Priyam’s father usually took time out from office to pick her up from school. She was in class six 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 It had stuck on even after independence, when the European staff had been replaced by Indians.
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. There was even 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 monsoons, but both staff and students did not mind. Perhaps they were resigned to their fate and accepted the situation with grace and dignity.
In any case, the convent school was the only decent option in the small town back in the 1970s. Its population mostly comprised railway employees, few state and central government officers, a couple of bankers and traders. The trading community lived along the Grand Trunk road. Most 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. This was despite the numerous mango trees that bore 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. Until then, students and staff alike would suffer the ordeal of attending classes during a sultry Indian summer.
It was exceptionally hot on that particular day with the sun at its zenith. Once school gave over, the students quickly left for 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. He would help her onto his scooter and they would speed away, cutting through the afternoon heat. “What was keeping him today?” she thought to herself.
Her friend, Gayatri, came up and noticing her anxious expression asked,” Is Uncle late? Before she could reply, Gayatri quipped, “Don’t worry! Let’s go play on the swings. They are empty now.”
The idea brightened her up. They ran to the playground, left their bags below a large neem tree and rushed to grab a swing each. Soon, both girls were swaying to and fro with the wind in their hair, and 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. She walked to and from school by herself.
“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. You can then rush out onto 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 left, and he could now call it day.
A brief wait at her friend’s home
Outside of school and on the quiet road, the full intensity of the summer afternoon struck Gayatri and Priyam. It was quiet all around. A couple of birds cried out. Far out, the asphalt shone like a mirror due 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 towards Gayatri’s house. Instead, the discussed a gripping extract from ‘Kidnapped’ that had been read to them during library class.
At Gayatri’s house, Priyam waited for a full 30 minutes after gulping down a delicious glass of cool aam panna, but there was still no sign of Papa. She decided to head home alone, which was just beyond the railway station. Gayatri’s mother was unsure and tried her best to dissuade her. But Priyam was a determined girl.
It was true she’d never made the distance from school to her house all by herself, but she had made up her mind. She knew the route well, having travelled the distance with Papa many times. There wasn’t a chance of her losing her 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 nowhere 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 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 there. The presence of people, although strangers, would deter the unwanted pursuer, or so she thought.
As she picked up pace, so too did her stalker. 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 over half a kilometre away.
Something whooshed past
Just as she turned a bend, the cycle borne stalker overtook her. As he did, he turned to look around, his pace now slow and measured. She felt his beady, red eyes boring into her and she went cold. The heat of the late summer afternoon, the jog and the 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 her house was now at a fair 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, throwing the cyclist off balance. As he looked up, a big sheaf of dry leaves fell 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.
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. Still nothing. She then 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 sharply when he saw her. The look of torment on his face quickly gave 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.