Tuesday, 1 April 2008

Short Story- A small town tale of terror

A Small Town Tale of Terror

The evening had turned out to be perfect! Mrs. Srivastava was delighted that all the guests had complimented her on her cuisine, her d├ęcor, and most importantly, on her nephew marrying a lovely Caucasian girl he had met in America. Nothing could tarnish her spirits on this lovely April evening.

“Girish, come on over and meet Mrs. Godbole and her daughter,” exclaimed Mrs. Srivastava from across the room. Filling his glass with a third helping of mango juice, Girish looked up with a surprised expression on his face and made no attempt to approach the group of three. He knew what this was about. His wife would ask him to tell his tale of terror again. Why did she make him do this so often he thought. Anyway, he liked the attention he got, and the adulation she gave him each time he told his story. “Oh c’mon Girish’, she said, knowing he liked to be coaxed. “You must get to know these wonderful people,” she continued.

Girish walked up and said a polite hello to the ladies. He eyed the younger Ms. Godbole closely. ‘Pretty young thing’, he thought.

‘Renu studies Theology’, said his wife to him. She had noticed the look -down Girish had given the girl. ‘I thought she would like to hear your story’, she continued, ‘maybe make sense of it.’

That was the cue. ‘Do you believe in God, Renu?’, began Girish, looking into the girl’s eyes.

‘I study religion Girish,’ she said. ‘Gods are symbols. Representations of religious beliefs. So, yes, I believe in God. Not in miracles, but in God,’ said the pretty young thing with the enthusiasm of a young scientist.

‘Well, then it makes my story easier to tell’, said Girish. ‘For only if you believe in God, will you believe in the Devil. And my tale, it is of unexplainable and sinister happenings.’

The two Ms. Godboles seemed shaken by his last comment. But did not have time to deliberate on it before he started his tale.

……..the tale of the Chudail of Pipalgarh (the witch of Pipalgarh).

‘Strange business’, started Girish. ‘I remember it was our fifth year of marriage- ten years back. Sunita (Mrs. Srivastava) was pregnant with our son Neeraj. I was asked to visit the village of Pipalgarh to evaluate progress on a dam near the village that was being built with World Bank loans. Work called, so apprehensive of the situation at home, I set off to study the dam at Pipalgarh. Just so you know, the dam project was called off four years back.’

‘It was a typical monsoon night when I reached Pipalgarh. Heavy downpour…relentless rains. At the station, I took a tonga (horse drawn carriage) for the five mile ride to the village. Uneventful, the tonga driver and I kept to ourselves. I smoked my cigarette and he, his beedi(a rolled tobacco leaf smoke). The rain drummed a musical beat on the roof of the carriage, the horse added to the symphony with its trot.’

‘This was fine by me. I am not a very talkative passenger and I was more keen to get to dry ground quickly. The ride seemed to be going well, till about a half hour later, the driver stopped the carriage and asked me to get off.”

“Have we reached?”, I asked him. “No, saheb”, he said, “ but my carriage can go no further. The path is very slushy….you will have to walk the last mile. Enjoy your stay here saheb. When you want to return, inform the guest house keeper and he will contact me.”

What? I began to think. Is this man serious? A heavy downpour, slushy path, late night. And now a walk through sparse forests to the guest house, which I would have to find all by myself. What nonsense was this?

‘How to I get to the rest house?’, I asked, very irritated and hoping my annoyance would get this man to see things my way, and maybe decide to drive me the last mile as well.

‘Just walk along this path for a mile’, he replied showing no sympathy for my situation or concern at my irritation. ‘You will see its lights. Enjoy your stay saheb. But be good to our women. I hope you will not meet the chudail of pipalgarh.’

He had obviously practiced this routine often. For before I could react, he let out a cynical laugh and pulled on the reins to get his carriage moving off at speed. Leaving me drenching in the downpour looking into the dark path ahead.

‘Drunk idiot’, I thought to myself as I pondered over his reference to this ‘chudail’ character and my predicament in the rain. I am not a superstitious man, nor a believer in evil spirits. But I just found it irritating to be told of some silly chudail, when I was just getting into this village. ‘Go to hell’, I said to myself, cursing the tonga driver again.

I was drenched within a minute. Holding my raincoat tightly around myself, I picked up my suitcase and started off on the path the driver had indicated.

The combination of a dark night, monsoon rain, slushy path through a forest are a heady mix. I was surprised how quickly I was walking through the slush. A half hour of walking though the rain, cursing the tonga driver, I saw the lights of a building in the distance. ‘That must be it’, I thought and started running which soon had me gasping for breath. Reaching the door, I knocked loudly. Once, then twice. ‘Damn, is there no one inside?’ I feared. ‘My luck is turning on me. At this rate I will surely meet this chudail character tonight’, I said to myself laughing at the thought.

