It was a chilly February of 2014. I was in college and had participated in a robotics event at the IIT Kharagpur Tech Fest with my team of four- consisting of my then-on-and-off boyfriend and a ‘new couple’. As awkward as it was, we are not going to talk about any cute love stories or get into the inner workings of our earthquake detector bot. This is about a series of strange events that started during our 2-day stay at Kharagpur.
College fests are a foreign concept to many outside India, so I will tell some more about it. Most reputed Indian colleges conduct fests that are 2–7-day events at the home college open to participants from universities across the country. During my time, fests had two major nomination categories – Cultural/ Arts fests and Tech fests. I was a member of the Robotics Society, and our team often participated in competitions during our engineering days. Our finals were on Day 2, and that’s where our story begins.
My then-boyfriend and I were broken up at the time, but the other couple on our team was so into Valentine’s week spirit that we did not want to hang around and ruin their firsts. (Also, it was hard to watch, but who accepts that!). So we ended up wandering off by ourselves. Now, IIT KGP has a giant 2100-acre campus, there is a lot to do, and our day went by quicker than we anticipated. There was a concert at night to look forward to. As you can imagine, re-kindling old flames are easy when neither of you has moved on.
It was a busy night with the students blowing off steam, and drunk beyond senses. My ex and I were busy catching up, and by the time I noticed, we had trailed off very far away from the hullabaloo. I looked around, and there were ancient trees on either side of the now narrowed dirt road, an abandoned railway track right ahead, and pitch darkness. Suddenly all my excitement seemed to wash off me, and I started feeling a deep sense of grief and loneliness. I started looking around to find people, but no one was seen or heard in either direction, and my heart sank. I lost interest in our conversation, and my eyes kept darting in the thickets on either side. There was a strange feeling roiling in the depths of my gut that kept warning me not to cross that railway line like it was some taboo. That’s when I heard it for the first time- footsteps behind us. The ground was smothered with dead leaves on either side of the dirt road, and I was sure we were being followed. I casually asked my ex if he heard anything, and he said no. I was young and stupid, I did not want to admit I was scared, and I kept a straight face while searching for any trace of panic on my ex’s face; he kept rambling excitedly. I heard twigs break under the foot, the pace picking up and growing heavier. I asked him again if he heard anything, the same answer. By this time, I was sweating profusely, thinking of Ted Bundies and Patrick Batemen from every era. And then it happened.
It got really windy suddenly, and the leaves and dirt were just hurled into our faces. I was still maintaining my ‘badass ex’ charade. My ex still appeared clueless, and suddenly I heard heavy footsteps pounding on the dirt. The wind stopped, it went silent, and then I could feel ‘something’ running at a formidable speed towards us in the darkness from beyond the tracks. I’m not sure what happened at that moment, but my ex and I made swift eye contact, and we just knew. I can never explain it in words, but we turned back and started running like our lives depended on it, not stopping to catch a breath or gasp. But we had wandered too far off, and I could hear that ‘thing’ closing in. In my mind, I was thinking wolves or foxes now and praying it was not a big cat since we were in Bengal (Yes, I was stupid!). I could hear a low growl, and I was just so mad at my ex for not acknowledging this earlier. I was sure we were dead meat, and so many thoughts were running in my mind, all about death. That’s when I stumbled and twisted my ankle pretty bad. We were off the dirt road now, and my face hit the concrete hard. I was scrambling now, adrenaline washing off and hopelessness creeping in. I did not try to get up. I saw my ex disappearing from my ken, and I just lay on the road, my eyes brimming with tears.
I’m face-down on the road, and now I can feel ‘it’ breathing down my right shoulder grunting my name. It is cold, and I feel goosebumps, only it was excruciating, and made my nerves hurt as if they were turning into icicles. I am in this strange state of limbo at this point, and I am almost not afraid. I know I am not alone anymore.
That’s when my ex yanks me up in his arms and starts running as fast as he can. He is rambling again, looks extremely mad, and worked up, and all I can feel for him at that moment is profound abhorrence. He keeps asking me why I did not call for help, and I am just looking up at the forest dispersing, and a deep, unexplained yearning to go back in starts building up in my gut. As the last tree passes by, for a moment, my perspective just flips upside down, and, in the grogginess, I feel like I am perched on the highest branch of that tree looking down on the entire land. I feel sick and close my eyes burying my head in his chest, and when I open my eyes again, the last tree is behind us, and I peek over his shoulders and see her sitting on the tree for the first time.
We are now back in civilization. He puts me down on the side of the road, and I can’t help but throw up. He is dog tired and wheezing at this point. Neither of us speaks that night, and we get out of there. We don’t talk about it ever again.
