Where Do You Go in the Dark, My Love is a collection of horror stories by Isha Singh, set in the hills – the old and beautiful hill stations you know so well – but transformed into “eerie, quiet worlds… where nothing is ever as it seems. A school boy is followed everywhere by a pig, a lawyer wears a tiger claw around his neck for virility, a young woman is equally in love and in mortal danger…”

Singh, 27, teaches English at Lucknow University and this is her first book. An extract from ‘The Forest’ published by HarperCollins India:

“The ashram at the heart of the sprawling forest in Rishikesh was home to many creatures. Birds, insects, carnivorous plants and lost hippies all thronged that forgotten piece of land. The broken building housed termites and a general air of decay. The forest, on the other hand, was home to many secrets. It had been there before the bridges were built over the Ganges river. Its thick limb-like branches and trunks were sawed through to make space for the teeming buildings that now housed yoga foundations and recreational centres.

The ashram had existed before the others, before yoga carved its hold on the multitude. It had existed before the masses had heard of spiritual gurus and flocked to them. The ashram was where the most enlightened ones had lived, in the heart of an all-consuming vegetation. When they were born again, they found their way back to this forest. Four members of a musical group came here and spent a lot of time and made it famous, but to those who knew it, it was older than civilisation itself.

To tourists, the place looked innocuous. The national park had claimed land rights over the ashram. Two moustachioed guards manned the gates and did not let anyone enter without identity proof. The place did not get many visitors, just people carrying guitars and banjos along with spliffs. If you took the road right from the gate, it led you to the heart of the forest. Feisty monkeys jumped from the trees at every step and lily-livered city-dwellers found themselves scared at the sight of foot-long, green snakes. The musicians who came here daily could quieten them; they spoke to the snakes to chide them and the snakes, in turn, slithered away, their bellies soft on the grass. The musicians knew that these were not just snakes; they were the yogis, waiting to be born again and live in this forest.

To an imperceptive eye, it was just another forest and another ashram, amongst the many dotting Rishikesh. Yet, it had existed before the beginning of the human race; it was where the first precepts were laid down. The musicians and hippies went there just for the music. If you listened hard enough, you could hear it in the air full of symphony. The jackdaws were the only jarring note.

Some came here seeking anonymity after fame had become too much of a burden. One amongst them was a musician. Let’s call him Richard, for I cannot reveal his true identity. He asked me to keep it a secret, but you would have heard his music. He told me that he sold his soul to the devil and signed a pact in blood. He waited in the forest, sometimes walking barefoot to the plains for sustenance when he couldn’t survive on berries. He waited for the devil to come and claim his soul, but he swore that the forest held enough evil already.

At night, only a few people remained inside. The guards came and broke up the groups of loitering tourists, who desecrated the hills with their mineral-water bottles. A few musicians remained; they had secret hideouts and some crisp notes to grease the greedy palms of the guards. The musicians waited for everyone to leave, and then took out their instruments and formed a circle. Incantations called out to departed musicians. Every night was a jam session with the rock gods from the past.

Richard told me about this place when I met him last at a cafe overlooking the Ganges. I was only an aspiring musician, and I wanted to hone my skills, maybe learn from the best. I never doubted his version of events. Everyone spoke about it in muted whispers – the secret carried by the ashram in Rishikesh – but no one knew exactly what it was. The ones who knew never told anyone; they hardly ever came out of the forest.

When I first saw Richard, he was standing against a torn poster that adorned the wall of the cafe, looking majestic with a halo of hair crowning his face. He wore rags but the first thing you noticed about him was that he had beatific eyes. Either he was enraptured by the beauty of the world or he was taken in by drugs. He often talked incoherently and just smiled whenever he didn’t feel like speaking.

It was difficult to ascertain his age. Sometimes he looked really old, his skin sagging like the jowls of a mastiff. At other times, it looked luminous. He could sprout wisdom like a leaky pipe and then suddenly stop talking altogether. He was rather eccentric, but he wrote the best songs and poems. If he took a liking to you, he would turn up at your hotel at odd hours. I was so fascinated by him that I never even protested when he decided to take me to the forest.

Even more so because I was fascinated by the deep, dark secret of the forest. We went there late at night, last year, through a passageway only Richard knew about. It was the best experience of my life when I came across the spirits of long-dead musicians. I learnt the tricks of the trade from them. Since then, I have been going every night.

As he finished his story, Feni looked at us…”