01
Aug
10

The Village of Wails

“Fear is only as deep as the mind allows.” – Japanese Proverb

There was no doubt that I was being followed. The only question was how long could I continue to run? This was a chase where the rules were changed at random. It was just a matter of hours and exhaustion was setting in. The desire to lie down and sleep was great but the sharp trilling giggling sounds and an occasional wail was never far. I had to find shelter before sundown. For they were at their grabbing best when it became dark!

*

Leaning against a tree I tried to control the rasping that was lacerating my chest. Not a leaf moved. Holding my breath I checked the trail behind me and strained my senses to capture the sounds that I had learnt to recognise. Nothing!

Releasing my breath slowly I carefully moved towards the spot I had identified earlier. From a distance the cluster of rocks and the dark area within had suggested a cave. Anything – I would have burrowed into a hole in the ground – backwards like a wild boar.

*

By the time I reached the rocks, the sun was about to kiss the treetops goodbye. What I mistook for a cave was actually a jigsaw of boulders and rocks piled on top of each other. A landslide in the past had created this niche with a natural roof and everything was knitted together with roots. There was a large chunk of rotting tree trunk that I dragged and gathered as many dry sticks I could.

As it happens in the mountains, the sun suddenly disappeared and it became cold and quiet. Shivering slightly, I squeezed myself inside between the huge rocks and settled down to lick my wounds.

Fumbling in my small rucksack’s pockets for the matchbox, my fingers slid over the smashed camera case and the doll. What If I just let them have the camera and film rolls?

Would they leave me then?

*

Dried sticks spluttered flames and carefully I coaxed one end of the trunk to burn itself.

The gases trapped in the thick log exploded with a sharp ‘pffhsssthak’ sound and splattered hundreds of pieces of cinder all round – like a miniature pyrotechnics display. The wood burned steadily now and the flames created shadows that changed shapes and danced hand-in-hand with the gathering darkness.

How in the name of whatever did I get into this situation?  Why couldn’t I have just…….?

*

A hearty fire had burnt within the confines of Lahesh Cave and even though the sloping roof did not allow anybody to stand straight – we were at least snug and dry. On our way to the cave, the cook had managed to buy some lamb meat from a Bhotiya shepherd and the intoxicating smell of food laced with the pungent smell of wild garlic was assailing our nostrils.

Full stomachs induced sleep and communication died away. Even the porters became quiet. I guess we were all thinking about the following day and the climb ahead of us; hoping for a clear day, an early start and no rain.

My internal body alarm woke me up around 3:30 am. Using my torch and silently stepping out over a rock at the entrance of the cave, I stood on another large rock. Then, pivoting right clambered up on to our ‘table top’ or the cave’s tongue. This was a huge flat-topped, roundish outcrop jutting out from the mountainside. It could easily accommodate six people comfortably. At the centre of this was a natural depression – the size of a thali and just as deep – with water in it.

Three-fourths of this structure loomed out into space and the back led to the privy areas. A lot of throat clearing, hacking and other improvised warning calls had to continuously be made by those wanting to move in and those still occupied!

On returning, I found Shamsher Singh, our guide sitting on the tabletop. I had known Shamsher for couple of years now and didn’t really care much for him as a person. However, he was an excellent guide and controller of porters.

I sat down next to him as he pulled on his beedi and we watched the stars, waiting for the sun to rise over the Dhauladhar range. It was that twilight time when neither the moon nor the sun are visible but the sky is throbbing and alive with a special kind of hue – crisp, clean and vibrant – when all objects are dark and indigo with razor-sharp outlines.

“Bholenath is happy with us,” commented Shamsher.

I nodded and tried not to mull over the tough climb that would eventually take us across the Indrahar Pass and then to Chamba. The locals believed that nobody could cross the Indrahar Pass, if Bholenath or Lord Shiv did not want it to happen. It is said, that many people, including hard-core trekkers from all over the world had scoffed such beliefs and made numerous attempts – but had failed. Something or the other always halted their movement. Quite a few were neither seen again nor their bodies found.

*

Sending a mental prayer to Shiv, I looked towards the mountains trying to spot the familiar twin peaks – the horns of Nandi around which Indra had put his Har or garland.

A light in the distance caught my eye. At first I thought it was a shepherd’s campfire, but then more lights appeared as if torches were being lit. It looked like a group of people moving up-and-down the mountainside.

