Unnameable Things


Hailing from a childhood both untainted and unenlightened by television, I have fond memories of the whole bunch of siblings huddled up in the box room that our parents had converted into a common study, which also served as a hothouse of succulent stories, or an impromptu theatre. Best were the nights with electricity outage when we were officially permitted to belt out the latest hits or crack jokes to our fill. The eldest had a couple of avid movie buffs in her clique at school and she felt entitled to bask in the reflected glory, insisting on acting out full length sagas complete with scripts and songs before the captive audience. She had briefly attended a music and arts school sometime in the past.

We cherished the times when our parents joined us after a supper with intriguing memories from their younger days. Sometimes, when father had a less harrowing day at the office, he would break into accounts of running out of his home to collect mangoes at night, immediately after a howling summer storm. The raging winds would have left the trees shaken and stirred, and lighter due to copious amounts of fruits of all sizes shed to the ground. He was never alone on the prowl, so many more shadows would play hide and seek in the general darkness. The competition was intense, each seemed to be equipped with a bat like sense to zoom in on the fattest pod. Those were unsung heroes of gymnastics, long jump and steeplechase, trained and equipped by primal human instincts. He fondly remembered his trusted Eveready torch which had the sharpest beam in the whole village. But it was the unwritten rule to not use such weapons for gleaning mangoes plucked off by storms. Contingencies like snakes, burglars or a stray jackal were causes agreed to be fit enough for triggering on the beams. He would not fail to add, in a quieter tone, the torches were also not to be used on unnameable things of the night.

The time they committed the cardinal mistake of doing that last thing, they all were down with high fever that lasted more than a fortnight. It was the month of June and rains had yet not come to the province. Days were hot like a furnace and scorching winds blew well beyond the nightfall. The water level in the wells plummeted so low people had to join two full-length chords to fill the buckets. One day, a brown grey haze enveloped the sky since the morning. It was so still the whole afternoon not even a blade of grass twitched in its place. That evening, not even a single bird could be seen flitting in the sky, not even a dog barked at anything. A hush fell on the peepal tree where a hundred birds had woven their nests. Sometime around the midnight, trees started creaking listlessly and a dense black duststorm crept over the land from the northwest. Peals after peals of thunder clapped beyond the rooftops, as if the sky had burst open at the midriff. Zigzag streaks of lightening flashed like a serpent’s tongue. People threw whatever water they had in front of their houses and shut their doors, praying the storm to stop raging and leave in peace. The fury of pummelling winds and whining dust lasted for over an hour. No one opened even a peephole to gauge at its spoils, long after it was gone after a swift lash of rain.

It was only prudent not to step out of one’s home to gather mangoes or even to look at the moon after such a turbulence that might have unsettled god knows what on the earth. But father was no slouch or a soggy sparrow, nor was he easily cowed. So he picked up his jute bag, well-oiled stick and the mighty torch and ventured out. As if on cue, few more doughty hearts joined him. It was a fierce storm that had brought down several trees, there was no telling how many fruit-laden branches had been pulled off the burly trunks. There were so many mangoes littered on the ground it called for a battalion to scoop them up in sacks. Instead of trying to beat each other, bearings of the moment called for teamwork and they set off like ants, fetching and piling the mangoes under the banyan tree looming on the dirt road. They must have hoarded almost a quintal of the stuff when they thought it fit to stop and come back early next morning. Returning to the spot, they were aghast to see a tall, skinny man hurriedly carrying away the booty in a huge wicker basket balanced on his head. He had a bamboo stick twice his height in his right hand, his left hand swayed to his side as he walked. ‘Stop, you thief!’ Someone bellowed, and father was not sure if it was him. Torches were flicked on in a flash but then there was not even a fly on the road! ‘Where did he go?’ someone was mightily alarmed, but was immediately hushed to silence. When the torches went out one by one, surely enough, the man was still walking on the road to the east. Father heard a dull thud on the road and turned to find his neighbour sprawled below. Not only he had fainted, he was foaming at the mouth too. Returning to their skins, they picked up the fallen foot soldier by his limbs and rushed towards the homes. The torches were pressed back into service. There was neither the man nor a mango on the road.


