Thursday, 31 August 2017

PETRICHOR

Miserably 'flu'ed with the awful prospect of hospital food for breakfast, lunch and dinner for how many days God knows, I decided to console myself writing about 'Comfort Foods'.

But thanks to my own sheer carelessness with a little help from poor network service, I've lost  a work of nearly five hundred words, all typed laboriously through the morning with one poor little overworked index finger.

Arrrrrrrrgh!!!!

Too exhausted to even think of retyping the whole damned 'Foods that Comfort' all over again, I was looking for some form of entertainment to while away the day. The two options easily available were one, sizing up the pretty nurses and two, keeping an inventory of who came to ask my haal chaal. And who didn't.

I got bored of both soon and so decided to write something short, like a poem.

So here it is.

Do comment, if only to make a poor old bimaar sneezy, sniffely baccha feel better....

;-)




PETRICHOR

Raindrops slip,
And slither down
Over the scratched window pane;
Petrichor:
Earth-smell, after the rain.

I breathe in:
Woodsmoke and wet-
And memories churn up again.
Petrichor:
Earth-smell, after the rain.

It comes slow,
A faint musk waft.
Then, so quickly does it wane.......
Petrichor:
Earth-smell, after the rain.

The birds, the bees..
The grass and the leaves..
Are they just the ones that gain?
Petrichor:
Earth-smell, after the rain.

You're Renewal.
And only for you, all nigh
Waiting for the rain, I've lain.
Petrichor:
Earth-smell, after the rain!


Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Musings III

I
Ghost in my Backyard

Our home in Tezpur was located at one extreme end of a dilapidated cantonment. Beyond our building of four flats, a vast piece of wild land stretched out for almost five hundred metres before the highway took over. This land was overrun with the famous elephant grass of Assam mingled with thorny lantana bushes and amongst other plants I did not recognise, a shrub with purple powdery flowers and a strong minty smell. I’ve read descriptions of this plant in Ruskin Bonds writings and I think it’s called Ageratum. 

This was 2007 when Other Half decided to see the world and flew off to beautiful Lebanon, leaving me to queen over the house with its termite infested cupboards, cracked mosaic flooring, moss grown walls, peeling plaster and of course, Kuttush and Khushi the two Labradors. Both were about three that time, in the prime of youth and to tell the truth, having made a few dear friends of ages ranging from eight to fifty, all three of us had had a lovely time at Tezpur.

Except for that episode of the Ghost in the backyard.

I had employed a maid, a local Assamese woman who couldn’t speak a word of Hindi. She had been, as I could gather from her garbled words, deserted by her husband who was Bengali and now lived with her mother and two young kids just across the highway. I liked her for she was a simple woman, a good worker and a reasonably decent cook. She stayed in the tiny servant’s quarter attached to our flat with her son, the daughter still living with her mother in their own home. 

But strangely, when we returned from an absence of more than four months, we found her gone, her room locked and no one having any idea of her whereabouts. I summoned her Mom who was clueless and devastated with grief and could give me no useful input. I had her room broken open but except for a small tin of sindoor spilt on the floor and a bottle of half empty rum on the shelf, there was no sign of the woman. I got an FIR filed, handed over the few belongings she had to her mother and considered the case closed. But major misgivings remained in my mind which I conveniently thrust right to the very back of my mind.

Then Other Half pushed off to Lebanon and I was alone for about seven months. I never considered being alone a problem till Kuttush began behaving a trifle strangely. Winters nights can be chilly in Tezpur and I got into the habit of retiring to the bedroom at around seven after an early dinner and watching endless TV snuggled in my quilt. Kuttush would sit in the corner of the room, before the AC while Khushi would sleep on the bed curling around my legs. One day as I was engrossed in a particularly interesting American soap when I noticed Kuttush staring with a contemplative look at the space just above my head. Reflexively, I turned to look up but there was nothing, not even a spider. Thinking it an aberration, I promptly forgot about it. Till he took to  doing this peculiar ‘staring into space’ thing every evening post dinner while sitting in his spot before the switched off AC. Then when he began shifting his gaze across the room from his right to left as if following something that was moving a few feet up in the air, I got really spooked. I kept asking him what is was but he kept silent, his eyes turning contemplative.

I began sleeping with both the lights switched on and the and the Tv on full volume.

The funny part was that Khushi, my female Labrador acted as if nothing was happening. She would sleep contentedly half in and half out of the blanket, emitting a ladylike snore now and then, completely unaffected by all the ghostly happenings that Kuttush seemed to be tracking. Prosaic, practical, logical and fearless, Khushi was my pillar of support. I took her with me whenever I had to leave my bedroom after eight pm and she always strode ahead of me, confident, powerful and totally no-nonsense.

One day,when I returned in the evening after a hectic day in office, the gentleman living in the flat above mine, craned his neck out of the window and informed me, rather gleefully I thought, “Maam, aapke garden mein laash nikla hai!”

“What?” I was rooted with forboding.

It seems the Cantt authorities, in the process of erecting a concrete fence around the Cantt, had dug up my entire rear garden in one single day. “Garden” was of course just a polite way of describing the jungle that existed in my backyard. I had planted a few herbal plants like patchouli, pippali, mint, bramhi, citronella, etc but other than these, the entire backyard was overgrown with weeds.  Apparently the daily labourers engaged in the task had come across a set of bones during their digging and had gossiped about it.

I was petrified, having put three and three together immediately i.e. my maid’s disappearance, the unseen entity that Kuttush followed with his eyes every evening and those bones in the backyard. Thinking that I had to do something about it, I made  a formal official appeal to the Seurity-in-Charge who helpfully dismissed my story with one, “Kya Madam! Aap bhi na!”

But because I kept insisting that he do something about the bones, he sent two hospital staff the same evening to investigate the matter. These two gentlemen arrived in full regalia armed with torches and sticks and together we ventured behind. In the darkness nothing much was visible but they were a spirited bunch. They scrambled around in the undergrowth for about twenty minutes and then emerged jubilant, one brandishing victoriously a female human femur and another a skull that I was quite sure, female.

When I asked them, “Police bulanyege?” the senior gentleman retorted, “Kislye Madam? Purana hoga. Kya karna gade murde ukharkar (literally)!”

“Toh iska kya karenge?” I ventured, pointing to the bones.

In response, he promptly threw the femur and the skull across the barbed wire fencing onto the highway and looked at me, laughing, “Kiska????”

I had nothing more to say and retreated inside.

After the discovery of these bones, nothing really changed in our household. Kuttush continued his space staring, I still slept with the lights and the TV on and Khushi kept snoring peacefully through the entire night.

Then Other Half returned from his vacation in Lebanon and we shifted base to the holy city of Amritsar. Kuttush stopped his ghost seeing ways and life began anew at Amritsar, sans ghosts and spirits.

I have a hyperactive imagination and am non-logical. But even applying all the logic I can garner, for the life of me I cannot come up with a suitable explanation of why Kuttush did what he did and of what he saw.

They say dogs can see spirits. So perhaps, it was after all, just that. 

A ghost in my backyard.

SCENT OF A GHOST

I was n the throes of the last agonising phase of my MD. This was 2004, in Pune. I was staying n the first floor of a co-ed hostel in the heart of Pune, a very ‘unghostly’ place. I occupied the outer room of a two room set, the inner one belonging to a very dear and sweet friend of mine, Tall and Pretty. Tall and Pretty had gone home on a short leave and at that time I was alone. 

One night I woke up very suddenly to the very strong smell of perfume. At first I was a little confused since I had woken up from a really deep dreamless sleep. Then slowly I realised that I had been woken up by a smell, a smell of very strong perfume. I glanced at the steel alarm clock kept on the study table saw that it was quarter to three. The smell was still there, strong and piercing and it was stinging my nose. I was curious and a little scared too. I opened the balcony door and walked out. It was a silent city night, few stars, one or two dogs and the night watch man curled up in his sentry post fast asleep. There was nothing out of the ordinary and no smell outside. Not even a whiff.

