My ears pricked up at the sound of an engine rumbling, and I raised my head, hopeful. A taxi emerged from behind the curve, splashing water. Relieved, I sprung to my feet, held my bag overhead, and dashed out of the tea stall into the rain.
A crack of thunder echoed around the surrounding hills, as the ancient Mahindra Maxx stopped before me.
‘Main Market?’ the driver shouted, rolling the window down.
‘Would be five-hundred rupees!’ he announced, eyeing me up and down.
‘Five-hundred!’ I asked in disbelief, ‘per person?’
‘No per person,’ he said, nodding at the rain. ‘Only you.’
It was far from fair, but I hopped in, and the taxi moved ahead along the empty road. I took a deep breath, and leaned back in my seat. A taxi rarely felt this good before. I twisted a bit to take my phone out of the pocket, and felt something stirring behind me. I immediately turned back.
‘She’s not well,’ came the driver’s clarification, as an old woman sat slowly up on her seat in the rear cabin, and pressed her hands in a namaste. ‘Taking her to the doctor.’
I nodded, and turned away. Outside, the rain was still going strong, pattering the windows hard. But sitting protected inside now, I could enjoy it. I thanked God for sending the taxi. I’d almost given up hopes, and turned back to my depressing lodge. It was the only one I could find upon reaching here last evening.
Still burping out the stale dinner I had there, I was dreaming of all the fruits and other food items I could bring back now. And an emergency light too. For the light never made a return after the blackout post dinner. Somewhere down these hills, there stood this marketplace by the side of a river, which could help me have a good night’s sleep tonight.
The taxi slowed down, and approached a man standing on the roadside, totally drenched. ‘Just helping a poor man,’ the driver muttered, waving him in. The man quickly settled on the bench across from the woman, and we moved again.
Not long after that, the taxi halted again, much to my annoyance, this time picking up two policemen. They slipped in on the passenger seat next to the driver, and lit up a bidi each. I controlled the urge to speak up against them. They were policemen, after all. But when the drenched man got off, and the driver took money from him, I couldn’t stop myself.
‘I thought you were helping him,’ I said, leaning forward.
The driver barked a laugh, and took the bidi offered by one of the policemen. ‘I’m no sadhu! Am I?’ He pulled in a long drag, and handed it back. ‘Yessir. I was helping him,’ he said, turning to face me, ‘but I charge money for help. Any problem?’
I was so tempted to remind him that he could help all he wanted, but not until my ride was over. That was the rule, right? But something stopped me. And that was all the encouragement he needed. Because after that he was calling out to people openly, as if just to irk me.
People got off, and more replaced them, as we wheeled along the winding road, soon crowding both the passenger seat and the benches behind, thankfully leaving my seat untouched. The rain by now had eased into a fine misty drizzle, so I rolled the window down a bit to let the smoke out, and closed my eyes for a nap.
I woke up to the sound of someone tapping on my window. A woman was peering in at me, motioning to open the lock from inside. I shook my head, and waved her to go back instead. But just then the door on the other side swung open, and in a flash, there were five fully grownup women cramped beside me, one almost in my lap.
I gaped at them, and then at the driver, who immediately turned on the music to full volume, and pretended to count his money, coin by coin, apparently oblivious of this new development. Fuming, I threw open my door, and jumped out, meaning to walk away. But just after a glance at my surroundings, I made for the rear of the taxi instead, and pulled at the door.
People whined, at first, but then reluctantly shifted in their places, creating a tiny butt-space for me. I wriggled into it somehow, with my nose just an inch away from that of the old woman in front of me.
And then the taxi began on a steep downward spiral picking up the speed. The woman before me immediately clutched her head and my own was no better, whirling like a spinning top. I took out a hajmola candy from my pocket, popped it in, and shut my eyes.
A sudden jolt, the very next moment, crashed me into the ribs of my neighbour, and then back against the door, as the taxi screeched and skidded, and hit something hard on the edge, before dropping dead.
