The curved road glistened bright like the wet scales of an undulating serpent. It hugged the mountains on one side, while the other side stared off into the valley. It was not raining anymore but the wet breeze ordained that it was no more than a lull in the incessant song of the monsoon. Like a soft wisp of breath a singer takes before launching back into a fervent Rag Malhar. Dark black clouds, pregnant with rain were slowly drawing closer and blotting out the sky. The rain gods were closing the curtains on the world smothering the sunlight. There were just two persons in the green hatchback. The car had finished a hair pin bend on the road and was just nearing another S-curve when it lost control and skidded through. Instead of following the usual curve of the road, the hatchback went straight on towards the guard-rails. For a moment, it seemed that car would stop on impact with the guard-rails but suddenly its speed increased and it lurched over the barrier. There was a scream of tortured metal as the lower body of the car skipped once on the rails denting it. Then it plunged head-first towards the slope of the valley. There wasn’t a loud crash but just a dull thud and a few moments later some birds flew up from the trees. Nothing much had changed, the road was still wet and the air still smelled of freshly cut grass. The valley was once again tranquil and silent, like the boundary between life and death.
Chapter 1: The Last Thing
The last thing I remember is a green coloured sky rushing towards me. I think I heard a pattering sound, like the snapping of a hundred skeletal fingers, before I passed out.
I don’t know for how long I was unconscious. I woke up all groggy and found myself lying in a twisted heap on the ground. All I could see was the green canopy of trees. There was a large banyan tree right above my head, over my right shoulder was a Palash and besides it a Neem. What was the scientific name of Banyan….Ficus….something? Then I realised I was trying to recall the Latin name of tree, while lying banged up on the forest floor. It was my brain trying to focus on something identifiable. Funny, how the brain tries to rationalise in stressful situations.
This was so absurd that I almost laughed out before fainting again.
Not much time had passed, before I came up. Once again, I found myself gazing on the green sky. No, it was not the sky but the tree tops and then it all came back. I was in a car and we had just hit the curving roads of the Ghats. I was feeling a little dozy, but Vinci who was driving, scolded me out of it. I blinked once and the next instant we were hurtling down the side of road. The car crashed through the green tops and the snagging branches drum rolled a staccato on the sides of car. I remember myself screaming before my brain shut off.
I sat up slowly. I could hear the chittering of forest life. I could see but my vision was not clear. The surrounding forest looked blurred and the colours seemed muted as if someone had applied a Sepia filter on my eyes. The soggy ground was carpeted with leaves in various states of decay. Surprisingly, I did not feel any pain, but I could also not feel the damp soil on my palms. May be it was a head injury or maybe I was still in shock.
Then a question struck my mind and I gasped, where was Vinci?
I slowly unfolded myself up from the ground. As soon as my head cleared the undergrowth, I could see the mangled remains of the car lying about 10 meters above me on a slope. That was why I had not been able to see it while lying on the ground. I tried to walk but my legs became all wobbly and I went down on a knee. My cream coloured trousers had become all muddy.
The next laundry bill would surely burn a hole through my pockets.
Stupid, stupid brain, focus on the car and find Vinci.
I lurched forward in a shambling gait, like a child learning to walk. I finally reached the car and wondered how I had made the steep climb. From up here, even I could not spot, where I had been lying just a few minutes before. I could see Vinci on the driver’s seat, safety belt still wrapped around him. The windscreen was completely shattered. I had not been wearing my seat belt while we took this unexpected detour and may be that was why I had been thrown through the windscreen and had probably slid down. It was a miracle that I was still able to walk. Vinci was unconscious.
Vinci, Vinci…. Vincent, get up, but my shouts had no effect.
I remembered reading somewhere that you should not move victims of crash as this might aggravate there injuries. So, I shook him gently but he did not respond. Vinci was covered with shards of the windscreen. It was like somebody had strewn a thousand uncut diamonds on him. His face was scratched with some blood oozing out. Apart from that I could not find any visible injuries on him. I was not even sure if he was dead or alive; but, I was sure as hell, that we needed help and fast. The light was already fading amidst a soft drizzle. I decided not to waste any more time. I was still dazed and was not sure if I would pass out again. I saw the path our car had mowed down the slope. As if someone had a run a giant lawnmower through the jungle. Twisted and tangled heaps of branches were strewn around the path surrounded by gouges of mud. I decided to take this path as it would surely lead me back to the road and hopefully to help. The rain had already picked up and a muddy rivulet was pouring through the path. It had become murky and the pit-patter of raindrops in the otherwise silent forest sounded eerie.
