Special mentions by Judges of Write & Beyond contest
Teesta river was gushing down on that rainy afternoon as if there was an urgency. As if someone will ask her to stop or slow down, and she didn’t want to do that – a complete contrast to how Meeta felt. She was in no hurry, she had nowhere to reach. But she knew the still waters of her mind didn’t exude peace but smelled of stagnation.
Abhay continued driving from the backseat, instructing the driver to slow down or press the pedal. From time to time he glanced at Meeta whose eyes were glued to the sky where clouds had begun to gather after rain. Every curve around the mountain revealed a new scene, like the backdrop is changed with every new act in a play.
From a distance she could see the top of the green mountain come out of shadow and melt into golden yellow. The sun was peeping from among the clouds. As they finished the curvy round, a large rainbow could be seen kissing the horizon. Soon thereafter the valley was painted in hues of yellow, orange, crimson and purple. Meeta stood on the bridge, trying to click the sun drown into Teesta. But no matter from which angle she clicked, the Tibetan flags fluttering in the breeze were coming in the way of the picture. Abhay was getting impatient. Not to drive in the dark was his concern and Gangtok was still an hour away.
“Meeta, I don’t know how many sun rises and how many sun sets will satisfy you?”
Meeta was about to answer but then chose to remain silent.
“Morning!” Abhay smiled as he opened the curtains of the window of their suite. He stood there to look at Meeta’s expressions, waiting for her to jump out of the bed into his arms. ‘Mountains could make her do that, only mountains could make her do that,’ he thought remembering the intimate evening in the Blue Mountains on their honeymoon. He could vividly recollect the passion with which they made out that night after reaching Sydney.
She walked towards the window slowly as if still dreaming, resting her eyes on the snow-clad mountains shining in the sun. Her eyes softened as she said, “It is beautiful”.
The breakfast was cold and the variety was limited. The staff was still preparing some of the dishes. The ropeway opened at eight and they had been told not to be late else the queue would get painfully long. Now the hotel was clearly ruining Abhay’s plan.
“Relax Abhay. It isn’t easy for people in hills to arrange stuff as it is in plains. We can have the idli sambar and leave.”
“That is not the kind of breakfast I paid for. The breakfast hours begin at seven precisely because Sikkim is ready to be seen by eight. But now look at them. Why will tourists be attracted if they provide this kind of hospitality?”
The red Wagon R spoiled Abhay’s mood further.
“Where is your jeep? You plan to manoeuvre this matchbox up on the hilly road?”
“Sir, small cars are the safest and easy to drive on roads of Gangtok.”
They send their best vehicles to those who talk to them with authority and are demanding, Abhay sat down at the back muttering to himself. This was not going to end soon for him. The queue by now was long with one hour waiting for the cable car.
“Sir, let’s visit the monasteries and take ride in the evening.”
Abhay nodded, sulking inside.
The golden, red, green and blue carved monastery of Ramtek was stunning. It wasn’t as peaceful as Meeta had hoped because of tourists flocking it. She noticed the lamas sitting expressionless, watching the tourists click pictures and exclaiming at the beauty of the place. Inside the temple where the tall golden statue of Buddha was placed, it was quiet. She deliberately touched the metal bell to hear it echo in the room. It startled the tourists. She walked up the stairs to get the bird’s eye view of Sikkim. Few young lamas were sitting on the edge. The lama in the centre was holding a mobile and all other heads were buried inside. It amused her.
It was at the empty Ranga monastery, she experienced the calmness of a monastery. Her barren feet took her to every corner of the place, touching things she was not supposed to touch, peeping into windows where lamas were studying, even clicking Buddha when cameras were not allowed, breaking every rule. Meeta had never followed rules that she knew will cause no harm if broken! She heard a meow from outside. Three white and brown kittens were sitting snuggled up together on the pavement. Meeta’s eyes fell on that one brown kitten hanging on the edge. It seemed to Meeta he wanted to jump down but was unable to. Abhay gently picked up the loner kitten and placed him with the rest three. He quickly moved away, again hanging precariously on the edge. Abhay was about to lift him to unite with his family when Meeta stopped him.
“Let him be. May be he wants to go elsewhere.”
“He will feel lost.”
“Then he will come back.”
“What if he is unable to find his way?”
“It may be difficult but eventually he will. But if you stop him right now, he may never want to come back.”
“Why do you become so serious Meeta?”
Meeta looked in his eyes.
“I am not serious. I am just stating the truth.”
Abhay was taken aback when next morning Meeta sat in the front for a better view of the scenic road to Temi Tea Gardens. He had always assumed her place was next to her.
“What is your name?” Meeta asked the driver.
“How old are you?”
“Did you go to school?”
“Yes. I studied till ninth.”
“Why didn’t you continue?”
“The school was very far. We had to walk almost three kilometres. Not much time was left to help Amma and Appa. There was little money in the house.”
Meeta noticed little children dressed in school uniform walking at the edge of the road.
“Is it safe for small children to walk in traffic?”
