Winters had always been Namrata’s favourite. It is only this time of year, she takes a road trip to various destinations in India. For whole of the year, Namrata keeps herself engrossed in her banking work. She is a Relationship Manager in the corporate sector of HSBC bank. Her job profile is to handle high profile business people and help them in expanding their business.
Her job takes up all of her day, dealing with clients and answering them makes every day a new and an adventurous one. Even weekends were jammed with some or the other meetings, keeping her glued to the system or some coffee shop. A gorgeous banker with a stunning personality helped her to bag more clients. She never mixed business with pleasure. Her meaning of pleasure was different. A road trip where she will be accompanied by her darling Range Rover is more preferred by her than clubbing nights. Namrata had been doing the road trips to various invulnerable places in India, like mountains of Himalaya and dense forest of Sundarbans.
Namrata was a passionate bird photographer. Every road trip was her chance to stay at different places and get the best clicks of birds. The photo frames hanging on the wall of her office revealed her talent and love for birds.
Namrata even after being a hard-core banker was an odd personality. No close friends no social circle, a kind of a loner. At the age of 32 also she had kept herself away from the marital bond… Whenever her parents insisted her to get married, she will brush it away. Her parents passed away five years back, leaving a legacy of properties and a huge sum of money. Namrata never needed to work with whatever she inherited from her parents but she always wanted to establish her own identity, her mark, in this world. Her philosophy was simple,
“Don’t get married, instead save money and go on a road trip.”
This year’s trip was planned towards Ramnagar Forest Division of Uttarakhand and it was supposed to be the most memorable trip of her life. The Ramnagar forest had its own stories of weird incidents taking place. Travelers getting lost in the forest never to return back was very common. Ever if found back, they were never alive. She knew it very well but still chose to go there.
Namrata made the check notes before leaving for her trip and started. Driving through the state highways of Uttarakhand and clicking pictures on the way, Namrata finally reached to the territory of Ramnagar. She had been driving for the whole day and was almost drained. Sun had already kissed goodbye. She needed to stop for the day since the night was on a great speed chasing her moves, but that wasn’t that easy, as the area in which she was, had no hotels or guest houses. Her only option was to get shelter in some huts randomly placed.
Her mind was pacing through the thoughts of night halt and eyes screening the roadside to see some light where she can stop by and ask for shelter and some food.
Suddenly, an old lady came in front of her from nowhere on road. Namrata was almost on the brakes, bringing the car to the screeching halt.
Lucky enough, the car was not at a speed more than 40km/hr. Her car stopped barely an inch away from the old lady. An old lady walking with a bamboo stick froze as the car stopped. The old lady had every strand of her hairs turned white with wrinkled skin. Namrata immediately got down to check whether the old lady was alright or not. Namrata and old lady both were gasping for breath.
“Are you alright?” Namrata asked struggling for her every breath.
“You almost had killed me.” The old lady replied with a smile.
“I am so sorry for it. Actually, I was searching for a roadside hotel or guest house for night halt. I am really very sorry.” Namrata said. Embarrassment and guilt were on the boom. She scanned the old lady, she was just like the old sweet granny making her appearance in a kid’s storybook.
“Ah! This is a bizarre location, totally deserted. You can find nothing here, no hotels no guest houses. But I can help you, you can stay at my place.” The old lady after catching her breath spoke.
“Really!” Namrata was glad to have a welcoming response from the old lady.
“But will it be okay for your family if I stop for the night at your place?” Namrata asked sceptically, she never had an idea if it was good to be a guest, kind of uninvited one. But with scanty or rather no options she had to accept the offer.
“Don’t worry, I have nobody in my family … same like you.” The grin on the face of the old lady was mysterious. Namrata couldn’t believe what she had heard, her pool of thought started overflowing as to how come she knows the fact that she stays by her own. She brushed away the suspicious thoughts in her mind. She took a deep breath and asked as she helped the old lady to get in the car.
“Where do you stay?”
“I stay at the end of this highway.” The lady pointed the finger in the direction. Namrata pushed the ignition button and drove in the direction.
It was pitch dark around at the end of the road. A small, roadside tea stall was there, which too was deserted. Few meters down the highway through dirt road, a small house made of red bricks was visible under the yellow light of a naked bulb hanging through a wire, slanting down from the roof of the house to the corner of the front wall.
“Is that your house?” Namrata asked.
“Yes, it’s mine. Kind of lonely, like me, in this world.” The old lady smiled at Namrata. As they reached the house Namrata smartly parked the car in front of the house and stepped down. Chilling winds were hitting the area making Namrata pull up her windcheater. She saw the old lady in her old worn out black and red saree. She immediately pulled out her winter coat for the old lady and offered her.
“Dear I don’t feel cold, take care of yourself as you are new here and not me.” The old lady smiled and said. She then pushed the door which opened with a creaking sound.
