This short story is selected as Story of the Month August’2015 and won INR 1000
This story is selected as Editor’s Choice and won INR 500
I was surprised at the so familiar sadness that I felt. After all these years, I believed that I had tucked it away in an unknown corner of my heart, from where, it would never again emerge. But the slightest inkling had risen the desolation again into my consciousness, filling my mind with a flurry of emotions.
I moved closer to the computer monitor, rereading the mail for the twelfth time. “Dear, how are you. Can we meet?”. The message was short and crisp and without a clue as to why she wanted to meet me.
After seven years, I felt, can we meet….. was outlandishly informal, to the point of being indecent. I could ignore her, pretend that there was no such mail. Just a click and it would disappear. But the turmoil brewing within me, wouldn’t let me do so. I tried hard not to be maudlin. But surely, I must confess, that she had left me intrigued. That was so like her ………….So like Sumedha, always baffling. Never let you know her real mind.
It was the copperish tan of on her slightly freckled skin that caught my eyes the first time I saw her. She was seated in the front row wearing wheat colored kurta, and a pair of faded denim jeans. Her eyes, deep brown sparkled in the gentle yellowish light of the room and her jet black hair was wavy and restless. Her soft featured face emanated a mix of beauty and pride. I sat on the chair behind her, taking in her sweet powdery smell.
I was fresh out of college and being high on Godard and Ray, had enrolled myself in a film school. Being the first day, a welcoming session was being organized. Here our to be Professors dwelt at length about the role that media plays in today’s world and about how they intended to teach and train us in the craft.
I found the lectures a bit boring and dragged on. Having devoured hundreds of movies in the past few months I felt pretty confident, that I knew enough about cinema to make one. All I wanted was a degree, a certificate, an authentication of my talent. Nobody could teach you cinema. It had to be within you. And I was pretty sure I had it in me.
So I began to fiddle with my cell phone humming unmindfully, a tune from the movie Pulp Fiction. Moments later, I felt a pair of eyes looking sharply at me. “Would you stop that,” the girl in front of me said, her voice harsh and rude. I looked up, startled. I could see other faces turning towards me. Few of the girls, started giggling. I stopped and an inaudible sorry escaped my lips. She acknowledges my apology with a slight nod of her head and returned her attention to the podium.
I felt embarrassed. I could see a faint hint of grin hovering around her lips. Perhaps it was because of the sense of victory that she felt after getting my submission and my acceptance of guilt.
But, I was pretty confident that my humming was not loud enough that it could be heard over voices that blurted out of speakers. Immediately, I regretted the apology that I had made. I should have retorted back . Pay no heed to whatever that she said.
The initial fondness that I felt for her did diminish a bit after this incident. She came across an arrogant and proud girl, bent on having her way. I console myself, with the thought that two years in the same class would give me ample scope to return the insult.
But my plan of reprisal did suffer a setback, when I learned, that she was enrolled not in the film class, but in Journalism.
But still, I didn’t lose hope. At least we would be in the same campus.
The following month turned out to be more hectic than I had expected. Projects and assignments made me realized that cinema was not that simple. Exposure, aperture, key light, fill light, white balance, color temperature, arithmetic montage, metric montage, kept me so engrossed that I almost forgot about her.
Almost. But not altogether. She would soon be back in my life.
The leaden colored clouds, that hung heavy on the sky, rob the city of its brilliance and drench it in a bleak grayish tone. Walking amidst the British era architecture of Connaught circus, I felt as though I was in a yesteryear black and white classic, of some master film maker, whose every frame was a riot of contrast weaved in varying shades of grey.
It was then I saw her.
Slightly bent, she was intensely looking at a photograph that hung on the display window of Lal Son Images located at Connaught circus’s inner circle. Beyond her, towards the left, was a street vendor selling flutes.
The melody that the vendor created by breathing into the flute, was scattered by the rumble of the sky above, but he continued to play unmindful of the fate of his music. Between them, was a drifting piece of white paper, and a cream colored polythene bag, both dancing to the symphony of the wind.
I had never seen something so beautiful in my life. She, the white piece of paper, the polythene bag, the street vendor, seemed like words of a poem, that had, effortlessly rhymed into one another.
Drawn almost by an inexplicable force, I walked towards her. Without even looking at me she said: “Beautiful isn’t it……….. the Mountains?”.
I said “Yes”. My eyes fixed at her.
“That light, that slips pass” she said pointing towards the picture “ It makes the mountain look so surreal….that beam of light that surrounds the edges.”
“Back light” I said.
She looked at me with a confused expression.
“When the source of light is behind the subject…it creates the glowing rim…” I explained.
