Unknown | 4/15/2017 |

The sun was about to set over the Kangra valley. From the terrace of Dhauladhar, the Himachal Tourism Hotel at Dharamsala, Swati looked down at the valley lying below her. Nestled deep down at the feet of the emerald mountains, it was doused in colors thrown at it by the rays of the setting sun. The sky had gone insane too. Mauve, pink, orange, crimson –colors splashed all over it - like a painter’s palette – they merged into each other, they morphed into different forms unnoticed by the painter - as if they had a life of their own – even though no one ever cared to know the purpose of their existence. Unperturbed by the riot of colors all around it, stood the slopes of Dhauladhar – waves of grandeur and serenity frozen in time – a perfect timeless contrast to the ephemeral sunset. 

The color was on Swati’s cheeks too. Abhishek watched his bride from his table - as Swati stood by the railing of the terrace cafe – mesmerized by the beauty of the sky. The waiter brought their coffee. Abhishek called Swati but she was lost in her own thoughts. He walked up to her and on a sudden impulse touched her cheek but then withdrew his finger equally quickly. Swati turned towards him and gave him a smile. She looked a little lost. The emerald mountains trembled in a silvery thin film of water that swamped her doe eyes. Swati took Abhishek’s hand in hers and they walked back to the table hand in hand – a little self-conscious – though both of them knew it was perfectly appropriate for a newly married couple.

Swati and Abhishek have been married for a little over a month now. Theirs was an arranged marriage through a relative of Swati’s who also happened to be a close friend of Abhishek’s aunt. Both Swati and Abhishek were working in Delhi - quite seasoned professionals in their own fields. Delhi was second home for Swati, now that she had spent more than a decade in the city right from her post-graduate days. Abhishek had shifted to Delhi five years back. Neither of them had appeared too enthusiastic about getting married though loneliness did creep in from time to time. When the aunts paved the way, they had not remonstrated either. Having crossed the fence of thirty, accustomed to being single for quite some time, Swati and Abhishek were still a bit awkward with each other, but getting along not too badly.

Abhishek poured coffee for both of them. Swati inhaled the smell of the freshly brewed coffee deep into her lungs. Coffee was her elixir. Abhishek preferred tea but had opted for coffee today to give her company. Swati smiled at him again as she poured milk into his cup. Small gestures like this help newly weds come closer.

“How many cubes for your coffee? Let me warn you it is quite strong – just the way I like it.”
“Swati, I want to tell you something.” Abhishek blurted out – his mind not really on the coffee.
Swati looked up, surprised. His voice was tense. His face was shrouded in a mystery that Swati could not read. Whatever it is, Swati was not sure whether this golden moment of sunset was the right time for it.

Though this was their first trip together, it was not exactly a honeymoon. Abhishek had some work at Hamirpur and had asked whether Swati would like to accompany him. They could plan a trip to Dharamshala after his work. Swati saw that she could easily manage it with a couple of day’s leave added to the long Independence Day weekend. They had started from Hamirpur that morning and reached Dharamsala about an hour back. Though it was a tad tiring, the drive through the mountains was enchanting.   

Their marriage had been a reasonably quiet affair. Registration and few basic rituals with close friends and family at Swati’s place. A comparatively larger reception dinner was organized at Abhishek’s home. The parents were happy that the two had at least consented to marriage and did not pester them for anything more. Swati and Abhishek were both very quiet persons - not exactly introverts but not very expressive either. They were both stubborn and resolute in their own ways. Both were dedicated professionals and preferred to be with a close group of friends rather than being wildly social. Each had met the other’s friends but friends were not an integral part of their conjugal existence yet.

Since both of them were eager to get back to work after the wedding, there was no honeymoon planned. Nothing was spoken about it as if it was a tacit understanding that a honeymoon is best enjoyed when both can give in to each other - body, mind and soul – no questions asked – and they were still not ready for it. In the last one month, Swati and Abhishek had indeed come to know about each other’s habits, their preferred beverages, their office timings, their workloads – but did they really know each other? Swati was not so sure.

