Friday, Sep 29, 2023

A Short-Story On A Teacher

A Short-Story On A Teacher

Gunjan Joshi writes a short story on a widow teacher that changed lives of children around her.

Long suspension foot bridge with silhouette of walking woman, bridge over deep valley in mountains
Long suspension foot bridge with silhouette of walking woman, bridge over deep valley in mountains Getty Images

The flames of fire in the cottage of a hill made crackling sounds frequently. An old woman sat by it and placed small sticks of pine above the larger and somewhat damp branches of oaks. As the flames roared, she brought her palms near the flame warming them revelling in the comfort of fire. She had nearly slept when a sudden thud on her sloping roof wake her up. Thud! Another heavy sound resembling shifting of a body weight rung in her ear. Thud! Thud! Thud! She was now assured that those were the sounds of silver langurs or jackal pups which must have congregated on the terrace field near the slope of her roof. She stood up, checked the latch of the door, and in an indolent gait headed towards the small bedroom of her wooden cottage. Removing her thick quilt, she quickly immersed herself in it and got lost in the world of sleep.  

Constance was 68 years old and was living in a village of Dhanachauli since decades now. The only fact known about her family was that she had an estranged husband. He was a German national and was living in Scotland when he died. He was an influential bureaucrat back then and therefore had taken their son away from her. In the morning, the call of warbler singing in distant disrupted her sleep. The cold sunrays coming from her windowpane melted the haze of mist. Outside the window, the jagged edges of mountain peaks stood dauntingly. Numerous green fields stretched out in the courtyard of mountain-peaks lined by deodar and pine trees in their periphery. She was able to view this sublime spectacle from her unkempt garden located on one of those mountains slopes. A porter with a heavy load on his head passed through her courtyard and gradually climbed to terrace field above her house. ‘Namaste Memshaib,’ he waved from distant and she answered with a nod. She was expecting her supplies too from her neighbour Daya toady.

Outside her cottage, there were two or three stone houses of villagers after a series of erratic fields with blurred boundaries. The families living in those houses loved her for her amiable behaviour and for cakes she occasionally made for their children. Daya Ram lived there too. He was a lean farmer who could scuttle from one hill to another to fetch grocery or other sundry articles for all affluent people living in adjacent hills. His other miscellaneous duties comprised of helping people in small-scale renovation of their houses, bringing medicines for ailing people in the village, and assisting people in the harvest of local produce with the help of young boys. Despite such abundance of responsibilities, he ensured to take out time for gossiping old women of village sitting on stone boundaries. This was one of his ways to entertain him in that unusually quiet village.

Daya’s ten-year old daughter named Kaya worked at Constance’s cottage. She did sweeping, swabbing, dusting her books, and washing her clothes. She was a red-cheeked frail girl who stepped up on her stone stairs enthusiastically while coming to her home. Her duppata was tied at edges and contained raw plums and apricots as her Connie auntie loved the chutney of these locally available ingredients. Kaya would quickly dust the house whenever she entered even while her mistress was asleep. Whenever she observed the house, it reminded her of comfortable living in the bygone era. The tomes on shelves had hard binding and yellow pages. Most of the books were related to Indian policies, classic of British and German literature, world philosophy, botanical and zoological glossaries along with Himalayan travelogues by famous mountaineers. A dust-laden piano stood in a corner of the room adjacent to bed-room. Some rusty trophies and books containing unorganised paper sheets with notes scribbled on them were lying on her study. On the clip-board above, few sepia-shade photographs were pinned. One of them was a wedding picture containing a beautiful young woman and an elegant man while others were casual pictures of a child trying to stand or walk. The bride in the wedding picture had a delicate chiselled face and was dressed in milky white silk gown. There was a flower wreath on her head and magic twinkle in her eyes. ‘Was it her Connie auntie?’ she wondered as it was hard to imagine her that beautiful. Her father had told her that she was a teacher of Biology in an Anglo-Indian school in Ranikhet. On sunny days, the house smelled of pine wood and old books.

