A wheat–complexioned man of early eighties stood before him. He tried to identify the man. It was a familiar accent with vague tremors in the voice. He had recognized him rightly and despite a few wrinkles near the ears, he appeared young. David stood in front of him and gave a smile.
“David…!” Rama stood stunned and cheery, “You had gone to Bombay long back and after that just a memory. O lord, it is so good. David…a little scar near the ear made it possible.” Rama heartily embraced David.
“Yes, I settled in Delhi, an old house father built in thirties, came here went back renovated it and then, settled … and finally they were bed-ridden and died. Foul air, smog and …you know grand children are faintly asthmatic...it is severe breathing pain…I see around many suffer…I am to take care of kids…I just pull on…air is somewhat fresh here but crowds look awesome. Little jams remind of Delhi’ crowds, dirty air and...” A story of years ended in a few words. He heaved a deep sigh and looked blank as he turned, “It looks barren…no old pine grooves and tall deodar trees…nature is sad.”
“So sad it is. They …parents are also dead and many are gone…time and distance …” It was going back to back and then, a melancholic return to present.
They tried to comfort each other but appeared quite normal with traces of deep-rooted disillusionment. For some time, the silence between them, spoke of past.
“It happens. Come.” Rama said softly, “Those were good days…greenery around and snow peeks…now grey and dull…I went up to the foothills…no water spring…all dried up or perhaps water route below the earth is changed or is it in pipes…?”
They stood on the extreme left of the road under the shade of few lonely deodar trees. For a long time, they held each other’s hands warmly as if recollecting fragments of past.
David told, “It is good to undertake journey to the land of love and fraternity. The land where you loved to grow up and then, abruptly deserted it to find some green pastures outside, where you are an alien. The anonymity suits you because you do not want to disclose who you are. Living in apartments, gives feel of isolation and anguish. You appear warm but you are not…lack of real human bonds…even silence of crowd disturbs.”
“Yeah, I came a few days back. It is warm here…in plains, dust and filth, early fog and dull chill pierce down the nerves and you feel frozen blood. People live with masks at times. Big jokes…but they talk for some days and then forget…water in bottles. Gone are days of spring water.” A streak of sadness connected David to Rama. A troubled and beleaguered man runs away to find comforts in empty language even. It is malleable, generous and gives avowals of genuine charity and ostensible compassion while vacuity haunts. He thought, looked at the tall deodar trees and then the eyes scanned the road on either side as people walked undisturbed.
“I do not understand. It is after a long time. Almost an age…fifty years or perhaps more…” Rama reminisced but efforts failed to connect time and incidents occurred long back, “David, you are always vocal…” He thought for a while and said, “You returned after an age!” He was hesitant.
“I was in Delhi.” David was a little disheartened, perhaps worn out, “When one thinks of personal safety and future, it makes a dent. One feels benumbed. I do not say I ever hoped to come and travel a long distance. So many changes shock. Even the hills have changed.” He fell into deep brooding and then said, “No, I did not wish it. It just happened. When you think of the unknown, it is quite often a reality. You admit. You cry at the top of the hill. You face the truth, for there is none other than the Sun, an eternal witness to man’s grungy acts.”
David did not exhibit regret or rancor.
David was an old friend of Rama. Long back, they were in the missionary school in a remote hill town. Probably, a few Christians with the Cross sticking to the chests came to seek peace in the serenity of hills, dense growth of deodar trees, tall pines, jacaranda, oees, numerous trees and plants, flowers and bushes. A man knows nature offers shelter. It was somewhere in the beginning of the twentieth century. History unfolded its layers of truth and occasional shades of mystery.
“How are you here Rama?” David asked.
“I went to Delhi in late sixties. I worked at a provision store. Earned and spent on education. Later on, joined a bank and retired as a senior manager. I did not want to come back for I have a very good house in Delhi. I wanted old parents to join. Time rolled on. Parents died in eighties, sisters are married off and are well settled. A brother went to USA and never looked back. My son is in Canada, earns sufficient money and owns a house, against my wishes, he married a Canadian girl, and rest is obvious. Rani, my wife, wanted to run away from dust and fog… could not withstand torture and died three years ago. I am alone and… she went and did not think of me…” He was silent.
