|Creative Writing Competition 2012 India|
|SETTING||Old Palace OR Bungalow|
|THEME||A Strange Day/Night|
I sat in my armchair, after a long and busy day at the Town Hall, where I had to attend the inauguration of my collection of short stories. People had gathered in large numbers. Some asking questions, some eager to know what was it that inspired me to write, some were just there to catch a glimpse of the hustle bustle that was going on.
It was close to ten at night and I sat, wondering on a suitable place to keep the new collection, when my eyes wandered at the long queue of books and volumes that adorned my shelves. Suddenly my eyes rested on a very old and large volume that stood in a corner of a shelf. It was hard bound and the pages were yellow and old and somewhat torn. But it still had a good feel about it and I, at once remembered it.
I had read it a long time ago and I immediately took it in my hands and started to turn the pages over. It was penned and gifted to me, or so I thought, by Major Sher Bahadur Singh, a famous wild hunter, ornithologist, avid sportsman and environmentalist, and was a account of the many wild encounters with beasts. It contained detailed maps, pencil drawings, photographs of wild beasts and some notes. Out of the many books that he had written, this was unique as only three editions existed in this world. My mind was soon flooded with memories. Memories of that wet, rainy, August night, when I met Major Sher Bahadur Singh.
It was raining heavily on that day, our car broke down in those heavy rains, and we had taken refuge in an old bunglow that Tej Narain had seen.
It was a two storeyed bunglow that had an old-timed look to it. The stone structure and the moss that accumulated on the roof made it look quite decent. There was a garden with neatly laid pots and also a swing. Probably it was built in those British days.
After some knocking, it was opened by a middle aged person, who introduced himself as Bhima, the caretaker of the bungalow. When we told him of ourselves and the car, he told us to come in and rest for sometime.
We went in and had some tea and snacks. After some time, Tej Narain went to see whether he can start the car. But soon returned, saying that it will start in the morning, as too much water had gone in the wires.
As it was certain that we had to spent the night in the bunglow, I asked Bhima, the caretaker, whose bunglow was it. He said that it was owned by Major Sher Bahadur Singh.
Major Sher Bahadur Singh. My hero. The name sent a nervous spasm of excitement in my body and I was thrilled to hear the name. And why not. Since my teenage days, I had read about his many exploits. He was in the Indian Army and many tales were famous in those days about his bravery and leadership. He was also a keen sportsman and liked playing football and cricket. But above all, he was a hunter.
Big game hunter. It was his passion. He loved animals and wildlife and was keen to help people get rid of man-eaters and other pests. He excelled in hunting and after retirement would go to hunting expeditions to Africa, Burma, Nepal and other countries. Many books were written by him on his exploits. I could not imagine that of all the persons I knew, I came and stopped, with luck perhaps, to a person of the stature of Major Sher Bahadur Singh.
“Can’t tell when he is coming. He usually goes out hunting for four to five days at a stretch. If he comes, I will handle him.” Bhima said.
After a while Bhima led us upstairs through a winding staircase. Upstairs, we saw three large rooms. Bhima said that one was the study that Major used for studying and for reading purposes, the other was his bedroom, and the one on the corner was the servant’s quarters. Tej Narain wanted some desperate sleep so he went to the servant’s quarters and retired for the night. As for myself, I told Bhima that I will use the Major’s study for some time and then retire for the night.
I went in this study of the Major. It was the well-furnished room, where I saw two walls having huge cabinets full of arrays of books and other large volumes. There were pictures of wild animals from ancient India, Burma, Nepal and maps and paintings adorning the walls. There was a large photo of the Major besides a large tiger that he had killed and surrounding him were many people and local men. In the centre of this room was a large table built of solid teak wood and chairs of exquisite woodwork. On the ceiling hung a large light shade made of glass and which illuminated the entire room.
I was soon lost in this world of books and went to a large volume and took it and went to the table and started flipping its pages. I could not believe my eyes. This was the book, which made Major famous and well known.
“The Nepal Diaries : Encounters with the wild”.
It was a detailed account of the type of animals the Major hunted, mostly man eaters, except for some deer, wild boars, birds, pheasants and some jungle cats. It was written by the Major itself and made him famous overnight.
I was soon engrossed in this book and quite lost track of time, when suddenly I saw a shadow of a man moving across, through the slit at the bottom of the door. It stopped for a while and then moved forward. There was somebody at the door. It came again and stopped and then again moved. I went to the door and quickly opened it. I glanced sideways and saw Bhima’s back.
