I was waiting for the supreme sunrise at the Tiger Hill. But before my eyes could witness the rainbow grandeur, my ears had picked up some cloudy words.
‘The sight is just beautiful. Divine. The more I see it the more I like it.’ the woman said.
‘But you are even more beautiful.’ the man said, staring at the woman. And the sky of Darjeeling got sore in front of my eyes. I witnessed a swollen red round wound, bleeding, suppurating over the white heavenly height of Kanchenjunga. Never before had the sunrise at Tiger Hill presented such a ghastly scene for me. Through the natural blind of the foliage of a larch tree I saw them and listened to them, and was almost blind with disbelief. He was my father, and she was, no, not my mother, but Sheila Aunty, my best friend Joy’s aunt. Joy’s father had a brother, Ramesh. Sheila Aunty was his wife. Her eyes were hidden behind a pair of sunglasses and the divine sight of a rising sun over a snow-smothered peak was getting reflected on the glossy black glasses like two miniatures. Without looking into the eyes of somebody, without sinking into the depth of its liquid charm, how could one gauge somebody’s beauty! That too, my father! I could clearly see his profile from here. His small Mongolian nose, the prominent jaw line, the wide forehead, so familiar to me for all these fourteen years of my life, looked so different! As if he was wearing a mask with a strange expression! We had so many Tibetan masks in our curio shop. Some of their curious lines and curves appeared to have been added to Father’s face.
I turned my back towards the mask, cloudy sunglasses and the so-called ‘beautiful, divine’ sight: The sunrise over Tiger Hill Any avid tourist would find his tour of India incomplete without viewing this spectacle. For me, it had been a common sight.
I was born around fourteen and a half years ago, in 1981, in Darjeeling, the beauty spot of the Himalayas, with the grandeur of Kanchenjunga in the background. Tiger Hill is a place about eleven kilometres away from downtown, but a must for the tourists to experience how the white mystery of the Kanchenjunga absorbs the colourful glory of the new-born sun. On a clear sky this sunrise is a wonderful sight. To be caged in your camera. To be framed in your memory. On a cloudy day, however, the unlucky would miss the transformation of the solid white solitude into a melting colourful radiance. Today there was no cloud in the sky, although it was the end of the rainy season here, and most of the time the clouds would linger and one would be walking in clouds, towards clouds, with eyes full of clouds. And my heart prayed aloud for a cloud to blind the sun, and blot out the radiance of the snow-clad peak! Had I not always seen in that spectacular spectrum the colourful loving eyes of my mother? Yes, my mother, with her gentle movements, warm cuddles and a serene green soul, like that of Darjeeling. The Kanchenjunga of our home.
Our home was in proper Darjeeling, by the road climbing up towards the Mall. It was just five minutes’ walk to that Chowrasta, or that. flat heart of Darjeeling amongst all its curves, all ups and downs. It was a home. It was a shop. It was a love drop, from the melting icicle of the enormous Darjeeling roof. There were only three of us there. Three moving pieces and numerous peacefully static pieces, the antiques and curios in the showcases and shelves of the Curio Corner, our shop, adjacent to our house. The house was pretty old, the home was not, and the shop was a place where time did not exist. The house and the shop were my father’s ancestral property, inherited from his mother’s side. The mysterious shop, where time did not exist, the ceiling was low, the light was never enough at any time of the day. Sunlight was restricted through the blinds and the neon lights were regulated to make the curios even more curious and the antiques even more ancient.
Every time I entered the shop, the rest of the world ceased to exist for me, unless some customer came with some worldly affair of selling and buying. Just as when one enters the Planetarium, and after the lights go off the whole universe starts moving around you, with blinking stars, dashing comets or mystic Milky Way, this shop opened up a timeless, space-less canvas around me wrapping me up in· an enraptured existence. Standing there I knew there was no yesterday, there is no today and there will be no tomorrow.
The smell inside the room was weird, like some primitive cave or under the deep-sea trench. The old exquisite clinking chandeliers, the deadly carved grandeur of the dead wood, the stony statues with life juxtaposed on death, or death on life, the Tibetan bells of various sizes with curious clanging clappers to ring the time in and time out, and some big paintings with a fossilised feast for your eyes were all so known and yet so unknown to me like the network of my own consciousness. Time and space both vied with each other not for coexistence but for non-existence. Although most of the items were Tibetan and Nepalese, we had Victorian rose-stained glass lamps too, some exquisite Japanese and Chinese Cloisonné vases, a German Grandfather clock, book-shaped Bhutanese lime boxes, Sikkimese dragon jewellery, a few rare pieces of jewellery of the Mughal and Rajasthani rajas, and some ethnic jewellery of the Himalayan tribes of India.
Even as a very young child I used to hang around the shop. The curious rare artworks were forbidden toys for me. I had heard from my grandma, who had been staying with us till her death last year, that,my four-year-old ambition had been to touch a large peacock blue chandelier. It had been too high for me. Father used to make me stand on his strong shoulders and even then it had been out of my reach. Like the sky of Darjeeling. Even standing on the greatest height of the Himalayas, could one touch it?
