It is one of the unforgettable nights in my life. What happened that night has no logic. I still make futile attempts to give a reason for the incident that took place. Maybe Pooja was hallucinating… or maybe she was too drunk… or maybe…
I may never know…
I was in Bangalore for my training in Infosys. Being in the long cycle, and that too first time living at a place other than my home, obviously I was enjoying myself to the core. I had a great band of friends from my batch, Pooja and Seema staying with me in the PG*. Though our PG was centrally located, to reach a bus stop on the main road, we had to walk for around ten minutes. The connecting road to the main road is flanked with big bungalows on the left, from which I never saw a single soul coming out during the whole of my 4-months stay. On the right, there is a considerable stretch of grove, of which kind of tree, I do not know.
That road could not be called very crowded, but had a one or two persons walking here and there every now and then. We used to travel that way when we had to reach that main road, to go to a restaurant there. That night too, we were returning from a sumptuous dinner in that restaurant…
One of our walks along that road, we once saw a mirror hanging from a tamarind tree on the right pavement. Pooja being a believer in things such as ghosts and unsatisfied souls, shivered as she wondered what might be the reason for that mirror to get atop a tamarind tree. At that time, we all laughed at her, even teased her saying that it was put there to ward off a ghost, and that the ghost was going to come and catch her! And to our utter amazement, she actually believed it and was scared out of her wits!!!
Maybe, Pooja’s fears were justified…
That night I had treated my friends to a wonderful dinner. After enjoying thoroughly, the guys left for their homes in their bikes. Seema was staying at her aunt’s place that night, leaving only Pooja and me to get back to the PG. We both started walking back through the road that is the centre point of this story. We were in high spirits and giggling thinking about the jokes cracked that evening. I was teasing Pooja about the mirror tree, as we had come to call it. But deep inside, we were also anxious to get back to the safe confines of our PG, so our walk was fairly fast.
We neared the tamarind tree with the mirror. I turned to Pooja to crack a joke and found her gazing intently towards the tree. When I shook her she turned towards me and said, “That oldie must be mad! Who is going to buy anything from her basket at this hour?” I turned around a full circle to see if there was anyone else in sight. There was no one! Who was she talking about? “Hey Poo! There’s no one here! Whom are you talking about?” “What Mini? Can’t you see that old lady sitting under the tamarind tree? Oh no, she is beckoning us! What do we do? It’s getting late right? Shall we go our way?” I had no inkling of what was going on. All I could see under the tree was an old battered basket filled with dry leaves and dirt. But something was wrong here, that much I could understand. So I caught hold of Pooja by hand and quickened our pace. But instead of walking, she sat on the pavement looking tired. “Mini, I think I need some rest. I am feeling old and tired.” Saying this, she closed her eyes. Now I was thoroughly perplexed.
I was just wondering whether to go in search of an auto or call up a friend to come over and help, when Pooja opened her eyes again. “Poo, how are you feeling dear?” the question made her look at me in a very strange manner. She gave me wide grin and spoke in a piping voice in Kannada, “Girl, I sell poo*, but my name is Lakshmamma!” What the heck! My head was reeling in confusion. I knew for sure that Pooja did not know that language. Or had she learnt it without our knowledge? Even if that was the case, her voice was not hers! Sorry to confuse you people, but I mean Pooja has a very sweet voice usually. But the voice coming out of her now sounded like a squeaking old rusty iron gate!
“Poo! Don’t play yaar! Let’s go, we have office tomorrow! Stop this Lakshmi something drama yaar!”
This seemed to irritate Pooja. She got up and started walking towards the tree, but that was not the usual Pooja’s walk. She hunched and wobbled and walked very slowly, muttering, “Girls of today! They have no sense at all! When I was small I was never used to call anyone like this. We only called people mama and mami! And today, no respect remains! Its true, today’s world is going to dogs!”
“Lakshmamma, where do you come from?” I don’t know why I asked this or any logic behind it, but just decided to follow my intuition.
