One night Mahendra woke up from his sleep and
saw "a dark cloudy form". He broke out into a cold
sweat. Was it a ghost?
Author: R.K. LAXMAN
THE story was narrated to Ganesh by a young man, Mahendra by
name. He was a junior supervisor in a firm which offered on hire
supervisors at various types of construction sites: factories, bridges,
dams, and so on. Mahendra's job was to keep an eye on the activities
at the work site. He had to keep moving from place to place every
now and then as ordered by his head office: from a coal mining
area to a railway bridge construction site, from there after a few
months to a chemical plant which was coming up somewhere.
He was a bachelor. His needs were simple and he was able to
adjust himself to all kinds of odd conditions, whether it was an
ill-equipped circuit house or a makeshift canvas tent in the
middle of a stone quarry. But one asset he had was his cook,
Iswaran. The cook was quite attached to Mahendra and followed
him uncomplainingly wherever he was posted. He cooked for
Mahendra, washed his clothes and chatted away with his master
at night. He could weave out endless stories and anecdotes on
Iswaran also had an amazing capacity to produce vegetables
and cooking ingredients, seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle
of a desolate landscape with no shops visible for miles around.
He would miraculously conjure up the most delicious dishes made
with fresh vegetables within an hour of arriving at the zinc-sheet
shelter at the new workplace.
Mahendra would be up early in the morning and leave for
work after breakfast, carrying some prepared food with him.
Meanwhile Iswaran would tidy up the shed, wash the clothes,
and have a leisurely bath, pouring several buckets of water over
his head, muttering a prayer all the while. It would be lunchtime
by then. After eating, he would read for a while before dozing
off. The book was usually some popular Tamil thriller running
to hundreds of pages. Its imaginative descriptions and narrative
flourishes would hold Iswaran in thrall.
His own descriptions were greatly influenced by the Tamil
authors that he read. When he was narrating even the smallest
of incidents, he would try to work in suspense and a surprise
ending into the account. For example, instead of saying that
he had come across an uprooted tree on the highway, he would
say, with eyebrows suitably arched and hands held out in a
dramatic gesture, "The road was deserted and I was all alone.
Suddenly I spotted something that looked like an enormous
bushy beast lying sprawled across the road. I was half inclined
to turn and go back. But as I came closer I saw that it was a
fallen tree, with its dry branches spread out." Mahendra would
stretch himself back in his canvas chair and listen to Iswaran's
"The place I come from is famous for timber," Iswaran would
begin. "There is a richly wooded forest all around. The logs are
hauled on to the lorries by elephants. They are huge well-fed
beasts. When they turn wild even the most experienced mahout
is not able to control them." After this prologue Iswaran would
launch into an elaborate anecdote involving an elephant.
"One day a tusker escaped from the timber yard and began to
roam about, stamping on bushes, tearing up wild creepers and
breaking branches at will. You know, sir, how an elephant behaves
when it goes mad." Iswaran would get so caught up in the
excitement of his own story that he would get up from the floor
and jump about, stamping his feet in emulation of the mad elephant.
"The elephant reached the outskirts of our town; breaking the
fences down like matchsticks," he would continue. "It came into
the main road and smashed all the stalls selling fruits, mud pots
and clothes. People ran helter-skelter in panic! The elephant now
entered a school ground where children were playing, breaking
through the brick wall. All the boys ran into the classrooms and
shut the doors tight. The beast grunted and wandered about,
pulling out the football goal-post, tearing down the volleyball net,
kicking and flattening the drum kept for water, and uprooting
the shrubs. Meanwhile all the teachers had climbed up to the
terrace of the school building; from there they helplessly watched
the depredations of the elephant. There was not a soul below on
the ground. The streets were empty as if the inhabitants of the
entire town had suddenly disappeared.
"I was studying in the junior class at that time, and was
watching the whole drama from the rooftop. I don't know what
came over me suddenly. I grabbed a cane from the hands of one
of the teachers and ran down the stairs and into the open. The
elephant grunted and menacingly swung a branch of a tree which
it held in its trunk. It stamped its feet, kicking up a lot of mud
and dust. It looked frightening. But I moved slowly towards it,
stick in hand. People were watching the scene hypnotised from
nearby housetops. The elephant looked at me red-eyed, ready to
rush towards me. It lifted its trunk and trumpeted loudly. At that
moment I moved forward and, mustering all my force, whacked
its third toenail on the quick. The beast looked stunned for a
moment; then it shivered from head to foot — and collapsed."
