Fictional curry

Strangers in the night

Aren’t we are all strangers. In reality, friends surface out of strangers, and life begins when two strangers meet and fall in love. Even when a baby comes out of the mother’s womb, the world around is alien to him/her. Surprisingly, it is rare that people acknowledge the fact that relationships emerge from the unknown? Familiarity happens only out of the unfamiliar. Though one can easily tell apart a stranger from a friend, we forget that our friend was once a stranger.
This brings me back to a small incident that took place in my life… how a stranger came along… and changed everything for me. This story has nothing to do with the introduction, and in a way contradicts it because this stranger still remains a stranger. I have been waiting to share this anecdote and this seems to be the right occasion.
You don’t meet good people too often, and when you meet them, you do not realise how nice they could have been and then when they leave, you just can’t forget them. But we all need to move on…so did I.
As a young girl, I spent a better part of my life in the Oman. I came to Mumbai only when I was 16. My grandparents then lived in a small village in the Kundapura district of Mangalore. It was seldom that I visited them. But that summer of 2005 was different. I decided to spend the whole summer with them, because they were all alone. Unfortunately, it was the last and the best of my holidays that I spent. I lost my grand dad the following year. My grand pa who I fondly called “dada” owned a huge farmland at Kundapur. I wouldn’t deny that it was spine-tingling to live alone in their small cottage. Living life in the city and in the village is poles apart. You have fewer people around you… very few, and everyday seems to go at snail’s pace. In the village, there is always a lull feeling, the slightest sound slap your eardrums…the birds perching, the snakes hissing, the flies buzzing, the cows mooing, the trees brushing against the wind, all these sounds come alive.
The village in Kundapura was no exception it was densely forested, and dada’s cottage overlooked a huge plot of land. The plot of land had a big lawn, cowshed and an oversized well. Everything was so vast; it is impossible to not find your own space here. This episode that I will now relate took place few days before I left for Mumbai. The day had been simple like any other, and the evening had been mundane at grand pa’s home.
I vividly remember the heavy rains on that particular day; the entire village was void of electricity due to the heavy downpour during the week. There was very little, that one could do on such dull evenings, and I was feeling exceedingly bored, though the rains seemed to recede with nightfall.
Later in the night, my grandparents and I moved to the lawn for a quiet after-dinner chat. While grandma sat on the porch and cut opened a big jackfruit for us, Dada and I took a stroll in the lawn. We had to manage with the lanterns. For some reason, I adored the idea of a relaxing walk on a gloomy night, on damp earth with a lantern in one hand and the smell of wet mud reaching for my nostrils. It was a special night. Everything was special… may be because grand pa and me had never been so open in our conversation before. For the first time, he spoke to me about his challenges, hardships, about his love (my grandma) and the most intriguing of them all ‘spirits’.
“Spirits, exist, all around you”, he said. “They may love you…hate you, it is why they want to meet you, but they look for the right time and the right place.” I was dumb found, Dada surely nerved me. I was so scared with the thought of spirits that I hurried towards Grand ma and began eating the jackfruit she had cleaned, only to dilute the fear that crept within me.
It was getting quite late, and we were still anticipating the supply of electricity. We were tired of sleeping in the dark, unlit and unventilated cottage for days. But sleep was getting the better of me; my drowsy eyes had already begun to droop, I almost prepared to make headway for the cottage, when suddenly we heard the clattering of our gate as if someone had entered the farmhouse. But who… Who would come here at 10:30? My heart began to jolt, were it the spirits, I contemplated. Did the spirits come to meet us?
