By Anindita Das
Something was amiss, Avik thought. When the electronic board hadn’t yet displayed anything about the flight status, the first seed of panic began to sprout in him. Apprehending the worst, his head had already begun to plan. In the event of cancellation, he would take a flight to Guwahati and travel by road to Cherrapunjee. But he made sure not to show any sign of perturbation to Neil, his maternal cousin and fussy co-traveller. Neil had been coaxed and cajoled to come for this trip. It has been two years since his return from the US and he is yet to enjoy an Indian holiday without comparing it with his American vacations. Last December’s short official trip to the Western Ghats had reminded him of the Grand Canyon.
The pristine waterfalls punctuating the Himalayas of western Sikkim had failed to impress him. To his nostalgic eyes they seemed a ‘ribbon of milk’ compared to the surging gush of the Niagara Falls.
Such was his nostalgia that it wasn’t confined to vacations alone. The departmental stores in Kolkata appeared ‘tiny and crowded’ in comparison to Walmart or Sam’s. All of a sudden the crowd that he had grown up around seemed ‘intimidating’. The noise, the constant pushing and jostling made him tetchy. The bumpy commute to work made him yearn for the stretch of smooth, endless tar of I-94 that he drove down every day to office. The sweltering heat, the miasma of stifling humidity, the dust, the black clouds of exhaust fumes – the litany of complaints was endless.
“You have become a shaheb,” his mother would tease him these days.
“You too are teasing me ma? Tch tch…” Neil would nod his head without taking his eyes off the laptop screen. “You have no idea about the quality of life there.”
“Next time when I go I’ll surely take you,” he would shout back. As a reply he could only hear the vacuous whir of the kitchen chimney fan.
Avik was scurrying to the Air India kiosk when the announcement was made. Their Kolkata-Shillong flight was cancelled. Taking quick steps, he strode down the newly-laid, shimmering granite floor. He was lucky to get booked in the next flight to Guwahati. He did not want to miss this chance of showing his hard-to-impress cousin the double-decker living root bridge of Cherrapunjee.
Upon learning about the cancelled flight, Neil got livid. Even before Avik could inform him about the rebooked flight, Neil snapped at his cousin, “I had told you. I had warned you several times. Bloody Air India.”
All of Neil’s travel itineraries were meticulously planned. And he diligently avoided the national carrier. Its notoriety for delays was not unknown to him. However, when he learnt that their rebooked flight was about to leave in an hour’s time, it did help to cool his frayed temper a bit; but not before him giving a piece of his mind to Avik.
The roads in Guwahati were dusty. The sidewalks, cracked and broken were missing in patches. Bushes, shrubs and trees skirting the road looked spectre-grey, their leaves wilting under the cake of dust. Not a tinge of green on them was visible. The unusually warm November sun beat hard on the vegetation. Neil couldn’t care less. The holiday had not begun on a promising note and misgivings clouded his mind. He thought it best to catch up on his sleep.
From Jorabhat the car took a right turn and began its steady ascent towards the Shillong plateau. In patches of habitation, meat-shacks lined the road. Neil continued to sleep, undisturbed and oblivious, at times snoring too.
When he finally woke up he could not remember how long he had been asleep. He found the car parked on a roadside. Heavy-eyed, he spotted his cousin and the driver standing on the edge of the road looking intently over something. Neil lugged his drowsy body out. The breeze, mild but steady, caught him by surprise. The gritty heat of the plains was no more there. Instead he felt cold. Not the pin-pricking cold of Minneapolis, but of a milder kind; one that soothes the body and mind at once. He ambled across the road to his cousin.
“Welcome to Shillong!” Avik greeted as he looked over the expansive Umiam Lake, his left eye steadily fixed on the camera viewfinder, the right tightly shut.
The winter sun, mellow and pewtery, caressed the blue waters. A leafy, rolling meadow formed a tiny island in one part. Highlands in verdant green skirted the lake and beyond. Neil noticed kayaking boats and water cycles that were moored along the pier.
