In their plush apartment, Vivek and Sadhana were quietly having a late dinner. The Quartz digital clock beeped 11 p.m. Vivek had been late from office. The last moment deliverables; the chaotic and the pathetically slow Friday night Bangalore traffic would only result in having late dinners, lest you munch a burger or something prior your way back home at the office cafeteria.
Vivek was a software engineer in a private company, although he looked like an unshapely bank officer, earning a hefty thousands of rupees per month. Lately, he had planned to join a gym and has been enquiring about it on weekends, the only time in a whole week, when he would be free. That also meant he should wake up early in the morning, probably at 5 a.m and rush to the gym, so that he could win his race against the morning traffic in the next three hours. It was a dreaded thought to wake up so early during the cold mornings, but, he was determined to get to hip shape.
Vivek was a Malayali, but, he had rarely been to Kerala. It was after his marriage with Sadhana that he had made his presence felt in Kerala. Theirs was an arranged marriage and they were one happy and lovable lot. They were blessed with a baby boy who they named Vishal, but, they fondly called him Vishu. Vishu is now a three years old, cute little boy.
Its been a while since they had visited Kerala. The last time they did was almost a year back when they had visited their ancestral home in Kannur. Lately, they had been planning for an outing to their native place during the Dasara vacations. The greenery of Kerala would be a welcome relief from the busy bustling city life. Maybe for a short stay, but, they wanted to be there.
And Dasara vacations started from the weekend, which was tomorrow. Vivek was late than usual and he knew that the packing was only half done. After a quick dinner, Vivek inspected his car. It was a grey Honda City, which he had purchased a couple of years back. They were planning to leave Bangalore at dawn.
Packing was an arduous task and it took at least two hours for them to complete packing their lot. Vivek gasped, “Well, I guess we will be leaving late than what we had planned!”. Sadhana was upset. “If only you could leave that office early, things would have been just as planned” she complained. “Bloody hell! What am I supposed to do?” protested Vivek. She gave a cold look at Vivek. He just tried to smile so as to ease the sudden disruption of peace, but, ended up looking like a kid with a toffee, eager to eat it despite rejection. He knew that his wife had a great knack of becoming upset and she did not have to hunt for one. He surrendered and then, switched off the lights for a sound sleep.
And true to his words they started late. It was 10 a.m when they hit the road, much to the dismay of Sadhana.
As they lived in Rajarajeshwari Nagar, which was just outside the city, it was an easy drive to exit the city. Very soon they reached the countryside. Sadhana was seated beside him with Vishal on her lap. She was reading a magazine and was still upset with the fact that they had started late. Vishal was playing with his G.I. Joe toy.
The day was cloudy with a mild drizzle. Vivek was aware of the rains in this part of the region. “Its only a steady drizzle and it shall stop, is’nt it?” he said, hoping to get a response from Sadhana. But she continued to read the magazine.
He then began to scroll for a song on the car’s audio system and decided to play Silent Cry by the Welsh band, Feeder. He started to blare the lyrics:
“Oh my God what have I done?
One step now the damage is done
It’s silent without you
It burns through each and every day
It takes my breath away
So lonely without you
This love you’ve grown just fades to gray
It takes my breath away”
Sadhana knew he was bad at singing and he was trying his best to seriously match Grant Nicholas, the singer. He looked at her giving a puppy dog smile. She burst into laughter. “Alright, I’am hungry lets halt for a quick snack” she said, pecking him a kiss on his cheek. “Eeyahoo! Time to sup!” he shouted. “Yeaaoo!” croaked little Vishal, joining his father’s jig.
The journey continued and they passed Mysore and Virajpet. Vivek looked at the clouds. The sky had been a kaleidoscope so far and it was slowly beginning to get darker. He began to wonder if it would rain at the hills. They had been driving slowly and it was 5 pm in the evening.
