Well, I couldn't think of a better title. Finally, here is my prizewinning story. It was published in yesterday's Sunday Herald.
Feedback and criticism welcome - either in the comments section or to shruthi DOT hallucinations AT gmail DOT com. Thank you!
Update: DH has revamped its site and the above link doesn't work any more. Until I find the time to find the new link, here is the story.
Update 2: The link is working now, but the story is here anyway.
Vivek threw his backpack down on the rock, flexed his shoulders, and put his hands on his hips. "We are lost", he announced with an air of finality. Aditi didn't answer. She had known that for the last one hour.
They were on a trek to Mailari hills with an adventure group. Raghav, a veteran trekker, was leading. Right at the beginning, Raghav had warned them of the confusing foliage of Mailari hills and had asked everybody to stick together at all times. It had been going well, until Vivek and Aditi, who were trailing, stopped to photograph some pretty yellow flowers peeping shyly from behind a rock.
When they looked up, the others were nowhere in sight. It had happened so suddenly that they were taken by surprise. They could still hear the others, and they called out loudly. But the wind was blowing towards them, and their voices just died in the wind. They ran up the track they had been following, but they reached nowhere.
They pulled out their mobile phones. No signal. This place was miles from any town. Nevertheless they fiddled with their phones for sometime, hoping that miraculously, they would catch the signal from some nearby tower, but to no avail.
The plan had been to stay at the rooms at the Mailareshwara temple at the summit of Mailari hills. So, Vivek reasoned, if they just followed the incline upwards, they would reach the top at some point, from where they would surely catch sight of the temple.
Accordingly, they had trudged up the incline, but the track had suddenly dipped, then curved and forked, and they seemed to be going in circles. Aditi was sure that they had passed the same creeper-covered tree at least thrice.
They then reached a small clearing in the foliage, where there was a broad, flat rock. It was here that they now sat, contemplating their next move.
It was almost six in the evening, and was getting dark. They ought to have been at the temple premises by now. The others had probably already reached.
"I still don't believe it", Aditi said. "Haven't they realized we have been left behind?”
"We were trailing, remember?" Vivek said. "It would have taken some time before they discovered that we weren't with them. I am sure Raghav will come looking for us once they find us missing."
"He had better. I am not very comfortable with the thought of spending the night in the jungle."
"There aren't any wild animals in these hills."
"So? Wild animals or not, do you really want to spend the night on this rock? There might be snakes – or poisonous insects."
"We might not have a choice."
"Raghav will come for us." Aditi's tone was final.
They sat on the rock, looking out at the stunning landscape that was fading rapidly in the receding sunlight. A sudden gust of wind ruffled their hair and rustled the leaves in the trees. Aditi shivered.
"Maybe we should try to find a way to the temple, one last time", ventured Vivek.
"No", said Aditi, "It's getting very dark. Besides, if they come looking for us, they have a better chance of finding us if we are in one place."
Vivek didn't argue with that logic. For all his bravado, he was getting jittery.
The sun had gone down. They could barely see anything even a few feet away. Unfamiliar noises punctuated the silence, and unseen insects called out intermittently.
The whispering sounds of the shadowy forests set Aditi quivering with terror. She drew her legs close to her body, and hugged them tight. Vivek drew closer to Aditi, and put a comforting arm around her.
"I can't hear anything, and I can't see anything", Aditi said, miserably. "Perhaps we should light a fire.”
"Raghav has explicitly warned us against it, Aditi. A lot of dry leaves in this area. And winds too. There are high chances of a forest fire."
"But I can't bear it, Vivek - "
Aditi looked in the direction Vivek was pointing. Through the trees, they could see a faint light bobbing up and down.
A spasm of fear shot up through her spine before she realized what it could be.
"They have come! They found us!" Aditi exclaimed. She stood up and waved her arms, jumping. "Here! We are here!"
The light came closer. Out of the trees emerged a man, holding a lantern. It was not anybody they knew.
He was a middle-aged man, cleanshaven, greying slightly around his temples. He had a large mole on his nose. He was dressed in a brown jubba of a coarse fabric, and was wearing a faded white dhoti.
"Lost?" He asked.
"Yes", said Vivek, "We got separated from the rest of our group. We are supposed to stay at the Mailareshwara temple premises tonight. Can you tell us how to reach the place?"
The man nodded. "I'll take you there. Follow me."
It was as if someone had infused new life into Aditi and Vivek. They stood up quickly and picked up their things. The man had already started off through the trees, and they walked swiftly to catch up with him.
"This is not an easy forest to navigate if you are new to it", said the man. "But it is gorgeous, don't you think?" He looked over his shoulder. "The Western Ghats are home to some of the most beautiful and rare species of plants in the world."
Vivek and Aditi struggled to keep pace with him.
"Do you live in these forests?" Vivek asked.
"Oh, close by", said the man with a vague wave of his free hand. "Watch your step. That stretch is slippery."