Soon he got engrossed soaking in the sun and sight of the place. From where he stood on the road, the lake was a few metres below. The breeze whispered and whistled its way over the wide expanse of the meadow and the lake before hugging him, winnowing of his face.
It was late in the afternoon when they resumed their journey for Cherrapunjee. Two parallel yellow lines, snaking down the middle of the road, neatly demarcated the two-way traffic. A stretch of shining, endless, smooth tar, the road was dotted with cherry blossom trees. Highlands, undulant and carpeted in blonde grass, stretched on either side. Neil rolled down the glass letting the cool breeze caress his face.
He recalled how he had visited the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington DC at the onset of a balmy spring. He noticed that the cherry blossom trees here were not in groves, but few and far apart that punctuated the road; just a smattering of pink along the serpentine way but enough to create a quaint picture.
Villages which were really clusters of a few houses stood far apart. A church here and a church there. The rest wherever Neil’s eyes could reach was a vast expanse of rolling highlands kissing the azure sky in the distant horizon. He could only imagine the dramatic aura the place donned during the monsoons. As their car climbed up the hill, manoeuvring through bends and turns, they crossed path with a motley group of cyclists paddling down from the opposite direction. Neil noticed almost all of them were foreigners. White foreigners.
Evening was just about settling in when their car rattled down the stony road to their resort. Neil walked down the cobbled pathway of the front yard to the far end. It overlooked the plains below. A row of bricks ran down the cobbled way to deckle edge on one side to mark it off from the garden. Roses, in fuchsia and crimson, marigolds and rotund dahlias swayed in the breeze. Like bashful brides, they glowed in the muted light of the evening. A woman approached Neil with a glass of drink. Clad in a blouse and a lungi like mantle, her thin lips wore a warm smile. Neil noticed her eyelids were almost absent. The drink tasted like an over-sweetened lemonade.
With the pall of evening descending, the lights in the plains below lit in batches. Behind Neil a hotel employee was gathering kindling on the lawn. Neil headed to his room. The foyer led to a huge dining hall. Doors to each room opened from this area. Three young tourists chatted with a hotel employee animatedly. From their accent he could make out they were Americans. They were recounting something, thanking the hotel lady every now and then. As Neil stepped in his room, Avik, freshly scrubbed, stepped out with his camera and tripod.
“I’ll freshen up a bit.” Neil rushed to the washroom. A warm shower washed away the day’s exhaustion. The bed with its uncreased and spotless sheet was inviting for a quick nap. Neil shunned it for an air outside. The bonfire was kindling gently. Plastic chairs, arranged around it, lay largely unoccupied, save one. A few feet away Avik was still adjusting his heavy DSLR camera on the revolving tripod head. Neil went and occupied one of the chairs. The guest, Neil noticed was the same woman who he had seen talking to the hotel employee just a while earlier. She remained slouched on her chair, reading a paperback in the flickering glow.
“It’s pretty cold tonight,” she acknowledged Neil’s presence.
“Yes, it is,” Neil smiled at her. He cupped his hands around his mouth, exhaled and rubbed the palms against each other. Even in that lambent light, he noticed she was not more than twenty-five. Her peach complexion, enhanced by the fire, lent it a translucence that the winter sun imparts to bottled honey.
“Have you been to the root bridge?” She tucked a few strands of her golden locks behind her ear.
“No, we plan to visit tomorrow. Have you guys been?”
“Oh yes we have indeed,” there was a marked enthusiasm in her voice now. She shut her book and sat in an upright position making Neil wonder if she was about to begin a long conversation. “It’s beautiful.” She uttered the words in a way as though she were in a dream, her eye-lids momentarily shutting as she pronounced the epithet.
Every now and then she worked her slender fingers around her big toes. “It still hurts,” she flinched.
“Didn’t you seek the service of a masseur?”
“I did, in fact. It was such a relief.” Her fingers now kneaded on the small toe.
Neil began warming his freezing hands in the fire, mulling his next topic of conversation least knowing that the American was still not done with narrating her experience.
