The days were miserable, the nights not much better. Monsoons had started in full swing and I often got back to my hostel room soaked in the unpredictable rain. The evenings were then spent killing time with my buddies–chatting, playing cricket in the hostel courtyard or watching movies. Nobody had a car, so we couldn’t go out and do anything. Campus gates closed at ten anyway. It just wasn’t worth the hassle of catching three Delhi buses for a few hours of partying.
So you can imagine my excitement when Turtle won some money off some programming contest and promised to smuggle in a few cans of beer for us. Except now it was eight pm and he still wasn’t back. I’d spent the whole week dozing in and out of lectures about impulse signals and solid state materials and all I wanted to do now was to drink a ton of liquid material. I could afford to wake up late the next day. My neighbor always woke up early and would save the special Saturday aloo poori breakfast for me. In the hostel, good friends make a good life.
I checked my phone again. No message from Turtle. I thought about re-watching one of the movies I had on my hard disk. But I’d had no new stuff in a month and was bored of everything I had. That’s when something strange happened. The back door of my room, which looked out to the swamp, opened with a jolt and a rush of wind came through. The cupboard doors flew open. By the time I ran and closed the door, all my CDs were on the floor and the textbooks were lying open all over the cot that filled more than half the room.
I’d never seen a draft that strong. I looked out my window and everything was still as a painting. The rain had stopped a while back, and the moon was bright behind the clouds in a starless sky. Then my front door opened with a bang. There was a hole in my stomach as I turned around. But it was just Froggy standing in the doorway.
“What’s happening, Mosquito?” he said. “Your room’s a mess,” he added, slipping into a chair.
I sat on the bed. “There was a draft like I’d never seen before.”
“Of course,” Froggy said, rolling his eyes. “Where’s the beer?”
I held up my phone and shook my head.
Froggy sighed. “I hope Turtle didn’t get into trouble, they’ve increased checks at the entrance.”
“Turtle has done this a million times,” I said, sounding more confident than I felt. “If he sees trouble, he’ll figure out a way to stay safe.”
“Sure,” Froggy shrugged. “But that still leaves us beerless on a Friday night.”
“Let’s take a walk around campus,” I said. “Maybe we’ll score something.”
It had been raining all day and the wet earth smell filled my nostrils. Students from the different hostel wings huddled in small groups on the road. I waved at a few second year boys as we walked by them.
We’d just come into our second year at college, so we could finally walk around without worrying about seniors catching us for their entertainment like when we were first years. It was mostly harmless stuff: sing songs, abuse the fan, dance on sleezy numbers. But I’d heard some pretty dark stories as well. Worse, some seniors would ask you to do their homework. I’d learned to act brave and refuse these demands, but it didn’t always work. Some seniors could be pretty scary. So I was glad I wasn’t a first year fuccha anymore. But I still avoided the third and fourth years.
A bunch of second years were walking towards the hostels from the main gate.
“Is Baba at the gate today?” Froggy asked them. They said yes.
Baba used to set up a little tea stall just inside the campus gate. He was there some days and not the others, totally unpredictable. Word of mouth was the only way to know whether you could find some late night tea. Having nothing else to do, we decided to pay him a visit. It was a good way to kill time, the gates were about half a mile from the hostels.
As far as anyone knew, Baba had been there forever. Seniors from twenty years ago knew about him. Nobody knew how old he was, and no one asked. It’s hard to ask someone personal questions when they’re shouting at you for breaking their tea cups, which was the most frequent conversation people had with Baba outside of exchanging tea for money.
There was a light crowd at Baba. I saw Gul and his gang and avoided his eyes. They were crazy.
“Two cups of tea, Baba,” I said.
He nodded and started getting the milk out.
“Do you want some fan with that?” Baba asked. A sort of flaky, sweet cookie that I loved.
“Yes, Baba,” Froggy replied. The answer to that question was always yes if you wanted to avoid Baba’s glare the whole time you sipped your tea.
A gust of wind made Baba scramble a bit to keep his mat in place.
“Give back your cups if you’re done,” Baba shouted at the students standing around. “I am going to close up soon.”
