ICE-BREAKER

It sounded like the drone of an airplane overhead.  Kiran pricked up her ears and sat up along with her sleeping bag. She looked at the huddled figure next to her in the cramped tent.  He stirred, and peeped out with a question mark on his face. His head and neck were wrapped in a woolen cap and a muffler. He had ignored her advice that he does not need them inside the sleeping bag.

And then, they heard what sounded like gunshots – “khat-khat-khat” – followed by a rumbling of the earth underneath. She knew what it was and unzipped her sleeping bag in a hurried frenzy.

He heard and felt that too. “Oh my God! Is that an earthquake?”

“No, it sounds like an avalanche.  Get up fast.”

There was an urgency in her voice and total panic engulfed him. He spluttered something loud but unclear and tried to stand up while still inside the sleeping bag.  This resulted in a tumble that knocked off several things packed closely in the tent. She turned on the flashlight, unzipped the top of the front opening of the tent, and shouted for Raju, the cook-cum-guide who had accompanied them and was sleeping in the kitchen tent a few meters away.

She then fished out her pair of hiking shoes placed between the inner and outer layers of the tent and tried to put them on in a hurry. No sign of life stirred in the other tent while chaos reigned in theirs. Her ten-day-old husband Ramesh was trying to extricate himself from the sleeping bag, blabbering incoherently.

She felt that she hardly knew him. She had given in to the community norms and had agreed to the arranged marriage. She married a stranger and now had a whole lifetime to get to know him.

Kiran stepped out of the tent and surveyed the immediate surroundings, relieved that she was standing on the firm ground covered with a few inches of snow. She looked up at the dark sky with thousands of twinkling stars. She thanked God that they were not buried under the avalanche, which must have occurred somewhere close by, considering the intensity of the sounds that she had heard.

She ran towards the other tent, calling out frantically to Raju and trying to rouse him from his deep sleep.  By now, she could hear cries of human voices from the small hamlet in the valley, which was hidden from view from the camping place where they had pitched their tents.  They were at quite an elevation and anxiety gripped her at the thought of more avalanches triggered by the first one.

Raju, the young adolescent, stepped out of his tent half-awake, rubbing his eyes. Being a hill person, he understood the situation immediately but was of little help as he ran around in circles shouting in his native dialect.  All his tall claims of knowing the mountains like the back of his hand evaporated in the face of actual danger. Kiran knew then that she was on her own.

She ventured out a few steps from the camping place.

“What are you doing? Don’t go anywhere.  Stay inside the tent.”

The desperate cries of her husband irked her.  He had zipped up the tent and left a small opening through which he stuck his head out to survey the outside scene.  He was a different man last evening when, stretching out his hands in the style of Shahrukh Khan, his favourite Hindi film actor, he had declared, “we have the entire place to ourselves.”

While hiking up the steep, snow-covered trail off Narkhanda yesterday and during their evening stroll around the camping area, she noticed that they were the only hikers and campers that day. 

Once the stiff climb was over, the tents pitched and he had had two cups of hot tea, Ramesh’s groanings and grumblings stopped and he was bubbling with a sense of exhilaration. He was happy that they were far away from the crowds of Shimla and happier that their mobile phones received no signals at that place. But she knew what it meant to be alone at high altitudes in the Himalayan wilderness if the weather turned bad or something untoward happened.

Putting aside her misgivings, she said “Yes, isn’t it fun?” After all, it was her idea to include a little bit of hiking and camping in their honeymoon to Shimla.

She surmised that in all probability, they would have been cut off from the nearest hamlet in the valley below, which they have to cross to reach Narkhanda on foot and from there, by road to Shimla. It was three in the morning and they will have to wait for daybreak, a good three hours away, before any help could reach them or for them to start finding their way down.  

After instructing Raju to search for spots nearby where mobile signals could be received and to establish contact with the village below, she returned to the tent. She found Ramesh cowering in one corner, his face ashen and eyes wide with utter fear. On seeing her, he let out a volley of complaints in a loud and trembling voice.  For a moment, she could not make out what the dominant emotion was – anger or fear. 