“But once you dip your aching feet in the small pool under the bridge you’ll feel an instant relief. The water,” she said adding a twig to the fire “is therapeutic.” Neil had come across the word ‘therapeutic’ while reading a celebrity interview in a glossy, about how the actor found cooking ‘therapeutic.’ For Neil though cooking was far from therapeutic. Five years of slicing, cutting, chopping vegetables made it more a chore, an ordeal he had to willy-nilly go through.
“But make sure you book a cab to the place from where the trek begins. The trek itself is a climb down to,” here she widened her eyes “three thousand five hundred steps and back up an equal number while returning.” As the fire raged, the twigs snapped, popping its cinder up in the air. The ensuing heat warmed Neil’s face and hands.
“Unless of course you want to trek another 5 kilometres,” she smiled. She spoke in a hushed tone as if she was sharing some deep secret with Neil and only Neil. It gave him a strange sense of familiarity, of pre-eminence as though he was a confidant whom she was confiding in. “After we did the root bridge, we hiked in the highlands and you know what,” she paused momentarily leaving Neil to indulge in wild conjecture.
“What?” Neil inquired like a child whose curiosity knew no end.
“We got lost.” She flicked her fingers in the air.
Neil could picture her threading along the bushy hiking trail when all of a sudden her blonde tresses melt in the sun-burnt, golden grasses of the highlands. He wondered how beautiful the act of accidentally getting lost can be.
“We tried to find our way but got lost all the more.” There was no sign of helplessness in her voice, rather a thrill at getting lost. Adding more kindling to the fire she continued, “It was then that we called Gloria.”
“The hotel lady.” Her matter-of-fact tone caught Neil off-guard, as though she had been knowing him for ages.
“The one you were talking to in the evening?” Neil asked pointing towards the foyer.
“Huh huh. She sent us a cab. Thank Gawd.”
At this moment of pause, Neil was gripped by a strange uneasiness, triggered by the unfounded fear that the conversation was about to end. Avik’s camera still remained perched, still striving to take the elusive star-trail on a moonless night.
“Where are you from?” Neil asked the most hackneyed of questions, lest the tête-à-tête ended.
“Kolkata.” She pronounced it as Kaulkyata.
“I mean where do you hail from?”
“What brings you to Kolkata then?” Neil failed to suppress his curiosity.
Neil was neither expecting nor was he prepared to hear such a laconic answer. He wanted to prod further about the nature of work that would bring an American from Boston to chaotic and crowded Kolkata. But he decided against it. Instead he added the last bit of sticks to the fire.
“I have stayed in the US for about five years. In the mid-West to be specific.”
“Oh really?” The familiarity in her tone was back. “And what was it like? Did you like it there?”
Even though Neil could not read her face in the dying fire, he realised from her tone that she was far more eager to know about his experience of staying in the US than he was to know about hers in Kolkata. For him it was a given that any American would hate Kolkata or for that matter any Indian city.
“It was great… I mean the quality of life is much better there.”
“Uh-hmm.” Neil noticed her nodding in agreement.
“There’s work-life balance there, something that I miss here.” He used his hands in the gathering darkness to show the balancing act.
“Hmmm. Right. But you know what? I love my work here, too. I’ve found that balance here.” There was a firm conviction in her voice.
“If you don’t mind, where do you work?” Neil finally mustered courage to ask.
“Oh I work for an NGO. I was in Pune, then Hyderabad and now Kolkata for the last two months.” She was spouting the names of the Indian cities with such ease and alacrity as though she were uttering Boston, Houston or San Francisco.
“So you have been travelling quite a lot.”
“Wherever work takes me.” Neil did not miss the sense of contentment in her tone. He knew unlike him she was happy with her work, her travelling in a foreign, third- world country.
“I work with people who are disturbed, people who have been worried, upset, distressed from life experiences.” There was a tinge of empathy in her tone. The bonfire still smouldered, drifting its smoke in the cold air. The embers amidst cinder, mottled in bright orange, glowed like willow-o-wisp in a dark night. Neil and the woman were now only strange silhouettes to each other under a glittering hyaline.
“Do you counsel them?” Neil’s questions were more direct now.