“None lives in the house. It is I, a statue in search of…In relations, rituals play an important role and at times, money determines future. It is not that you wish it. However, the disposition of age and the rush in life gives you little time to think, to rear up and safeguard relations. Human bonds also do not stay permanent.” Rama was quiet.
It alerted David, who realized a current of intense pain in friend’s voice. He forget what he thought of past. He experienced quavering voice but failed to say what besieged.
David thought he was a man, who underwent sufferings in life. Until now, the face of wife Chuni changed to Channy long back appeared. He loved Chuni when they were in the school. She used to bring milk and was quite familiar with his mother. Years back when David’s father lived in Delhi, he had married an Indian woman, later on, baptized as Christian. When Rama noticed that David stood like a figure, expressionless and static, he felt sorry the way he related what happened during the last many years without asking. He, without disturbing, analyzed and thought he was right. To confide to a childhood friend did not need any formality.
Rama held David’s shoulders, gave a faded smile and said, “I am sorry I just continued and did not…I felt a huge burden inside. After seventies or a little early perhaps, you feel you are old…an unwanted existence.”
He did not know that unintentionally David was nostalgic and had visited many corridors of past, some brightly lit, others dim and still others mere shadows. Silence of the inside corroded innate vitality and the zeal to live life as if. Rama thought he was unnecessarily pensive and discouraged. Half an hour ago, when he came out of the guesthouse, he had just wanted to move about, whisper and sing songs within while roaming about in the bazaar, a small hill town once but now tremendous change had affected it in a big way. Instead of tin and slate roofed houses and shops, huge and tall concrete structures had come up. Fairly good and large shops appeared to bubble with life. He had hurriedly visited past and present. Past was absent, a mere hazy feeling and he still thought of a few faded and wrinkled pages in the constantly shrinking lanes of memory. David was looking at Rama’s face. They had confronted each other near the government rest house. Perhaps David was going to the town when Rama had emerged out of the rest house.
“Rama, how are you here? Did you go to the village?”
“I did not. I came alone from Delhi. You know after fifty years, if you wish to locate old friends and acquaintances, who you forgot…yes, distance does it without man’s wanting.” Rama was unsure. He smiled and asked, “David, how did you recognize me?”
A few silent moments connected them to past. A forgotten past began to resurrect satisfying images.
They were inanely looking at the grandeur of Dhauldhar range -a southern branch of the main Himalayan chain of mountains. It rises from the plains to the north of Kangra and Mandi, Himachal- faint smiles brightened up.
“David, do you know…” He looked at the mountaintop and said, “We went many a time to the forest of rhododendrons and collected blood red flowers for making sauce and forgot ‘the selves’ in tall ‘deodar and pine trees’… gone are the days. This valley was a paradise and now… beauty is lost.”
“It often happens with the old people. They go back, love past, and do not learn to see ahead. You are right but I wish I look forward…” He heaved a deep sigh, “Even I fail.”
“For days I thought of this Valley. Last two days just teased. It was an exciting going back. I feel nostalgic. Hills dusty and naked… rocks look awe-inspiring, deodars and pines spray mildly hot breeze, a little town squirms in pain, recalls events of yesteryears.”
After a pause, he emitted a washed out smile and said, “I go back… observe ... now a man hurts it greatly. Kangra valley looks not green, not majestic but a jungle of buildings strewn with little-large structures along the road, and beyond the hills, Dhauldhar range looks as if lamenting or crying for the ancient grandeur. I revisit past and find the valley denuded with statues in motion emoting smoke and dirt dusty… yellow and brown air stifles and chokes the heart as if I visualize.”
“You are intense, poetic and true.”
“It is no use to recall past. It is gone and dead. After seventy, you are tired! However, the will to enjoy lingers on. Romance of the spirit and little innocuous desires invents new pastures inside.”
“David, I agree.”
They walked down to the town without a word and if they wanted to speak, they just looked at each other, whispered and went ahead. The change around filled them with newness. They continued nostalgic strides up to the dilapidated building of cinema hall. It was a silent visit to many hazy monuments of past.
