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I sat up most of the night wondering what I should do, where I should go and when.
There was no point walking out in broad daylight and getting caught immediately. And Nibbler should not give me away by barking either. I debated whether or not to take him with me. Would it be right? He didn’t actually belong to me. Miss Milli had brought him for Madam. I had merely been entrusted with his care, for looking after him and that too because I had badly wanted to do it. But Madam did not love Nibbler although he belonged to her and I loved him although he wasn’t mine. A strange state of affairs! But surely he’d prefer to be with someone who loved him rather than someone who didn’t? And surely Madam wasn’t thinking of taking him abroad with her? She’d merely give Nibbler away to someone, anyone who volunteered to have him. Madam would be happy not to have to bother about him, just as she’d be happy not to have to bother about me. We were both unwanted – Nibbler and I. it was only right that both of us should leave together.
I wondered for a moment if I should ask Madam for Uncle Aneesh’s address. Then I decided against it. It would merely make her suspicious. Besides, uncle Aneesh might not want to be bothered with me either right now! I could not take him for granted simply because he had been kind to me. People like him were kind to people no matter where they were. Perhaps it didn’t mean anything special, just as Madam had said. I sighed. If only I had someone of my own!
Finally I made up my mind to slip out in the afternoon, soon after lunch was over. Madam would be having her siesta then. All the guests would be resting too. No one would miss me until tea time and I’d be far away by then. I’d walk up to the bus stand and take a bus to Darjeeling. My plans as to what I should do there were hazy. I’d find a place somewhere, I kept telling myself. I’d find a job too. People changed jobs all the time! It couldn’t be all that difficult to find one, surely? But would they allow Nibbler in the bus? Would I be able to keep him quiet? Just then a new thought struck me. How was I to pay the bus fare? I had no money at all. I did get tips along with Saila and Jethi but I gave it all to Madam immediately. She kept it for me and bought things I needed with the money – clothes, shoes and things like that. That’s how I wanted it to be, except for rare occasions when Madam handed me some money to buy sweets with.
I paced about the little box room trying to think of a way out. From where could I get some money? Just enough to reach Darjeeling? I’d merely borrow it and pay it back some day. My eyes fell on a little sketch stuck to the wall with a drawing pin. The sketch of an igloo done by Kancha. Yes, I could borrow the money from Kancha. He always seemed to have plenty of pocket money and wouldn’t mind lending me some. I could pay him back as soon as I found a job. I cheered up at the thought. He’d understand why I wanted to run away. He might even have some plan about where I should go.
But luck was against me that afternoon. I slipped out quietly, a few things packed inside an old bag and Nibbler at my heels, and made for Hotel Snowflakes. I stood outside the gate and asked their watchman to call Kancha. But he looked me up and down and said that Kancha was not at home. He was visiting a friend in Kalimpong and would stay there for the weekend. I wondered if I should get it confirmed by Mrs. Lama and decided against it. There was no reason why the watchman should tell a lie. But it was a real blow!
“It looks like we’ll have to walk, old boy” I told Nibbler
“Woof!” he cried joyfully at the word ‘walk’, “woof, woof!”
I was carrying all my warm clothes, a few biscuits, part of my lunch that I had saved and a bottle of water. I flung my rain coat over my shoulder and prepared to tackle the journey. There was no question of my losing the way. There was only one path and it led straight to Darjeeling. But what if Madam woke up sooner and missed me? She would be sure to send Joseph after me and he would overtake me in no time as he’d be cycling. I decided to walk on the railway track instead. No one would think of looking for me there. If I heard a train coming I could easily climb down and cling to a tree and not look down. I thought of the dizzy drop and shuddered. Especially when I thought of the bridges with what looked like bottomless depths yawning below. I was afraid of heights despite living here all my life. And I’d be terrified when I had to go through the dark tunnels. But there was no point funking it after having come this far. I’d just have to risk it. The last train had left about half an hour ago when I was walking out of Villa Alpina. There wouldn’t be another for hours. I’d get to the path well before that.