“Yes, kind of. Anything that helps to alleviate their pain.”
“You are a therapist then.”
“Yes, I guess you could say that.”
“Therapist of the depressed?” Apprehending the conversation would end any moment, his questions came in rapid succession now.
“Therapist of the distraught.”
“What’s the difference between the two?”
“Anyone depressed is distraught, but anyone distraught may not necessarily be depressed. I deal with a wide range of sufferers.” Neil noticed that she chose to use the word ‘sufferers’ and not ‘patients.’
Many a time Neil had considered seeking the help of a counsellor. His feeling of being displaced was gradually degenerating towards melancholia. It didn’t help either that his American visa had got rejected twice in as many years.
Avik had long gone inside. The lights in the plains had begun to dim. The bonfire had died. But Neil didn’t want the conversation to die, not yet. Even a few moments of silence was making him restless. He was about to broach a new topic when her words floated again like music to his ears.
“What are the places you would suggest me to visit in India?” Neil realised she shot the words while turning towards him.
“Kerala, Goa, Ladakh, Rajasthan,” Neil hurtled out the names without batting an eye-lid. Ladakh and Rajasthan he himself was yet to visit.
“I s-o-o-o want to go to Kerala.” “Your country is so v-a-s-t,” she added.
“Vast?” Neil couldn’t hide the astonishment. “US is three times the size of India.”
“Yes, geographically it indeed is. But your country has 29 states. And as you travel across these states, everything changes – language, food, attire, physical features of people, topography,” she prattled as though she were counting the parameters on the pads of her fingers.
While in school Neil had memorised the 25 states and their capital cities. Subsequently the states of Uttarakhand, Chattisgarh and Jharkhand were formed by dissecting land masses from bigger states. But which was the 29th state? While in the US one of Neil’s favourite pastimes was to jot down the names of the 50 American states in alphabetical order, beginning with Alabama and ending with Wyoming. He still remembered the 50 states like a child remembers his nursery rhymes. But which was the 29th state of India? He was overpowered by a strange feeling, a feeling of shame.
“Take the case of Meghalaya,” the woman continued. “It’s so different from,” she pondered “let’s say Andhra Pradesh. Back home you will get to eat the same food wherever you go. Steak and fries or salad or burger. The same people, Black or White, Blonde or Brunette.”
Which was the 29th state?
“Yours is probably the only country that befits the adage of unity in diversity.”
Which was the 29th state?
“Dinner’s ready,” a lady called from behind.
“Am hungry. Let’s go grab dinner.” She stood up. “It was nice chatting with you.”
“By the way the plains down there, it’s the Sylhet district of Bangladesh. Isn’t it cool?” She didn’t wait for Neil’s answer.
As the therapist emerged from the darkness towards the light in the foyer, Neil remembered the name of the 29th state. When India gave birth to its latest state, Neil was in the US. It was the Memorial Day long weekend and he was holidaying in the Yellow Stone National Park. Upon his return home, he did glance over a headline in an e-paper – “ON HER 67th YEAR OF INDEPENDENCE MOTHER INDIA GIVES BIRTH TO HER 29th STATE”. What the 29th state was, was a matter of least interest to him, for by then his laptop had already started downloading the photographs of his vacation. It was much later, about a year back and a year after his return that he learnt that Hyderabad was no longer the capital of Andhra Pradesh but of a new state that went by the name of Telangana, the 29th state of India.
He sat there in the engulfing darkness. Behind him was the porch preceded by the foyer and the dining area. The American woman, the therapist was probably busy eating, enjoying every morsel of her dinner. Her Indian dinner. He knew she was taking note of its ingredients, its texture and taste. He mulled when was the last time he had appreciated his dinner, his dinner of rice and curry; for like his country he had been taking his dinner too for granted.
Anindita is incurably lazy. A dreamer and a habitual procrastinator, she escapes to the hills whenever she can steal time. When she is not reading, she is writing and vice versa. When she is doing neither she is travelling with her partner in crime, her husband. For her living, she teaches English. She loves her cup of Darjeeling.
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