She nodded her head and softly moved her hand over the glass of the window tracing the jugged outline of the mountain. Her face beamed, when her fingers touched the summit.
“I want to be there… at the summit” she said “ I love the Mountains and am crazy for them”
She was talking to me as though, I had been standing beside her all this time. That she knew me all too well, and that, I was her closest confidant. It was strange, but at the same time beautiful.
I didn’t know what came over me but I stood still, afraid, that my slightest stir, would disturbed the placidness of the moment, whose sublime beauty have overwhelmed and benumbed my senses. It was a wholly different experience, the like of which I had never felt before. The faint trace of reason, that still remained hinted, that perhaps, it was love.
“Hi, I am Sumedha……I think we have met” she said. Her voice soft as silk.
That was the beginning.
The beginning of our relationship that opened the floodgates of my heart, to a surge of assorted emotions the essence of which still eludes me. I began to feel a subdued pleasure stained with phases of exhilaration every time I was near her. She introduced me to a world I never knew existed.
Amidst the concrete of the urban Metropolitan, in the shadows of the high rise structures, on the cobbled roads gleaming in the mid day sun, I and Sumedha would walk aimlessly. I would be the silent listener and Sumedha the speaker. She would paint with her words, on the dust drenched horizon, above the uneven skyline of the city, a picture of the snowcapped mountains towering into eternity. And my naked eyes veiled with the mist of her love, would see the mountains, its slate colored rock, and the pure whiteness of its virgin snow.
Every word about the mountains, that escaped her lips, was smeared with an intense passion which I felt, I knew so well.
I was mad for cinema and she for the Mountains and beneath the dissimilarity was the same passion that we share. It was this passion, that drew me towards her, pulled me into a whirlpool of yearning where the maddening world of lights and celluloid fused into the snow and snowflakes.
Sumedha was from Ranikhet, a place nestled amidst the mountains. Her father being a mountaineer the surge of adventure always ran through her blood.
I still remember that cold windy evening, when, brushing aside, the fluttering strands of hair she narrated to me the experiences of her father, when he went to scale K2, Godwin Austin. The second highest peak, after the Mt Everest. She said:
“ K2 is dangerous, …… real dangerous…..also known as the Savage Mountain..out of every four who tried to reach the summit, one could never return back……My dad took the mountain from Aruzzi Spur located on the Pakistani side, it is comparatively less difficult then the Northern ridge…… he reached the advance base camp at an altitude of 5400 meters…..but then the weather worsen…bad luck ……they had to return back…….” She paused, a dreamy expression came over her eyes.
“ But he says it’s amazing………to even reach that point ……… to stand on the mountains frosty chest……to feel it’s might….to realize our feebleness……. He says it’s an experience that bore deep into your heart, that will always remain and will never fade. He had repeated the story to me a million times but I never had enough of it……”. She looked at me, her face barely visible, as darkness enveloped us on the fourth floor balcony, where we stood. She continued:
“I want to go to the mountains…..do what my dad couldn’t do…reach the summit…see it for myself…feel what it feel likes …to be amidst the snow , in the embrace the wind… the thrill of being there…I would want nothing else from life”
There were tears rolling down her cheeks, but I didn’t stop her, because they were tears of aspiration….., tears of passion,….. tears of longing. On the fringe of her cheeks, was a lone tear drop precociously hanging. It began to sparkle……sparkle like a white pearl in the neon street light, that lit up behind her.
I couldn’t sleep that night. Her face, those tears, that voice, the mountains, the snow, filled the darkness of my room. An uneasy feeling disturbed my mind forcing me out of my bed. I was drawn towards the wooden table that lay at one corner. I switch on the lamp and there I saw, a long forgotten blank sheet of white paper, empty and wanting to be filled. I picked up a pen and began to write. Perhaps this is what everyone calls “inspiration”
It was not exactly a letter of love, or a love letter, but something in its close vicinity. It was an imprint of the moment, that I had witness that windy evening. A feeble attempt to hold time in my embrace. Each word chiseled, with delicate love, was to be a tribute……rather a befitting tribute, to one girls dream and her inexorable desire to make it a reality.
Sumedha read the letter for the second time as I stood near her impatiently. For a long moment she didn’t say a word. Then she turned towards me, her eyes sparkling. She said “I never knew you write so well, you should be a writer” and after a brief pause she added “…and I never realized you loved me so much”
Yes, I did love her, so desperately, that my world began to center around her. It was she and the mountains all along from that moment. Even the final year film that I wrote, had mountains as the dominating theme. While shooting for it in the crowded streets of Delhi, I confessed to Sumedha, that, I could have put more life into the film, if I had seen the real mountains.
She looked at me, surprise and stunned.
