Dharini wrapped the shawl around her. These autumn winds were always just, her grandmother used to say. Their brazen heat and stabbing cold, were both equally merciless. And they whispered too, if only Dharini was careful enough to listen.
'How eerie must all this seem, to an outsider', she wondered silently.
A woman on the outskirts of a field, clad all in black, hurrying alone from the direction of the village. Her swinging threadbare 'jhola' and the rustle of her heavy ghaghra, piercing the deadly silence of the night.
She hated to go out at night, even after spending all her life near the village. If only the sarpanch's grandson hadn't fallen ill tonight, she would have never taken the risk. With the nearest doctor being hours away, most of the people ended up relying on her knowledge of the herbs. She hoped that the broth she had brewed up for kid, would suffice.
A dog howled somewhere, and she came back to reality. She had reached her humble hut. Mud thatched, with a small courtyard in the front, beyond which lay her tiny piece of farm. Someone passing by would probably not give it a second glance. To Dharini, it was home.
She threw off the shawl on the 'chorpoi', squatted down on the dusty floor and dipped her palms into the 'ghara'. She splashed it all over her taut arms and literally drenched her face with it.
As she scooped up her hands again, she came face to face with her reflection in the rippled surface. Big eyes, looking deeper with the layer of kajal painted all around, full lips that spread into a warm smile, her tousled over hair, greying at the corners and a high pointy nose.As water washed away the dust and grime, she took a deep breath and finally let go of the knot in her chest.
Probably she shouldn't have. Misfortune has a very appropriate ( almost comic) timing.
Dharini did not know what hit her, as her head hit the ground hard. Lights blinked in front of her eyes, and even in that state of dizziness she could hear the vessel being smashed.
Before she knew, two pairs of strong hands had pulled her up and thrown her down again. She landed on the gnarled roughly hewn chorpoi, her bangles clanged with her jhola lying there.
"What the fuck were you doing out there for so long?",the voice almost spat in her face!
She jerked open here eyes, to find four men standing before her. Their sweaty, muscled bodies glistened in the moonlight. Lathis in hand and reeking of liquor, she met their stare as hard as she could.
"We have been waiting for you for an hour now."
"Bitch! We finished off three bottles in there", the second one aimed a slap at her face.
Dharini ducked and jumped off the cot. She darted her eyes towards the gate, but they had made sure that she was blocked.
"Oh! this one's got spirit. What will you do? Huh? Beat us all down or throw some fucking potion in our face?"
"Ok. Let's not get violent. Not yet", the fourth one came of the shadows. He looked sober. As menacing as the other three, but sober.
"Dharini. I am sure you know what this is about.", he leaned forward, face to face with her.
"I do not think so", Dharini kept staring. Unflinching.
"Oh yes. You do. What will you do with this piece of shit land you own? You know Thakur wants your land. How many times must he come and ask you? I know times have changed, you caste people have some little power now. But,some things never change. Do they?"
Dharini stared even harder. Hoping, praying that they could not hear the wild thumping of her heart!
"Now. Why don't you put your thumb here? A tiny little thumb print. And then you can take your money. Thakurji is very generous. Take your money and go live near your son's college. Make food for him, find a good girl for him . And forget this place. Who will till your land? You are already aging and your son will soon get a job in the city. Eh?"
"Your Thakur has already told me all this. I suppose you brought these goons along, to make the explanation more clear? Or, are there other plans you have in mind", Dharini clenched her fist. She knew she was literally toying with fire here.
"Yes. Well, you see, unfortunately all three of them are drunk now. And well, I can't really control them. Have you heard of chudails? Chandalins? those evil witches that brew potion, curse men and and eat their children.
You must have heard of how they stripped a woman in the other village that day, branded her with fire and then burnt her. Now, think about you. Lonely ageing woman, living in a faraway cottage and brewing medicine. Think of how nicely you fit the profile"
Dharini clenched the end of her choli in her fists. The man was now in an ecstasy!
"See, even here Thakurji is kind. WE will spare you the shame. Just burn your nice and quiet, in the middle of the field. We will take your thumb print first. And mind you, we have no qualms about cutting it off, if you do not agree.