A mixed feeling of fear, shock, and weirdness started sending chills down the spine of Namrata. Though it was mid of winters small beads of sweat started breaking on her forehead.
“Did I made a mistake by coming here?” Thoughts started pacing on her anxious mind.
“Come in, don’t be scared. You are safe and secured here. I promise.” Old lady grinned at Namrata as if she was reading Namrata’s mind.
Namrata carefully stepped in. She had left her bags in the car trunk with a thought that, if she wants to leave, she should just walk out. The house was neatly maintained. Though it was just a small room, everything was placed neatly. Namrata saw a picture of the old lady’s family. The old lady looked in mid of her seventies with her son and daughter-in-law and her granddaughter. Namrata suddenly felt her as a motherly figure, someone, who will take care of her.
“Would you mind if I call you Amma?” Namrata asked.
“That’s sweet of you Namrata. In fact, everyone calls me that.” Amma smiled, caressing Namrata’s head. Namrata was shocked to know that the lady knew her name.
“You must be wondering how do I know your name?” Amma asked with a warm smile. Namrata swallowed the lump in her throat and just nodded.
“You have a tattoo of your name on the back just below your neck.” Amma replied. Namrata’s lips twitched in surprise with raised eyebrows.
“How come she got a glimpse of it.” Namrata was wearing high neck tee. Her mind was bewildered with Amma’s answer.
“Why don’t you sit and relax, meanwhile, I will cook dal and rice for us. I can manage only that.” Saying this Amma went to a corner which fulfilled the requirement of the kitchen.
Amma got busy in lighting the stove to prepare the dinner. Namrata sat on the old creaking wooden armchair and kept staring Amma’s back.
“Is she a witch in woods or some spirit who is wandering in woods and hunting down the roadside travellers like me?” With every thought, Namrata’s anxiety started taking troll over her. She pulled her cell out of her denim and thought to send a text message. But to whom she will send, she was a loner, no friends no family. Namrata’s heart started pounding. It was getting difficult for her to breath. She looked at her cell but it showed no network.
“Fuck.” Namrata cursed her luck loud enough for Amma to hear.
“Cell phones don’t work here. No cellular company has installed towers here.” Without turning back Amma spoke.
Namrata could not fathom how Amma knew that Namrata was checking her cell phone. Can’t take enough, Namrata thought to take a walk outside. She got up and touched her car keys in her denim to make sure they are handy.
“Don’t go far Namrata, the place is surrounded by wild animals and there are no lights too.” Amma once again shocked Namrata.
“Ya, I am just going out to take some fresh air.” Freaked Namrata, immediately stepped outside and felt relieved.
“Damn… How is she able to read every single word on my mind? Who is she?” Namrata reached to her denim pocket and fished out her cigarette. She lit her smoke with her prized possession, zippo. First, long drag had left her with some moments of calm as she released a cloud of smoke in the air.
“Maybe I am over thinking, maybe not.” Namrata took another long drag and decided.
“I will leave. No need to say anything to Amma. I am leaving now.” Namrata stabbed her half-done cigarette and slid her hand to pull out the car key. Her fingers could not find the keys.
Namrata checked other pockets but the key was not there too. She could not believe it, just a few mins back she checked them before stepping out, it was there and now it’s not there… Namrata started searching keys under the torch of her cell phone so that she could find it. Amma came out and called Namrata for the meal.
“Searching something?” Amma asked Namrata
“Ya, my car keys are lost. I am searching for them.” Namrata answered still searching carefully on the ground she just walked.
“Ah! They are not lost; I have hung them on a nail inside. You dropped them when you walked out hurriedly.” Amma replied with the same mysterious smile on her face.
“Fuck… How can I be so careless?” Namrata cursed herself loud enough for Amma to hear.
“Happens dear, you already had a very long day. You are tired and you need some food and rest. Come in dal rice is ready.” Amma smiled and turned back to walk inside. Namrata dejectedly walked in. Part of her mind was not ready to believe that she dropped keys and part of her mind was supporting it as she was careless with keys many a time in the past.
Both the ladies settled down on the floor. Amma poured dal over rice in the plate. Spoons were not an available option. Though Namrata had lost her appetite, the first bite revived her hunger back. Namrata gobbled every grain of rice on her plate. Nothing spicy yet it was delicious. Amma kept looking Namrata who was busy enjoying her meal. Namrata realized it and felt a bit embarrassed. For the first time, she smiled.
“You know, I had a grand-daughter too. If she would have been alive, she would be of your age and as pretty as u.” Amma said with tears in her eyes.
For the first time, Namrata realized that she might have misunderstood Amma. She felt guilty for it. Namrata understood that Amma has lost her whole family. She was very curious to know what had happened to Amma’s family but asking about family might bring more pain to Amma. She kept her curiosity to herself.
