The rain was pouring down in sheets, lashing the streets with almost venomous ferocity. I was getting bored of staying in the house all day and had decided to go for a nice evening walk when the rain decided to spoil the fun. I had taken a shortcut back home, through the woods, hoping I wouldn’t get wet. But I was proved wrong. It was a deserted road. It had a cluster of trees on one side and electric fencing on the other, marking out someone’s private land. I was trying desperately to hold the umbrella close enough to me to not get drenched but was failing miserably at it.
I saw a person walking a few paces ahead of me. It appeared to be a woman, evidently in a hurry to get somewhere. She had rich black hair that bounced on her shoulders as she walked. She was dressed in white, except for the black dupatta she had draped across her left shoulder, down to the right side of her waist.
The rain was gradually abating.
As I approached her, she turned around to face me. “Aren’t you the writer who lives at the end of that street?”, she asked. Pleased at being recognized, I replied, “Yes I am. How do you know me?”. She started walking slowly after that and we both trudged ahead together. “I read one of your articles that were published in the newspaper yesterday. I enquired with a few of the locals and they told me that you were the brains behind all the articles that get published”, she replied. “How is it that I have never seen you around here before?”, I asked her, noticing that though she appeared cheerful, there was a certain calm coldness in her eyes. The cheerful glow on her face belied the deathly blankness in her eyes. She looked at me and said, “I live with my family in Pune. Our children had vacations, so my husband and I decide to go on a short vacation. We came to Nainital yesterday”. She was trying to hold her umbrella closer to herself, but only managed to wet herself a bit more. Or so it seemed. The rugged path opened into a wider lane a few hundred meters away. We could see people gathered around on the street, talking among themselves. The rain was almost a drizzle now. We could walk more easily and the conversation seemed to pick up pace.
“Why would you be going about alone right now?”, I asked her, as I saw her leaning ahead in anticipation, almost like she was waiting to see what the commotion was about. Her eyes glazed in delight. “The first thing my husband and I did was rent out a car. We rode out with our children from the airport, hoping we’d make it to the resort we had booked beforehand in time for lunch”, her voice seeming to crack at this point.
We had been walking at quite a good pace and had almost reached the end of the path. I could see a police van parked nearby as we stepped out onto the street. ”We were enjoying the beauty of the hills around us, with music playing on the stereo and the children asleep in the back seat”, her voice seemed to drift away. I was searching for what the crowd had gathered there for and did not notice whether the woman was beside me. I saw two badly damaged cars lying on the rugged road. One of them was a white sedan, the other a black SUV.
“Suddenly, a black SUV came around the bend and crashed into our car. My family died on the spot. I still remember my children crying as they got jolted out of their sleep.”, her voice seemed fainter, almost hollow, with every word,” both the cars were badly damaged. I don’t think anybody survived.”
It took me a moment to realize the ramifications of what she meant. I spun around to see where she was standing. There was no one around me, except for a policeman coming towards me, asking me to stand clear of the accident site.
The rain had stopped by now and I approached one of the onlookers. “Excuse me but may I know what has happened here?”, I asked. “Arre uncle, just an accident that happened yesterday. This sedan had tourists and the SUV’s driver had slept off”, the person replied. He searched for something in his pockets. He took out a crumpled piece of a Hindi daily, which had a photograph of the deceased family, before the accident.
There she was. Standing right next to her husband, with her kids in front of them. The woman in the white dress. The black dupatta across her left shoulder, down to her waist. The dark black hair falling till her shoulders.
I mumbled my acknowledgements and walked away from the crowd. Tucking my umbrella under my arms, I walked home, still grappling with the eerie feeling in my head. This was too much for someone like me from a simple village to handle.
I almost never take the shortcut back home after that day. Once in a while, if I happen to take that path, I still get a feeling that she is watching me. The girl in white, watching over unsuspecting people walking through a path in the woods.