“Doddabetta is the highest peak in the Nilgiris” informed the jovial guide, who was sitting in the front seat of the SUV. The SUV curved through the bumpy roads, lined up with huge Eucalyptus trees on the both sides. Although trees blocked the view of the valley but whenever the vehicle approached the curves, on the edges, one could get a glimpse of the distant mountains. A blue mist settled over the thick green cover. True to their name, these are the Blue Mountains of India.
I and my wife took this half-yearly trip to one famous tourist spot in India. It had become a ritual. Both of us were crazy about travelling. Meeting new people had become an obsession. Ooty had been on your radar for quite some time but things never materialized until I got relocated to Bangalore. Within a month of coming down to Bangalore, we planned this trip and went for it. Arriving at the resort on the golf club road, we could not wait to hit the hills. It was already afternoon when we reached the top at Doddabetta. A manicured garden surrounding a tower was situated at the top. The tower housed a telescope which provided a beautiful view of the city. But much to our dismay, it was July and the only things visible with or without the telescope were clouds. Endless, Infinite Ocean of clouds. Most of them were dark which reflected the potential in them to drench any hill, any mountain coming in their way. Some were lighter, humbler siblings of the former. The wind was strong at the top. As we got out of the car and walked towards the tower, we could see groups of tourists clicking pictures. The older ones were shivering due to the damp, cold atmosphere created by the mating of strong winds with wet showers. Few young couples sat over the benches, indulging in the quintessential activities that happen between young couple. And the younger lot ran hither-thither to burn out extra energy that you have at that age.
“There is nothing much to see here” Commented Mithila.
“Right madam, but have you been here on a clear day, the view of Ooty is mesmerizing.” Endorsed the guide. His full name was something which I could hardly gather but it was a relief to know that one could refer to him as ‘Mani’.
It seemed Mani had been in Ooty since eternity. He knew everything and everybody. According to him, we were there in the wrong season, but we were there. He suggested taking the train ride from Ooty to Connor. It was a famous mountain train route; its claim to fame was the famous song ‘Chaiya Chaiya’ which was filmed on the same route. Ooty was sprinkled with various places which featured regularly in movies. But first we were to visit the Rose garden and the Tea museum, on our way back to the Resort. The train ride was due next morning.
The tea museum, named as ‘The Tea Factory’(written in Capital Red letters) was a functional tea factory producing the Nilgiri Tea, grown in the tea estates in and around Ooty. These museum-cum-factory hosts a tour for the visitors to let them explore the process of conversion of the green leaves from the waist high plant to that black powdery thing which each of us had in his kitchen. Visitors can also buy, various flavored teas at the end of the tour. As we completed our tour, the rain started to pour down heavily; still the better half of the day was left.
Mithila and I sat on one of the bench, which was comfortably placed behind the glass panels which sheltered us from the downpour. The view was breathtaking. The Tea Factory was situated on an elevated platform on the lower edge of a mountain. It overlooked the town of Ooty and unlike Doddabetta, it was at a lower elevation which spared us from the cover of clouds we encountered there. The droplets of water dripped down the glass, and the winds blew them in various directions. Some drops flowed straight down the glass; others bent their course due to powerful wind to reach the ground through a different route.
The town of Ooty appeared to be frozen in time from that distance. Like a masterpiece from a great painter, curtained from us by the rain-drop-tainted glass. We sat there savoring the view and absorbing the spirit. We liked our individual privacy and had a respect for that. There had been moments in relationships when we had just sat for hours without saying anything, and letting each other do his/her bit of introspection. Often those moments happened to be on a holiday, at places like these.
I cannot recall where the train of my thoughts was headed when I heard a voice familiar enough to attract my attention instinctively towards it. It was not Mithila who was speaking. Kalpana, I couldn’t have guessed to find her here.
