TO THE STARS
Snigdha had completely forgotten about the trip that Sameer wanted to arrange, amidst all the upheaval going on for the nuptials. This time it was not Sameer who had brought up the topic again. It had been Jatin and Mrinal who had asked Sameer to arrange the trip to Darjeeling. But he had refused to do it. So, Mrinal had gone ahead and done the necessary arrangements and Sameer had had no way to get out of this plan.
They put up at a guest house that the Sinhas had been visiting regularly. The owners of Ranjita Guest House were very friendly with the Sinhas. They seemed to adore Sameer. It seemed to Snigdha that everyone adored him. In fact, Mrs Cheung, the lovely wife of the owner, pulled Sameer’s cheeks and stroked his face fondly when she met him. She was a middle-aged lady, but she seemed to be overtly fond of Sameer. Snigdha was annoyed to realise how popular he was among all his acquaintances.
Sameer knocked on the half open door to Snigdha’s room when she was taking out her mobile and charger from the handbag. She looked up and saw Sameer standing at the door awkwardly, so she invited him in.
Sameer walked inside slowly, looking uncomfortable. “Mini, I’m sorry about this trip. I know you didn’t want to come.”
Snigdha gave a dry laugh. “Let it be. Our parents are happy. Let them enjoy.”
Sameer looked at her anxiously, “So you don’t mind being here?”
Snigdha scowled. “No, I love Darjeeling.”
Sameer frowned. “Then why do you look so grim?”
Snigdha pondered on his question for a while. “I don’t like that owner’s wife.”
Sameer was very surprised. “What are you talking about? What has that lady got to do with anything?”
Snigdha herself didn’t know why she was feeling so antagonistic towards that woman. She didn’t want to continue this discussion. “Sameer, please excuse me. I need to freshen up. We can talk later.”
Sameer nodded. “See you at lunch then.” He left the room, closing the door on his way out.
That afternoon after they were done with lunch—Mrs Cheung had prepared the food especially for Sameer—they were taken on a tour of the sprawling guest house by the owner, Prashant Cheung, himself. The whole lawn around the central building was dotted with beautiful trees. Flower beds grew in one corner of the lawn. There was a cashew tree beside the small pond and small fruits dangled from its branches. White ducks ran around the pond, quacking loudly. Snigdha felt they couldn’t have stayed in a more beautiful place. But in spite of the delicious lunch—which she wanted to throw away when they were told that it was made especially for Sameer—and the beautiful scenery around them, she was feeling very restless.
Snigdha sidled up to her mother who was walking with Rimsha and whispered in her ears, “Mom, I want to go for a walk alone.”
Srestha replied casually, “Go if you want to, but don’t get late. The fog has already started descending.”
Snigdha smiled reassuringly and nodded. She left her mother and quickly walked out through the main gate before anyone could stop her. She started walking up the winding road, which was quite deserted at the moment. She could see the valley and the quaint and colourful little huts clustered at various levels on the surrounding mountains. The mighty and colossal Himalayas made her feel insignificant as she looked up at the peaks, which were turning reddish in the light of the setting sun. It had been a very cloudy day and the fog was really starting to creep all over the area. She wanted to visit the famous Mall before the fog completely took over, turning everything around her invisible. This place had fascinated her ever since she had read that her childhood hero, Feluda, had started his investigative career from there.
She couldn’t make out the way to the Mall on her own, so she took directions from a person standing at a roadside tea stall. After getting the directions she set off joyfully to roam around the place where the spirit of her hero still lingered. Some fifteen minutes later, as she saw the Mall area nearing, she couldn’t contain her joy and started walking towards it as fast as she could. The place had not changed since the last time she had been there. The fountain atop the small hill, the sheltered sitting area, the book shop, and Keventers—everything she loved about this place was as it was. She was so glad that Sameer had conceived this trip initially. As she sat on the steps in front of the fountain, she missed the view of the faraway mountain peaks because they had become completely obscured by the thick fog. She knew she was getting late, but decided to have a cup of hot chocolate before returning—Feluda-style. Later when she was returning a peaceful feeling stole over her. The bitterness towards Mrs Cheung took a back seat for now.
She tried to see through the fog as she walked, but by now it was so dense that she couldn’t see anything beyond a few inches. She missed the tea stall where she had taken her directions earlier. The road seemed to stretch endlessly in front of her. When she realised that the return journey was taking more time than normal, she felt truly panicked. But she kept walking. Then a new fear pervaded her mind: What if she fell off the edge of the road? The road was narrow after all and she couldn’t see where she was going. She edged towards the mountains and tried to feel the rocks beneath her palms. When she felt the rough stones grazing her fingertips, she edged even closer towards the mountain and felt a bit reassured. But no matter how long she walked, she couldn’t find any end to the road. The fog was as thick as ever with no signs of lifting anytime soon.
Seeing no other option in front of her, she called up Sameer—he knew his way around here. His voice sounded anxious when he picked up the call. She was grateful to hear his voice in her panicked state. “Mini, where the hell are you? I’ve been trying to reach you for so long now. Are you all right?”
