[Issue 16 / Feb 16]
The phone call came early that morning, informing me that my maternal grandmother, Kulwanti, eighty-two, had died of a heart attack the night before. She lived in the clouds. Well, almost. She lived in a tiny speck of a village called Bhatkal, perched high on the Shivalik Hills, at the very edge of the Hoshiarpur district, in the north-eastern extremity of Punjab, India.
After my parents’ death in a car accident two years ago, I was Kulwanti’s sole surviving blood relative and, customarily, was supposed to perform the last rites at her cremation. I declined, instead requesting Padma, sixty-four, her widowed sister-in-law and longtime companion – who had called – to fill in for me. My wife was in her third trimester with our second child and I had to be with her, I’d said. While this was true, it wasn’t the only – or the most compelling – reason. The unsaid truth was that my only visit to Bhatkal, thirty-two years ago, had left me with lifelong scars; scars I didn’t dare reopen by returning. I would mourn her, certainly, but from a distance. Because Padma knew this, she agreed to take my place without argument.
Hanging up, I still marveled at how there’s now a phone service in Bhatkal. On that fateful visit, there had been none; nor postal service or even electricity – oil lamps and wood fires provided light and warmth, and the nearest post-office was in Talwara, twelve miles – and several meters – below. So was the nearest police outpost – Bhatkal, then, had its own law.
As I sat back, a tide of errant memories rolled in, unbidden.
I had travelled with my mother, who was understandably excited. She hadn’t seen her parents since they visited on my birth; and her birth-village since she was a child – she had moved to the town of Jallandhar and lived with her maternal aunt’s family to pursue an education there. She met my father in college and they married and shifted to Delhi right after.
Dad was busy with work so the only other person accompanying us was Sugandha.
Sugandha’s widowed mother had been our house-maid. She was absolutely devoted to my mother and had stayed at her side throughout a difficult pregnancy; when she had me. She then passed away a year later, of an inoperable tumor, leaving behind Sugandha, aged seven. My parents had taken in Sugandha and looked after all her needs since. To me, she was much like the sibling I didn’t have, and my parents treated her no differently. I loved her, but she was infuriatingly obedient at times.
Getting to Bhatkal wasn’t easy. I remember throwing up often from motion sickness in the rickety public bus that took us partway up that meandering incline—beyond which the makeshift passage got too narrow and steep for automobiles. There we were met by two of Bhatkal’s natives, who then took us on the final dizzying leg of our journey on ponies. Yes, ponies.
But when we finally arrived, it all seemed worth it.
Drained as I was from throwing up for most of the spiraling bus ride, as much as my back and buttocks ached from journeying by pony thereafter, all of that faded away as Bhatkal unfolded before my suddenly wide-open eyes. For an eight-year-old who’d spent his entire life surrounded by the crowded architecture and the urban chaos of Delhi, this tiny village nestled within the clouds was nothing short of enchanting. Tiny it indeed was – still astride the horse, I could see its entire expanse from end to end – but it was the sheer open spaces within those ends, the glaring—and calming—lack of steel and concrete and its charming, picture-like quality that delighted me.
The other end of the village was flanked by thick forests of oaks and smaller plants I couldn’t identify. They were, to me, simultaneously fascinating in their lushness, and intimidating in their vastness. Pretty blue, pink, and white flowers sprinkled across the land made for a striking contrast to the green of the forest. A single clear path led into and out of the village; it bisected the forest and rose further into the hills, eventually, into the neighboring State of Himachal. From the outermost edge of this path, there was an unrestricted view of the imposing heights of the Shivalik, and on a clear day, even the snow-capped peaks of the mighty Himalayas, beyond it. Gurgling its way through the village was also a narrow rivulet; known locally as Chos, these streams that originate in the higher regions of the Shivalik are a common sight in its villages.
On my side of the Cho stood all the living quarters of the village; huts of varying sizes with weathered mud walls and straw-thatched roofs. On the other side lay several sugarcane fields (the chief crop and source of livelihood for the village – although, I later learnt there was also a solitary paddy rice plantation – my grandfather’s). These fields also seemed of varied sizes and yields, demarcated by rope-fences. The biggest – I was to learn – belonged to my grandfather, making him the wealthiest and the most influential man in the village.
My open-mouthed appreciation of the surroundings was brought to an abrupt halt by my mother’s call. She and Sugandha had already been helped off their ponies by the pony-handlers who had escorted us up. One of them then helped me dismount, and I walked over to them on slightly unsteady legs.