”What’s the matter?” I said.
“Oh, nothing Sir, I just was passing by and saw the lights open and paused.” He said somewhat alarmed.
“But why are you staying awake in the night?” I asked with some curiosity.
“Oh! I have to. Don’t know when Major comes back? There is no fixed time when he goes out hunting.” He said.
“Ah. I see… Don’t worry. I will just spend some more time and then sleep.” I said.
I closed the door behind me and resumed my book.
After some time, tired as I was from the day’s events, decided to sleep. I thought about the Major, his study, this night that I was spending here, perhaps the only time I will be here. How chance brought me here in this great man’s house. The amazement and the bewilderment in me were overpowering. I decided to look out of the window, to breathe some fresh air and to see the forest one last time before I sleep.
I went to the window and opened it. There was a full moon staring at me and a soft breeze slapping me in my face. I saw few bats flying away in the distance. I could not believe that the silence could be so frightening.
The silence was broken suddenly by the sound of gunshots in the distance. They were not loud, but audible to the ears. They were faint and I even counted them. They were two shots. Some bats fluttered away in the trees in the distance. Their shrieks mingled with the sound of some bird shrieks that were suddenly awakened from their sleeps.
The bats flied for some time and then again, there was silence. Like nothing had happened. I wondered what it could be. Perhaps, the Major himself had shot something. But they were shots, to be sure. I roamed about in the room. My mind asking me questions. I went back to the window and tried to see if I could see something. But there was nothing but the black forest, the moonlit night, a gentle breeze and the silence.
Suddenly, without any warning, the lights went out. The room was filled with the moonlight and I could see the room in a new light. The light illuminated a part of the room and I could clearly see the shelves of books and the furniture. I could not see the far end of the room, with the door and the heads of deer and the tigers. But somehow, their eyes shone back in the moonlight, making them feel alive and frightening. I could almost hear them growl with fury, seeing me in the room.
I was alarmed and shocked when, the wall clock too stopped. I was standing alone in the study room and the silence was overpowering me. I was feeling cold now as the breeze blew stronger. I went to the window and stood there watching the forest. I decided to close it and go to my room and sleep there. But just when I was beginning to close it, a voice spoke, making me stun with fright.
“Don’t close it. Leave it open. It’s stifling in here.” The voice said.
I was stunned. Who was in this room? Who could it be? I could not turn my head and see the man. I was too frightened. I stood there, near the window, trying to close it. My hands were on the stopper and they stopped there.
Finally, I braced myself and turned my head to see the source of the voice. I could see in the moonlight the outline of a man wearing a hat. He was sitting in the chair opposite me with his legs crossed and smoking a pipe. I could not see his face, only his outline. I took a few steps and went nearer.
“Ya, it’s better. I don’t like it closed. Blocks the wind!” The voice said again.
I went nearer and said,” Who….who are you. And when did you come? I did not see you coming? Besides, the door’s closed. Then how….did..”
“Sit down, sir. Please….” He waved his hand towards the chair and I sat in the chair opposite him.
“B.. bu….but….. I don’t understand… you didn’t knock, even?” I blubbered back, astonished.
“I do not need invitation to enter my own house, do I?” he said.
Saying this he leaned forward and in the moonlight I saw the face of the man for the first time. He had a bushy moustache and a clear cut face with brown eyes, staring straight at me.
He brought his hand forward and said, ”Major Sher Bahadur Singh.”
I sank in my chair and tried to move but my hands failed to move. I was shocked.
My hands went pale. Even then, I mustered up courage and offered my hands in response.
“Mm.. mm. Maj… Oh my God!!!” I could not find words to say. They too were stuck in my throat.
“Besides you were too busy looking out of that window.” He said leaning back in the chair.
“But those shots, I.. I.. heard them myself, was that you, Major?” I said.
“Those shots? Ah! Ya, ya, those shots were accidental. I did not intend to shoot. You see, a snake bit me. Damn that snake!!! Came suddenly, out of nowhere. Bit me somewhere on the head. Must be dangling on the nearby tree. I was there on the Machan at that time. I don’t know what happened after that. But don’t worry. I am safe here now, in my own house. That shock made me shoot. Nothing else… But beware of snakes, sir. Beware of snakes…” He went on.
Suddenly he saw the book lying on the table. “Oh, I see…. Here it is.” Saying he took a book that lay on the table.