Snigdha felt completely choked. Somehow, she managed to croak an answer, “No, Sameer. I’m lost. I can’t see anything through the fog. I don’t know where I am.”
Sameer asked urgently, “Where were you returning from?”
Snigdha said, trying not to panic anymore, “From the Mall.”
“Okay. Can you tell me what was the last thing you saw on the road?”
Snigdha replied after trying to think, “I…I think there was a small grocery store on the way.”
Sameer asked, “Did you see an old man sitting there with a shawl on?”
“Yes. A red shawl.”
Sameer sounded a bit relieved when he said, “That’s good. You didn’t stray off the main road, did you now?”
Snigdha replied, “I tried not to. Sameer, where are you?”
Sameer replied soothingly, “Oh sweetheart, don’t worry. Just stay where you are. I’ll get there.”
Sameer was about to hang up, but Snigdha got distressed. “Sameer, wait wait…”
Her panic was getting him panicked as well. “What is it?”
Snigdha pleaded, “Please, don’t hang up. I’ll feel more scared.”
Sameer said, “No, I won’t disconnect. Just stay calm.”
Snigdha stopped walking and leaned against the mountain, waiting for Sameer to arrive. She tried to focus only on his voice as he kept soothing her over the phone.
Snigdha was clutching her phone desperately, trying to believe that Sameer would find her soon. But suddenly the phone line went dead. There was no network. By now she was numb with fear. She could hear nothing around her. The only good thing was that the fog had lifted a bit. She thought wistfully that if the fog vanished completely, she could try to retrace her steps. But Sameer had asked her to stay where she was. So, she waited with bated breath. When she could no longer stand, she slid against the mountain and slumped on the road. She closed her eyes, rested her head on the rocks, and started praying. She had no idea how much time was passing.
Suddenly she heard footsteps approaching. Her eyes flew open and she screamed, “Sameer!”
Sameer shouted back, “Mini!” Snigdha could hear his running footsteps.
They saw each other through the thinning fog. She was sitting curled up on the road when he appeared with a torch and a stick in his hand. Snigdha got up and ran towards him. They reached each other at the same time. Sameer grabbed her and crushed her in his arms. Snigdha welcomed the warmth after the torturous cold and snuggled deeper in his arms.
Sameer asked softly, “Are you okay? Did you get hurt?”
“No. But I was so scared.”
Sameer stroked her head resting on his chest. “Let’s go back. Everybody is worried sick.”
Snigdha nodded without moving an inch from where she was. A bit later Sameer held her at arm’s length, trying to see her face. She looked utterly shaken, but otherwise she was fine. He took her hand and started leading her back. “Your dad wanted to come with me. But he doesn’t know his way around here. The fog was so thick that he himself could get lost. So, I didn’t let him come and my dad wanted to call the police.” He laughed a little, sounding a bit hysterical with relief. “They are going ballistic.” Snigdha laughed a little as well.
Everybody was waiting for them at the gate. They came rushing when they saw Sameer and Snigdha walking towards them. Srestha was the first to reach her. Sameer let go of her hand and Srestha hugged her daughter tightly. The others followed and took their turn in hugging her. When Rimsha finally let her go, Snigdha turned around to see the owner’s wife talking to Sameer. They seemed to be discussing that evening’s dramatic event. The moment she had seen Sameer on that deserted road she had felt safe again. But suddenly as she saw him with this lady, the bleak fear that she had felt on that road engulfed her again. Sameer saw her looking at him and gave her that heartwarming smile of his. He came towards her then. “Dad, I think you should stop fussing over her now. Let her have some dinner. It’s quite late.”
Rimsha nodded in agreement. “You are right. She should rest.”
Srestha and Rimsha escorted her inside the warmly lit hall. Rimsha sat with her on the sofa, while Srestha went inside to order some food. Snigdha said, “I’m sorry, mom. It was really stupid of me to stay out so late like that.”
Rimsha tried to soothe Snigdha. “It’s all right. Don’t think about it now. You are fine and that is the most important thing.”
Snigdha said earnestly, “Definitely, mom. I won’t do this to you all again.” Srestha came back with a plate loaded with food and they traipsed back to Snigdha’s room.
Sameer was standing nearby, retelling the whole episode to Jatin and Mrinal. He heard the entire exchange between his mother and Snigdha. He had no idea that Snigdha had started addressing his mother as mom. He was thrilled to bits. But just then Snigdha’s harsh refusal flashed in his mind. He didn’t know what to think anymore. Was Snigdha being forced to behave in a certain way with Rimsha? Or was she doing it from her heart?
The following day, they hired a jeep to go sightseeing. They visited the Rock Gardens and the zoo. Srestha was so anxious the whole day that she didn’t let go of Snigdha’s hand even once, as if she was a baby. Snigdha found her mother’s attitude highly embarrassing, but she kept quiet, not wanting to fight with her mother in front of the Sinhas.
