The Holed Coin

Part I 13th October 1967.         It was my elder sister’s birthday party. It was almost over and our common friends and close kin had started to leave. I too was preparing to call it a day. Our Badima had been repeatedly reminding us of the approaching midnight hour and the inordinate delay in my return to my home.  My sister and I  came from the neighboring state to this peaceful and friendly town of Ranchi for further studies after finishing our schools. My sister lodged herself at our Badima’s place whereas I felt comfortable with our Chacha-Chachi.  We ignored Badima’s admonitions, who left at our cousin’s assurance that she would ensure that I leave before it was too late. Well, what had held us engrossed and glued to our places, was a series of story-telling; of spine-chilling ghost stories and spooky paranormal encounters. It had picked up a good tempo and each one of us tried to dish out a scarier one in turn adding our own “spice” for greater effect. I had not known how the unknown forces start working on somebody without him or her even realizing it. Suddenly our cousin began narrating to us the accounts of ghost encounters of our grandfather (Nana) and the supernatural happenings in the same locality where, presently, all of us were sitting and listening to each others’ stories.  The lane leading to our Badima’s house was flanked by a very thick outgrowth of bamboo trees on either side, giving it a tunnel-like appearance. When our Nana used to return late after work, the bamboo shafts would mysteriously stoop down to the ground, literally blocking the way, and stay there. No wind, no movement… but deathly silence. Nana never got perturbed or frightened but cursed and shouted at them saying, “Go away Satan, Go away from me!”  He then used to hit them mercilessly with his walking-stick, repeating the same words, adding that his God is with him. His story sent shivers down my spine, especially when I knew that I had no option but to tread the same lane around the wretched midnight hour. Beads of sweat collected on my forehead and wiped them quickly, lest my sisters noticed that I was shaken up. I got up reluctantly, bid them goodnight and moved towards the door. My sisters came up to the front-door to bid me adieu, as I dragged my feet across the length of the verandah, walking towards the main gate. Opening it, I stepped out and then turned around to see my sisters shutting the door and in doing so, blocking the only light source. Darkness engulfed me. I shuddered. My heart, however, encouraged me: There’s no turning back, now! I stood frozen in the middle of the narrow by-lane. I closed and opened my eyes in quick succession waiting for my vision to get adapted to this darkness. I squinted my eyes and could finally envision something. At the end of the tunnel-like lane, stood a lamp-post with an eerie incandescent light and a halo around it. I looked back at what now appeared as the ghostly dark silhouette of my Badima’s house, which was swallowed up in pitch darkness. I didn’t like the look of it. I lunged forward to cover the 100 yards of the length of the lane to reach the lamp-post as quickly as my trembling feet could take me.   Soon I came inside the “tunnel of bamboo trees.” I took a deep breath and loudly uttered the name of my God.  “Go away Satan, go away from me. The Lord is by my side!”  Although I didn’t dare to look at the direction of the bamboo trees, a slight movement caught the corner of my eye. This was accompanied by a crackling sound of the bamboo that made me raise the pitch of the chant. I froze in fear when I was half way inside the tunnel and began praying frantically. The terrifying thought of the bamboo beginning to bend down to block my way like they did before my Nana, almost paralyzed me. Braving the whooshing sound of the wind between the trees and the crackling of the bamboo, I managed to reach the lamp post. I paused for a while under the blissful light, heaved a sigh and then looked to the left to another burning lamp post on the main Intercity Roadway (presently a National Highway), some 150 yards away. This road was slightly wider with sparsely located houses at distances. Thankfully, there were no bamboo trees in sight. There should have been one lamppost in between, but it had a fused bulb. Some houses had outdoor lighting to keep their premises lit. This aided in providing some lighting to the road, giving me great comfort and courage. The journey to the second lamp-post situated on the main roadway was uneventful. Part II I reached the main intercity roadway and turned to the right towards my neighborhood, located about 300 yards from here and then further down a solitary lane on the left. There were three lamp-posts up to the point where I had to take a left turn for my destination. Between the lamp posts prevailed the disturbing darkness. There were not many houses on this stretch. Just two on the left at some distances and a lone bungalow on the right. The bungalow served as the residence of the pastor of our church. As almost half the distance was covered, I was relieved and walked in good spirits, humming an old Bollywood film song. I reached my first lamp post on this road near a small bridge under which flowed a small drain-cum- stream. It was overflowing with rain-water during this time of the season. The road was about 10 feet high from the drain. I was unaware of the surroundings and walked taking big strides to clear the impending patch of darkness between the lamp posts. Just then, it seemed as if I heard a feeble, old voice of a woman calling me from … somewhere,...... I immediately could not figure it out.  The second call was clear, “Hey Babu, please come and help me.” I stopped and looked around. Apparently, realizing my bewilderment, the lady went on, “I am down here, by the stream.”  The voice sounded urgent, laced with strong beckoning. I was compelled to look down the slope. There was a sort of figure, and as my eyes strained to see, an old and fragile looking female came into sight. She was attempting to walk up the slope; an impossible task for her.  “What the hell are you doing down there?”  I was obviously irritated and was simply in no mood to waste any time. I could not wait to slip into the comfort of my bed, as it was already well past midnight. The old hag had other ideas.  She explained, “Babu, I came down the slope to relieve myself and after that I have been struggling to reach the top of the road for quite some time.”  