Gathered before us, in welcome, appeared the entire village, and possibly all its goats and chickens. Leading the welcoming party were my grandparents. While I was quite familiar with my maternal grand-aunt in Jallandhar, this was my first real meeting with my mother’s parents. They had come down for my birth but not since.
My grandmother was a short, petite lady, possibly in her early fifties, who didn’t speak often, and was soft-spoken when she did. Yet – as I was to learn – she was held in high esteem by the villagers and her opinion much sought after by the other women. My grandfather, Jaswant Singh, on the other hand, was loud and boisterous – quite typical of the men of the region. He was at least ten years older than her but looked a lot younger – tall, broad and muscular, from regularly working the fields. He carried himself with an air of authority – as most men of wealth do – and was seen as an unofficial leader of the village. They lived with Padma, widow of Jaswant’s brother (who had died two years ago of a liver disorder and whose two sons had long since moved to Hoshiarpur city, seeking less physically exacting livelihoods), a lady so quiet and withdrawn that if it weren’t for the stark contrast of the white sarees she always wore to the muddy beige of the walls, I might not have noticed her at all.
But although it was a small household, it seemed often brimming with other people from the village; my grandfather in particular was always surrounded by other men, hanging on to his every word and seeking his counsel.
Oddly though, while they both spent ample time with us – and other villagers – I rarely saw them interact with one another.
Of the two, I felt a more immediate affinity toward my grandmother, even though she spoke little. Possibly because she showed the same affection towards Sugandha as she did towards me and Mom, realizing that we both saw her as family rather than domestic help. My grandfather though, while never discourteous to her, maintained a distance that clearly suggested he thought Sugandha’s station inferior.
This was also the first time I saw my mother interact with her parents, and she too seemed closer to her mother; often huddling in corners with her, having conversations that either left them gently smiling or quietly shedding tears.
As for me and Sugandha, the next few days passed quickly, and not simply because darkness came early and we were fed and dispatched to bed by eight on most evenings. From plucking and gorging on kinnows (a local citrus fruit) from the groves, fishing in the Cho, racing each other across the modest length of the village, playing hide-n-seek amongst the sugarcane stalks to just watching a grapefruit sun melt behind the peaks at dusk while eating roasted corn-on-the-cob; it was all a mad tumble of discovery and excitement. In these games and shenanigans, we were usually joined by a group of perpetually thrilled local boys, all closer to my age than Sugandha’s.
In fact, it was while listening to Sugandha crib that there were no girls for her to hang out with - she was fourteen then and the few girls there close to her age were married, some as early as fifteen, some to men twice as old, and all of them (even the younger, unmarried ones) seemed mostly housebound – that I first realized there were far fewer women than men in the village. To be honest, I didn’t ponder much on this disparity back then.
I did find out the reason for it much later though; when I was years older and permanently scarred.
In the evenings, after an early dinner, we would spend a little time sitting by the Cho where it ran the strongest, on the outskirts of the village, next to the paddy field and close to the mouth of the forest, under a moon that grew plumper each night. We would let ourselves be awed by the almost alien stillness of the night, broken only by the occasional hoots of owls and chittering of insects. On these occasions, we were joined by both my mother and grandmother, and a couple of burly village men holding mashaals (flaming wooden torches) who kept an eye out for leopards, wild boars, wolves or other predators. None came then, somewhat to my disappointment.
As the days grew warmer and the nights muggier, I woke up late one morning to find the sprawling sugarcane fields almost completely denuded. Sorry-looking stubs and heaps of fallen leaves now covered the grounds where the stalks had stood proudly upright. Even as I watched, groups of men – directed ably by my grandfather – attacked other parts of the rapidly diminishing plantations. Dressed in what was the common attire for men here in the summers – a sleeveless vest called Ganji and a Lungi (a sarong-like wrap covering the lower body) hitched above the knee for easier movement, they wielded their machetes with unerring accuracy, often liberating a ripe cane with a single cut. Over the next couple of days, barring a small fringe of over-ripe or diseased crop, the fields were completely laid bare; the canes tied together in large bundles and kept aside in the shade. The sugarcane harvest season was upon us.
The rice crop had yet to mature completely however and as we sat at our usual post-dinner spot that evening, I noticed the tall plants – well over a meter - had so far been left untouched. My mother, feeling the onset of a migraine, had retired early and so it was just me, Sugandha, and Kulwanti out that night, with our usual ‘bodyguards’, of course. Understandably, the conversation was about the sugarcane harvest and how the yield this year had been excellent. At one point, Kulwanti looked up at the moon – now almost a full circle – and happily pronounced that the following night would bear the first full moon of the harvest season – when the moon seems big enough to touch. The day that ushers in this moon is traditionally considered an auspicious one for the sale of the harvested crop, and accordingly, she told us, early the next morning, her husband and others would transport the crop down to the farmer’s market at Hoshiarpur and negotiate its sale there. While they were gone, the womenfolk would clean and decorate their houses and pray for a profitable sale. And if things went according to their prayers, the men would return late evening bearing not only the earned cash but also new clothes, ornaments, and other gifts from the city. And on the day after, there would a full-scale celebration with music, dancing, and communal feasts.
