Upstairs Neighbour

Abhinav S.

Abhinav is an AI engineer and researcher from Bengaluru. His short stories have appeared in the Indian Literature journal and The Bangalore Review.

By the time the second wave of the pandemic hit, the cul-de-sac was devoid of people. Fearing another lockdown, all my neighbours packed their belongings, locked their homes, and—like the wildebeests of Serengeti—migrated en masse out of Bangalore to their respective cities and towns. The dreaded lockdowns did materialise, and having nowhere else to go, I ended up as the sole inhabitant of the street, stranded on an island in a sea of concrete.

Five houses line the blind alley, three on the right side, two on the left, and at the end, to the left, stands a three-storied apartment building. I live on the second floor. The dead-end of the street is a ten-foot cinder-block wall, topped by shards of glass of various colours lodged into a layer of concrete to keep away trespassers from climbing the wall and jumping over into the lining of thick rain trees concealing a rather uneventful and nearly invisible colony of government employees.

In the evenings, I stroll on the terrace of my apartment building, taking in the glum orange sunsets behind the Bangalore skyline, or sit on the balcony of my house on the second floor, watching dogs frolic under the yellow light of the street lamps. The muffled voices of a noisy news panel from a TV in a far-off street or the distant wails of sirens on ambulances carrying the infected interrupt the drone of my tinnitus and the otherwise silent nights.

“Ganja… MDMA… Ecstasy… drugs do… drugs do… mujhe drugs do…”

Drugs, though? I wake up to the faraway screams of a man apparently hawking psychedelics late in the night. Mujhe drugs do? Perhaps he is in desperate need of those himself. I sit up, rub my eyes, and train my ears towards the source of the racket; my knackered brain takes a moment to process the sound and locate the wretched junkie.

Is that noise from the house above? I am certain it isn’t. Firstly, no man lives in that house, let alone an addict—the occupant was an old woman. Secondly, the house is at the moment empty and has been so for a while. And thirdly…

“REE AAH CHALK OR BORE TEA…” the faint remnant of another shriek arrives.

… and thirdly, I now recognise that voice. I am not surprised. I would be, had it been yapping about vaccines before the second wave swept over, instead of the celebrity drug scandal. The human megaphone is that anchor from that news channel on a TV playing in some faraway street. It has to be from a faraway street. Mine is empty.

I shut the windows and hit the bed once again.

Thud. Thud. THUD! I jolt awake. 3am. This time, the sound came from above, I am certain. Not the first time though: Like clockwork, taps, thuds and knocks wake me up at 3am precisely. At first, I wondered if the apartment upstairs was haunted. After all, 3am is the witching hour, isn’t it?

Is it her walking stick? Is it her fall? Is it a product of my mind, after all? I google “auditory hallucinations at 3am”. Apparently, my malady has a medical name: a benign condition ironically termed the exploding head syndrome. Look it up. There is always a rational explanation playing spoilsport. I am disappointed. I am more open to the prospect of a ghost with a walking stick haunting the house above me than my head benignly exploding.

The previous occupant of the house upstairs, the old lady, lived by herself like me. She needed me every now and then to run her errands. “Can you bring me a packet of milk and a few buns?” Or, “My washing machine isn’t working; can you take a look?” she would request from behind the mask covering her wrinkled lips, her veiny hand clutching a four-legged walking stick. Back then, the street was populated; she knew everyone, and in return, everyone knew her, but I was her preferred choice, her go-to person to do those odd jobs. The neighbours, when they were too busy to lend her a hand—which seemed to be all the time—would encourage me to help the woman as they showered praises on me, insisting that in their eyes, I was an ideal young man, a shining example, and lamented the laziness of their own flesh and blood. Some would earnestly declare to the woman that I was her son in all but blood (more like a grandson if age was the sole criterion), and others would playfully goad her to make me the heir apparent, upon which they would promptly disperse, and I would set out to play my assigned role as the ideal (grand)son.

