Tall deodar trees were standing like sentinels silhouetted against a rapidly unfurling dawn. The quaint hamlet of Yol at the foothills of Dhauladhar mountains was slowly waking up to the morning voices of gushing brooks and chirping birds.
It was just another beautiful sunrise with October sunlight scintillating on the freshly scrubbed front yard of Jamuna Kaki’s home filtering through lattices of gabled eaves making lacy flourishes on red sandstone floor where Kaki was performing her morning puja at the tulsi-chaura.
Securing the pallu of her purple sari on her head, she was chanting,
“जगद्धात्रि नमस्तुभ्यं विष्णोश्च प्रियवल्लभे
यतो ब्रह्मादयो देवाः सृष्टिस्थित्यन्तकारिणः
The sweet chime of her tiny silver bell in fusion with tinkling neck-bells of cows had woken me up disoriented. The extreme quietude dotted with mellifluous sounds was in stark opposition to metro mornings of Namma Bengaluru, punctuated by roaring autos and blaring loudspeaker from nearby temples!
It was my first morning at Yol; I intended to stay there for next few months in lieu of my Anthropological documentary on mountain tribes. Away from civilization and teeming with ancestral Pahadi people, any place in Himachal would have been perfect for the work but Gods were smiling at me when I realised that my roomie Nandini was from Gaggal and could arrange a homestay for me at her distant aunt’s place – Yol.
Getting done with my morning rituals when I descended the wooden staircase, I had bathed scrubbing off grime of last two days-three night’s journey.
Nandini had already warned me against entering a pahadi chouka without a proper bath!
The village was still enshrouded under diaphanous veil of crepuscule, yet Nandini’s Kaki was already midway through her chores with Nimmi bua helping her with errands, Neela bhabhi getting ready for college; only little Suhasini, bua’s 5-year-old daughter was slumbering inside her quilt.
Dressed in her uniform sari, Bhabhi glided past me with a hurried bye and a smile which reached her eyes, I instantly liked her. Kaki called me inside the chouka– the sanctum sanctorum of a Pahadi home where she was frying puris in traditional ekvasna state. I had already talked to her on phone so our conversation flew with ease.
Later in the morning I headed towards Dharamshala where the only Cyber Cafe of entire Kangra valley could be found.
Checking emails, I found Vaishnavi’s mail in inbox. Opening it I knew to get some personally targeted barbs and was proven right. Despite expecting it, I was shocked at her consistency in belittling my work! Albeit saddened, I replied a polite ‘Thank you!’
It was obvious that she had some personal agenda against me or pro-someone because she ignored the same points in her friend’s project which she’d objected in mine! No one dared to tell her- a bossy woman with a sharp tongue.Despite her religious endeavours to snub me, I was relentless as education had given some of us not just laminated degrees but virtues too.
Forgetting her, I went through other mails and started researching with a fresh perspective.
On my return in the evening I found Suhasini studying in duari by the light of LPG Gaslamp, Kaki reclining on a moodha-chair near her, Bua handling kitchen and bhabhi, with a pink scarf tied on her head stacking wood in the cemented kothar.
After the pleasantries I ascended to my room heading straight inside the washroom, coming out I found bhabhi standing by the bed-post; she flashed her dazzling smile and I noticed her to be quite young, perhaps younger than my own 28 years!
She turned out to be chatty and soon proved me right as she was barely 21!
Raghav bhaiyya, her husband was in Gurkha regiment, posted in Kashmir and theirs was a fairy-tale love-marriage against family’s wishes as she belonged to a Tibetan tribe, was raised by a single mother running a small souvenir shop for tourists and was schooled only till 8th!
However, Raghav bhaiyya had got her enrolled in the local school, where turning out to be an intelligent student she got scholarship for B.Com. first year from ‘Dharamshala College’.
Not much close to Nandini she somehow forged a bond with me calling me Nana– her word for elder sister and in that first meeting opened her heart …how she and Raghav met, how Raghav- a Pandit fought with all to marry a Tamang of foreign origin and how they both were planning to go family way in the new millennium!
