April 2010, Nashik.
The agent shuffled his feet, pawing the ground. His visage was a study in embarrassment. “Madamji, the owner has declined. He isn’t willing to rent the apartment to single women. He has been burnt in the past and is uncomfortable dealing with it again.”
“Do you have more flats to see?” I asked, exasperation colouring my features.
I experienced the same situation each year when the rental agreements expired. Every freaking year was the same story! No one wanted to rent flats to single women. ‘Only families’ was their mantra.
“Yes, I have a couple more, but the rent is slightly more. Will they do?” he said.
I nodded. As if I have a choice, I thought. I couldn’t help protesting my innocence.
“Mishraji, I’m a good tenant. I don’t smoke or drink. Neither do I throw wild parties nor play loud music. What was my unpardonable sin this time?”
“I spoke to uncle. He said too many men arrived at the apartment. All day long, there was a steady flow of people.”
“I’m a Reiki practitioner who treats clients at home,” anger pitching my timbre higher, “And the men are old! They can barely walk. And, I have female clients too!” I shake my head at the unfairness of it all.
“Yes, but uncle thought you were an err… a working girl.”
“I am a working girl!” Realization dawned upon me. “Oh, but not of that kind. I heal patients, for god’s sake!”
Mishraji shrugged, concerned more with his commission, one he would earn, only if I got a flat.
After a hot, unfruitful day in the sun, I returned to the place I called home, though not for long. I was in a fix as my lease would run out in a month, and I was yet to find a place that I liked that would fit my budget. With the amount of time I spent with Mishraji, I should just move into his apartment.
Dejected by the prospective owners’ rejections, I tuned out the overwhelming anxiety by surfing social media. Or maybe, added to my ever-increasing anxiety. Who knew? One of the NGOs I freelanced with, was planning a camp for our soldiers in Ladakh. Aimed at reducing stress and bringing physical relief via the medium of Reiki, it was a call for practitioners. It piqued my interest. To balance my mental equilibrium, I donated a lot of my free weekends to charity, helping people with terminal diseases to gain closure over the physical pain and mental distress. It made me feel useful. I had loads of free time, anyway.
I was rather taken in by the idea of using my skills to heal our first line of defence. Even during my Reiki sessions, my mind vacillated between Nashik and Ladakh. It was a two-month-long camp where accommodation and food were a package deal, and even a minor stipend was being offered. Since I had worked with them in the past, I knew the outfit was legit. As I toyed with the idea, the list of pros amplified, towering over the cons. Having lost my parents in a car accident a few years back, I had no familial obligations tethering me to Nashik. It was the place where I had grown up, and it was the place that snatched everything from me.
If anything, my feelings were ambivalent towards it.
It would solve the rental problem May onwards. Albeit, temporarily. I will not have to see Mishraji’s face, and that itself is its USP!
I always wanted to visit Ladakh, and this may be the best chance. But can I take the step of leaving all that was comfortable and familiar, to land in a place where I knew no one?
What do you have to lose, Aindri? My heart questioned the mind.
Nothing. Nothing at all.
July 2010, Ladakh.
I couldn’t believe I had ever doubted my decision to move to Ladakh. It was the most beautiful place in India, hands down! The desert with its sandy yet mineral-rich mountains, the smattering of wildflowers, and the cerulean blue skies with the high monasteries. The colourful Ladakhi clothes and customs, and the people. Oh, the people! Kindness flowed in their veins. Their simple outlook towards life, aided by their Buddhist beliefs, made them treat everyone as an extended family. No wonder crime was virtually unknown.
The Tibetan Plateau, surrounded by the four towering ranges, rarely saw any vegetation gracing it, but a smattering of its hamlet villages displayed startlingly green expansive fields of barley, wheat, etc. Their houses’ facades were stunningly intricate, but lay on loose foundations. Despite the harsh conditions they lived in, the locals’ faces shone with generosity and contentment. Something I experienced first-hand. Their acceptance of me, weaving me, a stray thread, in their tapestry of life was a learning experience for me. The hearts were as open as the air was rarefied.