She heard a lot of “I told you”, “you don’t listen”, peppered with “you think you are a hero”. She controlled the rising irritation and tried to tell him that they were on firm ground, deliberately omitting the “as of now”, and that they will be able to get out of this place. She did not tell him about the possibility that the firm ground under their feet could be a part of another avalanche and slide down taking them along.

 He was not listening. Engulfed by his fear, he whimpered “I should not have listened to you. I just want to get out of here and I will never come to the Himalayas again”. 

Something moved within her and the initial anger at his outburst gave way to empathy and concern. Crouching next to him, she held him and pacified the frightened child in him.

As she continued to soothe him with reassuring words, she realized that hiking in the Himalayas was not for everybody. He would have been content to remain in Shimla, take a stroll on the ridge, drink hot chocolate at one of the eating joints along the mall and watch the snowfall from the comforts of their room in the high-end hotel that they had booked. They could have taken a day trip to Kufri on a bright sunny day, with blue skies overhead and soft piled-up snow on the ground. He could have been drunk with joy, making a snowman or throwing snowballs at her.  He could have had the perfect honeymoon that he had yearned for.

She had nothing against these pleasures, the tourist trappings.  But her passion lay in hiking on off-beat Himalayan trails. She loved breathing in the fresh air, listening to the sounds of the forests, and camping under the open sky. She was a fiery girl, different from other girls in her hometown in Gujarat. During the four years in an Engineering college in Chandigarh, close to the Himalayan foothills, she had picked up several interests, a passion for hiking in the Himalayas being the foremost, followed by a weakness for Punjabi cuisine. Ramesh liked nothing other than Gujarati food. Yet another one, among the many differences between them, she had noted.

 He, who had lived all his life in the plains of Gujarat, with occasional holidays in nearby hill stations like Matheran in the Western Ghats and Mount Abu in the Aravallis, was wide-eyed when she talked about hiking in the Himalayas. He had eagerly acquiesced to include the hiking and camping in their honeymoon trip to Shimla with not much insight and no experience whatsoever.

As Kiran spoke to him softly, his trembling stopped gradually. He was quiet now and laid his head on her lap, his body curled up in the foetus position.  She called out to Raju. 

The youngster, after his initial reaction of panic, had picked up courage and ventured a distance on the downhill trail.  His mobile phone could catch a signal at some point and he brought back news about the avalanche and that a large section of the trail was washed away. The two of them exchanged views about its location and how they should navigate their way after daybreak.

They decided that they would leave at the crack of dawn with only the essential belongings and some biscuits, nuts, and water for sustenance till they reach the hamlet. She felt responsible for both of them and hoped that her experience and skill in manoeuvring tough terrains would see them through. She asked Raju to prepare tea.

She bent down and murmured in her husband’s ears that they should be back in their luxurious hotel room in Shimla by lunchtime.  With a protective arm around the huddled figure and waiting for the hot tea, she felt something like love for this stranger with whom she had agreed to share her life.

                                                         ****

PS: I submitted this story for Reedsy’s prompt contest #143 on the theme “Beautiful world, there you are”. It was approved and published on their blog at blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts. I did not win the contest though.

PAUSE FOR A WHILE

I had heard of the word ‘pandemic’ but it was not in my active vocabulary. I had never looked it up and had never used the word. The term lockdown was more familiar but mostly as a localised law-and-order issue. And, I think ‘social distancing’ is a brand-new phrase of these times. Our conversation these days is peppered with ‘minimalism’ and ‘new normal’.

Words apart, how has this novel situation we find ourselves in seeped into our conscience? A year and a half have passed and I look back on the shifts in my way of thinking and living.

When the complete lockdown of three weeks was imposed in March 2020 for the whole of India, I was naïve enough, or ignorant perhaps, to believe that by the end of that period, we would have controlled the virus, and all will be back to normal soon thereafter.

I was taking care of two very aged parents, both in their nineties and a chill ran down my spine as I heard the address of the Prime Minister of our country. I steeled myself to get through those twenty-one days of lockdown, one day at a time. In those initial days, the focus was mainly on running the house with a modicum of normalcy so that my parents are not inconvenienced in any way.  And in sanitising everything, from hands to milk pouches to doorknobs. Continuation of the lockdown for two more months was followed by step-by-step unlocking but the spread of the pandemic had not slowed down.  It gradually dawned upon us that we are in for a long haul.

