In the Pursuit of Plumeria

The calendar lay open on the table. The dates were all boldly crisscrossed with red. “Almost the end of November…the year will end soon and another phase will begin,” groaned Disha. 

 A movement beside the window caught her eyes. A bundle came flying in and missed her narrowly. “Who….who is there?” She saw a shadow duck behind the bushes. “Beware, there are Kraits* hiding there.” She let out a warning. No one emerged. Disha turned around to focus on the bundle. Tightly wound with a red ribbon, the satin potli* held something hard. Untying it with great care, she sat looking at the contents. “Dry pink flowers…I have seen them somewhere…but where? Where did they come from?” There was also a tiny purse containing two old coins and a hundred rupee note. What were these for? Was it for someone else? Had it been dropped by mistake? The questions flummoxed her. She gave up and decided to turn in for the night. 

The rooster woke her up. She took out the contents once again and examined them in great detail. The cloth was perfumed. She smelt the flowers. Even though they had dried up, the fragrance was unmistakable.  She closed her eyes in bliss. Brief flashes of a pink stole and a pink teddy came back. No matter how hard she tried to concentrate she could not recollect it. Disha decided to examine the hundred rupee note. She held it against the sun. “Not a fake note! Ohh wait….there is something written on it…an address!” She inspected it with great care and wrote it down on her notebook. 

Sinha.
Plumeria Villa.
Gangtok.

She could have spent some more time on it. But the gong was rung announcing breakfast. The matron was very particular about timings. Not a single child missed the gong. Those who missed learnt a lesson they never forgot. Disha did not want to starve that day.

“You don’t seem to like the food today,” remarked the elderly matron. Disha had not realised that matron was standing next to her and closely observing her. “No…No madam. I am not hungry today.” “Gulp it down even if you don’t like it,” ordered the woman and marched away.  The children waited for the sound of her steps to fade away. Then they chanted in unison, “Hitler didi. Hitler didi,” and burst into peals of laughter. 

~~~

It was an orphanage where Disha had grown up in. She was found abandoned on the doorsteps one wintry morning. One by one all the children got adopted, but not Disha. Probably she was too fiery and hot-headed for the prospective families.  Almost seventeen, finally a family had expressed their desire to adopt her. But Disha sensed something amiss. 

She had also been trying her best to locate her biological parents. A conversation by fluke with Ramu Chacha*, the elderly gatekeeper, had sparked off an indomitable urge to track her parents. Exactly a month ago, Disha had collapsed outside the orphanage gate out of exhaustion and fatigue. The gatekeeper and his wife had taken turns in carrying her to their shack beside the gate. That’s where she had learnt from him bits and pieces about her lineage. They reminisced about a foggy wintry morning when a big car had stopped by the orphanage. “A beautiful young lady, covered in a blue Pashmina shawl had kept the baby outside. The matron, who is an early riser, had seen her. When confronted, the woman had cried and pleaded the matron to let her go. Before leaving she had left a medallion with the matron instructing her to give it to the child on her eighteenth birthday. The lady had also left some money to ensure that the child never knew penury.” Disha had listened to the gatekeeper with rapt attention. It was like a thriller and she had to unravel it. Chacha had also warned her about the impending danger. “That couple….who wants to adopt you…don’t let them get you. They are not good. I tell you.” Before he could divulge further, his body had been taken over by a fresh bout of coughing leaving him breathless and drained. Disha had left him, determined to solve this mystery. 

It was again coincidence when her path had crossed with that of the matron on her way out of the gatekeepers shack. No words had been exchanged except for a threatening look from the elderly lady. Disha had hurried away. That night she had decided that she would seek the gatekeeper’s help in procuring the medallion. No. she wouldn’t wait for her eighteenth birthday. 

Next morning, loud wails and a commotion woke her up. Chacha had been found dead. He was found cold and blue under the banyan tree by his wife. “Cardiac arrest,” the doctor had written on the death certificate. But something bothered Disha. Too many things happening at the same time.  Just a coincidence?

Days passed. She knew she was being monitored constantly. That filled her with dread and unease. 

