One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time.
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet
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It was a lovely Monday afternoon. The hot scorching sun had decided to take it easy for the rest of the year. It was the onset of June; the temperature had begun to drop down. The weather had started turning pleasant, and nature was welcoming the change with open arms. A light wind was swaying the trees to its tune and the warm sunshine was gently nudging the birds to come out of their nests and chirp louder. In nature's cradle, everything looked so heavenly.
Aman looked up to see a bird flying by. His back was resting against a tall tree, his legs stretched on the ground with his diary on his lap. The diary has been his constant companion during his travels. His fingers were fiddling around his pen, itching to write. Nothing came to his mind, so he decided to walk around. He got up, put his diary and pen in his backpack and started walking.
The path ahead was filled with dark dense woods, which got deeper as he walked forward. He knew that the road was a gateway to breathtaking views and heavenly landscapes. He took in a deep breath of the fresh mountain air. “Oh, Matheran”, he said aloud.
How much he loved this place!! Its pristine beauty, lush greenery, and mesmerizing waterfalls always left him in a trance. He had come here many times in the past. Aman lived in Pune, but the city life was not much to his liking. He hated the crowded malls, the pubs, and the nightlife. His soul craved for nature and adventure. Matheran had some sort of a magical effect on him, as if it healed his soul. And after every visit, the magic grew stronger.
The drive from Neral hadn’t been easy. The narrow roads with steep barriers and no barriers always made it hard to drive. And the toy train was not working this time around, so people had to either drive or take the bus. Aman took his car and parked it at Dasturi Car parking, which is 2 Km away from the town center. No cars or motorbikes were allowed in the town, making it one of the pollution free places in Maharashtra. After parking his car, Aman trekked towards the hill station. There were horses available to ride, but Aman loved the long walks in the woods.
He had booked his stay at Westend, on the Charlotte lake road, just a few meters away from the Matheran police station. The town center road was dotted with hotels and eateries. But beyond the police station, it became more rustic and less populated. Westend was located conveniently in the woods, not very far from the town hustle. It made a perfect getaway spot. Weekends are usually more crowded; hence he had decided to stay back on Monday for an extended break.
He continued walking on the Charlotte lake road. His well-built athletic body longed for a good exercise. He checked his watch. It was just past 12 in the noon. At the dead end, as he turned right, the road ahead bifurcated into two. The path on the left would take him through multiple scenic landscapes, which included King George Point, Edward Point and finally wind up at Echo Point. The path straight ahead is the Echo Point road that connects the town center to the landscapes.
As he reached the intersection, he heard a dull sob. The voice was coming in the pathway before Cilia Point, which was almost at the joint. Aman turned around and saw a boy sitting next to a horse. The horse was lying on the ground and the boy was hugging the horse.
Aman walked towards the boy and asked, "Hey, you all right?".
The boy looked at Aman and stood up. He must be around ten years old and had a round innocent face. Tears were rolling down his big eyes.
“What’s your name? What are you doing here?”, he asked the boy.
“My name is Kiran, Saab. This is my horse, Sultan. He is hurt on his foot.”
“Let me see”, Aman leaned forward and looked at the horse. It was quite a beautiful horse, brown in color with dark eyes. It had a cut on its right foot and was bleeding.
“He cannot walk. Baba is going to kill me if he finds out”, the boy continued sobbing.
“Where’s your baba?”, Aman asked.
“He is with our other horse, Baaji Rao“, the boy replied.
“Do you think he will be in the town”? Aman probed further.
“Yes, Saab. But I cannot leave Sultan in this condition and go,” Kiran said.
“Does he have a phone? I can call him “, Aman offered.
Kiran quickly recollected his baba’s phone number. Aman heard the voice from the other end, “Halloo”.
“I am calling on behalf of your son. Your horse is hurt. We are near Cilia point. Can you come down?”.
“WHAT? Who is calling? “, replied back the shrill voice.
“One second”. Aman gave the phone to Kiran.
Kiran mumbled something on the phone between his sobs. He handed the phone back to Aman. “He is coming. I am so dead today”.