I closed the door and returned inside. I checked Tall and Pretty’s dressing table, thinking that maybe one of her perfumes bottles had overturned. Then I remembered. She was allergic to perfumes and so did not use any. The two bottles that belonged to me were standing intact in their place. And anyway, the smell was not of any perfume that I would ever use, even at gun point. It was a very tapori kind of a perfume, the kind a mujra watching, gajra wielding, pan chewing Mumbaiyya don would wear, not my snooty understated Chanel No 5 kinds.

I looked around the room. The door was latched securely, the windows looked out onto the balcony which was odourless and there did not seem a place from where a real life Tapori would fling perfume over a sleeping me. I even gathered courage and opened the door that led to the corridor. But it was empty and fragrance free.

Now I was scared. I picked up the phone and at 3:10 am rang up Other Half stationed in faraway Mumbai. Thankfully he picked up at the first three rings. It was a relief to hear his deep sane voice. Of course I didn’t tell him  why I had called him at this unearthly hour. I just muttered some silly explanation and quickly saying bye, hung up. In his sleepy state, I don’t think he even registered that I had called, let alone recall it next morning. Thank God for that.

I, of course kept the light switched on the remaining part of the night till dawn broke and the chattering birds announced the safety of day.
The smell faded in the morning light without a trace and the Tapori Ghost never returned to haunt me again with his perfume from beyond.

And as for a logical explanation, just like in the previous episode, I have none to offer.




Saturday, 26 August 2017

Musing I

Do people show you deference?
Are you used to receiving it?

Yes?!


Then take time out one moment to search behind that veneer of respect in their eyes.

And then let me know what you see:

Fear?

Sycophancy?

Sarcasm?

Why do they lurk there, these unholy things?
Maybe because you demanded it as a privilege.....

If that's OK, then its fine.

But if these sting you in the dark of the night, try commanding deference.

If it comes then, the deference, I think it'll come pure and free.

And last you beyond this life.


Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Waiting to Inhale.....




I am guilty of 'escapist' writing. I am fully aware of that and readily confess to it. Rarely have I written of issues that are current and of consequence, mainly because I find them either complicated or controversial or simply, uninteresting. But when a respected reader suggested I write about 'pollution', because to a writer, a reader is God, here's an 'Aibee'sque take 'Pollution'. Do leave your views.

WAITING TO INHALE....

I was taking lessons for my nephew. All of five years, he is a handsome, intelligent and an aware young man.

We were learning colours.
Red as?
A rose!

Black as ?
The Night!

Yellow as ?
A Sunflower?
(Have you seen one? I couldn't help asking.
Yes! Pat came the confident reply. On Mumma's cooking oil jar!
I had to accept that.)

Blue as ?

But here the little man's memory failed him. He paused, tilting his head sideways, as if the change in posture would stimulate his little gray cells. But it did not work.
He looked at me askance.

Blue as the sky. I answered.

As the sky? He sounded terribly skeptical.

The sky is not blue, बड़ी माँ. Don't you know that?

I was mighty surprised. No? But I always thought that it was blue.

No, no बड़ी माँ. It is not.

Little Aryan took my hand. Come I'll show you.

Together we climbed up to the roof.
It was around eleven am. An autumn morning. Sweltering hot. And stiflingly humid.
Dust and smoke.

See. Aryan pointed above.

I followed his hand.

Above me an autumn sky stretched all around, playing hide and seek with concrete skyscrapers.

It was a tepid brown, the colour of mud.

See, Aryan repeated. The sky is not blue,  बड़ी माँ. It's brown. You were wrong.

When I was as old as he is now, my sky had been a 'colour' shifter : at dawn, a pale orange-pink, in the early morning, a gentle light blue, at noon, a sharp deep azure, at dusk a mocktail of pink, purple and navy blue and finally at night, like a black chiffon silk sari inlaid with swarovski crystals....

But never had it ever, been this dull sickly brown.

I looked back at Aryan. His face was scrunched against the sun, one hand holding onto me and the other pinching his nose.

What are you doing Aryan? I was intrigued by his posture.

Through his tiny pinched nostrils, he squeaked out,   बड़ी माँ, don't breathe here. Pollution is not good for your lungs.

He tugged at my hands. His voice was urgent. Let's go back indoors. We'll fall sick if we stay here long.

I remained silent, for I had nothing to say to him, this little boy whose sky was brown.

I obediently pinched my nostrils and together we climbed down the stairs, back into his home with air conditioners and air purifiers in each room and from where each day his Daddy, his Mumma and he himself went to work/school in this bustling big city, wearing little masks on their faces.

It was only when we were safely inside the house that the child removed the pincer-grip on his nostrils.

Its ok now,  बड़ी माँ. He assured me.

You can inhale now.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Flight of Thoughts

                                     I

The aircraft is tiny, like a matchbox, albeit designer. It has only two seats on each side of the aisle, a total of four in a row. The seats look flimsy and even a little naked, covered with thin brown rexine. I am glad that they have placed me alone on my side of the aisle. It would have been uncomfortable had someone sat on the seat next to mine. In this cramped space, we would invariably, have spent the entire flight warring over rights to the arm rest. Sending a quick prayer of thanks to the heavens for this small mercy, I place my purse on the empty seat and lie back to savour the flight.

But the take off is ungainly, as if the craft is an ostrich trying to take to the air. But as we gain altitude, the plane flies more confidently, like it were happier up here in the sky than on the ground and more in control.

 I look down the little glass porthole onto the beautiful valley below. The Dhauladhars are encased in clouds and invisible. But the valley is clear and deep green, with little elevation of hills clothed in pines and the occasional eucalyptus. Tiny houses with red and green roofs dot the landscape, sometimes solitary, sometimes in small clusters. The man on the seat behind me remarks- Looks like Europe!

I feel happy. I am not sure if I will ever see Europe's little houses in this life; so at the moment, I am just happy to see Himachal's.

I turn my gaze inwards and when I return to the window, I spot a brown construction just below me. The colour of clay, it looks like the sandcastles that children build on seashores. It is the Kangra Fort, said to be one of the oldest in the country. I had been twice to this place and had loved it, my experience enhanced by the audio guide that one could hire at the entrance to the fort. It is an ancient and imposing structure with a rather bloody history, full of murdering maurauders and self immolating Ranis. From this height it looks toylike and I can now appreciate with full awe, how precariously it clings to the knife-edged top of the clay coloured mountain. Two rivers run at its base and converge ahead, the mingling of the monsoon-muddy waters creating a white surf that I can spot even from the flight. The river runs forward and as our plane moves ahead, I can see that it flows directly into the mighty Beas. I follow the Beas now snaking its way down into the Punjab plains; but soon everything turns hazy as we gain more and more height. Then, the clouds cover the earth completely and sleep covers my eyes.

A sudden shaking jolts me awake. The smoggy Capital lies under us now. My seat is just behind the wings and I can see the rotors whirring. Below us, the earth is hazy brown and in places grey clouds float, behind which the city plays hide and seek with the sun. The little plane shakes as it hits a turbulence and I grab the seat handle in trepidation. The weather above the Capital, as the pilot cheerfully informs us, is a "little" windy and the tiny craft is tossed around for a bit. Though not really alarmed, I find myself thinking: what if we went down....you know, down , down, down.......?

