Thursday, February 23, 2017


Imtiaz Khan is a weaver from the holy city of Varanasi. He lives in Lahartara, once a small locality in Varanasi where great saint, Sant Kabir lived in the fifteenth century. Most of the dwellers of Lahartara are Muslim weavers. They can’t be called descendants of Sant Kabir for two reasons. First, Kabir was a celibate and secondly, Kabir was not a Muslim. Kabir was not a Hindu either. He was a humane soul who loved all irrespective of caste, creed or religion.
Imtiaz Khan is a weaver for several generations. When did his forefathers convert to Islam, he is not aware. But the loom in his courtyard is over two hundred years old. He is a devout believer, offers Namaz five times a day. Imtiaz Khan is poor and so are most of his kinsmen and neighbours.
The men weave silk saris and the women do needle work. They work for Hindu merchants who control the entire business. Imtiaz Khan and his people are paid on job rate basis. The former make the kill. During marriage and festive seasons, the profit margin could be three hundred percent or even more.

Sometimes when tired, Imtiaz Khan rests in the sarai – the dingy inn in Lahartara. The sarai is maintained by the Kabirpanthis, the followers of Sant Kabir. He listens to the famous Kabir Dohas- theological couplets. He understands them and their message.

Sant Kabir propagated Vedantic philosophy in layman’s parlance. He brought God nearer to the common man. He was able to establish a rapport between a common man and the Supreme Cosmic Power through the medium of human love.

Imtiaz Khan has been warned several times by the Imam of Lahartara mosque. “You are getting too close to the infidels. Mend your ways lest I ostracize you from the community. Don’t forget, you have six daughters to be married.”
“I will issue a fatwa against you, forbidding Muslim boys to marry your daughters. Remember, the infidels will only use them for pleasure. They will not marry them.”
Imtiaz Khan just smiles. He knows the Imam has an eye on his second daughter.  He has rejected the proposal. His daughter was not even one fourth of Imam’s age.

Besides, how can listening to Kabir Dohas be a sin? Imtiaz Khan is at his wits end, he is not convinced.

On certain days, Imtiaz Khan spends several hours with Hanuman Das, the Hindu merchant for whom he and his family work. He accepts tea, snacks and sweets from him, including the prasad that comes from the Kaal Bhairav temple. Imtiaz Khan accepts the prasad in both his palms like any Hindu believer and eats with reverence.
The Imam never objected to Imtiaz Khan accepting Kaal Bhairav prasad for he knew he survived on donations from people like Imtiaz Khan who in turn had to have cordial business as well as personal relations with Hindu merchants. Still, Imtiaz Khan is worried about his daughters.

“The market is down because the sartorial likes are changing. Hardly any demand for saris. Can’t give you any work.  Moreover, we are pitted against Chinese who have swamped the market. Saris are now coming in fifty metre thaans- rolls. Their designs are more attractive and above all, they are cheaper,” Hanuman Das tells Imtiaz Khan whenever the latter goes for some work or advance.

Imtiaz Khan is familiar with the opening prologue from Hanuman Das. In fact, it is nearly a repeat for years. Imtiaz Khan smiles briefly in response.
Malik, our survival is in your hands. Where else can we go? Unless you give us work, how will our families survive?”

Imtiaz Khan has been working for Hanuman Das since his childhood and his father worked for Hanuman Das’s father.  Unfortunately, Hanuman Das has no children. He has adopted his nephew. There has been mutual understanding between the two families apart from human bonding between them. It’s an unwritten covenant. Religion is no consideration here.

After delivering the homily on the prevailing market conditions, Hanuman Das comes to the substantive part. 
“These saris are urgent, required for a marriage in the coming week.”
And then he suddenly remembers to add, “The needle work in the saris I gave you last week was clumsy. Better get a pair of specs for your begum,” Hanuman Das snaps.
Imtiaz Khan giggles, exposing his stained teeth. He knows it is one of the ways his employer uses to put down wage hike. 
“Slimy old man but considerate nonetheless,” he mumbles within himself.

            Imtiaz Khan always went to Hanuman Das whenever he was in financial trouble, which he often was. There was yet another understanding between the two. Hanuman Das’s acerbic tongue and Imtiaz Khan’s inane giggling were coexistent.

