I had written this story at the age of 18-19… I have posted the unedited version! Kindly pardon the lack of maturity!!
…And the sun shined gaily on the mountain top… Seems like a line from the song Jamaica farewell?? Well, its reality and I am watching it from my window. Beautiful.
The same sun shined when I had met him. A sweet chap and we both were kids when we became friends. I was merely 18 and he was 24! Modern day internet networks do fish out a lot many unworthy people but sometimes, if luck favours, one does meet few good and genuine ones. Don’t you agree? It happened with me quite a number of times, but frankly, he has been the best of a friend ever since. The same sun shined on days that made me cry and days that made me laugh, on days I struggled and on days I passed the hours at ease… The same sun shined even on the day that changed my life completely and transformed me to what I was not to what I am…
Being a photographer, it was a requirement on my job to travel a lot and travelling had also developed into a habit. Thanks to my profession. It was five years ago…
On a bright and sunny day of late November, I got off the phone with him. He was worrying about the next tour that would start the day after, since I was not at the brim of my health. A little fever, that’s all. I am not going to die in the end, don’t worry, like Eric Segal’s girl in Love Story! That was a beautiful story, isn’t it? I wonder how people write something so life-like… He had called me quite a number of times then, throughout the day, enquiring after my health. But the excitement of the next tour was enough to drive my sickness away before the day of my departure. I had flown down to Kolkata the previous day.
I boarded my train for Siliguri, at 4:45pm from Howrah. The train journey was quite entertaining as soon after the train left the city and started going through the fields—lush greenery filled my eyes. I slept and I woke up, I gazed and I watched, bought tea and something to munch on at every station. Then finally after an overnight ramble, I reached Siliguri. From there, I took a bus ride to Kurseong; in about two and a half hours it dropped me in to the land of the Lepchas. I was to remain there for two days. The day I reached, it was already evening and evenings are not very helpful in hill-stations. Clouds had gathered outside the windows and everything was behind a curtain of fog and mist! No alternative, but to wait for the fresh morning!
The sun peeped into my room from the window and lit it up. I woke up and drew back the curtains—“Whoa! What a beauty!” I thought to myself, looking out of the large glass windows. I got dressed, loaded my camera and went down to the breakfast room. Today I was to visit the elegant and virgin forests of Ghoom. It was a five-hour walk through the well-forested ridge and I was more than happy to be able to be there. While I gulped in my breakfast, not wanting to waste even a minute of the precious time, my phone rang. He called me to ask me how I was, where would I be going and did I think of our first expedition together while I stayed locked in my room last night… He’s very sweet. My car was waiting for me outside the hotel and I hopped in.
Nature is at her best when it comes to her hill stations. Any hilly area or mountainous region appeals to my eye for its majestic and exuberant existence. The snow-capped mountains with lush coniferous forests, set under the clean blue sky—is something that I long to see and take photographs of. My car had to stop on my request at a few spots and I captured some heavenly photographs of such God’s gift. Then finally, I reached the ridge entrance. With a guide, I began my walk through the forest. It was mind-blowing. The steep climbs and sudden depressions really started taking a test of my knees and stamina! But I won’t let go! And, on I moved, forward, forward, forward! On my way, I passed a young couple, newly married, sitting together under a tree. She seemed too tired to carry on immediately. I don’t know why, I thought of him, what he might be doing right then! You know, there’s no relevance of the thought, because we have always been the best of friends for the last 22 years and today at 40, we both are single and great pals! I sometimes wondered whether he had similar thoughts as mine or not! Perhaps not! Perhaps he did!
Anyway, I passed them and took a left turn where the path rose to a steep slope and took my concentration into the climb. Atop this little hill, there was a beautiful spot where I paused to take a few shots and moved on. The five-hour walks took a total of 6 hours because of my stopping every now and then, but, trust me, I got some extraordinary shots!
It was evening till I could return to my hotel and take a hot water bath. I don’t know why, but I’ll tell you something very personal, I love to think while I relax in my bathtub! And thus, as a habit, I began thinking about the whole day and events. My thoughts flowed like a river, forming bubbles and little whirlpools at uneven intervals. But they came to a stand still when I remembered that young couple I had come across. But I soon realised that it was not really the couples I was thinking about, it was about him. At 40, I am single and without a boyfriend, an affair, or anything. But yes, I have him as my best of a friend. He was there with me when I went through a broken relationship, he was there for me when I behaved oddly and suffered from mental disturbances and again he was there with me when I laughed like a child in glee! However, he never said he wanted to marry me and he never said that I am special, but he always took great pains and measures to keep me happy, content, unharmed, and make me feel very important! I never understood his psychology and may be I never will. We talk about family and love and dreams and all sorts of romantic topics among others, but neither he, nor I ever spoke on these from a personal point of view, about ‘us’. Now please don’t think I am dysfunctional, as my father often puts it, but I like to think that I am just a bit different!