Chandeliers show that even light should be served beautifully. I had a craze for beauty even at such a young age. I used to cry when I could not touch it. So, one day my mom who never knew how to lose out on something, had stood on a stool and held me up high. The blue grandeur was within my reach. I caught hold of some dangling decorative prisms and pulled hard. The small delicate prism broke and a fine sliver got stuck in the even more delicate skin of my hand. Everybody had been surprised that I did not cry and did not let that broken piece go from my hand. The peacock blue got a violet tinge with drops of my eager blood. My father came, saw it and hurled his wallet away through the door of the shop. It was foggy and raining and it got lost along with his whole day’s earnings. The antiques of the shop silently looked at his antics. They had been used to it for such a long time.
‘Are you angry because you won’t be able to sell it off?’ Mom had asked him.
’Yes, but more so because you have hurt her. You are pampering her. Giving her impossible things, she can never get. Now, she has hurt ‘her hand. Later, it will hurt somewhere else, and will hurt much more when she grows up.’
‘I’m teaching her to reach for the unattainable and not to retreat in fear of pain.’
Next, both of them had said sorry to each other and attended to my wound. My father had brought that broken chandelier to my room and hung it there from the old ceiling.
Even now it was there in my room, serving me intoxicating light in hundreds of colourful goblets. Instead of candles we had fitted some fancy bulbs. I didn’t remember this episode, obviously, but my grandma had repeatedly narrated it for me. Father’s antics had been very common at home. But for the first time an antique had been brought from the shop to the house, to our home, only because he was too much fond of me. He was very fond of his shop too, of his antiques and antics. I was in awe of both of them.
‘Hey, Lucie, why didn’t you wake me up?’ Joy came running uphill. His eyes were still reddish, might not have had enough sleep at night. His face was a bit swollen and that added some extra charm to his natural good looks. We had come to their home or hotel-cum-home over the weekend. Joy was my closest friend. Just two years older than me and now ready to enter college after the higher secondary exam. He had been there at my home, at my shop, in healthy sunshine, in sickly snowfall. He had a home there, just by the side of our home. They had had a shop there too. Just by the side of our shop. Twin home-cum-shop buildings.
I could recall it all. Twin families with the flavour of love, the leaves of youth and the buds of childhood. Meena Aunty, Naresh Uncle, Joy and his sister Polly, almost six years younger than him. The only difference was in the articles in the shops. There were no antiques in their shop. Rather, it was anti-antique, in the sense that, very modern electrical appliances and novelty items were sold in that shop. The items mostly had MADE IN NEPAL or MADE IN CHINA or MADE IN JAPAN embossed on them. The imported indulgence. Camera, portable TV, walkman, headphone, calculator, clocks and watches with uncommon features and facilities and all such very sophisticated items. Two shops, side by side, the ironic TV tower by the side of the decorated spire of the church. Two parallel tracks: rail and road. The wheezing racing car by the side of the huffing-puffing vintage toy train.
But the homes behind the shops were replicas of each other. Mom and Meena Aunty were great friends. And so were Joy and I. The men were not so close. One used to go to Nepal and the border of China to get more modern and more fascinating items. The other used to go to palaces and places where ‘timepieces’ were auctioned or sold.
I went with Father many a time. I liked the bidding. The calling of the auctioneer always used to fascinate me. As a child I used to imagine myself at the top of Kanchenjunga with a huge snowman I had made out of snow. I would start calling the bids. Once, twice, many times and at the end, when it was finalised, I would look back to see the snowman had all melted away. The gavel would slip through my loosened grip, shattering my dream, perhaps.
Joy came very close to me, so close that I could feel the warmth of his existence heating up the freezing cold air of the dawn.
‘Look at your hair, Joy.’ I was about to run my fingers through them to give a combing effect but my hand stopped in the air. Mom would not like it. Touching a grown-up boy without any reason. I tore off a dull leaf from the chestnut tree to divert the movement of my hand and had a full view of this grown-up boy who had grown up with me. He had grown even taller, I thought. I had seen him around a month ago. But Mom told me that now changes in both of us would be very fast. Yes, every time I saw him, after he had left their old home, I noticed changes in him. His voice had got hoarse, his upper lip had a bluish line of a faint moustache. Today, I saw a five o’clock shadow on his chin and noticed his Adam’s apple had grown so big and prominent. Mom said he was going to be a man. Even I had changed so much over the last two years. Not grown very tall, but my breasts had been growing bigger and prominent. I had to wear a bra to stop them from bouncing while running and I had to be careful now, on some days, as I was now growing up to be a woman. My thick black hair had grown quite long, touching the hips. Joy threw a cursory glance towards the rising sun and at the glowing and glimmering grandeur of Kanchenjunga. Turning towards me he smiled, showering all the radiance on me.
‘Where is Polly? Won’t she come to see the sunrise?’
‘You know her. She does the things always in the easiest way they can be done. Getting the best by doing the least. That lazybones would rather enjoy it from the bedside window, lying on her back. She has got her bed near the window just facing the east. Anyway, pretty boring sight by now for us, everyday seeing the same thing, for the last two years.’ He remarked casually.
‘But Joyee, every sunrise is not the same, I have found it so very different every time.’ Of course, I didn’t mention the difference I had observed today. I had a very small mouth. Quite conspicuous and most of the time I could speak out only half or even less of what I wanted to speak.
‘You are as crazy as always, grow up and you will know,’ he said with the seriousness of an adult. Then, his eyes twinkled· with childish naughtiness. ‘I shall show you something else, really interesting.’ He grabbed my hand and took me towards another corner of the hill, away from the crowd.