There were days of anxiety, bordering on panic sometimes, interspersed with days of calm and peace brought in by a resolve to handle matters as they come.  I had to search for the reserves of mental strength deep within me when my mother, who was nearing 95, passed away one afternoon during the initial lockdown. Amid the grief and difficulties in arranging for the funeral and the rites thereafter, I also found myself expressing gratitude to the Universe that she had a natural and peaceful death, at home.

That was perhaps a turning point for me.  I started viewing the situation in its entirety.  I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason. So, why would something so enormous and encompassing all of humanity occur without a good and sound reason? Mother Earth seemed to be wanting a break from human interference for better sustenance of all forms of life. It was like a mother giving a bitter pill to the child for its good. Amid the grief for the loss of so many lives, it was also heartening to see clean rivers and unpolluted air within a month or two. The universe was holding a mirror to the humans, to ponder on what they have become in their pursuit of greed, aggression, exploitation, and self-centered growth. Interdependence for survival and sustenance is the greatest lesson the virus seemed to be teaching us.

I shifted my attention from the daily news and veered away from messages and discussions that spelt doom. Instead, I started on activities that would give me joy, peace, and perspective. Downloading the Tanpura droid application on my mobile phone, I started practising Carnatic music again. I scheduled a one-hour skype meeting with a cousin, during which we would read 5 verses from the Bhagavad-Gita every day and discuss their meaning and significance. Since the essence of Bhagavad-Gita is in doing one’s duty without attachment to the results and in maintaining equanimity in all circumstances, delving into it could not have come at a more opportune time.  It also revived my interest in Sanskrit, a language that I left at High School.

I started going for a walk in the park in the afternoon when it would be deserted. I also spent more time with my 99-year-old father, chatting with him or reading out something for him as he has lost his vision now. The forced distancing gave the much-needed clarity and perspective about people, situations, and most importantly, about myself. Regular meditation however still evaded me.

Somewhere around this time, I also started writing. The energising effect of a Writing Retreat that I had attended in Rishikesh in March that year, just before the lockdown, spurred me on. I joined a writing group and started writing short stories and travel memoirs, some of which I put up on my blog.

Taking a cue from a fellow blog writer, I enrolled in a free online course on the science of well-being. That put me on the path of regular vipassana meditation which had become sporadic over the years.  Conscious practice of gratitude and kindness were the other takeaways from this course. I could not root out fear and worry completely but removing a lot of clutter freed me to some extent.

Or so I thought till the deadly second wave of the pandemic hit India. We were caught unaware since the decline in new infections and the vaccine roll-out from the start of the year 2021 had lulled us into a sweet and long-awaited complacency.  All that I had learnt and assimilated till then flew out of the window, a window that was shut tight as the delta variant of the virus was believed to transmit through air. Panic attacks, triggered by negative thoughts and news about losing a few friends and acquaintances to the virus, overwhelmed me.

After remaining in this volatile state for a few days, I took full responsibility for the state of my mind and started walking unsteadily but persistently towards a semblance of composure, taking the help of prayers, meditation, mindfulness, journalling, and interacting with support groups. That period taught me not to be too smug about being sorted in my mind.

Another change in perspective that I observe in myself is my attitude towards travel. I was a compulsive traveller and revelled in all forms of travel – going for hikes in the Himalayas, road trips, visits to wildlife forests and historical cities in the country, and the occasional trips to other countries as well. I used to be restless if I did not travel for a while. I would still travel once the world opens up. Earlier, it was a frenzied “must-do” activity. Now I don’t have a bucket list. And staying at home is not that bad too. I intend to savour the experience of travel at a much slower pace.

My pragmatism and optimism tell me that I am not unique and if I have changed in perceptible ways, so would have millions and millions of other human beings and collectively, we may succeed in making this world a better place to live. That would be the greatest and the most precious gift that we would be giving to our children.

But then, on second thought, I am inclined to agree with Clint Eastwood who said that we should shift our focus from leaving a better planet for our children to leaving better children for our planet.

                                                                       ***

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ANTIDOTE

One look at her face as she let him in and he knew that there was trouble ahead. 

