Sitting on a mura, by the bonfire that night, the old man stroked his beard and told me a story. “Have you ever heard of the Sankranti curse?”
It was the night of Makar Sankranti.
A bonfire. The flames leapt high, the edges sparkling. A blurred bubble of warmth amidst the ominous shadows of the foliage surrounding Grandma’s bamboo walled house.
The torrent of cicada hums mingling with the crackle of burning dry wood. A hypnotic symphony. As if the unknown wanted to lure the unsuspecting into the darkness.
The embers crackled in the deserted Amavasya night.
The guests had left. Grandma had already served them. The tiny crumbs of biscuits, flour and coconut lay dispersed around the fire. Grandma came and carried away the cups stained with tea and red betel juice.
Ants gathered on the ground where a drop of tea might have fallen. My eyes trailed an ant dragging a tiny morsel of coconut into the darkness.
I had wandered away in the village paths to avoid the din and clamour. The solitude of the barren pathway was a tempting comfort.
I had somehow lost my way when I came across Chotka Kaku.
The old man.
He was sharpening his chopper on the rock. He offered to take me back home.
Kaku adjusted his monkey cap,” There was a saying that every Makar Sankranti, a person would die. It was after the incident with Bhusan Dada. The story is several decades old. But even today, you can feel the remnants of the tale lingering here among the people.”
Grandma approached with a glass of tea and a plate filled pithas and larus. She laid down the plate on the chatai and handed him the steaming glass.
“Eat them well. I will pack and send some more tomorrow when I have a fresh batch made.”, Grandma offered with a kind smile. Then she left, trudging slowly, as much as old age would permit her.
Kaku took a pitha and offered it to me. I was about to decline out of politeness, but something in his eyes compelled me to accept it quietly.
He stared at the bonfire. The dancing flames reflected in his watery eyes. He took a bite of the pitha. Gulped it down roughly with a sip of tea.
People say the evil eye always followed him. He had suffered a lot. Lost his wife and daughter. Had a really tough time.
Now he did odd jobs. He worked in a grocery shop during the day; and helped fixing and running errands for the villagers. He was their go to man.
The meagre amount he received at the end was enough for him. The people would give him food, old clothes and fresh vegetables in return. A man living alone only needed that much.
He was a good man. Helpful. People were more than happy to help him.
“Bhusan dada was the caretaker of the cremation grounds.”, His voice broke my train of thoughts. “Old man was very righteous. He had lost his wife at childbirth. Poor man. Loved his daughter to no end.”
“The daughter eloped with a village boy. He had her hunted down. Cursed at her. Said she will rot in her pyre. The girl had tried to run but he thrashed her black and blue.”
Kaku finished the tea with a single gulp. He took a laru in his hand and stared at it. There was a sigh.
“She tripped and fell on the bonfire. It was a Makar Sankranti night.”
A dog barked. The darkness seemed to engulf the Amavasya night.
“No one knows if it was an accident or Bhushan did it with his own hands. She died of severe burns later.”
“People say regret and remorse made him crazy after that. Did not allow the daughter’s body to be cremated for days. Rumours were that he went to an Ojha. And then all of it started. “
Kaku arranged the woods in the fire. He grabbed a dry branch from the bundle beside him and tossed it into the flames.
Cicada hums and faint howls pervaded the crackling embers.
“First the dead bodies to be cremated began disappearing. Rumour spread that he was sacrificing humans to bring back his daughter alive. The villagers had to chase him away.”
“A year later, a young boy was found brutalized on Makar Sakranti. His head and a hand were missing. Next year it was a girl. Bhusan dada was thrashed but there was no evidence. This continued for three more years. People were terrified. It came to be known as the Sankranti Curse.”
He stopped to savour the last pitha.
“One Sankranti night, they caught him bludgeoning a boy with a machete. Screams had led the villagers to them. The man had gone feral. One villager had to attack him with a chopper. He ran away.
The chopper had severed his index finger. The finger lay on the cold ground and he was never seen again.”
“All these happened even before I was born. Ask Grandma sometimes. She knows a lot about this. It was her time after all. And city folks must know about these when they roam around in the meandering roads of the village.”, he looked at me pointedly.
I stared at him.
There was a long silence, broken by the crackling fire.
“I should get going.”, He said.
He got up. The chopper in his hand gleamed against the fire.
It was when I saw it.
The missing index finger.
On his left hand.
A shiver ran down my spine suddenly.
He saw me.
As he left, he chuckled,” One must not wander alone on a Sankranti night.”