Sipping my tea, I had been observing for a while the surprising incidents taking place. In this small village in the mountains, where the tea shop was located, some clouds had drifted by rather suddenly. A light drizzle had followed even as the two mountains in the background were still sunny. Now, a bright golden daze had encased everything.

The shop where I am having tea belongs to an elderly couple. This is probably the only shop in a radius of about three kilometres. The couple, it appears, live by themselves. They say they have a farm in the village in the valley below which is managed by two of their children. Two of their daughters are married and a son studies somewhere in Delhi, they proudly tell me. Since there is no other shop nearby, this tea shop also serves as a basic groceries store. After having almost three full cups of tea, I notice the intense fog making its way towards us from behind the smaller mountains. The couple are busy with their work. I shout, “Look! The fog looks so endearing!”

They give a cursory glance at the fog and go back to work. I begin clicking pictures. Through the lens of the camera I see a small white dot. I move my eye away from the lens and see an old man walking towards us from some village down below. He is quick for his age and reaches up in a jiffy. Soon he is engaged in a conversation with the couple in their native language. So I start looking at the mountains again. It seems like someone has lit a huge bonfire right behind that small mountain, and the smoke is making its way towards us. In a short while, the tea shop and the entire village is enveloped in that cloud of fog. The shopkeeper says, “The fog has a fragrance of its own.” When I ask what kind of fragrance, he says if I lived there longer, I would know.

I realise it is five in the evening already, and I have to travel about eight to nine kilometres to reach my guest house. The thought of walking alone in the night in this forest scares the coward in me to the core.

The shopkeeper almost smells my fear and says that I could walk back with the old man. He says he lives in the same village where my guest house is located. I agree readily. I pick up my bag and wait for the old man to get up. He remains seated and asks for a cup of tea. I look at my watch. I know that the old man had casually glanced at me when he had entered the shop, after which he was either chit-chatting with the shopkeeper or staring blankly at nothing. As a tourist, you expect to be looked at; people look for reasons to talk to you and soon you get used to the attention. But this old man has simply overlooked my presence in the shop. I am beginning to feel angry now; the kind of anger I had felt when I first saw a lion in a cage. It was caged and I was standing right in front of it, yet the lion behaved as if I didn’t exist or was completely transparent. I started shouting at that lion, did some antics, but it paid no heed at all. My friends said I looked like a monkey in front of the lion.

When the old man slowly begins sipping his tea, I put my bag down loudly enough to express my anger about the long wait he is putting me through. I do not show much anger because I do not want to behave like a monkey again. I too order for more tea. The lady of the shop gives me a long lecture about having too much tea. I step out of the shop, finish my tea, pay for the old man’s cup as well as mine. He looks at me once, and doesn’t even smile; a “thank you” is probably too much to expect.

Anyway, after about half an hour, we start our journey, the old man and I. It is half past five, and the sun has disappeared. The old man is leading the way. I ask him his name. Thrice. He says nothing and we keep walking. In a while it begins getting darker. I take out a torch from my bag and hold it in my hand for a while. Then I slowly switch it on to ensure it is working properly. As soon as I switch it on, he says, “Keep it inside.” I say, “It’s too dark. We won’t be able to see the path.” He does not reply. I switch off the torch, but because he didn’t reply, I don’t put it back in my bag; I keep holding on to it. Then he says slowly, “A torch is not required here.Keep it inside. If you keep holding it in your hands, you will be tempted to switch it on.” His voice feels heavier as the night progresses. I was surprised that his Hindi has no accent. He is speaking proper Hindi. I put the torch into my bag. Had I been alone, even with a torch, I wouldn’t have been able to stand this darkness, I think to myself. At least in his company I was less fearful.

During the day, the same forest had appeared so beautiful to me that I could have wandered in it for hours. Now at nightfall it has transformed into something ghoulish and scary.

Oh! Why I am thinking so, I curse myself. Suddenly, there is a slight sound from the top of the mountain. I cannot garner enough courage to even look that way. I take a couple of long strides and begin walking right next to the old gentleman, almost clinging to him. I don’t want to say anything but the words slip out of my mouth, and that, too, in a weird tone, “How long will it take us to reach the village?”

The night falls suddenly, as if someone had switched off a light bulb. To be honest, at this moment I am not scared of either the darkness or the forest. I am not even scared of the strange noises around us. I am only scared of the old man who is unresponsive to my queries. He should have told me right when we started from the tea shop that he did not like conversations on the way. This eerie silence is intimidating me. I start walking slightly away from him. I am glancing intermittently at him and the intense darkness. His silence is creating such a scary ambience in this dark quiet night that it is almost unbearable. I am so fearful that I begin to imagine strange things – like the old man might turn around and tell me that he lives on this tree, that I must now go ahead alone...and then he would climb the tree and begin to laugh eerily. I would die that very second. I immediately look at his feet and realise with relief that they are straight. Yes, I know, this is all so childish. But had it been anyone else in my situation, especially someone as cowardly as I, they, too, would have thought the same weird thoughts.

