As the candle depletes the flame grows. The candle shrinks a little lower; the flame grows a little bigger. It’s an irony – how the wax has to melt in order to burn the flame. But if you look at it, it makes perfect sense though. To make something, something else must give. The world hangs on a precarious balance. Everything must compensate. Like I do. Like I am doing right now.
I am compensating my lack of social activities by my studies. Before that I had to compensate an argument with Principal MJ during my final year of MBBS by having to come here for my first year residency. And even before that I compensated a drunken night of carnal fetishes by having to let my girlfriend go. How could you? I hate you and I never want to see your fucking face again. She had said.
The only good thing about living in a godforsaken place like this is – there’s no distraction whatsoever. I have no other option to pass my time in the evenings than to study. So I do it. I study and then I study some more. Even the endless power cuts don’t deter me. I have resolved to top the MD entrance. It’s difficult. But I am smart. And it’s the only thing that keeps me sane, keeps me focused.
The flame dies with a snap. I sigh and slap my anatomy book shut. The red digits on my alarm clock show the time – 1:07 am. I know now, it’s going to be one of those nights when the power doesn’t come back the till the morning. I don’t have a spare candle stocked. I burned up all three I had. So I can’t study, but I can’t sleep either. I don’t sleep till after 3.
I come out on the porch. The wood that runs right down to the estuary is very dark tonight. And silent. Actually it’s always silent here. They say Nishi lives in the woods. Nishi, she is a witch. Apparently she comes calling men in a sweet voice in a very alluring sort of way. And then they disappear. So no one lives on this side of the town.
Good for me. My solitude is important if I am ever going to top the MD entrance exam. And thanks to her, I have to pay virtually nothing towards the rent for this sturdy bungalow.
There is no moon in the sky tonight. Only a million stars. I never knew there were so many of them before I came here. They make the sky look like a very battered piece of cloth trying to cover a shiny surface underneath.
The thought makes me laugh. I always knew I was very bad at romanticizing the nature. I throw my head back and laugh. But then I stop because something glints in the woods.
I squint. But it’s gone. I squint some more. There’s nothing glittery anywhere apart from the sky above.
In the morning, the hospital is a chaos. The sanitary super has gone missing. They can’t find him anywhere. No one saw him after the assembly last evening. They say it’s Nishi who has taken him. But I think he will turn up. Perhaps it’s only his drinking that has gotten worse. I won’t even be surprised if any of the patients or their relatives did it. After all, I myself find it difficult to ignore how filthy the hospital looks.
Two days later, there’s still no sign of him. I am not sure what could have happened. He seems to have evaporated. The police had come yesterday. They asked me few questions. When I told them where I live they looked strangely at me. I think they also believe in the Nishi legend. I don’t blame them though. A small town such as this does this to you. It makes you believe in stupid things. It makes you superstitious.
My left temple is throbbing. I think I need to get my eyes rechecked. The words are bleeding into each other. I can hardly tell femur from fibula. I’d better take a break and make myself a cup of coffee.
Outside, the sky is devoid of any star today. A heavy layer of grey clouds covers the sky. They won’t rain but will only make the air stuffy. As I sit on my arm chair in the veranda with my coffee, I spot the glint in the woods again. I am alert in a second. The glint goes and then comes back. It’s a lamp, flickering! Someone’s there in the woods.
I run inside and peep from the window. I can’t see it anymore. But a minute later, a woman steps out. Into the clearing that stretches from my gate to the woods. She looks young. Her saree is draped in local style, but I can’t tell from here what colour it is. Her hair is gathered on top of her head and she carries a small lamp covered in a paper shade.
My throat is caught in a lump. Is she Nishi? Are all those tales true then? She looks up at my house. Surprised. The lights are on, the fan’s moving, the window’s open. She knows now that I live here. I am afraid to breathe. In spite of everything, I don’t want to disappear. Not yet. My whole future’s ahead of me.
But a moment later, she bows her head, in a sadness that’s almost palpable. She clutches her lamp closer to her chest and walks on toward the town.
