Art by Col Kanchan Bhattacharjee
“Do you believe in ghosts?” asked the old man with tattoos on his face and opium stained black teeth. The question came out of the blue and took me by surprise.It was rather late at night by the village standards and I was at the remote village of Lungwa in the district of Mon in Nagaland. The man and I, were the only people sitting by the fire in the large kitchen.I was fumbling for an answer as I poured some strong black tea into my cup from the hollow of a bamboo, filled with water and tea leaf and left in the fire to brew. The bamboo stayed in the fire all day long.
The man with the stained teeth thankfully did not repeat the question and concentrated on the elaborate process of preparing the opium for a smoke. His weather beaten face spoke of a hard life and decades of opium abuse had also taken its toll. He had deep set eyes, high cheek bones- deep lines running down on both cheeks and since he sat on his haunches, he seemed much smaller that he really was.
The flickering fire threw up weird shadows and played with my imagination.At one point, he exhaled a large amount of smoke after a rather extended drag on his bamboo smoking pipe. As the smoke obscured his face, the firelight and shadow played their part to perfection and he certainly looked like a ghost!!! It was eerie! Then the smoke drifted away and he seemed more human once again…
He finished his smoke, drank his black tea and slowly collected his smoking accessories. He was slow but sure footed and I walked him to the door. It was the month of April, the time for some ferocious thunderstorms and as I opened the door, I found that the storm outside was on in full earnest.The ominous dark clouds were hanging low and brilliant flashes of lightening stuck at will, lighting up the hills like daytime for nanoseconds and then descend back to pitch darkness..
Every time the lightening stuck, I could clearly see the long straight road that leads out of the village. The old man bade me farewell and melted into the night. A second later, a series of lightening lit up the road but the old man had vanished. I ran out a few steps with the kerosene lantern in my hand which was promptly blown out by the strong wind but the lightening helped me on the way. There were no other paths so close to the house that the man could have had taken but he still disappeared like a phantom.
I suddenly realized that I was the only person out in the dark and with a blown out lantern in my hand!I promptly made my way back into the kitchen in double quick time and bolted the door nice and proper- as if it would keep the ghost out!
I usually dim out the fire when I sleep but that night, I rolled out my sleeping bag and mattress as close to the fire as I possibly could and put in a couple of extra big logs into the fire to keep it from going out. Sleep did not come easy but ultimately the soft sound of the rain on the thatch roof lulled me into a deep sleep.
In an overwhelming part of Nagaland, the concept of breakfast, as the world knows it, does not exist. The day starts very early in the mountains and the farmers eat a heavy meal of rice and assorted vegetable and meat and head off to the fields for the day.
But since I didn’t really want to eat a meal of rice at 7 in the morning, I killed my time by washing the mud off my bike very meticulously. All the while knowing that my efforts would go to waste and the bike would be back to its muddy glory within the first couple of kilometers.
9.30 seemed a much more acceptable time to eat a meal and I didn’t disappoint my host. I ate a good meal of rice, dried beef, corn soup and sweet potato. With a full stomach, I rode down to the border town of Sonari, between Assam and Nagaland.Somehow, most border towns have the same characters…narrow and dusty roads, crowded shanties, small shady liquor joints, local hero and strongmen. Sonari was no different.
I had to reach Dimapur, the commercial capital of Nagaland before sundown and I had to ride all of 300 kms or so. But the bike had different ideas and I had to spend the whole evening with a very enterprising mechanic who was able to fix the bike by around 7 in the evening.Dimapur seemed out of the reach now and I decided that i would hole up at Jorhat…about 100 kms away.
To reach Dimapur, I had to ride a rather lonely stretch of winding roads through a forest and I certainly wanted to avoid that at night. Wild elephants very often drift into the highway and on a bike I would be dead meat if I meet them at night.Elephants have excellent camouflage abilities and can melt into the night easily which means that I would probably see them at the eleventh hour. Hitting an elephant at night on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of a forest certainly doesn’t sound appealing.
The skies had looked ominous since midday. The dark storm clouds on the horizon made the night even darker.The bike’s headlight cut a bright lonely furrow through the dark narrow road. Thunders rolled like surround sound and the lightening lit up the horizon like no man made lights ever can. I seem to be the only one on the road but I was not unduly worried.
I have travelled on this particular stretch of road between Sivasagar and Jorhat, in Assam, more times than I care to remember.I have travelled on beat up buses, jeeps, filled to the brim taxis, hitched rides on trucks and rode motorcycles in the dead of the night.
Except for the routine police checks and some of the maniac truck drivers…both of which are highly avoidable, I rode without a care in the world every time- except this time.
The skies opened up earlier than I expected and huge big blobs of rain started falling. My off road helmet does not have a visor and the rain stung my face badly. The rain restricted my visibility and the high velocity wind made me cold and miserable.
