Love in the hills
It is that time of the year when the skies shed their burden and when the body and mind bade bye to the old with heavenly waters drenching the skin. The lone potted red Hibiscus by the cottage’s garden, with sparse foliage, looks skyward with its chin up and has its head turned away from the trash bin down the street. The bees steal copious, fat drops of nectar from Lavender Hyssop shrubs growing wildly along the pavements of the quaint colony.
The school children wearing candy-hued plastic caps trot past the lane to freeze the moment in the lap of eternity. On the street, a young mother lifting her saree up by her two fingers, showing her bony ankles as a result, hurries after her high-spirited kids who run ahead oblivious of the umbrella above their heads. Her ear-piercings are elongated and stretched with weight from her heavy metallic earrings, making giant loopholes in her earlobes.
The cherubic infant sister wearing a yellow frock with bold brown polka dots has two knobs of hair for pony tails. She slows down behind her brother as a Lemon Pansy, a butterfly, perched on a wilted bluebell shrub growing through a puddle, catches his fancy.
The siblings study in a school in the next lane. It was all but a space with thatched roof. The school had no cement flooring and toilets. The rains always made the soil swampy and stinky. With the monsoons, fevers spread like wildfire. So, for the past four days, parents have been rushing to the school to pick up the pupils by noon. So, Lav, the young, lone teacher of the school also signed off at the same time, of late.
The teenage boy with the tonsured head, in the neighbouring hut, plays the flute. The notes echo amidst another string of such settlements by the adjoining hills. The clumsy, youthful tunes struggle to steer past the clouded dark horizons. The jarring ending notes tether the music to the other side of the horizon. This is the side of meeting and parting, of strange deals, of promises kept and broken and of pretence.
A pale green moth circles the blooming face of the sweet pea flower, growing in bunches, by the cottage kitchen door, flawlessly white and washed by the rain drops. In the adjacent room, at the cottage, two lovers mated to their hearts’ content just then. Lav stares at the ceiling taking a deep breath still thinking of his lover’s crescent-like breasts and slender wrists. His drowsy hands grope beneath the floral blanket and find her waist. In an effort to thaw her heart, they try to pull her closer. She, determined, gets up and walks ahead.
“Lav, I need to go. Leave me, darling. By the way, pick up your watch from the floor. You don’t want scratches on it.”
She didn’t want to fall into another soothing slumber; she was already getting into her bathing suit by the full-length mirror. Lav flashes his characteristic his charming semi-smile.
“What are you trying to hide now?” he asks, his voice getting thicker, “Hey bathe wearing the Orange bangles on.”
She picks up the chunky Orange bead bangles and wears them on with a smile. She then checks the wardrobe where she had kept her kaftans, the pair of black jeans and scarves neatly folded at night, beside her black heels. In the shelves below were trekking shoes. Everything is intact.
Michelle knew that it was over. They had decided that they would make their last days together special. They’ll soon go their individual ways.
The flight she had to catch was a week from now. She had to take a connecting train to Mumbai at 9 pm today. Once home in Mumbai, there was shopping to be done, to-do lists to be kept, friends to take leave of, endless lists of items to pack and bills to pay up. Once wrapped up, she was to take off to University of Columbia. Journalism was always her calling.
Michelle would never return to this place unless a news channel or a newspaper she works for, a few years from now, sends her here to report on the squalid state of affairs here. She may not have to report on the squalor, after all. It will all depend on what kind of channel or publication she works for. A few publications may just want the beauty of the place written about – the squalor, disease and murk, the beauty hides, forgotten.
She tells herself that, for now, she has other things to worry about such as packing, to-do lists, and goodbye cards to write her cousins before catching the flight.
As Michelle makes to the washroom, she mentally rehearses her answer if mother questions her, which she will, probing why she ended up staying two extra days while her other friends were back from the trip sooner. She already spoke to her mom’s squeaky voice on the phone but facing her in person would need a little more cheek. She rehearses telling her mother that she had to review the remote, hilly village in the North East of India. She points out that she is covering the place, a relatively unexplored one by tourists in India, let alone those from abroad, for the magazine Lonely Planet. She often freelanced for the traveller’s magazine to earn some pocket money.
