He had got up early at dawn..could hardly bat his eyelids the other night, such excited he was. He had silently tiptoed into the freezing cold outside, holding the easel to his chest and tucking the sketch pencils carefully inside his jacket. His mother did not have the slightest clue about his son's intentions otherwise she'd have never allowed him to brave outside in the cold, without making sure that he wrapped himself from head to toes in warm clothes.
When he came and sat at the spot he had chosen the other day they arrived at the Guest House; the sun had already started spreading it's orangy red radiance on the canvas of black sky . Soon a glowing ball of red showed up behind the crest of a hill far away and as it started ascending, the fog gave away to a breath-taking landscape, hidden from the eyes at night. Was it the scenery he had dreamt of many times back home in Kolkata? He could hardly wait to bring it down on his canvas.
Shayon had come for a trip to Darjeeling with his parents for the first time and he could never stop wondering at the scenery unfolding around him, the moment the narrow gauge train had started off from its terminal station, New Jalpaiguri; the steam engine puffing black smoke, the unmistakable smell of burning coal filling the air.
It was amusing to see young boys and girls - all school children , with almond-shaped eyes and flat noses, running with the train while balancing their backpacks skillfully; some even taking the advantage of low speed to get-in and get out. All of them were fair, had plump, rosy-cheeks like blushers applied on them; so easily distinguishable from the children living in the plains.
While the hill side offered the breath-taking view of lush green vegetation, steeply rising above with the typical flora of hills growing here and there ; the cliff side gave the shivers, revealing a jaw dropping depth of thousands of feet below, blurred by the fog.
'Nice droy-ing'.. Suddenly Shayon found a girl of his age, like he had seen from the toy train on his way to the 'Queen of Hills'; watching his drawing intently, a smile crossing her lips. Her cheeks resembled freshly grown apples, her eyes sparkled when she smiled and her voice sounded friendly. Shayon had been drawn into the scenery and was busy sketching, failing to notice when the girl had slowly walked up and stood behind him. She had her hairs neatly plaited and had a school bag slung over her back.
Now he left his drawing and faced the girl. She had the most beautiful pair of eyes in the world. Somehow her features appeared different than the people of neighbouring country so predominant in this part of West Bengal, but that she wasn't a bengali could be easily discerned from her english pronunciation.
'Kalkata?', the girl asked in her typical accent and Shayon nodded his head. Her appearance and her dress showed that she belonged to a humble family. She couldn't spell out a full sentence, communicated with a word or two, Shayon found.
Soon they started communicating in sign language. She asked her with whom he had come to Darjeeling, in which class he studied, learnt about his only sister; while he in turn came to know that she stayed in a colony, around the corner; studied in class eight and both her parents worked in the tea estate; that she was the eldest amongst her siblings, with two brothers and a sister just born. They had five goats as pet. She enthusiastically told him their names as well.
She came and sat through his drawing sessions everyday, always eager to discover a new stroke or a new element. She would point out with her finger on the drawing and Shayon would explain. They kept on chatting in a way that would appear a bit strange to others. But no matter how little he could make out of her conversation, or she of his, they liked each other's company and time flew as a result with little progress made in the work at hand.
It was the third consecutive day and Shayon had to complete his sketch by that day, as they were to go for sightseeing the next two days, following which they were to return back to Kolkata. Her face fell when she learnt of his impending departure and she went quiet for some time. Then she asked him something in her sign language which he found hard to understand and all he did was to return back the gesture.
'Perhaps it meant some good wishes...what else could it be?' Shayon thought. The girl blushed as he returned back her sign and lowered her eyes, suddenly. Then he remembered all the days they had been together, she had not told her name. Shayon was just thinking of asking her to sit, when she ran away with the words 'School' and 'Later'... 'But what's your name? Shayon shouted after her in vain.
He wanted to run after her to know if she lived nearby or find out her school but suddenly he found his drawing to be flying in the air. He ran after it as fast as he could but the wind had lifted it high and to his utter dismay found the sheet of paper flying off the cliff and disappearing into the abyss below.