While Sugandha was enrapt in the details of the upcoming celebrations that Kulwanti was happily elaborating on, I, on the other hand, was lost in imagining a giant moon that seemed afloat almost at arm’s length and how the surrounding peaks might glow in its presence. Excited, I asked my grandmother if on the following night we could climb higher along the Cho, to the edge of the village, to get a closer, unobstructed view of the moon and the hills beyond. This appeared to upset her, her good mood fading in an instant, and she almost growled back that not only could we not climb any higher, we were not allowed to venture outside the house at all the following night.
Disappointed and indignant, I immediately started pestering her for reasons why we couldn’t. She sat in stern silence for awhile, but eventually – perhaps recognizing my mother’s stubborn and unceasingly inquisitive spirit in me – replied, in a tone even more hushed than usual.
In the hills, the first full moon of the harvest is the night of the Rakshashas, she whispered - something unpleasant alighting on her otherwise wholesome face; perhaps fear. That is the one night of the year when these mythical demon-like, supernatural creatures venture out from the depths of the forest to bathe in the light of the moon in the open. They dance and frolic, and then they search for a delicacy different from the wild beasts they eat all year – human flesh, preferably the tender flesh of babies or children. And they eat as many as they can lay their slimy, hooked claws on, until the first light of dawn drives them back into the wilderness.
She paused and suddenly pulled Sugandha close in a tight hug, perhaps because she looked visibly scared; her face ashen in the glow of the mashaals - she was always as quick to fear as she was to delight, and to belief. I, on the other hand, tried my best to stifle laughter. Another quality I had inherited from my mother was deep seated cynicism for all things superstitious. Even at an age when most children have an open mind towards both the Fantastic and the Macabre, my first instinct was to disbelieve. I asked my grandmother if anyone had ever actually seen these Rakshashas. She replied – a bit grudgingly – that they had last been seen by the early settlers in the village, generations ago, that they had even lost a few newborns to these fierce creatures back then, but over time they had discovered how to protect themselves; with the one thing that these demons feared - fire. And so every first full moon of the harvest, after nightfall everyone stayed indoors and every house had a lit mashaal at its doorstep all night. The Rakshashas stayed away from the fire, they would just frolic in the fields, feed on wandering goats or hens and go back to the forest at dawn, without claiming any human lives.
I remained unconvinced and had several more questions, but my grandmother was done answering. After an emphatic reminder that there would be no going out the following night, we were led back home and tucked in. It took me a while to fall asleep. I mustered defiance. I noticed Sugandha tossed and turned too; perhaps she was trying to erase thoughts of vicious demonic creatures and focus on the upcoming festivities instead.
As it turned out, they didn’t happen.
The following morning began early. I was still half-asleep when I saw Kulwanti anoint Jaswant with a smear of vermillion and say a prayer for a fruitful journey before he took off; a traditional custom, undoubtedly being repeated in the homes of the men accompanying him. To me, it seemed rather listless; a ritual performed for its own sake, absent of any love or enthusiasm.
The day passed quickly, with Kulwanti and Padma cleaning the house thoroughly and decorating it with pretty chrysanthemums and daisies, from the hillside. At some point, Sugandha and my Mom joined them. Presumably, the other boys from the village helped their mothers do the same, so I was pretty much left to mope. I didn’t mind, because I was hatching plans for the night.
Come dusk, the other women whose men had travelled gathered in our house in anticipation of their successful return. They chanted prayers, which, with the men absent, somehow sounded far more heartfelt. Then the menu for the following day’s communal feast was discussed in earnest.
The men returned late evening, their carts no longer full of sugarcanes, but gifts galore instead - as hoped, the crop had yielded them handsome returns. There were sarees and bangles for my mother, grandmother, and the other ladies, hand-made earthen toys for the children and baskets full of succulent mangoes – a fruit Hoshiarpur is famous for.
After rejoicing and animated discussion, our guests departed, and my grandmother quickly served dinner, reiterating that bedtime was right after and there was to be no venturing out. I noticed my grandfather wasn’t around for the meal. I was told he was out on a round of the village, making sure all the houses were secure and had lit mashaals in their front yards – to keep the Rakshashas at bay, of course. Again I had to hide a smirk, but I was glad he was out actually. My mother too still grappled with a migraine attack and had retired early. This bode well for the covert nocturnal excursion I had planned.