Today when Constance came inside the kitchen, Kaya was stir-frying capsicums, tomatoes, and onions on a high-flame in a wok. She sprinkled a small amount of salt and pepper and poured two to three teaspoons of lemon juice over the simmering vegetables as Connie had instructed her. She had also boiled two eggs for her of which she would either prepare an omelette or would eat those with toasted bread. ‘Would your Baba come today?’ Constance asked concerned about her supplies. ‘Yes! He has gone to town to fetch the supplies and would arrive in the late afternoon,’ replied Kaya immersed in her chores. Unlike Daya, she was always succinct in her conversations. Neither rude nor upfront but her statements were just plain sentences without any paraphernalia. She was pleasantly quiet too, never interrogating about Connie’s family or surroundings. It was the primary reason why she had employed her and she liked her so far.

Often Constance wondered about Kaya’s future and discussed it with Daya sometimes. But whenever she brought this up, he gave a desultory nod of his sleepy head and concocted stories of meagre money he had and how he has to take care of both his parents and three children in it. When she argued with him that good government schools provided free education for bright students like her, he said mockingly that if she studied well how his family will earn money. Seeing the futility of her endeavours, she gave up eventually. She then tried teaching Kaya some concepts of English, Science, and History. Through her consistent efforts, she was able to make her read text of her English reader which she was unable to do despite being in ninth grade. ‘You have to understand reasons behind a historical happening to understand its consequences,’ she had told her while teaching her a series of events in history that led to rebellion of 1857 in India. ‘Auntie! I have soaked Rajma for afternoon and everything else is done,’ Kaya’s soft monotone broke her reverie. The thought of mouth-watering Rajma brought a smile on her face as she allowed Kaya to leave.

The whole village was quite during the period between afternoon and evening. The only sounds that echoed in the entire valley were of apricots falling on sloping roof of Connie and whistling sound of wind trapped in pine needles. With the passage of time, she had learned to amalgamate in the serenity of this milieu often becoming inanimate, without soul, and invisible to other human body. She liked to be detached while being among people. Therefore, she had chosen Biology as her specialisation during college years since the discipline allowed her to think beyond the intellectual content it offered. She loved to live away from the familiar, between unknown species existing independently yet loyal for each other, living together in a loosely-knit yarn of ecosystem. 

Near Daya’s old stone-house, a small family of three people lived in a fairly well-built house with a neat garden. Dinesh Rawat was peeling vegetables in it sitting on a bamboo arm-chair to help his wife in preparing dinner. His wife was a short-woman with a fair-round face and small hands and feet that appeared manicured recently. She was wearing a carelessly draped saree and a scarf over her head wound at the back on her neck. ‘Give this to me. You will take another hour to peel these five or six potatoes,’ she shouted in annoyance. She then walked around the house hurriedly lifting her saree from one hand above her feet to check the progress of other chores in her home. Her son Ashok was calculating volume of a cone carefully looking at the diagram he had made. He had secured very good marks in Mathematics and Science in eleventh grade last year. She peered in his room to check on him and he was immersed in the diagram of the cone in which he had made radius and height with pencil.

Once she left, he jumped from his bed and landed in kitchen. He opened a glass jar containing plum jam, immersed his index finger in it, and licked it. Hearing the ruckus in the kitchen, his mother came hurriedly in a flapping walk. ‘You people cannot even wait till this is fully ready,’ she shouted angrily snatching the jar. ‘Maa! Whom will you feed when I will go to college in another city,’ he answered his mother affectionately who could no longer feign her anger.  

Ashok’s mother made kitchen ready for fritters of spinach growing in terrace fields below their house. ‘What are you making Maa?’ said Ashok anxiously reaching out to one of the ingredients. ‘Nothing! Now would you get out of the kitchen and let me do my chores,’ said the agitated mother. After half an hour, she emerged out of the kitchen carrying a plateful of fritters with mint and curd chutney in small bowl. She entered the room in which his father was sitting and Ashok followed her. He ate the fritters to his fill and appeared satiated. ‘Do not forget to visit Connie Auntie after this, she must having her tea right now,’ shouted his mother from the kitchen while preparing some more fritters for his father. He stood up at this instruction gorging one more in his mouth and tumbled down on a narrow pathway along the corner of their field heading towards Auntie’s house.

