Thursday, 28 August 2014

Old Shepherd
                                        (concluding part)
We started our trek and what an experience it was. We walked through meadows, waded through streams of ice cold water and crossed snowfields at a few places. Trek ended with a steep and strenuous climb to the lake. But a mere glimpse of the lake was enough to wipe out our weariness.
Konsar Nag is a glorious lake. Its beauty is unmatched. Majestic mountains, with snow-capped peaks, surrounding the lake just overwhelm you. Vastness of the lake makes you feel small and insignificant. Charm of that place cannot be described in words. Even now, after so many years, I feel enchanted by just recalling that experience.
Two of our friends took a quick bath in ice cold water of the lake; large and small pieces of frozen snow were floating in the lake even at that time of summer. Rest of us could not dare to do so. We sprinkled few drops of icy water on our faces and thought it was good enough for us. We stayed there for about two hours.
None of us wanted to leave that place but we had to. Clouds had appeared from nowhere and soon we had light showers. We had to reach forest hut before sunset.  We started climbing down at a leisurely pace. Descent was a pleasant experience. Rain had stopped. We hardly met anyone on the way, for there was little habitation in that area and few visitors came to the lake.
We had almost forgotten our encounter with old shepherd. But when we were near the meadow, Timmy suggested that we should go to old man’s hut instead.
‘I liked that mysterious old man; a poor man owning a luxurious hut in a beautiful meadow. And food that he had arranged was delicious.’
‘I think we should stay in forest hut,’ I said
‘The forest guard may not have come back.’  
‘We will see when we reach there.’
Forest guard had come back and we decided to stay in forest hut. Guard was willing to arrange food for us, of course on payment. And payment had to be made in advance.
When food was being served Timmy invited the guard to share food with us. Unlike old shepherd he readily agreed. Timmy engaged him in small talk; he was only one amongst us who enjoyed such small talk with all and one.
‘Do you happen to know the old man who lives in his hut over there?’ Timmy asked pointing towards west.
‘Which hut?’
‘Hut behind a grove on west side? I think that is the only grove over there.’
‘You must be mistaken; there is no hut anywhere nearby.’
All of us had stopped eating. All of us were uncertain and edgy. 
I narrated our last night’s encounter with an old shepherd.
‘We stayed in his hut. He arranged food for us. We gave him two hundred rupees for his services. In fact we were planning to stay there tonight if you had not come back.’  
Guard looked stunned. He got up and started looking for something in a small, dirty wooden box lying in one corner. He took out something from that box and thrust it in front of my face.  It was a faded black and white Polaroid photograph. It was a photograph of old shepherd we had met yesterday.
‘You met this man?’ His voice was trembling voice.
‘Yes,’ I said. There was a slight tremor in my voice also.
‘That can’t be?’ It was more of question than a statement.
‘Why?’ This was Timmy. Others appeared to be dumbstruck.
‘He was my grandfather. He died many many years ago.’
 No one spoke for some time.
‘It must be his ghost; you must have seen his ghost.’  Guard was looking pale, almost as pale as a ghost.
We just did not know what to say. It was unbelievable. We had seen the old shepherd in flesh and blood. We had stayed in his hut. He had served us food. But the guard was saying that he had died many years ago. Was the guard making a fool of us? I thought for a moment, but he appeared to be dead serious.
 The guard left us saying that he would sleep in kitchen, ‘I always sleep in the kitchen.’
Timmy looked at me with a raised eye brow, ‘Old man had also said same thing!’
We finished our dinner in total silence. Food appeared to have lost its taste.
 Next morning when we were ready to leave, forest guard was nowhere around.
‘Do we wait for him?’ I asked.
‘No, we have already paid him. Let us leave this place, sooner the better,’ Rihan said.
‘Why don’t we first go to that grove and see for ourselves whether old shepherd’s hut is there or not?’ Haroon suggested.
Timmy liked the idea, but Rihan and Jogi were not keen to go there. Timmy and Haroon insisted and we decided to go and look for old shepherd’s hut.  But when we started for the grove we observed that there were actually a couple of groves on west side of forest hut.
“I thought there was only one grove in that area? We didn’t notice other groves,” I said.
‘I think hut was behind the nearest grove,’ Timmy said pointing to one grove which appeared to be nearest.
We went to that grove but we found no hut behind it. Every one of us was bewildered.
‘May be we have come to the wrong grove, let us go over there,’ Timmy said and he pointed towards another grove.
‘We should go back now, we are only wasting time,’ Rihan almost shouted.
 There was some muted discussion and we left the meadow. But we left with uncertain feelings. Trek back to Aharbal was pleasant and uneventful. But I knew that all of us our bothered with something that was inexplicable. None of us was loudly talking and loudly laughing as we normally did.
 At Aharbal, as we were waiting for a local bus, Timmy saw someone at the bus stop. 
‘Who is there under that tree?’ he mumbled in my ear. His voice was trembling and was full of fear.
I was shocked to see the old shepherd. He was standing under a tree like a statue. He was staring at us. Slowly he walked towards us. We were a bit nervous. He smiled and asked, ‘What happened yesterday? You didn’t come to my hut last night?’
‘We stayed in forest hut.’
‘You broke open the lock?’
‘No, the forest guard himself opened it. He had come back. He made all arrangements and did not cheat us. He charged only one hundred rupees for everything.’
Old shepherd stared at us; his face had turned pale as a ghost. He muttered some unintelligible words.
‘I hope you are in your senses.’
‘Why do you say that?’ I asked.
‘Forest guard died three days back. I got the news yesterday after you had left for the lake. How could he be there unless it was his ghost?’
Before we could say anything, bus arrived. We had to quickly board it; a fairly large crowd was waiting to get into the bus. The moment all passengers had boarded the bus, it left Aharbal. While travelling in the bus every one of us was brooding over the events of last two nights.
When we reached Srinagar, Timmy was in his usual boisterous mood. ‘Well, what do you make of those two odd fellows, our strange hosts in the most beautiful meadow of the valley?’
‘I think both of them made fool of us,’ said Haroon.
‘One of them was a real ghost,’ that was Rihan.
‘What of old shepherd’s hut? We could find no hut in that place. Where did we actually stay?’ Jogi asked.
‘Answer perhaps lies trapped in my camera,’ Timmy said pompously, ‘remember, I took photographs of old shepherd, his hut and the forest guard. My photographs will unravel this mystery. May be one of them, if not both, will turn out to be a real ghost.’
When the photographs were ready, we all went together to collect them. Every one of us was edgy and eager to know the truth.
“So how does the story end? So far your story is neither funny nor scary,” asked my friend who was becoming impatient with my long narration.
“Well, you would be as surprised to know the end as we were on that pleasant evening in 1970.”
“Let me hear it.”         
“Old shepherd was there in all photographs but forest guard was missing from every photograph. He was not seen even in the photograph which Timmy took when he was sharing food with us. His plate with food on it was there, but guard was missing.”
“You think guard was a real ghost and old shepherd was a real man.”
“It is not that simple. Old shepherd’s hut which was furnished like a rich man’s cottage could not be seen in any photograph. Timmy had taken at least three or four photographs of the hut alone.  But in none of those photographs we could see the hut.”
“Old shepherd was also a ghost? And his hut was a ghost hut? That is what you are implying?”
“I would let you decide for yourself. As for me even after so many years I am not sure of what happened there during those two nights and who they were, our two strange hosts in that beautiful meadow.”  
My friend looked quizzically at me. He was surely wondering that what I had narrated was just a flight of my imagination and not a true story. I did not know what I could do or say to dispel his doubt, so I left it at that.  
© i b arora

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