“Shamsher,” I said softly, “Udhar kya ho raha hai?”

The guide turned to look at the place I was pointing to and nearly choked on his beedi.

“Don’t look there!” he hissed and started chanting the Hanuman Chalisa, “and don’t mention this to the others, especially the cook and porters.”

That he was scared was obvious – but why? I had never seen him behave like this…but the hill people are generally very superstitious, so I didn’t bother much but was intrigued.  I moved to get a better view. The lights were now stationary and there wasn’t even a flicker…they were luminescent blobs. Then, there was a collective blink and suddenly not a single light was visible. It seemed as if they had all been switched off together! I couldn’t believe it and looked around to see if I had misjudged the place…but no, they had vanished.

“There’s nothing there,” I said in amazement, “I swear I saw them!”

Striking a match with trembling hands and pulling furiously on a fresh beedi, Shamsher looked at me with round eyes.

“I am telling you again, not to talk about this to anybody.”

“Why?” I asked, “And you know I saw those lights, don’t you?”

“May Bholenath protect you,” Shamsher said, “I have taken many people on this route, but you are the first outsider I know, who has seen the eyes of the Churaiya’s of Rutia. You are either blessed or cursed!”

He was looking at me as if there was something wrong with me.

“We will say a special prayer together at Indrahar,” he added as an afterthought.

From the cave, the sound of the cook cursing and kicking the porters awake was accompanied by the exclamations of those trekkers who had banged their heads whilst getting up.

Shamsher and I barked out our respective ‘get-up-pack-eat-and-move’ commands and waited for chai to be served.

*

Hanging on to every word that Shamsher uttered, I listened in rapt attention to the story of Rutia Gaon – the village of wails!

After Harsi, on the other side of the Pass, between Biloti and Kwarsi lay the village of Rutia. Actually, it was about 6 km off the path to Kwarsi and not many went there. It is said that the village was called something else – Rutia was the name given by the nomadic shepherds who criss-crossed the area.

Those who went into the village came back with stories of the inhospitality of the place; the surliness of the inhabitants and the absence of laughter. There were people who had been forced to spend the night there and they swore that after dark the village was surrounded by the wailing voices of children…but none could be seen. A few brave souls had ventured out to investigate and had been scared-off by bright lights – like eyes moving through the forest.

One story that sealed the fate of Rutia came from an old Bhotiya who said that his great-grandfather had witnessed an incident that had cursed the village forever.

*

Years ago, the village had faced natural calamities that subsequently led to hardships for those settled there. Worshippers of some ancient and obscure mountain deity, their prayers had not been heard. Problems had further been added by the fact that they were not very friendly and extremely cloistered – marrying within the clan. Trade of any kind had also suffered accordingly.

It is said that the village Ojha, the Shaman had declared that only a human sacrifice would appease the Spirits – that too, the blood of a child not older than ten years.

The young girl selected was the daughter of a widow who had spurned the advances of the Ojha. The screaming girl was snatched away from the arms of the hysterical mother, given a ritual bath, dressed in bridal clothes and taken to the deity.

She managed to escape but slipped and fell down the sheer mountainside. The branches of a tree broke her fall and she was still alive. The villagers gathered to peer at the poor entangled child. There was no way down nor did they have enough rope to reach the crying child.

As the sun grew hot the wails of the little girl and her distraught mother grew weaker. A Golden eagle silently glided past the child, cocking an eye at the humans. Further up, a vulture had begun its circles…biding its time and sending a silent message of the forthcoming feast.

The cries of the mother and the sight of the frail body trapped below had made some of the villagers uneasy.

“Let us leave her there,” muttered one man, “she has been sacrificed.”

Others agreed and started to move away, ignoring the pleas of the now comatose mother. But the Ojha would have none of this. Lambasting those who were planning to leave, calling them cowards and threatening them with the wrath of their God, he insisted that the sacrifice was incomplete. Then, picking up a stone he threw it at the child below, urging the crowd to do the same.

As stones and rocks rained down, the mother leapt to protect her daughter. She tried to stop the villagers but somebody pushed. Her body hit a boulder and bounced off, over the bloodied figure of her daughter and plummeted into the frothy waters of the river below.

The child was still breathing…life refused to let go.

