(Based on a true story)
Bijoy quickened his pace. The hour was late, and he needed to get home. The children must be waiting on me for supper he thought. He was familiar with the path on the river he had followed almost all his life, and inspite of the thick winter fog obscuring his vision he kept on rowing. Soon he would be home with his wife and children, and even though he couldn’t catch a lot of fishes that day, he was hopeful of the next day; as was his nature.
“Help,” a crackling scream shook Bijoy out of his thoughts. He squinted to his right side to make sure he had heard right or if the wind was playing tricks on him.
“Help me,” the scream came again, this time a little clearer. Bijoy got up and shouted with his hands on the sides of his mouth, “Who’s there?”
Bijoy had heard several stories about ghosts calling out in the night to people crossing the river. His grandmother used to tell him all kinds of tales describing the mighty Hooghly river, or Ganga as it was commonly known. “They call out from the bottom of the Hooghly and take with them whosoever answers,” his grandmother would warn him. “Never answer them.”
Suddenly the wind got chillier. Atleast it felt so to him. Bijoy was not a man easily spooked, but the years taught him better than to suspect his own ears. Just as he turned back to sit, the scream came again. “Please help, I’m drowning. Anyone?” Bijoy now clearly perturbed, stared again in the direction of the voice. He saw a vaguely human figure sloshing around in the water this time. A look of horror crossed his face. He swiftly turned the boat in that direction and paddled as fast as he could. As he got closer, the sounds became louder. The pain and terror could be clearly heard in the voice.
Bijoy stopped the boat a short distance away and quickly threw a rope towards him. “Hold the rope, I’ll pull you” he shouted. As soon as the man did, Bijoy pulled with all his strength. As the man got closer, he held him by the shoulders and brought him aboard. Laying him on his back, the aged rower started pumping his chest to bring the water out. After some time the man sat up coughing vigorously. When he was done, he looked at Bijoy, an alarmed look on his face.
“It’s okay. You’re safe now.” Bijoy said while rubbing his back. He gave him some water to drink and asked, “What are you doing so late swimming in the middle of the river? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?” The man drank the water and coughed some more. “I wasn’t swimming. I was working.”
“Working? At this hour?” Bijoy asked clearly surprised. There was no work going on the docks that he knew about, and as far as he could tell the man evidently didn’t look like a worker. He wore an off-white crumpled up shirt and a smart looking khaki pant with suspenders. He looked more like a scribe than a worker.
“Yes, why? Don’t you know about the bridge? It has to be completed as soon as possible.”
Bijoy was confused now. There was no bridge being constructed in the vicinity. In fact, there was only one bridge around. He looked up at the vast metal structure -gleaming inspite of the fog and dark- and then back at the man. “What bridge are you talking about? There is no bridge here.”
“Of course there isn’t you fool,” the man replied clearly annoyed with the constant inquiry. “There will be when we are finished with it.” Bijoy scratched his head. Clearly, this man was in shock having almost died five minutes ago. “Okay, maybe you’re right. But how did you end up in the water?”
“I was checking the progress of the construction when the ground beneath the caisson gave out, and it plunged into the water” he explained. “I was in the middle of the bridge when it happened, and I was thrown right in the water.” Bijoy got more confused by the second. What bridge and what caisson was this man talking about?
“Look don’t take me wrong. I’m very grateful to you for saving my life” the man said while getting up. “But I’m getting very late. I should get back to work. The men would be searching for me.” The puzzled expression on Bijoy’s face said all he had on his mind. “Look don’t worry about money. Just leave me on the port, and I’ll see to it that you’re rewarded handsomely.”
The man was crazy, or the trauma had made him so. But Bijoy did as he said. He didn’t want any money or reward; he just wanted the night to be over. He left him at the port and proceeded towards his home.
Half an hour later Bijoy entered his small hut exhausted; more mentally than physically. His 8-year-old daughter Asha came running towards him and climbed up into his arms. “Where were you, Daddy? We were waiting for you.”
“Daddy was working baby.”
He put his daughter down and called out to his wife, “Sheila bring the food.”
“You know daddy, grandma told us a very scary story today,” Asha chirped as her father ate.
“Really? Which story?”
“She told us about the accident that happened on the bridge when it was being built.” she recited as if fearing her own words. “One of the pillars broke, and the bridge slumped on one side. Many people drowned.”
“What?” Bijoy looked up from his food, a look of horror in his eyes. “What are you talking about? What bridge?”
“Howrah Bridge daddy” Asha replied. “Which else?”
With an ashen face, Bijoy looked at the window, across the river. His gaze was set upon the massive steel bridge in the middle of Hooghly. He swore he could still hear the voice. Help.