“Why didn’t you tell me ?” she asked. He voice sounding agitated.
“Doesn’t matter, ……you will show me, the mountains, snow, everything, …………won’t you?” I replied.
“You should have told me earlier. You could have come with me this time……It won’t snow, but you could see the mountains”
“I will come when its snows,” I assured her.
“So this December you are coming to my place”
I saw her off, at the New Delhi railway station for her brief sojourn at home. She would return after a week and we would begin our internship together. But the long seven days, that, I have to endure, without Sumedha, seemed arduous and lonesome. This was the first time she was leaving after we have met and I desperately didn’t want to let her go. She sensed my torment and with a assuring smile said “ I will be back in no time, and don’t worry, will call you every day”
Everyday…….however turned out to be an empty promise.
She did call me, for the next three days, after which the phone calls suddenly stopped. Perhaps she was busy, I thought. But as days passed, I grew restless. There was no news of her. I tried calling her, but couldn’t get through. Weeks went by. I felt stranded and lost. Her friends also expressed their ignorance about her whereabouts. Every day, a million times I would check my phone. In case I had missed a call from her. Sumedha was gone, and I didn’t have the slightest idea as to why or where.
Finally, tired of waiting, I decided to go to Ranikhet. A mutual friend of ours stopped me, said, it was of no use. He had just returned from Ranikhet. Sumedha was getting married. Her to be husband was a mountaineer and a high ranking army official. He had climbed the Everest, and I guessed he must have scaled the K2 also. I felt devastated and cheated.
Those days were a torture, each moment I kept on thinking as to what went wrong. Did I say something that annoyed her? Or was I not adventurous enough for her taste? I shouldn’t perhaps have said that I haven’t seen the mountains. But the more I thought, the more confused I became.
It went on for months……I couldn’t just wipe her off my mind.
Everyone said I had to move on. I too knew that this was the sanest thing to do. But how do I forget her? How do I dream all my dreams without her?
To do so, I have to hate her, blame her for all my misery……only then can I let go of her…..But I couldn’t just bring myself to abhor her. No matter how hard I try, the detest seemed incapable of overwhelming the frail love that my heart still held for Sumedha.
So in desperation; perhaps I turned my hateful gaze towards the mountains. Blaming its loftiness, for everything that had happened. For taking Sumedha away from me. I began to despise them,hating their very existence. They seemed like unwanted aberration disfiguring the eloquent flatness of this earth. And the snow…..it was like a white shroud covering a rotting cadaver. I couldn’t stand mountains anymore. I removed from my life anything or everything faintly related to them.
Pictures, notebooks, calendars, with mountain motif, were thrown away at the rotting rubbish bin across the street. I missed the trekking expedition that my friends had arranged, gave up drinking Mountain dew, and almost puked when someone gifted me a copy of Orhan Pamuk’s “Snow”.
It was an idiotic, I knew, but it worked well. The emotional turmoil that I had to endure was somehow mitigated by this misdirected sense of abhorrence. The intensity of my hatred no matter how strong; could never harm the massiveness of the mountains. I can hate as much as I want, empty my soul of the hateful venom, without having to despise that person whom I once loved.
I thought over for one last time before clicking send on my reply. Blurred images of Sumedha drifted back to my mind. It unsettled me a bit. But immediately I pushed them aside, and assured myself that my meeting with her was out of curiosity and had nothing to do with rekindle bygone love. Besides this was an opportune moment for me to execute my long pending vengeance on her.
So I began to plan, find ways, to would hammer the load of guilt on her. I soon however realized that the biggest obstacle in this, was me….myself. I am nowhere near to what I aspired to become. My film making career never really took off. I did go to Mumbai but nothing happened. I kept on waiting for the big break. But it never came. I returned dejected. Then I thought, I should try writing, but couldn’t go beyond half a page. Finally fortune did smile on me and I landed up in a clerical job in Delhi’s Central secretariat.
So Sumedha was right in not marrying me. What adventure would have beckoned her being with a clerk, who spends his uninteresting days doing unexciting work? And if I reveled my real self to her, she would definitely draw immense pleasure out of it and add another feather to her cap for her commendable foresight.
But at this moment of crisis, my creative instinct, which had lay dormant all these years suddenly came to my rescue. I would pretend that I am a successful executive in a Multi National company. I would lie to her that my work takes me around the globe from one board meeting to another. Although my hectic schedule spares me very little time for creative pursuits, still I manage to write a few articles which are published by some of the leading dailies. I had even penned a script during my last trip to Europe. A Mumbai based production company is showing interest in it.
With such a lifestyle I was sure Sumedha would regret her decision of not being with me.
And that was all I wanted, that she should regret.
