The Whirlwind: The Hollow man

The Hollow Man

Say the word ‘ghost,’ and we immediately think of a soul with unfinished business. Someone dies before they resolve a major problem in their life, and their spirit returns to earth. The ghost works hard to fix the problem and tie up loose ends before leaving for its final resting place, haunting and spooking people along the way!

In the third episode of the story, ‘The Hollow Man,’ the cousins sense a mystery surrounding Babu. Why else would he know so much about the Whirlwind and the old woman with the cats? As if that wasn’t enough, he takes his new friends to meet a spectral being called the Hollow Man! Who is the Hollow Man, and what does he do?

The Hollow Man

The steady drumming of the rain kept the four cousins indoors all day. The streets were empty except for the kids who snuck out to jump in the puddle. They had wanted to go too but Paatti asked them to stay inside.

“This weather is for hot, crispy vadai! I’ll ask Paatti for some,” Valli got up.

Ramu followed behind. “It’s the perfect weather to listen to stories too! Paatti…how about that? It has been so long since we listened to your stories,” he hugged paatti from behind.

“I think I can manage that,” she pulled his hands away gently.

Paatti was secretly delighted that the children still loved to listen to her stories. It had been their special thing. She missed those days when kids gathered around her. This vacation gave her the chance to be with them once more. Soon they’ll all be grown up and busy with their lives.

Ramu put the vadai batter on the red oxide floor, next to paatti. The other rooms were given a facelift, but her kitchen remained the same. She loved those red oxide floors.

“Paatti, why do you sit on the floor and cook? Isn’t it hard?” asked Valli.

“Not at all. I’ve always cooked with the stove on the floor. In our old house, we had a big kitchen. Your parents sat around gobbling up the treats faster than I could make them. I wish they were here too,” said Grandma smiled fondly.

“Hey! What about us, Paatti? We are here, na! Don’t you love us?” Mani protested.

“You cheeky little fellow! I love my grandchildren more than my children,” grandma pushed the plate hot crisp vadai to the centre.

“Paatti, who is Babu? He seems to know everything about Suzhalnagaram,” Senthil brought up what had been on everyone’s mind

“Oh, Babu! He’s from the village. He used to live with his grandmother but poor kid, she died sometime back. Everyone in the village takes care of him. In fact, without Babu, I wouldn’t have managed to live alone. He goes to his house during the day but usually sleeps with one family or the other at night.”

“Grandma? Babu never mentioned his grandma!”

“I never met her, but I’ve heard people talk about her,” replied Grandma. She also added, “Now that he is on his own, Babu is cherished by all in the village.”

There were too many questions swirling in their heads, questions they should probably ask Babu directly. But the rain showed no sign of letting up and the four kids lazed about the house.

It was midafternoon when the clouds parted, and the sun peaked out. Happy to be out of the house, the cousins splashed their way through the streams trickling down the road. Water dripped from the leaves, tickling their necks. This time around, they were careful not to look at the banyan tree. There was a mumble of prayers and a false cheer as they pretended not to be afraid.

But they got to the small, neat hut with a finely thatched roof without any mishap. The place was quiet, and no one answered their call. A border of brightly coloured flowering plants lined the ground around the walls. “The hum of the bees, the smell of the pollen, leaves dripping water …what a beautiful day!” thought Valli. She walked to the back of the house. Babu was squatting by a pipe, washing his clothes.

“Hi,” Valli waved. “Looks like you are busy with your chores. You are very independent, aren’t you?”

“Oh, you guys! What a pleasant surprise! How did you manage to get here?” Babu’s smile did not reach his eyes

“Pallavi Aunty sent you some biryani. We thought we’d hang out for a bit. Is that okay?” asked Ramu.

“Yea, of course! You are welcome. Did you see my garden?” Babu’s face softened as he looked at the garden.

“We could hardly miss it! It’s lovely!”

“You do your chores, and you are good at gardening. Is there anything you can’t do?” Babu heard the edge in Senthil’s voice and stared at him.

“Well, it’s something I do to remember my grandmother. She made this garden, they tell me. I add things here and there. Her two favourite things were gardening and pets,” his voice trailed away as all eyes were on him.

“PETS! Where are the pets? What did she have? Where are they?” three voices rang together.

Babu looked at Senthil, who had not said a word.

“The pets are no more. She had nine cats.”

“Babu, do you know that a strange woman has been following me?” Senthil’s hands shot to his hips. His eyes flashed in anger.

