Back to Stories

Seven Stories

Story 4: Amrabad

(A story based on the time Paul was doing his research in Amrabad)

by Anna Hiebert

On a plateau overlooking the plains of Hyderabad nestles the small village of Amrabad, named for the range of hills that stretches to right and left as far as the eye can see. The village is a world in itself, remote and self-sufficient. Once a day a rickety bus, radiator steaming from the climb up the winding mountain road, stops at the outskirts in front of the post office to discharge a few bedraggled passengers and take on others for the return trip to the big city some ninety miles distant. For the most part the villagers are content to stay where they are, little concerned about the life that goes on beyond their hills. Only rarely does a visitor from the outside disturb the even tenor of their existence...a husband comes to escort his wife back home, a city merchant with packs and bundles of gay saris and gaudy toys comes for the weekly bazaar days, the hated tax collector shows up, a government official investigates a case. Although on the surface all remains calm and unruffled, there is not a man, woman, or child unaware of these intrusions.

Indian Village, by Anna Hiebert

A casual glance, a mental note dismiss most intrusions. Others stir up a slight ripple before they are absorbed into the day's events: "Look, that is Chendraleela! She must have come to spend a few weeks with her mother. What airs she puts on now that she is married to a city man. That silk sari she is wearing must have cost her husband all of fifty rupees..." Or an excited "The bangle man just got off the bus! The bangle man is here! Mother, may I please have a pavula for bangles?"

Though visitors arriving by bus may arouse interest, those who come by private car receive more careful scrutiny. Since the village maintains no hotel--only a sort of open shed where travelers may sleep wrapped in their white sheets or rough gongardees and may even cook their handful of rice on the stones in the corner, important visitors stop at the Government Guest House outside the village. Word of the appearance of the Tax Collector at this bungalow may send the women scurrying to hide their chickens. If it is the Inspector of Police investigating the drowning of fifteen-year-old Praymavati or the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of a money lender, there may be other things to hide.

Over the years there has been an occasional foreigner, too, stopping for a few days at the guest house: a British official with his retinue of officers and servants, or a missionary driving his own car. Some of the old people remember the kindly old man and his friendly wife who took one's pulse and gave out pills...they no longer come. They had been followed by others--young men, old men, and once even a group of women camping on the outskirts of the village near the outcast pallum. These days the only foreigner who comes and goes is a young American named Gordon. At first he too had stopped at the travelers' bungalow, then he moved in closer and rented a small house inside the village to which he occasionally brought his wife and three children. Now he is living in the empty "haunted house" and is spending much of his time with the local pundit and the witchdoctor. It is reported he was born in the country, and he speaks a good Telugu. By now they have become accustomed to seeing him striding down the village street, his lean figure a head taller than his Indian companions, dressed in a pancha, a long-tailed Nehru-neck coat, and a turban that threatens to fall apart at any moment. It seems that he feels very much at home in their village.

Is he as guileless and free of intrigue as he appears on the surface to be? Or is he casting a subtle spell upon those about him? Isn't Muggayya getting altogether too friendly, following him about, neglecting his work? And reliable reports have it that when Gordon returns from the city this afternoon his sister and mother will be with him. Women...only women. But then, one can never tell. It had been a woman who bewitched Parvathi, the old merchant's daughter-in-law, so that she had refused even to bow to the family god and had firmly announced her intention to be a follower of the Christian god--Yaysu Kristu. It had been a terrible disgrace to the family. The white woman had never seen the girl again. The family had seen to that. Decidedly it was best to keep constant watch over all foreigners, men and women.

If Gordon was aware of this silent scrutiny of his every action, he gave no indication of it, but came and went freely. At this very moment he was nearing the village in his old jeep, his mother and sister beside him. They were silent, thinking their own thoughts while apparently intent on the landscape. "Will this be something to tell the kids at school--living for a month in a real Indian house and a haunted house at that!" "All these years in India I've wanted to live in an Indian house--right in the village--close to the people, just for a little while, of course." "I wish I had insisted on more bread--four loaves, small loaves, and none to be bought in the village bazaar...oh well, we can always make chappatis IF we can get flour, or rice."

Gordon had some slight misgivings, but on the whole he was happy to have companionship for the last month of his stay in India. Ever since his wife and children had left for the States three months ago, life had been lonely...very lonely. He smiled an amused smile. How would his mother adjust to life in Amrabad? Would she be able to take the dirt, the rats, the people wandering into the house and staring?

Just then a sharp turn in the road gave them a glimpse in the distance of the village, dark grey against the darkening sky. In the road ahead, almost hidden in a cloud of fine dust, a herd of equally drab-grey buffaloes plodded homeward, their bells tinkling. A young lad beat at them ineffectually with his cudgel, shouting at them to get off the road, then turned to stare open-mouthed at the white faces. Suddenly a slender figure darted into the road and waved excitedly for them to stop.

"That must be Muggayya, the witchdoctor, wanting a ride to the village," explained Gordon.

