Every night as numerous vehicles pass by the Clint estate on Bangalore-Hyderabad highway, a watchman closes the front metallic gate of the government school. The government school conducts evening classes for the local farmers on agriculture related topics, an initiative of the state education department. All the farmers ensure that they leave the school premises by the time clock strikes ten. The watchman closes the gate soon and vanishes only to come back again at six in the morning to open the gates for local kids. A huge banyan tree stands behind the school with bulging branches extending up to twenty feet. The distance from the wall of the school to the nearest branch of the tree is about hundred metres. The perimeter of the tree is clearly earmarked by the villagers using white pebbles. No one enters the perimeter after sunset and no one even comes closer as night drops in.
On a bright Friday evening in Bangalore, Rick and his college mates decided to head out on the highway and roam around like nomads. Within no time their SUV had crossed the Airport road and they were cruising along the Hyderabad highway. It was slightly chilly outside so Rick had covered himself with a muffler around his neck. Ashraf was driving as Rick and Ketan were arguing over who was better, Batman or Ironman? They were in search of food and a place to park their vehicles and enjoy their Cuban cigars in the open. Ashraf pointed towards the moon and asked his friends to observe the bunny inside the moon.
“I didn’t realise today is a full moon day.” Rick exclaimed.
“It’s not a good sign and we are so far off from our homes that too on a full moon day.” Ketan muttered.
Ashraf and rick both laughed. ”You and your superstitions.”
“You guys can laugh as much as you want but it is better to be on the safer side.”
Ashraf slowed down the car as he entered the deviation marked towards Clint Estate.
“Bro, what happened, why a deviation here?”
“I am tired dude, let’s have a smoke and change the driver.”
“Yeah, I need to piss too.” Ketan added to the conversation.
“You cannot piss on a full moon night dude, else it will get frozen.”Rick taunted and both Rick and Ashraf laughed their lungs out.
Rick and Ashraf lighted their cigarettes as Ketan went towards the bushes adjacent to a small school to relieve himself. Rick recollected how Ketan had always believed in such superstitions and shared his tales with Ashraf. Ashraf just nodded as he was more interested in his cigarette. Ketan came in running towards both of them, a guy was following him with slower steps.
“What happened Ketan, why are you so scared?” Ashraf put off his cigarette as Rick smiled at yet another incident he could tell all his friends about Ketan.
Ketan was sweating, his shirt was tucked out and his eyes were red.
“Dude what happened?”
“There is a watchman here, he says it’s not safe hanging out here especially at this point of time.”
Rick came forward and asked the watchman himself what the issue was. “Saheb, please do not be here in the vicinity of the school and the Banyan tree at night. It’s not safe.”
“But why?” Rick raised his eyebrows.
“The tree is haunted. No one has ever survived here at night. None of the villagers come here at night. It’s not safe.” Ketan was trembling with fear and Ashraf looked quite concerned.
Ketan was quick to vouch for the watchman.” Let’s get out of here before anything happens, I told you it’s not auspicious on a full moon night.” And walked towards the car.
“What rubbish is this? You want me to believe the tree is haunted, this watchman is perhaps doing something illegal here and wants to scare us off.” Rick exclaimed.
Ashraf noticed Rick, he had never bowed down to anything in his life, and such was Rick. He was an atheist and he always had a perfect logic behind every superstition that people believed in. Ashraf had never seen him loose or embarrassed. He seized the opportunity and spoke.” Rick, I do not know what to say but I believe we should leave. There is no harm in being cautionary.” He knew Rick would never be convinced.
“Ashraf are you mad? You believe in all these rubbish myths. Man, I will prove you, this watchman and Ketan wrong today.”
“You tell me how? You believe in this shit.”
“Take ten rounds of the Banyan tree.” Ashraf pointed towards the tree. The watchman and Ketan were surprised at Ashraf’s comment. He asked both of them to be quiet.
“That’s it, then you will stop believing in all this crap.”
Ashraf parked the car just outside the perimeter marked by the villagers and switched on the headlights. The Banyan tree was illuminated by Halogen lamps, it looked like a fortress which had been abandoned. Rick was standing next to the car adjusting his muffler and showing his middle finger to Ketan. He slowly walked towards the tree as Ashraf asked the watchman the history behind the tree.
“Nobody knows anything about the tree Saheb. We just know it is haunted. So far it has taken thirty six lives.”
“You shouldn’t have asked Rick to do this.” Ketan spoke as he closed his eyes unable to watch Rick complete his first round around the tree. Rick seemed like a distant shadow rotating around a tree with golden branches and trunk. It sure seemed creepy, a guy taking rounds of a Banyan tree. Ashraf checked his watch. 10:15 p.m.