One late evening Hanuman Das’s wife was returning from a religious function from her relative’s place on a rickshaw. The road is narrow and dark. Unfortunately, her rickshaw was hit by a car with such an impact that the rickshaw toppled throwing the old lady on the ground. The rickshaw puller a young man was soon on his feet but the old lady lay flat on the ground howling with pain. The car driver took her to the hospital and rang Hanuman Das urging him to reach the hospital immediately.
The doctors told Hanuman Das that her left femur was broken and she needed to be operated immediately.  Hanuman Das was person of poor nerve. He was extremely upset to know that his wife needed to be operated and that he should find volunteers to get three bottles of blood from the blood bank. He remembered Imtiaz Khan.

He alone can help me at this deathly hour. He thought and rang him narrating the whole scenario. Imtiaz Khan reached the hospital and saw Hanuman Das sitting on a bench, nervous and downcast.
“The doctors want three bottles of blood. Where do I find the volunteers at this hour of the night?”
Imtiaz Khan took the hand of Hanuman Das in his and told him to relax and not to bother.
“I and my two sons will donate the blood and if need be I will call half a dozen boys of Lahartara. Please tell the doctor that the volunteers are ready. He can start with me and in the mean time I will ring my sons to come over and also alert the boys of the locality.”

The operation was successful. Hanuman Das’s wife was discharged from the hospital after a week. A couple of days later, Hanuman Das asked Imtiaz Khan if he could compensate him for the blood donation.
Malik! Please don’t hurt me by offering money for a small act of humanity. What’s the use of our long relationship if we cannot come to each other’s help?” Pausing a little, he added, “Don’t we live in Lahartara, the abode of Kabir?”    

Akhtar, Imtiaz Khan’s son was a very active lad, known for activities outside his madrasa, especially in climbing trees. He was called when jamun or mango trees were fully laden. Akhtar didn’t believe in plucking fruits singularly. He would climb a tree and shake its branches. The ripe fruits would fall on ground in hordes. The Lahartara boys called him a baboon.  Young Akhtar would swing to the farthest branch and shake it. Caution or fear had no place in his psyche.  
In one of such foolhardy adventurous move, Akhtar was on the top branch of a mango tree. It had rained precious evening. The bark was wet and slippery. Before Akhtar could get a firm grip on the branch he wanted to shift to, he lost control and fell to the ground.

The news of Akhtar’s fall upset the entire family He was the youngest child of Imtiaz Khan. In fact, he was born after six sisters before him. Akhtar was thus a pampered child. They all ran out to the place of accident. Akhtar was lying on a cot. He was in severe pain, howling hoarse.   
Imtiaz Khan took him to a nearby clinic.  
“There is a major fracture in his thigh bone, needs immediate surgery.”
 As usual Imtiaz was out of pocket. He had taken a loan from Hanuman Das the previous week for the festival of Eid. The family wanted to have a nice meal after a long time. Imtiaz Khan had spent the money on food and small gifts.

The clinic attendant asked him to deposit thirty thousand rupees. Akhtar was crying in terrible pain piercing Imtiaz Khan’s heart.  
“The child is in severe pain. Please start the treatment. I will deposit the money at the earliest possible,” he begged.
“Please deposit the money first.  Nothing can be done before that. This is the policy. I am a mere employee,” the clerk at the counter told him.

            Imtiaz Khan left Akhtar in the hospital with his family members. His only hope lay in Hanuman Das. He took a rickshaw and asked him to pedal fast to the sari bazaar.

How I am going to plead and be prepared for the tongue lashing from Hanuman Das?  All through he was preparing himself.

            Hanuman Das was sitting with his munshi, taking stock of the day’s sale and cash. Imtiaz Khan’s sight was ominous.
            “What makes you come here at this unearthly hour,” Hanuman Das asked in his normal caustic way.
            “Maliki… Malik… Malik … Imtiaz Khan could not continue. There was lump in his throat.
            “Stop this nautanki. I know you excel in histrionics. Don’t ask for money. That’s the last thing I want to talk about.”

            “Malik, Akhtar is in hospital. He has broken his leg. The doctor wants advance before starting the treatment.”  
Hanuman Das gave a searching look at Imtiaz Khan.
“Bloody dirty trick, once again. I say aren’t you ashamed of yourself. What happened to the advance I gave you last week? You think I have a mint here?  Get lost.”
            Imtiaz Khan was crestfallen to see his only hope crashing. He made another attempt.
            “Malik, please help me. He is my son. Sooner or later he will work for you. My ancestors worked for your ancestors. My father worked for your father and I have been working for you. One day Akhtar will work for your descendants. Please help me… please…,” he couldn’t continue. The helpless father burst in to tears.
            Hanuman Das didn’t react. He was back to his business, counting the day’s collection.

