As the car crunches up the hill, a thin rain continues to fall. A shaggy, mud brown dog shakes the water off his back. A longhaired family of graceful black goats is climbing up the hillside. Clusters of Deodhars along the slopes stand quietly draped in mist. The roadsides are covered in pinecones. In the distance, the lush green hills are just white shadows and there is no sign of my beloved snow peaks. It should feel like I am coming home but I am just feeling numb. The knot of anxiety in my gut refuses to go, even as I try deep breathing.
The friendly Himachali driver Arvinder Kumar asks me if this is my first visit to these mountains.
‘Yes, in a long time,’ I tell him.
‘So, you have been here before Ma’am?’
‘As a child.’
‘Ah, your father worked here.’
‘In the army – he was a doctor.’
‘Oh, then you must have lived in Yol!’
‘Rinku! Where are you?’
I try to hide a giggle from under the bed. Ma puts on her mock angry voice – ‘where can this girl be? Nandalal? Where did she go?’
‘She was right here Ma’am!’ Nandalal joins in the game. I hug myself in delight but can’t hold back – ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ Amidst all the laughter Baba is back, swinging his stethoscope and I run out and hug him.
The mountains watch, their snow twinkling in the last rays of the sun at dusk.
We have reached the hotel. Arvinder wants to know if I want the car to drive me to Yol the next day. I am hesitant. ‘I will call you – maybe the day after.’
The hotel is highly recommended and boasts of beautiful views of the hills from every room. But it is getting dark and the familiar sense of loss knots up inside. Why did I come? It was a mistake. Nothing can ever be erased. Those days are not coming back. I wish I could turn back the clock and bring the wheels of time to a stop. Bring back those days of sun and laughter and hold on to them. Foolish thought! The wheels don’t stop.
That evening brings more rain and a thunderstorm rages all night. But in the morning it is clear and I get my first glimpse of verdant hills and the lush carpet of green covering them. Of the valley arranged in low steps of maize and greens. The pine trees adorned with glinting droplets waiting to fall. Of the snow clad mountains, there is still no sign.
The walk to McLeodganj market is a long one but the roads are nearly empty of traffic – it is the slack season. A good time to walk about, dodging the goats, cows and the mud puddles on the roads. Locals are using the opportunity to spruce up their shops or to sit around sipping tea. The slippery roads through the market are liberally splashed with cow dung that the rains try unsuccessfully to wash away. Most shops are closed but I find a beautiful black statue of the Buddha sitting up and sleeping with his head on a folded knee, like an errant schoolboy napping, unconcerned, with a peaceful smile on his face.
It’s the old hide-and-seek game again and I am waiting with bated breath, under the bed. But Ma doesn’t want to play. She’s been odd today. The monastery bells start ringing. The raven on our silver birch starts up a racket. A cold breeze shivers up my spine. Something scurries under the floorboards. I scramble out, brushing the cobwebs from my blue frock.
‘Why didn’t you come?’
‘I’m busy now – go and play outside.’
‘But you’re not doing anything?’
I go out and hug my tree, wave to my hills and call out to Tashi.
I will go to Yol tomorrow. I call the driver before I change my mind and he agrees to pick me up the next morning.
The morning is bright and I can see the sun through the pines. Arvinder arrives on time and we start our climb down towards Yol. The trees glisten, the roads seem busier. Weekend crowds from the plains are driving up with loud music and laughter.
‘No!’ Baba is shouting. I wake up with a start and tiptoe to the door. They are fighting again.
‘You cannot tell me what to do!’ She tries to keep her voice down and it is a fierce whisper.
Baba says something I cannot hear.
‘No, I hate it!’ She says. ‘I hate it! I want to go back.’
Baba’s tone becomes soft and he tries to hold her arm as they move towards the bedroom but she shakes it off. She is crying again.
I press my nose to the windowpane trying to see the mountains. But nothing is visible except clusters of fireflies like schools of fish swimming in the inky blue night.
I wonder why she does not like it here. I love everything about Yol. The whispering trees, the dogs on the roads, the moss on our garden wall that smells divine, and the butterflies; and my friend Tashi and his home. Everything is beautiful but most of all the snow peaked mountains far above the clouds. Standing silent and still, but calling out to me. I talk to the snow-peaked mountains, to the rich green moss and to my tree that I hug every day. My tree that has dried gumdrops and knots on it, which look like an ‘R’.
‘Now we have entered Yol Ma’am.’
Nothing looks familiar. It has been more than 30 years. Everything has changed – the landscape is not recognisable. These roads were so wide, with trees everywhere – and all was quiet. Now it’s just buildings and traffic. We are waved through the cantonment gate and climb up towards the area where the wooden chalets used to be. Most of them have been broken and concrete houses built. But some remain – ‘maybe yours will still be there Ma’am,’ smiles Arvinder.