The first thought that comes to my head is -uh ho, I hadn't finished the new post for my blog that I had begun the day before...
Other thoughts follow in rapid succession:
Hadn't taken Mimie on a walk all the way downhill and back.
Hadn't told Other Half that it was sweet of him to see me off at the airport even though I was going only for a couple of days.
Hadn't taken out the jasmine from the pot and planted it in the ground.
Hadn't worn my green dhakai and my pink gold edged chiffon , waiting for a 'special' occasion.
Hadn't got into shape to get into the blue dress hanging in my closet.
Would miss the LCR89 Trek to the Valley of Flowers next year.
Hadn't begun working on my Pulitzer prize winning novel.
Hadn't spoken to so many dear friends for ages.
Hadn't, hadn't, hadn't.... Too many unfinished businesses, too many yet to commence works....
(I never knew I was so keen on my life......!)

I look around me. The turbulence has stopped. People are sitting easy again, relieved and even a little jubilant at weathering the storm successfully.

The aircraft too seems to have gained in confidence. Forgetting its old awkwardness with the earth, it swoops gracefully now and performs a perfect touchdown. All morbid thoughts evaporate from my brain as I rustle around, collecting my things. The inventory of unfinished businesses and unfulfilled wishes is all relegated hastily to the rear locker in my mind. They would have to wait patiently for their time to come.
You see, my pest of a niece is eagerly waiting for her Pishi. And we have some mighty serious games to play just now.

                           II

I catch another flight, this time to Modi Land. Thankfully, this aircraft is of the standard size and the seats more comfortably padded and kinder to my aging bones.

The flight attendant is dressed to kill. Tight fitting blue skirt-suit that hugs her curves in all the right places, blue scarf gathered in a natty angle at her throat. She is busily going about her job, striding up and down the aisle, shoving carelessly stuffed luggage properly inside the overhead bins, shutting them with a firm thud, answering petulant calls for water and seat change requests, soothing a harassed mom with a bawling neonate in her arms, reminding us to fasten our seat belts/lift the window shutters/straighten our seats.......

But majority of the passengers, instead of paying attention to her words, are just checking her out, the men mostly, some even shamelessly turning their necks to follow her as she passes them by. I too am guilty of ogling as I measure that woman against the millions of parameters that I have inherited as an Indian and as a woman...facial beauty, figure, complexion, hair, accent, gait, teeth...........
And she doesn't measure up to my standards of beauty. Her makeup is done with an amateur hand: too much foundation, of the wrong shade, ultra bright lipstick that turns her complexion ashen, black liner applied with so much precision that it converts her eyes into cruel orbs....

But she is efficient, gentle and courteous to all and I find myself liking her inspite of her awful makeup. And my heart goes out to her when a chap sitting in front, it seems to me, deliberately nudges her behind with a folded knee placed over the edge of his aisle seat. One cannot say with certainty whether he has done it on purpose and like all immaculately mannered Indian males, he doesn't apologise. I catch her give him the
"what the #@&% " look, but it's a split second one because she knows as well he and me, that she has no shred of evidence that it wasn't accidental. She moves on and my blood boils for a little while. But there is zilch that I can do.

It's time for food now and I've decided to splurge. The man sitting next to me has a prebooked order and he is getting scared she will miss him and move off with the trolley. He puts out his hand impatiently with his boarding pass as she is serving the seats behind ours. She tells him very gently, "I'll just come to you Sir."
The man is reassured and settles back into his seat. She reaches us and after serving my neighbour, reads out my name, "Ms Aibee what would you like to have?"
Her eyes have shadows in them. But her smile is intact. She reminds me of the hundreds of women around me I see everyday, young women with stars in their eyes, burdens on their shoulders and an unquenchable urge to succeed. I have seen in them a deep dedication to their work, whether they be young women doctors just out of med school, baby executives in MNCs, the girl who does my eyebrows at the salon or my maid in Shillong. Most of them work in thankless situations but I've always seen them attempting to give their best even when their best is rarely appreciated.

"A little appreciation costs so little and means so much!" I think. I remember how, even in my current don't-care-two-hoots stage, the day the Boss drops a 'good work Aibee' on me, I return home and treat myself to jalebies in contentment.

The girl hands me my sandwich, water and drink with her smile in place. I say 'thank you' and then smile back. Not the polite business smile that she had given me, but a deliberate, cheek blowing, eye crinkling, misshapen teeth baring, BIIIGGG smile.
Her plastic smile stops in its tracks, fades and is replaced with a real smile, one that reaches up to her eyes and touches both our hearts.

For just a moment. But it's worth it.

For both of us.



Thursday, 10 August 2017

3 am people



At 3 am, you turn inside out:
All knots and loose ends.....

At 3 am, turned inside out,
You are soft mush-
Damp with memories.

At 3 am, all inside out,
You are tightly wired-
A touchscreen
On sensitive mode.

At 3 am, I lie awake
In ambush;
Armed with my verse-
A lynx waiting to spring
And stake my claim on you.

Friday, 4 August 2017

BOSS: A Short Story




I
In the Beginning

I was mesmerised.

Standing there, under that leafless tree and looking up at the sky framed between the dark silhouette of its branches, I discovered that the blue of the sky here was bluer than any blue I had seen and that the white of the snow on the mountain peak was a blinding white, like strobe-lights; and I was bewitched, by that white and that blue, and that un-trammelled beauty all around.

But at the beginning, I had not wanted to come.

“It’s just for this quarter.” Loy had cajoled, handing me the papers. “Come on, Ritz, be a sport!”

I wasn’t at all happy. Being asked to leave Delhi just when I was getting ready to celebrate my hard won MCh seat at the National Medical Institute was not fair. True, the semester would not be beginning before August and that was still some months away, six months to be exact as Loy had been reminding me constantly; but I had made so many plans for this interim: a gala celebration dinner for starters for my entire hospital staff and patients, a crash course in French (for the French Riviera holiday I would surely take one day), few great night-outs at The Million Dollars with friends and some good beer.....that I had just not wanted to go.

But Loy had been immune to my entreaties.

“Don’t ask me to go, Loy. Please.” I had begged.

“You know you will not come back to us after this, Ritz.” He had said quietly. “Once your DM is done, those corporate hospitals will swallow you. Do you think this humble Shri Sai Ram Charitable Hospital opposite Sulabh Shauchalay Gopal Nagar below Gopal Nagar flyover will ever see you after then?”
I had looked away. Loy was right. As always.

With my residency, it was given that I would never come back here. I was sure that I would then be treading the swanky corridors of some multinational corporate hospitals in my Vera Wang pumps...... Of course, I didn’t regret that; I had dreamed long and worked hard for it.

“Don’t say no, Ritz.” Loy had repeated. “See, Anne would be delivering soon and it would be criminal to ask her to continue there in those backwaters. And in July, Shirin would join and you can come back,” he promised.

It was difficult to say no to Loy. He was always so perfect with his reasoning that it was well nigh impossible to find escape-chinks in them.

“Ok!” I had relented. “But I’ll take Gyan Singh with me.” Gyan was my assistant, right-hand man, my Jeeves.

Loy had agreed, rather too hurriedly, I had thought and grinned. He was scared I’d change my mind.

But I knew I wouldn’t. I loved this little hospital that took in the poor and the weak and the desperate and gave them lifesaving treatments which they could never afford elsewhere, I loved what I had been doing here, I loved the guys who ran this hospital, guys like Dr Loy Mendonza and Dr Anne Laken and Dr Shirin Engineer, wonderful doctors who had turned away lucrative job offers to pour their time, talent, sweat and sometimes money into this hospital. No, I couldn’t say no to them.

I was supposed to replace Anne at a small branch hospital that the Charity was running at some mountain outback in Himachal. I knew it was a really small setup, with a gynaec and an anaesthetist and two volunteer MBBS doctors from the nearby local town. ‘Very basic,’ I had rued, ‘and no spa in the neighbourhood too.’

“Well, at least they have internet, Ritz. BSNL broadband!” Loy had smiled a knowing smile through the white curtain of his Santa beard.