The door opened then, and I was greeted by an aged housekeeper. Pretty old guy, slow in his movements and speech.

‘Namaste saheb’, he said, ‘aapka intazaar tha’…I was expecting you. Saying this he took my suitcase into the house. How did he expect me? Maybe the office had sent a telegram. Anyway, good for me that I have a ready room here. This trip was looking more comfortable now.

‘Kya barish hai, (What a terrible rain)‘ I said to him, trying to build a conversation.

‘Jee huzoor (Yes sir)’, he said. That pleased me. These ‘huzoor’ types are housekeepers of an older generation. Docile, obedient and trustworthy.

‘Aapka kamara samney hai. Aap apney khana khaya?’ (Will you rest. Have you eaten?)

‘I have eaten’, I said entering my room, Ek chai bana dena bhai, I said. Main abhi ayaa.
(Make me a cup of tea, I will be with you soon)
‘Jee huzoor’, he said.

I entered my room, glancing at little, but eagerly tearing off my clothes, rummaging through my suitcase to bring out some dry clothes for the night. A cup of hot tea followed and then I fell on the bed eager for a good night’s rest before venturing into Pipalgarh in the morning.

Life in Pipalgarh.

I settled well into life at the guest house and at Pipalgarh. The village was not far from the guest house and the dam was reachable on a bicycle kept at the guest house.

The guest house sheltered some government engineers and a bloke from the world bank by the name of Samir. Each of us met quickly but not frequently after that. The engineers followed a routine which forced them to work on the construction site through the night. Samir, well, he was often late in coming home, which he explained was due to his having to meet the village headman and government regularly in the evenings to update them on the project. In our brief meetings, I enjoyed Samir’s company very much. Of the same age and tastes, we enjoyed some Johnny Walkers together.

One such night, the two of us were sitting in the guest house lawns after dinner smoking cigarettes and debating on the finer whiskies when I recalled the tonga driver’s words on the chudail of Pipalgarh.

“Hey Samir “, I said, “this village has a resident spook I am told.”

“Yeah?”, he said, “tell me about him.”

“Not him, her. A genuine Chudail. I don’t know her story, you think the house keeper here would know? He seems to have been around long enough to know.”

“Mazaa aayeyga (it should be fun), hav’nt heard a good story in ages. Ramlal!!”, he shouted. ‘Oye Ramlal, bhai idhar ao.’ ( Hey Ramlal, come here man).

Ramlal, hobbled across the garden and came to us. ‘Jee huzoor? Aur barf chahiyey? ‘ ( Yes sir, do you want any more ice?)

‘Barf nahi yaar, kahaani sunao. Chudail ki. Suna hai Pipalgarh mein chudail hai? Milaogey nahin?’, said Samir. (No ice, you tell us a story. I have heard there is a witch in Pipalgarh. Will you not introduce us to her?)

Ramlal was not happy to hear about this. ‘Saheb’, he said, ‘surely that foolish tonga driver has told you all this. He is an idiot. In this ambience, why do you want to hear all these stories. I will get you some ice. Enjoy your drinks with the songs of Asha Bhosley.’

‘Leave Asha alone with the ice,’ said Samir. ‘ You tell us a story that I can take back to my office. The story of a real witch. Come, sit with us.’

Ramlal crouched near us, reconciled to his fate of now having to tell us a story.

‘The story goes like this. A hundred years ago’, he started, ‘when the British were here, there was a gentleman by the name of John who stayed at the village. He was responsible for building the railway line here. A nice gentleman I am told. He was here for 2 years, in which time he got acquainted with the village folk. They all trusted him.

He liked the villagers as well. Unfortunately, liked them too well. John fell in love with a village girl. They were married and lived together for 6 months.’

‘Then one day,’, continued Ramlal slowly, he was called back to England. ‘He did not tell anyone where he was going, said he was off to Bombay for a few days. He never returned.’

‘Some weeks after he left, he was replaced by the new English gentleman. That’s when the girl found out that John had gone back to England. She was sure he would come back for her, and she waited for his return for five long years. Finally, one morning, she went for her bath to the river and never came back. In body. Her spirit it is said, still haunts Pipalgarh.’