Out of the road and straight into a horror movie.
Chapter 2: I Remember
I remember telling Nirmal not to snooze while I drove. It made me sleepy as well. It was his idea to go for a long drive in the rains and now instead of enjoying the serenity he was sleeping. It was mildly irritating but that was how Nirmal was. If things were calm he could sleep on his legs and if things became even a little stressful, he would freak out. There had been a little rain and the roads were wet. I was not speeding or anything but the car lurched out of control on the next turn. I immediately applied the brakes but realised too late that I had accidentally stepped on the accelerator. The car screeched ahead, bounced off the guard-rails and went careening off the road into the valley. That was when I fainted for the first time.
I woke up with a sudden jerking of my arms, like I was still trying to brace for the imminent impact. Drawing in ragged breath I realised that I could not move. It was only the seat belt restraining me and it had probably saved my life. My face felt numb and there was blood on my shirt. I tried moving again but my muscles were not responding, may be the straps had cut-off the blood circulation. Suddenly, the car lurched and slid some distance ahead. Looking around, I saw that the car was on slope and could very well slide down all the way. I panicked and started thrashing around trying to get out. Finally, I was able to press the release on the seat belt. I slithered on the seat, dropped to the ground and blacked out for the second time.
Tip-tap, tip-tap, tip-tap….I was not sure what I was hearing. I just wanted to sleep some more. But, there was something else slowly gliding down my face and that woke me up. The drizzling rain was washing off the dried blood on my face. An ochre coloured pool of water had formed on the leaf beneath my nose. The wind had picked up and the flying debris was assaulting my face with a thousand tiny pin-pricks. Slowly, I managed to push myself on my arms. It took a few more moments to calm myself and get my bearings.
The car had slid even further while I was out and just the bonnet was visible through the grass.
Was I driving alone? No! There was somebody with me, Nirmal!
Bloody Nirmal, I told you to stay awake, I cursed aloud.
And then I realized Nirmal was not in the passenger seat when I awoke.
Was he in the back seat? I had not checked.
I started towards the car. It was only a few steps but it took me forever and I was breathing heavily by then. I tried leaning on the trunk to catch my breath. The car seemed to be waiting for this. The metal groaned and the trunk slipped away. The car went swaying ahead like a drunk moving between the tables. I slipped again and tasted the wet mud. By the time, I was able to stand the car had already slid 10 meters through the underbrush. Finally, it struck a stout tree and came to a stop with a loud thunk. There was no safe way to the car down the perilous slope and if I fainted again then there was nobody to help us. Our mobiles were also in the car and by now they would probably be useless chunks of metals.
If Nirmal was in the car, then there was not a lot I could do to help him. The rain was now coming down in sheets and visibility was down to a few feet. It was time to call for help and the only option was getting on to the road.
Chapter 3: There Were Cars
There were cars on the road but I could not see them as I was climbing up from an inverted bowl shaped depression. I could hear the tires screeching and feel the minute tremors of their passing. Somehow, I climbed up to the road. It was now raining in heavy sleets and I could only make out the yellow headlights of the approaching vehicle which looked like the jaundiced orbs of a metal monster. I started waving towards the car and shouting for help. It did not stop. The car went by me, like I did not exist. I had no doubt that they could not hear me in the thunderous rain and probably had some stupid remix blaring through the speakers. Vinci did the same while driving. A few more vehicles passed me like this. I could not flag down any of them. It was like I was a ghost to them, invisible and unheard. The moment I thought panic took over. What if I was really dead, it had happened in that movie. The hero in that movie went about living normally wondering why people ignored him, only to realise in the end that he was really a ghost. Vinci would have remembered the name of the movie; he was a real movie buff but only Hollywood stuff. This jerked me back to my predicament. Vinci needed help.
I decided to ditch the idea of trying for help on the road. It was only wasting my time.
On the other side of the road, there was narrow muddy trail snaking it way up towards to the cliff. I was not sure, whether to follow it or keep trying for help on the road. My dilemma was solved a few seconds later when some sounds drifted down from above. I could not see who was making the sound but just then lightning struck and I was able to make out a few people walking along the cliff with a dog.
Help…help, over here, look down. Please help.
My pleas fell on deaf ear. They could not hear me. Suddenly, one of them turned and looked straight at me. No, it was not looking at me but looking through me. There was again a muffled shout, the person turned back and passed from my view. Funny, how I was able to hear and see them but they could not. But, this meant there were people nearby and may be they would help. I started on the path with this thought in my mind.
