Short Stories





 

Grandpa’s Bench


I’m on my way to my native village. It’s an overdue journey; my last was two decades ago. This time I’m alone. It’s not just another trip, but a journey into my childhood. As I leave the city, I hit the metalled road, where a dirt track existed earlier. My conscious accuses me of behaving like a gapeseed. On either side, the paddy fields interspersed with a few sugarcane fields pass by in quick succession. Now the paddy has replaced the sugarcane, which within a decade has become an uneconomical crop. The sight of the old mango orchard with bletted fruits delight my heart, and lessen my unease. For the first moment in an hour, I feel welcome in my own land.
          Thereafter, my drive up to the village reminds me of the hot afternoons when I, with my friends, rode bicycles and raced with one another. Needless to say, I didn’t always win the race. If I had ever won even once, I can’t recollect. I don’t want to and lose the joy of those carefree childhood memories. In joyous mood, I drive on and enter the village. The mud houses have been bricked, and dirt tracks have been paved with bricks. The sound of a motor vehicle drew out several villagers on the street. It did when I was a child. Some things, I guess, in a village life never change.
My efforts to recognize a few faces, lined up along either side of the road, proved futile. Before my ancestral house stands an old temple, which threatens to kiss the earth any moment. Thought that temple might become a heap of broken bricks during my next trip, makes my heart miss a beat.
          With a sad heart, I move ahead and pass by the pond, whose waters in old days covered one third of the village, but now it has become shallower and muddier. Watercress, over the years, has soaked up the pond dry. On its western bank was the barn from where I had unsuccessfully tried to catch the fish on a few occasions. Across the mud track, lay my grandpa’s house. When I turn the ignition off and wait, I feel that any moment he would call out my name, and I would rush and hide myself into his lap; like I, as a child, did to escape bullying by older cousins.
But alas! It doesn’t happen. He was gone four decades ago. A sharp excruciating pain hits me. My heart isn’t ready to believe his absence. In a remote corner of my heart, I had expected him to be there. Why? I don’t know.
          The house due to the efforts of my younger brother, who had stayed in it for some years before migrating to the city, had got a new lease of life and was sure to outlast the dilapidated temple. With a creaking sound, the door opens when I push it. The spiders have made it their home and decorated the interiors in multitude of designs and sizes. Thick cobwebs hung in the dark and dusty corners. I stand still, for a while, admiring the beauty of those cobwebs, shining in multitude shades of black and gray in the light, sneaking through the broken roof. A creepy flight by the bats throws dust on me and pulls me back into the reality. Brushing cobwebs out of my hair, I go around the house. Each pace gives me pain; each pain gives me pace.
          And when my eyes fall on the bench lying in one dark corner, covered in layers of dust and cobwebs, my heart sinks. My grandpa’s companion of old years lay there in utter neglect. It is a heartrending sight. Standing still for a long time, I feel like crying. I, after sometime, do cry. And when I get over with my emotions, I pull the bench out in the courtyard, and dust it.
          A shisham log from the family orchard was felled and put in the barn for a year to dry. After it was thoroughly seasoned, the grandpa had called the village carpenter, who had made one bench, two chairs and some pieces of miscellaneous furniture. The shining brown colour of the bench had caught attention of every visitor, who had never failed to praise the bench and had to hear the story that went into its making. It was one anecdote I had heard on numerous occasions.
          Involuntarily, I sit on it and close my eyes. Then the childhood memories seize me from within. 
         Five decades ago I was born and raised in the village. My childhood was spent under my grandpa’s benign presence. And when I reached the age where I could comprehend things, he regaled us with several stories and anecdotes.
          The village had a few landlords, who possessed large tracts of agricultural land and several servants. In comparison, my grandpa and his brother had about 100 bighas, the yardstick that didn’t qualify him to be called a landlord. But he thought and behaved like one. Many villagers gave him respect, reserved for a landlord. So, whenever I saw him talk to people, I found an aura around him. He was kind to one and all, and that at times earned him more respect than any other elder in the village.
          And the bench was like a throne on which he sat for several hours during the day and entertained visitors. No one went back without drinking tea or sherbet. He gave everyone a patient hearing and tried to resolve their problems and disputes. For the poor he was a judge whose verdict was seldom dishonoured. A few close friends got to share the bench with him, while the most folks sat on the charpoy when they called on him. A glib talker he was, but a poor listener.
          But the most enduring picture embedded in my mind is that of the Holi festival. I got to spend a few of them with him. After playing colours in the morning, the household prepared for the afternoon when people went around the village to greet one another. This event was the most awaited moment for the old man, who since morning prepared for it. In a large plate dry colours were laid out and in another plate the sweets. People came calling on him. He would customarily hug them and exchange good wishes. Then he would affectionately pull people’s right hand and put a drop of the Kannauj perfume, and then narrate how he had procured it. 
        When his six grandchildren were old enough, he regaled us all with a lot of interesting stories, canvas of which was huge, characters larger-than-life and theme grand. As we grew up, he narrated us many moral stories, a couple of which I remember so vividly till date. I was his favourite grandchild for two reasons. One; I gave him a good, thorough bath. Two; I prepared a perfect hookah, which he was so fond of smoking. Of all siblings, I was lucky to share the bench with him.
The bench brought out the best in him. Seated in its comfort, he told us some of the best tales. On a summer night, when we kids were joined by our cousin from the city, my grandpa after dinner called us out. Out of his kurta pocket he took out a small bottle and distributed one homeopathy pill to us all, as though they were toffees. And when a few of us extended our palms for another pill, he gave an admonishing look. Then we sat on the ground in a semi-circle and impatiently waited for his tale. It was a special night as he promised to tell us a very, very long tale that was to last the whole night. When he asked us if we were ready to be awake the whole night; we all shouted ‘yes’.
The story began with a fascinating prelude. For an hour or so we all were hooked up, but after some time, one by one, we tired of day-long playing, fell asleep. I was the last to sleep. And the next morning we woke up, we found ourselves lying on the chadar on the roof. For our actions, we said sorry to the grandpa and begged him to repeat the story. But it didn’t happen that night and the subsequent nights, as the grandpa fell ill. Thereafter, we all forgot about that story, and so did the old man.
In 1974 I went to the boarding school. My grandpa was proud and sad to see me off. Thereafter I met him whenever I came home during the summer and winter holidays. My grandpa would tell people in the village that his grandson spoke English more fluently than an English graduate. Due to long absence from the village, I lost out on grandpa’s tales.
The grandpa and his younger brother, separated by a few yards, slept under the thatch, outside the house. Three years later during a rainstorm, half of the front mud wall of the house collapsed. The grandpa’s side was intact, while his brother got buried under the debris. The younger brother died, but the older survived, providentially. Thereafter for next three years he lived in ill-health. And then in Oct 1977, when he fell ill he sent somebody to fetch me from the school. Somehow I had the hunch that he wanted to see me for the last time. As soon I entered, I saw a large crowd gathered outside the house. Lying on the bed, he experienced difficulty in breathing. I sat by his bedside, he took my hand in his and mumbled something. A few minutes later he breathed his last.
I was relieved to be by his side then.
Suddenly I felt a wrinkled hand on my shoulder, followed by a whisper, “Son, Take this bench with you. It belongs to you now.”
Scared, I open my eyes and look around. An eerie silence reigns in the house, but I can feel he has been there a while ago. I move the hand over the bench, and know it now belongs to me. With bench secure in the back of the pickup van, I leave the village.

