A ghost story set in the beautiful city of Nainital. Life meets after-life in a dark foggy night, in the middle of the vast lake, surrounded by dark hills and brightly lit moon sky.
Written by Aditi Mendiratta who is a lawyer by profession.
‘You have got to be kidding me.’ He stares at me, the unbelievability of it apparent on his face.
I signal for him to take the joint off my hands and exhale the white smoke to my left.
‘I know you don’t believe in all this, and I didn’t too, until I saw them.’
He sputters on his joint, in an attempt to speak while smoke clouded his throat. This conversation was taking a physical toll on him, seemingly. I stood up to stroke his back while he gained proper functioning of his tubes and lungs.
Offering him water from the glass kept on the table between us, I said, ‘I really don’t understand your skepticism.’
Back to breathing normally, he waves his hand in the air, dismissing my claims, looking at me, he goes, ‘I just do not understand how a girl like you, could possibly believe in things such as ghosts.’
‘Spirits, is a more accurate term, ghosts are a made-up concept for joy rides at the amusement park.’
‘Yeah, yeah, but how can you go from teaching science to college level students to believing in things whose existence has not been proven?’ He says while furrowing his brows.
‘I have my reasons to believe in their existence and I really don’t think that life as we know it as humans is all there is. Don’t you believe in something more, a state beyond our physical existence?’
‘Well, I do believe there is a place for us when we die, I just don’t think it is here on earth.’
‘That’s where you are wrong’ I said.
Getting up to grab the leftover pizza from the kitchen counter, he calls out to ask if I want some too, ‘No!’ I yell back.
I couldn’t recount the number of evenings I had spent in this place. The musty smell of the bachelor pad had left an imprint on most of my bearings by now.
Balancing the pizza and coke on his free hand, he hands over the remains of a joint to me for the final rites. As he takes his place in front of me across the table, he says, ‘So tell me all about it’
Back in the day, my parents and their budgets could only provide for a few indulgences a year. A trip to the amusement park and an annual summer vacation were ones we were guarenteed. Now, days or perhaps weeks went into planning this expedition. The adults of the family often met over drinks and exchanged ideas. Sunday brunches leading up to the summer were famous for loud debates as to the destination and choice of accommodation. And without a doubt in all of these negotiations, there was always an uncle or an aunt who would threaten to walk away. Such a move often earned them the right to get their way with at least one of the deciding factors. Now this particular year, back in 2008 an uncle had recently lost his job, and the inclusivity of this club demanded that everyone compromised. My parents were over the moon, the year’s trip had been planned to keep the cost of boarding down.
That year, we went up to the hills, the city of Naini Lake, Nainital. My grandfather had built himself a cabin, in the prime of his youth, about 3 kms into the woods. This rustic property demanded upkeep, but over the years, it got delayed to a point where the once modest property was now run amok with weeds in the lawn and moss on the walls. The trip was to fulfil a dual purpose, my aunt Meera with her betrothed were to set up camp a week early and get in the repairmen before the busiest weeks of the season. The shenanigans that would be brought with four families staying under the same roof was too much of a demand from the house as it was.
Packing all the families in what you call a 12-seater, we made our way over the hills. The cabin in the village was about a day’s travel away from us. Pit stopping and getting spanked for running around too much, we arrived just as the night was falling. As we made our way through the city, I caught a glimpse of the lake, it was mesmerizing. The moonlight hit the alcoves on the banks and made the atrociously colored little duck shaped boats seem fluorescent. As if in a trance, I was bopped on my head by my cousin whose entire personality was to bully for those troubling teen years.
She rasped into my ears, ‘You know what happens in the lake, don’t you?’
Still looking out the milky window, I shook my head.
‘It eats people up.’
Now my 12-year brain had not accomplished much until then, but I knew when someone was fibbing, ‘Lakes don’t eat.’
‘Of course, they, they say this lake is haunted by the witch whose life was taken by the Naini goddess.’
‘Uh-huh.’ I was honestly tired and just wanted this haunted business to end, I did not fare well with ghost stories as it is and I could not afford to be kept up all night thinking about the wrath of the lake based on assumptions of a teenage bully who obviously had a vendetta.