“Chalo, kuchh to hai. Thanks!” I had shot back, wondering at his uncanny ability to read my thoughts.

As I left, Loy had called out, “Thank you, Ritu. Very grateful!”

I had waved back. “No issues Sir!”

And within a week I was there, at Slate Godam Basti, a straggly Himachali village with misplaced aspirations of being called a town, lying scattered at the base of the Dhauladhars, at the foot of a mountain named Kalanath. It was called ‘Slate’ Godam in deference to the slate that Kalanath was made of and which, in the olden days had been a source of livelihood for the village people.

“Of course, abhi to slate ka kaam bohut kam ho gaya hai, Madamji,” informed the perky Badal, a Shri Sai staff who had come to receive me at the Daramshala bus stand. But slate still seemed ubiquitous here, roofing nearly all of the houses that I had seen till now.

I rode with the Shri Sai staff in a clattering Tata Cantor on a winding metalled road that went up the hill, up and up, right to the point where the pines took over from the silky oaks and the jacarandas, to a flat piece of land clinging to the mountain side where our hospital with its slanting green roof was built.

And standing that first day on the hospital’s small lawn under a winter bare jacaranda, I happened to look up at the sky. And then, wholly mesmerised as I told you before, I fell under the spell of this little place below those big mountains.

II
The Ribbon Tree

“Katwa dete hain, Didiji !” Gyan Singh sidled up to me.


I couldn’t help but smile at his promptness with a solution. He was like that, the ever smiling Sikh, strong and resourceful, always ready to shoulder an additional task.

But right at that moment I did not feel any urge to cut the tree. True, it appeared to be dying or perhaps it was already dead, for more than three fourth of the circumference of its trunk had been eaten away by marauding termites and it seemed impossible that water and nutrition was reaching up to its topmost part. The termites had in fact left behind only a sliver of the trunk rim so precariously thin that in all probability it would crack at this point with the next storm gust.

We were standing under the tree in the little garden space outside my staff quarter; me, Gyan Singh and Badal the hospital errand boy. The tree was an odd looking thing and I had never seen any like it in the plains. Its trunk was like any other tree but it branches were like thin ribbons trailing down from the main trunk, waving slowly in the light morning breeze. Its leaves were also of the ribbony kinds, about two to three inches in size, now dried and yellow and papery.

“I’m sure it’s dead, Didiji,” Gyan Singh insisted again. “Shall I get the dah?”

I didn’t answer him.

“Badal, what tree is this?”

“Pata nahin, Madamji,” Badal clucked. “Poori basti mein yeh ek hi hai!”

I could feel Gyan Singh fidgeting next to me. This tree was like deadwood for him, at odds with his sense of orderliness. I liked order too, order and method and neatness like Poirot, but I couldn’t bring myself to give him the go ahead.

“Let it be, Gyan Singh. May be later.”

But Gyan Singh was not at all happy.

He had, within two days of my arrival at Slate Godam Basti, taken charge of the lawn around the cottage, with the self imposed mandate of converting it into a perfect vegetable garden. He spent all his free hours hoeing, weeding, feeding manure to the soil and removing painstakingly the endless number of stones that seemed to appear magically overnight from beneath the earth; and I knew he treated the garden as his baby. Though I personally would have preferred flowers but I was too intimidated by Gyan Singh in his ‘Keeper of the Garden’ avatar to even think of broaching the topic. Not being a man of poetry, I was aware that he did not think too highly of flowering plants, sowing instead rows and rows of late winter vegetables all around. There were ice berg lettuces (Gyan Singh’s ‘salad patta’), fragile tomato saplings, fresh green cilantro, fat pudina, baby spinach, mustard greens and many others whose names I did not know.

I could understand his unhappiness with the dead tree for it was like an overgrown weed in his immaculately laid out vegetable patch and it was natural that he desperately wanted it out.

But I just couldn’t bring myself to say yes. And I was not at all sure why.

III
RIP BOSS

As I had known it would be, the hospital was small. But it was pretty busy, especially with a large number of women patients and I was kept on my toes through the entire working hours. I didn’t mind of course and in fact rather enjoyed the bustle. The people of this tiny town were extremely nice and terribly polite and working for them and with them was a real pleasure.

In my little OPD under an asbestos roof, I had Shaloo Amma who worked as my nurse apart from Gyan Singh whom I had brought along with me and who assisted me in the OT. Shaloo Amma was an institute in herself. She looked to be ninety, told me she was sixty and had the energy of a five year old horse. She had worked at some government PHC for many years and once she retired, Shri Sai Ram had hired her. I suspected that she was not too educated as in formal school education (her matriculate and midwifery certificates look quite fake) but she was street smart, blessed with an innate intelligence and with thirty years experience dealing with expectant mothers of all shapes, sizes and ages, there was not much she did not know or could not handle and it made her an invaluable midwife and gynaecologist’s assistant.

She lived in Slate Godam Basti itself and sometimes came over to my cottage to have tea and to gossip. She was here today, and we sat in the porch of my cottage drinking the adrak chai that she had made and eating sugary ‘cream’ biscuits. Gyan Singh as usual was at his vegetables, pottering away amongst the cilantro and the spinach.

“Come have a look, Didiji,” he called out to me. “The tomatoes are budding!”

Shaloo Amma and I walked over. Sure enough, there were cute baby tomatoes on fragile stems that had been tied carefully to bamboo struts by Gyan Singh.

Shaloo Amma was impressed. “Salad for you now everyday, Madamji. I know you young women only want to eat salads nowadays. So scared of ghee and makkhan and cheeni and growing fat.”

I laughed and as I did so, my eyes caught something at the edge of the garden, just where the slate-stacked boundary wall rose. It was a flat piece of black slate placed over the storm drain that ran at the edge of my garden

“What’s that, Gyan Singh?” I asked as we moved to take a better look. 

“Oh, it’s just some slate chunk I found thrown into the drain, Didiji. It will do nicely as a stepping stone over the drain.”

The stone was a flat piece of slate cut in the shape of a rectangle, broken at its lower edge. But what was very interesting was that its surface had something written on it with either white pebbles or maybe granite chips. It was upside down so I walked across to the other side. The writing said:
BOSS
  Born: 8 February 1991
Died: 8 November 2001’

“Oh heavens,” I thought. “It’s a headstone!”

But who was Boss?

It didn’t take me long to figure that one out. Boss must have of course been a dog, someone’s pet and when he died, his owners would have laid him to rest and erected the slate as his headstone. The stone must have broken and got dislodged over the years and lain around till Gyan Singh, in his furious gardening spree, came across it and decided to use it as a bridge over the storm drain.

“Where exactly did you find it?” I asked Gyan Singh. It was important that we knew where the grave was.

But Gyan Singh could not help much. “It was lying on its side inside the drain, Didiji.”

I explained to him how this was a headstone and obviously, now that we knew what it was; we could not use it as a bridge anymore.

“But it’s just a dog, Didiji!” Gyan Singh ventured his remark as prologue to an argument, but my disapproving eyes and ‘discussion-closed’ pursed lips silenced him. Acquiescing, he came up with the next most obvious question “Where do you think is the actual grave?”

All three of us took a tour of the garden, trying to spot possible spots but since Gyan Singh and the other occupiers of the cottage before me had done such a good job of clearing out the undergrowth, levelling the soil and generally altering its topography, that we could not identify anything out of the ordinary in our immediate environment. Defeated, we left the spinach patch and sat down on my porch overlooking the valley below, as Shaloo Amma brewed another cup of hot, sweet tea for us.

The sun was going to bed and as it said good night it set the western sky aflame in red and orange. The ribbon tree with its leafless waving fronds was now silhouetted against this fire-lit sky and as I gazed at it, I suddenly got a feeling, a very compelling feeling: “We’ll put the head-stone under this tree!” I announced to Gyan Singh.

