Akash was escaping from his recent turbulent past. Kadambini, his fiancée of four years, had left him suddenly without any reasons. She didn’t even have the decency to tell him in person. Through an impassive email she told him that she was marrying a NRI and moving with him to the States. It was a shock he was ill prepared for. How could he have imagined that she would suddenly move out of his life forever after grudgingly agreeing to postpone their marriage by six months?
They loved each other. They had agreed to marry but there was a small hitch. She was for an early marriage, while he wanted it delayed. So she had made him to pay a huge price for such a small mistake, he thought and wept.
Her betrayal had shattered him emotionally so much that for a moment he had contemplated of ending his life, but somehow he had held back.
The example of his parents, whose marriage went through its daily dose of upheavals and to which he had been a witness for over a decade, ironically proved to be a source of inspiration. His mother, an ambitious woman, was a top ranking bureaucrat in the state government. His father, also a bureaucrat, had stagnated in his career due to his laid-back attitude towards life. Not that he cared much for his promotion anyway. He had a penchant for painting and during his college days he had wanted to take it as a vocation but for his father.
Ambition or lack of it had been the main cause of the marital discord between his parents. His mother often castigated her husband for showing utter disregard to his career and his father detested her interference in his professional life. And whenever their squabble reached the boiling point, his father packed up his bags and headed towards a hill station with the canvas, paints and brushes. Whatever he painted during holidays, he gifted it to a charity.
Firstly, he was afraid to bring home his paintings and annoy his wife, who anyway didn’t think much about them. Secondly, he never wanted their marriage to reach the breaking point because of a few paintings. For the sake of his son, he wished to carry on in his loveless marriage. Like him his wife too couldn’t dare to live separately for the fear of social ostracism.
So, to the outside world his parents remained a happily and successful married couple. No one knew the truth, not even him. For a long time Akash drew inspiration from his parents and thought of them as an ideal couple worth of envy and emulation. The bitter truth, however, was revealed to him later when he spent long months at home after his graduation when he searched for a decent job. He found his nature akin to his father’s and thus he felt more close to him at heart than his mother. In his father he had found a friend who understood him without any parental prejudice. His father never preached but listened to him sympathetically and advised him like a friend. So far he had never hidden anything from him.
So when Kadambini dumped him for a NRI, he confided it in his father and wept on his shoulders. Once he regained his calm, his father advised him that he should run away from home and drown his sorrows in the rains of Cherrapunji. Relentless rains of Meghalaya would wash away his grief and lessen his hurt. Also, the salubrious climate there would act as a balm to his tormented soul.
He heeded the advice and next morning he boarded the first flight to Guwahati. Hours later he was moving in a taxi to Shillong. As soon as he left Guwahati and entered Meghalaya, the rains greeted him. He was pleasantly surprised and recalled his father’s words about Meghalaya being the abode of clouds and Cherrapunji being the wettest place on earth. In his student days his father had traveled a lot and seen many wonderful places in India.
By the time he reached Shillong it had become dark. Throughout the three-hour long road journey it had rained persistently. The drifting fog and dark clouds had enveloped the mountains and meadows. However, he did get to see some splendid landscape whenever the sunlight lighted up valleys intermittently. He was in no hurry as he had plenty of time to explore the place.
After the night halt at Shillong he hired a taxi and moved to Cherrapunji the next morning. Half an hour later as soon as he entered the Mawkdok Valley, the exquisite sight elated his dampened spirits. It had started drizzling. The rain-bearing clouds were descending from the hilltops and swirling in the narrow valley, the gateway to Cherrapunji. A small crowd of tourists traveling by cars, buses and taxis had stopped there. Almost all were busy in taking pictures of the wonderful valley, nascent waterfalls and lush green hills. The first time visitors were the most vociferous in expressing their emotions. The children screamed and exclaimed in delight.
Akash noticed the elderly people after a while walked to the makeshift shops for a cup of hot tea while the children continued to enjoy the drizzle and mist. Some children collected raindrops in their palms and rubbed the water on their faces; some tried to catch the fog in their fists and some simply loved the feel of the wet breeze against their bodies. The worried mothers yelled repeatedly and asked their defiant children to come under the shade. Their repeated pleas and threats were drowned in the din. However, mothers’ anguish and children’s joy ended soon when drivers urged them to get inside the vehicles. He felt sorry for the children whose merriment was curtailed.
Minutes later they all moved. He followed them.
The breathtaking beauty of the Mawkdok valley and subsequently of the sprawling lush green meadows made him forget everything. He felt as if he was moving in Scotland, a place he had seen in the movies. For miles together there were no towns except for a few tiny villages perched on the gentle slopes and nestled safely in valleys. The taxi driver negotiated the winding road with consummate ease. Moist and fresh mountain air was invigorating and loneliness of the landscape thought provoking. He found himself drifting into a different world where happiness was all pervading.