*******

Michael's House


One often doesn’t get what one wants in life. Sridhar knew and understood that saying well and therefore he never complained about the raw deal he often got in his job. Though initially he used to grumble a lot, he had given it up soon realizing its futility. And he was happy since the moment he had acquired a positive attitude towards his job and life as a whole.
     His job as a reporter with a reputed news channel was challenging and most importantly, well paying, which had taken care of his financial insecurities. With hardly any worries he had begun enjoying his work, which took to him to places he had never been to or ever dreamt about them in his life. He was often sent on difficult assignments, which other reporters normally avoided. 
          And so when he was asked to report on a Mizo tribe, which called itself one of the lost tribes of the Jews and wished to migrate to their promised land in Israel, he readily accepted the task. For a moment though he too was surprised to learn that such a tribe existed in India, which claimed its antecedent to Jews. As a keen student of history he was hardly able to contain his excitement to find more about them and see some of them in person.  And in his enthusiasm he had glossed over the fact he was being asked to undertake the arduous journey in the northeastern India during the rainy season when everything from the flights to the road journey became uncertain due to the vagaries of the nature.
        He had his first encounter with the unpredictable nature while waiting in the lounge at Kolkata airport when after four hours of mind-numbing wait he was informed that the flight to Aizawl had been cancelled due to heavy rains and fog at the Lengpui airport. He looked outside the airport. It was a bright and sunny day in Kolkata. He smiled peevishly at his run of bad luck and returned to the dormitory for the night halt. A day had gone waste but he couldn’t lament its loss, as he was sure that many days would go waste in future too.
       Luckily the clear weather ensured that he reached Aizawl safely by evening the next day. He checked into a decent hotel in the heart of the town. By the time he freshened up and had his tea leisurely it was well past 5 p.m. He changed and moved down the stairs to have a look at the city but was quite disappointed to see the most of the shops being closed. People seemed to be in a hurry to rush home. Later he learnt from a passer by that the market closed by about 5 p.m. and the Mizos retired to their homes for an early dinner, which was taken around 6 p.m.
         Suddenly he realized that no one—nor his friends, nor anyone at the airport, nor the taxi driver— had told him about that as if they all expected him to know that simple but important fact of life in Mizoram. Grudgingly he returned to his hotel room and decided to have his dinner early after which he surfed channels in a desperate effort to kill time. Watching TV he fell asleep and switched it off when he woke up a few hours later.
       Next day was hectic. He visited the local Jewish office acquired the details of the tribe that lived in and around the village of Phailen. Without wasting any time he hired a taxi and headed straight towards Phailen. Sanga, the taxi driver, regaled him with interesting anecdotes and tales most of which seemed to be his own. He was an interesting man nonetheless and mercifully he spoke both Hindi and English fluently, a definite qualification, which set him apart from other drivers.
          They drove on for about two hours and then suddenly Sanga halted the taxi. When asked he replied nonchalantly that perhaps they were caught in a traffic jam. Later Sridhar learnt from another driver that the entire road was blocked due a mudslide caused by the heavy early morning rains that day. It would take about two to three hours for the block to be cleared. Luckily the taxi had stopped near a teashop, which was already overcrowded. A young woman, the owner, was busy in serving hot tea and snacks to a restive crowd. Sanga spoke something to her in Mizo. The lady smiled and immediately provided her own wooden chair to Sridhar who managed to utter Kan Lawme (thank you), one of the two words he had learnt since morning. And he was pleased when the lady gave him a pleasing smile. So, after all, he had pronounced it correctly he thought.
      The noise in that small restaurant was annoying. He thought of taking a walk on the road and see for himself as to when they would be able to move ahead. However, the progress at the sight of the roadblock wasn’t encouraging. Though the volunteers of the Young Mizo Association (YMA) were working feverishly, they were too small in numbers to clear the pile of the mud, which looked like a small hill. He knew for sure that they would take more than three hours to remove the block. He returned to the taxi.
        The sky was overcast though there were no signs of impending rain. The surrounding hills were lush green and thickly wooded. He marveled at the captivating beauty of the countryside. A lonely hut on a detached hillock, not far from where he stood, caught his attention. Curiously he gazed at it for a long time and then decided to walk to the hut, since he had nothing worthwhile to do there.
         As soon as he moved towards the track leading to the hut, a local man sitting in the shop, stopped him, “Hey, where are you going?”
          Without turning towards him, he replied, “To that hut.”
         “Oh, you are going to Michael’s house,” he heard a second man say with a deep breath of concern.
          “So, that’s Michael’s house,” Sridhar said and moved ahead.
         “Why are you going there? Are you out of your mind? Don’t you know he’s a crazy old fellow? He’s chases away with a huge axe whoever approaches him,” the third man spoke loud enough for Sridhar to hear. Curious and concerned, he halted in his tracks and waited for more comments about the old man, Michael.
           His wait didn’t last long as he heard a fourth man yell, “You guys don’t know. No one lives there. The old man died a few years back. It’s his ghost who lives now in that beautiful hut.”
          For a few moments the pin drop silence ensued. Everyone’s eyes bulged out in shock. They stared at one another for a while in disbelief. And everyone burst out laughing when the fifth man spoke in jest, “He was no better than a ghost when alive. The man never came out of his hut and prayed for long hours as if the whole world was going to be washed away in a deluge and only his prayers were going to save it. Whenever anyone happened to meet him, he would lecture him for hours on the morality and degradation of human values taking place in the society.”
         “You won’t understand. He thought he was the chosen one by the God to sermon anyone and everyone. Sadly no one listened to him, not even his own children who left him fed up with his irritating sermons. After his wife’s death the poor man became lonely,” opined the sixth man in mock display of sympathy.
       “She would have died because of his eccentricities. What could the poor lady have done? She must have been made of a different material to put up with such a man for so long. I couldn’t live with such a man for more than a day,” the shop owner added, participating in the discussion.
        A bemused Sridhar stood there listening to their tales of the old man. Some men were saying that Michael was dead long back, while almost equal number of men were vehement in their argument that he was alive. Their discussion was turning into a heated argument when an elderly man walked in and spoke somberly, “I’ve a solution to your problem. Why don’t we follow Zuala? He goes early in the morning on Sundays to Michael to deliver him groceries when we all are fast asleep.”
       Zuala’s name evoked mixed reaction from the crowd but one thing became clear to Sridhar that the village grocer wasn’t very much liked by his folks.
        The first man who perhaps disliked Zuala the most, tried to put an end to the argument by saying that he had better things to do in life than chase a dubious shady character like Zuala on a Sunday morning.
     And when the argument seemed to have finished, he heard someone interject, “But if Michael’s dead then who is lighting the lamp in the night. I’ve seen the hut lit on a number of numerous occasions. I guess someone live in Michael’s hut.”
Sridhar had lost interest in their talks. He had heard enough bizarre stories about the men who lived alone, far away from the village. So undeterred he resumed his walk. The track to Michael’s house was winding and steep. After half an hour’s tiring climb he reached the house and was pleasantly surprised to see an old man standing in the veranda watering the plants.
         The man was in his late sixties or perhaps early seventies. His wrinkled face shone brightly and his swift actions indicated that the man was quite active for his age. When he reached closer to him, he coughed to draw his attention. The old man stopped the work, wiped off his hands with a towel hanging from his neck and shook hands warmly, “welcome, my friend. I’m honoured and surprised. I’m not sure which feeling is more overwhelming.”
         “Thank you, sir. In fact, honour is mine. You can pick up the surprise element of our meeting,” Sridhar smiled.
         “All right, call me John,” he spoke haltingly, necessitated by his advanced age. “You’re the first visitor in a long, long time. No one comes to me nowadays, no one except the grocer who delivers my weekly requirements every Sunday.”
         “I’m happy to get a chance to meet you,” Sridhar said involuntarily.
“You must have heard a lot of stories about me down below in the village. Did you believe in any one of them?” he asked inquisitively.
“If I had I wouldn’t be here,” Sridhar replied briskly.
"Some of the villagers think that I’m a mad old man who kills people with an axe,” he stood up and went to a corner and returned with a long axe in his hands.
       With that axe in his hands he looked menacing. For a moment Sridhar was terrified. Seconds later the man replaced the axe in the corner and returned to his chair. He spoke meditatively, “Do you think I kill human beings with that? Did you see any blood on it? Perhaps those who spread such rumors don’t know that I use it to chop the firewood.”
        Sridhar felt for that old man who alone on top of a hillock was not only battling loneliness but also the strong prejudices of his folks. His sons and daughters, and the villagers had abandoned him ostensibly for no fault of his. It was just that they weren’t able to cope up with his sermons. The old man was well meaning and wanted to inculcate some values in the younger generation.
        Lost in his thoughts he didn’t realize when his host had quietly vanished inside to brew tea for him. He was pleasantly surprised when he heard him say thingpui and place a large mug with steaming hot tea. He thanked him and began sipping tea. The man was a perfect host and he hadn’t forgotten to offer a plateful of biscuits to him but of course, he was a bit apologetic about the biscuits not being crisp and foggy weather had made them soft.
      A little while later when they had finished tea, he got up to leave.
        “It was nice to meet you and you have been an excellent host. I shall look you up again on way back,” Sridhar said getting up.
        “I may not be here then.”
        “Why?”
        “You can’t be sure of the time of your return and I might be in the forest collecting the firewood.” Michael reasoned and he requested taking out money from his pocket. “Can you give this money to the grocer? His name is Zuala. His shop is about fifty metres away from the teashop where you have halted.”
        “All right, and many thanks for the hospitality,” Sridhar shook hands warmly and then moved out of the hut.
      The small but beautiful hut proudly displayed the plate with ‘Michael’s House’ written on it. Certainly its owner was a proud man but rather misunderstood by the locals. The climb down the hill took a little less time and when he reached the tea stall he was greeted with giggles, whispers and stunned looks. He knew what they all were thinking and without bothering about their reactions he went in search of the grocer’s shop. He found no difficulty in locating Zuala who was quite surprised when he told him that he had accidentally visited the Michael’s house. He handed over the money, which Michael had given to him.
        Zuala was a bit puzzled but hid it admirably and pocketed the money. “So how’s the old man?” he asked.
        “Why? don’t you know? You had been to his house yesterday, he told me and he had forgotten to pay you the bill,” Sridhar queried.
          “Oh, yeah. I forgot.”
      “He’s a nice old man but you people have abandoned him totally. I mean not you. He has high regards for you. It’s the other men in the village about whom he has the grudge.”
          “You’re right. He was a nice man.”
        “What do you mean he was? He is. He isn’t dead but he’s alive and hail and hearty. I met him a few moments ago and had tea with him. Didn’t I give you the money he handed me over,” a peeved Sridhar spoke.
          “Yeah, yeah. Certainly he’s alive. He isn't dead. Persons like him never die. They live forever,” Zuala was philosophical.
          Before their dialogue could progress further, Sanga came an informed him that the block had been cleared and it was time for them to go. He thanked Zuala and left. The teashop wore a deserted look with its owner busy in clearing the huge pile of cups and plates. He exchanged a smile with her and sat in the car.
          En route Sridhar recollected that afternoon’s strange events. Michael’s house lingered on in his mind. Even Zuala too had spoken in riddles about Michael, he recalled. Perhaps to keep him in good humour Zuala had agreed about his meeting with Michael but somehow he hadn’t looked convinced. Suddenly everything about Michael’s house appeared a deep mystery to him.
       For Sridhar Michael’s house had become a puzzle. And he would hate to solve that riddle, he thought.
   He smiled and drove on.

                                *             *          *

 

