The search party that had accompanied him to the forest had long scampered away. Their fears were confirmed. The forest was after all, unholy.
How fast they had run, village strongmen, big-talkers of valor, upholders of the protective powers of Hindu Gods, disbelievers, the police. He was left alone. Sticks, spades, swords, knives and sundry kitchen equipment the men had brought along for protection and a possible assault lay scattered around him. The many torches that lay on the ground shot dying beams of light in many directions creating a circle of light around where he stood. The circle closed in with every passing minute. The silence pierced his ears as he stood still thinking how he would make his way all the way back to the village.
Then he heard her sing. And for the first time Bhanu felt the cold of the forest. A tremendous chill gripped Bhanu’s sixty year old heart, displacing the grief that it housed in a single gripping moment with realization and he stiffened like a rock. It was the song he had taught her. It was their song. He now had reason to believe, reason to believe that it was her indeed.
His own grand-daughter? His own child? By what spiteful turn of fate had this come to be? What had he done to deserve this? What had the poor child done to deserve this?
It had been a year since she had disappeared into the forest. When the police grew tired of old Bhanu knocking at their doors day and night and sitting outside their offices refusing to leave had they decided to, for the sake of silencing the old man for the time being, take a casual stroll into the forest and take a look around. They entered the dark, cold and leafy interiors of the jungle bantering cheerfully and dangling their sticks and rushed out clamoring and excited. They had found her, floating face down in the fishpond. Bhanu’s world collapsed underneath his feet.
Much debating ensued as to how the girl had died. Many theories were thrown up, causes, from the imagined to the deduced, from the mildly reasonable to the outright bizarre, from the religious to the scientific, all were passionately argued, discussed at tea-shacks, homes and schools. But no one succeeded in so much as zeroing in one plausible cause. Bhanu amidst all this, sat gaping, lost.
Then began the killings. Whoever ventured around the precincts of the forest disappeared and was found a few days later, half eaten, somewhere deep inside the forest. The nature of the killings was particularly grisly which intensified the villager’s fear that the cause – which, for a considerable while was assumed to be a leopard or a tiger – couldn’t possibly have been an animal. And who would explain the cuts and scratches on the bodies, which the forensic babus from the city said had not been caused by claws, but alarmingly, by human nails.
This partly was responsible for the kernel of suspicion that had silently made its way into every villager’s heart. But they told Bhanu nothing. They loved the helpless old man.
Bhanu collapsed on his knees as the darkness enfolded him in it’s cold veneer and whimpered like a scared child. An odd mix of emotions welled up inside him as the distant voice of a fifteen year old came sailing to him clearly through the night air. The voice was strangely sweet and melodious. The voice was strangely unearthly, it belonged to another world. Bhanu felt tender love for his little Aarti.
Suddenly the singing stopped and Bhanu heard the soft crunch of foliage breaking somewhere behind him. He felt a warm breath behind his left ear.