THE UNKEPT PROMISE
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 fiancé. 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 fiancé?”
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.