Boom! There was a loud thud from behind the house. A crunching sound came from the backyard.
Vijay was reading his favourite Alistair Maclean novel sitting in the front porch. The weather was cold and dry. It was relaxing to read in the afternoon sun. He was feeling lazy and sleepy. The rented bungalow where they lived was just below the highway. There was a forest sloping down the back of the house full of green tall trees laden with plums and pine cones, a natural playground with ample scope for fun and pranks.
He instantly knew that his little brothers were up to some nuisance again when he heard Beeji shout his name at the top of her voice, “Vijay! Vijay!” she screamed on the top of her voice. He was sure now that something was wrong. Beeji never disturbed him when he was reading! It must be something those pranksters had done again!
They were six brothers. Vijay was the eldest. He was good at studies and was always absorbed in either his course books or the novels he loved to read. He liked to watch movies and listen to film songs. The ones younger to him were also staid and quiet but the youngest two were very naughty and destructive. They kept Beeji, their mother on her toes all day. There was always something to be repaired in the house and there was always someone hurt needing first aid. The other day the carrom game heated up and Daman had bust the board on Shekhar’s head.
Vijay loved his little brothers but was always worried about them. “Why can’t they be a little bit calmer?” he said to himself often. No amount of scolding or beating helped. The two were incorrigible. He wondered aloud, “what is it now? What have they broken?” He dreaded going to the bazaar again and getting whatever was broken repaired. It was a long trek to the bazaar in this small hill town. He hoped it was not his new pocket transistor that had faced their wrath
Papaji, their father was a clerk in the Accountant Generals office. He had eight mouths to feed and six of them were boys growing everyday and an emergency was always an added expense. Papaji always had his ears full of complaints and laments when he returned home from office but he was a patient and proud father despite being a strict disciplinarian.
All these thoughts were pushed back in Vijay’s mind when he saw the scene at the back of the massive garden. Dinesh was lying twisted below the big plum tree in a heap of squashed fruit. His clothes were stained and dirty with the fruit juice and dirt. Clearly he was not able to get up. Beeji was hitting both him and Daman with a branch of the tree and shouting her choicest invectives on the top of her voice. “It’s the routine pandemonium again” thought Vijay.
But then he saw it was not! Dinesh was not able to get up when Daman coerced him to run in order to escape the thrashing. He was nursing his broken leg. They had been trying to climb the tree to pluck some plums. Vijay asked Beeji to calm down and Daman to get water for her as well as Dinesh. Then he carried Dinesh in his arms and took him inside the house.
They lived in Shimla. In 1960s it was a small town with very less vehicular traffic. People preferred to walk. Their home at Sanjauli was at least six arduous kilometers from the nearest hospital. They didn’t have any vehicle and it was out of question to call an ambulance! That was an additional, unaffordable expense. The only option was to carry little Dinesh all the way to the hospital on foot. Vijay knew it was his responsibility. He was the eldest son.
He asked Beeji to relax and took some money from her. Asking Shekhar the one younger to him, to wear his shoes and accompany him, he sent Daman to inform Papaji who was in his office near the Mall Road. “Daman should also pay the price of his naughtiness!” He told Beeji. He had the longest distance to cover. The Mall was at least 10 kilometres away and the route was steep incline.
They reached the hospital and Papaji came after some time. He was a sweet natured man; he didn’t shout or curse anyone but his wife. He was proud of his sons and expected one or the other to cause some mischief in a week or so. After all that’s what all boys did. How else did you expect them to grow big?
It was evening by then and Dinesh was very weak with exhaustion and still in pain. The doctor asked Papaji to stay back the night as the boy was under observation. Shekhar had gone home as soon as Papaji came from the office and taken Daman back with him. The government hospital didn’t have a bed or bedding for Papaji to spend the cold night in. It fell on Vijay again to fetch the bedding and a quilt from home.
Now this was the part he was dreading most! He wanted to be the one who stayed back. He didn’t want to go home alone in that cold winter night. Papaji scolded him mildly and asked him to run along. He didn’t understand why his eldest boy was avoiding going home. He was his most responsible and unspoiled child.
Boy! Was he scared! His friends had told him so many stories and folk tales about witches and ghosts wandering about here and there in this small enchanted hill station but no other tale had stuck to his mind like the one that Ramesh Thakur his best friend had told him. This wild tale had been circulating since last 10 years!!