The man turned, and held the lantern high in the air to light up their way. The light from the lantern fell on his sharp features, casting deep shadows on his face. It gave his features an unearthly look.
He resumed walking, soundlessly and effortlessly. He strode through the bushes and rocks and trees as comfortably as if he were walking in his home, amidst familiar furniture.
“Have you lived here a long time?" Aditi asked.
They continued the night-time trek. Leaves and branches brushed against them from time to time, startling them. The walk seemed endless. Aditi started getting apprehensive.
"How are you sure he is taking us to the temple? " She whispered to Vivek. "What if he takes us somewhere else and robs us?"
"You watch too many movies. Don't worry." Vivek was hurrying to keep the man in sight.
The man continued to glide along, pointing out shrubs and trees in the darkness.
"This is a silk-cotton tree", he said, indicating a massive, dark figure. "It has sharp thorns on its trunk. According to mythology, a Rakshasa, running away from his pursuers, climbed the tree, and as he did so, plucked off his teeth and stuck them on the trunk of the tree so that they couldn't climb up after him."
"Interesting!" Vivek exclaimed.
"That is a very old tamarind tree. You know what they say about tamarind trees, don't you?"
"That ghosts live in it?" Aditi said.
"Yes!" The man said. "Have you met any ghosts in your life?"
"Hmmm. Well, there is always a first time."
Aditi looked at Vivek questioningly. But it was too dark to make out his expression.
The man glanced over his shoulder. "Don't you believe in ghosts?"
"That's good. It wouldn't have been easy sitting all alone in the darkness if you did."
They didn't answer. Aditi had taken Vivek's arm. She was feeling uneasy. Her heart was thudding, whether with the effort of walking or with panic, she couldn't say.
It was pitch dark by now. A cicada called out persistently from somewhere. The man slowed down, holding the lantern aloft. It cast terrifying shadows in the murky jungle, and Vivek and Aditi walked close together, slowly, and guardedly.
The moon was a tiny sliver in the night sky. The thick forest seemed to press in upon them in the darkness.
“I can't bear it any more.” Aditi was in tears.
"Is it a long way off?" Vivek asked. He was also restless now.
They stepped out into a large clearing. They could see the indistinct form of a temple gopura, silhouetted against the night sky. A path led from where they stood to a low parapet, which seemed to form the boundary of the temple premises.
The man stopped. "There it is."
Aditi felt a flood of relief wash over her. She couldn't wait to get to the predictability of a man-made structure.
Vivek turned to the man. "I don't know how to thank you. If not for you....."
The man smiled. "Not a big deal. Your companions would have rescued you anyway. Now hurry. They will be waiting for you."
"Back home!" The man's eyes twinkled, and he waved them away.
Aditi and Vivek stepped out on to the path that led to the temple, and nearly ran towards the reassuring structure.
They jumped over the waist-high parapet. About fifty feet away was the back of the temple. From behind that came the sound of voices, and a vague, hazy, glow of light.
Vivek turned back to see if the man was still there. He wasn't, and neither could he see the light of the lantern. Vivek shuddered.
They went round the temple, the walls of which were carved with large, grotesque figures that seemed to look down upon them in disapproval. Aditi felt an uncomfortable tingling at the back of her neck, and fear was still stuck in her throat. They hurried past the crude figures. It was clear that this temple wasn't famed for its architectural beauty, but for the setting it was in. It was obvious that, come morning, the sights from there would be a wonder to behold.
They arrived at a courtyard, flanked on one side by the temple, and open to the hills on the opposite side. The other two sides had large buildings built in the style of old homes, with a raised platform supported by pillars, covered with a tiled, sloping roof. From the platform, small doors opened out into shadowy little rooms. These were probably the rooms they would stay in that night, Vivek thought.
There was activity, and the sound of vessels from one of the rooms nearby. A heavenly aroma of freshly cooked food wafted towards them, and they realized how hungry they were.
A couple of string cots and mats were spread out in the middle of the courtyard, and some lanterns lent a pale glow to the atmosphere. Their friends were sitting there, talking animatedly. Aditi felt a sudden pang. Hadn't they thought of going in search of their lost companions?
On the raised platform, leaning against a pillar, sat a very old man. He was dressed in a white dhoti, and a beige shawl covered his upper torso. His yellowing hair was tied up in a small knot at the back of his head. A moustache nearly covered his mouth, and his beard reached his chest. He was deeply engrossed in a book.
Vivek and Aditi walked up to their group, relief written all over their faces. Someone in the group looked up and exclaimed loudly. The next moment, a few had clambered to their feet, and a couple of them trotted up to the them, welcoming them warmly.
There was a flurry of voices.
"Where were you? We turned and you were gone!"
"How did you find your way back?"
Raghav spoke. "I went back along the track as soon as I realized that you were missing. You seemed to have disappeared without a trace."
Vivek said, "We were trying to find our way. We must have been somewhere in the trees when you came looking for us."
