As soon as the train came to a halt, her anxiousness leapt inside her heart. A multitude of emotions played hide and seek on her face much like the sun and clouds in the skies. This place was in total contrast to the humidity that exuded from the skin at most times in Calcutta. It was summer when they had begun their train journey about 20 hours ago, but here the weather was such as if they were about to embark on a journey to the core of the skies. The fresh whiff of air from the nearby Teesta river brought much relief to the otherwise thick and humid Jalpaiguri. At the station itself, one could get the flavor of the busyness of this small town with cycles and rickshaws and peddlers crisscrossing each other like the jigsaw mesh of cables one could notice all along the market area. This was chaos no doubt but the town had been so used to it, it had become its second nature.
Soon enough they got a self-driven car that they had arranged from their hotel at Kalimpong, beforehand, for their onward journey to the City of Clouds. Even a slight mention of the place brought an assortment of emotions within her being. She had no memory of the day when she had parted from the town, but the times that Piyali spent there as a child were as vivid as if it had been yesterday. Piyali’s father, an army officer, had been posted here when she was barely five and by the time it was time for her to leave, she was a teenager. Even though her father had been on the move every three years, she and had mother had to stay put because of the rough terrains the father had been away at. This was the first home Piyali had any memory of, and now it seemed like a piece of her heart had been left here all along.
Piyali looked out of the window, trying to recall her memory of Jalpaiguri. Surely there had been times when she had travelled to this place with her mother. None struck her. Her eyes scrutinized each of the turns and twists, the slopes and tiny curves throughout her journey. The place looked familiar no doubt but there were no emotions that this place fostered. About an hour and a half later, Prabal stopped the car for a cup of tea at the roadside tapri. Both of them pulled out of the car and the air stung her bare arms, that had been recently adorned with shakha-pola. She reckoned, she should have taken out at least a stole to cover herself. She asked Prabal to take one out from her bag in the car trunk while she walked closer to the edge of the hill where the tea stall was plonked. She took in a deep breath, taking in the fresh breeze to fill her lungs with its purity, arms wrapped around herself, looking at the vastness that lay ahead of her.
The regular movement of the passing cars and buses, honking away at every curve, did not disturb her moment but when Prabal called her, she had to pull herself out from her trice. He held out the stole for her and she walked straight into it well-rehearsed, in agreement, he wrapped it around her. A mutual smile flashed, a few stars sparked and they sat beside each other, sipping a perfect cup of piping hot masala tea, that would’ve possibly gotten cold if they had ever put the cup down. As if gutting a glass of Bournvita milk, they both hurried down the tea simultaneously and grinned at their collective achievement. The shopkeeper, who was marveling at their silent conversation till then, let out a chuckle too.
Prabal gave a quick peck on Piyali’s lips to restart the journey further. She had always dreamt of sharing a part of her childhood with him and what better way than to take him to the place she still called home- Kalimpong, never mind the multiple years she had lived in Calcutta with her parents. The mountains seemed to be approaching quicker than she had remembered. She craned her neck out of the window to feel the breeze on her face- this was a feeling she definitely remembered. Fresh. Pristine. Fragrant.
She instantly got transported to her childhood full of giggles- while coming back from school. The memory of the continuous bickering of her childhood friend Datta made her smile. He was the boy who would gladly hold her school bag for her and steal poppins from his father’s shop in the market for her. He was the one who helped her graduate to Glucose biscuits from Mahender halwai’s burfi and finally to Cadbury eclairs lollypop. He would rescue kittens from the pouring rains and gift them to her, in a hope that they both would take care of them. That the kittens would run off as quickly was not even a matter of concern. Breaking the cottony clouds that would descend during monsoons with a wooden stick, he would hold out a chunk and hand it to her- a piece of sky, only for her!
Where would he be now? What would he be doing? Will he even remember me if we cross paths? Would he even recognize me? Will his father still have the shop in the main market? Maybe I can look for him there.