“Swati, I have to tell you something that has been gnawing at my heart. I can’t hold it any more. I feel guilty to keep you in the dark about my past.”

Whatever it is Abhishek, it is too late anyway, Swati thought. But she did not say anything. She picked up her cup and relaxed in her chair looking straight into his eyes. How many skeletons in your cupboard? Thirty years is a hell lot of time to spend on this earth. Who on earth could have spent all those years in penitence or meditation! Only a sage or a hermit – which Abhishek was obviously not! Swati was prepared for anything. Would Abhishek be too?

Abhishek was looking intently at her – furrows in his forehead. Swati felt like touching the lock of hair that fell carelessly on his forehead  – ruffled by the gentle breeze. But she was not sure. Did Abhishek want that kind of intimacy?
“Tell me,” she said.

The last streaks of color were now gone. The sky was inky blue. August being the season of rains and landslides, the hotel did not have many guests. There was darkness all around them, except specks of fiery-orange glowing here and there from a few houses in the far away mountains.
“Would you like to have some wine Swati?”
Abhishek ordered for a bottle of Moscato.
He was taking his time. He poured the wine carefully into two glasses and handed one to Swati. It takes but a few minutes to define a relationship on paper. It takes a lot more to build it up from those strokes. This was a difficult moment for him.

“Priya and I were batch mates during our Engineering college days at Pune, though we hardly knew each other then. Frankly I was only one of the numerous admirers of Priya – the nightingale of our College. Our first notable interaction was during the group discussion for the campus placements, where Priya possibly for the first time noticed me as an individual. Late that night, after a full grueling day of many rounds of tests and interviews, when the company finally put up the list of selected candidates – there were only two names in it – Priya’s and mine. This was one of the most coveted IT companies and we were both ecstatic. Our friends were wild with joy. They dragged us to the shacks that doubled up as pubs at night and all of us drank till sunrise. Priya could hardly walk back. I dropped her at her hostel and went back to my room – moonstruck! I am not sure what dazed me more – Priya’s dazzling personality, her fragrance, her touch still warm on my skin, her beautiful voice melding with the first rays of the sun or the thought that we will work together in the not so distant future. Late that afternoon, Priya tracked me to the lab, thanked me for taking care of her and also apologized for the night’s fiasco.

We became quite close to each other over the remaining days but it was only when we started working at Pune that our affair blossomed. The work was demanding. Like all IT companies, we worked late into the night. And then to compensate for the hard work, we partied harder on the weekends. We took short breaks to the nearby hill stations and beaches over the long weekends to unwind. Fun, food, movies, theaters and musical soirees filled up our lives like a rich tapestry.

Priya was loved by one and all in the company. She was vivacious, extremely bright and gifted with that lovely voice. She became a regular at our office functions. Colleagues vied to catch her attention. I had the unenviable status of being both revered and envied by contemporaries. She was extremely intelligent and did her job quite well. But singing was her passion. She was a trained classical singer. A few months into the job, she found a guru at Pune and started training under him. Soon her Guru started taking her to public recitals along with him. Very soon she started receiving independent invitations – though mostly from smalltime organizers, but they poured in quite regularly. Her singing career was beginning to shape up but that started affecting her work. Friends advised her to choose music as her profession but Priya was not willing to sacrifice her IT career.

Since we were in the same division, I started helping her out. Soon, she moved into my apartment.”

Abhishek paused for a while. Swati was listening with her eyes cast far away into the darkness. His words were floating all around her. As the flow of words stopped, Swati slowly brought her eyes back to focus on Abhishek’s face. In the dim light that came from the lamp behind him, his face was hardly visible. She could not read what was written in it. Pain? Remorse? Sadness? Loss?

Abhishek was clearly waiting for her to say something. Yet she hardly knew what to say.
She simply asked, “Then?”

“We started living together. Priya would often leave office early, carrying work with her to be completed later from home. But by the time she came back after her programs or practice sessions, she would be too tired. So I happily did the work for her while she attended to her music. Soon she started getting programs outside Pune also. Our boss supported her talent and overlooked many of her absences. However, when it was time for rewards at the end of two years, I was promoted while she was not.