The crowd was in frenzy now and a woman picked-up a large rock and aiming carefully hurled it down at the girl. The child’s glazed vision followed the rock coming towards her and it seemed that her eyes and shriek of terror pierced the rock and impaled each and every villager’s heart!

With a sickening dull-fleshy sound, her face was flattened, pushed in and the head split open like an over-ripe custard apple.

The ensuing silence was broken only by the wind howling its outrage. For a moment the dead girl’s hand stiffened as the body slowly slid away from the branches. It was as if, an accusing arm had been raised, then, the waters swallowed her too.

*

Soon after this incident there were reports from occasional travellers of sighting a young girl, whose eyes shone like orbs of fire but the face could not be seen. And, each time, before the girl could actually be glimpsed, a childish giggle followed by a wail was heard.

*

Then, about a year after the sacrifice of the girl, a young boy disappeared from the village. His body was spotted lying on the rocks just below the tree from where the girl had finally met her death. The boy’s face was flattened.

In the days to follow, the villagers would hear subdued crying of a child and at night there would be sounds of somebody running up and down the village. At other times, there was inaudible conversation and outside some doors there were sharp cries of pain.

As things came to pass, every year, as soon as the winter snows melted – those children who went out alone towards the forest or in the field or those who were left on their own, would go missing and later, their bodies would be found with the faces smashed in.

After each such death, the gang of giggling-wailing ‘Churaiya children’ (as they were now known), grew. No amount of prayers to the Gods helped. Even the chopped-off head of the Ojha, offered to the local deity, had no effect and soon the Churaiyas roamed like a marauding pack – ignoring the adults but taking the young!

Those villagers attempting to flee would suddenly fall ill or face a barrage of stones. There were cases of adults coming face-to-face with the Churaiyas – who would then move around uttering short gurgling screams chasing the individuals back into the village. These people would have their faces gouged and scratched by unseen hands!

Word spread and everybody avoided Rutia village. Only those who had urgent business went there but did not stay overnight.

*

I had no urgent business and no reason except foolhardy impulsive curiosity that eventually took me to Rutia for an overnight stay.

*

The path down towards the village was as like entering an area of phenomenal dead-silence. Nothing – not even a leaf or blade of grass moved; as if, nature was in mourning. I had this tremendous urge to turn and run away.

But how could I? Wasn’t I the one to scoff at those who were afraid of the dark and believed in the Spirits? Had to prove that I was not a “scaredy-poo”! Didn’t I want to take photographs?

“Ieeeiinkntreinkltriiiillllll…….” An eerie, soft but clear sound came from the forest. I nearly died! Never had I been so edgy in my life and cursed myself for being jumpy. Fear was creeping in.

*

The path ahead curved and as I rounded the bend, I found clothes scattered in front of me – all belonging to children. I gingerly moved forward and with numb fingers took some photographs.

Feeling a bit foolish, I stood irresolutely. The clothes were old and mud-stained with smudges that suspiciously looked like blood.

A shrill giggle from the undergrowth accompanied by a swishing sound had me turning around like a manic – checking all directions. Adding to my border-line trepidation, I noticed that the clothes were now strewn at different places.

“The hell with it!”  I said to myself, and began to move albeit with wobbly legs towards the village.

Didn’t look back. Not once.

Within minutes sighted the settlement and a group of surly men who seemed to be waiting for me.

*

“Kya chahiye?” asked one with yellow teeth.

“Pfhotuwala?” growled another.

“Yehan kuch nahin hai!” stated the third.

There was a stench of unclean bodies wafting from them, but nobody actually moved towards me.

“I was late coming down from the Pass”, I lied, “Can’t reach Kwarsi before sunset. Need shelter for the night.”

The group continued to stare at me unbelievingly.

The silent stalemate was broken by an awful moan that came from somewhere. The group reacted fearfully and bunched closer. I waved a 500 rupee note.

“Will give this and hundred more”, I said, “to anybody who provides a night’s shelter and something to eat.”

The lure worked. Yellow-teeth directed me to an empty shack and returned with some dry rotis and water.

“Don’t open the door till sunrise”, he muttered, “And I will take the money now.”

Ignoring the leathery palm he extended, I looked at the men and women who had slowly drawn together in front of the shack. They all seemed to be gauging me with vacantly vicious eyes.

“The money!” Urged yellow-teeth, and quickly shuffled away after pocketing it.

“Where are the children?” I called-out to the villagers, who flinched as if I had thrown a stone at them.

