That night was so dark as if the moon would never share its light again with earth. Or it might have been an illusion of a kid who was looking at his terrified father. Raghu tried to improve his pace as his father and older brother rushed towards their village, Raghopur. They had to take the route close to the forbidden forest as they were attacked by a wolf. The wolves do not usually come near the plain lands but it was dark so one might have tried his luck.
Raghu along with his father and brother were returning from a nearby town and it got late. Raghu’s father Ramanand is a farmer but he sells dairy products as well. Recently his cow was not producing enough milk. He went to the town to buy a new cow. He could not afford the new cow and hence had to return empty-handed. Raghu felt his father might instead buy a goat. But it’s no time to think of all that. First, they need to return home safely. Finally, they saw the light. The burning flames were not the moon but their light was enough to bring relief to Ramanand’s heart.
Raghu ran towards his mother who was waiting at the door for her family. “Where were you all? Why did you get late?” asked Saroj.
Ramanand did not reply to anything and went inside the house. He sat on the floor and bent to take support of the wall. “Bring me water,” he said.
Saroj took a clay glass and poured water into it from the pot. She gave the water to Ramanand and asked again, “Why did you get late? Did you see the cow?”
Ramanand drank the glass of water and sighed with relief. “The cow will cost us at least three gold coins. It is a bad deal. I was thinking of getting a goat instead. Goat milk is in demand these days, and it is healthy as well.”
Saroj was not happy with the reply but she hid her feelings. She enquired further, “Why did you get late? It is not safe to travel at night, especially with the kids.”
At this point, Raghu interrupted, “Not just late Ma! We took the forest route.”
Saroj at once was filled with rage,” You went near the forest? How could you take such a risk? Have you completely lost your mind?” Ramanand was still calm. He replied, “We were attacked by a wolf. We ran from it and reached close to the forest. I had to take that route. There was no other option.”
Saroj controlled her anger. She was still mad but knowing that her husband and children were attacked by a wild animal caused her further pain. “Are you all right?”
Raghu and his older brother Ajay spoke almost together, “We are fine Ma!”
Saroj was done with all that. She declared that from then onwards the kids were not leaving the village. The trip to town was getting unsafe. The children were not happy with her decision though. They loved going to the town. Especially Raghu was a big fan of the crowded streets and big markets of Saharanpur.
Amidst all this, Ramanand asked, “Where is Amma? Why is she not home at this time of the day?”
Saroj went to the kitchen and replied while putting fire in the chulha, “She is at the temple. Nowadays, she is spending a lot more time there.”
Raghu and Ajay got up at once and started putting on their slippers. Ramanand asked, “Where are you kids going?” The kids ran fast, out of the door while shouting, “We are going to see Amma.”
Saroj started making chapati for dinner. She was still thinking about the forest. So was Ramanand. The people of Raghopur lived in fear of that forest. Many had already lost loved ones in that dark hell. The forest was not just dense but terrifying. People would hear voices coming from that region. There were myths about the forest.
The children reached the temple. They spotted their grandmother and ran towards her. Their grandmother, Amba was sitting near the staircase of the temple. Even at her age, she looked flawless. Her grey hair and mild wrinkles did not lower her charm as she chanted her prayers with her eyes closed. They hugged her tightly and spoke in excitement, “Amma! Amma! Do you know from where are we coming?”
Amma looked at them with a loud laugh and hugged them tightly. Before she would speak anything, Raghu spoke, “We went near the forests Amma. Look we are still alive.” Amma could not laugh anymore. She froze for a moment and said, “I told you Raghu. Never go near the forest. It is dangerous.”
“But why Amma? Look we are fine. You never tell what is wrong with it. I love the forest. I want to go inside and see all the trees. I want to see the animals living inside it. I want to make them friends.”, Raghu spoke in excitement.
Ajay was silent. He was not a fan of scary places. He did like the adventure after coming back alive. But he could not forget how terrified he was when he passed through that route. It was not even in the forest. But the stories are so terrifying that no one dares to even go close to that nightmare.
Amma saw the excitement in Raghu’s eyes. She remembered her own childhood. Raghu was like her own shadow. She knew what went through his mind very well. But she would not let her grandkids make the same mistake as she did once. Therefore, she decided to reveal an important part of her life to the grandkids.
She spoke, “Listen very carefully to every word I am speaking. You always ask about that forest. Let me tell you the truth. I have been there once.”