Gul and his friends walked up. He nodded to me as he kept his cup next to Baba. “You look too sober for Friday night, Mosquito.”
“Well, I might not be for long,” I replied.
“Right,” Gul laughed. “Listen, we’ve got some good stuff tonight. Let me know if your plans don’t work out. Happy to help a friend.”
I most definitely wasn’t his friend, but he was being nice so I nodded and thanked him. After he left, I found Baba looking at me. I smiled politely.
“You kids should be careful tonight,” Baba said. “Don’t be out too long. There’s something bad in the air.” He looked up wistfully.
“Do you think it’s going to rain?” Froggy asked.
Baba didn’t reply, but he started packing his stuff. That was our cue. We paid up and walked back towards the hostel.
“What do you think Gul meant?” Froggy asked me.
“Don’t know, don’t care,” I replied.
“I thought we were looking to score, and it seems we can score with him,” Froggy said grumpily.
“He’ll have something real bad, man! I don’t want to get into trouble,” I replied.
The sky lit up and for a moment it was like daylight. Then a loud thunder, and all the streetlights were gone. From the distance, I could see the hostels were in the dark too. The wind rustled the dried leaves, somehow louder now in the darkness.
“That’s just great,” Froggy moaned. “Now we can’t even watch something on the computer.”
I didn’t say anything, but my heart was sinking too. The whole night stretched endlessly in front of us. There was nothing for us to do.
“At least let’s ask him what he has if you see him again? If it’s something really crazy, I’ll drop it, I promise.”
“Fine,” I said, to appease him.
I didn’t think we’d see Gul again that night, but as I was entering my hostel he was standing alone next to the notice board, waiting for someone. Froggy poked his elbow into my ribs. I sighed and asked Gul what he had.
“Just some weed man,” Gul said cheerfully. “The best quality stuff. How much do you want?”
We bought two joints worth of weed, and I promised to pay him by next week when my allowance came in.
“We’ll go behind the wind tunnel to smoke it,” I told Froggy. He protested–it was a long walk from the hostels, almost at the edge of campus grounds on the side of marshes. But I wasn’t risking getting caught. The wind tunnel was far enough that usually none of the teachers went to that area. In my view it was the perfect spot to smoke.
“Let me get the flashlight from my room,” I said, “then we go.”
The wind had picked up and it was getting hard to even walk. Froggy grumbled all the way. We sat on the concrete benches and made the joints. I checked my phone for the final time: there was no signal, probably the cell tower had gone down in the storm. I guessed we weren’t going to see Turtle that night.
We smoked. The weed tasted funny, but not particularly bad. I was relieved. We threw the stubs into the marsh and started walking back. Froggy was telling me about some girl from his class he liked when I started hearing faint footsteps behind us. I ignored it for a bit, till they got too loud. Then a voice. “You’re not escaping me tonight.”
I recognized that voice. It was one of the seniors I had said no to for their homework last year. They had still left their lab book in my room and told me to get it done by the morning. I had ignored them and their notebook had been stolen. They had to do double the work.
But it was impossible for them to be behind me. First, nobody came here. Second, and more importantly, the guy had died in an accident last year.
I turned around. The senior – Manav was his name – was really standing behind me. He looked taller than I remembered, and his eyes had little fireballs in them. His teeth seemed a bit sharper. Now I realized his voice had a little grit to it as well, as if it was going through some distortion pedal. He seemed to be in no hurry, just walking towards us casually.
I turned and saw that Froggy had walked ahead a bit. I ran to him and turned him around.
“Do you see that guy walking towards us, like thirty feet away?” I shouted.
“Calm down, man,” Froggy said, then squinted towards the marsh. “Yeah,” he said. “I think so. Like a little shadowy. Friend of yours?”
“Run!” I said.
We bolted towards the hostels. I looked back, but Manav wasn’t there. Then I saw him right in front of us, and stopped before I bumped into him.
“What do you want?” I said, desperate.
“You made a joke of me in front of the rest of my class,” Manav growled. “It’s payback time.”
Froggy had picked up a stone that he threw at the ghost. It plopped against him and fell down. Manav laughed as Froggy turned to me and shrugged. We were both pretty sluggish from the weed. I gave up.