I can’t concentrate. I can’t study, I can’t work. Dr. Baruah has had to call me out of my reverie – twice. That woman is all that my mind is full of. She was so sad. Why? What was she doing in the woods so late at night? Who was she?
I spend the nights awake, squinting at the woods, looking for a sign of a flickering light. But nothing moves. The dark remains unperturbed.
Days later, just when I can’t take any more, I see her again – going in the woods. I grab a flashlight and follow. I am aware of the risk, but I can’t stop. She marches on, oblivious. The soft rotting foliage on the ground hushes the footsteps.
I walk on, how long I don’t know but I hear the water now. The estuary must be close. She stops short in her steps and turns as suddenly as a whip of wind. She has known all along. There’s no point to hide. I can tell. Because she starts to laugh.
Come, beckons she.
Where? I ask, automatically. But she ignores. She turns and disappears behind a thick hedge. I wait a moment and then enter the spot where she had disappeared.
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It’s a neat little hut. Earthen walls and straw roof. An oil lamp burns on the window sill. The hibiscus shrubs are visible in its shady illumination. Flowers as big as my face. They sway so gently in the imperceptible breeze that they appear to be breathing to me. As I follow her inside, a pair of wild yellow eyes follow me. I guess it’s a cat, because she wouldn’t know how to pet a wolf, would she?
She is sitting on a wooden charpoy. There is no other furniture in the room – only a few crude wooden racks filled with clay jars. Her feet are dangling few inches above the clayed floor. She has placed the lamp she was carrying in a corner. It casts long flickering shadows.
It’s awkward. But there’s no way back. So I stand by the door.
She looks at me. Even though its dark and I can hardly see her face, I can tell that she has exceptionally bright eyes. They lamp reflects in them making them look mysterious.
Medicines. She says, eyeing me intently.
They are medicines I make from the jungle herbs. For men, animals and plants. Those jars. She clarifies.
Whom do you sell them to? People are scared of you!
I have channels. And people are not scared of me. Her voice loses some of its mysteriousness and becomes shrill and accusing.
I don’t know why she is telling me this. I look at her. Why am I here? What am I doing? I don’t know this woman, yet I am having a conversation with her and feeling perfectly at ease with it. As if I know her long. It isn’t normal, but doesn’t feel that way. I keep standing by the door – only lean my back against the mud wall. I have a feeling that it’s going to be a long night.
She appears to have listened to my thoughts. Because when she speaks next, the smooth closed mysteriousness is back – Why are you here? She asks. What’s your name?
Kush. What’s yours?
They call me Nishi.
They call you a witch too.
She laughs. Out loud. It’s a beautiful sound. Like the Jaltarang – being played by an expert hand. Her head is thrown backwards. Her hands are stretched back and the palms rest on the wooden surface of the charpoy. Her legs cross at the ankles. I can’t tell if her body is shaking from the force of the laughter because it’s dark. I wish it wasn’t.
After a full minute she stops and looks at me.
Yes. I know.
But I don’t believe them though! It’s all bullshit.
I know. You city dwellers, you have different demons. You don’t need witches to scare you. Do you?
But you are not a witch, are you?
What if I am?
You don’t look like one!
How many have you met?
I don’t know what she is talking about. But the way she speaks, scares me. The way her eyes shine make hair on my arms stand. I scramble out of the door. I don’t know why but I feel dismissed. I feel insulted. The bright yellow eyes stare right at me. A loud meow tells me it is indeed a cat. A witch’s cat? As I make my exit, I can hear her laughing again.
Keep straight. Don’t lose your way! The jungle’s not easy to navigate at the night. City boy! She calls after me. Her voice is laced with mockery. It doesn’t escape me. But I am too far gone to care.
I stumble out of the hedge that hides the hut from view and sprint. I don’t know where I am going. I don’t know what I am running from. Just a persistent nagging inside my chest urging me to run. Her uncanny laugh still rings in my ears. I must run as far as I can from her.