Dada however, walked outside the lawn towards the gate to see who had come at such an unearthly hour. Surprisingly, he came back with a young man, who claimed to have lost himself in the village. He looked like he was in his early 20s, I could barely see him in the dimness of the lantern. But this couldn’t hide his polished features. He looked worn out and exhausted, and was wet from tip to toe, as if he had just got out of a pool. On asking he told me that he had fallen into a fishpond in the dark and was worried because he didn’t know how to get back home. Initially, I found it difficult to believe him, but the sincerity in his eyes forced me to. He spoke konkani as well as English quite fluently and looked like he belonged to the city. My grandma hinted me to get a glass of water from the kitchen, to quench his thirst. I still remember that raw smile on his face, when I handed over the glass to him. With Dada around, no stranger would ever feel uncomfortable. Grand Pa had this inherent joviality and he always loved keeping people happy around him. The lights had not come yet… and the mosquitoes were painfully sucking fresh blood. Grand pa nonetheless, went to fetch firewood from the small hut beside the cottage to light some fire to make the young man feel warm. Grandma and I stayed up with the stranger in the wet-chilly lawn.
“What is your name?” my grand mom asked him.
“Uh…uh…hmm…Aaron…Aaron Rodrigues”, he said hesitantly.
“Nice name, where are you from?” she asked suspiciously.
“Mangalore”, he answered “Actually I came here to visit my sick uncle… unfortunately I got lost… and my trips gone completely futile.”
“Because… I may not see him again, I had one opportunity and I used it for something else?”
We were slightly taken aback with his incoherent answers, but decided not to inquire much. But, I was completely drowsed in inkling, I wanted to no more…a lot more about him.
Soon, dada came in with logs of wood, and I helped him to light it at the centre of the lawn.
The lawn looked bright with the flames crisscrossing like intense jarring waves, and Aaron looked good…his eyes were fine and wanted to say a lot of things, I hoped I could only understand. His forehead had a lot written between those lines.
It is never easy to begin a conversation with someone you don’t know; it isn’t easy either to strike a rapport with a person you’ve never met but for some outlandish reason I wanted to speak to this young man. I felt as if I knew him before…and wanted to know more of him. ‘Was he feeling the same.’
No, I don’t think so. He was too exhausted to think.
“So young man, what do you do?” my dada interrogated.
“Hmm… I study, doing my last year in commerce.”
I wondered why his answers were so brief, he either did not want to speak or maybe he just felt the questions were too personal to answer.
The heat of the fire however made him feel quiet better and he was slowly gaining his calm. Soon, Grand ma served him dinner followed by a hot cup of coffee.
I liked him…may be, I still didn’t know. How can you like someone you knew for just about an hour? Wasn’t it just next to impossible?
It was 11:30 by then and the electricity didn’t show any sign of dawn. Dada was slightly apprehensive with the prospect of allowing a stranger into the house (although he liked him), he therefore asked us to get a cot out for him. So, while grand ma and I went to sleep in our room, grandpa stayed back with him.
Grand ma fell asleep quickly, but at 1:40 am I was still awake, trying to sleep in the stuffy room. It wasn’t raining, but it was cold… very cold. He was outside but his thoughts were disturbing me. Everything about him was so intriguing…appealing. What was happening to me? I hadn’t felt like that for anybody before…actually for nobody. But now for him…why was it so out of the ordinary?
Suddenly…I heard a faint knocking on our main door, wavering me from my stream of thoughts. Dizzily, I got up to open my door, not realising whom I was going to confront.
“Uh…Umm. Sorry to wake you up… I am really thirsty and need a glass of water.”
It was him, the stranger. He came out of the blue and spoke to me, finally. Another glass of water…. meant another dose of his captivating smile that had already managed to sweep me off the floor. In a bout of happiness and excitement I ran to the kitchen, filled a glass of water and handed it to him. He smiled…I smiled back.
“So you live here”, he asked, handing over the empty glass of water.
“No, I’m from Mumbai, just finished my XII. I’ve come here to visit my grandparents.”
“Hmm…got your results”, he asked.
“No, they will be up by next week.” I said nervously.
“Thanks for the water… I actually did not expect anyone to open the door, and neither did I want to wake your grand dad. He is fast asleep.”
“Uh…its ok, I wasn’t getting sleep anyways.” I said.
“Once again, sorry for the trouble.”
“Its ok”
Upset with my depressing and boring tête-à-tête, I shut the door as he moved towards the lawn… but before I could reach for my sheets, I heard another knock.
What did he want now?
With an unexplainable eagerness I tiptoed towards the door again and opened it gently.
“Actually…I wasn’t feeling sleepy either, so I just thought if you could give me company outside, I mean… in the lawn, it’s slightly creepy and chilly out there. Hmmm… not forcing you though,” he asked.
Was I surprised? Yes of course.
Was I dreaming? No I wasn’t.
Though, rebuffing such a request was pretty difficult for me. Yet, I did not even want to be caught dead giving company to a stranger at 2 in the morning in my grandpa’s lawn.