One day when they were walking back from the school, Ramesh had warned Vijay to never go along the Snowdon Hospital –Sanjauli route at night. He said that along a stretch of the maidaan, a hand severed from its body and dripping blood asked for a cigarette from the passersby. If you have one on you and a light too… You were lucky because ‘it’ will then politely thank you and go away taking the cigarette with it. But damned you were if you didn’t have it... because it then followed you and pushed you in the khud.
Vijay was scared to death now. He didn’t smoke and there was no chance in eternity for him to have a cigarette on him EVER. He had a life to live and simple dreams to chase. He didn’t want to end up in a khud. Sometimes a dead body was never found in there, what with the leopards, foxes and hyenas dragging the half live men for their dinner deep into the forest.
But today he had to take that dreaded turn and cross the maidaan where the hand would appear and ask for a cigarette. He thought of buying one and a matchbox but no paanwallah will give it to him and if Papaji came to know about it, then he would have had it - not the cigarette but the dreaded spanking! He didn’t hit them normally but when he did it was all hell turned loose. The dilemma was looming large now. Papaji would tolerate no more dithering. He had to go!
He started the long haul home, sure that Papaji and Beeji would lose their eldest son today. Every step he took was slow and heavy. He wanted to invoke all the Gods. But no prayers came to his mind. He was so frightened that he could not even remember the school prayer that they sang every day in the assembly. He was doubtful though that it would help. He was also thinking about Papaji's discomfort. He will have to sleep without bedding and quilt today. Vijay knew that he was never going to be able to get back alive to the house.
Even if he did- maybe someone else would give a cigarette to the hand just a moment before Vijay reached the turn and it will be gone and busy smoking giving him the time to sprint across the maidaan - he still had the return journey to make. No one could be twice lucky; he will certainly be down the khud on the return trip.
It was October; a cold dry month and the night was starlit. The sky seemed so close that it looked easy to reach for the stars and grab a handful. The breeze was whistling through the tall deodar trees and the woodsy smell of pine trees was exhilarating. Nature was at its beautiful best but Vijay was oblivious of this dark beauty. All he could see was the dark lightless path and dreadful shapes in the dark night which the shadows cast . The sound of breeze was not sweet to his ears, it seemed to give him a warning that his dreadful end was crouching behind that wall where the maidaan started. There was no cover to run for. The hand will certainly grab his neck and throw him down the crevice when he would tell it that he didn’t have a smoke.
Suddenly the Gayatri Mantra that Papaji had taught him and had told him to recite whenever he was scared came flashing to his mind and then a strategy was emerged.
The maidaan stretched 200 meters only. He would walk slowly to the turn, start reciting the Mantra and dash across the ground in a sprint without looking behind. Certainly the hand will follow him but it will be repelled by the force of the chant and he would run for his life. Once he was around the bend he would be safe. Thakur had assured that the hand never crossed the bend. The key would be to run very fast and not look behind. He looked ahead and behind him.
There wasn’t a soul around who would offer a cigarette to the hand and make it busy. It would have certainly helped. Nobody, not even a ghostly hand, could smoke two at the same time. Vijay started the Gayatri chant.
Aum Bhoor Bhuwah Swaha,
Tat Savitur Varenyam,
Bhargo Devasaya Dheemahi,
Dhiyo Yo Naha Prachodayat!!
Repeating it aloud, he looked all around the last time and made the dash across the maidaan. His heart was beating so loud that he could hear it go thud-thud in his chest! His mouth was dry with fear and pulse racing beyond normal. He was chanting the Gayatri Mantra on the top of his voice without realising till he reached the turn where after the hand always turned back according to Thakur.
Stopping he made sure he was ALIVE! Safe and on the path not in the khud! He thanked his God and started walking home. A sudden calm washed over his being. He reached home and told Beeji about Dinesh and Papaji’s stay at the hospital and asked for the bedding and dinner. He ate his dinner and started the return journey. He knew he could make any number of trips now. He switched on his pocket transistor and started listening to Mohd. Rafi singing his favourite songs! “That story spinner Ramesh!”, he thought, "he certainly was in for being killed at school tomorrow ."
He had chanced a look back when he had reached the bend across the maidaan; nothing or no one was behind him. No ghost and no severed hand. No such thing had ever existed.
Vijay was DEAD sure now.