            Heartbroken, Imtiaz Khan turned back empty handed. He didn’t know what he could do to help his son. Suddenly he remembered he had collected five silk saris from Hanuman Das, the previous week. They were all costly ones. Imtiaz Khan decided to do what had never happened in his family.
            He sought the forgiveness of Allah the merciful and decided to pawn the saris to Radha Kishan, another merchant, one of the competitors of Hanuman Das in the sari bazaar. He narrated his woes to him and pleaded to accept the saris as surety for a loan. Radha Kishan saw the saris and told Kabir, “I will give you twenty thousand.”
            “Malik, these saris are worth eighty thousand in the market. Please at least give me thirty thousand. I need that much to give to the clinic.”
            “Imtiaz Khan, make up your mind. I will not give a penny more. Decide.”

Imtiaz Khan had no choice. As he was picking the money, Radha Kishan asked him to sign a paper. “This is the acknowledgement of pawning these saris to me of your own volition.”
Imtiaz Khan looked at the paper. The amount received was mentioned as thirty thousand.
 “Malik, please give me the amount I am signing. I need it badly.”
Radha Kishan snapped at the money. “Get lost. You need money and still dictate terms. Listen, you will get it on my terms. Take it or leave it.”
Imtiaz signed the paper, picked the money and rushed to the clinic. On his way, he was contemplating the plea he would make before the doctor.
 I will mortgage my house in doctor’s favour. He decided.
Imtiaz Khan’s heart sank as he saw none of his family members in the courtyard outside the clinic.
It seems the doctor has turned them away.
He went to the counter clerk who smiled and said, “All is well. The doctor has taken your son to the operation theatre.”
How could that be? I am yet to deposit the security money. Imtiaz was flummoxed. He rushed inside. There he saw his elder son and daughters. They had a glint of satisfaction in their eyes. And then he saw Hanuman Das ambling out of doctor’s chamber. Imtiaz Khan’s heart froze.
Has he come to know of my misdeed? Oh God, how am I going to explain it to him?

“The doctor says Akhtar will be all right. He will run … no, no climb the trees as usual.” Hanuman Das said grinning.
Imtiaz Khan could not meet him in the eye.
Malik, I am a sinner… I have done the meanest thing in my life… never done by anyone in my family.  I… I have betrayed your trust…” Imtiaz Khan could not continue. He was cursing himself, sobbing and hitting his forehead with both his palms.
“Imtiaz Khan, take care of your son and yourself. God willing, Akhtar will be up and kicking in a week.”
Imtiaz Khan was speech less. And then Hanuman Das whispered, “Don’t worry about the saris you pawned. My man followed you after you left abruptly.  I wanted to check the veracity of your story.”
Hanuman Das waited and then continued, “You only did what any father would have done for his child. Don’t worry. I have retrieved the saris after settling the matter with Radha Kishan.”  And then he added with a smile, “I have settled the matter with the hospital also.”
Imtiaz Khan was dumbfounded. He was shaken to the core; visibly moved. “I am extremely sorry. I was helpless.”
Hanuman Das came forward and patting him on his shoulder he said, “I am not a Kabirpanthi but let me do this much,” he said leaving the hospital.
Imtiaz Khan looked at Hanuman Das leaving the hospital and thought.

Why did he do so much for me? How did parental love sprout in this childless parent?  And brooding over the matter for a long it occurred to him.

Of Course, he too belongs to Lahartara, the abode of Kabir.


Monday, February 13, 2017

MV Bangkok on its onward journey to Italian Port of Augusta had called on Port of Kutch in India for bunkering. The crew enjoyed spicy curries and company of voluptuous women for two days and sailed off to its destination.
An hours in to sea, the captain of the ship saw a fishing boat heading in his direction.  The boat waved a white flag, which was a message for the captain of MV Bangkok that the master of the boat wanted to discuss something important with him. As the fishing boat neared MV Bangkok, a rope ladder was lowered to enable the master of the fishing boat to climb the ship. On board, the master of the boat bargained with the captain of MV Bangkok to take on board twelve men for a price. The deal was struck and the fugitives were allowed to board the ship. All of them were interned in the lower deck of the vessel.
The fugitives survived on a loaf of bread, piece of cheese and a mug of coffee given to them at the day break. No one was allowed to go to the upper deck. After eleven horrifying nights they neared the Italian shore.

Suddenly the vessel was surrounded by the Italian Coast Guard. There was commotion and panic. The captain rushed to the lower deck and apprised the fugitives of the situation.
“The Italian government is very tough with the fugitives. It is much better that you take a chance and find some tramp to escape; there are plenty of them floating around. I suggest you split in small groups. That will make it easier. And I will give all of you life jackets to help in your escape.”
The fugitives appreciated the gesture of the captain and picked up a life jacket each and jumped off the ship. There being no other option in any case. 

