The Whirlwind: The Old Woman’s Ghost

The old woman's ghost

Today is the fourth episode of the story, The Old Woman’s Ghost. Have you noticed the place a ghost haunts is where the person lived, or something momentous happened to them when they were alive? Last week, Babu took the four cousins to the Hollow Man. Valli stuns the others by offering to stay back with the Hollow Man. In exchange, the phantom directs the kids to someone who knows the old woman’s story. When the cousins find the woman’s identity, they are left with more questions. What ties the ghost and the whirlwind to the banyan tree?

The Old Woman’s Ghost

Valli leaned on the well, watching her friends leave. Her heart pounded, and her hands felt clammy. But she knew that she must be the one to stay back. Senthil had to go with Babu—he was tied to all this somehow. Mani and Ramu should be there to help him. She nodded to them, and her cousins took heart from her stillness.

The four boys walked to the spot the hollow man pointed. Strangely, there were no bird calls, nor could they hear the river from here. Senthil wiped his face with the back of his hand. His hands shook, but he followed behind until they reached the banyan tree.

Suddenly, Senthil decided he’d had enough. “Babu,” he said. “I am not taking ONE MORE STEP! I know the branches are waiting for me.”

“Senthil! Don’t be so dramatic da! It will be alright! I promise!” Babu’s voice was low and reassuring.

But when they got to the tree, it didn’t look alright. The leaves rustled to a side as if they were pushed by an invisible hand. It was the rough wind churning the air around the tree! The creaking boughs and swaying roots brought back memories of that horrible day when the tree had grabbed them. Senthil took a step back. But Babu moved at lightning speed.

“Beware! In the name of Rathnamma, don’t you lay hands on my friends or me!” he bellowed. In a flash, the tree was just a tree. The branches and leaves stilled, and the wind vanished. The sky was clear with a few specks of white clouds. It was as if the terror had all been in their minds.

“This whole place is so weird! What’s up with the tree, and who is this Rathnamma?” Mani looked at Babu.  

Senthil felt something soft against his leg. He looked down. A ball of fluff arched its back and hissed!

“Dey, did you see that?” Senthil poked Ramu. “The cat nodded to us, right? Or am I going crazy?”

The cat walked away from the tree, turned and looked at them as if waiting for them to follow.

“Our guide is here. Let’s go.” Babu held his hand out to them.

“THE CAT?”

“DO YOU WANT TO FIND THE OLD MAN OR NOT?” Babu didn’t wait for the others.

A strange sight followed…a cat leading four boys along a canal and through the paddy fields. They didn’t stop until they came to a piece of parched land. No one could have imagined that an isolated plot with thorny brush lay in the middle of the lush green fields. In one corner stood a thatched roof shelter. A wrinkly old man was napping on a charpai. The cat made its way to the cot.

“Isn’t that the man we met by the banyan tree that day? He warned us not to go anywhere near it….” Senthil hesitated.

“Mmmm, yeah. I think that’s him,” Ramu whispered.

The man tossed and turned. A tiny slit appeared between his eyelids, and he must have caught Ramu’s movements as he stepped away. He bounced off the cot as if he was on a trampoline.

“What are you kids doing here? I told you not to come this way,” he glared at them.

“The cat near the banyan tree brought us here,” Babu pointed to the cat.

“Wait, have we met before? Your face looks familiar,” the man crunched his eyes and peered at Babu.

“I don’t know, Grandpa, you look familiar to me,” Babu was very polite.

“How did you get past the banyan tree?”

“It was Babu…a twister did start up when we got to the tree b..b…but Babu said something about Rathnamma, and everything died down,” Mani stuttered.

“Rathnamma? Did you say Rathnamma? How do you know her?” the man turned to Babu.

“She…,” Babu mumbled. 

“She was a gentle soul who loved the village. She took care of people and nature. Everyone loved her.” The man sighed sadly.

“You knew Rathnamma? Can you tell me about her? Please….” Babu knelt beside him.

A bony hand patted the boy’s head. “I’ll tell you what I know, for she must be remembered!”

My name is Raju. You can call me Raju thaatha. Rathnamma and I grew up in the same village and were childhood friends. She moved to Suzhal Nagaram only after her marriage.

Rathnamma had a love for all living things and liked to grow things. Her garden overflowed with bright, cheerful flowers. Rathnamma adored animals. Thanks to her immense love for cats, she had nine cats as pets! Nine!” A smile brightened his face at the memory.

Rathnamma had a happy life with her husband, Sundar, her little boy, Kumar, her cats, and her garden. When Kumar was ten years old, Sundar left to check on his businesses in other towns. Two days later, a man knocked on her doorstep, bringing news that Sundar had fallen into the river and was carried away by the roaring rapids. “I had given Sundar a box for safekeeping. May I please, have it?” the man asked.

Grief-stricken, Rathnamma allowed the man to search the house. But there was no sign of any box. Years passed. Kumar grew into a kind, intelligent man and married a young woman called Geetha.

But something strange was going on. You know how a village is…everyone knows everyone else. Even people in neighbouring towns know what’s happening in your home! They noticed that Suzhalnagaram had many new visitors. Some said they heard about the temple. But there are more famous temples in other villages. Why did they come here? Others came wanting to buy farms, but there was no land for sale. These strangers always went back empty handed. So, who were they? What did they want?

As the days passed, Rathnamma saw shadows in the back garden. But why would anyone from the village poke around in the dark? She was sure that it was the visitors. Plants were pulled out of the soil, roots, and all. Someone had been digging there, looking for something. What were they looking for?

Tragedy struck once more. Kumar and Geetha were returning from a visit to the temple in the next village when a lorry hit their bus. Everyone on the bus died, except for a little baby boy. The lorry driver did not stop and was never caught. Rathnamma was on her own now. When no one came forward to take care of the baby, my friend took him in and cared for him.

That’s when I was pulled into Rathnamma’s troubles. I went to Suzhalnagaram to attend a wedding. I felt a tap on my shoulder. And there she stood! You never forget childhood friends, no matter how old you grow. While exchanging stories, she poured out her worries to me. All she could think of was your safety! She had lost everyone else.

Who was the man who’d brought news of Sundar’s death? He’d asked her for a box. Could that be what all these people were looking for? So, we went to Rathnamma’s house and searched every nook and cranny. Nope, nothing there. I couldn’t stay much longer. I went back to my village, promising to keep my eyes and ears open for any news.

A few months later, I was back in Suzhalnagaram. To my utter shock, I learned that thieves had broken into Rathnamma’s house and even attacked her. They had tried to take away the baby, but she fought tooth and nail. Luckily, the noise alerted her neighbours, and they came to her rescue. But the attackers had escaped.

Who were they? Why did they attack Rathnamma?” Raju thatha paused, leaving the questions hanging in the air.

One sniffle and then another broke the silence. It was Babu! Tears ran down his cheeks.

“Dey, what’s the matter? Are you okay?” The others rushed to comfort him.

“No, I am not Okay! I am the child Rathnamma raised. She was my grandmother!” Babu whimpered.

Shock, surprise, disbelief!

The boys looked at their friend in confusion.

“Babu, SHE was your grandma? Why didn’t you tell us?”

“BECAUSE!!! You were so scared! I didn’t want to make it worse!” cried Babu.

So the ghost was Babu’s grandmother, Rathnamma! I wasn’t expecting that! So what happened to her? Why is she a ghost? The answers are in our next week’s episode.

Other episodes from this series:

The Whirlwind

Up in the Air

The Hollow Man

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