The crowd descended on the aged woman before she knew what was happening. With sticks and stones they pelted her. Thankamma covered her head and tried to get up and flee; but the people were on top of her, demobilizing her.
“ Move, you imbeciles !! “ she bellowed suddenly over their angry voices. The crowd divided – more in surprise than out of regard for Thankamma’s orders. Straightening up, she smoothed down her wiry grey hair and looked at the people around her.
“ You absolute idiots. Don’t you know that Madhavan is the light of my life? Do you think I would have let him go into unknown places on purpose? Do you all not have truant children at home?”
“ Fie on you !” exclaimed one of the villagers in disgust. He was a middle aged man with three daughters and made his living making clay pots for the village market. ‘ You are as unworthy as your son – you could not look after your own grandson”.
“ She is a witch”, yelled a woman frantically. Thankamma gave her a cursory glance and turned to look at the village headman. The headman had by then lost interest in the quarrel that was ensuing and had turned to graver matters. The elderly men sat in a circle with their knees bunched up smoking and nodding sagely. The women and children had begun to stray away- the women taking extra care not to let their children wander. Madhavan’s disappearance had triggered off fear and alarm among the women folk. Some of the middle aged ones discussed with great animation about the forbidden land beyond the forest. A group of younger men who were standing apart discoursed upon the situation. One among them, a young lad in his early twenties, named Ahmed, looked in the direction of Thankamma. Ahmed empathized with her. He understood what she was going through. Had he not lost a baby sister to the evil forest a couple of years ago? Ahmed recalled how he had been out in the pastures taking the cows out for their bit of grass and his baby sister had pleaded to accompany him. Ahmed had refused, but his mother had insisted that he take her, so that she could have a quiet afternoon nap. Ahmed had been forced to relent.
In the pasture, Ahmed had let the cows roam free and settled down beneath the shade of an old mango tree . He had put his three year old sister down beside him and let her play with his fez cap. After a while both siblings had opened a napkin containing some unleavened bread and some pickle and shared their lunch. Ahmed smiled as he recalled that his little sister had barely had half a roti while had had gobbled up the rest of their lunch. Then they had shared the little water he had carried in a glass bottle and Ahmed brought out an apple from his shirt pocket. The little girl had pounced delightedly on the apple and Ahmed took care to polish it vigorously on the tail end of his shirt before handing it to her. Then instructing his sister not to go anywhere, he had stretched out beneath the shade of the mango tree and fallen fast asleep.
Ahmed had no recollection of how much he had slept – an hour, maybe two – but he had awoken with a start and he could not understand why. Rubbing his eyes off sleep, Ahmed had looked around for his baby sister, but she was nowhere to be seen. Alarmed he sprang up and looked behind the tree trunk, then raced to where the cows were placidly grazing further downfield. He shouted out her name many times, but all he got were perfunctory bovine stares from the cattle.
Frantic now, Ahmed raced down to the rivulet that ran at the edge of the forest, fearing that she might have crawled so far. But the rains had not been good that year and the stream ran almost dry. Only a trickle of muddy water flowed down the middle of the stream which was not even ankle deep. Ahmed skipped over the stream and bounded onto the other side, all the while calling out her name; but there was no answer. Only a crow cawed atrociously annoyed at having his siesta disturbed and somewhere in the far distance one of his own cows mooed. Ahmed walked on resolutely ahead calling out to his little sister all the while.
The edge of the forest drew nearer as Ahmed surged on and he could now make out the tall trees distinctly against the rays of the falling sun. It would soon be dusk and Ahmed just had to find his little sister. He snatched up a long twig and began beating about at the shrubs and grass which grew longer at the edge of the forest. Ahmed wished and hoped and prayed to his Allah to bring back his little sister, somehow –anyhow. Fear had parched his throat and his breath was coming in short gasps now, but Ahmed dared not stop searching for fear that he might miss some sign of life. He could not bear to think of what he would have to face if he went back to the village and his home without his kid sister.
As Ahmed continued searching in vein, dusk began to descend on the landscape . His cattle, which were used to Ahmed’s timings, began to gather together of their own accord towards the mango tree, waiting for their master to come and herd them home. Ahmed happened to glance up and saw a single star shining high up in the sky. A faint glimmer of the moon could be seen near the star and Ahmed realized with a surge of panic that he dare not stay here longer. He too had been brought up on the village lore of what lay beyond the forest and the thought of going further brought dread and fear to his heart. Yet, he could not abandon the search for his little sister.
Despairing and in great anguish, Ahmed stared deep into the forest trying to make out what lay within. But all he could see were gnarled tree roots, tall trunks and thick vines which curled themselves around the branches and clung viciously to them. No other movement was visible. After another few minutes, Ahmed thought that it would be wisest to give up his search. It would make more sense to go back and alert the village people. But the very thought of appearing before his mother without his baby sister made Ahmed’s blood run cold.
Now, looking at Thankamma’s bowed head Ahmed realized what kind of abject misery the poor woman must be in . He had lost his sister- surely he could not let that happen to Madhavan .