Leaves




“What do you do here?” “I tell stories about this place to people and transport them to the past.” “Oh, so you’re a guide?” “I hope so.” 

***

Chapter 1

“This is such a marvellous opportunity, Kay. I am so grateful to you for this. I had been dreaming of this ever since you’ve been in talks with the ASI.” Sahra pounced on Kay and gave him a gawky hug. Her ears had been dying to hear this news and here it was. She was to lead the restoration of a certain fresco discovered in North India. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) had been delaying the project tender to their company, and once they did, Kay had taken months to confirm with the board and finalise the project execution. “Oh-kay!” Kay was taken aback at this sudden gush of affection from Sahra, who’d usually just keep it to her work. Despite Kay’s attempts, Sahra had ‘friendzoned’ him and that’s the only equation they were to enjoy either over beer after work, or Sunday brunches with the other friends. “So now…” he continued, “book a flight for the 15th morning, and Jugnu will drive you 5 hours to your guest house at the location. It’s a hilly terrain so rest that evening and begin the next day…” “...Jugnu is already there?” “We’re sending him a week before, so he can deposit resources on site and manage some permissions, etc. He’ll hand over that paperwork to Aru, once she arrives there the next day. Aru is going to be ensuring the operations don’t lag, and that our artist here continues to stay a princess, that she is, out there.” Kay’s love laced words always tended to slip over her aural radar. She smirked at the retort. “Alright, so I’ll be out to get the preparations done. I’ll take this file,” Sahra brought the file close in an embrace. “Once again, thank you for this opportunity, Kay. I can smell it in the air— this restoration is going to change my life.” Kay let out a throaty laugh at her theatrics as she smiled, swivelled around on her toes and left.

~*~

Chapter 2

Sahra breathed in a lungful of the morning summer freshness at Paharpur as she entered the archaeological site. The trees were sprouting with fresh hues of green and flowers bloomed around, glorifying the countryside. This was the first time she was coming to this part of the country and everything looked ethereal, fresh and enchanting.  Just as she was gathering her papers and tools to get mounted on the pulley and begin her work, she heard a rustle in the corner. Jugnu must’ve arrived, she thought to herself. She continued reading through the papers but when she did not hear anyone enter the premises, she peeked towards the entry. A sort of an eerie whisper trailed by her ear. The hair on her neck stood at their ends.  “Who is it?” she called out leaning on the mount. Reasoning that it may just be the morning breeze whistling in her ear, she got back to the records she was holding detailing the present condition of the mural. It was interesting how every little inch of the painting was specified in such an elaborate manner. Sahra had been studying these paintings for months and had created a virtual reconstruction on her laptop. She was certain that she knew the specifics that would emerge from the centuries old deterioration the site had faced.  Another stir in the corner caused her to drop the papers from her hand.  “What the hell!” she groaned. “WHO'S THERE?”   Irritated with the oddity, she descended from the mount when she noticed a figure approaching her. A gruff-looking man in simple white clothing walked towards her. Careful steps, eager eyes and a gentle demeanour—a local lad, perhaps. “Who is it?” Sahra was surprised how an unknown man had appeared from nowhere at the site.  “Oh, I was just around and thought I heard some activity in this corner of the place, so I came here.” “Oh-kay… but this place is out of bounds for outsiders for now.” “Right. I just live close by and usually frequent here, anyway. I had no idea this was out of bounds.”  Sahra was surprised by this interrupting appearance but the man looked unalarming and strangely safe. There was a calm about him that made her forget the disruption from her work. “I don’t think you should be here. This area is under restoration, so entry is restricted.” She was almost apologetic for something she knew was not even her mistake. A stranger had wandered in, though he had no business being here. And here she was feeling sorry because he somehow seemed lost. “Right, I…er… I’ll leave.” The man traced his steps back and was about to exit when he stopped to ask her name. “Sahra.” “Princess.” “Hmm?” “The meaning of your name?” “Oh…oh right.” Of course, she knew that. She grew up with that name! “And you are?” “Pranam… Pannu.” Sahra felt a smile erupt on her face as he walked away from her.  How unusual that someone would give away their nickname alongwith. What an unusual encounter! “What do you do here?” Pannu turned around to face her. “I tell stories about this place to people and transport them to the past.” “Oh, so you’re a guide?” “I hope so.”  “Great, so I can learn a lot about this place from you.” It didn’t seem like she was conversing with a stranger anymore.  “What is it that you want to know from me that you don’t already know?” He smiled. Puzzled, Sahra cocked her head to the side, her eyebrows knitted in a query. Pannu signalled towards the mural that she was working on, indicating that she already knew so much.  After he left, Sahra mounted back on the pulley and began her work. Scrutinising the papers, then removing dust and dirt from the painting with a soft brush. The activity on a square foot would take her hours, considering the damage that had been done. However, that was not even a concern for her. She loved her job and being in the field like this was blissful. At the back of her mind, though, was this uncanny encounter.  Jugnu walked in announcing that he was out on his way to pick Aru from the airport. Sahra was aware that she would be working alone all day. Considering this was just the beginning, she did not need any helping hands now, anyway.

