A lone passenger alighted on the deserted railway platform and stretched his limbs. In the mid-January cold, the blaring horn of the departing train slashed the silence of the gloomy night and disturbed the meditation of the sleeping crows. No one stirred in the distant sleeping village of Lakhanpur.
Joseph slapped his chest and arms to keep himself warm on the freezing platform. No one in Bombay told him that it would be so cold in this backwater! He was wearing a tee-shirt and light summer trousers, totally unsuitable for the North Indian winter. He had a blanket and an inflatable pillow in his suitcase, but laughed at the idea of himself walking alone in the dead of the night, wrapped in a blanket like a walking corpse. He shivered and crossed himself involuntarily. The train had gone and the crows had settled for the night, secure in the belief that their peace will not be disturbed for the next 20 hours, when another train will arrive.
Joseph was a Medical Representative for a reputed medical firm. His job profile included long travels, which he hated. There was a small hospital in this sleepy village, which had complained piteously to the Health Ministry about lack of medical supplies and begged for some attention. The huge machinery of government slowly moved into action, as the elections were near and his firm received a ‘suggestion’ from the Health Minister to scout the area. As it was a thankless job, it was dumped in his lap Joseph thought bitterly. He looked around morosely in the darkness, where the trees stood like ghostly sentries in the dim light of the vaning moon. It was looking more like a graveyard than a thriving village, as his lying manager has assured him.
“Macha, it’s a beautiful place. Nice scenery and good food. Wish I could go, da!” Saravanan M, Area Sales Manager had said unconvincingly, when Joseph protested for this trip. ‘Up yours, you rascal!’ he thought viciously, peering hopelessly in the impenetrable darkness.
He stepped out of the unmanned gate of the station and walked through the deserted street, the eerie echo of his footfalls reverberating off the brooding shadows of the houses lining the street. He shivered with cold and fear. He stopped near a shop, pulled out a hip-flask from his pocket and took a hearty swig of neat Old Monk rum. The elixir burned from his gullet to stomach and warmed him. He looked around. The faded, hand-painted board of the shop proclaimed ‘Chhenu Misthan Bhandar’. There was a large earthen oven with still hot coals and ashes of the evening smoking in bitter chill. Joseph cursed colorfully, taking another swig of rum. He damned his boss, Indian Railways, the Health Minister, his estranged wife and the cursed village of Lakhanpur in general and kicked the oven in anger.
Something small and black shot from the oven at him and he screamed!
The small, black, mangy dog was as startled as Joseph – who collapsed on the road with a loud cry, wild-eyed – and scampered whining in the darkness. Joseph sat on the ground for a full minute, staring after the vanished apparition in disbelief, trying to settle his thumping heart which was ready to burst off his breast. Then he slowly stood up, described the ancestry of the mongrel in an unmentionable language, let loose another expletive for Saravanan for good luck and drained the remaining rum at one go. The fiery liquid heralded ‘Inquilab Zindabad’ all the way to his stomach and he got up unsteadily. He looked for his suitcase and started walking on the desolate road. The sick moon tried to illuminate the bleak world half heartedly, and failed.
His feet hit something which jangled on the dusty road. He took out his cellphone and tried to peer in its light. He found an antique and broken bracelet and picked it up. It looked valuable. He was examining it in detail, when the battery of the phone expired with a plaintive moan. He rolled his eyes towards heaven in despair. He didn’t have a hope of network here, but those who own a cellphone will realize what a comfort it is to have it with us, even though without network. At least one can play Candy Crush and bombard one’s unfortunate friends with horrible game requests once in network! He kept it in his pocket, shook his hip flask expectantly and threw it when was sure that it’s empty. Suddenly he froze on the spot.
His senses, heightened by half a bottle of rum and an unnamed fear, screamed a warning. He sensed that he wasn’t alone. It’s disconcerting to find oneself in the middle of the night on a lonely street and to feel that someone is stalking you. Someone invisible and menacing. All the horror stories and movies replay themselves in your mind with an alarming clarity, with you being the unfortunate victim. Nothing but his eyeballs moved in search of the intruder. It’s a primitive instinct alluded to our hunting ancestors no doubt, which compels us to freeze in case of extreme fear. In the hope that we will become invisible to the predator. People have died trying this trick before train engines and wives. The writer advises to not to try this at home.
One of the shadows detached itself and moved forward. Behind it, he heard a snorting sound and realized that it’s just a horse cart and it’s driver. He breathed in relief, ashamed of his fears. The driver was swathed in a blanket and his eyes were sunken in shadows. He had a horse whip in his hand. Joseph asked him to drive him to a hotel. The driver just kept staring. Joseph was impatient and asked rudely, “Is there any inn or hotel in this godforsaken place where I can rest? I need to visit the Civil Hospital in the morning. My train was eight hours late. And, what’s wrong with the electricity? Is Lakhanpur so backward?”
The driver kept staring for an eternity and then replied in a weird accent. In a voice, which sounded as if emanating from a deep well with no bottom. “This is not Lakhanpur, my lord. This is Hazaratganj. I cannot take you to the inn in this village , because there’s no village anymore. Nader Shah Durrani killed everyone in this village last week. Including me. Now they are coming for you.” and he looked behind warily and hurried away.
Joseph looked at him with an expression of dawning horror and backed away. His subconscious mind recalled reading somewhere that Hazaratganj was renamed Lakhanpur after Nader Shah of Durrani decimated it in 1739 AD. His train did drop him at the right place. Just 300 years too early.
He turned and ran desperately towards the railway station, lugging his heavy suitcase. He could hear the clatter of horse hooves. He looked over his shoulder and saw the macabre steeds with their ghostly riders swinging swords and mesh, hot in pursuit. His lungs were near bursting but he kept running, in the hope to reach the station. There must be some official, who can protect him from these ghostly assailants and explain this bizarre phenomenon. He screeched to a halt. A grove of trees stretched to the horizon, where the station concourse had been around 30 minutes ago.
Joseph looked behind in abject terror. The riders were approaching in the light of the pale moon, the eyes of their steeds glowing red as ambers. Suddenly the horse cart drew parallel to him and the rider screamed, “Saheb, get up! Quick!… “
Joseph tried to jump and banged his head at the bottom of the upper bunk. He looked around, bewildered while his fellow passengers laughed.
“Were you dreaming, saheb? We will reach Lakhanpur in five minutes. You asked us to wake you.” the rustic said toothily. Joesph tried to control his breathing and palpitations and picked up his suitcase. The nightmare was too surreal!
The Tinsukia Passenger was eight hours late. Later than it’s regular five hours. It arrived at the remote village of Lakhanpur at 1.30 pm. The platform was burning in mid-summer heat of May. The crows were perched in a trance on the unmanned gate of the station, silently meditating like those sadhus at the ghats of Benaras.
A lone passenger alighted on the deserted railway platform and stretched his limbs. He kept his suitcase on the platform and thrust his hand in his pocket to pull out his packet of cigarettes when his hand closed on a round object. He pulled it out and stared at it in raw terror…
It was an antique and broken bracelet of no little value.