That was the first setback for Priya. She tried hard to remain unaffected, but the effort showed. There was an untold strain between us. 

Priya had not informed her parents about our living together. Her parents were conservative and would be scandalized to even hear about it. They were pressurizing her for marriage. My parents were also not completely aware of it, but knew about Priya. Now that I was well settled, they wanted me to marry and I was also eager to seal our relationship with the official stamp. But Priya was hesitant. She was not ready to commit to a relationship that was already somewhat strained.

She decided that she needed more time and freedom to succeed in the diverse worlds of IT and music. Though music was her first love, she would not hear a word about leaving the company. She argued that music would hardly be able to pay her what the job did at this stage. The money was needed even to sustain her music career – the expensive sarees, the jewelry, the training, the travels – she often had to pitch in with her own money since classical music hardly paid for luxurious life-styles. I told her that I could earn for both of us till she became an established artiste. And for that she had to dedicate herself wholeheartedly to music. This angered her no end. Priya was not quarrelsome, but she was hurt by my proposal. She felt insulted.

She didn’t let me know that she had started including semi-classical and light-classical pieces in her program, which increased her popularity and got her more programs and better remunerations.

We continued to stay together – sharing the cost – yet alienated, gradually drifting away from each other. At the workplace, she saw that despite her bright academic records, her juniors were moving past her leaving her behind in the rat race of corporate career. She could neither overcome nor accept the situation.

Finally, a few months later, Priya resigned from the job. She hadn’t told me anything. I came to know about it at the office. A week later, Priya packed her things to leave. I stood like a silent spectator. Before leaving she told me that she had decided to move to Mumbai. She had an offer from a music composer for a Marathi film. She had also hired herself a manager and would concentrate on a full-fledged music career.

It was a quiet farewell. No tears, no promises. She left an address, but never called. I too did not try to contact her again. She is a famous playback singer now.”

“Priya Shirodkar! I remember her saying in an interview that she was a Computer Scientist by training and had left a lucrative job to pursue music.”
“Yes. I left Pune soon after. After a stint at IIM Bangalore, I joined this firm in Delhi. I am sorry. Perhaps I should have told you this before – but how could I bare my heart to a complete stranger! Are you upset with me Swati?”

Upset? Is that the right word? Does that reflect her feelings? Strangely enough though there was a turbulence near her throat that was threatening to choke her; she could also feel a strange calm deep within.

Swati noticed that not for once did Abhishek mention Priya’s looks. She had seen Priya on television. Priya was not what they would call a gorgeous woman – rather she was extra-ordinarily elegant and graceful – exuding an old-world charm that is difficult to find in contemporary artistes.

“Are you angry with me Swati?”
Swati still could not react. She was trying hard to deal with her own inner turmoil.

Was this the right time to reveal her own past? Wouldn’t it appear to be playing tit for tat? A bit too childish! As if she was trying to get even. Was she?

Abhishek sighed. “I am sorry if I have spoilt the trip for you Swati. But to me it feels like a cathartic experience.”

Swati appreciated the fact that he did not add those clichéd terms like forgive and forget.
She sat still, her eyes distant, staring into the darkness.
Abhishek put his hand on hers and asked, “Don’t you want to say something to me Swati?”
Swati shivered. There was a chill in the air now.
Abhishek filled up her glass and also handed her the shawl that was lying carelessly on the chair beside her.
Swati stirred to drape the shawl tightly.
The warmth of the wine slowly seeped into her being.

She looked at Abhishek’s eye and said – “If I tell you my story now, would that be too dramatic?”

Abhishek’s eyes quivered for a moment. But he immediately broke into a smile – “No. Let it off your chest.”
He filled up his own glass and reclined back on his chair, relaxed, his eyes on Swati.

Swati was not sure where to start. Abhishek’s smile had disarmed her a bit. Had she really looked at her husband’s face before? They had already spent a month together!
Would she be able to remember the details if she closed her eyes tight.

