Special mentions by Judges of Write & Beyond contest
My eyes open to a bright summer blue sky, dashed with fragments of insipid white clouds. My torpid gaze clings on to that soothing view. The sound of my sputtered and heavy breaths, intermeshed with the sound of gushing water, is all that I can hear. Gentle breeze awakens my senses and washes the unconsciousness off me, slowly.
But, my mindfulness comes at a price: utter panic!
Where am I?
I try to move my neck to see around. A sharp pain burns through the small of my neck. I try to get up and the same sensation scorches my back. The way my almost lifeless body, is lying congealed on these rocks, I suspect I must have been here for quite a few hours.
Did we… crash?
How long have I been unconscious?
I need… to find…
It all goes blank.
My eyes open again, but the sky is not blue anymore. It seems, the dread of not letting this gray sky slip into a black one, was the impetus I needed, to reign in all the energy left in me, and get up. I manage to lift my shoulders and perch myself up a little, on my elbows.
I saw him swim ashore...
He has to be somewhere around
My cracked voice vaporizes as soon as meets the air. When I try to stand up, my legs wobble like they have taken my weight for the first time. My head spins and the images float hazily for a few seconds, before settling down.
For as far as I can see it’s just me, the river and this jungle. Suddenly it all comes back to me. The engine of our plane seized and we crashed into this river. I am not a regular swimmer like Vikram. It assaulted my body to keep swimming against the strong current and the water overwhelmed me often enough. So, quite possibly, I landed ashore downstream of him. For the lack of a better idea, rather any idea at all, I start walking upstream, praying that my guess is right. The setting sun heralding nightfall and the thought that I might not find Vikram before the darkness finds me, help me keep up a pace faster than my battered body can afford at the moment.
The vast expanse around me is eerily quiet. My alarmed yells for Vikram are all that fill that stillness, with a steady backdrop of the river, dry leaves rustling under my feet and a sporadic chirping of the crickets. Thankfully, the waning moon still has enough light, to support my search. However, with every step, my faith in my hypothesis dwindles.
What if I am wrong?
Or what if… he assumed I drowned… and walked away to safety?
No!... He would never leave me behind!
Wait... Am I really sure about that?
By now it is completely dark because I’m at a patch where the sky is too thick, with silhouettes of green, to let any moonlight filter through. I must have been trudging for at least a couple of hours. My steps keep getting shorter, until I am merely dragging my feet in the dirt. I spot a smooth rock and my body starts to move towards it, an act unapproved by my panicked mind. I thump on the ground and lie down using that rock as a pillow. My famished stomach is rumbling, but I am fatigued beyond the point of caring. I lay there trying to fall asleep. Or maybe to just die.
The sky is a sparkling spread of glittering pearls. On any other night, it would be a sight to behold. On this night, I am almost certain that is the last thing I will ever see.
What if… I don’t find him?
I will never make it out of here, alone…
Do I even want to?
I should be scared. But oddly, I am not. Perhaps, I am too exhausted to even muster fear. I just keep thinking, if this is it; what a contrasting eventful end it will be to totally uneventful life.
Died in a plane crash… in a foreign country…
All alone… at least, that part is the same.
This was meant to be the honeymoon, I had been dreaming of for the last five years. Five years! That is how long it took my workaholic husband to tear himself away from his business and plan this vacation. I, in fact, had lost any hopes of it ever happening. Thankfully, my mother-in-law’s impatience for a grandchild, made her pull a coup on her son. I suspect she could also sense how much our marriage needed this. No matter how many glitzy parties you host, or how many expensive gifts your husband buys you; if you are an unhappy couple, it is a naked fact, easily visible to those who care.
He decided to come to South Africa. It was going to be an adventure-packed, adrenaline-gushing two weeks. Hiking the mountains, trekking the wilderness, snorkelling the depths of the seas, soaring the skies; braving all elements of nature. Yes, it doesn’t sound like a honeymoon in the traditional sense of the word. But I didn’t mind. I willingly accepted even this watered down version of a honeymoon. I try to find happiness in being around my husband, while he goes about, doing all the things which make him happy; although, I can’t say that it works.
Following the same mantra, I didn’t even protest, when last evening, he surprised me with the plan to fly over the Drakensberg Mountains. The night before yesterday, he had learned that the owner of our resort, Brian, owns a Cessna 172. I knew Vikram had flown that and many other such aircraft quite a few times. From the twinkle in his eyes, as he heard Brian rave about of his experience of soaring over these mountains and valleys, I even knew that Vikram would be renting that plane soon enough. What I did not know, was, that he would insist I come along.