Only three fugitives survived the cruel sea and were apprehended by the Italian Coast Guard. They were tried and sentenced for life for illegal entry and smuggling heroin found stuffed in their life jackets.       

Sunday, February 12, 2017

By B S Thapliyal
Sudarshan Krishnamachari was an orphan. He was brought up by his   maternal uncle. Since his childhood he was an introvert, mostly glued to his books but with brilliant academic performance. After post-graduation, he was appointed as a lecturer in Government Degree College, Madurai; a small town in South India known for its Hindu temples. After college hours, Sudarshan gave most of his time studying Buddhist literature and visiting Buddhist shrines during vacations.          Even though he belonged to a chaste Brahmin family, he was an ardent Buddha follower.  
He had studied all the five sects of Buddhism in general but he believed in the doctrines of Theravada sect, which gave an individual, freedom to find his own way to enlightenment and nirvana- emancipation from the cycle of birth and death. He was also convinced that Buddha was a normal mortal who attained enlightenment and should therefore be respected and not worshiped. Sudarshan didn’t believe in the re-incarnation theory and hence his heart remained away from the Mahayana sect even though it is the largest sect of Buddhism.  His interest lay in Tantric Buddhism, which is a mix of Indian Buddhism and Tibetan beliefs evolved in seventh century. 
The Tantric Buddhists worship by reciting prayers and sacred texts, along with chanting of hymns. They meditate sitting in circular formation signifying the shape of the universe.  The Lamas blow trumpets, play drums and dance wearing masks while performing rituals to scare away spirits. They extol the supernatural by mystical incantation, which endows them with magical charms.

Sudarshan found out from the web site of Himachal Pradesh Tourism that there was an eleventh century monastery in the Spiti Valley on the left bank of a Pin River resting on an overhanging cliff. The pictorial depiction fascinated him.