Swati had closed her eyes involuntarily and the face that swam in front of her eyes was not Abhishek’s. Abhishek was clean-shaven but the face had a beard. Abhishek wore spectacles, had a pleasant square face with slightly wavy charcoal-black hair. The face that floated in front of her eyes had an aquiline nose, a sharp chin, an unruly mop of black curly hair – and most importantly the face was of a twenty-two year old youth and not of a man who was thirty two. Swati laughed at herself.

How unseemly of her to dream of a guy who was younger to her by a decade!
Abhishek was waiting.
Swati gave him a hollow laugh – “You know what! My story is not half as interesting as yours!”
Was there a flicker of pain in his face?
Swati suddenly realized she was hungry.
“Can you please order for a plate of kebabs Abhishek? I am ravenous!”
She was trying to pull herself together. That’s what Anish always did to her.
They drank in silence till the kebabs came.

It was a rare August night when there were no clouds in the sky. The sky of Dharamsala was a canopy aglitter with a thousand twinkling stars above them. The rolling slopes of Dhauladhar were indistinguishable from each other in the darkness, other than the peaks that stood far away from each other – each lonely in its quest to touch the sky. Just like her story – this surrounding monolithic mass appeared to have no beginning, no specific form though it did have an end, thought Swati.

“When I joined JNU for post-graduation in Economics, Anish was in his second year of PhD. Can’t exactly remember when and how we were introduced to each other. May be never. It is just that we were all part of a big group that hung out together at the dhaba discussing politics, poetry, philosophy, metaphysics – you know - all the typical JNU stuff. I would often be a silent listener – not even sure whether I enjoyed or understood all that was discussed. Not that anyone cared. So many people had so much opinion to voice about anything and everything that there was no dearth of conversation. Anish was moody. While on some days he would be garrulous, on others he would be absolutely silent – tinkering with his camera. He was a passionate photographer and an amazing one at that.”

Swati stopped to take breath. Memories of her student days had literally transported her to that campus – she was reliving those moments as she spoke.
Abhishek’s face was inscrutable. He waited silently for Swati to continue.

Swati picked up the thread from where she had left it.
“One evening as we sat sipping lemon tea, Anish dropped a bombshell. One of his photographs had won some contest and he had received Rs 5000/-. 5000! That was a hell lot of money in the eighties! The girls were ready to swoon. Even the boys went silent for a while. Rohan was the first one to break the spell.
“And may we have the honor to see the photo Anish?” he asked.
“Sure!” And thus Anish dropped the second bomb.
It was a black and white photograph – of me!
I was dumbstruck! So were the others!
There was another spell of complete silence!
Neither me nor anybody else could have ever imagined that I could be the subject of an award-winning photograph! There were far more beautiful faces in the campus.
Even the multi-hued bougainvillea in full bloom would have been a far more attractive subject!

The photograph was captioned cryptically as “The Ocean.”
“Ocean?” I was still incredulous.
“Yes. Your eyes! I can drown in them. Beneath those doe eyes you hide a world that is as attractive as the world of corals under the sea. I want to dive into that ocean and touch your heart. I want to hunt for oysters in them and touch the pearls that are born out of your pains.”
It was all so sudden and obscure that I forgot to be even embarrassed.

The next day, as I came out after the last class, Anish stopped me at the corridor.
“Swati, are you angry with me?”
I didn’t know whether angry was the right word – but yes I was upset that he had done the whole thing without taking me into confidence. Could this count as an offence? I was not sure.
“Why did you not tell me?” I asked him.
“Had I asked you for permission, would you have agreed?”
“Perhaps not.”
“That is why I did not ask.”

“That was Anish for you - negotiating this world solely on his own terms, operating with his own logic.”

Abhishek interrupted Swati.
“Let’s order for some dinner and then you can continue.”

The air was thick with the smell of tandoori chicken. It made them hungry. They placed their orders and Swati resumed her story.

“In the four turbulent years that followed, we were almost inseparable. Anish worked for his PhD and subsequently finished it. I completed my post-graduation and following Anish, registered for a PhD. The whole campus knew we were a couple – though I was never sure whether we really were. I was an ordinary girl – mediocre in everything - from looks to merit, while Anish was superlative in most of the things he did – writing, public speaking, photography – he was a born leader. The student community revered him for his intellect and secretly wondered why he preferred to go around with a girl like me when there were far more attractive and intellectually accomplished females around. And so did I.