We came near the edge of the peak from where one could have a bird’s eye view of Darjeeling town. The morning mist had blurred the vision. Yet, Joy pointed his finger at a greenish spot in that hazy landscape.
‘Can you see, that tea garden over there, near the Happy Valley Garden? It is going tobe mine. I think, later in the day Papa will take all of you to visit it.’
Tea garden! I wondered. ’How come, Joyee-?’But before I could finish my question, talkative Joy answered, ‘Well, my grandpa, my mother’s father, has made a will the other day, and it seems that I am going to inherit it after I grow up. Sounds great, doesn’t it?’
To me it sounded rather incredible. This Joy, a small boy, whose cowlick I used to pull till a few days ago, would grow up to be the owner of a tea garden and control a hell of a lot of people under him, just as we saw in the movies! How would he look then and how would he talk? A big head, a lacquered cowlick and a pair of tea-coloured eyeballs. I would hardly know them. Rocky Tiger Hill as if turned into a green patch, bristling with tea leaves and buds. Two leaves and a bud. So unique: ‘They coexist in order to exist.’ The air around me filled with the enticing aroma of Darjeeling tea.
I would always like to remember Joy, as a boy I had known for all these years. But Joy, my friend of everyday happenings, my childhood companion of all deeds and the chief sharer of all our mischief had been away from my everyday life for the last two years. The twin homes had become history now. One of the Siamese twins had been operated away from the other. At present, they were living their separate lives. One at the old place, the other on the Tiger Hill. And now they had new family members, Ramesh Uncle, Sheila Aunty and their one-and-a-half-year-old daughter. Ramesh Uncle was a civil engineer. He had gone to Saudi Arabia long ago. He had been there for seven years. In between he had got married. Around two years ago, they had come back to India and Darjeeling, and had brought a pair of large scissors to cut the threads of the kites Joy and I had been flying. The kites had got lost somewhere beyond Kanchenjunga. Over the rainbow. I was holding the black and white thread even now. And dreaming about walking on the carpet of the rainbows in search of the kites.
Ramesh Uncle and Sheila Aunty had come back loaded. For Ramesh Uncle, his purse had become his personality. He purchased a piece of land on Tiger Hill. They had their cottage built there and one ugly morning they had put down the shutter of the shop, locked the door of the home and left for their new home with a plan to build a hotel there shortly. The peak of Kanchenjunga had got lost in the pea-souper. I had been left all alone in a half-dark world of antiques and antics. I missed him badly during our music lessons, comic sessions, and mostly for meaningless activities and talking sessions. They were now leaky, airless, flat balloons, plain pieces of amoeba-shaped plastics. He might not miss me that much as he had a little sister, Polly, who was, very young though, around eleven. Also he had his niece Manasi, Aunty Sheila and Ramesh Uncle’s one and-a-half-year-old daughter. They also had this hotel ‘Sunrise’, with many tourists and their many activities. So, it was never loneliness for him, never lack of company, never dusting the ancient dirt off the inanimate antiques, or facing the animated antics and wondering about the enormous enigma called life!
We had been meeting at intervals, no doubt, but a part of my home had been missing. ’A portion of the earth has been pulled out of its body. They are still related by the gravitational force, they are still moving together. And with them moving a dividing distance. The space is mysterious.′ We had been trying to keep our old days alive by arranging family picnics, get-togethers and outings. Today, our coming here was one of such reuniting plans. Meena Aunty and Naresh Uncle had come to our house two days ago and invited us to their new hotel, opened recently at the top of Tiger Hill. We had reached just half an hour ago. Mom had gone inside the hotel to meet Joy’s family. Father and I had been waiting to see the sunrise. Sheila Aunty had joined us shortly. Father had asked me to go to the hotel and call the others as the sun would be out shortly. I had started for the hotel but the small crowd gathered on the peak had shouted, ‘There, there it is.’
I had stopped and come back a little to see the glorious spot on the rainbow-coloured sky and dream-coloured Kanchenjunga, perhaps a snowy shadow of the evasive Everest, at a dreamy distance. But instead, I had come across the clouded goggles and heard the even cloudier words, and for the first time, the divine sunrise seen at terrestrial Tiger Hill turned into some discoloured dismay for me. Presently with Joy and his joyful smile by my side, I began to feel better. I was listening to him, as always.
‘Hey kids, what are you doing there?’ We looked back to see that our moms were coming towards us. My mom was looking great in a pale silver sari. Her tall poplar body moved uphill with natural grace. She was very tall. Taller than my father, by two inches. My father was short, only five feet four. They were called the odd couple. Her oval face with a pointed chin was looking gorgeous in the soft light of the baby morning. Meena Aunty had grown fat. She was panting a bit after walking uphill. I hadn’t seen her .for over two months. Two days ago when they had come to invite us, I had been away to attend my lessons at a coaching centre.
‘How was the sunrise today, Lucie?’ Mom asked me. ‘Could you see it clearly or were there any clouds?’ Her eyes were very clear I could see, like a dream of last night you could recall in the morning’ with all details. I didn’t want to cast a shadow of cloud over them. Also, I did not feel it was correct to say anything in front of so many people. I also had a faint doubt that maybe Father had been kidding although that would be quite unlikely of him. I just informed Mom that it had been a clear sunrise.
Meena Aunty hugged me affectionately and said to Mom, ‘Now, she has grown up, Eva. She is looking so pretty. And my,. my, look at her complexion! She is getting fairer day by day.’
