Goblin of the Ghats
by Eva Bell
The rains were still heavy in coastal Karnataka that August. My father was going to Mysore on some urgent work. He invited us to make this trip with him.
“Children, would you like to come along?”
“Yes Dad,” said my brother Ajit, “As long as we can take Vikram along.”
Vikram was our cousin, an ever willing partner in all our fun and games.
“If you promise to stay out of mischief, he can come too,” said Dad.
We had a very early start. It was still pitch dark outside.
“Gloomy weather!” said my father.
“Don’t worry, Dad. We’ll have fun even if it pours.”
We had hoped for a cup of coffee at some roadside stall. But no one seemed inclined to leave their warm beds on such a chill morning. We could hardly see the road ahead.
By the time we reached the ghats, it was almost 9 o’clock. Our speed was reduced to a crawl. Vehicles coming from the other side had their headlights full on. It made driving difficult, and our driver had to concentrate on every bend on the road.
“Thrilling!” observed Vikram.
Driving up the ghats always made me sick. Ajit looked at my pale face.
“Don’t you dare puke,” he warned.
“No, I won’t. But I’ve got nothing in my stomach and it makes me feel worse,”
I was also worried that the driver may go off the road. The valleys on the right side were covered in mist. We could see nothing but blackness below.
Then suddenly the car began to stall and sputter.
“What’s wrong?” my father asked the driver, “This is a bad place to get stranded. Besides, I must reach Mysore by noon.”
The driver parked on the side of the road. Both he and my father began to look under the bonnet.
“This will take a while, children. If you want to stretch your legs, you can get out of the car.”
“What about something to eat, Dad?” I asked.
“Be a good girl and don’t bother me now,” he said, “First we must repair the car.”
Then suddenly from the valley, the mist rose in a white cloud. It looked like a genie coming out of a magical lamp. I rubbed my eyes to see if I was dreaming. No it was there alright.
“Look Ajit,” I said, tugging at his sleeve, ”Is this a ghost?”
“Ghost? At this part of the morning?”
But as he stared, but he thought the cloud took the shape of a woman covered with a veil. We watched as it moved from the valley on to the road, and passed in front of our car, on to the left, over the forest.
“Let’s follow it till it disappears,” suggested Vikram. “It’s only the mist. Nothing to be frightened of.”
“They’ll take time to repair the car. So let’s follow it,” said Ajit, dragging me along.
The cloud drifted over the tree tops, sometimes touching the branches, sometimes moving higher. We crawled through bramble and bush, ducking in and out of the trees. We must have walked quite a distance. The cloud brushed over the roof of a hut in a small clearing. Then it lifted off like a helicopter and vanished.
It was very quiet here. No signs of human beings. Even the birds were silent. We pushed open the door of the hut and went it. There was an earthen pot resting on a few dying embers in the hearth.
“Food,” I said, “I’m hungry and I don’t care to whom it belongs.”
I grabbed an enamel plate lying there, and poured a ladle of rice congee into it. In another pan, I found pieces of fried meat.
“Must be a hunter,” I thought, “Probably this is meat of the wild fowl.”
Ajit and Vikram wanted a share too, and the pot was emptied.
Then we heard a noise. A weird, comical creature stood at the door, wearing a conical knitted cap. The lower part of his face was hidden by a shawl. His moustache was long and droopy, but his eyes were piercing. He had a thick stick in his hand. We froze with fear.
At last Vikram picked up enough courage to speak.
“We’re sorry we helped ourselves to the food. We’ve been starving since last night.”
“I’m glad your stomachs are full. I can cook another meal. I have all the time in the world,” he said. “But how did you find this place? It is a long way from the road.”
Our story about the cloud of mist amused him.
“Such things happen to hungry people,” he said. “At this height, we see and hear strange things. After a day or too, you may think I too am an illusion. Anyway, now that your bellies are full, you should go back. I’ll lead you for part of the way.”
His eyes frightened me. A shiver ran down my spine. I walked between the two boys. He bent over the stick like a very old man.
“But he was walking straight when he entered the hut. Has he suddenly got a catch in his back?” I wondered.
Dad looked worried and angry. “Where have you been roaming? The car was repaired ages ago. I told you I would not tolerate mischief.”
We reached Mysore in time for Dad’s meeting.
In the evening, he took us to the bazaar. Many Tibetan ladies were selling woollen clothes by the roadside.
“We’ll buy the goblin of the forest a sturdy cardigan and cap to match,” said Ajit. “We ate his food. This is a way of thanking him.”
“For whom are you buying these warm clothes?” asked my father, “You don’t need them in Mangalore.”
Vikram told him of our forest adventure.
“I don’t know how you get into such situations. Now you’ll want me to stop the car in the ghats, and go chasing some old man,” he grumbled.
Driving back the next day, we stopped at the same place as the previous day.
“Hurry back,” said my father, “The weather keeps changing from hour to hour, and we must get out of the ghats before it rains. Only the boys need go.”
“I’m going too, “I cried, “I don’t want to miss the fun.”
We took the same path through the forest, but when we came to the clearing, there was no sign of a hut there.
“This is queer,” mused Vikram.
“Have we imagined it all?” wondered Ajit. “The man said strange things happen at this height.”
“How could we have imagined it? Didn’t we eat the old man’s food?” I asked.
Ajit has a vivid imagination.
“The man must be a sadhu. By entering his hut and touching his food, we have polluted the place. So he has moved elsewhere.”
We trudged back to the car with the bundle of woollens.
“Fairy tales and Goblins!” my father laughed.
We were silent when we drove down, each convinced that our imagination had fooled us. As we turned a sharp bend, there was a slope on the left side. I saw movement among the trees, a short distance away.
“Driver, please stop. It’s the funny man. He is sitting on a rock and looking away from us,” I said.
“Could be a wild animal,” muttered Ajit.
We jumped out of the car, taking our gift along. As we came close, Vikram yelled,
“So you have moved house? We went searching for you at the old place, but couldn’t find the hut.”
“A man has to move on,” he growled,” Why did you want to see me? Thought you could get another free meal?”
“No my dear man, we’ve brought you these woollies.”
“Thanks,” he said, grabbing the bundle from Vikram. “Now get lost you nosey brats.” “Why is he in such a foul mood?” we wondered.
No, we wouldn’t bother him again. We were relieved that we hadn’t imagined it all.
We soon forgot him. School kept us busy. But about a week later, Ajit yelled for me. “Come here. See what this paper says.”
“Notorious poacher hiding in the ghats. Anyone providing information will be rewarded. Please contact nearest police station.”
“Could it be our goblin of the ghats?” I asked.
“We’re certain it is,” both the boys agreed.
We forced Dad to drive us to the police station, where we reported what we had seen. “They will recommend us for the Bravery Awards,” chuckled Vikram, “How exciting!”
The Police didn’t waste time. They flushed the old man out of his hideout. But alas he was no poacher. Our goblin of the ghats was an environmentalist. His photo showed him standing in a patch of coloured flowers. He spent every rainy season in the ghats, planting flowering shrubs among the trees, to beautify the forest.
“Children, look what your imagination can do,” grumbled Dad, “You nearly got an innocent man arrested.”----