Train to Tinsukia

Vinayak Gadgil arrived rather early at Guwahati railway station and he was disappointed to learn that the train to Tinsukia, the farthest town connected by rail in Assam, was running an hour late. There was little he could do. So he picked up the latest novel of John Grisham and sat on a chair in the waiting room. Reaching a place early had been his habit he had acquired since his training days in the Officers’ Training Academy (OTA) at Chennai in south India to avoid those extra duty punishments, which he hated so badly.
          How and why did he join the army when he wasn’t interested in a career in uniform? He had his story. His grandfather, a colonel, had served both in the British and later in the Indian armies, and had fought all three wars with Pakistan. His father, a major, had died on the icy heights of the Siachen Glacier foiling the enemy’s attempt to overrun the important post of Bila Fondla on the Soltoro Ranges. He was barely ten years old when he was told that his father had laid down his life fighting for the country in the best traditions of the Dogra Regiment. Those high sounding words of valour and sacrifice had meant little to his juvenile mind. What he understood, though, was that his dotting father would be no more around to play cricket with him and pamper him with ice creams.
         His father’s loss had meant different things to different people, he had learnt later. To his mother it had meant a long and lonely life without the assuring embrace of her loving husband. To his grandfather the loss had been profound more in professional terms. The old man always nourished the dream that his son one day would rise to the rank of a brigadier and command an infantry brigade, his own unfulfilled ambition.
        His grandfather after his father’s death had taken upon himself to fill the void. He played cricket with him, indulged him with generous doses of ice cream and narrated him war stories in which he invariably played a significant part. The tales of soldiers’ bravery on the battlefield often brought tears to young Vinayak’s eyes. Thus his grandfather became his trusted friend till he joined the college in Mumbai. By then he had overcome his father’s loss to some extent for which he owed everything to his grandpa for whom, in fact, he had developed so much of love and respect that he could never say no to him for anything.
          After graduation when he applied for MBA, his grandfather posed a poser before him, “Son, you can do MBA anytime. Why don’t you give a try and appear for the combined defence services (CDS) examination and serve in the army as a short service officer for five years. Later you can leave the army and do the management course. This way you can have the first hand experience of what your grandpa and papa have undergone in their army lives.”
        A reluctant Vinayak looked at his mother for some solution but found her totally non-committal. Before he could frame a suitable reply, his grandfather added, “Viny, this way you could learn the complete truth about my stories.”
        He looked at his anxious grandfather. To wriggle out of the quandary he said he needed time. His grandfather didn’t press the issue further. Somehow the old man was certain that his grandson would carry forward the family tradition, and after serving for five years the boy wouldn’t discard the glamorous uniform for a pair of faded jeans and a shirt. Having spent more than thirty years in uniform the old soldier knew its magnetic effect. 
       So after a few days of dithering when Vinayak conveyed his acceptance, his grandfather wasn’t amazed a bit. However, he acted surprised and wiped his genuine tears. His mother’s silence indicated that she didn’t approve of his decision but she chose not to come in the way of his happiness.
          Six months later he cleared all the hurdles—the written examination, the SSB and the medical tests—and joined the OTA. His grandfather escorted him to the academy. Nine months later his mother and grandfather watched him pass out from the academy in a glittering ceremony. Like his grandfather and father he too joined the 10th Battalion of the Dogra regiment. He was the third generation Gadgil to join the army.
          His grandfather had left no stone unturned in telling the town that his family had the unique distinction of producing three generations of soldiers. During his short stay at home before he went to his battalion, he had to face many TV cameras and give a number of interviews to various news channels, both regional and national. More than him, his grandpa enjoyed the flash of the cameras and the media attention.
          Seeing him in a subaltern’s uniform even his mother felt proud and was reminded of her husband’s last words, “One day our son too would put on the uniform and join my battalion.” She was happy that her husband’s wish had been fulfilled. She wished he were there to see it for himself. Though she bade farewell to her son cheerfully, she wept for him later on many lonely nights and prayed selfishly for his safety during busy days. 
          Vinayak’s first day in the battalion was as expected. His grandpa had tutored him well and so he knew what was coming his way. Moreover, both the Gadgils commanded immense respect amongst the troops and hence the JCOs and the men in the palton treated him like a child. Thus his transformation from a reluctant soldier into a fierce fighter was gradual and enduring. Unlike other Gadgils, he was more humane and caring which endeared him to his troops and won their hearts.
        After serving four years in the unit one day he had to rush home when he learnt that his grandfather had suffered a cardiac arrest. Emotionally he wasn’t prepared for that, for he was too young to suffer two losses in a short span. Luckily he was able to make it in time to meet his grandpa. The old man lasted a couple of days after his arrival and breathed his last in Vinayak’s lap. A few moments before his death, he had told him, “Son, after five years decide for yourself. Live your own life. I was wrong to have pushed you into this and ask you to live our lives, your father’s and mine.”
       With tragic loss of the grand old Gadgil the family’s responsibility had fallen on his young shoulders. Besides taking care of his mother, he was to manage the substantial agricultural land, which the Gadgils owned. Since he had only a year to serve in the army, he thought of completing mandatory five years of his service. He spent his last year of service in the army in Nagaland fighting the insurgents and was mentally exhausted after the traumatic experiences there. In the killing fields of Nagaland, he had experienced a spiritual awakening, which had churned the core of his heart and metamorphosed the foundation of his beliefs.
      A year later he was happy to be out of the army. Later he did his MBA from a reputed institute, and armed with his degree and five years’ soldiering experience straightway he acquired the job of a middle level executive with a mobile company. For some years he would have to spend time in the northeastern region and assess the company’s growth potential there before he could expect a transfer to Pune, he had been cautioned during the interview. He readily accepted the job, as he saw no harm in spending a few years in Guwahati, which was well connected by air and rail with the rest of the country. Moreover, he had been to that city earlier and found it to be a modern and livable town. Having spent years in jungles and god-forsaken places in Kashmir and Nagaland, he found every place with running water and electricity habitable.
      Jarring announcement in three languages, English, Hindi and Assamese, by a tired female announcer that the train was about to arrive at Platform No 1 broke his thoughts. He picked up his suitcase, moved out of the waiting room and purchased a bottle of mineral water. Minutes later the train arrived and he moved inside the compartment.
       After a rather long halt the train whistled and moved out of the station.
      Memories of the region resurfaced in his thoughts as soon as he settled down on the lower berth. Except for him the entire coupe was empty. Good for him, he thought.
    Almost five years ago it was perhaps the same month, he recollected, he had travelled in a special train when his battalion was getting inducted into Nagaland. Most of the troops were skeptical, as only a few amongst them had served there earlier. Though the battalion had fought the Kashmiri militants in the valley for many years, the troops were a bit anxious, as the old soldiers with earlier experience of fighting the Naga rebels had told them that the insurgency in Nagaland was totally different and rather difficult to tackle.
    To make the troops adept in the guerilla warfare his battalion had to undergo the mandatory pre-induction training at the Counter Insurgency and Jungle Warfare School at Vairengte in Mizoram. He recalled those four tough and useful weeks of counter-insurgency training after completion of which every soldier had become confident of taking on the dreaded Naga insurgents.
    His battalion was sent straightaway to the hotbed of the insurgency in Tuensang district, with its rifle companies deployed at different locations away from the headquarters. Vinayak’s ‘B’ Company was deployed near a village, about twenty kilometers away. Initial days at the post were full of humour. In his efforts to gain intelligence about the Nagas he came across as many mythical stories about them as many men he talked to. Be it the locals, or the Assam rifles soldiers in the neighbourhood, everyone had stories to narrate about the valour, wisdom and compassion of the Naga rebels and in those stories the insurgents invariably were painted as the much misunderstood and maligned fighters.
    So the stories went that the rebels never ambushed a convoy in which the families travelled, for they had utmost respect for the women and children. They didn’t ambush a convoy unless they were two hundred percent sure of their success even if they had to sit in the ambush sites for months together. They were fierce fighters and never forgot to avenge the loss of their men. Also, they never forgot to return the favour. Any officer who killed their cadres wasn’t safe until he had crossed Guwahati. No matter what measures one took to disguise oneself, one couldn’t hide from them because their intelligence network spanned across the government departments including the security forces. In the first month itself Vinayak heard those and many more stories. What to talk of the men, even some officers in his battalion spoke reverentially about the rebels.
    In one year that he had stayed with his troops he had lost track of time. Relentless operations were carried out against the insurgents to gain the moral ascendancy over them and restore the civil administration. Before his battalion’s arrival, the rebels used to run a parallel government in many areas, collecting taxes and dispensing justice. With the army in control the major sections of the civil society were happy.
    On several occasions he had led his troops in laying ambushes, carrying out raids or providing road protection to the supply convoys. He had lost the count of encounters he had had with the insurgents. A month prior to his release from the army he was assigned the task of raiding a hideout about which the battalion had irrefutable intelligence inputs. His commanding officer (CO) had instructed him to co-opt another junior officer, his blue-eyed boy into the team.
    In the operational room at the headquarters he presented his raid plan to his CO who after some minor changes approved it. The raid was to be carried out with minimum loss of time as the insurgents could shift their hideout in case they got a wind of it.
    At his company post after a detailed briefing and a short rehearsal, he moved out for the raid after last light. Their march on treacherous hilly tracks through dense forests took them to the Release Point, a place from where different groups were to move to their pre-designated positions. He dispatched the stops, made the second officer commander of the reserve group and he himself led the raid group, and moved towards the hideout stealthily. Less than an hour later when the stops passed the code word on the radio about them being in their positions, he checked action of each individual for the last time before inching towards the unsuspecting insurgents, most of who were in deep slumber then. A shot from his AK-47 was the indication for the raiding group to open a volley of fire on the huts housing rebels. The entire hideout was smashed into pieces with body parts flying all over the place and human cries reverberating in the small valley. When the fire from the rebels ceased the raiding party closed in cautiously.
          Many rebels had been killed but still some had managed to escape. The moment Vinayak walked inside a hut he was shocked to find an injured rebel dressing his hand, which bled profusely. He was a young man in late twenties with a rugged face and huge bulging eyes. The rebel stared at him. He begged for no mercy, no sympathy but simply sought respect as an equal. Though on the opposite side of the ideological divide both, the insurgent and the officer, shared one thing in common—the youth and adamantine will to live. They were so much alike, young, hot-blooded and ready to lay down their lives for their cause. But for the circumstance he could have been an insurgent and the insurgent an army captain, Vinayak thought. 
          A gun lay next to the wounded man but he didn’t pick it up. For a moment they looked at each other in mutual awe. The captain’s grip on the trigger loosened and the insurgent sensed that. Within a flash he stood up, gave Vinayak a hard stare and vanished into the darkness. For several moments Vinayak stood motionless. When some soldiers reached him and asked what had happened, he replied in negative.
          At last count his action had left four insurgents dead and six soldiers injured none of who luckily was critical. The seizure included two hundred rounds of ammunition, a couple of automatic rifles, old clothes, medicines and some seemingly worthless documents.
          That raid had emotionally drained him so much that he had desired to run away from that place but he still had a month to go. The fact that the second officer who didn’t fire a single bullet was awarded the Sena Medal, while he had to contend himself with a commendation card, an award of lesser significance, didn’t unsettle him. His life had acquired a new meaning and awards meant little to him.
For remaining days of his stay there that incident haunted him. Often he found those large eyes stare at him. He wondered why didn’t he kill the rebel, or the rebel kill him when either man was in a position to kill the other. It was a mystery that lay hidden in the complexities of the human nature and he knew he would never be able to unravel it, ever.
          After a month a relieved Vinayak bade the final good-bye to the battalion and the army. He carried a mixed bag of feelings accumulated over five years. Some memories, he was certain, would fade away with time, while others would become a permanent part of his character. In the years to come, he knew, he would forget most of the faces he had seen but one face he would never forget in his life. The face of that injured insurgent.
          In the crowd of a thousand men he could recognize those terrifying eyes. Somehow he couldn’t forget them, couldn’t get over the trauma of that fateful night. He was sure he would recognize him if he ever happened to appear in front of him. Then he wondered whether that rebel survived the injuries and if he did, where he would be that moment. Most likely he would still be crisscrossing the jungles of Nagaland, albeit in peace due to the ceasefire between the Naga insurgents and the army.
           The train halted at Dimapur station. He alighted to see if any changes had taken place since his last trip. To his utter surprise nothing had changed except for the presence of more security personnel. Over a cup of hot coffee he tried to recollect some of the fond memories associated with that place.
          After a brief halt the train moved. He returned to his seat and wished for a company to overcome boredom. Suddenly he froze in terror when he found the same eyes stare at him. He was the same Naga.
          “I’ve reservation for the upper berth till Tinsukia,” he heard him say.
          The man lifted his small bag and when he was placing it on the upper berth, Vinayak caught a glimpse of the protruding butt of his pistol, which was carefully tucked into his trousers. Terrified, he feared a certain death if the man recognized him, for the rebel wouldn’t lose that godsend opportunity to avenge the loss of his men. It would be foolish on his part if he tried to escape and draw his undue attention; he thought and waited for his foe to make his next move. Suddenly it occurred to him that it was almost impossible for that man to have recognized him in the early hours of the morning in the hideout when his whole body including the face was adequately camouflaged. And that thought gave him some comfort.
          He regained his composure and waited for his adversary to initiate the dialogue. However, the man seemed in mood to talk, instead immersed himself in a magazine. Convinced that the insurgent hadn’t identified him, Vinayak also resumed reading the novel. In between, though, they exchanged smiles whenever their eyes met accidentally.
          During the six-hour long journey till Tinsukia they kept silent. No one spoke. No one tried to initiate the conversation. They remained engrossed in their own thoughts. When tired, they gazed pensively outside the window.
          For Vinayak the suspense was becoming unbearable and he wanted the journey to end soon. He was happy the injured rebel had survived the raid, and was hail and hearty, but he had to sit through the entire journey in perpetual terror. Whenever their eyes had met, he had found the insurgent’s eyes bloodshot, as if they sought retribution. After all, a Naga wasn’t known for forgiving his enemy.
          Finally when the train reached Tinsukia he heaved a sigh of relief. Both alighted together. Outside the station the insurgent suddenly turned back and approached him slowly.
Vinayak froze, fearing a certain death.
          “Captain, welcome to Tinsukia,” said the man extending his hand.
          A visibly shaken and terrified Vinayak could only manage a feeble thank you and a feebler handshake.
The rebel smiled and walked back to the waiting taxi. 

