Karuna swore a few choice epithets under her breath. A few guests looked up from their seats in the reception area, shocked. It wasn’t noon yet and she felt drained. It was a day just like any other at Hodka Resort.
First, there was the matter of the tomatoes which the brainless grocer had forgotten to deliver. The menu for lunch said Sev tamatar sabzi*. Now the guests were going to be served a curry where one-half of the ingredients were missing.
The cook had already delivered his daily threat of resignation and had agreed to stay only after she had begged him for the umpteenth time. At least this one didn’t come drunk every morning!
The guests in hut number six wanted fresh cow’s milk for their toddler.
Where do they think they are? Anand Village*?
And now there was the summons from her father to meet him in his office. It only meant more problems for her to manage. She wondered what new complaint someone had come up with.
Hope it’s not another case of a choked toilet.
She pushed open the glass door of the administrative office and shivered. Her yellow cotton bandhani* salwar suit, let the chilled air caress her skin like the breath of a lover.
“You wanted me father?” She entered and asked the older man seated behind a desk, strangely devoid of any papers or files. The wall behind him, however, seemed to explode in a riot of colors. A psychedelic wall hanging consisting of geometric patterns embedded with thousands of mirrors, dwarfed everything else in the room. Even the man sitting in front of it. He was dressed in the traditional dress of the region. A white kurta* and dhoti*, with an elaborate red bandhani phento* adorning his head.
It was neither a nod to sentimentality or love for the culture that had made her father don this dress but plain hard business sense. He ran a tourist resort and believed that tourists appreciated a glimpse of local culture.
Karuna lowered her eyes to avoid the light from the mirrors. On reaching her usual corner, she looked up at her father impatiently. He was the Manager, but she was the one who ran the day-to-day business with efficiency and aplomb.
“Meet Mr. Hrihaan Joshi, Karuna. He has come from Mumbai to make a documentary on the White Rann*. I want you to take special care of him.”
She heard Mumbai and it was enough. Her father never let go of a business opportunity and someone from Mumbai, especially with a camera, could bring a lot of business.
He was in his early thirties; tall, clean shaved. A whiff of his scent reached her and she imagined tall pine trees gently swaying under the weight of snow.
“Hello. I hope I’m not too much of an inconvenience. Your father insisted,” he told her diffidently. Even his voice had something in it of the mountains. Steady and deep.
“No… no… No inconvenience. Please follow me and I will show you to your room. Where’s your luggage?” She assumed her professional manner as he collected his equipment. Cameras in their cases, tripods, battery cases and various other boxes the purpose of which she failed to understand
She led him to a round hut-like enclosure, the resort specialty for an authentic kutch* experience, the bells of her colorful mojaris* tinkling in rhythm with her feet.
“This here is your bed. You’ll find fresh towels and other toiletries on the sideboard. The dining room is common. The menu and meal times are fixed. No room service.”
“So, what exactly are you going to show in the documentary about the White Rann? It has been exploited to death by all the media hype.” She immediately regretted her brash comment. The Rann and the surrounding grasslands provided their bread and butter after all.
Hrihaan remained unperturbed. “You’re right. I’m here about something that isn’t as famous. Novelty is the spice for my offerings.” Then he asked, “Have you heard of the Will-o’-the-wisp?”
“Will-o’-the-wisp?” Her querulous tone was enough explanation.
“Sometimes on marshy lands, travelers have seen strange balls of lights. No one has been able to determine the reason behind their existence. They hover above the ground. Some people say they’re supernatural. Some believe them to be perfectly natural. They haven’t yet been captured on camera. This strange unexplained mystery is the subject of my documentary.” He concluded, his excitement palpable.
Karuna exclaimed, “You’re talking of Chir Batti. Around here it isn’t called the fancy name you’ve given to it. Will whatever…”
“You do know they’re spirits, right? Not dangerous. But they don’t want to be followed. If you follow them, they will lead you astray from your path and you end up rueing your decision.”
“So you’re all for team Supernatural, right? Interesting! And what kind of spirits they are, since they aren’t dangerous? Ghosts are supposed to be,” Hrihaan grinned.
Karuna felt a warmth, like the welcome heat of dying embers on a winter’s night, enveloping her. She blushed at those cat eyes gazing into hers earnestly, and stammered out her reply.
“I…I think they are the spirits of those who were thwarted in love, coming back to be together with those they loved; to recall memories once held dear…” She trailed off at the twinkle in his eyes. “I’m being a sentimental fool. I should shut up now.”
“Not at all. It’s heartening to see you so interested. I have an idea! Why don’t you come with me while I chase your lovelorn spirits?”
She could tell he was making fun of her. Still, she was thrilled at a chance to see these ghost lights, stories of which had made her childhood interesting and full of hope. In that arid land populated with people as dry as the desert, at least love existed somewhere, even if in stories.
It wasn’t difficult to get her father’s permission. Promises of close up shots of the resort and a mention in the credits, was all it took. Karuna felt anxious and elated at the same time.