Sudarshan decided to visit the monastery. But he had no money. He learnt that July-August were the ideal months when the weather in the valley was moderate.  He applied for leave; sold his car, the gas oven and his refrigerator; the only material assets he possessed and left on his mission in the last week of July without waiting for the formal sanction of the leave he had applied.
Dhankar Gompa is about two hundred kilometres from Shimla. An inner line permit is required to go beyond Rampur Bushair, a small town on the bank of Sutlej River. Sudarshan obtained the permit from the district authorities and took the morning bus from Shimla to Kalpa, the district head quarter of Kinnaur district and reached there by late evening. He purchased some dry fruits and biscuits from a local shop and the next morning took a bus going to Samdoh and further to the ancient town of Tabo. The road is narrow and hazardous, fraught with the risk of frequent landslides.  Luckily, Sudarshan was in Tabo by late evening without much hassles.
Sudarshan had learnt that there were a few houses which accepted paying guests and that the Headmaster of Tabo School was a very informed person. Sudarshan went to him and sought his help in his mission. The Headmaster told him that a private lorry was likely to go to ‘Dhankar’ village in couple of days and arranged a lift for him to the famous monastery.
It was beginning of August, the summer month in the Spiti valley. Days were warm and bright but there were still snow humps on the shadowed patches. The valley was however getting lively with trees getting new green coat and locals coming out of their houses along with their goats and yaks.
Tabo monastery is on a plateau. On its one side is the government school and little away is a picket of Indo-Tibet Border Police.   Sudarshan had lively discussions with the Head Lama of the monastery but noticed that he was not willing to discuss the tantric practices known or exercised in the monastery. 
“Isn’t it true that a sect of Buddhism practices tantric powers and some of the Lamas possessed supernatural powers?” Sudarshan asked the Head Lama.
The Head Lama just smiled without responding. Sudarshan could not elicit any information from him on the subject.  During his stay in Tabo, he spent his time talking and discussing various aspects of Buddhism with the monks there.
Next morning Sudarshan took a lift in a truck going to Dhankar village, which is at an elevation of 3800 metres in the Spiti valley on the bank of Pin River. It is a small village with a head count of less than hundred.
The village chief spoke little bit of Hindi.
“A new monastery has been built on the plains of the Pin River. The scrolls and other scriptures have been shifted to the new monastery,” the village chief told Sudarshan and then added, “This has been done for the safety of the devotees since the path leading to the old monastery is hazardous. Moreover, the old monastery is in a dilapidated condition.”
“I want to visit the old monastery,” Sudarshan told the village chief.
The village head stared at Sudarshan. “No one is allowed to visit the old monastery.” He sounded crusty.
Sudarshan deemed it proper to let the matter rest at that point and decided to take it up with the senior Lama of the new monastery.
Next day Sudarshan went to the new monastery and spent the whole day there. His interest and knowledge of Buddhism impressed all and sundry. At the close of the day he went to the Senior Lama and requested him to permit him to see the old monastery.
 “I am writing a book on ancient Buddhist monasteries. It will be incomplete if I don’t include Dhankar Gompa in my book.” He pleaded.
“We don’t allow non-Buddhists to enter the old monastery. Besides, one should be a member of our order.”
“I am devout Buddhist even though I was born in a Brahmin family. I have presented more than twenty papers on Buddhism in the international seminars. And if you insist, I am willing to convert; accept Buddhism right now.”
“What is your area of interest?”
“I am working on the tantric powers of your sect. I understand Dhankar Gompa was one of such centres of Tantric Buddhism.”
The Senior head Lama paused, gave Sudarshan a hard stare and then closed his eyes. Both sat motionless. The Senior Lama looked in a trance like state as Sudarshan sat waiting expectantly for a favourable outcome.
  “Good. Come here before Sun rise. Make sure you have no camera, no recording gadget and no pen or paper,” the Senior Lama told Sudarshan with a feeble smile.
Sudarshan nodded quietly and left with a bow. Next morning Sudarshan reached the new monastery where the Senior Lama was waiting for him. “Come let’s go to the river,” he told Sudarshan.
The water of the Pin River was cold; colder than the ice water from a fridge.
“Take out all your clothes and have a dip and stay in water until I ask you to come out,” the Lama told Sudarshan.
Sudarshan obeyed. While in water, he felt as if his body was shrinking and the time had frozen.  
“May be, the Senior Lama has forgotten me. Sudarshan was on the verge of collapsing when the senior Lama appeared.
“Death is of the body; the soul is imperishable,” The Lama spoke as he came near Sudarshan. And then after a little pause he handed Sudarshan a white cloth sheet to wrap around and signalled him to follow.
They walked quietly to the old monastery ascending the cliff hanging over the Pin River. Sudarshan was overly frightened to walk over the terribly narrow path with gorges on either side.
“Fear visits when desires supplant the mind. There is no fear if you desire nothing,” the Lama spoke.
Has he read my mind? Sudarshan was surprised by the Lama’s words.
They entered the monastery. Sudarshan was gleefully happy.
I am close to accomplishing my mission. He thought.
Inside the monastery was a giant Buddha statue with oil lamps lit all around in glistening golden pots. On one side were few bhikshus sitting in a circular pattern on woollen mats meditating and behind them was a Lama sitting on a podium.
He was the Head Lama of the monastery.
There was a mat lying unoccupied. The Head Lama beckoned Sudarshan to sit on it.
Sudarshan was still naked with the white sheet wrapped around him. He was uncomfortable but his mind was agog, expecting exhibition of some supernatural powers.
“Supernatural is something to be experienced within. It’s not for exhibition. It is within you, don’t seek it out side.” The Head Lama spoke looking at Sudarshan.
Was it telepathy? How was he able to read my mind? Sudarshan was surprised once again.
“Meditate and seek answers to all your queries from within,” the Head Lama spoke with a smile this time.
Sudarshan closed his eyes. He feigned meditation. He was a near atheist; never had gone to any temple in his adulthood and had little faith in the domain of meditation.  
Suddenly he sailed into his past. He remembered the banyan tree of his village temple and felt as if he was sitting on one of its branches. Then he felt the banyan tree was taking him through his life journey. He saw his mother waiting with his clothes after his bath and his father holding his lunch plate. He saw his friends in his school playground. He saw his college and the college where he taught. And then he saw all his folks and friends receding slowly behind the skyline.
Sudarshan was shaken; his whole body was trembling. He opened his eyes and saw himself sitting on the woollen mat inside the monastery.
Then his eyes got closed again and he felt the mat was getting warmer and soon it became unbearably hot. He started sweating profusely; the white sheet of cloth fell off his body.
Thereafter he forgot everything; his personal life, his people and his ambition. Nothing existed but a cool blue light before his eyes; blissful and serene. All his strains had disappeared. There were no questions and no doubts remained in his mind.
There was a smile on his gleaming face. Sudarshan felt he was levitating in the air.
The Head Lama came down from the podium and gave him a golden rob to put on. Sudarshan wanted to stay for some more time in the monastery in front of the large Buddha statue but the words wouldn’t come to him. .
“You can stay here until evening prayers,” the Head Lama told him without his asking.
Sudarshan was not surprised now.
He bowed before the Lamas. He shared lunch with the monks and then joined the evening prayer with them. After incanting of mantras was over, there was absolute silence.
Everyone in the monastery took his seat and started meditating with eyes closed. Sudarshan followed. It was a genuine effort on his part this time.
It was blissfully quiet; pin drop silence in the monastery. Sudarshan had no idea how long it was. He experienced a glowing light passing in front of his eyes and when he opened his eyes, he saw himself sitting in front of the Buddha statue.
And then he realized he was all alone. There was not a single living being in the monastery. Sudarshan smiled. It reflected his inner happiness.  
He came out of the monastery.
It was pitch dark outside save the twinkling of the stars high in the sky. Walking alone in the dark over the dangerously precarious path didn’t bother him not did the Pin River, swishing past the rocks.
He walked over the log-bridge to cross the Pin River devoid of fear and reached his lodging place.
Next day Sudarshan was on his return journey. Travelling past the valley, he was reflecting over his experience at the Dhankar Gompa monastery with a serene smile on his face.      