Her reverie is broken by Prabal’s voice, ‘for how long did you stay here, you said?’ Piyali had heard his question but was in no hurry to respond, lest her memories waft off further from her reach. She turned towards him and smiled, ‘I told you before…about 8 years.’ After a brief pause, she added, ‘the best years of my life.’ ‘You know, we could have gone anywhere during this break…anywhere in the world,’ Prabal diverted her attention to the way she coaxed him to take this trip instead. ‘Yes, but it would not have been a slice of my life,’ she responded.
‘Why did you never come back here, after you left?’ Prabal was simply trying to make conversation now, unfettered by how his random questions were creating ripples in her memory lake. She had parked all her inquisitorial visits indefinitely, since the last fifteen years… until now. Suddenly she wanted Prabal to be a participant in her childhood memories. As soon as they entered the city, a familiarity waved through Piyali. She recalled streets, bends, trees, monasteries and her school vividly. The multiple houses mounted on each other, the white capped mountains in the background, Dr. Graham’s home, the clock tower, the Cart Road, the memory of all these places came rushing back to her. Her memory was taking her back and forth to all the places she knew she had to visit. In her mind, she had already planned her itinerary with Prabal, who was as pleased to be led into this unknown place that was so special for his beloved.
Prabal was required to park the car in the parking area at the bus stand. He had made a call to the hotel beforehand, so they could arrange for a coolie who was required to carry their luggage till the hotel. Two guys were already present to escort them to the hotel- the coolie and a man in white clothing. The coolie instantly started alighting their belongings from the car and tying them meticulously in the rope that was coiled around his shoulder when he met them. One on top of the other, the suitcases and bags found their place in an ascending order and the hold-all found its place on his broad back, the rope landing on soft cloth cushions on his shoulder.
Prabal quickly asked the man in white from the hotel, ‘are you sure he would be able to carry all this stuff’. As if anticipating his curiosity, the man immediately responded, ‘absolutely sir. They do this every day. They are so used to all this, now they have become the mules of the mountains.’ His nonchalant remark did not offend the coolie, as if he was used to such brazenness, but Piyali and Prabal threw a sympathetic glance towards him. Prabal even offered to carry the small bag the coolie was holding, but he refused instantly. Prabal smiled and he smiled back.
Piyali kept looking around, finding traces of her fragmented memories of childhood littered at every nook and corner of the small town. The giggly schoolgirls in their uniform passed her by making her reminisce her own pigtails. The Tibetan gods painted on the boulders at every turn had not lost their gleam, the prayer flags fluttering atop many houses. The monasteries letting out their magnetic vibes through the winds. It was about to rain, she reckoned. ‘We should be in the hotel before it pours, I think,’ as if Prabal had read her mind, he directed the question to the man in white. ‘Surely,’ he nodded spiritedly.
At the reception of the hotel, the coolie calculatedly plucked each part of the luggage from his bind and placed them carefully on the floor. Prabal got busy with the formalities at the reception while Piyali was mentally counting all the luggage items leaning on each other. A cloud thundered outside, indicating the impending downpour. She looked at the coolie, for the first time now, carefully. He was young and well-built but his mannerisms were not youthful in any way. The brown hand knitted sweater that he wore had been worn out to have let some loose ends, the mustard shirt beneath had lost its gleam. His shabby trousers were folded up to his calves and he wore shoes that looked more like roman sandals. He had unkempt hair and his face looked beaten and tired, and not only because of all the weight he had just carried. His young eyes had that faraway look where no hope could ever reside. Piyali opened her wallet and handed him a Rs. 100 note. He refused stating that he gets paid by the hotel directly, but Piyali insisted and he graciously accepted the tip.
He smiled. She smiled back. It began raining.
The coolie ran out quickly as if he had to be some place before it begins pouring downrightly. He ran, faster than the wind and only stopped at the tiny Mahender halwai’s shop.
‘Barfi’, he ordered flashing the Rs. 100 note he had just got, ‘for everyone.’
‘Looking very happy, Datta,’ the halwai noticed.
Datta’s eyes smiled, ‘Of course!’