No smile, no inquiries about the day. He was sure that there would be no coffee too, as other things were brewing. Perhaps no dinner too, he thought and waited for the explosion. Instead, he heard the door of their bedroom slam.

But then, the cockroach behind the bedroom door saved the day. She called out sweetly to him and sought his help.

                                                ***

THE INTERLUDE

Their eyes meet and hold, the intervening years dissolving in that glance. Questions pop up in his mind as he looks out of the bus window.

Lilting music fills his heart and puts a brief pause on the emptiness of his marriage of nine years.

A few minutes later, eyes averted from her, he alights from the bus and walks home.

TOLLY BOLLY

It was difficult to keep the two sisters away from fighting with each other. I was fed up with yelling at them, all day long, to lay off.  I have tried everything – scolding, admonishing, threatening, cajoling, pleading, and even crying.   Reactions from the girls ranged from looking ashamed to appearing crestfallen to feigning outrage to uncontrollable giggling.

And what does the father of the house do? Aloof and indulgent, he goes about his business as if all this racket is quite normal.  Why does he think he has been given such a long neck if he does not want to stick it out at all?

We, the giraffe family have been quite respectable in this neighborhood. We hold our head high, except while grazing, of course. I was quite shocked and disconcerted too when I found out recently that others have been talking about us behind our back.

The other day, I had gone along with my daughters Tolly and Bolly, for the birthday party of the baby rhino. As soon as we entered their home ground, the chatter among the visiting neighbors stopped abruptly and a hush fell. While some smirked, Patience antelope and the host Armor Rhino had at least the decency to look somewhat embarrassed. Tolly and Bolly were chirpy as usual and mingled with the other kids but I was very uncomfortable.

While returning home, Miss Prickly porcupine accompanied me halfway through.  After much prodding, she said, “you know Mrs. G, everybody makes fun of the noisy fights of Tolly and Bolly. I overheard Furry fox tell his wife that they lack discipline and have not been brought up well”. 

I glared down at Prickly, who decided suddenly that it was safer to take a shortcut to her home and, with a hurried goodbye, vanished into the bushes. Upset and fuming, I waited for the two girls who were lagging. ‘Just you wait, you little imps,’ I muttered to myself. ‘You are going to get a whack behind your ears and a sharp kick on your butts that you will remember for a long time to come.’

I waited impatiently but there was no sign of the girls. I was wondering if I should go back and look for them or go up further towards home and attend to the waiting chores.  Just then, Hawk-eye eagle soared past overhead and on spotting me, turned back and descended to a level where a conversation was possible. He had seen Tolly and Bolly engaged in a fierce wrestling cum kickboxing match near the dry pond, which is on a trail that branches off from the main path.

With various emotions raging through my mind, I sprinted back along the path with unimaginable speed and agility. Normally, you can hear them from a mile off but I could hear no sound today, which heightened my anxiety. As I neared the pond, I could hear the sounds of a struggle and muffled moans. My heartbeat stopped for a second at the sight of my precious girls.

Their necks were intertwined, the two faces looking in opposite directions. The rear legs of Bolly were in the air and Tolly was struggling to remain upright. I circled them in agitation and was at my wit’s end. The two could not move their faces and only their eyes followed my agitated movements. 

Oh! They looked guilty and shame-faced alright, but what am I to do now to release their necks from this horrendous twisting? And I hoped that there would be no permanent damage to their smooth and slender necks.

Tolly was trying to say something but all that came out of her mouth was a garbled and choking sound. Perhaps she was trying to advise me about the course of action. Sheer impudence!  Bolly seemed to have understood what Tolly was trying to say (they have matching minds, you see) and expanded on it with further non-giraffe sounds, adding to the cacophony. I shut them up with a blood-curdling yell and a forceful stomp of my right foot. The whack behind the ears and a kick on their butts will have to wait for a more favorable time.

‘I cannot possibly take them to the forest healing center,’ I thought. ‘We would be a spectacle and would be giving fodder to all those wagging tongues and shaking heads for years to come.’  After dithering for a while, I made up my mind to go to Madcap Bear, who lived in a cave outside the forest.

Madcap lived alone, shunned by all because of the lunatic streak in him.  But he couldn’t care less as he was happy, laughing and muttering to himself all the time. If you were to go to the adjacent forest and were to take a short detour from the main path, you will come across Madcap frolicking in the meadows around his cave on a knoll.  

