He was excited with his new posting. He was very eager to work in a far flung area. He had always wanted to go far away from the chronic congestion, non-stop noise and unbearable stink of the slum in which he had spent twenty six years of his life. The congestion and the noise and the stink were so overpowering that many a time he felt as if he had been living in that slum for ages.
An intense desire to escape from the slum had been smouldering in him. This burning desire impelled him to work hard and excel at anything he did. Often he was hopeful as to the future. Yet he was sometimes apprehensive that time was running out for him, that he was on a leaking boat in a stormy sea.
But, before the leaking boat could sink, he crossed the sea. He completed his graduation, did odd jobs here and there and got selected for a decent job in forest department. His thrill new no bounds, for he was certain that now his escape was certain and final. There would be no coming back to the slum, not in this life.
Once he had firmly grounded himself in his assignment, he decided to visit areas under his jurisdiction. His first visit was to Heravan. It was a dense forest with sparse population. But he was informed that it was a heaven for timber thieves. A powerful mafia controlled access to the area and even forest officials were reluctant to go there. No one was prepared to stay overnight in the forest hut which was almost in the midst of dense forest, with no habitation closely.
But stories of mafia terror and violence did not deter him. For years he had been a mute observer of violence and terror of every kind. He had no intention to take on the mafia but he was determined to go ahead, once he had announced his intention to visit that area.
Deputy ranger and one forest guard were waiting for him in deputy ranger’s office. Some local persons, who were obviously eyes and ears of mafia bosses, were also present. Ostensibly they had assembled to extend a warm welcome to him on his first visit. But in reality they had come only to spy on him and make sure that there would be no second visit. He was wary of these people and got rid of them at the first opportunity.
He wanted deputy ranger to come with him but the latter cleverly wriggled out of the situation, “Sir, it would have been an honour to accompany you. Very rarely senior officers come and honour us with their kind presence. For me it was a God sent opportunity to learn something from a capable and intelligent officer like you. But it is my misfortune that my wife is unwell and there is no one at home to take care of her. I had already sent a message that I may have to remain on leave for a few days. Your good self may not have been informed. Had you come a few days earlier, I would have most certainly accompanied you. But sir, when you come for your next visit I will surely come with you. But this one time I may very kindly be excused, sir.”
He didn’t know what to say to that servile person. He could sense that deputy ranger had contrived an excuse to avoid accompanying him. He was irritated, for it was his first visit and he didn’t want to go with only a forest guard. But he didn’t like exposing his helplessness and decided to proceed with his visit.
Timber thieves had already been warned and all of them had vanished. But he could sense their presence everywhere; large tracts of forest lay wasted and one could see any number of sad and mourning stumps everywhere.
“Sir, I think it would advisable if we don’t stay overnight in this forest. The hut is also in a poor condition,” guard’s words broke into his reverie.
“What did you say?”
“Sir, I was suggesting that we should go back before sun set. It won’t be proper to stay overnight in the forest.”
“Why?” he intentionally tried to sound harsh. He had begun to suspect that local officials were in league with timber mafia.
“Well sir, I know you suspect us, you think that we all are hand in glove with timber thieves. But trust me sir, I am an honest hardworking man. I love this forest as I love my family. I have lived here since my birth. My ancestors lived and died here. I feel hurt when a tree is felled. I feel as if someone from my family has been killed. But what can I do, sir? They are all powerful people. They have money power. They have muscle power.”
“But I must stay here and observe things for myself. Only then I can decide what needs to be done, if at all anything can be done.”
“But we can’t stay in the forest hut.”
“Why? There is something you are not telling me?”
“If I tell you then you may not believe me. You may think that I am stupid. Or you may think that I am trying to make a fool of you.”
“Don’t beat about the bush; just tell me why we should not stay in the hut?”
“Sir, it is a haunted hut.”
“Say it again.”
“It is a haunted hut. A ghost lives in that hut. He can’t be seen in the daylight. But once night falls he is everywhere in the hut. He does not like anyone staying in the hut during night.”
“Of course, he would be troubling forest officials only and not timber thieves?” he said sarcastically.
“Why do you say that, sir? In fact timber thieves are more scared of him than forest officials. I hear timber thieves are scared to death when they are asked by their bosses to stay in the forest during night.”
“Have ever seen this ghost? Have you ever stayed in that hut?”
“Yes sir, six months back I had stayed there overnight. And what a terrifying experience it was. Ghost was very angry and he kept howling like a wild animal. And what commotion did he create in the kitchen?”
“You fool of a man; it must have been some wild animal. I have never heard of a ghost howling like an animal.”
“But I myself saw that ghost in the hut.”
“Just forget it, we are staying overnight and we are staying in the forest hut. Now let us concentrate on the work we are supposed to be doing.” Guard appeared to be extremely unhappy and edgy. But he totally ignored the guard and tried to focus on the problems at hand.
(to be continued)
© i b arora