Sunday, August 10, 2008


Author's Note: I have always been scared of darkness and in fact, I still am. The origin of this story goes back to my short stay in my village and boarding in the village school. I dreaded going out alone even in day time. My teachers would redicule me and my school friends made fun of it.

My father was posted those days in the district of Tehri Garhwal, a small town on the bank of river Bhagirathi, which down steam takes the name of Ganges. He was a Forest Officer and since the clan of forest officers is no better than any nomadic tribe, rest of the family lived in the village.
I was nine and put in the boarding school. It is significant here to acquaint my readers with boarding school as it existed then in Garhwal.

The students stayed in the school, away from the parents. Every Saturday, they were let off to bring dry ration from their homes, which included adequate quantity for the teachers, also living in the school. The rations were duly displayed by each boarder on Monday morning before the headmaster. Special attention was given to items such as edible oil, spices, sugar and kerosene for those days, there was no electricity in the villages of Garhwal. A vigilant headmaster knew exactly, who could bring fresh milk or vegetables. In fact, he would know whose cow was expecting and when the calf would come.
Duties in the school boarding included fetching water, collecting firewood, cooking meals, washing utensils and then studying in the spare time.

Preparing ‘hookah’ for teachers was assigned to only few since it required a very special skill which you acquired only after having occasional drag on it.

The picture may look very depressing to present boarders. Believe me, it wasn’t so. It was hard life but very enjoyable. Even today, when I remember the blisters in my palms after the canning by the headmaster, I feel the pain. It is not physical, it is nostalgic.

The school hall was a multipurpose arena. It was the class room during the day time, play room in the afternoon since we didn’t have any play field in the school; it was the dining hall of the boarders and sleeping room during the night.
I concede I was timid and scared of darkness. To be honest, I am still scared to go out in darkness and I am damn scared of ghosts and spirits. I used to bribe my friends to accompany me everywhere or else I would follow them if I were to stay alone.

It was the month of March. Winter was very severe that year. We were studying seriously since the examinations were only three weeks away. Those days, there used to be a centralized examination system for the fifth class under the supervision of an Inspector of Schools. Six to seven schools from an area were grouped for this purpose.
Those days the teachers took the examination more seriously than the students since they were judged by the performance of their students. As the examinations were nearing, the teachers were canning us more vigorously and more frequently.
"You will ruin my prestige. For last three years, this school has been getting the first place. This year it will be the last, I am sure," the headmaster would shout at us, often using choicest expletives for us as well as for our parents. We accepted all of it without demur for we believed that the headmaster and our teachers wished us well. Even our parents approved of the measures taken by the faculty members.
More often than not, the parent would say, "Please beat hell out of this idiot till he comes to his senses."
Those were the blissful days.

As the examination days neared, we were getting more and more nervous. There was urgency in all our actions. We were to move to the examination center on coming Saturday.
It was Saturday morning. The headmaster took all of us to the village temple to pray for our success. The village deity was propitiated with jaggery balls, later on given to us as prasaad. The juniors had collected to bid farewell to us. Parents were there to wish us success. The headmaster had hired two mules to carry mattresses and blankets and kitchen items. The juniors carried our loads for some distance. Till then it was all joy and excitement for all of us.

But then journey to the examination center was long and tiresome on the goat track we were following. Climbing a hill and then descending and then climbing again; it seemed my miseries would never end. The only force that propelled was the fear of the headmaster who was leading the caravan.

It was customary that we carry our books on our heads. Legend was that even when resting, the books should not be placed on the ground lest the goddess of learning got annoyed. It was an ordeal for me. I was being encouraged by my classmates and coaxed by the teachers accompanying us in turn.
The headmaster and all teachers had a love hate relation with me. They hated me for my sloppiness and they loved me for I was their best bet in the examination.
I was totally exhausted when we reached the examination center late in the afternoon. A hall was assigned to us to house ourselves and in the small room attached to the hall, we were told to set up our kitchen.

I was lying down on the floor of the hall when I was called by one of my friends. The duties were being allocated by the headmaster to the boys.

"You, lazy bum, go with Satya and bring water from the spring,” it was the headmaster ordered giving me a hard look. A boy from the host school was given to us as a guide on this errand.

"And hurry up. The cooking can only start after you bring water. After meals we will have a revision class before you owls go to sleep," the head master growled before retiring to his room, puffing his hookah.

If anything I hated at that moment, it was to walk even a yard. I had never expected this. I had tears in my eyes and I hated the headmaster for it as much as I could.
I selected the banthee which I thought was the smaller of the two and followed Satya. Three of us proceeded on our mission.