Walking on the narrow serpentine pathway, Ashok’s feet fell rhythmically on the brown pine needles. Emerald green jungles stretched below the terrace fields along with herds of deodar trees. The silver sunlight shined on the tips of pine needles and illuminated the entire valley. Suddenly, a whiff of fresh air came from the valley spreading the scent of turpentine on that path. He generally visited Constance in the evening to check on her health and to ask if she required any help from Kaya in the evening. Her cottage was five to six fields above their house. He just took twenty minutes to reach to her house. ‘Auntie!’ he shouted from outside the wooden gate of her cottage which she had inherited from her grandfather. She came with a coffee mug shivering in the coolness of approaching dawn. ‘Why can’t you just hop from the gate, you have become so tall now?’ She said. She opened the gate and he entered her dishevelled garden. He bowed down and touched her feet. She didn’t know the significance of this gesture but she had seen him doing this to other elderly women in the village. Like them, she blessed him placing one hand on head.

Constance’s garden contained half-flowered cape jasmine, wilting English roses, and shrivelling geraniums. Wild coffee plants grew raucously in the absence of any kind of upkeep. The stinging nettle plants also grew in abundance on slopes and hampered the growth of bicoloured marigold. Only plum trees in her side of fields grew in order spreading their bare arms and lichen infested stems. There were two lemon trees and chestnut trees in her garden too. Being an enthusiastic gardener in her youth, she had prepared the grafts of those lemon trees herself from two different varieties. The resulting seedless fruit was very juicy and had a thin rind. She had boasted about this among all of her British acquaintances. According to the villagers, the chestnut trees were perhaps planted by her great-grandfather.

‘Your garden is in very bad shape Auntie,’ said Ashok in a faltering English. ‘You don’t worry about it,’ said Constance seriously. ‘You tell me, what is going on with your studies? I hope you are focussing on chapters of Science and History that I told you to pay attention on!’ She added emphasising the significance of the matter. ‘Auntie! I got enormous homework from school and besides I have to help Baba too in his gardening chores. I will make sure to study whatever you have suggested next time,’ Ashok said averting his gaze. ‘Let your Baba do those trivial gardening chores. That silly little girl also doesn’t wish to study and now you too. Go and pick up apricots and walnuts every evening then! Why do you come here?’ snapped Connie. He hung his head in dismay quietly admitting his folly while listening sincerely to her. He stood after an abrupt silence and looked at her shelf. Her home was full of books from floor to ceiling and it appeared that she had read it all. His father had told him that she was a great scholar at University of Cambridge. ‘Now, don’t be angry and please help me understand this play Auntie. I promise to do whatever you will tell me,’ he said picking a classic while embracing her with his right arm. She was always disarmed by his tender warmth.

‘Maa has sent you some chicken curry. I told her that it will cause you indigestion with this much heavy spices,’ Ashok said laughing heartily. ‘Put it in the kitchen!’ Connie replied with warmth. The grey clouds of dusk had stealthily arrived on the sky making silhouettes of snow-clad peaks blurry. She stood up holding the hymn book in her right hand and clasping her shawl with her other hand. Ashok came out from her wooden door after reading Act:1(Scene 1) of The Tempest. He then ran hurriedly from her garden and jumped up from the fence. She had become an indispensable part of Rawat family unknowingly. She ate spicy curries like them and dressed like them. During extreme winters, she wore thick Kurta made of warm fleece and wrapped a scarf around her head tying it back at the nape of her neck. Ashok’s father, Dinesh came to visit her once in every week to check her supplies and discussed his concerns for his son’s future. He was non-intrusive and spoke softly with long pauses. Often he recalled his grandfather’s years when her ancestors ruled the land and narrated the stories of game hunting or mountaineering expeditions conducted during that time. Dinesh’s wife Lila came to check her health while coming up to work on her fields and massaged her stiff legs occasionally. When she protested, she would make her lie down forcibly. Dinesh, Lila, and Ashok were her only family now.    

It was November and autumn had arrived. Dinesh and Ashok had started chopping firewood from thick logs of oak for the bitter winter. They also chopped wood of pine into small pieces which helped them in lighting the fire easily as it was a highly inflammable wood. The plants surrounding the hill changed their outfits along with the weather. The leaves of oak and pine needles had become coffee brown. The trees of birch, spruce, and deodar had also shed their traditional moss-coloured robes and had worn light-golden festive vestures. Ashok was on his way to Constance’s home one evening and he heard a luminous sound of piano coming from Connie’s house. The enchanting notes of Spring Waltz by Chopin coming from her fingers were rippling in the entire valley and even stinging nettles swayed under its spell. She always played this song. Perhaps, she was trying to master the notes of it.

