Four Women and a Bottle of Vodka.

Ch 3: Hot and Cold.

Thankfully, we had reached the inn at which we were staying. Although I was sure the distance could not have been more than a fifteen-minute jog. I was panting and puffing like an old steam engine. Once again, I was reminded of my doctor’s words at my last check-up. The wizened old doc had insisted that I start an exercise regimen ASAP and with all seriousness if I wished to remain in good health. My husband had been extremely concerned and I had promised him that I would join a gym and exercise religiously after this vacation with my friends. This was just the second day of the long-awaited holiday and Pallavi had managed to sprain her foot… as well as meet this beautiful young man. The man’s voice pulled me to the present again; “Which room?” He questioned.

“Eh?” I asked, still lost. I was gazing at Pallavi’s face. Her face no longer held that scrunched expression but she was biting her lip, possibly because of the pain. Her cheeks were reddish but there was this odd thought in my mind that the color on her face was not linked to her pain. As if on cue, Pallavi opened her eyes for a fleeting second or two. We looked at each other and I sensed the tiniest of smiles flit across her lips. Then she shut her eyes again, and lay limp as if she had fallen asleep or better still, fainted in his arms. Before I could stop myself, a wide smirk erupted on my face and I turned away to hide it but it was a little too late. The man had spotted it and looked extremely confused but Tanisha flashed me a stern, reproachful look and I wiped it off my face instantly.

‘Tani, the saint of the coven!’ I thought.

“Room 205,” Tanisha uttered and started to point where the staircase was but the man already knew it. As if reading our minds, he supplied, “The owner…. our grandfathers were neighbors years back. We used to play together all the time…. not an inn back then.” So he knew the owner’s family. Not surprising, given that this was a small, underdeveloped hill-side village, away from the prying eyes of greedy investors even a few years ago. Not many families thrived and the ones that did by enduring the bitter cold and raising sheep and goats, probably all knew and supported one another. I noticed the man was panting from all the exertion and the fact that he was climbing a steep flight of stairs carrying another human. Although Pallavi was of a lighter build compared to me, she was not lithe. We had reached the room. Tanisha fished out the rusty key from her purse and opened the padlock. The man gave the door a small kick and with a creak, it let us in. As soon as we stepped in, it was my turn to feel embarrassed. Whereas my friends had neatly, made their beds before stepping out, I hadn’t really bothered. My mega-sized polka-dotted underwear lay blithely on my pillow. I recalled that it had fallen out of my small suitcase when I was fervently looking for a pair of socks this morning and I didn’t stuff it back in as we were getting late. I observed his eyes rest briefly on the large thing, then realization dawned in those sky-like eyes and he turned away from my embarrassed expression, looking questioningly at Tanisha.

“There, that one!” she pointed to the bed where Pallavi slept the previous night. Nodding, the man moved to the other end of the room and laid her gently on the mattress. He stretched as he straightened, then bend down again to fix the pillows under her head. I inched to my bed and shoved the piece of garment out of sight.

Hearing footsteps behind me, I turned to see the young bell-hop who had carried our suitcases to this room last evening. At once, this handsome man broke into a torrid speech in a hilly dialect we could not follow. However, from his tone it was clear that his words were a set of instructions and the boy nodded solemnly before running out.

“I told him to get ice in a bucket for the swelling and inform Dr Khan to come quickly. His clinic is just a ten-minute walk from here.” Apparently satisfied that he had managed things well thus far, he smiled at us and sat down on the floor at the foot of the bed.

“My name is Tushar,” he went on and I felt the urge to smile again. ‘Tushar’, the snow in Hindi. Calming, luminous like this young man here whose eyes now lingered on Pallavi’s face. “How is your foot feeling Madam ji? Still hurts bad, right?” “Yes,” came Pallavi’s feeble reply. I walked over and poured water in the cup on my bedside table. I took it to Pallavi and she drank all the water in a gulp.

“Get me some more.” I nodded and making sure the water in my flask had not already gone cold, I took it to her quickly. She took the cup from me and tried to sit up but winced and fell back in bed. The sudden jolt made the water spill all over her face and chest.

“What are you doing? Can’t you see?” Tushar shot up and yelled at me. I was about to retort that it wasn’t my fault at all when he proceeded to wipe her face with the palm of his hand and began unzipping her jacket. The elbows of his long arms rested casually on our friend’s rising and falling chest as he wrestled with the tight zipper.

“Stop it, get out!” Tanisha had reached my side and pushed his arms away from her body briskly. “We will help her, you please leave now. Thank you,” she said bitingly, her face stern. I looked at Pallavi. She was staring at the young’s man’s puzzled expression. The boy had returned with a small bucket half-filled with ice and a heavy, dented kettle. Steam was gushing out of its spout. A small, faded towel rested on the boy’s shoulder.

Tushar found his voice. He looked miffed as he spoke to Tanisha.

“Look Madam, I’m only trying to help this Madam ji here, because it’s my fault she is hurt. You city folks don’t know a thing about treating such injuries. Let the doctor check her foot first.” As he reached for the bucket, the bell-hop handed him the towel and quipped, “Dr Khan is out of town. The clinic is packed and only has the two old, cranky nurses. They refused to come and told me to bring her there.” He finished, breathless, and pointed a finger at Pallavi. I sighed and Tanisha seemed fit to explode.

Without another word, the young man retrieved a bucket from the bathroom and poured the steaming water into it. Like a surgeon getting ready to operate, he took off his long, thick pheran. * As he rolled up his sleeves, I could not help but notice his sinewy arms. Silently, he lifted Pallavi again and signaled to me to prop up the pillows which I quickly did so that when he laid her back down again, she was in a half-sitting position. Moving purposefully like an experienced professional, he pulled of the sock and placed her right foot on his lap. Gently, he began bathing her foot alternatively with the ice and the towel soaked in hot water. After about ten minutes of this repeated process and as we stood watching, Pallavi seemed to relax visibly.

She wiggled her toes and Tushar smiled at her. “Better?” he asked as he rubbed his thumb on Pallavi’s toes, massaging her toes and stroking her polished toe-nails. I noticed that the shade she was wearing was a bright, hot pink.

‘How odd!’ I remember thinking. The young man seemed completely at ease, as if it were quite normal to cradle an unknown woman’s foot in his lap, her toes almost touching his crotch. His smile had not faded and Pallavi was smiling too.

I felt Tanisha’s eyes on me and I knew from one look at her that she was uncomfortable. I cleared my voice, preparing to say something, when Tushar spoke, “What a lovely color! I’m going to get one for my wife!” His sparkling eyes were still taking in Pallavi’s pink toe-nails and I saw her squirm involuntarily.

  • (The pheran is a loose upper garment loosely gathered at the sleeves which tend to be wide,[12] made of either wool or jamewar which is a mixture of wool and cotton,[5] with no side slits.)

(To be continued)

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