After Dark22 mins 406 22 mins 406
‘Triing…triing..’ <Mobile phone rang> ‘Tinny Calling’ the name flashed on the mobile phone screen.
I was to enter the security check-in at the Bangalore airport and couldn’t receive the call. Although I knew what the call would be about. I was heading home to celebrate New Year with my family. It was already the 28th of December, and my heart was semi-broken as I got my leaves approved late. I was looking forward to this vacation ever since it was planned. I was meeting my whole family after ages at our ancestral home in Katiganj, a small village in deep forest, some 250 km away from Calcutta and with this forest being the most thrilling part of this episode.
Our family was to gather by 29th December to welcome the New Year 2020 in that vintage house with our grandparents. Two of my aunt's family had already arrived at Katiganj. My uncle's family had also come from Bombay and was staying at my home in Calcutta. My younger sister, Tinny, had joined them in Calcutta on Christmas and only I was left behind. It was Tinny always calling me to give updates about all the events happening in Calcutta and at Katiganj. Her photos flooded my WhatsApp. I must say that she knows the art of fuelling a dormant spark inside me and the after-taste for her was divine, I bet.
I was to travel with my parents. They were to pick me up from the Calcutta airport, and we were to drive straight to Katiganj without wasting any more second. So imagine the urgency all of us had to reach Katiganj!
As I boarded the flight, I could feel a butterfly in my stomach. ‘Why wasn’t I flying yet?’ I kept looking at my wristwatch hoping the hour-hand to run in the fast-forward mode. But wasn’t the time an illusion? I could feel the anxiety growing inside me, and indeed it was out of excitement. But anxiety was a devil, and I loved my body. I couldn’t have tolerated it knowingly. So, I switched-off my mode to meditation, and in no time, the flight landed. I love to control my body, you see.
On landing safely, I turned-off the Flight mode of my phone and guess what, it started ringing again. Can you think of the name that was flashing on the mobile screen?
I picked up the call. “Tell me, Tinny! What’s up?”
“What di, come fast!” She frets.
“Coming!” I replied and disconnected.
Next, we had hit the highway to Katiganj. I was totally thrilled. It was already 12.30 pm, and we were already running late for the route which we were to take. As you already know, Katiganj was amidst a deep forest, driving after dark was not safe at all. No one ever dared to travel after sunset as far as I know, including us till date.
This forest was unlike any other woods I have known. It was denser compared to the other forests in Bengal with different trees that were 300 to 400 years old or maybe more. These trees were hugged by thorny and flowery bushes from all sides, making it difficult to access them at all. It is said that King Cobras are the guardian of these trees, and they live in these bushes. I always found myself to be minuscule in front of these trees. Also, the forest had a strong blue-greenish tinge of colour. I could never make out how this colour was formed? Was it the green of the trees and blue of the mist? That’s right! The forest was always misty; be it summer or winter, day or night. It looked like the mist had settled in the woods from ages and was going to be there till eternity because I have heard my grandfather mentioning about it in his childhood stories several times and the legacy of its presence continued throughout generations.
Now talk about roads! No, there were no roads! The forest had such a high-life condition that no matter how much concrete or tar road you pave, plants and shrubs would sprout in no time making it impossible to travel inside. As a result, the state’s forest department had given up on building a concrete road. The only way to go in the forest was to find your own way and be prepared to get lost. However, the tribal dwellers did constantly made narrow brown muddy roads full of pebbles and grass for their commutation. I was hoping to travel through such roads in the forest this time too.
The fascinating part about this forest was the presence of Rhododendron trees. Have you ever known Rhododendron growing in lower altitudes? If not, then you are welcome to Katiganj. Yes, here you would see bunch and bunch of giant Rhododendron doing round table conference as if they were the ministers of Katiganj forest. This made me always wonder if Bengal was ever in high-altitude in the past! But there are no answers to my question. What more, the trees would suck moon and sunlight like a vampire. Hardly a few rays could touch the ground piercing the branches and leaves of these trees. Also, the wind always blew at the same speed from the same direction here. And in the evening after sunset, they would carry a specific fragrance that was difficult to identify. Was it of a flower, a leaf or something else?
Several environmentalists from all over the world came for their research regularly on these puzzles, but either most of them vanished enigmatically, or the rest left with zero knowledge. You know what, there was always something spooky about this area, but what, I can’t tell. One can only feel it in the air, at least all of us did. It’s unexplainable. Maybe energy! I don’t know.
