Welcome to OBSCURUS, your weekly dose of paranormal fiction. Every Wednesday OBSCURUS features new short stories and serialized novels written by novelist, screenwriter, and voice-over artist Biswajit Banerjee. The realm of the paranormal stretches far beyond the usual horror story. So, while yo u will get to listen to lots of ghost stories on this podcast, there will also be many tales of lesser-known paranormal themes. To get us started, here's your host Biswajit Banerjee.
HOST TALK 00:00:47
Hello and welcome to OBSCURUS. I am Biswajit Banerjee, your host for this show. What if you feel you are under the constant gaze of a pair of invisible eyes? Our protagonist does live through such an experience in today’s story.
Before starting the story, I request my esteemed readers and listeners to visit my website biswajitbanerjee.com for information about my novels, films, voice-over projects, and other creative endeavors. You will also find all OBSCURUS episodes and their transcripts on the website.
My regular followers know that I also have another website obscurus.buzzsprout.com which is fully dedicated to this podcast. You will find all the OBSCURUS episodes and their transcripts and the chapter markers for easy navigation on this website.
And now it’s time to start the story. Amit visits his cousin and his wife in the countryside in New Zealand. What promises to be a great vacation is marred by an unending feeling of an invisible pair of eyes watching Amit. What is the truth? Come, let’s find out.
UNDER WATCH 00:02:40
Written and performed by Biswajit Banerjee
Last year in June, I visited my cousin in the Kiwi countryside. The villa he purchased is a dream house. A spacious living room with a stylish dining space, five airy bedrooms, one study, and one storeroom spread over two levels — what more could you ask for? Nestled inside what can be described as a fortress of Totara trees, the villa is an ideal spot for a vacation. Away from the maddening crowds and noises of city life, I was in for a treat ... or, so I thought.
"How is the house?" Charlotte, my cousin Tarun's wife, asked on my arrival.
"Well, this is fantabulous!"
"You like it so much?"
"Oh yes, it's a perfect house in a perfect location."
"I am so glad you like the place." Tarun put an arm around me.
"The two of you are lucky. It's hard to believe that a property like this can exist."
"There are a lot many more things for you to see, Amit," Charlotte said, "come, I will show you your room."
The jet lag didn't bother me much, and I slept a good deal after a sumptuous lunch. With still plenty of daylight, I joined Tarun and Charlotte on a jeep safari arranged by the locals in the early evening. Never had I felt so close to nature. What I thought to be a small forest cover was not so small after all. The sheer variety of trees, birds, and animals could captivate the imagination of even the most unromantic minds. Whew! What an experience it was!
After dinner, I spent some time with my hosts. Amongst other things, my girlfriend Ananya came up for discussion.
"Why didn't you bring her along?" Charlotte asked.
"Oh, she wished to come, but the college didn't grant her leave."
"She teaches political science, doesn't she?"
"Sad that she didn't come. I am sure she would love this place." Tarun said.
"Yes, Tarun, Ananya would be delighted."
"Have you told her about the safari?"
"No, Charlotte, not yet."
"Well, she gets free from the college around 4.30 pm in India. That will be 12 am in New Zealand. So, I will call her around midnight."
"Okay, you are planning a midnight telephonic romance."
"Oh, come on, Charlotte."
"But you did inform your parents about your safe arrival, didn't you?" Tarun asked.
"Yes, I spoke to them."
At 12 am, I went out to the veranda of my room. The thrum of crickets and owl hoots accentuated the supernatural appearance of the dark forest cover. Who knew what was happening deep inside it? Maybe countless spirits were hovering in the heart of the darkness, trying to make their presence felt. Perhaps some of them, released from the clutches of the ethereal world, were lurking right in front of me. I smiled as my fertile mind conjured up pictures of smoky presences floating in the air. The unknown always attracted me more than the known. No doubt, I found the dark obscurity more exciting than the jungle's cushiony green appearance in the daytime.
The vivid descriptions of my adventure made Ananya jealous.
"This is unfair, lover boy. While you are enjoying pristine nature, I am taking classes on comparative government and politics," she said on the phone.
"Indeed, the college authorities must be slammed for what they did."
"Did you say my 'hello' to Charlotte and Tarun?"
"Maybe I will visit them next year."
"But I might not let you join me for the trip."
"Did you think once before moving alone?"
"Of course, I did. If I had canceled the trip, Charlotte and Tarun would be so upset. That's the reason I am here alone. Oh, I am missing you so much."
