That night Ria and her father sat out on the porch after dinner. Mishti had gone to sleep and her mother was putting all the left overs in the fridge and cleaning up the kitchen, something she insisted on doing herself all the time. She was never comfortable with anyone, even her daughter working in the kitchen when she was there. She made an excuse that Ria had come there for a break so she was not to work in the kitchen except perhaps make tea or coffee occasionally. But Ria too knew her mother too well and never forced herself into her mother’s space. She was like her mother too, fiercely protective of her space and privacy.
“Mishti is very adorable”, said her father. “It feels like it was just yesterday when I held her for the first time in the hospital. She was so tiny and she grasped my thumb so hard.. ha ha ha … and today when she was so shy to come to me, I was worried for a moment that she’s never going to come and play with me. Very friendly kid. Very smart”, he said his eyes brimming with love for his grand-daughter.
“Yeah, she is like her grandpa”, said Ria.
Her father laughed, his now big belly shaking. “You bet she is. Smart kid. Very smart.”
“So dad, do you know how did it happen?”, she asked.
“How did what happen?”, her father asked back
“You know, err… Sanjay’s ..”
“Oh that. Well, sad story actually. The day you went to meet him, you know during your exams, I told you to..you know, his father saw the two of you and went back home and beat up Sanjay black and blue after which he sent him away to stay with some relatives to finish the rest of his education. The boy returned after his studies to work in my office. He was not in my department, but yes I often ran into him but he acted like he never recognized me. He was always indulged in his work and never spoke to anyone. He kept to himself. Even ate his meals on his own. Never had any friends. He was a changed boy. Not the Sanjay I knew as a kid. Then one day I smelt alcohol in his breath when we went to the cafeteria for our tea break. I asked him if he drank but he just walked away pretending he didn’t hear me. That night, he probably got drunk again and was on that old road by the eucalyptus grove. Nobody knew how but he got run over by a train on those old tracks. No train ever runs on that track but that night… nobody knows how or why. The police tried investigating, and well you know people , they said they were running a test ride on the engine and wanted to use a track that didn’t obstruct normal rail traffic and all that. So the case was closed. I heard Adila’s father happened to see it. He saw the boy trying to cross the track and his bike stopped right in the middle. He had tried starting it and Adila’s father heard the train and tried warning him but it was too late.”
Ria sat silent. She wanted to cry but she couldn’t cry in front of her father. She wanted to talk of something else before her tears fell out.
“Dad why isn’t anyone doing anything about that grove or that road? I mean, that road’s been there ever since I can remember, and someone had put a fence around that grove, so it must belong to someone right? But I don’t remember seeing anyone be it on that road or that grove. Not a soul uses that road.”
“Well, that grove belongs to one Mr. Narendra Gowda. He was the MLA here once upon a time. He had bought that piece of land long long ago and wanted to build his farmhouse there. That was why he even got that road built and got some laborers settled there for construction of that farmhouse. Then there was some dispute regarding that land, the laborers found petty jobs here in the township and didn’t want to move out of that place. Mr. Gowda passed away couple of years ago. His son claimed ownership to the land and tried putting it to good use, but then these people here, I don’t know what came into them, they started spreading rumors that the place was haunted and even the son said he … experienced things. These people, you know how they talk. Well, Annamma always used to tell us that the place was creepy and she wanted to move out of there but her husband never agreed to it. Now after Sanjay’s death, the stories are only getting more fuel added to them.”
“What stories?”, she asked.
“Well, people say that they often hear someone shouting in the middle of the night or in the afternoons, they say they hear a bicycle on that road but there was usually no one in sight. Or whoever entered the grove felt like they were being followed or like someone tried pushing them and things like that. I don’t understand how that educated boy, the son of the MLA also believed in such things. Perhaps there is more to that piece of land, maybe he has some motive behind his intentions regarding the land, whatever his intentions are, and he started spreading the stories. And these simpletons would believe anything.”
Ria sat there and nodded. She had had her own share of experiences to believe every word now. But she didn’t want her father to know it. He’d think she was lying too, or imagining things.
“So when is Mayur coming?”, he asked.