‘What fair! I would say she is not dark,’ Mom said.
She never considered me fair, although all the others used to call me pretty fair and she herself used to call me fondly ‘my orchid’ at times. Orchid is a fair flower, or is it pale? The reason of her dissatisfaction was that, Mom used to compare me with herself And Mom was as fair as a shining white cloud. She had English blood in her veins. Her Goan grandfather had married her English grandmother when India had been under the British rule and Goa under the Portuguese. She had got that touch of English fairness. I had not. I had an Indian complexion, typical Indian, fair or whatever one may call it. In fact, everything was Indian about me. My hair --- dark, and my eyes too.
When I used to stand in front of the mirror, especially of late, as nature had started adorning me with changes, I would see a long-necked Indian girl with two heavy eyelids, hiding half of the two large wondering eyes. They are a bit peculiar. The lower edges of my eyes were not as much curved, as they should be. They were almost straight. Next, I’d see a small mouth. Extra small. Not thin. My lips looked full, moderately fleshy, but the width was almost as much as my thin nose. Pouted. Then there were a few spiralling curls along my hairline. My hair was inclined to curls, but these were crisp curls, like mahogany shavings. Flouncing on my forehead, and cutting off its width for a better show. Father used to call them ‘tender tendrils’ affectionately. This would be all about my simple face. In fact it was so simple that Joy would draw my caricature with a· few strokes. Two semicircles, one small straight line in between and one tiny dot just below that. He would not take the pain to outline the face; instead, he would encircle it with a few whorls, suggesting my curls. And that shabby geometric mishmash would be me!
I smiled to myself as I heard Meena Aunty speak.
‘But she should put on a little more weight. Don’t go for this slim trim fad. Too slim and too fat both are bad if you ask me. And why don’t you braid her hair? They are now so long and thick. If you don’t take care of them now itself they will start falling off like mine.’
Meena Aunty was scrutinising me with her extraordinary large eyes. Then, she fondly pinched my lips and kissed the hand with which she had pinched them. This is a common Bengali way of fondling an older child. But in most of the cases, people would lightly pinch or touch the cheek and kiss the hand with which they had pinched it. In my case it would be usually my lips, as everybody would say that I had the smallest and cutest lips in the world. As for me I didn’t like it much. Such a small mouth with a natural whistling pout! As if the words would get hurt squeezing out of them. Joy would tease me, ‘God does not want you to talk much.’ Yes by nature, I used to talk less. So did my mom and to some extent my father too. So, I was not sure if I could blame it all on my small mouth. Only my thoughts and dreams and secrets used to remain refrigerated within me, Kanchenjunga’s snowline, out of anybody’s reach. Nobody had ever scaled it. Neither did I want anybody to do it. Today’s conversation between Father and Sheila Aunty would also remain there like the frozen hawk in the mountaineering museum.
I started thinking over the conversation once more. Something disturbed me thoroughly. My father. The change in him! Yes, it was there. This time he had pulled the shutter and locked the door of our Curio Corner without any grumbling. He had left his antiques without his antics. How? And why? The shop was my father’s obsession, and session after session he could spend with those antiques, even when there were not many customers. He and my grandma used to keep the showcases real showy. Every now and then Father would give a facelift to his shop, he would meet suppliers and read literature to get more and more items for his shop. He knew history very well and would tell the customers about each item briefly but interestingly. Usually, my father would not take a break for months, as he always remained too busy with his antique’ shop. Mom and I would badger him to go to Mirik or Kurseong over the weekend but he would not, telling us how much loss it would cause to his business and finally he would give in, with a lot of grumbling and a series of terms and conditions. Whenever he was angry he would sit in the shop the whole day without coming home for food. Mom would not dare go there lest he create a scene in front of the customers. She would send me or my grandma to request him to come and have his meals.
‘Do you want me to take my shop to another rented room away from home? Don’t disturb me, I’m busy.’
And he would be busy calculating his accounts or would give a hot and hasty order to the Gurkha boy who worked in our shop. The antiques and the antics - that was him.
However this time, when Meena Aunty and Naresh Uncle had come to our house and invited us over to their new hotel, he had agreed without any sign of protest whatsoever. The formal inauguration had been done around two months ago by some VIP, and we had attended the function. They had requested us to stay with them that night but Father did not agree. Mom had to come back reluctantly. So had I. One sunrise, to be seen together with Joy, had been missed. This time surprisingly there was not a whit of protest from his side! It was wonderful, but made us wonder about his sudden change of mood. His mood had been unpredictable no doubt, most of the time but this time it had been almost shocking. It had been a pleasant shock and so locking our house and shop we had come to enjoy the weekend with Joy & company.
Mom and I, of course, used to visit Tiger Hill every now and then. Guests and visitors and friends would keep on invading this tourist place all through the year and we had to oblige them by taking them to all the unique places while my father would take care of his antiques and antics. This tourist spot was the zingy thing for the tourists. And now it was a visiting spot for us too, as Joy’s family, our second, extended home had been shifted here. With their new venture ‘Sunrise’, Uncles Naresh and Ramesh were expecting good business. The business seemed to be picking up nicely.
