Sunday, 31 August 2014

Goat’s Head
                                         (concluding part)
Guard was standing near the kitchen. He was trembling like a dry leaf in icy wind. He was holding a butcher’s knife in his hand.  Blood was dripping from the knife.
Guard was mumbling something in a slow monotonous tone. He could not comprehend what the guard was saying. He listened carefully and heard the guard muttering, “I did not do it, I did not do it, I did not do it.”
His mind went numb. Something in him was asking him to run away from that place without a moment’s delay. But he knew that he could not leave the poor guard in that pitiable condition. He was baffled too. He just could not understand how the guard had come to hold a butcher’s knife in his hand, with blood dripping from it.
He got hold of himself. He carefully prised open the hand in which guard was holding the knife. He pulled the knife. He looked at the blood and shuddered. He threw the knife in one corner and literally pushed the guard into the room. Guard was badly shaken. And it took some time for him to regain his composure.
“Sir, you did not agree. That was a mistake. Now the ghost will make us pay for this mistake. He is very angry with us.”
“Just calm down and tell me what happened in the kitchen.”
“Sir, I had told you but you did not listen to me. You think I am village bumpkin.  But see, what has happened. It was bound to happen. When I was cleaning the kitchen he came there. He grabbed me by my neck and turned my head. I saw his eyes, those eyes were fearsome, they were like burning coals. He was holding a butcher’s knife and he forced me to slaughter a goat.”
“You killed a goat?”
“He was carrying a goat on his shoulder. He can do anything. It was a big goat too.”  
“You are scared and you are imagining things. I didn’t see any goat in the kitchen. It is just your imagination. Don’t you worry and try to relax.” He was trying to show that he was in control of himself but a weakness was already creeping into his heart.  “Did I look inside the kitchen?” he silently asked himself.
“You think that I am telling a lie, that I am imagining things. You are totally mistaken. Goat’s head is still lying in the kitchen. I had to kill the goat. He compelled me to do it. I was terrified of him. He carried away the goat’s body. But the severed head is still there. You can go and see for yourself. I am not lying.”
He was unnerved by this harangue of the guard and didn’t know how to respond. He still had a lurking suspicion that guard was making a fool of him. He decided to check the kitchen for himself. He went towards the kitchen but this time with some trepidation.
He was stunned to see a severed head of a ghost in one corner of the kitchen. Part of the kitchen was splattered with goat’s blood. Dead eyes of the goat were staring in his direction. It was a ghostly stare that shook him.
He suddenly realized that his hands were trembling and his legs were going wobbly.
“This can’t be true, this can’t be happening.” He heard himself muttering such words. Suddenly he was ashamed of himself. Even in the worst of times he had never been that weak and helpless as he was at that moment in that forest hut, far away from the maddening crowd of his slum.
He bolted the kitchen door and rushed to the room; the guard had shrunk into one corner and looked small and pathetic.
“We will leave this place at sunrise. Now try to get some rest and try to sleep.” He could think of nothing else that he could say to the guard.
Nothing unseemly happened during rest of that night. They left the hut next morning without any breakfast. Guard was too scared to cook breakfast in the kitchen. He was also not sure whether he would like to eat anything prepared in that kitchen, with a severed head of goat lying in one corner and blood splattered on the floor.
He was back to his office and usual business of pushing papers. But it took him couple of days to get over the unpleasant experiences of the night in forest hut.
 It was the fifth day after his return from his trip. He was travelling in official jeep on some official business when jeep driver   casually mentioned, “Sir, you remember the forest guard who accompanied you during your last inspection.”
“Yes, what of him? Has anything happened to him?” He was surprised at the choice of his words, as if he was expecting that something would happen to that man.
“That guard is a crook and he rightly got beaten up yesterday; few days back that rogue had stolen a goat’s head and a knife from a butcher’s shop in his village. Yesterday the butcher confronted him and bashed him up……”

Driver kept on narrating details of the incident. But he was not listening. He was reliving the shame that he had momentarily felt when he was in that ‘haunted’ forest hut.
© i b arora

