Shadows in the Neem Trees

I know they’re there, but never see them, those creatures of the night. When I walk beneath the trees, I hear the beating of leathered wings, the settling in to feast upon the golden clusters of neem fruit.

Village India shadows night neem 3

The winds of Aadi broke today and with this break, the day grew hot. Then came dusk, smooth and cool and the sun slipped away unnoticed, replaced by a full moon floating in a voile of cloud.  And for the first time, I saw those giant fruit bats and was shocked by how many there were. I had always imagined two or three but not this swooping midnight congregation.

We obviously live out our lives in different trajectories. I am a creature of the day and in my domain those bats do not exist. In my world the wind rushes through the palms, the mountains stand beautiful, the faded old ladies stoop to gather neem fruits, the workers feed the cows, the bus arrives at nine, the children play on the swings, and my wife and I rush here and there to accomplish the important things nobody will remember. Then, daylight over, we settle safe and cozy into sun fresh sheets and drift away.

But not tonight.

Our worker Kannan phoned, his voice strained.

“There’s a young woman crying out for her baby. She’s in the neem grove behind the cowshed. Come quickly. And bring your torch.”

“Who is it?”

“Just come. I’ll explain.”

I paused our movie. Tamar and I left our imaginary world and walked through the heavy front door, the one that keeps out the night.

We made our way to the cowshed and met Kannan. He was clearly agitated as he gripped his club. I wondered why a young woman would be out on a night like this, far from the safety of home and hearth. I shone my torch on the calves; they were munching straw as usual.

“Where did you hear the sound?”

“Over there behind the haystack. Just a few minutes ago.”

We walked through the shadows and looked around. Nobody.

“What was she saying?”

“She was calling. ‘Pappaa?  Pappaa!’”

“Did you see her?”

“You don’t believe me, do you? Come ask my wife. And Sarasu. They heard her too.”

The bats were swirling, their dark forms gliding in and out of the filtered moonlight.

We approached Kannan’s house. Lakshmi was sitting by the outside cook fire, stirring the rice in a blackened pot. She laughed nervously when I asked what they had heard.  Her Aunt Sarasu described the voice, first over by the cowshed, then nearer to home by the swing set. Though Kannan is known to embellish his stories, Sarasu and Lakshmi are practical as rain.

“A young woman, in her twenties like,” Sarasu said. “Calling for her baby. Not crying. Didn’t say anything else.”

“Could have been a girl from the nursing hostel across the fence? Maybe her friend’s name is Pappaa. You know how sound is carried by the wind at night.”

Kannan didn’t reply. Sarasu nodded politely.

“We’ve all heard the goat herders like they were right in our back yard when in fact they were way beyond that hill.”

Tamar began to mimic the sound in her best ghosty voice. “Pappaa? Pappaaaaaa!” Ghost or no ghost, we all laughed and went to bed.

The next evening after sunset, I met Kannan and his family near their house. A petulant, nasty wind was blowing. The night was dark, save for a single bulb and the orange flames that were leaping from the cooking fire.

“So how’s ‘Papaa’ tonight?” I asked.

Kannan didn’t smile. “The minute you left, we heard the voice again.”

Sarasu nodded that it was true.

“I went over to the Boys’ Hostel this morning,” Kannan said. “They heard it too. The older ones have heard her several times over the past years, but not as clearly as last evening. That’s why I stayed awake all night. In case the ghost tried to come near our house.”

“You didn’t stay awake all night,” Sarasu said. “I was sleeping by the door. I would have seen you. And even if it was a ghost, so what? We’ve both seen ghosts before. Just let them go where they want. Nothing to get excited over.”

Kannan had been drinking and was in his dark and powerful mood. “Don’t you go poking your head into my family’s business! I was standing right there at midnight worshipping our kula devam in the east while you all were sleeping. Nothing bad happened. Our family deity kept us safe.”

Village India shadows kannan closeup

“Of course nothing happened. It’s just a ghost. What, are you afraid?”

“I’m not afraid of man or ghost!” His voice was trembling. “Do you think I could live with myself if something happened to my wife and my daughters?  Did you see the terror in Lakshmi’s face last night? When she felt something cold brush over her, she jumped up and ran into the house. I felt it too. These ghosts attack those who show fear. Lakshmi is not safe.”

The bats were fighting in the neem tree above us, hissing and snapping like rats. I began to feel how deep the darkness was, how isolated we were, living out here between two villages. What sort of violent acts could have happened on this ancient piece of land? Earlier we had been told of the young woman drowning herself in our well. Rumors of revenge killings. The burial ground is down the road and past the bridge. Could some of those unsettled spirits be wandering about? Or thieves. Or neighbors with hate, drunks harboring a grudge, hired thugs…Anything could happen on a night like this.

“Fine,” Sarasu said. “I’ll stay up tonight. I’ll go get the broom and keep my chappal ready.” She turned to me. “Ghosts are terrified of brooms, you know. Chappals too. And blowing tubes for the fire, but they must be made of iron.”

After saying goodnight. I asked them to call if they heard the voice again. I wondered if the fear would make Kannan and Lakshmi quit and run to the safety of their mountain home. And only yesterday they were so grateful for how we had insisted they save money to free themselves from the money lender, how we were helping educate their daughter so the next generation could escape poverty.

But tonight, none of that mattered. A crack had opened. I saw the shadow, the face of death, deep darkness.

The next morning it all disappeared with the sun. There were no fruit bats. The dogs joined us on our usual run. The neighbor children washed up for school. I had toast for breakfast, glanced through the paper, watered the vegetable garden, and filled the overhead tanks. No ghosts. No darkness.

How powerful the morning.

How refreshing the breeze from the mountains.

How green the neem trees at noon

Village India shadows neem fruit

and how welcome their shadows.

Village India Shadows sarasu under neem

About the Author

Bruce DeJong

I am an Indian of American parentage who practices medicine in rural Tamil Nadu. After years of getting to know the local people, they have begun to open up their lives, allowing me to paint a portrait of their village one story at a time.

  • Bob Granner

    I miss you both! I’ll come in the daytime though. These vivid images of your lives are rich and strengthening somehow. Thanks for including me in your camaraderie. Bob

    • Bruce DeJong

      We miss you too, Bob. Thanks for being there.

  • Carrie

    Mysterious and evocative…no answers, just mystery, wondering.

    • Bruce DeJong

      Thanks for your wonderful comment, Carrie

  • David

    Hi Bruce, I like your consistent approach of just telling a story, not analyzing, evaluating or judging- just enjoying the beauty of all the little details of your world. Thanks for sharing that world.

    • Bruce DeJong

      Thank you David.