Gyan Singh was not convinced. “Didji, the trunk will break with the weight.”

But I knew it wouldn’t.

Together, Gyan Singh, Shaloo Amma and I lifted the slate piece and bearing it down to the ribbon tree, rested it against the trunk of the ribbon tree.

And of course, the trunk didn’t break.

Just as I had known it wouldn’t.

IV
SHADOWS AND WHISPERS

If you ask me today as to when exactly the feelings began, I won't be able to answer with conviction. But it definitely began within a few weeks of my shifting into the house. There is no doubt that I have an overactive imagination, and therefore, in the beginning, I blamed it all on my imagination. But I was wrong.

It wasn't exactly frightening, or even alarming; but it was there nevertheless, and I had no sensible explanation for it. I even harboured a tiny fear that maybe I was manifesting latent schizophrenic tendencies with symptoms of sight and sound hallucinations. But as a doctor, and knowing quite well that I was happy and healthy both in mind and spirit, I really couldn’t sustain the differential diagnosis of mental illness. That left the option of ghosts in the house; but since this entity or phenomenon had no validation, at least not in any leading scientific journal, I had to discard that too.

It was winter and in the mountains, winters have long shadows that come early and stay late. The shadows gather inside the home too, in corners and in corridors and coming from the open plains, I was just getting used to them. One dusk, I was making tea on my kitchen stove, humming old Bollywood when I felt someone walk in through the kitchen door. I was alone in the house, all doors shut and there was of course no one whom I expected to come in through that door.

There was no sound, neither any movement of displaced air and when I turned to look, reflexively rather than because of anything else, there was nothing to be seen. I was not scared and since there seemed to be no explanation for my sensation, I let it go from my mind.

Then, that night, as I walked to my bedroom carrying my bedtime cup of sinfully sweet cocoa, I felt the same sensation again: of someone following me, a silent pad-pad that I felt rather than heard. I turned again and saw only the night shadows stretching beyond into the darkness of the house. Truth be told, I was slightly disquieted but then I reasoned to myself that the book of 'Stories that Go Bump in the Night' lying on my nightstand was colouring my already overactive imagination.

That night there was a crazy winter storm and I was woken up with a start by the banging of an open window. Electricity had failed and the house was in pitch darkness. It was eerie for not a sliver of light showed anywhere. The house seemed to be surrounded by a mass of unfriendly sounds, of the rain, the wind, the trees, the banging windows, the screeching doors, the creak of the swing in the playground swinging by itself in the storm.......

I was suddenly very, very scared.

A window unexpectedly flew open and the storm rushed in with vengeance. The temperature of the room dropped a few degrees and I began shivering. I could feel my heart beating like Durga Puja drums and my mouth had turned dry. 

‘Panic attack!’ 

pulled the quilt over my head and cowered down against the pillows.

Then I heard it. 

Or did I feel it? I can’t be really sure.

A presence.

Or was it only a shift in the air around me? 

Or did something settle down at the edge of my quilt at the foot of the bed?

The memory is blurry. But I felt warmer. And the hammering inside my rib cage died down. The storm appeared to have lost steam outside. Those manic noises seemed to recede somewhere into the background. I felt warm and cocooned and sleepy.....

I woke next morning to a quiet dawn, with the winter sun peeking through the open window into my room. I padded up to the window and looked out. Kalainath was covered in new white snow and was shining brightly in the early sun.

As I sipped my morning tea, I realised that in spite of the awful night, I had slept remarkably well. 

And I remembered vaguely the sound of breathing, emanating from somewhere at edge of my bed.

And thus it became a regular affair, this being trailed, within and around the house, by gentle, breathy shadows, wherever I went, day and night. And funnily I was never quite frightened or even alarmed of it.

Only once, while surfing through some silly Hindi soap on demons and dayans and other such evil creatures, I was seized with this idea of purifying my home with Gangajal. 

I sourced the holy water from the Panditji who performed puja at the cantonment mandir just below our hospital and sprinkled it all around the house and inside, just as he had instructed me to do. And the funniest thing was that as I went about the ritual, the shadows duly followed me. And again like always, I felt no sense of alarm or of misgiving. So we ( i.e. me and the shadows) went about the house in single-file-quick-march, sprinkling the sacred water all around my abode.

The whole episode was weirdly funny.

I am not exactly religious but I am definitely spiritual. I think all Indians are. I had inculcated a habit early on in my professional life, of lighting an evening diya every day. Here in Slate Godam, I took it further by lighting a candle before the brass Avalokiteshwara, a gift from a Bhutanese classmate. Along with that, I would also light an oil diya before a ten-armed terracotta Parvati, again a gift, from a patient of mine from far away Bengal. 

I noted that while I performed this ritual, the shadows would gather close to me and stay by my side till the ritual was over. It was strange sensation.

‘Have I simply invented these shadows in the loneliness of my current situation?’ I often asked myself.

Or were they actually real?

I didn’t really have any answers. Whatever they were, real or an elaborate figment of my imagination made sharp in the rarefied air of these mountains, one thing was crystal clear. They were never frightening nor disruptive nor malevolent.

And so we lived in peaceful coexistence, these Shadows and me, in that little cottage with the sloping green roof, guarded over by my Ribbon Tree, its ribbon fronds waving gently in the winter breeze.


V
THAT WALK BACK HOME

Winters always make me crave something sweet. There’s a strange comfort in munching on sweets inside your blanket on a cold evening with Masterchef Australia playing on the TV before you.

The day had been colder than usual and so after lunch I promptly took cover under my new ‘mink’ blanket. Soon the sweet craving mouse began scampering around in my brain and my tummy, necessitating a raid of the refrigerator. But it was bare; except for a bowl of boiled karela that I had promised myself I would consume every day before lunch, an attempt to reduce the adiposity that had crept in on my person ever since I landed here at Slate Godam.

With the craving for sugar getting insistent, I decided to take a walk down to the little bazaar about a kilometre from my cottage and buy a quarter kilo of jalebi from Gopal Dada’s shack.

The walk was pleasant and easy since it was downhill and all I had to do was simply to let my feet go. Gravity did the rest. I literally rolled downhill and was at Gopal Dada’s in less than ten minutes.

Dada was at his coal fired angithi, weaving intricate patterns with his secret mixture of fermented maida in the hot oil held in his soot blackened iron karahi.

He smiled at me: “Doctor Saab, bohut din baad! Sab khaiiriyat hai?”

“Ji.” I assured him.

I didn’t have to tell that I had come for his jalebis. He knew.

“Ek kilo?” He asked me. His eyes were twinkling. He knew I never bought more than quarter of a kilo.

I laughed. “Nahin, nahin. Dhaainso (250) de dijiye.”

“Would you like a samosa? Aaj mungaphali daala hai.” He offered.

It was tempting, for Gopal Dada’s samosas were equally heavenly. But I resisted. “Next time, Dada.”

A sudden guest of cold wind fanned his angithi flames wild.

Dada said, “Doctor Saab, have you walked here?”

“Yeah.”

“Then hurry back. There’s going to be storm.”

I peered up.

He was right. Kalainath’s peak was shrouded with angry looking clouds.

“Snow storm.” Dada warned. Then barked at his assistant. “Jaldi pack karo.”

I paid him, took the packet and turned back.

On foot, the trudge uphill was killing. I think one climbed almost 1000 metres in about two km, so steep was the gradient. But it was good exercise for my burgeoning waistline and of course the promise of Gopal Dada’s golden crunchy jalebis at the end of it made the attempt much pleasant.

