They say that there are no such things as ghosts. Do you think that’s true? I don’t know! I’m not so sure myself. It’s all because of something that happened when I was a kid. Was it really a ghost? Or was it my imagination? Let me tell you, and we’ll see what you make of it!
My family drove to my grandparents’ village during summer vacation. I pulled the window down on my side. The breeze lifted my hair and moved it this way and that. A few more hours on the road and we’ll reach the village. Summer vacation was always fun. We had to take the train and then drive for another four hours to get to the village, but that was part of the fun too. We’d stop to pick up tender coconuts from roadside stalls and have a picnic lunch on the way. My sister and I would climb the trees or swing from the low-hanging banyan roots while my parents and the driver discussed politics and all the local news.
This year, My chithi and chithappa were also driving to the village. My sister Anandi waved to their car behind us. A small hand waved back.
“Sir, we’ve come to the puliyanthoppu. Shall we stop here for lunch?” Sundar mama, our driver, pointed to the cluster of tamarind trees to his left. Appa turned to amma, and she nodded yes.
A few minutes later, the five of us kids were jumping and laughing around. Sundar mama pulled a low-lying branch, and I pounced on the tamarind pods.
“UUUUUU, they are sooooo sour,” Anandi squeezed her eyes shut tight as she bit into a green tamarind. My little cousin Meena licked her tamarind like it was a lollipop! Later, after eating yummy tamarind rice, we just lay there under the vast canopy of the trees. My eyes were closing when I heard amma laugh.
“Remember…how scared we used to be of this thoppu? All those rumours about the ghosts sitting on the tamarind trees waiting for the passersby?”
“You were scared, not me!” Chithappa laughed.
“OOOOh, wait, you were not scared? Why do I remember differently?” Amma and Appa teased him.
“What ghosts? Ghosts here, in this puliyamara thoppu? Why did we stop here then?” my cousin Vimala sat up straight.
“Ada! There is no such thing as ghosts, Chinna ponnu. It is just our imagination, a trick of the mind. We stopped here because we’ve been travelling a long way and need to stretch our legs,” Sundar mama reassured her.
“So why were you all scared? Tell us, tell us!” we pleaded with the grown-ups.
After the story, we three older kids rode together when we got back in the car. We are never scared when the sun shines on us, are we? My mind replayed the scenes of amma jumping off a branch because she thought she saw her grandmother’s aavi and chithappa racing out of the thoppu convinced a katteri was after him. Vimala and I bombarded amma with questions. But we both thought that she was a bayandhangolli, a scaredy cat!
The sky had turned grey when we reached Paatti thaatha’s house. Streetlights dotted the way. Patti thaatha lived just outside the village, closer to the paddy fields. A two-storied house, it stood tall at the end of a zig-zagging muddy road. Mango, Ashoka, guava, jackfruit, and coconut trees spread out on the grounds. The trees were great for climbing, but they were also home to a gazillion insects that could bite you. Scents of different flowers mingled and floated in the air.
Even on hot sticky days, the inside of the house was cool. There was no air conditioning in those days. The fans hung way up high as the ceilings were so tall. You knew the fans worked because they were so loud, but I can’t ever remember feeling a breeze. The rooms were large, with light shining through the two rows of windows barred by long iron rods. We had to close the wooden shutters at dusk if we didn’t want the mosquitoes to suck our blood dry. That meant we couldn’t see outside the grounds at night without opening the shutters.
The verandah in the front was the children’s play area. We pretended that the tall, round pillars were coconut trees and tried to shuffle our way up. We never reached the top because we just slid, the heat burning our hands.
The following morning, the grown-ups decided that they wanted to go to a temple in the next village. “We adults can go to the temple, na! The kids are too tired after all that travel. Let’s ask Jayanth to watch them. He’s old enough.” Amma convinced the others. What a smashing idea! I didn’t want to sit in the car for an hour’s drive. Besides, Jayanth was quite an interesting fellow.
No grown-ups meant we could do whatever we wanted. Nobody wanted to eat lunch. Why eat vegetables when you can have snacks, right? We raided the kitchen and found the batshanam tins-murukku, mixer, laddoo, coconut burfi, and cashew nut burfi, all made for the family. We spent the whole day on the grounds, climbing and jumping off trees.
When you are having fun, you don’t notice the time fly.
“What if there were ghosts on our trees here?” Vimala threw a bolt out of the blue. “What? Why are you looking at me like I threw a bomb or something?” she made a face at us.
I suppose we overreacted. It was just that the talk of ghosts came from nowhere, and there was no adult around, and the sun was hiding behind dark clouds.
Dark clouds! Oh yea! We always get rain in the summer, and here it came!
Plop! Plop! Plop plop plop!
Jayanth and Vani helped the little ones. By the time the six of us reached the verandah, our clothes were soaking wet.
Later, we sat in dry clothes, sipping hot Bournvita and listening to the sound of the rain. The verandah was wet. The windows in our rooms had to be closed to keep them dry. That meant we had to sit inside the house, not knowing what was happening outside.