*            *           *

 Last Bus to Lekhapani


Pooran Mal Lakhotia alighted at the Dibrugarh bus station at 9 p.m. and rushed to the booking counter from where a dim light emanated, indicating perhaps the counter was open. But he was disappointed to find it closed. Dejected, he looked around for someone to inquire about the bus. Seated in one corner, he found a man brewing tea.
         Picking up the suitcase, he moved to the tea shop. Suddenly, he felt an instant urge to have a strong tea.
           He put the suitcase down, and asked the tea seller, rubbing palms to generate some warmth, “Bhaiya, when is the next bus to Lekhapani?”
          The tea seller, with typical looks of a man from the Gangetic plains, gave him a wry smile and spoke, “Arey, sahib, you’ve just missed the bus by about fifteen minutes.”
          “When is the last bus to Lekhapani?” he asked instantly.
          “That leaves this place at midnight and the booking counter will open half an hour prior to departure,” he replied putting the kettle on the fire.
          “What time does it reach there?”
          “Before 4 a.m.”
          “4 a.m.!”
          “Ji Sahib. Perhaps you are coming here for the first time. In this region the sun rises early. It’s dawn by 4 a.m.”
          “What’s your name?”
          “Lallan.”
          “Lallan, could I’ve a strong ginger tea?” he urged.
          “Ji, Sahib. Wait a minute,” he said elatedly, dusted a plastic chair with his gamchha, (hand towel) and then gestured him to sit.
“I’ll wait here at the bus stop. There’s no point going back to the hotel room now,” he thought loudly, settling in the chair.
“Sahib, you won’t regret staying here,” he heard him remark.
“Why!” he exclaimed.
“Ji, nothing. I meant you could read the book or newspaper. You would be carrying a lot of books,” he spoke putting tealeaves into the boiling water.
“How do you know?” he queried in surprise.
“I’ve seen many sahibs reading books while waiting for the bus here.” he put sugar into the pan and stirred it vigorously. A minute later when the tea started boiling, he grated ginger into fine pieces and dropped them into the pan.
“Do you know how to read?” he inquired, but felt foolish a minute later asking that stupid question.
He watched his actions keenly. Lallan searched for an unbroken cup from the pile, washed it with water repeatedly and then wiped it vigorously with his gamchha.
“Ji, sahib. I’ve attended the school till class V. Thereafter, I left it because my father couldn’t afford it. He asked me to help him in his shop,” he stirred the tea, strained it and then poured into the cup and handed over to him.
“Thanks.”
“How’s the tea?” he asked, anticipating some extraordinary compliments.
“Quite refreshing.Best of the day. Thanks.”
He knew the tea seller had taken great pains in making tea for him. His eyes became moist thinking of unusual respect Lallan had given him. 
Taking a sip, he asked, “Lallan, you are not an Assamese. Where do you come from?”
“Sahib, I belong to Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh. My parents had migrated to this place about fifty years ago in search of the job and then settled down here permanently. I was born in Dibrugarh.”
“Have you ever been to Jaunpur?”
“Ji, sahib.Perhaps, thrice in my whole life. When my father was alive he used to take us there once in five years. He had sold off his land during our last visit. So, my village has become a past now.”
“Where is he now?”
“Dead. He died last year. My mother had died a year prior to him. Now I’m alone with my wife and a son.”
“Do you ever feel like going back to your native place?”
“I definitely do, sahib. This place always seems pardesh (a foreign country) to me, though I was born here. The local Assamese look down upon us. They consider us outsiders and often we have to bear the brunt of their wrath whenever ethnic violence erupts here,” his tone carried a tinge of hurt.
“I understand it,” he empathized.
Sadness in his voice was gone suddenly and he asked excitedly, “Sahib, are you coming from Delhi?”
“No, from Atlanta,” he answered, and then realized the man wouldn’t know where Atlanta was. So, he added as an afterthought, “America.”
“Oh, America. Sahib, I’ve heard that there are no beggars or poor people in that country,” he inquired excitedly.
“Not exactly. There are poor and homeless people in America too, but on the whole the country is rich and prosperous.”
“So, what do you do there, sahib?”
“I’ve a business.”
“Then you must be a very rich man.”
“A sort of.”
Lallan looked at him and then spoke, haltingly, “Sahib, you could have hired a taxi.”
“I was to hire it in the morning but the hotel manager advised me against it and warned that the ULFA targeted the rich businessmen, in particular from outside the state. Hence, I opted for the bus.”
“I think he is right, sahib. The ULFA is all over the place. The bus is a better option but you should have taken the day bus.”
“Yeah, you are right, but I was busy with my business problems during the day. I’m not sure whether Lakhapani would have internet connection.”
Lallan couldn’t comprehend what Pooran said but he nodded vigorously, “Ji, sahib. Lekhapani is a very small place. I’ve been there once when I worked as a labourer on the road construction.” 
“Why did you come back from there?” he asked instantly.
“What could I do? When the construction work finished, I had to return to my parents.”
“So, you could tell me something about that place.”
“I was there about ten years ago. Moreover, I didn’t get to see the town often. We lived in the makeshift shelters, about half a mile away from the city. I visited the city once a while to purchase the groceries.”
“Okay, I’ll find out myself when I reach there tomorrow.”
The night got chillier as the easterly wind rolled down the hills and picked up velocity. He started rubbing his palms vigorously to beat the cold. Hearing the cluttering of his teeth, Lallan lit his bhutthi (the earthen stove) and Pooran pulled his chair closer to the flames.
“Sahib, it’s got chilly. Should I get you a blanket?”
Nahin, Shukriya. My jacket is quite warm and this bhutthi is giving me good heat.”
“Sahib, may I ask you something?”
Hahn.”
“Sahib, what brings to you to this desolate place? I mean who’s there in Lekhapani?”
“Oh, Lekhapani. My uncle lives there. Since past one month he hasn’t been keeping well. I got the news that he is seriously ill. So, I’ve come to look him up.”
“What’s his name?”
“Why? Do you know any businessman there?” he probed.
“No, I asked just like that,” he uttered.
“Kirori Mal Lakhotia.”
“Sahib, I’ve heard about him a few times. He is the richest man in the town and owns a big haveli, a fleet of cars, and a dozen servants but unfortunately, he has no children.”
“Yeah, that’s really unfortunate. I’m his closet relative. Do you know when he came here; he had only a few hundred rupees in his pocket. Now I believe he is a crorepati.”
“His meteoric rise to name and fame has become folklore amongst the local population, in particular the non-Assamese. The outsiders draw a lot of inspiration from him.” his eyes glowed with admiration as he spoke.
Pooran was elated to hear him eulogize his uncle, though only he knew the real truth. He had known him to be a miserly man who never gave a dime to a dying man. When he was with him in Rajasthan he remembered his miserly habits had become legendary. Then the men owned not much wealth except the vast acres of arid land. Since childhood he had seen his uncle’s obsession with business and making money.
Their small village in Jhunjhunu district was famous for two things. One, it sent a large number of young men in the army. Two, it had some businessmen who lived in the port city of Calcutta and did a flourishing business there. And when they returned home, they displayed their wealth vulgarly.
So, the other villagers looked daily at their mansions in awe, inspiration and jealousy. Kirori Mal too had grown up admiring those huge houses and aspired to have at least one of his own. While the most fortune seekers had headed towards Calcutta, he had wisely opted for Assam. Before him no other businessman had ventured there for the fear of the unknown. When he had left his village, he had nothing except a few hundred rupees in his pocket and a suitcase. With his indomitable will to succeed, he had started his business in a new and strange place. Initially, he faced a lot of hardships, but later he succeeded and made a lot of money.
“Sahib, what happened?”
“Nothing. I was recollecting my childhood.”
“Oh, you must be remembering your uncle. He must have raised you with a lot of love and affection.”
Hahn. He did,” he spoke nostalgically. In front of a stranger, he didn’t want to belittle the ailing uncle, but in his heart he carried too many unpleasant memories. In childhood he had struggled to educate himself in good schools and then struggled to stand on his feet, without any financial help from his uncle.
With his determination he had made it big in the export business in India and afterwards migrated to the United States in search of better opportunities. But somehow his luck had deserted him there and he had incurred huge losses in the business. He alone knew the true financial health of his company.
For ten years that he had lived abroad, he had visited his uncle only once and that too in the native village, where the entire family had gathered for his cousin’s marriage. Then he was a rich man, while his uncle a straggler. During his stay in India he had clicked well with his uncle who had invited him to visit Lekhapani.
Before departing from Atlanta he had given money to his uncle to set up business. Busy schedule had kept him away from India for long, but he had been in constant touch with his uncle through regular letters. And when he received a phone call from his uncle’s doctor, he rushed back to India.
           In ten years the fate had turned a full circle. While he was on the brink of insolvency, his uncle was a millionaire. And he had hoped his uncle to bail him out of the financial mess. On the phone the doctor had hinted that his uncle wasn’t going to live long and he had signed a will recently. He had hoped to get some 
