Sirmuhan Basti is a slum dwelling in Ghatotand, a small mining town comprising two major opencast coal mines of M/S Tata Steel limited, in Hazaribagh District of the Jharkhand State. It houses mostly the menials earning livelihood as domestic helps employed in the officers’ quarters nearby.
On the evening of 3rd September 2016 Guddu, a 10 year old child of a housemaid Champa having a small hutment in the Basti told his mother that he had seen Loha Chacha (Uncle) roaming about in the adjoining Valley View Block (a residential campus of officers) the previous night. At about the same time two days later Birwa, a 28 year old contractor worker living in another hutment barely a few hundred yards away, was mentioning the same to his pals over a feast of chicken curry and country liquor.
The account of Guddu was dismissed away by his mother as a child’s fantasy and that of Birwa was attributed by his pals to an overdose of liquor.
Had both been taken seriously, Guddu and Birwa might not have gone missing since 8th and 10th September respectively with no trace till date.
20th November 2016
The alarm in my Samsung cell phone announced that it was 3.30 am, time for me to get up for morning shift duty. There was no necessity of it’s ringing as I was actually waiting for it to ring rather than have it wake me up. It happens that way, when you rotate in three shifts (5am – 1pm – 9am) for years together as shift in charge of a coal mine of Tata Steel Limited.
Pulling myself out of the temptation to doze off again in the warmth of the rug, I got out of bed, came out of the bedroom and shut the bedroom door in order that Priyanka, my wife and Betai, my seven month old kid may sleep uninterruptedly.
After bowing before the Gods and dieties, I went out to the balcony to fetch the towel that had been hung there the previous night for drying.
The balcony looked out of my flat in the third floor into the lawn immediately below and the mine Quarry-AB, located within a Kilometer. Outside was chilly and the whole scenario was engulfed in a thick blanket of fog. I remembered that my cell phone display showed “Kuju, 8 degree Celsius”. The nearest weather station had mercury levels falling day by day. Cold was just beginning to set its foot in this remote mining area of Hazaribagh district in the Jharkhand State. A few dogs howled nearby, expressing their discomfort in cold.
As I took off the towel from its clothing line and was turning back to enter back into the warmth of my flat, I noticed a human figure in the lawn below. I stopped to look at it more carefully, and then I recognized it. It was none other than the old guard Loha Singh of our residential complex – Valley View.
It was quiet everywhere and so I choose to ask him with a questioning gesture of my hand as to what he was doing there rather than raise my voice and disturb other inhabitants in their sleep. He held up a kurti (Ladies Top) of Priyanka in his hand. Apparently, the kurti was left in the clothing line for drying and had somehow slipped and fell in the lawn below. I beckoned him to come upstairs and hand me over to which he shook his head in refusal. I got a bit irritated by his impertinence. I signalled him to wait there and then proceeded downstairs.
As I was going down, I was wondering what on earth the fellow was doing there in cold, wee hours of Morning? That too when he had left his job a few months back and a new guard was appointed! I intended to ask him all these as I was heading towards the spot where he was standing. The group of dogs howled again.
As I turned one corner and was at the spot, the man was not there. I raised my voice slightly – “Kahan Hai Ji?” (Where are you) – No answer! I looked around for the Kurti thinking the man must have kept it there and went away but no, not a single piece of paper was there in the dew soaked grass! Strange indeed, I thought.
Even the faintest sound gets carried a far distance in foggy nights. My addresses to the man were heard by Ganesh, the guard on duty in the main gate of our resedential complex and he came up to me and enquired, “Kya hua Sahib?” (What happened Sir?)
As I was narrating to him the situation I found myself in, his face was loosing colour rapidly. I had barely finished when he started running towards his post at main gate, muttering under his breath, “Wo yehi kahin Hai (He must be somewhere around). Run Sir, run away to your home before he finds you again!”
Perplexity and fear both gripped me at the same time. However, the latter got the better of me and within a few seconds, I found myself in my flat with a slipper strap broken by frantic running. The loud impact of the main door slammed shut by me had roused Priyanka from sleep.
She asked with a worried and annoyed expression on her face as to what the hell was happening. On hearing my narrative, she seemed dumbstruck. It was now my turn to ask her the same question she asked me.
“Don’t you know? Kon jogot e bas koro tumi?” (Which world do you live in?)
“Know what? ”
“The old guard died of heart attack while on duty a couple of months back. It was only after that that the new guard was appointed.”
The group of dogs howled again in the cold outside.
I have a bad habit of keeping myself aloof from the outside world due to which am I often unaware of major happenings of my surroundings. When I first found a new Guard on duty a few months back, I just presumed that the old guard must have left his job due to some reason.
That morning, I was late in reporting for duty. I couldn’t go in my bike. I had to summon an official Vehicle to go to the mine.
Throughout the duty period, I kept my mouth shut out of panic and did only the routine jobs. I didn’t share my experience due to the apprehension of being ridiculed.
As I finished duty, left the mine and arrived at the main gate of Valley View block, Ganesh was lazily rubbing khainy (Chewing tobacco) and basking in the Sun.
“Hey chap”, I said, “Would you explain to me what made you run for your life today morning?”
“It’s Loha Singh Sir. He has been spotted by several persons including me, roaming about in the dead of the night since his death by heart attack.”
“Didn’t you inform anybody about this until now?”
“I did Sir, only to be dismissed as a Ganja (marijuana) smoker blabbering nonsense.”
“Did he harm anybody?”
“Not actually Sir, save that Guddu and Birwa from Sirmuhan Basti over here have gone missing over a couple of months and never seen again.”
“But what has Loha Singh got to do with it?”
“Loha Singh loved Guddu very much and often gifted him with chocolates and other eatables. Birwa and Loha Singh were drinking pals. Guddu and Birwa had seen Loha Singh roaming in this campus at night after his death. The police enquiry revealed that both of them were last seen in sleeping in their bed at night by their respective family members and found missing in morning.”
“So what do you make of it?”
“Simply this – that both of them might have waked up from sleep and come into this campus at night time with the intention of meeting Loha Singh and then…………………………”
“Met their end?”
“Most possibly, Sir.”
“Didn’t the police make out anything?”
“Nothing Sir. They are clueless.”
Had I not had the morning’s rendezvous, I also would have dismissed Ganesh’s statements as a Ganja Smoker’s delirium.
Last but not the least, the Kurti I mentioned in this narrative was gifted by Priyanka to the old guard’s daughter about three months back.