“Fine, whatever,” I said. “What do you want to do?” I felt annoyed. I was sick of seniors.
“Yeah man,” Froggy said. “Do your worst.”
Manav got a confused look on his face. I guess he hadn’t planned beyond scaring us. Now that we weren’t scared, he had to come up with something.
He seemed to remember something and the fireballs in his eyes glowed brighter.
“Take off your shirts and dance on an item number,” he said.
“It’s really cold!” I protested.
“Do it or I’ll make you take off your pants as well,” he growled.
“And what if we don’t?” Froggy said defiantly.
Manav raised his hand. Froggy was suddenly lifted up in the air and hung there floating. He screamed.
“Then worse things will happen to you, things you can’t even imagine.”
I thought he was bullshitting, I didn’t think he had a lot more powers. Then again, I didn’t want to try my luck with a ghost.
“Fine, fine, put him down,” I said, starting to take off my jacket. “We’ll do the number.”
Froggy landed gently on the ground and started taking off his sweater as well. He seemed really scared now.
As we were about to take off our shirts, I saw the expression on Manav’s face change.
“Fuck,” he said.
I looked behind me. There were three men coming towards us. All of them were more than ten feet tall. Their faces were shattered and punctured in all sorts of ways. Smoke came out of them like there was a fire burning inside them. Manav looked like a little kid in front of them.
Suddenly all three of us were lifted in the air. The men laughed. “What luck! “ One of them said. “I didn’t think we’d find any juniors tonight. And look, there are two live ones as well!”
“Who are they?” I craned my neck and asked Manav, floating next to me.
“Super-seniors,” Manav said, the grit gone from his voice. “They are old students, from years, sometimes decades ago. Their ghosts come back to college after they die.”
“Why back to college?” Froggy asked. I was glad to hear his voice, I thought he had fainted.
“They peaked in college, and they never got the kind of control they had here in the real world. So they came back to rule familiar territory.”
“What should we make you do today, Manny?” one of the monster-men said. “Maybe we’ll play with your worst nightmares, make them come alive, heh? Unless you have something new to entertain us.”
“No, not again!” Manav pleaded. “I’ll do something for you, let me think. I am just a bit out of touch.”
“Because you’re dead!” The monsters laughed. They were horrible. I remembered something then.
“We haven’t lost our touch,” I shouted. “We’ll do a play for you guys. It’s called ‘the lusty milkman’.”
“Intriguing,” one of the monsters said. We started coming down.
“Let me just explain the plot to these guys, then we’ll perform,” I said, then turned to Manav and Froggy.
“What the hell?” Froggy said.
“Shut up. I have a plan.” I whispered. “Manav, I assume if I can distract these guys for a minute, you can disappear, right?”
Manav nodded. He seemed just like a scared kid that wanted to get away.
“Froggy, you start running as soon as I distract them, towards the hostel. I’ll follow you. I don’t think these guys have power over there.”
“Yeah,” Manav said. “They can only exist in these outlying places, where the teachers can’t come. They’re still scared of them.”
I didn’t ask why, I guess you always stay scared of someone that has total power over your future. Some sort of primal fear that doesn’t go away with death.
“How are you going to distract them?” Froggy asked. I tapped my front pocket, then gave them the instructions.
“We’re ready,” I said. Manav stood the furthest back and acted like he was taking a shower. Froggy acted like he was rubbing soap on his back. They were giving it their hundred, making it look pretty raunchy.
I stood a little in front of them, facing the monsters. “Once upon a time there was a milkman, who got tired of milking his cows and wanted something else.” I said. The monsters laughed and pointed towards Manav and Froggy.
“You see, he had a big,” I acted like I was unfastening my pants, but instead got the flashlight out of my pocket and shone it at them. The monsters were blinded. I heard them cry in pain.
“Run!” I shouted.
The lights were too bright, I couldn’t see anything for a second, but I started running backwards as well, keeping the light pointed towards the monsters. I heard Froggy’s footsteps receding, he was a fast runner.
