Thursday, 15 August 2019

Short Story 2019 Longlist, Biju James


The Village on the Hill

The rain fell steadily from the night sky. It came in waves, slowing for a while giving us hope that it might stop, then suddenly coming down torrentially. Occasional streaks of lightning flashed across the sky. It lit up the dense forest, the glistening leaves and the wet face of my companion, Suresh. We had been tramping through the dense forest for over four hours now. How had we got into such a predicament? Silly, stupid reason. We had stepped aside from the main group of our trekking gang and had subsequently found ourselves lost. A sudden shower and an equally sudden change from day to night and we were lost. That’s right- a couple of city kids, on a yearly break from our computer screens, had gotten ourselves lost in the dense wilds of the Khasi hills.

“We are lost,” Suresh declared with the confidence of one arriving at an indisputable conclusion after years of painful research. He was a software engineer who had come on the trek to ‘rough it out.’
“Yeah.”
“What can we do? We are wandering around in circles. I’m sure we have passed that leaf at least five hundred times already.”
“I have absolutely no idea,” I replied, wiping my face with my hands. My jacket was trying its best to hold off the rain, but some cold drops trickled off my cap, down my neck and under the collar.
“Why don’t we rest for a while?”
“Where? It’s raining cats and dogs. There is no shelter in sight. And if the rain does stop, we have to worry about the wild animals. This is not Shillong. The jackals must be looking forward to fresh computer professional salad.”

Suresh shut up. We continued to plod on. The ground was slushy and my shoes were caked with mud. It was pointless. Every place looked like every other. Mercifully, the rain seemed to decrease into a steady drizzle and then it stopped. The silence was overpowering. No drip of rain. No thunder. No lightning. Sudden, complete, pitch black silence.

“What kind of place is this?” Suresh whispered. “Complete chaos one second and complete silence the next. It’s like a bloody grave.”
“I wish you would use another analogy,” I muttered nervously. “Let’s try and get to a higher level. We can get a better view. If there are any lights around, we can spot them. There may be some villages or some sort of habitation here.”
“Why not?” Suresh pulled off his cap and ran his fingers through his hair uneasily. He looked around, peering into the darkness. “Let’s go.”

We picked our way carefully. There were deep puddles of rainwater into which we manage to put our feet, freshly formed rivulets that rushed by and a very slippery ground that provided for a very difficult climb. Our jeans were soaked and heavy, caked with thick mud.
 Both of us were silent. Far in the distance, we could hear the howls of jackals. I shivered. Luckily for us, the moon sailed out from behind the clouds. It gave us renewed hope. As we climbed up the side of the hill, we felt the ground levelling out. At first, we thought that it was because of the fact that we were beginning to get used to walking but it wasn’t only that. Suddenly we burst through the woods and came upon a clearing. There in the clearing stood a village.

We exchanged a glance. The houses numbered about a dozen or so. They stood dark and silent in the bluish-violet light of the moon. Swirls of thick mist floated about. It was a bit eerie. We were hesitant to call out. We walked silently past the houses. The houses were the typical whitewashed structures with the corrugated tin roofs, popular in Meghalaya. What was puzzling was the absence of any signs of life. No chink of light flickered through. Not one sound. Our footsteps seemed to echo in the darkness.

“Are you looking for something?” The voice was very loud in the silence.
We turned to see a man sitting on the doorstep of one of the houses. He was clad in a tattered check shawl with a cap on his head. His face had the texture of washed leather. He looked at us thoughtfully.

I cleared my throat. “Actually we had come for a trek and had got lost. The rain, the night and now, we have no idea where we are. We need a place to stay for the night. We can hopefully find our bearings in the morning.”

The man nodded. “We hardly get any visitors nowadays. However, today is a bad day to come.” He got up. “Follow me. I know someone who will take you in for the night.” He led the way amidst the houses.

Suresh broke the silence. “Why is today a bad day to come here?”
He looked at us sharply, stopping in his tracks. “Are you superstitious?”
“What? Well- I guess not. You mean ghosts and stuff like that?”
Our guide looked at me. I shrugged to indicate my indifference. He asked, “Do you know why all these houses are shut like this? No sound, no light?”
“Must be asleep. It is late.”
He pointed at one house. “Look at the doorstep.”