I can see my house. The lights in the front garden are on. The fist that was clutching my heart loosens its grip a little. My breaths become less jagged. I am home, I am safe.
But I don’t go inside my house. I am scared Nishi may still catch me there. So I keep running, half running really, I think my ankle may have sprained.
In the hospital, people listen to me in a fascinated silence as I tell them my tale. I am the only one, they say, to have escaped. That her voice held no appeal to me. That I must be some kind of a superhuman. I can’t help but gloat a little.
When I recount it again to the town head, I elaborate it a little more, add some more details. He looks awed. He says he’s never seen someone so capable. In front of the police officers, I modulate my voice dramatically, trying to recreate how I was feeling when I met Nishi. I describe the unearthly sound of her laugh with precision, her glow-in-the-darkeyes. I describe how she stored magic potions in the earthen pots. I describe her giant black cat that was as big as a leopard. With each retelling my tale grows more elaborate. I don’t think I am exaggerating; it’s just that I remember more as I think more about it.
I have become a local hero. I think rightly so. After all, no one so far has escaped Nishi – the great witch. She sucks the souls out of people, but failed against me. I always knew I was smart. Now I know I am powerful too, to resist such dark magic.
Even all of Dr Baruah’s patients have been coming to me for treatment. Surviving the meeting with Nishi has made me a better doctor too. They are curious, naturally, about what happened in the woods. I don’t deny them the chilling story even though I am starting to feel tired of telling the same thing over and over.
Today, I am leading a procession of men to Nishi’s cottage. It was the town head’s idea really, he asked me for this favour. We are carrying fire torches of course. Fire repels dark magic. It’s not that I am not scared, I am. But I don’t have a choice. They want to have a meeting with her. And, even though I don’t want to admit it, I want to see her again.
But the crowd becomes madder the nearer we get. They become uncontrollable. They chant something I don’t understand. They trample the hedge down and sprint toward her hut with their torches held high. They scare me. I fear in their excitement they may hurt Nishi.
As I try to contain them in vain, they surround the hut. Before I can stop them they set it on fire. The dry straws of the roof cackle and burn bright. It takes me all my strength to push through the crowd. The loud call from the cat tells me it’s trapped inside. I try to negotiate with the men but they look back at me with the same glint in their eyes as Nishi’s that night. Their eyes gleam – not from the fire but from within. It’s menacing. It’s craziness, beyond reason. I shiver. Nishi won’t survive them. Where is she now? Inside?
I try to cut my way further. But it’s a sea of people. They push me down. Something sharp jab my ribs. Someone’s cane. I fall. I hear my ankle snap. No one stops to help me up. They are intoxicated. They are like predators smelling blood. They shout loud. So loud that my cry for help goes unnoticed. Waves upon waves of footsteps run over me. No one takes any notice of the lump I am becoming.
Suddenly it all stops. The door of the hut has been thrown open. A petite figure stands there – ablaze. I try to get up, yet again. But she starts running, screaming – an unnatural sound of utter despair, enough to claw the noble souls out of their safety in heaven. It punches my stomach and my limbs feel like jelly. She runs past me, the fire burning brightly in the east wind. Flakes of fire fly in the wind like the brightest fireflies.
I feel her pain. More acutely than I had ever imagined. I feel the sting of the burn, the smell of flesh burning. I feel her fear, her despair. I want to help her. Save her.
But the burning smell overwhelms me. And the pain too. I look around. My leg is on fire. I don’t know how. I try to roll on the ground but my other ankle makes me cry out loud.
The waves of footsteps start again – in the opposite direction this time – following the burning figure towards the river. They are going to get her. They will kill her even if she jumps in the water.
The fire burns higher, up till my waist now. As I writhe under the hibiscus shrub, I know, suddenly, clearly, that I must make amends, once again, for my actions. What I must give up this time! Me!
I don’t know if it will work. Whether or not they will prefer saving their hero over killing the villain. But it’s my only chance. I start to scream as loud as I can. A lone red flower from the shady Hibiscus shrub falls on the ground. They must hear me. They must.
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