I left office on Friday evening with a sigh of relief. I finally managed to take an entire week off. For the last 3 months, I had been constantly working including weekends. Long hours of work with no break had left me exhausted. Being in sales, my role constantly demands me to be with people. I naturally like to be with people, and hate to be left on my own. But, now I was longing to be away from people, away from the mad rush of city life. I was aching to be alone, longing to give myself space to think, reflect and rejuvenate myself.
I had not made any plans for the next 7 days. After reaching home, I took a long hot shower and stepped out only when the water started turning lukewarm. I ordered my favorite pizza from Pizza Hut and turned on the TV. Wow, such simple pleasures, I was already feeling better. I started mulling over the places that I could visit. Suddenly, I thought of woods. I stayed in a forest guest house in the middle of a jungle many years ago. I was only 10 years old at that time, but I vividly remember the solitude and the beauty of the jungle. Being a city lover, I never visited a jungle again. But, now I craved to go to woods. I called up my uncle who worked with forest ministry and expressed my desire to visit a forest again and spend few days. In no time, my bookings were done in the Government Guesthouse of Kanha, a well-known forest in MP. I decided to take things easy and leave for Kanha on Sunday. I made plans to meet my school friend in Nagpur, and then drive down in his car to Kanha.
I did some last minute shopping of essential stuff on Saturday, including a book by Kenneth Anderson, Man Eating Tigers of Kumanon. On Sunday morning, as I boarded the flight to Nagpur, I was excited like a young kid. Unfortunately, the flight was delayed and reached Nagpur only by 11 am. Kanha is 7 hours drive from Nagpur. I met my friend, had an early lunch and set out at 12 pm. My friend asked me to take his driver, especially since the roads were not in good condition. I refused and sat behind the wheel. I wanted to take the adventure all by myself! I told him not to worry and set out with a google map to Kanha and a flask full of my favorite coffee, Davidoff Dark Roast.
My drive for next couple of hours was quite smooth. I had reached the Pench jungle area. There were teak, mahua and eucalyptus trees on both sides of the road. I could see the dense forest beyond these trees. The whole area was dominated by monkeys of all sizes. They sat comfortable along the roadside, unperturbed by the vehicles. I could see few deer deep inside the forest. The road had nice curves and bents, giving a picturesque view of the forest. A couple of times, I even caught a glimpse of river streams flowing inside the forest.
Without any warning, I hit a bad patch of road. There was practically no road, only potholes. I had to maneuver my car through them. I was barely moving at a speed of 20 kms / hour. The slow speed and bad road frustrated me. I decided to increase the speed and cross the patch as quickly as possible. In hindsight, how I wish I had not speeded. This decision probably led to what happened to me later that night. Had I not increased the speed, I may not have punctured my car tyre, I may not have been forced to take shelter in that place and may not have gone through that experience. Or who knows, I was destined to go through it!
I increased the speed and managed to keep the car moving. I was congratulating myself on my driving skills; when out of blue I bumped into a huge pothole. I managed to pull the car out of it, but ended up with a punctured tyre. I took the car to a side and sat down to repair the damage. It took me over 30 minutes. I decided to have a cup of coffee. It was close to 4 pm and the sun had started its decent. The heat had reduced drastically. The dense trees around made it feel darker. I was enjoying the serenity of the woods and my cup of coffee, when my eyes caught a glimpse of gathering clouds in the west. The sky was getting overcast with clouds. I quickly finished the coffee and decided to accelerate my pace. I wanted to get out of the forest region and hit the national highway before it started raining.
Destiny had something else in mind. Within 15-20 minutes it started raining heavily. Suddenly it became quite dark; I had to turn on the headlights of my car. There was dense forest on both sides of the road and the traffic was thin. Even the monkeys were neatly tucked away in their shelters. All I could hear was the rain hammering on my car, even the noise of the engine was muffled by it. Frequent lightening kept the sky ablaze. The rain was lashing on my windscreen; I could barely see the road ahead.
My car was moving at a snail’s pace. Though the road condition had improved, I continued to drive slow. I did not want another flat tyre with no spare to help me out. My car clock showed 5 pm. I still had a long way to Kanha. As I was wondering on my next course of action, I saw a billboard with a notice, ‘Forest Inn, 1 Km ahead’. My decision was almost instantaneous. I decided to stay there overnight and begin the journey to Kanha the next day. I only hoped that they would have one room free.
It did not take me long to reach Forest Inn. The intensity of the rain had reduced, but I decided against continuing the journey. I made up my mind to stay in Forest Inn. It was a small, quaint place surrounded by thick forest on all sides. Right in front of it were two huge banyan trees, creating an archway to the entrance. Though it was only 5:15 pm, it was already dark. An elderly man was sitting behind what seemed like a reception desk. He was sitting with his head down. He lifted his face as I checked with him if a room is available. What I saw made me jump out of my skin. His face was marred with small pox marks and a sharp wound ran on the left side of his face, right from the eye to the chin. His eyes were blood shot. The dim light hanging from the ceiling seemed to accentuate these features in his face. I gathered myself and checked if a room is available. He silently nodded and showed me the price list of rooms. When I agreed, he silently handed me the register to enter. I logged in my details there and checked if anyone else was staying there. He looked up at me again with his blood shot eyes; for the first time, he said one word, “no”. His voice was ruff and seemed distant. A shiver ran through my spine. Something inside me urged me to move on. But, I was stubborn, more importantly; I did not want to accept, even to myself, that I was scared.