Dizzy, I gathered myself and looked past the people, through the windscreen. There a minibus stood kissing the taxi, its bumper hanging loose. Our driver was already out yelling up at it at the top of his voice.
Back inside, the old woman could control it no more, and started retching madly. Alarmed, I fumbled at the door, and pushed it open just in time to tumble out, dodging the spurt of flood that came out of her mouth.
That was enough! More than I could take in a day. I pulled out my wallet, shuffled across to the driver, and thrust a fifty-rupee note in his hand.
Confused for a moment, he shot me a look before turning towards me, red faced. ‘What the fuck is this?’ he said through gritted teeth. ‘Five-Hundred rupees I told you!’
I glanced at the people crowding around us, looking at the driver in shock. I reminded him, aloud, that I had shared the taxi just like them all. And I’d pay accordingly, and not a penny extra. And fifty was still more than he deserved, as I was not even completing the ride. But he wasn’t listening. Like a lunatic, he kept repeating the same thing, his voice rising higher every moment. So I turned away and began walking.
A whack on my hand sent a shock up my arm, and my wallet dropped in the puddle below. I spun around. The bastard was staring at it like a man possessed. I swiftly scooped it up, before he bumped into me and sent me reeling. I steadied myself, shoving the wallet back in, and watched in horror as he picked up a rock.
Acting on impulse, I leapt at him, forcing him back with all my might, and for a second my heart was in my mouth as he looked like he’d trip over the edge. Thankfully someone caught and pulled him back in time. He staggered and then landed heavily on the ground on his back, as people reached forward to hold him down.
Out of breath, I was looking at him, still in shock, but ready, when the old woman flitted past me. I saw her reaching down, catching him by the collar, and depositing a hard slap across his face.
‘Ennoughh…’ she screamed. ‘Stop it. Stop it now!’
‘But Ma…’ he began, trembling with rage.
‘Shut up I said!’ She burst out in a fit of cough. Then swallowing, she said, suddenly weak, ‘No more looting these teachers, please. Enough.’
All eyes turned towards me, and I looked at her in amazement.
‘Now, take me to a doctor, will you?’
The driver glared up at his mother for a second, his face twitching. Then jerking away the hands on his shoulder, he got to his feet, and stomped away towards the taxi, swearing under his breath.
The woman got up slowly and walked towards me, taking a paper out of the folds of her sari. ‘Guruji,’ she said, holding it out, ‘this must’ve fallen out of your pocket.’
I looked at my Appointment Letter, a hand instinctively dropping to my pocket. I took it back, muttering my thanks, and she folded her hands in a namaste. Then she went tottering back to the taxi, and everyone followed after her.
I stood there, watching the bus and taxi make way for each other on the narrow path, and then roll away on the opposite sides, out of sight. I realised that my hands were still clenched, so I took a deep breath and loosened up.
The rain had long stopped, and everything had gone dead quiet. I could almost hear the silence around me. Suddenly I was feeling utterly out of place. I tried to recall why I ever decided to come here in the first place.
I walked to the edge, and slumped on the ground, cursing myself for ignoring my sister’s advice. She had told me – tried her best to talk sense into me – that it was a government job all right, but a tenure in a remote area like this would be no easy work. And I’d be a fool to leave my existing job for it.
But here I was, sitting all alone in the middle of nowhere, feeling like shit. But why now? Probably because the realisation that it was no place for me was hammering me all the harder now. I could no longer avoid it. I unlocked my phone and quickly typed my sister a message, and then sat closing my eyes for some time.
How could things change so fast, I wondered. Only yesterday, before leaving for this place, I had felt a thrill coursing through my veins. A life in the hills – a lifelong fantasy I was getting to fulfil.
But now, having had a taste of reality, I wasn’t so upbeat anymore. I took out my water bottle, gulped down half of it, and decided to get going before it started raining again. Sitting and brooding never helped anyone, anyways. And if I just stuck to the direction the taxi had gone, I should be all right.