Gosh! The way her slanting eyes rolled up and down, excitement shimmered on her exalted snow-white forehead, the delicate curve of nostrils inflated with each sing-song sentence – I listened transfixed; acutely aware of that bewitchment in her radiant glances, in her lopsided smile, in the deep dimple on her left cheek- the spell which must have had charmed the Parbati lad of a Dwij Pandit gotra, the naïve Army officer of 1st Battalion, 11th Gorkha Regiment in life-imprisonment of this flimsy girl with a Tibeto-Burman ancestry from faraway distant places and a dash of warrior’s blood from remote lands of Mongols – so evident in her chiselled nose, high cheekbones and sharp chin!
Her dark eyes shone with fervour; eyelashes fluttering like blackbirds dancing on an ivory bough during her narration, pinning me immobile, I can almost see Gods command her eyes to, “Nock, draw, loose!”
Not only beauty but her innocence and clear hearted devotion to her family, her zest for life had rendered me speechless leaving me with no choice but to be allured by her thus, most of our evenings were spent together as we explored the beautiful hamlet.
Days flew like petals in wind; I couldn’t have known one from the other! Before long, four months passed with my field work getting intense, its area getting wider from neighbouring towns to Dalhousie and Keylong.
Hence, I shifted from Yol to a Homestay in Banikhet from where I could research in district Chamba.
One night when I was neck deep in writing when Neela bhabhi telephoned me. Light snow was falling from the February sky, in between our long chat, she shared that she and bhaiyya were expecting their first child in September! I could imagine her black eyes lit up like chakmak stones- her favourite memory from her childhood in Zanskar.
I was happy for her.
Next morning the incessant ringing of landline dragged me out from warm quilts. As I reached there it stopped; exasperated I turned back when it’s shrill sound jolted me and I picked it in half a ring! It was Nandini.
Last night a group of 25 terrorists had launched a guerrilla attack at Ashok Lightening post where Raghav Bhaiya was posted at Nowshehra sector in Rajouri district of Jammu and Kashmir .
The militants, recognised as members of Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) a terrorist organisation had come prepared with heavy mortar and rocket bombs; Lieutenant Raghav Joshi along with his team of 7 sepoys, died in line-of-duty.
They were killed not just by taking bullets on their chest but their bodies were mutilated with inhuman barbarism; beheaded, torsos ripped apart, throats slit open with arteries frayed and for a few, eyes dislodged out from sockets, strewn like marbles near their mangled bodies.
Raghav Joshi’s decapitated body was found as a misshapen heap with limbs bent at grotesque angles, legs twisted and bones visible through the flesh, a jellied piece supposedly his tongue was rumpled in dust nearby and his head was missing, reportedly taken across LoC to play football.
I was stunned into silence unable to think and staggered back flopping down on the ground too shocked to feel the bone chilling cold seeping in through my clothes, clueless if the numbness was from cold or from the horrific news. I felt bile rising up and ran, but my stiff limbs betrayed me and I convulsed midway.
I don’t remember when and how I reached Yol but I could never forget what I saw.
Kaki was weeping inconsolably. She was beside herself with grief and agony, losing her only son, her centre of universe, her blue-eyed boy…and, in what fiendish way! She was lamenting, cursing bhabhi with whatever was coming in her mouth without any semblance.
Bua like me, was unable to control the barrage of her venom and distress both!
…and Neela bhabhi? Uff!
She was lying in a pool of her own blood in her dimly lit quarters, a daai-ma with the help of two women was cleaning her…she had lost her unborn baby along with her husband!
I remembered her words of last night, “… Nana I’d move with him…in past 4 and a half years we have lived together only for 6 months that too, on and off…not anymore! Once Chakmak is born we both will move with him!” …the wistful look in her eyes in which a dream of a small home glimmered…her words echoed again,
“Nana, He had fought with everyone for me…I’d never leave his side, Nana.!”
That his prince had left her side, I stifled a cry and realised that I’d been crying from long.
She had gained consciousness and with a gasp tried to sit up…daai-ma pinned her to the cot but she screamed… a tormented howl of an agonised soul, like an animal cry- indecipherable in its raw agony!