Just after Gonikoppal and near the hills, it began to pour heavily and Vivek was driving very carefully. “Don’t worry, if it continues raining like this, we shall halt somewhere and then proceed” said Vivek looking at Sadhana. Just as he completed his sentence, he stopped his vehicle with a screech. “What happened?” questioned Sadhana. “I thought somebody was crossing the road”, he said. He looked around, frantically here and there and in the rear window, but, could not see anyone. He moved the vehicle to the side of the road.
They were in the middle of a jungle with not a soul around. “Pass that umbrella, let me take a look. I’am sure there was somebody on the road” said Vivek. As he was about to open the door, Sadhana caught hold of his hand. “Be careful”, she said. He threw his green Ray-Ban glass on the seat and got out of the car. The rain had converted to a minor drizzle and the air smelt a mixture of fresh air and hot tyre with an essence of smoke. Vivek looked around and could not find anyone. He walked ahead to confirm if he had missed someone and just when he was about to turn back towards his car, he noticed something.
There was somebody or something beneath a huge tree. He could not clearly see what it was, as the thing was behind the tree. “It was not there a moment ago” he thought, too unsure to cross-examine his own thoughts. “What if it was a bear or some wild animal?”.
He then saw a stick fall from where the thing was possibly present. He walked towards it cautiously and curious to know what it was. He discovered that it was an old lady, very old and very wet, crouched and covered in a sheet, looking at him in surprise.
“Hey, who are you old woman? What are you doing here in the middle of the jungle and in this rain?” he questioned her. The hag looked scared. Realizing that, he lowered his umbrella to protect her from the rain and gently caught hold of her hand. She was very cold. The old woman did not resist and got up picking her stick.
“My son, I want to go home. Will you help me?” asked the old lady. “Come along!” said Vivek.
Sadhana saw Vivek and the old lady walking towards the car. She placed Vishal on the seat and got down from the car. Vishal began to wail instantly. She picked up a towel from the back seat and walked towards the odd couple.
The old lady wiped her face with the towel. She was very old and ugly. She was probably 70 or 80 years old. Her entire face was a mass of wrinkles and her ears had two big holes. One of her ears had a wooden plug inserted in its hole, whereas, the other was open. Her nose was small with thick nostrils protruding outside, dripping with water. But, her eyes were sharp, like that of an hawk. From the initial looks, her appearance resembled a tribal.
Vivek opened the back door and requested the old lady to get into the car. “Granny wants to go home. I thought to give her a lift” said Vivek. “What were you doing in this jungle?” enquired Sadhana. The old lady chuckled and said, “I live in the woods and often go to the town to collect herbs and other requirements. It rained badly today and since I had nowhere to take shelter, I sat beneath the huge tree hoping some good passer-by to help me.”
“Where is your home, granny?” asked Vivek. “Near the Makuta bridge. I thank you dears, for your kindness. You seem to be a very happy couple and what a sweet little boy this is. It reminds me of my own dear family, when we were young. But, they are all gone now.” said the old lady sadly. Sadhana shuddered at that remark. She was not feeling comfortable with the old lady talking about them or their son. Vivek wanted to know about the old lady and her family, but, thought not to trouble her. Often these tribals have bad experiences and would maintain a certain privacy.
“Did you cross our path, granny?” asked Vivek, hoping to clear his doubt instead. “No!” she said. Somehow Vivek was not convinced. Something had come in a flash, in front of him and he knew it.
After half an hour, the old lady asked them to stop the car. “Drop me here, son. I shall walk from here” said the old lady. Vivek gave her some eatables from the back seat and also handed her a 500 rupees note. She hesitated taking them and instead gave him an amulet. “This is all I can give you for helping me” said the old lady. She laid the amulet on Vishal’s forehead and closed her eyes, muttering something. “Always wear this and never ever remove it. It shall protect your son from any danger or fears” said the old lady placing the amulet around Vishal’s neck. Vishal chuckled and they all smiled.
The old lady went her way and they continued their journey. In another 30 minutes they reached the Makuta bridge, which was the border of the two states, Kerala and Karnataka. “Let us take a break. In another one hour we shall be home” said Vivek. Sadhana checked the time. It was 7.30 p.m and they have already wasted one day. Another three days and they had to return to Bangalore. The couple decided to have a refreshing Kerala tea at a nearby restaurant.