Sunday, February 5, 2017


He was going to Kasauli, a small hill town in the state of Himachl Pradesh on an invite from the Director of the Potato Research Institute, popularly known as PRI. His cab had just crossed the narrow market of Kalka town and entered the hill stretch of the highway going to Dharampur, Shimla and beyond.

 After how long am I coming here? When did I leave Kasauli? He tried to recapitulate the memories of his earlier stay in Kasauli. And then he made a mental calculation. Yes, it was nearly thirty years. After long thirty years, he was going to Kasauli. Suddenly, the cab swerved left negotiating a sharp curb, jolting his body and mind and shaking him out of reverie. He had just survived a rogue truck hitting his cab head on. He cautioned the cab driver to go slow and a little later, he was back surfing his memory lane.
After completing his post-graduation from Agriculture University, Pant Nagar, he was offered a position of Research Assistant in the PRI Kasauli. He liked hills intuitively and therefore the offer gladdened him. Basically, he was an introvert who loved peace and tranquility of small towns; nothing better if it were a small hill town.
He remembered he used to change bus for Kasauli at Dharampur from where a small road on the left takes off for Kasauli; about 10 miles from Dharampur. There was a road side dhaba at Dharampur known for its spicy paranthas and liberal helping of butter.
And he remembered the locals of Kasauli were proud of their town. They considered it to be the most serene, peaceful and also the cleanest hill station in India. In fact, those days, there used to be a billboard hanging at the entry of the bus stand asserting that claim.  
His memories were unfolding like a replay of a movie cassette.
It was around eleven in the morning when he had arrived at Kasauli bus stand. The sun was out but it was mild and even though it was the month of June, there was a nip in the air. He had hired a coolie and was received by a peon at the dilapidated wooden gate of the PRI.
Saheb ji! Namaste,” an old man greeted him.
“Namaste. What’s your name?”
“Saheb ji, I am Mohan Lal. You have been allotted room number 7; it is on the first floor. I have kept it ready. I will bring your luggage and also a cup of tea.” 
“Thank you Mohan Lal.  I hope the geyser is working for I am tired and want to have a shower. Please bring the tea after that.”

He had felt refreshed after a hot shower and sat in the balcony that opened to the valley. Mohan Lal had brought tea and a plate of pakoras. With cool breeze around, it was simply delightful to have hot pakoras with steaming hot tea in a glass tumbler. The lush green meadows with wild berry bushes; the vast expanse of the valley with fir and deodar trees swaying rhythmically along the breeze made an incredibly beauteous picture. He was thrilled.  
Mohan Lal had told him that lunch would be ready in an hour and that there were three other scientists staying in the Institute Mess.   Sumit was not sure if there was a dress code for the dining hall even though he knew the scientists were quite casual about such niceties. However, as a measure of abundant precaution he put on his jacket and shoes.  
The dining hall was austere with coir matting on the floor and a music system at one corner. The cabinet by the side of the music system had some LP and EP records and few cassettes. An old time melody was playing. He liked its lyrics as well as the music; it was in fact one of his favourites. He was amused that someone from the group had taste similar to his.   