  1. Loved the write up! It is almost as though this really happened..and I am curious to know..Did it really happen? You should write an anthology of these ghost stories! They remind me of Ruskin Bond’s tales…

    1. Oh, there are many, many of those stories. I may look at them passively now but they used to make our hairs stand on their ends. As for ghosts, there is a thin line between belief and non-belief, as thin as their existence: the choice is yours. Thank you for that overwhelming reference.

  2. What an enchanting piece, Uma. Totally transported me into your world of words. I love the idea of your whole family huddled there in the dark, exchanging and acting out stories. So much more enthralling than sitting mutely and dumbly side by side watching that translucent screen.

    1. I feel proud to have transported you, Marty. Our parents didn’t join those meetings often, other than discussing our ‘progress reports’. But we did love when they’d get magnanimous. I agree about the TV. Perhaps because of my childhood or reading habits, and now there is the Internet, I couldn’t quite appreciate the idiot box ever.

  3. Ah! The good old days of childhood and mangoes….my grandmother used to have a stash of ghost stories. There was a time when going from one room to another was a nightmare 🙂

  4. What a wonderfully written and delightfully frightening story, Umashankar! You really had me going with this one as if it had actually happened. I was on the edge of my seat reading it through to the end. Those nights you spent as a child weaving tales with your siblings, and listening intently to your father’s stories really left a lasting positive impression on your creativity. You are a master of imagery and suspense! Well done; thoroughly enjoyed this post! 🙂

    1. I am glad to have delighted you so, Madilyn. One chances upon patrons of such tales fewer and fewer nowadays. Many thanks for boosting my ego; I feel charged to belt out more and more.

  5. That sounds like an amazing and a spooky story to boot ! Very interesting stories and conversations have been a part of my growing up years with power outages too. Thanks for wiping the dust off the mirror of memories !

  6. This is a wonderful group of memories about your siblings, friends and family! We had one vacation when I was 11, and two aunts and uncles and their children rented adjoining cabins to ours at the Lake of the Ozarks. There was a horrible lightning storm that knocked out the power, but instead of doing what your family did, my uncle used this time to tell us ghost stories by candlelight. None of us slept that night.

    1. Cottages by a lake enveloped in darkness, hair-raising ghost stories in flickering candlelight… Why haven’t I read them about them before? Come on, Marylin, I’m waiting for those tales!

  7. Now that was spooky! I remember telling ghost stories and holding seances as a kid, but not with my parents. But, I did enjoy our family gatherings where stories about my parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods and early years were shared. Enjoyed this piece as always, Uma.

    1. Holding seances! You are one doughty spirit, Kris. Anecdotes about our parents and ancestors were there too, and we all loved that. Many thanks for those words.

  8. Power outages and ghost stories go together, don’t they? This post took me to those dark nights at boarding school and a few hostels. Even in the recent past we’ve had a few of those story nights with cousins and friends. 🙂
    Thank you for taking us into your childhood once again and doing it so beautifully, USP, It feels like I actually saw the silhouette of a man carrying away those mangoes.

    The picture you created here, makes this one sound quite like an experience ‘you’ had. I’m already waiting for the next tale from one of those nights in your box room.

    1. That’s right, Divya. Darkness and ghosts go together. It’s great that you still have those ghost story sessions; it beats everything but the real thing. 🙂 Thank you for the encouragement —Box Room Tales will return.

  9. What a great story, Uma! My brothers and sister and I grew up with a TV in the house, fortunately there was nothing much we’d watch on it. I remember spending much time outside. –Your family study room, complete with stories, theater and songs sounds like a hoot. :]

    1. Having gone through the idiot box eventually, we all agree our box room was an infinitely better hoot. No wonder you all spent most of your time outside. Thanks for the compliment, Jayme.

  10. I too have wonderful memories of powercuts. With televions and uninterrupted power supplies I hope we don’t lose this wonderful traidition of sharing stories. I have heard lot of stories but unfortunately no first person account of para normal experience to date.

    1. Karthik, we may have already lost the tradition, thanks to the fresher onslaughts like smartphones and social media. The first person accounts of paranormal experiences can be iffy. The intensity of belief of the narrator is the key to the impact it may have on the listeners.

  11. alas US, we can dream of those days: days of the unknown in those halcyon times, pre-TV & phones: a family closeness, imagination the unhindered source of creativity
    – to the present where everything is in our face; somehow just a sordid selfie

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