The next few days were spent by Hrihaan in exploring the area and talking to the villagers, interviewing those who had gone the deepest into the marshlands of the Banni grasslands and had been witness to the strange phenomenon. He would take Karuna with him on these trips. It made the villagers comfortable to see a familiar face. Karuna would later remember those days as an unending rhapsody of good natured ribbing on both their parts while gulping down innumerable glasses of buttermilk and lassi*, interspersed with uncountable plates of spicy dabeli*. Soon they had determined a few locations where they had a chance to catch the elusive light orbs in their camera.
The moon cast a pale silvery glow on the grassy bush making it assume a gentle beauty that the sun’s sharp rays failed to lend. Hrihaan and Karuna sped along the dust laden path bordered by the grasslands on both sides in their jeep, driven by a trusted chauffeur from the resort. The quiet of the terrain seemed reflected inside the vehicle.
It was the fifth day they were going to chase the spectral lights. The last four days they had pitched camp to no avail. All they had ended up with were strained eyes and stiff necks. With each passing day their excitement and faith had dwindled a little. But something had flourished in Karuna’s heart; something that put a twinkle in her eyes, a spring in her steps, and replaced her perpetual frown with unexpected smiles.
The silence was broken by Hrihaan’s voice.
“Do you think we’ll get to see the Chir Batti today? Maybe if we were a couple in love, they would have come to us. Don’t you agree?”
Karuna was thankful for the moonlight playing hide and seek within the jeep. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been able to hide the blush spreading on her cheeks at his jocular words.
“They will come to you when they want to. You’ve to be patient. Time here doesn’t move like in Mumbai. Mumbai is a sprightly lass full of anticipation and excitement, running towards her love. The Rann is an old wise grandmother shuffling along with painful joints, collecting stories to tell her grandkids. When the spirits decide they want to be a part of your story, they will appear. “
“How aptly you describe my city. I hope one day I can show you around,” Hrihaan said as they stopped and set up the equipment. They had reached the little clearing they had identified as the perfect place for observing the lights.
They settled in their places, sitting next to each other, the grass and shrubs hiding their presence. Being so near him, Karuna felt intensely aware. Her heart beat like a dholki* keeping the beat in Garba* dance. She was sure it could be heard by Hrihaan and definitely by the spirits who wouldn’t come today too. She tried to calm her heart when Hrihaan got up.
Has he heard the sound of my galloping heart?
“Smile!” Hrihaan said cheerfully as he pointed the camera at her and clicked. The sudden flash in the night almost blinded her. When she opened her eyes, she could see stars in her vision.
Why are the stars moving? And why do they look like round balls of fire?
Karuna clutched Hrihaan’s hand. “Shhhh…. Can’t you see them? They’re here.”
Hrihaan looked where she pointed. Two blue balls of fire hung suspended in air, at a distance of more than fifty feet from them. Too far away to be captured properly in a video camera.
“Yay!” Hrihaan jumped with excitement. He pointed the camera towards the orbs and clicked. However, as soon as he clicked, the balls moved up with an amazing speed. The resulting image only showed the night landscape. He tried again with the same result. They soon found that however much they tried, they could not photograph the lights.
“They can’t thwart me like this,” exclaimed Hrihaan before he took off after them.
Karuna ran after Hrihaan. The orbs raced ahead and Hrihaan followed them through grass, shrubs, and thorny bushes, heedless of where he was going. Karuna finally caught up with him after some time. He stood panting and looking around like a lost puppy for the ghostly lights. They couldn’t be seen around anywhere. It was only then they realized that they both were hopelessly lost.
“Didn’t I tell you they don’t like to be followed? Why did you have to run after them like this?” Karuna questioned, cross with his irresponsible behaviour.
“Gloat all you want. It’s not everyday that you get to say `I told you so’.” He grinned. “Whatever happens, I’m not rueing this detour as long as you are by my side.” He added sombrely.
Karuna’s face flamed up like the balls of fire they had been chasing. Embarrassed, she walked ahead, followed by Hrihaan . They walked in the night keeping the moon as their guide, not knowing if they were going in the right direction but content in each other’s company. They had walked for almost an hour when they stumbled onto the White Rann.
The vast salt desert stretched as long as their eyes could see, silent and expansive. The moonlight cast a silvery glow and the indigo night sky emphasized the whiteness of the white stretch. They felt they were the only two people in the world.
The pristine beauty acted as a balm to their tired and anxious hearts. They gaped at the scene, forgetting all their troubles. When
Hrihaan’s hand stole into Karuna’s silently she had been expecting it. Her heart overflowed with the beauty and magic of the night as she leaned onto him. She never remembered later if they stood there for a moment or infinity; it felt the same to her.
“I’ve to tell you something,” whispered Hrihaan breaking the magic spell. She waited, conflicted emotions whirling inside her heart, when a stern voice broke the silence of the night.
“Who are you?”
It was a BSF patrol made of four guards. On hearing their plight, the patrol assured them of dropping them at their chosen destination.