portion of his uncle’s wealth, if not whole.
He looked at the watch. It was 11 p.m. and he still had to spend an hour before the bus arrived. Lifting the collar of his jacket, he pulled up the chain till neck and wrapped a muffler around his head, covering his ears. The wind had got colder and stronger.
“Lallan, tea, please,” he requested. He already had drunk four cups in the last one hour to ward off the cold, but in vain. With each passing minute, the cold seemed to sink deeper into the bones.
Through a small opening in the muffler he saw Lallan make tea. Once the hot tea travelled to his stomach through the esophagus, he felt the heat spread to every part of his body. It tasted good. He repeatedly thanked Lallanfor the hot tea.
          “I Wish I had anticipated this, then I would have taken the day bus and postponed my business calls to a later date,” he rued his decision of taking the night bus. 
“Don’t worry, sahib. The booking window seems to have opened. It’s just a matter of half an hour,” Lallan informed him, when he heard the sound. 
Pooran went to the window, bought the ticket and then sat in the chair. “I hope the journey is hassle free,” he sighed.
“Sure, but be careful,” the tea seller cautioned.
“Why? Is there any kind of danger en route?” questioned a worried Pooran.
“Nothing in particular, but I’ve heard some strange things about the night buses.”
“Like.”
“Last week a passenger told me that he had a dreadful encounter with a ghost in the night bus.”
Pooran laughed aloud and mocked, “And you believed him.”
“Sahib, though I haven’t seen any ghost, my father had escaped once from their clutches. I’ve no reason to disbelieve my father,” he replied.
Pooran had no intention to debate on that subject with him. So he kept quiet. The silence was taken as an admission of his belief billion.
“The folks travelling by the night bus have experienced weird things during the journey. Some got the fortune, while the others were robbed during journey.”
“How do you know all this?” Pooran asked, getting involved.
He gave him a studied look and spoke, “Sahib, I get to hear them because they narrate their experiences to me, and to other passengers over tea at my shop.”
“So, you are a privileged man, privy to their dreams, their experiences of night travel,” he winked.
 “Ji,” Lallan blushed and continued, “Other day an Assamese, Saikia told me that he was getting a big fortune within a fortnight.”
He scratched his head to recollect something and spoke, “Oh, he told me that his employer, a wealthy businessman, was going to bequeath his entire property worth lakhs to him.”
“That’s called luck,” Pooran remarked.
“No, sahib. No luck. It was a reward for his twenty years of dedicated service to the master, he told me.”
“What reward? Lallan. No master bequeaths his entire life’s earnings to his servant. He gives it to his children or to the relatives or donates it to some charitable trust. It’s weird and incredible,” Pooran remarked with a shrug.
“May be, sahib, what you say is true, but he sounded convincing to me. I pray he gets the fortune,” Lallan was happy that a poor man was about to inherit the fortune. At least one of his likes was going to be a rich man someday.
          Pooran was eager to know the name of the man who was about to bequeath his property to a total stranger leaving his children in the lurch. He turned towards Lallan and queried, “Did Saikia tell you his master’s name?”
          He was so engrossed in dialogue that he didn’t notice that the bus had come and the passengers had started boarding in. The conductor was waiting for those who were relieving themselves in a corner. He honked repeatedly to draw their attention.
Lallan heard the honks. He picked up the suitcase and said, “Sahib, your bus is about to leave. Let’s hurry.”
          Forgetting about his question, Pooran rushed to the bus and boarded. Lallan placed the suitcase inside the bus and spoke with misty eyes, “Sahib, if you ever happen to return by bus, please don’t forget to have tea at my shop.”
          “Sure,” he said, shaking hands.
          Lallan alighted and walked up to the widow, where Pooran was seated. The bus started moving slowly. He moved a few steps with the bus and spoke, “Sahib, I can recollect now. Saikia told me that his master’s name was…..”
          The bus had picked up speed and the name was lost in a screech of tyres.Lallan returned to his shop, wound it up and on the way back home prayed for Pooran. 
For several moments Pooran tried to guess the name and then suddenly a doubt crept into his mind. What if his uncle had turned a philanthropist, lately? He couldn’t muster the courage to entertain such an idea, because that would have been a financial disaster for him.He had pinned hopes on his uncle’s money to save his sinking business. 
He looked around and found that some passengers were fast asleep and some trying to sleep. The bus moved at a breakneck speed on the treacherous mountain road. He recollected his uncle saying on a few occasions that after HimPooranwould carry forward his business. That thought gave him hope.
          Lost in his uncle’s thoughts, he spent the last hour, dozing off and on. At about 4 a.m. he arrived at the Lekhapani bus station and hired a rickshaw and during the half hour ride, got to have a look around the place. Lekhapani was a small and sleepy north-eastern town caught in a time warp where life seemed to move at a snail’s pace. It was the kind of place wherein an ambitious man could never think of living. He wondered how his uncle had stayed there for so long and managed to create wealth. He couldn’t stay there for a day if he were to be paid a million dollars.
Luckily the rickshaw puller, who knew his uncle,took him straight to the house. He was ushered inside by a servant. The doctor was waiting by the bedside of the ailing Kirori Mal.
He called out, “Chachaji,” sighting his uncle, but got no response. He went nearer the bed and had a closer look at him. His uncle seemed seriously ill, lying immobilized on the bed. When Kirori Mal looked at him, his lips quivered to speak something, but his voice failed him. However, his face bore a pleasant, but surprised look.
          Doctor Gupta stood up, took Pooranaside and said, “He won’t survive for long. You are the nearest he had, so I thought of calling you to perform his last rites. Although he told me Saikia could perform the duties of a son.”
          “Saikia, who?”
“The manager whom Mr. Kirori Mal, of late, had begun to trust blindly. In fact, he was more than a family member, I suppose.”
          “Doctor, thanks for calling,” he expressed his gratitude. 
         “You should take some rest now. You must be quite tired,” he said and then halted for a while, and whispered, “There was something I thought I must tell you. I’ve heard sethji had desired to give everything he owned to Saikia. That was before he wrote his will.”
          Pooran watched him make a hasty exit. Later the servant showed him to his bedroom. He went to the toilet, got ready and then appeared after an hour at the dining table for the breakfast. After breakfast, he came to the drawing room and found an Assamese waiting for him.
        “Sorry, I couldn’t meet you in the morning. I’m Saikia, sethji’s manager,” he spoke, extending his hand.
        Pooran shook hands warmly and then exchanged a few pleasantries with him. He heard someone call Saikia who moved out, leaving him alone in the drawing room to contemplate his future course of action. There was nothing he could do except wait for his ailing uncle to pass away, perform his last rites, see his will and then return home, perhaps empty handed.
          And the next morning the servant served him bed tea with the sad news of his uncle’s demise. He immediately rushed out. The whole household had gathered there, some in the room and some outside. He waded through the crowd and entered the room, and found the doctor waiting to say something to him.
          “Pooran, Sethji died early morning due to cardiac arrest. You can cremate him in the evening after the post mortem.”
          During the whole day he did nothing except to watch Saikia handle the whole proceedings admirably, enthusiastically. In the evening when the dead body of his uncle was laid on the pyre, he was called by the pundits to perform the Puja. In front of a large crowd he lit the pyre. The pile of wood initially smouldered but when tins of desi ghee were poured on to the smoking wood, the pyre burnt producing tall flames, which threatened to touch the sky.
Standing alone in a corner he watched his uncle’s body being consigned to the flames. He was a bit surprised to find his eyes moist. So, at last he had managed to shed a few teardrops for his uncle from whom he had expected no material gains. That moment he realized that after all, deep down in his heart he was human too. He had to stay there till the end once everyone was gone. 
          After collecting the ashes,Saikia and he returned. Both walked in silence and didn’t exchange a word. Neither would he know what emotions went inside Saikia’s mind that moment, nor was he interested. He was happy that cremation was over and he had to wait for one more day to hear the will.
          The next day in front of witnesses, the family lawyer prepared to read out the will. He checked up to see if all were present. When he was assured, he opened the envelope and started reading.
          An absent-minded Pooran couldn’t tolerate the suspense of what might be in that will for him, and so he quietly slipped out of the room. Minutes later an incensed lawyer pursued him and called out from behind, “Listen, Mr. Pooran. Wait. Don’t go away. I’ve something important to tell you.”
          Pooran stopped, turned back and walked towards the caller.
          “Mr. Pooran, Your uncle has bequeathed his entire property to you.”
          “What!” an unbelieving Pooran exclaimed.
          “Yeah,” the lawyer nodded. “But he has left a rider. You’ll have to stay in Lekhapani forever to get his fortune.”
          “What if don’t?” he sought the clarification.
          “In that case Saikia gets it.”