I would complete the chores, then spend a few minutes chatting with her over a cup of ginger tea, seated on the divan in her living room. For reasons unknown, whenever I conversed with her, my hands would not quiver when I held the cup, nor would my heart pound—my Pavlovian responses reserved for nearly everyone else I interact with. Perhaps her age, or maybe her isolation and vulnerability, did not present a subconscious threat. Conversations with her typically revolved around the prospects for my marriage and my salary, which then invariably veered into comparisons with her son’s earnings in the US and her trip there a few years ago.

One day, before the second wave of the pandemic, she kicked the bucket—literally in the morning, then figuratively later that evening—when she collapsed in the bathroom due to an abrupt drop in her blood pressure. A team of caretakers arrived in an ambulance, hired remotely by her son, and carted her body off to the morgue. As they did so, I held my phone, camera pointed towards her lifeless body wrapped in a white shroud on the stretcher and live-streamed the happenings to her grief-stricken and teary-eyed son in the US. He was virtually inconsolable.

A week after her demise, the son descended, organised the funeral, hired a property manager, probated her will, patted my shoulder and let out a sigh of grief, after which he promptly ascended once again to the land of the free, leaving me—his brother in all but blood—behind with my share of the inheritance: an aloha shirt one size too large and a pack of M&Ms whose price, oddly, was listed in rupees instead of dollars.

Ever since, the fully furnished house has remained unoccupied. The pandemic emptied not just the houses in my street, but in Bangalore in general, which meant that the property manager has been unsuccessful so far in renting the house to new tenants. Until today, that is. I learn from him that a new tenant will be moving into that apartment. I heave a sigh of relief. In the evening, the packers and movers arrive in their truck. For some reason, the truck is a huge eighteen-wheeled water tanker, followed by two more trucks of similar proportions. I am confused, but on cloud seven. Eight, if I really push it, and that’s saying a lot; I am not very expressive.

A human; a ghost; I will take anything as long as it’s a neighbour. As things stand, I feel like a ghost myself. You know that age old philosophical question? If a man lives all his life alone on an island and no one has ever seen him, is he a ghost? Or maybe it was about a tree falling in a forest. I can’t remember. Anyway, I don a mask, slip into my slippers and step out to meet my new upstairs neighbour. On the stairs, I bump into two men—packers and movers—carefully carrying an aquarium, about four feet long and three feet wide, full of murky water.

“Is the tenant upstairs?” I ask. One of them, with a cigarette dangling at the corner of his lips, tilts his head and gestures at the aquarium he is holding. I follow his gaze. Two rubbery and undulating earthworm-brown appendages emerge from the liquid and press against the side of the aquarium facing me. A dark, hazy blob then appears in the muddied water and a moment later, the remaining six tentacles and the head follow. Now, I can clearly see through the glass. My new neighbour, it turns out, is a cephalopod. An octopus, to be precise.

“Sorry, the water is murky. I didn’t notice you,” I apologise and immediately regret saying the word murky. I have never interacted with an octopus before. I don’t socialise much.

Two tentacles wave left and right in unison. I wave back.

“Hi, I am your neighbour, Shekar. I live downstairs on the second floor right beneath yours.”

I notice that one of the tentacles has no suckers at the end, which means the correct pronouns are he/him. Females have suckers on all eight tentacles. But then an octopus has nine brains, eight in each of the tentacles and one in the head. So, technically, the correct pronouns could be they/them. I am confused. I sense a quiver in my hands. Confusion breeds quiver and quiver, confusion. It is a vicious feedback loop. I manage to derail the cycle for the time being: I assure myself that I will be interacting with him (them) in the second person, and hence, I needn’t worry about offending him (them) with inappropriate pronouns.

The other six of his tentacles perform a complex dance in the water, swaying up and down, left and right, with metrical fluidity. Perhaps it is a sign language known only to their species. Unfortunately, I do not speak octopus. Bangalore is a cesspool of people (and also octopuses, apparently) coming from around the country and speaking a variety of languages.