I took the key from the old man. He cried out for someone by the name Bhola. I was relieved to see a young man in his late twenties step in. He took my luggage and showed the way to my room. The room was spacious with a nice double bed in the center. It was clean and had all the basic amenities. There was huge window at one side of the room. The curtains of the window were drawn. As I pulled the curtains, I was spellbound to see a beautiful pond beyond few trees. It seemed to be quite accessible. Despite my tiredness after a long strenuous drive, I felt like going towards it, it seemed to have a magnetic power. Bhola was still standing in my room, setting my luggage in order. I asked him, “Bhola, this seems to be a beautiful pond.” His response surprised me, he said, “Sahib, it’s not a pond, it’s a death well. Please pull back the curtains. Don’t even look at it.” He refused to tell me anything more. Instead, he suggested I move to another room. I had already liked the room and refused to budge out. I requested him to send a cup of hot tea and pakodas. He pulled the curtains himself and double checked them before leaving the room.
After Bhola left my room, I sank into the bed which was quite comfortable. I took out the book by Kenneth Anderson and continued reading. I was served hot tea and pakodas within short time. Both were extremely tasty.
It was seven pm, I decided to step out and see the surrounding. Though it was not raining heavily, it was still drizzling. It was pitch dark outside. I wanted to go for a brisk walk, but given the circumstances, it did not seem possible. I decided to have early dinner and go to bed.
I went to bed with my favorite Kenneth Anderson next to me. I do not know when I fell asleep, but I would have slept soundly for good 3-4 hours. Suddenly I woke up as I felt bright light on my face. For a moment, I thought it was morning. Then I realized that it was not sunlight, but moonlight. The window curtains were parted. I wondered as to who did it, as I did not remember parting them after Bhola left. At that time, I did not bother much about it. It had stopped raining and full moon had risen in the sky. Moonlight was falling on the pond water and reflecting light. The pond looked ethereal in the moonlight. I could also see a reflection of the moon in water. I stood mesmerized for several minutes.
Suddenly, I wanted to be close to the pond. I forgot all about what Bhola said; I felt something pulling me towards the pond. I stepped out of my room. Earlier, in the evening everything was dark, now the entire Forest Inn and the woods beyond it were flooded with moonlight. I stepped out of the room and started walking towards the pond.
Within a few minutes, I was very close to the pond. I just had to cross a bunch of mahua trees and the pond would be in my reach. I was eager to dip my feet in the pond and feel its coolness. Suddenly I head a splash in the pond. Someone was inside the pond and was splashing hard. There was eerie silence everywhere, even the crickets and the frogs seemed to have gone silent. Only the sound of splashing was reverberating across the forest. I ran towards the pond. As I got closer, I realized that it was a young girl who was trying to get out of the pond. She had long hair. In her struggle, her face was covered by her hair. Though I could not see her face, I realized that she was young and had a full body. As I approached the pond, she seemed to come closer to the bank, trying to step out. Though she was trying hard, she was unable to reach. I could see her head and one hand above, as though she was seeking my help. I felt that she was calling me for help.
I had learnt swimming several years ago, but I was sure it would come to my aid now. I was about to jump into the pond to save her when I heard Bhola’s scream, “No sahib, no, please don’t go to the pond. You cannot save her.” I ignored his voice and was about to jump in. He ran and held me back with all his strength. I tried to break loose of this grip and called him a coward. However, he did not loosen his grip. After a couple of minutes, he released me. As I turned back towards the pond, I found it still. There was no girl; initially I thought that she probably had drowned. However, I had to rule it out. The pond which was so active couple of minutes back was completely still. There wasn’t a single ripple.
I tried to speak and ask Bhola about the girl, but my throat went dry. I was shivering. Bhola took held my hand and led me into the dining area. I sank into a chair. Bhola made hot tea for me and helped me recover from the shock. In some time, I stopped shivering. Seeing me little better, Bhola broke the silence by saying, “Sahib, she wanted to take you with her. I feared it right from the minute you walked into the room, there were obvious signs. She is lonely and wants company. Had I not come in time, she would have dragged you into the pool.” I requested him to give me another room, away from the pond. He obliged; I spent the rest of the night in another room.
The event left me shaken; sleep eluded me for a long time. However, I would have dozed off sometime. I woke up next morning to the sounds of birds chirping outside my room. By the time I stepped out, the sun was shining brightly. I could not resist the temptation to walk towards the pond and take a look. It was serene and looked beautiful in the morning sun. There were pink and white water lilies in the pond. The whole place was cheerful and there was no sign of last night’s experience. It seemed like a bad dream, till Bhola walked across and said, “Sahib, are you still thinking of last night. Don’t worry, you are safe now” I quickly had my breakfast, settled the bill and got into my car. As I started the engine, I wondered if any of my friends would ever believe my story.