The whole night Shayon laid awake, immersed in thoughts of the girl. He wondered why the girl blushed and as she did how cute she looked. Did she take a liking in him, like he took in her? The next day they were off to visit the 'Tiger Hills', though he longed to meet the mysterious girl and have a talk with her. The day after that they cancelled their sightseeing trip as Shayon convinced his parents of the need for re-sketching his job, as the previous drawing was lost.
When he reached the spot he had expected the girl to turn up, but she didn't. Perhaps she had come the other day and not finding him, had thought he had left for Kolkata. It was his last day at Darjeeling and Shayon was so engrossed in her thoughts that he found it difficult to concentrate on his work. He kept on tearing away sheets of paper from his drawing book one-by-one, till he got frustrated and left.
Many years have passed since the incident. Much water have flown in the Ganges by then. A small romantic incident at the tender age of fourteen hardly evokes any feelings after sixteen years and a three day tryst, conversation in sign language with the mystery girl of Darjeeling got wiped out from Shayon's memory by more important things like higher studies, career and matured romancing with women for companionship.
He took Chartered Accountancy as his profession and procured a high-profile job in the corporate sector. Shayon had always been the obedient son of his parents, when it came to the career path he chose or the woman he settled with. After going along with a number of girls he finally married the girl of a distant relative of her mother's, but not before the one lakh words had been exchanged between two families before a marriage can be solemnised, as they say.
The bride's background including any past relationships needed to be explored. Any serious history of diseases had to be acknowledged .. the family tree needed to be built. The bride-groom's monthly income and his character needed to be verified .. the degree of his proximity with his mother, sister and other members of his family needed to be ascertained. One is left to wonder how despite such thorough checks by members of the families, the serpent of disbelief does enter into the non-porous bridal chamber carved out of steel and stings the bride and bridegroom, even after years of staying together.
They had chosen to go to Darjeeling for their honeymoon, as hills were the favourite getaway destination of her wife. No matter how many years later one visit a place, memories of the first visit always returns shrouded in fog and one always has that uncanny feeling that something was missing, something was lost.
The moment their toy train took off billowing black smoke and the distinct smell of burning coal tortured his nostrils, Shayon got immediately carried away to a day sixteen years back. As he saw local boys and girls running along the train, with features such characteristic to people of the hills, he tried in vain to remember what it was that he had left behind, which was such important to him.
Since reaching their hotel, Shayon started to have a feeling that he had visited the place before. 'Hilly areas appear all the same', his wife clarified. 'You came here sixteen years ago honey when you were actually a child, and anyways it is not possible for anyone to remember things intricately that old'.
But the more Shayon started exploring the place, his feeling started gaining momentum.. the undulating terrain, those bends, sudden descents and ascents all were known to him; and the snow-clad Kanchenjangha in the distance seemed to smile and corroborate his belief.
Lying on the cosy bed of his luxury five-star hotel, Shayon was flipping through the pages of a magazine, he bought from the wheelers at Darjeeling Station which carried a story about the culture and customs of a local tribe of North Bengal, who were very simple, yet still illiterate in comparison to others and communicated using sign language with people outside their community.
The next day, while they were having lunch, the waitress tripped over and spilled water on the table. 'Sorry Sir', the girl apologized. ‘Perhaps she was weak in her English’, Shayon deduced from the manner she spelt the words. As their eyes met Shayon could not help admire her eyes, unlike the other locals in the area; they were certainly 'liquid eyes', though the melancholy was unmistakable.
Shayon tried hard but failed to remember where he had heard such accent before. In the evening, Shayon's door bell rang. Wondering if his wife had ordered something, he opened the door to find the room service boy with a packet in his hand. 'This is for you Sir'.. Shayon took the brown envelope from his hand which appeared heavy for something other than book or paper in it.
'What is it Darling ? I hope you haven't ordered your office reports here..' 'I'm off to the washroom and you better get ready soon. It's already six and we're late for the Mall.. It's really difficult choosing stuff at the shops with people spilling over your shoulders..' Her wife stated matter-of-factly.
