MIDWAY : Frosty fire

Some years ago, I was taking a trip from Phungling of Taplejung to Athrai of Tehrathum. It’s a tough walk, consisting of a steep descent and a strenuous ascent, not to mention a long stretch of flat trail through a thick forest. Athrai still miles away, darkness enveloped my way just before embarking on the journey into the jungle. Famished and footsore, I crept up to a nearby farmhouse.

The burly figure in the cottage proposed a raanko — a bunch of dried bamboo sticks tied together and lit at one end, used widely in rural Nepal for light — adding it would frighten away wild beasts and ghosts alike in the forest. “Are there ghosts in the forests?” I asked anxiously. “Oh, plenty!” said the man, putting on an air that was anything but friendly. He sounded as if he were clued up on ghosts and that they were no imaginative experiences.

“Don’t get scared, fire is the best friend in the night”, he resumed, now chopping at a bamboo. “That’s better than a friendly fire” — I made a wordplay to myself, keeping in mind the then ongoing Maoist-military ‘friendly fire’ cases.

I left the cottage with a raanko that supplied a good deal of light along the track. It had a pleasant glow, a whispering sound and sweet cracks were audible while the fire consumed it. Then something ominous happened.

All of a sudden, the fire sputtered out. “Oh plenty”, echoed the cottage man’s words on the ghosts.

While ghosts were a closed book to me, fear of encountering wild beasts and the general fear of the dark made my hair curl.

In troubled times, our own mind is not necessarily friendly: Everything around looked eerie: every tree was growing taller, every boulder was a sturdy leopard about to pounce and every fallen branch was a snake.

“No shilly-shallying, U-turn!” yelled an inner voice and groping in the dark, I was back to knock on the cottage door. I felt a tacit agreement between the owner and me: visitors,

unlike the proverbial opportunity, may knock twice at one’s door! Next day, on arriving at Sakranti Bazaar of Athrai, the most horrific news greeted my ears: Myanglung, Tehrathum’s headquarters, was consumed by fire to the hilt. Perhaps, I mulled, fire can be frosty too.