"Relax, I am just pulling your leg."
The following day, we went for another safari. An elderly lady working as a tourist guide for an agency operating under the Ministry of Forestry of the Government of New Zealand took us around. Her name was Sophie Brown. I was spellbound by her understanding of the forest. Most of what she earned as a guide, Sophie told us, she spent on making documentary films on flora and fauna of the country.
Sophie guided the jeep to some of the densest parts of the forest. Some of the endangered mammals and reptiles lived there. In strict conformity with the forest rules, Sophie ensured that the jeep always kept the prescribed distance from the animals.
After about four hours of moving around, we returned to the villa. On our invitation, she joined us for tea. Age was no more than a number to her. Even at eighty, she was more youthful and athletic than we. We had some interesting exchanges over tea in the front garden of the villa.
"My next documentary film is ready. One of the prime television channels will air it," Sophie said.
"What is it about? The endangered species we witnessed?" I asked.
"No, Mr. Mishra. The subject of this film is very different."
"Please call me Amit."
"Okay, fine. This film has been quite an ambitious project, Amit. I never worked on a subject like this before."
"Is it not about the forests?"
"Well, it is surely about the forests, but not about the trees, shrubs, and animals."
"Sophie, you are fueling my curiosity."
"Every forest is full of secrets. The one around us is no exception. It is believed to be a small forest, but its share of mysteries is huge. My film tries to unfold one of its mysteries."
"Need I say I am even more curious to know what this film is about?"
"Well, I am no less excited to know," Charlotte said.
"Tell us, Sophie," Tarun demanded.
"Okay, fine," Sophie said, "the tribal community living close to the western periphery of the forest believes there are spirits in the jungle."
"Spirits? You mean ghosts?" Tarun squinted at Sophie.
"Well, not ghosts, really. The tribe believes those are benevolent spirits. Their job is to ensure that the forests are safe."
"Gods? I asked.
"Indeed, they are more like Gods."
"So, the subject of your documentary is the Gods of the Forest."
"Yes, the film primarily deals with the possible existence of these spirits."
"What prompted you to make this film? Did someone report some paranormal activity from inside the forest?"
"Oh yes, local authorities got lots of reports about supernatural happenings."
"Like sighting of wavy figures in broad daylight, visitors and forest officials being pushed by invisible forces, strange noises sounding like human whispers coming from nowhere, and watches worn by tourists stopping together."
"Gosh! That sounds creepy," Charlotte observed, "nobody told us about the paranormal happenings when we bought the villa."
"Don't worry, Charlotte," Sophie rejoined with a smile as she sipped tea, "the parts of the forest supposed to be haunted are several kilometers away from this bungalow. There have been no reports of paranormal events outside a certain area of the woods."
"The question of something supernatural happening over here is out of the question, you mean." A faint smile crossed Tarun's mouth. It was difficult to tell if the information about the Forest Gods amused Tarun or made him uncomfortable.
"Did you take us to the haunted part of the forest?" I questioned.
"Of course not."
"Do you believe spirits lurk in the forest?"
"I am not sure how to answer that question."
"Did you witness something strange during the shooting of the film?"
"Well, nothing as severe as the reports of the tourists and forest officials but ..."
A minute of silence passed as Sophie's eyes reflected shades of fear and discomfort.
"But what?" Charlotte pulled her chair close to Sophie.
"Strange experiences — it is difficult to verbalize them. What I tell you may sound vague."
"Doesn't matter, tell us." I insisted.
"Okay, I will try. Several times while shooting in the haunted region, I sensed someone watching me. A pair of eyes appeared to be moving all around me. Sometimes, the feeling of being under watch got on my nerves. One day I got breathless as the gaze on me seemed to grow in intensity. Unable to breathe properly, I ran away from there, leaving my crew behind."
"How many times did this happen?"
"Perhaps on twenty-odd occasions, Amit."
"Did others in the crew also have similar experiences?"
"No, no one else had any such experience."
"Could your fear be unfounded?"
"Everything is possible. I am not sure."
"When will the film be aired? Charlotte asked.
"The channel hasn't yet scheduled it. But I guess it will be aired shortly. I will let you know."
"Oh yes, please do," Tarun remarked.
"I will take your leave now. Thanks for the tea."
"Thank you for coming over. We look forward to watching your film." Charlotte smiled.
Later in the day, at lunch, we discussed what Sophie had told us.