The next day they took a trip to the mountaineering institute. Snigdha was standing in the courtyard, when she heard some tourists talking among themselves. According to them, the tourists too could try out rock climbing on a nearby hill. She was thrilled to hear this information. Rock climbing was a part of her bucket list and here was her chance. She approached those tourists and said politely, “Excuse me.”
When they turned to look at her, she asked, “Can you please tell me how the tourists can go rock climbing?”
The young boy in the group piped up, “Oh, yes. Go and talk to the people in the front office. They are leading a group for rock climbing today to a nearby cliff. They are still enrolling members.”
Snigdha hurriedly thanked them and rushed to tell her parents about it.
Jatin refused flatly. “Have you got a death wish, Mini? That evening you went out alone and got lost, now you want to climb hills? I won’t let you do it.”
Snigdha begged, “Please, dad. I won’t get a chance to do it again. I won’t hurt myself. I promise.”
Srestha too berated her harshly, “Enough of your childishness, Mini!”
Snigdha stomped towards the food court. She slumped down on a plastic chair, seething with rage. She was a financially independent adult, with all the legal rights to take her own decisions, and yet she always needed to take her parents’ permission for everything. It was a habit she had developed through her life, and even now she didn’t know how to get out of that habit. She hated herself for her weakness.
Sometime later Sameer came and sat beside her. He kept a piece of paper on the table. Neither did Snigdha say anything, nor did she show any curiosity towards the paper.
Sameer said, “Sign it.” Snigdha’s curiosity was aroused at the sudden authority in his voice. She inquired, “What is it?”
Sameer said with a smile, “The enrollment form for today’s rock-climbing team.”
Snigdha hastily looked up at him, excitement exploding in her chest. She saw him smiling benignly and quickly took the pen he was offering. She asked while signing the form with a flourish, “How do you always convince my parents? Are you a magician?”
Sameer said facetiously, “It’s called charm, Madam. And, they think I’m intelligent enough to keep you safe. Otherwise, you are careless on your own, you can’t blame your parents really. How many girls will jump to go rock climbing, I ask you.”
Snigdha laughed and then added, “What about the fee?”
Sameer winked at her. “Your dad is paying for you to conquer some hills today.”
Snigdha exclaimed, “What? Really? He didn’t even want me to do it in the first place and now you are making him pay for it? You really are unbelievable!”
Sameer winked again, picked up the form, and strode towards the front office.
Later when the instructors were teaching them how to use the harness tied to their bodies, Snigdha was raring to get started. They were standing at the foot of a tall cliff. Sameer was standing beside her, checking the firmness of his own harness. He said dubiously, “I hope this doesn’t snap.” Sameer too was going to attempt the climb with her.
Snigdha smiled at him and said confidently, “No, it won’t. You won’t regret this experience.”
Sameer looked nervously at her. “Are you honestly sure about this?”
Snigdha said firmly, “Yes.”
The instructor blew the whistle. They nodded at each other and started climbing. The cliff was steep, but they did whatever their instructor had told them to do and slowly they started moving up bit by bit. At long last, Snigdha managed to reach the top. She steadied herself and turned around in a circle to see the world from the top. Everything was looking hazy through the cloud cover, and very, very small from up so high. Finally, when it sank in that she had actually climbed a cliff, she let out a yell of triumph. She started spinning around in a circle, feeling the cold rushing air. The cold air felt good on her sweat-drenched, hot face.
She didn’t realise when Sameer came and stood behind her. He was smiling gleefully when her eyes fell on him. She gave a wide smile in return and said, “Thank you, Sameer. I don’t have enough words to tell you how much this means to me.”
Sameer just continued smiling. She started running around, while the other climbers roamed about, taking in the sights. When Snigdha came to stand in front of Sameer again, he said, “Thanks to you, too. I got to do this only because of you. This really is so amazing.”
Snigdha spread her arms wide, jumped, and shouted, “I know. This is the best feeling in the whole world. It’s so…liberating!”
The others were staring at Snigdha, bemused. They laughed on seeing her childlike enthusiasm.
Sameer took out another paper from inside his jacket and handed it to Snigdha. Snigdha unfolded it curiously. It was the admission form for the best dance academy in Kolkata.
She looked up at Sameer, her mouth hanging open in shock. Sameer grinned impishly and declared, “Our engagement gift. I thought this would be the perfect spot to give it to you. I hope you like it.”
Snigdha asked cautiously, not able to believe her senses, “Mom and dad?”
Sameer reassured her, “Now that you are a lecturer, they have no problems with your dancing.”
Snigdha stared at the admission form for the dance school that she had wanted to join for the last ten years. Sameer was making her dreams come true. She didn’t know how she could convey her gratitude to him adequately. She sufficed with a small “thank you”.
Her shining eyes told Sameer everything that Snigdha failed to put into words. He took out his mobile and clicked the picture of a dazed and stunned Snigdha, capturing that moment. He was going to treasure this memory forever.