The flight to South Africa was only the second time I had flown and my body retaliated fiercely against that experience. The whole ten hours of the flight from Delhi were a nightmare. I was throwing up at the smallest turbulence.
So why did he want me to come along for a flight like this, which, it wasn’t hard to imagine, would be far more turbulent?
Maybe, in his excitement, he just forgot about my discomfort with flying. Knowing Vikram, I wouldn’t be surprised that he did. In the last five years, he had forgotten quite a few times that I am a vegetarian; ordered a cocktail for me once, although I don’t drink alcohol and often still misnamed my hometown Raipur as Raigarh. I am a small blip on his radar. I have always known that. Perhaps, that is why it hurts so much that he is my whole universe. Sometimes, I am not quite sure why. Maybe because I have always been told that’s how it should be.
The sun is well over my head. For someone who has not had any food for over 24 hours and slept with stones for a pillow, I have woken up remarkably refreshed. For a few moments, forgetting the gravity of my situation, I just sit there, mesmerized with the understated beauty of this place. Golden hues of the tussock grass rise and fall with the slopes of the mountains, in a tranquil rhythm that is music to my eyes. The dark brown mountains stand guard at the periphery. They seem daunting, but only for a moment. It isn’t hard to see that their toughness intends to shield this backwoods paradise from all that might threaten it. Following the sharp profile of those hills, my eyes land onto the sky. There are flocks of birds flying about, in a peripatetic fashion, as if they don’t really have to go anywhere, but they like to flaunt their wings.
How good it must feel?
To have wings...
To be able to just fly away… from somewhere you don’t belong?
A feeling sneaks up on me that the last thought isn’t about my current predicament. Rather, that is how I feel about my life in general; about the last five years and the countless more of my future, which do not promise to turn out any different. I don’t feel any more alien sitting here amidst these hills and the woods, than how I usually feel, at the parties I accompany my husband to. Sleeping on these rocks was a lot less hard than sleeping next to a man, who didn’t even notice the warmth on the other side of the bed. This ravenous hunger burning my insides is far easier to bear than starving for one meaningful intimate conversation with Vikram.
Do I even want to escape this place… and for what? Some more of that life?
The thought triggers something inside me and the dam finally breaks. I sit there crying, with my head on my knees.
The deluge of tears subsides and the basal survival instinct takes over, once again. Everyone wants to save themselves, regardless of whether the quality of their existence merits such a rescue or not.
This is merely my fatigue and hunger talking…
Try and think straight…
I perfunctorily scan around for any wild animals I should watch out for. From all the brochures I read back at the resort, I could recall there are not many of those here. Just some white rhinos, klipspringers, and a few others. And one needn’t worry about encountering them because they all mostly stay off the commonly hiked areas, anyway.
Damn!... Why did I not think of that before?
This place is thick with trail routes!!
It is hard to go on more than a few kilometers… without being intercepted by one.
Drakensberg, now one of the star attractions of South Africa’s tourism proposition, isn’t the same sparsely populated wilderness it once was. Now, the resorts and camps dot its farthest borders, and hike trails criss-cross all over it. Most of them follow a river. The resorts and camps are near the embankments too.
So if I keep walking by this river… I could find a trail.
And follow it to someplace safe!
I have a better chance of finding Vikram, too, that way…
Because most of the resorts have expert trekkers on their staff… for search and rescue operations.
My body automatically obeys that promising thought and I spring to my feet. This glimmer of hope, gives my body the strength it shouldn’t otherwise have. The power of optimism defies all laws of nature and how!
I start walking much faster than usual. I want to cover the maximum possible distance, before either my hope or my body gives up again. After what seemed like a few hours, a wide track starts running parallel to the river. It looks well-trodden; there isn’t a blade of grass left on it. My eyes widen with excitement and I break into a sprint. After continuing a few minutes on it, I start to see a few sets of footprints which look rather fresh. My lips attempt a feeble smile. My legs are aflame with the exertion, but I do not stop. I just keep telling myself, that at the end of this, I will find safety. But my courage is even flimsier and rational thinking isn’t a luxury I can afford at the moment.
After running for some time I start seeing spots of colours; the kind one sees right before fainting.
I’m going to pass out…
I need… water…
Have I ever ran… this much?... Never.
I should… stop… for a while.
But my legs keep going, independent of my doubtful mind.
Wait! Are these spots getting… bigger?
Oh my God! They aren’t spots…. They are… someone’s clothes!
