AT SIXES AND SEVENS
It was the onset of the monsoon. The winter chill was still vibrant and the rays of the sun were mild. The slight drizzle and the mist never let the winter bid adieu. Boon took one thorough look at the room, just in case he had missed anything, for he would not come back again to Kathmandu. He was on his way home, back to Guwahati, back to his roots. As he came out to the streets the rain started as a mild drizzle. The rain Gods were unpredictable as the weather forecast. He would have patted himself on his back if he could, for investing in a pair of gumboots and the raincoat. For these two were as indispensable as a shot of ROXY in the evening to keep the body warm! The roads were covered with sludge and it gave the impression of being like a batter for chocolate pancakes! The mud went up to his ankles. He reached the bus terminus and was trying to locate busses going to Phidim.
Phidim - some hundred of miles from Kathmandu and about 27,000 feet above the sea level. It would be Boon's last stopover before his final odyssey. His stopover at Phidim was for the person, who had been his friend, philosopher and guide all the while Boon was in Kathmandu. Now that he was homeward, it would be grossly inhumane if he didn't make it a point to visit Bhim Kai once.
Boon took the window seat and it was a sheer delight to look at the vast canvas of nature. There was freshness all around. The new foliage and the wild exotic flowers were in full bloom. As the bus started climbing uphill, the road became steep and the curves became blind. The bus kept moving slowly in the first gear. On one side of the road were the mountains, which went up so high that it would put any skyscraper to shame. On the other side the valley went so deep, it seemed like a dark hollow. Boon kept his fingers crossed. He didn't look forward to encounter neither a fatal landslide nor the idea of the bus tumbling down the valley seemed adventurous. The winding road felt nauseating. As the road went higher up the altitude Boon felt he could touch the sky. The road below was not visible. Clouds engulfed it. It was like treading on the stairway to Heaven.
Soon it was dark. Strange patterns of nature. There was no twilight in this corner of the world. He never saw the sun set, and often he would joke about it to himself by singing the famous Elton John & George Michael duet "Don't let the sun go down on me"
The roads seemed to straighten out suddenly, no more meandering curves and there were signs of civilization. "ILAM" - the name of the place where the bus finally came to a halt.
"The bus will depart for Phidim tomorrow morning at eight. Please leave your belongings here, it is absolutely safe. You'll find food to eat and a place to stay for the night in every house", announced the bus driver in the local dialect i.e., Nepali and jumped out of the bus. As Boon looked around, he perceived that his co-passengers were not at all astounded unlike himself at this arrangement. They were all forming a queue on the corridor of the bus, waiting for their respective turn to get down. This sudden shift didn't appeal Boon much. Was it some kind of a joke? But then again, as the old adage goes, "if you cannot beat them, join them", and that's exactly what Boon decided to do. And he really didn't have much to choose either!
As he hopped out of the bus, the cold breeze cut across his face like a sharp knife. Boon was still unsure as to what should he do next, and things became frightfully amusing all around.
Boon saw an assembly of local young girls and they could be not less than sixteen or not more than twenty five years of age. Instantly a cold chill ran down Boon's spine. He reached for his back pocket in his trouser and took out his wallet. He fumbled recklessly to have a look at the ticket. Indeed he had boarded the correct bus. But the current state of affairs and the situation in which he found himself in was quite uncalled-for. He didn't even try to have a faint imagination of what might follow next. And his eyes unthinkingly fell upon a young girl who was standing a few yards away and was looking intently at him. She was not older than eighteen to be precise. She had freckles on her face, her hair neatly piled into a bun. She wore a loose jacket and pajamas and she was approaching Boon. A thin line of perspiration formed on his forehead and he was alert.
"Should I show you a room?" asked the girl in a cold matter of fact way in Nepali.
"ummm Yes, please", was all Boon heard himself saying.