Making rude gestures and some even spitting at me, they dispersed as I went in search of the village temple.

*

What I found was an old crumbling edifice – a strangely demonic stone deity with an unsightly man-woman-child face; large body; oversized breasts and a vagina with a phallus sticking out of it! Smeared with red powder the floor around the bizarre idol was littered with small stone pieces and crude baby dolls made of straw and cloth.

I rapidly took some photographs and then picked some of the dolls and stuffed them into my cargo pockets.

In the fading light, I quickly made my way back to the shack and concealed myself behind a large haystack near the front door.

*

I had dozed-off.

The night sky was dyed black and not one star shone. My body was stiff, damp and I ached to stretch.

“Jhikliclijhssh!” whispered the dark and I forgot all aches and stretching desires as the night blinked shining orbs that hovered mid-air, just a few feet away from me.

The Churaiyas had arrived!

There was an excited urgency in the sounds that slithered towards me, but it didn’t seem as if I had been noticed. Very slowly I aimed the camera in the direction of the eyes and clicked.

Like a super-nova the camera flash exploded and for a split-second froze the images. A dreadful silence prevailed and then a slow, anguished wail of anger mixed with despair erupted and screeched its presence by assaulting my senses. Shying away from the dreadful howling, I involuntarily pressed the shutter-button and once more the flash painted an eerie fresco of large luminous eyes on glutinous lumps of torn flesh covered with tattered and bloodied clothing hanging from broken bones.

I turned and blindly ran out into the dark, instinctively clicking and using the camera flash as a gun. With each burst the Churaiyas recoiled away and I moved forward only to realize that I had taken the path leading to the temple.

With the screeches behind me I found myself on the floor of the temple – quivering and awaiting some monumentally painful death. It took me a few minutes to realize that I was still alive. All around were the eyes – watching and chittering away – but not moving in.

That was it! They would not enter the temple. But, I was not going to sit down and wonder why, except for the fact that I was momentarily safe. They would not come in. Why? Who the hell cared!

The camera batteries were now totally discharged. Striking a matchstick I looked around for something to ignite. There was nothing except the pile of dolls and I picked up one and put the match to it. The collective shriek from outside was like a tsunami of sound.

For some reason, they couldn’t come in and touching the dolls upset them. This was probably the only way I could get out of this cursed place. Giggling with insane relief I sat down when an onslaught of stones hit me with merciless accuracy. There was nowhere to hide and I just covered my face, raised the hand that held the doll and crushed it. Instantly, the barrage of stones ceased.

*

When the sun did begin to stab and blush its way through the thick hoary morning mist, I found that there were no eyes, no bones and no tattered bloodied clothes – nothing! But I could sense them.

I also knew that if the Churaiyas didn’t get me the villagers would.

The weather was changing as I darted out and trudged against the curtain of drizzle that added another hoary layer to the surroundings. I was soaking wet by the time I crossed the turn where earlier I had found clothes strewn all over. Gearing-up for a gruelling march I pressed my way towards Kwarsi.

From the dank and dark of the shape-shifting forest the Churaiyas could be heard.

I stopped momentarily to get my bearings when something clammy began to wrap itself around my body. Repulsed, I bellowed my anger, desperation and panic.

I tripped, fell and went skidding down the path. It was a fall that seemed never-ending till I bumped-off into space, painfully hit something and rebounded; crunching my face against a spiky-cold surface, glad that I wouldn’t have to run any more. Then, blissfully I passed-out!

*

The sound of gurgling water was what I heard before a wave of cramping pain lanced through my body. My back hurt and a blanket of cold shrouded me. A slow check of the body indicated that nothing was broken. My head throbbed agonizingly and the an assortment of cuts and bruises across my body made me realize that I was very much alive.

The gurgling of flowing water seemed louder. Slowly, I become conscious that I was lying face down on a massive shelf of ice – the lower tip of one of the many glaciers that inch their way into the valley connecting Kwarsi. The fact that I hadn’t gone plunging through, pointed towards some stability of the layer. Never-the-less, with excruciating slowness, I unhinged the right side of my face from the crystallized snow, leaving bits of skin and coagulated blood. Carefully, keeping my balance and listening to the sound of the ice, I crept my way towards a patch of green. The shelf reverberated and hummed ominously as I crawled forward. Reaching a boulder I hung on to it with both hands and pulled myself up and rolled over onto the soft grass. My body hurt and there was a huge bump on the right side of my head.

