It took them for ever to reach their uncle’s home. The train had started late to begin with. Soon it became so cloudy that the afternoon sky looked inky black like the evening. Then it rained. Aakash had never seen it rain that hard. The rain looked like white sheets falling from the skies. Their train had to stop and wait at an unknown, small station. By the time they reached Tintiri it was dark because it really was evening.
They were thankful that it had not rained here. And that their uncle had sent the car to the station. That old car — Ma calls it a ‘station wagon’ — carried them in its signature slow, stately swinging motion along the untarred village roads and by the time they drove into the gates of Uncle’s home, the last red touches on the wintry western sky had vanished completely.
Even before their driver Keramat Ali and the elder son of their household help Govinda had finished unloading their luggage and carried them to the upper storey, Anushka and Aakash had been seated by their grandmother at the dining room table with plates laden with potato curry and fluffy fried puris made from refined white flour. Grandmother wastes no time in feeding anybody at her home. As they ate, their cousin Santanu, older than Aakash by a couple of years, came downstairs.
“What took you so long?” he asked. “If you’d reached by the afternoon we could have gone around the village before sundown.”
“There’s enough time for that,” said Grandma. “They will be here for two weeks.”
Santanu threw his arms up in protest. “Two weeks! Is that all? Wait, I will tell Auntie that you can’t return in two weeks…” he said and left in mid sentence.
Anushka and Aakash knew that Santanu wouldn’t be able to get anywhere with their mother. Though their school was on vacation break — anyway there was no school yet, classes were being held online still, Ma’s office was not on vacation. Their father had clearly said that he wouldn’t be able to come, such was the workload in his hospital. Doctors in COVID hospitals did not have the luxury of holidays or leave. Mother had wrangled a two-week respite with great difficulty.
As they had expected, Santanu returned shortly, crestfallen. “Auntie says that there is no way you can stay for more than two weeks. As it is she has had to fight with her boss for this leave.”
Aakash giggled. That fight with her boss had happened in front of them over a Zoom meeting. “What do you mean I was ‘enjoying’ lockdown?” she had shouted. “What kind of enjoyment is working from seven in the morning till midnight? To add insult to injury you have even made us accept less pay. Now I am going to see my mother for two weeks. Take my advice, you too take your wife and pay a visit to your parents in law…”
After the meal Anushka and Aakash went upstairs with Santanu. Needless to say, Santanu is more a friend of Aakash than Anushka. Anushka is younger. She cannot keep up with the older boys. Moreover, she is not as interested yet in running, climbing trees and swimming in the many ponds in the village. She spends most of her vacations with her Aunt. One of the reasons for this of course, is the large collection of dolls Auntie owns. Both of them sit down to play with dolls every time Anushka visits on holidays.
This time too, the routine did not vary. Soon, having finished her day’s work downstairs, Auntie climbed upstairs and called Anushka to her room. Santanu showed Aakash all his new books. “You can’t spend the entire vacation reading,” he warned Aakash. “Only when I am sleeping or studying.”
Uncle is very strict about Sanatnu’s studies. Just as he gives him a lot of storybooks to read and free time to play, he doesn’t allow Santanu to take even a day’s leave from his studies. Ma and Uncle often argue about this. Ma is serious about Aakash and Anushka’s studies, but not like Uncle. Uncle has explained his point of view to Ma in the past.
“You don’t understand my problem because your son and daughter study without you having to nag,” he had said. “If I let Santanu be, he will forget all his lessons and wander about in the village all day, raiding the orchards for fruits and catching fish in the river. I have to be careful with a hyperactive child like him — I do let him be himself for a while, but then I get him back in line again.”
Hyperactive is the right word for Santanu. He cannot sit still for even a minute. He is always up to something — and if he is not carefully watched for any length of time, he’s up to what grown ups often refer to as ‘no good’. One moment he goes climbing trees to get crows’ eggs to make omelettes, next moment he has waded into the large pond, trying to catch fish with a hand-held net. Once he had even tried to climb up to the third storey terrace of their house from the outside of the building. By the time he had crossed the first storey, he had got stuck. His friends, sensing trouble, had run away, scared. Just when Santanu was deciding to jump down — come what may, Keramat Ali had seen his plight. A rope had to be thrown down from the terrace to rescue him. Did even that teach him a lesson? Far from it. His friends had taken his picture on their mobiles before running away — he had forwarded it to everyone and asked if he was looking like a mountaineer!