Both Raghu and Ajay were dumbstruck. Their pupils were dilated as they looked at their grandmother and listened to her story. Meanwhile, Amma spoke about her experience, “I was very young. I would have been just twelve years old, just like you Raghu. I had a younger brother. We do not speak about him much. But he was dear to me. I loved him a lot. He must have been ten-something. I do not remember clearly. We used to play together all the time. We had heard the stories of the dark forest but we never believed it. As kids, we were very curious.
It was one fateful day, that we decided to go into the forest and check out ourselves. One friend of mine named Sangam also agreed to go with us. We could not leave in plain sight of the villagers, so we decided to leave early in the morning. The next day of that decision, when the sun was yet to rise, we sneaked out of our hut. Our father was a potter and he lived in this village only. Mother had died when were still young. So, when we sneaked out, it was not difficult as father was deep in sleep. Sangam did not show up. We waited for him on the outskirts of the village where we had decided to meet. But after a while, we moved on our own leaving Sangam behind. I guess he was lucky that he did not show up.
I and my brother were so excited that fear left us for good. We went into the forest laughing and cheering as if we were mocking that living hell and provoking it against us. The forest was dense. As we moved in, we saw more creepers on our way. There was deep silence unlike what we were expecting. No birds, no animals, no form of life. It was surprising. The animals did live in the forest, we were sure of that. The occasional visit by the wolves and tigers was solid proof. But why did we not see anything? As we moved deeper, the trees looked bigger and scarier. The creepers were all over them. No flowers or fruits were visible. Just trees.
And then something weird happened. My younger brother started crying. He kept saying,” We should not have come here. We should not have come here. It was a mistake. There is no way out. Where did we come from Amba?” It was then, that I realized we were lost.
We both were scared. Our spirit of adventure was gone. We were even scared to scream for help. What if some monster in the forest heard us? What did we do to ourselves? How would we go back? In that moment of fear finally, we saw an animal. Not just any animal but a tiger. It did shift our attention from the scary trees. We thought of running but our legs had frozen. We knew at that moment that the tiger would attack us. But it didn’t. The tiger was looking behind us. It gazed something at an elevation. We turned our heads and looked up. There was a huge Banyan tree. The tree was pretty unusual. Even with the break of dawn, the tree looked so dark. It felt like the tree was growing and its branches were moving closer to us. It kept getting closer and I felt the blood running cold in my body and my heartbeat was so fast, I thought it might stop at any moment. Suddenly my legs started moving and I ran far from that tree and so did the tiger. We both felt like weak creatures being hunted by a more powerful being. I realized after running for a distance that my brother was not with me. I stopped. What was I doing? I can’t leave my brother behind. I gathered all my courage and moved back towards that Banyan tree. But it was gone. There was no tree. My brother was gone too. I searched a lot. I ran like a madman in that forest screaming for my brother. My heart was aching and my mind blamed me for being a coward. It was no use. I never saw that tree again. I never saw my brother again. I found my way back out of the forest where my family was waiting along with the villagers. Sangam might have informed them. I remember falling to the ground after seeing them at a distance.
When I woke up my father was screaming at me, shaking my body heavily. “Where is he? Where is your brother? Where did you leave my Shaunak?”, he kept screaming. I had no answer. The villagers murmured from behind, “We looked everywhere. No sign of him. Poor child.”
My father never spoke to me after that day. He married me off to your grandfather and left the village. Not a single day passes when I don’t curse myself for that incident. I tried to go back into that forest to search for my brother but never had the courage to walk past those creepers. I waited for years for him. Thinking that someday he might return. I told myself that the tree was my illusion. But how could it be? It was right there trying to suffocate us.”
When Amma stopped, her eyes were filled with tears. She was heartbroken. She had not mentioned that incident to anyone in a long time. The villagers knew but no one spoke of that horrific night. As more people disappeared, the forests were forbidden to the villagers. Amma also had moved on and made peace with her fate.
Raghu and Ajay did not say anything. They walked back home with their Amma. That night they all had their dinner in complete silence.
After dinner, everyone went to sleep. Ramanand slept outside of the hut on a mat created with dry straw. Saroj slept with the kids near the kitchen area. Amba slept at her usual place close to the window. Amba could not sleep that night. She had opened up an old would and it was causing her distress. She decided to go out of the house to take some fresh air. And hence she woke up. She wore her slippers. As soon as she stepped out of the hut, Raghu came from behind and held her tightly. He spoke in his innocent voice, “I am scared Amma. I can’t sleep. Can I sleep with you today?” Amba broke down in tears and hugged her grandson tightly. She went back to her bed with her grandson. He held him tightly as he fell asleep.