Then we will tell the village that the spirit took over you and you were unstoppable. And how you turned so devilish and attacked us so vehemently that we had no other choice but to immolate you. What do you say now?"
Dharini sat rooted to the spot. Her vision blurry, her head aching with the thumping of her heart. She felt nauseous, faint. Yet she knew she must not let the fear show. She gathered every ounce of strength she had.
"This", and spat in the man's bearded face.
"You filthy little untouchable dumb woman", he slapped her hard in the face. She tasted blood. Another sharp pain in her side told her that one of their legs had made contact with her ribs.
She sprawled on the ground, still not wanting to scream. Blood and sand gulped down their throat, as she tried to stifle her voice.
"Carry the bitch. I am done wasting time on her"
She felt a strong pair of hands grabbing at her hair. another one clasped her hands tight, binding them together. The rope cut into her skin so deep, she could already feel a welt forming.
They dragged her, two of them clasping her arm on both sides. Her bare feet skidded along the mud, over the stones. She could feel their iron grips on her flesh. They were deliberately twisting her arms, until she finally let out a low howl of despair.
The man leading the party, turned back and smiled viciously.
"Scream now. As much as you want. One we alight you, we'll stuff a rag up your throat, make sure that no one gets disturbed while the witch burns"
The taunting, abusing and twisting kept increasing as they approached the middle of the field. She tried to dig her feet into the mud, in sheer desperation.
HEr knees buckles as the lathi blow landed on her calves. And hard. She screamed in distress, their laughter drowning her misery.
The fourth one was waiting for them up ahead. Near a long wooden pole that they had planted there.
"Bind her there. Enough of toying around"
She gave up all struggle. Her ears buzzed as they smashed the back of her head against the pole. Her wrists sore and red, dripping with blood that oozed out from the rope wounds.
"Move. Let me get her thumb print first", the sober one moved forward, the kerosene container and the papers in his hand. He cupped her face between both his fingers.
"Any last words?", he smirked as his fingers sought out her thumb.
"Yes. You. You will scream the loudest", Dharini looked him straight in the eye.
He jerked his head around at the sound of the screams. Piercing, shrill, unearthly screams. If he wasn't seeing them right now, he would've never believed that his companions could ever produce such sounds. All three of them were kneeling on the ground, their arms twisted, their heads thrown back and their backs arched! Screaming as if their bodies were on fire!
"What? What the fuck is happening", his eyes bulged with fear as turned towards Dharini again!
Her eyes were white. Opaque. An evil smile lightning her face. As he watched, stupefied, the smile grew into a growl.
The first one's head popped off. Popped. Muscles tore open, blood gushed out in spurts as it flew into an arc and landed miles away. The maimed body shuddered before it crumpled into the ground.
"Let's have some more fun. Shall we?", Dharini's ropes disappeared in a puff of smoke. Her sinewy arms raised and pointing at the other two.
Snakes the likes of which he had never seen. Snakes. Cobras, kraits, vipers and what not! Crawling, slithering out of the fields. They bodies glistening, climbing over each other almost as if it were a race.
They bit at every part they could find.In front of his eyes, both those frozen figures were reduced to a pile of bites, blood and gore.Unable to scream or protect themselves, they disappeared under the sheer wright of those ghastly creatures. He couldn't help himself, he puked. Puked and threw himself at Dharini's feet.
"Le...let...let...me ..go. I will ask Thakurji to let it all go..og..g...go!"
He dared not look at her face. She grabbed his hair and whispered in his ears, "But I told you that you will scream the loudest"
He had no idea where the flames emerged from. All he knew was, he could not move. His skin, muscle and bones were on fire. And he could do was scream. And how he screamed!
He screamed at the fire that devoured him, screamed at the stink of his charring flesh, screamed at the glassy eyed terrifying apparition in front of him. He screamed and howled and moaned, till there was nothing but a mass of blackened soot. And even then, his screams lingered in the air, echoing in the still darkness of the night.
Dharini made her way back to her cottage slowly. The autumn winds seemed warmer now. And quiet. The whispering had died out.