After about 10 minutes, a man walked to the spot. He was short, thin and had rugged features. His clothes were shabby and worn out. When he saw the horse, he was quite upset.
He started his banter on his son, “How did this happen? How many times I have told you to be careful with him? What if he turns out lame for the rest of his life?”
Kiran was trembling with fear. Aman felt bad for the poor boy.
He went to the man. “What’s your name?”, he asked.
Sahil looked at the tall dusky stranger with curly hair. “Who are you?”, he asked.
“I am the one who called you”, Aman replied.
“Thank you for the phone call, Saab. My name is Sahil. This son of mine is of no good. He cannot handle one thing properly”.
“I think you should attend to your horse first”, Aman said with a calm voice.
Sahil looked at the foot of the horse closely.
“Someone has stabbed him with a knife”, he said.
Kiran jumped up.
"No baba, nothing of that sort could have happened”.
Aman was also taken aback. “Are you sure?”, he asked.
“Yes, look at the cut. It is from a knife. Kiran, tell me what happened”, said Sahil.
“I was going towards Charlotte lake to get a ride. Suddenly I saw a bunch of kids playing near the waterfall. I left Sultan and went for a plunge. When I came out, he was not there. I came searching for him and found him lying here”.
“Did you hear him whine?”, Sahil asked.
“No baba. The kids at the waterfall were making a lot of noise. I could not hear anything”, Kiran replied.
“We need to get him some first aid. Verandah is nearby. I will go fetch someone”, said Aman and rushed to the hotel. Dune Barr House, more popularly known as ‘Verandah in the forest’ is one of the heritage hotels of Matheran. It is located in the deep woods in the path towards Charlotte lake. The hotel had a lot of amenities. Aman had stayed in Verandah before and knew the staff quite well. He came back in a few minutes with the hotel nurse.
The nurse checked the wound, applied some medicine and tied a bandage around the horse’s foot. “Someone has stabbed the horse with a knife”, she said.
Sahil had an “I told you so” look on his face.
With some coaxing, the horse stood up. “Thankfully the wound is not deep. But he might not be able to go down the hill for a couple of days”.
Sahil thanked the nurse, gave some money and sent him off.
Aman considered the matter settled. “Keep him somewhere in the town till he gets better. Then you can take him down”. He patted Sahil on his back and ruffled Kiran’s hair. “Take care”, he said and turned around to leave.
“Why would someone want to stab my horse?”, said Sahil, in deep thought.
Aman looked back and shrugged his shoulders.
“I am going to find out”, he said in a determined voice. His gaze was fixed at something far off. He was looking far away, to the valley. It looked like he was speaking to the mountains and they were echoing back to him. “Find out …”.
Aman heard the echo loud and clear. He looked at Sahil very curiously.
“How?”, he could not help asking.
“I do not know. I will have to think about that”, Sahil’s voice was steady.
Aman thought for a while. He had been a good Samaritan to the father-son duo already. He had got the nurse on time and had the horse treated. The horse did seem all right, the wound was not deep. Then why dig deep into this matter and waste time? It seemed a futile effort. And besides, it is none of his business.
And yet, Aman could not help his inquisitiveness.
“Who could have stabbed the horse? And why?”, the mystery was hard to resist. They cannot seek help from the police, they will not pay any attention to such petty crimes. They would advise them to leave the matter alone. The horse was not hurt badly after all. But Aman’s curiosity got the better of him. He decided to probe the matter further with Sahil. If they get lucky, they will solve the mystery. Else, there was nothing to lose anyway.
He walked back to Sahil. “Let’s ask around. If anyone has seen something”.
They started walking on the Echo Point road. After a few hundred meters, they found a lady selling tea and raw mangoes. She was wearing a green saree and had a big red bindi on the forehead. She was thin and fair. She looked beautiful with an oval face, large eyes, and a sharp nose.
“How long have you been here?”, Aman asked.
“Since morning”, the lady replied.
“What’s your name?”, Sahil interrupted from behind.