“Oh yes madam. They become used to walking on foot and find their way. There are many schools now so they don’t have to walk far.”
“You never thought of going back to school?”
“No, Madam. It is too late now. This car I have bought from my own earnings. I like being independent.”
“These people find pretexts not to study, don’t believe him,” Abhay remarked from behind in Punjabi.
Ignoring him, Meeta switched on the music. It played soft instrumental music, apt for the picturesque ride.
“Is that some kind of meditation music?”
“These are Buddhist chants.”
The sweet smelling bhuttas, nippy air, music playing and the road going uphill, it was a perfect day. When the car halted, Meeta’s feet ran towards the tiny bushes of the tea gardens. She stood still, her eyes couldn’t believe she had come so close to the mountains. The tea gardens seemed like a green carpet spread out for her, on which she could simply walk and step on the snow clad peaks. She imagined going zig zag on the contours of the peaks, slipping and sliding down laughing away. She smiled at her imagination. For some time, she didn’t lift the camera, not wanting it to come between her and the mountains. But soon she was clicking away frantically, greedy to capture and preserve them with her forever.
“Didn’t I say you will love it? How you were resisting coming to Sikkim?”
Meeta smiled. She was too happy to explain to Abhay why she had not been too fond of hills in the past. But the remark had already taken her back to Dalhousie with her parents. Two strangers walking with an eleven-year-old girl on the grasslands, wanting to make their daughter happy. But little did they know the only thing that could have made her happy was their togetherness. The angry noises she had heard coming from their bedroom every night had lately been replaced with silence. Meeta had felt strange about it till one morning she noticed her mother emerge from the other bedroom. The silence and the distance that had crept between them looked so obvious now that they were outside the home.
She heard Abhay calling holding his camera. She stared blankly at him and then posed.
In a way she was glad that Abhay was too lazy to get up at 4 a.m. in the morning. Arun drove her towards Tashi view point to see the sun rise on Kanchenjunga. She held out her hand to fully feel the chill in the breeze. The sun slowly rose from behind the tall dark mountain, splashing its golden rays on the white Kanchenjunga. Like molten lava, the gold of the sun melted and spread over its white skin.
Placing hands on the side of her mouth, she let out a loud shout. The whole valley echoed with her shout. Meeta remembered how as a little girl she was fascinated by echo. In the loo, in the storeroom, in her tent house, she often shouted to find the echo. But these mountains were different. They echoed her inner voice. Without shouting it out, they echoed back-loud and clear-the quiet voice that often got lost in the rush of the life. Even today they were echoing something to her like the way it had happened when she was fifteen.
There was a certain silence in the gurgling noise Ganga made in the darkness of the night. The moon shone quietly over the silhouette of the mountains. The flaring flames from the bonfire were piercing the serenity. Meeta walked away from it, only to be followed by her father.
“So what have you decided Meeta?”
She had remained quiet, not knowing what to answer. She didn’t have an answer.
“I know it is difficult for you. But you have to make up your mind whether it would be me or your Mom you would like to stay with?”
His words are more piercing than the flames, Meeta thought.
“Dad, I will let you know when we go back to Delhi.”
He left her alone, which is what she wanted.
“Either both of you or none of you,” she heard the echo from the dark mountain.
Only if along with the echo the mountains could send her some strength as well, she thought as she sobbed with her face buried in her long legs.
The Delhi heat was stinging her soft skin even more now as they waited for the cab at the airport. The air conditioner was a good escape. After a long bath, Meeta settled on her bed with a book in her hand. Abhay came running to answer the phone.
“Yes, we are fine.”
Meeta looked up to see him glancing at her. He dropped his eyes immediately.
“Who was it?”
“No one. Nothing important,” Abhay said unbuttoning his shirt casually. Meeta quickly picked up his phone as soon as he entered the bathroom.
“Why couldn’t you have told me it was Arun?”
“Meeta, he called to ask if we have reached safely. Now what is so important to tell you that a driver is butting in unnecessarily,” Abhay picked up the phone, “and you are breaking your own rules by peeping into my phone!”
He threw on bed a packet wrapped in newspaper.
“Arun gave this when we were leaving,” Abhay had not looked at her since the call had ended.
She ran her fingers over the CD named ‘Buddhist Chants’.
She was transported back to the quiet morning they had spent at Rabong, looking at the tall statue of Buddha surrounded by mountains. The chants were softly playing in the Buddha Garden, filling the whole place with a strange tranquillity. Meeta heard a voice. Was it an echo? But there were no mountains here? It was always there, no? Had it turned louder than the noise of the traffic outside? Meeta’s head was pounding with one thought after another. She gently touched her tummy.
“Do you want your child to hear an echo few years from now and then spend her life trying to stifle it?”
Meeta’s eyes were burning.
Abhay looked at the note stuck on the refrigerator when he returned home after work. It baffled him. He looked all over the place but could not find Meeta. He called her but the phone was switched off. Her friends were clueless about her whereabouts. He returned to the note, as confused as he was when he had first read it. What could this possibly mean? He thought as he removed the note. It said-
I rather be the mountain.