This is a perfect setting, an empty guestroom. As if the emptiness in our hearts is not good enough!
The last rays of the sun have already been devoured by the greedy deodar trees. Now I feel their icy fingers poking my shoulder.
‘Dalhousie Delight’ says the rusty signboard in front of the old building in need of repair.
Once again, I stare at the google map and shake my head in disbelief. We have arrived.
‘Nestled deep in the Himalayan forests, an authentic place to experience the rustic charm and the hospitality of the hill people’ said the e-commerce site.
“I will go and check at the back. Maybe they don’t know we have arrived”, Kartik says in a tired voice.
I can barely suppress my exhaustion and panic and mutter, “Mmm”
As he climbs down a few steps that lead to a narrow pathway adjacent to the main building. I can’t stop thinking, “There he does it again, getting me into an unwanted situation. How predictable!”
I look around. The sky is lit by the moon hidden by the tall trees. The stars peep here and there. The insects chirp away. I hear my stomach growling. Nearly 7 hours drive from Chandigarh, without even a chai-stop. Kartik wanted to navigate the mountain roads before the sunset. “Well, here we are, in the middle of nowhere with the last dregs of petrol in our car” I say to myself. All I want to do now is sip a cup of tea by the fire.
I push myself from the gate pillar and move slowly towards the front door of the building. My hand reaches for the carved handles.
“Wait...!” Kartik strides breathlessly and says “Can’t you wait for a minute? Rushing into an unknown place like that?”
I want to retort, “Really!! Now you are being so attentive when all I want is to be left alone?” but I don’t.
He flips the nose of the round black switch next to the door and the orange flicker of the bulb bounces off its white flowery vintage shade and lights up the corridor.
“So, no one back out there?” I ask him even as I know the answer.
He doesn’t reply, instead knocks on the door.
The door opens a crack and we look at each other.
“Hello! Is anyone there?” Kartik shouts through the crack feeling like a fool the next instant.
I push open the doors that creak. Kartik looks irritated, much to my pleasure.
Kartik turns on his mobile torch, finds the switchboard and turns the lights on. We gasp.
The foyer looks surprising well-kept. An ornate mirror reflects the fresh blooms along with dry pine cones. The carpets and the paintings on the wall show an unexpected richness. The receptionist’s desk is deserted.
This makes me even more uncomfortable. Kartik is putting up a brave front but I know even he is a bit spooked.
There is no other place we could run to at the moment.
Kartik holds my hand tentatively at first, grasping it as we go further in. I let it lie limp.
We push open the doors of ‘Shangri La’. We are not that surprised to see the well-appointed room this time.
Kartik switches on the heater and the geyser as I put the electric kettle on.
“Would you like a cup of tea?”
We sit by the heater and sip the tea wordlessly. We have travelled far from home but have still not found the words to say things wedged in our hearts.
“Looks like there are some fresh berries and yogurt in the refrigerator. Do you want some?” Kartik asks as I come out after taking a shower.
“Why not? Haven’t had anything since breakfast” I say as I stand in front of the mirror drying my hair.
I see a spark of desire in his eyes and I turn cold. He catches on to me quickly as he hands me a bowl filled with berries and a carton of yogurt. His fingers brush against mine and I retract. The bowl falls on the carpet. The berries scatter.
“Damnit! How long are you going to freeze me out like this?” he explodes.
I look at him, stunned.
“Stop yelling, I don’t want to eat anything”
“Really? You think I am mad about the berries?” He looks exasperated.
“Then what are you talking about?” I feel the walls closing in on me.
“It’s been 6 months, Ria. We can’t go on like this forever!”
“Then let’s end this” my mind screams, my mouth mumbles “It feels just like yesterday”
“What happened cannot be changed Ria, let go”
Now the walls have closed in.
“Easy for you to say… It’s me who had to go through it and you let it happen!” I howl.
“How dare you?” he shakes visibly in anger “You are a very wicked woman. no one can ever please you” and leaves the room.
I feel numb. Not for the first time since it had happened.
Six months ago, I had gone into premature labour and had lost our firstborn. Kartik
was careless enough to leave me alone as he went to Singapore for work.
“I’ll be back in time, Ria” he had said as he kissed goodbye. “Ma and Baba are here to take care of you”.
But he was not back on time. Not when I went numb holding our breathless baby in my arms.
I could not bear the pain and guilt. I chose to keep the pain and transfer the guilt to him. I should not have gone to the parties with my girlfriends but he should not have gone to Singapore either.
I draw the curtains to a splendid night sky. I circle back to the refrigerator. It is well stocked. I have lost my appetite. I sit by the window and stare at the sky.
Kartik comes back after a while. He takes the couch. I try to sleep on the bed. I know I should apologise but can’t bring myself to do it. One more grudge to hold, what difference does it make?
I drift into a dreamless sleep after a long time.
“Grrrr…” I wake up to a strange noise. It takes me a few seconds to realise I’m not at home. I see a faint shadow outside the window. I sit up in an instant.
Now I see a noiseless silhouette, and two yellow, luminescent eyes. I let out a silent shriek.
Another scrape on the window. My heart comes to my mouth and I jump out of my bed.
I feel Kartik holding my hand firmly and dragging me to the bathroom. He tells me in a hushed tone “Stay inside and put the latch!” and moves quietly to the window with a log from the fireplace that is unlit.
I can hear another low roar and can’t stop myself. I move back to the window holding up the base of a floor lamp and stand next to Kartik. He opens his mouth to say something but stops.
Another brazen knock on the window. I can hear the glass crack. We stand with our backs supporting each other.
Suddenly there is a blinding light outside accompanied by human noises. The silhouette slips into the dark.
Shortly afterwards there is a knock at the door.
Kartik asks “Who is it?”
“Virender Sir, the Innkeeper”
“A fine time to show up!” Kartik taunts as he opens the door. “Where were you when we arrived?”
“In the cellar sir! I was expecting you to arrive a little later”
This place has a cellar!
“By the time I came up, I saw you going into your room… I didn’t want to disturb you, sir. Would aloo paratha be okay for breakfast, Madam?” He asks as if nothing has happened.
“What was that outside?”
“Oh, that! sometimes a black panther comes around. Quite harmless, Sir. Do you need anything else, sir?”
“No, thank you for the help,” says Kartik.
“Good night sir, Good night madam”, Virender leaves closing the door after him.
An owl hoots at a distance.
Kartik moves towards the couch. I walk towards him swiftly and stop him.
“I am starving, shall we eat something?”
He takes out another bowl of berries. We sit on the couch. He cradles me in his arms as I gobble down the berries. Tears flow from my eyes and then his.