"Oh", said Raghav. "Anyway, I dropped the others here, and then went back immediately with Vasant. I couldn't find my way. It was getting dark, and so I came back for stronger torches or lanterns. Shastrigalu --" He pointed to the old man sitting against the pillar. "The priest, Shastrigalu, said that there was no need for us to go looking for you – that you would come back on your own."
"I didn't really believe him.” Raghav continued softly. “At this very moment, I was making plans of going back into the forest in search of you."
He resumed in his normal voice. "We were worried. Great to see you back safe. Not a very pleasant place, this. Unnerving, don't you think? Anyway, how did you find your way back?"
Aditi answered. "We met a man who led us here."
"A man, quite creepy, I should say. He had a mole on his nose, he said he lived in the forest."
"I knew he wouldn't fail you.” Shastrigalu spoke suddenly.
The voice was very strong for such an old man. Everybody turned and looked at the priest.
He spoke again. "I knew he would find you and bring you here, safe. That is why I asked this young man not to take the trouble of going back to look for you."
"Oh, do you know that man?" Vivek asked.
"Everybody knows him", said the priest, paused, and then added mysteriously, "And yet, nobody really knows him."
"What do you mean? Have you met him?" Vivek pressed.
"Oh yes, I meet him all the time. The first time I met him was many years ago, when I was a boy of eight or so. My father was the priest of this temple then. I had gone to the jungle looking for Kaulikayi, and had got lost. This man showed me the way back."
Vivek laughed. "Oh, then it cannot be the same person, Shastrigale! This was a middle-aged man, much younger than you are!"
Shastrigalu smiled. His mouth appeared from behind the yellow beard. There were spaces where his teeth used to be.
His voice dropped to a chilling whisper. He enunciated each word slowly and deliberately. "It is the same man", he said. "He was middle-aged then, he is middle-aged now. He will be middle-aged long after you and I are gone."
The night suddenly seemed to grow cold. His words hung uncomfortably in the air, thick with silence. A breeze rustled the leaves in the trees. Cicadas chirped from somewhere, and the hissing kerosene stoves from the kitchen were not heard any longer.
Aditi's heart throbbed.
"Is he... is he a ghost?"
Shastrigalu smiled. "Call him what you want. A ghost, a guiding spirit – how does it matter?"
There was a hush. Vivek and Aditi looked at each other. Nobody spoke.
"You don't believe me, do you?" Shastrigalu asked. He smiled and shut the book.
Vivek had trouble finding his voice. “Are you.... quite sure that he is the same man that you met when you were a boy? Perhaps you had met this man's father?"
"You youngsters ask too many questions."
Shastrigalu got up with some effort. He picked up the walking stick which was leaning against the pillar.
"There need not be an explanation for everything, you know."
He shuffled through the corridor. "Now, go and have dinner." He paused and looked sidelong at them. "You have a long night ahead of you. A very..... long...... night."
Everybody looked on uncertainly as Shastrigalu continued on his way.
At the far end of the dark corridor, there was a movement. A figure seemed to appear out of the darkness. It approached Shastrigalu noiselessly. As it came nearer, they discerned it to be the figure of a man. As the man drew closer, they caught a glimpse of his face by the light of the lanterns.
The man had a large mole on his nose.
Aditi gasped and clutched Vivek's arm. There was a sharp intake of breath from someone in the gathering.
The activity from the kitchen had ceased.
The man came closer. Everybody seemed to be rooted to the ground.
Shastrigalu, who had been walking away unsteadily, stopped and turned around. "Hmmm. I didn't mention that he lives here, did I? I hope this will not change your plans for the night. Not that you have anywhere else to go."
There was a deafening silence, for what seemed like an eternity.
A sudden and dramatic laughter rang out, breaking the silence. It was the man with the mole.
“Appa, just look at their faces!” He said.
There was confusion. Everybody turned to look at Shastrigalu. He was shaking with noiseless laughter.
“Appa, now they probably think you are a ghost too! A father-son ghost duo!” The man with the mole laughed even louder.
The priest's laughter turned into a spasm of coughing. When it subsided, he spoke in a hoarse voice. "This is Bhaskara. My son. Knows the forest like the back of his hand. I sent him to bring the two of you back."
He continued. "You youngsters claim to have modern views, analytical thinking. You claim not to believe in the supernatural." He paused. "Got frightened anyway, didn't you?"
Shastrigalu shook his head slowly, turned again, leaned on his cane and started hobbling away. He looked over his shoulder. The group was still standing there, looking after him, open-mouthed.
His toothless mouth appeared again from behind his beard.
"What are you looking at me like that for? Aren't old people allowed to have a sense of humour?"
Bhaskara was now laughing so much that he had to hold on to a pillar to support himself.
"It never fails to work!" He said, wiping the tears from his eyes. "Just trying to add a little spice to a lonely life, you see. You must excuse our little joke. Now come, the dinner is getting cold!"