In the merciless summers here, temperatures often touch 48º C. The parched earth cracks and searing winds blow across barren fields, mango orchards, and clusters of mud-built huts gathering dust and coating everything with an ash-yellow sheen. The wind howls, ululating as it blows. Afternoons are like death – a corpse with eyes open.
But home is home, compelling us to leave the luxuries of the city and proceed to the village to spend our summer vacations. As our jeep turned on the road to our village the hot wind was like a mother’s embrace, its howl a welcome song.
However people dread the loo – the hot summer winds - causing many a heatstroke death. The natives have constructed discouraging fables, folklores and horror stories around the loo to stop people, especially children, from venturing out. Like - Satan gets free reign in the summer heat and his breath is what we know as loo. Or witches creep out and beckon young children from desolate alleys and deserted buildings so they could boil them and feast on their soup, or that they allegedly deployed the most ingenious methods of luring children, appearing as doppelgängers of people the children knew, luring them into desolate spots where once safe from others they’d reveal their true selves.
We marveled at these stories, huddled in our cots under star-lit skies, they became a canvas for our fertile imagination as we listened, in awe, to Grandpa’s all-pervading voice. But when the whiff of morning breeze hit our nostrils and we opened our eyes to an orangish sky, we knew these stories were as untrue as the earth being the center of our universe.
So afternoons were always about escaping either to the pond for dips in it or whiling time in the mango orchards adjacent to the deserted mosque. We always had to time our escapades such that adults, stirring from their afternoon siestas, would find us in the outermost courtyard under the neem tree. Anything beyond was sacrilege.
One afternoon, when we were still at the swings under the neem tree, scheming about our next mid-day adventure, a cousin of mine picked a fight with me. He accused me of being an opportunist, a two-bit scheming bastard and snatched the Mexican hat that Dad had gifted me for my birthday a few days ago. I loved sporting it in this heat. I was furious. Soon we had fisticuffs. The cousins were split in two warring camps. Each camp pitching for its candidate. My hat was with a cousin who was supporting the one I was fighting. They dared me to take back my hat. Soon my cousin was losing out. He was reeling under my blows. But before I could knock him down two others grabbed him and dragged him away shouting, “Run! Run Brother Run! We still have the hat! Let him chase us for his hat!”
Our house was in a cluster of houses on a mound. A huge pond adjoined the mound on the west side. There were two smaller ponds on the north and the south side. Dense vegetation of wild bush bordered the east side. The east side also had the only road connecting the mound with the main highway, about a kilometer away. But before the highway, almost midway between the mound and the highway, was a mango orchard shrouding an old, dilapidated and deserted mosque. The mosque looked eerie and people generally kept away. They’d avoid the shortcut through the orchards in favor of a longer road circumventing the mosque, especially in the later hours of the day.
The cousins, shouting insults at me, ran off with my hat in the pond’s direction. I shouted at the rest, left standing, “Let’s catch the bastards! What are you all staring at? Let’s go!” And we all ran toward the same direction. But we soon realized we were just running around the cluster of houses on the mound. We spread ourselves over the mound, flanking all directions. We were hunting them at the three ponds and the wild bushes on the east side but they weren’t to be found anywhere. We were rummaging through the bushes with bruised arms and legs. Where could have they gone?
Suddenly, one of us shouted, “Look! There he goes!”
We turned to look. The cousin who had picked the fight was wearing my hat and running on the dusty trail leading to the mosque. I instantly gave chase. But, after few steps, realized no one was following me.
"Why? What happened? Why aren’t you guys running with me?”
"Well! We’ve been ordered to stick to the outermost courtyard! At mostthe mound! Not beyond!”
"Damn! We need to get that hat! Come on!”
"We can’t! We don’t want another scolding later!”
"Oh! Fuck you! Eunuchs!”
And with this I took off, alone. He was fast. I had run a few hundred yards and could feel the singeing sun. My throat was dry and I was panting. But he was still running. I couldn’t give up now. It would’ve been humiliating. I could see him at the edge of the orchard, then near the dilapidated steps of the mosque. He was climbing up. And - swoosh - he was gone behind the broken wall that enclosed the mosque’s courtyard. With grave effort I reached the edge of the orchard. I dragged myself to the steps and sat there to catch my breath. I knew I had him. He was inside unless he had jumped off from the other side and ran back into the fields. In either case I’d find him as the fields were barren and one could see as far as the mound. I had the perfect vision of emerging victorious. I’d tie his hands with his shirt, smear his face with mud, spit and drag him like a trophy, my Mexican hat adorning my head. With a smile I got up and entered the courtyard and THERE SHE WAS.
She stood against the wall facing me. Barefoot, in a long black shirt, with disheveled, white hair partly hiding her haggish face. Her wrinkles - like a palimpsest – layers of tales. I was transfixed. So this is what it was. I had been tricked. And now I faced the witch.
She opened her mouth and I saw two front teeth dangling. Slobber dribbling at the corners of her lips. A sheen of ash-yellow dust on our faces as we held each other’s gaze.
"So, you’ve come Boy!”
I opened my mouth but NOTHING CAME OUT. Where’s my voice? Why couldn’t I speak? How did she know I was coming? I mustered all my courage and uttered,
What? Yes? Why am I confirming? Am I under a spell?
"I am hungry!”
My blood froze. So all this time Grandpa had been truthful while we mocked at his stories. They did exist and I had been tricked today, it was my turn. My evil deeds had caught up with me. All this bullying and showing off had finally landed me here. Had I been nice to my siblings and cousins this wouldn’t have happened. Too late now. I couldn’t even repent. I stared at death.
I stuck my hand in my short’s pocket. I don’t know why. Why was I putting my hand in my pocket? Oh yes! The sling! But I felt something sticky in my hand. WHAT? THE SLING HAD MELTED. What spell was this woman casting on me? I pulled out whatever it was. Ahhh! A melting peanut brittle.
"What do you have there?”
Without thinking, I threw it at her. It fell a few yards short. She groveled and picked it up. Her slavering tongue licking at it.
"So what do you think? Am I a witch?”
Her croaky slurpy laughter boomed across the mosque’s courtyard. I could feel the hair on my skin rising. My throat was parched and my eyes filled with morbid fear as I measured the distance between us. If I turned now and ran she couldn’t possibly catch me unless she flew. I HAD TO RUN NOW.
"NO! YOU’RE JUST A HAG WHO IS HUNGRY!”
And I ran as fast as I could, not looking back until I’d neared the mound.
© Dan Husain
June 16, 2005
PS: This incident is true except the witch bit, which is my imagination. I did pick up a fight and saw my cousin’s doppelgänger running across the field towards the mosque. However, the real me didn’t chase him. I thought it wasn’t worth the effort. An hour later they surfaced from the western side of the mound where the huge pond lay. They all confirmed that they had been hid there on the other side of the pond in the weeds at the edge of the pond and my cousin never went in the direction of the mosque. People living in the hutment across the pond independently corroborated this fact. Till date we do not know whom did we see running across the field on the eastern side towards the mosque.