The Strange House in Area 153

“The flight is going to land in half an hour,” I heard someone saying this from the seat behind me. Most probably to his co-passenger, I thought and looked at my watch. Yes, the KLM flight had left New Delhi at the right time. So, it is going to land at right time. I changed the movie channel on the screen in front of me to the navigating section to watch the exact position of our flight. Schiphol (the Amsterdam airport) is so near! To freshen up, I got up to go to the washroom. Again, I heard the same voice from behind. Some people speak loudly. This time he was telling about the places he would like to visit in Amsterdam. I heard a name Area 153, an interesting name, I thought and proceeded. An air hostess was standing near the washroom. She gave me a smile. I too smiled at her and opened the door to enter. I washed my face, arranged my shuffled hair and clothes.

Back in my cubicle, I folded the blanket, straightened the pillow and put them in the proper place. I gathered my personal things, my specs, my mobile and the hand cream tube and put them in my bag. The announcement “Cabin crew, get ready for landing”. Ladies in blue emerged to check the belts, seat backs, and windows. A pleasant excitement ran through my body. “Is it for my son”, I thought, “or for the beautiful city”? No, no, it’s for him. The picture of him, standing at the exit gate to receive me, flashed in my mind’s eye. His smile and his pair of bright eyes, it’s for him only.” This was my second visit to Amsterdam, the cleanliness, neatness and, the pollution-free city.

