The Backpacker’s Journey

December 20

The whistle blew. As the train chugged away from the station, their faces became a blur. Wiping away her tears, she decided to stop herself from feeling guilty. This was a much-needed break. Yes, she will miss the kids. That’s exactly when the Chaiwala* barged in, interrupting her thoughts, “Madam, tea or coffee?” A cup of aromatic tea lifted up her spirits. 

The coup was still empty. A lower bunk had been allotted to her. The first thing that Radha always did was check the reading lights. A train journey was never complete without a good read. 

Excited, she opened her backpack. Out came the books, Radha had won on Penmancy, a popular online writing portal. That is where her journey of writing had begun. ‘Married happily?’ by Rakhi Kapoor? ‘A New Lease of Life’ by Sarmita Dey? ‘The Brave Slave’ by Chintan Gada. She sat looking at them, running her fingers over them and breathing in their musky scent. She was lost in her world when she heard the door open. A girl, much younger than her walked in, her baggage trailing behind her. Radha smiled at her and got back to her books. She gave a side-eye to check the bunk the girl was occupying. The lower berth! Relieved, she snuggled deeper into the cushions, yet to figure out the right read. 

“Woah, that’s a good collection of books.” Radha looked up to see the girl eyeing her books. 

“Yeah. I love reading. Now that I have a long trip ahead, I intend to finish them all,” Radha replied back.

Girl: “Which one are you reading tonight?”

Me: “I can’t make up my mind.” 

She took the books from Radha and started reading the synopsis at the back. And then in unison, “I think this one.” “That one!” 

They realised that they were both pointing at the same book. They burst out laughing. 

Girl: “Read it and let me know how it went. Good night!” 

Leaning against the thick cushions, Radha pulled the blanket closer, poured herself a cup of coffee from the flask and began reading. The rhythmic ‘Tchjk Thcjk’ in the background was bliss. 

December 21, 2am

She must have slept off for she woke up with a start when the train screeched and hissed to a sudden halt. Rubbing her eyes, she peered out to see a nondescript station. How she loved these quaint little stations! There was a sudden mysterious quality about them. 

The platform was desolate except for a forlorn tea vendor. Ordering a cup of tea, she occupied one of the benches nearby. 

“Hey, how is the book going?” Radha turned around to see her co-passenger. 

“Hey, when did you get down?”Radha asked her back.

Girl: “I can’t sit still if the train stops. Have you ordered tea? I will get one as well.” 

Radha: “I forgot to ask your name. I am Radha, from Kolkata.”

Girl: “I am Ramneek. Sorry, we were too preoccupied with the books, I guess.” And they giggled again. 

Radha: “The book -I am almost done. Another hour…and I will finish it.”

Ramneek: “You read pretty fast!” 

Radha: “Well, it’s all about the state of mind.”

Ramneek: “So, where are you headed to? I hope you don’t mind sharing it.”

Radha: “No, not at all. I will be moving towards Yuksum, a tiny hamlet in West Sikkim from Siliguri. What about you?”

Before Ramneek could answer, the train sounded a horn, alerting its passengers. Both of them scrambled up the steps. Radha began reading again. The night was breaking into a wintry grey dawn, when she finished the book and decided to catch a few winks. 

9am

Radha was up and packing her books in. She didn’t see Ramneek in the coup. Nor was her luggage there. “Strange”, she thought. The attendant arrived to lend her help. Pointing at the lower bunk opposite hers, she enquired, “Do you know where the other lady got down?”

He looked at her wide-eyed.  

 A jeep was waiting for her at the station. The ride to Yuksum, the ancient capital of Gangtok was scenic. The mighty Himalayas visible from afar, the winding roads dotted with waterfalls and the quaint little monasteries on the way were a breathtaking experience. Almost a six hour journey, she reached her destination late in the evening. Temperatures had dropped further. As she stepped out of the car, the cold wind rushed to greet her. Gathering the shawl around her, she made her way to the main reception of the resort she had booked herself in. Built in the typical Sikkimese pattern, the lanterns, the wall murals and a giant statue of Lord Buddha kept her enthralled. 

The manager led her to a cottage on one of the hillocks. “This will be the best for you, Madam. Quiet and peaceful, just what you had mentioned in your email.”  Radha noticed there was an adjoining cottage. “But Daaju*, this is a twin-sharing cottage.”

“There is no booking for that Madam. Here is my number. Please call if you need anything.”

A quick dinner followed. She drew away the curtains revealing the star-studded city on the foothills of the Himalayas. “Looks like a Diwali night. I wish I could write something meaningful about this place,” thought Radha. 

December 22

The alarm woke her up. A quick cup of tea on the electric kettle followed. She was glad to see the tea bags from Nathmuls*. The resort knew how to take care of their guest’s preferences. 

The morning went away in reading the books. Placing an order for lunch, she went out for a stroll.  A huge expanse of land, it had been converted into cottages. There was also a monastery in the campus. She decided to visit it after lunch. A proper Sikkimese cuisine is what the Manager had promised her. The delectable spread of dishes along with the local drink – Tongba appeased her. 

Stepping out from the cottage, she found to her disappointment that the adjacent cottage was open.  “I had repeatedly told him not to rent it out. I was even willing to pay double the rent. These greedy fellows…” Enraged she stomped off towards the office, when a familiar voice called her back. 

