Updated: May 2, 2021
The rain is relentless. I hear it thrumming on the metal roof and running down the broken pipe into the mud. I moisten my cracked lips with my tongue, wondering if they’ll bring me food and water. I wonder if they’re coming at all.
The chatter of the raindrops muffles the noise coming from outside the shed. When the land is dry, it is easier for my ears to pick up the soft footsteps. I have counted them. They take 25 steps to reach me after the gate creaks open. The iron, grating on the hinges.
Today I can’t make out anything. I strain to catch any sound beyond the smattering of the drops. The tin roof makes the rain sound like nuts smashing against metal. Ugh, how irritating! The ability to hear them walk up to this shed is the only control I have over the situation. This godforsaken rain has taken away even that from me. I rest my head against the bare brick wall. How did I end up here?
I was on a hike around the hills of Natadol. Happy to be amongst nature. The fresh air and the chirping of birds were invigorating. The terrain was not steep. I am used to more strenuous hikes, having done a few 50Km treks in Himachal Pradesh. Mountain ranges there are higher and steeper than the Shivalik’s of Uttarakhand.
The trek here was good enough to help me get some exercise and break into a light sweat. The desire to explore more made me tread deeper into the forest—my undoing.
I was amidst dense foliage with thick treetops making it impossible for the Sun rays to creep inside the canopy. 8 AM seemed like dusk. An occasional bird song or a cricket’s call broke the silence.
Lost admiring the colorful mushrooms growing on the tree trunks, I heard a muffled scream. To check where it came from, I moved to see through the trees. I lost my footing. The moss on the trees and the ground made it impossible to hold on to anything.
“There is somebody here.” A male voice echoed across the trees.
“Shush, keep quiet, Saheb. It must be a wild boar. Best to leave it alone. If it attacks, not even your gun will save us.”
“Ok, better hurry. I don’t like being here deep in this forest.”
There were two men. The scream, though, was of a girl. What were they doing here with a gun? Why were they in a hurry? Why did the girl scream?
I moved with stealth towards the direction of the voices. Careful to take slow steps. One foot at a time. After about fifty meters, I could make out the men amidst the trees. I hid behind a thick deodar tree, hopeful it would keep them from noticing me.
They were digging. Why? I took out my binoculars and focused in their direction. One was a native. His dress and rugged face were typical of village folk from this part of the Kumaon mountains. The second man in camouflage t-shirt and cargo pants was from the city. They did not notice me, focused on digging. I stayed to watch.
“Give me water.” The Kumaoni man asked from his place in the hole. Only his top half was visible to me.
Cargo pants bent down to pick up the bottle. It was then that I saw the white stole soaked in blood and mud. Oh, God. They were burying a body: a girl or a woman.
Out of fear, I panicked. I had to get out of there. When I turned to leave, my foot caught in a root jutting out from the ground, sending me face down. The rustling of the dried leaves gave away my location. Before I could get up, the men were upon me. Cargo pants grabbed my arm and hauled me to stand straight.
“I told you there was someone Saheb.”
“Shut up, you dimwit.” After shouting at the villager, he turned to me. His hands were boring into my arm. The tight grip hurt. He was too strong for me.
“What are you doing here?” Cargo pants barked into my ear.
I winced, but the fear, pain, and panic made my throat dry. “Ah, a”
Before I could form a complete word, his hand landed across my cheeks. A metallic taste filled my mouth. My ears stung with the impact.
“Who are you? Speak, or you will get another one.” His eyes were wild and stone cold.
“Leave him, Saheb. He seems to be deaf and dumb.”
I looked at the villager. He was staring at me as if giving me some message.
Cargo pant’s grasped the hair on my neck, pulling them to straighten me, forcing me to look into those feral dark brown eyes. “Are you deaf and dumb?” His fingers dug into my neck. I nodded.
He eased his hold. “Get that stole. Tear it into two.” Cargo pants instructed the villager.