In fact, Naresh Uncle had offered my father a partnership and asked him to join them in the motel business. My father would have had to sell off his business and house and invest the money in this new business. From the mystery of history to the limited geography of the three-storeyed floating population. No, he had not agreed to it. Our home had, experienced a blizzard of arguments. Mom had wanted my father to take up the new motel business. Reason? It would deal in life, apart from earning more profit, and home would be so much more than a shop full of dead antiques. Mom had liked it more as her family had been in the same business in Goa. Mom’s parents used to run a hotel ‘Casa no Duna’ (A house on a sand hill) on the sandy golden beach of Goa. But my father had not wanted to part with his own business. Neither had my grandma, who had been alive at that time. I remembered some of their arguments.
‘You have already spent more than fifteen years of your life in this shop. Why don’t you try something new?’ Mom had said.
‘What is wrong with this shop? It has been with our family for the last three generations. Fed us. And now I should get fed up with this? Think about Mummy, how she would feel about it.’ Father had tried to explain.
‘You are not doing very well, of late.’
‘For that matter I am trying to add something new and working on that. But only because a few bucks are less in my cash box I can’t back off. You should rather buck me up and we’ll sail through the bad times.’
‘I am bucking you up but not the way you want it. I am asking for a change. Why are you people so resistant to change?’ And here Mom had overstepped the edge of the ridge and fallen on a rift valley.
‘You think you Christians are the only people who changed the world! We Hindus are all backward? Change, change and change!’ Father had clenched his fist and banged on the table. Antics to protect his antiques ... and then a landslide on the mountain pass-- ‘How would you like it if I wanted to change you, this home, this family? Would your Christian adventurism like to venture on it? Tell me.’
Yes, it had been a mixed marriage. My father was a Hindu. His Nepali mother and Bengali father both were Hindu. Yet, it was an unconventional marriage. Two persons from two ethnic communities. In Bengal and generally in India, a marriage would be usually between two people of the same caste and the same community.
Mom was a Christian. Goan Christian. Grandma used to worship Lokesvara, Pashupatinath and my father, although not a religious man used to celebrate all major religious festivals in a festive way. He would never go to temples or perform the formal ‘formulaic’ rituals, as he would name them. However, he had never objected to Mom’s going to the Church or celebrating Christmas in a religious way. We used to have the sparkling star on the Christmas tree and the quivering flames on the Diwali lamps. Mother had a cross around her neck and Father had a sacred thread across his torso. My grandfather had been a Hindu Bengali Brahmin. And perhaps he had believed in the power of the sacred thread before threading his way through the underground uncertainty of the Naxalbari movement: An attempt at an armed revolution fuelled by the China backed communists in West Bengal, now,-- a page of history. Soaked in blood. Burdened with blunders. Blurred with the tears of my grandma and many other grandmas. Nobody knew what had actually happened to my grandfather. My grandma had tried her best through all known sources to trace him out. Then after a long time, one morning the sky over Kanchenjunga had not got the vermilion touch of a loving sunrise. The parting of my grandma had remained shrouded under clouds ever since. But inside the four walls of ours there had never been any religious clouds.
In my school, of course, many of my classmates and seniors used to ask me about my religion. Even one of my teachers in my primary school had once asked me, ‘How can you worship Hindu gods when your mother has had beef and you are born of her! You are committing a sin.’ Now, I knew that the target of those words had been more sinned against than sinned. That’s why Mom had immediately taken me away from that school and got me admitted into a Christian Missionary School.
At home, we never had beef and Mom would have it only when she would go to Goa .. Father had never objected to it nor had she ever asked Father to have it. I had never tasted it because meat itself had not been my favourite. I liked eggs and fish. So did Father. But I had a cross pendant hanging from a chain around my neck. Mom used to say it would protect me from any bad influences. I had a Buddhist Gau too, on my arm. My grandma gave it to me as a lucky talisman. I used to go to various churches with my mom and temples with my grandma. Mom also used to visit the temples sometimes. We used to speak mostly in English at home, because my mom didn’t know Bengali well. .So, our family was considered by most of the people as semi-Christian.
‘What is my religion Mom?’ I had asked her once, when I was very young, just nine years old.
‘What do you think it is?’ She had wanted me to explore.
‘Can’t I be both Hindu and Christian? Is it illegal like bigamy?’ Mom had smiled at my question. And Father laughed.
‘You may not be anything and still you may love God. Some big men prescribed some ways to serve God and be nearer to Him. Common people followed them. You may follow your own,’ Mom said.
And Father dropped a clanger. ‘God is but an imagination of men. Imagination of an ideal Superpower. Different groups of people in different parts of the world and at different times imagined Him differently, so there are different religions.’
Father’s communist father had left many diaries and write-ups and perhaps a red throbbing vein in my father. Maybe he had told him the same thing when he had been a child. Father’s idea had confused me then and haunted me later. ‘God created man in reality, or man created God through his imagination, in a dream?’ I excavated the answer in myself I created my god in my dream. And my dream became my god.
I wish everybody had his own god. His very own. He should worship Him in his own way. Just as one dreams one’s own dreams, and relishes them his own way. Can’t God be personal? Impersonally personal? Why should there be some solid mechanical machinery to reach out to the abstract of all abstracts? What if we don’t have any religion and bear our own god with us, our own way? Not to be inherited like a property but to be absorbed like the air. In my own heart.
Once I had revealed this idea to Joy, a thirteen-year-old Joy. At that time, he had not accepted it at all. ‘There will be no fun. How can all of us celebrate Diwali, Durga Puja together then?’
‘But you don’t celebrate Christmas. We don’t celebrate Eid. There are always some people left out.’