*             *             *

A dark alley


A child is like a rose bud, tender and beautiful. Like a rose spreads its fragrance, a child spreads its smiles. Its heart is as fragile as a petal. Both need plenty of love and care, and delicate nurturing. With love they grow up and blossom, without they disintegrate and die. Ironically, their creator and destroyer is neither nature nor God but the man. One moment he is a saint and the next moment he is a devil incarnate.
          Varsha was like a rosebud, tender, beautiful and growing up under the protective care of her father and casual love of a rather casual mother. Like millions of children she went to school, played in the gardens with her friends, read comics and storybooks, watched cartoons on TV and once a while saw a horror movie and then kept awake the whole night thinking of demons, and thereafter when she cried in her sleep, her father rushed to her, took her in his arms and pacified her. He told her there were no demons. It was just a nightmare, a horrible little dream.
          She was a nine-year old girl and waited impatiently to celebrate her tenth birthday, which was a month away, with more balloons, more sweets, more pastries and more friends. His father was to be on a business tour during that period but she insisted that either he postponed his trip or she would delay her birthday. And, of course, the daughter won, though she wished her father hadn’t lost.
          A fortnight before her birthday Prasad uncle, her mother’s distant cousin, came calling from Jabalpur. He often visited their house, she remembered. And unfailingly he brought gifts for everyone, for her parents, for Chhotu, her younger brother, and for her. He was a rich man who ran a big business in Jabalpur; she had heard her mother tell her father on many occasions. A simple child as she was, she wondered whether uncle was richer than her father. How could that be possible? She pondered. No, no, that’s not possible her father was the richest man in the world, she often said to herself. 
          On previous occasions Prasad uncle had invariably brought the best and the most exclusive gift for her. She would feel elated and tease her younger sibling that uncle loved her more than him. Chhotu would weep and run to his mother to complain. The mother would then pacify the boy that next time the uncle would bring him better gift. Both children saw a Santa Claus in Prasad uncle who never missed an opportunity to pamper them with expensive gifts.  His generosity occasionally prompted Raghav Khurana, their father, to mildly protest, “Bhai sahib, this way you would spoil the kids.”
          “Why do you say that? Am I not their uncle? They are like my own children,” Prasad would say and with moral support from Mohini, his cousin sister, he would prevail upon Raghav.
          Raghav, five years junior, would surrender meekly in the argument, for he knew how much his wife respected him. After the death of his father-in-law, Prasad had taken the responsibility of bringing up her younger brothers and later helped them to get decent jobs. So, in her heart Prasad held a special place and Raghav appreciated and respected her sentiments. Therefore, he was extra careful not to hurt her in anyway. So his access to the Khurana household was unchecked and above suspicion.
          On an uneventful day when Raghav was away on a business tour and Mohini to one of her friend’s house for the gossip session, which the women of a particular social strata called it by a more fashionable name, kitty party, the children were alone in the house under the watchful eyes of the maidservant who herself needed to be watched for her indolent attitude. The maid was playing with chhotu in the kitchen. The predator accidentally landed up in the house. The prey was playing with her crayons. In her bedroom she was drawing a house on the hills. So far she had drawn the undulating hills, the grey clouds, the birds flying in the sky, a river flowing through the mountains and a sun, which appeared to set, but she had intended it to rise. And into the sprawling meadow a small path from the eastern bank of the river led to a place where she had planned to draw the hut of her dreams.
          Suddenly she heard her bedroom door open with a creaking sound. She looked at the intruder and gave an innocent smile. He slowly closed the door behind and sat on the bed. From a packet he took out a bundle of chocolates, her favourites, and handed them to her. And when she began eating, he put his evil designs into play. She protested. He insisted. He told her it was a game. An infant’s mind wavered and in the fog of the confusion she fell prey to his machinations.
          But she knew her uncle had done something horrible to her, something real bad. Before leaving the room the man threatened her that he would kill everyone, her mother, father and chhotu if she ever spoke to anyone about that. However, he would bring her more gifts if she cooperated in future. He had left as surreptitiously as he had come. She tried to leave the bed but found blood on the sheet, on her skirt. The sight of the blood made her dizzy. She fainted.
          Later when a beaming Mohini entered the room after the kitty party, she found her daughter lying in a semi-consciousness state. When asked the girl pointed towards the blood and fell fully unconscious due to extreme weakness induced by loss of blood. She was rushed to the nearest hospital. And when Varsha regained consciousness she didn’t speak a word as to what had happened to her. The gynecologist, a woman in her late fifties, initially was taken aback a bit when she examined the young girl, because the hymen had suffered a forceful rapture resulting in excessive bleeding. So, as a first fleeting thought it occurred to her experienced eyes as a case of child abuse but when the girl despite persistent cajoling refused to say anything, the doctor gave up. In this age she knew children out of curiosity did bizarre things with their bodies and so she conveniently conjured up a plausible cause, an accidentally inflicted self-injury.
          And not to bother the mother unnecessarily the doctor explained Mohini the possible cause of the injury and urged her to be careful with her daughter. It was an advice with a noble intent but to Mohini it smelled of admonition from the doctor. Though outwardly she smiled and promised to be more careful in future, inwardly she was infuriated for she was in no mood to take lessons on parenting from an old woman. Varsha was discharged the same evening and her mother took her home. Lying on the bed on a clean sheet she stared at her unfinished drawing. She picked up crayons to paint the hut but she couldn’t. The shiny path leading to it had turned into a dark alley in which a demon with horns on his head and bulging monstrous eyes was chasing her. She ran towards the hut to escape from his clutches but alas! There was no hut, she remembered. She had forgotten to draw it. Helpless with no place to hide, she stood trembling at the end of the alley and watched the demon close on her. And when the devil reached near her she fainted.
After a while she awakened and wiped her sweat and tears. She was so terrified of the drawing that she hid it into her cupboard at a secret place where no one could discover it.
          That moment she knew demons were for real. Why had his father lied to her? She wondered. Later on she fell asleep.  
          On the other hand, Mohini made inquiries from the maid and she was rather relaxed when she learnt that her indulgent cousin had visited the house during her absence. To her foolish and rather sluggish mind no linkage between her cousin’s visit and her daughter’s unusual injury occurred. Instead, she rang him up to complain as to why did he leave without meeting her. The man’s excuse was that he was in a hurry. When Raghav returned home he told her about Varsha’s injury diluting its gravity. Unconvinced, he walked up to his daughter and asked himself. Though she had confidence in him, she chose to remain silent. Instead, she fell in his lap instantly and cried. 
For next couple of weeks she ate requisite dose of vitamins to regain her strength. A doughty girl as she was, she recuperated fast and appeared in her final examination.
          Raghav had sensed something amiss but he dreaded to think anything unthinkable. Knowing his wife’s penchant for parties, he thought the girl would be safe in a boarding school than at home. So, from the next academic session, which was a month away, Varsha was admitted into a boarding school whose strict rules and regulations made it impossible for a visitor to meet any student unless he was specifically authorised by the parents. Raghav had left strict instructions that no person other than his wife and he be allowed any access to their daughter.
In the boarding school she remained withdrawn. Initially her teachers thought that she was undergoing the bout of homesickness like any new student and so they weren’t much perturbed. Later on Varsha discovered some girls of her nature and made friends with them but her vivacity, her innocence was lost forever. She carried a tormented mind; a scarred soul but she didn’t show it outwardly. Her good grades had endeared her to teachers and students alike. Everybody in the campus thought her to be a normal girl but the dark truth only she knew and she wasn’t ready to share it with anyone, yet. 
          In the meantime when Prasad visited Mohini’s house he was surprised to not to find Varsha there. Mohini told him that Raghav had sent her to a boarding school. He got suspicious and wondered whether the girl had talked to her father about that day’s incident but he was relieved to learn that she had wisely kept mum. Later his lone effort at the school to gain access to her had ended in a fiasco when the gatekeeper, who bluntly told him that he wasn’t authorised to meet the girl, turned him away. He returned home indignantly and thought of taking up the matter of his humiliation with his cousin sister but on late thought exercised prudence. He thought it wise to forget Varsha altogether and look for someone else. So, slowly his frequency of visits reduced from once a month to once a year. No one complained except Mohini who, however, paid a call to his cousin at Jabalpur once in four months. 
          Ten years later Varsha grew into a beautiful adult. Unlike most of her friends in the college she had no boyfriends, an oddity with which her friends had learnt to live with. For all these years she remained a loner. As she grew, so did her insecurities. And her desire to share her unsavory past too died. It wasn’t until when she went through her biology lessons that she learnt what a fifty-year old uncle had done to a ten-year daughter of his cousin. It was the most reprehensible act to say the least, thought of which made her nauseate every time.
          As the time wore on she gained confidence. After graduating she got a consultant’s job with a reputed firm. Her parents began to look for a match for her when she gave them a green signal. A year later she was married to Aditya, a simple man, an introvert much like her.
         The couple with mutual consent delayed consummating their marriage until their honeymoon on which they were to go a week after their wedding. She was relieved, as she wasn’t emotionally prepared then.
         With packed suitcases the starry-eyed couple headed to a hill station. Theirs was an arranged marriage and therefore they needed time to get to know each other. They were totally strangers who had taken a scared vow to undertake life’s journey together and therefore, it was essential for them to identify each other’s strengths and weaknesses.
        For a woman, arguably the stronger of the two sexes, emotional needs far outweighed the physical needs. But for a man it was exactly the opposite. Aditya was a man, an impatient man. So, on their first night in the hotel room, which he had painstakingly decorated with marigold flowers and lights, he was exuberant. In the dim light he approached her slowly expecting her to be as eager as he, if not more, but he was in for the rude shock when she cried, “Help me,” and threw him off her. He almost fell off the bed. She switched on the light and started crying inconsolably.
          For a moment he sat motionless not knowing what had happened to her. He feared he had caused her some injury. Then he heard her sobs cease. She fell into his arms. She spoke through her hiccups, “Aditya, I’m so sorry. I can’t do it. I’m not a normal girl.”
          Touched by her honesty he hugged her and said, “Who says you’re not normal? You’re perfectly fine. Nothing is wrong with you. It happens sometimes to some people. Just that.”
          “You should have married a better girl. I’ve spoiled your mood,” her sobs resumed in self-pity. 
          “I think your past is tormenting you. It would be better if you shared it with me,” he then added as an after thought, “of course, if you’re ready.”
        Minutes later she calmed down and narrated her recurring dream. It was a dark alley in which she found herself trapped with a demon. She cried for help but no one, neither her father, nor her mother, came to her rescue. The demon laughed and told her that he would kill her parents if she ever talked about what he did to her. 
          Aditya was dumbfounded. At once he concluded that his wife was consumed by anguish because of something awful that had happened to her when she was an infant. His further probe proved futile because she said she didn’t remember anything except that dream, which obliquely pointed towards a case of child abuse.
          Needless to say their honeymoon ended abruptly.
        Back at home Aditya consulted the best psychiatrist in the town. With great difficulty he managed to convince Varsha to see him. Her first session was comfortable. The initial symptoms lead us towards child abuse, the psychiatrist confided in Aditya. It would take a long time, he cautioned. However, he was sure that Varsha would conquer her fears and be absolutely normal again. He asked Aditya to search for anything like a piece of clothing, an artefact, a painting or a drawing, which remotely connected to her dream. At the spur of the moment he couldn’t recollect anything but he promised to come back after a few days.
          Suddenly a peep into her past had assumed importance. He knew it would be difficult to extract even a bit from her. So, in her absence he searched every piece of clothing, books, jewellery and other things that she had brought with her. It was a painful job and he hated doing it. After an hour he stumbled upon a drawing neatly wrapped up in a piece of paper and kept between the pages of a book. Curiously he unwrapped it and found it to be an unfinished drawing of scenery, which small children usually painted. He was about to replace it in the book when the outline of an incomplete hut caught his attention. From the riverbank a path led it.
          “Oh, my God! It’s this path that comes in her dream,” he whispered to himself and felt a great sense of relief.
          Later he replaced all her items in the cupboard exactly in the same manner before her arrival. In the evening he went to the doctor and showed him the drawing. From his smile Aditya understood that the solution to his wife’s problem had been found and it would be a matter of time before she would walk free of her tormenting past. He breathed a sigh of relief and thanked God.
          The psychiatrist mulled over the drawing for sometime and matched it certain parts of her dream. He formed a conclusive opinion that the insignificant sketch was under preparation when a man, whom she knew, subjected her to that unspeakable abuse. Perhaps he was a close relative as it was often found in such cases. The fact that Varsha was afraid to talk about the abuser added weight to his deduction.
          It was a huge discovery, which helped the doctor in subsequent sessions with his patient. Hard work of six months, during which the doctor often was despaired by her inconsistent and truant behaviour, finally paid off. And the whole story when it was narrated to Aditya enraged him so much that he wished to kill Prasad uncle who had destroyed not one but two lives.  
        At the behest of the doctor her parents were informed about the incident. Mohini was speechless. Raghav was furious. Somehow he had always disliked Prasad’s interference in their lives but had kept quiet for the sake of his wife. Mohini advised him to forget the incident but he was vehement on reporting the matter to the police who registered the complaint but told him that after fifteen years it would be a wild goose chase. However, Jabalpur police was sent a report on Prasad who kept him under surveillance. After a few months the paedophile was caught red-handed. He was denied the bail and put behind the bars.
         Raghav carried the newspaper cutting to his daughter and said, “Varsha, see beta. The demon that terrorised you has been caught by the police and is behind bars. Now you’re safe. He won’t bother you in future.”
          She read the news and started weeping. After so many years her tormentor was caught. She managed a faint smile. Her nightmare ceased. A few months later she became absolutely normal.
          One day Aditya said gleefully, “Shall we go on our honeymoon?”
          “Sure,” she smiled and gave him a warm hug.



