For some time, I had this on my mind that hardly I would find a carriage or a cycle-rickshaw outside the station, for the time on my wristwatch was quarter past six and the train had yet to cover ten to twelve miles of distance to reach the station. I was en route to Bilaspur, a village some fifty miles to the northwest of Kolkata. On a Sunday evening, Mr. Seth, my neighbor, probably a few days before the trip while were having coffee at his bungalow, told me that the place is very tranquil and one may find themselves feel at home. We were discussing the way we slog at our respective offices, and how a vacation to an unknown place would make us lively again.
The concluding part of our discussion reminded me of the invitation I had received from the dearest of all my friends, Sushil. We have been good friends ever since our school days, for Sushil and I have had a fair amount of understanding between us. He was the only person I could count on in those days; probably I do that still now. Through the letter, Sushil requested me to attend his daughter’s rice ceremony which was to take place a week after I had received the invitation.
“The lush green fields, the mango groves, the sun having gone down behind the horizon are splendid sights to behold I tell you,” assured Mr. Seth. “I was in my 20s,” he continued, ” when the company I used to work for, had entrusted me to gather information about the residents of the village. It was the monsoon of ’85 when I made my visit there, the reason being a massive outbreak of cholera that had taken the lives of eighty-eight inhabitants, mostly children below the age of seven.”
Mr. Seth used to work for a reputed newspaper company of that time and having worked for a span of three decades, he had ample opportunities of traveling around the country.
“Where will you get off at?” A man, roughly of the age of forty-six or more who was sitting beside me looked at me over the rims of his spectacles.
“You don’t look the sort of man who would want to live in this part of the country. Kolkata?” He enquired.
“Yes, You are right. I am getting off at Bilaspur. From there I will take a carriage or a cycle-rickshaw up to my friend’s house.” I don’t know what had amused him so much that he laughed at my idea of getting a carriage or whatever would have been found all the way up to Lakkhanpur where Sushil lives. As he finished laughing, his bushy moustache moved in sync with his lips and the words that followed were, “If I were you I would have taken the next train back home. At this late hour, you won’t even find a soul outside the station, let alone a carriage.”I was infuriated so much so, that if we had been alone in the compartment, I would have pulled off his whiskers and asked him to have a good laugh without it.
By the time the train drew into the station, I was busy retrieving my trunk and bag from under the seat, when all of a sudden, the seemingly indolent passengers made a run for the gate. Unfortunately, during that rush, someone pushed me so hard that my mobile phone flew out of my breast pocket and landed up on the carriage floor. Before I could pick it up, my fellow passenger, the one with the Horn-rimmed spectacles booted it away, getting my phone smashed to pieces in the process after it hit the wall on the other side of the carriage. I flung my arm to catch him by the shoulder, but he ran out of the carriage door at lightning speed. With little to do, I got on to my feet, dusted the dirt off my shirt, lifted my luggage and my dismantled phone before making my way out of the carriage.
The platform looked more like a graveyard than a place where trains were likely to halt. Even if they did, like the one I got off from, they must have stopped for a few minutes for the passengers to exit and afterward whistled off to the next station. The platform consisted of the station master’s office and a long old wooden bench for the passengers to sit and wait. The place was dimly lit. A lantern hung from the pole erected near the station master’s office, but the station master was nowhere to be seen. He must have set off for home after doing away with his duties.
As I looked around, my eyes rested on a shed looking over the bench, which proved beneficial for the pigeons to build nests. Whereas, the bench was of little use to the passengers because the droppings of the birds had already occupied the seat.
“If things don’t improve soon, this place will go into ruins. People won’t know of a place like this to have ever existed then,” I said this to myself and the very next moment, from a far off a tree an owl who seemed to have heard me, gave out a loud cry as a sign of approval. The sound startled me so much that I found myself trembling with a sudden rush of fear. Not only me, anyone would be frightened by that spine-chilling cry.
As I turned around, I received a bigger shock than the previous one. The place where the train had been standing all this time was empty; as if there had been nothing at all. How could a vehicle so enormous, drag itself forward without making the slightest of sounds? It was beyond my mental faculties to comprehend the situation.
I began to doubt my decision of coming to this peculiar of a place. Taking the next train back to Kolkata was the only option, but that would have been possible if the station master had been on the scene to answer my queries. Moreover, the fact that the imbecile with glasses on the train crippled my mobile phone made me feel indignant and miserable than ever. The more I thought about it, the more it got me. I turned my wrist to get a look at my watch and found it was 8 p:m sharp. I felt like things started to slip through my fingers. I was not sure if I would ever get to see the end of this night.