I moved on, and strolled past a village on my way, tiny houses sprinkled on the slope amid lush green terraced farms. Soon a tentative sun also began winking from a gap between the clouds. And when a faint murmur of flowing water joined me along, I knew I was on the right path.
A few minutes later, I turned onto a road that looked relatively wider. I glanced up at the signboard; it was a highway coming from Uttarkashi. The traffic had increased accordingly as well, and it took me another fifteen minutes of cautious walk, before I saw the first shop on the roadside, selling fruits and vegetables. I bought half a dozen bananas, and stuffed down four of them while rounding a lazy bend in the road. And then the view opened up, just as the roar of the river grew louder.
Before me, the road had shops of all sizes crowding close on it on either side. And in the distance, through a gap between two shops, I could see a glimpse of the river flowing in full force.
I stepped ahead, with a newfound strength in my legs, making my way through the throng of enthusiastic shoppers. I crossed a dhaba with inviting aromas coming from it, and past a queue of taxis, constantly searching for a provision store.
I did spot some small ones on the way, but I kept walking until the very end, pushing through a small crowd swarming a wine shop, wondering how many villages this one market was catering to. And when a glass-fronted store on my left caught my eye, I immediately knew that was it, and made for it.
Inside, it was more like a warehouse cramped with three long rows of ceiling-high shelves, leaning into the aisles, in a room lit up by naked bulbs. But aesthetics aside, it had all I needed.
I went to the food section, all excited, and began picking up things, barely noticing that someone else too was shopping on the other end of the aisle. And it was only when I caught myself relishing a fragrance that seemed not to belong here that I threw her a glance.
More than anything else, it was the utter improbability of finding a girl like that in the gloom of the store, that took me by complete surprise, and I stood there motionless, for a moment, looking at her.
But I must have crossed my limits as she whipped her long eyelashes in my direction, and caught me staring. I fumbled away to the other side, and began rummaging the shelves aimlessly.
‘Excuse me?’ came her voice, immediately.
I turned around, my face dripping innocence. ‘Yes,’ I said, as she stepped closer.
‘Hi…’ she began doubtfully. ‘Please excuse me if I’m wrong… but aren’t you the Maths teacher from Delhi?’
I stared at her, stunned, for a moment, trying to place her. And then it struck me. ‘Central school?’
‘Right,’ she said, a smile spreading full on her face. ‘Plus a Delhiite, just like you.’ She came closer and thrust a hand towards me.
‘Wow…’ I said, shaking it, still not able to believe. There were around two crore people living in Delhi, but meeting one of them here, so far away, was nothing short of a miracle.
‘Yeah and we’re the only two from Delhi – so far. I’m Manasi by the way.’
‘I know,’ she blurted out. ‘And please don’t get alarmed,’ she quickly added, raising her hands, ‘It was just that knowing where you were coming from, Aman couldn’t help sharing that with me.’
‘The principal… you talked to him.’
‘Oh yes… ’
‘He’s not really the principal, actually,’ she said, dropping her voice.
‘No?’ I asked, puzzled.
‘I mean, he’s an acting principal – an officiating one as they call it. They rarely send any regular ones this far. So the senior most performs the duties. And though he’s just three years my senior, Aman happens to be the most experienced here.’
‘Okay,’ I said, thinking it over. ‘Must be chilled out here then – without a regular, serious kind of principal.’
‘Literally,’ she said, rubbing her hands, ‘and figuratively.’
‘And…’ I asked her, still curious, ‘did he show some photograph as well? Of me?’
‘No!’ She burst out laughing. ‘But it’s rather easy to tell apart the outsiders here. You’d realise soon. And almost all of them are teachers. And I was told you were coming here yesterday. Just put two and two together.’
‘Two and two together. You a maths teacher too?’ I smiled.
