This incident took place in my life almost 20 years ago. Over the last couple of decades, the passage of time had pushed it to the back of my mind. Or may be it was my sub-conscious mind, rather than the passage of time, which didn't want my mind to deal with it.
Funnily enough, a dream (or to term it more appropriately, a nightmare) that I had a couple of nights back brought the incident to the fore once again. In my dream, I was once again walking at the edge of the woods with a shadowy figure keeping pace with me.
I woke up rattled and after sufficiently calming down, decided to write down all that I can remember of the incident which my dream had dredged up from the recesses of my memories.
I was in my mid-20s, fresh out of college and overly enthusiastic. Job offers were aplenty and I wanted to explore new locations. That prompted me to take up a job offer in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. I was allocated a temporary free accommodation in an empty apartment at the outskirts of the city, while my work-place was in the city center.
Though it involved a 9 kms bus-trip to and fro every day, I was pretty OK with it. That is because the building was in the middle of a secluded, wooded area filled with verdant greenery. After getting down from the bus on the highway, there was a pleasant walk of almost a kilometre to get to my residence. The isolated leafy lanes were lined on both sides with banana groves.
The apartment itself was in a building which was under some legal dispute, so only 3-4 families lived in it. There were several row-houses around; but most of them were empty, as the owners were working in the middle-east countries. As to why they didn't rent out the houses and instead chose to keep them empty, it has to do with the communist government that ruled the state and their rules with regards to tenants. I will not get into that, as I don't want to diverge from the subject at hand.
Now power cuts were a norm in rural southern India in the early 2000s and were pretty much crippling during the nights. Rather than sweating in my bed trying to sleep, I would take long walks in the vicinity of my accommodation.
One of my favourite routes ran through the edge of some woods, merging with a country road later. Although I loved the woods, I wasn't too keen about them at night. The forest was darker in those days and you never knew if it was a bird you were hearing or something more sinister. The country road was an unpaved dirt road passing from between not one, but two cemeteries. One apparently was a cremation ground for Hindus and the other a burial ground for Muslims. This road led to the main highway where I would go for my groceries and other provisions. The entire place had a strange aura at night and was, in a word, avoidable.
It was one of those nights, when the power failed and I kept tossing and turning in my bed in vain. Though it was not particularly hot, I just could not relax and hence I decided to go for a walk. According to the phosphorous hands on my watch, it was 2 in the morning. A light rain had fallen on the previous evening and the place looked surreal. The leaves on trees were heavily laden with moisture, the air smelled of fresh earth and it was invigorating to the senses. Tendrils of light mist swirled around my feet, and I was lulled in a lazy sense of complacency.
No birds called from the trees and even the insects seemed to be silent that night. In retrospect, these should have set off the alarm bells ringing; but my mind seemed to be operating in lower gear. I had almost reached the two cemeteries when I decided to head back.
I was about to turn around when I saw a lantern bobbing up and down, headed my way from the highway. I paused for a few seconds and could soon behold an old local man walking towards me. He hailed me in Malayalam and I returned the greeting, allowing him to fall in step with me. From the corner of my eye, I could see that he was dressed in the local garb of a coloured but faded lungi, discoloured shirt and slippers. He was muttering something in the south Indian language and I strained my ears to catch a few words. He had switched off his lantern as I had my flashlight with me; although the batteries seemed to be on the verge of giving up the ghost and the dull yellow light that it cast did little to dispel the gloom.
The further we moved from the cemeteries, the more incongruous the entire scenario stuck me. Who was this strange guy and why was he outside at this odd hour? Why was his voice starting to fade in and out like a badly tuned radio? I turned towards him to perceive him properly and in the dim light I could see his outlines slightly blurred, less solid then when we had met.
Fear crept up my spine like a tendril and I fumbled in my pocket for the pack of cigarettes and match-box that I always carried with me. A reflex action whenever I feel nervous or stressed out. With shaking fingers I stuck a match, lit a cigarette and resumed walking. But the staccato sound of his flip-flops hitting the dirt road had ceased. A gravelly voice arose from behind me and fluttered to my ears "you have escaped narrowly". My feet reacted before my brain could unscramble those spoken words and I took off running. I reached my house sweating heavily and threw myself in bed without bothering to take off my clothes. The power was back on but I didn't bother to switch off the lights. Sleep didn't come to give any relief to my overwrought brain and I waited for the day to break.
The next day, I shared my experience with some of my co-workers who were locals and they drew my attention to the fact that it had been a new moon night. Probably a restless, malevolent spirit from one of those cemeteries had been attracted towards the sound of my footsteps. The thing would have been almost poised to make its move when the lighting of the match saved me. Fire is said to be a deterrent for evil spirits. Well, smoking did probably save my life that day.
Within a week, I had shifted to a rented apartment in the city itself and for once, I felt glad to be living in a well-populated place. I spent a couple of years there before returning back to Mumbai. The passage of time faded the incident from my memory. I would sometimes vaguely recollect it, but somehow it always felt surrealistic as if it were a dream. Until an actual dream brought it back to the fore of my mind and compelled me to write this account.