I wanted to sneak out that night not only to enjoy the moon in its full glory, but to prove a point – perhaps to myself – that this talk of Rakshashas was hogwash. Back then I couldn’t resist a dare, especially one I had thrown at myself. Back then I was stupid.
But I needed an ally, of course. Sugandha resisted, as I knew she would, given how easily she was scared; both of mythical bogeymen and of breaking the ‘rules’. But, Sugandha, although my parents had never treated her as anything other than family, had always been conscious of her origin; mindful that her circumstances could have been different if not for my family. And because of this, some part of her felt beholden to us. I was old enough to understand this, and sadly, selfish enough to use it to manipulate her. Her resistance crumbled, as I knew it would. All she insisted on was we make it a quick trip and that we carry a lit mashaal, ‘’just in case’’.
After everyone seemed fast asleep, barring my grandfather who was still out on his rounds, we snuck out an unbarred window at the back of the house. We had carried a spare mashaal we found lying in the house, and once outside, ignited it from one of the many burning around the village. Not that we needed its light. The moon was everything I had hoped for, and more. It was a glutton moon, well-fed and hanging heavily in the sky, bathing everything below in its generous shine.
We walked along the familiar path of the Cho, going higher, towards the edge of the village. A strong breeze made the water restless and the trees talkative. It murmured through the rice plants whose sloped fields now sprawled to our right, and made the flame from our torch dance.
As we drew nearer to the clearing at the edge, the forest beside it also loomed closer, its shadows reaching for us. Then we were at the clearing, and the view was breathtaking. From here, the moon looked close enough to touch; I thought if I were just a little taller, I could stretch and stroke its beaming face. The surrounding hills, glowing with a silver sheen, stood like silent sentries guarding the night. Even Sugandha, in the face of such brilliance – and the absence of any supernatural visitors – seemed to have forgotten her fears and laughed in wonder.
That’s when I heard the lapping.
It was maybe seven or eight meters ahead of us on the opposite bank of the rivulet - drinking from it - at the fringe of the forest. When I looked at it, it probably sensed us, because it looked up from the water. All I saw at first were its eyes, blazing green fires, hovering above ground. Then, like a Polaroid slowly developing, its magnificent body formed inch by inch as my vision adjusted to the shadowy darkness. It stood still, a sculpted masterpiece, regarding us with those fierce eyes. This was the first time I had seen a leopard and I should have been terrified – but, really, I felt awestruck by its primal beauty. The moment stretched endlessly, with me and that placid predator frozen in time.
Then I heard a gasp and felt Sugandha clutch at me - she had just noticed it, and reacted. The mashaal fell from her shaking hand and its burning head dipped in the Cho, going out with a pronounced sssss. I don’t know if it was the hiss of the flame dying or if the leopard’s sharp hearing had picked up on movement in the paddy field before we did, but something spooked the big cat. And, just like that, it was gone; melted into the shadows.
We stood rooted for an instant, staring at its afterimage. And then we heard it too - the rustle of the leaves, the slippery squelch of bare feet – or paws – on the soggy surface of the paddy field, and heavy breaths rushing towards us.
I’ve read that when a person – especially a child – witnesses unspeakable horrors, sometimes a trapdoor closes in the head, suppressing the memory, protecting the person. I wasn’t so blessed. I remember all too well what I saw next, or at least, what it seemed like to me. I remember a flurry of blurred motion, fragments of broken images; but I remember.
Their reek reached us before they did; pungent, harsh, ripe, and stinging. Then the Rakshashas were upon us; exploding out of the quivering shoots. Before either of us could react, they vaulted over the Cho, flung me aside, and fell on Sugandha. There were six of them; eyes burning red, faces distorted masks with a scarlet bloom in the center of their foreheads, and mottled, patchwork skin gleamed in the moonlight. The skin at their waist flapped like aprons and their slimy, clawed hands held the whimpering, terrified girl.
I was winded by the fall, but unhurt. Yet I couldn’t move. There were screams trapped inside me, but I couldn’t get them out. All I could do was watch, crippled by fear.
Five of them, now on all fours, made a ring around Sugandha while the sixth, the largest of the lot –the leader - descended on her weakly struggling body.
It tore her clothes. Then It tore at her, mauling and eating. It crushed her under its body.
I couldn’t comprehend what I saw. I couldn’t understand why the convulsed face of the creature now heaving on top of Sugandha - or the leering faces of the other five –seemed familiar to me, as the moonlight exposed them fully.