"No, no way, no one was watching her. Perhaps the reports of the supernatural influenced her thoughts." Tarun opined.
"But she is intelligent. Why would such stories impact her mind?" Charlotte queried.
"Intelligent minds are not immune to influences."
"Would you have purchased this house if you had heard these stories about the forest earlier?" I brought up the question that had been in my mind for a while.
"Oh yes! These stories do not bother me," Charlotte said.
"And you?" I looked at my cousin.
"Well, I too wouldn't bother much about the stories."
Late in the evening, after talking to Ananya, I sat on the bed with my back against the headboard slat. The thoughts of the wood crossed my mind. Years back, I had studied an article on the tribal communities of North-East India. The author had praised their appreciation of science and indigenous technologies. Tribal science, according to the author, was purely built out of observation and experience. Knowledge of nature and how-to live-in harmony with it passed down from one generation to the next. Every generation enriched ancient wisdom with its own understanding and innovations. Steadily, their science emerged as a rock-solid foundation of their existence. The author also explained that many of their beliefs might be of substance no matter how weird or unscientific they sound.
Upon browsing through the net on my mobile phone, I found some other informative articles on tribal beliefs. Two of them were particularly interesting. According to these essays, what tribal communities believe as spirits cannot always be ignored as superstitions. Many such ideas, the authors thought, were based on observation. One of the authors suggested what they call 'spirits' often turn out to be inexplicable natural phenomena. In fact, she went on to say that it wouldn't be wrong to treat such reported phenomena as paranormal happenings.
By the time I finished reading the articles, it was close to midnight. Suddenly, heavy winds began to blow outside, rattling the window panes. What caused the abrupt change in weather, I had no idea. When I went out to the veranda to talk to Ananya about an hour back, I got no hint of heavy winds.
Within minutes, it started raining with quick flashes of lighting. And soon, the rain splattered hard on the windows sending droplets across to my face.
After shutting the windows when I got back on the bed, a weird sensation gripped me. Somebody was watching me, or so it felt. The words of Sophie crossed my mind — A pair of eyes appeared to be moving all around me. Fear replaced perplexity as the sensation gained weight. The eyes shifted from the top to my left and then from the left to my right. I looked in all directions. There was nobody in the bedroom. At least no one was visible.
The discomfort grew as the stare appeared to grow in intensity. What I can best describe as heatwaves crossed over my body. What else could generate the heat, if not the gaze?
My discomposure got the better of me, and I walked out of the room. The eyes were moving with me as I walked down the stairs and strode into the living room. Although the gaze continued as I sat on the sofa with the support of an inside arm, I breathed easy. Perhaps the large size of the living room somehow blunted the strength of the stare. Soon, I fell asleep.
"Are you sensing the eyes now?" Charlotte enquired as she put a dab of peanut butter on a slice of toast at the breakfast table.
"No." I moved my head.
"Sophie's stories must have left a deep impression on your mind."
"Rest assured, this house is not haunted," Tarun said, biting into a toast.
"When did I say this house is haunted? I simply shared my experience." I replied, sipping hot chocolate.
"But you are disturbed, Amit," Charlotte responded.
"Well, yes, I am. The gaze, even if I imagined it, was nasty."
"Human brain is a powerful instrument, brother," Tarun squeezed my hand, "the gaze was nothing more than a trick played by your mind on itself."
"Thoughts can generate physiological changes — science has proved it. So, that heatwave moving over your body, in all probability, resulted from your thoughts."
After a few brief moments, I nodded in response.
Over the next few days, we visited several other places in and around the forest. A placid lake sandwiched by trees, an old fortress said to be built around the fourteenth century by a community of hunters, the hillocks blanketed by Totara trees, music and dance performances by the tribal folks, and local markets selling homemade goods — all these and much more came my way.
These experiences would be truly pleasurable if the eyes were not watching me. Sometimes the gaze used to be too strong to bear. Although I didn't tell Charlotte and Tarun, they seemed to understand I was often in discomfort during the tours.
A day before my vacation was to end, Charlotte's friend Olivia joined us for dinner. She worked as a middle-level officer in the Forestry Department.
"Haunted, no way. There are no reports of any forest being haunted in this region," Olivia said in response to Tarun's raising the subject of the small forest cover being haunted.
"The tribal community believes there are benevolent spirits somewhere deep in the forest, isn't it," Charlotte said.