It was nothing, I am coming, hollered Bhika to his friends. They were coming back from a wedding and had decided to take the shorter route through the mountains back to their village. Bhika thought he heard some noise from the highway below and had stopped to peer. His friend had called out to him to hurry up. The rain was pouring down hard and all Bhika wanted was to snuggle in his warm blanket and sleep away the tiredness.
It was probably nothing, thought Bhika and hurried back.
Chapter 4: Moving On The Road
Moving on the road from the valley below was easier then I had expected. I had made good time and could see some traffic on the road. This raised my hopes for a rescue. The heavy rains had washed the mud banks on my side of the road to a steep incline and the slippery mud was not making the climb any easier. Somehow, I finally made it up to the guard-rails. The soil was still slipping making my footing treacherous. I stood up somehow, all the time thinking that I could slip back down any moment. Just then, I heard a car coming. My shout for help only came out as an extended whimper and I started flagging my arms frenetically.
The car ignored me and zoomed away and so did the next three. One of the car passed so near to me that I could feel the whoosh of its passing on my face. There were 3 persons in the car, two on the backseat and the driver. The lady on the back seat was looking straight into my eyes as the car went by. Either, she did not see me or she choose to ignore me. What with my muddy clothes and dishevelled bearings, I did look like a wraith straight out of a horror story. Or maybe I was dead and this people could not see me. Just like Bruce Willis in The sixth sense. I had seen that movie with Nirmal. He could not for the life of him, recall movie names. This jolted me back to present. Nirmal needed my help. This was not working; I had to get onto the road proper and that meant climbing over the guard-rails.
I stepped on the bottom rung and put my arms over the top rails. Just as I was putting my right foot on the top rung another vehicle came into view. Instinctively, I started hollering and jerking my arms like a madman. The vehicle seemed to be slowing. I heaved a sigh of relief and raised my hand to wipe out some of the water from my eyes. As soon as my hand left the railing, I slipped and crashed down into a swift stream flowing beneath me.
The stream had swallowed up a lot of rain and its belly had swelled up to a gushing torrent and I was sliding through it. It was like being on slide if the slide was under a water fall. By the time I realized, it was going to wash me down near to my car, I was already half-way down. I tried to stop my momentum by clawing into the waterbed and hence could not see the low-hanging branch which struck my head. Then darkness took me.
“Why are we slowing down Bavana? Are we stopping?” asked Mr. Murthy from the backseat. There was a slight note of irritation in his voice. His meeting had run 2 hours late and he wanted to reach home as soon as possible. Bavana had suggested the shortcut through the mountains but the heavy downpour had already slowed them and now he had stopped in the middle of nowhere.
“I think I saw something, Sir”, answered Bavana. “There somebody waving near that dented portion of the railing.
Mr. Murthy could not see the dent from the backseat. “There is nothing there Bavana. We should not stop on the highway in this weather. Hurry up and start the car and,” he rebuked.
“Sir, I swear to god, somebody was there. What if that person needed help! Just let me check once” pleaded Bavana. “It is said that sometimes the spirit of this mountain tries to help people by sending a warning. May be it was a warning to stop.”
Mr. Murthy waved his hand condescendingly, “May be it was a ghost.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, Sir? If you don’t, Sir, then at least don’t joke about it,” replied Bavana through clenched teeth.
Mr. Murthy knew that Bavana was a little superstitious and it was better to let him check. That way, at least he would drive without any other thoughts or distraction.
“Ok. You have 5 minutes”, sighed Mr. Murthy.
Bavana got out of the car with a small torch and started looking around. The torch light bounced around the road for a few minutes and then suddenly, Bavana shouted. “Sir, please come here quickly”.
Now what? Mr. Murthy and got out of the car. Clutching his umbrella with both hands against the rainy wind, he slowly ambled towards Bavana.
Bavana pointed towards the dented guardrail. “Sir, looks like somebody hit it”.
“Yes, looks like it, but we don’t know when this dent was made, 5 minutes before or 5 days before. Stop wasting time and let’s go”, Mr. Murthy threw his hands in the air.
“But Sir... Sir….”
Mr. Murthy had already turned and was heading towards the car. His umbrella was now fluttering violently in the wind. Out of nowhere a strong gust of wind tore it from his hands and sent it sailing over the rail. Bavana ran in the direction of the umbrella’s short lived flight. Pointing his torch, he saw that the umbrella had landed upside down in a stream of water and was being carried away, downstream.
