Fuzzily my eyes opened and peered into the dark. Something had got me awake and it was not a mosquito. There was a fine mesh net here, over the bed. It was a huge double sized one of old teak the ornate kind that is often found in a Dak Bungalow; the ornate bungalows that the British had built in distant locations for their officers to stay and conduct their administrative duties. The only contact with the outside world would be through post or mail or Dak as it was called hence this nomenclature perhaps. Being an officer in the forest department meant one would be traveling to wherever the forests are and so here I was deep in Maharashtra with only one man for company. He is the “Khansaama”, Saadiq, an old wrinkled man, who did the overall maintenance and cooking. He was asleep on the floor.
The night had its own sounds and when one is from the city even the chirruping of the insects is eerie to the ears. But it was not those sounds either. It was the middle of summer and the weather was extremely warm. On the ceiling a very tall handled fan creaked and rotated displacing some air from one corner of the huge room to another. Then I realized the difference. Unlike from earlier, the time when I had got into bed, the night had been warm while now there was a sudden chill in the air. It was cold, very cold and I shivered. I looked down and could not hear Saadiq’s snores. He was awake and staring at the door. Where the door met the floor there is a gap and from here emerged a silvery glow of radiance. I heard a sound of heavy breathing and sniffling followed by the tinkling sound of anklets. I truly understood the meaning of a coarse term used by a colleague quite often to denote heightened fear ‘my nuts turned to H2O’ we used to laugh then. I wasn’t amused now. The sound stayed for a minute or two a period that seemed like eternity and then slowly faded, as did the glow and the chill. I had almost frozen into a motionless statue and so did Saadiq. He looked at me then and turned his back and started snoring. In that night sleep had been banished far away and I tossed and turned restlessly.
Somewhere in the early dawn when the first rays of sunlight hit the huge glass windows I fell into a tired sleep. This was my third day here. During my travels had heard about strange incidents and beliefs of far flung towns but having never encountered one I had little belief. This in itself was being challenged big-time. What was it that I heard last night? Why did Saadiq just stare petrified and not move? Why was there a strange chill in the air, one which was at once inviting yet hinted at a danger? Was it someone outside who wanted to come in or was it something not from this world? Any thinking person normally would demand a more logical explanation to this occurrence but here, far away from civilization was an atmosphere that easily relegated all these scientific thoughts to the trashcan. Even the lush green foliage that had seemed inviting and fresh in the daylight from two days back to now took on mystic shapes. The movements seemed curiously sinister when the wind rushed through the trees and the branches weaved a pattern like grasping claws.
Shaking my head, nervously smiling about last night moved to finish up my morning chores. Fresh from the bath went into the dining hall for my breakfast, Saadiq brought a fresh pot of tea the way I liked it where the brew had just begun its seeping process. I liked the first tea of the day to be light, the second medium with this I washed down my fluffy omelets and the third strong when I settled outside on the veranda with my smoke. The pot retained the heat and the seeping went about as the hot water absorbed the strength from the tea leaves to become rich colored liquor. My attention today though was far away and I called out to Saadiq, “Khansaama bahar aao”( come on out bearer) Kal raat ko woh kya thha? (What was that last night?). His wrinkled face added a few more wrinkles as he frowned and with a sigh sat down. He said that was my daughter Rubaiyya. What? I could not believe my ears, your daughter? Ji Huzoor. But then why didn’t you get up and go to her? Huzoor Rubaiyya meri beti hai pur kul raat ko uski Ruhh thhi. Ruhh? You mean spirit, is she dead? He nodded despondently.
My head started swirling with all kinds of weird thoughts but the old man was serious, sad and he had moist eyes. My irritation which had risen slumped immediately and asked him what was the matter how did she die? Huzoor, usey maar diya gaya thha, wahin darwaze pe uski laash padi thhi.( She had been found murdered right there outside the door) My nervousness index that had shown some signs of stabilizing suddenly shot up like crazy. Kya? I screamed. He dumbly nodded and out came tumbling the story.
Rubaiyya was his daughter, only daughter after 4 sons, three who were settled away into the cities and one in a Gulf country. “Bahut khabsurat thhi woh aur kisi ka bhi dil aa jaye dekh ke aisi thhi, isliye pareshaan rehata thha”( she was so pretty that those who saw her were spellbound, hence I would be worried). When she had finished her 12th standard her mother passed away and she started assisting me here. I too looked around for a suitable groom but they were either less educated or poor or asked for a dowry that I cold not pay had I even asked my son in the gulf to send.
She was a good girl and kept away from the sahib’s too who would be visiting here. But then one day Rupert Sahib arrived to take a census of sandalwood trees in our jungle. Rupert was an Anglo-Indian just like you sahib. Rubaiyya used to serve him his meals and before I knew she had lost her heart to him. He was not a very serious young man with any station in life; his stories too had come to my ears. Hence I cautioned Rubu about it yet the inevitable happened. The signals were there around me, one afternoon I was late for lunch and came from the lee side of the house unlike usual. Rupert had his arms around Rubu and she was giggling, I watched a while as he took liberties with her and she let him. Her eyes were full of love but he was different. “Tomorrow” said he “come to my room in the afternoon when your father goes to the weekly bazaar” and I could see her nod.