I press my thumbs to the middle and ring fingers, make the standard Bharatanatyam mudra, rotate my wrists forward and backward and move my eyes from side to side as I tap my feet rhythmically. I don’t really know the classical dance form. I want to give the impression that I am genuinely trying to communicate with the cephalopod. I wish I were good at socialising. I feel the gaze of the two men on me and hear a snigger, and I can feel my heart beating faster. The eight-legged neighbour pauses for a moment… a moment longer than I am comfortable with. I fiddle my thumbs as I try to gauge his silence. Is he confused? Did I say something rude? Does he know Bharatanatyam? That would be a sight to witness—an eight-legged dancing octopus.

“Looks like I am holding you up,” I finally say and end the awkward silence, giving way to the two men.

Is there a universal grammar, not only among humans, as Prof. Chomsky theorised, but also between humans and cephalopods? I am certain that such an ancient language exists, passed down from a common ancestor to both species, quarantined somewhere deep in our subconscious. As much as I am determined to uncover this primaeval means of communication to beat the lockdown blues, deep down, I wish Kannada were made mandatory for everyone living in Bangalore. I don’t speak or understand Kannada either, but at least I have the “Learn Kannada in 30 Days” pocketbook handy for reference.

I gather from the internet that octopuses eat crabs, snails, and small fish. In the evening, I use the ten-minute delivery app to order a live sea crab which arrives in an ice box. This is another attempt at breaking the ice with the inhabitant overhead. The crab is disappointed that she is going to be eaten alive and hums a haunting dirge from the ice box. I don’t quite understand the meaning because I don’t speak crab either, but I discern the emotion from the sorrowful tune. Pain and the fear of death definitely belong in the vocabulary of the primaeval language.

I knock on the door. No answer. The windows have been sealed shut. The door doesn’t open, but the octopus (What is his name? Does he have a name? For some reason, the word Ashtavakra pops into my head.) shows up behind the glass window. One of the tentacles points upwards. Is he flipping me off? I think he wants me to go upstairs. I take the stairs to the terrace one floor above. At the centre of the terrace is a newly installed large circular trapdoor of thick acrylic glass surrounded by a metallic frame.

A few wetsuits and scuba gear are hung on the lime green plastic rope the old lady used to dry her clothes on. I pick one suit and wear it along with the paraphernalia (including the COVID mask underneath the scuba diving mask because it is strictly mandated by the government), open the door and take a plunge into my new neighbour’s blue home. Thankfully, the water is now clear. All the walls have been torn down, the windows and doors sealed with a layer of thick glass, and the floors covered with gravel of kaleidoscopic colours: the house is one big aquarium.

The previous occupant’s furniture and decorations are still here. The divan and the coffee table casually drift upside down in the water and pass me by. A few aquatic plants, which I don’t recognise, have replaced the coffee table and sway calmly underwater. The Madhubani paintings on the wall appear soft and fluid and remind me of Monet. I extend my right arm for a handshake. Instead, he lunges towards my left hand; the suckers under his tentacles reach out and grab the sea crab and at once, he begins munching. I may add that his manners leave something to be desired. The crab stares at me without an expression as her legs are torn apart. I look away momentarily and begin analysing and interpreting the Monet-turned-Madhubani wall hangings.

I turn back only to find that my host has disappeared. Where has he gone? Is he preparing something for me? That’s very polite of him, but it is not practical for me to consume anything underwater. I swim to the kitchen. He isn’t there. The coldness of my host hurts me a little. It is one thing to refuse what your host offers and something else when the host offers nothing at all. I head back to the hall. Perhaps he had to use the restroom. I wait. Thoughts shape reality and what you think, you become. The thought of my neighbour attending to nature’s call instantly reflects in the reality of my own bladder. I have a sudden and intense urge to pee. I look around, he is nowhere: I let the Nile flow out of my wet suit and merge with the Mediterranean sea around me. I am not proud of what I have done, but as the saying goes, no one can stop the incontinence whose time has come. I swim to the paintings on the wall and resume my attempt at art criticism.