‘Auntie!’ Ashok shouted from outside the wooden gate like always and Connie came out from her heavy wooden door unhurriedly. He put the bundle of oak wood near her fireplace and lighted the fire with the help of small chunks of pine wood. As he added oak wood in it gradually, the fire turned into large flames and dispelled gloom of the entire room. The relaxation and silence of cold night and luxury of a good fire formed a perfect ambience for Ashok’s study. He sat on the armchair lying at the opposite side of her recliner and opened The Tempest. He started reading aloud Act 1: Scene II.

‘Most sure, the goddess!
On whom these airs attend! Vouchsafe my prayer
May know if you remain upon this island!’

Ashok began reading the text in the plain boyish baritone. Connie stopped him and recited the text in grand and eloquent way. He stared her for a moment and she seemed like a different person while reading. Perhaps those were her Cambridge moods. After reading the part of Ferdinand, she explained the meaning of that text. He began wondering about the reasons behind the eloquence of text. It appeared to him that sentences were both a revelation and concealment. Gradually, she finished teaching him Act 1. ‘You must read the next act at home and let me know its synopsis,’ she said. She also taught him fundamentals of science such as various kingdoms of life; organs and organ systems; atoms and nuclei; evolution of species etc along with significant concepts of geography, history, and literature. His mind was soon saturated with the images of unicellular and multi-cellular organisms, world-wars, movement of Indian independence, atoms with electrons revolving around it, and sly characters of plays that she had taught her. Through these kaleidoscopic images, he began imagining the world beyond those daunting mountains and started seeing the world from that strange white’s woman’s eyes.          

Two months passed and winters arrived in the small village. During early days of winters in December, the air was arid but patches of sunlight could be seen resting on isolated two or three pine trees on hills like small islands on sea. The mornings were cold and smell of damp turpentine hung in the air. A chilly wave of air came and small leaves of geraniums shivered from its effect. It then rained incessantly for two or three days and cold became spiteful. It appeared that the fury of weather was not over yet as it snowed during early hours of morning after the spell of rain. The entire village was now covered in a thick blanket of snow. Everything including Dinesh’s house, Connie’s wooden gate, and the fields below her house were covered by a thick white sheet and became one. Ashok now came two times to light fire in her house to make rooms warm.

It was 6:30 pm and Dinesh entered from the wooden gate opening the latch from inside. He was carrying a bundle of oak wood in one hand and sundry household things in the other. ‘Where is Ashok?’ Connie asked him puzzled. ‘He is not well,’ said Dinesh keeping the bundle of wood down. ‘His one arm is broken,’ he said adjusting the wood in the fireplace to set fire. ‘How? What happened?’ She asked sounding surprised. ‘Nothing! He just slipped from a rock. He would come back in two days though,’ answered Dinesh. He then sat on a couch and asked about her health. He also talked about heavy snowfall that had halted the small-scale commercial construction projects going on in nearby hills. His employment for those builders was contractual. ‘Who can work in such a grim weather? The labourers from eastern UP go to their hometown during these months,’ he said with consternation. ‘Oh yes! I came to tell you that your brother-in-law called at the post-office. His voice was feeble but I think he meant that he would come here in these summers with his wife to see his part of the land,’ he said. ‘Fools they are! They do not know where they belong to. They come here in summers to stay at a luxury hotel and then leave,’ she answered at this. It was getting dark and gloomy stillness surrounded the hills. The sombre silence of the village reminded her that it was only constant thing in her life but she liked it since everything else around her had changed in last three decades.

Four days passed and Dinesh kept coming to make fire at Connie’s cottage. On the fourth day, she looked at him with perspicacious scrutiny as he entered her living room. ‘Where is he? Did you lie to me?’ She asked. ‘He fought with some his friends in the village and was injured badly,’ he answered in low voice hiding his face. ‘Why did you let him go with those godforsaken village boys? I thought you were worried about his future!’ she retorted angrily in a raised voice. ‘Everyone wants to go on his or her way even if it is wrong,’ she mumbled further in a voice mixed with immense worry and helplessness. Dinesh listened to all this quietly like a son who had done a big mistake. After all, she had been like a mother to him always by guiding his only child like a beacon of light. That whole evening an abominable quiet lingered in the air of Connie’s house.

