It was 10 pm of the frosty 20th December. The stars were shivering in the cold. A deathly silence had descended on the empty lane through which Nidhi found herself walking. Her psychology tuition had just got over & the class-11 girl was heading towards her Behala residence with her hands dipped firmly in the warm pockets of her woollen pull-over.
As the mist grew heavier and the surroundings darker, a sudden fear gripped her. She stood there petrified finding it impossible to take the first step towards a journey that would drop her home within 15 minutes by foot.
She mustered some courage and commanded her trembling legs to march forward. But the thickening fog and the dimming street-lamp got over her nerves and she got enveloped by a surrounding so scary, the like of which she had never encountered before. As she inched forward, an inherent feeling, that she was being watched, came over her.
Cold breeze began to whistle past her and her muffler got blown away into the sea of dense fog. As the wind picked up momentum, it lashed at her face that was fast turning white with cold and fear. The trees were swaying wildly and leaves murmuring in silent prayers. The parched leaves cracked below her feet sending her pulse racing even though her blood had frozen out of spine-chilling fright.
What happened next made her heart leap into her mouth. The suddenness with which a hand clutched her shoulder, paralysed her with terror. Panicking and trembling, she spun around.
A middle-aged man of robust, tall frame was smiling down at her- ‘Don’t feel scared, my child! I shall drop you to your home.’ He clasped her wrist and began to lead her. But Nidhi repelled away casting a suspicious glance at him. How could she trust a male stranger at this hour of the day and on a completely vacant alley!!
Despite her impolite gesture, the man kept beaming at her- ‘You have every right to suspect me, my child. But trust me. I am like a father figure to you. Come, I will show you the way.’ Nidhi protested and refused politely. But he insisted- ‘I cannot leave you alone in the current circumstances. This is a crime-prone area. You may fall an easy prey.....’
With some hesitation and trepidation, she finally obliged and began to walk along with him. ‘What’s your name and where do you stay, dear’- he enquired.
‘Nidhi. At Block 13 A’- she murmured, still unsure and dubious about him.
‘Oh!!!....My daughter’s name is also Nidhi. We stay at Block 17D Apartment 5.’
Thereafter, he relapsed into a profound silence, sunk in some distant thoughts. His eyes had a far-away look in them as, for the next 15 minutes, he silently lead her through the gateway of fog, holding her hand firmly.
‘There you are, child’- he said at last, unclasping her hand and dropping her by her door. ‘Get in quickly, dear. Your anxious parents await your arrival.’
‘Thank you Uncle’- Nidhi spoke, as her face, for the first time, lit up fully with a warm smile of gratitude. She turned to invite him inside. But he was gone and lost behind the mist.
She couldn’t sleep for the whole night, as she kept tossing from one side to the other playing the whole incident in her mind again and again. She was overwhelmed with gratitude and felt very deeply apologetic for her impolite behaviour earlier on.
The next morning, she decided to pay him a visit. On the way, she brought some chocolates for him and his daughter Nidhi. She hunted the area and before long, was standing outside Block 17D Apartment 5. She found its door ajar at which she pushed softly....
As it creaked open, she softly called out the name of her namesake ‘NIDHI....’ Her call was followed by a momentary silence...And then came the running sound of the footsteps of a playful girl who stormed into her view, wild with joy. A girl of around ten, she had bulb-like eyes that scanned the newcomer with unfathomable curiosity.
Nidhi handed her the chocolates and ran her hand over the child’s silky, black hair. ‘Are you Nidhi? Is your father at home?’
The girl’s playful, sweet face lit up in glee. ‘Yes Didi. I am Nidhi. My father....there he is.’ And she pointed to a far-away corner where he was standing facing the wall.
As Nidhi (the elder one) approached him with stealthy steps, she felt that he was gazing at something on the wall. She went closer and realised that his eyes, brimming with tears, were transfixed at a picture hung on the wall.
It was the garlanded picture of the little girl. A drop of tear rolled out and trickled down his cheeks, as he managed to utter the agonising words- ‘She is my Nidhi. Five years ago, she was brutally raped and murdered in a dark, deserted alley......’
Shaken and stunned, Nidhi spun around. The little girl was no longer standing there. The chocolates Nidhi had presented her were lying scattered all over the floor....And the entire house seemed to reverberate with the ringing and playful laughter of the dead child....
(By Ritesh Agarwal)