Mr. Murthy growled something. But Bavana was not listening. He was staring wide eyed into the valley.
“Sir” he replied without looking up, “This is not a stream. Look at the uprooted plants. I am sure some vehicle mad this while crashing. Should we go down and check.”
Mr. Murthy leaned over to have a look and realized that there was indeed something suspicious. He did not want to wait and he absolutely was not going down into the valley to check it out. Not in such pouring pain and armed with only a feeble torch. But there might be injured people in the car. He decided to do the next best thing. He got in the car and called the Police from his cellphone. Once he had informed the police, his duty was done and he could leave. The Police had a different idea; they told him that if he left it would be difficult to find the spot. So they firmly advised him to switch on all the indicators of the car and wait till they arrived. He was furious about this turn of event, furious on Bavana, furious on the rain and most furious on himself for calling the Police. No good deed goes unpunished, thought Mr. Murthy.
Chapter 5: Hurry Up, Hurry Up
Hurry up, hurry up…damn this rain. I could have walked faster but for the rains. I could barely see through the wet curtain drawn over my eyes. Although, the occasional lightning strike did help, painting a dark silhouette of the surroundings, like a negative of a photo. It had been about 10 minutes since I started on the path. The next bolt showed me a glimpse of about 10 mud and straw huts huddled together. You could not call it a village by any standards. There was light streaming out from one of the hut and I moved towards it. Another bolt, hit the ground with a resounding boom and then there was a vicious howl. I saw a mongrel on the porch of the hut. It’s shackled were raised and I could feel a low growl emanating from its throat. But, Vinci’s need was graver than my fear and I stepped ahead.
Bhika and his friends had just polished a bottle of toddy, when the dog let out a howl. It was followed by constant growl which meant somebody was approaching. Cursing the dog, Bhika got up and came out on the porch. There was nobody outside but as he started to turn around, the dog took a few steps in the rain. It stopped, looked back and gave a questioning bark.
“What’s out there,” asked a slurred voice. The toddy was having its effect and Bhika himself was feeling a little tipsy. The dog moved again, stopped and barked once more. Do you want me to follow you stupid animal, thought Bhika.
“I think the dog wants us to follow it”, Bhika replied.
“You are drunk,” someone said, “And who made you the Sarpanch” added somebody else.
“You did, when you drank my toddy” threatened Bhika “Get the lanterns and move out”.
As I moved ahead the mangy dog also took a step towards me. A man moved out from the hut. He was swaying a little and looked drunk. Judging from the voices, there were more persons inside. I cried out for help but he could not hear me. He was looking straight at me but again showed no signs that he actually saw me. May be it was the rain and thunder or maybe I had died and had come back as a ghost. The dog let out a few more barks and moved towards me again. That meant the dog could see me. A few words were exchanged and this time the men filed out of the hut. I breathed a sigh of relief and waved them over to follow in haste. The dog was the first to respond and bounded over. I started at a little run.
Hang on Vinci, I am coming.
Bhika saw that the dog ran up again and abruptly stop. It let out a few more barks.
“See that, you idiots. It definitely wants us to follow. Quickly now” Bhika coaxed the others and they started following the dog at brisk jog.
Chapter 6: Damn This Rain
“Damn this rain”, grumbled Mr. Murthy. Around 20 minutes had passed since he had called the police. There was no sign of them as yet. He had banged the door of the car and had got out to stand with Bavana. Both of them were now soaking wet and were shivering. His thoughts were now as gloomy as the surroundings. Suddenly, he saw head lights moving towards him with a blue beacon flashing on top. The Police had arrived. An officer and three subordinates got out. The officer walked straight up to him and asked whether he had called. Before, he could answer, a loud howl came down from the mountain top. A shaggy dog materialised on the mud trail. It crossed the road and stopped near the guard-rails. Five people stumbled out behind the dog.
“Who are you,” asked Mr. Murthy in a shaky voice. Bhika narrated the whole story about how they had followed the dog. The dog barked loudly as if to say why you are wasting time instead of following me. The dog slunk through below the lowermost rail, gave another short bark and shot through the undergrowth into the valley.
Only the dog understands me, I thought. I had come down to the road and strangely enough there were two vehicles parked near the railing. A few policemen and two other people were discussing something. The dog followed me to the edge of the road and behind it came the villagers.
“Come on, come on over here”, I cried out hoarsely.
As if in reply the dog barked loudly and this got their attention. They looked at me and I beckoned them to follow. I crashed toward the valley with the dog close on my heels. By the sounds that followed, it was clear that the others were coming behind me. This gave me a slim glimmer of hope in the gloom.