"A witchdoctor? A real live witchdoctor?" exclaimed Kathy, craning her neck to see better. Then she added with evident disappointment, "You mean he is a witchdoctor? He looks just like any other villager to me."

"Well, of course Muggayya doesn't only go about casting spells and cooking up witch brews. He is a farmer and spends most of his time in the fields. Evenings he comes to help me translate Hindu mantrams and explain caste and marriage customs--such as whether a man can marry his mother's sister's daughter or his mother's brother's daughter or whether it is the father's relative he must marry. It is really extremely complicated, and I am very fortunate to have found a man like him." Then as an afterthought he added, "Besides, I like him--I like him very much."

As the jeep slowed to a stop, Muggayya, his face beaming a welcome, squeezed into the front seat beside them, expressing his delight at Gordon's return and his pleasure at meeting the sister and the mother of his good friend.

At the entrance to the village, Gordon pointed out the post office and the club bungalow next door where frequently he would join the government doctor and the principal of the local high school and their friends for a game of tennis. At the bus stop they turned right into a narrow side road bordered on both sides by high mud walls. The homely smell of smoke and burning cow-dung hung in the dust-laden air. Here and there an open doorway gave brief glimpses of life in the privacy of the compounds behind the walls--awoman squatting before a fire stirring the contents of the cooking pot, oxen contentedly feeding under their straw-roof shed, the flames of an oil lamp flickering in the light evening breeze.

Village Woman

Near the center of the village the jeep came to a stop in front of a heavy wooden door set in a stone wall and secured by a chain and a stout lock at the base. Except for this door and a barred and shuttered window to the left, the wall rose unbroken to the parapet above. Silence enveloped the large house as night blotted out the last trace of light from the sky. Gordon's mother had the uncomfortable feeling that both silence and darkness were alive, that the house itself looked down on them with watchful eyes.

From the shadows of the road ahead a man with a lantern hurried forward. After he had been introduced to Kathy and her mother as the pastor of the local Christian church, he drew a large village-made key, long and intricate, from his shirt pocket and proceeded to open the lock.

"That isn't the lock I put on when I left," Gordon said slowly, a puzzled frown on his face.

"No, it isn't," Muggayya explained. "The morning after you left we found that someone had been in the house and rummaged through your things. So we changed locks."

"As far as we could see, nothing was missing," added the pastor.

Still puzzled, Gordon pumped up a petromax lantern and together they unloaded bedding and supplies and carried them into the inner room of the house, passing through two bare and gloomy anterooms. Hanging the petromax on a hook suspended from a crossbeam, Gordon took a quick look around. His papers lay as he had left them. The cot in the corner...the bedding...nothing seemed to be missing from this room. Maybe they had been mistaken. He lit a small lantern and went into the adjoining bedroom. His suitcase, a few clothes, all in order. And then his eyes fell on the tape recorder set on a built-in wall shelf. Relieved to see it still there, he was about to leave the room when upon a closer look he discovered it was running. It must have been running for some time...silently, in the dark and silent house. Someone must have been in the house that afternoon, the new lock notwithstanding.

By the time they sat down to a light supper the cook had laid out on the one small table that stood in the middle of the room directly under a large skylight, the incident had been all but forgotten, and Gordon was explaining about the haunted house.

"The owner died and left the place to his three sons. But they believe it to be haunted and refuse to live in it. Since I don't believe in ghosts, I was able to rent it for very little."

"What makes them think it is haunted?" his mother inquired, peering dubiously about into the shadowy corners.

"It seems some sacks of grain slid down off the pile stacked up in the front room, and they feel sure some evil spirit did it. Then there are noises at night from the locked room--rats in the grain, I would imagine."

"Rats? Do you mean to say there are rats in the house?" Kathy shuddered.

"Of course there are rats," laughed Gordon. "There is one, in fact, that is almost tame. It runs past me almost every day when I study. I am rather used to it now and it keeps me company when I am alone."

"You said 'locked room.' Which room is that?"

"It's right off the passageway. You passed the locked door when you came in, but you may not have noticed it in the dark."

The arrival of Muggayya put an end to the conversation. Gordon unrolled a straw mat and spread it on the floor of the passage, and soon the two were completely absorbed in Hindu lore. Kathy and her mother, tired after the jolting and shaking of the long ride, relaxed with their books and knitting in the light of the hanging lantern.

"What a spooky place this is," Kathy said. "Did you see that huge opening in the wall beside the kitchen window? And the..."

Just then her mother gasped and there was urgency in her voice when she warned, "Be careful! I saw something disappear under that rag on the floor near your chair!" Cautiously they edged away from the rag, ready for flight at the slightest movement. From a safe distance they called for Gordon and his friend.

Hastily arming themselves with whatever they could find that would serve as a weapon, Gordon and Muggayya approached the spot and gingerly moved the rag aside. A Russels Viper, surprised in its hiding place, started to glide away to safety. In a flash a stick pinned it to the floor.