~~~

That’s when the bundle came in. The coins looked antique. There was a purpose behind them, she decided. Whoever had dropped the bundle knew about her mission. The contents were all clues. 

It was soon time for the Annual meeting of the Managing Committee. That was the only time the children were herded out to a hotel and fed well. By virtue of her seniority and her popularity, Disha was always chosen for the presentation of a detailed account of the orphanage. She knew that this was the only opportunity. She concealed the coins in the layers she wore. “Thank God, its winter.” The presentation went off well. It was time for lunch – the perfect moment to sneak out. The children offered to cover up for her. 

Disha had often accompanied the matron in her visits to the city. She knew the city well. It did not take her long to locate a jeweller. Fishing out a coin from her pocket she showed it to the man behind the counter. “My dying mother left me this coin. I have three more siblings to take care of. Can you tell me the amount this can fetch me?” Turning it around, the man lit a flame. The coin was placed in it and immediately transferred into a solution. The hot metal changed its colour. Rubbing it dry, the coin was placed on a white sheet. 

“A guinea, my dear! Your dead mother has left you a precious possession. Do you really want to part with it?’ asked the man. 

Disha: “Yes…I need the money.’

Man: “I can give you a maximum of fifty thousand, girl.” 

Disha: “No No that’s not enough.”

She knew that the man was trying to take advantage of her helplessness. But she held on to her stance. A few minutes later, Disha walked away from the store, hiding a bundle of ninety thousand rupees in her coat. 

She reached the venue on time. No one had missed her. The gang had covered it up well. 

That evening she sat in the Computer room and browsed for Plumeria. It was a flowering plant also called Pink Firangipani for its colour and commonly grown in Gangtok, Sikkim. There was indeed a villa on the outskirts of Gangtok famous for the variety of Plumeria grown there. She noted it down. A sharp rap on the door made her close the browser and delete the history. She should not leave any tracks behind. 

“Didi, the warden wants you in her office right now,” informed the little girl. It must be urgent as the warden never entertained anyone in the evening. 

“I have good news for you. The adoption papers are ready. Your new parents are coming tomorrow morning to complete the formalities. You can pack your stuff, Disha as you leave day after,” informed the matron.

Disha: “But ma’am, I was not supposed to go before January. What is the urgency?”

Matron: “What’s wrong, girl? You should be happy that you have found a loving home. Now get off my sight.”

A dejected Disha walked back to her room. Sitting beside the window, she took out her potli, examined the contents and tried to think of a way out. That’s when she heard a tap on her window.

“Come out through the back door and wait near the old shed,” a thin, raspy voice instructed her. She followed the instructions. The gatekeeper’s wife stood shrouded in a huge black shawl. “Amma….what are you doing here? Was it you who dropped the bundle?”

Amma: “Yes Bitiya*. I have the medallion as well.”

Disha: “What?”

Amma: “You have to escape. That couple…they run a big agency of ‘call girls’. That’s why they are interested in you. A hefty amount has been paid to the matron. You have to go.”

Disha: “Where? I have no one, Amma.”

Amma: “Your family…your biological parents.  Your Chacha knew them.”

Disha: “How did he know them?”

Amma: “There is not enough time. The address is there on the note I dropped into your room. Listen to me carefully. Tomorrow, meet your prospective parents. Don’t give anyone a chance to doubt you. Pack all that you want to carry into a bag. It shouldn’t be too heavy. After dinner, dress up, switch off the lights and pretend to sleep. When you hear a single tap on your window, put on your shoes. On the second tap, step out through the fire exit. Now go from here.”

Her heart was hammering when she met her prospective parents the next day. The woman’s hug lacked warmth, while the man held her hand tad bit longer. She went through the day mechanically. As instructed, she went off to bed after dinner. Twenty minutes later, she heard the first tap and then the second. She was out through the fire exit, walking carefully lest she made a sound. 

Amma led her towards the abandoned shed. There was an opening in the wall, enough for Disha to slide through. A cloak was handed over to her. “Gangtok will be very cold. This should keep you warm, dear. The Toto* is waiting for you outside. He will guide you. Pay him for his services and the train ticket. Get in and don’t look back.”