“I am Sumit Dubey,” he introduced himself shaking hands with both the male members and then folded his hands in ‘namaste’ to the lady scientist. Few words were spoken as they took their lunch. After the lunch was over, the senior scientist asked him if he would like to join them for a stroll to the market. 
“Or else, we can get you anything you need, that is if you are tired,” the lady scientist suggested. She was Priya.
“I would love to join you,” he responded quickly for he was quite eager to be in the company of his future colleagues. 
Those days, Kasauli had a small market of twenty odd shops including a small restaurant, a confectionery shop and a couple of tea vendors. No vehicle was permitted beyond the market towards the residency area unless permitted by the municipal board of the town. That in fact was the special feature of the town. One could stroll leisurely on the road leading to the ‘Monkey Point’.  It was a stretch of nearly two miles called ‘The Mall’. Sitting on the roadside benches and sipping tea or enjoying roasted peanuts were other novelties of the place. The tea vendors knew every scientist by name and they knew who took what quantity of sugar or milk for that matter in his tea.

Priya was an affable and helpful person, which made her quite popular among her colleagues and the staff.  She was an excellent cook and was therefore given the additional charge of the mess.  
Sumit was allocated to a prestigious project engaged in the research for developing hybrid potatoes in collaboration with the Israel Institute of Agrological Sciences for Developing Arid Lands. Priya had been working on that project for some time. Soon Priya and Sumit jelled well professionally and beyond the office. They were teamed for organizing cultural programmes, excursions etc. The two understood each other even without exchanging words. Slowly, they were coming close to each other.

The PRI was to organize an international seminar where the number of delegates was expected to cross the hundred mark. Since Kasauli was too small for such an event it was decided that the seminar be held at Chandigarh. Priya was made head of the logistics team with Sumit to assist her. In the process, they had to go to Chandigarh often. The two worked harmoniously for long hours; travelled at short notice and had to forego holidays and meals at times. The    event was a grand success. The PRI Director acclaimed their work highly in the concluding session. The event had also brought them closer.

Priya was a keen music lover and Sumit knew it. He had a transistor and they would sit in the lawn in the evenings and listen to the music. Once when Sumit was proceeding on leave, he thought of leaving the transistor with Priya but was too cagey to give it to her personally. 
“Please make use of it; I will feel good,” he wrote on a piece of paper and kept it along with the transistor outside her room. 
Sumit often thought of Priya and missed her whenever she was away. On several occasions, he wanted to open his heart to her but he was ever conscious of her affluent background and his humble origin. He was too diffident to muster courage and express his feelings for her even though he desperately longed for her.

One evening, when they were having tea in the lawn, Mohan Lal brought an envelope to Priya who opened it; there was a greeting card and a letter in it. Sumit knew Priya’s birthday fell on coming Sunday. In fact, he had promised to take her to Shimla for a movie. Priya too had agreed. Sumit had chosen it to be the occasion to open out his heart to her.   
Priya looked at the card and then read the letter accompanying it. 
“Birthday greetings, I suppose?” 
“Yes,” she replied with a brief smile. Sumit could notice that she was not her normal self. 
“From your parents, or a relation, I mean...,” he mumbled.
“Well, sort of...,” she said and then picked a magazine and started scrolling it. It was a message for Sumit not to broach the topic anymore. 
Sumit noticed that Priya was in a pensive mood next two days; even avoiding him. That made him anxious and apprehensive.  
Who could it be? A close relation, a friend or may be her fiancĂ©. But she chooses not to reveal it. He was agonised to no end. 
Surely there is someone else in her life and she doesn’t want to share it with me. In such a situation, I will only be making a fool of myself and rather embarrassing her. He was overly agitated and finally decided to drop the idea of the taking her out.
Next day, he told her over the breakfast, “Priya! I am sorry; we may have to drop the idea of going to Shimla.”
“Why? You OK?” Priya was a bit perplexed. 
“I am OK.... but I am not very comfortable ... It may be embarrassing for you in some way.” 
Priya looked at him and after pausing a little she asked him, “Is it something to do with the greeting card, I received?”
Sumit struggled for words for he knew she had guessed it right. “Well... may be some other time... I am sorry,” he said apologetically.
Priya finished her breakfast quietly. Sumit felt uneasy over his own decision and realized that Priya had not appreciated it.
 “I say, you don’t have to be so evasive about it.” She coaxed him. Sumit simply smiled; a naive smile lacking conviction. 
Sumit did take her out for dinner but it was to the only restaurant in Kasauli and he presented her a bouquet but the bonding between them didn’t remain the same.   