At this point Iswaran would leave the story unfinished, and
get up mumbling, "I will be back after lighting the gas and warming
up the dinner." Mahendra who had been listening with rapt
attention would be left hanging. When he returned, Iswaran
would not pick up the thread of the story right away. Mahendra
would have to remind him that the conclusion was pending.
Well, a veterinary doctor was summoned to revive the animal,"
Iswaran would shrug casually. "Two days later it was led away by
its mahout to the jungle.
Well, how did you manage to do it, Iswaran — how did you
bring down the beast?
It has something to do with a Japanese art, I think, sir. Karate
or ju-jitsu it is called. I had read about it somewhere. It temporarily
paralyses the nervous system, you see.
Not a day passed without Iswaran recounting some story
packed with adventure, horror and suspense. Whether the story
was credible or not, Mahendra enjoyed listening to it because
of the inimitable way in which it was told. Iswaran seemed to
more than make up for the absence of a TV in Mahendra's
One morning when Mahendra was having breakfast Iswaran
asked, "Can I make something special for dinner tonight, sir?
After all today is an auspicious day — according to tradition we
prepare various delicacies to feed the spirits of our ancestors
That night Mahendra enjoyed the most delicious dinner and
complimented Iswaran on his culinary skills. He seemed very
pleased but, unexpectedly, launched into a most garish account
involving the supernatural.
You know, sir, this entire factory area we are occupying was
once a burial ground," he started. Mahendra was jerked out of
the pleasant reverie he had drifted into after the satisfying meal.
"I knew on the first day itself when I saw a human skull lying
on the path. Even now I come across a number of skulls and
bones," Iswaran continued.
He went on to narrate how he sometimes saw ghosts at night.
"I am not easily frightened by these things, sir. I am a brave
fellow. But one horrible ghost of a woman which appears off
and on at midnight during the full moon... It is an ugly creature
with matted hair and a shrivelled face, like a skeleton holding a
foetus in its arms."
Mahendra shivered at the description and interrupted rather
sharply, "You are crazy, Iswaran. There are no such things as
ghosts or spirits. It is all a figment of your imagination. Get your
digestive system examined -- and maybe your head as well. You
are talking nonsense."
He left the room and retired for the night, expecting Iswaran
to sulk for a couple of days. But the next morning he was surprised
to find the cook as cheerful and talkative as ever.
From that day on Mahendra, for all his brave talk, went to bed
with a certain unease. Every night he peered into the darkness
outside through the window next to his bed, trying to make sure
that there was no movement of dark shapes in the vicinity. But
he could only see a sea of darkness with the twinkling lights of
the factory miles away.
He had always liked to admire the milk-white landscape on
full-moon nights. But after hearing Iswaran's story of the female
ghost he avoided looking out of his window altogether when the
moon was full.
One night, Mahendra was woken up from his sleep by a low
moan close to his window. At first he put it down to a cat
prowling around for mice. But the sound was too guttural for a
cat. He resisted the curiosity to look out lest he should behold
a sight which would stop his heart. But the wailing became
louder and less feline. He could not resist the temptation any
more. Lowering himself to the level of the windowsill he looked
out at the white sheet of moonlight outside. There, not too far
away, was a dark cloudy form clutching a bundle. Mahendra
broke into a cold sweat and fell back on the pillow, panting.
As he gradually recovered from the ghastly experience he
began to reason with himself, and finally concluded that it
must have been some sort of auto suggestion, some trick that
his subconscious had played on him.
By the time he had got up in the morning, had a bath and
come out to have his breakfast, the horror of the previous night
had faded from his memory. Iswaran greeted him at the door
with his lunch packet and his bag. Just as Mahendra was
stepping out Iswaran grinned and said, "Sir, remember the other
day when I was telling you about the female ghost with a foetus
in its arms, you were so angry with me for imagining things?
Well, you saw her yourself last night. I came running hearing
the sound of moaning that was coming from your room..."
A chill went down Mahendra's spine. He did not wait for
Iswaran to complete his sentence. He hurried away to his office
and handed in his papers, resolving to leave the haunted place
the very next day!
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