*            *          *
         
             
Cherrapunji




A jilted Akash was escaping from his recent troubled past. Kadambini, his fiancée of four years, had left him suddenly without giving any reason. She hadn’t even bothered to tell him in person. All she said was that she was marrying a NRI and moving with him to the States. He learnt about it through her email. Her decision had shattered him emotionally so much that for a moment he had contemplated of ending his life, but somehow he held back. The example of his parents, whose married life went through its daily doses of upheavals and he had been a witness to it for over a decade or so, ironically proved to be a source of inspiration. His mother, an ambitious woman, was a top ranking bureaucrat in the government while his father who too was a bureaucrat but his laid back attitude towards life had resulted in his stagnation. Nor that he cared much for the promotions anyway. He had a penchant for painting and during his childhood he had wanted to take it as a vocation but for his father.
            Ambition and lack of it had been the cause of the marital discord in his parents’ life. His mother often
lamented his father for showing utter disregard to his career. His father detested her for interfering too much in his professional life and whenever their quarrel reached the boiling point his father packed up his bags and headed towards some hill station with his canvas, paint and brushes. And whatever he painted in his holidays, he donated to the locals there. Firstly, he was afraid to bring home his paintings and annoy his wife, who anyway didn’t think much of his paintings. Secondly, he never wanted their marriage to reach the breaking point just because of a few paintings. For the sake of his son he wished to carry on in his loveless marriage. Like him his wife too couldn’t dare to move away for the fear of social ostracism.
            So to the outside world his parents remained a happily and successful married couple. No one knew the truth. For a long time Akash drew inspiration from his parents and thought of them as an ideal couple worth envy and emulation. The bitter truth was revealed to him later when he spent long months at home. He found his nature akin to that of his father and thus he felt more close to him at heart than his mother. In his father he had found a friend who understood him without any parental prejudice. His father never preached but listened to him sympathetically. He never hid anything from him.
            And so when Kadambini suddenly dumped him for a NRI, he confided in his father and wept on his shoulders for a long time. Once he regained his calm, his father advised him that he should run away and drown his sorrows in the rains in Cherrapunji. The persistent July rains of Meghalaya would wash off his hurt and provide a soothing balm to his tormented heart.
           He heeded the advice and next morning he caught the first flight to Guwahati. Hours later he was moving in a taxi to Shillong. As soon as he left Guwahati and entered Meghalaya, the rains greeted him. He was pleasantly surprised and recalled his father’s words about Meghalaya being the abode of clouds and Cherrapunji being the wettest place on earth. In his student days his father had traveled a lot and knew about almost every place in India.
            By the time he reached Shillong it had become dark. Throughout the three-hour road journey it had rained persistently. The drifting fog and the clouds had enveloped the valleys and the meadows, although he got to see some splendid landscape whenever the sunlight lighted up the valleys intermittently. He was in no hurry as he had plenty of time on hand to explore the place.
            After a brief night halt he hired a taxi and moved to Cherrapunji in the morning the next day.  And after half an hour as soon as he entered the Mawkdok valley, the exquisite sight elated his dampened spirits. It had started drizzling.  The rain-bearing clouds were descending the hilltops and swirling in the short and narrow valley, which was gateway to Cherrapunji. A small crowd of tourists traveling by cars, buses and taxis had gathered there. Everyone was busy clicking photographs and taking pictures of wonderful locale with their handicams and cameras. The first time visitors to that place were the most vociferous in their expression of the emotions. The children screamed and exclaimed in sheer delight.
            Akash noticed that the elderly people after a while settled for the hot tea in the makeshift shops close by but the children continued to enjoy the fast changing weather. Some collected the droplets in their hands and rubbed the water on their faces, some tried to catch cloud in their fists vainly and some simply loved the feel of the light drizzle and wind hit their bodies. The worried mothers yelled repeatedly and asked their children to come under the shade but they seemed in no mood to obey them. However, the mothers’ anguish and the children’s joy ended soon when the drivers urged them to get inside the vehicles. He felt sorry for the children’s curtailed merriment.
            Minutes later he too moved on.
       The breathtaking beauties of the Mawkdok valley and subsequently of the sprawling lush green grassland made him forget everything. He felt as if he was moving in Scotland, a place he had seen only in the movies. For miles together there were no cities except for some small villages perched on the gentle slopes and tucked safely in the valleys. The taxi driver negotiated the winding road with consummate ease. The moist and fresh mountain air was invigorating and the loneliness of the landscape thought provoking.
         He chose not to listen to whatever little the driver had to say about Meghalaya and Cherrapunji. Instead, he enjoyed the sudden gush of the rain lash his face occasionally. Having watched the children play in the rain a while ago, the child within him too had surfaced up. It was time to relive his childhood, he thought.
          An hour later he caught the first glimpse of the some huts on a hillock. Only a few front huts were visible while the rest were covered in the thick layers of a stubborn mist. And when his driver informed him that was the famed town of Cherrapunji, he almost jumped in delight. As he went closer to the town, more huts became visible. The entire town was engulfed in thick fog. He would be really lucky to get its full view in the rainy months, the driver told him.
            The drizzle turned into a downpour as soon as he entered his hotel room. After consulting his driver he abandoned his plans to see anything that day. If the weather cleared by evening then he would take a walk in the forest nearby, he thought. He settled for local delicacies for lunch. While lunch was being prepared he sat on a lawn chair in the veranda and watched the rains whose fury didn’t seem to subside. Never in his thirty years of life had he witnessed such a heavy rainfall, which threatened to wash away everything with it. That moment he thought how helpless a man was in front of the nature despite all the technological advancements he had made.
            Will the man ever be able to tame the nature’s fury with technology? He wondered.
         The waiter, a local Khasi boy, who brought his lunch, interrupted his further thoughts. He looked unperturbed by the heavy rains. With his characteristic smile he served him lunch and moved away.
            Akash ate hungrily and finished his lunch sooner than he normally did. The rains continued unabated and he remained confined to his room until noon the next morning. Even by Cherrapunji’s standards the rains during the last twenty-four hours had been rather incessant, he was told by the waiter.
            In the afternoon the weather cleared up, he immediately moved out of his room and went for a walk into the forest. He needed time and solitude to carry out introspection, he needed time to forget Kadambini and put behind her thoughts, her memories and move on in life.
          An hour’s walk took him deep inside the young pine forest. His walk, however, was made little difficult by the prevalent fog and soggy ground. Despite inclement weather it was the ideal setting he was looking for. In his endeavour to look for some place to sit he continued walking. Hardly had he moved a few kilometers when to his astonishment he found someone emerge out of thick blanket of fog.  Thought of a wild animal sent shivers down his spine and he froze in terror not knowing where to escape. And then he heaved a huge sigh of relief when he saw silhouette of a human being. Moments later he was baffled to find it to be a girl when the figure became slightly clearer. She carried a broken twig and kicked loose stones as she moved. Her voice was surprisingly attractive. It was the low and melodious note suggestive of a typical Khasi romance; described in tourist brochures but rare in experience. When she came within a few metres of him, he wished to hide behind a tree and hear her sing. For, he wanted the music of her voice to descend deep within his heart. But sadly she stopped humming as she saw him first and her question as to who he was enticed an instant reply from him.
            “It’s me, I mean Akash,” he fumbled for words.
            “So, what are you doing here?”
            “I’m a tourist. I came here in the forest to take a walk.”
            “I’m Sohra.”
            “Shora,” he repeated.
           “Forget it. Call me Cherra. It’s much easier to pronounce. Even the British when they landed here first failed to pronounce it correctly,” she said putting him at ease.
            By then Akash was thoroughly confused but he was sure of one thing that he had got the name of the girl wrong. However, he couldn’t comprehend a bit of what she spoke about the British getting it wrong. So to clarify his mind, he asked, “Could you tell me what the mystery of Shora is?”
           She looked at him and smiled. For the first time he had a close look at her. She was a local Khasi girl whose incredible beauty combined tribal innocence, magic of a pastoral poem and jungle lore in the right blend. He stood spellbound by her earthy harm.
           “Shall we go to some place where we can talk comfortably,” she pulled him out of his trance.
            A bit embarrassed, he mumbled, “Yes.”
        They went to an abandoned hut, which was about a furlong from there. The hut was locked. The cobwebs hanged all over the place.  the owner seemed to have been away since long. They stood in the veranda separated by a few meters of gap.
           “You were saying something about the British?” he asked impatiently.
          “Oh, yes,” she tried to recollect, “firstly, it’s S-O-H-R-A and not what you pronounced the word like.  Secondly, I said the British too didn’t pronounce it correctly.”
             “What’s the tale?” he queried, settling down mentally to hear something interesting.
            She began, “It’s a story that happened about hundred seventy years ago when Shillong didn’t exist. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it but it’s true. Even if Shillong existed then, it must have been a tiny non- descript village of few huts. The Khasi tribes of this region often attacked the British troops stationed in then east Bengal. Fed up with the attacks, the British troops decided to put an end to all this and marched into the hills of Meghalaya from the south. The troops first reached the village of Sohra. Since they found it hard to pronounce they named it Cherra and the village of Sohra since then came to be known as Cherrapunji. Punji is the word for a village in Khasi. Later when the British found it to be quite a rainy place they shifted their garrison from Cherrapunji to present day Shillong. With passage of time Cherrapunji lost its importance and Shillong from a nondescript village became a bustling capital of the entire northeastern region. It remained so for a long time even after independence till Assam’s capital was shifted to Dispur. However, Cherrapunji’s name in history got assured when the world discovered it to be wettest place on the planet receiving the highest rainfall annually. Isn’t it quite baffling that this small village gets more rainfall than any other place on earth, not even in the Amazon valley?”
            “Surely, it seems a fairytale kind of thing. It’s hard to believe that I’m walking around here which is a well known place in the world,” he spoke in admiration. “But how do you know all this?”
            “I was a young child when the British landed here first,” she smiled.
            “So, then how old you are?” he asked seriously.
            “I’m not good at math. You can calculate,” she grinned mischievously.
            “You want me to believe this,” it was his turn to smile when he thought she was pulling his leg. “You couldn’t be a human being to live that long. Only ghosts have such long lives.”
            “Who knows I could be one,” suddenly she became serious.
            “You’re trying to scare me,” he laughed. 
            “No, you should have belief in yourself.”
            “I do.”
            Then for a moment they fell silent. When asked he told her everything about himself, his parents, his job, his courtship with Kadambini and how she had left him a week ago for a rich NRI. She listened to him patiently, sympathetically without intervening in between and he finished, she remarked, “I’m not a philosopher but I believe in one thing that life must go on irrespective of upsets and upheavals. We can learn a lot from the nature. For example, look at the hills of Cherrapunji. Do you find any change in their behaviour. They are what they must have been when they were born and they would remain the same for times to come. Till recently the hills of Cherrapunji received the highest rainfall and then suddenly Mawsynram has usurped its unique status, which incidentally is the wettest place on earth now. Do you feel that this village or the hills surrounding it are lamenting the loss of their place? Certainly not. This place is as vibrant as it was before. That’s what life’s all about. Nature teaches us a lot.”
         He was amazed by her simple explanation of a complex human philosophy. If her beauty extra-ordinaire had stirred his heart, her intelligence had touched his soul. He wished she filled vacuum in his life. Will she agree to his proposal, he doubted. But there was no harm in trying, after all, otherwise how would he know what she had in her mind.
            Gathering courage, he inched closer to her and whispered, “Cherra, will you marry me?”
            “Oh, you want to marry a ghost,” she laughed teasingly.
            “Please, I need you,” he begged.
           He looked at her in anticipation and held his breath. Though lips moved, she said nothing. Perhaps she needed time to decide, he thought. He understood the predicament she was undergoing. After all, it was all-important decision of her life and she didn’t want to take it in haste. And so he waited.
         But the fickle weather of Cherrapunji didn’t wait. The rains lost the intensity but the fog gained momentum and within minutes it filled the entire area—the forest, the valley and the hut. It came rushing into the veranda and suddenly the day turned into a night with nothing visible. Akash panicked and thought that he would lose her. She would disappear in the fog as she had emerged out of it. He groped for her in the dark but didn’t find her. Frantically he searched her around the hut but she wasn’t there. In desperation he shouted her name, Sohra repeatedly.
            Then he sat on the ground dejectedly thinking he had lost her forever. But to his utter dismay the fog started drifting away from the hut and when he looked around he saw her standing nearby. Tears rolled down his eyes in sheer joy.
           She came close, lifted him up and whispered, “Had it not been for the fog I wouldn’t have known how much you love me.”
             “So, I take it you’ll marry me,” he was ecstatic.
             “Meet me in Shillong tomorrow at 10 a.m. at central point. I’ll tell my answer there.”
             “You can come along with me in the taxi,” he suggested.
             “Don’t worry about me. I’ll be there on time. I’ve wings, I can fly,” she teased.
              He hesitated for a while and then said, “What if I don’t find you  in Shillong?”
             “If you believe me, you will,” she said and left. He watched her disappear into the drifting fog.
             “If….,” he feared to entertain the thought.

