[First published on my Facebook Notes on 20th Aug, 2010]
If you dwell in the plains of Northern India, the month of June is often unforgettable. The heat is dry, incessant and unforgiving. The great Indian elephants, who call the Jim Corbett National Park their home, are by this time, driven down from the hill tops, where they retire each time the equally unforgiving North India winter announces its arrival.
As the water pools high up in the wooded hills breathe their last, thanks to the glare from the orange orb in the sky, the mighty yet gentle elephants move down towards the valleys where the rivers flow, to quench their thirsts and cool their massive anatomies.
In order to photograph these magnificent creatures, I reached Ramnagar one evening in June. Ramnagar is a classic example of tourism gone haywire. Every inch of the street fronts of this small town is exploited to sell something, be it commodity or hospitality.
Nevertheless, this was the base camp to Corbett Park. A small, white and one storey building towards the end of Ramnagar’s lone high street was the forest office. This insignificant building assumed extreme powers once the clock struck 6 am.
Let me explain.
There are various tours and ways to experience the beauty of this national park, however, those who know by way of experience or hearsay will swear that the heart of Corbett National Park is a forest rest house called Dhikala. But, reaching Dhikala and coming back the same day is not a possibility if you want to explore the forest by way of jungle safaris. Thus, an overnight permit to stay back in Dhikala is indispensible.
Only downside is that there is limited accommodation in this little clearing in the great forest and often, many aspirants. The permits, on a one night at a time basis, in June, are issued from this little, one storey forest office in Ramnagar. Most mornings, serpentine queues develop as early as 6 am, with each person, awaiting the brown wooden door to this office to open, to secure their one night in Dhikala. I had done it before and I knew I would be the first one at that door the next morning.
Presently I walked over to a cucumber seller and selected two of the fresher looking vegetable from the lot he had heaped up on his four wheeled hand pushed cart. The day long bus ride from ISBT Anand Vihar in Delhi, in extreme temperatures had sapped my body of precious hydration.
As I bit into the soft, peeled vegetable, the rock salt, added generously by my friend with the push cart stung my parched mouth and tongue momentarily before the juice from the first crushed mouthful washed it all down. It made me feel better instantly.
As my hunger and discomfort faded away with each new bite, I started absorbing my surroundings, which was now basking in the golden glow from the setting sun. Amidst the vending, bargaining and movement of smoke belching buses, whose ageing chasses were crying for retirement, I noticed her.
There was something about her that could be called sublime.
Maybe, among all the travellers thronging the scene at that hour, it was the way her white knee length frock with large flowers printed on it, hugged her slender, perfect body.
Or, maybe, it was the grace with which she walked around, asking for directions to reach a pre decided destination. That assumption, because she disappeared from my view quite quickly, looking as graceful as a white moving dot could, with the grey tarmac drawing up the background.
I had no such pre decided place to go to, having always travelled with random precision and almost always hitting the mark when it came to the cheapest accommodation.
The night came and went, in one such bed and breakfast place, setting me back by three hundred rupees. You could add another fifty to that, which I tipped the limping Nepali waiter.
Ramesh was known around that place as Bahadur. No surprises there. He was born one chilly morning in Nepal and soon realized that the Indian Army was where he belonged. Then, a childhood accident and lack of money for proper treatment left him with a deformed leg and a dream that he could fulfil when he was born again.
At least that is exactly what Ramesh believed.
Now, he will bring you your morning tea with milk and sugar and carry your luggage with equal ease and all the time, with that sweet smile never leaving his face. He calls Ramnagar his home and has Moti, a stray dog he rescued from a road accident involving Moti’s canine mother, as his only family member.
Moti was a puppy all of two months then and how old he and his master were now, was none of my concerns. Ramesh deserved fifty rupees and a teardrop from my end as I walked towards the forest office for my permit. Correction, he deserved the world!
The forty minute front row show to Bahadur’s life had delayed me quite a bit. In my head, an epic life struggle’s tale soon gave way to the pressing thought for securing that permit. I reached the forest office and saw a thirty strong crowd, lined up neatly, awaiting the wooden door to open.
At the tail end of this human snake was her again. As I added to the formation right behind her, she looked back at me and asked, “Is this your first time here too?”
“No”, I said, “I have been here before.”
“Is it beautiful?” she added instantly, almost cutting me off.
As her fragrance mesmerized my senses that morning, I replied “It is heavenly”, while inhaling as much and as silently as I could.
“Then you must know quite a lot about the place”, she said again in a tone that was as asserting as it was questioning. Six breakups over two relationships had indeed taught me many things.
Images from my previous bonds started flooding my mind’s screen in chaotic order. I saw Kavita’s body rise as I kissed her mouth followed by images of Rachel’s goddess like fingers resting on my bare chest as she slept like a child once her adult desires were quenched.
“Not quite”, I said, “the more you learn, the less you know!”
“That is so true, and by the way, I am Divya”, she answered with a smile, displaying lips that could sell a billion lip colour bottles if captured on film in the right light with the right amount of exposure.
“Great knowing you Divya, I am Anup”, I said, trying to smile my best. As the bits of conversation continued, she learnt that I was a struggling photographer, trying hard to build an impressive and varied portfolio. In return, she also mentioned about working for an advertising agency and her much needed break from the hectic, mundane life in a heartless metro like Delhi.
“Oh yes, I understand”, I lied, not being able to relate with the word hectic.
In a while, she had reached the desk that would write out the permit to her. The gentleman had probably seen us talking for quite some time and said that we were really lucky that morning, for this was the last permit he could issue for the day. There was just one room left to be let out at Dhikala.
As I realized the seriousness of my failure, my heart sank into a void. It felt terribly dark, yet somehow, comforting. After all, so many times I had been in that very space before. As I broke into a seasoned loser’s smile, she said “Officer, we are not together. The room will be for me alone.”
I did not even want to try. Like Bahadur, I knew right then that this round was over. I turned and started walking away. It was time to confront the basis of my grief. It had been six years since I had been so close to a woman. It had been six years since I had wanted to love someone so badly.
I knew for sure that I could make her feel loved like never before. Rachel had said that to me too. Only it was probably one of those things people say and never mean. I had hardly walked ten steps on my way out when I heard her call my name.
“Hey Anup, it was great knowing you. I will look for your photos in the magazines. Hope you make it there soon”
“Sure, I will”, I said, not having the courage to look back at her again.
Bahadur was right. Next time around is what I meant.