I climbed past the small orange Hanuman temple, past the huge jacaranda tree now leafless, then took a detour by the gate of the military cantonment onto the little dirt track that ran all the way up beside its walls to my home and hospital. The gun toting sentry in military fatigues gave me a suspicious look as I crossed him by. But when he saw it was only me, his face relaxed into a simple smile.

“Namaste Madam.” he nodded.

Sometimes these soldiers from the cantonment came over to Shri Sai with their wives and children, for the cantonment did not have a hospital. Hence, the friendly greeting.

I waved back. I was puffing slightly now for the climb was getting steeper.

The wind too had gained in strength and was blowing against me, downhill. Drops of stray rain had now began pelting me. I bundled the brown paper bag filled with jalebis safely inside my jacket and increased my pace.

Soon the wind and the rain had matured into a full blown storm. And I had still about a kilometre to go. The gradient at this point was close to torture for in my haste, I had taken the steeper shortcut through the pine trees. My leg muscles had begun protesting but I could not stop at this point. I had to get home before the jalebis and I were soaked.

The dirt track was just a thin trail through the pine trees and the place was lonely, usually frequented only by the milk-women who brought their few cows for grazing. In fact I hadn’t spotted a single soul on my way back today.

The rain was now falling in sheets. Though the pine trees offered some protection from the rain, it wasn’t enough. Soon, I was wet down to my underclothes and to the paper bag of jalebis. The rushing wind chilled my hands and my feet, squelching in their Puma sneakers.

And as if that was not enough, it had suddenly turned dark. I have noted that nights in the hills come with the abruptness of curtains dropping on stage at the end of a show. And right now, with the clouds covering everything around me and blocking out the setting sun, the fall of night was abrupt and complete. It was soon pitch dark all around me.

I retrieved my cell phone from my soggy pocket and switched on the torch. The trail ahead of me lighted up faintly but all around it was still pitch black. I tried walk a little faster but kept slipping, my wet socks unable to grip the inside of my shoe well. But I had no other option, either of turning back or of taking shelter somewhere else. I had to get home. So I plodded on, slipping, sliding and tripping, my wet clothes clinging to my fast cooling body and the trickle of a cold stirring at the back of my throat.

The pine forest ended and I was out in the open again. The trail was now lined by a haphazard jungle of wild raspberries brambles, tall grasses, large shrouds of pink and white prickly lantana. Of course, nothing of these were legible now in the darkness and it all congealed into a dark rustling mass in this stormy night. Thankfully, the trail by now, had evened out to a flat patch which made walking easier. The storm too seemed to have lessened slightly. But the rain still fell in great curtains of water and its sharp coldness made me think that it was more of sleet now, rather than pure rain. Lightning flashed with increasing frequency, great sharp shards of smoky white light that tore the heavens apart and lit everything around me for a split second.

I walked on, head bent against the wind when I heard it.

A sudden loud crackle in the overgrowth to my left.

I thought it was just the wind but it was too localised to be just the wind. A little unnerved, I quickened my pace. But the rustle seemed to accompany me forward. Then the vegetation thinned out on both sides for I had reached the rocks. Now the rustle was no longer a vague rustle but the definite crackle and crunch of undergrowth that matched my pace. In the darkness, I could not make out anything and this not knowing filled me with a dread, the kind I had not felt for ages. 

Panicking, I began running. But the flatness of the trail below me had now once more turned steep. I found it difficult to run on this steep slope and my wet clothes and shoes did not help at all. I felt the jalebi packet slip and fall off but I did not stop to retrieve it.

Then suddenly, I heard a loud but dull thud somewhere ahead of me. I braked in reflex. Lightning erupted around me just then. In its smoky white light, I had a split second glimpse of a white animal crouching ahead of me. In that fraction of a second I got an impression of a taut, powerfully muscular body waiting to spring and of phosphorescent eyes glinting in that white light. Then the lightening died and there was blackness again.

Frozen with fear, I stopped thinking. It was as if my will and reasoning too had been frozen solid, such that I was unable to will myself to turn and run, the only escape avenue available to me. I had turned to a statue.

Then I heard it. Another rustle like before. But fainter. The lightning helped again. It crackled once more, the static raising the hairs at the back of my neck. The white animal was crouched as before but facing away from me. A thin low growl was emanating from it. It was staring ahead and up to my left where a large black slate rock stood by the roadside. I followed its gaze automatically and saw a silhouette on the rock. This silhouette too was crouched, a menacing crouch. Its posture shouted a direct challenge to the white creature ahead of me. Then the lightning was extinguished and the dark was king again.

I don’t remember how long I stood there but when the lightning flashed next, I saw that the silhouette on the rock was now standing straight, looking above at the mountains towering ahead of us.

It was a dog. A large brown dog with a black back. The white animal had disappeared. And my road ahead was clear.

So I ran. As fast as I could. As I ran, I found myself thinking, ‘What if that white thing returned?’

I needed to get to some kind of a shelter, somewhere safe to wait out the storm. As I ran, I spotted the shack on a little clearing to my right. It was kind of familiar for I had seen it on the numerous occasions that I had walked home by this route.
It was a slate roofed, mud walled shack, probably single roomed. I knew someone lived there for I had seen a light at the windows occasionally. It probably belonged to one of the shepherds that came down from the mountains each winter to graze his cattle. I ran towards it, my mind reasoning that I could seek shelter there and ask for some help.

The shack had a roughly hewn fence around it and a small wicker gate. The gate was unlatched. I pushed it open and ran up the rough steps. A faint light shone inside. I banged on the door loudly, urgently.

A male voice asked, “Kaun hai?”

“Please darwaza kholiye. Main hospital ki doctor hoon. Please kholiye.” I sounded lame and filmy and desperate to my own ears.

The door opened promptly. A man shining a torch to my face stood at the door. A tall man with a large moustache.

Then he said. In clear English. “You’re a doctor from Shri Sai?

“Yes, yes.” I nodded vigorously, relieved.

“Oh. Please come in.”

I literally rushed inside. It was warm and slightly musty. And dimly lit by an emergency light.

“Please sit.” The man pointed to a cane chair with thin cushions, shutting his torch light.

I squelched onto his cushion, dripping water all over it. “Sorry.”

He got me warm water on a cane tray. I gulped it down and then looked up at him.

An elderly man, with grey hair, spectacles and a large moustache. That was all I could make out in that faint white light.

He was looking at me askance. So I told him. Everything. But I sounded garbled and incoherent to my own self.

He listened in silence, without interrupting.

Then asked,“Would you like some dinner?”

“No, no. Thank you. I’ll get going. The storm’s over.” I was slightly embarrassed.

He did not insist. “OK.”

“I’ll drop you to your place. Its Shri Sai isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Come. I’ll get the car.” He handed me the torch.

“Keep it switched on. There are kraits around.”

We drove to the hospital in silence. In his Maruti 800 that screeched in protest as he fired the accelerator trying to negotiate the steep hill slope.

At my cottage gate, he stopped and got down with me.

“You can keep the torch.”

“Thank you.” I was grateful. " I'm Dr Ritu Lamba." 

"How do you do?" He said politely. But didn't give me his name.

He saw me off till my door, nodded and retreated.

As I fumbled with my keys, I heard the Maruti whirr down the slope.

I don't remember too well what I did once safely inside my home. I have a faint recollection of changing out of my sopping wet things, gulping down some really hot water and crawling into bed, my whole body aching with all that running; my mind completely blank.

But I do remember one thing. Late in the night, I woke up from a mangled dream to the sense of something comfortingly heavy on the quilt over my feet. And along with it a faint, faint awareness of gentle breathing filling the room with rhythmic reassurance, a breathing that was not my own!

VI
ANSWERS AND A FORGIVING

I woke up to aching arms and legs.

Every muscle in my body was screaming: “We are here! And we are torn and tired and sore!”