Anish loved to lecture. He talked with equal ease on existentialism, nihilism, the politics of power, and micro-economics. I heard him with awe – self conscious that I was not at all worthy of his attention. Anish loved to hear his own voice. He did not tire of repeating the same things again and again – hoping that I would be able to understand at least some of his ideas. A bit like a good teacher who never tires of a bad student – you know!

While I did marvel at the fact that this superior soul had chosen to enlighten me – I constantly fought an inner battle. Was I deceiving him? Was I misleading him to believe that I was an intellectual while I was shallow from within?

Even in our intimacy there existed an emptiness that I could not fathom. There was a chasm between us, which I yearned to cross – but never really could. Even when he caressed me I was not sure whether he was touching me, or an impression of me.

Other than talking, Anish clicked. He clicked my pictures relentlessly. My long hair, my eyes, my toes, my hands – I really don’t know what he saw in these. But then he also clicked pictures of Delhi’s street children, the elderly beggars, the musicians of the band parties that played played for the groom, the bangle-sellers of Chandni Chowk, the station vendors – I guess the ordinary fascinated him.

A few months after obtaining his PhD, he got a post-doctoral fellowship from Germany. And then one fine day, as if to assure everybody that exceptions do not really rule, Anish left the campus forever.

Perhaps our stories have one similarity Abhishek – there were no tears and no promises. Anish left me alone and never came back.”

“Did you chop off your hair after that Swati?”

The suddenness of the question stopped Swati just like a giant rock that stops a gushing stream.

She looked at Abhishek with wide incredulous eyes!

“Yes! But how did you know?”

“I read somewhere that the first thing most women go for after a break up is a hair-cut.”

Momentarily taken aback, Swati broke into peals of laughter – this was the first time she could laugh like this in the last six months. Her laughter echoed from the mountain slopes - it rained on them - it drenched them – it flowed through their blood like a mountain stream.

It is August once again. Rik had flown in from Bangalore to celebrate his parent’s silver anniversary. All of twenty-four, now that he was an investment banker, he wanted to gift them with a trip to Switzerland. But the university would be open and Swati could not afford to miss her classes.
“After all the hustle-bustle of these celebrations, the two of you should at least go somewhere nearby and enjoy some peace and quiet before you join work.”
Not a bad idea, thought Abhishek.
“How about Dharamsala?” he looked askance at Swati.
Rik looked up from his laptop.
“You plan to convert to Buddhism?”
“Excellent! Let’s go,” quipped Swati. 
“Say Hi to Dalai Lama for me,” said Rik and flew off to Bangalore.

It took them a little less than an hour to drive from the Kangra airport to the Dhauladhar Hotel. The sun was about to set. They were sitting at the terrace restaurant. Swati sipped her coffee while Abhishek enjoyed his tea. August being the month of rains, there were hardly any guests. Of course, these days with fancy hotels springing up like mushrooms at every corner of the Himalayas, Dhauladhar was hardly anybody’s choice. The manager, who was yet to overcome his shock at seeing this elite couple check into this hotel, walked up to their table.

“So what are your plans Sir?”
“Nothing really. We are here to relax. Perhaps we will go to Mcleodganj one day.”
“I would love to go back to Dal lake. Is it still there or dried up?” asked Swati.
“It had indeed dried up. But back to its old form now. But if you have already been there may I suggest something Madam? Why don’t you go to Khajjiar tomorrow? It is called the Mini Switzerland of India!”
“Not a bad idea! How long is the drive?”
“Just four hours. I can arrange for a car.”

Swati called Rik.
“You know what! We are finally going to Switzerland! Mini Switzerland of India.”
“You know about it?”
“Yes. The Swiss planted a flag there in the nineties. Enjoy your trip.”