It had been 7 year since I last met her. The last thing I remember about her was from the day our results were out and we exchanged the usual lines on each other’s result. What remained lingering from that day was the feeling in my heart which comes when you have known someone so well that you do not need to talk to understand the other’s mind, but you act like you are just acquaintances, and indulge in foolish conversation. Every time I looked back on that day I found myself more and more stupid in doing so. But we had decided to part our ways, and that too consciously. Having been in relationship for a good length of time, there was hardly anyone in the college who did not think that the two of us are going to marry. But we knew each other way too well, to go into the bond of marriage. We were awesome together but could not have settled for a marriage with each other. Hence, towards the end of the college we decided to end it, formally. And end we did, on the night of the Farewell bash. The metallic taste of our last kiss still thrills me, as we hadn’t slept the whole night, roaming around the city on our bikes. She was a live wire then. I enjoyed every bit of time spent with her.
Her face still bore the same radiance, which I think was due to the overwhelming enthusiasm she had inside her. I could see a man following her, they were walking towards us. Mithila was still looking into the vast enormity of the Nilgiris. Before I could utter a word, Kalpana’s eyes met mine and I read the same astonishment in her eyes which I felt in my heart. I rose from the bench and my name came out of her mouth in the same way I recognized her voice.
“How are you?” was the first question she asked, it almost is every time you meet someone. But this was with a different meaning. I just nodded and smiled, with restraint. Mithila had caught the notice of our small conversation; I felt the obligation of introducing my wife to her.
“Kalpana, she is Mithila, my wife. And she is Kalpana, my friend from college.” I did the formality.
“I think I have seen you in his college pictures” chirped Mithila. She probably had an idea of our relationship but never really enquired about it. The pictures she was referring to were quite explanatory about what existed between me and Kalpana.
“Oh really, I look so bad in those pictures. I am sure he wouldn’t have told you anything about me.” Kalpana half blushed and half smiled as she said that.
Meanwhile the other guy who followed her was standing patiently, waiting for someone to notice him. I looked in Kalpana’s eyes and then towards him. She knew what I was telling her.
“Oh I forgot, he is Omang. We got married last month.” She said flaunting the Heena patterns on her hand. We exchanged pleasantries and discovered that they were staying at the same place as we did. They had arrived two days ago but didn’t go out before today. It was their honeymoon. Eventually it was finalized that we will be sticking together for rest of the day, as tomorrow they will be leaving for Chennai. A lunch was quickly planned.
Lunch was marked with several discussions about our college days and surprisingly Mithila was more interested and active in that. Both Kalpana and Mithila shared this common attribute of getting comfortable with anybody very easily, I liked that. Maybe that was one of the reasons for me to choose Mithila as my life partner. But the similarity ends there; Mithila had this quality of giving ample space to you which Kalpana couldn’t. She had to know everything about you and everything you did. Perhaps that was the reason why I thought I decided not to go ahead with my relationship with her.
“You know Mithila, once Rupak and I planned these serial blasts in the college…” Kalpana was boasting about our not so praise worthy achievements. The blasts mentioned were not actually bomb blasts but fire crackers planted in college toilets. We had planned that along with few of the friends, it was figment of Kalpana’s wicked imagination.
“… And the catch was that boys had to plant the bomb in girl’s toilet and girls had to plant it in boy’s toilet.” Continued Kalpana with naughty giggles. Mithila was enjoying every bit of it, as her arsenal was getting strengthened with information that she could use to embarrass me. It was her special weapon. Omang was just a silent listener and came across as a shy person. I wondered how the two would have got to this point.
“Oh, and why don’t you tell us your misadventures with Ms. Thakur?” I said, teasing Kalpana. We exchanged glares and she still had the naughtiness alive in her eyes. I grinned and chewed on my lunch. Ms. Thakur was fresh faculty who taught us Microwave engineering. She was single and Kalpana fooled her by sending SMSs in name of a boy from our class, for a whole semester. Later when the truth was discovered consequences were not worth mentioning.
Kalpana moved her lips to say something, without a sound. I knew what she said. ‘Jerk’ was her favorite swear word and when you really irritated her, she would turn to you mumble it. I couldn’t help but smile in wonder. As I turned I found Mithila looking at us in amazement, while Omang just smiled.