I am not well versed in the art appreciation side of things, considering that I had been an engineer all my adult life until I became unemployed, thanks to COVID. Now that I have some time on my hands (in my tank rather—I check the pressure gauge; I have some air still), I decide to spend some of it on art appreciation. The vibrant colours of the painting, although they took birth as a static image, are infused with time and motion by the magic of underwater refraction. A parrot with blue plumage, a deer under a tree, a woman with long dark hair that flows like water, her dreamy almond-shaped eyes that… blink?

With eyes narrowed and a frown on my forehead, I move towards the frame for a closer look. Something is off. I lift my finger and run it through the painting. It is unexpectedly soft. Then, a movement. Then, a realisation. How could I have forgotten? Octopuses are the authority on concealment and camouflaging. In an instant, my host reverts his colour back to the boring brown, appears in front of me and casually drifts away. I get it now. He wants to play.

I close my eyes and begin counting to thirty. He has disappeared once again. I swim around seeking. Now, he has blended into the gravel. Now, he has hidden behind the seaweed. He is a master of disguise, but I am not far behind. This fascinating game of interspecies hide and seek goes on for a while. I am having a good time. I check the gauge: a casual periodic look to make sure the pressure in my air tank is at a safe level. The readings indicate I have some more time. I begin counting to thirty once again. One… two… three. Out of nowhere, guilt, seemingly causeless, flows through my body; as if some remorse lay hidden at the bottom of the tank waiting for an opportune moment to enter my lungs and course through my veins.

I stop the game in its tracks and head to the trap door, get out of the water and get out of the gear. I draw in a long breath and let out an exhale. An approaching sound. The wailing siren atop a passing ambulance grows higher and higher in pitch as it comes closer and closer. The ambulance is visible from where I stand on the terrace, rushing through the winding, deserted road. The sound is now unbearably high-pitched as if it were carrying within it the accumulated final gasps of all the infected the vehicle has transported so far. The ambulance passes by, the siren grows weaker and eventually dies down and the quiet returns, a more appropriate companion to the setting sun. I make a mental note never to breathe air from a tank again.

In the following days, whenever I pass by his house on my way to the terrace for the evening stroll, I dart a quick glance at the window. He is usually absent, or maybe his camouflage is at work, blending him with the transparent glass. Sometimes, he appears, performing his intricate dance of which I can make neither head nor tentacle. I, in turn, acknowledge the courtesy with a single nod of my head and a short smile with pursed lips. Water from the aquarium above my roof begins seeping through. The ceiling in my bedroom turns damp. I paste a sticky note on his window describing the situation and politely requesting him to do something about it. He slowly lifts one of his tentacles up. Is he flipping me off? Or is he inviting me for another game of hide and seek?

I write down a message and paste another sticky note. I must get going. Have a nice day.

In a matter of days, the novelty of the eight-legged dweller has worn  off, and annoyance has taken its place. Moisture from the roof has infiltrated the cupboards, mildew has invaded my clothes, and a musty smell has engulfed the house. A fortnight has passed and nothing has been done to repair my roof.

My clothes are all mouldy. Did you give it a thought or maybe nine? I paste another sticky note to his window.

He responds with an erect tentacle as usual. Something—perhaps a noticeable increase in the speed of the tentacle’s tent-pitching act—convinces me he is flipping me off this time. I escalate the matter from sticky notes to messages in bottles, which I drop through the trapdoor.

My house is too humid, and my kitchen smells like fungus. Do you understand smell?

For some reason, my usual hesitant self takes a backseat as I send these messages, spiced with a tinge of rudeness, through the bottle. Perhaps the indirect form of communication through  a bottle inspires a degree of confidence not unlike the confidence of an anonymous troll on social media.

Patches of saffron paint start to peel off from the wet roof and fall on my stove, contaminate my tomato chutney and besmirch my podi dosa, both of which I unwittingly consume.

Did the fellowship of tentacles discuss my matter? Do you have board meetings?