“Uh.. I don’t know for sure, he said he’ll call me about it”, she said snapping out of her thoughts.
“Well, I think it’s time to turn in, what do you say?”, said her father.
“Yeah you go on, I’ll come in a bit”, she said.
“Don’t stay out for too long”, he said kissing her goodnight.
Ria sat there for a bit and then started getting a little scared and went in. She debated if she should sleep with her parents, but that would seem too cowardly. Besides there wasn’t enough place for both her and her daughter to sleep in their room. She closed the windows and turned on the night lamp and lay down to sleep. Her cell phone beeped. She hesitated for a bit before checking it. It was a text message and to her relief it was from Mayur saying he had reached Singapore and that he’d call her the next day. She replied back with a smiley and a “Miss you”. There was a gust of cold breeze. She shuddered as she turned her phone off and hugged her daughter.
For the very first time in her life she was scared to go to sleep. She kept looking about her and by the window and at the mirror. Any shadow or any shape made her jump. She kept turning the light on to check what the shadow or the shape was.
“Is everything alright?”, her mother called out.
“Yeah ma, was just checking on Mishti”, she said.
Her mother came into the room much to her relief. “What happened?”, she asked.
“Well, Mishtu was not keeping well when we came here. So I was making sure if she was alright”, she said
“What happened?”, her mother asked again.
“The doctor suspected food poisoning”, she said. She had totally forgotten to tell her parents about her.
“Oh, you should have told me earlier. Ok I’ll take extra care of her diet from tomorrow” said her mother stroking the little girl’s head. “She is such a sweet child”, she said as she watched Mishti turn and put her little hand under her plump cheek as a pillow, open her rosy little lips and take a deep breath. “She’s dreaming. See, her eyelids are moving.”
Ria smiled fondly at her daughter. She didn’t know if her mother’s presence in the room was comforting her or scaring her out all the more after the day’s incident.
“Do you want me to sleep in here with you?”, asked her mother.
“Oh I don’t want to cause you any inconvenience”, she said still unsure if she should say yes or no. What if her mother got possessed again at night.
“Tut tut, look at you talking, being all formal with your own mother. I’ll sleep here with you”, she said.
Ria nodded. “Ma leave the night lamp on”, she said. “Yeah alright. You sleep now. And wake me up if you need anything, I am a light sleeper but still you know.”
“Ok ma”, she said. The moonlight was casting a weird light on both her mother’s and her daughter’s face making them look ghostly. She was scared to turn the other way as well. She was feeling so restless. She wished she were back in Mysore in the comfort of her own house. But then, things happened there as well.
She closed her eyes but kept opening them from time to time to see if there was anything strange in her room. She fell asleep a little after midnight.
She again dreamt of that road, she dreamt of the MLA and his son. She dreamt of Annamma saying something to the MLA’s son and he was nodding in agreement. They were walking together in the grove and Ria was there too. But they couldn’t see her. They were whispering something. Then there was the sound of a bicycle. Someone rang the bicycle bell. Ria was standing on the road waiting for someone. Annamma was staring at her with suspicion. Then someone comes fast and almost hits her. She tries to regain her balance when someone holds her hand and says “Ria”.
Ria woke up with a start. She looked around her room. There was nothing different. Her mother and her daughter were fast asleep. The window was open. She distinctly remembered having closed it. There was a cold breeze blowing. She was wondering if she should close the window. But she was too scared to get out of bed. Mishti coughed a couple of times. Her mother opened her eyes. Ria looked at her mother. She just patted Mishti and went back to sleep.
Ria couldn’t bring herself to sleep no matter what she did. The wind was blowing stronger. Mishti coughed again. Ria turned the light on and gave her some water from the jug on the bedside table.
“Close the window beta.”, said her mother.
Ria was scared to go and close it. She was scared to leave it open too. Mishti coughed again. So she decided she’d quickly close it. She left the light on. She took a quick look out of the window. There was no one. She bent over to close it and she heard the faint sound of a bicycle some distance away. She forced herself to think it must be one of the workers returning after a late night movie. She closed the window and the electricity went off. The room was pitch dark. She quickly fastened the latch and turned and bumped into someone. She instantly knew who it was, gave a gasp and blacked out.