Shayon had lost no time in cutting open the packet and was surprised to find a photo frame with a pencil sketch inside.. Yes.. his own pencil sketch, the one he had lost years ago during his childhood.. when he used to draw..when he had come to visit the queen of hills for the first time.. In a flash, the lost chapter of his life opened itself to its entirety before him and Shayon saw himself getting up in the chilling cold outside.. The sunrise.. the fog-clad mountains in the distance..the greenery all around.. And in the midst of the panoramic landscape..the mysterious girl, her innocent smile..her blush..her sign language.. Shayon seemed to be transported back to the time sixteen years ago..And then came the realization..
He had returned back that sign..her last sign before he saw the last of her. The one that had appeared to be an innocent 'goodwishes gesture'. Did it mean anything else ? He came down to the reception with the packet in his hand. 'This time we'd take something for my Shona kaka and kakima too..the Ghoshes downstairs had also requested for a pair of Nepali shawls..they're damn cheap here..a hill stick for my grandfather.. gosh the way he leans while walking..' His wife was going about with her marketing plans for the evening, when Shayon left.
'One of our housekeeping staff, a young lady who laid the tables told us to give you the packet Sir', the reception staff told Shayon. 'Just give me a call when she comes tomorrow, I want to meet her,' Shayon let him know enthusiastically. 'I'm afraid that won't be possible Sir. She has taken leave for a month as she has to visit an old aunt in her deathbed in the plains'. A crest-fallen Shayon also learned that sixteen years ago that same place had a small guest house where the five star luxury hotel stood now.
In a jiff Shayon went back to his room, opened the magazine he was reading last night, flipping the pages till he reached the story of the tribe of North Bengal. He scrolled through the various sign languages described and found the one which showed a combination of signs of right hand with only the little finger raised, followed by only forefinger and thumb raised, finally thumb and forefinger raised. He knew it to be also the sign language which meant, 'I love you'.
Then his eyes got stuck at another sign language which instructed to bring both hands up in front, palms facing in and fingers slightly separated. Then, one's fingers needed to be wiggled. The sign looked like one is wiggling one's fingers to amuse oneself while the other person waits around .. And it meant 'I'll wait for you'.
The visit to the Mall got cancelled as Shayon complained of heavy headache, though how much it convinced his wife was doubtful, given the occasional stern glances with which she speared her husband. 'Is it the weather, or has it to do something with that packet ?' Women had the exceptional capability of smelling the scent of another woman in her man's life, Shayon knew. He found it hard to bat an eyelid that night too, like one year before when he came to visit the hills with her parents.
At the first set of dawn he strode out of the hotel, as her wife laid fast asleep, in a direction guided by mere intuition and reached the spot where he had sat with his easel spread on the grass and sketched a landscape, at the sunrise. He had kept the drawing hidden inside his suitcase and had almost come out of the hotel with it like a thief.
As he held the drawing in front of him, he found the art paper to have yellowed inside the frame, after all these years. But Shayon could not help marvel at the care with which the drawing had been kept to remain unscathed even after all these years. But more than that he could not believe how could someone with whom one had spent only a few hours in three days recognize him after sixteen years ?
Tears rolled off his eyes in silence, like the silence which surrounded him now and he made no effort to wipe them. He looked out at the landscape and wished the girl materialize from the sky, mountains and waterfalls; like she had sixteen years ago.
At first he thought of searching for the girl in the locality. Given that the area was small, maybe he could find her village from her address in the hotel's register, by giving her description to the local people. But he was immediately taken aback. There was no use searching for the girl now, for even if he found her, what would he do with her ?
Would he explain to her in sign language that he was sorry.. sorry for promising her that he'd return for her one day, without his realising it ? Sorry, that he failed to interpret the feelings in her eyes, her blushes, her smiles.. sorry that he couldn't wait for her?
And what different turn would their story have taken had he not got married by then? Given the cultural, financial and communal differences between them, would their marriage have seen the light at the end of the day? He could never have convinced her mother of a girl other than a hindu, a bengali, a kayastha, a 'Mitra' to be her daughter-in-law and his father might've disowned him then and there, otherwise.
As he turned back to return to his hotel he found himself standing face-to-face with his wife. He could clearly read the many questions written over her face which he'd have to confront now.