He chose not to listen to whatever little the driver had to say about Meghalaya or Cherrapunji. Instead, he enjoyed the sudden gush of the rain on his face occasionally. Having watched the children play in the rain a while ago, the child within him too had surfaced up. It was time to relive his childhood, he thought.
An hour later he caught the first glimpse of some huts on a hillock. Only a few front huts were visible while the rest were covered in thick layers of a stubborn mist. And when the driver informed him that was the famed town of Cherrapunji, he almost jumped in delight. As he moved closer more huts became visible. The entire town was engulfed in thick fog. He would be really lucky to get its full view in rainy months, the driver told him.
The drizzle turned into a downpour as soon as he stepped into the hotel. After consulting the driver he abandoned his plans to have a look around the place that day. If the weather cleared by evening then he would take a walk in the forest nearby, he contemplated. He settled for local delicacies for lunch. While lunch was being prepared he moved out in the veranda and watched the rain whose fury didn’t seem to subside. Never in his thirty years of life had he witnessed such a heavy rainfall, which threatened to wash away everything with it. That moment he thought how helpless the man was before the nature despite all the technological advancements.
Will the man ever be able to tame the nature’s fury with technology? He wondered.
The waiter, a local Khasi boy, who brought his lunch, interrupted his further thoughts. The boy looked unperturbed by the heavy rains. With his characteristic smile he served him lunch and vanished into the kitchen. Akash ate hungrily and finished his lunch sooner than he normally did. The rain continued unabated and he remained confined to his room until next noon. Even by Cherrapunji’s standards the rainfall during the past twenty-four hours had been rather heavy, the waiter informed him.
In the afternoon the weather cleared up unexpectedly. He immediately moved out of his room and went for a walk in the woods. He needed time and solitude to carry out introspection; he needed time to forget Kadambini and put her thoughts, her memories behind and move on in life.
An hour’s walk took him deep inside the young pine forest. His walk, however, was made little difficult by the prevalent fog and soggy ground. Despite inclement weather it was the ideal location he was looking for. In his endeavor to look for a place where he could sit comfortably, he continued walking. Hardly had he moved a few kilometers when to his astonishment he found somebody emerge out of thick blanket of fog. Thought of a wild animal sent shivers down his spine and he froze in terror not knowing where and how to escape in case the animal attacked him. He doubted whether he would be able to flee in the soggy condition. And he heaved a huge sigh of relief when he saw the silhouette of a human being in the midst of the fog. Curious, he stood still and watched the figure move ahead. Moments later he was baffled to find a girl when the outline became clearer.
She carried a twig and kicked loose stones with her feet as she moved. Her face, whose beauty he was sure of, was covered in a light veil of mist. Her voice was surprisingly attractive. It was the low and melodious note suggestive of a typical Khasi romance; described in tourist brochures but rare in experience. When she came within a few meters of him, he wished to hide behind a tree and hear her sing. For, he wanted the music of her sweet voice to descend deep within his heart. But she stopped humming as she saw him first and her question, as to who he was, froze him and enticed a feeble delayed reply from him.
“It’s me…I mean …Akash,” he stammered.
“What are you doing here?” she asked briskly.
“I’m a tourist. I came for a walk in the forest,” he was a little surer of himself.
“Shora.” he repeated.
“Forget it. Call me Cherra. It’s much easier to pronounce. Even the British when they landed here first failed to pronounce it correctly,” she said putting him at ease.
By then Akash was thoroughly confused but he was sure of one thing that he had got the girl’s name wrong. However, he couldn’t comprehend a bit of what she spoke about the British getting it wrong. So to clarify his mind, he asked, “Could you tell me what the mystery of Shora is?”
She looked at him and smiled. For the first time he had a close look at her. She was a Khasi girl whose incredible beauty combined with tribal innocence carried the melody of a pastoral poem and jungle lore in the right blend. He stood spellbound by her earthy charm.
“Shall we go to some place where we can talk comfortably,” she pulled him out of his trance.
A bit embarrassed, he mumbled, “Yes.”
They went to an abandoned hut about a furlong from there. The hut was locked. The cobwebs hung all over the place. The owner seemed to have been away since long. They stood in the veranda separated by a meter, which to him appeared a mile.
“You were saying something about the British?” he asked impatiently.
“Oh, yes,” she tried to recollect. “Firstly, it’s S-O-H-R-A and not what you pronounced the word like. Secondly, I said the British also couldn’t get it right.”