“I am from Bangarahalli,” replied Pooja, sitting down on a root of the tree. “I come here everyday to sell the flowers we grow at my village. Your king here is very kind. He has given us permission to do business in his city!”
Bangarahalli??? Though I am not from Bangalore, I have a fair knowledge of the places around here. But never have I heard about this place! And what king? Was she talking about the Chief Minister? I decided she must be talking about some landlord kind of person. Again on intuition, I asked her age.
“I don’t know. My husband used to say I am beautiful even at 60.” She blushed at the thought. “But that was four years ago. Four years back he died due to some strange disease. I don’t know what sin we did that the Goddess decided to take him away.” She took the edge of her sari and wiped her tears.
“Four years from now?” I was employing every bit of my mathematical prowess to calculate her age. “Yes! What else do you think I am saying then! You are very inquisitive girl. Buy your flower if you want to and go your way. I have a business to look after. If my husband had been there I would not have to sit here. Oh Prabho*! Why did u take him and leave me alone behind!”
Enough of this nonsense, I decided it was time to act. “See Lakshmamma, you are not alive now. You are dead!”
For a moment she looked really taken aback. Then with a smirk, she replied, “I knew something was wrong! You are mad girl! How can I be dead if you are talking to me? Go, Go away!”
A perfectly logical question from a perfectly illogical phenomenon! I caught hold of Pooja’s hand. It felt strangely cold. “See Amma. You have lived I think a century ago. These are not your times. You are not alive anymore”
She seemed to become very thoughtful at this. “That day I had finished my sales and was counting my earnings under the tree. That was when those men came up and beat me and took away my money. I did not give up without a fight! I confronted them like Jhansi Rani you know! Pricked them with my needle! My husband would have been proud had he been here!”
Her face lit up with pride as she fondly reminisced about her brave act.
“But they were too many for me! They hit me so much that I couldn’t get up for a long time. Then I got up and went home with my basket… but from that day, no one recognized me, until you today.”
“That is it! Those men murdered you Amma! You are dead! Now you must go to your husband!” I was sure I had become insane, but still, decided to follow my insanity.
“Husband? How will I find him? He is dead.”
“Just call out his name and think of him”, I don’t know till today what made me say that. I didn’t even want to think what would happen if it didn’t work!
Pooja closed her eyes and called out, “Kumarappa……” After a pause of few seconds, she cried aloud, “There he is! My husband has indeed come! Oh Kumarappa! How I missed you!” she ran forward with her arms stretched, made a dive, and fell back on the pavement, unconscious.
I looked around and ran towards the nearest gate and knocked it. I could here someone say inside, “Its come again. Go to sleep. It will knock for sometime and go away” I shouted aloud my name and that I wanted help. This made the gate open and the watchman inside gave me a scrutinizing look. I told him my friend was not feeling well, and he gave me some water. I ran back to Pooja and sprinkled water on her face.
She got up and looked around, and asked “Mini, what are we doing here! It’s so late! We have office tomorrow!”
A giant wave of relief swept over me. I told her that she had fallen down and become unconscious and made her stand up slowly. She told she was alright and would be able to walk, so I decided to go back and thank that watchman. After thanking, I asked him what was all that about the knocking.
“It lives on that tamarind tree madam. Potentially harmless, only disturbs us by knocking every now and then, or troubles any girl if they pass this way very late in the night. My grandfather said he saw it once when he worked here as watchman.”
On impulse, I told him it’s unlikely they’ll be troubled ever again, and started towards home with Pooja.
After training we were all posted here in Chennai. Last week, after nearly a year, I went to Bangalore for a function. I had to pass through that road again. The watchman was sitting out near the gate, and instantly recognized me. I was told that they had never again heard knocks after that night.
* poo – means flower in regional languages such as tamil, kannada etc.
* PG – Paying Guest house.
* Prabho – Lord