‘No.’ She smiled back. ‘I teach English.’
‘Oh, yes – “literally and figuratively”,’ I repeated, and we both laughed together.
She had joined this school a year back, and she was ‘loving it’ here. Everyone had to serve this mandatory tenure of three years in a hard station, she informed me, before turning forty. And it was better now than later when you had a family.
Our conversation soon drifted back home to Delhi, opening up a whole world for us to talk about. And even though we lived on the opposite sides of the city, it felt like we had been next-door neighbours since childhood.
I was sure we could have kept going the whole day, if we were left alone, but then the other teachers arrived, the ones she had come to the market with.
A tall woman with shoulder length hair introduced herself as Neha. The other three in the group were men, one of them being Aman, the acting principal. He shook my hand with the briskness of an army man. There was a bearded guy waving from behind him, talking on the phone, but the one with the crew cut high-fived me, announcing himself as Sachin.
Soon thereafter, we all finished our shopping, paid the bills, and left the place chatting away, heavy bags sagging our shoulders. I followed them out on the road, as we walked farther from the market where the shops started thinning again.
On the side, now nothing to block the view, the river could be seen gushing majestically between the hills, matching the road twist for twist. The vegetation on the hillside was growing thicker again with each step, and I was just beginning to wonder as to where we were headed when Aman turned around and bellowed, ‘So who’s riding with me?’
The bearded guy, still on the phone, raised his hand. But the rest of them shook their heads. Manasi quickly informed me that they were going back trekking.
‘All the way to the school!’
‘Yup,’ she said, her eyes twinkling, as we turned a curve on the road, and stopped before an SUV parked next to a taxi. She opened a door, tossed her carry bag inside, like everyone else, and turned to me. ‘That’s how we normally do it. We come by car and then go back on foot. Except for the person who’s driving, of course. Takes just about three hours.’
‘We take turns,’ Aman chipped in, slipping behind the steering wheel, ‘me and Manasi, on Sundays. Next time she’ll drive her car, and I’d be able to enjoy the walk.’
‘Where do you guys park your cars?’ I asked, observing how this one was pressed so close to the hillside for lack of enough space on the road.
‘In the school parking,’ both of them said together.
‘Wow,’ I said, ‘that’s a luxury here. A car parking.’
‘Oh, you haven’t been to the school. Have you?’ asked Manasi, tipping her head.
‘Not yet,’ I admitted. ‘Was already dark when I reached. It’s just up the hill from that lodge, right?’
‘Right. A kilometre or so. But you should see it, man,’ Aman said, looking excited. ‘I say, you join us for lunch today.’ He looked around him, and everyone nodded. ‘We take it together on Sundays. Can give you a tour afterwards.’
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘In fact,’ he added, ‘you should stay the night as well. I have extra bedding – and an extra bottle too.’ He winked. ‘Man, you’ll love the view from the terrace. With all the bright stars winking back at you in the dark. Pure awesomeness. The first time I came here, I couldn’t sleep the whole night, tracing constellations.’
My own first night here, only a few hours back, flashed in my mind, when I lay blinking in the solid darkness, tracing shadowy spiders creeping in and out of the cracks in the ceiling. I couldn’t sleep either. Then the implication of what he was saying dawned on me. ‘You guys live inside the campus?’
‘Hell, yeah!’ he cried, pretending to be offended. ‘Can you imagine surviving the place without residential quarters in there.’ Then turning on the ignition, he glanced back at me. ‘Welcome to the heaven, buddy! You’ll have your own quarter issued first thing tomorrow morning.’
I squinted at them all in quick turns to detect a hint of a prank going on there, finding it difficult to hold down the euphoria bubbling inside me.
‘Samarth,’ Manasi broke in, ‘you coming with us?’ She was keeping a bottle inside the bag they had kept back for the trek. ‘Or riding with them?’