Aman was irritated, “How does that matter”?
“Rani”, the lady blushed.
“Really?” Aman gestured at Sahil.
“I was just asking the name”, Sahil tried to justify.
“Did you see this boy and horse go past you?”, Aman enquired.
“Yes, they went a while ago. Your boy is very careless. He was not even holding the horse. What if it runs away?”, Rani started complaining.
“Tell me about it”, Sahil sighed.
“Someone has stabbed the horse. We are trying to figure out who”, Aman explained.
“Did you see or hear something?”, Sahil asked hopefully.
Rani thought for a while. “No, nothing “, she answered.
“Did you see anyone with a knife?”, Sahil probed further.
“She has one, to cut the mangoes “, Kiran observed.
Aman shook his head and dismissed the suggestion. “Did you see anything interesting?”. He was desperate to get some answer out of her.
“No Saab, nothing. It is a dull morning today. People walking back and forth, that’s all.” Rani answered casually.
They thanked her and walked back to the spot where Sultan was lying around, searching for some clues. Tall trees surrounded the pathway and foliage was in abundance all over the road. It was hard to find any footprints between the foliage. They kept going till they reached Cilia point. They found a man selling snacks near the valley. They asked if they had seen someone hurting the horse.
“I did not see the horse in the first place”. The seller was perplexed. He had no clue what it was all about.
It was 12:30 pm by then. “I think we need to let Sultan rest”, Aman suggested. “He is already tired. Let us drop him off at the place where I am staying and we will come back.” They walked back till Westend on Charlotte lake road. Aman requested the receptionist to help them out for a few hours. The manager obliged and took Sultan to the stables, where they were tending to their own horses.
Aman, Sahil, and Kiran came back to the spot. It was 1:00 pm. Suddenly, they heard a voice. “Saab…”.
Everyone turned back. It was Rani. Sahil’s eyes brightened. He was so happy to see her again.
“Saab, when you left, a lady came with her baby. She was also searching for something here. She said she lost something valuable. I told her about you, and she asked you to meet her at the police station. Her name is Naina”.
“Did she say what was lost?”, asked Sahil.
“No, she said she is going to the police station to lodge a complaint”, Rani replied.
Aman and Sahil looked at each other. The case was picking up steam. They thanked Rani and hurried to the police station.
There was a lady standing outside the police station with a small girl in her arms. The lady was tall, fair and beautiful. Her short hair fell over her lean shoulders. Her daughter must be around two years old. She was frail and delicate but had rosy cheeks.
“Hello mam, the chai waali on the Echo Point road said you asked us to come and meet you “, Aman came straight to the point.
Naina nodded. “Yes. she said you were searching for something. May I know what you were looking for”.
“My horse was stabbed”, Sahil said in a flat tone. “We are trying to gather some clues as to who did it”.
“Oh!! Oh!! Am so sorry, such a beautiful horse “, Naina suddenly became very agitated.
“You know my horse?” Sahil stared at her.
“Oh yes!! The brown one isn’t it? It was roaming all alone! Oh, poor creature. Hope it finds peace.”.
Sahil rolled his eyes and looked at Kiran accusingly.
“The horse is fine. Thankfully the wound is peripheral. We have him taken care of”, Aman assured her.
“Then what were you looking for?”, Naina was confused.
“Someone dares stabs my horse, how can I let him go… “, said Sahil in a loud voice.
Aman gestured Sahil to calm down. He did not want any drama, especially in front of the police.
“What did you lose?”, he asked Naina.
“My daughter has lost her golden bracelet”, Naina sighed,
“What? How?”, asked Sahil.
“We were walking towards the lake. I was near the intersection. Suddenly my phone rang. It was my husband. I had to take his call, it was a pressing matter. I saw this friendly horse roaming around and my daughter started playing with him. So, I let her be and continued my call. After I was done, I picked her up and walked to the lake. There I realized she is missing her bracelet. I started searching everywhere along my path. The chai waali asked me what the matter was and told me about you”, concluded Naina.
“Your girl played with my horse?”, bellowed Sahil.
