In The Curse of Kuldhara Richa Mukherjee returns to the charming and colourful lanes of Gwaltoli to revisit Prachand Tripathi, the desi detective and owner of Kanpur Khoofiya Pvt Ltd. An Excerpt:
‘They’re coming. I can feel it in my bones,’ said the old man’, his bulbous eyes gleaming. ‘They are coming. I see it.’ He extended his arm into the dark night, beyond the glow of the dwindling fire in front of him. As if in connivance with the ominous prophecy, the cold wind stirred the sand from the Thar Desert into the eyes of the four men squatting by the fire. They huddled and glanced around nervously.
Rocking back and forth, their eyes fixed on the old man, one of them pulled hard at his chillum, the embers dancing around the pipe. Thick smoke blew out of his nostrils as he pulled his shawl closer. ‘Who? My goats that ran away? That was two weeks ago. And your enchantment to herd them back didn’t work. My wife hasn’t let me back into bed ever since,’ he said.
The old man shot the pedant an irritated look. One of the other men laughed and shook his head.
‘Oye, bawlo! He is talking about the daktar saab who is returning from the city with special medicine for the loose motions. There’s a bad bug going around.’
‘Silence!’ the old man raised his arm. The garrulous men cowered under his gaze.
‘This is no trivial matter. The tides of upheaval are headed for this village. Strangers will arrive and bring with them death and chaos. Everything will change. Everything!’ he roared, causing the men to huddle into a human block of quivering mass and bones.
The old man stroked his long white beard, continuing to look into the distance where a bleak outline of a ghost town was visible. No moon, no stars and a cloudy night, yet it stared back, defined by an eerie glow that blurred the details and rendered it monster-like, shapeless, amorphous and vigilant.
‘Baba, is it them? Are they angry? Are we in trouble?’ the devotee who had lost his goats inquired with folded hands.
The old man shook his head. ‘I can’t say, Daulatram. But I sense that they are restless.’
‘It has been quiet for a while. Ever since the last disappearance,’ another man said. ‘Little Chameli left for school unescorted and happened to wander into ... into the ruins ... and never returned.’ He repeated the story he had heard often, as if to validate it and elevate it from the status of mere paranoia.
The last man, who had held his silence all this while, spoke up. ‘Others are afraid to say it, but I am not. Why fight our destiny? Those ruins are cursed, and so are we. If Bhutaari Baba thinks some danger is coming, I believe him. We must spread the word so that people can be warned.’
‘No!’ the old man, who was popular as Bhutaari Baba amongst the locals, said in a firm voice. ‘Not yet. I shall try and speak with the spirits first.’
Daulatram pulled at the chillum, wondering what direct or trunk-calling system the mysterious but acclaimed Bhutaari Baba possessed. And if he was such an accomplished tantric, why were his eyes so full of fear and foreboding? That’s when an invisible hand tugged at his turban and flung it into the darkness.
Without waiting for his companions or any residual spine-chilling prophecies, Daulatram ran screaming into the night, faster than any of his absconding goats.
‘Excerpted with permission from The Curse of Kuldhara by Richa S Mukherjee, HarperCollins India.