An old man holding a pink umbrella stood peering amicably at me. He was the only other person at the bus stop on that cold December evening. As we stood there waiting for our ride, the sky grew steadily darker revealing a carpet of stars. The deathly silence was only interrupted by the hissing of a kettle from a tea shop across the street. Inside, a weary-looking man stood sipping tea, awaiting his last customers for the day.
“Where are you headed?” asked the man with the pink umbrella.
“Kathgodam. How about you?”
“I am going to Kashipur. Say, the next bus is at eight. How about chai?”
I looked at my watch - 7. 15. It is impossible to turn down an invitation for hot chai on a chilly day.
“Yes, why not!” I said.
We crossed the empty lane and approached the tea shop. The man behind the stove welcomed us with a warm smile.
“Black or masala?” he asked.
“Masala with an extra dash of pepper,” announced the old man with childlike excitement, “and an omelette please. What will you have?”
“Masala chai. This was a good idea. It is warm in here.” We sat on a rickety old bench in a corner.
“I’m Bijoy. Do the buses here run on time?”
“Mostly. What brings you to Kumaon, Bijoy?”
“I study in Dehradun. I’m on my way to my aunt's house now. Are you from here?”
“Oh yes! I’ve been here all my life. I am from Ramnagar.”
The chai wala brought my order. He picked up a rusty sugar cup from an adjacent table and placed it next to my tea.
“What about my chai and omelette?” asked the old man. But the chai wala stood staring at me for a couple of seconds, scratched his head, turned around, and returned to his spot behind the stove.
“You know,” continued the old man, “It is not safe for young people to be out at this hour. Hasn’t anybody warned you?”
“Are there robbers around here?” I asked anxiously. “In any case I am a poor student from Berthampore. A crook couldn’t get more than twenty-five rupees from me on a good day!” I laughed nervously and added, “Moreover I’ve heard that people from the hills are honest.”
“Perhaps! But ghosts on the hills may not be as kind.”
My throat went dry. “Ghosts?” I asked, almost a whisper. “Have you seen one?”
The old man smiled. “Don’t worry beta. I shall protect you today. But remember not to venture out after sunset again.”
“But have you seen a ghost?” I persisted.
“Let me tell you a story,” he began. “I was nineteen years old when my father died in the quarry over the hills.” He pointed vaguely in the direction of the mountains. “The quarry owner was a good man. He took pity on my family and offered me a job as his lorry driver. I had to drive to the site on top of the mountain, collect a fresh load of granite and deliver it at the godown downhill before dawn everyday.”
“That sounds like a difficult, dangerous job for a young boy,” I said empathetically.
“Maybe. But I was young, adventurous, and needed the money. So I didn’t mind. I used to wake up at two in the morning, drive up and down in the piercing cold. It was on one such trip that it happened,” he paused.
“I had collected the load and was headed to the godown. It was unusually dark for 4 am. As I took a turn, I noticed a little girl with a bright pink umbrella standing alone. I slowed down and asked her if she needed a lift. She thanked me and hopped in.”
‘Thank you, you’re kind,’ she said in a gentle voice. ‘It is my birthday today. Can you drop me off at Kashipur? I’ll be grateful.’
‘Of course. Happy birthday little one! But how did you get here? And what are you doing alone at this hour?’
‘I used to live here with my grandmother. Everyday I woke up early to pluck some wild lemongrass for her morning tea. Grandma loves lemongrass. Yesterday as usual, I gathered some fresh lemongrass and was crossing the road when a young boy in a lorry ran me over and I died.
‘I want to say goodbye to my mother in Kashipur. She'll be expecting me, since it is my birthday. But I’ve only been dead for a day so I don’t know how to carry myself there. Thank you for taking me.’
“A chill ran down my spine. Mine was the only lorry that went in that route at that hour. I had killed that little girl! And now I was carrying her ghost in my lorry. I didn’t speak a word after that and drove as fast as I could. As we neared Kashipur, the apparition gave me one final smile and flew out of the window, right in front of my eyes! Then I noticed that she’d left the pink umbrella behind. For some reason I grew attached to it and have had it with me for a hundred and ten years. Phew! Time goes by so quickly.”
“I’m going to check on that chai,” the old man rose from his seat and walked away.
“Everytime I ask for chai you disappoint me,” he chided the chai wala who kept looking past him, as though he didn’t exist.
It was freezing, yet, big beads of sweat formed and began to drip down my brow. Just then, I heard the approaching bus. I sprang up and ran towards it, without thinking, without turning back. The bus took off into the night. My heart was still racing but I felt relieved. Could I have imagined it all? As I sat by a window clutching the pink umbrella tightly in my hands, I heard a soft voice, “Uncle, that is my pink umbrella.”
This work has been published in Beetle Magazine's August 2020 Issue.