I climbed down to the rail track carefully, Nibbler beside me. I thought of Villa Alpina. It had been my home for so many years that I could scarcely remember that it wasn’t really mine. I thought of the rose garden in the terrace cut around the house and the roses swaying in the breeze. I thought of the lemon trees which made a border for the roses. I remembered how the garden looked when the clouds threw their shadows on it and how it looked in the bright sunshine. Would the garden, the villa and the people I worked for forget me as soon as I was gone? Perhaps they would! After all, I did not belong to them.
I saw the waterfall rush down as I walked amidst the pinewood. I shall never look for begonias under its boulders again, I thought wistfully, nor feel the water spray drenching my face. The stream with its clear ice-blue water splashed below the railway track. I saw a prayer wheel peeping out of the water. I climbed down carefully until I reached it and turned the wheel with my hands. “Please God,” I prayed, “please let me have a place of my own from where I may never have to leave. Please give me a home where I may really belong.” I turned the wheel again and again until my hands felt numb, repeating the same prayer over and over again. I did not need to pray for the well being of others. The wheel would do it of its own – if at all it carried my prayers to their destination.
Nibbler was barking from above, not knowing what I was doing. “Here I am, old boy” I said hugging him. I was beginning to feel numb inside me and also a little afraid and uncertain. I knew that as it got darker and darker and I felt more and more tired, cold and hungry I’d want to cry my heart out. Had I done the right thing? I was no longer sure.
No, I told myself firmly, this won’t do! I must keep up my spirit or I’d never have the courage to carry out my plan. “Woof,” said Nibbler licking my hand as if agreeing with what I thought. I took out some biscuits and shared them with Nibbler. Then I whistled one tune after another as I walked on steadily, trying not to look down through the tracks into the gaping void below. Nibbler didn’t seem to mind the heights. Possibly he didn’t know what it was like to feel giddy!
I don’t remember how long we walked or how far we were from home. I was already feeling tired and very hungry. I had hardly slept last night and I had saved most of my lunch so that I might bring it along with me.
“Let’s have a rest, Nibbler,” I said, sitting down on the tracks, “picnic time now.”
I spread out the dried up chapattis and vegetables on a piece of paper and began to eat hungrily. Nibbler finished his share in a single gulp. I took a little longer. I wished I could have brought more as we were both still hungry. I also longed to shut my eyes for a while. Just a little while. But I knew it couldn’t be done. It wouldn’t be safe. A train might come along any moment and if we didn’t walk on further we’d have no place to stand. The hill on one side was far too steep and there was a dizzy drop on the other. I was beginning to feel that it was indeed quite foolish of me to have chosen to walk along the rail tracks and more than a little dangerous.
“Come on, Nibbler,” I said, “let’s walk ahead and find a place where there’s a slope along the hillside and we’ll get off the tracks and rest a little.
We walked along looking at both sides carefully. Then, after crossing a horrid tunnel that seemed to go on forever we suddenly faced a broad ledge. The trees made a kind of railing and there were a few flat stones. I thankfully stepped out of the track and sat down on one. A train could come along now. It wouldn’t have to go over us! I spread my raincoat on the stone and lay down using my bag as a pillow. Nibbler curled up against me and we were both asleep in no time.
I don’t know how long we slept. When I woke up I was shivering with cold and Nibbler was moaning in a queer voice, as though he was afraid of something. For a moment I didn’t know where I was. I blinked hard but I could see nothing. Nothing at all! There was no rail track, no steep hillside, no sheer drop, and no cluster of trees. Nothing except the trickle of a waterfall far away. A thick white fog had come down stealthily while we were asleep and blotted out everything. There was just me and Nibbler and a white swirling mist all around.
“We’re lost, Nibbler,” I said hugging him close, “we’re lost and there’s nothing we can do about it. I put on all the warm clothes I had stuffed into my bag and my raincoat over it. And yet I shivered with cold. We sat huddled up together, Nibbler and I. a train might come along soon. I wondered if we could jump into it if it didn’t go too fast. But there seemed no reason why it should go slowly at this point.