At a distance is the flickering light of a bulb that will be invisible as soon as we take a turn. But somehow, we are not getting any closer to that bulb. Suddenly, I feel that this man is taking me around in circles. The end of the road seems nowhere. I wonder if it took me so long during the day. Gathering some courage, I ask again, “How far now?” In this pin-drop silence, my own voice seems so loud that I swallow back the latter half of my sentence. You won’t believe it, but he still remained quiet. An inner voice suggests that I start running for my life, but I continue following him. Not bothered about the darkness surrounding us, I am only focusing on him.

This time I clear my throat and collecting all my fearful confidence together, I ask, “Mister, how much more time will it take us?” This time he looks at me. I avoid his gaze out of fear.

When I look at him again, he is back to walking at his regular pace, gazing blankly into the darkness ahead. I am almost dead now. Either he ought to say something, or I will die of intimidation. Even though he has a stick in his hand, he is not using it as a walking stick. His steps are soundless. I think of snatching the stick, hitting him with it on his head, and running away.

Suddenly, there is a voice; his voice, indeed. “Are you listening?” I didn’t understand. “Yes?” That is all I can utter. “These little noises, this rhythm. Can’t you hear them? This is the existence of the night.” I am quiet. His speech has a strange music to it. “The village is close by now,” he says softly and then goes back to being quiet. It is as if someone behind me is pulling at my fear. The village is close by –this sentence works like a consolation prize for me. I am now less scared and not thinking too badly about him. Suddenly, he stops. Without saying a word, he climbs downhill next to the path.

The feeling that he is about to climb a tree returns. I am standing absolutely alone on the dark path. I say softly, “Mister, where have you gone?” I then use some more forms of address, say a few broken sentences, and then quieten down. Half the fear that I had left behind comes back and clings to me again. I start looking all around me. I slide my hand slowly into my bag and take out my torch. I am about to switch it on when I hear him urinate. I don’t switch it on. Instead, I stand closer to the path from where he had descended downhill. The sound of him urinating stops but he doesn’t come up. I try peering towards where he had disappeared, but can’t see anything. I switch on my torch and look around. Nothing. The beam of light from the torch is making the darkness seem even scarier. I shout, “Dada! Daddu! Bhai Saheb! Are you all right?”

Suddenly, a voice emerges from a few steps ahead. “Let’s go. Why are you standing there?” When did he walk past me? I shine my torch on him and a strange feeling overcomes me. He is looking very scary standing at a distance; I don’t have the courage to walk up to him. I switch off the torch and begin taking fast strides towards him. He is looking at me. As I approach him, I feel he is about to do something. I can sense the preparedness of a hunting lion in his eyes; the way it looks at its prey one last time before pouncing on them. I am shaking and so I start running towards him. He doesn’t move and so I push him aside. He falls down. I don’t stop running till I reach my guest house. It all happens so quickly. When I am about to fall asleep in my room, that’s when I think of the old man.

I stay awake for a long time that night but don’t have the courage to leave my room. I decide to enquire about him in the morning.

I reach the spot in the morning. I wonder how I could have been scared of this serenity the previous night. I try to look for the old man but he is nowhere to be seen. I return to the village. I don’t feel like going inside the guest house and so I go to a tea shop and ask for a cup of tea.

I start reading the papers. Suddenly, I see a man passing by with a small child. To my amazement, I realise that it is the man from last night. He looks at me for a second, averts his gaze and resumes walking. I want to apologise to him. I call out to him once, twice, but he doesn’t look back. The child walking with him does look back at me once. The tea seller interjects, “That is Dyunda.” I start to call him by his name; the tea seller interrupts me again and tells me that he is deaf.

I tell the tea seller that he was with me last night, and I didn’t realise that he couldn’t hear. I do not waste any more time in that discussion. My guilt is weighing me down. I leave my tea and run up to him. When I stand in front of him, he stops. I gesture an apology but he keeps looking at me in amazement as if he doesn’t remember anything. I fall at his feet. I then buy a handful of toffees from the nearby shop for the child accompanying him. I come back and stand in front of him and don’t move. I want my apology to be accepted. Slowly, a faint smile touches his eyes and then his lips, as if he had read all about last night in my eyes. I heave a sigh of relief at his smile and step aside. He resumes walking with the child.

Excerpted with permission from A Night in the Hills, Manav Kaul, Westland.