The old lady will not relent so easily. She will persist, “Why, dear? You were there for a week!”
Michelle, almost saying it aloud, repeats to herself, “Oh no, mom. I was busy sitting around the bonfire and making merry. There was no time to work. Besides, you know my friends! They aren’t the kind who would be interested in local tribal festivities.”
“So, I had to stay back at the cottage for two more days and cover the local festivals that these tribals celebrate.”
Lav knocks on the washroom door. She sprints on the wet floor to open the door, in anticipation, and their hot bodies fuse feverishly, one last time, in the chill splash of clear spring water, under the shower. Her meticulous calm hand closes the shower knob as the water washes the last froth of soap clinging to their bodies.
With a thick towel draped on the head, she makes her way to the mirror picking up a kohl stick from the shelf, on the way.
She smiled at how graciously her college friends left her to spend a couple of days with Lav. Lav had hosted her friends and her for a week here – they stayed at a nearby cottage. The cottage owners’ children were his pupils. The family had come to accept him as its member, ever since the NGO he works for sent him to this little nondescript town to teach the tribals – it warmed up to him after the initial sense of xenophobia that outsiders often face in this little known tribal region.
The whole bunch of college youth knew that this was the last time Lav and Michelle were to be together. For Lav, future was here amidst these gaily tribals whose existence was punctuated by lush hills, birds, raw smoke from charred tree wood and deadly fevers. But no fever, no disease ever faded their spirit. Lav dropped out of political science a year earlier, from college, for this – to be here. He came away from city life as soon as he quit college. All he wanted from life was to teach beautiful little children of the hills and see them walk into the sunrise, towards a better future.
His decision had come as a shock to Michelle. It was their second year of courtship – they hit it off almost as soon as they met in collage.
Lav walks behind her and tugs at her waist landing up on the bed with her on his lap. She snuggles close, wraps her arms around his neck smelling his musty cologne.
“Lav, I won’t be able to leave you behind if you pursue me like this.” She sighs.
He teases her, “Don’t leave me. Stay back. We’ll go to school together every day.”
She shrugs sheepishly. Looking at her watch, she walks to her wardrobe. In no time, she is dressed to leave. The kaftans with graphic prints cling to her arms fall over her shoulders effortless in frolicking frills. Then, adjusting her bracelet, satisfied that she is ready to step out, she props herself on the bed. She peers at her watch again as if ready to wait through till it’s time to step out and catch her train at the station. But, Lav runs his fingers through his ruffled hair and gets up to open the door.
She stands up and holds his wrist, “Where are you going?”
He caresses her face. The sun is about to set marking the sky with splashes of melancholic pink and Orange.
“I’ll get Kenan uncle’s jeep key. We must go on a drive. Who knows? We may not meet ever again.”
She follows him, staying close behind. The engine started with a roar and that was all the sound they came across for the next fifteen minutes. There was no need to break the silence - silence thick as a grey, pregnant cloud. The railway station was nearing and the sound of raucous coolies, noisy relatives, chirpy children and wheezing sound of trolleys, announced the impending parting. As she got down the jeep, she planted a kiss on his cheek.
“Stay back. I won’t be able to shove myself into the train if you come with me all the way.” She said sharply and put an envelope on his palm. He couldn’t drive all the way to the cottage before he stopped the jeep midway. He reached out to the letter in his pocket. The warm sea blue paper was muddied at the edges. He read by the streetlight, where he halted.
I write with a heavy heart.
You will always remain special to me. We aspire for different things from our lives and as we spoke about, it’s best we part ways instead letting destiny separate us.
So what if you look at the underbelly of undeveloped India inside out and I, outside in? Our endeavour to make this world a better place will have us cross each other’s path again sometime.
You are doing a commendable job with the locals. How I wish the world understood these innocent souls and accepted them better!
The next day, he saw the letter merrily sinking into a rain puddle as Kenan uncle’s little daughter folded it into a tiny paper boat. The child must have found the letter in his study.
“Until next time, Michelle,” he thought.