‘I can’t see any hut over there,’ I meekly said.
‘If you don’t want to come it is your choice,’ Old man said and moved away.
Old man was going towards the grove. All of us were eager to have rice and mutton curry and to go to bed. We looked at one other and every one indicated with his eyes that there was no option but to accept old shepherd’s offer. We all followed him. Old shepherd looked back at us and beckoned us to follow him.
The grove appeared to be close by but it was actually quite far off. We were tired when we reached the grove. It was fairly dark. And what we saw disappointed us. There was a ramshackle hut hidden by the grove.
‘Please wait here, let me light the lamp,’ said the old man. He entered the hut and in a few moments the light streamed through the door and windows of the hut.
‘Please come in.’
As we entered we were amazed to see that not only the hut was spacious and beautiful but it was well furnished also. And it was well lit. But curiously it didn’t look like a poor man’s hut and old shepherd was surely a poor man. Or was he?
Timmy, the only person in the group who was proud owner of a camera, whistled out of sheer joy. He promptly took out his camera and took a few photographs of the hut and old shepherd. Old man did not like that. He glared at Timmy.
‘You should not have done this.’ He said sharply and left in anger.
We were bewildered by his reaction.
‘What do you say, what happened to him?’ Timmy asked and left the hut saying, ‘Let me see where he has gone?’
‘Don’t you think that he is an odd creature?’ asked Haroon.
‘And this hut too? When I saw it I thought it was a ruin rather than a hut. But look, it is furnished like a rich man’s cottage,’ Rihan commented.
‘How does that concern us? We are here only for a night. We will get good food and place to sleep. Now don’t get bothered and just relax,’ I said.
‘He could be a mountain brigand?’Jogi suggested.
‘Or he could be a ghost and this could be ghost hut,’ I said jokingly, ‘don’t harbour any vile notions about the old man. He has come to our help us in this unmanned territory.’
At that moment Timmy came back and he looked totally flustered, ‘There is no one here, not even a goat.’
‘What happened to the old man? He must be around?’ I asked
‘No, I could not find him,’ Timmy replied.
‘May be he has gone to arrange food for us,’ I insisted but I was getting edgy.
We were a bit nervous, but we could do nothing but wait for him. Timmy took few photographs of the hut. Old man came back after an hour or so.
‘Food is ready. May I serve it?’ he was quite terse in his manner.
‘Of course, we are all very hungry.’
Old shepherd served the food. It was what we wanted, rice with mutton curry, steaming hot and delicious.
‘Why don’t you join us?’ Timmy suggested.
‘No, I can’t eat this food.’
‘Why?’ all of us blurted in one voice. All of us had stopped eating.
‘There is nothing wrong with the food,’ he said without even a hint of smile, ‘but I don’t eat meat.’
‘That is unusual, everyone here eats meat,’ I said. I was getting suspicious of him.
He didn’t utter a word and just shrugged.
‘Did you not cook it?’ Timmy asked.
‘Oh no, it’s my wife who is such an excellent cook.’
‘But there is no one around here, I didn’t see anyone?’ Timmy was staring at old shepherd.
‘Everyone is here. Now I have to go. You may leave used plates outside,’ old man said and left in a huff.
‘Where will you sleep?’ I asked him as he was crossing the door.
‘In the kitchen, I always sleep in the kitchen,’ I could hear his reply but not see him.
We finished our dinner and went to sleep. We were nervous and alert, waiting for some unforeseen calamity. But soon we were asleep and woke up only on hearing a loud knock. I opened the door. It was old shepherd.
‘Why are you so late? I had told you that you have to come back from the lake before sunset. You must immediately leave. The climb is rather long and difficult. Get ready and leave,’ old man almost ordered us.
Sun had already risen and it was a bright and perfect day for our trek to the lake. I thanked the old man. I noticed that he was very old, almost an ancient person. But his eyes were strange, as if they were eyes of a dead man.
‘Can we stay in your hut tonight if the forest guard does not come back?’ I asked even though I was a little unsure of whether we would like to stay in that hut again.
‘We shall see.’
We were ready to leave when old man asked for the money. I gave him two hundred rupees. He took the notes and looked at them very carefully, examined both sides of the notes and stared at me.
‘You think that I am fool, a village bumpkin?’ his tone was very menacing and eyes were hard like a stone.
‘What is the matter with you? You asked for two hundred rupees and that is what we are giving you,’ Timmy said a bit harshly.
‘But why are you giving me fake notes?’ he shouted and returned the notes to me.
‘You are mistaken, this are genuine notes.’ I gave the notes back to him.
‘But they do not have photograph of King George?’
‘Old man we are not in 1947. King George does not rule India and notes don’t carry his photograph,’ Timmy said and loudly laughed. Old man pocketed the money but looked uncertain.
(to be continued)
© i b arora