers massaging out a soulful tune.
Anika saw herself, slack-jawed in the mirror. But she smiled when she saw how beautiful she looked.
“Who are you?” said Anika.
“My dear, we are just like you,” the woman said and took a bite out of her kulfi.
The days went by. Anika began to lose weight— she had started fitting into clothes from when she had been married. She ransacked her wardrobe and experimented with new and fabulous outfits for her evenings out. Things had started to change for the better. Strangers in the market smiled at her. Good looking men on the bus turned to look at her. Her boss noticed her renewed enthusiasm and positivity at work. Old friends invited her out — she declined, saying she had to be home before dark.
She had fallen into a blissful routine. Every evening she rushed home and waited breathlessly for the tinkling bells of the kulfi man.
“Twenty?” The kulfi man had said, the first time she had ordered in bulk.
“Yes! I have friends to give them to. Don’t worry, I won’t eat them all.”
Soon, he had stopped asking, pocketing the money grimly, and handing her the bars. He watched silently, as she arranged them neatly on a plate and walked across the street into the building.
“Who wants kulfis?” She would say, holding aloft the plate of frozen bars. Her friends —beautiful every one of them— would descend, blowing kisses and complimenting her choice of shoes that evening. She would hand them out one by one. And they would party until the early hours of the morning.
The best part was the time she spent in front of the mirror, looking deep into the soul of the real Anika, savouring her kulfi. The smiling, happy, flawless, Anika.
“Madam, you’re looking very thin, are you ok?” said the kulfi man, one Saturday evening.
“Thank you,” she said. She really was getting slim and gorgeous, wasn’t she?
As she walked across the street with her plate of treats, the kulfi man watched her and shook his head with pity.
That was the last time anyone set eyes on Anika Choudhary.
It was a few days before people came looking for her. Old friends knocked on her door but got no answer.
The police were called, and they had the landlord open her apartment. It was a disgusting mess. Rotting food in the fridge, piles of unwashed clothes heaped on her bed, dishes piled in the sink gathering mould, dust everywhere, cockroaches scurrying in the shadows.
The police questioned Anika’s boss. He said that she had been acting strange the last few weeks— coming in late, skipping lunch, daydreaming, and even sleeping on the job. She had not turned up for work that week and didn’t answer her calls. He just assumed that she had quit.
They questioned Anika's neighbours, but nobody knew anything. The neighbourhood shopkeeper said she had stopped buying groceries for a few weeks now, He thought she might have been out of town.
In the evening, the kulfi man came around as usual. The police stopped him for questioning too. Did he come around regularly to this area? They showed him a photo of Anika. Did he know this woman?
“She’s gone,” he said, “You won’t find her.”
“Why not? Where did she go? What do you know about this?”
“The curse has consumed her.”
“Curse? What curse?”
The kulfi man pointed at the top floor of the abandoned building.
The police had to break down the door to the flat. The lock was rusted and the door couldn’t be opened.
The flat was empty and dark. The power supply had been disconnected a few years ago. By torch-light, they saw that the marble floor was covered in a sea of ants, interrupted by scurrying rats. The room was littered with melted, putrefying, kulfi bars.
At the foot of the mirror, in the middle of the hall, was another pile of kulfi sticks. All of them licked clean.
Later, one of the junior constables would swear that as they exited the allegedly cursed apartment, he heard a faint sound of tinkling laughter and music.