It had a night face and a day face.
|Kottur was s a small village by the river, Nagavali. At the most, it could boast of a couple of thousand humble houses. Villagers were farmers mainly, paddy and wheat being their main crops. The old banyan tree on the outskirts of the village stood like a sentinel. Its massive trunk was webbed with roots shooting from other roots; the branches grew in all directions, making the tree a tangle of branches and roots. It crested above the rest of the trees in the jungle like a towering Goliath.
Children played in its shade and tired travelers relaxed under the wide canopy of branches to eat their humble meal of curd rice and rest a bit before resuming their journey. However, in the darkness of the night, the Banyan looked more like a horrifying monster with hair flying in all directions and its outstretched branches like hands gripping weapons of death. It seemed to have two faces, a day face, and a night face. For the people of Kottur, the old Banyan was a part of village life.
Ramana, the president of the municipal council of Kottur, was a man of principles. He and his councilors managed the village affairs very well indeed. People were happy with his efforts in maintaining the village school and hospital and basic amenities among other things.
It is everyone’s knowledge that nothing stays perfect for a long time. Come to think of it, even Paradise could not escape the entry of corruption and evil.
The people of the neighboring village, Puttur, were not as lucky as their neighbors. Chalapathi, the president of Puttur’s municipal council, was an antithesis of Ramana. He sold people’s rations to the black marketeers and pocketed the illegal gains. If anyone raised voice of dissent against his Machiavellian tactics, he or she would be dealt with very severely, sometimes fatally.
Nagaraju, Chalapathi’s son, was a second year B.Com student in a city college. After the annual exams he returned home to Puttur for vacation. As in the case of his father, morals and principles were not his cup of tea. His father never tried to control his son, with the excuse that Nagaraju was a motherless child.
During the fall break, speeding on motor bikes, Nagaraju and his friends would go to the neighboring Kottur to picnic by the river, and drink alcohol at will, under the big banyan tree. The tree seemed to look on the miscreants with brooding contempt, its hanging roots dry and thirsty.
Fully drunk, the group would then ride through the village shouting and cursing anyone crossing their path. Vendors would shut their shops for fear of being vandalized by the thugs of Puttur.
On one such evening, Padma, the young day-shift nurse at the Kottur hospital, was on way to her home. Suddenly, she heard the loud rush of the motor bikes at her back and was too startled to get out of their way. Before she realized, she was seized from behind and whisked away.
When she hadn’t returned home even by late night, Padma’s parents complained to the president. Ramana organized a search party for Padma. The police were informed of the missing girl. By next morning, they found her clothes in the woods bordering Kottur. There was no sign of her in the vicinity. They had no clue to the culprits behind Padma’s disappearance.
Nagaraju and his shady company went back to their hostel in the city and continued with their pretentious studies.
Two months later, in the college hostel;
“Buddy, let’s go back home. I am missing the kind of fun we are used to,” said Nagaraju, with a lecherous smile.
Reddy, a gang member, equally lewd, answered back, “I am ready, Nag.”
“So what are we waiting for? Let’s take off right after lunch today,” said Manu, another mate. “We might find a damsel on our way,” he guffawed. Chandu, the quiet one, joined the laughter.
The college authorities paid no attention to the movements of this group of resident evils, who came and went at will.
It was nearly evening by the time they reached the outskirts of Kottur, crossing which they would reach their village.
“Let’s have a beer-break under the Banyan,” suggested Nagaraju.
“Yes, yes, let’s do that,” agreed the others, gleefully.
They took out beer bottles and started drinking and joking.
Their raucous voices echoed in the chilly wind of the late evening. Gradually, darkness descended. The crescent moon hid behind dark clouds. The banyan had a stern face that topped the tree with long arms, one of which seemed to hold a skull in the hand. Too hungry for blood? The birds and creatures sheltering on the tree erupted into a sudden cacophony. Monkeys shook the branches on which they perched. A jackal howled in the distance. Something stirred in the surroundings. The wind died down, turning the weather sultry and irritable. A storm was in the offing. Nagaraju and his pals lost color at the change of weather. Cold sweat covered their foreheads despite the coolness in the air. Occasional sounds of silence were creepy.
They looked at each other in silent apprehension and ran to their motor bikes parked on the roadside.They froze on their track, hearing a sudden scream. Turning back, they noticed Chandu, their buddy, slipped and fell on a boulder. They ran to him and turned him around, and were shocked to see Chandu’s face smeared in blood. All of a sudden, his head jerked up and his body stood like a ramrod in the air. Then it fell with a loud thud to the ground as if released from someone’s grip and lay still.
The group looked around searching for the killer. Then they saw someone standing motionless a few feet away from them. A veil of dark hair half concealed its face, an eerie light shone from beneath. Puzzled at the silent woman’s presence, they closed in on her.
“Hey you! You look like our old flame, Padma. But we drowned her in Nagavali. Who are you?” asked Nagaraju with a smirk.
He stretched his hand forward to touch her. A dagger like sharpness sliced through his hand and body. He stumbled gasping in pain. Regaining balance, he tried to put her hair aside. The face looked up at him. He let out a blood-curdling scream, and started running, when he saw that the pale dead face had no features except for two red eyes burning like hell’s twin fires. They realized that they were not going anywhere. It was as if they were on a treadmill, stuck to ground.
The sudden burst of rain thrashed them all and a stormy wind whipped from all sides sending shock waves through their bodies. An unseen presence had dealt Nagaraju a resounding slap in the face and a deadly punch in the stomach, making him double with pain. He was bleeding to death from a split stomach. He sobbed and pleaded with the apparition to have pity on him. Others joined his pleas. But sin’s wages were terrible.
“Did you have pity on me? Didn’t you just force yourself on me, killed me and then threw me into the river?” asked a rasping voice.
Nagaraju and others acted like demented spirits. They tried to escape from the grip of the departed soul’s presence. The three were dragged by a force beyond their imagination and were slammed against the old Banyan’s trunk. They heard their bones breaking and breath stopping slowly, steadily till darkness engulfed them.
The raging elements simmered. The voices on the tree sighed. Weather cleared and the wind blew normal. The half-moon emerged from the veil of clouds and glittered. Dawn neared. The old banyan assumed its morning face, its violent face withdrawn. All was calm.
A villager, on his way to fields, found three bodies plastered to the Banyan’s vast trunk with twisted heads and broken limbs. Stunned out of wits, he ran back to tell the others about the deaths of the young men he recognized.
The police investigation went on for a while. Having found no killer to be accused of the kidnap, rape and murder of Padma, and Chandu and the others found nailed to the big Banyan, they had to close the case without a proper conclusion.
Padma’s grave, made by the villagers near the big Banyan, had served as a well-known landmark as well as a warning to the eve-teasers and rapists of both the villages ever since the incident.