Something as simple as straightening my folded legs under the quilt was tearingly painful as was pulling myself up to a sitting position. And when I placed my feet on the cold wood floor, my Achilles tendon let out a silent screech of pain.

All I wanted was to roll back into the pillows and close my eyes once again. But that was not an option which I had. I had to get to work, for it was an OPD day and my patients would be waiting. I glanced out hoping it was raining, for a torrential rain or a storm would ensure an empty OPD. But though it was a cloud-cast day, the dark gray clouds being a remnant of last evening’s storm, it was currently rainless outside.

Wearily, I limped over my morning routine and then limped over to the hospital. But I was in luck. It seemed that the sleet storm last night had caused a few landslides on the hills and the roads were now blocked. Hence my usually crowded OPD wore a scanty look. Relieved, I flopped down onto the chair and pressed the buzzer.
Shaloo Amma, wrapped in two brick-red wool scarves and an assortment of shawls poked her head through the door.

“Chai, Amma. Please!”I whimpered.

She nodded compassionately and disappeared into her cubby hole of a pantry next to the examination room.

There were only two patients today. Groggy eyed, I wrapped them up to the best of my capabilities. Fortunately, they were both fairly simple cases and didn’t tax me, either physically and mentally. But the moment they left my chamber, I placed my head on that bare table and closed my eyes.

I must have fallen asleep immediately.

A tired brain telecasts weird, hyper-realistic dreams and with yesterday’s surreal experience, my brain was on overdrive. I dreamt of grappling with a strange white beast who smelt of mouldy, wet leather and then, of rolling down a snow-covered mountainside along with the creature. There was a sharp tap and I was just thinking that I had hit my head on a rock, when my eyes blinked awake.

It was the clunk of Shaloo Amma’s cup and saucer hitting my glass topped desk.

I raised my head to say ‘thank you’ and spotted the man with her.

The man from yesterday night! The one from that shack on the hillock.

I couldn’t decide whether to smile at him or not.

I didn’t.

I was not in the best of moods just then. And yesterday night had been pretty traumatic for me.

Shaloo Amma announced, “Didi, Saab aapko dikhana chahtein hain!”

I shot back. “Me?” Then clarified to the man, “I am a gynaecologist.”

He was startled and looked as if I had put him in an awkward place. But he stood his ground.

“The other doctors are not around. I’d request if you could give have a look.” “Please.”

I answered in reflex. “Yes of course. No problem. Please sit.”

He strode up to my patient stool and sat down.

“Yes?” I asked.

“I have a bad throat and a running nose.” He replied. “And maybe, a fever too.”

I examined his throat. It was strawberry red.

I wrote his prescription and handed it over to him.

“Please gargle with hot salty water. And inhale some steam.”

I thought that would be it and he would leave. But the man kept sitting, staring at his prescription.

Itching to get back home and into my quilt, I couldn’t help but remark, “Anything?”

It was purportedly a polite question but it had all the sharpness of ‘Please leave. We’re done!’

But the man kept sitting. And my convent school upbringing and an over active sixth sense that whispered – “there is more” forced me to press the buzzer and order tea for him.

And me.

“With adrak!” I yelled at Shaloo Amma’s back.

The man said, “Thank you.”

His voice was quiet. And his accent clipped.

He stood up and walked to the chairs kept opposite my desk. “May I sit?” He asked. Very Politely.

“Sure, sure. Please!”

Opposite me, the watery light from the window behind fell directly on to his face. It was not a handsome face. It was crisscrossed with wrinkles that crowded around his eyes and at the angles of his mouth. He might have been fair once upon a time but the relentless sun over the years had baked his skin to a deep burnt sienna. He was tall and well built, but his shoulders slouched just a little and I couldn’t quite be sure whether it was age or emotion. He had sparse hair, cropped very close to his scalp and it was all salt with a sprinkling of pepper. A thin framed pair of spectacles sat low on a nose edged with a thick moustache, again salt sprinkled pepper. A heavy navy-blue jacket was buttoned up around him and something that looked like a woollen scarf peeked from the wrinkled V of his neckline. The prescription slip said he was sixty six.

I wondered why he was staying all alone at this age in that weird shack on the hillock. Of course, he didn’t look like someone who needed anyone to be with him just because he was old. He gave an impression of strength, at least of the physical kinds with his lean taut body. Except for that faint hint of drooping shoulders, he looked rather spry in spite of his three score years and more. He could have been a sportsperson. I couldn’t help but ask him that.

“ No. He shook his head. I was in the army.”

“Military?” I was interested.

“Yes, Army.” He stressed on the ‘army’, as if to negate my usage of the word ‘military’, as if it held some error.

“I’m Colonel Kuldeep Singh.”

Oh! I was impressed. A military man complete with an ornamental moustache!

In spite of my aching muscles, I leaned forward interested. “Were you there in the Kargil war?”

The man looked at me, a piercing gaze and answered easily. “Yes!” He sounded accustomed to being asked this question by ‘army’-struck, overawed civilians.

“Awesome! You should tell me about it.”

Shaloo Amma entered just then with a pink tray and two yellow ceramic cups, slightly smoking. She put the tray on the table and exited, leaving a gingery smell in the air.

The Colonel waited for me to pick up my cup before he picked up his. “Thank you.”

“How did you come to know that the Pakis had entered into our country?” My mind was now stuck on matters military, hence another question on Kargil.

But he didn’t reply. Instead he said, “Miss, I’d like to ask you about yesterday!”

I was surprised. A little.  “Why?”

Again he did not answer me directly. “What did you see last night?”

I was not really surprised. I had known, a deep dark knowing inside me that he was here to talk about yesterday night. The pharyngitis was incidental.

“A large white animal. Maybe. I am not too sure, Colonel. Maybe I simply imagined it.” In spite of myself, I sensed that my voice had a quiver of disquiet.

“And??” He asked, urgently.

“I had told you yesterday Sir. A dog. A big one!”

Colonel Kuldeep was looking at me, a fixed gaze. I spotted his masseters clenching and unclenching, the only movement visible in his entire body.

“And?”

I was perplexed. “And what?”

“Can you describe him?”

“Him? The white animal?”

“No. The dog!”

My surprise was deepening and so was my curiosity.

“The dog?”

“Yes.” Was he entreating me?

“It was a German Shepherd. I am quite sure of that. And it was quite large. Large and well built.” Last night’s picture was now playing in my head, as clear as a movie in HD.

The dark of the storm clouds rushing down the mountain side, the sleet lashing against my face, the slashes of lightning shooting down from the sky like Luke Skywalker’s sword of light......and me, running for life, trying to get away from that stalking thing in the edges of the foliage lining the road, my unaccustomed muscles protesting as I scrambled awkwardly up the steep slope. Then, the sudden increase of the rustle in the undergrowth heard clearly above the din of the storm and the dull thud of something landing before me on the road, a piece of darkness deeper than the storm night around me. And something else, another piece of darkness rushing down the road slope followed by the furious rustle of scuffling between the two darknesses, a sharp flash of lightning illuminating for a second the night and those two things before me : a large white animal and a big brown dog! Then, a few seconds later another blinding white pink flash revealing the large brown dog standing alone atop the black slate rock by the roadside, silhouetted against the mountains, a sentinel of the night...........!

“It was a German Shepherd.” I was myself surprised at the conviction in my voice.

The Colonel was looking at me now, eyes probing. I think he could not decide whether to believe me or not. He looked away towards the open window behind me, as if debating......

“Yes, Colonel, it was a German Shepherd. And I think it was three legged!”

It was as if lightning had struck him. Colonel Kuldeep froze and then his face cracked. Into a thousand splinters of pain. 

“Boss!” He whispered. “Boss!”

Now I was freezing with surprise. ‘Boss???’

He did not reply immediately. He took time to put back his face into composure again. Then he looked at me and said very softly, gently, “Yes Boss. My Alsatian.”