Saturday, 30 August 2014

Goat’s Head

                                                             (Part 2)
It was evident that timber mafia had ravaged the forest with impunity. Pristine forest had since lost its glory. There were large areas where not a single full grown tree could be seen. And there was hardly any wild life.
“What of wild life of this area?” he asked the guard.
“Most animals have migrated from this forest. Some have died. Many animals have been killed by poachers.”
“What have you people been doing all these years?” he almost shouted in desperation. But he could almost anticipate the reply.
“Sir, I am petty employee but I know one thing for sure, no one in this country is truly keen that law be strictly enforced. Even the common people would start grumbling if every law was firmly implemented. We are not a law abiding society, are we?”
He was not prepared for such a reply and was taken aback by the forthrightness of the guard. In any case he didn’t expect a mere forest guard to view law enforcement in such a cynical manner.
They arrived at the forest hut by early evening. Sun had almost set. Before opening the door guard looked at him with his pleading eyes. But he had already made up his mind. He had a strong feeling that rumours about the ghost had been floated by timber thieves. Since forest officials were scared to come and inspect these areas, there was hardly any check on their nefarious activities and they were able to loot the national wealth with impunity.
Hut was reasonably furnished and well maintained even though few guests stayed here. He occupied the front room; it was fairly large. Guard moved to a small room at the back, adjacent to the kitchen. There was a natural spring just behind the hut. Spring water was cold and sweet and few sips of this water were enough to make one feel fresh.
Guard prepared food for both of them. It was a simple vegetarian fare, but hot and delicious. After they had their meals, he reclined on an easy chair which was lying in the veranda. Forest was dark and totally noiseless. There were no clouds in the sky. Brilliance of the stars amazed him. He had never seen stars on a dark, cloudless night. Far away in artificial lights of city, stars appeared pale and insignificant. But not in that forest; in the dark, moon less night stars looked spectacular and alive.
“Sir, may I sleep in your room?” guard was almost pleading.
“What did you say?” He was roaming in a different realm and did not comprehend what the guard was saying.
“I can’t sleep alone in that room near kitchen. I am really scared of the ghost,” guard requested.
“If there really is a ghost in this hut then I don’t think even two of us can match his strength and guile,” he said jokingly. But he took pity on the poor man and asked him to sleep in his room.
“I think we should leave the lantern on?” guard suggested.
“But dim the light.”
Guard appeared to heave a sigh of relief. He dimmed the light and immediately entered his bed; he was soon asleep. But, somehow, even in this peaceful place he found difficult to sleep. He kept on brooding over the activities of timber thieves. He could sense that it was multi-layer racket involving forest officials, police and politicians. He was not sure that he could do anything to restrain them.
He was lost in such and other stray thoughts when he thought he heard sound of footsteps coming from veranda. Then there was a muffled sound of someone groaning outside the room.
“Who could that be?” he wondered. He was about to wake up the guard but didn’t do so.
“Poor man is already scared of the ghost,” he said to himself.
He quietly opened the door and came out, holding his big torch in one hand. There was no one in the veranda. But then he heard someone running away. He was sure he had heard crunching of leaves.
“Someone was here; must be a timber thief keeping a watch on us,” he thought.
He decided to recline in the easy chair for some time, for he was not feeling sleepy. He would have reclined there for a few minutes only when he heard a loud sound coming from other side of the hut. He rushed in and found the guard awake. But the guard was trembling in fear.
 “Let us see what that noise was?”
“No sir, we should stay here, it must be the ghost.”
“Come with me,” he thundered.
“The noise came from the kitchen,” guard said meekly. Both of them rushed to the kitchen. Kitchen door was open. Everything was scattered on the floor.
“It is the ghost,” mumbled the guard.
“Oh! Don’t you say that? It must be some cat? Or may be rats?”
“But how could they open the door. I had locked it myself.”
“Then some timber thief would have intruded into the hut,” he asserted but he himself was not sure of what he was saying.  No one could have reached kitchen without going through veranda and front room where they had laid the beds.
“No sir, it is not a timber thief, it is the ghost.”
“Just clean it up and go to sleep.” He left in irritation and came back to veranda and uncertainly sat on the chair. It was then that he again heard crunching of leaves. He pierced the darkness with the beam of his big torch but he could see no one out there. Despite his self-assurance he was now a bit fidgety.
Suddenly he heard blood-curdling scream. For a moment he just froze in his chair. And then he was drowned in fear that something untoward had happened to the guard. He ran towards the kitchen. And what he saw there shocked him beyond his wits. 
(to be continued)

© i b arora

Friday, 29 August 2014

बिखरती ज़िन्दगी
ज़िन्दगी मेरी
मेरे आसपास बिखरती जा रही है
ज़र्रा ज़र्रा
मेरे हाथ से निकलती जा रही है
मैं हूँ कि उलछा हूँ
अपने ही में
जैसे घिरा हो कोई
अर्थहीन अनबुछे प्रश्नों की झड़ी में
बिखरती  है ज़िन्दगी बाहर
बिखरता जा रहा है कुछ भीतर भी
पकडूं तो क्या
पकड़ पाऊंगा क्या
हूँ क्या
है क्या
बस इसी तरह उलछा हूँ
ज़िन्दगी में
बिखरता ज़र्रा ज़र्रा .

©आई बी अरोड़ा 
Goat’s Head
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

Thursday, 28 August 2014

होता है आश्चर्य
पीछे मुड़ कर देखता हूँ
तो होता है आश्चर्य,
अरे, मुझे तो हमेशा
मेरे अपनों ने ही ठगा
मुझे तो हमेशा
मेरे सपनों ने ही ठगा.
पीछे मुड़ कर देखता हूँ
तो होता है आश्चर्य,  
कोई भी तो न हुए अपने
न ही मेरे अपने
न ही मेरे सपने.
मुझे तो था विश्वास
अपनों पर भी,
सपनों पर भी.
न अपनों ने दिया साथ
न सपनों ने दिया साथ.
मन है कि उलझा है लेकिन
अनचाहे प्रश्नों की झड़ी में-
मैंने अपनों के लिये
सपनों को छोड़ा ?
मैंने सपनों के लिए
अपनों को छोड़ा ?
पीछे मुड़ कर देखता हूँ
तो होता है आश्चर्य
सिर्फ प्रश्न ही प्रश्न हैं,
वो कल भी थे साथ
वो आज भी हैं साथ.

©आई बी अरोड़ा 

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

आज फिर
आज फिर
मन को छू गई
तुम्हारी याद
आंसू बन आँख से बह गई
तुम्हारी कही कोई बात
आज फिर
भूले बिसरे चित्रों ने मुझ को घेर लिया
संग बिताई घड़ियों ने
दर्द भरा कोई गीत छेड़ दिया
डर लगता है मुझको
समय की इस निष्ठुर चाल से
वो धीरे धीरे निगलता जा रही  है
तुम्हारी हर इक याद
तुम्हारी कही हर इक बात
अचानक जैसे छोड़ गये थे तुम
बीच डगर में  
डर लगता है
अब छोड़ न जाए वैसे ही
याद  तुम्हारी भी
बीच डगर में.

©आई बी अरोड़ा 

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Old Shepherd

                                                     (Part 2)
‘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