He harmed no one but due to his eagerness to befriend, he would accost anyone who strayed near his abode, with a shout of joy and would rear up on his hind legs, all ready to give a bear hug. The vision, coupled with folklore about his deeds, or misdeeds rather. was sufficient to scare even the lion-hearted amongst us. As for the lion, the so-called King of the Forest, faint-hearted that he is, he does not come anywhere near Madcap’s territory after that single encounter a few years back.

All these thoughts were running in my mind as we moved in that direction. I wanted to hurry but the duo rolled along slowly in a zig-zag manner. After the initial hiccups, they somehow managed to coordinate their leg movements and I found, to my irritation, that they were expecting a compliment from me.

I knew that Madcap Bear thinks of unusual remedies for unusual problems.  When I was a kid and was suddenly stricken with a strange problem of my right hindleg kicking involuntarily, my mother had taken me to Madcap. He made me do something quite ludicrous which I do not recall now, but I was cured.

When he saw us, Madcap said “Aha” with a smile, which soon turned into a grin and then into laughter.  Soon, he was rolling on the ground, holding his belly and laughing uncontrollably. These two were also now shamelessly giggling and joining in his mirth. After he had had his fill of fun and caught the look of consternation on my face, Madcap became somewhat serious and started inspecting the duo to ascertain the pattern and extent of twisting of the necks.

Madcap then braced himself against a huge rock and holding the two of them, one on each arm, by the scruff of their necks, he lifted them and swirled them around. There were shrieks of horror from all three of us. I watched the scene, with my heart in my mouth as my kids went flying around in various orbits, from circular to elliptical to hyperbolic.  The shrieks from the two girls continued but now these were sounding like the ones coming from kids having fun on a roller-coaster.

After a few minutes of these acrobatics, Madcap set them down on the ground. It had not worked. To add to the woes, Madcap’s arms were also intertwined now! I was speechless with anger and frustration as he looked at me sheepishly. He twirled himself around till his arms were free. He then sat down in a serious thinker pose, eyes closed, head bent down and his right arm with the elbow resting on the knee holding his head. ‘Oh, the works!’ I was impatient and furious.

He got up again with new vigor and commenced the swirling of my kids in the air. But now he was also on his feet and rotating. Also, the movements were faster and the shifts from one kind of orbit to another were abrupt. He also shook them vigorously as one would shake the water out of wet clothes before drying them. I started thinking that coming to him was perhaps a mistake. He looked like a discus thrower and for all I knew, he might just let go of his hold, which will send Tolly and Bolly flying in the air, in ballistic arcs, to certain death.

Breaking into a cold sweat, I tried to intervene. And then, all of a sudden, the kids were separated, one on each of his arms.  The movements slowed down and Madcap put both of them gently on the ground. He was still holding them by the scruff of their necks. The girls were dazed and unsteady on their feet after that last session.

Madcap barked some instructions to the group of monkeys that lived near his cave and who had gathered there to watch the free show.  With alacrity, they climbed up a specific tree to pluck the leaves and put them in a heap at Madcap’s feet.  Madcap chewed on these leaves thoroughly and then spat the disgusting mass, saliva and all, on the necks of my daughters, patting it in place to form a cast of sorts.

With instructions of do’s and don’ts and asking us to return after a week for the removal of the cast, Madcap dismissed us and my words of gratitude with a wave of his arms, I mean forelegs. I mentally made a note to bring him lots of berries and honey on the next visit.

Well, did Tolly and Bolly become alright again? Yes, they did and their necks show no signs of wear and tear. They have grown up to be young giraffes with graceful, slender necks. Their fights have also reduced over the years and now when they are angry and upset, they do not speak with each other for a few hours or even days, and that suits me. They have joined the new dance classes taught by Vanity Peacock, and I am told that they stand out with their excellent footwork and graceful neck movements.

Madcap is getting older and more forgetful. But his mirth knows no bounds and we all join in whenever we visit him. 

 

Note:

1. This story, in its simplest form, was made up by me for my two-year-old niece, twenty years back. I have modified it into a short story that can be enjoyed by adults too.

2. The short story has been published on the site https://shortstoryavenue.com