Once the Reiki camp concluded, I joined hands with an organization called Juley Ladakh, aimed at restoring the old way of life to the Ladakhis who were kowtowing to the Western influence at an alarming rate and ignoring their tenets of staying one with nature. We aided the locals in reverting to waste-composting and harnessing the solar power to illuminate houses. The inhospitable topology made the process slow and tedious, but rewarding. I lived in the same village where I worked and found a small corner house for myself. And I made it my own. Colourful cushions adorned every flat surface. Singing bowls were perched on corner shelves. And the best part? I had a reading corner. Overstuffed chairs with footstools and a table positioned themselves next to a window where the morning light filtered in dreamily. It was the warmest room in the house. I utilized my Reiki sessions to keep everyone’s energy up and chakras aligned. Including mine. Especially mine. After a long time, inner peace and I had forced an uneasy truce – rather an armistice for ourselves. We decided to co-exist in different bodies.
“Juley, Aindri!” called out Stanzin Namdan, my BFF. The extent of the Ladakhi’s gender equality not only extended into household chores but also to their names! Stanzin, the current Dalai Lama’s Tibetan name, was a hot favourite amongst all genders. It had led to several hilarious as well as embarrassing situations for me. But I gradually understood the difference lay in their last names. Namdan meant males, and Dolma was for females.
“Juley, Stanzin! All set for today’s match? I’m going to defeat you this time!” I responded as I walked to the one-storey building office. Stanz and I worked together, and the long hours of hard labour had nudged our friendship into the best friend category. He was the local version of the Dalai Lama himself: soft-spoken, polite, ever helpful. And handsome. His chiselled features were lit from within, fuelled by the goodness in his heart. After work, we held drinking competitions while laughing over my endless gaffes, chugging down the local chaang wine. Stanz was my guide in understanding the local culture. It warmed my city soaked senses to see such progressive men here.
“Aindri, no one can drink as much chaang as I can. Try as you might, but you are still a novice!” Stanz teased, his laughing lines deepening and his warm chocolate eyes holding me hostage. With difficulty, I dragged my gaze away as I waved his jokes off.
“We will see, Stanz.”
Tucked in the valley, each morning the bright sun rays gently extracted me from the wisps of my fitful sleep, ready for another day. To fill the nights and coffers, I penned articles for travel websites; the surrounding beauty, penning the words themselves! I spent most evenings pursuing a perfect sunset; a tough task as every sunset in Choglamsar was magnificent! As the fiery sun melted in a heap of golden rays, diffused into the Indus’ embrace, the orange-pink hues crimsoned the horizon. The warrens of traditional mud-houses that dotted the mountainside cast tantalizing shadows on the desert. But It was all a dress rehearsal for the key event. An opening act for the finale.
As the moon peeked through, bringing along its entourage of stars, it was as if someone had flipped a switch on! Gazing at the wondrous night, it felt to me that the entire Milky Way galaxy sought refuge in the skies of Choglamsar. The Indus reflecting everything above it, in it; a ground-level ersatz sky. Each individual star, its glow, one in thousands, yet unique, made me feel like a speck. An unworthy recipient of a gift so precious.
Snuggled against Stanzin, I lay on the cool desert, the constellations bright as a star-studded carpet above us. It was here that I felt Stanzin’s warm lips graze my inexperienced, fumbling but eager ones as his breath tickled me. The starburst they ignited within me overshadowed the one above. Our love was written in the stars. And like the stars, it surfaced only in the enbosom of darkness. Stanzin wanted to formalize our relationship into marriage, but something within me held me back. Even though I loved my house, loved Ladakh and its people, and Stanz most of all, I was scared to take the final leap.
When August dawned, we didn’t know that the tentacles of disaster were within striking distance. When the witching hour of 3.00 am rose, the heavens opened up. And our little oasis was the bulls-eye, a target for the cloudburst. Within minutes, there was mayhem, the deluge of water overpowering the unaware, sleeping citizens. Our houses built on shaky foundations, constructed with dissolvable mud, were washed away by the force of the floods. The water, a silt slurry, caked everything in layers of thick mud. Anything that stood in its way was demolished, snatched away. Like a speck, we were at its mercy. The air reverberated with the screams and keening of trapped and dying people, animals, and birds. The tall, scraggly mountains I admired so, couldn’t hold their own against the torrents. Here one minute, gone the next. It was a disaster of unmitigated proportions.