~*~

Chapter 3

“Gosh! This is so good.” Sahra said, chomping on a piece of sweetmeat all the while eyeing the other eatables in little tiffins laid out in front of her. Pannu’s eyes lit up, pleased with feeding her. For the last two odd months, he had been bringing her food often, which she seemed to devour with pleasure. Making friends was easy as Sahra saw him as an innocent, harmless person and for him it was easy getting her interested in all the local tales and lores. Since late night work was her thing, she would often eat with Pannu before he’d drop her home. “At this rate, I might have gained ten kilos since I’ve come here.” She said, shutting the empty tiffin boxes and handing them over to him. “Silly! That’s not even possible with the amount of work you do every day.” Pannu chuckled. “By the way, how much longer is this work going to take?” Sahra examined the fresco that was emerging from behind the dirt. “Umm, I am almost done with removing the grime and overpainting. Retouching and reintegration will take another month or a little more. By the end of October, we should be able to complete the physical work, at least. And then the paperwork, of course.” She was beaming with content on her progress. “And then you’ll leave.” This was more of a statement than a question. Pannu was aware of this established fact, but he hoped to have a reaction from her.  She felt a pang in the cockles of her chest. Why does this sting? He was only asking a casual question. Why did it seem like in an instant he had moved so far away that he appeared like a dot?  These months had been so quick to her recollection. Meal breaks with him, late night strolls back to her guest house, his stories of his wanderings, the fascinating facts he knew about the palatial compound that it once was. She had learnt more about this place than her research had lent her before coming here. And to think she touted herself smart enough to have done all her homework about the place. The winds were changing and the leaves were altering their colours to the magnificence of warm rusty colours from the summery greens.  Halting beneath a tree, that night, Pannu asked, “What is life like in the city for you?” “Just like how it is. You know…busy.” “And what else do you do apart from rescuing the past?” Sahra smiled at the allusion. “There’s nothing much to do anyway. I love my job and I get to learn, and research, and discover, and recreate. Quite like magic. I like all of that. And then…I get to meet interesting people,” she paused, “like you.”   Pannu’s eyes met her and held briefly. They were standing so close to each other, they could feel the breath of the other.  What is this artifice that makes me feel drawn towards him? Me- a person so far from thinking from the heart.  She averted her eyes and looked up, “It’s getting late, isn’t it. Let’s go.” Folding into her own arms, she started walking.  On the stroll back to the guest house, Pannu kept picking the fallen leaves as they chatted away.  “Do you believe in love?” He said. “Of course. Who doesn’t?”  “Right. But do you?” Sahra paused as she looked towards him, “Yes…yes, I do.” He smiled. “Do you believe that love triumphs everything, to transcend space and time?” “What?” Sahra was amused at his unexpected digression. “I mean, that love lives on, even if people don’t.” “Well,” she considered his query after a pause, “I wouldn’t know any of that. But love is what keeps the world’s sanity intact. Now, that I do believe.” “Pragmatic, eh?” “Why the sudden change in discussion?” “You don’t look like a person who’d believe in love, is why.” He chuckled. “Ouch! That's a bit harsh. You don’t know me much.” Her eyes crinkled in mirth. Pannu paused and then said, “Or...maybe I do.”  Oh, my heart?  Sahra was confused at all these indications he was sending her way. What did she have to do with an unassuming man like him? A person farther away from her life, her social circle, her career. And yet… yet, she managed to forge a profound connection with him. She was not unknown to these feelings welling inside her, but she just could not comprehend how and why she’d have them for him.  At the gate of the guest house, Pannu handed her the bunch of the leaves he had assembled along the way. Sahra, amused by the gesture, clasped it in her hands, flashed a coy smile and receded to her room.