“Yes”, she replied.
“It is possible you lost the bracelet somewhere else on your way to the lake”, said Aman.
“Yes, it is very much possible”, said Naina.
“Did you talk to the police?”, he asked.
“They said the same thing, they cannot help me. I must have lost it somewhere along the way”, lamented Naina.
“It all adds up now . Why would someone stab my horse? Her daughter must have tied the bracelet to my horse’s foot. And she left it there. Someone wanted to take the bracelet. And so, he attacked my horse!!”, exclaimed Sahil.
“But why attack the horse? He could have taken the bracelet and left the horse alone “, Aman argued.
“Sultan would have resisted. And he would not have had much time “, Said Sahil.
“Madam, what time did you talk to your husband?”, he asked Naina
“He called me at 11:30. We spoke for about 15 minutes and then I left to the lake”, she replied.
Sahil turned to Kiran. “What time did you come back to see Sultan?”.
“It was before 12:00 “, Kiran said.
“So, the thief had approximately 10-15 minutes to stab Sultan, snatch the bracelet and run”, said Sahil.
“But where was he hiding?”, said Aman thinking aloud.
“I was thinking the same thing, there was no one around me at that time”, said Naina.
“Can you please come with us to the spot?” Aman requested her. Naina agreed and followed them.
“Which way was the horse facing when your girl was playing with him?”, he asked once they reached the spot.
“Towards me. And I was standing right here, just before the intersection”, answered Naina.
“If there was someone hiding behind, the chai waali would have noticed “, pondered Sahil.
“Did you see someone coming from Cilia Point? “, Aman asked Naina.
“No one, it was very deserted “, she replied.
“The thief must have been in the visible distance to see what is going on between the girl and the horse”, said Sahil.
“Assuming our theory is right”, said Aman unconvincingly. He still found it hard to believe that the bracelet and the horse’s wound were connected to each other.
“The thief should have been somewhere very near to see what is happening. He was not on the main road. He was not on the Cilia point road as madam would have noticed him. She was watching her child play with the horse all the time”, Sahil continued.
“That means, he must have come from behind”, he concluded.
"But Baba, I was there near the waterfall. I would have seen someone if he was standing there and watching", Kiran said.
“He must have hidden in the clearing “, said Sahil looking at the intersection closely.
Aman did not understand it at first. He went behind Sahil to see what he was saying. At the intersection, towards the left, there was a small clearing. The bushes and the tall trees covered the clearing well enough to hide it from the main Charlotte lake road. So no one on the road could see who is in there. The clearing led them to the road towards the Verandah.
They saw some footprints in the clearing. Some fresh chana had fallen down on the ground
“He must have bought the chana from the chana waala near the waterfall”, exclaimed Kiran. “There is only one chana seller on this road till we reach the lake”.
“But there must be many who keep buying chana throughout the day. How would the seller remember?”, said Aman.
“Let’s go to the seller and try our luck”, said Sahil and led the way. Aman took Naina’s number and assured her that they will call her as soon as they find some lead. “I will wait to hear from you”, she said and left the spot.
They went straight to the chana seller. “How is the business today?”, Aman asked the seller casually.
“Not much sir!! Business is very slow today. Its only on weekends we see some crowd! “, the seller started lamenting.
Sahil checked the time. It was 1:30 pm.
"How many people bought chana from you in the past one and a half hour?” asked Sahil.
“Not many. It is about lunch time. Only three of them bought it. There was one couple, and two men”.
“Which way did they go, do u remember?”, asked Aman.
“The couple and one of the men went towards the lake. The other man went towards Echo Point”, the seller said.
Aman pictured the jigsaw puzzle in his mind. A man had bought chana and headed towards Echo Point. He had gone to the clearing. The bracelet was lost. The horse was stabbed. These pieces may be connected or maybe not. They have to find the missing piece. Yet, it is a possible theory. He decided to give it a chance.
“Can you describe the man for us? “, asked Aman hopefully.
“I do not remember so much Saab. But he was wearing a white hat and was carrying a black bag”, the seller said.