‘You will ask how we know,’ said Ramlal, obviously having been asked this question by a previous audience. ‘We don’t anymore. But when I was a child, we believed the chudail protected the women of Pipalgarh. In the police station the deaths of Mr. Chaudhary in 1952, of Mr. Khan in 1961 and of Mr. Patel in 1977 remain unsolved mysteries. What is clear is that these men had forced relationships with Pipalgarh’s women in the time they were here. Each of them was found dead on the morning they were to leave this village. Each of them, naked…like in the final act of copulation, when they died. No sign of injury, assault or struggle. Just marks of love all over the body, and death.’

‘It is now 25 years since these last occurrences. We are simple folk and we believe in the chudail’, he said, a little shaken up by his own tale.

“But you are good sahibs and have nothing to fear.”

Samir and I were silent on hearing the story. Neither of us spoke. Perhaps he was thinking of his stay at Pipalgarh and I was thinking of mine.

Neither of us spoke again of the chudail. We both professed to have no belief in these matters.
A few months later, our assignments came to an end. Mine a few days before Samir’s so I waited for a while in order to leave with him. We were both going to Mumbai anyway. Neeraj was due any day now and I was full of anticipation.

The night before our departure, I had an early dinner. Samir was still in the village, bidding farewell to the friends we had made. I decided not to wait for him.

The last night

This was my last night at Pipalgarh. Like any other night, I stepped into the bedroom and closed the door behind me. I looked about my room, my home of the last few months. An old portrait of the King and Queen of Pipalgarh hanging over my bed. It was strangely tilted at an angle now. I had not noticed that earlier in the day.

The windows had been shut for the rain had started again, the curtains had been drawn.

I felt a chill in the room, I noticed the hair on my hands standing as if from static. I tried to ignore all that, switched off the lights and lay down. But couldn’t fall asleep.

A half hour later, I noticed I was still awake. But now sweating. Some how, I was scared, some unexplainable numbness had entered my head. Unable to understand why, I reached for my flask of whiskey and downed its contents, forcing myself to fall asleep. It worked and I think I fell asleep for a few hours.

I got up, not woken by any loud sounds, but gentle steps. It sounded as though someone had been walking bare feet near my bed. The gentle vibrations woke me, but I could not hear anything now. Maybe just a dream, I felt then.

The curtain to the window fluttered. That caught my attention because there was no breeze in the room. Yet I noticed now that the curtain had now actually parted. Enough for the moon light to strain in and now illuminate the portrait over my head in a strange dull glow. Sometimes, you don’t feel good about something. Your stomach churns. Maybe out of some fear or anticipation of an unpleasant occurrence. I felt that way. Scared suddenly. Like a little child afraid of the monsters hiding in his closet. I wanted to run and get out of the room.

I heard Samir’s voice in the next room, he was speaking to someone. Maybe, I though, I should go and sit with him for a while . Have a few whiskies.

But Samir was not alone. I heard a young female voice speaking to him. ‘Wapas aogey na, merey liyey?’ she was asking, softly. ( you will return, for me?)

‘Dil chodh ja raha hoon, tumharey pass, leney zaroor aaonga’, replied Samir. ( I am leaving my heart with you, I have to return to collect it.) ‘You must leave now’, he told her.

The girl giggled. ‘Ek aur baar, phir jaoongee.’ (One more time, then I will leave.)

I was surprised to hear them so clearly. And still very scared. I was continuing to sweat profusely. I heard the clock near my bed tick. The time was nearing 2.00 am. Sweat drenched my undershirt, yet I felt a chill all over. I decided to get up and go to Samir.

I couldn’t move. I was paralysed, unable to get out of bed and walk to the door. Unable to cry out aloud. Like some force was holding me back. Holding me immobile.
‘Was it the whiskey that had dulled me completely?’, I kept thinking to myself. Chidail! Chudail! Chudail…I began to hear screams in my head.

I know tears started flowing down the sides of my face. My head was writhing convulsively on the pillow. I heard loud laughter. Evil laughter. Coming closer to me. This is the end, this is the end , a voice screamed in my mind. And then, I blanked.

The morning after:

It was strange to wake up the next morning. I felt relieved to be alive, though I wondered why I should feel any other way after a nightmare. It felt like any other morning. Just a nightmare, I told myself as I got up from bed. The curtains were covering the window as I remembered them last night. The portrait over my bed, horizontal. The king and queen, sombre as I had always known them. My flask of whiskey, by my bed side, full. Maybe I had imagined the drink as well, I smiled to myself. But what a nightmare that was.

I opened the windows to see that the sun had come out today. Maybe to set us off on our journey, I thought.

Slowly I walked to the door and opened it calling out to Ramlal.

I didn’t have to call out.