People usually avoid driving after sunset in that forest. There are various myths about dacoits; animal attack, paranormal activities and you name it. We decided that if we could enter the forest zone before 5 pm, which is dark in east India, we will keep rolling ahead and will face any consequence. In case we can’t make it, of which the chances were high, we will not take any risk and will spend the night in a hotel somewhere nearby. This plan was to please my mother as she believed not to fiddle with energies, especially of a forest like this. She had her own beliefs about the forest. She was an anthropologist and had done her research on the settlers of this part of the land. Although she never discussed her hypothesis or knowledge that she had gathered, but she was always alert and vigilant every time she passed through this forest. I still wonder what she knows.
The sun had already set in its deathbed. Daddy kept driving as he wanted to cover all the distance in those few hours. We had reached the outskirts of the forest by then, and the human population with their houses, shops and vehicles were decreasing fast. The road was also getting narrower. Mother and aunt kept telling to turn back but was he to listen to her. Even I added fuel in the fire and encouraged daddy’s daring to keep driving. I wanted to experience the consequence if any and wanted to prove all the myths around this forest wrong. Now, I had started believing that these were the tricks to keep development at bay. I knew that the tribal settlers of this region did not like urban population.
Slowly it was pitch dark with only the front lights of our car illuminating the area of the road. We were in the forest by now. The road was narrower, full of pebbles and the bushes and huge trees were guarding us close. Nothing was visible but just the lighted road in front of the car. Honestly, deep inside, I was terrified and maybe others too. One can’t avoid the values or stories they have grown up with, especially when they are so strong that they hit your senses.
Daddy had slowed down the car as we started discussing the next step – to go ahead or not. But did we have an option of staying? Then we saw a motel with a couple of cars parked outside. It was hustling with a cacophony of small children, light music and bright lights. I am sure all of us were trying to recall the last time we had visited Katiganj!
We were talking about how the forest had flowered with such a lively hotel and just then we felt a sharp jerk. I had sprained my neck due to the tremor. Was it an earthquake, but it felt like someone has banged our car from the backside? But there was no car behind us! What was that? We were perplexed and could hardly see a thing in that pitch dark; even the sky was darker to me at that moment. Suddenly, a boy knocked at daddy’s side of the window out of nowhere, and all of us were startled. He started selling us a room, and I broke into laughter, keeping a hand on my palpitating chest as a sign of relief.
Next, we followed the boy, who was loaded with four duffel bags and two suitcases. He didn’t allow us to carry any luggage. Not that he was tall and stout, but short-height with a lean body. I guess he was in his mid-teens as his thin layer of moustache and Adam’s Apple depicted. He didn’t wait for us in the reception and disappeared upstairs of the hotel. Tinny raced up to catch-up with him, but failed and finally gave up. She waited for us in the reception while we grasped the surroundings of this motel.
Everything was dark, like the heart of a black witch. Only a couple of dim yellow lights were twinkling from about half-a-kilometre away. They were undoubtedly the village dwellers of the forest, a handful in the count. Inspecting the surroundings to our satisfaction, we went inside the motel as it was quite cold and misty.
The reception area of the motel was shining bright with different lights. I guess the owner of the motel was obsessed with bulbs. To me, it was visual pollution! While daddy and Rony, my cousin brother, got engaged in doing the reception formalities, I started looking around. I saw two different groups of people dining in the restaurant, sunk into their food and conversation. Three little children were running around the stairs one after another in the reception area, adding life to the place; giggling and calling out each other to touch them. They caught my attention as they were running in the same pattern repeatedly – up, down and circle. I thought it was safe as they won’t get hurt, but why not changing direction?
“Why its written 2007 here?” Rony questioned in a surprise tone.
My attention diverted to him. He was looking at the entry register. The guy at the reception almost snatched the register from his hand and kept it aside without answering. He did not even ask for ID proofs.
“Your rooms are 101 and 102 on the first floor.” He said without eye-contact. Rony took his behaviour for an offence and continued staring at him while daddy moved away towards the ladies who were waiting. I assume Rony wanted to confront the receptionist.
“Chill brother! Maybe it’s a typo by the person who filled the date. It’s quite common to me. I mess-up with numbers very often!” I said, patting his shoulder to calm him down. Youngblood you see!
