The huge mountains loom over us and clouds move ever so slow hugging the tips of the mountain. There is gushing water flowing in the valley below. It is evening time and the air so fresh and the backdrop of the Himalayas simply majestic. Monica and I step through the bushes down to where the water is as the rest of the class drinks and eats in their snack break by the bus. We simply walk as the roar of the water get louder and louder. As we reach the bottom of the hill, we hear a loud noise from above. It is Shelley. She says something but we are too far to hear or care about.
The water is sliding up and down the rocks with so much speed that it feels there is a thick surf of foam on the surface of it. I can feel happiness rise and fall inside my heart like orchestra. We sit there for a few minutes. Then we start to collect rocks with salt sediments on it. When we go back up we are scolded by the teacher for running away like that. We giggle. Monica and I have been best friends for several years. After the tough preparation for the board exams, this school trip to the Himalayas is a much needed break. We climb back into the school bus laughing and cracking jokes. Happiness is an emotion that knows no end. As the bus starts to move we stare out into the light fog that is developing as the evening is progressing into the night.
At the hotel darkness shrouds the mountains but not sound of the gushing water from the open window of our crammed hotel room. I am happy beyond measure. Next day we slip out of the charades game into the fields outside our hotel. We run into the wilderness shouting and screaming. Both of us clad in denim blue jeans are inseparable and uncontrollable and this is perfect opportunity to exercise our want to break free. As we stop by the small stream of water, Monica starts talking about how Ram threw up in class when her pet frog jumped out of her bag. The whole class started screaming when the frog (Teddy) jumped around. I hold her arm to stop myself from turning over and my eyes water as we laugh so hard our stomachs would burst open. All of a sudden I see smile on Monica’s face turn into a deadpan expression as though she has seen a ghost. Her gaze is fixated on the right of my shoulder. I get scared and move to turn around and look and I do not understand why but she stops me and asks me to wait. I do as asked. I stare at her face begging her to say something. She holds me for about a couple of minutes and then says, “Look” pointing right behind me.
I turn around and find a small dingy looking house in the middle of the woods on the other side of the stream. Its shape and color make it easy for it to camouflage, no wonder we didn’t notice it from this close. Its old walls are clad with green leaves clinging on to its side. I cannot imagine anyone living in such a place.
“So, what happened?” I yell at Monica.
And, to add to my confusion, she asks me to hush and whispers in my ear.
“It was awful, and I don’t want to talk about it. We should leave now.”
Monica is the most fearless person I know and watching her afraid perplexes me. Typically in these situations we rush to adventure and explore unseen buildings. We are always getting in trouble. Yet, I do not question her. I simply shrug and follow her out of the woods.
The next day at the mess she is awfully quiet. I probe her some more.
“Hey Monica, let us go back to that house to see what’s inside” I say to her.
“Why not? What did you see, tell me!”
This time, all she says is, “I saw a figure slip from inside of the house around it. There is something wrong with the house and I do not want to talk about it or go back there!” With that she leaves with her plate still full with food.
Days roll by; we go trekking into the blue hills where there is a sealed bungalow of the old King of Patiala. We see the beautiful pictures of his second bride and admire her expensive clothes and beauty with envious eyes.
A week passes by and we are an evening away from the day when we head back out of the mountains into the plains of Punjab where endless fields with yellow flowers shroud the earth as far out in the horizon you can see.
We are playing cards and Monica is losing badly, I must say. The group behind us is talking about ghost stories.
Shelley is the first to go.
“My grandmother sees ghosts in the bungalow we have in Shushrolley and does not let me visit that place until I carry a cup of raw rice in my bag.”
We look at each other and smile. Kids can be so funny.
“Oh that is nothing” proclaims Shaam.
He continues. “My uncle once gave a lift to a lady on his cycle through the fields of Ropar and in his rear view mirror he saw that the lady’s feet were inside out. He lost balance and fell but as soon as he recovered, he looked around for the lady and she was nowhere in sight.”
We laugh hushed, with our backs towards the group. Monica loses yet another game from me but insists for another. I distribute the cards again indifferently, when I hear Kavita’s voice behind me.
She is speaking dimly.
“Yesterday evening Radha and I played the ghost coin game. We never get anything. But yesterday the coin moved!”
Everyone exclaims with a loud hum!
“The ghost was very chatty. It told us that it lives very near to this place. It said there is an old stone cottage right behind our hotel’s outer fence in the creek and that he sees all that we do.”
With that everyone laughed.
“And let me guess he is here with us right now!” exclaims Shaam.
I drop the cards in my hand and both Monica and I stare at each other both thinking the same thing. At that time Mrs Bhattal hushes us into our respective rooms.
We follow each other silently.
The thunder is so loud that night that every time it roars, our hearts miss a beat. We do not sleep the entire night that night. Every minute noise passes through the filter in our ears and we listen to the deadening silence or a shriek out in the distance.
In the morning, when the sun dawns, we hurriedly pack our belongings and as we step into the bus we turn and look around for the last time in the direction of the cottage and the small stream. We are happy to leave the place. And, when we return to the vast fields of Punjab out of the canopy of green mountains we sigh a breath of relief.
Written on 6-13-2006