By the time they reached home it was 9.00 p.m. Vivek’s father, opened the gates to park the car in the porch. He shook hands with both Vivek and Sadhana and picked little Vishal. “How are you Vishu. You seem to have grown up in a year”, crackled the old man. They went inside the house where Vivek’s mother was awaiting them.
After the showers and a good dinner, the couple decided to retire for the day. Vivek was dog-tired and started snoring immediately.
Around 2 a.m, Sadhana heard the giggling and laughter of a small child. “That is Vishal” she thought, half awakened. She was shocked to see little Vishal standing in front of the window and staring in the darkness, giggling and laughing. She slowly woke up Vivek, who was not sure what was happening. It took some time for him to read the situation. He slowly switched on the light. The laughter stopped with Vishal still standing motionless. Vivek looked at Sadhana and went towards the kid. He touched Vishal’s shoulder and as if awakened suddenly, the kid turned towards Vivek and hissed. Vivek was unsure what to do and hugged Vishal, hoping compassion will alleviate this strange behaviour. The kid scratched Vivek’s right hand. “Aww! He has real big tiger claws. We ought to cut it first thing in the morning” Vivek said lifting Vishal to shoulder height. Strangely, Vivek smelt earth and there was a light layer of some white powdery substance near his cheeks. Vivek wiped it and smelt it. “Nothing special” he thought.
“Baby wants to sleep” said Vishal. Sadhana put Vishal to sleep, but, both were very worried because of this strange incident. Vivek switched on the porch light and peered his eyes in the darkness wondering what Vishal was looking at. He found nothing.
“Did you feed Vishu before going to bed?” enquired Vivek. “Yes, with oat meal” said Sadhana. “There was a bit of powdery substance around his cheek. I wonder where that came from and he smells earth”. Sadhana gave him a puzzled look and shrugged her shoulders.
The next day, Vishal lay cuddled in the bed. He had a mild fever. “Perhaps the journey had taken a toll on the poor kid. Let me make some Tulsi water and feed him” said Vivek’s mother. On close examination, Vivek found that Vishal was shivering. He placed a thermometer at Vishal’s armpit and waited. Suddenly, Vishal got up and plunged the thermometer deep into Vivek’s hand. Vivek wasn’t sure whether to utter a cry of pain or be startled about Vishal’s sudden aggression.
Vivek plucked the thermometer form Vishal’s hand and threw it on the bed. Vishal started crying, which brought Sadhana to the room. He explained the new scenario to Sadhana. She began to cry. Vivek’s father suggested to consult a child specialist.
Immediately, Vivek, his father and Vishal set out to meet Dr. Janardhanan, the only child specialist in their locality. The doctor was a fat man with a huge protruding belly. He was wearing a Kumar’s half sleeve shirt and he wore his pant so further down that it looked like he was wearing a pant belonging to his teenage days. His belt squeaked as he walked around. “Hello Vivek, long time no see” said the doctor lifting his hand, his XXL size baniyan protruding behind his half sleeve shirt. “I got a new customer, have I?” said the doctor giving Vishal a chocolate. Vivek explained Vishal’s strange behavior since coming to his house. The doctor thought a while and said “It could be that the kid is exhausted. But I cannot explain what made him stand in front of the window. I would like you people to observe him for a day or two. In case, there is a repetitive behavior, then, it is better that we report this to Dr. Pankaj, a renowned child psychiatrist in Bangalore.
Vivek and his father, both shook their hands with the doctor and left for their home.
That night Vivek decided to sleep in the balcony that lead to the porch with Sadhana keeping guard of the kid. He switched of the lights and might have dozed when he heard a scream. It came from their bed room and he ran towards it. In the room, Sadhana was holding Vishal who was trying to pull her hair. “There was somebody at the window” she screamed. Vishal raced back towards the balcony and in the process just had the time to glance the time-piece placed on the coffee table. It was past 1.30 a.m.