I jam my feet instantly so I could use all my remaining energy to call out to them. It takes a few attempts with my parched throat, to catch their attention. The group turns around, spots me and run towards me. Suddenly, the fatigue and dehydration catch up with me. My head spins and the images start to float again. I collapse and hit my head hard on the ground. I feel someone shaking me by my shoulders. I want to speak, but I am finally fully drained.
I thickly accentuated African voice pierces through.
“Are you Reeddeema?”
I’m not even sure, if he said ‘Riddhima’, or it merely sounded like that to me. I just nod weakly, in a ‘yes’ and then it all goes completely black.
Vikram and I are sitting out on the sun deck, facing the Sandspruit River, with the mighty Mgodoviya Peak flanking it. I look at Vikram. He is deep in thought. I don’t want to disturb him. Both of us could use this pause.
It’s been ten days since our rescue and return to this resort, where we were originally staying. Ten very surreal days.
When we didn’t return on schedule that day, and Brian, couldn’t contact us on the radio, he was quick to assume the worst. He alerted the other resorts and Park Rangers throughout the area. Almost everyone sent out a search party immediately. By that evening they had found Vikram, lying unconscious next to the river Ngwangwane, the one we had crashed into. Finding me proved to be a little more difficult. Firstly, I had washed ashore a bit south, of where Vikram was found, where the nightfall prevented people from looking for me. Secondly, while walking by the river during the night, I had unwittingly walked into the expanse of the neighbouring country of Lesotho. That is where I was found, the next day.
Most of my wounds were superficial, and have healed. But Vikram had a severe concussion on his head, causing internal bleeding. The subsequent swelling inside his brain has led to temporary amnesia. The doctors are quite positive it will go away as the swelling subsides because he is responding well to medicines.
If our relationship was awkward before all this happened; I don’t even know what to term it as, now. Silence amidst us, isn’t something new. But this kind of stillness is far more maddening. I don’t know what he remembers and what he doesn’t. He asks me questions all day, about his life, his business and his family. Doctors think it will help jog his memory. Sometimes, my answers bring a flicker of recognition on his face. Sometimes he just stares at me blankly. If he has trouble remembering even the nature of his business; I would be a fool to expect he remembers much about me. And that is something I cannot blame his memory loss for.
While Vikram has accidentally forgotten who he was; I have deliberately chosen to do it. The Riddhima who walked out of those woods isn’t the same one who was lost in there. In my thoughts, in my words, in my actions; there is a foretaste of a new me.
This whole episode feels like a metaphor for our deformed marriage. This experience stripped my marriage naked of all delusions of the ‘so-called’ normalcy. For a while, Vikram and I tried to fly together. But we couldn’t. We crashed. And then, I walked out of those forests, alone. I can’t help thinking that is nothing but an epiphany, of what I should do with my life.
But how does one fix something that is not completely broken? How does one walk away from something which by the society’s standards isn’t that detestable? The lament that ‘my husband doesn’t pay any attention to me’ hardly carries much currency in the kind of society we live in. It barely ever got me any empathy, from my own parents.
It has dawned on me, over the last few days, that Vikram’s memory loss is perhaps the opportunity I need. In my efforts to help him reconnect the dots of his life, I quietly slip in the sense of how little there is to connect, as far as our marriage is concerned. Because nothing much ever happened between us.
Today, I apprised Vikram of my decision, to consider a separation. He has been painfully quiet since then. I do feel terrible for piling this on him at a difficult time like this. But it needs to be done here, away from our families, between just the two of us.
He finally speaks up, after a long pause.
“Riddhima… was I ever a good husband to you?”
“Depends on how one defines ‘good’. You were a good provider. You kept me comfortable.”
His sad eyes tell me that he has sifted through that answer and found the buried ‘no’. I am a little surprised to see him shatter so conspicuously, at that. My resolve, to have an honest conversation with him takes a blow. I do, after all, love him.
I ‘did’… Damn’it! Past tense. Past emotion!
For a quaff of courage, I look at the vast golden expanse beyond the river.
This place… this crash… everything that happened to us… was for a reason.
Both of us need this.
“Have we ever talked about all this before?”
“Why not?” His eyes are brimming with genuine bewilderment.
“We never talked much. You were away a lot... To be honest, I guess I didn’t have the guts either. But, somehow, I do now. I do not want to pretend anymore. It isn’t helping either one of us.”
With his eyes narrowed, he breathes in deeply, bracing for impact.
“Is it that simple? To walk away like that?”
Be honest! Brutally honest. You owe it to yourself and your marriage.
“It will be… for us. Our lives, our thoughts, our entire existence really… hardly overlapped except for the single fact that we shared an address...”
“Is that the crux of your problem with me, Riddhima? That I am too busy with my work and that I don’t give you time?”