Even more troublesome is that Santanu is past master at making others suffer the consequenses of his naughtiness. How many times has Aakash listened to Santanu’s plans and had regretted later? What about the time when he had told them that you could make doors from the dried straw from paddy plants! The hadn’t believed him. “Straw is soft!” they had protested. “How can you make a door from it?”
Santanu had snorted in derision. “There you are — city bred ignorant people, you know nothing. You tie the straw in bundles, soak them in water and sun them well, before long they become hard as wood…”
Under the guidance of Santanu, the two of them, brother and sister had carried two bundles of hay up to the terrace to make wood. They would water them in the mornings and afternoons, and let them sun. Not where Auntie and Grandma sun their pickles, or the household help dry clothes. They had selected the area beyond the water tanks, where nobody went normally. They had watered the straw for several days without any result, but then Uncle had noticed the water that had spilled out of Anushka’s mug on the staircase.
“Who has spilled water here?” he had asked and then he had followed the trail of water up the stairs to the terrace. “Who has been wetting bundles of straw up here so that it can rot?” The whole secret came out and then the brain behind the scheme was caught without more ado. All three of them got scolded, but Santanu was scolded the most — after all it was his idea. The scolding had no effect on Santanu, however. He nonchalantly told his father: “You said the other day that city children are so stupid that if you tell them that you can make planks from paddy plants, they would believe it! I was merely testing if it was true.” Ma had looked daggers at Uncle and Uncle and Auntie’s faces went red with embarrassment.
As soon as Anushka had left with his mother, Santanu started.
“Did you hear about the new trouble in the village?”
Aakash hadn’t. How would he? He doesn’t live here, does he?
Santanu came close to him. “Things can be seen on the paddy fields at night nowadays,” he said.
Aakash doesn’t bother about what can be seen on the paddy fields at night if he is in his own home, but here, the world outside of the floor to ceiling windows was completely dark. His heart did a quick pitter-patter. “What do you mean things can be seen?” he asked tremulously. “What kind of things?”
Santanu spoke even lower. “Nobody can say if they are truly things,” he said, “but in the dark they look as if they are made of white smoke…” he took a quick look around and continued, “They have human forms.”
Aakash was looking at Santanu’s latest book The Horror of the Darkest Nights. He took a quick look at its cover and put it down. “You mean, they are not actually humans?”
“No,” Santanu shook his head. “And not just one, many. They are never together, but stay a little distance from each other… their movements are somewhat like zombies.”
Aakash shook his head. He knew about zombies. Their activities weren’t restricted to the night and darkness. They were seen in the daytime, too — though in movies they are shown to attack mostly at night. Dad says that it was to create more fear in the hearts of the viewers. Again, some Korean series recently has shown nocturnal zombies — he hadn’t seen the series yet, only heard about it from his class friend Amitendu.
“Zombies would be visible in the daytime, too,” he said.
Santanu stopped and thought for a while. “I only told you what is known so far,” he clarified. “People have stopped coming out after dark nowadays. Nobody knows much about them.”
Aakash’s mouth was dry. Outside the glass-paned closed windows lay the garden of his uncle’s house. Beyond that were paddy fields. “Have you seen any?” he asked.
Santanu shook his head. “No,” he said, “but I know I will have to solve the mystery. This won’t be solved by the grown-ups. I was only waiting for you to come…”
Aakash started! “Me? Why were you waiting for me?”
Santanu lay flat on the carpet. “You give me courage. Who will go looking for them alone at night? What if they are actually zombies?”
Aakash felt strange. Santanu was two years senior to him. In some ways Aakash looked up at Santanu — he was almost a hero to Aakash. And here he was, admitting that he was waiting for Aakash for courage! Unimaginable! He began to feel much more confident. “How long has this been going on?”