We pulled up at the cottage at around dinner time, greeted by the smiling aunt Meera and her husband, we all rushed in, hunger guiding us straight to the big old kitchen. It was the first time I had visited this place and the pristine beauty of the surrounding more than made up for the somewhat rustic and antique feel of the home. With cedar trees enveloping the entire atmosphere the quiet rustling made for the softest lullaby. The moonlight fell through the shade, glinting off of the window panes.
With our bellies full of warm food, and body aching with the travel, we all shuffled off to our bedrooms. Now all of the kids were to sleep in the hall, right beside the fireplace. With my sleeping bag in tow, I chose a corner as far away as possible from my nasty older cousins. I would rather not get into the details, but being in close quarters was just a call for scuffles.
I laid down, excited about the itinerary. Tomorrow was supposed to be a day out in the city, with local shopping and a visit to the lake. I was lulled to the tides of sleep that hit me with varying strength.
The ride within the lake had failed to live up to the words. One of my uncles chose the moment to, however, talk on length about his best friend drowning near the caves. The guide sitting at the helm of the boat took this as an opportunity to dive into the countless deaths that apparently happened there. The myths around the lake were a lot more engaging than the scene before me, the sun on our heads had revealed the algae ridden lake to feel like more a looming presence over happiness in general rather than the magic the moon lent to it at nights. I hung around after the others had left, I knew this town did not have much to offer. I also knew its only attraction would look ravishing in a full moon night.
The wiry guide, a young man of about 17, was marred by the fad of conversing only in english. The town had a rich vein of colonial history running through, hills appeased the Lords and the Sirs and the main chowk reeked of their architecture. Even the cottage down the lane from ours had a history of colonial ownership.
‘Is there any night tour option?’
‘No, NO. Nights are dangerous.’
It must have been the look of utter despair on my face, I assume that led him to add, ‘Only locals come at night.’
I knew I had to play my cards right, slight deflection on my part or that of my potential partners, I would be looking at the beating of a lifetime. I made my way to the lunch table reserved for all the kids at the restaurant over-looking the lake. The lake at night, glistening under the light of the stars, served with a platter of the full moon was enticing. I stole a look at my older cousins, they would need only a slight convincing. Teenage rebel aside, the oldest loved to spite their parents. I looked at the drab portion of a coleslaw sandwich, the thin plastic sticking to it and the oily packet of local brand ketchup sticking underneath it. The weather was brilliant, hardly any clouds. The view of the hills around us would have been exhilarating if the town wasn’t marred by the barge of young couples chattering away, taking away the stillness one only feels around giant creatures of nature. An opportunity to witness the stillness of the night, in the middle of the lake, even if with not the best of companies had the potential to become a memorable event.
I turned to my left and offered my sandwich to my cousin, she was perpetually hungry, seemingly her mom kept her on a strict diet. Society structures in place did not really accommodate heavy women, their desirability measured in the lack of space they took on this earth. My parents were no less, being constantly asked to run around the block at the slightest tilt of the scale, they prided themselves in how under control they had the situation.
Chomping through the last bite, she looked at me with a strange look and asked, ‘Why were you talking to the weird guide?’
‘Oh, I was just enquiring about the history of the lake, school project. Summer vacation diary.’
She nodded almost sympathetically.
‘You liked the boat ride?’
‘Eh, wouldn’t do it again.’
‘Not even on a full moon night?’
She wiped the ketchup off the corner of her mouth and gave me a sly grin.
It wasn’t hard from then on, we just had to put across our case on the table and by the end of the lunch, almost all but my eldest cousin was in. He had had a strange turn of character in the last year of his school. His mother had turned him into a small god-fearing man, much like his father. Stocky as he were, I was fairly certain at this point that he was getting bullied at school. A small nudge from my hungry cousin was all it took.
The plan was simple, we waited until midnight, sneaking off would not be the biggest issue. We knew the adults had plans to ‘kick off’ tonight, that almost always meant that they would be down with a hangover the day after. We took the guide’s phone number and went back to the cottage, waiting for the clock to strike midnight.
Tucked into bed by 10 PM, our room was rampant with shushed conversations. The pansy ass had not let go off of the list of things that could go wrong but I believe every team needs a realist to function. If it had not been for him, I wouldn’t have thought to climb into the bag with my clothes on. The nights here were chillier than what we were used to back in Delhi, a cold to possibly give away our rendezvous was definitely not something I could afford.