Viveks parents came running to join the commotion. Vivek ran outside and towards the porch. He saw something move behind him. Something flashed in a jiffy and he could not make out what it was. “It went towards the well” he thought, and he ran there. He could see somebody running in the bushes now and with a stick. The thing just stared back to see if it was being followed and he recognized the face. “Bloody hell! the old hag” he said. He ran towards the bushes but could not find her. Anything further would take him to the thick bushes. He had lost her. “For an old woman, she ran quite fast” he thought.
He searched for the old lady in vain. Upon returning to the house Vivek saw Vishal sleeping peacefully. Sadhana was crying and so was his mother. Vivek said “Sadhana, I saw the same old woman”. Sadhana then told him that as she woke up, she saw somebody trying to feed Vishal from behind the window. Upon seeing her get up, the thing just vanished. She showed him the piece of eatable that the old lady was trying to feed Vishal. It was the same white powdery substance that he had seen earlier and it was covered in a small green leaf. It smelt earth. “Did Vishal eat it?” enquired Vivek. “Fortunately, no” replied Sadhana.
Sadhana showed him the amulet. She had removed it from Vishal’s neck. Vivek took it and threw it outside the window. Vivek explained the whole incident involving the old lady to his parents. Vivek’s father then suggested to speak to Damodaran, a local driver and a know-all, who was familiar with the tribals and their customs.
The next day they went to meet Damodaran. He was a man in his mid-fifties, who had been recovering from an acute fissure in his rectum and was walking in a rather funny way. They shook hands and Vivek narrated him his agony. Damodaran was quick enough to understand the situation and said he knew that old lady. He explained to them that the old lady was a witch doctor who was banished by her tribal clan. She had been living as an outcast for many years and nobody knew what she was up to. Some say that her house was in a cave and she had been practicing her witchcraft in there. Lately, she had been taking care of an orphaned kid who was staying with her. But, nobody really knew much about the kid, or what happened to him. People were least bothered about her as she was never really cared for.
Upon request, Damodaran decided to take Vivek to the place where the old lady was possibly staying. Damodaran looked scared and said he would not like to venture anywhere near the cave.
Vivek decided to go alone and walked towards the cave. The entire place smelt familiar. It smelt earth. “Has she been digging a gold mine?” he thought. He reached the cave. It had a narrow entrance that allowed only one person to enter. He switched on the torch light on his mobile. There was all sorts of rubbish in the cave, from, herbs to rags. But what caught his attention was a naked human body lying in the corner. He walked towards it and saw that the body was smeared with some oil that smelt like bitter papaya. On close examination, he found that the body belonged to a kid which as possibly dead a week before. It was evident that the old lady had been trying to do some reviving techniques, probably to revive the dead, and she had been constantly applying that pungent smelling oil on the dead kids’ body to keep it fresh from rotting. Yet the body seemed to be getting soft and slowly disintegrating, with the skin loosening at the corners of its hands, exposing the pink inner flesh and the hair on his head was all coming out.
Vivek ran out of the cave and the disgusting scene. He took a deep breath and signaled a hesitant Damodaran to come over. After witnessing the situation, they called the police and went to meet the tribal chieftain.
The chieftain was an elderly man and he calmly heard the entire story. He was shocked to hear the findings in the cave. He explained to them that the reason why the old lady was banished from their tribal colony was because she had been practicing euthanasia. He also informed them that she was targeting Vivek’s kid, possibly, as a source to revive the dead kid in the cave. Maybe the harm on Vivek’s kid was helping her achieve her purpose.
Next two days went in peace and Vishal mysteriously recovered from his illness. There was no news about the old lady. But, things began to look bright again and they had a happy extended weekend.
After a weeks stay, the time came for bye-byes. They packed and started their return journey to Bangalore. The happy couple crossed the Makuta bridge and they did not notice as their car zipped passed the forest where they had met the old lady, the other day. Something was watching them go, with anger and pain, and with closed fists clutching an amulet.