Santanu turned, lifted his head on his hand and thought. “Not long. A few days before Auntie had called to inform that you were coming. I have been listening to the conversation in the village since then. I had decided to go as soon as you come — how about tonight?”
Tonight? Aakash’s mouth dried up again. Santanu gave him a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. I will be there with you.”
What could Aakash say? He nodded, but before he could say anything, they heard the deep roar of Uncle’s motorbike as it came and stopped at the porch. Anushka jumped up in the next room. “Uncle Boom has come, Uncle Boom has come…” She used to call Uncle ‘Boom’ because of the sound of his motor cycle. She still maintained the habit.
Aakash too ran to meet his Uncle. Santanu went down with him.
“Make sure the adults don’t get to know…” Santanu had warned. Aakash didn’t need the warning. If they came to know, they would never allow children to go on such a dangerous mission. That was precisely why they had to keep it secret from Anushka, too. She was growing up to be a fearless child. Ma was worried that she will turn out to be as much of a tomboy as Santanu. So, if she came to know, she would have to be taken along. That would lead to two… no, three problems. First, she didn’t know what fear was, so if the boys felt there was danger and retreated, Anushka was more likely to go see what was dangerous and why. Secondly, while Anushka was fearless, she was not only younger, but also quite a bit shorter then the boys. She finds it difficult to keep up with the boys if it comes to running. Finally, and most importantly, she slept in the same bed as their mother while Aakash and Santanu sleep in Santanu’s room. Their mother was a very light sleeper (“Remember the time she woke up because the mouse had dropped a lipstick from the dressing table?”).
However, if Anushka came to know, she would not understand the practical problems and demand to be taken along. If she realized that she would not be able to go, she would make sure that the boys wouldn’t be, either. She would tattle to the elders. They remembered the time, two years ago, when they had planned to go boating on the lake and she had told the grown ups. Santanu had said: “Thank goodness that I don’t have a sister.” to which Anushka had responded: “Serves you right for keeping me out because I am a girl…”
That was a fight to remember.
As they went to bed at night, Santanu said that he had set the alarm for 2 am. “I can’t wake up without an alarm.” Santanu had his own mobile for online classes. Aakash used his father’s old mobile — which needed to be plugged in all the time, so he hadn’t carried it with him.
Santanu’s room was very big. The high bed, too was huge. While they were downstairs having dinner, Govinda had come in and closed the tall wooden slats outside the glass panes of the windows. The heavy curtains too, were drawn to keep the room warm. This was routine for the winter season. In the summer, they had to keep windows open and curtains drawn back to let the air flow in and out.
Santanu had fallen asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow. Aakash found it difficult to sleep. In spite of long train journey and the tiresome car ride from the station, he kept tossing and turning with excitement. Do the zombies wander around anywhere close to the house, or would they have to walk far to reach them? He wished that he had thought of asking this earlier.
After a lot of tossing and turning, just when he had decided that he would not be able to sleep after all, so he might as well get up and read a book, he felt Sanatnu shaking him. “Hey, wake up, wake up, sleepyhead!” he whispered. “I’ve been calling you since when…”
When had he fallen asleep? Aakash sat up quickly and rubbed the sleep off his eyes. Santanu had suggested that they keep their clothes ready beside their pillows before sleeping, so there was no delay — they dressed in darkness, quickly, into their trousers, shirts and sweaters. Sanatnu slipped on his sneakers and peeped out. Then he turned and put his finger on his lips, indicating the need for absolute silence to Aakash, opened the door and went out. Aakash too, slipped out and pulled the door close so that no one could see inside. Of course, by then, two bolsters under quilts were masquerading as Aakash and Santanu on the bed.
Reaching the staircase, Santanu started climbing up. Aakash was surprised, but he could not speak. Silence was of the essence. On reaching the terrace, Aakash spoke. “Why are we here?”