I turned the shower on, and engaged myself to what I have been there for!
The next day I went to the Eagle Crag as it affords splendid views down over the Teesta river and southern plains, and got my breath-taking shots of beautiful mountain-tops covered in the clouds, coloured golden with the rising sun! Then the car I had rented took me to the Makaibari tea estate for a tour in their aroma factory. Hmmm… what an attractive fragrance covered the area, it sort of balms one’s senses with it’s magic!
After a whole day’s gallivanting, I spent the rest of the evening listening to live music in the hotel’s bar. With my mind afresh, prepared for my departure to Darjeeling the next morning. The car took me to Darjeeling—the Gorkha Land, in almost two hours and dropped me at the Mayfair Hill Resort. My booking had been done and a porter took my luggage. I paid off the car, gave the driver some tips and took the lift to the third floor.
My room was much more than I could ask for—the front veranda opened its view to Mount Khangchendzonga looming over the northern horizon spreading a magical aura over this small township. I was too energetic to waste my time at the hotel a minute longer and ran to the restaurant to have food. I had reloaded my camera already and spoken to the reception to arrange a car for me for the next seven days from then on, thus all was ready and waiting for me! I boarded my car and drove down to the Observatory Hill, a place rich with Hindu and Buddhist shrines. It was a place that seemed out of the world. Then I went to Dhirdham, a place with a pagoda-style Hindu temple. Awesome! And then as the last stop for the day, Kachen, the guide and driver, took me to the Tibetan Refugee Self-Help Centre—a place where one can buy Tibetan carpets, woodworks and leather goods. I did my shopping and returned exhausted but thrilled at my expedition of the day.
I have never been a big supporter of the idea that marriage and having babies are quite important things in life. I love children, but I cannot quite stand the idea of having one of my own. You can conclude that my aversion towards this had sort of prevented the thought of marriage from coming into my mind! It’s like, both of these things go together and if you don’t want the latter, forgo the former. He had tried quite a number of times to make me see the brighter side of it, but believe me, I could never get over the hill! And, at last he let go! “You’ll never understand! Let’s change the topic!”, he would say, tired and irritated!
My point behind telling you this was that in the hotel, whenever I would come down to the lounge or go to the games parlour, there was a small girl, Ritu, who would come to me! She could barely walk and the first day I saw her was when she had crawled across the floor and was tugging at my shirt while I was aiming a shot on a snooker table! I turned around and saw the little girl, as white as fleece! She was so soft and tender that I loved holding her in my arms. I met her parents—they were quite young, two or three years into marriage and the mother and father of so sweet a cherub! Ritu loved to play with my ear-rings! I have a fascination for ear-rings and she perhaps liked the dangling shapes hanging from my ears! And she also liked the colour royal blue. Since I love that colour, I often wear tops and suits of it and she would feel so attracted, be it at the breakfast table in the morning or at dinner or at the parlour or in the hot-water pool, she would be there with me! Every night for the next three consecutive days, I kept giving updates of my new little friend to him and we laughed over her little mischief and amusements!
It was the third night already. I had two more days to stay! The night was peaceful and I played with my little friend for a long time till she fell asleep in my lap. Her parents smiled at me when I handed over to them their precious God’s blessing. It was quite late and I went to my room. For a change I switched on the television and tuned into VH1. I like that channel, it shows a great many good videos and songs. Then I don’t know when I had actually fallen into deep sleep.
It was may be at 3am or so in the dead of the night that I woke up, coughing badly and half choked. There were voices that were screaming in panic and I had enough time to figure out that the hotel was on fire just before a porter banged madly at my door, asking me to wake up and evacuate the room. Hastily I took my camera, cell phone and the backpack and opened the door. He was standing there, terrified and I saw people from the other rooms also come out, all bewildered and afraid of what might befall. The porter boy led us to the emergency exit door and we ran though the stairs to safety.
Standing outside, we looked at the blazing hotel. Smoke curled up into the air like the thick clouds of a tornado and fire lit up the rooms and corridors. I looked around myself for Ritu and her parents. I knew they were staying in one of the room in the second floor, but they were nowhere to be found. I looked through everybody, but I saw no sign of them. A thought suddenly struck me and a thrust of clod blood rushed down my spine—they might be still inside. I ran back into the hotel with two three other men who offered to help and ran up the stairs to where they hauled. The whole corridor was a furnace and burning blocks of wood fell from the roof and walls burned. The murmuring sound of a raging fire was so loud that we couldn’t hear ourselves shouting.