The sun had set. Soon, we knew it would be dark as generally happens in the hills immediately after the sun set. Our guide told us that the spring was just "two steps" away. For my readers it is vital to forewarn them that "two steps" in the hills even today may mean walking a mile or two or even more.
I was getting nervous for it was becoming darker every second. The trees and the bushes were acquiring shapes. The night hiss was prominently audible. Twice I had lost my heart beat on listening the squealing of owls. My legs were unsteady even with empty banthee. When we reached the spring which was more than two miles by any standards, it was dark altogether.

Satya was a dim-witted but good natured friendly person. He knew me well and wanted to help me sincerely. For me, he was the dependable friend. To retain his loyalty, I often gave him jaggery balls and roasted grams and helped him by letting him copy from my math’s note-book. I had promised him the same in the ensuing examination. He was my only hope in my hour of peril.

Both of them kept me encouraged by talking of the place and of the stories about the Inspector of Schools. Satya filled my banthee and we started the return journey. It was this part of the mission that I dreaded. Mere thought of being left behind in the jungle at that deathly hour sent creeps down my spine. Tears had already appeared at the corner of my eyes.

"Please keep me in the middle and take me along" I begged Satya and he obliged.
"Your pace is awfully slow. Your people must be cursing you" the guide said.

"I know, I know" Satya said who was aware of the impatience of the head master.

"Hurry up or there will be no food for anyone," Satya said coaxing me. My progress was too slow and in fact, I begged them to rest for a few seconds for I was finding it too difficult to move with the head load.
"No. Don't do that. We will be delayed awfully,” Satya said from behind.

I could not take even a step further and kept the banthee down. There was a mini conference. Our guide was getting restless. He loathed my incompetence and left us saying that we could return of our own.

Satya didn't want this to happen. He was equally keen to return quickly; thrashing by the head master was surely another prospect, he wanted to avoid.

"Come on, let's walk now," he said to me. We two walked for some time. I was again dragging my body, all my energy had sapped. Satya was getting irritated now.

"You should have asked your father to send a servant with you," he chided me. I was quiet for I didn't want to lose his company. But a few hundred yards had exhausted me and I wanted to rest again.

"Let's rest for a few seconds," I begged Satya.
The suggestion enraged Satya who was aware of the fact that meals could not be prepared until the water reached the camp.

"Go to devils and come when you can. I can't wait any more," he shouted and walked off with the banthee of water on his head.

I was in tears. I started crying. "Please don't leave me, please. I will give you sweets. I will give you a rupee, please...."

My words had no effect on Satya who thought any further delay would invoke the wrath of the headmaster. Though it was secondary consideration for me, but the fact remained that everyone else was hungry and famishing. Water was therefore urgently needed in the camp.

I was left alone in the jungle on that dark night. My nerves gave away. I wanted to lift the banthee but my hands wouldn't move. My legs were frozen, my mind had become inert.

"O mother! O mother!" I started wailing. There were night sounds and there were shadows moving all around me. Tears were rolling down my cheeks.
I left the banthee and started walking. I had no clue where I was going. I was staggering and stumbled down into a bush.

"Hey! Child, why are you crying?" I heard a voice.
My fear of ghosts surfaced. I felt as if something will soon overpower me. It was not the death that I was afraid of. It was the fear of unknown, which had overtaken me. I was trembling and I was drenched by cold sweat.
"Come! Come! I will help you," the voice again echoed in to my ears.
I felt a strong gust of air, a whistling sound and then someone clutching me and I felt as if I was floating in the air. I do not remember anything there after.

When I regained senses, I found myself sitting on the stone slab out side the school gate with the banthee full of water beside me. I was not sure what hour it was, whether all others were sleeping after the meals. I even did not fear the headmaster. I was in a state of trance. I lifted the banthee on my head and entered the school hall.

The headmaster rushed towards me. He was hurling choicest of abuses on our guide for his irresponsible behaviour.
"Thank God! You have come. And now, the rest of you, hurry up with the cooking. I would not leave you without revising some important lessons," he shouted regaining his bearings.

I was not in a position to react to anything. I could not explain anything even to my self. I wanted to fall asleep. I was in a state of trance.

Leaving the banthee in the kitchen, as I returned to the hall, I heard the familiar high pitched voice of the headmaster and I was shocked to see Satya entering the hall with a water banthee on his head.

"Why the hell you three couldn't come together?" And then advancing towards me with his familiar belligerent stance, he shouted, “You useless fellow, why the hell did you leave Satya behind?

[1] Banthee is a copper vessel, round in shape with a collar band like narrow mouth. It is used in hills for bringing and storing water.

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