Priyam’s father usually took time out from office to pick her up from school. She was in Class VI and her school was situated at the far end of the railway colony named European Colony. Of course, the inhabitants were all Indian, the name quite clearly being a misnomer. It had stuck on even after Independence, when the European staff had been replaced by Indian nationals.
Priyam’s school was a collection of small, nondescript, single-storied buildings adjoining the Church. Some missionary had probably begun classes there on a modest scale long ago and the school had gradually evolved from one structure to the next. It was thus an assortment of small blocks sprinkled all around the church building with a playground and even had a quaint fountain located behind the school. While classes were on, one could find teachers moving between the different blocks, covering the ground on practical flat sandals or ridiculously high kitten heels, leaving little doubt about the age of the wearer. The arrangement was a challenge during the monsoons, but either the staff or the students did not mind, or they were resigned to their fate and accepted the situation with grace and dignity.
In any case, the Convent School was the only decent school in the small town back in the 70s, where the inmates’ population largely comprised of railway employees, few state and central government ones, a couple of bankers and the traders’ community along the Grand Trunk Road. Most of them sent their children to this school if they could afford it.
A hot and oppressive summer day
In the hinterland, summer was not a season anyone looked forward to, despite the profusion of mango trees bearing tons of the juicy fruit. People endured it while waiting patiently for monsoons to break. In another week’s time, school would close for the month-long vacation. Till then, the students and staff would suffer the ordeal of attending classes through a typically hot and unbearable Indian summer.
It was an exceptionally hot that day with the sun at its zenith. Once school gave over, the students quickly departed to their homes. Priyam looked up and down the road, trying to spot her father’s figure lumbering up on their grey Allwyn Pushpak, but he was nowhere to be seen. Papa was usually there ahead of time, waiting to put her on his scooter before they sped away, cutting through the heat of the afternoon. What was keeping him?
Her friend, Gayatri, came up and noticing her anxious expression, said,” Is Uncle late? Don’t worry! Let’s go on the swings. They are quite empty now.”
The idea brightened her up. They ran to the playground, left their bags at the bottom of the trunk of a large neem tree and rushed to grab a swing each. Soon both the schoolgirls were swaying to and fro, the wind in their hair, happy thoughts floating through their minds. At times, they looked across at one another and nodded knowingly, as if sharing a common secret that the world knew nothing about. Sometimes, they squealed in delight as they flew higher. A swing has the magical capacity to bring out a range of feelings in a child!
Shooed away from school
“Why are you two still here?” questioned a gruff voice,” How about going home? Your folks must be worried stiff!”
It was the guard, and he did not look friendly in the least. The girls got off their swings reluctantly and went to collect their bags.
“Priyam, Uncle is still not here,” observed Gayatri as they approached the school gate.
“You carry on,” responded Priyam. Gayatri lived less than 500 metres away in the colony and came and went back alone from school.
“No, I won’t leave you behind, all by yourself,” said Gayatri,” Tell you what, come home with me! We will sit out on the veranda and spot Uncle if he goes by. Then, you can rush out on the road, wave wildly and stop him.”
Gayatri’s idea seemed good to her. They came out of school and the guard quickly shut the gate behind them; he didn’t want them to change their minds and get in again. He was relieved that the last children had departed, and his duty was over for the day.
A brief wait at her friend’s home
Out of school on the quiet road, the full intensity of the summer afternoon descended heavily on the schoolgirls. It was quiet all around. A couple of birds cried out from the branches of trees. Far out, the asphalt shone like a mirror owing to the heat. There wasn’t a soul to be seen. If the heaviness around them was tangible, the girls chose to ignore it and walked purposefully towards Gayatri’s house, discussing a gripping extract from ‘Kidnapped’ that had been read to them in Library class.
At Gayatri’s house, Priyam waited for a full thirty minutes after gulping down a delicious glass of cool aam panna, but there was still no sign of Papa. She decided to proceed alone to their house, which was just at a distance across the railway station. Gayatri’s mother was unsure and tried her best to dissuade her. But Priyam was a determined girl.