We found the door, bolted from within and two men got hold of a thick wood bar and we tried to break it open. Neither the child nor her parents could be heard. The door fell back and a gush of fire came at us. It burned us but little and I darted into the smoke. The parents lay dead but there was no sign of the child. My heart sank at the situation. Where could she go? I called her name and looked around, half mad in the anticipation of what might have happened to her, how I would see her. The other two me fled when a huge chunk of the concrete fell lose from the floor above. “I must look, keep looking.” I said to myself and waded further into the room. Then three burning bars of wood fell between me and the door. I went to a window and broke it open. It was still two storeys high.
Just before I was about to give up hope, something caught my eye—a part of a baby pink dress hanging from the doors of the cupboard. I went over and opened it. To my surprise and God’s benevolence, there she lay inside, unharmed but unconscious. I took her to my bosom and went to the window and looked down. Two of the boarders outside saw me and came forth to help. A woman gave her saree and five men held it for me to jump. I wondered what if it tears and I fall straight to the ground? But I had no time to think again and with the child to my bosom, I jumped. Thank heaven that the saree did not tear and we were safe.
I ran to where I had left my stuff, and took out the first-aid box. There came forth an elderly man and told me if he could examine the child, he had been a doctor and in now in a retired vacation with his wife. I asked him if she was okay but to that, he remained quiet, and I understood that he had lost her. Tears filled my eyes as I noticed the people around me, some crying, some holding on to their dear one, some helping others , some watching the fire in anguish and anger. I understood that I was one of the luckiest of them. I looked at the old man, and expected a reply but softly he told me to take her to the hospital. The firemen had arrived just then and paramedics were close by. There had been three landslides over in the last 8 hours and thus roads were blocked. I ran to the paramedics and gave them my child and they put an oxygen mask onto her.
It was like a test in frenzy. I cannot tell how time went and morning came. The sun shined brightly in my face and somebody was wiping my face very tenderly with a soft handkerchief. I slowly opened my eyes and saw the old man’s mild smile. Getting back my senses, I shot upright and asked for Ritu. The old man had her in his hands—she looked at me and smiled. My emotions piled up too fast in me and I started crying in joy. I took her to my lap and went over to my possessions.
Almost 40 people had died among the tourists and 27 of the hotel crew. It was devastating. Press and ambulances and police all had come by then. One by one they took our statements and my phone rang. I answered and it was him… tensed, terrified and worried. I said I was alright and he told me to return immediately. I took out my camera and took a photograph of the burned down ramshackle debris of Mayfair. I showed my press card to the police and they arranged for a car to take me to the airport and I asked the old doctor to come with me. He did. We went to the airport and boarded the first flight back to my city.
He was waiting for me at the exit and as soon as I emerged, he clasped me into a tight embrace and for the first time, I felt that it was different from the embraces I had known till date… The doctor had called his son and he was there to pick up the bereaved father. They departed. Ritu and I walked over with him and got into his car. He drove us over to my apartment and came in with me. We cleaned the house and washed the kitchen-ware and ordered for a luncheon. Ritu had begun crying, from hunger I suppose and he bought some milk and as soon as she felt full, she dozed off to sleep. We spoke at length over food and we went over to the couch with beer. For the first time, he gently pulled my head onto his shoulders and let me rest there. We were talking and I don’t know when I had fallen asleep…
I woke up at Ritu’s crying and rushed to check her needs, and then for the next ten days, he and I went shopping for her and consulted my lawyer about the baby’s legal adoption rights and I began cooking baby food and making Lactogen almost a hundred times… But, a point to mention, he was there all the time…
I don’t know how days passed by and I was an always-at-attention mother to my God gifted child, Ritu. I did not even realise that I was functioning as a full-time mother, nursing a tender little girl—changing her diapers, bathing her, feeding her, making her go to sleep, reading stories and telling stories to her, taking her out to parks in the evening and what not. He would drop in as well and play with her. Often I requested him to stay back for dinner and he would! I realised that I was actually having fun, it was like playing with a doll after being an adult!
Days passed into moths and I was already six months into serious mothering when one morning while Ritu was sleeping, and I was standing at the veranda door with a cup of coffee in my hands, when he came up and stood behind me. I smiled and asked what was it and he started laughing and said,
“How do you always know when I have got something to say?”
“I know you for too long a time not to know about it!” I replied.
“I wanted to ask you something…”
“Yeah, go ahead.”
“Ummm… now that you have a daughter to raise, don’t you think she would require a complete family? You are the mother but you can’t play a father’s role, can you? Even if you can, it won’t go too well!! What do you think?”
I kept looking outside, into the open…
…And the sun shined gaily on the mountain top… Seems like a line from the song Jamaica Farewell?? Well, its reality and I am watching it from my window.
Copyright 2014. Amrita Kar Roy. All Rights Reserved.