‘They have their own group.’ Joy just could not comprehend and smiled it off. ‘You and your crazy ideas, Lucie. Why can’t you think like others?’
I just couldn’t. I wished everybody had his own god, so that he could feel Him his own way and not through the edicts of others. Why nobody understands God is not to be felt in a vicarious way. Isn’t it degrading Him? Why should there be a Hindu, Muslim or Christian way of feeling God?
However, I had heard the argument about the Christian and the Hindu, for the first time in the four walls of our home, that day. I could not recall any other argument on this line so far. A few years ago there had been a long agitation, for a separate Gorkhaland: of the Gorkhas, by the Gorkhas, for the Gorkhas. There had been strikes, demonstrations, frequent lathi charges and occasional firing. Our business had started suffering. The number of tourists had been falling, day-by-day. I had got curious. The curiosity of a six-year-old girl.
‘Daddy, do we have to go away? What is this new Gorkhaland they want? Will it be a fairyland?’
Father had sneered, ‘All such land, be it here or in Bihar or in Punjab, would be a ghetto.’
The word ghetto had sounded unfamiliar, but rang in my ear. ‘Ghetto? What is a ghetto? Some kind of ghost?’
‘Ghetto means a place where people of one community stay together. Hitler made it for the Jews. Now, people want to make it for themselves.’ He had spoken more to Mom than to me. His tone -- acrid. ‘They are turning this world into a zoo. Each species in its own cage.’
‘Who will visit them?’
‘Nobody, each one will look at the others till one day out of boredom, they will break the cages. ’ He paused and said, ’Mixing and mingling is what has made this world. Think of air, water, soil. They are all mixtures - strange and grand. Life is a mixture ... ′
Father would go on. And I would go on with my thoughts. I had thought of a life, where reality and dreams were blended. I had been thinking ever since.
The argument about the Hindu and the Christian had not prolonged any further. Mom always used to be cool and in control of the situation. She had said in an apologetic tone, ‘I didn’t mean anything about the Christian or the Hindu. Don’t imagine things. If you don’t want to take any risk and make the best of an opportunity, don’t do it. But you may regret it later.’
‘I will not,’ Father had said, ’can’t you see, going there means leaving my own proprietary business, where I can do anything I like. There it would be another story. I’ll be the weakest
partner. And Ramesh - no, I just can’t bear that man you know.′
And he had not gone to join the lucrative business of a motel at Tiger Hill and avoided the company of Ramesh Uncle.
Ramesh Uncle. A man fast balding in his mid-thirties. He was the kind of person whose unkind coldness stung much more than the snowy winter wind of Darjeeling. He had a round face with a bristling moustache. His ash-coloured eyes always reminded me of two flat coins. Yes, he had coins in his eyes, in his pockets, and maybe all his body and mind were stuffed with coins, Indian, foreign. He was a human piggy bank. He used to laugh very little, and when he did, it was just a jingle of coins. He was not only involved in· many kinds of business, he used to .lend money to people, including friend and foe in their hour of need, and take it back with high interest.
But this piggy bank had a hole in the bottom, - the attraction of the lush racecourse of Darjeeling, the highest racecourse in the world and the racing ground in Calcutta, lavishly decorated and fiercely crowded. With a binocular slung around his neck he would frequent the fancied fences during the racing season. He would take Sheila Aunty with him as she was supposed to be lucky. Joy once went with him but that day the hole in the piggy bank grew bigger, so next time very rudely he refused to take him. He had never taken him again. Joy had not liked it and told me about his ill feelings. However the gallop brought Ramesh Uncle gallons of fortune and he remained steeped in pleasure. The pleasure had been punctured when the daughter had been born, and not a son.
Sheila Aunty had earned an ‘unlucky’ tag. I still remember the day vividly. When we went to see the newborn baby, Ramesh Uncle could not suppress his frustration and Sheila Aunty could not suppress her tears because of his reaction.
It was just after Durga Puja. I asked my family, ’Did the Himalaya get frustrated the same way when Devi Durga was born? How does every one worship her then?′ In the Bengali mythology, Durga, the mightiest goddess of all was the daughter of Himalaya, the king of the mountains. My grandma felt scandalised.
‘Don’t you talk like that about the gods. It is outrageous.’ My grandma shared a home with my grandfather, but not his ideals. Her Kanchenjunga was pointed towards her Lokesvara, and her ocean depth was inscribed with a belief that my grandfather’s misfortune was due to his atheism.
‘Did you cry when I was born?’
Mom held me in her arms and Father kissed me. They comforted me.
‘Darling Orchid, you are the pupil of our eyes.’ I was, no doubt. But Manasi was considered a loss and in order to compensate the ‘loss’ Ramesh Uncle marched avariciously towards a few more millions and not towards the new millennium, ushering new ideas. ’To the millennium, to the millions was his motto. A coin-eyed cunning man.
Although Naresh Uncle was his brother and had the same type of round face, bristly moustache and receding hairline, his eyes were very different! No coin, but affection was coiled in his dark brown eyes. He always used to bring me beautiful toys whenever he went to Nepal, Bhutan or any such place. He used to show me the novel electrical items and explain their usage elaborately. When Joy and I would fight over something he would mostly be on my side and try to tell Joy that he should allow me to have my way as I was younger than him. He was a huge figure, tall, robust and strong, unlike my father. When I was five or six years old he used to carry Joy and me on his broad shoulders, as broad and strong as the rock used by the students of mountaineering. Along with a strong body he also had a strong mind, always cheerful, always witty. If Ramesh Uncle was a piggy bank, Naresh Uncle was a fountain of jokes and anecdotes. Like that hilly fountain of Darjeeling whose water is always warm, even in freezing winter.
