‘We have been fooled. There are no buses from here to Patna,’ Kanshi Ram told his wife. ‘We will have to find a way to reach Patna. Let’s find some place to sleep. We can think about the next step in the morning.’
Groups of people all over the ground were discussing the same thing.
A fruit vendor passed by and some people rushed to buy the bananas he was selling. ‘Bhai, can you tell us the way to the railway station?’ asked Kanshi Ram. He planned to reach the station so they could take the first train that left for Patna.
‘Why do you want to go to the railway station?’ asked the vendor.
‘We want to go back to our village.’
‘Don’t you know that a lockdown has been declared? Neither buses nor trains will be running from today.’
The news sent a ripple of uneasiness through the crowd. If there were no trains and buses, how would they travel?
‘How long is the lockdown?’ asked someone.
‘It is for a fortnight,’ replied the vendor, preparing to leave the place.
‘A fortnight!’ It couldn’t be true. How were they expected to fend for themselves? They had been abandoned without any arrangements.
‘Can you suggest a place where we can spend the night?’ someone asked the vendor.
‘What’s wrong with the ground? It is huge enough for all of you. All I can say is that this is an army area, so be careful. They won’t allow anyone to loiter in this area,’ cautioned the vendor.
‘What about the bungalow across the road?’ Kanshi Ram wanted to know. ‘I was exploring the area and saw a dilapidated, double-storied bungalow with a huge compound. We could spend the night there.’
‘Are you mad or do you have a death wish?’ laughed the vendor. ‘That bungalow is haunted. The locals avoid walking on the road in the front of house after dark.’
‘How do they know it is haunted?’ asked Kanshi Ram, who did not believe in ghosts. ‘Has anyone seen the ghost?’
‘There are many stories about the place, bhai. Some people have claimed to have seen a woman in red clothes. She sits on the terrace, as though waiting for someone. Locals have seen four men sitting around a table with a candle lighted in the centre. Whatever be the story, one thing that remains unchanged is that there are ghosts in that bungalow. Why else would it be lying vacant for so many years? Don’t forget it is located in a prime location, with the Wheeler Club next door.’
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‘I am from a village where ghost stories can be found around every corner. Every old house and ruined structure is supposed to be haunted,’ said Kanshi Ram. ‘Yet, I have never come across a single ghost in all the years I spent in the village.’
‘Well, it is up to you. Whether you believe in ghosts or not, it will be good for you to keep away from that house.’
Kanshi Ram was not convinced. All he wanted was a safe and comfortable place to spend the night. The open ground with a large number of people, all stretched in various stages of slumber, did not look inviting. The stories about ghosts had somehow made him more determined to explore the sprawling grounds around the house.
Instructing his wife and Kallu to wait, he crossed the road and halted before the dilapidated bungalow.
The rusted iron gate was open. Cautiously, he walked into the sprawling compound fronting the double-storied bungalow. The grounds were thickly wooded with mango and jackfruit trees on one side of the bungalow. A huge banyan tree stood on the other side. The bungalow, with broken doors and windows, stood forlornly at the centre of the grounds. With its plaster peeling, trees having taken root in the crumbling walls and the wood rotting, the house was now a gloomy place. It looked like the set for a horror movie.
It must have been an impressive structure at one time, but spiders, rats and bats were the only residents of the bungalow now.
Kanshi Ram walked into the room. Dark and squalid, it had probably been used by drunkards and the homeless. Broken glass pieces, plaster and rat droppings were scattered on the floor. The foul smell made it impossible to remain in the room and he rushed out for a breath of fresh air. Would it be possible to spend the night on the broken, rubble-covered veranda, he wondered. No, he decided, it was better to be sleeping under a tree.
‘Did you find a suitable spot to spend the night?’ asked his wife when he returned.
‘I think so.’ Kanshi Ram did not tell her about the ghost stories told by the vendor.
‘Won’t it be better if Ramlal and his family come with us?’ she whispered. ‘The place looks isolated.’
Ramlal agreed to accompany them to the bungalow. A few minutes later, both the families crossed the road and walked into the bungalow. It was reassuring to have some company, thought Kanshi Ram.
Ramlal was a warm and friendly man, and so were his wife and mother. They happily shared the snacks they were carrying. ‘Don’t hesitate,’ said Ramlal’s mother, as she offered the puffed rice and a piece of jaggery to Kanshi Ram’s wife. ‘These are tough times and the only way we will survive is by helping each other.’
Pointing at the tin of puffed rice, Ramlal said, ‘My mother never travels without food. In fact, she has enough to feed a battalion.’
‘You realize the true value of food only after you have survived floods and famines,’ snorted his mother.
They shared the frugal meal and then Kanshi Ram and his family moved to the rear portion of the grove. He wanted to keep a distance from the bungalow. His wife cleared a part of the ground under a mango tree and spread a sheet for them to lie on. Ramlal’s family made themselves comfortable under another tree at a little distance from the bungalow. There was not much traffic on the roads and not a soul could be seen around. The only source of light was the street lights, but the thick foliage of the trees blocked out most of it.
The two families were joined by some more people, who spread themselves out at a discreet distance from each other. Everyone took care to ensure that they remained within hearing distance and visual contact of each other. Exhausted, everyone settled down for the night. With food, water and money in short supply, no one knew what the next morning held for them.
It was past midnight and everyone was fast asleep. Kanshi Ram’s wife nudged him awake, saying she wanted to relieve herself. ‘I am scared,’ she whispered. ‘Will you come with me?’
‘With so many people camped in the premises, there’s nothing to be scared of. Don’t venture out too far. Just go around the broken wall of the bungalow,’ he muttered sleepily. ‘I will keep an eye on you.’
She got up and walked towards the bungalow. The place was in total darkness. The eerie rustling of the wind made her shiver with fright. There was a flutter of wings as she walked to the other side of the bungalow. ‘It’s probably an owl or a bat,’ she thought. Shuddering, she quickly relieved herself and began walking back towards the mango tree where her family was sleeping.
As she passed the veranda, she spotted some shadows. She gasped as she spotted four men seated around a table, drinking. The flame of a candle flickered around them. Terrified, she backed away. A twig crackled under her feet and the men looked in her direction. A tingle of fear ran down her spine and she stumbled. Four pairs of hollow eyes stared at her from skeletal faces, their mouths agape. She saw them pointing their bony, luminous fingers at her before beckoning her to come closer. She could now see that their eyes were mere black sockets.
In the growing mist that surrounded the bungalow, she saw them advancing. The scream that rose up to her throat died down without a sound and she stumbled backwards, falling over the roots of a dead tree. They continued to advance.
She panicked. Shouting and screaming, she began to run. Stumbling and falling, she made her way towards the mango tree. Her hair dishevelled, her sari trailing behind her, she ran like a mad woman.
Kanshi Ram was fast asleep, but Ramlal was lying awake and heard the screams. He got up with a start. Creeping to the nearest group of men, he prodded them awake. Gesturing to them to remain silent, he pointed in the direction of the rundown bungalow. They rubbed the sleep out of their eyes and stared at the woman in red.
‘It must be the ghost,’ whispered Ramlal and the others nodded. They had all heard the vendor cautioning about the ghost in red. Breaking some branches from the mango trees, the men walked cautiously towards the woman in red, who was running towards them. Without waiting for any explanation, they pounced on her with sticks and stones and whatever they could lay their hands on.
Excerpted from 'Spooky Stories' by Tanushree Podder, illustrated by Kaveri Gopalakrishnan published by HarperCollins Children’s Books