The next morning Kaya arrived at 7 am and found Connie still asleep in her bed. On the other days, she got up early but today she looked ill and half-sleepy. Her eyes were swollen. After dusting, Kaya shook her gently. ‘Auntie! Do you want me to make ginger tea for you? You look ill!’ She asked. ‘I have to get up. It must be very late!’ Constance answered groggily. ‘No, No! What should I cook for you?’ She asked again. ‘Nothing! Just boil one glass of milk and two eggs for me,’ replied Connie in a dismal voice. ‘And prepare whatever you want for yourself.’ She told getting up unwillingly. Gauging her frame of mind, Kaya completed all her chores quietly and left after making preparations for her lunch.  

Days of grim winters passed in the village and spring was slowly stepping in. The silvery sunlight nourished stems of plum and apricot trees and tender branches arose from the nodes of stem and internodes of branches. The pink buds of plum and apricots on each tip of branches promised a profusely flowering spring. Dinesh and Constance did not speak about Ashok again. It appeared that she was very disheartened with his antic and he did not wish to make her angry again. On evening, Constance heard a familiar voice while she was sitting in on her armchair basking in the light of setting sun. ‘Auntie!’ Ashok called from the wooden gate. She stood up angrily at this and confronted him. ‘Stop! What in the heaven’s name you are doing here?’ She asked shouting at him. ‘I am very sorry Auntie! I have read all books you gave me while I was getting well,’ he answered in a pleading tone. He came inside the wooden gate while saying this. ‘I told you not to come inside. Go and play with those animals and learn some fighting. After all, you have to become one of them. Picking walnuts and setting fire to someone’s part of the jungle!’ She shouted curtly nearly crying. ‘I would never do that again Auntie!’ He said with tears shining in his eyes. ‘Do whatever you want but do not come here ever again,’ she said sobbing. Tears trickled from his cheeks too as everyone has been very affectionate to him so far. He left angrily and she sunk on her armchair sobbing bitterly.

Constance woke up very late next morning and did not eat the breakfast prepared by Kaya. At noon, she woke up and walked drudgingly towards the kitchen. When she saw the thick volume of ‘The Tempest’ lying on the table near the fireplace, she started sobbing bitterly again. After a while, she wiped her tears and drank the glass of milk which Kaya had kept for her in morning. She looked around blankly in at kitchen and the acrid odour of burnt chilles assailed her nostrils and soft quarrel of birds attacked her forehead as if they were intruders in her territory. On other days, she loved the smells of her house and birds would enter from her window uninvitingly and sat on her books. Ashok was the centre of the universe for Dinesh, Lila, and her around which their life revolved. She then retreated back to her bed clutching the soft towel in her hand and drifted to sleep while weeping inconsolably. She heard Kaya coming in the afternoon, preparing her lunch, and leaving faintly but she did not get up. The sunlight has weakened in the evening and she was still lying on her bed. She had no desire to get up and felt that just one day had emptied the entrails of her body making a deep hollow hole inside her soul.  

Constance then accepted her soul’s refusal for the present and gathered the courage to listen to its protests and to witness its show of being hurt while trying to get back to her routine life. She got up, made her bed, and entered her bathroom to take the bath dismally. It was another evening and anyone could arrive again. Shortly after, she dressed herself and heard a sound from outside. Her heart leapt with joy. ‘Memshaib!’ The voice was Dinesh’s asking to come inside from the wooden gate and she started sobbing again. He came inside and she quickly wiped her tears. Gauging her condition, he did not enquire about yesterday’s fiasco and she didn’t ask about Ashok in her pride. He made fire for her and looked at the condition of kitchen. He quietly emptied all the leftover food in separate bowls and cleaned the kitchen. ‘Do not throw the food! You can take it with you as I am not hungry,’ she said. ‘But memsahib! You should eat something. It is really cold and being hungry is not good for your joint-pain,’ said Dinesh in a concerned voice. ‘Boil some eggs then!’ She replied just to appease him. He wanted to insist but stayed quiet seeing her condition. There was a silent and polite pact between them like that of a family member living with each other for too long now. He then boiled the eggs and cleaned the kitchen. ‘Please do not forget to eat those and let me know if you want Kaya to come and take care of you at night,’ he said while leaving.  