We then moved to Rose garden, which was not much exciting, at least for me. It was not something which I looked forward to; the only consolation was the scenery around that place. Omang did not enjoy it either.
“I think I will smoke a joint and come back” He said and left. Kalpana looked at me with a question in her eyes. I knew what her question was. I nodded in disagreement, with a faint smile. She smiled back. We strolled through the garden with a lazy ease as the two ladies admired beauty of the flowers.
After being done with the garden we came out to the parking where Omang stood smoking probably third or fourth cigarette.
“How many?” Asked Kalpana, with a hint of anger in her voice.
“Only second, darling.” Replied Omang with a cajoling tone to pacify Kalpana.
I used to smoke during my college days, and Kalpana didn’t like it at all. Every time she saw me smoking she would snatch the cigarette from my lips and throw it away, and would mumble ‘Jerk’ in her trademark style. I just loved that.
It was already afternoon and we went back to the cottage resort. The cloud cover was still very thick over the sky. And the winds started getting colder. After a cup of tea(Nilgiri tea, obviously!) and snacks we retired to our rooms. Although Mithila usually did not ask too many questions, I expected a few about Kalpana.
“It seems you had too much fun together in your college days?” Asked Mithila as she did her thing infront of the large mirror. I agreed with a ‘Hmm’. She didn’t ask a question more. And soon it was dinner time. The resort was an old English villa turned into a resort. The majestic dining room was place for dinner and all the guests gathered there. We were to meet Kalpana and Omang there.
I tried not to dress too formally, and stuck to the usual cargo and T-shirt. Mithila considered Salwar kameez to be apt. When we reached the dining hall, Omang and Kalpana were already there. Kalpana wore a pair of jeans and a T-shirt. Omang was in similar casuals. We chatted over the dinner, much to irritation of other guests, most of whom were Europeans. But nobody from us cared about it. After finishing the dinner we decided to take a walk in the lawn outside the villa.
Omang went away for smoking yet again. I was left to accompany the two ladies who were busy talking about thing varying from Movies to religious practices and what not. This conversation was broken by the ringing of Mithila’s phone. She excused herself to a more private area of the lawn. I found myself in the position that I wanted to avoid since morning, because when Kalpana is around with other people it is easy to act the way we were acting. But with just me and her, I just couldn’t be what I was supposed to be and at the same time I couldn’t act the way I would’ve. It was so awkward that I kept looking at the night sky, which was full of dark clouds. The moon registered its presence as a circle of white light behind the clouds.
“So, when did you quit smoking?” Kalpana asked breaking the silence. I knew that was the question she wanted to ask in the Rose garden but did not ask. The answer to that question was something which I wanted to avoid, as it would call for more questions.
“After college.” I did answer her. She turned her head towards me in a sudden jolt as if surprised by my response.
“I almost died asking you to quit, but you never did. And after college you quit. Why?” She was angry in asking for the explanation.
I wanted to tell her why I quit. I quit because, there was no one who would pull out the joint from my mouth and mumble ‘Jerk’. I quit because she was not there. The very reason I used to light a cigarette was not there. The day when we last met, someone lit up a cigarette and passed it. She was standing there watching me, but just overlooked it. We had promised to move out of each other’s life, she was keeping the promise. That was the last one, which I ever smoked.
I looked back at her, into her eyes. I didn’t know what was going through her mind. But I felt like she got the answer. She withdrew the eye contact, blinked her eyes in quick succession as if she was avoiding something from entering into her eyes. Mithila walked back smiling; it was her mother’s call. Soon Omang came back and we were back to our rooms.
The next morning Kalpana and Omang were to leave. Mithila decided to wake up early in order to see them off. We went down where Kalpana and Omang stood with their bags packed and loaded. After numerous good-byes and promises to catch up in either Chennai or Bangalore, they boarded the SUV. We waved as the vehicles started to move, Kalpana turned towards me and mumbled. ‘Jerk’
I could do nothing but smile.