~*~

Chapter 4

“Jugnu, I need to borrow your Thar* today?” Sara said over the phone.  “Sure. Where are you off to?” “Need to get some stuff from the market.” “I’ll get them for you.” “No, no. It’s okay. I need to be out for a bit too. Have been busy with work for months now with barely any time off. Let me take care of this myself.” “Is Aru going with you?” “Actually, Pannu is. He promised to show me a baoli (ancient water reservoir) closeby.” “Nice. By the way, when do we get to see your friend we keep hearing about? He never seems to visit when we are around.” “Oh, stop it. Once we’re back, we can all go out for a meal. What do you say?” “Sounds like a plan.” Once she was off the call, she recalled the number of times Pannu had visited her at the site. Indeed, he never really made an appearance when Jugnu or Aru were working with her. Shrugging the thought away, she headed out for her break from work. Descending the steps of the baoli, Pannu kept telling her about the historical relevance and the stories behind it. “... they frequented here usually. Sitting and chatting till the wee hours of the morning. Here’s where she drowned herself too.”  Sahra’s mind kept drifting off to his mysterious appearances as cited by Jugnu.   On the way back, as customary, Pannu picked up leaves to fashion them into a bouquet. Handing it over to her at the gate he was about to leave, when she said, “Have dinner with us tomorrow. Jugnu and Aru will join us too.” “Tomorrow?” “Yes.” “Tomorrow I am going away.” “Where to?” Pannu was taken aback by her sudden intrusion. “Er... I am meeting a set of people who are supposed to visit with a group here towards the end of the month.” Sahra realised how rude she may have come across and composed herself.  “Of course. Yes. You have work to do.” She held the bouquet of leaves up. “Thank you for these.”  A silence lingered between them. Goodbye was difficult tonight. Sahra realised he may have felt uncomfortable about her quizzing about his plans for the next day. Knowing well that even when he would visit her, it would be only late at night or early morning sometimes. That could be attributed to his own busy-ness during the day. And Jugnu and Aru usually left by evening, so there was a possibility of them not meeting each other.  What is all this fuss anyway? Jugnu is just making a mountain of a molehill and I am falling for it. As she retired to her room., all these thoughts kept creeping up on her.

***

A few days had passed and there was no news from Pannu. Sahra’s eyes kept steering towards the compound entrance during the times that he would often visit. What is this my heart pining for? It was almost excruciating to wait. She realised she almost did not know him- where he worked, where he lived and so on.  Isn’t it strange to know someone so intimately and yet not know them? “You’re thinking about someone very special, it seems.” Pannu emerged from thin air and called out to her as she hung from the pulley, adrift in her thoughts. Sahra splashed the biggest smile she could towards him and then dismounted to walk towards him. “How cocky of you to surprise me like this. Where have you been all this time?” “Oh, I told you. I had things to tend to.” Pannu handed over a bunch of leaves he had collected on his way. “Ah, see how these colours have transformed now?” “Do you know what these colours mean?” Sahra said, holding on to the bouquet. “Hmm?” “Change. They mean ‘out with the old and in with the new’.” “And what if a change is not what we want?” “Well, we do want that change. See, the faces are emerging.” “Ah. Yes, it’s almost time.”  Was that a tear in the corner of his eye? Sarah noticed a swift change in his demeanour.  “You’ve told me so much about this painting. About how the princess fell in love with this commoner but they never got together and then the princess drowned herself in the baoli. You never really told me what happened to her lover.” “Her lover…umm, her lover died as well. Not immediately but eventually, I guess.” Pannu let out a chuckle. “Don’t be nasty. Everyone dies. But what really happened to him? Tell me, please.” “They say without the soul, the body remains a lifeless apparition. No one knows what became of him.” “Really? That’s quite sad, isn’t it? Poor fellow must’ve been bummed so hard, only to just vanish like that without a trace.” “Hmm, some lives are like that. Their existence depends on the throbbing heart of their beloved.” “My, my! You’re quite a romantic. Looks like you have a throbbing heart somewhere too.” Sahra winked a tease. He smiled back at her, gazing deep into her eyes. “Yes.” He said softly. The juxtaposition of autumn's beauty and the bittersweet emotions they experienced intensified the conflict within their hearts. Being drawn to each other like this and not being able to confess was killing.