Intrigued, he quizzed, “So what’s the tale?”
She began instantly:
“It’s a story that happened about hundred fifty years ago when Shillong didn’t exist. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it but it’s true. Even if Shillong existed then, it must have been a tiny nondescript village of a few huts. The Khasi tribes of this region often attacked the British troops stationed in then East Bengal. Fed up with the attacks, the British troops decided to put an end to all this and marched into the hills of Meghalaya from south. The troops first reached the Village of Sohra. Since they found it hard to pronounce they named it Cherra and the village of Sohra since then came to be known as Cherrapunji. Punji is the word for a village in Khasi.
Later when the British found it to be quite a rainy place they shifted their garrison from Cherrapunji to the present day Shillong. With passage of time Cherrapunji lost its importance and Shillong from a dull village became a bustling capital of the entire northeastern region. It remained so for a long time even after the independence till Assam’s capital was shifted to Dispur. However, Cherrapunji’s name in history was assured when the world discovered it to be the wettest place on the planet receiving the highest rainfall annually. Isn’t it quite baffling that this small village gets more rainfall than any other place on the earth, including the Amazon Valley?”
“Surely, it seems a fairytale kind of thing. It’s hard to believe that I’m walking around here which is a well known place in the world,” he spoke in admiration. “But how do you know all this?”
“I was a young child when the British landed here first,” she smiled.
“So, how old are you now, then?” he asked seriously.
“I’m not good at math. You can calculate,” she grinned mischievously.
“You want me to believe this,” it was his turn to smile when he thought she was pulling his leg. “You couldn’t be a human being to live that long. Only ghosts have such long lives.”
“Who knows? I could be one,” suddenly she became serious.
“Oh, you’re trying to scare me,” he laughed.
“No, you should believe in yourself.”
Then for a moment they fell silent.
Looking in the distance, away from the direction in which she stood, he spoke thoughtfully, “Your arrival is a harbinger of change in my life, I guess.”
When asked what he meant by that he told her everything, about himself, his parents, his job, his relationship with Kadambini and how she had left him a week ago for a rich NRI.
She listened to him sympathetically without intervening in between and he finished, she remarked, “I’m not a philosopher but I believe in one thing that life must go on irrespective of upsets and upheavals. We can learn a lot from the nature. For example, look at the hills of Cherrapunji. Do you find any change in their behavior? They are what they must have been when they were born and they would remain the same for times to come. Till recently the hills of Cherrapunji received the highest rainfall and then suddenly Mawsynram has usurped its unique status, which incidentally is the wettest place on earth now. Do you feel that this village or the hills surrounding it are lamenting the loss of their status? Certainly not. This place is as vibrant now as it was before. That’s what life’s all about. The nature teaches us a lot.”
He was astonished by her simple explanation of a complex human philosophy. If her beauty extraordinaire had stirred his heart, her intelligence had touched his soul. He wished she filled the vacuum in his life. Will she agree to his proposal? He doubted. But there was no harm in trying, otherwise how would he know what she had in her mind?
Gathering courage, he inched closer to her and whispered, “Cherra, will you marry me?”
“Oh, you want to marry a ghost,” she laughed teasingly.
“Please, I need you,” he begged.
He looked at her in anticipation and held his breath. Though her lips quivered, she said nothing. Perhaps she needed time to decide, he thought. He understood her predicament. After all, it was the all-important decision of her life and she didn’t want her to take it in haste. And so he waited.
But the fickle weather of Cherrapunji didn’t wait. The rain had lost the intensity but the fog gained momentum and within minutes it filled the entire area—the forest, the valley and the hut. It came rushing into the veranda and suddenly the day turned into the night. Nothing was visible. Akash panicked and thought that he would lose her. She would disappear in the fog as she had emerged out of it. He groped for her in the dark but didn’t find her. Frantically he searched her around the hut but she wasn’t there. In desperation he shouted her name, Sohra, repeatedly.
Then he sat on the ground dejectedly thinking he had lost her forever. But to his dismay the fog started to drift and when he looked around he saw her standing nearby. Tears rolled down his eyes in sheer joy.
She came close, lifted him up and whispered, “Had it not been for the fog I wouldn’t have known how much you love me.”
“So, do I take it that you’ll marry me,” he was ecstatic.
“Meet me in Shillong tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Central Point. I’ll tell you my answer there.”
“You can come along with me in the taxi,” he suggested.
“Don’t worry about me. I’ll be there on time. I’ve wings, I can fly,” she teased.
He hesitated for a while and then said, “What if I don’t find you there in Shillong?”
“If you believe me, you will,” she said and left. He watched her disappear into the drifting fog.
“If…,” he shuddered to think.