It is often said that books are a person’s friends, philosophers and guides. This could not have been any truer in my case. Be it the childhood days spent honing my English-language skills or those attempts at filling my inner void, books were with me through thick and thin. That said, the one instance that merits a special mention is a series of events that occurred during my graduation days.
Now, I had just finished high school and had joined a reputed college to pursue my graduation. The place was about forty kilometers away from my hometown. Even as the older of the two siblings and my father’s genius girl, stepping out of the house for the first time was big news. With my father accompanying me to the college in local train every day, things were fairly easier in the beginning. However, his work obligations meant that this could not turn into a permanent arrangement. That is what prompted my parents to board me in the college hostel.
Things were happening thick and fast. As though commuting so far away from my home was not enough, I now found myself in a completely new space. Even so, this change of air was the least of my concerns.
You see, the first few days of my hostel life were a real nightmare, thanks to some typically unfriendly hostel mates, tasteless food, stinky and poorly maintained toilets, and, of course, the endlessly long queues. Moreover, the hostel premises were outside the college campus and coming back to my room was a terrifying affair to the say the least. Situated in the middle of an enormous field surrounded by mammoth trees, one had to traverse the entire stretch to get there. As if things were not disheartening enough, something strange happened one day, or rather, one night.
It was a humid, full-moon night. A power outage only seemed to have added to my woes. I was sleeping alone in my room, which was located on the ground floor of the two-story hostel building. The room had a window through which I could see the dark and spooky mahogany tree in the field. As I gazed at majestic tree, I recalled being told by a hostel mate that the tree was believed to be haunted every since a local girl had committed suicide there. A chill ran down my spine as soon as the thought occurred to me. I tried to get some sleep, but it was all in vain. Suddenly, I saw a shadow peeping in through the window. I was scared out of my wits, so scared that I could not even scream. Things got creepier when the shadow disappeared a few moments later.
A myriad of thoughts started flooding over me as sweat began pouring down my body. Had I just seen… a ghost? Or was it some miscreant, or simply my own mind playing tricks on me? Even with the things I had heard about the tree, the latter seemed the most plausible explanation. The following day, I started inquiring about the events of the night before. I asked my friend, who lived in the adjacent room, if she had noticed any such incident during her stay in the hostel. I talked about this to many of my hostel inmates, but nothing fruitful came out of that endeavor.
Now I had only one place to look for the answers to the several questions wreaking havoc in my mind – books. They were the only means that could help me tell reality from illusion, and provide me with answers about whether phantoms were real or not. A friend of mine suggested a book series titled Aloukik Noy Loukik by the celebrated author Prabir Ghosh. Mr. Ghosh is the founder and president of the Bharatiya Bigyan O Yuktibandi Samiti, a Kolkata-based association of science and rationalists. The title of the book translates into “Natural, not Supernatural”. The series has five volumes and logically disputes and dissects supernatural claims. Every story of his concerns the social and religious dogma that plagues the society at large. It was this series that made me believe that every “supernatural” occurrence could be explained scientifically.
The series gave me a lot of confidence and helped me unravel the mystery that had been baffling me for the last couple of days. It reassured me that the shadow peeking in through the window had probably been some petty thief. I decided to bring this up with my friends at the hostel, and we decided to get to the bottom of the matter.
One night, our patience finally paid dividends as I noticed someone peeking into my room at midnight. However, to my utter dismay, all my roommates were fast asleep. Even then, something gave me the confidence to shout at the top of my voice amid that darkness. To my surprise, the shadow vanished. This time, however, I could hear heavy steps running toward the boundary walls. This made me even more confident, and I rushed to the window, screaming as loud as I possibly could. It was enough to wake both my roommates and the other hostel inmates up. Surprisingly, I even noticed the shadow jump out of the hostel wall.
The next morning, the night’s events were reported to the hostel warden, who, in turn, lodged a FIR at the nearest police station. The police started investigating the matter and found a single slipper in the bush near the hostel wall. The case was gradually becoming clearer. Until that point, nobody in the hostel had considered this angle, but my act of bravery had thrown new light on the mystery surrounding the tree. Encouraged by my valiance, some inmates stepped forward to confess that many of their personal belongings had gone missing over the last few months. They had, however, been unable to muster the courage to talk about it openly.
Everyone decided to cooperate with the police in their investigation. I had suddenly become everyone’s center of attention. Everyone – from my juniors to my seniors – started liking me. A place that had seemed like hell until a few days ago, had suddenly become so friendly and welcoming. However, the most satisfying news was yet to come.
The cops had finally managed to solve the case by using our inputs and connecting the dots. They revealed that the shadow belonged to a notorious thief who had been stealing stuff for a year or so. He had been on the run until then. Once caught, he went on to confess that he had planned a major theft in the girls’ hostel in the forthcoming summer vacation, when the building would have been empty. His plans had obviously been thwarted by my newfound spunk. And I owed it to all the books I had read – the books that had helped me approach the issue from a rational viewpoint.
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