“Who’s been following you? You’ve become so mysterious all of a sudden….” The others rounded on the two boys. Babu made a big show of washing his shirt.

“Dey, do you have any brothers or sisters? Where’s your family?” Mani peered into the house.

Babu’s shoulders slumped. He sat back down by the bucket of clothes and clasped his hands together. “I live alone. None of them are alive anymore.”

“I don’t remember my parents at all. It was always my grandmother for me. She was wonderful and loved by all. I wish she was still here.

People always talk about her, but I’m starting to forget what she looks like. I wish I could see her one last time. I’d love it so much!” He put his head in his hands. Valli and Ramu went to his side and touched his back.

“But you know about this old woman….”

‘Senthil! Can’t you see he’s upset? Back off, okay?” Ramu shushed his cousin.

Babu held his hand up. “It’s okay. He’s upset too.” Then, turning to Senthil, he said, “Yes, I know a little bit about the old woman.” Water drops made dots on the ground as he spread the wet clothes on the nylon rope. “Listen, I’ll take you to a spot behind the banyan tree. It used to be my favorite place to play, but no one goes there much now.”

“To the tree? No way! The roots and branches will swallow us. What if they pull us up in the air? We had that terrible experience not once but twice.” Ramu shuddered at the memories.

“Ya, I heard, but if Senthil wants answers, that’s where we’ll find them. The Hollow Man will help us,” said Babu.

“Hollow man? Old woman with cats…what is going on in this village?” Valli shook her head.

“Yes, come on!” There was something in his voice that was compelling. The others fell into line.

Brown muddy water crashed on the riverbanks. The wet grass tickled their feet as the kids made their way on the trail. The mid-afternoon sun reflected off the rocks, blinding them. Had it really rained that morning?

Babu skirted the tree and led them to an old well. Valli and Ramu leaned on the wall but sprang back in shock. “Why is it so hot? Didn’t it rain here?” Valli blew at her fingers.

How had they missed the well the other times? The cousins made light talk to cover their nervousness. Senthil’s knees trembled, but he hid it well.

“Hollow Man, Hollow Man!” Babu called out. “Help us to pass safely.”

“What are you doing, Babu? Who or what is this Hollow man? A real person or …??”

Babu put his finger to his lips, and Senthil shut up.

Somewhere a motorbike rumbled, PHUT! PHUT! PHUT! It was coming from behind them…no, from the well. The trees shook, and it rained leaves and twigs. The cousins stepped back and drew close together. Green fumes rose from the well, followed by a gooey, flat body through which the fields on the other side were visible. It’s face! The slimy form changed shape as it spoke. Senthil felt cold.…So coooold!

“Hollow man! Please, we want to meet the man who guards the banyan tree,” requested Babu.

“Musssssst you? Aaaall of you? Who are these kids?” asked a high-pitched voice, like a kettle boiling over.

“We are looking for some answers…I think the old man is the one to help us.”

The others listened to this exchange with a watchful expressions. The strange plasm turned to them. Was that a smile on its face? 

Ramu nudged Valli. “Isn’t that the voice that told us to run? What is that creature?” he asked without moving his lips.

“Hush!” Senthil locked his eyes with Ramu. NO! he signaled.

The plasm turned to Babu. “Hmmm…the tree doesn’t affect you, does it? I’m not so sure about the others. They’re new to the village, it seems. But if you must go, I will let you pass. Be warned, though, it may not be easy to get the answers. Go to that spot behind the tree and wait there. Your guide will find you. If the tree turns threatening, warn it off in the name of Rathnamma. But I want one person to wait here with me until the others return,” the creature’s mouth looked curiously like a smile.

“Why?” Babu ran his fingers through his hair worriedly.

“I’ve lived here for a long time, yet I don’t get many visitors. When someone comes by, I like them to hear stories. Let one kid stay back and tell me stories. I’ll let the others pass safely,” the Hollow Man.

Storytelling? It sounded so easy and safe. But who should stay back? How do they even choose?

“I’ll do it.” Valli volunteered. “Hollow Man, I know several stories. I can stay with you until they return. Please, let them go.”

“Hmmm, are you not afraid?” a thin transparent finger pointed at Valli.

“I think I’m more curious than afraid.”

“Good! Because there are many other things more frightening than me,” the spirit straightened up.

“There is steel in Valli,” thought Senthil. The thought gave him the courage to face whatever lay out there by the banyan tree.

Other episodes in this series:

The Whirlwind

Up in the Air

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