The veil of white mist which surrounded us grew darker. Suddenly the darkness was upon us. A solid, clammy, eerie and silent darkness. The wind whistling through the dark pinewood above made weird, whispering sounds. It was a strange, unknown world. I held Nibbler tight and thanked God that he was there with me. Although I hated to admit it, I was afraid. Running away no longer seemed a brilliant idea. In the throttling darkness it seemed to be the silliest thing I had ever done. And it was very wrong of me to have dragged poor little Nibbler into it as well.
I hate being a cry-baby but tears pricked my eyelids and streamed down my cheeks. I couldn’t stop them. Nor did I want to. What was going to happen to me? To us both? Would I ever find my way to a known world and meet old, known faces? Then I remembered that I had climbed down and turned the prayer wheel inscribed with a million prayers. Had the prayers also lost their way like me instead of reaching their destination? Had I been forsaken and forgotten by God as well?
Just then I suddenly heard voices across the pinewood high up above. Then I saw a light flashing in the darkness.
“Vandana,” cried a familiar voice, “Vandana, are you there?”
I don’t remember how I got back to the Villa Alpina. I had cried out that I was indeed there when I heard Joseph calling me. But I seem to have fainted soon after they reached me. And I held Nibbler so tightly that they had a tough job releasing him from my arms. How did they find us? Joseph said it was not difficult to guess that I had taken the railway track when he didn’t catch up with us on the road. The tracks went quite close to the road most of the way, dipping down at some places and going over the bridge at others. He had been following it along with Mr. Lama’s gardener and calling out my name all the way. At times he had been afraid I had turned dizzy and slipped down or broken my leg. But he was confident that Nibbler would not desert me and would certainly bark if he heard Joseph calling me. It had taken him a long time because I had a good start and he had been cycling on the road trying to find me before he realized that I had taken the rail track. But he had found us at last despite the fog and the darkness. And that’s what really mattered!
When I opened my eyes the sunlight was streaming in through the window. I was stiff and sore all over. But except for that, there was nothing else wrong with me. I was surprised to see that I was lying on the divan in our parlour and not in my own box room. Two faces bent over me. Madam’s and that of Uncle Aneesh.
“Uncle Aneesh!” I cried sitting up, “oh Uncle Aneesh, how did you get here?”
“How do you feel, Vandana?” asked Madam. There was a note of anxiety in her voice that I had never heard before. Did she really care about me then, apart from duty?
“Madam, I am so sorry I ran away and caused you so much trouble,” I said looking at her, “I thought you would be able to go abroad without having to arrange my future if I wasn’t there. I didn’t realize that my running away would make things even more difficult, both for me and you.”
“We’ll say no more about it, considering the very good news in store for you,” said Madam smiling.
“Good news? For me? What is it?” I cried, “please tell me.”
“Vandana, do you remember your mother’s name?” asked Uncle Aneesh.
“Mama’s name? No, I don’t think so. Why?” I asked, surprised.
“Think hard. It could be important” said Uncle Aneesh.
“I think some of the children who came to our house with books called her “Mita didi,” I said, “but I can’t be sure. I don’t know if it was her real name.”
“It could be a whole name but it could very well be the abbreviation of a host of names, such as Amita, Sumita, Namita and so on” said Uncle Aneesh looking disappointed. “Do you remember anything else about her? What she looked like? Her eyes?”
I tried hard to recall what mama had looked liked but could only remember the softness of her cheeks against mine, the utter security I felt in her arms, her love and her tenderness. I could not recall her features, height or complexion.
Uncle Aneesh handed me a photograph. I looked at it eagerly and saw the pretty face of a smiling girl in Rajasthani clothes – ghagra and choli. She looked familiar, as though I had seen her somewhere before. I felt I knew that smile. But again, I could not be sure.
“That’s the problem for me too,” said Madam, “she looks familiar but I cannot remember where I have seen here or if I really have. I come across so many people and I have a bad memory for faces.”
“Who is she?” I asked Uncle Aneesh.
“My sister. She is probably dead. We lost her years ago.”