That night was forever seared into my memory. A night, when my insomnia rescued us. My lack of sleep alerted me to the gushing waters, and Stanz and I shepherded the villagers to higher grounds. As we watched the brown sludge wash away roads and bridges, we realized not only had we lost our homes and belongings, but we were trapped. Isolated in a burgeoning death pool, with rescue hours if not days away. I looked at Stanz, desperation and fear writ on my face.
“Let’s run away. Let’s leave all this behind. The city can harbour us,” I whispered, my voice coming out in spurts.
His gaze, always patient, always loving, traversed my face, and finally settled to peer into my eyes. “Run away? Where, Aindri? This is home.”
I leaned against his capable, strong shoulders, hiding my face in it. Hiding myself. Hiding my very selfish self with my very selfish thoughts.
The next morning, a sullen sun appeared, bringing devastating realizations with it. The valley had been flattened out, a mass of congealed muck with few stray standing walls. Wrapped in Stanzin’s arms, I surveyed the damage, tears rolling down my soil-stained cheeks. Everything I held precious was lost. Including my written work of art! All the outstanding work by Juley Ladakh was demolished. Everything lay ravaged. My eyes met Stanzin’s, the night’s shock washed over me. It flung me into the doldrums of depression.
Till a kiss from Stanzin on my forehead made me re-evaluate. Stanzin, my partner, the love of my life, was still with me. We were alive, where many had lost the battle against the rampaging waters.
We made it. We survived.
I stood still, my thoughts whirring around me. In a way, the rain stripped me of my inhibitions; it washed off the layers I hid behind. It wore down the walls I built around me. Standing amidst the weak, foggy sunlight, my thoughts were never this clear.
It was time to reveal my true self. It was time to accept what I should have accepted long back. I love Stanz, and we belonged together. Here, in Choglamsar.
When the army arrived before time, the wheels of their trucks sucking up the slush, hope was rekindled. They hit the ground running, rebuilding bridges, re-laying the connecting roads. The villagers mulled around the ruins, helping their neighbours salvage the few remaining personal items. The aura of suppressed joy interspersed with slivers of sorrow surprised me. I had expected dejection to be the dominant emotion. Stanz whistled as we rummaged in my wholly destroyed house. But most of it was damaged, irreparable.
“Stanz, how can people be happy at a time like this?” I pondered. Do they have an innate sense of acceptance? Peace? Happiness?
He cocked his head at me. “They aren’t happy but they are celebrating the unexpected gift of life. We are alive and things can be salvaged.” He shrugged. “This is just a setback, Aindri.”
“We have lost our homes. Look at you! Your ankle is twisted and you can barely walk. How does it not bother you, Stanzin?”
An enigmatic smiled broke across his face. “A physical home is just a cover over our heads.” He pointed at his heart. “Home lies here, Aindri. It’s everywhere and nowhere. Home is where I am with you. You know it, but you don’t want to accept it.”
Stanz chucked me under my chin. “And I feel complete with you, Aindri. We can construct a house again, it’s just mortar and stones. What lies inside it, is the real thing. You and I are the real deal.”
I gazed into his eyes, full of wisdom. A well-travelled wisdom, teaching each generation, comforting each generation. His eyes brimmed with hope. He, in conjunction with nature, had taught me a lesson. Home isn’t permanent. It’s not fixed to latitudes and longitudes. Or geographical locations.
It is where we belong.
I closed my eyes. I was that girl, struggling to find a house to call her own in the city. Struggling to find herself, her identity.
I opened my eyes. Here I was, this girl who lost a house in the floods, but gained a home. And herself. Plus, a partner.
An everyday-forever home. Where I felt at home, and I was home.
I stretched my arms wide looking at the cloudy, swollen skies. Peace flooded through me, displacing years of regret, anger, and unhappiness.
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