Excerpt from The Best Life Ever
18 September 2019
‘Whatever route you take, don’t ever take that left after dark!’ they warn me, as I go running by. I roll my eyes, snickering under my breath. I have heard this story a dozen times since yesterday. It has been doing the rounds in this small village of Palsana that boasts of forests so dense that the dead silence inside almost roars in your ears like the sea that is eight kilometres away. There are rumours that the left leading into the woods is haunted. I often take the route towards Palsana which is a little over ten kilometres from the farm. I like running along its quiet roads as they take me by the forest or through densely planted mango trees on both sides.
Usually, I only hear the faraway vroom of a tractor working somewhere in the fields. And I only hear my footsteps. But now I hear strange stories, too. Small villages with their benighted peasants are always abuzz with such tales. But I am neither a peasant nor a child anymore. I am not going to buy this story, I mutter to myself. Probably the only purpose these old wives’ tales fulfil is to keep the village children from wandering too far from home. Maybe they also make for some interesting evening conversations. What else will a farmer talk to his neighbour about? That his paddy has grown one feet tall? And the neighbour replies that his cow gave six litres of milk today. And the next day? The paddy is still only one feet tall. And the cow still gives six litres of milk. Paddy and cows have pretty uneventful, insipid lives when it comes to that. Don’t you need something interesting interesting to discuss with your neighbour as you sip on tea and talk across the barbed wire fence? And what better way — other than ghost stories — to spice up the day! The good part about them is that these stories need not be proven. Because nobody actually wants to see the proof! However burly their moustache may be. Or however hefty their cane. Talk about ghosts, and the moustache starts drooping. The cane starts to wobble.
So you are at the liberty of your imagination, and you can take things as far as you let your creativity stretch. Or until the tea lasts. Whichever comes first. And you watch in silent glee as the neighbour’s eyes go wide with horror, as he runs to tell his wife what you saw when you took a left into the woods last evening. By the next day, you rub your palms out of delight and pat yourself on the back, as the entire village suddenly has something to talk about: The spirit residing in the woods. The ghost haunting the forest. Villagers, young and old, add their own flavourful descriptions and you can barely control your laughter when, the next morning, your story completes a full circle, and the neighbour from the other side comes over to tell you how he had heard stories about ghosts in the forest. And how you should avoid taking the left after dark. It goes on until your own tale comes back to you so many times, and with so many spine-chilling variations, that you begin thinking of it as an ill omen, and really stop taking that left.
And when a young villager in running shoes goes sprinting by, you stop him and say, ‘Whatever route you take, don’t ever take that left after dark!’ In all likelihood, the origin of these ghost tales is as colourful as a young shepherd’s vivid imagination. Maybe he has strayed too far with his herd of goats, looking for greener pastures. As the sun is setting, he begins to worry. ‘Wow, just a little while ago, the sun was there,’ the young lad tells Gori, his favourite goat, pointing his stick to the sky overhead. Gori bleats in response, as few perfectly round, black pellets of excreta fall out from under her tail, almost involuntarily. The young boy is annoyed. ‘You always have the same response for everything, don’t you?’ Gori bleats again. She is the most intelligent goat in the entire herd. And she is completely white. Not a fleck of black or brown on her, unlike the other goats. That is why she is called Gori. It is getting dark, and the young lad needs to get back home with the herd. His father is not going to be too pleased. ‘How many times do I have to tell you,’ he will bellow.
Anything that begins with that phrase has never done any good. ‘You must act more responsible and get back home in time!’ His father had rebuked him just the other day. ‘He said he will confiscate my catapult if I get late again,’ the boy complains to Gori. Gori nuzzles him with her snout and passes a few more pellets. What is the use of a catapult, anyway, she thinks. The young boy gathers his goats, and urging them to move faster, guides them home. ‘Haven’t you eaten all day?’ he chides them as they stop at every shrub. ‘We need to get home before dark!’ But the goats are stubborn and greedy. Before long, the sun sets. The boy starts to panic. He can’t afford to lose his catapult.