Then I heard the sound of footfalls and two diminutive female forms stood between me and that terrible sight. The women shouted at the Rakshashas, demanding they let Sugandha go. One, in ghostly white, waved a lit mashaal in the faces of the five onlookers, forcing them to back away. The other, shorter and slighter, thrust a machete back and forth at their leader – more, it appeared, to try and dislodge him than actually wound him. The leader, surprised rather than afraid, tried to grab her hand.
My grandmother took a hurried step back, slipped on Sugandha’s fallen mashaal, and fell towards the leader, her machete buried itself in his head with a decisive thunk.
My grandfather, blood streaming from his cleaved scalp on to his vermillion smudged forehead, looked up at his wife with blood-shot, drunken eyes, and then slumped over the passed-out Sugandha. Dead instantly, I learnt later. The other five villagers, some whose sons we had roamed the village with, fled; spurred more by Jaswant’s fall than by the flame Padma had held in their faces. Their billowing Lungis no longer looked like grotesque extensions of flesh, nor the splatters of mud on their body from the soggy paddy field like mottled skin-patches.
In the distance, I heard loud voices - including my mother’s - calling out to us, nearby. The horror had ended.
Oddly – or perhaps not –the days immediately following the incident are a blur to me. I slept a lot. People cried a lot. Sugandha forgot how to speak. Somehow, my mother sent a telegram to my Dad and he arrived to collect us within days. We left Bhatkal quickly, with no goodbyes that I remember.
Over the next few months, I was the one to recover from the trauma first. Sugandha’s physical wounds healed – he hadn’t actually managed to rape her – but something had broken inside her, and that didn’t heal for a long, long time.
But much of what I know now about the incident – and other things about Bhatkal – I learnt only when I was much older.
There was no alcohol available in Bhatkal, but there was plenty in Hoshiarpur. And every year when Jaswant and the men closest to him sold their crops there on the day of the first moon of the harvest, they would bring huge quantities back. They wouldn’t drink on the way back because it was a treacherous journey. But later that night, they would congregate in the distant paddy field and drink till their brains were mush and all their visceral urges unleashed. That is what they were doing when they heard us passing the field, followed us and then jumped us.
The Rakshasha myth had been around in Bhatkal for generations, but whether my Grandma actually believed in it or not, the only real demons she was trying to protect us from – by keeping us indoors that night – were the ones she knew the alcohol would inflame in her husband, and his friends. She knew because Sugandha wasn’t the first girl he and his cohorts had sexually assaulted after drinking. There were at least five others from the village. Padma, after her husband died, was one of them. Some of the victims had just left the village with their families and some, like Padma, had suffered in silence. None of the other men had ever raised a voice, perhaps because Jaswant was too powerful and important, or, perhaps they just didn’t care. As for the other women, well, they didn’t have a voice. In Bhatkal, many a newborn girl child had been buried in the forest, because the men wanted more boys to earn and carry on their legacy. Girls fortunate enough to escape this fate were married off in their early teens; all the sooner to conceive male heirs.
My grandmother had been strong enough to keep her only child – my mother – alive and then have her sent to her sister’s to get an education, and a life, as far away from the village and her father as possible, without ever letting her know of the plight of women back home. She had also been strong enough to trail us – with Padma, and their years of simmering, unspent resentment – when she realized we had slunk out that night, hoping to reach us before the men did, but prepared to face the worst.
That the victim was Sugandha, a child my mother thought of as her own, was what finally triggered her act of open defiance – if she had silently let it happen, she couldn’t have faced my mother again. Of course, she didn’t intend to kill her husband – just scare him off – but she wasn’t entirely devastated by his death either. Incidentally, the village chose to blame his death on a leopard attack, his body lost in the forest just as it had the disappearance of many infant girls before.
After he died, his land was controlled by my grandmother, with Padma as her loyal aide which made her the seat of influence in the village. In time, I believe, the men got over their resentment and accepted this. The other five attackers left the village, I don’t know if by choice. In time and with the arrival of law and development in the village, the plight of women also improved somewhat.
My grandmother’s last several years were contented ones. She even visited us on occasion.
And Sugandha? She’s still with us; a faithful companion to my wife, at her side through both pregnancies. Despite our efforts, she has never considered marriage. And she still doesn’t laugh with quite the same freedom she did before that night. She has healed, but not completely. Perhaps she never will.
As for me, every time I look at her, I wish I’d never manipulated her into venturing out with me that night. I wish I’d believed that Rakshashas and Demons exist.
Because since then, I’ve never stopped believing they do.