Exerting every torn muscle, I rose to my feet and took a few tottering steps. The shadows were longer and there was a mist coming in. I knew I had to move before it got dark. A narrow goat-trail led up to my earlier path from which I had slipped.

It was slow, but I finally managed to re-connect with the path that led down to Kwarsi.

*

Paataal Kund is a seemingly bottomless gorge that one has to circumvent before the final approach to Kwarsi’s habitation. A canopy of alpine vegetation and branches of huge trees criss-cross and adorn the abyss.

Over the years, I have crossed the area thrice and never been comfortable with this particular section. One has to make a fairly precipitous descent across series of step-like boulders leading to a curled passageway hewn out of the mountain-side. Extremely treacherous – it is like going through a narrow tunnel with one side completely open to the elements. To make things worse, there is water seeping in from all over with segments where you have to remain slouched during the traverse.

On the open side – deep down – you can hear the monstrous roar of the violent flow of water pushing its way through the mountain chasm.

Panting with exertion and fatigue I paused to catch my breath and from the navel of the gorge came a horrendous whisper. I am sure that it was just the wind and my mind was playing tricks but I think I may have gone a little loopy at that point of time.

*

The moisture trapped in the remaining piece of wood exploded again and I jerked out of my reverie. The darkness was hushed; the flames shimmered faint, and just beyond the glow were the eyes of the Churaiyas.

With crazed deliberation I pulled out the camera body and threw it towards the seething malevolence. With a gulping whinge the shadows moved and swallowed the camera and then slowly twisted over to present a chandelier of lit pupils.

The fire was low and the chandelier glooped in closer. We continued to stare at each other. I was out but not beaten and with no longer attached to the camera, my mind shifted into its last survival tactic. As the eyes slinked in indubitably, I brandished the straw doll.

There was no shriek this time but the large volume of the eyes seemed to bulge and heave with embryonic intensity…but did not move. Impasse!

We, sort of, remained frozen in space and as the embers slowly breathed their last, I was relieved to perceive the firmament behind the Churaiya glob, confirm first light.

Slowly and without shifting my gaze, I picked-up the smouldering wood, held the doll over it and bit by bit forced the glob to retreat. Each time it vacillated, I singed the doll a tad.

It was going to be a clear morning and I felt the Churaiyas wanting to merge in the gloom of my shelter. In a burst of pent-up rage and desperation I shoved the face of the doll in the smoking hot wood and roared my way out.

With the crash of myriad wailing sirens the glob disintegrated into a cascade of swarming eyes. Some seared through my face and many attached themselves to my body like leeches. But, I kept running.

*

Shamsher’s men found me on the outskirts of Kwarsi and I spent time recuperating and trying to figure out what had happened. The local populace understood and would murmur their concern nervously around me. The pujari insisted I go through a Shhudhi ceremony.

I never did.

My eyes continued to experience a burning sensation for months and the egg-shaped spots on my body eventually faded.

*

Have gone back only once but aborted the trek after Lahesh. Body damaged enough to lose all resilience required for climbs. Rutia, I am told, was later buried under a massive mud slide.


4 Responses to “The Village of Wails”


  1. 1 Nidhi
    August 2, 2010 at 1:50 am

    I am glad that I read this and I didnt have to hear it from you! When did it happend anyways?
    PS When are we seeing the published version?

  2. August 4, 2010 at 12:08 pm

    This is an amazing piece…I had my hair standing on end, and really really enjoyed it. Tell me it is fiction, please. We second Nidhi, we hope to see it published soon 🙂

    • 3 bichhubooti
      August 10, 2010 at 5:32 pm

      Fact or fiction! It is like asking me about my life 😮
      As Katherine Paterson says in The Spying Heart, “Thus, in a real sense, I am constantly writing autobiography, but I have to turn it into fiction in order to give it credibility.”

      I am glad you enjoyed it! Most publishers want me to submit stuff that has a ‘constant’ theme running through all stories……

  3. 4 effem
    November 18, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    I am glad you survived it! As someone who is totally non-superstitious, I still allow that there are some experiences beyond rational explanation and this is one!
    You have great story-telling skills and fact or fiction, it was a hair raising experience for me – the reader!

    So glad you survived. I felt I was there with you.

    So glad I survived!


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