One-piece went over my eyes and another through my mouth. With a rope, they tied together my hands and legs. They left me on the ground. The sounds of the spade broke the silence of the forest. After a while, there was a pause in the digging. A thud broke the eerie silence of the forest, and the spadework started again. My tears soaked the cloth. No amount of wiggling to free myself helped. The cloth in my mouth and the rope were hurting. Exhaustion got the better of me, and I must have blacked out.
When I woke up, I found myself here.
What trouble have I gotten myself? I was on vacation and rented a cottage from a friend amidst an orchard in a small village on the Kumaon hills. Away from the crowds of Nainital. The cabin was quaint with two rooms, a kitchen, and a fireplace. I wanted solitude to get away from my life. The last few months had been tough. My professional and personal life had taken a big hit.
When I got to the cottage, I fell in love with it in an instant. There was no one to bother me. A helper came once a day to clean the house and bring groceries—the only human contact. I was enjoying my stay here. The early morning walks, eating fruits plucked from trees, watching the Sun move across the Himalayan ranges at dawn and dusk. Most important of all, after a long time, I had my creative juices flowing again. I had put pen to paper and started writing my next novel. I spent the nights cherishing the stillness and looking at the stars from the window across my bed.
Stillness, Ah, how addictive it was. The memory of the silent nights gave me an idea. If I focused and listened to the rain, it would melt into background noise. My ears would get accustomed to it, and then I could separate any other sound.
My senses and sanity were the only things that would help me survive this ordeal and get out of here. The helper at the cottage may have noticed I had been missing. Would he worry? He was the one who told me about the trails in the nearby forest.
Anyway, I cannot depend on him. I must get out of here. Bid my time and wait for the right opportunity. I could take on the Kumaoni man but did not want to hurt him. He was the one who saved my life, suggesting to his master that I was deaf and dumb. I played along, hoping his master would consider me helpless and harmless and let me go after a while.
No luck so far. My captors come here every day, once in the morning and then in the evening. Both times to deliver food. I am waiting for Cargo pants to come alone. Wonder why he is keeping me alive. I shake my head. I am so stupid. Shouldn’t I be thankful I am still alive? I should work on my plan to escape, and here I am, worried about the reasons my captor lets me breathe.
Will I end up underground sharing the fate of that girl? No, never. Not if I can help it. A shiver runs down my spine—time to focus on the sounds of rain. I still myself. Crouched on the ground, I hug my knees and squeeze them to my stomach, listening to the sounds of nature.
After a while, I hear it. The sound is different. The rains must have done something, but I am sure it is the gate. I try to listen for the steps, but the rain-soaked ground muffles any sound. There is a splash. A foot hitting a pool of water. I reach behind me and gather the pieces of stone I collected from the shed floor and shards of bone from the chicken they have fed me. The pieces are small, but I have sharpened them on a stone. I clasp one piece between each of my fingers. My fist turned into a claw. A poor model of Wolverine, but it will have to do.
Cargo pants is alone today. This is my window of opportunity. I need to make sure he comes near to enable me to use this makeshift claw. I lie on the ground, and when the second door to the shed opens, I writhe.
My shaking startles Cargo pants. He puts the plate in the usual place, on the ground near the door. Then he walks over to me and prods my abdomen with his shoe. “What’s wrong with you?”
I shake violently.
“Damn it. Are you having a fit? I don’t want another dead body on my hands." He bends and shakes my shoulder, trying to still me.
This is my chance. I brace myself. When he bends his head and looks closer at my face, I plunge the make-shift claw into his eye. He stumbles back. I don’t let go. I slam my fist into his face, piercing his other eye. He howls and covers his face with his hands.
I grab the steel plate from near the door and use it as a weapon. I slam the plate again and again and again on his head till I see blood. He gets on his knees. I slam my foot in his stomach, sending him to the ground. Before he gets up, I run out of the shed and lock the door.
The heavens are pouring. So are my eyes. Tears and rain mingle into a stream down my cheeks. I step back, turn and run out of the iron gate. The rain is relentless. I hear it thrumming on the metal roof. The sound is no longer irritating, no longer rattling—no longer noise. The sound of drops hitting metal is music—the song of freedom.
The humming of life. Nature’s hymn for my life.