Needing to stop, I pulled up under a huge old banyan tree, dismounted and stood under the branches. But the rain came in hard and thick and soon the branches and leaves were not able to stop the rain at all.
There were agricultural fields on both sides of the road and I noticed a thatch house in the fields, about 50 meters or so away. It was such a welcome sight and I hurried down the narrow muddy path that led to the house. As I opened the coppice gate, I saw the front door open and someone came out with a lantern.Only when I stepped into the mud plastered veranda, did I notice that it was an old man who held the lantern.
I asked if I could spend some time in his veranda and I will be gone when the rain lightens. He had no problems with that and invited me in for a cup of tea which I accepted gladly. Tea would be hot and reassuring.
I regretted my decision almost immediately.As soon as I put one foot inside the room, the hairs at the nape of my neck stood on their ends. This particular phenomenon of hair standing on ends had happened to me a few times before and each time it was a forewarning of some danger.
I still had one foot outside room and I stopped dead on my tracks. Inside the room, there was an old lady and a middle aged man sitting on cane chairs by a low table. There was a huge candle and a kerosene lantern with a glass chimney half darkened by soot.They had absolutely no expressions on their faces and their eyes looked like glass.
It looked as if they were waiting for me to walk in to their house. The flames on the candle and the lantern flickered wildly from the wind that came in howling through the open door and they threw up very weird shadows on the mud plastered wall behind them.
I felt the hairs on the nape of my neck stand on their end and I knew from previous experiences that this was not a good sign. A few years back during a hunting trip during the approved hunting season, a couple of friends and I were tracking a wounded wild boar which tried to hide in the undergrowth nearby.We approached the undergrowth and saw the boar….just waiting to be shot. Wild boars are very tough and dangerous animals that will fight to the finish and so the timid behavior of this particular boar intrigued me.
I should have given more thought to this strange behavior but the excitement of the hunt overtook me as my friend got the animal in his gun sight.It was then that I felt the hair on the nape of my neck stand on its edge.Danger was very near I knew it then.It suddenly dawned to me that the animal was setting us up and its partner must be nearby. From the corner of my left eye, I saw the other boar break cover from the bush and charge straight for me. It was a huge male with massive tasks and it chose its victim carefully. I was squatting in an awkward position and my gun was not in the ready.Not in a million years would I have got a shot off at the animal and so I ditched the gun, grabbed a low branch and pulled myself up just as it rushed past below me, grunting in anger. It never looked back and both the animals disappeared.
If not for the hair on my neck, the wild boar would have torn me up right through the middle with those massive and sharp tusks of his.
And here I was being invited for tea and the hairs started sending me a very strong signal to decline the invite and get out.
Maybe I was hallucinating, but the shadows on the mud wall started taking sinister shapes. And I started thinking that I could be laid out on that table for whatever purpose.The wind howled even more and a stranger stood at the door with one foot beyond the threshold did not evoke any emotions whatsoever from the old woman and the young man- neither in their face nor in their glassy eyes.
It suddenly became very chilly around the place where I stood. I withdrew my foot and gently told the old man with the lantern that I should leave as the rain seemed to be holding, which in realty was coming in even harder. Anything to get out of the place!
The old man would have none of it! I was astounded as he grabbed me by my elbow with his free hand and started pulling me inside. It was then that I really saw his face. He had very bushy joined eyebrow and there was hair sticking out of his ears. His deep voice was angry and hostile but his anger didn’t reach his eyes. They were expressionless and shiny like glass and the effect was accentuated by the light of the lantern he held.
I was wearing an armored motorcycle riding jacket and since the elbows had thick armor, he couldn’t really grab me strongly. I jerked his hand off and walked off very fast through the bridle path in the pouring rain and the oppressive, enveloping darkness.
He called twice in that deep hostile voice but I didn’t look back. It was the longest 50 meter walk and it took an eternity to reach my bike standing under the huge tree. I fumbled with the keys as my fingers were numb with cold and fear.The bike started in one go and as I dropped the clutch, I instinctively turned for one last look. The old man was still in the veranda, holding the flickering lantern. The night was dark but the area around the house seemed darker.
I rode a lonely 80 Km or so in the rain and checked into a hotel at Jorhat. It was a tiresome night but I didn’t think about the event anymore and slept like a log.
I have to go to that house again soon and will do that in the daytime I promised myself.For the life of me, I wouldn’t miss the spot as there were precious few huge trees in the area…like the one I stood under.
This is the route that I always take as I lead my motorcycle tours to Mon and beyond. I have travelled through the place another eleven times after that night and I always ride dead slow those few kilometers and stop near the spot.
I never saw the house again.
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