The girl took Boon by his hands and dragged him along the narrow lane. Boon tried his best to keep landmarks, just in case! It was after the third left and the first right turn, that they reached a small house. She showed him in. there was a long corridor and on both sides there were rooms. Boon was lucky! He got the first room on the left, next to the main door. As the girl opened the door and switched on the light, Boon was pleased to find the room clean and tidy. It was a small room; pigeonhole would be appropriate to describe it. It had a small bed with a table next to it. The girl was still standing on the door. Boon smiled at her sheepishly and thanked her. She said nothing and wouldn't walk away either. Boon tried hard to think, to ask her something.
"Dinner?" he questioned, also gesturing with his hands. The girl said something, which Boon deduced meant following the freckled girl again. At the end of the corridor they reached a large hall where many people seated on the floor were eating a hearty meal. Boon too squatted on the floor. The food was served on fresh banana leaves. As he took the first morsel, he realized how hungry he had been. For some moment he completely forgot about the freckled girl who was like a chaperone to him. After having eaten the meal and paying for it at the makeshift counter near the exit, he walked back slowly towards his room. He stretched on the bed for a while. He was exhausted and desperately wanted to retire, to call it a day. But some how he was tense. His thought process was broken by a thud on the door. As he opened the door, it was the freckled girl standing with a register. Now what could that be, he thought to himself. He raised his eyebrows and gave a questioning look. The girl handed the register to him. The register was quite similar to the ones found in hotel, where a guest had to give in the basic details. As he was done with it the girl said, "Twenty five rupees".
"Do I have to pay now?" Boon asked.
"Yes", said the girl, "Everyone leaves early in the morning and it's difficult for us to keep a track of all the guests. So we settle the bills now."
Practical indeed, Boon thought. He made the payment and asked the girl to wake him up at seven in the morning. She nodded and left. Nevertheless sleep was next to impossible, Boon tossed and turned the whole night away.
* * *
By three in the afternoon the next day Boon reached Phidim. There was never an urge as frantic as it had been to get out of Ilam. Nothing did go wrong. But somehow it gave him the goose pimples.
Phidim - a small hamlet, with a bunch of households and a handful of population. Sheru, Bhim Kai's son and his gang of friends, which included a puppy also, were playing on the front yard of their home. As Boon approached them, Sheru ran inside. Boon stood there for a while. A little later Sheru was back at the front yard with a woman in tow. It was Bhim Kai's wife & Sheru's mother. It had to be; Boon could not guess that wrong.
Boon smiled at her and joined his hands, "Namaste Bhouju! Bhim Kai?"
All Boon could decipher was Bhim Kai had left for Kathmandu that very morning and would not be back before three days! Luckily Bhouju managed a wee-bit of Hindi and Boon was relieved. She also said that Bhim Kai had asked Boon to stay until he got back from Kathmandu. Boon, well he again found himself in a state of affairs where he didn't have too many options and didn't have much to choose either.
He was showed the room, which was arranged for him. He kept his bags and went to the kitchen to get some hot water to freshen up. Bhouju was cooking. Before he could put down his request for some hot water, Bhouju asked him to sit and handed him a plate of rice with some boiled vegetables and pickles. Boon glanced at his watch. It was little seconds past four thirty. Was he being served lunch? or was it high tea? or was it actually dinner? He didn't have the energy to tax his brains any further and began eating. Bhouju asked if he wanted a second helping. Boon courteously declined the offer; Bhouju asked him, "What time should I wake you up tomorrow morning?" So Boon finally had the puzzle solved. He indeed was having his dinner!
Having done with his "early" dinner, Boon came out to the community center. He was looking for a shop to buy some cigarettes. Yes, finding a shop wasn't an enormous task, but then again, like everything else, he still didn't have much of a choice. Here they sold only one brand KHUKREE - a pack of nine costs just five bucks! Boon lit one and it took a single drag to make a solemn vow that he would not touch cigarettes ever again, or maybe as long as he was in Phidim! A single drag and Boon felt he was sucking smoke straight out from a chimney!