“The door downstairs is bolted and barred from the inside,” explained Santanu. “Also, Govinda sleeps just there. It is difficult to slip past him. Also, the bolts and bar are noisy. Come this way…”
There was a low grille gate at the end of the terrace. It was not difficult to climb over. A spiral metal staircase ran down the side of the house. Aakash knew that this staircase was used in the olden days for servants to come and collect garbage from the toilets. In those days garbage collectors were considered dirty and not allowed in the house.
“Be careful,” warned Santanu in a whisper. “Papa and Mummy sleep in the room beside this staircase. If they wake up, that will be the end of our adventure.”
Santanu climbed quickly but silently down the steps, Aakash too, followed, slower, but as silently. On reaching down, Santanu ran lightly up to the large tree beside the house. Aakash was right behind him. Aakash could hear his heart pounding like the engine of his Uncle’s motor cycle. Santanu pulled him close. “Papa has put a solar lamp at the rear gate. Neyamat Ali will be able to see us if he looks this way. It seems that he is asleep, though. His room is dark. He wakes up every now and then and walks round the garden. He keeps his room light on during the time.”
Neyamat Ali was nowhere to be seen. “Come…” said Santanu and set off towards the rear door of the garden. That door was locked all the time, but Santanu has taken away the key from his father’s bunch of spare keys. It didn’t take them long to unlock the door.
A concrete road ran along the wall. It connected the village to the main road. This house was a little distance away from the village. On either side and behind their walls were paddy fields. Aakash has heard that long ago, their Uncle’s family owned all the land around the house, but their Grandpa’s brother, who used to be a leader of the communist party had given away most of their land to the villagers.
They kept the rear door open. “Neyamat will be able to see if he comes this way, but there is nothing we can do about it… Come, quick…”
Aakash decided to ask the quesiton that was uppermost in his mind since the evening. “How far do we have to go?”
“Move away from the gate first,” Santanu pointed at the solar lamp above the rear door. “Neyamat will be able to see us if he looks, but we won’t be able to see him.”
A big, leafy tree stood at the side of the road. They stood behind it. Across the road cultivated fields stretched till the horizon.
“Can you see anything?”
Aakash looked hard, but saw nothing. He desperately tried to still the pounding in his chest. He looked again. The sky was cloudless, the moon — half full. The light was enough, but… there was nothing on the paddy field. Only clumps of trees, far away.
“That’s not a paddy field,” whispered Santanu. “There is no crop in the field right in front of us. The field beyond is also not paddy field. They are growing spinach.”
Aakash has no idea about crops. Who knows if Santanu was telling him stories! But he hadn’t brought Aakash to show him crops. Where were the zombies?
“They aren’t here yet. Or maybe they have come and gone already?” said Santanu, then, “Come, let’s cross the street…” and before Aakash could say anything he had crossed the road himself.
By now Aakash was really scared. The momentary comfort when Santanu had said that the zombies hadn’t come yet, had vanished on hearing that they may have left. He wondered where they had gone. What if they were close by?
Santanu was peeping at the fields from behind a bush. As Aakash reached, he hissed: “Shh, look…”
Aakash was feeling light headed. Carefully, from a crouched position, he lifted his head beyond the bush and looked. He nearly fainted.
Hardly ten feet away was a smoky white figure, flailing its limbs about, as though swimming in a standing posture, approaching them.
He tried to turn, but Santanu was tightly gripping his wrist.
“Shh, don’t make a noise. How many can you see? I can see five.”
Oh, he was right, there was another just a little behind the first, and then another — they all looked the same, they were all white and smoky and were flailing about as they approached… five?
He turned towards Santanu to tell him that he could see only four and realised that Santanu was nowhere to be seen. Where had he gone? Aakash turned around again and saw the spectre again, almost on him…
He didn’t wait any longer, He ran as fast as he could. Thanking his lucky stars that they hadn’t gone far — here was the large tree on their side of the road and here was the rear door — still open… Aakash raced in, didn’t wait to close the door behind him and ran towards the house.
He hadn’t run more than a few steps before he tripped on a root or something and fell forward, hard.