“Which color shirt was he wearing?”, Sahil asked.
“Umm. Red shirt “, said the vendor.
Both Sahil and Aman thanked the chana vendor and came back to the spot. They rushed to Rani. "Did you see anyone with a red shirt, a white hat, and a black bag?”, Sahil asked panting.
“Hmmm, let me think. Yes!! I did see a man. He was limping. Poor guy.”, said Rani.
Aman hurried back to the chana vendor again. Sahil followed him “Wait !!”.
Aman was gasping for breath when he reached the chana waala. “Was the hat guy limping?”.
“No, he seemed fine to me”, said chana waala.
Aman looked at Sahil. The puzzle seemed to be connecting, somehow. Both Aman and Sahil started running back to Rani. Their sprints had started attracting the people around them.
“Can you tell us more about this limping guy?”, Aman asked Rani.
“Why? What did he do?” she shot back.
“Most likely he is our man”, said Sahil, “Looks like Sultan gave him a kick when he tried to pull out the bracelet from him”.
“Yeah “, agreed Aman.
“Jiyo mere Sultan “, boasted Sahil.
Rani giggled. She said, “I did not pay much attention to him. Although, he had a hard time walking.”.
Aman gave one look at Rani and started running towards Echo Point road.
“Why does he run like this?”, complained Sahil. Rani giggled again.
He turned around and asked Kiran, “Where is he going?”.
“There, ahead. He is heading towards a shop”, Kiran said. They both hurried to catch up with Aman.
Aman ran to the nearest General store. He went to the shopkeeper and asked if there was a man with a hat who had come limping.
"Yes. He was very preoccupied. Looked like he had sprained his leg. He asked for a pain-relieving spray. Poor guy!! He had a tough time even taking out the money “, the shopkeeper said.
“Did he say anything else?”, probed Aman.
“I told him to rest for a while. He said he was in a hurry and wanted to take the next bus “, the shopkeeper said.
Sahil immediately took his phone and started calling someone. He spoke briefly and was looking up other numbers.
“What are you doing?”, Aman asked.
“He would have definitely hired a horse. He could not have walked to the bus stop”, Sahil said.
“What time is it?”, Aman checked his watch and said, “It is around 1:45 PM. It has been two hours since your horse was stabbed. The guy must have left by now”,
Sahil went up to the shopkeeper and enquired. "What time did the man come to your shop? “.
"Around 12:30 PM", said the shopkeeper.
"The buses leave every hour", said Sahil. "You will not get the horse until you reach the town center which would take at least 15 minutes. And then ride to the bus stop. He took 30 minutes to reach here, that means he was walking really slow. He could not have made it to the 1:00 PM bus. That means, there is a chance, he will be at the bus stand right now to take the 2:00 PM bus”.
“But how will we reach the bus stand by 2:00 PM?”, asked Aman.
"I have called the Ghoda Wallahs near the bus stand. They will let me know if they find someone”. At the same moment, his telephone rang. “Get him off the bus. I will be there”, Aman heard him saying.
Aman snatched the phone from Sahil. “Put me on to the bus conductor”, he said to the voice on the other side.
In a minute, he heard a “Hello”. Aman spoke in a calm voice, “I have lost a golden bracelet. The thief is on your bus. He is wearing a red shirt and a white hat. He has a black bag. Can you make him get off the bus with some excuse? We will reach there in another 30 minutes”.
The conductor assured him he will get the thief off the bus but will not take any further responsibility in this matter. Aman was perfectly all right with this arrangement.
Sahil took the phone from Aman and spoke to the Ghoda wallah.
"Don't worry Saab. Our Ghoda Wallahs will make sure that our man stays put at the bus stand.
“You know our guess could be wrong. It is possible that this man must have tripped somewhere near the clearing “, Aman hinted. He did not want Sahil to be disappointed in case their theory was wrong.
“We’ll see about that”, Sahil said.
They ran to the town center and rented two horses. Sahil asked Kiran to go to Baaji Rao, who was at Khandala point with his friend.
