Ch: 1 Introductions.
I opened my eyes and the moment was gone. Forever. My friend, albeit deceased, was standing right next to the bed where I was asleep. The dream had been so vivid that I could feel her smile within me even after I was wide awake. Even in my dream, I remember feeling surprised that she had made the trip. All the way to this remote hill station in India. But then, why not? This was her idea after all. Since years, decades actually, we had been planning this trip. Since our university days, since riding the over- crowded buses on the streets of Kolkata, dreamy-eyed and tiny earthen tumblers filled with smoking tea held between our fingers.
Despite the risk of sounding clichéd, I must say, ‘Those were the days.’ I remember juggling dreams of taking up English Literature courses at Oxford, being a hot-shot professional, finding the man who would love me forever and so many others in those youthful days….
At this moment, I was abruptly shaken out of my reverie by the angry voice buzzing in my head. Pallavi’s voice. “Shut up Joyi, we are still young!”
We are? We are. I just crash-landed on the 43rd year of my life. Pallavi is a couple of months younger than me, and Tanisha, a month younger than Pallavi. I looked at both of them, one by one, as they lay asleep on the two other beds in the dormitory-style room. Luckily, this isn’t tourist season and we have the dorm just to us. The three of us. I sigh. It was supposed to be the four of us though. Noni aka Nayanika left this earth three years ago, like a bolt from the blue. Her little son had just turned two, the cuddliest butterball; and a week after the grand celebration, she collapsed in her sleep. Never to be revived again. Without rhyme or reason. She thrust me into such shocking, horrifying despair that even after months had passed, I could not reconcile with the fact that she was no more. I still cannot.
“Joyi! It’s only 6:30! What you doing, sitting up?”
I smiled at Tanisha as she made a valiant attempt to look fully awake by stifling her yawn.
“Our tour bus does not leave the hotel until 10, right?”
Pallavi’s groggy voice could be heard from the other end of the room. I wanted to remind her that this was not actually a hotel we were at. Neither would the tour bus bother to stop here. I look around the room. Although obviously meant to be a dorm for six people, the room was quite small. Even four would be quite a stretch, forget six. The beds were old and rickety. I could hear mine creak it’s complaints all night as I turned in my sleep. And of course, there was a single bathroom.
The view, however, was to die for. This remote village and hill station Kausani lies in the state of Uttar Khand in India. Known for its scenic beauty, and panoramic view of a few famous Himalayan peaks, the town has attracted the attention of those trying to get away from the rigmarole of city dwelling. Inevitably then, the once little-known haven, hidden among the more commercialized names as ‘Nainital’ or ‘Mussoorie’ now chokes and pants every tourist season under the burden of marketisation. Five-star resorts now penetrate the unperturbed blue of the heavens in an effort to compete with the majestic mountain peaks. The need for comfort and convenience have seeped into our lives to such an extent that we are ready to give up on almost everything else.
However, the three of us did not have to. The inn we were at is somewhat removed from the annoying stretch of luxury resorts and hotels. Annoying, but a convenient option which we boldly ignored. What with my nagging back pain, I prefer short distance walks and that would not be the case this morning because we would have to walk to the city (or town or village) center to boards the bus. Trying my best to forget about this stressor and my propensity to gain weight, which is the root of the problem, I stared out through the transparent glass pane. The smoky clouds were clearing away, and the looming Himalayan peak that was closest to our inn stared at me from the distance. Unexpectedly, I felt suffocated. Kausani was not my first choice.
Italy was. Or Greece, or at least, Goa.
“Joyi, you know I don’t have a passport!” I recalled Tani’s exasperated voice on the WhatsApp call. Tanisha had become Tani in affectionate abbreviation.
“So get it made,” I tried to sound casual, “its quite fast these days I’ve heard.”
She grunted. “I don’t have the time! I work for six days a week and I need the Sunday to myself. Besides, the passport office would be closed on Sundays.”
Really? That’s the excuse she’s going to give me! I had thought. Tanisha teaches English to high school students in a government school in the suburbs of Kolkata. Government school. Holidays galore. Leave-taking would surely be a breeze, and with all that, she tells me she cannot spare a day for the passport office.
I had tried again. Gently, because I thought I knew what the real issue was.
“Tani, I can pay for the ticket for both of us for now, and not that….”
She had cut me off abruptly. Sitting in a different country, I was then able to picture what her scrunched up expression might have been like. Her fair face gone red.
“I told you before, it’s not about the money Joyi.” Her voice was quiet but I could sense the hurt in her voice. I chided myself silently. What did I understand about the struggles of being a single parent? Nothing.
The three of us minus the fourth reached Kausani in the evening of the previous day. The heating in the room seemed to have a mind of its own and increased or decreased on its own accord. The button panel seemed completely dysfunctional. All night long, it had emitted grunting noises that jolted us awake, at least once every hour. I’m not exaggerating because I remember Palla (Pallavi) glancing at her luminous blue-dial watch and announcing the time in a high-pitched voice every time the sound woke her up; and I remember it was almost every hour. I pulled the double fleece blanket all the way to my nose and wiggled my socks-clad feet. The blankets looked clean but they had obviously not been aired for a long time. The musty smell could only imply that. Despite myself, I felt irritation already rearing its stubborn head within me.
“So much for you Tani!” I whispered inaudibly and the heating grunted in unison.
(To be continued)
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