Suddenly, the light went out. I cursed myself. I had forgotten to replace the battery. I turned around and kept running. I didn’t see Manav either, I guess he had escaped.
I should’ve been at the hostel by now, but I found myself behind the canteen. I guess I had taken a wrong turn. Damn it. I wondered if the monsters had power here.
“Hey you!” A guttural shout confirmed my fear.
“You cockroach,” one of them said. “You don’t know how much trouble you’re in.”
“Yeah, we’re going to kill you and make you our little pet,” another one said. “You’ll never go back to the living.”
I knew from their voice that they meant it. The third one raised his hands and a big rock was up in the air. It flew towards me at a scary speed. I ducked.
There was a blast and when I opened my eyes the fragments of rock were falling to the ground. I looked behind.
Baba stood there, but he looked nothing like the old man that served us tea late at night. He wore a kurta and pajama like always, but his skin emanated a bright light. He stood tall, and held a staff in his hand.
“Go away,” Baba said to the monsters in a deep voice. “Your time here is at an end.”
The monsters took a step back, but they didn’t seem ready to give up.
“Don’t come in our way, Baba,” one of them said. “This is our territory.”
“Your territory!” Baba thundered. Lightning flashed across the sky and strong gusts of wind sent leaves and small stones flying in the air. I crouched.
“I have been here since before your grandfathers’ grandfathers were still learning to walk. Do not mistake my generosity for my weakness!”
“Let’s see if you really are as strong as you claim,” one of the monsters shouted in challenge, and three of them held up their hands. Large rocks and pieces of glass came up from the ground and whirled towards Baba. He ducked to avoid some of them, and used his staff to detonate others in mid-air. Strange words came out of his mouth as he held up his staff again, and a tree uprooted and fell upon the monsters. They saw it just in time and flew out of its way. I saw tiredness on Baba’s face, this was clearly taking too much of his energy.
One of the monsters raised his hands again. Two of the cars parked nearby suddenly came to life. The other two joined him and raised their hands. The two cars came towards Baba, converging on him from two sides. There was no way for him to escape, I had to do something.
Things happened quickly then. I grabbed my flashlight and hurled it at one of the monsters. It hit him in the head. He looked at me, annoyed, and one of the cars turned towards me. I was frozen. The car was inches away from me when someone ran into me and threw me out of the way. The car crashed into the canteen walls. I had only a moment to notice that it was Turtle that had saved me.
I turned and saw Baba duck out of the way from the remaining car, which crashed into a tree. He took a deep breath and lifted his staff.
“You boys have always been trouble,” he shouted, “Now, be gone!”
He turned his staff towards them and a bright light shot out of it. The monsters gave cries of horror as they were bathed in it. When the light subsided, all that remained was ash floating down the sky.
I ran to Baba, who had fallen on the ground. I tried to help him up, but he stopped me.
“I’ll be fine,” he said. “Go back to the hostel, there might be more of them out tonight.”
“Are you sure, Baba?” I asked him. He had saved my life, I didn’t want to leave him here helpless.
Baba smiled. “I’ve been doing this a long time, kid. Now leave!” He got up and limped away into the darkness.
I went to Turtle, who was still lying on the ground.
“Are you okay?” I asked him.
“Yeah, just a little drunk. There were extra guards at the main gate so I was hiding behind the wall waiting. I drank a few beers to pass the time. Where did that car come from?” he said.
“Nevermind, that.” I said. I didn’t know if he would believe me if I told him. I could hardly believe it myself. “Can you walk?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
As he stood up, I saw that the hostel was lit up again. The power was back.
No other ghosts bothered us on the way to the hostel. I deposited Turtle in his room, then went to my room and crashed on the cot.
The sun was already up when I woke up the next day. There was the aloo poori breakfast next to my bed. I knocked on my neighbor’s door and thanked him. As I walked towards the shared bathroom to brush my teeth, I thought about the night before but I wasn’t sure if it all really happened. I tried to talk about it with Turtle and Froggy later, but they didn’t really wanna discuss it. Still, I was not surprised any more on nights when Baba didn’t set up his tea stall. I somehow knew he was busy elsewhere.