“You’re lucky we’re patrolling this sector today. Normally we don’t. However, we have received reports of a Pakistani spy who crossed over some days back and we are being extra vigilant,” one of the more garrulous guards informed them.
Maybe she was tired. Maybe relaxed at being found. It didn’t matter. Would things have changed if she’d noted the silent serious guard eyeing Hrihaan with particular attention, as if consigning his features to memory? Or that Hrihaan sat with his face to the window, trying his best to be inconspicuous?
The sun crossed the borders of the curtain and fell on her sleeping form, the unwelcome warmth shaking her awake.
The sun never falls on this bed before noon. I’m late.
She tried to immerse herself in the day-to-day activities but found that her mind was hovering around the thoughts of Hrihaan and the strange night they had spent together. Hrihaan too had slept through the morning probably, being absent at breakfast. When he missed lunch, she went to check if everything was all right.
The room looked spick and span. The bed was made, the sheets tucked in properly. The towels folded on the sideboard. His unused equipment lay stacked carefully in the corner. The silence stabbed her heart with unease. Looking around, she found an envelope addressed to her, lying on the dressing table.
Her pulse quickened. Something wasn’t right. She picked the letter up, opened it with trembling fingers and began to read.
You have a beautiful name and a soul to match. Not only your name but your whole being is based on love, care and empathy for others. If it hadn’t been so, I might not have had the courage to tell you what I’m going to reveal.
My name isn’t Hrihaan Joshi but Rehaan Ashraf. My city isn’t Mumbai but Karachi but believe me she deserves the description you bestowed upon her. Yes, I’m from Pakistan and I came here on a mission. A camera is the best disguise that there can be. People only remember the camera, never the cameraman.
Initially I took you with me since with you by my side, no one would ask any uncomfortable questions. I have no idea when that simple requirement changed into a pressing need. I spent my days waiting for the moments I would spend with you. These few days we spent together have been the best of my life, even better than the initial days of my training amidst the hills of Kashmir. The sense of purpose I had was totally trumped with your gentle presence and lively enthusiasm.
You’re an exceptional girl. Taking care of so many things effortlessly. But you’re bowed down with too much care. You frown far too much and need someone to make you laugh. You even made me forget my goal. The sole mission I had in the past few days was to make you happy. I’m content I could at least achieve the one trusted to me by my heart if not the one by my masters.
I know I’m not allowed to dream. However, I have seen the smiles playing on the corner of your lips while talking to me and the twinkle in your eyes in my presence. When my hand stole into yours last night, it felt that two pieces of one whole had found their way into each other.
My mind iterates that I shouldn’t hope but the heart has its own say. I know that you feel the same as I do. So despite the differences separating our world, I dare to dream of a life together with you. I’ll wait for you in the same clearing we camped in till sunset. If you come, you’ll make me the happiest man on earth. If you don’t, I’ll know you are choosing to be sensible. The choice lies with you.
I wish we had more time together. If this is goodbye, remember that knowing you has made my life richer. Take care. Stay the same. Don’t forget to smile more often.
The letter fell from her hand as she sank onto the bed. The irony didn’t fail to strike her. The one who was breaking her heart was asking her to keep smiling.
For her, he had proved to be the same Will-o’-the-wisp he wanted to capture. Earlier, she’d been content with her life, her duties and the resort; whole, complete. He had arrived like the autumn breeze, scattering her calm like dry leaves, and taken a part of heart with her, leaving longing and regret behind. An unachievable dream.
When she walked two hours later into the BSF camp, it hadn’t take much of her willpower.
It had taken all of it.
If we fall in love and rise with fortitude, we shatter with grief. Sunset came and painted the sky red, the colour of her grief. The TV blared on full volume, the news presenter screaming about how the BSF had gunned down a dangerous Pakistani spy who had been trying to escape. Karuna sat at her reception desk, knowing one lifetime wouldn’t ever be enough to gather her shattered pieces.
The bells of her mojaris tinkled as she reached the clearing, glowing silver in the moonlight. She waited, as she’d done once every year the last decade.
The ball of light appeared out of nowhere. It swished around her, up and down, its vibration tickling her. She laughed. For a few moments, they stayed immobile as one. Then the ghost light vanished. It was time for her to go home.
Disclaimer : This is a work of fiction by the author who has taken some creative liberties. The Will-o-the-wisp are a perfectly natural phenomenon and they are not known to behave in this fashion depicted in the story.
Bandhani – tie and dye technique
Kurta and dhoti- traditional male attire
Phento – a layered turban
Sev Tamatar Sabzi – traditional curry of the Kutch region
Lassi – sweet drink made of yoghurt
Dabeli – kutchi fast food resembling a burger
Anand Village – a village in Gujarat where dairy farming is the major occupation
Mojaris – a traditional belly worn in Gujarat
White Rann – Salt plains in Kutch, Gujarat
Will-o’-the-wisp – lights seen over marshes or bogs by travellers.
Chir Batti –
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