Astoundingly, without any hesitation I agreed to stay up with him until he wanted to sleep.
Somewhere down the line, I knew that this wasn’t me, but I was just going with the flow. For the first time I hadn’t thought practically. Why? I couldn’t reckon.
It is always better to leave some questions unanswered, because not everything is under the control of mortal beings. Life just gives you one chance.
We did not speak much, yet I now realise we said a lot to each other.
Our conversation had been limited to the stars, the skies, the village and all the possible animals within it, but what I very well remember is his confession. After an hour of baseless talking, I decided to go back to sleep. I wanted to leave for my room, heavy-eyed, irritated with the monotonous chat because I seriously lacked the capacity to hear more. I walked back, excusing myself, when he came closer and caught my hand.
Would you believe it…he caught my hand?
First, I felt intimidated by him, and actually pulled back. But what followed was his ultimate confession. It was just like an all night-dreamt fantasy that finally came true.
“Do you know something? I came here for you… specially for you,” he continued. “We may not get the opportunity to meet again, but I hope you will remember me. Your memories, though of few hours, will stay with me forever. Trust me, ever since I saw you near the roadside bakery shop, I wanted to meet you. I finally got the chance, but it is too late now. I don’t know what you feel for me…but I just hope that you won’t ever hate me. I will have to go now, thanks for your kind hospitality. Please convey it to your grandparents too. You have a lovely family. And you will remain my angel forever. Bye.”
Saying this, he walked towards our main gate and then outside the farmhouse. He did not look back even once nor did I stop him. I was slight taken aback to actually comprehend the whole situation. He said he had seen me before near the bakery.
Surprisingly, I had been to the bakery for the first time that morning, did he actually want to meet me since then.
Did he then lie…about his previous identity? Perhaps Yes. But, why? Just to meet me.
At that point of time, I hated him, I hated him for lying… without even realising if he was lying, I hated him for leaving me like that, though he claimed that I was special to him, possibly I hated him for everything… but it was only for that instant.
I got up late that morning, and found myself sleeping on the cot that we had removed for the stranger in the lawn. My grandparents were stunned to find me there, but said nothing then. However, during breakfast Dada quiet expectedly asked me how I landed in the lawn and where the stranger had suddenly disappeared.
I knew it was not fair on my part to conceal such a weird yet wonderful episode, but at the same time I even speculated if they would believe me. But I buckled up the much-needed courage and related the entire account. After narrating the complete incident, my grandparents were relieved that he had left so quietly. In fact, they felt it was not safe for me to stay with them and suggested that I immediately leave for my uncle’s house until I left for Mumbai, as he lived close by. They firmly believed that he could harass me once again and since they were old enough they would not be able to guard me. I did not argue, and relented. Grand pa rang up my uncle to come and pick me up as soon as possible.
My uncle however, turned up late that evening, extremely distressed and traumatised. On enquiring, he told us that his cousin’s son had come to meet him from the city, as his cousin was unwell. The boy unfortunately died after drowning in a pond. The villagers had found his body only last evening and the onus of delivering the body to his family had fallen on him. He told us that he had just done away with all the formalities when he realised that he had come to take me home. He then removed a snap of that young boy from his shirt pocket to show my grand dad.
Shocks can come in all forms, but what we saw after this was the most bewildering of them all.
The snap was of Aaron, the lost traveller who had visited us the previous night…. the stranger who claimed that he loved me…the first boy who I had fallen for…the spirit who passionately wanted to see me.
It was true, he hadn’t lied to me, he did fall into the pond in the dark, but he never managed to come out alive. He must have seen me in the day, and plausibly wanted to meet me, just like I wanted to, when I first saw him. The story is strange, as peculiar as the stranger. Dada was right, “Spirits, do exist, all around us. They may love or even hate us, and they do look for the right time and the right place to meet us.”
Aaron Rodrigues was but one.
That night was…special, special because we had a visitor, a strange visitor.
A Stranger in the Night.

