Although it had rained the previous night, the sky looked empty of clouds as the sun rose from the horizon. I put my head on the window and felt the cool morning wind on my face as our bodies shook unsteadily in the creaky, old highway bus.
It was one of those days — bright and beautiful — perfect for a trek. That is how we loved to spend our holidays; exploring a new place, away from the university. My girlfriend had gone home for the weekend, but my six friends and I decided not to let the holiday go waste, and so, our backpacks were lying on the roof of the bus with all trekking essentials — maps, cameras, extra batteries, sleeping bags, raincoats, a torch, some ready-to-eat food, and water.
We stopped for a quick breakfast of thalipeeths and tea on NH4 and reached Satara by 11 am. As soon as we got off the bus, we looked up at the beautiful range of hills, dotted in the distance with people who had begun their trek before dawn. Excited about the adventure and the beautiful view that awaited us, we began the climb immediately.
After three hours of continuous climbing, we discovered that we had reached only halfway up the hill. Tired and sweaty, we decided to take a break and rest under a tree for a while. As we were clicking pictures and eating biscuits, we saw some groups of people going back down. We picked up our backpacks immediately and started on our way towards the top. But two of our friends, who were satisfied with having finished half the trek, started their journey back down in order to explore the village, and planned to meet us at a guesthouse for dinner.
The rest of the trek was steep with a lot of rough rocks but the five of us were so excited to reach the top that we managed to have fun even with a tough trek. We reached the top of the hill at 4 pm and were greeted with a breathtaking view of the Ghats. The top was a flat, barren land with a tiny pond at one end which had been filled with water due to the rain last night. An ancient fort stood in ruins beside the pond, open to the sky as the remains of its roof lay in rubble on the floor. As we looked down from the edge of the hill, we could only see a thick expanse of green trees with the sound of birds filling in the silence.
Being the amateur photographer in the group, I clicked some pictures of the two happy couples inside the fort and too many of the panoramic view we couldn’t get enough of. As the sun began its descent, one of the couples suggested heading back to the village. But three of us agreed to stay back and watch the sunset and they decided to climb back down without us. I tossed the torch in their direction, in case it got dark before they reached the bottom.
We knew it would be dark soon. Fatigued by the treacherous climb, we fixed ourselves a bowl of instant noodles and found a clean spot to sleep. I decided to take a stroll, explore the fort on my own and find myself a place to sleep to give my friends-in-love some privacy. Right after the sun went down and the insects started their high-pitched chirping at night, I found a flat, dry spot to rest. As I opened up my sleeping bag, I realized the only source of light I had was the weak torch of my old mobile phone. I put my phone on a stone near the sleeping bag and lay down to stare at the clear sky full of stars, trying to remember the last time I had seen such a beautiful night sky.
I don’t remember when I fell asleep but I clearly remember the sound that woke me. I felt a movement close to where I was sleeping and thought I heard someone walking quickly past the wild bushes that lined the broken fort wall. I called out to my friends but the only response I got was a stunning silence. My mind was instantly swarmed with all the horror stories I had heard from my grandmother as a kid. I pulled my jacket closer and shut my eyes tightly, but sleep evaded me as my heart pumped against my chest.
I decided to get up and check where the noise had come from. I wriggled out of my sleeping bag and looked around for my phone. It was pitch dark and I couldn’t find it. I suddenly realized that the sky was once again masked by clouds and I could barely see my own hands. When my phone was nowhere to be seen, I got up unsteadily and walked towards the entrance of the fort. I tripped on a stone and fell down headfirst, the rusty smell of the ruins getting to my head. I checked the bruises on my knee and then sat down to see if the steps leading out of the fort were where I thought they were.
As soon as I felt the touch of the dusty, concrete steps on my fingertips, I straightened up and slowly climbed down one step after another, my feet touching the edge of the steps to feel the next one. On the third step, I stepped on a weak stone and lost my balance. I fell around 15 feet into the darkness and tried to scream, but no voice came out.
I woke up with a jerk, feeling dizzy from the near-endless fall I had experienced in my sleep. The sky was clear and the moon was shining brightly once again. I got up and made my way back to the place where my two friends were sleeping. I couldn’t get any sleep and patiently waited for sunrise, trying hard to keep terrible thoughts at bay.
At the crack of dawn, I saw that my friends were still fast asleep and decided to go to the ruins again to find my phone. As I walked past the entrance, I saw my sleeping bag lying as I had left it. I decided to search for the place from where I thought I had fallen. I found a half-broken flight of steps by the south wall and concluded that I must have walked in the wrong direction in the darkness. As I went down the steps, I found the weak stone jutting out of the third step and saw that this part of the fort was supported by a single pillar.
As I tried to get my thoughts together, my friends came looking for me and laughed when they saw that I was “still exploring” the ruins. I told them what I had experienced at night. But they brushed away the possibility of any unnatural event and urged me to stop brooding over a ‘dream’. I turned back and saw my phone lying on the stone where I had put it last night. I grabbed it and started walking with my friends without turning back.
As narrated by Bade Bhaiya.