For our rendezvous, I consciously choose the small garden that was located at one end of Connaught circus, near Palika Bazaars car parking. It was the place that we use to frequent, during our college days to grab a quick afternoon snack. The chola kulcha, seasoned with extra ginger and a dash of lemon juice was Sumedha’s favorite. I however doubt now, if it was still her favorite. She must have graduated to a more sophisticated taste.
I dressed myself in a pair of formal trousers and a light blue full sleeve shirt to emphasize my corporate background. I reach about half an hour early than the appointed time and loitered around at some distance from the park. Although my original plan was to make Sumedha wait for me at least half an hour, but when the time came I found myself invariably drawn towards the park. I would steal a glance at her and wait for sometime before meeting her.
She was seated on a park bench, her back towards me. In her own characteristic way she would occasionally run her fingers through her deep black hair. There was an air of casualness in all that she did……… an I give a dam attitude, which I did adore earlier, but now however, I found it annoying.
But this annoyance dissipated the moment I saw her face.
She had looked back for an instant, ……..and…. I was swept over………swept over by the placidness, the likeness of which I haven’t known for a long time. I struggled hard to regain my revengeful demeanor.
Some moments later I was standing beside her.
“Hi.” I said.
She looked at me. The tan was gone and she seemed to have put on weight.
Well not much of mountaineering nowadays perhaps there were no new peaks for her to scale, I thought while grinning from within.
She waved her hand, signaling me to sit. I sat down.
“You look great”. She said.
Great…… what did she meant by that, did she expect otherwise or was she rather disappointed at my well being. I didn’t say a word. Didn’t feel like responding to her.
Sumedha looked away and vaguely stared at the evening traffic. The golden hue of the evening sun, caressed her face making her look, even more stunning.
I tried to distract myself, repeating in my mind that I am not here to admire her or sing her praises, but to end what has been left unfinished a long time ago.
There was a lot of explaining to be done. So no time should be wasted. I looked at my watch.
Sumedha noticed, said “ Sorry……… you must be getting late…….saw you after a long time………the old days just came back”.
Ha…what a joke, I thought. She had a heart, that’s news…and she still remembers the old days,………the old days that has become stale ..seven years is a long time and seven years without answers is almost eternity. I felt an anger growing within me. I wanted to scream my heart out. Where the hell have you been? And what do you want now? But my face didn’t show. I couldn’t. No matter what I felt within I had to pretend, that she never affected me, never before, and never now.
“You must be angry with me and rightly so” said Sumedha.
No I am not angry, I am furious. I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders.
A slight hint of smile played on Sumedha’s lips. Slowly the smile merged with the melancholic expression that her face now descend to.
She was in pain it seems. But why should I care?. Could it be more than what I have been through?
In a little agitated voice I asked her. “Your scaling of K2,……. how was the experience? You went alone or was your husband with you?”
Sumedha didn’t speak, she closed her eyes for a brief moment and heave a sigh. She then turned towards me her look almost bored into my heart. The melancholy expression was gone her face turned stern. In a low, broken voice she said.
“ Mountains have abandoned me, they don’t want me near them, so I could never be with them………few days after I had left Delhi, I met with an accident……they had to amputate my left leg,”
She reached below her knees and with her fingers gave a slight tap.
It let out a hollowed sound……. A hollowed sound that sliced like a knife through the hum of the evening traffic stabbing me a million times. I didn’t know what to say or do.
After a brief pause she continued: “ The letter that you wrote to me, I still have it…… love to read it again and again…..reminds me of those few days I had spent in happiness …..…when everything was possible, when there was so much hope…… My life has changed now, my dreams are bounded by limitations, I have to let go of them,……but to let go of the mountains is impossible…..I have tried , but always failed…… will you help me go to the mountain?”
The question surprised me.
Sumedha continued “I want you to write about the mountains, where every word brings alive the softness of the snowflakes, where sentence lurks with adventure, where every page is an accolade to its pristine beauty. I want to see the mountains, through your writings, feel how it feels to be there through you……… Will you help me make this climb?”
As though I have lost my voice, I could only nod. I was trembling from within, unable to comprehend what I was feeling.
Sumedha looked at me, I too looked at her. That streak of pride, that loftiness of passion, still shining in her eyes. She stood up and walked away from me.
There were so many question to ask. Why did she lie to me? What was she doing now? Is she married? Why couldn’t she tell me all those things before? But I felt no urgency to ask them.
I kept on looking at her. Looked at her as she walked and limped away from me. And each time she limped it felt like a powerful blow of a heavy hammer.
A powerful blow that broke down the stone walls I had been built around an emotion, that lay in the deep in my heart. I felt inspired.
Inspired, after a very long time.