I ran as fast as I could towards the car. But, I could not see it anywhere. The dog shot ahead of me, veered slightly towards the right and continued ahead. Maybe it knew something that I didn’t. Seeing no other options, I just ran after it. Just as I had thought, there was the car banged up against a tree. But it was empty.
I heard a loud barking coming from my right. Following the sound, I saw that the dog had found Vinci. He was sprawled out on the ground, his limbs all at odd angles looking like a broken doll. The dog was now barking incessantly. I tried shaking Vinci, but there was no response. A grim thought crept up in my mind; maybe I was too late and Vinci was already dead. At least, I was alive. Some part of me knew this was a dreadful but I was always a little selfish. I crashed down the floor in a jumble of confused emotions.
Chapter 7: I Did Not Know
I did not know what I was doing. Some of the wetness on my face was from my tears. Tears that Vinci was dead and tears that I was alive. I cried with a sardonic smile.
Look at me Vinci, look at Nirmal the pathetic lunatic.
The policemen and the others arrived a few moments later. They ignored me and went straight towards Vinci’s body. Obviously, they thought that I was at least alive and Vinci looked dead or near dead. They checked for his pulse and one of the policeman started CPR.
“Leave him be. Can’t you see he is dead! It’s all my fault, I did not wear the seat belt, I dozed off while he was driving….I was too slow to save him” I raved like a madmen. Oddly, they ignored me and continued the CPR. And, Vinci pulled in a ragged breath. He was alive! I rushed towards him and went down on my knees. The stupid policeman picked him up and started moving him.
“Are you mad” I cursed them, “Don’t move him you might aggravate his injuries, call an ambulance and get doctors over here quick”. They ignored me again and the dog gave me a quizzical look. I ran ahead and blocked their way.
They did not stop and passed straight to me. What just happened, I was in their way. Did they dodge around me? No. Then how did they pass me. I was not thinking clearly and turned around to look at them. Two policemen then appeared from the forest. They were carrying something between them. It was a body.
Chapter 8: What I Was Doing
What was I doing? I could see a pinprick of light, like I was in a deep well and could see the ambient light on the top. Slowly the light started coming towards or was it that I was floating towards it. I saw somebody repeatedly pressing my chest. I saw my body laid on the jungle floor. I was floating above it. Then thunder struck somewhere.
I was seeing my own body! Is this what it felt like when you were dead? But then, I could also feel something repeatedly trying to crush my chest. Was I dying or was I already dead? Now I was being carried away unceremoniously, like a dead body. I certainly felt dead. Where was Nirmal? Had he at least survived? There was a dog here! Why was a dog here? There were too many questions for my jaded mind to make any sense of it. Then the dog howled a piercing cry and I was slammed back into my body. The last thing I saw was another body being carried towards me. Was I still alive?
Chapter 9: Dead or Alive
There was another body. I ran towards it. Then I saw its face and things became clear.
This time I laughed, a raucous bone jarring sound. The dog heard me and joined in with his own howl; a blood curdling chorus and the sleeping birds heard me and flew away from their perch squawking in a terrified chatter. The trees swayed a little, their branches creaking and my world collapsed around me.
It was my body. I was dead. I still hoped that Vinci would survive.
“How did you know there was an accident?”
“As I told you before, Murthy Sir, we just followed the dog. Bhika could see that Mr. Murthy was perplexed and disturbed by this explanation.
“But then, how did the dog know where to go?” he asked again.
“My Aaji used to say that animals can see ghosts. May it was following a ghost”. Bhika could see that this answer too did not satisfy Mr. Murthy.
“Ask Bavana, if you don’t believe me.” Bhika added.
“Yes Sir, animals can see…..,” Bavana started to reply.
“Shut up, Bavana” Mr. Murthy interrupted. “You believe in ghosts Bhika, I do not” chided Mr. Murthy.
“Ghost or not, Sir; but the dog did follow someone or something and we were at least able to save one of them.” Talking with Mr. Murthy was exasperating and Bhika pitied Bavana for that.
“Vinci is not out of danger as yet, but he may pull through”, Mr. Murthy patted his hands in the air and smirked. He always liked to have the last word.
“That Nirmal died only because he was not wearing his seatbelt. What a stupid way to go.”
Bavana and Bhika both shrugged; there was nothing that could be done now. Just then the dog howled again, a long drawn out cry. They turned around but there was nothing.
Only the dog could see; Nirmal staring down on Mr. Murthy with a wicked smile on his face.