Search Useless Ramblings

Friday 5 August 2016

# 25 - Short Story - The Village

"Don't leave the village at night", Poonni di told me, waving her index finger in front of my face.

When a 90 something-year-old woman says a thing like that, you are bound to get a little jumpy, except I wasn't scared. Who could get scared of Poonni di?

I laughed, joining the other men-folk.

There was nothing remotely scary about the atmosphere at Tarapur, the sun touched the horizon, melting into a pond big enough to be called a lake, the unpolluted air brushed against my face, and I watched the birds rushing  to settle down to their nests as they sensed the impending dusk,

I realised that it was almost time for me to leave.

I was born in this village, Tarapur had been my home for the first eight years of my life before my family relocated to Kolkata, and it was only now, after twenty-four years, that I was visiting my place of birth.

I had planned this trip many times, but something or the other had always come up. It had finally taken a transfer to Cuttack, which was a five-hour drive from here, for the long unfulfilled dream to come true, even if the stay was only for a day.

Most of my memories of Tarapur had faded with time, but of the few that hadn't, Poonni di's was the most prominent. She was a distant relative of ours and until my family left the village for good, she, along with her grandson Janardan, stayed with us.

My world had once revolved around Poonni di, and I suspected that her's did too, for Janardan, who was about my age, frequently complained about the lack of attention he received from her. I remembered us having frequent fights for this reason, always ending with Poonni di separating the two of us and slapping Janardan. When we did leave Tarapur, we couldn't take Poonni di and Janardan along with us, and it had broken my heart,

Though we hadn't met in all these years, I never quite forgot her, she was the reason I wanted to visit Tarapur in the first place, taking a chance that she would still be alive and be able to recognize me, the gamble had paid off. I even met Janardan, and he seemed to have forgotten all about our animosity.

"Don't worry Poonni di, from now on, I will be coming to visit you at least once a month", I told her, trying to assure the old lady as well as myself.

She didn't seem to fully comprehend my words, and blinked a couple of times before looking away.

- "Is Janardan back? Would like to say goodbye to him before I leave."

Poonni di continued to avoid my gaze; one of the men who had heard my query shook his head, "you better get going, it will be quite late by the time he gets back."

I took the leave of my newly made acquaintances and came back to Poonni di; her excitement at meeting me had all but evaporated. Maybe she wasn't doing as well as I had thought earlier, physically she was still quite fit, but perhaps senility had been setting in.

 "I will be back soon. Tell Janardan to come and visit me sometime." I said, hoping for a response, seeing none I touched her feet and got up to leave, but in a swift motion she grabbed my hand, and with a look of terror, she spoke "Don't leave. Not tonight. It's not safe."

"What's not safe Pooni di? The highways are quite safe, they have lights and everything, it's only a few hours drive. I will be home by 11."

She shook her head vigorously, "There are things, not safe. Stay for the night, you can leave early tomorrow."

I looked at her face, criss-cross with wrinkles, yes, she was old, but her eyes didn't show any signs of mental incapacity,

"What are these things?" I insisted on asking, but she wouldn't elaborate any further.

"I must get back by tonight, I can't afford to miss office tomorrow; but don't you worry, I'll be safe, if any of you had a cellphone, I would have called to confirm."

It seemed as if she wanted to say something, so I asked her to walk me to my car, which I had parked near the only pucca building in the vicinity, which was Pooni Di's house, or rather Janardan's. A few of the others also insisted on accompanying me.

"So what does Janardan exactly do for a living?" I asked Poonni Di during our brief walk.

"He has some business. He goes to a nearby town, he has a cellphone, but there's no network here." answered a man on Poonni Di's behalf.

Janardan was clearly a respected man in the village, not only did he have a house, he had a cellphone too, so what if there was no network, and I had seen that he had owned a bike as well; in a village caught almost in a time warp, people were impressed easily, the fact that I owned a car had them calling me 'sir'.

I waved everyone goodbye, and just as I was about to start the engine, Poonni Di leaned near the window and whispered carefully, as if she was afraid that some entity would hear what she was about to say.