“Lost? How could you lose a grown up person?” I asked bewildered, “surely no one could kidnap her?”
“There are other ways of losing a person” said Uncle Aneesh with a sad smile, “it’s a long story.”
“Vandana, Mr. Bose thinks that you could be her daughter,” said Madam, “it would be wonderful for you both if you were. Are you sure you can’t remember what your mother looked like?”
For a moment everything seemed to be in a whirl. I could imagine how wonderful it would be to be actually related to Uncle Aneesh. It would solve all my problems. I’d have someone of my own and a place that could be my home. And Madam could happily go abroad without having to worry about me. Should I tell him that I did remember the person in the photo? I think it was the biggest temptation I’d ever come across! The person in the photo did look familiar. Would it be so very wrong to tell them that I thought it was my mother? I am sure both would have believed me if I did. Then I knew that I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t tell a lie about mama. The fact was that I was not really sure.
“I am sorry I don’t remember what mama looked like, although I remember her and love her as much as ever,” I said at last. Only I knew what a huge sacrifice it was for me to tell them the truth.
“Do tell me about your sister, though, and what made you think that I could be her daughter.”
“Yes, I think you should hear it in any case,” said Uncle Aneesh.
“Sumita or Mita as I called her, was my only sister. She was much younger than I was. Our mother died soon after she was born and my father was especially attached to her. She was in college when I went abroad for higher studies. That was when she met a young artist – Pradip Ray – and fell in love with him. But my father was dead against her marrying him.”
“Why?” I asked. I was really keen to know it all, whether or not the lady was my mama.
“For one thing, he called Pradip a ‘poor nobody’ and felt he was not good enough for her in any way. His parents were dead, he was not well-off and he was not established as an artist although many felt him to be really talented.”
“Did that matter so much if they loved one another? If she didn’t mind being poor?” I asked in surprise.
“Not to her but it mattered to him,” said Uncle Aneesh, “you see, he had already decided that she should marry a splendid and rich man and had already selected someone for her. He forbade her to see Pradip and asked her to forget him.”
“How did you feel about it? Did you also agree with your father?” I enquired.
“I had never met Pradip but when Mita wrote to me about him and told me about father’s wishes I wrote back asking her to wait and told her that I would see to things. I had just submitted my thesis and was waiting for my viva.”
“Viva?” I asked puzzled, not understanding what exactly it meant.
“The second part of my exam,” explained Uncle Aneesh, “it was important that I shouldn’t miss it.”
“Father didn’t want to wait and made arrangements for Mita’s engagement with the man of his choice immediately. So Mita ran away and married Pradip and both of them left Calcutta immediately.”
There was a knock on the door. Saila came to tell Madam that breakfast had been served long ago and the porridge was getting cold.
“Come, Mr. Bose,” said Madam at once. “Vandana, go to your room and get ready and then take Nibbler for his run. You can hear the rest of the story later. Nibbler had been sleeping too after his unexpected adventure last evening.
I got up and went to my room. I was in a sort of daze. Uncle Aneesh’s story sounded like one of the soap-opera tales Itsy and Bitsy had told me! Or a story from films which again they had told me on rainy afternoons. I hadn’t realized that such things happened in real life too! I completed my morning chores as fast as I could so that I might hear the rest of the story from Uncle Aneesh. I was keen to know what had made Uncle Aneesh think that I might be the daughter of his sister. What link did he find between us? I did not have to wait long because Madam sent for me soon after I returned after taking Nibbler for his run. Uncle Aneesh was in the parlour with him.
“I expect you are keen to know the rest of the story?” asked Uncle Aneesh.
“Yes, I am,” I said, “whether or not I belong to it. Did you find your sister and her husband soon?”
“No,” said Uncle Aneesh shaking his head, “as I told you before, I was abroad when it happened. By the time I returned there was no trace of them.”
“Didn’t your father try to find them?” I asked in surprise.