Holding up the limp body a few moments later, Muggayya called their attention to the rings that circled it, gradually diminishing in size toward the tip of the tail. "If this snake had bitten any of you," he said, "I would have had to count these rings and say as many charms as there are rings in order to save his life. This one has...thirty, thirty-one, thirty-two, thirty-three...I would have had to say thirty-three charms!"

He shook his head, and looking at the mother he said with a kind of wonder in his voice, "You found it so soon!"

So soon? Later that night when she lay on her cot in the bedroom, the mother pondered this remark, debating whether it was just an innocent remark or whether it held a sinister, hidden meaning. But no--the witchdoctor was a friend of her son's. He could not have known beforehand of the snake. She dismissed the thought. For tonight they were safe. The doors were bolted, there were heavy bars on the windows, their mosquito nets were tucked well under the mattresses, and a kerosene lantern, from where it stood in the doorway between the two rooms, its wick turned low, cast about it a faint but reassuring circle of light.

The clanking and clashing of a heavy chain dragging and scraping over stone, the sharp clash of metal, a whirring and a rattling, followed by a dull thud and a distant splash, brought Gordon's mother reluctantly up from the depths of peaceful sleep to a state of semi-wakefulness. In the brief silence that ensued she tried to remember where she was. All was dark except for the faint light from a lantern in the doorway. Then there it was again--the noise. Heavy sounds of jerking and pulling, creaking and groaning of wood--a pause--and then it began all over again, the clanking and clashing, the scraping and rattling, the whirring and the dull thud. Oh no! she groaned inwardly, a well right outside our house! As she lay there, the wail of a baby came to her ears, and the angry cackle of chickens rudely awakened and the stomping of oxen. And from somewhere came the sound of a man gargling.

Woman Carrying Water, by Anna Hiebert

And still it was dark. The lantern still cast its feeble light from the doorway. Within the house all was silent. Kathy in her cot next to hers hadn't moved. Drawing the blanket up over her head and burying her head deep in the feathery softness of her pillow, she slept again.

Subdued laughter and amused whisperings coming from the window near her bed roused her some time later to abrupt consciousness. Two young urchins, brown faces pressed against the bars, were gazing with great curiousity and hilarious enjoyment at the foreign late-sleeper and pointing out objects of interest in the room to each other. "Go away!" Two startled faces disappeared suddenly from view--she could hear them scrambling down the pile of rubble that lay heaped against the wall, and running away. Their laughter floated back to her through the unshuttered windows.

From the next room she could hear the tinkle of silver and the scraping of chairs being pushed to the table. The lantern was gone. The door was shut. From the front of the house came the sound of voices. The first night in the haunted house was over. Scrambling out of bed she dressed hurriedly, pressed against the wall between the windows.

In the back yard Gordon was shaving before a small mirror hanging from a nail beside the kitchen window. On a wooden stool she found a small basin which she filled with water from an earthen pot nearby, using the baked beans can as a dipper.

"Well, mother, what do you think of life in an Indian village?" laughed Gordon.

"It should be most interesting," she replied as they went in to a breakfast of oatmeal and burned toast.

Kathy, still half asleep, joined them at the table. "There must be mosquitoes in my net," she complained. "I could hear them humming all night and I have bites all over." She spooned sugar on her oatmeal. "What are we going to do today, Gordon?"

"I thought we'd go to that dry streambed and look for ancient stone axes. I found a few good specimens last time I was here."

"Ancient stone axes--here?" Gone was every vestige of listlessness. The day lay bright and warm and exciting before them.

Ancient Stone Axe

A discreet cough from the front door reminded Gordon that there were things to be done before they could set off for the stone hunt. "I promised Muggayya I would take pictures of the men harvesting the field," he said, reaching for his camera. "I'll be back as soon as I can."

The search proved very rewarding. To Kathy's great satisfaction and delight, it was she who spotted the best piece of all, a yellowish red stone fashioned into something resembling an axhead, one end shaped to fit into the palm of a man's hand, the other thinning out and sharpened on both sides, tapering off to a point. When late that afternoon they reluctantly turned their steps homeward, they were loaded down with stones, as many as they could carry, to be sorted and studied at leisure.

Happening to go into her bedroom, the mother noticed with dismay that her billfold was lying openly on the bed. "How careless to have left it where anyone could see it," she thought. Quickly she examined the contents. Everything was there--everything except the four or five rupees she had had in it. But who? How? The house had been locked as usual during their absence.

"It isn't a great deal of money, but it is all I had with me," she said ruefully to her son later. "And I don't like the thought of someone going through my belongings in my absence."

(This is as far as Mother wrote about the time she and Loey were with Paul in the village. For the rest of the story, we'll have to ask Paul and Loey. I would really like to know who's been getting into the house, and why.)

Fixing the Ox Cart Wheel (from Konduru, by Paul Hiebert)

Fishermen in Reservoir Nearby (from Konduru)

Water Carriers (from Konduru)