‘What is your favourite smell?’
‘Bread! Petrol! Butter! Perfume!’ Miss Sanders laughs and goes around the class listening to the children’.
‘And you Rinku? What is your favourite smell?
‘M-moss.’ She bends her head to catch the word.
‘Moss? Moss? That’s – that’s lovely!’ Some children titter. I am embarrassed. I should have thought of something else.’
After almost an hour of going around and asking people about the house, I am ready to give up and strangely, almost relieved. ‘They must have broken it down and built over it – it has been so many years.’ But Arvinder is more hopeful. ‘There is one more road here Ma’am.’ We climb again, to see a house in ruins – with a sign indicating that it is ready for demolition. He stops the car and I get off, stretch my legs. On the road below a truck seems to have broken down and there is a flurry of activity. Arvinder goes off to talk to a few soldiers at a distance.
‘Ma? Ma? Where did she go Nandalal Uncle?’
‘She’s gone to the laundry. She will be back soon.’
‘But it is getting dark. How will she come?’
‘Don’t worry Beta. She will come.’ But there is something strange in the Orderly’s tone and he does not meet my teary eyes. Ma does not come.
Baba is frantic and search parties are sent out. But she is gone. And in the kitchen, there’s a carefully packed box of Baba’s and my favourite snack, pattishaapta. She should have known we couldn’t eat that. Aunty Khanna comes with her tick-tock heels smelling of her strong perfume. She holds me tightly so I can’t breathe, saying ‘poor baby, poor baby.’ I don’t cry.
We stay on for a week I think, and then Baba takes me back – to Calcutta. To Dida and Dadu, who welcome their grandchild and give her a home, filling it with love, with laughter and hope. There are no mountains though. No silver Birch. No moss. I don’t cry for Ma. I never cry.
I wake up Baba early the morning before he goes back to Yol.
‘What is it Sona?’
‘If we had come back to Calcutta earlier she may not have gone isn’t it Baba?’ He does not reply.
‘If you find her now, send her back here, ok?’ He nods and tucks my hair behind my ears. ‘Go back to sleep now.’
It is a large stretch of open land and I stand there looking around, breathing the mountain air. Was it a wasted trip after all? Should I never have come? Then suddenly, wondrously, like a scene from an old Hollywood movie, the clouds part. And although I have been told again and again by friends not to expect to see the snow-capped mountains in this misty weather, there they are! With the sunshine scattered on them, far above the clusters of cumulus clouds, the snow-covered peaks offer a dazzling view. I want to wave out and ask them – ‘It’s me! Do you remember? Where is Ma? Is she all right?’ I am crying, I am laughing. The soldiers are staring at me.
The monastery bells start to ring. The raven crows. I look carefully at the tree again. This is my tree! How did it get so thin? If I look closely I will see the knots on its bark that spell out the letter R. This is my garden! I run to the wall – how low it seems. I touch the moss – it is as thick as before. I smell it. It is the same smell – wet, musty and rich. I am home. There is a row of little houses where Tashi’s home stood. Here is the pile of stones on which I stood up to peer over the wall and call him across the hill and he called back. ‘Taaasheeee!’ ‘Riiiinkoooo!’
I run to the home waiting for demolition. My home is shrunken – the doors are tiny, the giant windows now small. The evening sun slants through the broken roof and splinters on the floor. Spills in through the windows trying to reach the furthest dark corners. The floorboards are missing in many places and there are large gaping holes everywhere.
My home is dying. Waiting to say goodbye. I stand there in the bedroom. To find the fat little girl hiding under the bed. To hold out my hand and tell her – ‘it’s time.’
I listen carefully to catch the sound of Ma in the kitchen, laughing with Baba. The soft sound of the kettle whistling and the spoon tinkling in the teacup. The sounds of the thrush Ma used to feed – and which never turned up after she left.
The knots are melting. It’s time to forgive. Time to cry. To celebrate. I am whole, complete. The truck, now repaired, rolls up the hill; the team ready to start the demolition. I say my goodbyes – to my tree, my wall, and my moss.
‘Are you going to break the wall too?’
‘Oh no, Ma’am!’
‘So we found your house after all Ma’am.’
‘Thank you very much, Arvinder Ji.’
‘Yol se aapka sambandh itna gehra hai Ma’am. Yeh to hona hi tha. (Your yearning was so deep Ma’am. It had to happen.)’
The mountains are almost invisible but I can hear them call – loud and clear. ‘Goodbye!’
‘Goodbye beautiful Yol. Thank you!’