*          *         *

Fog


Anubhav lived in the plains in the midst of heat, dust and humidity of Agra. It was a city, which experienced extreme weather conditions. During summers the temperature almost touched 50 degree Celsius, while the winters often got freezing cold. The other two seasons, the rainy and the autumn, came and went unnoticed. Citizens of the Taj city got a brief respite during the month of November. When he was a child he had been to the hills of Kumaon and Himachal on a few occasions with his parents. The virgin beauty of the hills had captivated and left an indelible mark on his impressionable young mind that he often wished to run away into the lap of the mountains and spend his life there. But Alas! That couldn’t happen. He was tied down to a very demanding business.
             Representing   the   burgeoning  Indian   market’s  new   breed   of   confident 
entrepreneurs, he was an exporter of garments. In every way he was a self made man. Armed with a business degree from a reputed foreign university, he had spurned many lucrative job offers from both Indian and multi-national companies. His parents had been shocked by his intention to set up a garment factory and enter into the export market. His father had tried to talk him out of it. "No one in our family ever ran a grocery shop leave anyone venturing into the business. As far as I know all our ancestors had been administrators," his father had argued. Anubhav knew that his father, an IAS, wanted him to follow in his footsteps but somehow he wasn’t cut out for ten to five job. Since college days his bent of mind was towards business. His father had bowed before the wishes of his only son.
           During the initial days of struggle he had annoyed his father once again when he had refused to take any monetary assistance from him in setting up his own studies. He had politely told him that he wanted to be a self made man in true sense. Nothing more than the blessings he was ready to accept from his parents for his new venture. With some luck and plenty of hard work, his business grew and within three years his company’s turnover increased from fifty thousand to around fifty lakh rupees, and catapulted him into a dream success story. It was a phenomenal growth. The market had the potential for much more and he was sure that within a decade he would be a major player in the garment export.
         Success is always sweet and hard earned sweeter. However, every success always extracted a huge price, he often remembered his mother’s words of wisdom. In his case too the success had taken out a huge price, time, from him.
          Time for him had become such a precious commodity that he had little for his parents, his friends, and most importantly, for himself. His day began early at about 5 a.m. and then after a hard grind he could manage to go to bed at 11 p.m. And of the six hours that he got for himself, he found them insufficient but he had no other option. The tough competition in the world market kept him on the toes. He was constantly thinking of ways of improve his quality and make into roads into newer African markets wherein he found a tremendous potential for his products.
             During fortnightly dinners with his parents, his mother never forgot to coax him to find a suitable girl and get married. Her simple motherly logic was that the wife would take his bulk burden off. However, he wasn’t emotionally ready for the marriage yet as his whole time was taken up by the growing business. So, on each occasion he deflected her mother’s question and concern so diplomatically that his father never forgot to mention to him that he would have made a better diplomat than a businessman. He simply smiled at his father’s comment.
      Taking time off his business was a distant dream. So, suddenly when the opportunity came his way after three years he was delighted. His parents too were happy for him and asked him to proceed on vacation straightway. Coincidentally, on the previous night Vincent, his college friend, had called him up and invited him to visit Kohima, where he worked. He had promised to ring back with a positive response.
            Vincent was a Naga who had come to Delhi for his graduation. They had joined the college the same day and incidentally clicked well the moment they got acquainted. And in next three years he learnt a lot from Vincent about the northeast, in particular Nagaland. During the umpteen coffee sessions Vincent narrated him countless fascinating stories, mostly folk tales, which aroused intense curiosity in Anubhav’s mind that he promised Vincent that he would certainly see Nagaland. But somehow he couldn’t accompany Vincent to Kohima during the vacations. Later he went abroad for his business degree and Vincent returned to Nagaland to take up a government job. He revived his friendship with Vincent once he established his business.
          Next day he contacted his travel agent and asked him to make arrangements but didn’t inform Vincent about his plan. Once he landed at Dimapur airport he rang up Vincent and told him that he was on his way to Kohima. An annoyed Vincent cautioned him about the weather and gave him the cell number of Daniel, a taxi driver in Dimapur. The delayed flight upset his plan and he was forced to halt for the night at Dimapur. Daniel met him in the hotel room and told him to get ready by 8 a.m. the next day. In the first instant itself he understood why Vincent had suggested Daniel. His pleasing demeanor had impressed him.
            Next morning Daniel was outside at his room sharp at 8 o’clock. A few minutes later their journey began. To Anubhav’s question regarding time required to reach Kohima, Daniel’s philosophical reply was that it depended on the weather and so it wouldn’t hazard a guess. Anubhav gazed at the overcast sky. The white clouds wandering aimlessly across the sky seemed quite assuring that the rains would skip that day. So, he found Daniel’s reply a bit intriguing. After all, whatever little knowledge he had acquired during his school days was enough to tell him that white clouds didn’t bring in the rains. So, he brushed aside his companion’s concern about weather as preposterous.  Afraid, he might invite some outlandish comment from Daniel if he talked to him; he opened a book and started reading.
           Daniel, however, seemed unperturbed as he drove on. Both were too lost in their own thoughts to think of any conversation. However, they remained oblivious of the sudden weather transformation. Hardly had they traveled for an hour, when the whole sky got covered with rain-bearing clouds. And without any warning, thunder nor lightning, the rain came down heavily. The strong accompanying winds lashed the windscreen and threatened to tear it apart. Anubhav hadn’t experienced such an intense rainstorm before and therefore, he was getting perturbed but for Daniel it was a common occurrence. So, he was unfazed and continued driving. On sharp bends, however, he was cautious and slowed down. Some minutes later, though, even he too got anxious. From the hilltops the dense fog had begun descending rapidly and filling the lower slopes along which the road went. For a while he drove under the fog light but when the fog became quite dense the road apparently became invisible.
         “Sir, I think we’ll have to halt at some place and wait until the fog clears. It’s dangerous to drive under these conditions. A week ago two trucks had fallen into a ravine, not far from here,” Daniel informed him.
            A perturbed Anubhav asked, “Where?”
            “Don’t worry, sir. I hope to find some hut soon.”
          The car was moving slower than a snail in the fog. Daniel was anxious but not unduly worried for he knew there was a hut close by. During numerous trips to Kohima he had seen that hut but never stopped at it. Minutes later he got a whiff of charcoal coming from his left. He halted his taxi to a corner. Without exchanging a word they dismounted and walked towards the hut. It was pitch dark even during the day and they found it quite tough to climb the hill. Once they reached within a meter they saw the faint light of a lantern filter though the glass window. 
           Daniel knocked at the door and shouted loudly in his own language. In the din of howling of the wind his voice got submerged. It took him a great deal of shouting before a middle-aged woman opened the door. He spoke something to her briskly and then the woman let them in. Both were soaked and shivering. The woman ushered them to the hearth, which contained burning coal. On a closer look, Anubhav found three pretty women sitting at the hearth warming themselves. They stood up and offered them their stools. The older woman urged them to dry their clothes against the fire lest they caught cold. One of the girls at the behest of her mother poured the water in a kettle and hung it over the fire.
          In the dim of light Anubhav strained his eyes to watch their actions and tried to hear their conversation. Daniel was engaged in friendly dialogue with the elderly woman. The girls talked amongst themselves. Perhaps they all talked about the weather, or about him, a stranger in their midst. He looked at them.
          A little later one of the girls offered him a hot cup of tea. His clothes had dried up and his shivering subsided. The tea energized his soaked sinews. To his strange delight Daniel had started translating the conversation without any request from him.
          “Where are the men? I see no one in the house,” Daniel asked.
          "Their father has gone to town to fetch groceries,” the landlady replied.
          “Will he come back tonight?”
         “Can’t say. I doubt if he makes it in this weather,” Anubhav found the woman’s response relaxed and saw her look at him attentively.
          “Who’s he?” she asked.
          “A friend of mine. He came to spend a week in Kohima,” Daniel explained.
          “Oh,” the woman smiled. The girls giggled.
           Anubhav wondered why they did what they did.
          “It seems the weather isn’t going to clear up. We might have to spend the night here,” Daniel looked helplessly at the woman and spoke.
        “No problem. Better you leave tomorrow morning. By then this storm would peter out,” her words removed Daniel’s major worry of the moment. A shelter for the night was all he needed.
           The woman asked the girls to prepare dinner for the guests. So, their status had got upgraded from shelter seekers to that of guests, Anubhav grinned. Their talks had again turned to weather, he noticed. The woman complained that she was witnessing one of most horrendous nights in her life. The rainstorm was into its sixth hour and still going strong. She wondered how long it would go on like that.
        The three girls were busy in preparing dinner and they paid little heed to the dialogue between their mother and Daniel. Once a while, though, they did glance at Anubhav out of curiosity.  Once dinner, consisting of rice and vegetables, was ready the girls laid it out on a small table. They ate dinner quietly. The plates were removed and placed in the makeshift kitchen. The woman lighted a pipe and offered it to Daniel. In the meantime the girls too settled down with them after finishing their chores.
             By  chance  Anubhav  looked  at  his  watch. It was  6 p.m. but it was so dark 
outside as if it were midnight. It was going to be the longest night of his life and he didn’t know how to spend time. He wondered if the hut would survive the fury of the rains and the howling winds. In his life he never had felt so petrified but in their company he put up a brave front. Besides that horrendous night, there were plenty of things, which looked bizarre to him. One, the hut was located far away from any village. Two, it had no male members and the woman’s reply that her husband was away to Kohima to purchase groceries wasn’t very convincing. Three, the three girls somehow didn’t seem normal to him. Four, the whole place had an eerie ambience. 
           But Daniel perfectly felt at home in the company of those women and that gave him some comfort. To his rather unusual query as to why they stayed away from the main village, his host had a tale to tell. She narrated that her father-in-law was a very influential man in the village but he was quite orthodox in his beliefs. And he held one belief that the education was bad thing for the simple tribal folks as it brought devil into their minds and thus was a hindrance in their way of achieving heaven after death. So, he never educated his children. It was a different matter though all his children except my husband died when they were young. But everyone in the village wasn’t like him and when the pastors came to the village to spread education, he drove them away. Unable to bear his idiosyncrasies, other villagers one by one left the village and settled about a mile from here. Only he stayed back. So that explains our lonely existence.
         “Is he alive?” he asked looking incredulously at her.
         “No, he died a decade ago.”
         “Then why didn’t you people shift to the new village?”
         “My husband didn’t feel the need,” was her cryptic reply.
     “So, you spoiled the future of your daughters in the bargain,” he sounded concerned.
         “What education? My daughters are wise and know everything a woman needs to know to keep her husband happy after the marriage. Moreover, they are fabulous storytellers. Perhaps you aren’t aware, we have six daughters and not three. Three of them have gone away with their husbands and now live happily with them,” she said proudly.
         “Do you mean to say they were chosen for their storytelling capabilities than their educational qualifications,” Anubhav glanced at Daniel, then at the girls and shrugged his shoulders in disbelief.
        Daniel nodded in affirmation. The girls simply smiled in which they were quite good at because in the last few hours he had noticed that they smiled on and at almost everything. Undoubtedly they were pretty but they were illiterate and it was rather unusual for any sensible man to marry anyone of them for their physical beauty alone, he argued in his mind.
          The woman took a long drag from pipe. For a while they fell silent.
          “But for the fog, we would have continued our journey,” Anubhav lamented.
        The woman looked at him affectionately and spoke, “Yeah, this fog is quite dense
and almost impassable but it’s nothing compared to what the natives experienced hundred years ago. My grandmother once told me that her husband with some villagers had gone for hunting in the forest where he was caught in the thick fog, which lasted almost a week. And once the fog cleared two villagers had lost their way back home and never returned. Even till date their bodies haven’t been found. Some say wild animals ate them, some say they crossed over into Burma and lived there until their deaths. But no one’s sure what happened to them.”
        “So, fog has been a kind of devil to you folks,” he commented.
       “For some may be but not for me. Fog has brought light in our lives. The denser the better.”
        Intrigued by her statement, he questioned, “How?”
    “The thick fog, which makes movement on the roads impossible forces the travellers to take a shelter for the night in the nearest place. And our hut’s providential location attracts the hapless passengers. A knock at our doors during a foggy day or night means a godsend opportunity for us. We provide free food and shelter to the stranded persons. During the long nights when they get bored, our daughters take turns to narrate them stories. Often someone takes fancy to the stories and offers to marry the girl,” she said excitedly. “There have been some instances when the strangers failed to arrive at a decision, the fog persisted for another day and helped them to make up their minds.”
       “Did some stranger leave without marrying any of daughters.”
       “Yeah, it did happens once,” she said recollecting. “About ten years back, on such a foggy night a man had walked in and pleaded for shelter. When he heard stories from my daughters he appreciated very much but refused to marry. Finding me disappointed he offered to stay for a week and teach us English. His logic was that knowledge of another language would broaden the horizons of my daughters and enhance their capabilities to narrate stories to someone who didn’t know the native dialect but English.”
        “Why did that man refuse to marry any of your daughters?” he asked curiously. 
        “He was a pastor,” she replied briskly.
        “And when was that?”
        “After my three daughters had got married off.”
      “So, none of them had had a chance to tell their stories in English to anyone so far,” he queried anxiously.
         “They have you now,” she said with a mysterious grin.
        He felt a chill run down his spine. So, he would have to listen to their stories and then chose one of them as his future wife. It was the most bizarre circumstance he was confronted with. Why should he unnecessarily bother about the issue? He can listen to them and then refuse to marry anyone in the morning, he thought. After all, the woman had laid no such precondition. Or, he could feign illness and decline to listen to them but that would be foolish, for he would never know what stories the girls told and mystery would never be resolved. Moreover, he had no other options to spend that long night.
        The woman signaled to his daughters that it was time to wind up. She stood up and ushered her both guests to their beds, separated by a thin bamboo screen, which afforded privacy from the sight but not the sound. Grudgingly Anubhav sat on the bed. The smell of dampness was discomforting. He tried to lie down on the bed but stood up the next moment when he saw a girl walk in. She pulled a stool and sat near him. After a brief introduction she started to tell him a story. He listened it with childlike attention. It was a folk tale, absorbing, intriguing. On the other side he heard Daniel listen to another story. The only difference was that he heard in his own language.
         Thus for the first half of the night the girls enthralled them with fabulous stories, whose impact was so profound that they kept thinking about them for quite sometime. That night he understood why strangers proposed to marry the girls. A beautiful storyteller for a wife wasn’t a bad deal, after all.
           Next morning the fog cleared up and like on the previous occasions, left a smile on her face. The men got ready hurriedly and prepared to leave. Inside the hut the mother bade a tearful farewell to one of his daughters, while the other two looked on jealously. She accompanied them to the road where the car lay after suffering the nightlong storm.
       Once the girl got inside the car, she shook hands and thanked the both men. Minutes later Anubhav and Daniel were moving on the highway.
           Both men looked at each other and smiled. 

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