The Story: An Evening in Chamoli
I could feel tremors. I rushed through the hilly pine forest back to the main road but my car was no longer there. It was dusk and my water bottle was empty. I was starving because the food was in the car. There was no mobile network. Suddenly I saw someone coming down from the hilly woods. I didn’t know whether to rejoice or be careful. The man jumped down and stood still. Then he said, “This must be one of the greatest miracles, what on earth are you doing here, at this hour? Your habit of exploring the Himalayas is still intact.’’
The voice; I knew it so well. It was already dark and I couldn’t see his face clearly. “Do I know you?” I asked. “I lost my way, I have to return to Niti Village, however, the nearest will do for tonight. Could you please help?”
“There has been a disaster today, Power Project dams snapped off due to a deluge from an avalanche. Tapovan Bridge is broken due to flood. All roads are closed.” He flashed the torch light on his face as he said this. And yes it was the greatest coincidences of all times.
He was Om Tandon, my college mate. I leaped and hugged him. At this moment he was my ray of hope, the messiah.
“From top I saw a lady wearily walking. You didn’t look like a local. It’s difficult to find any vehicle today. I wanted to help. Then I took a good look as I was climbing down and to my surprise, I found you.” Om said with a smile. “I run a home stay on the hill top. Come with me. We will take the short cut. Though the road is a little difficult, it’s manageable.”
We climbed through the pitch-dark woods. After climbing for half an hour, we reached the top. Due to the disaster, there was a power cut. The cell phone went off. My power bank was in the car. The wind was blowing and the chill was cutting through my skin. After entering the bungalow Om lit up some candles and lanterns. He handed me a blanket to wrap myself and some chocolate bars to eat for warmth and reviving my energy.
Om, from Uttarakhand, was the most helpful boy of the class. His dream was to convert his grandfather’s imperial bungalow at Chamoli into a rustic yet luxurious homestay. He was an absolute bookworm and a terrific social worker.
“So, this is your grandfather’s bungalow and now your homestay?” I asked. “Indeed!! The place is closed right now because of COVID. With Maa here, I am taking no risk. She is in her seventies. Anyway, I will cook you some basic dinner. You have no choice”, Om said with a wry smile.
He was quick and served me some eggs and Maggi noodles. I always find noodles tasting better in the hills and the pangs of hunger I experienced a little earlier made me rank this to be the world’s best Maggi. Om didn’t eat with me. He said he already had his dinner. In the mountains they start and end their day really early.
We met after fifteen long years. We had loads to talk about. We spoke of our college days, laughed aloud. It started raining outside with a sudden gush of air that blew out the lanterns outside. The raindrops knocked the glass windows. “This is a perfect set up for a horror story”, I exclaimed. “No dear. Why not a love story?”, Om replied with his eyes absolutely fixed on mine. “What is it with you and ghosts? Out of the six novels you have written, four of them are ghost stories. Did you ever meet one?” Om burst into laughter mockingly.
“Nah! I wish I could. But I guess they don’t actually exist,” I snapped at him. “They do exist but they are not always evil, like the ones in your novels”, he said with a faint curl on his lips. “You need to rest. I can’t find the keys to the rooms upstairs. You use my room, the one to the right of the hall. I will manage here.”
I took the torch and walked to the room he pointed at. There was no way that the electric supply would be back any time soon. I took a good look of the room. A room with simple furniture but filled with books. I was surprised to see all the six of my novels on one of the shelves. I was dead tired and dozed off the moment I rested my head on the pillow. I woke up with the break of dawn. Sun rays poured in through the glass windows.
Om was missing. The rooms upstairs and the kitchen were all locked. I went out of the bungalow and started looking for him around the bungalow. “Good morning, Om. Om? Where are you?” I shouted. A thin young boy shouted back from far across, “Madam, who are you looking for?” I replied, “Hello, I am Om’s friend. I came here with him yesterday evening.” The guy looked pale and with wondering eyes said, “Madam Om Sir couldn’t have brought you here.” Angrily I replied, “You mean I am lying?”
“Madam Om Sir is dead. He was volunteering and helping out corona patients and finally got infected and expired last month. His mom was in her brother’s house since lock down. Poor old lady, she lost her only son and couldn’t even see his face for the last time.” he started crying. “I am the caretaker. Yesterday when I heard of the dam falling down, I rushed to the village because my brother works there. Fortunately, he didn’t go to work yesterday. I forgot to lock the main door in a hurry. So I came back early today. But Om Sir…how?” He scratched his head disoriented. I thought I was dreaming. This couldn’t be real. “I slept in his room. He asked me to. He said he would sleep outside.” I spoke these words as if in a trance. The young boy instantly dashed inside the bungalow calling out to me, “Madam please come and see. I remember I had locked his room.”
Yes, the room was locked from outside.