Over the following days, drops of water accumulate on the ceiling, threaten to fall anytime and eventually carry out the threat by falling into the chilli chicken. I like my chilli chicken dry. Having endured the ignominy long enough, I head upstairs to lodge a complaint in person. My aversion to quarrels, coupled with the disturbing thought of breathing air from a tank, stopped direct confrontation so far. But not today, not when you wet my chilli chicken. I slip into a wetsuit and dive into his house with a mighty splash proportionate to the disdain I now feel for him. I attempt to voice my concern but realise I can’t because I have no voice underwater, so I register my protest on a placard instead.

Your water is leaking into my house. Do something! I state the obvious on the placard that happens to be in my hand using an underwater marker that also turns up in my other hand. In turn, he grabs the placard with his eight slithering tentacles and squats on it. A moment later, words appear on his body, thanks to the chromatophores on his skin.

“What are you gonna do, huh?” The words scroll to the left like an LED message on a city bus and make way to Hindi, “Kya ukhaad lega tu?” which in turn move aside to let in Kannada, “Enannu kittu haakuttiri?”

Then he mic-drops the placard and floats away lazily. So he understands English, Hindi and Kannada. What else has he not told me? He is not as stupid as I thought; he is outright sinister. The mic-drop is effective. I have no trilingual comebacks up my sleeve. My anxious brain is slow that way. The clever comebacks never come when they matter. I retreat in defeat.

Tap. Tap. TAP! Drops of water trickle onto my forehead and tap me awake. It is 3am. A small hole has formed on the roof above my bed. The water now drips at a steady pace into my bedroom. The bed, the pillow and my blanket are soaking wet, and the water on the floor has reached the level of my knees. I find it difficult to go back to sleep. I toss and turn on the bed. I try counting the drops of water, hoping it would help me fall asleep. As I turn to the right, I notice a stick under the murky water by my bedside. I dip my hands and pull out the old woman’s four-legged walking stick. I tap it on the roof, and yell.

“Hey! Your water is leaking. Keep your filthy, disease-ridden water to yourself!”

Splash. Splash. SPLASH! I wake up to splashing water. Midnight hunger pangs prompt me to get out of bed. The house is dark. The electricity had to be cut off for safety reasons now that the water has reached the switchboards. In the dark, I row my canoe and make my way towards the kitchen. At the bedroom door, something makes contact with my canoe with a gentle thud. I turn on my phone’s flashlight to take a look.

It is a body wrapped from head to toe in a white shroud, drifting in the water. I know who it belonged to. As if by instinct, I call up ‘my brother’ in the USA. I begin live-streaming the body as it passes me by. As if on cue, he too at once begins weeping uncontrollably. I sing a lullaby to console him. It is the same song that I heard from the now dead crab. I do not sing in public for fear of mockery, but now I gather courage because it is needed. He calms down, occasionally letting out an involuntary hiccup. He tells me he likes the aloha shirt I happened to be wearing.

“The shirt looks good on you,” he compliments with a bittersweet smile on his face as he wipes his tears.

“It is a bit too large for my size,” I say.

“Give it a couple of washes and it will shrink,” he assures. I feel better.

“Can you talk to your tenant about the water leaking into my house?” I submit my request. He looks off-camera for a moment as though something distracted him, then looks back at the camera, then excuses himself and ends the call citing some urgent business. I continue my voyage towards the kitchen.

More bodies pass me by in the living room on my way to the kitchen, only this time they are wrapped in orange shrouds. I point the flashlight around and look for the source of the bodies. A large hole in one corner of the roof is where they are dripping out from. I notice a female standing on the sofa in my living room accompanied by a man holding a camera on a tripod. A journalist I believe; she is in tattered and road-weary clothes, reporting passionately on the drifting dead bodies.