Winters passed and the days of spring came. Asters and golden rods bloomed in iridescent spring sunlight and the crisp balmy air brought with it forgotten yet familiar memories of spring from the past. The tender branches of weeping willow swayed and dried oak leaves rustled when the arid mountain air brushed through them. The pink flowers of cherry and apricots transformed the entire village into a landscape of a famous artwork but nothing could fill the void inside the Constance’s souls. One week has passed since Ashok’s last visit and she felt that a deep abyss had been dug inside her soul and nothing could fill it. She would often break into inconsolable tears that would last till evening when she saw any book that Dinesh wanted to read or keep. Kaya would come and cooked whatever she wanted with minimal or no instructions. Lila also came to check on Connie’s health in evening as she was often found lying on her bed with no will to eat anything. Her health deteriorated and her weight dropped drastically and everyone in the village became concerned about her health. One evening when Dinesh came to light fire for her, she began sobbing inconsolably. ‘Would he never come back again? I was just concerned about his future and didn’t mean anything,’ she said crying helplessly. ‘Do not worry Memsahib! He would come back. You know how kids are these days,’ he said consoling her sitting near her knees. He then got a bowl full of sweet porridge and insisted her to eat as she didn’t eat anything spicy these days. She finished the bowl slowly gulping the porridge unwillingly and then slipped back in her bed. Dinesh picked the bowl and left after cleaning the kitchen.

In few months, winters were followed by summers. All the slopes of the nearby hills were agog with wildflowers such as gentians, geraniums, primulas, and delphiniums. The afternoon wind brought with it a faint smell of geraniums and butterflies hopped from one inflorescence of buddleia to another. The tranquillity of the afternoon was interrupted by the buzz of bumble bees foraging for pollens. Constance didn’t relish any of these nature’s splendours now and just waited for the day to end when Dinesh would leave. Her grief slowly seeped into all her household. Her books were full of mould, her piano had a thick layer of dust, and her kitchen smelled of various uncooked ingredients and leftover food. Her health deteriorated and she became frail. She no more liked to be in her cottage during evenings. Hence, one evening she decided to go for a walk. The only activity that filled that void of her heart these days was walking in the woods. She came out from the wooden gate and stepped on the narrow path lined with pale honey-green pine trees. They were gentler now gilded by fading evening sunlight.

Dinesh and his family had not let her walk on this path since many years even in their worst times. She had never asked Dinesh if he faced any financial constraints while doing this and never even thanked him enough for it. Thinking about all this, her eyes welled again. While walking she passed through one or two stone houses and she continued walking past the narrow path along them. Few bickering idle women sat on stone walls of their houses a little far away from her path. ‘She had become like a wraith now’, one of the bickered. ‘As you sow, so shall you reap!’ retorted another idle woman. ‘She only cares about Dinesh and Lila. I wonder where they are now?’ Connie walked past that way hurriedly. Once she was the path of the forest before her cottage, she bit her lips fiercely and tears poured out of her brimming eyes.

Summers passed and autumn arrived again and trees wore their golden robes again. She had become thin in fact cadaverous and her contemplating eyes were set deep in the hollows of her elongated face. They were perhaps longing to see Ashok but her longing for him never ended. One more year passed and then another came. During the spring of next year, Dinesh came with a box of sweets and informed her enthusiastically that Ashok has passed his senior secondary with flying colours. She stood there dumbstruck for a while and then took the small piece of ladoo in an unanticipated joy hoping that he would now come at least to thank his Auntie. Dinesh had no answers for her persistent disappointment which was evident in the way his fingers dug into her shoulders in consolation. She passed five more years in that longing but it never ended and she fell into a resentful silence.

Five years passed and Kaya was nearly twelve years old now. Her cheeks had become fuller now and resembled apples when she laughed. Everyone in the village spoke about her beauty. She was loved by everyone and took care of Constance more now because of her deteriorating health. In evenings, she would ascend swiftly along a mountain rivulet lining the terrace fields towards Connie’s house. One evening when she reached Connie’s cottage, she was sitting in her armchair dismally. The gloom of twilight and darkness of the room made the atmosphere inside drearier. She was found on her arm-chair in half-sleepy state during evenings since the day Ashok went. ‘Auntie! Did you eat daal and rice I prepared?’ Kaya asked turning on the lights of room. ‘I ate a little bit but didn’t feel like eating the entire meal,’ Connie replied. ‘You cannot do this to your health Auntie. Now come! I am preparing toasts for you and you will have to drink a glass of milk with it,’ Kaya said in soft coercion. She adjusted her shawl and took her out supporting her with her right shoulders and Connie surrendered obediently. She was surprised by how Kaya could regulate her with the soft power of compassion. Perhaps she was alive till now because of her.