"If you see anything strange on your way, don't stop, don't get down from the car," she said, and stepped away.

As I drove along the dirt road, I got more and more convinced that Poonni Di wasn't very healthy.

A few boys ran alongside the car, leaving muddy handprints all over the body.

I didn't mind.

The small conveniences of an urban location aside, there was nothing strange about Tarapur; it had felt like home.
The kindness and simplicity of complete strangers, the slow paced life, the lack of stress, what was not to love about this place?

Maybe someday, I would come back to this place for good, join Janardan in his business or whatever. Make up for the folly that my father had committed in leaving by coming back.

The dirt road made way for an asphalt highway in half an hour or so; it was a lonely stretch and barring the road itself, very little signs of civilization appeared; an occasional horn from an unseen truck, a makeshift tent on the side of the road, sometimes an abandoned tire hanging from a tree.

I enjoyed the calmness, whistling to an old Kishore Kumar song, I forgot all about my worries.

Darkness descended all of a sudden without warning, and the silence was replaced by a steady chirping of crickets and croaking of frogs. I even saw foxes crossing the road a couple of times. The trees on either side formed a series of arches over the road by the meeting of their branches and thick foliage. The headlamps pierced the darkness as I moved along; sections of the road momentarily visible only to be enveloped by gloom after my crossing.

Street lights now began to appear, but they were few and far in between, and only half of them worked, doing precious little to justify their presence.

Up way ahead, at a bend in the road, something caught my attention and I slowed down my car as I approached the point.

An accident.

A matador truck and a bike had seemingly collided, and the bike lay down sideways, the matador stood slightly ahead with its hazard lights blinking, almost blocking the entire road.

Right next to the bike, a human figure lay unmoving, with his hands twisted at an angle they wouldn't ordinarily make.

I had seen plenty of accidents, had encountered much worse scenes, but out here in the woods, almost running into a dying, or already dead, man, I began to shake uncontrollably.

 Taking a moment to gather myself, I wondered what I should do. Do I take the man into my car and go to the nearest hospital as soon as I could find one, or do I call the police or hospital and hope that they arrive at the scene as soon as possible? But, of course, there was still no reception on my phone.

I got out of the car, still panicked, but having decided that I would help out the victim. Carrying him to a hospital was the least I could do.

I had barely walked a couple of steps in the direction of the man when Poonni Di's words came back to me, and as soon as it did, I realised that the peace and calm of Tarapur had long been gone, replaced by a sense of terror.

Here I was, in the middle of nowhere, untraceable to anyone, trying to save a man who was probably already dead; for all practical purposes I was alone, except, I didn't feel so.

It wasn't just the frogs and the crickets, something told me that my presence was being closely monitored, that each and every movement of mine away from the car was anticipated and awaited. I was being stalked by a presence that I couldn't see, but of whose existence I felt certain.

My rational mind tried feebly to convince me otherwise, but ended up only asking more questions.

How come there was no visible damage to the bike or the truck? Where had the man driving the matador gone? Why did he leave his vehicle behind? If the severity of the accident was so great, why was there no blood flowing from the man lying face down ahead of me?

In spite of my wobbling knees, with every bit of strength that I could muster, I turned around and jumped right back in my car, locked the doors and started the engine, driving away from the scene, I narrowly managed to avoid hitting the truck myself.

Looking at the rear-view mirror, I felt my blood freeze.

The street lights were dim, but they revealed enough; the man lying down, the man who I was almost about to carry into my car, was getting up.

Showing no signs of injury, he dusted off his clothes and looked in the direction of my car, and emerging from behind the trees, five or six men joined him.

I could have been wrong, the mind does play tricks from time to time, and I had hardly seen his face for a second or two before the increasing distance made it impossible to discern any features. but I could have sworn that it was Janardan.

A long lost memory, tucked away in some corner of my brain re-surfaced - the reason why my family had left Tarapur in the first place.

Increasing crimes.
The repeated failure of the crops had made thugs out of farmers.