~*~

Chapter 5

As autumn descended, red, orange, and gold, casting a spectral ambience around, it was almost time for the image to appear clearer. The pigments had started emerging on the painting and the figures surfaced from behind the grime. While working on one part, Sahra would keep the other covered to keep dust from settling in. That was her process— to work on a small part at a time and ensure the picture emerges untainted at the time of the reveal.  Every time she would mount on the pulley and work on a square foot of the mural, she would discover something beautiful and surprising. An anklet, a floral pattern on the dress, the trinkets, the headdress, the arm angled at the elbow, the foot resting on toes, a stray strand of hair fallen on the face, lips parted… Pannu had already told her so many stories about the people in the painting and its minutiae that it seemed like she had already made a connection with them. And now that they were taking their true shape and form, she felt a certain affliction towards these characters.   “I got the paperwork, Sahra. Great work!” Kay spoke over the phone. “Now waiting for the final report.” “Oh, very soon. I am almost done here and will hand over the site by month end,” Sahra responded. “Superb! Then there’s another project I have in mind for you, which I am sure you’ll be very excited about. It is in Cambodia.” “Really!” Sahra shrieked, causing Kay to hold the receiver away. “This is such awesome news. I can’t wait!” Sahra had just wrapped up her call with Kay when Pannu walked in. “You seem happy,” he remarked. “Oh yes, there’s a new project in the wings and I am quite thrilled about it.” “Really? Where?” “Cambodia…the country.” Sahra realised Pannu may not know about it, since he had mentioned he’d never been out of this place. “This palace is my home”, he would always profess.  “Far, it seems.” The smile on his face was unexpected. This was not a reaction she was anticipating. She hoped that he would be sombre to know that she’d be gone, perhaps for a long time. Sahra’s realisation that she would probably never see him again, made her heart heavy with the prospect. What pressed further was Pannu’s nonchalance.  “You didn’t get me any leaves today,” she tried to deviate. “The season seems to be changing pretty quickly. The trees are left with barely any leaves now.” The conversation wasn’t headed anywhere, so Pannu walked closer to the painting.  “When is this finishing, finally?” “By the end of this month.” “Hardly a few days, then.” Sahra nodded. “Maybe, once this is finished, I will tell you what happened to the princesses’ lover.” “Oh, so you do know about him.” Sahra’s demeanour changed at the mention.  “Sort of, but if I tell you now, you will feel disheartened. So I will keep it for the day you complete this.” “The handover is scheduled for the 30th, this month. So hopefully, we can get together for a meal then and you can tell us all the story. Right?” Pannu returned her excitement with a smile, his eyes sparkling with mirth. The next few days, until the end of the month, sped fast. Sahra was so busy with the work, that long hours late in the night, went into the completion of the project, followed by extensive delivery and budget reports to be prepared. Aru and Jugnu were of great help, ensuring that her work did not suffer and they were able to honour their deadline.  Amidst all this Pannu was nowhere to be seen. Despite the busyness, Sahra did feel his absence and often wondered why he would not visit her more, especially when he knew she was here for only a couple of days. The culmination day held promise. There was a slight nip in the air. Sahra’s walk towards the site was discerning. Her path was paved with leaves, a multi-hued scatter. Her heart skipped a beat in anticipation. Would he visit me today?  Even before she could get a hold of her thoughts, she saw Jugnu and Aru enter the site. Soon, a few more people from the vicinity and ASI joined in. Amongst the clamour, Pannu’s thoughts got shoved to the back of her mind.  Sahra was busy chatting with the officials, accepting their felicitation for her work.  “So, last day, it seems.” Aru chimed, walking over to her. “Yeah.” She sighed, gathering her bearings. She looked over at the painting, pleased with the work she had put in, all these months. Her eyes surveyed the painting closely from the bottom to the top. Her heart swell with pride, she congratulated Aru for her contribution to the project.  The crowd was thinning by now. As both of them were examining the painting, Jugnu joined them as well. “Excellent work, guys. I am sure this would be one of the best works done by Sahra till date,” he says.  “Is it?” Sahra chuckled. As an instant revelation, she spotted something in the painting that made her draw closer to it. Her neck arched back, she looked up at the face of the man. Her eyes trained on his expression. I must be hallucinating, she thought. Of course! it can’t be him. She squinted her eyes, rubbed them a bit, just to make sure what she was seeing was indeed the real picture that had emerged. Aru called out from behind, “Sahra, are you noticing what I am noticing?” Upon reflex, Sahra swivelled to face the other two. “What are you noticing?” “The face…” Jugnu said. “...yes the face… It’s familiar….” Sahra said. “Sahra, that’s so close to what you’d look like centuries ago.” “What…? What are you talking about?” Sahra again turned towards the painting and looked at the woman’s face with intent and her jaw dropped.