Deliberately went to the other side and knocked to see him rushing to his room, the same one you are occupying. Rubu opened the door flushed of face and I could see not my little girl but a young lusty woman. Her eyes though lowered had a disappointment of a tryst interrupted. During tea I enquired with Rupert sahib about his intentions in an oblique manner by saying Rubu is my daughter and I wish I could marry her off into a good household. For example sahib, would she fit into a house hold like the one you have back home. The scorn in which he looked down upon me made my toes curl and I knew then something terrible was going to happen. Saadiqmiya he told me, she is pretty but don’t dream above your station. I was humiliated as he told me my reality. It was true. But then what was he doing with her in the kitchen then in my absence? he naively said.
That was the last day I saw her alive and so also Rupert sahib, he too had vanished without a trace. I buried her there he said pointing to the Tamarind tree just outside the bungalow periphery. The one who cast eerie shadows on the windows. He said Sahib today is her 15th anniversary and I want leave to visit the dargah in the next village. I will be back tomorrow morning, is it ok? I nodded as he told me he had made a mutton curry and rice for my dinner. It was only after he left that the thought of being all alone hit me. The mind plays funny tricks in places like this especially when one is bereft of other human interaction. The work carried me thru the day without Saadiq’s absence troubling me. After having the excellent curry dinner I was sitting outside smoking and looking at the darkness and the shadows, felt sleepy and retired. The heavy meal lulled me into a sleep and then yet again…the cold descended. Again my eyes opened and there it was again the sliver of light and the tinkling. I broke into a sweat but wanted to get at the bottom of this and willed myself to get up and walk to the door and opened it.
Breathlessly I stared at a girl fresh as a dewdrop hesitatingly waiting and looking up. She was wearing a light pink chikan kurta embroidered delicately as if it was Eid. Apart from the anklets that cast the gentle tinkling sound she wore dangling earrings but was otherwise unadorned . The hair freshly washed was tied in a bun and the rose petal lips shyly broke into a smile. Rubaiyya? I could not recognize my own voice; it had thinned and had acquired a leer. Sahib.. said she and in her indrawn breath that accentuated her full blossom body and I could feel my hands rising and passing across her cheek and drawing her close to me. Gently with my arm around her slim waist we reclined on the bed and throughout the night made love, murmured sweet nothings. I was relaxed in the aftermath as the first sunrays brought in the dawn. She leaned across me kissed me full on the lips and said ‘isi ka intezaar thha ab mainey sukoon paya hai, allah hafiz” ( had yearned and waited for this, now am at peace) and she was gone. I dozed off and as my eyes opened wondered whether all that was a dream?
But as I looked up at the open door to the room, there was Saadiq and on his face was an expression of pure terror. My appetite surprisingly sated from last night casually asked him “Kyu Saadiqmiya kaisi rahi” again the thin voice which was not mine and he screamed “ tum ko to mainey maar daala thha zinda kaisey ho” and fainted. I turned to look in the mirror and saw a stranger. The brows were knit together while mine are wide. The nose was sharper and generally the face was of a handsome mean rogue. As I looked harder the face vanished and my original one came back. I shook my head again at the vision and was genuinely frightened. Saadiq looked dead and I walked over and sprinkled water as he spluttered awake. The terror was back as he looked around and asked “Rupert sahib gaya?” I urged him to tell me the whole story again.
He was shivering and was not really coherent but started speaking “On that fateful day after breakfast, I told the two that would not be back for lunch as would proceed straight to the market. The air of expectation around them was twanging as Rubu’s bosom heaved with delight and even Rupert sahib looked up with eyes twinkling. Chewing on his toast he muttered,Ok. As my back turned I could see their eyes connect once in this mirror and my resolve stiffened. I waited for him to finish eating, while I would take him in the jungles so he could count and make notes. I turned into the forest and followed the sahib deep into the clearing. Today I would take him to the Shaitani Bawdi (the devils well) a curious natural formation about 300-500 feet deep and a zigzag rocky fall, it was a rock pool but hidden. The locals avoided it. They thought it was haunted with the ghosts of all who had fallen in and perished. There were a few sandalwoods near its lip hiding it from view completely. Pointed to Rupert sahib location and led him near the spot. The root and a branch of the sandalwood hid the treacherous mouth of the bawdi and this is where I told him to step in. He was too surprised to even shout and after a couple of heavy thuds and slithers I heard the splash.
I traced back home to find Rubu getting ready for the sahib. With my step she thought the sahib was back and I saw red and hid along the staircase leading up to his door. She had worn anklets and her new Shalwar Kamiz from Eid. It was a chikan design. She stopped outside the door and raised her hand to knock. I heard her breathing deeply and saw her longing to hand over her precious innocence to that scoundrel, I lost my control completely. With a soft tread I slipped behind her and found my palms on her slim neck and squeezed. My own daughter sahib, lay dead at my feet. After burying her went and lodged a missing complaint for both the sahib and Rubu at the police station. Tearfully explained to them how or why the two of them disappeared together is beyond me. The police slyly suggested that “Bhaag gaye hongey saath saath, dono baalig to hai? (are both adults? Must have eloped) We shall catch them but wont be able to do much if they claim we went out together with mutual consent. They found his body days later, all bloated up and put up a “cause of death” as accident. Rubu was not found and no one suspected me. It’s been fifteen years to that day even our inspector at the station is the same. He has not closed the file on them. She comes in every alternate day.
I assured him , she won’t now and asked him to call the car for my return to the rather tamer concrete jungles of civilization.