“Ramneek! You are here and you are occupying this cottage! Glad that we meet again.”

Ramneek: “What a coincidence! Isn’t it lovely that we are sharing the cottage?”

Radha: “I was worrying unnecessarily.” 

Radha chose not to visit the monastery that evening, but stay back at the cottage, chatting with Ramneek about books, their penchant for travel, tea and blogging.  They decided to cook dinner in the cottage. She requested the Manager to source the ingredients. “That’s a lot of quantity, Madam. Are you sure you need this much?”

Radha: “Yes, I think it’s adequate for the two of us. Before I forget please make that millet based drink for us.”

The manager sourced everything from the village market. The drink was ready and chilled in the refrigerator. A sumptuous dinner of rice and egg curry followed. Ramneek praised her culinary skills.  That night they lay awake, sipping Tongba and chatting about their passion – writing and travelling. 

December 23

That was Radha’s last day in Yuksum. The visit to the monastery was scheduled in the morning. But Ramneek couldn’t be seen anywhere. Trying to get over the disappointment, she decided to devote the morning to a short story. But she realised there was not much she could write. ls this what they call a writer’s block, she wondered. 

A steady knock broke through her reverie. There was Ramneek. 

“Where did you vanish again? We decided to do the monastery together. It’s almost time for it to shut. Tomorrow I leave….,” said a visibly irritated Radha.

Ramneek: “I had gone to the local market to get some things. This is what I got for you from the handicraft store. This will remind you of me.” 

Clutched in her fingers were the most exquisite turquoise earrings that Radha had ever seen. She was touched. Putting them on, she thanked Ramneek for her gesture. 

They lunched together, ordering the local food and enjoying it in Radha’s picturesque balcony. The evening was a long walk in the village nearby, gathering details about the people, their costumes and the history of the place. It was late when they came back. The leftovers from lunch were enough for them. “Do you want that drink?” Radha asked her. 

Ramneek: “No, not a drink. Let’s have coffee before we hit the bed.”

Radha: “Oh yes I forget that you are a coffee person.”

Ramneek: “When you go home, what will you be writing about?

Radha: “I haven’t thought about it. It’s been a rich and rewarding trip.”

Ramneek: “Will you write about me?”

Radha: “I never thought I would get a friend like you, dear girl. A friend who shares similar interests and is equally passionate about things that excite me. You haven’t told me much about yourself.” 

Ramneek: “Not much to talk about. Sikkim has always been on my wish list. When I started working, I started saving. This trip is a gift to me on my birthday.”

Radha: “When is your birthday?”

Ramneek: “Tomorrow…”

Radha: “That’s great…let’s plan something for tomorrow.” 

Ramneek: “Please! Don’t plan anything.” 

Radha: “At least let me get a gift for you.”

Ramneek: “Yes, write a story on me.”

Radha hugged her tight. “I will, my dear. You are cold. Let me get you a shawl. I have an idea. Tomorrow let’s go back to Siliguri together. You can tell me all about yourself.”

Ramneek: “That sounds better. Now rest it out. It will be a long journey tomorrow.” 

Radha let out a long sigh. The trip was almost over. Yuksum was ticked off from her wish list. She had found a soul mate in Ramneek. Her quota of reading was almost done. And a new plot was brewing in her head.  

December 24

Radha checked out. Her luggage stood waiting for her. As usual she couldn’t find Ramneek. The connecting door was locked and there was no trace of her. She was getting late. Desperate she summoned the bellboy.

“Hey, please check where this lady has gone? I am waiting for her.”

Boy: “Which lady Madam?”

Radha: “The lady next door. She was supposed to leave with me.”

Boy: “But that cottage is empty.”

Radha: “It’s empty now. It was not empty last night. Stop arguing and find her.” 

By then the Manager had stepped in hearing the commotion. 

“Madam, that room was empty. As per your preference we did not rent it out.”

Radha: “What are you talking about? Ramneek Kaur occupied that room.”

Manager: “Kaur…Ramneek…did you say that?”

Radha: “Find her…”

Manager: “Madam, there has been a mistake. The cottage was not rented out to anyone ever since you have been here. Now you may board your car.” He exchanged a knowing look with the bellboy.  Her luggage was hurriedly placed in the Dikki. 

Exasperated she decided to pay a visit to the monastery. Finishing with her prayers, she sat down on the platform which overlooked the city of Gangtok. Hearing footsteps, she turned around. An elderly Lama stood. In his hands was the shawl that Radha had given to Ramneek.  

“Where did you get this, Sir?”

Lama: “Your friend, child. She left these for you.”

Radha: “Where is she? She was supposed to go back with me.”  

Lama: “Child, Ramneek is past. She was a frequent visitor here. Last year, on her birthday she slipped and fell from here. Here is her diary which we found in her room. Take this and write a story about her. That’s all she would want from you.”

A black, velvet covered notebook with her name written neatly on it. Tears streaming down her face, Radha took leave of the elderly Lama and began her journey home. She would spend the journey reading Ramneek’s diary.

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Glossary:
Chaiwala: tea vendor
Daaju: Brother in Nepali language
Nathmuls: A renowned chain of tea boutiques
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