We peered into the darkness. There was a bowl placed at the doorstep. “It’s food.” He looked around. “Tonight is the last night of the Khasi calendar. We believe that on this night the dead walk. Nobody is to look at them. The food is for them. In case a house doesn’t put out food, the dead will claim someone from that house for themselves. Tonight no-one will open their doors.” He smiled at us. “But all superstitions. You don’t believe all this, do you? You people are from the city- educated people. Stuff like this is for us villagers, isn’t it?”

Suresh’s face had paled. “No- no.”
“Where are we going then?” I asked, changing the topic. Our guide resumed his walk. “One of my friends. He doesn’t believe in such tales. He is the only person who will open the door for us.”

The house we were headed to stood at one end of the village, a bit far removed from the others. It was also slightly bigger than its neighbouring houses. Our guide knocked on the door. A moment later, the door opened. A huge giant of a man stood in the doorway, holding an oil lamp. His eyes were the prominent features of his face- protruding with the eyelids drawn back. In the quivering light of the oil lamp, the eyes gave his face a sinister look. His cleft upper lip and scowl added to the effect.

“His name is Yak.” Our friend turned to Yak and talked for a while. I couldn’t understand the language. A couple of minutes later, Yak looked at us. “Come. Two rooms spare.”
“Don’t worry,” were our friend’s parting words.

Suresh and I had separate rooms with mattresses and sheets. “See you in the morning,” Suresh said, going into the room allotted to him. I had removed my shoes and had just wringing my socks, when Suresh returned. He sat down on the mattress. He seemed to have something on his mind. I removed my wet jacket and spread it on the floor. I looked at my watch by the light of the oil lamp that Yak had left with me. Nearly eleven.

“Did you notice Yak’s doorstep?”
“What? No… I was busy thinking about---”
Suresh interrupted me. “There was no food.”
“Go to sleep, Suresh. We’ve got to start off early tomorrow morning.”
“Sleep? Didn’t you hear what that man was saying?” Suresh was babbling hysterically. “The dead walk! If there is no food, they will claim one from within the house!”

“What utter rot! Anyway, what do you suggest we do?” I retorted. “Go out? It’s dark. The rain may start anytime again. There are wild animals out there. And you want to enjoy all that because there is no food at the doorstep? Don’t be ridiculous! I am going to sleep.”
“Sleep? How can you sleep? I don’t like the look of that chap- Yak- also. What kind of name is ‘Yak’ anyway?”
“Suresh, get a grip. We have had a tough day. Through some incredible luck, we are inside a house.”

“Exactly! In the middle of a forest, a village; that too, a deserted village. But coincidentally, we get a guide. Coincidentally, he has a friend who can let us stay for the night. And guess what, there are two separate guest rooms as well!” His voice was rising with each sentence.
I sighed. “So what are you suggesting?”
“They are waiting for us.”

I held up my hand. “Spare me. I’ve got enough to worry about without your feverish imagination going haywire. Go and sleep.”
“Sleep?” Suresh yelled.
“Fine!” I shouted back. “Don’t sleep! Go and do whatever you want! You can walk back…” I broke off.
Yak stood in the doorway, holding the lamp. He stared at us, his bulging eyes flicking from Suresh to me and back. “Problem?”

I shook my head. “Sleeping.” Yak nodded and left. “Go and sleep, Suresh. And no more talk. You don’t want to sleep? Stay awake. You don’t want to stay? Leave. Walk back to Shillong if you want. But please leave me alone. I’m going to sleep.”
   
Suresh got up. “See, I don’t believe this stuff about the dead walking and all that. But I don’t like this place, this Yak or the whole set-up. The sooner I leave this place, the better I’ll feel.”
"Goodnight, Suresh.”
“Goodnight.” He had reached the door, when he turned and asked, “Don’t you think that it’s strange that in the entire village only Yak didn’t keep the bowl of food outside? And only Yak had rooms for us.”

I blew out the lamp. I heard Suresh’s footsteps as he entered the adjoining room. My eyes grew accustomed to the gloom. It was a bare room: no furniture. Some cane baskets were stacked in one corner. The footsteps continued. Suresh was pacing up and down the room. He was breathing heavily. I grew used to the sound of his footsteps. It was a steady sound- heel first which was a sharp sound, then the slightly dull sound of the front of the foot striking the floorboards and then the sharp sound again. Ten paces, then a pause as he turned; ten paces another turn.  Sometimes a longer pause as he stopped to take a couple of deep noisy breaths. Then again. The same process over and over again. It was like a lullaby.