It hurt! For a moment everything became dark in front of his eyes. When he came to his senses in a few seconds, he saw the huge, white figure over him, reaching out…
“Santanu, Santanu, Uncle, Maaa…..” he screamed.
Neyamat Ali, dressed in a white vest and wrap-around, lit his torch and bent forward, “What happened Aakash? Why are you in the garden at this hour?”
Then came Keramat Ali, then Govinda and finally Uncle and Ma. What were the cousins doing in the garden at this hour? Why was the rear door open?
Aakash spoke with difficulty. “On the paddy fields… white zombies are flying about… they look just like humans…”
Uncle snorted. He didn’t say anything to Aakash. He looked at his son. “When you play these tricks, do you ever think of the consequences?” he asked. “What if he had fallen and broken a bone? What if he had fallen against the trunk of a tree and cracked his skull?” When Santanu realised that his father’s first reaction was very severe, he quietly offered him the key to the rear door. Uncle took it and handed it to Neyamat. “Lock up,” he ordered, briefly and walked off towards the house.
As they climbed the stairs, Aakash heard Uncle say to his mother: “I can’t believe that he fell for it, being the son of a doctor… Now go and clean up his bruises. I think his knee will need the most care. The rest aren’t much…”
Why did Uncle mention that he was a doctor’s son? Did he mean that doctors’ sons were not supposed to get scared? But what were those things on the field? He thought he’d ask Santanu, but he was still angry, so he didn’t.
Next morning Aakash woke up to Uncle’s calls. Santanu had also just opened his eyes beside him. Uncle was laughing heartily. “Let’s see your knee,” he said. “Looks quite alright. Come, put your sweater on… wear your shoes… Come, let’s go and see your zombies.”
Santanu had sat up by then. He too had started laughing, “Ha, ha, ha,” he chortled. “If you could have seen him cry — ‘Help, help, save me…’”
Aakash had understood that Santanu had fooled him once again, but he didn’t understand what exactly had happened. He punched Santanu on his arm. “Where did you vanish?” he demanded.
Santanu pulled on his sneakers, too. “Why would I vanish? I was hiding on the other side of the bush, watching you tackle the zombie…”
This time they left by the main door of the house and walked towards the rear door of the garden. Soon they heard footsteps behind them — Ma too was coming along, a housecoat over her nightwear and a shawl over it all.
The morning mist blurred the trees in the garden, the grass underfoot was wet with dew. Uncle opened the rear door wide. “Come, let’s see where your zombies are…” he said.
Santanu was laughing away beside him. Aakash glared at him. “There,” he said. “Beyond those bushes.”
“Come, show me…” instructed his uncle.
Would they be able to see anything now? But it did seem that Santanu had tricked him — so there was possibly something there. Aakash crossed the road, peeped over the bush and stopped dead. The mist here was denser, so the scene was not as clear as last night. Still, it was visible — a white, human-like figure. Only it was not moving now. The morning mist had made it heavy and the lack of a breeze made it sag under its own weight.
He heard his mother’s voice from behind. “This looks like a dress of some kind… with a hood…”
Uncle started laughing again. “That is what surprises me,” he said. “You are a doctor’s wife, and Aakash, a doctor’s son! Have you never seen a PPE before now? Doesn’t your father work in a COVID hospital?”
A dumbfounded Aakash stammered: “What’s a PPE doing on the field?”
Uncle laughed. “These are defective PPEs,” he explained. “Torn, or deformed or something — because of which they were never used. So, the farmers have brought these from the district hospitals and used them to construct scarecrows — free of cost. And you, the brave son of a doctor, saw this and ran crying and fell down. Such a scaredy puss! Now come along, I will have to ask your dad if you need a Tetanus jab for this cut on the knee!”
As they returned, Aakash fell back and walked with Santanu. “Just you wait,” he said. “One day I will scare you so bad that you will remember it for ever.”
“Go on!” said Santanu. “I should have videoed your wailing and the run… ‘Help, help, zombies are coming!’ You are my brave cousin, aren’t you?”