“Should have taken it. It is my lucky charm, after all. It’s no use now. But it was raining you see? How could I have taken the book with me in these type of the rains? Have not seen such rains before. Have you?”
“No.. no. not like these. You cannot see 3 feet in this type of rains.” I said.
“But, who are you, by the way. And here? Must have forgotten the road, isn’t it?” he said.
“I am Motilal Dubey. Our car broke down along the way. Had to come here to spend the night. We were on our way to the town. Have to attend a book exhibition. I am a writer. I am with my driver, Tej Narain. He is resting in the servant’s chamber.” I said.
“But don’t worry. We will leave in the morning.” I said, as if asking permission of the Major.
“Oh, don’t worry. You are my guest. Please stay and be comfortable…… By the way…… You are very much interested in books, I see…. All these…have you read me?” He said.
“Oh! You will not believe when I say that I am a very big fan of yours. I have been a great admirer of your feats in the battlefields and, of course, your encounters in the wild.” I almost cried with excitement.
He smiled. He seemed calm and contended, in that chair, with his hat above his head and the bushy moustache.
“Hmmmm…. I love it here. Away from the battles, the cries, the tears, the pain and suffering. Here, there is nothing but the calm and the quiet forest and the cool winds. And, the animals, of course. And, my home…” He seemed so pleased, so quiet and satisfied.
He kept talking on and I listened. I was sitting in front of the man I had admired most of my life for his bravery and his love for animals. His charisma and his dominant style of talking was unnerving and demanded immediate respect.
Finally, he said, “But why am I boring you with this? Now I think you should sleep.”
“Can I ask you a small favour?” I said.
“Yes, tell me?” he replied.
“You see, I really want to read this book. Can I borrow it from you?” I said.
“Oh, sure. You can.” He said.
“And, you can come here anytime and read in this library of mine. We are friends now, aren’t we?” he said.
“Yes, we are. It’s so wonderful to have such a book to read.” I said.
“The pleasure is mine.” He said.
I, having thanked him, returned to my room and slept thinking of the new addition to my library. Truly this was a most wonderful night that I had in my lifetime.
In the morning, we had an early breakfast, when we saw some men running towards Bhima and waving their hands. They talked in an agitated manner and Bhima, too, looked very nervous and frightened. He came and told me that something had happened to the Major. I was shocked and numb struck. How could it be? I had talked with the Major only last night. I could not utter a single word and decided that we should go to the spot and see for ourselves what had happened to the Major.
“But I just talked with him last night! How could it be?” I said with amazement and with a certain amount of shock.
“What! He was with you? It could not be. He comes and drinks coffee and cleans his guns and other stuff. I, myself prepare the coffee for him. And by the way, when we met last night, there was nobody else in the room.” Replied Bhima, totally startled.
“Anyway, let’s go and find out for ourselves.” A man said from among the group of people.
We went to the spot after a half hour drive and found him lying below a tree, dead. There was a shotgun, his cap, some broken branches lying and he seemed to have fallen from the Machan. Near his temple, was marks made by a snake bite. The snake must have bitten him and then the Major must have fallen from the Machan.
I remembered the gunshots I had heard in the night before and soon realized that those were not to kill someone, but out of shock, when he was falling from the Machan. The clock and the lights going out… soon after….the voice coming from behind….how did he enter, when the door was closed? If the Major had died here in the night by the snake bite, who was he? The Major or…his…..who had visited me in the dead of night in the bunglow? Did I saw….
We went to the car and drove on to the bunglow. I was too shocked to say anything. The forest went past me in a daze and I could not remember when the bunglow came.
“Sir, the bunglow has come. We have to go now. It is time.” Tej Narain said, shaking me over.
I was startled, as if out of trance, by Tej Narain. He shook me and tried to wake me out of my shock.
I went over to Bhima and thanked him for his hospitality and were sorry for the Major. Bhima was taken aback by the sudden death of the Major. He just mumbled something that we didn’t hear.
But I promised to come back. He said he will remember me and would be happy to have me as the bunglow would be very lonely without his master.
We sat in the car. I saw the hard covered book wrapped in cloth. I picked it and opened it and flipped the pages over.
“Who gave you this book? Tej Narain said.
I glanced at him and stared at him, not knowing what to say.
Seeing my stare, he turned back at the wheel and drove on. I sat with the book and my thoughts went to last night. It was a strange night. The night I met Major Sher Bahadur Singh.