KHUKREE and ROXY surely were not meant for souls like him he thought. Like KHUKREE, it took just a shot of the intense spirit ROXY to make Boon promise to himself that he would not touch alcohol again. But the stinging winters, which he spent in Kathmandu, made him have the spirit to keep him warm. So every time he guzzled some ROXY he'd assure himself that he was having it solely for the medicinal benefits! And Phidim was no better though winters had been long gone. It was still cold and there was no other alternative other than ROXY!
Boon knew the early dinner, which he had just had, wouldn't suffice him for the entire night. As he walked along the line of shops, he came across a small shack and a smile came on his face. It was the smell of the food that made him happy. He went inside and saw an old woman sitting by the stove, busy making seyal rotis. And how much Boon freaked on seyal roti and khasi ko mungso. So things were not that bad after all, Boon mused! And it wouldn't matter at what hour of the day Bhouju served dinner to him, for he found a place where he could gorge.
Boon went inside the grimy little shack. He asked for a plate of his favourite food and sat on one of the benches. The old woman though had wrinkles and slouched looked to some extent cute. She walked slowly but with steady steps. As she kept the plate in front of Boon, she exclaimed in surprise. Boon was surprised too. He didn't really want himself at the wrong place again. The old woman called him by some other name, which Boon could not comprehend at all. The few other men who were seated on the other benches gave Boon a distrustful look. Boon felt trapped again. He didn't understand what made the old woman behave the way she was behaving and the gaze from those men made Boon feel as if he was a fugitive! She was talking to him frenetically. She was in a state of near hysteria. Boon tried to calm her down. She insisted that she'd feed him at least one mouthful. Boon felt awkward at this uncalled-for adulation and at the same time he felt scared too. He was cursing his journey, right from its inception. His urge to get of that shack was as frantic as it was to get out of Ilam the previous night. It took sometime for the old woman to get back to her sanity. She sat opposite Boon and kept on watching him as he ate. He swallowed the food as fast as he could. He couldn't feel the taste of what he was eating. He just wanted to get out of that place. As he got ready to leave, the old woman would not accept money from him and would not let him leave either. She started weeping.
"What the hell is wrong with me?" he said to himself under his breath. And in a state of affairs where he found himself now, if he were given to choose either the devil or the deep sea, he'd surely say BOTH!!!
Boon suddenly felt sorry for the old woman. The tears, which trickled down her cheeks and the ache, which showed in her eyes were as deepest and honest like the tears in a baby's eyes.
He asked her, "ke bhoyo?"
The old woman began narrating her woeful story. The old woman had a son who bore a resemblance to Boon. Her son was in the company of wrong friends and he died very young and for an overdose of opium. When she saw Boon she felt her own son had come back, it seemed to her that God had answered her prayers. She then smiled feebly at Boon and said, "and I realized, you are not my son, nor had God answered my prayers".
Boon felt sorry for the old woman. He told her that he was in Phidim for at least three more days and that he would visit her again. Finally the old woman let him go.
The three days, which Boon spent, waiting for Bhim Kai went away swiftly, like the gentle wind that kept blowing in Phidim almost every minute. Boon played with Sheru and his friends, would chat with Bhouju and visit the old woman everyday.
Bhim Kai arrived on the evening of the third day, and in the some corner of his heart, Boon wished his stay could have been stretched a bit longer. Funny! How desperate he was to get out of this place - how much he had cursed his entire journey, and now when the time came to move on, he wished he could stay back.
It has been more than a decade now. How much Boon had promised Bhim Kai, Bhouju and off course the old woman that he'd visit them again. And wasn't Boon supposed to light the pyre of the old lady?
Life and its idiosyncrasies! Promises are perhaps the hardest to keep.
* * *Interpretations:
Bhouju: a term used to address one's elder brother's wife.
Kai: elder brother.
Ke bhoyo?: what happened?
Khasi ko mungso: a traditional mutton curry
Khukree: Local brand of cigarettes
Namaste: a way of greeting
Roxy: Local wine
Seyal roti: kind of chapatti/roti made from finely grinded rice.
* * * * *
Published on 7/30/04