They stood for three four minutes and looked at the petrol pump and the continuous coming in and going out of vehicles. It was interesting, rejuvenating but dull and agonizing as memories haunted. They returned and now, a few selected words communicated what troubled and delighted their minds and hearts. It was neither a poignant journey nor a very happy and convenient walk but it still gave some thrills.
“Don’t you think, old age is a waste of emotions and words? You talk the talk and walk for hours.” Rama whispered.
“They say old people contribute a lot to the society. What exactly it means? No, it is false. A gesture of reverence determines the status of elderly people. It is not necessary people listen...”
They seemed to agree somewhere. Possibly, pangs of old age chased the duo. Again, intensity of silence descended. After a moment, they walked into a modest restaurant located in the middle of the bazaar on the left. Many eyes found the old men quite odd but they warmly threw smiles at everyone and the shared greetings were evenly temperate. Two young men vacated the table and requested the old men to sit. Rama and David gave gratifying smiles and sat comfortably to take tea and a few snacks.
After half an hour, they came out and walked up to the rest house.
“You did not tell…” The context was obvious.
“I told you, father married a local woman and later, she chose to become Christian. She not only went to Church but punctually visited temples. She visited gurdwaras and mosques without hesitation. My father did not object. At home, it was good. Then, he came here and settled down.”
“Is Chuni alright? She was the most beautiful girl. How she is now?” Rama appeared in a hurry.
Silence appeared scratchy. Rama realized he should not have asked. David heaved a deep sigh, looked at Rama and said, “You know Channy…she was a self sacrificing woman born of soil as if. I do not think she demanded anything. Served the family and everyone, and felt happy.” A few tears rolled down.
David did not speak for a while. Rama was stunned, as tears in David’s eyes were stressful. He failed … did not know how to console.
David mustered up courage and wiped out tears, emitted a washed out smile and said, “I do not know what…but it was bad. Perhaps, it was not good education. Maybe I failed as a father or it is possible, she took a wrong step. I am not sure whether he was right?”
A lingering shadow proved intensely dark. They stood in the grassy compound of the rest house. Rama did not speak. They stood silently for some time. An attendant appeared with two cane chairs.
Rama said to David, “We will lunch together in the room.” The attendant went away.
They dragged the chair to one corner of the compound and sat under the shade of tree. None spoke. Rama lit a cigarette and gave one to David. Silently they smoked. It was difficult to come out of the dead silence. After fifteen minutes, they entered the room where Rama stayed.
“Why don’t you come here? Are you comfortable in the hotel?”
“I leave after a day or so. No need to shift now I feel.”
Rama got up, unlocked the attaché, brought out a bottle of gin and lime cordial, poured a large peg in each glass placed on a square table in one corner of the room. They continued to sip gin as silence descended.
Rama said after great efforts, “You did not …what happened?”
David lit another cigarette and said, “You never know how life moves. Even good things do not grant you relief.”
Rama looked into David’s eyes and it hurt when he saw the corners of the eyes red. A few drops of water appeared. David gave a faint smile, “You know smoke …”
David gulped down gin in one go and said while fiddling with the cigarette, “My son is married you know. I do not know when it happened but he grew close to one girl in a close relation. This caused anxieties and then, usual bitterness in the house. I intervened but…that day, I was away to attend a function.”
“In my absence, the girl came to the house and you know…Channy did not approve of it as my daughter-in-law wept and howled and the little children looked on helplessly. Channy caught hold of the girl and…he, my son, pushed her with full force and as the head struck the wall, she fell unconscious and never got up. In anger, he thrashed his wife and suffering children even as the girl ran away. That ended the life of a great woman. He is in the jail and I am to look after…kids” He was unable to control tears.
Abruptly he got up, went to the washroom and came out after five minutes. It was a silent lunch. After half an hour, David left while Rama stood in the verandah but did not know what to say. He closed eyes, kept walking in the verandah and then, took out a cigarette, and entered his room for a siesta. In the evening, he took a taxi to Pathankot but did not know where to go.