"No, I don't think so," Olivia answered, "I have been working for the welfare of the tribal community you just mentioned for several years now. I know those people very closely. No one ever mentioned the spirits."
"Haven't tourists, forest officials, and others reported about paranormal happenings inside this forest?" I spoke after a long gap.
"Not at all, Amit. I wouldn't let Charlotte and Tarun buy this house if the forest had such distasteful stories to go along with it."
"But their beliefs ..." Tarun's sentence was cut short by Olivia.
"The tribal community keeps no such beliefs, Tarun. This jungle is one of the friendliest and safest forests in our country."
"Then why did Sophie say such things?"
"Who's Sophie?" Olivia bit into a sausage sizzle.
"A filmmaker. She works as a tourist guide for the agency under your Department to fund her films," Charlotte said.
"No employee by the name of Sophie works in the local tourism agency under our Department."
"Wait for a second," Olivia said, squinting at us, "are you talking about that elderly woman of eighty?"
"Yes, absolutely." Tarun nodded.
"Oh, yes, her name is Sophie indeed."
"So, you know her?" Charlotte said.
"Yes, I do. What a strange woman!"
"Strange woman!" I reacted.
"Without a trace of doubt, the lady is strange. Sophie is not an agency employee but a private tourist guide working under a contract with the government. While Sophie is knowledgeable about the forest, she has a split personality like disorder. Very often, Sophie starts believing she is a filmmaker with many productions to her credit. The truth is the old woman has not shot a single film. But what she told you about her being a filmmaker and her film are not lies. That's just one side of her personality that acts on the conviction of her being a filmmaker. Unfortunately, the switch between Sophie's two personalities happens frequently. So, it is difficult to tell when she is Sophie, just a private tourist guide and nothing else, and Sophie, the filmmaker and a private tourist guide."
"So, there's nothing eerie about the forest."
"Nothing at all."
Charlotte and Tarun looked at me. Both smiled. They didn't say a word, but I received their message — Amit, now it is clear that no eyes ever followed Sophie. And, of course, no eyes ever followed you. Your experiences were nothing more than pranks of your mind. So, chill.
After my return to New Delhi, it took me quite a while to get adjusted to the city's buzz and the stresses of my high-profile corporate job. One evening, when I met Ananya at a café, my vacation came up for discussion.
"What enjoyment you must have had," Ananya said, sipping coffee.
"No doubt, it was like a dream."
I hadn't told Ananya or anybody else about my strange experiences because I had convinced myself of their being pure mental constructs. Little did I know, an occasion would present itself after my return to New Delhi, which would force me to revisit and reanalyze the experiences. Well, here's how the conversation proceeded.
"Tell me the truth now, did you miss me?"
"Of course, Ananya. Next year, we will go together."
"Well, sure, but even this time, I have been with you in a sense."
"What are you trying to say?"
"I have been picturing you in that beautiful house and the forest and everywhere else I could think of."
"Sorry, I don’t quite get that."
"Well, I just said I have been thinking about you and your possible fun engagements during the vacation."
"Could you elaborate, Ananya?"
"Amit, I am saying a simple thing. What is confusing you?"
"Please tell me what you imagined?"
"Well," Ananya said with a smile, "I was trying to visualize what you were doing at various times during the vacation. For example, I imagined you in your bedroom with rains and thunder outside, you going down the staircase and sitting on one side of a sofa with the support of the inner arm, visits to places such as a beautiful creek flowing through the forest, a fortress built during the Middle Ages, hillocks covered by green trees, music and dance shows by the tribal people, and markets with local goods."
"You imagined all that?" I sipped some water as my throat was drying up.
"What could I do? I wasn't a part of the real fun. At least, I could please myself by imagining what you were doing."
Her words didn't lead to straightforward inferences. Doubts of all nature crowded my mind. Did I do things exactly as she had imagined me doing? Or she exactly imagined what I was doing? Could her imagination have generated a pair of ethereal eyes over me? Did the warm waves I sensed moving over my body emanate from the supernatural eyes resulting from her imagination?
She spoke again, breaking my chain of thoughts.
"What are you thinking, Amit?"
"Well ... I ... I ..."
"You are acting as though you had been under watch."
I had no idea how to respond to her comment.
Thanks for listening to OBSCURUS. If you like what you heard, please subscribe and visit biswajitbanerjee.com for more information about Biswajit's books, movies, documentaries, and other creative pursuits. We shall see you next Wednesday with another episode of OBSCURUS. Till then, take care!