We went up to the rooms. 102 was diagonally opposite to it. The plan was to play cards after freshening up over a glass of wine and whiskey. We were game for it but not my aunt. She wanted to catch-up with her daily TV dramas. So we chose to gather in our room, 102, while she could rest and watch TV in room 101.
As we entered our room, 102, we found a foul smell of smoke but no sign of it. Daddy started to check all electrical points, and yes, they were stinking. Perhaps burnt wire, he declared! A portion of the wall at the bottom-corner also looked like it was burnt. As it was quite suffocating, Tinny opened the window for the smell to pass.
Slowly, the signature mysterious fragrance of the Katiganj forest set foot in the room. Oh! The fragrance was mesmerising, and as it was entering my body, it touched all my organs, evoking tranquillity. I felt relaxed and closed my eyes while back resting my head on the chair. I saw beautiful coloured patterns forming in front of my closed eyes, and they were distinct. My breathing became deeper and slower as I realised that I wanted more and more of it inside my body. I was greedy. And then I heard a sharp sound of a door closing. I came back to my senses and opened my eyes. It was challenging to open. It felt like I was intoxicated. Mother had quickly shut all windows. I kept shouting at her to let the window open, but she would not listen. Mother was hysteric and gave me a bottle of water to drink. When I refused to drink, she screamed at me, holding my jaws to open my moth “Drink the water Tia, now. Hurry! You are getting poisoned slowly.” Her voice was faint but what she said raised my heartbeat. Was I scared?
After drinking water from two bottles, I felt normal as if nothing had happened. I certainly felt puckish. Daddy, mother and Tinny had gathered around me and were staring.
“Did you say slow poisoning mother?” questioned Tinny looking at me. I saw mother nodding.
I got up without uttering a word and went to room 101. The room too had a similar smell of smoke. Mother came running after me to warn not to open the windows. I was sick of her such behaviour at times when in Katiganj! Ignoring her, I started to knit stories around the smell and uncle ordered to rest my mind as this was a forest area and people may have burnt dried leaves or woods, which is a common practice. The smoke may have entered the rooms. Thinking that was a valid point, I went back to my room to puke.
After half-an-hour, the players were to meet in our room. Tinny was dialling number 9 - kitchen, to order some snacks but no one answered the phone.
“The restaurant is busy. Leave it Tinny. We shall order for dinner directly.” I said with the slow poison thing running in my mind.
“How can this beautiful fragrance be poison?” I whispered to myself.
“No more discussion on this. We shall eat dinner early by 8.30 pm and retire to bed so that we could start early next morning with the break of the dawn.” Ordered mother.
Soon uncle and Rony joined us. Tinny had decorated with a bottle of scotch and home-made grape wine which I brought from Bangalore. Six of us gathered around the table, and the game commenced. It was not even past ten minutes that my aunt called for uncle aloud from her room as if she has seen a ghost.
“Danny, please come quickly.” For some reason, her voice echoed.
All of us paused to confirm if what we heard was correct. Aunt's voice echoed again, and we rushed to her room. The door was ajar. She was holding a remote and staring at the TV with wide eyes like a dumb nut.
“What happened, maa?’ Inquired Rony.
“All the serials are old. They are not new.” She said in disgust. Rony stroked his hair in disbelief.
“Aunty, how did you echo your sound?” Questioned Tinny on a serious note.
Aunt looked at her irritated and replied “Here all the serials are of 2007 and she is talking about echo, dhurr!” she fret.
“2007! What do you mean?” Ronny asked while taking the remote from her hand and started surfing the channels. Only one channel was working, which was showing an old serial from 2007.
“Maa, only one channel is working. It might be a repeat telecast. When will you get rid of these serials?” Rony loathed, and we left.
This time Rony let the door of our room open, thinking just in case aunt gets frightened; she may run inside without any hurdle. The game resumed. Tinny was not attentive. “What’s up Tinny?” Only a pinch was enough for her to pour out her thoughts.
“I am thinking about the story behind 2007! Also, why did her sound echo in a place like this?” she responded in a thoughtful tone.
Rony responded while mocking her tone “Hmm! Valid points!”
She gave him a hateful look and just then suddenly uncle screamed: “Hey…hey...where are going?” He then jumped out of his chair shaking the table and throwing away the cards as such that a glass toppled and the cards on the table got wet. As daddy and I managed the table, he ran towards the wall closer to the window shouting “No...no...don't!” and collided with the wall. He had hurt his left shoulder and was in pain.