’There comes your “Mister” Meena Aunty’s words addressed to Mom stirred me from my reverie. ‘You must look after his health, he is growing thinner.’ I looked back to seeFather walking towards us. His thin legs were moving slowly and his eyes were as if looking through us. Was he thinking about his antiques, I wondered. There was no Sheila Aunty with him. Nor around him. I started thinking that whatever I had heard or overheard might be having no overtones. He had been joking for a change. Otherwise, why was Sheila Aunty not with him now. The maples, the poplars, the larches around sighed a deep breath of relief, rustling their leaves, blowing my wisps of hair, and blowing away my doubts.
‘How did you enjoy the sunrise Biren-da?’ she asked him.
‘Marvellous.’ He gave a ready-made reply, as mechanical as the answering machine on a telephone. And he was blinking fast, which usually he did when he was uneasy. ‘Have you seen Sheila by the way?’ Meena Aunty asked it to all of us it seemed, but Father replied hurriedly, ‘I saw her going that way.’ He pointed at some shady corner of the hill with a lot of trees spreading out their leafy branches.
‘Maybe she has gone to catch some butterflies. She has strange hobbies and interests,’ Joy said, as talkative as always. Meena Aunty only smiled and said,
‘Okay. Let’s go in. Breakfast is waiting for us. She will come back soon I think.’
We all went back together to the hotel, where Uncles Naresh and Ramesh were busy attending to the customers. Naresh Uncle came from behind the reception counter, all smiles, ‘Welcome brother, welcome.’ He hugged Father, as he would always do when they met after an interval. They both looked happy. Ramesh Uncle smiled dryly. Coins flashed in his eyes.
We went to their big dining hall. Some of the hotel customers were already there. We went to a very big table and all of us sat, except Ramesh Uncle, who remained busy with work. And Sheila Aunty joined us just when breakfast was being served. She was not wearing those goggles now. Her eyes looked very restless and her high cheekbones were shining as if she was sweating. She was wearing a heavy overcoat and must have walked uphill very fast, I thought. Polly, the eleven-year-old sister of Joy asked her, ‘Were you jogging Aunty? You are panting.’
‘No, dear, I walked quite fast,’ she said, and settled on a chair by me. A strong perfume stifled my senses. Her long varnished nails, her well-set long brownish hair, her mascara-coated long eyelashes all gave her the looks of a heroine. She was beautiful, Father was right, but she was definitely not more beautiful than the sunrise at the Tiger Hill. And obviously not more beautiful than Mom. A rhododendron arrogance pitted against the magnolia magnificence.
‘Why don’t you call Ramesh, Sheila? Let him come for fifteen minutes. Bishu can look after the place during that time,’ Meena Aunty said. Bishu was the caretaker of the hotel, an employee of theirs.
‘He won’t come, I know very well and I don’t want to waste my energy and patience on this.’ Sheila Aunty’s voice sounded as bitter as a badly brewed cup of tea.
‘Ramu will keep clear of this place. He may have to laugh if he comes here. He will get hurt if he laughs much.’ Naresh Uncle said in a humorous but loving tone showing affectionate indulgence of an elder brother to his over serious sibling.
’Sometimes, I wonder Naresh da that you are brothers!′ Mom said.
‘Just after my marriage I felt the same way, Eva.’ Meena Aunty said ’while taking a bite of a crisp toast. Everybody had started breakfast by now.
‘But when will he have his breakfast?’
Mom enquired. ‘He will get his plate there and have it there,’ Meena Aunty replied and started preparing a plate to be sent to him.
‘Don’t worry about his breakfast, I think his fast has already been broken. Maybe two or three times.’ Naresh Uncle was again in a jocular mood, ‘He tastes all the dishes before they are served to the customers. And if there is any fall in quality, the poor chef will have a very bad time.’
‘But it is required. This dedicated attitude makes one business more successful than another,’ Mom said in a serious tone and immediately Sheila Aunty’s voice twanged.
‘Yes, he is a very successful businessman. But don’t you have any topic to talk about other than making fun of him?’ She pulled back her chair and almost stormed off the room like the gusty chilly winds of a Darjeeling winter.
‘Listen Sheila, I didn’t mean it, Sister.’ Naresh Uncle went behind her with an apologetic attitude.
The tallest poplar of the Darjeeling forest, bent and arched by the gust of a stormy wind. There was an uneasy silence where the only sound was of crisp potato chips being chewed. Joy was never very fond of his uncle and aunty. He looked at me and made a silent sign to imply it had been good riddance. But Meena Aunty was feeling embarrassed, ‘She has suffered a lot, you know. Poor thing. I don’t blame her. Every woman wants a normal husband who cares and shares. He takes her for granted. That too just after three years of their marriage!’
She was speaking in a low voice to Mom so that the children could not hear, but although my mouth was small, I had very sharp ears and could hear it all. Joy was busyhelping Polly with her pizza. And soon Naresh Uncle came back, flanked by Sheila Aunty and Ramesh Uncle. They were clinging to his left and right arms.
