“Nine-thirty. We have another fifteen minutes at least before our ‘night watchman’ comes”, whispered our vibrant Viju as she put off the torch. We sat huddled together on the edges of two beds, whispering and tittering as we relished the chivda and barfi Farida had hidden in the dormitory. It was just a week since school had reopened after the Diwali vacation. We had wept, moaned and groaned back into the disciplinary grind of the boarding, but she had returned late and bold as she was, managed to smuggle the goodies past the sister in charge of the ‘tuck’. “We are going to have a treat tonight,” she had said conspiratorially to our small circle of friends earlier in the day. It was something to look forward to.
Our dormitory was at one end of a long hall on the second floor, in one arm of the H-shaped building. The nuns’ quarters were in the other. The offices and classrooms were located on the floors below, all locked up and quiet by evening. To come to the dormitory side, the nun had to walk through the art room and down a short veranda that linked the two buildings. She had to use a torch as all electric lights were turned off by the time she came. Lights going off in the opposite wing, was our signal that she’d arrive presently. But that day, when we should have been on guard, we were too immersed in enjoying the ‘forbidden pleasures of a late night’.
Suddenly, earlier than usual, we heard the door at the other end open with its customary click. A torch flashed and the door was bolted from inside. In a trice we scrambled into our respective beds, leaving Farida to lie over the food under her mattress and pillow. We lay still as the nun on night duty that week came towards the dorm, with her rosary beads and the large crucifix at its end clacking. Sweet and witty, she was equally strict. It was only now that we became aware of an owl hooting eerily somewhere. Jackals howled near a pond, quite some distance away from the building. They never failed to make us shudder under crawling skins. Beyond the pond, our trustworthy gossip agent (fruit vendor) had told us, was a haunted cremation ghat and the jackals howled at ghosts on no moon nights.
In the front and at the back of the buildings, stretched huge playgrounds. A road passed by the front gate across which, a railway club and a desolate parade ground yawned into the night. Beyond the ground at the back were endless fields. Only on one side of the dormitory there was presence of other humans in the form of a row of low houses. In those days with hardly even radios accessible to most, every thing went dead quiet by nine o’clock in the night. Even if our neighbours were awake, we didn’t see or hear them because the back doors which fell on our side were shut by the time we went up.
This upstairs hall was full of special effects. During examination days, we were allowed to study till ten in the night. Once the lights were off and we were in bed the show would begin: a thud on the roof and something would roll down, as our hearts thumped to its tumbling beat. To date it has remained an unsolved mystery, because there weren’t even trees with overhanging branches for birds to drop something onto the roof. Next switches went on and off by themselves; light bulbs or a torch would flash and go off just as mysteriously; the whoosh of a nun’s habit would make us jump when we knew she was asleep in her bed or hadn’t yet come. The door that led to the veranda opened and shut without anyone coming in or leaving. At such times we believed that sister had come and had to return for some reason. It was scary, but we were always given some explanation for these happenings that we naively believed.
That day, hearing Sister enter the dormitory, I watched for her through the mosquito net and almost stopped breathing when I saw her! This certainly was not Sr. C. Unusually tall, even her habit wasn’t white and worse, she seemed to glide not walk, faceless, towards the row of beds!! I clamped my eyes so tight, probably a surgeon wouldn’t have been able to pry open the lids. For the first time I understood what it meant to be petrified! No god, no prayers came to mind. I could sense her moving from bed to bed. As she neared mine, my heart was ready to burst and spew blood all over her. The untucked flaps of my mosquito net parted and I waited for long, clawing nails to dig into my throat; if she didn’t I knew fear would kill if she stayed a moment longer near my bed. Mercifully nothing of the sort happened. Long after she moved away I was unable to twitch a muscle. Rigor mortis had set in my living body! I could ease the aching tension a bit, still without moving a finger or opening my eyes only after someone coughed and another girl turned in her bed. Strangely, I had not heard or sensed the nun go into her little curtained off cubicle. Totally spooked I just could not imagine where she was, afraid my thoughts would make a sound and she would materialize again out of thin air. Mouth dry and breaking into perspiration in the November chill, all memory of the barfi, chivda and gossip of the earlier moments vamoosed.
Though it seemed like an endless night, it couldn’t have been more than ten minutes before we heard the door open and shut again! The same clickety-clack of the rosary tied around her waist, only, this time Sr. C’s cough was unmistakable. What relief! She went directly to her bed and that’s when Farida dared to open her mouth.
“Sister, when did you go back? Weren’t you here a few minutes ago?” she squeaked breaking the rule of silence after eight-thirty p.m. The rest of us were still too scared to let on that we were awake.
“Shh…go to sleep. I’ve just come in.”
“Then who was here earlier? Someone definitely came and went around are beds to check if all were in,” Farida quaked.
“ You must have been dreaming. We’ll talk in the morning, you’ll wake up the others” she replied with a distinct tremor in her low voice. I could imagine her making the sign of the cross and kissing her crucifix as they often used to do when confronted by any kind of trouble. It raised my fear to its previous level.
Sibilant whispers punctuated the chilling silence as we prayed ourselves to sleep. Had we been visited by this apparition for being disobedient that night? No, it certainly wasn’t the first time we had broken rules. The girls who had begun to snore as they hit their pillows were lucky and knew nothing.
Next morning, after mass, as we exchanged notes and spoke to the priest about the visit, he tried to calm our fear. We insisted that he come with holy water later in the day to bless the premises. He came, sprinkled holy water, prayed and blessed us all.
We didn’t see ‘her’ again, but the other inexplicable occurrences continued. The fallout of which was that my sister “consecrated” a glass of water when she prayed every night. She then sprinkled this water around the room as the girls waited up for her with outstretched hands. “X, give me holy water” was a refrain we heard every night from then onwards and ghosts or not all slept peacefully. She had certainly exorcised them from our minds. It was a different matter that she didn’t let the girl next to her even lie down or the light to be switched off till she was safe under the covers. And, she is still afraid of ghosts.