Have you ever seen a ghost, Grandpa?”
An anticipated digression in the storytelling–so the old man had it ready
“Not just seen it, I have killed one!”
Electricity was out. A snowy gust rattled the loose hinges of old wooden-framed windows, and the mud-pasted walls of the low-lit room were shimmering with amber glow of fire in the Tandoor. The kettle filled with water was steaming with faint hissing. Ladies of the house were busy in the kitchen preparing supper. It was just the time for long awaited moment of mending the estranged grandpa-grandson relationship. After all, winter is the only time when the grandson visits the place as all schools close down after the exams in December.
With a mixed feeling of awe and disbelief, the kid asked
What did it look like? Didn’t it hurt you? How could one kill a ghost?”
The old man smiled and told the kid to wait for a while. He reached for his pocket and offered a handful of dry-fruits. The kid picked all the cashews and few almonds, leaving the raisins untouched. The old man reached for his other pocket and from a torn-open bundle of Bidis, he pulled one out. He tried to get up but his arthritis was giving him a hard time. With one hand on the floor and other on his knee, he stood up grunting and breathing heavily, breaking the short silent period.
He walked a little funny. Time had worn out his bones, and smoking–his lungs. As he reached in front of Tandoor, he lurched and with some effort, sat down with knees half-folded. Leaning forward, with a Bidi between his crooked fingers, he lit it with the firewood reaching out of the mouth of tandoor. His shadow behind him was a shivering colossus of what was remained of him and the lines on his forehead and below the eyes, relaxed a little with each drag of smoke.
Well, it’s a different kind of ghost. A very few people have ever seen it. I saw it while we went hunting during the winter, with my friends. We call it, Thar.”
The kid had finished all the cashews, and was holding the cup of a hot butter-tea within his palms. He sipped it and then looked at the old man.
“A Thar? What is that?”
Grandfather thought it out for a while. He took off his maroon satin-wrapped-woolen cap and scratched his head. The next moment, a lady came in and poured the water from the kettle in the utensil she brought.
“Mom, what is a Thar?”
The lady looked at the kid and then at the old man. She slowly put down the kettle and smiled.
“It is what we call a snow leopard.”
“Snow leopard isn’t a ghost. Grandpa said it’s a ghost.”
“There are no ghosts. It’s just that people don’t see Thar very often. It likes to stay off our sights. They are very rare and beautiful creatures.”
And then she refilled her father-in-law’s cup with butter-tea and left for the kitchen. But she didn’t quite fill the blanks of curiosity for the kid.
“Was it really beautiful? Tell me about that day!”
The old man smudged the bidi in a wooden ashtray and rubbed his eyes with a yawn. After a deep breath, he leaned his back against the wall and while looking up at the cobwebbed roof, he said
“We went to hunt for a Dan. It’s a wild goat with a delicious meat. It’s also very hard to find. They graze over steep hills, where no man can reach. Every pack has a watcher, who stands over the highest land and warns the pack if any predator lurks nearby. We had packed our lunch and loaded few rifles. During the winters, they come down to the lower altitudes, looking for the last patches of greenery. We wait for these moments.
It’s been three consecutive days. We had managed to find only a single pack. We lost it in a haste. On the third day, weather turned very harsh. Snowstorms were heading towards us, so we ran back to lower altitudes. Suddenly I saw a Thar, over the other side of the valley with it’s cub. She was waiting for it to climb up a steep rock. With a low voice I told my friends to get their guns. Because of the storm, our smell and sound couldn’t reach her. I loaded my gun and asked my friends to fire at the count. Within seconds, she was down. We didn’t kill the cub. But it was frightened and was in anguish. So we grabbed the kill and ran back to village.”
The kid was listening very patiently. He was sitting still the whole time. The cup he was holding, was empty. He was staring at the steaming kettle. Without moving his eyes, he asked
“What would have happened to the cub?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he survived, maybe he didn’t.”
The kid put down the cup with a sigh.
“I miss dad.”
With that he stood up and left the room. The old man looked him go but didn’t say anything. He knew that he hit the wrong chord. All of a sudden, he was taken aback. He started thinking about the night when his son was headed home from work in a snowstorm. He remembered how they all were waiting for him to join in the supper. And then the phone call and the news of his death in an accident. He remembered everything.
He went quietly into his room and opened up the trunk. He carefully took out the folded clothes one by one. At the bottom of the trunk, he hid a gift for his grandson. But now, it didn’t seem appropriate. All these years, he had bragged about the kill. He was praised and people loved that story. But now he felt a pinch of regret. He thought about the cub and about his grandson.
Then he slowly rubbed his hands over the fur of the Thar he killed. His shaking fingers found the bullet holes and his eyes teared up a little.
It was snowing outside. The night was as still as a dead man. In this moment of stillness, something moved inside the old man. Something beautifully painful.