The horses galloped as fast as they could, and in twenty minutes they reached the bus stand. They started searching in the crowd. Sandwiched between two Ghoda wallahs, they found a man with a red shirt, white hat, and a black bag. He was a dark and a sturdy man, with a medium build.
Sahil was about to grab the man‘s shirt and give him a tight slap. But Aman stopped him.
“Wait, Sahil”. He turned towards the man, “Where is the golden bracelet?”
“What bracelet? Who are you? Why have you stopped me? I will complain to the police”, the man started threatening them.
“Okay, let us go then”, said Aman.
“Look”, said the man. He was visibly agitated. “I do not know who you are. But you got the wrong person. I have no idea what you are talking about”.
“We will soon find out", said Aman. He asked the Ghoda wallahs to search the man.
They first searched the backpack. They could not find anything. Then they searched the man’s pockets and purse. Still nothing.
Aman and Sahil stared at each other in despair. Two hours of their investigation seemed to be at fault.
“I told you, you got the wrong person “, the man smiled in relief.
He picked up his backpack and started walking away. Their heart sank. Sahil sat down on the ground. Aman felt very sorry for him. He patted him on his shoulder.
After a short distance, the man tried to pace up even though his limp was making it quite hard for him. Aman, Sahil, and other Ghoda wallahs started following him in suspicion. Suddenly, the man stopped, adjusted something in his leg. He turned around and saw the people following him and started walking again. His limp had changed. One leg was giving him discomfort because of the limp. But the other leg also seemed to be troubling him somehow. He was completely distraught.
Sahil ran to the man and pulled his collar from behind. The Ghoda wallahs now surrounded him. The man got scared. His face turned white. Aman bent down and checked his leg. He found something glittering there. He pulled out a golden bracelet from the sock.
Sahil grabbed the thief’s shirt, “Did you stab my horse? “, he bellowed.
‘Yes’, muttered the thief. ‘The girl had left the bracelet on the horse’s foot. The horse was not letting me touch him. So, I stabbed him. He kicked me back and I fell on the ground’. He sounded remorseful.
Sahil got very angry. He was about to punch the thief, when Aman stopped him. “Let us hand him over to the police. Calm down now”, he consoled.
They all headed back to the bus stand. Aman called Naina to come over. He also asked her to fetch the constable from the police station.
They arrived in about half an hour. Sahil gave the bracelet to Naina, who confirmed that it was indeed her daughter’s. She thanked Aman and Sahil profusely for all the help. Aman explained the whole case to the constable, who took the thief to the Matheran police station.
Aman, Sahil, and Kiran reached Westend where Sultan was still resting in the stables. As they arrived at the reception, Sahil stood back.
“Want to have some tea?”, Aman asked.
“No Saab. I have to go. Kiran is with Baaji Rao. I do not know how to thank you for all the help”, Sahil was mumbling for words.
“Oh, come on, it’s ok. Besides, I had a great time!! I haven’t had this much fun since my college days”, Aman said.
Sahil thanked him once again and turned to leave. Aman sat down in the chair at the reception. Sahil turned to look back at Aman, who raised his hand to wave goodbye. Both their hearts were heavy in a strange sort of a way. They had known each other for hardly three hours now. They were no Sherlock Holmes and Watson, yet they had been a team. They had trusted each other. Out of sheer intelligent guesswork, they had solved a theft and a mystery case all on their own.
It suddenly dawned on Sahil that he may never see Aman again.
“Saab, promise me. Whenever you come to Matheran, you will ride on my horses”, he said affectionately. Aman smiled at him and nodded.
After Sahil left, Aman went to the restaurant and had his cup of tea in leisure. He will have to head out of Matheran the next day morning. He had taken Monday off to spend a quiet afternoon. On the contrary, it had been a memorable adventure in his favorite getaway. A holiday could not have got any better. He walked lazily in the woods. The cool breeze swept across his face and ruffled his hair. He went back to the tree where he was resting before and pulled out his diary,
He opened a fresh page. He began writing “A Holiday Mystery” ….