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The clock in the bell-tower rang twelve times to signal the onset of midnight. Vinayak pedalled his rickety Atlas cycle slowly towards his room. He was in no hurry to reach his place of accommodation – a tiny one-bedroom flat occupied by ten bachelors. They’d all come from different villages and small towns to the bustling metropolis in search of a living. Some worked day shifts and some worked the nights and hence they never had a problem of sleeping space.
Vinayak worked as an electrician in a spinning mill, some fifteen kilometres from his flat. He preferred working the night shifts as it ensured better pay and also commute during the cool evenings. Pedalling the cycle for thirty kilometres in the sweltering heat was not an option. Gawking at the posters of adult movies that looked even more alluring under the sodium vapour lamps, Vinayak reached the intersection.
A huge banyan tree marked the spot. The road on the right-side was a well-paved motorable road, whereas the one on the left was a dilapidated mud road that passed through the shmashan ghat. Usually, he avoided the road on the left but for the past three days he’d been contemplating taking the road through the graveyard.
It was because of the woman. Three nights ago, he’d spotted her shivering in the cold and drizzle under the banyan tree. She looked old, around seventy, and was dressed in a tattered white saree. Her cheeks looked sunken and her skin looked withered. Vinayak had felt sorry for her and wanted to ask if he could help her, but hadn’t found the courage to do so. The old woman had looked at him, smiled a sad little smile and had walked into the road on the left.
Vinayak decided that he’d try to find the old woman that night and see if he could help her. He muttered the Hanuman Chalisa as he pedalled his cycle into the damaged muddy road. His body shuddered involuntarily due to the dark, cold night and also an aura of eeriness prevalent in the place. He looked on both sides, other than few damaged unoccupied huts there were no buildings on the road. He decided to turn back when he saw the woman again.
She crossed the road from underneath a pipal tree and walked with a shuffling gait into the shmashan ghat. She was wearing a garland of something white in colour that made a rattling noise as she dragged her feet along.
‘Aaji, waat paha!’
She turned and glared at him before scuttling into the graveyard. Vinayak was puzzled. Was she in any danger, he thought to himself before pedalling faster towards her. As he got closer, an unbearable stench overpowered his senses. Something smelled like rotten eggs. He applied the handbrake and came to a stop. The old woman moved forward towards an old grave. As she moved further away from him, the stench receded. Suddenly, he remembered the stories his grandmother had told when he was a little boy. He knew what the old woman was, he knew what her garland was made of, and he knew what she was going to do in the graveyard.
Vinayak started chanting the Hanuman Chalisa in a loud voice as he turned his cycle around and fled away from the Hadal who had started digging the grave to retrieve bones for the mantrik who controlled her.
Note: Hadals are female goblins that are usually controlled by a mantrik (a practitioner of black magic) Their main purpose is to provide the mantriks with things they need for their sorcery like bones and skulls from graves. They usually reside atop pipal (fig) trees. The lore of Hadals is famous in Maharashtra.
Glossary: 1. Aaji – Grandmother
2. waat paha – wait
3. shmashan ghat – a graveyard, place where dead bodies are cremated.
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1. Tales With A Twist – A collection of my short stories.
2. Route 13 : Highway to Hell– An anthology of horror short stories.