She was twisting, her toes getting stiff she convulsed, and fainted once more…only to regain consciousness and get pulverized again by the harrowing realisation.
Her excruciating screams sundered the hearts of skies and it started to rain, her burning anger melted snow into raindrops making the pine forests weep in her misery.
For a few moments she lied down in silence, gazing vacantly at the thatched roof, her eyes glazed as if seeing something, him, them… together, the times she had told me about – she nestled like a coy jasmine bud amid his broad oak like shoulders, that night when they fought like cats and dogs over sharing a cap and ended up laughing and loving each other more, or when he had brought a gold nath for his child bride from his hard earned savings unknown to any other; how he had gaped at her face with the wide gold ring encircling her rosebud mouth, her pointed nose tip, the angled chin and ruddy cheek looking as if, the sun had turned crescent with shame in front of the milky glow of her moon face, that bower where he had called her on pretext of buying lapis Lazuli and drank her with his eyes everything from his wallet in her hands and deliberately forgetting to take the purchased ware! Ohff! Is she seeing that?
Was it that floating in front of her eyes like it’d been running like a reel in mine?
I squirmed with pain my innards twisting with her torment and I ran out of the room, once more crouching midway, I gagged.
Incapable of dealing with her condition, leaving them both in hands of their neighbours I stealthily walked out from the house without saying a word.
To whom I could’ve said and what?
Kaki was supine on earth, Bhabhi recumbent on her bloodied cot, both shattered with bastion of their lives crumbled to dust.
Broken and limp like a climber uprooted and bereft of her support; a destitute blind plundered of his lathi… they’re in extreme agony, wailing with hopelessness and a frustrated angst- their two lives tied together by one man.
After that day I relinquished all thoughts from my mind and immersed myself exclusively in my project with extensive research and countless visits to libraries and monasteries, recording interviews, decoding thangkas, collecting anecdotes and data tracing the rich and diverse genealogy of ethnic Himalayan Tribes at an exhaustive level.
My work proved to be an antidote to this strain and before I could realise eight months had passed. With my edginess blunted and numbness thawed, one day I called her. A pre-recorded message informed the number was not available. I dialled the number of the adjacent kariyana. The shopkeeper shouted his trademark ” Lasso … Kkol haiga..!” a phrase on which I and bhabhi once used to laugh like lunatics on loose!
Thinking about those days, I felt my eyes welling up, overwhelmed with emotion, I disconnected the call.
Next day, at 7 am sharp I landed at their doorstep and was somewhat amazed to found a freshly bathed Kaki lighting up deepak at the Tulsi choura chanting with closed eyes,
“…लभतेसुतरां भक्तिमन्ते विष्णुपदंलभेत् ।
तुलसीभूर्महालक्ष्मीः पद्मिनीश्रीर्हरिप्रिया “
I could hear sounds of muffled laughter of Suhasini and Neela bhabhi coming from inner rooms; bhabhi must be cuddling her with frozen hands on her warm cheeks before leaving to college, one of their daily morning rituals!
For a moment I doubted if I am dreaming it to be just like old times or if there ever was a tragedy at all?
At that precise moment Bhabhi emerged from the room carrying her huge handbag looking grotesque on her now thinned frame. She had gone down- her face more angular, frame almost bony, much different from the cute woman with oodles of baby fat I had once known.
Our eyes met and in an instant we both were in each other’s embrace! Tears flew unobtrusively till I caressed her head reminding her about college.
Sniffing her crimson nose, she went. I entered inside with Kaki and Bua. Suhasini, woken up, was getting ready for her 9.30 school. Kaki brought two steel tumblers of ginger-cinnamon tea, handing me one she took the other and sat on her peedha sipping the piping hot liquid.
Finishing our teas in silence I went to put empty tumblers in washing. Nimmi bua took me to her room asking about my well-being. Suhashini had already left for school with her friend. I sat there replying distractedly.
Unlike Kaki, bua felt my unease and asked point blank, ” You feel things to be too normal too soon. Isn’t it?” caught off guard, I couldn’t reply and bit my lip.