Ramlal stood outside my door as two men carried Samir’s body on a stretcher to the ambulance waiting outside.

His eyes were still open as he stared emptily at the ceiling. He was dead. Naked. Lipstick marks on his neck and chest. But dead….as if he had died in the act of copulation.

Ramlal was shaking. Suddenly, I was in no better shape. I took a step into Samir’s room. The police were already there. The room was as I had always seen it. Clean and tidy. Not a thing out of place. No sign of a disturbance, of anyone else having been there.

Farewell to Pipalgarh:

I left that afternoon after the police had been assured that no one in the house had heard Samir come in – with or without a visitor. They were baffled. They simply had no case. No motive, no sign of struggle, violence. Nothing removed from the room. They just had to wait for the autopsy to suggest something. I learnt later, the autopsy could show nothing. His death remained another unsolved mystery.

The village was very silent that day. The tonga driver took me back without saying a word. I boarded the train and left. Without Samir.

The double Helix:

‘Something happened in that house that night ladies’, said Girish finally ending his story, ‘and I never understood what it was’, he concluded. Did I just experience a nightmare? Or was it for real? Why that feeling of dread? Of death? Why did Samir die that night? Just like those men before? Naked. There were no signs of injury, poisoning or assault on him. He just died.’

The two Godbole women did not speak.

‘God is great’, said Mrs. Srivastava. ‘And I know my husband passed the Agnee Pareeksha( the trial by fire). He was pure and the chudail did not touch him. He was pure’, she repeated proudly.

That was Girish’s cue to leave. His task was over. No matter how much the trauma of telling the story still affected him, his wife forced him to relive his tale before her friends only to flaunt how virtuous a husband she had. How faithful and loyal a husband she had. To Mrs. Srivastava, the chudail episode had no more significance than the fact that between two men, the chudail had chosen to kill Satish. Lecherous, unfaithful Samir. While her husband, pure, honest and faithful returned to celebrate the birth of their son.

Girish understood this and gave her this gift at each party. His performance, always compelling. His pain, always real.

Girish walked away from the trio, sipping is juice, recovering from telling his tale. He moved slowly to the garden as the mobile in his pocket beeped gently.

He stepped into the garden and spoke into it softly.
‘Hello’, he said.

‘Hello’, said a sweat young voice. Sheila, his secretary. ‘ I want to meet you now Girish’, she said, ‘ right now’, she repeated urgently.

Girish smiled to himself, ‘oh these pretty young things’, he thought, ‘always want more.’
‘At the office in 30 minutes darling’, he said.

Sheila was not surprised, but asked, ‘how do you manage this? Will your wife not be suspicious? She must really trust you.’

‘Oh yes she does,’ said Girish, ‘hasn’t doubted me in ten years.’

‘Ten years’, said Sheila, ‘since the birth of Neeraj, no?’, she asked, just to impress her boss and lover with her knowledge of the important days in his life.

‘Yes’, thought Girish in his mind, ‘since the birth of Neeraj……………and the birth of the chudail of Pipalgarh. Man that story gets better each time I tell it. What a creation, that story. Impresses the wife, impresses her friends’, he gloated.

‘See you then’, he said and disconnected the phone.

He returned to the living room and walked to his wife. Planting a kiss on her cheek he said ,’have to run to the office darling. Some work with the US clients. Need to videoconference right away. Could take all night. Don’t wait up for me, see the guests off. Great party as usual. I love you.’

‘Nahin yaar’(oh no!), said Mrs. Srivastava in mock disappointment. She knew these calls were urgent and called Girish away often. ‘Ok’, she said, ‘carry on, I’ll be thinking of you, love.’

Girish stepped into his Toyota, put on his favourite music and headed off to his rendezvous with his secretary.

Moments later, his wife excused herself, entered the bathroom and dialled a number on her mobile phone.

‘Come over darling’, she whispered to the man on the other end. ‘Yeah, he’s gone again tonight.
To his silly secretary again.

Yes, I got him started on his Chadial story. The guests loved it, and so did he. Yes. I think so too’, she answered to a question from the other end. ‘Telling the story must really turn him on.’ She laughed loudly with her lover.

‘Yes’, she said in agreement with the voice, ‘silly fellow thinks I still believe him. Him and his awful concoction of the chudail of pipalgarh.

The only chudails I know’, said said with contempt and admiring the jewellery that adorned her slender neck, ’are the ones he visits ……. and the one he married!!’

‘See you soon’, she said hanging up, readying herself for her young lover.

This story was begun by Saurabh Saklani and completed by Venkat Rangachari, while at INSEAD in 2003.

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