Then very imploringly she added, “I am very weak and tired, my dear son. Pleeease help me go home.”  While I cursed myself for the late-night dinner, the ‘Good Samaritan’ in me asked whether I was to leave that poor old lady in such a miserable plight. The Good Samaritan prevailed and then I climbed down a little. Stretching my hand towards her, I asked her to reach for my hand and grab it. I ensured that one of my feet was firm on the edge of the road so that I did not go hurling down the slope myself.  All this time, I had not looked at her directly. Could it be because of some kind of sense of foreboding or premonition? Either I had given her a quick glance or looked the other way in such a manner that I could still visualize her presence there.  Suddenly, I felt an ice cold grip on my palm and the next moment she was pulled up onto the road. The touch of her steely cold hand was very unnerving and the next thing I figured, that she perhaps had no “face” between her disheveled white shoulder-length hair. Was it my wretched imagination - but did it appear empty, where her face should have been there? Or was it thick, gray rolls of smoke emanating from her mouth?  She stood in front of me with her head at the height of my chest, looking up to me, trying to draw my attention. I tried my best to avoid looking at her.  Then she said, “Money?”  Phew!...  I could just hand over some money and get rid of her quickly. She might as well be a beggar, anyway. So I fished out some coins from my pocket and placed them on her outstretched bony hand. She looked at them in amazement and said, “The holed one!” and stood virtually blocking my way. I sensed something weird and hurriedly explained that those were what I only had and promised her, perhaps the next time. Then I circumvented her and managed to break into a sprint leaving her behind, still calling after me.  I stopped when I saw the lights of an incoming vehicle coming from the opposite side of the road and going towards the bridge. I saw it was a truck when it passed me by, and as I turned to look behind me, what I saw turned my blood cold. I saw in its headlight, the old lady bent with fear with her hands up waving frantically, right in the middle of the road and then… whoosh!...... the truck went right through her! The truck was swallowed into the darkness along with its fading sound of tires. All was once again quiet and still. When the dim light spread slowly over the area, I was left there standing perplexed and shaking. There was nothing left of the Old Lady, except for the damp mist rising softly but steadily from the stream underneath the bridge. I shuddered from the cold ( or fear?) , turned around and ran all the way home as if I had seen a ghost. Reaching home, I hurled myself at the main door and collapsed.  Part III When I finally opened my eyes, I found myself surrounded by my sister and cousin, Chachi and granny.  My sister and cousin had come to see me if I had reached home safely the night before. The granny seemed unusually perturbed. I was running a high temperature which had lasted a couple of days. During my indisposition, some of my very close friends also paid me a visit. This attention and tender care gave me great comfort, helping me in my recovery and specially calmed my mental disposition. During the bouts of high fever in the last three days, I am told that I was murmuring gibberish. No, not to my granny who found it meaningful and at the same time, strange.  She whispered to my Chachi that I had met Prabha, a good-old female friend of my grandfather’s (Dadu). Prabha had died little before my grandfather. They were very friendly and close from their youthful days. And it was a sort of tradition between them that for each witty remark, Prabha was often rewarded with a “Paisa” with a hole! (such coins were in circulation till the end of British rule in India, and a few were there in almost every household).  Prabha’s demise had left my grandfather devastated. He had grown immensely somber. He was otherwise popular for being jovial and very amicable. Several days and months passed by but the then ever-present smile on his face seemed to have disappeared also with Prabha, they said. My present grandmother happened to be Prabha’s classmate, and who was equally saddened by the former’s demise. All these I learnt from Chachi and also that the spirit of Prabha was not put at rest, unfortunately. It started to make more sense when I was told by almost all the old-timers in our larger family, that I had a pleasant resemblance to my grandfather in many ways. And perhaps, that could be the reason why “she made herself known” in front of me on that eerie night. I recovered fully and quickly but was asked to live in the main ancestral House rather than my small cottage-like abode in one of the corners of our sprawling compound, at least for some time. My cousins and I used to pester our granny for more of her anecdotes related to our grandfather and Prabha, since she was the latter’s classmate. Interesting to note was also the fact that Prabha was the resident of the same locality from where I was returning to my house after my sister's birthday party.  And also that they used to meet in the evening near the bridge, halfway between their respective residences and sit on the railing of that small bridge and chat for hours. They used to be a very pleasant sight for all and their pure friendship was the talk of the neighborhood.  Today, I am so moved by their platonic love story that it drew me emotionally closer to both the departed ones. Initially, it had impacted me so much that I spent many a night trying to meet her all over again and in this desperation, I used to sit on the railing of the bridge for hours, late in the evening, sometimes with a close friend but mostly alone. I would think strongly about her and our last encounter as if to conjure her. It’s been more than fifty years now without any of such excitement of that fateful night.  However, I did have one other strange incident, which one may even call a supernatural one, where I along with two of my other college friends interacted with another “friend” and bid him goodnight… long after his funeral! Well, that’s another story …  Glossary of Indian words used in order of appearance: Badima: Older sister of one’s mother Chacha: Paternal uncle Chachi: Wife of paternal uncle Nana: Maternal Grandfather Babu: Equivalent of “Sir”, spoken in respect and also to a small boy. Dadu: Paternal Grandfather Paisa: Coin   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!