She sighed ” Both of them are marvellous women, beta. The tragedy had brought out their mettle. Jamuna bhoji had opposed this marriage, had cursed Neela for everything but the girl tuned out to be wise beyond her years understanding the lamentations of a mother’s heart, Neela is carved out of gold, Shraddha!” She said taking Neela bhabhi’s name with reverence.
“She is a a mani…Raghav had brought a gem to the family…She had embraced Bhoji like her child Sharu, crying with her, enduring her mad tempers, Bhoji’s hatred for her… not with just patience but with loving indulgence..she had mothered Bhoji.”
Here, she went very still staring at the wall as if watching something invisible to me. I did not disturb her, she continued, ” …then one day, Neela slipped from stairs. I was at out, bhoji found her collapsed with blood oozing out of her head… Perhaps it was her shrivelled face or the hapless way she was lying down or her wretched fate which melted bhoji. Don’t know Sharu, but from then they both had prayed and wept for Raghav, had laughed sharing their past with each other…” wiping her tears, bua sniffed hard. I realized we both had been crying.
I went upstairs and felt ashamed of myself for grudging them a little bit of normalcy. How cruel of me!
Behaving exactly, at least mentally, like those prejudiced people whom I look with disdain calling them judgemental!
Why was it so hard to understand that Neela bhabhi, 7 years younger and many years less educated than me can be much wiser, stronger and much clearer?
Why it startled me to hear her laughing, having a moment of childlike glee with a child! I was deeply frustrated with myself!
I avoided to face myself. Had it been a man, a colleague instead of Suhasini then what difference would have been left between me and the gossipy ladies!
And cried. This time out of remorse.
Tears of repentance bring respite from our acts of iniquity and human behaviour post penitence is far more rational, governed by an unbiased sense of justice.
I too felt relaxed after months.
With tears, my incompetency to be there when kaki and bhabhi must have had needed me, my discomfort to see them settled in old routine, the prejudiced image in my subconscious as pitiful rural women, my resistance towards changes… all was washed away.
I took a leisurely hot shower followed by Pahadi dham brunch and lied down for a short nap.
During our evening stroll our conversation veered towards Kaki. Bhabhi reflected,
“Youth is receptive and flexible, Nana. Education had strengthened me to wade through life but Aama had lost her sole resort!
Raghav had taught me, fighting against wrong is bravery indeed but acceptance to a new perspective, and at times, letting go, takes courage. We all have this one life to live Nana, I won’t let him down wasting it.” her voice faltered a little yet she smiled.
We sauntered aimlessly … Albeit entirely different, life seemed like old times- beautiful.
We talked about Kaki’s experience at Zanskar in Diwali vacations and her future plans- next day, they both were going there to help children know about a world outside selling trinkets to tourists. Her home was calling. Not every Neela would be lucky to find a progressive Raghav.
Next morning, I woke up early; sun was rising from behind the mountains. I was contemplating, dewdrops were hanging precariously from trellised eaves… catching the sun they glinted and self-realisation dawned, I glowed; bathed in warm golden light just like Yol.
3 months later, Bengaluru
Vaisnavi’s project was up. Instead of avoiding I went through it. Despite being new in company I’d experience hence; I typed my opinion with a sensitive concern. The pine tree outside my office-window swayed reminding me of a love-story of a girl; her struggle to save lives back home from being mere trinkets.
I’d learnt to create the best out of what I’d been offered; to embrace the way life comes and march on with an undeterred aplomb!
She’d just one life to live!
So, have I.
- The Sanskrit Shlokas from Tulasi Strotam:
Shloka 1 : I bow down to You, O bearer of the World; the most beloved of Sri Vishnu, Because of Your power, O Devi, the Devas including Brahma are able to Create, Maintain and bring an End to the World.
Shloka 2 : …. attains Devotion , and in the end attains the Lotus-Feet of Sri Vishnu, Tulsi also known as Tulasi, Earth, Mahalakshmi, Padmini, Sri -Beauty and Prosperity and Beloved of Hari.
- Lasso … Kkol haiga. – Pahadi tamang words for ‘You’ve got a call’.
Connect with Penmancy:
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!