We’re back to our university now, and the next few days go by in a jiffy. That is when my roommate asks me what was wrong with my foot, I tell her how I twisted my ankle, and she asks again, ‘No, the foot!” I turn my right foot, and it looks disgusting at this point. There is a bit of green, blue and yellow and a lot of pus. I rotate my ankle and realize it is fine; it’s the foot! I self-prescribe antibiotics, then call my family doctor, and nothing works out. Now my foot is practically festering, and I go to the ER. They say I need surgery. I have my semester exams in two days, and I ask them if I can push it a couple of weeks. They say something about the risk of sepsis. I will never understand how I managed to make so many bad decisions back-to-back, but I basically signed the form and let myself out at my own risk. I deteriorate quickly over the next week until I cannot walk at all. So, my hostel warden has to practically bring me food, do my laundry and arrange a wheelchair for me to go to the university and write my exams.
Come last finals of the semester and, I am engrossed in my studies. Too many sleepless nights have me exhausted, and I decide to sleep for a minute before resuming. My roommate is studying on her table at the other end, and I tell her to wake me up in an hour before crashing. I remember someone warily familiar whispering my name in my ears, and it felt so unsettling that I woke up in cold sweats. The room is dark as it is night now. I had slept through the entire day, and I am just mad at my roommate for not waking me up earlier. So, I begin shouting but notice she is not in the room as I switch on the lights. I just wonder what would have happened had it not been for the lucky dream and frantically start studying. I know I would have to pull an all-nighter now if I wanted to pass, and I start having these inner monologues on what I would say to her when she is back.
After a while, I hear my roommate knocking at the door, and I holler her to come in, but she wouldn’t. I am beyond mad at this point. She knew I could not walk but won’t let herself in. After scrambling for 5 minutes, I manage to reach the door and find that the door is bolted from inside. I’m just shell-shocked and open it like a robot trying to do the math. I ask her weakly why she didn’t wake me up, and she says I never asked her to; she wasn’t in the hostel since yesterday. I pull out my ‘cool act’ again, and she says, “We’re going to get your foot fixed tomorrow!”, and I nod blankly.
The last exams are done, and we rush to the hospital. But something comes up with my doctor, and he refers me to another hospital and strongly recommends we get it done. I go to the next hospital, and strange things follow. Finally, I’m rescheduled for the next day. I come back to a hostel in complete pandemonium. People were celebrating the end of the semester, and that night folks plan an impromptu trip to the beach at Puri. It was just an hour away, and I somehow manage to go along. We check-in at the hotel at night and one of our friends breaks up with her beau. So, she wants to go to the Puri temple the next day. Now, I am not a religious person by any means, and I do not believe in God. But I would have tagged along if I could walk since the temple is pretty famous, and I wanted to see the architecture. Anyway, I order room service while others get ready to go in the morning. The room service guy is this friendly old man who walks in, sets the tea on my bed and starts to leave, makes a turn, and says, “You should visit the temple.” I remove the sheets, point to my foot, and gesture I cannot walk. He insists, “Erm..no, you should go. Please get up and go…err…sorry…I don’t mean to overstep, but you should go.”
It was so weird; it somehow convinced me, so I decided to go and hang outside away from the crowd. The temple lives up to the hype as it is gorgeous. We directly head to the beach from there. What I didn’t account for earlier was sand, and sand is bad news for open wounds. But I loved the water and bad decisions. So, I limp into the water. The salt burns my foot, and I am hunched on my knees writhing in pain. I have managed to create a scene where people think I am dying or bitten or stung. My friends try to drag me back, but I insist on staying. So, I am sitting at a distance from the water now, and my friends take turns babysitting me. There is a high tide soon, and the water creeps upon us. My foot slowly gets used to it, and I eventually join the gang.
My friends are convinced that I would need to cut that foot off. At the end of it all, we get back in the car and drive back since we needed to get back in time for my appointment. One of my friends says, “Show it to me, I won’t say anything if it’s too bad!” So, I prop my foot up in her face, and her jaw drops. We are parked on the side of the road now, everyone staring at my foot, and I hear gasps and cries with widened eyes. I am convinced about amputation at this moment and decide not to look. They are jousting me now, “Gosh! Look at your foot.” I am determined not to. Then, someone clicks a photo and shows it to me. My foot is clean, no nasty business. I turn my foot and stare. All I see is baby skin. So, whatever that whole thing was, it fell off in the sea? All of us are super confused. My friend starts driving again. Every five minutes goes by, someone starts, “But…” … “How…?” …” I saw it with my own eyes…”, then shuts up.
We go to the hospital, and the doctor looks at my foot, looks at me, then looks at the foot again, brings another doctor in, both stare, then clear me for no procedure. I was super thankful as I did not want surgeries. Those things scare me.
It’s a mystery to this day, but I like to think it was probably a bunch of dead skin the abrasive sand got rid of. I do not recommend this to anyone, of course; everything I did was negligent and entirely stupid in hindsight, but I did not know any better at the time. Lucky for me, I did not get sepsis, the creepy incidents stopped, and I never had to experience anything like that again!