~*~

Chapter 6

Oh. My. God.! Did I just make the biggest blunder of my life?  Without a thought, Sahra ran away from the place and rushed towards her guest house.  What the hell was I thinking? I will be sued! This cannot be happening. She entered her room and switched on her laptop. She shuffled through the various files to look at the graphical prints of the painting from her research. Zooming in and out to explore the curves and crevices.  Unbelievable! It is indeed Pannu. What kind of a prank is this! Sahra leapt from her seat and started walking. She’d think of her destination as she’ll walk, she reckoned. She had to meet him. She had to find him. She had to ensure this was all a mistake. Involuntary tears streamed out of her eyes, as she paced ahead against the wind. A gentle breeze rose from the opposite direction, making the dry leaves fly towards her. One of the leaves landed on her face, which she brushed away. And then she stood still, glued to the spot right under the tree they used to talk.  Where am I even going to find him, anyway?  She wiped a tear from her cheek. Sahra strode towards the mural site then. Her steps matched the beat of her heart. I hope I am only hallucinating and this is not for real.  Her body was tense while her eyes roved to look for him in the compound. She called out his name in a mad fury.  “PANNU Are you there? Pannu Please, please, please… Pan-nu” Angst and confusion melted into desperation as she piled on the floor, her sobbing face in her hands. Is the ache in my heart for real? Does it feel like this when the soul takes away from the body?

***

“Is she going to be like this forever?” Aru said as she saw a grim looking Sahra walk into Kay’s office. “I wonder what happened there? She was alright till the last day and then, just looking at the painting finally in all its glory, changed her completely. Quite puzzling, isn’t it?” Jugnu rubbed his chin. Pyaar!” Aru said dramatising for effect. “The Pannu guy must be some player, it seems.”  “I didn’t know Sahra had it in her to love someone as much…” Jugnu noticed that Sahra was returning from Kay’s office towards them. “Isn’t Kay in his office?” he asked. “Nope.” Sahra came and sat beside them. “But he sent me an email last night inquiring about the progress in the Cambodia project. I hope you both are working on the preparations. This is an 1800 year old stone cave. We better be ready in time for travel.” While they were deep in conversation, Kay entered the office and walked towards his cabin, calling out to Sahra. “So? Ready for Cambodia, is it?” Kay asked with enthusiasm. “Yes, Jugnu and Aru are on the prep. I have my research ready. Just waiting for your orders now. Where have you been, though?” “The board had a meeting with ASI about Paharpur.” “Paharpur? What about it?” In that brief moment Sahra’s heart dropped. She speculated that indeed there would’ve been a problem with the mural and that the ASI would file a case against her, or worse, against the company. “Nothing much, actually.” Kay walked over to his chair and settled. “There’s another project that seems to have come up in Paharpur and they wanted to have a word with us. The board has agreed to it in principle, but it will take a few months for us to be ready for the trip. While you’ll be away in Cambodia, I was thinking of giving Raghu the project.” “What? Why?” Kay was puzzled. “What do you mean why? You’ll be in Cambodia at the time for your project. And the next best is Raghu.” “No. I’ll take this project…and by the way the next best is Jugnu. You’d better start giving him individual projects. Cambodia can go to him.” “Okay…but this project is very small, Sahra.” “Never mind. I’ll take it. I don’t care if it is small or big. I will take it.” Kay was unable to comprehend the urgency. “What’s so special about the place, anyway.” “The leaves.” “What!” “Nothing that you should be bothered with. So I am on this new Paharpur project, right?” “Do you have a gun to my head?” “Hell, yes!” “Then it’s yours!”

***

It’s been a year and nothing seems to have changed. Sahra stood below the tree, while the gentle leaves blew random showers of leaves from the twigs. One, two, a couple. She bent down to pick them one by one, fashioning them into a bouquet. “Please come to me. I am back.”  Glossary: Thar: a 4-seater SUV apt for rough terrain   Penmancy gets a small share of every purchase you make through these links, and every little helps us continue bringing you the reads you love!