Fictional curry

Riding on a Pony

“Madamji we’ve reached,” the man on the wheel said.
With my head reeling and eyes shut, I whispered, “Accha, utarti hoon.”
I was feeling nauseated when the jeep had begun moving up the hill in spirals. My stomach churned and I wanted to throw up, I had also asked the driver to halt, but he refused saying it was not safe to stop at such a height. Heights scared me, but I wanted to visit Matheran, there were too many stories told, too many to still unfold.
We had lost few and gained some here…They have all become part of our lessons learnt in Matheran.
I got down from the jeep, but I couldn’t hold footing on the red sand. “Madamji paani,” the driver asked. I refused as I knew I would be fine in sometime. We were still at the foothills of the hill. I tied my laces, wore my back-pack. The driver again courteously, asked, “Would you like to ride the pony uphill or do you prefer walking.”Matheran is the only pedestrian hill station in the state of Mahrashtra. Motorists stopped below, after which only a mini-train, ponies or your feet could take you to your destination.
“My journey begins here and yours ends. Thanks,” I replied in a rudely-soft monotone as I walked to climb the hill. My mother hated this habit of mine. If I did not like a person or was too disinterested to get into a conversation, I would end it on a very sarcastic note. She said, it was offensive, yet very pleasantly put. Dad to be more precise described it as sarcasm.
Yes, I did not like the driver, simply because he did not stop driving when I was uncomfortable. I could hate and like people easily and this is all I liked about myself. I was coming to love Matheran and had already begun to hate the driver. A balance I have maintained, right from birth. If there ever was a void, I knew how to fill it. My trip to Matheran was to fill the same space created in our lives 21 years ago.
After paying the toll, I began my trek. It would be only 20 minutes later that I’d reach the hill station. It was mid-January and the temperatures were freezing at around 7 degrees. My cardigan kept me warm, but my hands were still cold.
I had just passed a hawker selling cucumber spices with pepper, when my cell phone beeped…after already two messages of the same kind while walking my way up the hill, I wasn’t expecting anything different, “Welcome to Airtel Maharashtra, you are now on Airtel roaming. Your call rates will now be….” Nuisance!! I thought, the same message thrice.
Few minutes later, I received another SMS. I opened it irritatingly.
“Hey sweetheart, give us a buzz when you reach Matheran…already missin u, tk of u r self, i hope v can trust u.”
I replied to the SMS,
“rchd matheran…it’s a nice place…but won’t send more smses…on roaming…will talk ltr..bye.”
I switched off my phone. Staying off contact helps connect better with the place you are in…
As I was walking uphill, my eyes suddenly fell on the Matheran signboard; I was finally here.
Twenty-one years ago, I had come here, as a three-year-old. It is strange; my heart skips a beat when I think of coming here as a baby. We lost him in an accident the last time we came here. My parents never traveled after this. Today, they allowed me, but on one condition… I won’t ride on a pony.
The one-day trip to Matheran begins…
My best friend Payal stayed here, so it spared me the hassle of checking into a hotel. Payal and me are good friends from college. Incidentally, we bonded in college on boys, as our respective exes were brothers, later we bonded on Matheran, her native and my fairy tale land.
She knew everything about me, right form me wearing diapers till four to have never been kissed even at 24.
As I entered ‘Navya restaurant,’ I saw Payal, waiting anxiously. She rushed towards me and gripped me tightly by the hand; her eyes suddenly began to water. “Seeing you after two years,” she said. Payal had taken up hotel management in senior college while my interests lay in the social sciences. Payal had been handling her father’s restaurant ‘Navya’ for three years. “How long will you be in?” she asked, as she moved her arms forward to gather me in a tight embrace. “10 hours, Payal, that is all I have,” I replied.
“Then we must get going,” she said.
She pulled my hand forward and took me inside the restaurant kitchen that led to a small cottage. This is where Payal lived with her “ma”. After her father passed away, she decided to move back to Matheran so that her family business continued. I remember her telling me, “To see ‘Navya’ pass on to another hands would be sending my dead father an invitation to hell.”
Payal treated me to dosa for breakfast, after which we went shopping for chapals and chikki. Ponies passed me as I crossed the road, I trembled. “Payal,” I said, “This fear needs to run down.” After a long pause she said, “Wait till evening comes.”
Shopping, gossiping blew time like dust…it was 4 pm and already late. I shook Payal who was lying on my lap. “Lets go now,” I requested. She was tired, but got up and slipped into a good fitting pair of jeans. “Levis…Rs 5,000…hows it?” she asked. “Great…but lets go…I have a train at 6.30,” I answered. She had tried to put a damper on my object of coming to Matheran but I managed to get my way.
We came only at 5.45 in the evening. Her mother, by then had packed all my shopping items in a bag. Payal again had tears in her eyes, “You should have stayed,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said with a smile. I was planning to drive down to Neral station in a cab.
“How will you go down to the cabbie, do you want me to give you company?”
“No,” I said, “I’ll go alone….I shall ride the pony”

As I rode down, I hummed,
“Yankee Doodle went to town
A-riding on a pony
Stuck a feather in his hat
And called it macaroni….”
I couldn’t see Payal now, but i know she was smiling.

Mumbai 11.45
Dear diary,
I am back home. Mom and Dad really missed me today… But I am happy for reasons I have longed to find an answer to. You know I sat on a Pony today. I can’t believe I did that, but, yes, I did. This wouldn’t have been possible without Payal. I rode the entire Matheran stretch while she behind me. She reminded me of Abhay, my 10-yr-old brother. He was sitting behind the last time, I remember. But then he slipped and fell. What happened after that was strange? I remember riding alone, then, my parents had looked at me with eyes of desperation, fear and pain.

Not the loss of my brother, but the fear I saw in my parents eyes while riding the pony had been eating me from inside.
Today, as I got down the pony Payal gave me a broad smile.
Later, she smiled again as I rode the pony down, alone. I no longer fear the pony…but I miss my brother and Payal. One I lost and the other I found in Matheran… and yes my parents never knew that I had been riding on a pony.
Gud Night