 “What if they find out? What will happen to you? I know they killed Chacha,” Sobbed Disha. 

“Stop worrying for me. I have lived my life. If they kill me for this, I will die contented cos’ I have given my bitiya a new direction in life.” They hugged each other. 

The Toto ride took an exact thirty minutes. The driver handed her tickets to the train that would take her to Siliguri. He also handed her a bag containing food for the journey. “Amma made them for you, bitiya.” And then a cell phone with all the important numbers. “Get in fast. Don’t tarry.” 

Aboard the Kanchenjunga express, Disha realized that she was almost on the last leg of her journey.  She took out the medallion. There was the seal of a lion and written under it were four words. Amma had told her that it was in Bengali. The words stood for the surname Sinha. Sinha in Bengali is a lion and implied a regal and aristocratic family. This medallion was the only proof of her lineage. It was also the last memento of her mother. “Mother…how would she look? Is she still crying over me? Or has she moved on?” Wondered the girl as her eyes closed in the swaying motion of the train.

The train dropped her off at Siliguri station next morning. She found the cab that the Toto driver had arranged for her. He had called her on her newly acquired cell phone. The ride uphill was scenic. The majestic Himalayas came into view as they climbed higher and with it a familiar tug in her heart. She knew she was home. It was almost evening when the jeep came to a halt outside a huge mansion. “Plumeria Villa”, read the name plate. Paying the fare to the driver, she stepped out in the cold. It was dark and the lights were dim. The huge house was surrounded with trees and orchids bearing pink flowers. No wonder it was Pink Plumeria.  

As she marched her way up the meandering path, she saw a statue near the entrance. It was that of a baby caught mid-air by the parents. She stood looking at it for a long time. Flashes came back. Her father would throw her into the air and then catch her just when she was about to fall –their favourite game. Baba…her baba. 

She rang the bell. It seemed a while before she heard footsteps approaching the door. An old man, bent at an odd angle and dressed in a thick flannel robe peered out. He was familiar. The robe. She remembered hiding the cord that tied the robe and nibbling it much to the dismay of her Dadda*. 

“Dadda”, she called out. “Pinki..Pinki…Is that you?” the old man cried out. “I can’t believe this. Rana, Munna, Raghu…put on the lights. Light up the house.”

The mansion came alive with lights. Dadda and Disha stood facing each other – each waiting for the other to make the first move. Hesitatingly, Disha took out the medallion and dangled it in front of the elderly gentleman. He engulfed her in a huge hug. “Pinki…Pinki…,”he howled. They knew not how long they had been hugging and crying when a silvery voice made them turn around. There stood a beautiful, but frail woman, held from both sides by attendants. 

“Ma?”  

The woman let go off the attendants and spread her arms. Disha rushed in. 

That night they sat late into the night. “Pinki, we had no option but keep you away. The mafia killed your father. They wanted to wipe us out and claim the property. We had to send you away. Ramu Chacha, our loyal servant helped us. He located the orphanage and joined as a gatekeeper. I dropped you one early morning. But the matron noticed me. Another chapter of coercion and blackmailing began. We sent large sums of money for your upkeep. Inspite of that, the woman demanded huge sums, failing with which she threatened to reveal your identity to the Mafia.  But your grandfather’s ill health and my lack of mobility became our main obstacle. Amma contacted us and arranged everything. The mafia has been arrested. I am sorry, my baby. I had to do this to save you. Please forgive us.”

“Na Ma! It has been a tough fight. Now that I am here, let’s rejoice.”

“Yes, Pinki-my little Plumeria…lets rejoice’, shouted Dadda. And Raghu, tomorrow morning bring some more varieties of Plumeria and plant them. Plumeria villa should have enough of our Pinki.”
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Glossary
Krait: A viper
Potli: A small cloth bag
Chacha: Uncle
Bitiya: Girl
Toto: Battery operated rickshaw
Dadda: Grandfather
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Sreemati Sen

Sreemati Sen Karmakar is a development professional and a mother of two kids. Travelling and writing are her passion. When she finds the time, she writes. Writing is catharsis.

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