The darkness of the night engulfed her all around, as she walked with hurried yet hushed steps. A distant flicker of the sole streetlight was in the periphery of her vision as she walked stealthily towards it. She felt a little stupid and also irresponsible for not ‘planning’ the evening better, but then a lot of things had not happened as per the plan that night. Her flat was still a good 20 minutes of walk from the point where the bus had dropped her. Usual sounds like howling of dogs or screeching of tyres of cars being driven perhaps by someone in a drunken influence (either of power or alcohol) seemed unusual and added to the eeriness of the night. It was after a long time today that she felt fear. Not the types of how her boss will react or what will her parents say, but scared for her life and safety.
As a kid, she used to get easily scared- of monkeys, dogs, the evil bearded baba who ate kids if they didn’t drink milk, darkness and most of all – ghosts. Whether it was due to all those horror serials that her elder brother used to watch and she had no choice but to see or due to her own ingrained fears, she was easily afraid of the thought of ghosts and always imagined them creeping behind her whenever she had to encounter darkness or be alone at night. However, as she grew her fears gave away for a strong will, a sense of questioning things and looking from a logical lens and charting out her own path. Coming from a small town, she made sure she didn’t fall into the trap of limiting her life to the confines of womanhood as defined by her traditional society. Post excelling at her education, she was in the journey of building her own identity – through her work, her job and her dreams of doing something worthwhile for the society, and this pursuit had no place for any kind of fear. While she had overcome most of her fears, even with all the rationality and matter-of-factness, she had not been able to convince herself that ghosts didn’t exist. So while she was not really that afraid of the idea of a ghost now and didn’t really believe she will ever encounter one, she wasn’t completely convinced that it was all just a myth. Around a year back, when she was moving to the Capital city for her new assignment; her parents though were gripped by another fear.
‘’The city is not at all safe for girls, please find an opportunity somewhere else’’
“Don’t you remember the 2012 incident? That is no place for a girl to work and stay alone, without family’’
‘’We have always encouraged you to follow your dreams and do what you believe in, but nothing is more important for us more than your safety’’.
However, as always she followed her will and moved to pursue her dream job after a lot of convincing and explaining to her parents and herself. She had spoken to some of her friends and acquaintances who were living there already and understood that it wasn’t that bad – you just have to take some precautions and everything will be fine. She had mentally prepared herself for all the self-imposed restrictions and moved. The year gone by had been decent by the standards of the image that this city had. There were a few incidents of some stares and attempt to shove in the crowded metro, but nothing that made her question her decision, until this night of course.
The office event that she was managing was in a hotel located in the outskirts of the city. The event was supposed to end late and unfortunately all the private cab operators had declared a strike in the city that day. She got to know this in the morning, so she spoke to a colleague who had his own car and agreed that he would drop her home post the event. In worst case she would take an auto, she had thought to herself. However, at 1130 in the night when she found herself free after closing the event and called the colleague, it came as a worry to her that he had to leave early due to a family medical emergency. So, she waited for an auto outside the hotel but she realized that perhaps due to the strike the autos were also sparse at this time and all that she could find was the local city transport bus which had a stop around 2 kms. far from her place. Though she wasn’t feeling very sure she boarded the bus, comforting herself with the fact that there were around 7-8 passengers including women in the bus. It was almost midnight by the time the bus started and her stop was a good 45 minutes away. She closed her eyes and rested her head on the seat, hoping soon to be in the comfort of her room and cosy bed.
As she walked with hurried yet hushed steps, the sole streetlight was her guiding star. The droplets of sweat trickling down slowly from her forehead towards her nose weren’t a result of the temperature for sure. In the eerie sounds of dogs and car tyres screeching, she suddenly heard the sounds of footsteps behind her and for a moment, her heart skipped a beat. But she continued taking brisk steps and didn’t look behind. However, the sounds only grew clearer with each step, and along with it the pacing of her heart. She walked for a minute in hurried steps, but realizing the house was still a good 10 minutes ahead, she gathered all her courage and turned back to face her follower. Before she could barely part her lips and utter a word, she felt the hands of her follower on her neck and a face covered almost completely with a mask except for his eyes. She tried screaming at the top of her voice by overcoming the force on her neck by the hand of the attacker.