The concrete headstone lying against the trunk of my Ribbon Tree flashed across my eyes.

“Does anyone else have an Alsatian called Boss in Slate Godam?” I asked him. I was buying time.

But the question was so redundant that Colonel Kuldeep did not even acknowledge my asking it.

So perforce, I had to tell him. 

Of the concrete headstone that had lain broken in the storm drain in my back yard. 

Of me installing it against the trunk of the Ribbon Tree, on a strange whim. 

Of the shadows and whispers that followed me around and had become a part of my days and nights at the little staff cottage next door.

Colonel Kuldeep inhaled. A deep breath of many things. And mostly of a decision made. “May I have another cup of tea, Doc?”

“Of course. Ammaaaa!”

Till the tea arrived the Colonel embraced silence. It was as if I was not there. And that he was somewhere else. Expressions of varied hues flitted across his face, some of which I could decipher and some which I could not.

The tea arrived, cinnamon this time with Shaloo Amma smiling in pride at her own tea making skills. “Thanks!” I smiled back at her.

The old man drank the tea as if it were rum or whisky or whatever these military types drink everyday- bada peg, chota peg, whatever......

“I have a daughter.” He broke the silence, finally. “She lives in Australia. In Sydney. With her husband and son.”

I sensed a story forthcoming with this prologue.

“My wife died in ’90. Blood cancer. Acute Myeloid Leukaemia. That’s what you docs call it. Her going hit me very hard and I went into a prolonged mourning. A veterinary doctor friend of mine of the army then gave me a German Shepherd pup, a male.” He was smiling a little.

“The little fellow had been abandoned by the breeder because he was crippled. Had been born with a deformed hind leg. But the little bugger was a perky chap and never let his absent fourth leg deter him in any way. And he had mind of his own and brooked no bossing. So Mira named him Boss. Mira, my daughter.”

“Boss went along wherever I went on posting. Along with Mira. When the war came in ‘99, I was in Poonch. North of Jammu. It was too close to the border for comfort. So I had to send both of them back to my mother, here to my home at Slate Godam.”

“Boss loved Mira more than he cared for me, you know. He was her guardian and brother.” Colonel Kuldeep was patting my chipped glass paper weight, a ghost of a smile on his face.

“Then I returned from the war. In one piece. Or so I thought. But does war ever really let you off unscathed?” He paused.

“I was posted down in the cantonment below. But I stayed in my own home, here, up at the edge of the Kalainath. Me, Mira and Boss. My mother went back to our ancestral house at Daghar, a few kilometres from here.”

“Mira was the sporting kinds. She would run on the hill roads every morning, uphill, Boss running lithely after her, on his three legs.” Here again he paused. As if he did not want to continue, as if he was fighting against some inner command that compelled him to carry on.

The inner voice won.

“It was late winter just like today. Mira had gone up into the hills on her evening jog with Boss alongside her. A group of men from the plains below come holidaying in the hills were drinking in the pine forest there. They waylaid her, intimidating by firing shots from illegal pistols they were carrying for ‘fun’, raped her, shot her and escaped back into the plains.”

I was shell-shocked. “What?” I took morning walks everyday on that same pine lined road up on the hillside.

Colonel Kuldeep was a statue in concrete. “Mira survived. She was shot in the abdomen but the bullet missed her vital organs. The doctors operated on her for six hours at a stretch. She lived.”

I did not know what to say.

“I took Mira away from here. To my sister who lived in Australia. She is a strong girl, my daughter. Stronger than me. She limped back to life. Finished her studies. She is now teaching at the University in Sydney. Two kids and a doting Aussie husband.”

I felt relieved when he talked of Mira surviving the ordeal. But there was no relief in Colonel Kuldeep’s voice, no sense of reprieve.

I watched him carefully. His face said there was more.

“That night when I returned home from the hospital after her surgery to pick up her things, I found Boss sitting on the porch.”

“I shot him.”

My teacup slipped and clattered on to the glass top of my desk.

“Shot him? You killed the dog?”

“Yes.”

I stood up. “Are you mad?” I sputtered at him.

The man’s shattered face calmed me a bit. I sat down. “Why did you shoot the dog?”

“He ran away and hid under the culvert when those *** attacked her.”

“He was just a dog.” I was shouting again. “He was frightened off by the gun shots, you moron.” I blurted out, forgetting decorum.

“I know.”

“That night I had become a man without sanity, without judgement. I felt impotent. I felt discarded and let down. By my country for whom I had just fought a war and won. And by Boss who was family. If he had not run away like a coward, my child would have been saved.” 

I could only say, “He was just a dog....!”

But the man went on as if I had not spoken at all. “I buried Boss under the willow tree in our courtyard that night. Over the next few days, I erected a headstone over his grave.”

Realisation was dawning on me. “The cottage next door belonged to you?”

He nodded. “Yes. This whole building was mine. I sold it to Shri Sai just before I took Mira to Australia.”

Something else was stirring in my mind.

“Did I see Boss last night, Colonel?”

Colonel Kuldeep looked straight into my eyes. “Yes. He saved your life, Doc. That white animal was a snow leopard.”

“Snow leopard?”

“Yes. They come down these hills to raid villages when snow covers the upper slopes and food becomes scarce.” 

I could sense the reprieve that had been missing in his voice before.

It sounded unreal, the whole idea of a ghost dog warding off a live leopard. A cock and bull story woven by a grief demented man who had murdered his beloved pet.

“It could have been someone else’s dog!” I opened my mouth to remark. But the expression on the old man’s face dissuaded me.

Meanwhile, my mind was asking, very quietly, ‘But what of the gentle shadows trailing me over the last few days?’

“It was Boss in the cottage too, wasn’t it Sir?” I finally said it.

Wonder and understanding and sorrow flooded the parched face.

“Boss loved Mira very much. She was his protégé. They spoke to each other, you know, almost like two humans. Or two canines....”

“And then when you came and showed him respect, it was as if Mira was back here. So he adopted you, Doc. Appointed himself your guardian.”

“And saved my life, Sir....” I finished.

On an impulse, I said to him, “Sir, please come home. Have lunch with me.”

Since we had just met, he was hesitant at first. But then agreed.

After a lunch that was rather too simple to be served to a guest (could not be helped) I took him to the lawn outside.

In spite of the slow drizzle and the sharp cold, stepping carefully over Gyan Singh’s salad patta patches, Colonel Kuldeep walked over to the Ribbon Tree. I followed.

“It’s called a Weeping Willow, Doc. Once they were pretty common in these parts. Today with rampant deforestation, you don’t find many of them around.”

He knelt down, supporting himself on the knobbly, ribbed trunk of the tree and touched tenderly the cracked concrete headstone. His gnarled hands traced the pebbles marking the headstone. 

B...O.....S....S....

I knelt alongside him.

He turned to me. “He has redeemed himself, Doc. My Boss is not a coward.”

His voice turned hoarse. “Do you think he would forgive me?” Two thin mountain streams were flowing down his weather-beaten cheeks.

I patted his arm. And said nothing.

I was thinking: ‘They are God’s own creatures, dogs. His very own emissaries. Like guardian angels. Grudges, envy, enmity, revenge....these base human emotions do not sully their souls. They absorb it all: your pains, your sorrows, your evils, your weaknesses, your follies, your smallnesses...... And give back to you in return only love. Without condition, without measure.............!’

A bird chattered overhead. I looked up. The clouds were breaking high above the Ribbon Tree. A bulbul sat on its topmost frond, chirping cheekily. Bits of sharp new green peeked on the winter brown fronds.

Spring had arrived.




Alu and the Crown God

I had rolled barely a hundred metres down the road when I spotted her gambolling in the adjoining park. "Heyy Alu," I called ou...