All of us were in shock, looking at his frenzy. Mother and Rony rushed to him while all of us were looking at him in disbelief.
“What was that?” Daddy whispered.
Uncle looked at him with rage in his eyes and replied “What do you mean? Didn’t you see them barging in the room and jumping out of the window?”
Rest of us were speechless, so was daddy. We looked at each other with the same question in our eyes – Did you? Perhaps he was angry on daddy for some reason at that very moment.
“We did not see anyone, uncle!” Replied Tinny in a low and shaky voice.
He looked at her and continued showering his wrath “What do you mean? Three men and a child ablaze, screaming so loud, barged into this room and jumped out of this window in front of my eyes and you did not see them!”
Soon my mother and aunt helped him to calm down. They took him towards a chair and offered a glass of water. “Relax..relax.”
’Oh my! What is he saying? Is it true? Indeed, it must be!’ To be honest, several awkward questions bombarded my mind at that time. The whole thing was utterly shocking and frightening. Were the stories we had heard about this forest was true? Was this paranormal or my uncle hallucinating? But I don’t believe in paranormal things. ‘Mother, she knows about it all!’ I looked at her to observe her emotions or reaction as I knew she wouldn’t tell us anything. She looked concerned for the wound my uncle had and was nursing him along with aunt.
To break the awkward silence in the room, I asked Tinny to order for dinner as it was already 11.30 pm. ‘My god, 11.30? Last I looked at the watch; the time was 8.15 pm not so while ago! Is time flying in a time machine?’ For a second I disbelieved the time that I saw on the wall clock but the evening was so eventful.
“We shall eat and sleep,” I announced. She agreed and dialled the kitchen number. This time the call was received. Meanwhile, I decided to Google if this motel was listed in the haunted properties of Bengal, but there was no network. It was obvious. My mind was restless, and so was my heart. I was a little frightened too.
Wanting to get some fresh air, I went downstairs to immerse myself in the music and weird lights that I hated. The reception was glowing with the lights to its glory. There was no music, and not a single person was seen. I strolled around the corridor to check if I could spot a single soul. My heart was desperate to see another human than us. But all the rooms were locked, and there was a deadly silence. ‘Maybe the guests we had seen have slept.’ I thought which was convincing as they had children with them. Still, I peeped down from the gap under the doors to see if someone was awake for my satisfaction even knowing this was unethical. But ethics and morality go for a toss when you are afraid and that too of ghosts. Did I say “Ghosts”? Gosh! Did I start believing in ghosts and spirits? No way!
I walked towards the kitchen, knowing that the cook will be preparing the food we had ordered, and I can clear my head with them. I opened the kitchen door and found it dark, empty with the smell of the same smoke. My chest started pumping heavy breath in-and-out now with my heartbeats reaching my ears. I ran upstairs to the room where everyone was gathered, frightened. I was gasping for breath and almost fell in front of the door when daddy came to support me. I looked up and found them sitting around the table with food laid on the table. That was surprising. “Where did the food come from?” I asked in whispers panting.
“What happened to you?” Asked daddy helping me to stand straight.
I repeated my question “Where did the food come from?”
‘Why are you asking?’ Responded Rony.
“Because the kitchen is dark! There is no one there, and it’s stinking with the smell of smoke.”
They looked at me and then at the food. "The same boy who got us in here delivered it just now before you barged in. Though the food is not what we had ordered, he said the kitchen is close. These are the left-overs.” said Rony.
Meanwhile, Tinny tasted a dish, and it was stale. There was silence. Perhaps all of us were blank in mind. My eyes just happened to fall on the wall clock again, and it was 11.30. “What’s the time on your watch Rony?” I asked, staring at the wall clock.
Tinny and I looked at each other. The time had frozen.
We sat together, feeling the touch of each other on the bed like a bunch of scared cats, and waiting for the next instance to happen. I looked at my mother. She knew what was going on but why she wasn’t telling. Why wasn’t she reacting?
And as an icing on the cake, the power shut down. The room was pitch dark, just like outside. We waited for the generator to turn on. When it didn’t, daddy went to the corridor to call someone. “Hello..Hello...anyone there. Please turn on the generator.” His voice was also echoing.
