Harini wiped the beads of sweat pooling on her forehead with the back of her hand and stared at the slowly expanding stain on the front of her blouse with dismay. Working in the fields was a back breaking job. The repetition involved in the cutting of the wheat stalks had lulled her thoughts, fingers automatically grasping the stems and cutting through them like a hot knife goes through butter. But she had somehow missed the feed time of her baby. Guilt tinged the overwhelming feeling of love that coursed through her at the thought of her baby.
“Why didn’t munna* cry?” Harini wondered as she put down the sickle in her hand and ambled towards the tree, where she had left her four month old baby hanging in a makeshift hammock, made from one of her old saris. Recently widowed, she had resumed field work around a month back. Since there was no one who could look after her baby, she had been forced to bring him to the field when she had resumed work.
Her worried gaze alighted on the hammock lying forlorn on the ground from afar. A chill ran through her body. She sprinted to the tree as quick as a gazelle, with her heart hammering with fear. The scene she laid her eyes on made her blood turn cold. The sari hung shredded, the tears long and violent, one end of the sari still tied to the tree. Her baby was nowhere to be seen. The ground under the tree was hard as wood and dry leaves lay scattered around in soft little heaps. The possibility of tracks being left behind by the attacker was non-existent. Only a small blood stain upon the ground stared at her like a silent sinister announcement.
A sob escaped her lips, pursed white with terror. She ran helter-skelter looking for her baby.
The three month old can’t even crawl. Where has he gone? Who has taken him?
Her efforts in vain, she raised an alarm and soon her neighbors gathered around her. Search parties were organised and after a couple of hours, deep inside the forest, the bloody remains of the unfortunate baby’s outfit were found on a lantana bush. Nothing else could be determined of his fate but everyone agreed that it was better not to hope. Harini was devastated. To have lost her kid so soon after her husband was a double blow fate had subjected her to. She fell to the ground as merciful blackness overwhelmed her grief-wracked body.
A large crowd had gathered at the house of the Sarpanch but the air of festivity and cheer associated with such large gatherings was missing. The faces were long and the voices subdued. Everyone looked at the District Collector who had asked the people to be gathered there.
“I’m telling you it’s evil spirits who have targeted the village. A dozen kids in three months. It is a dayan*, I’m sure, who goes around kidnapping kids,” murmured Noni Ma, a dark-skinned and wrinkled woman, old and bowed. She was the self appointed conscience of the village and didn’t hesitate in calling a spade a spade, being incorrect more often than not.
“Probably it is some gang of thieves who specialize in kids. They probably sell the kids or sell their organs,” opined a young man, not wanting to appear superstitious, though secretly he didn’t believe his own theory.
Three months had passed since that first ill-fated disappearance. More had followed. Always small kids, always no signs of the kidnappers. The signs of struggle could be traced to the forest but once inside the forest, the kidnappers and the kids had disappeared into thin air. Only some blood stains were left to indicate that some foul activity had taken place. The simple villagers had no idea who to go to.
Terror had engulfed the villagers who felt like pickles dipped in oil. The horror of the disappearances covered them like some invisible mist, viscous and pungent. The people stopped doing their daily activities alone. Fear could be smelt among the rows of the grain fields, emanating from the silent workers who now refused to step out without someone else in tow. The kids had been admonished to either stay at home or to step out in groups. But kids and precautions do not go hand in hand. And the disappearances had continued.
Finally the hapless villagers begged the Sarpanch to do something. He contacted the district officials and the result was the gathering called by the District Collector, who had come to the Sarpanch’s house to discuss what could be done.
“We have a problem here,” the deep baritone voice commanded attention and the whispering and murmuring of the crowd ceased. “I believe many of you are of the opinion that some supernatural agency is behind these disappearances. For my part, I don’t believe in such tales. However, no strangers have been seen and reported in the area in the last three months. So we need to find out who exactly is behind these kidnappings and deaths. We will call a couple of expert forest rangers who can track the land better and make it give up its secrets, something which we haven’t been able to do. We will also have more armed patrolling in the area to keep and eye on things and deter the criminal elements from further violence.”
The crowd dispersed, muttering their dissatisfaction. The bent old woman kept mumbling to herself. Harini stopped and asked her, “Mai*, What are you still harping about? Don’t you think the measures are enough?”