We had asked the guide to meet us in the backyard at quarter to 12 and text us. I could have sworn it felt like 10 mins since we climbed into our beds but the guide had reached the meeting point.
Sneaking off into the night, knuckles numb from grabbing the torchlight too hard, we made our way through the dense forage behind our cottage, everything flush with the silver radiance of the moonlight, the silence of the night fell upon us, enveloping us with a cold white light, peaceful, calm and soothing.
The boat was waiting for us at the small cove, the ripples it made around us cast a spell, and soon there we were, in the middle of the lake, surrounded by caves on one side and the town on the other. The guide whispered his knowledge of the mythical lakes into our ears but I could hardly focus on it.
The summer night sky in the hills was really a thing of wonder, the stars seemed to be dotting the entire sky, twinkling with the full moon hanging right above us, its bareness exposed. The glow of the silver light cast an illumination on everything around us. It really blew away my 12 year old mind to see how vast the nature could be, the feeling has fought its way back to me every time I saw the open sea, a view from the top of a summit and sometimes even a skyscraper.
The thrill of the night had left us feeling rather dizzy and we ended up asking the guide to stop the boat in the alcoves, for us to pause for a moment and soak in the grandness of the night. As soon as we hit the first rock, however, something was disturbed. The entire lake was like under a curtain of silence until now and then suddenly, it grew impatient. The tides started swelling and we saw several birds of the night time fly about. Sensing the disruption, the guide broke our trance and asked us to clutch hard at the railing and hang tight to our jackets. Glowing orange in this strange night, I couldn’t imagine how comical we must have looked, racing back to the other side.
On the other side, he quickly asked us to step off. Everything happened so fast I could hardly place the sequence. The light in the night sky seemed to be getting brighter until it hurt our eyes. We just looked at each other and started running towards the cottage. Back in our bags, the younger ones could hardly stop shivering. I, however just couldn’t seem to keep my eyes open. I knew something had happened, something had been disturbed the moment we touched that rock. The lake was infamous for having a mammoth of underground caves, building a pressure so gruesome, once one fell into the lake, the lake took over, it did not let you leave. Getting sucked into the mammoth of the dark silent caves underneath the water, people had been taken. The images of Mickey, my uncle’s best friend kept flashing before my eyes, I was certain he was there. His presence was one that couldn’t be avoided, even while he haunted this side of the world. I was not wrong, of course.
The rest of the trip was a daze. Under an inconsolable fever the vacation lost its rhythm for me. Nauseating journey downhill did not do me any better. The end of the summer vacation was rather underwhelming. I spent quite a lot of time sleeping yet it made me exhausted. I woke up feeling drained, running a low-grade fever that did not go as quietly as it had crept up. At the point I was convinced of my delirium back at the lake. I spent quite a few weeks sleeping yet failed to dream. Like a still lake I slept and woke up without as much as a ripple.
Something had been lost in the lake, a part of me had been pulled out of me. For a moment, I had felt the entire pull of the moon on my body and had realized it would take a lot more than just walking to make my way back home. I did make it back, but at a cost, or something like it.
Every other fortnight, now and then, I have a dream, it hardly feels like one, I find myself, sitting on the rock at the entrance of the cave, looking in, Mickey sitting beside me. Silent, hunched over, he seems be aglow with a light I think you only possess on this side. Looking in, my feet soaked in the water of the lake, I see people. People sitting with their backs to me, looking at the walls of the cave, with about huge rocks on their laps. Rocks bigger than the people, anchoring them, to this world.
With a rock chained to his feet, Mickey says, ’They can’t leave yet, I cant, we still have issues to bring in order.’
‘Are all of you dead?’
‘Devoid of the earthly soul, yes, not devoid of meaning unfortunately.’
He continues, ’We chain ourselves, to not let the other side erase us. We still have business to take care of. Even if we can’t, we just haven’t reached the end of the line yet. We have to wait.’
The pain of the wait visible in his eyes, he pushes me into the water, and that’s when I wake up every time.
As I reach out for the bottle of water, kept between us, I take a look at his face, aghast, yet with a glint of doubt, he says to me, ‘Get out of here, this did not happen.’
I said, ‘Well it your call, of course, to choose to believe in my tale after all.’
I just couldn’t find it in me to tell him that Mickey, right next to him, sure did not approve of his allegation.