The question stings like a taunt. But I remind myself that he doesn’t even remember enough to affront me like that. Besides, that has never been in his nature.
“No. My problem is that whatever time you did get, after our work, you would much rather spend anywhere else but with me… And I don’t blame you for it. I don’t think I belong in your world. We are very different people, Vikram… We want different things.” This is the first time I have acknowledged that fact, even to myself. My heart singes. It was precisely this act, of me suppressing my true feelings which made our marriage so insufferable.
Vikram is inherently not a bad person.
But did I ever tell him that he wasn’t being good enough for me?
There comes a point when the victim becomes an equal culprit, by failing to protest. Our marriage had hit that point long ago.
“What did I want?”
“Fame. Money. Success… To be around the people who wanted those things too.”
“And… what did you want?”
I have a strong urge to lie, because I would hate to sound vulnerable.
No! Remember… honesty cuts both ways!
“To matter to you…” My lips quiver and my voice dies before the sentence is over.
“But... you do! You always did. I can’t believe I never let you know that.” His voice dies down too.
He is really shattered with this.
This doesn’t make sense.
How could my leaving matter to him so much when my staying never mattered at all?
As we sit there, letting the remnants of our frail bond disentangle, slowly; Brian walks out on the deck and spots us. He has been exceptionally good to us all this time. He is convinced that the accident happened because of his ill-maintained plane. I don’t know if it is true and Vikram doesn’t remember enough to comment on it. But Brian has assigned all the guilt to himself, and insists that we stay with him till we are well enough to travel back home.
“How’s my favourite couple doin’? Anythin’ you guys need?” He is a cheerful looking African man with warm eyes and a fatherly voice.
“We are good Brian. No… we don’t need anything. You have been so kind.”
“No, No, my girl... It’s my pleasure, abs’lutely… Anyway, jus’ came out to tell you I am havin’ them set up a table for you out’ere. It is a beautiful evenin’. Dinner on this deck, with the evening sky and the view of the Mgodoviya, is not to be missed. Tonight the chef’s makin’ his special stuffed duck! It is quite somethin’, I tell ya.”
“That would be lovely… Thank You Brian.” Vikram responds half attentively.
Brian has forgotten, again, that I am a vegetarian. This would be the fourth time this week I would have to send my meal back. I am almost about to call out to him when Vikram’s voice darts from my left.
“Oh! But Brian… Riddhima doesn’t eat meat.” He pauses for a second, working something out, in his head, and mutters to himself in surprise. “I didn’t even know I knew that.”
My eyes dart to Vikram. It feels like someone who is drowning, spots a rock to swim to.
Did he really… just say that?
“Ah yes! Silly old me. Got that… Some veg au gratin for the lady… Comin’ right up!” Brian gestures with a salute, as he gets back inside.
The sky is a pretty auburn. The tall tussock is swaying inebriated with its own music, like always. I feel that music wafting from those grounds and swelling in the air around me. Before I know it, a small part of my heart starts to sway too.
Vikram moves closer and takes my hands in his. This touch doesn’t feel like that of a man who always saw right through me, like I didn’t matter. In his eyes, is an emotion, I have never seen before.
Regret what we were?
Hope for what we could be?
“I don’t know what to say, Riddhima…” His apologetic eyes are imploring mine. “I’m sorry, that you felt that way all these years. I don’t know what to do to make it up to you…” He squeezes my hands in a gentle manner of a promise. “All I can say is… can we please start over?”
“I think… we just did.” For the first time in the last few days, my heart and my mind concur. Sometimes, all you need is one little sign. I smile and squeeze his hands too.
The formidable mountains are shrinking fast, in the rear view mirror. Somewhere, miles beyond these mountains who stand there bidding us adieu, silently meanders the river which changed it all, forever.
“Hey! What’s the name of the river, again? I should, after all, care to remember the name of something that nearly killed me.”
I chuckle, more with the delicious blush on realizing how both of us are thinking of the same thing, then on Vikram’s joke. “Ngwangwane.”
“Ngw… wane… what?!... Damn! Let’ just call it ‘The River’.”
We both chortle out loud. These akin thoughts, hearty laughs, our intertwined fingers, my head finding comfort on his shoulders and him smelling my hair fondly in a response of that; is all very new for us.
We are heading to the airport to take a flight back to where we came from. And thankfully, that only refers to our city. Not to the two people and the state of their marriage, not to their disconnected and imposed coexistences, not to one’s neglect and the other’s silent despondency. I am quite confident the new ‘us’ would never go back to that, again. Somehow, magically, these mountains, this wilderness, and that river took care of that.