The woman smiled at her coyly. “You shouldn’t be ready to believe what all these sarkari* people come and spout at us to fool us. Which forest ranger can go against evil when it has decided to rear its head? I’ve some idea who is the culprit behind all of this.” Saying this she looked at Harini archly with venom in her eyes. Harini shuddered at the hostility emanating from the hag.
The old woman continued, “We need some holy man to come and carry out havan* for driving out the evil. I know just the man. He is a pandit* of great prowess. He had rid the village where my sister lives, of one such similar spirit. A young witch, a dayan, who first devoured her own husband and child, and then turned her attention on the kids of the village. With his vast scriptural knowledge, he successfully chased her out of the village. We need him to do the same here.” As the old woman finished, she once again looked Harini up and down raking her with her eyes.
The import of her words wasn’t lost on Harini. She uttered a silent prayer up to the Gods to send a swift end to these disappearances otherwise it would be the end of her stay in the village, maybe even her life.
The next week saw the arrival of the two forest rangers. Both were lean, tall and muscular, with shiny oiled hair and crisp waxed moustaches, so similar as to pass for brothers. But the similarity stopped there. Narayan Rao was easygoing and talkative whereas Bhaskaran was quiet and serious. They went around the village asking questions related to the kid’s disappearances. But they dropped no inkling of their plans to solve the mystery.
In stark contrast was Pandit Uma Shankar who arrived on the heels of the two forest rangers. Loud and voluble, he spent no time in gathering the villagers and announcing his plans of driving away the evil spirit.
Short, plump and portly, he commanded everyone’s attention with his booming baritone, nonetheless. “The village has been cursed by a vicious vindictive spirit. It has suffered injustices in the past by your ancestors and plans to eke out her vengeance by killing the children of this village. This will require a potent havan* to be offered to the Gods. Hopefully the spirit will then leave the village.”
With this he had dictated a long list of items varying in their cost from expensive to very expensive, and much which had no obvious link to the havan*, for the proceedings which were to be carried out for three days and required the presence of married women and pious personalities from the village.
The two rangers knocked at Harini’s little thatched hut towards the end of the afternoon, the day before the havan*. Harini had just returned from the fields. She opened the door, fresh from her bath, droplets of water clinging to her shining, dusky skin and found the eyes of the two rangers exploring her lean supple body with insolence. But while there was hunger in Narayan’s eyes, Bhaskaran had warmth and understanding in them too.
She politely asked them their purpose for coming.
“Yours was the first kid that was taken. From the reports we gathered, the search for him was also the one which went deepest into the forest. We would like you to show us where the remains of his dress were found. We’re told you remember the way well.” Narayan said, his manner supercilious.
“Only if you feel up to it. Being the mother it can be distressing for you. If you don’t want to, we will understand,” Bhaskaran added in his quiet way.
“I will. I will do anything I can to help catch the ones who took my child away from me. I know the way well. When shall I get ready?”
Harini was determined to help. She had another reason which she didn’t want to tell anyone else. The havan* required the presence of married women, and she didn’t want to be reminded of her widowed status. The ridicule by the suhagans*, preening about their own luck and deriding her about her cruel handling by fate was too much to bear. They agreed to leave right after sunrise and a little breakfast she would provide.
An area was cleared in the center of the village next morning. A tent was erected and a small altar with the sacrificial fire was soon spreading the aroma of the various spices and herbs that the pandit put into it for propitiating the spirits. The people stood in a crowd around the fire, expectant and excited, as if the spirit would be drawn from the fire just as a magician draws a rabbit out of his hat.
Initially the small children stood there quietly mesmerized along with their parents, but a few kids found that soon the gentle murmurings dulled their sense of danger. They decided to go pick a few succulent ripe guavas from the orchards near the fields but inside the village. The elders were busy in the proceedings and no one was going to scold or hold them back. They felt comforted in their numbers and knew nothing would happen to them if they were quick.
Ratan, the adventurous progeny of the Sarpanch, was the leader of the band in deference to his father’s position. Six of them softly slinking away to the orchards escaped the notice of the elders enamored and engrossed with the chantings of the pandit. The havan* continued undisturbed.