“They must be taking shelter from this heavy rain. That’s all. Your parents will get here soon. Come! Come on, let’s have an early dinner.” Jayanth’s round cheerful face calmed everyone.
Vani and I kept up a steady stream of jokes, but Vimala was quiet. Anandi and Meena were sleepy. So, we brought a bed sheet and put it on the floor in the hall. The little ones lay there listening to us play cards.
Thadam! Budam! Thunder, then lightning!
The lights went out.
Aaaaaah! Aaaah! Aaah!
“VIMALA! STOP! You are scaring them.” Vani gathered the little kids closer to her.
“I just don’t like it.” Vimala looked at her with wide eyes.
Why do you hear all the sounds so clearly when it is dark? There was a steady sound of the rain, but other noises sounded in between too.
Tok! Tok! Tok!
“That’s the sound of wings, Vimala. It must be a pigeon taking shelter from the rain,” I told her.
“And the tok tok? Raindrops falling into a bucket, maybe? There’s …” Jayanth paused at the sound of a metallic creak.
“The gate! They’re here!” Viamala bounced off the floor. Before we could stop her, she flung open the door and ran out into the wet night. Moments later, the five of us huddled around the double doors. The lights from the veranda did not shine far. Where was Vimala?
“You stay inside. I’ll go after her.” Jayanth shouted and ran down the steps. But his foot slipped! Arms flailing in the air, he fell into a muddy puddle outside the verandah.
Vani and I rushed to help him, but Anandi and Meenu started whimpering. I knew then that I must go into the night to look for Vimala. So, I wore my chappal and walked into the rain. All around me, a hundred frogs called out a welcome to the shower. Drops of water pricked my face as the wind blew the rain toward me, and I shielded my eyes with my hand.
“Vimala, Vimala!” I shouted. No answer. Could she have really gone that far in so little time? Have you ever noticed how you think random thoughts when you are afraid? I said to myself that I must race her tomorrow to see if she was faster than me. I was at the point where the lane curved and couldn’t see the house anymore. I paused. Should I keep going? They won’t be able to see me from home. Undecided, I peered into the night.
Up ahead, a shape like a mound lay on the ground. It moved. I made to run back to the house, but my chappal got stuck in the mud. I freed my feet but left the chappals in the mud. Then it struck me! What if that was Vimala? There were other shapes, some on the ground and others in the sky. Was someone watching her? Me? Or was it something? “These are just the bushes and trees; There is no such thing as a Ghost!” I told myself as I took a deep breath. Nevertheless, my heart beat wildly as I shuffled over to the mound.
It was Vimala!
“Hey, it’s me, Paarthi. Are you all right?” I spoke softly, just in case I disturbed anything else listening out there.
She moved. “My leg! I fell… uh…uhuh,” she wept in a hushed voice.
“Come on. I’ll help you.” And I pulled her up gently. She slumped on top of me, sending both of us tumbling.
“Wait, wait, wait! Wait! Let me hold you better, or I’ll fall too.” I put my arm under her shoulder and balanced her. “Oh, this is much better,” I said as her weight eased off me. I kept my eyes on the path as I took slow, steady footsteps. Something touched my neck lightly. What was that? My head spun this way and that. A falling leaf…yes, it had to be a falling leaf because there were so many trees around us. Then came a noise. Was it the wind, or was it Vimala breathing loudly? I wanted to walk faster but was afraid that I’d slip in the mud.
At last, we came to the bend in the path. The soft flickering light on the verandah gave me the courage, and I walked with hope.
“Paarthi, Is Vimala back with you?” Vani stood there, shielding the candle flame with her hand. I stumbled when we got closer to the steps. “Can you help me, please? The steps are harder, and I’m afraid we’ll both fall,” I asked her.
“Oh, the poor thing. She can’t put her foot down. Thank goodness you managed to bring her all this way on your own, Paarthi! Jayanth is also hurt,” Vani said as she slid her arm under Vimala’s other shoulder.
Sheets and pillows lay in a pile in the hall, and all of us crashed there for the night. Nobody wanted to sleep in our rooms. Just as my eyes were about to close, I realized what Vani had said. “What did she mean, Vimala couldn’t put her foot down? How did she walk with me then?”
But I let it go.
Vani was heating milk for Bournvita when I walked into the kitchen the following morning.
“Paarthi, you are stronger than you look! you just put your arm under her shoulders and picked her up?” Jayanth’s round face looked thoughtful.
“Thank you, da,” Vimala looked up from her tumbler of milk. Both sat with their feet raised on pillows.
That’s not how I remembered it, but something told me to be quiet. The rain had stopped. “Paarthi, please open the door, will you? With these two hurt, I am busy getting breakfast ready.”
I unlocked the double doors. My eyes landed on my chappals. They were laid out neatly on the steps, side by side. I searched the muddy lane…there were two sets of footprints! Vimala said I had picked her up. I bent lower. One set of prints was much bigger than the other. Those prints were not mine! What did that mean?
There had been no one there with us last night. Or…had there been someone?