The drive took a little more than four hours. They reached Khajjiar around twelve at noon.
The lush green rolling slopes surrounded by dense green mountains indeed appeared to be quite Swiss. The cedar forest covering the walls of the mountains was so dense that even the sun’s rays would find it difficult to penetrate. The meadow was alive with kids playing, sheep bleating, young boys and girls paragliding. It was more like a fair ground than a tourist spot. Swati felt mildly irritated. Though the view was breathtaking, the crowd was a dampener.

It was quite hot in the afternoon. They decided to retire their hotel room till it cooled down a bit.

From the glass walls of their room, overlooking the green glade, they enjoyed the cedar-crested mountains. The crowd started dispersing around 3 pm. By 5 pm, the place was almost empty.

Swati and Abhishek came down to the rolling grounds for a walk. They walked around aimlessly on the soft grass.  The cedar trees were whispering among themselves. The grass swayed in the light evening breeze. They walked up to the Khajji lake. Fed by thin streams, this small lake rests in the centre of the large glade of Khajjiar.

Khajji lake was the abode of Khajji Nag, the reigning deity, whose temple lies close to the lake. Folklore says that way back in 12th century the villagers saw a light shining atop a mountain near village Lily. When they went there and dug up the place, they found four snake deities or Nag Devatas who were staying together. They were four brothers. But after the place was dug up, the four brothers split and one of them came to reside at the Khajj Lake while the others went to Naguie, Jhumar and Chowari. Khajji Nag’s temple is eight hundred years old. The architecture of this ancient temple is simply breathtaking. Its walls are made of stone, while the roof is made of slate. The sanctum stands on cedar wood columns. It is said that when in the beginning of 19th century there was an attempt to fill the lake up, Khajji Nag came to life in the form of a huge snake and scared people away.

When the dark canopy of cedars lapped up the last rays of light, the air was suddenly filled up with the sound of horns (shinga) blowing from Khajji Nag’s temple. Intertwined with it floated the refrains of a flute playing to the slow beats of a drum. A tuneful melody wafted from the temple and engulfed them. Mesmerized by the tune, Swati and Abhishek walked towards the temple, as if hypnotized. The sanctum was filled with the aromatic smoke of camphor burning along with coconut coils. The priest attended to the deity inside the sanctum sanctorum. In the middle of the square retreat, there sat the trio, playing the giant horn, the flute and the drum. A fire was lit in front of them. The percussionist stoked the fire from time to time. The flames danced to the lilting notes of the flute while wisps of smoke floated up like a prayer towards the Almighty. They sat on carved out wooden benches that ran all along the inner walls of the temple. There was no other visitor inside the temple. They sat there – captivated by the music. No chants, no words – yet every note played was an invocation of supreme peace. The notes touched the innermost chords of their hearts and wrenched out submission of self to the magnificence of nature.

When the music finally stopped, the notes still hung heavy in the air. Swati and Abhishek walked around looking at the huge carvings of known and unknown Gods and Goddesses. The fire was put off for the night. The smoke clung to the old temple like a light mist.
It was time for them to leave.

They stepped out through the low wooden frame. The stone steps were now cold.
The priest locked the temple door and went home.
The cafes and restaurants were shutting down one by one.

The grassland was awash with silvery moonlight. Light rainclouds sailed overhead.
The moon played hide-and-seek with the clouds.
A light mist was descending on the ground.
An invisible hand wrapped up the glade in a shimmering veil, pinning the ends to the peaks with a careful precision.
The meadow was now deserted. Swati and Abhishek walked back to their hotel – the only ones yet to go back home. 
It was difficult to see through the haze. Swati’s glasses were moist. She tripped on a rock and quickly caught Abhishek’s hand to steady herself.

All of a sudden as the moon came out from behind a cloud, lighting up the meadow with its mercurial rays and there emerged a young couple - standing there face to face with them. They could vouch there was no one in the meadow a few seconds back.

The girl was very fair, very dainty. The boy had sharp features that made him look like a Greek God was almost bent in the front by the weight of a camera slung from his neck. There was something ethereal about their beauty – as if they shone from within – as if they were made of moonlight.

The girl smiled at them. Swati tried her best to return the smile but her lips were so dry that she was not even sure whether they would ever part again.

“Hi! I am Priya. And this is Anish, my husband, a camera-freak.”



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