A couple of months later, Priya was promoted and asked to join PRI, Modipuram, a small township in Uttar Pradesh. Everyone was sad at her leaving. She had been in PRI, Kasauli for more than five years and had won everyone’s heart. Sumit admired her humane warmth and his heart had capitulated wholly to her affability and appeal.   
He accompanied her up to Dharampur. Very few words were exchanged between them during this part of the journey and finally, as he was getting out of the cab, she took his hand and whispered, “Sumit! Thanks a lot. You have been very nice; I will miss you. Take care and keep in touch.”
Sumit watched her go away from him as the cab took a southward turn and disappeared in the folds of the hills. He took a bus back to Kasauli. He remembered her parting words; he was crestfallen.
Keeping in touch wasn’t that easy those days. Nearly a year later he received her marriage invitation card. He responded by sending her a greeting telegram - that was the mode and custom those days. 
Years rolled by. He himself got married, had a family and was transferred to Poona and after three years, he was selected for an international assignment in South Africa. He returned to India after six years and joined at Delhi as an advisor in the Ministry of Agriculture. The first thing he did on joining his new office was to ring Priya.


He returned to consciousness as the cab stopped in front of the same dhaba, at Dharampur. It was now a large eating joint with assorted food choice. It was overly crowded and noisy with TV blaring movie songs. Being a diabetic, he avoided eating outside and therefore ordered a cup of coffee without sugar. 
As he sipped the sugar less coffee, he was reminded of his days in Kasauli when he would come to that dhaba with Priya on his bike and have paranthas or pulao with multiple rounds of coffee. A smile appeared on his face as he left the dhaba for his onward journey. After retirement he normally avoided public appearances but there were special reasons for accepting this invite. First, the Director was his junior in good old days and would not take a ‘no’ from him. Secondly, but importantly, he knew Priya had settled in Kasauli. That she had acquired a small cottage and was living a lonely life since her children had settled abroad.         

Next day after delivering his lecture in the forenoon, he expressed his desire to go round the town. He had found out the general location of Priya’s cottage from the Director and opted to walk up to the place. Kasauli, he noticed had undergone some changes but had not been savaged by the land mafia because the local authorities didn’t allow new construction in the town. Sumit was happy to see the lush green forest belt on the skyline.  

Priya was sitting on a chair on the terrace of her cottage. There was a tea pot and a mug on the table. She had greyed, gained some bulk but the inimitable smile was intact. She looked up as Sumit stood before her. They stood frozen. And finally when she spoke; it was a near shriek. 
“How come you are here? What an unimaginable pleasant surprise? How could you locate me?” She blurted hugging him. It was a close, uninhibited hug.
Sumit was quiet but shaken to the core. 
“I am so happy to see you after so many years,” She was ecstatic. 
Sumit told her the purpose of his visit- but only the first half of it.
“Now that you have come to Kasauli after so many years, why don’t you stay here for some time? Be my guest.” Sumit hesitated. 
“Won’t you have problems? I mean, we living together? You know, how small this town is. It will be the talk of the town tomorrow.”  Sumit spoke with a wry smile. 
“You haven’t changed Sumit; still the same good old bashful bumpkin.   I say, why can’t we stay together? It’s our life; why should we be bothered if someone has a problem in our staying under a roof?”
That evening they were the young scientists of PRI Kasauli. The clock had rolled back. After a couple of drinks, Sumit regained his poise and asked her, “Tell me, wasn’t that greeting card from your fiancĂ©?”
Priya seemed to be stressing her memory cells. And then she laughed and ughed exuberantly; unlike her as Sumit knew her. 
“How naive of you? ... In fact, awfully stupid.”  Then pausing a little she asked, “So it was because of that card that you backed out of your promise? That was utterly foolish… Oh God!”
Sumit fumbled for words. 
“You know Sumit, your suddenly backing out that evening had surprised me; in fact, it had hurt me even though I could guess the reason.”
Perhaps with a long passage of time or emboldened after couple of drinks or maybe it was combination of both; Sumit exclaimed, “Oh God!  You know... I had decided to propose to you that evening ... but for that greeting card……. It upset me terribly. I was edgy and restive to know who the sender was. And when you chose to be unforthcoming, I inferred it was from your fiance..”
“Sumit! I always knew you were cagey but I never thought you were so stupid and imbecile.”  And then having a large drag of vodka she said, “Damn it, it was from my adopted son; an infant I had picked up from a garbage dump. I took care of him and had put him in a boarding school. The greeting card and the letter were from him.” 
Priya continued after a little pause. “My son had not done well in his academics and was therefore admonished by his principal. He was quite upset with that and so was I. You would appreciate; I couldn’t have discussed it with you.”
Sumit was shocked. He had no clue of that facet of her life. She had never mentioned it to him all those years they were together. 
Sumit couldn’t sleep that night. 
What the life would have been if only I had kept my word. He  mused over and over.