‘’Madam, your stop is here’’, she woke up with the conductor’s call, startled out of her nightmare, though the drops of sweat on her face were real. It took her a couple of seconds to realize that it was only a dream, triggered perhaps by her constant thoughts about reaching home safely. However as she got down the bus, the nightmare felt even more real. While she had thought before that she would wait for sometime on the bus stop if there was a fellow passenger at the stop or a stray auto or e-rickshaw, given the complete deserted and dark ambience of the place, she started walking at a fast pace immediately. However her heart raced faster than her feet as she felt a wave of fear pass through herself. All the news articles and coverage she had come across of gruesome incidents with girls involving molestation, rape and murder started coming to her mind. She felt afraid, angry and sad at the same time that amidst all the talk of equality and women empowerment a simple act of returning to her home had the potential to make her feel so weak. She was reminded of her childhood, when at times there was power-cut at night in her home and in a few minutes of complete darkness (while the candles/lamps would be arranged) her brother would make scary sounds and she would get terribly afraid of imaginary ghosts, dreading that any moment a hand with long nails and blood dripping from them will emerge from a corner and grab her or in the dim moonlight view outside her window, any moment a scary face with blood red glowing eyes would walk towards her, with his feet turned backwards.
She was half-way to her home with barely a soul in sight when she clearly heard the sound. She doubted for a moment that it could be her overactive fear-stuck imagination, but the second time there was no doubt. It was a shrill sound almost like a whistle, only much clearer and somehow it seemed directed towards her as it stopped the moment she stopped walking. She was passing by the local biodiversity park named after an erstwhile dynastic politician known mainly for being the son of one of most powerful prime-ministers of the country. It was now reduced to a lake with green water lined on all its sides by the trash from nearby residences, some remains of a broken boundary wall and a large, very old Peepal tree. In his last visit here, her brother had tried his old trick and told stories of how the old Peepal trees are supposed to be home to a large number of scary ghosts who come out post midnight. However, she always suspected that this place must be a safe haven for miscreants and criminals and the recurring sound made her fear the same. She stole a look back towards the source of the sound, but could see nothing and continued her walk. With hardly any human life visible, apart from some homeless beggar or drunkards sleeping on roadsides or one stray bike-rider passing by, the sound was getting clearer by the minute. The sweat droplets on her forehead became pronounced, her heart was thumping in her chest heavily as now the soft whistle was also accompanied with clear sound of footsteps. She dared once again to look back, but this time she realized the sound was actually coming from the side where the tree stood in all its eerie glory. She increased her speed and was almost running now, with the sweat drops trickling on her specs and distorting her view. As she ran she could also hear the whistling sound along with other set of footsteps, also running now. She was sure now that she was being chased and was in one of those horror stories that she had heard and read about female safety in the city. She was dreading that the moment from her dream would be a reality in a few seconds now and started figuring out how would she escape from the predator who was behind her. As the sound of footsteps and whistling became stronger and closer and her hope of escaping unhurt became weaker, she saw the final turn – which would bring her society in her view and along with it perhaps a few people who would be able to help her. It gave her the final push of strength needed and she ran like she had never ran before and almost leapt to take the turn with such a strength that she leapt and found herself on the ground, with her face pressed against the soil.
The sounds – both of whistling and footsteps suddenly vanished. In fact it was as if they never existed. She was needless to say relieved though still in shock. But something felt very weird and she turned back her face immediately to save herself in case the attacker tried to overpower her.
She thought her eyes were failing her.
The large Peepal tree was swaying swiftly in a strange pattern, as if a group of ‘’people’’ were moving it together, from all its branches and extensions. On all its branches, she could or she felt she could see the blurry outlines of a few strange looking people sitting, with their legs hanging on both the sides. Their nails looked much larger than any she had ever seen and she could see in a blurred vision that the red liquid was dripping down the tree. Maybe due to the dim lights, they all seemed almost transparent and their faces were on opposite side to her and as she lay there frozen, she noticed the set of red footprints, all inverted, leading towards the broken wall of the ‘’biodiversity’’ park and on the edge of the wall she saw it standing, rather floating with pale face, blood red eyes and a smile on the face, looking towards her.
In the few seconds that her eyes comprehended the sight, she thought she ought to feel afraid and run for her life. But she felt the exact opposite, she felt relieved. She remembered her response to her brother’s attempt to scare her as she grew up, “What is there to fear of the dead? The real horrors are all by the living ones.” She felt relieved and picked up her bag and walked towards her society, towards light – having escaped the real horror tonight.