Yes, my son was already at the gate. With a big smile, he took the luggage trolley from my hands, and we both proceeded to the car parked a few meters away. Fortunately, it was sunny although slightly windy. I could guess he was driving down a different route. “Sonu”, I questioned him, “Didn’t you take me on a different road last time?” “Yes, Maa”, he replied, “I have chosen this route so that you can see a lot of cherry blossom trees. They are abundant in this area. I am sure, you will like them very much. The sight of the trees laden with the pink flowers was simply awesome. Sonu explained, “Those trees were planted by a group of Japanese ladies, long back, probably in the late seventies.” “You tourist guide”, I admonished him, “Look at the road, and drive”.
On our way, I said to my son, “This time, I want to make friends with Dutch ladies, who know English so that I will know about interesting incidents. folklore and fairy tales of the Dutch people. I am interested, in learning about the history of Holland. Last time, you took me to two European countries. Too much of travelling last summer. No more of it this time.”
“Then this time you are lucky, Maa,” Sonu said. “Lucky? For what?”, I asked. He continued, “A Dutch couple purchased the ground floor apartment in our block a month ago. The lady is Sophie, and she works as a teacher at an international school in Amsterdam. She speaks good English. And for your information, your daughter in law is already a good friend of hers”. I felt happy.
After three days of my stay, Sophie came to meet me. She was a smart and beautiful lady. We talked a lot over cups of tea. I found her quite knowledgeable too, perfect for a teacher. I told her of my interest in knowing old stories related to some place or monument or a river or whatever. She agreed to my proposal, without any hesitation. What a friendly attitude! She then suggested me to accompany her to the Gay pride parade, that was on the coming Saturday. That day, Sophie and I started after breakfast. The morning was sunny and it remained good throughout the day. No rain.
The city was in a festive mood. People dressed in rainbow colours wore coloured wigs and feathers. They were looking very colourful as well as funny. All of them were thronging to the canals to witness the parade. Heavy rush everywhere. Trams, buses, and metros were running at full capacity. What a scene! It reminded me of the Rath Jatra at Puri back in my home state. Both Sophie and I saw two to three canals, huge boats passing with men and women singing and dancing. Sophie could sense my disinterestedness, so she decided to show me the oldest part of Amsterdam. We proceeded. That part of Amsterdam was beautiful. I was amazed looking at the rows of typical Dutch houses. “So beautiful!”, I exclaimed. She then escorted me to a huge church nearby. We found a bench and sat down to rest. It was lunchtime, so I took out the box from my bag. My caring daughter in law had packed aloo parathas, mango pickle and two bottles of water for both of us. Sophie liked the parathas. “Your food is very tasty”, she said appreciating. We both relished the lunch.
Sophie’s old tale session began after lunch. She started describing the huge church, on whose shade we both were sitting at that time, protected from the sun. She started telling, “Traders used to come by ship to trade from different parts of the globe. Trade houses, rather companies were built for specialising in the import and export of potatoes. It was much before the second world war. People from foreign countries came in large numbers to do business. They gradually started to settle. They chose the area near the old church. Perfect selection for a colony. Not very far from the sea, and a grand church for prayer. Some built their own houses. Some preferred to purchase old houses. A number of houses started increasing day by day.  
She pointed her finger to the horizon. Over there I could see clusters of houses among lush greenery. “Seems like a colony Sophie,” I said. “Yes, it is a huge colony, raised by the traders. They named it Area 153. All of a sudden, I was reminded of the unknown person on the plane. “Numbering an area, in those days!”, I thought. “Maybe 153 was a lucky, magical number for them! Or they must have started with 153 houses. Whatever might be, let me listen to Sophie”, I reigned in my thoughts. She continued the narration. The inhabitants were mostly Catholic Christians. Very conservative in outlook. It was difficult for them to accept anything new. For generations, they had been staying there. After the war, people all over the world started migrating to different places to earn their livelihood. Many were coming to the area. One among them was a Jewish couple, whose stay at Area 153 later created a sensation.
A nice two-storied building stood tall in Area 153. One fine morning people found a “sold” board hanging on its wall. It was in the late forties, after World War II. The old habitats got inquisitive to find out who the buyer was. They found out a Jewish couple had purchased it. In summer, the couple moved to stay there with their material belongings. The couple was in the diamond polishing business. Both husband and wife were good looking. Their affluence was visible – the way they dressed, the windows of their house wore costly curtains. These were more than enough. Jealousy, anger, and resentment brewed among the residents. These were too much for the old habitats. Private secret enquiries went on about the new occupants. Where two to three persons gathered, they started a discussion, and the talk always had some suspicious element in it. People never came forward for friendship with the new entrants to the colony. The couple took one month to settle into the new place. The Jewish couple felt something was amiss there, yet they stayed contented with their jobs. They used to leave home at sharp 8:30 in the morning to go to their workplace. In the evening, they were back by 9 o clock. Time rolled on.
Within six months, another small house was sold. A Dutch couple, Max and Anna, purchased that small but beautiful house in the vibrant Area 153. They were traders in the stock market. Previously, they were staying in an apartment in the city. They were very happy with their new apartment. They put much effort into decorating it. A little garden too was raised. Anna thought, she got her dream house. She loved the place very much. On weekends the couple used to care for the garden, as on weekdays, both of them had to spend morning to evening at their office. They too stayed out of their house, just as the Jewish couple was doing. Both the couples had met several times on their way to the office. Both Max and Anna found the Jewish pair to be nice and decent people. They found it difficult to fathom the reaction of others about the fine couple. Something fishy was there, regarding the house of the diamond polishers, they had been told numerous times. Very often, they have observed people, pointing to the house and were talking in hissed voices. “Was the building haunted or what?”, they wondered.
One day Max returned from the marketplace. He was looking damn worried. Anna got anxious. She wanted to know the reason. She persisted with her husband to tell her what he was worried about. On her insistence, Max opened his mouth to tell. He started, what he had gathered in the market that, people have decided to leave the area to proceed to the city. What’s the reason he actually did not know, but what he could gather, some sort of sorcery or ghost affair was going on inside the two storied building? People were suspecting the Jewish couple of doing something dangerous to destroy the beautiful area. Hearing this, Anna felt as if her heart would break. Would there be an evacuation? The population would migrate to some other place? No, she thought, their house was so nice. She would never leave her dream house to settle somewhere else. She thought over it for some time. A brilliant idea arose in her mind. She told Max that they should visit the Jewish couple and would find out the truth, straight from the horse’s mouth! She persuaded her husband to accompany her to go to the neighbours’ house. They decided to go to the two storied building that evening.  They mustered enough courage to enter the building. Anna had taken a red rose for the lady of the house. After all, it was her first visit! She pressed the doorbell with her trembling hand. Adam, the man came to open the door, followed by Isabella, his wife.
The fine couple welcomed them with smiles on their faces. “A warm welcome indeed”, thought Anna. They were treated well with steaming black coffee. As a clever couple, they could gauge the reason for the unexpected visit of their neighbours. They certainly had come to clear their doubts, Adam felt happy that at least the couple might be helpful to mitigate the suspicion factor working against them. In the meantime, Max, Anna, and Isabella were deep in conversation. Adam asked straight to Max, “Are you people worried about the gossip circulating here at Area 153?” Hearing this, the guests seemed very much relieved but nodded their heads hesitantly. Adam cleared his throat and said, “By the time, you must have known the hefty man who sells meat and fish. His shop is one of the best in the market. Several times, I have gone to his shop to buy meat. He knew I work in the diamond house. One day, while returning from work, he met me on the road. That day, I was returning alone, as Isabella was home, down with a fever. He said he had some work with me. I wondered what sort of work it might be. I asked him what I could do for him. He took out a small box from the inside pocket of his jacket. There was a round diamond in it, the size of a cherry. The shopkeeper wanted to sell it to me at a good price. I declined his offer. I was in polishing business. I had no idea how to buy and purchase diamonds.
Since that day the fellow started avoiding me. Perhaps he was very angry with me. He was an influential person in the market. His shop was very nice. He had large numbers of customers. He started telling all sorts of bad things about me. One day, I was at the market purchasing fruits. The cleaner, who sweeps the marketplace, took me aside and told that the meat seller had told someone a very dangerous thing about me. I wanted to know what it was. He looked around, and told in a low voice, “He said that you are a secret agent, sent by an enemy country to destroy this affluent area. Both you and your wife are preparing bombs inside your big house”.
I looked at Sophie, with appreciation. “Are you happy with the story?”, she asked. “100 percent. No doubt, you are a great storyteller. Your students at the school must like you a lot”, I replied. It was almost 4 o’ clock. So we decided to leave for home. On our way back home, we decided on another story session on the bank of the river Amstel, the coming weekend. We reached home at 4:30 still with bright daylight. Sophie opened her door and went home to cook dinner.