I was visiting my friend’s village to get away from the bustle of the city for a week. He had invited me to his fraternal grandparent’s bungalow which was five hours drive from Bhubaneshwar to the city’s outskirts. It was a family bungalow and their lands were spread around a huge area. They had mango, tamarind and litchi orchards, income source of the family and the villagers who worked there. They established the orchard for the past 100 years now. On one such hot midday, Jayant was showing me around the orchards when I noticed a huge Banyan tree with prop roots in the middle of the mango orchard. The roots seemed cozy and the shade was a respite from the unbearable humidity, so we decided to sit there for a while. It was ironic how it was still humid under such huge trees. Jayant had snipped a bunch of litchis from the nearest branch of the litchi tree when we passed by so we decided to eat them while resting.
While peeling off the litchi’s pink skin, my eyes towards the trunk of the Banyan tree. It was quite an odd arrangement to have only one tree in the bunch that didn’t fit the purpose of the orchard. I voiced it out.
“Why Banyan tree in the middle of an orchard?” I asked.
Jayant turned towards the trunk as well.
“Ah yes,” Jayant said. “I don’t know. It has always been there ever since I was born.”
“Why? What’s the significance?”
“I don’t really know about that. The villagers say this tree is haunted.” Jayant was usually a man of few words but this time I sensed hesitation.
“And you believe that?” I asked, popping one litchi in my mouth.
“You know I don’t,” Jayant almost smiled. “I haven’t seen or experienced anything remotely paranormal here. I just have a bad history with this tree.”
“Oh?” I perked.
“Yeah, I was eight when I fell from that branch.” He pointed towards a long bark. “Broke my leg and scarred my chest.”
I almost wanted to laugh at his contorted face but his exasperated ‘hmph’ made me snort.
We talked for a while sitting there and went back to the bungalow. The old maid was setting up the food at the dining table for us when Jayant’s grandmother arrived. She was a frail old woman who seemed approachable at first glance. However, her stare sometimes creeped me out. She was slow in movements and had an eerie smile with wrinkled skin, low hanging cheeks and sunken eyes. I decided to avoid any sort of confrontation with her alone. But I couldn’t possibly ignore her when she asked about my job and marital status.
“Hm… don’t go out looking for trouble.” Grandmother murmured.
“Grandmother, please don’t.” Jayant interrupted with an exasperated sigh.
“I’m just warning him to stay away from that Banyan tree! Another ghost story tarnishing to our orchard’s already bad reputation.”
I was about to question what she meant when the old maid announced her bedtime and took grandmother away.
“What was that about?” I asked Jayant.
“Never mind. She’s like that sometimes. This haunted Banyan tree is a serious issue. Cutting it is rumored to release a curse and burning it would harm the orchard. That’s why, people fear it. Even if you don’t believe in such nonsense like me, just don’t get yourself caught.”
The next day I went to that Banyan tree again and sat among the roots, pretending to be innocent. I started reading a novel while drinking the mango juice freshly made from the orchard mangoes. Soon I felt drowsy but kept myself awake in case somebody caught me.
While bird watching, a small snicker startled me.
“You sure have some guts sitting here.” A man said hovering next to me. He was wearing a white dhoti and half ragged kurta. His dark skin had a light layer of sweat. His eyes were sunken yet sparkled with mirth. His face was dark as well with a small gash on his eyebrow.
“And you are?” I asked.
“The orchard farmer,” he gave me a smile, very rugged and proud, typical of rural people. “People fear walking near this tree. How come you don’t mind sitting?” The man shoved his shovel into the soil around the roots of the tree and removed a molehill of soil before depositing it aside.
“I didn’t know it was haunted.” I played clueless. “Even so I don’t believe it.”
“I don’t either. You know this place was filled with Banyan trees before they were cleared to make space for fruit trees. There is no reason why this tree, specifically, should be haunted. There was a conjugal banyan tree where they planted the litchi tree.”
“How do you know that?” I asked, genuinely interested now.
“Stories by old people?” He shrugged.
“Really? What’s the history?”
“It is said the earliest owner of this place, during the British days, was the British General’s wife. She liked the Banyan trees, but she especially loved this tree. Villagers say that when she died, her soul passed on to this tree and now it haunts whoever carries an animosity towards her beloved tree. I don’t think that General’s wife is haunting this tree.” The man continued. “She held no grudges, no complaints when she left the world. Her grave is not even here, why would she be in the tree?”
“That’s logical,” I commented.
“In order to become a ghost, you must have held a huge grudge, lot of hatred and dissatisfaction. General’s wife was a very gentle woman and probably ascended to heaven. She’s not haunting the tree.” For some reason, his eyes glimmered blacker against the shade of the leaves.
“Oh…? Then who is?” I did not want to make eye-contact. Yet, his simple sigh sent a chill down my spine.
“I don’t know,” the man said, as if spilling a secret. He did not whisper it but the uncanny smile on his face made my stomach drop like he shared vital information that could change my perception of the world. “I always liked this place. It’s quiet, a nice place to rest, has a good view of the orchard. Although this tree does not contribute to the income of the orchard, I love to rest among the roots. I once fell from that branch of the tree. Broke my leg and scarred my chest.”
Without me realizing he had dug quite a huge ditch in the ground.
His words set off an alarm in my head. The ground beneath my feet was shaking. My hands were trembling, and a lightheadedness almost gave me a headache.
“Who are you?” I asked, frightened of the answer.
The man stopped digging the ground and looked at me with his uncanny sinister eyes.
“Wouldn’t you like to see?” He grinned while pointing towards the ditch.