“I ask my cameraman to pan around and show you the sheer number of bodies floating around in this living room,” she says. The cameraman obliges. “We have counted up to a hundred and six bodies before giving up. Who suffers for whose mistakes? Who is answerable? Who is responsible? What we see here…”

She notices me passing by, pauses for a moment, waves at me and instructs her camera man to point his camera towards me. I pull over my canoe towards the sofa.

“Here is a living man, alone among the dead, with nothing but a canoe to keep him afloat and an oversized shirt on his body, rowing in darkness, heading to an unknown place at this hour in the night. Let’s talk to him,” she turns to me. “Sir, can we talk to you for a minute?”

“Sure. But let me assure you, the shirt will shrink after a couple of washes.”

“This man is full of hope despite the wetness of his predicament. These are the kinds of stories, these tiny droplets of hope, we must tell as the tsunami of grief sweeps our country. Tell me sir, how are you feeling?”

“I am feeling hungry…”

“He is starving… hmm.”

“… which usually happens to me in the middle of the night. I am heading towards…”

“He is in search of food, clutching his empty stomach… hmm.”

“… the fridge in the kitchen.”

“Do you wish to say something to our viewers?”

“I just wish that the cephalopod above realises his mistakes and rectifies the situation with a sense of urgency before my house drowns completely.”

“This man still has faith in the cephalopod above and appeals to his good nature.”

Sympathy in her eyes, she wraps her arm around my shoulder, as the cameraman captures the moment. With that, my interview ends, and I continue my journey towards the fridge.

Roar. Roar. ROAR! I wake up floating neck-deep in cold water that consumes me from below, an utter darkness that absorbs me from above and a claustrophobia that devours me from within. I let out gasps as I struggle to breathe in the small pocket of air between the water and the roof. A light from under the water emerges to the surface. It is a TV, playing that news channel moderated by that news megaphone of an anchor. He materialises in one of the ten boxes on the screen. The remaining nine are occupied each by the eight tentacles and one head of the cephalopod. In a separate frame, I see a picture of me. Underneath it is the headline in large red letters:


“I want to tell you, viewers, that things are not as bad as this man is making out to be,” the male anchor screams, pointing at my picture. “Yes, his house is flooding, but as you can see, he is sailing in smooth waters…” A short video recording of me rowing towards the kitchen last night is played on repeat mode.

“… rowing in the right direction and flowing smoothly ahead. Yet he harasses his neighbour with rude messages in glass bottles. Yet he complains to the world. And his complaints are given credence by journalists like her who interviewed him last night. This negativity is what we must reject as a nation. Put him on the line, put him on the line,” he orders his crew. And suddenly, I am on the screen in an eleventh box. The nine fragments of my neighbour in the nine boxes writhe violently.

“Tell me, Mr. Shekar, why are you holding this poor cephalopod, your neighbour, in a chokehold?”

“No… I’m not,” I say, spitting some water out and gulping some in.

“Yes, you are.”

“Okay… Because he… is the one responsible… I guess,” I say, gasping for air in the claustrophobic space between water and the roof.

“Mr. Shekar, you behave irrationally. The cephalopod is responsible, and he is doing his best. It is not easy working with nine brains, each thinking differently especially when one is under a chokehold.”

“Chokehold… is probably not the most suitable word… in the context… of an octopus,” I suggest to the anchor. A mistake.

“HOW DARE YOU? HOW DARE YOU TELL ME HOW TO DO MY JOB?” The inevitable scream ensues. “Apologise, you anti-… anti-rational!” In the nine boxes, the nine-brained neighbour matches the anchor’s passion and writhes even more violently.

“Okay he… may be… doing… his best… but he has had… enough time… to do some… thing… and now I am… drowning.”

“For God’s sake! Give the cephalopod some breathing room, will you?”

Breathing room? Interesting… choice of… words.”

“Mr. Shekar! Are you dumb? I told you the cephalopod is working as hard as he can for your benefit. How anti-rational can you be? Stop breathing down his neck!”

Breathing down?

“There he goes again. Give him some time, will you? Give him some time. He will take your breath away!”

“Okay… I’m… holding… my… breath.”