“I will sleep on the floor, you sleep on the bed.” After the meal, Amma spread a bed sheet on the floor and said. Amma was very courteous and Namrata’s guilt of doubting Amma kept increasing. Namrata insisted Amma to sleep on the bed and she herself will sleep on the floor but Amma shook her head.
“You urbanised creatures are not habituated to sleep on the floor, you might end up with back pain in the morning and you have to drive also beta.” The word BETA gave motherly feeling to Namrata. She could not stop tears welling up her eyes.
Finally, Namrata slept on the bed but a sting of fear was still pricking her, she fought hard not to sleep but her stress was taking over her. Namrata dozed off in no time. Sound and peaceful sleep were on the plate for her today. The night passed without any more surprises for Namrata.
An early riser Namrata woke up next day when the soft sun rays caressed her. Namrata slowly opened her eyes. What she saw next gave her the most terrible shock.
She could not believe what happened. Namrata got up from the bed and looked around. Namrata was sleeping on a bed under the sky. There were no traces of the house she slept in yesterday. Namrata’s heart started pounding like anything. There was only a bed next to her car.
Namrata looked around to see a small rice field at the walking distance. Panicked, she started searching for her car keys, they were safe in her denim pocket. She pulled out her car keys and hurriedly got in the car. It was too much for her to comprehend what had happened. She took a deep breath, resting her forehead against the steering wheel.
She drove straight to the main road. Once on road, Namrata could not take anymore and so she stopped at a tea stall from where she took a turn for Amma’s so-called house which doesn’t exist in reality. Namrata stepped out of her car and walked to a small tea stall. Splashing water on her face, she tried to recollect what had happened. She stood quietly there for some time and kept looking in the direction from where she came.
“Madam would you like to have some tea.” A young boy in his teens came and asked Namrata.
“Ya, I’ll have some.” Namrata wiped her face and pulled her hair back to tie them in a ponytail. She lit her smoke and exhaled the first cloud of smoke.
An old man in his late seventies came out with the kid. Namrata settled herself on the small plastic table and asked the old man.
“Is there any old lady living here, somewhere?”
“You talking about Ammaji?” The old man smiled. He pulled another plastic table and sat opposite to Namrata. She was at loss of words now, and the old man kept smiling at her.
“What? Could you please just tell me why are you smiling?” Namrata’s heart started pounding again, for a moment she thought that does this tea stall even exist or it’s also like Amma’s house.
The old man asked the boy to get tea for him and having sipped the first sip, he spoke.
“You must be thinking that the Ammaji whom you met yesterday was kind of ghost or spirit?” Namrata who was now all ears to old man nodded. Old man had another sip from his cup and continued.
“Ammaji WAS living exactly there only, where you spent your last night with her.” Old man kept his cup aside and rubbed his forehead. He continued with a heavy sigh.
“She lost her family long back. All she had in her life was her granddaughter who was raped and killed by the Zamindar of this village and his goons.” Old man shook his head as the memories of that most dreadful day started clouding in front of his eyes. He took another deep breath and continued. Namrata’s eyes turned moist.
“Not satisfied with killing Ammaji’s daughter, they burnt down the hut with Ammaji locked inside. Zamindar didn’t want anyone to report the incident. Everyone witnessed it but nobody came to rescue Ammaji. It was a terribly scary night. Whole village witnessed the brutality of Zamindar, could not move their feet an inch from where they were standing. Helpless Ammaji kept wailing inside but nobody helped her.” Old man paused to wipe his tears.
“Once Zamindar and his goons left with the feeling of satisfaction, we all rushed with buckets of water to save whatever was left. The badly burnt body of Ammaji was lying on the floor inside. Ammaji was still alive. She spoke in her creaky voice that she is never leaving this place. Her soul will stay here forever.” The old man paused and wiped off some more tears.
Namrata too was wiping her tears. She could not believe one thing, though, why Amma asked Namrata to spend the night with her.
“Why Ammaji asked me to stay with her?” Namrata asked the old man. Old man smiled and replied.
“When you entered the periphery of Ramnagar, Zamindar’s son has picked your tail and his goons were following you. They were waiting for you to stop somewhere for a night stop. Ammaji Knew it and so she came in your way and took you with her. Zamindar’s son and his goons lost your tail and you were saved.” The smile with moist eyes on old man’s face was very soothing.
“This has not happened for the first time here. Ammaji had always been saving girls from getting raped in this area since long.” He added.
Namrata closed her eyes to absorb whatever had happened. She tipped the small boy and thanked the old man. Namrata got back in her car and leaned back in her seat. The very next moment she saw Amma sitting next to her and smiling at her.
Before Namrata could open her mouth to say anything, Ammaji spoke.
“Go back home beta. Don’t come here again. Take care and have a blessed life.”
Ammaji, with a smiling face, disappeared in the cloud of smoke, leaving a smile on Namrata’s face.
Written by: Hemang
Edited by: Pratishtha Shyam
Sketch: Paranj Sankdecha