It was true that she had never made the distance from school to her house all by herself, but she had made up her mind. She knew the route only too well, having travelled the distance with Papa many times. There wasn’t a chance of her fumbling anywhere along the way. She put her friend’s mother’s fears to rest, waved them goodbye and started out.
Being followed on the deserted road
Now, she was truly alone. It was late afternoon. Most of the houses were shuttered tight to keep the interiors cool. Even crows and mongrels were no where to be seen. An eagle circled far above her head, and she heard it crying plaintively on its solitary flight. A brain fever bird excitedly let out non-stop calls, a mix of bird emotions. It seemed, it was unable to decide whether it wished to be ecstatic or wistful right then.
Suddenly, she became aware of someone following her. It was just an instinct at first but when she paid attention, she realised someone was slow pedalling and sneaking up quietly on her. Priyam resisted the urge to look behind her and quickened her pace instead. Her bag was light that day. She would quickly walk to the railway complex. Even at this lazy, laidback afternoon hour, there would doubtless be a few auto-walas and employees on duty there. The presence of people, albeit strangers, would deter the unwanted pursuer.
The minute she hastened, whoever was stalking her also increased speed. It was an eerie feeling. Who was playing pranks on her? Was it someone other than just a silly schoolboy trailing her? The feeling which had sprung from doubt was fast rushing into the realm of helplessness as she realised her vulnerability. Anyway, now she had to outsmart this prankster. She broke into a quick jog to cover the distance to the station which was still more than half a kilometre away.
Something whooshed past
Just as she turned a bend, the cyclist overtook her and then turned to look around, his pace slow and measured now. She felt his beady, red eyes boring into her and went cold. The heat of the late summer afternoon, the jog and fear welling up inside were making her perspire profusely and her palms felt clammy.
The man broke into a grin, displaying rows of stained teeth with dark gaps. It was a sinister smile. He stopped deliberately in the middle of the road. Priyam realised she was trapped. She could turn back and run to Gayatri’s for refuge but the house was at quite a distance. The man would surely block her again on the way. Should she shout for help at the top of her lungs? Should she fling her bag at him with all her might if he dared to come any closer?
Panic and confusion coursed through her blood and made her head throb. Her eyes turned glassy, and she wondered yet again why Papa had left her all alone to face this nightmarish experience.
A supernatural intervention
At that precise moment, she heard a distinct crack. A bough broke off a large tree overhead and fell on the cycle’s handlebar, disbalancing the man. A trifle startled, he quickly looked up. A big sheaf of dry leaves poured down over his upturned head and shoulders.
But there was no wind rustling in the trees and the branches were dead still in the afternoon heat. The cyclist was both puzzled and alarmed. As he brushed off the leaves, Priyam witnessed the strangest phenomenon before her eyes. The dry leaves created an inverted tornado-like formation around the man. They started whirring and dancing madly around him, closing in gradually. The terrified cyclist picked up his bicycle and tore down the road, the leaves following him till they were all of sight.
Numb from the experience, Priyam looked up at the ancient tree. Everything was as still as could be – nothing moved among its old branches. She wiped her forehead and waited for a few minutes. Nothing. Then, deciding she could not wait forever, she started out once again.
As she crossed the tree, she couldn’t help saying a soft “Thank you” out of sheer gratitude. A happy, satisfied sigh came from somewhere far above in the branches. But when Priyam glanced up, all she could make out was an obscure mass. Was she imagining this?
Safety in her father’s arms
Priyam hurried on. A little further down, she heard the familiar throbbing of her father’s scooter. He came rushing up and braked the moment he reached her, a look of torment on his face giving way to relief.
“Thank God, you’re safe! Hop on, let’s get home quickly,” he said,” I have plenty to tell you on our way back.”
Priyam got onto the pillion seat and hugged him tightly from behind. Finally, she felt safe.
“Papa, so have I,” she told him.