“He was so angry with her for having run away that he said that she was dead so far as he was concerned and refused to forgive her. I tried to find them after my return but with no success. I had never met Pradip and just knew his name, nothing more. None of Mita’s friends could tell me anything. She had kept everything a close secret. All my attempts at finding them failed. So I merely lived in the hope that she herself would get in touch with me sooner or later. I did not think of the possibility of her being dead.”
“I expect it is difficult to find a person if she does not wish to be found,” I said, “But Uncle Aneesh, what made you think that I might be her daughter? Do I look like your sister?”
“No, you don’t, or I’d have thought of it sooner. But some things about you do remind me of her – your ways, the way you speak. What made me think was the fact that my sister loved the hills. When I heard your story and the fact that your mother had signed her name as “Mrs. S. Ray” when she came to the Villa Alpina years ago, it made me think. Not right then, but after I returned home and spoke about it to my wife and daughter. I wrote to Mrs. Barnet asking for the address she had put down in the register. She could not find it at first because all the old registers were sold to the junkman years ago. It seemed a dead end. But I kept on writing and asking her if she remembered anything else about your mother. Finally, when she was sorting her papers before preparing to go abroad finally, she found an old diary where she had noted the address for putting in an advertisement in the papers. It was an old address but the lady remembered your mother who had been a teacher in a local primary school. She told me your mother was a widow with just a little girl. But she was able to describe her to me – and it seemed to fit. That’s all.”
“But it is not real proof,” I said in a disappointed voice. “Could she tell you how or when her husband died?”
“I did ask her and she said Mrs. Ray had told her that he had died in a bus accident when he was coming from Siliguri.”
“I don’t know if that makes things any clearer. This story could fit a lot of people,” I said feeling acutely disappointed.
“But you haven’t heard the best part yet, Vandana. That is what makes all the difference,” said Madam smiling.
“What is it?” I asked although I did not believe it could be anything that would change my situation.
“Vandana, my wife and I had already decided to adopt you after I returned home and told her your story, whether or not you are my niece. We want you for your sake and not because of who you may be. That is not important. I meant to come and ask Madam and try my best to get her to agree. You see, the ‘S. Ray’ and ‘Mita didi’ could be my sister Sumita. But it could well be just a coincidence and the person might be some one else. But as I said before, it is not important because it is you we want.
“But why should you or anyone want to bother about an orphan?” I asked, “Madam could not help it because I was dumped on her and she had no choice. But you already have a daughter.”
“Namita, my daughter, has always wanted a younger sister, silly girl,” said Uncle Aneesh, “she has already made so many plans for you. I know you’ll love most of them.”
“And Nibbler?” I asked anxiously for I couldn’t possibly live without him.
“Nibbler too, of course,” said Uncle Aneesh, “he’s a clever chap and I couldn’t desert him!”
I felt giddy with happiness. I never knew it could feel like this! To have a home at long last, a family and somewhere I’d truly belong!
“I can’t believe you mean it!” I whispered trying not to cry, “it’s too good to be true! I’ll wake up and find I’ve been dreaming and that I’m as lonely as ever.”
“Dear child, you’ll never be lonely again,” said Uncle Aneesh, “I’ve come to take you home.”
“Mr. Bose will be with us for a few days,” said Madam, “Vandana, you’d better get your things together and say goodbye to your friends.
“Which friends, Madam?” I asked in surprise.
“Kancha, for one, and Joseph too, I expect.”
“Oh, of course. Both have been so good to me,” I said, “I’ll miss them and you and Villa Alpina and this whole place.”
“Of course you will or I’d think you most ungrateful,” said Uncle Aneesh, “but that’s life. One just has to move on.”
That same afternoon as we walked by the waterfall I asked,
“Uncle Aneesh, do you know what brought me such wonderful luck?”
“What?” he asked me curiously.
“The prayer wheel in our river which I turned with my hands last evening when I had run away,” I said, “my prayers must have reached their destination!”
“I wouldn’t be at all surprised” said Uncle Aneesh with feeling, “look, Vandana, the shadows seem to have lifted from the clouds. Look at the gleaming snow range in all its glory! I’ve never seen such bright sunshine this time of the year.”
“Perhaps they too want too share my happiness,” I whispered.