Not having slept the night before, Connie went to sleep early. Despite her best efforts, sleep was elusive to her but she fell asleep during early hours of morning. At dawn, her sleep was interrupted by calls of yellow orioles perching on her plum trees. She stepped out of her cottage and saw on a distant mountain dark blur was lit up by tiny luminous points. The luminosity of these points then engulfed the adjacent mountain peaks. She had got accustomed to this morning ritual now and got up early only to see this. Kaya entered the wooden gate at 7 am and was dressed in pink fleece sweater as it was colder during mornings. She began dusting the house immediately after entering the cottage. ‘Did you drink your coffee Auntie? What do you want me to prepare for breakfast? She asked while being involved in her chores. ‘I will make sandwiches for myself today. Just prepare the filling and I will do the rest,’ replied Connie.

Kaya wasn’t surprised at this as she knew that Connie was enthusiastic during morning now. ‘You know Auntie! Ashok bhaiya is coming today after completing his training,’ Kaya said. ‘So what!’ Connie answered inertly. She now had no hopes now that Ashok would come to meet her. She was neither exultant nor sad when Dinesh had told her that he had cleared an entrance test that would allow him to get trained in Indian Administrative Services as an officer. Kaya’s voice blurred while Connie was in her reverie. She was perhaps telling her that she had made preparations for lunch and was leaving.

In the afternoon bumblebees were buzzing around the inflorescence of delphiniums and king-butterflies roamed on the slopes in an inebriated state after drinking the sap of those flowers to their fill. She was lying in a half-sleepy state in her arm-chair the way Kaya had placed her with yesterday’s newspaper over her face. ‘Auntie!’ Her sleep was interrupted by an unfamiliar manly voice. ‘Can I come in Auntie?’ Asked the voice. ‘Who is it?’ Asked Constance adjusting her glasses. As she looked through her glasses, a tall unknown young man with broad shoulders stood outside the wooden gate. ‘Please come in,’ said Connie formally thinking that he must be someone from her long-dead husband’s side. ‘How are you Auntie?’ The strange young man asked. He looked like a studious cricketer with a neat haircut and impeccable etiquettes. She was surprised at his warmth and invited him inside her cottage wondering who he was all the while.

As Constance moved in kitchen for making some tea for him, she faltered while walking. Her body was frail and muscles drooped from her thin bones. At one step, she nearly fell and he caught her arm to stabilize her. Ashok’s eyes became moist and he despised himself for his acts but he knew that she hadn’t recognised her. He stood up from his armchair and picked up The Tempest from the pile of books. ‘Me, poor man, my library was dukedom large enough,’ he read from the book in pristine English. Connie stopped preparing tea and looked at him stunned. Some running footsteps approached towards the cottage and Kaya entered in. ‘Bhaiya you are here and your parents are searching you everywhere,’ said Kaya.

Connie’s brimmed eyes welled and she began sobbing inconsolably. She came out of the kitchen and Ashok made her sit on an armchair. She cupped his face in her frail hands as he sat on the floor near her knees. ‘You have grown-up so well. I didn’t mean anything whatever I said to you,’ she said sobbing bitterly. ‘I was a fool Auntie and it is my fault not yours. I can never forgive myself for whatever I have done to you,’ he said wiping her tears. ‘Bhaiya! Uncle and Auntie are waiting for you both,’ Kaya interrupted. ‘Right now you are coming with me to have lunch and we will talk then,’ said Ashok lifting her by supporting her with his right arm. Connie obeyed under the influence of his compassion but her tears didn’t stop. It appeared as if her eyes wanted to drench her soul through a shower of tears.

They both came out of her cottage and talked while walking as Ashok supported her. ‘I am getting posted to Mussoourie Auntie and I am taking Maa and Baba with me. You would have to come with us too,’ he said. ‘How can I come with you?’ She said sceptically. ‘You are like my grandmother Auntie and you have shaped my childhood like an elder of a family. I am not listening anything now!’ He said in same talkative warmth like that of five years ago. Her tears welled in profusion again. ‘You please take care of Kaya first and don’t let her father marry her to a drunkard,’ she said. ‘She will be going to college first,’ he replied. During the early summers of late 80s, they walked slowly towards Ashok’s stone-house where Lila and Dinesh welcomed her. They shared laughter on the lunch table like they did five years ago when Ashok was young and she realised that they were always her only family now.


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