‘See, I have got two birds by throwing only one stone of a joke. Good performance dear Sheila. Sometimes, you must overact, I mean overreact like that, and only then our serious brother will take you seriously.’ He made both of them sit side by side and with the exaggerated humbleness of a waiter said, ‘May I now serve you breakfast, madam and monsieur?’ Everybody started laughing. Even Ramesh Uncle smiled and said, ‘Enough Dada. Let me finish quickly. The fishermen are about to come. Yesterday the fish they supplied was not fresh. Some customers complained. I have to talk to them about this and recover the penalty.’
Along with the smell of rotten fish, the sound of jingling coins filled my senses. I did not enjoy my breakfast very much. I could not even play footsie with Joy, as in our early childhood days. The distance in space was a few inches, but the distance created by time was impassable. Mom warned me very specifically not to play footsie with anybody anymore as I was growing up to be a woman. And no good woman played footsie, she told me. Yet just to divert my mind from the business talks going on over the cup of tea at the breakfast table, I looked down to glance at Joy’s trouser-covered legs (nowadays he hardly wore shorts), and that was not prohibited by any standards. But my eyes got fixed on a woman’s legs playing footsie under the table. Sheila Aunty’s with my father’s. I looked at their faces and saw that they were sipping piping hot tea with a cool composure. I closed my eyes. Ghoom. The highest railway station of the world .. The breathtaking Batasia loop. The spiralling railway track from the Ghoom station waltzing down to Darjeeling town. The two parallel rails of the track diverged. A wide distance unfolded in between. My toy train got derailed.
I excused myself and came out of the room. Breakfast was already over. The adults were having tea. We, children did not have tea, so I had no problem leaving the table. Joy and Polly also came after me.
‘Anything wrong Lucie? Are you feeling sick? Your face is very pale.’ Joy was worried as usual. He was affectionate, like his parents. I looked down and shook my head to indicate no. But he held my chin up and smiled.
‘Look at you. Your small mouth has got even smaller!’ Yes, my small mouth hurt me. I could not speak out anything. Not even to Joy. I slowly pushed his hand away. Mom taught me not to touch any boy or get touched by· him unless it is very much required. Like you are falling and need somebody’s help. Or some boy needs your help in some similar situation. Only touching hands would be okay.
‘And what about Joy?’ I had asked her with daisy simplicity in my eyes. Twelve years old, I had experienced just a couple of ‘red litter’ days. That would be a few months after Joy’s family had left their old home and our neighbourhood.
‘Joy is also a boy.’ Mom’s cool eyes had rested on mine.
‘But I have always touched him.’
‘You were a child then. You used to run around topless when you were seven years old, can you do it now?’ Mom had asked, looking at the growing heaviness around my chest. She had not explained further. I had got the drift, and hardly drifted from the path directed by her. With Joy it used to be difficult, however. So often my raised hand stopped before a friendly, and oh- so- usual pat. Or before arranging his tie or dishevelled hair, as it had happened this morning. Sometimes, I felt, maybe, it was better that Joy’s family had gone, as he could never have been so close as he used to be. More than space, time had created the chasm between us.
Time, which life is made of, changes so many things.
‘Something wrong, Lucie?’ Joy was still staring at me. I shook my head with a faint smile. And deep inside I felt something was wrong somewhere. The blue stretching sky, impaled on the snowy· sharp summit of Kanchenjunga bled and spread a colourless emptiness in front of my eyes.
‘Look at the clouds,’ Polly shouted. All of a sudden a sharp chilly wind started blowing. And the clouds invaded the sky. An approaching storm. Now, all around us were only the clouds, only the wind, only the drops of rain, only black and white and grey. Colours were blown away by the storm.
Our outing was spoiled. We could not see the cascading mountain falls and had to be satisfied with the boring sight of the rain trickling down the windowpanes. Meena Aunty and Sheila Aunty got busy in showing Mom their newly acquired dresses and jewellery. They called me to see them too. Somehow, I never liked those things. Joy, Polly and I started playing video games and our fathers sat in front of the bigger TV, watching programmes and discussing politics. I did not want to continue playing with video games for a long time. Neither did Joy. We were growing up. To be man and woman. The toys and these games could not interest us anymore. We left the joysticks and guns and game with Polly and went upstairs to the balcony. Raindrops came slanting and covered us with cold kisses and the clouds touched us subtly. We enjoyed it like we had always done in our childhood. We stretched our hands and played with the raindrops falling on our palms. But the wind was very strong. Soon we had to run away. We entered Joy’s room. We were half wet and shivering.
‘You must change,’ Joy suggested. He went to our suite and got my bag. Then, he left the room allowing me to change. I was never before alone in grown-up Joy’s room. Last couple of times when I had come here he had shown me the room and we had spent a few minutes together. Today after changing my clothes I looked around the room. One corner was filled with the usual posters of sportsmen. One portion of the wall was covered with a beautiful curtain. I thought that might be a door leading to a balcony and so I pulled the curtain. But to my utter surprise, I saw some big close-ups and revealing posters of models and heroines pasted on the wall. A shocking discovery behind the innocent cover. Quickly, I covered them up again. I came out of the room and saw him coming. Somehow, I could not look into his eyes. He knows all about a woman’s body,I thought, and nervously felt that the tea coloured eyes were throwing an X-ray look towards me. My limbs twitched. Almost the way they had that night when overnight I had grown up.