‘Definitely coming with you,’ I replied, ‘you all…’
She broke into a smile. ‘Then I think we should get going.’
‘And we too.’ Aman revved up the engine. ‘We’ll pick up your stuff from the lodge. Okay?’
‘Okay,’ I said, ‘it’s third floor downstairs – ’
‘We’ll see that,’ he said, cautiously manoeuvring the car around, and then drove off up the road back towards the school.
Sachin grabbed the bag of refreshments and reached in. Then fishing out apples, he threw one each at us. And we strode ahead in the opposite direction, towards some shortcut through the hills, taking juicy bites.
The school was a gift of the villagers to themselves, they told me on the way. Twenty-one of them had come up and donated their farmlands for it. A level ground was then created by flattening them, and the school constructed right on top of the hill.
It had such a breathtaking view that they still woke up in awe of it every morning. It was complete with a small football ground, a basketball court, and of course the school building and the quarters. Basic things in any school, but too extravagant even to imagine here.
The kids were a bit difficult to teach because of their zero exposure to the world, but it was much more satisfying too, they all agreed.
Soon we left the road and started up a dried up river path made alive again by the rain. We had now reached the exact backside of the market, they said. Full of smooth stones of all sizes, the path curved elegantly up, rising rather steep in the distance before vanishing behind a thicket of pine trees.
My phone stirred in my pocket. I picked it up. ‘Hey, Sis! How’re you?’
‘I am good, and you sound normal! Not what I was expecting. After reading this message of yours.’
‘Oh that.’ It seemed like something I had done ages before. ‘Yeah… was a bit pissed off at the time.’
‘Pissed off? What happened?’
‘Nothing to worry about. I’m fine now.’
‘Okay…’ she said, ‘if you say so… So you’re coming back?’
‘What?’ I said, my eyes fixed at my colleagues negotiating a huge rock in the path.
‘The message brother. Focus. It said you were thinking of returning,’ she reminded me, ‘something about my being right about it all…’
‘Told you. Was not in a good mood.’
‘Hmm… means you’re not coming back?’
‘I don’t know. I think I’d like to see how things work out here first.’
‘That’s okay… but you might not be able to join back your school here after fifteen days, remember?’
‘I do,’ I said, the very thought of joining back upsetting me somehow. ‘You know sis, I’m sure you’re gonna love this place. You should come here some day. The hills, the air, the sheer purity of it all. It’s just amazing.’
‘Uh huh… I’m sure I will, if I come.’
‘And don’t think I’m alone. There are others posted here just like me from all over the country. And if girls can live here alone – ’
‘Sam.’ She said, amusement brimming in her voice. ‘Girls? Don’t you tell me you’ve found yourself a girlfriend there, already.’
My gaze shot up the path, and found Manasi leaning against a tree, chatting with the other two. Our eyes met briefly, as she flicked her hair to one side, exposing an earring that flashed in the sun.
‘What’re you saying, sis? Girlfriend…?’ But the response was shallow, and delayed just enough for her to start laughing that knowing laugh of hers. ‘Anyways, sis,’ I said, irritated, ‘the taxi is here. Will talk later. See ya.’ And I hung up the phone just as she was beginning to protest. Damn sisters.
Manasi stirred, as I shoved the phone back into my pocket and moved. I picked my way through the slippery pebbles up to that huge rock, and then began clambering up. My head was almost level with the ground, when I saw Manasi looming above me. She thrust a foot between two small rocks lodged in the ground, and stretched a hand down at me.
I needed no help, and she knew it. But she stood there, all the same. I took her hand, gripping it firmly, and a faint smile flickered in her eyes. She wrapped her tender fingers slowly around my hand. An action so deliberate it felt she was saying something. And right at that moment, for the first time since I was here, I was certain.
Certain that I wasn’t going back – not anytime soon, at least.
(Please like, comment and share, if you enjoyed the story. Thanks.)
Copyright © 2020 by Sundaram Chauhan