Tinny whispered. “Why is voice echoing here?” We had no answer. We had no answer for any question regarding the experiences we had so far.
Daddy came back to the room as no one responded to his call. We turned on the torch from mobile phone and sat quietly, all engrossed in thoughts. I wanted dawn to break early, and an idea strikes me. “Rather waiting here, let’s drive and not wait for the dawn.”
Daddy looked at me and acknowledged. “Rony, come with me. Let’s go and check the car first. By then, you guys start packing. We shall leave.” Said daddy and they left.
Aunt and uncle were too scared to go to their room. They decided first we shall pack, and then all of us go to their room. We agreed. Meanwhile, not even five minutes had passed; daddy and Rony ran into the room. They were panting heavily, just like me when I ran up. “There is no car at the parking.” Said Rony.
“What do you mean? We saw them when we arrived, and there were two families down there!” Questioned aunt in a surprised tone.
“What he means is correct. It’s very dark down there, and there are no cars. We couldn’t find our car too.” Daddy replied, gathering breath.
Mother came to pat his back helping him to breathe and complained “None of you listened to me. We shouldn’t have entered this zone after sunset.”
At last, she spoke, but nobody paid attention to that. “What do you know about the forest mother? What is it that you don’t tell us?” I was hoping this time she will tell.
“I shall tell you when the time is right. Rather, could you find it yourself? This forest belongs to you too as much it does to me. You must respect its dwellers, its energies. Find it yourself. You will get the knowledge as per your worth for this land. Remember, this is not any forest.” I listened to her quietly. Maybe she didn’t want to tell me as I was a complete atheist.
“I assume it's past 2 am, devil’s time. Stay here, eyes closed and do not react at any cost.” She ordered.
She was correct. In my opinion, the time would have been around 2.00 am. Petrified, we sat together on the bed in the dark and could smell the smoke stronger than ever now. I remember being awake for a while and then falling asleep.
“Sister… sister…” I could hear a faint sound and someone patting my shoulder.
“Tia…Tia…are you alright? Tia open your eyes.”
The voice was familiar. ‘My uncle, but why was he saying that? Ah! I had a severe headache as if someone had hit me with a hammer.’
I tried opening my eyes but couldn’t. It felt heavy. Still, I pushed it hard to open but could only partially open it. In front of me was a pool of blood. Scared, I moved away, but couldn’t, my back ached.
I somehow gathered the knowledge that something was wrong with my body. So, I allowed myself some time to come in terms with the present. Slowly I looked around. I was inside the car, and we had met with an accident. My uncle was limping outside and was in a pool of blood. Some people, villagers, had gathered and were helping us. Tinny, Rony, daddy and aunt were lying unconscious, here and there inside the car, but my mother looked less wounded, only scratches and mild bruises. I heard her repeating the words while crying “None of you listened to me. We shouldn’t have entered this zone after sunset.”
Next, those people helped me to come out. I was baffled and in pain. I was bleeding from the head, and right shoulder won’t move. “Weren’t we inside the room? How did we come here then, uncle?” I asked in a painful voice as I was in excruciating pain.
He had injured his knees and was in equal pain. He hinted towards a ruined and burnt building on the other side of the road. I looked at it and couldn’t recognize it. It was burnt beyond recognition. I kept staring at it and thought ‘Was this the motel where we checked-in yesterday?’
A lady came to help me with some water and whispered in my ears “Ambulance is on its way. All of you will be fine. It’s a miracle that all of you are alive. In fact, to date, it’s only you who are alive in this situation.“
I couldn’t believe what she was saying. She continued while nursing me “This hotel was burnt to ashes in 2007 and everyone inside it, two families and staffs were burnt alive.”
I could now join the dots about 2007, echo and time. ‘Time!’
“What time did it happen?” I questioned.
“At night somewhere around11 to 12 o clock! We were sleeping and heard a blast, cylinder blast. Our hut and cot shook with the sound. It was that loud. But by the time we reached here, the building was engulfed with a high flame. Even the cars parked outside blew up one-by-one. It was a massive fire. Ever since the place is not normal. Every evening the place is abuzz, and after 11.30 pm…”
“But we stayed inside that building yesterday. Then how did this accident happen? I was sleeping in the bed on that floor. How did I get hurt?” I questioned whimsically unsure if I was asking this to her or myself.
She looked at my mother and replied “It’s all Maya! You shouldn’t have entered this zone after the sunset.”