I hurriedly exited the station, looked around over and again, behind the station wall, under the trees, and in every possible place but did not find anyone in sight. Certainly, if I had not procrastinated so much, I would have been halfway through my journey instead of standing there and cursing as well as pitying myself. The night was anomalously dark and chilly. I could hear the wind gliding through the trees; the branches moving to and fro, the thicket dancing to the sound of the blowing wind as if inviting me to join them in their merriment.
The forest, at a distance, boasted of myriad sounds. Sounds, that were so loud and clear that I could hear them from the station gate where I stood. The cries of a lone fox, the hoots of an owl, the cawing of ravens and many other unknown sounds. The cacophony of baleful calls started to get the better of me. I did not know what to do. Thankfully, against all the odds, the moon shone its light upon me from behind the clouds. In that light, my eyes caught a narrow path running down straight into the woods. I decided that I would walk, no matter what lied in store for me.
I was about to start walking when someone called me from behind. “Wait sahib!”
Turning around in surprise, I saw a man, clad in a brown tattered shawl standing a foot or two away. He was exceptionally tall, skinny and the possessor of a deep voice which did not go quite well with his size. A carriage stood at a distance behind him, ready to be driven, by an equally scrawny horse; like master, like beast.
“Where will you go, sahib?” He asked.
“To Lakkhanpur,” I answered.
He turned his face away and looked very engagingly at the narrow path as if studying its bends and turns. After a short period of contemplation, he agreed and helped me carry my belongings up to his carriage. He motioned me to climb in as he heaved my luggage into the seat beside me.
With the boarding process complete, he took his seat at the front, flicked the reigns, slapped his pony on the buttocks and with a roll and lurch, the carriage began to tread along the dusty path that wound its way into the dark woods. The shawl that kept his hands covered while we talked hid the better part of his face. I did not know what he was wearing under the shawl, but down his waist, he wore a pair of dirty black pajamas.
“I thoroughly checked outside the station, but could not find anyone. Where were you sitting?” I asked.
“I am not that easily visible to others, sahib. No one can see me unless I allow them.” What a strange reply, I wondered. But given his lanky appearance, what he said was not entirely bizarre.
“How far is Lakkhanpur from here?”
There was no response from the other side. The rattling of the carriage might have prevented my words from reaching the man’s ears. So, I repeated myself louder than before, but this time he did not reciprocate either. What a strange man he was! Even the deafest of the mortals would have heard me.
The carriage continued to move forward with jolts and shakes. On either side of the path, an array of trees stood like guards as if welcoming me into their territory. Some of them I knew, but most of them I did not. The moon had gone into hiding behind the clouds and the only source of light I had, was the kerosene lamp fixed on the roof of the carriage. Occasionally, the snorts and squeals of the pony broke my reverie or seemed to declare an approaching danger; but the latter did never occur.
I must have dozed off, for the driver was standing at the rear end of the carriage, tugging on my sweater. It was not the pull, but his icy-cold fingers that woke me. Those fingers were so cold that it could not have been a man’s.
Having woken up, I jumped out of the carriage, lifted the luggage off the seat and drew my right hand into my trouser pocket, when suddenly, the carriage driver remarked, “You don’t have to do that, sahib. Money is of no use to me.”
“Nonsense!” I ejaculated. “Money is useful to everyone. Moreover, I should repay you for your kindness.” With that, I took out a fifty rupee note and was about to stuff it in his hand, but what I held onto was not a hand of flesh and blood but only bone, which was as cold as ice! And the next thing that happened swept me off my feet. In the light of the lamp, my eyes discovered, what for all this time had been hiding under the shawl was a face with no skin, muscle or any of the human-like features. It was just a skull! My head began to sway. I felt like losing my grip over this world. I tried to pull my hand away, but could not; as if, it got trapped in that bony snare. Suddenly, the size of the ghastly creature began to grow. It let go of my hand and launched into a blood curdling laughter, breaking the night’s silence as well as subduing the other minute sounds. I attempted to flee the scene, but alas; just when I turned, my right foot hit the trunk lying on the ground, and I tripped over and fell; my head hit something very hard enough to leave me unconscious, and oblivious, and the night closed in on me. I could never recollect what happened after that.
My senses returned with daybreak, and I found Sushil sitting beside the cot I was lying on and a few of the village elders standing behind him. He offered me a glass of water and afterward, asked me what had happened.
At first, I thought about narrating the real incident, but that would have made me look like a fool to them. Therefore, without twisting much, I lied, “On reaching the station, I did not find any mode of conveyance. So, I decided to walk the remaining way and having done so, I must have lost consciousness and collapsed due to exhaustion.”