Sometime later the air, heavy with incense and smoke, was rent with the cries of the kids. The elders’, hypnotised with the swirling chants and repeated actions found it hard to break the enchantment. But the cries of the incoherent kids pierced the intoxicated minds finally.
“It was a demon who took him,” said one kid, shivering and crying, incoherent with fear.
“It was a hound from hell,” another added kid, white and pale.
“It had red eyes, glowing like embers from amma’s coal stove,” added another one helpfully. “It pounced and took Ratan between its massive fangs and disappeared right in front of our eyes.”
Pandemonium broke around the altar. The crowd finally extracted the details from the kids whose words were so jumbled up with fear and confusion that it was difficult to separate fact from fiction. What could be established was that something, an animal, black and large, had taken Ratan into the forest.
“Praise be to the lord. The pandit has succeeded in luring the evil spirit into the open,” exclaimed Noni Ma but no one was there waiting to listen to her. A posse soon formed with the Sarpanch at its head which went towards the jungle to find out what fate his little boy had met.
The mob, armed with sticks and whatever agricultural equipment could be used as a weapon, reached the guava orchard. Tracking the broken down and bent grass and vegetation, they soon reached the edge of the forest from where it wasn’t as easy to follow the signs of struggle the young boy had evidently put up. They hesitated, like a breath held up in anticipation, undecided as to the course of action to be further followed.
Suddenly there was movement inside the forest. Three people soon came into view, one of them carrying a little boy in his arms. His moans could be heard above the whispered mutterings of the crowd. The crowd collectively relaxed. The sarpanch ran ahead and took his boy in his arms. “He is alive. He is alive,” the relief was palpable in his voice.
“I will forever be indebted to you two. You have saved him and earned my lifelong gratitude.” He looked up into the face of the two rangers and found Harini too standing a few paces behind next to a makeshift sled. Something lay on it, covered by tarpaulin, flies buzzing around it excitedly.
Noni Ma, who had come up to them, spat angrily and said, “Haven’t I always said she is involved in these disappearances? Here she is, caught like a thief by these two great officers. She is the one who has been stealing the kids, no doubt.”
Before anyone else could say something, Bhaskaran spoke up. His voice was low but still everyone stopped talking to hear what he had to say.
“It was thanks to Harini that we were in this area when the animal snatched the kid. This brave woman agreed to lead us to the place her kid disappeared even though it must have hurt her terribly. And it was only by God’s grace that the wolf decided to snatch the kid today. A less courageous woman would have quailed at the sight of a kid dangling from the bloody mouth of a wolf as big as this one. But she never flinched or cried out to give away our position we had taken on hearing the boy’s cries. Once the wolf appeared it was easy to take it down. Hopefully your days of terror are at an end.”
Admonished, Noni Ma shuffled to the back of the crowd. A voice piped up, “So it was a wolf taking away our kids?”
“No. Not one. There was a whole family living deep in the forest. We’ve tracked them and will call for reinforcement to catch them. The male though was the most dangerous. We’ve no idea why they took to human flesh, but they seem to have been enjoying it. It is better to have them shifted somewhere they cannot cause more killings.” Narayan Rao explained in detail.
The two were as good as their word. Reinforcements arrived within a couple of days and the rest of the wolf family was caught and taken away in a special vehicle. The pandit who staunchly claimed the success of his endeavours was dispatched with suitable remuneration. The people breathed a sigh of relief as the long reign of terror was finally over and life limped back to normalcy.
The age old debate between logic and faith continued. Some felt grateful for the logical measures taken by the District Collector which ended in satisfactory results. Some continued in their belief that it was the havan that had resulted in the wolves coming out into the open. But all agreed to the fact that the two rangers had done an admirable job. When it was time for the two to leave, Bhaskaran went and knocked on Harini’s door once again.
“Our purpose for staying here has come to an end but I want to know if you would like to make a new beginning with me?” he asked diffidently. Harini nodded. It was time her trials were over. A new life and a better future awaited her, and she wasn’t going to let go of the opportunity.
Munna – a term of endearment for a male baby
Dayan – a witch rumoured to eat the heart of kids after killing them
Mai – term of address for an older respected women
Sarkari – governmental
Havan – a religious offering
Pandit – priest
Suhagan – married woman
This story is also available at “Pint of a Story” by StudioCacofunny
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