“Two” Ashraf counted as he saw Rick show his middle finger, turning around the huge trunk of the Banyan tree for the third time. Suddenly the headlights switched off and there was complete darkness. Ketan screamed as he saw darkness regain control. The watchman was trembling with fear as well.
Ashraf plugged in the keys and the headlights came to life again.” Ketan you rat, the engine had switched off due to the cold. Why do you have to exaggerate everything? The headlights are back. See there Rick is into his fourth round.”
Rick was at ease taking rounds of the tree. The only thing that troubled him was the chilly breeze across the vast open land where the tree stood like a pillar. ’Six more to go’
Ashraf counted the fifth round as Ketan slowly watched through partially closed eyes. The watchman had left somewhere in between the fourth round due to fear. No one had tried to stop him. The breeze was growing in stature and Ashraf hoped soon they would head back to their homes. Rick raised his middle finger again as he entered the sixth round. Ashraf smiled as he saw Rick being the Daredevil he always was.
“How many rounds?” Ketan asked.
“That’s what you told me five minutes ago.”
“I guess he is playing around with us, trying to scare you Ketan.”
“Blow the horn, flash the headlights, do something, why hasn’t he come on the other side till now?” I told him not to do all this. You guys do not listen to me at all.”
For the next fifteen minutes, Ashraf kept blowing the horn and flashing his headlights but Rick never showed up. He was lost behind the tree in its shadows, in the myths that had been foretold and the fear that people showcased. The villagers had gathered near the car now due to the constant horns and flashing of headlights. There were around seventy villagers who had gathered around the car encircling it. The watchman was one amongst them. Perhaps he had called them all.
“I warned you all, didn’t I?” pointed out the watchman.
Ashraf had lost his patience now, he asked Ketan whether he would accompany him or not and banged the door as he placed his foot amidst the angry villagers. He ignored them all and made his way towards the tree. Ketan played the Hanuman Chalisa on his phone and slowly followed him. The branches of the tree seemed to crawl around them as they slowly made their way towards the trunk, the tree was an illusion in itself. It grew in size and in the intensity of fear as Ashraf closed in. The chants coming from Ketan’s phone only irritated him more. Fact was he was afraid, he was a human after all. The villagers looked on curiously from outside the perimeter, they knew something terrible had happened. The tree had taken another victim.
Ashraf stopped near the trunk too scared to look around. Ketan stood behind him, his legs were shaking and the cold breeze did not help either. He looked up towards the sky but only found huge creepy branches of the tree. He opened his hands and remembered Allah. ‘Help your child in this hour of need.’ The headlights went off again and Ketan held onto Ashraf like a five year old child. Ashraf knew they had to look behind the trunk, they could not have let down their dear friend. It was his mistake partially after all.
In the arid darkness bereft of the headlights and courage Ashraf slowly started encircling the trunk just as he had seen Rick. He hoped he was safe and just fooling around with them. Ketan’s Hanuman Chalisa stopped suddenly, the battery had been drained. It was fear and just fear that prevailed. Ashraf was half way round the trunk when he saw what he did not want to see. Ketan ran towards the car when he saw it. Ashraf was stationary for a few minutes. He was responsible for it. There behind the trunk of the haunted tree lay Rick on the ground. He was not breathing neither was he fooling around. He was dead. He had been murdered by the unknown and the unexplainable.
A week later Ashraf was in the Doctor’s cabin. He had been waiting eagerly to know the cause of his friend’s death. He had not been able to sleep all this time, all he saw was the huge Banyan tree and Rick’s corpse. The doctor calmly asked Ashraf a few questions.
“Do you believe in Ghosts?”
“Not until now.”
“You still need not.”
“What do you mean?”
“Look at Rick’s neck” and he showed him a photograph. “There are signs of struggle on his neck, see those red marks.”
“So someone did try to strangle him but there was no one around there.”
“Exactly, remember that night a strong breeze was blowing. Well, I am not sure but this is how it might have happened. Rick turns around for the sixth round, the breeze intensifies, some part of his muffler flies away and gets stuck in the branches, he tries to move but he cannot, he tries hard but he cannot. Fear takes over him, he remembers everything haunted he has ever seen or heard about. He is too afraid of looking back and seeing what has actually happened. The fear keeps growing inside him and finally he has a panic attack. Courage is not absence of fear, it is the ability to deal with it. Your friend died of Heart attack in the end. The tree was not haunted, his mind was.”