Almost all my students have already heard this story in bits and crumbs. I always refused to go into detail even when they press me hard. Well, here’s what happened that night.
“Mashe, you’re lying! We know you haven’t seen any ghost. Rubbish! No sane man would believe your tale.”
For a moment, I didn’t speak but read his nervous face with the serene eyes of an old sage. Then I sighed deeply. I put my arm on his shoulder. “Sampath, you could be right. It could be a projection of our collective fear. I don’t know. Believe me, I cannot tell you what exactly happened on that night to us in that damned place. I am confused.”
Silence. They didn’t see it coming.
The moment I pushed my defenses down and accepted their argument, Sampath and his friends who’d accosted me in the college canteen fell into deep dilemma.
“But…” They shuffled agitatedly. “But, Mashe how could it be just an illusion! All of you saw her, right?” Sampath asked. The students staying with me in the lodge nodded.
“It could as well be the projection of…”I tried to dismiss it for one last time.
“Cut it out, mashe!” Sampath protested. “You are lying. You SAW her, that we are sure. Now you go back on your statement because you don’t want to frighten us.” I sighed again looking away. “And what about your friends from Trivandrum? They too saw her when they came here last month, right?
I nodded. “That’s what they told me.”
Friends from Trivandrum
I could only blame myself. It all began with my friends who came from Trivandrum.
I laid Alathur, the place where I was teaching in a college back then, too thick in the minds of my friends with its amazing tales, lore and myths. My lurid descriptions of its virgin beauty and the thrills of staying with half a dozen loving students in a spooky lodge in a no man’s land invited the nemesis.
“We are on our way,” announced my friends over phone.
NO!!! I screamed back to a call that had long been disconnected. Damn! They wanted to have a thick slice of what I was enjoying. “Don’t worry. Leave them with us, mashe. We will take care of your friends,” Vijeesh who was staying with me in the lodge calmed me down.
Well, my apprehensions were misplaced.
My friends came, they saw, and they let themselves be bowled over by the love and care of my kids. After a bout of cricket, a rollicking bath in a nearby river, some violent dance to the music that blared from a tape recorder, a sumptuous supper and a long chat that went deep into night, my friends demanded their next boon – fishing.
Fishing! It was already One am! The nearest waterhole was far away in the wilderness, – infested with all kinds of snakes – a wilderness that extended far beyond the lodge. Before I could stop Pramod, he spilled the recipe of the disaster: “There is a check dam two kilometers away from here at Thennilapuram, Ajiyetta. You can take a short cut through the woods. You see the path over there?” he pointed to the woolly darkness at the backside of the lodge.
They’d set the ball rolling. I knew it’s over, no amount of pressure was now going to stop my friends from going. I could do only one thing now. “Come on guys. Game is over. We are not going to join this crazy band of idiots.”
I drove all the eager students who wanted a slice of action back to their rooms. There was gloom.
Finally my friends left for the check dam set deep in the wilderness. “Follow the voice of the river,” I screamed to the darkness where they disappeared. “We would bring some good fish. No one sleeps tonight,” the darkness answered back. Now what remained there was a heaviness, an emptiness in the air. I closed the shutters, fastened them and looked outside nervously. I never liked the sort of silence (and darkness) out there in Alathur. It pooled thickly around secluded buildings like this lodge and the nearby college at nights. Even their corridors spoke an unnerving silence to my ears (You must spend at least a night in Alathur to understand what I mean). The moment we stopped talking I noticed the same silence stealthily creeping in to claim those little chinks between words. So we talked incessantly when we were in the lodge at nights. The doors of our rooms were kept ajar to let noise coming from neighboring rooms (but more silence gushed in sometimes), only the shutters at the entrance were fastened tightly during nights.
It was an ancient building and it spoke the ancientness in a tenor so deep that it was silent.
From the face of my students I could read how huge a spoilsport I had become with my puritan stand. I didn’t let them join my friends. No regrets. I am a teacher; the teacher in me dug his feet firmly in the ground. “Go to sleep,” I said.
An hour went by.
We were still chatting in one of the hostel rooms to while away time. “Mashe,” said Baiju, “I feel there’s something wrong. Should we go for them?” I raised my eyes; a tiny bubble of discomfort slowly burgeoned and exploded in my stomach. I coughed. “Daa, should we..”
Before I could complete, we heard the frozen air ripped apart by deafening screams. “Ayyo! Open the shutters!” Yells. Feet pounding. Loud groans. The whole building shook on its foundation. The iron shutters outside rattled violently. “Open it!” We froze on our chairs for a moment; our eyes darted towards one another. What happened! Who got killed! When the initial shock passed over we sprang to our feet, dashed out of the room, along the corridor, towards the entrance. “Open the shutters, Manu, please, let us in…Oh, god! Open it…Help us…”
There! I saw my friends clinging on to the iron grill, there was blood!
For the next fifteen minutes they could hardly talk. Pitchers and pitchers of water were emptied. I never saw my friend Aji sobbing before. We stood around those rags of torn shirts in extreme shock. Finally when heavy panting abated a bit, Saji raised his eyes, beads of sweat hung from his eyelashes. “We…we saw a woman.” “Who?” “A woman. Please believe me, a woman, a woman, ask him, ask him, a woman, all of us saw her…a woman rising from the water at the check dam, a woman!” “What!!!” “Please believe us Manu. We saw a woman slowly coming up from the water as we were fishing.”
I felt a rush of anger building inside me, but what manifested outside was a derisive laugh. “You are DRUNK!” “No, Manu, please believe us. Why should we lie!. See, we are all bruised and wounded running through the woods. You cannot get drunk with toddy. We saw her, a woman, ammayane sathyam! A woman. Manu, a woman over the water!” his voice fell, he lowered his eyes to the floor, “there was this sudden smell of jasmine just before she rose.” “Paala,” Baiju, my student tried to correct. “No,” Saji replied, “jasmine.”
I sat on the floor near him. “See, Saji. No one lives in that wilderness. No human habitation. And the dam is more than 20 feet deep. No woman can stand on it. Do you think… you saw a…ghost?” There was a sudden silence inside the room. No one stirred. No one replied. The clock chimed once. 2:30am!
My friends left Alathur the very next day citing various reasons.
I knew how stories spread in a small campus of about a thousand students, so I told my lodge-mates next morning to bury the issue forever. “But Mashe,” Sajimon interrupted, “I am sorry, I told one of my friends.” I sighed.
Well, he flicked the lid off the Pandora’s box.
In a couple of days I got tired explaining to people what actually happened to my friends.
I tried to play it down my best until Sreeni, an attender of Physics lab staying in another hostel inside the college asked me: “Mashe, there is only one way we can put an end
to this story. Let’s go and investigate.” “Yes Mashe,” my students also joined Sreeni, “Let’s go tonight, investigate and put an end to this story once for all.”
“Fine,” I said. “I feel I am responsible for all this mess. After all they’re my friends. Let us put an end to this. We go tonight.”
So at about 12 midnight, everyone got ready for the quest. I knew I was taking a huge risk with my students joining this daring mission. I had no other way. I need men, strong men, and I got some really brave ones among my students. Just before we set out I noticed something bulging out from the back of a few of them.
What’s that? I asked and pulled up Pramod’s shirt tail. In the moonlight a silver blade glinted. “We need it, Mashe,” said Sreeni from the darkness behind me. We crossed the road towards the dark foliage that would soon open its deep green mouth to consume us. How could we know what was awaiting inside!
Six boys. Their teacher. A friend, Rajesh. And a lab attender named Sreeni. We set out that night through the dark woods after the whiff of jasmine flowers.