Sleep wafted over me. My eyelids felt heavy. Suddenly, lightning flashed and I saw a heavy shadow pass my door. I sat up and strained my ears. There was nothing. I couldn’t hear Suresh’s footsteps anymore though. I glance at my watch. Nearly two in the morning. Suresh must have let sleep overcome his misgivings. I was feeling really sleepy. I was tired after all that tramping across the hills and through the jungle. There was a faint creak as a door opened somewhere in the house. I dozed off.

The sunlight streamed in through the window. I got up from the mattress. Memories of the previous night were hazy. The trek, getting lost, the rain, the black night, the deserted village and Yak. Oh yes! I managed to get my bearings right. I pulled on my jeans and shoes, and picked up my jacket from the ground. It was almost dry. Wearable.

“Suresh?” I called, going into the adjoining room. The room was empty. Where could he have gone? It was five; early enough for him to be still asleep.
I went downstairs. Yak looked at me. He was sitting in the doorway.
“Friend- where?”
 Yak waved with his hand to the outside. “Left.”
“What do you mean ‘left’? He wouldn’t have left without telling me! And where would he go?” I got a blank stare in response. I shook my head vehemently. “Friend not leave!”
Yak shrugged. “Left.”
I motioned to him and then to my eyes. “See him leave?”

Yak shook his head. It was puzzling. Sure Suresh was scared and upset last night about some ghost story but even he would have more sense than to dash off into the night. Then where was he?
Or could it be? No! What was I thinking? Yak had kept no food; but…
“So could it be that the legend was true?” He finished reading and threw the papers on the table in disgust. “What utter rubbish! This man’s police statement is complete nonsense!”
Inspector Sinha nodded. “My impression exactly.”
“Okay. What are the facts of this case?” Inspector Guha asked. “While my sanity is intact and able to decipher them, let’s have the facts.”
“Fact one: Suresh Nair and Sanjoy Bhatt went on a trek.” Sinha ticked off on his fingers. “Two: they got lost. Three: Bhatt returns to Shillong- alone- after two days. Four: Suresh Nair is missing.”
“Is it possible to find the body, assuming the worst and that Nair is dead? I mean we can launch a search party and other routine things but, realistically speaking, do we have a chance?”
“I don’t have much hope. It’s a vast area and it’s a dense forest. Wild animals and all that. Plus the topography also is quite terrible- hills and ravines et cetera. More chance of us getting lost ourselves.”
“What do you think of this?” Guha wave at the sheets of paper. “This story?”
“We have looked into it. In his favour, it could be that Suresh Nair got scared and ran off into the forest at night. Some jackals or some such things could have killed him. The village that Bhatt mentioned exists. It was abandoned after a cholera epidemic killed off most of the inhabitants. The rest ran away saying that the place was cursed. We went to that village but there were no signs of life. No house with mattresses and cane baskets, no bowls of food or anything to corroborate the story.”

“So Bhatt is lying?”
Sinha leaned back in his chair. “What was your first impression about Bhatt’s statement?”
Guha laughed. “Unbelievable! My ten year old son could think of a better story and, actually, he has also!”
“So why would Bhatt say something that is so obviously unbelievable? Why not something like ‘We were attacked by wild animals; Nair got killed; I escaped’? Assuming that he had something to do with Nair’s disappearance of course.”
Guha nodded slowly. “So what are you coming to?”
“It’s incredible. But it could be true- mainly because it is so incredible that it can’t be false. Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction.”
Guha thought that over. “Where’s Bhatt now?”
“We let him go. We have no proof against him. We have no idea if Suresh Nair is alive or dead. There is no case. There is nothing we can do.”
  
Guha asked slowly, “You don’t believe in all this, do you?”
Sinha replied, “Sir, there is a famous ghost story writer by the name of MR James who, when asked if he believed in ghosts, said: ‘I don’t but I am willing to accept evidence about it.’ Same here, sir.”
Guha stood up and extended his hand. “Well then. We have no body and no case. Just a Missing Persons report.”
Sinha shook the extended hand. “And the village on top of the hill. It exists.”
***
Ambika was waiting outside the police station. I walked up to her. “Thanks for coming.”
She nodded. “It’s okay, Sanjoy.”
“I am sorry about your husband. It’s all so---”
"Suresh was more than a husband. He was a true friend, a companion. I’ve had only two real friends in my life- Suresh and you, Sanjoy.”
I smiled, what I hoped was a comforting smile. “Now there is only one.”

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