Student’s Corner is an exclusive section of Lsquare that features student-created literary works, pen-craft, and creative content.
Having always nurtured a dream of establishing myself as a writer, the four years of graduation spent at NIT Allahabad were almost perfect setting for me. I was away from home and in perfect peace with myself. After the college semesters, I always preferred visiting my ailing grandmother in the hills. She owned a beautiful cottage in Darjeeling, among the hills close to a rather deep ravine. This cottage was bought by my grandfather in 1947, as cheap as water from an Englishman, Mr. Hedge who chose to return to his motherland soon after the formation of an independent India.
My grandmother refused to move with us to Calcutta after grandfather passed away in 1997. The house bore memories of her simple and loving husband. She was in love with the place and so am I. This house reminds me of my childhood, my vacations spent among grandfather’s cherry trees and grandmother’s innumerable folklores. The damp, eerie smell of the bygone years, gave this house a priceless appeal.
Darjeeling boasts of many fulfilling landscapes, the beautiful waterfalls which dot the area, perfectly placed with the alpine mountain sides, the Kanchenjunga within view is a perfect destination for young enthusiasts. It was during this time, I met Cheng in the hills.
He was a strange man, quite old, almost my grandmother’s age, or perhaps older. He had been living with the family since 1960s. My grandfather had given him shelter when he arrived in Darjeeling wounded, heart- broken with just a small bag. No one had ever seen him smile. No one knew where he came from. He never had a family of his own. Besides, he always kept to himself. He raised my father and has been serving my grandparents meticulously all his life. People said my grandfather knew much about Cheng. Even if he did, it was long gone with him.
As a child I would idolize Cheng. The way he would chop vegetables perfectly, the speed in his hand, the strength in his shoulders to carry huge sacks of rice and wheat around the house, his observant eye never missed its target when we went shooting doves in the forest, would marvel me to no end. He was aware of my fondness for him and taught me to swim and fly kites.
I had never seen Cheng fall sick. That day when he was planting my grandmother’s favorite ‘Nayantara’ flowers, he collapsed. Our family physician was called.
“He is growing old. It’s time he should work less and rest more”, was the doctor’s verdict.
It was difficult to believe, ‘Cheng was growing old’. Yet I still remember, as a child I believed superheroes never grow old or die.
He slept for the whole of that afternoon. His was a small room to the north-western corner of the house, small and dark, with damp, ant infested walls, although neat, comfortable, and perfectly maintained by its occupant. It boasted of a small bed, a narrow window, and a wardrobe. The window, with its colored glasses diffracted the brilliant afternoon light into various hues playing across the maple-wood flooring. I spent time leaning against the chair, reading the novel I had borrowed from the college library.
It was four, the sun had begun to set, and nothing can relieve you from the lethargic clutches at this hour, in the hills. I laid aside the book, with the bookmark on the abandoned page. It was time for my grandmother’s medicine. I would have to take over this responsibility. She wasn’t satisfied with my hospitability. I slid the medicines and prescription in the drawer in Cheng’s room. Certain people are just indispensable. He still slept peacefully, the drug working within him.
It was eight in the evening, and time for preparing dinner. I could presume, it was going to be a miserable trial at the kitchen. Nevertheless, I saved everyone from sleeping with a hungry stomach, that night. The doctor had advised me to keep up for the night in case of any complications. I stationed myself on the chair with my novel. “A Thousand Splendid Suns” was going to be my companion for the rest of the night. A pleasant wind blew across the room. I parted the curtains, allowing a passage for the wind. The neighboring hill was upon view, clearly etched in the dark against the bright moonlight. It was fateful how the anonymous hill had suffered several lightnings within the last century, and hence was dotted with several stunted trees. The English abandoned the hill because of its curse and moved to the adjacent one.
It was a strange notebook, I found in Cheng’s wardrobe while dusting in the evening. It was a small writing pad, with scribbling made in some foreign language, which dated back to an almost ancient period. I wasn’t quite accustomed to handling such weird stuff. I kept it with me to enquire Cheng about it later, after he gets well.
I realized, it was an important notebook nevertheless, as I found Cheng looking for it, his eccentricities regarding it clearly visible in his eyes. He had been distressed since morning when he had discovered it, missing. I was afraid, the way he might react with my taking possession of it. I emboldened myself and offered it to him. He snatched it out of my hand, blurted a few sharp comments, replaced it into the wardrobe and locked it.
I looked dismayed. “It is just an old notebook. Why are you so possessive about it?”
“Don’t talk crap on matters you don’t know about,” his eyes were as red as burning coal and I didn’t have the guts to pursue the subject. “And remember never to touch my belongings without permission”.
I felt miserable. Cheng had never spoken to me in an aggressive tone before. When I offered him his lunch that afternoon, he was huddled on a small chair near the fireplace looking out of the window at the burnt hill outside.
“I am sorry, Mono”, he suddenly blurted, his head still tilted towards the window.
My name is Manob (Bengali pronunciation for Manav). People like Cheng couldn’t get any and ended up calling me Mono.
Cheng always preferred to encase himself in a shroud of self-deception which wasn’t palpable yet undoubtedly perceptible. He wasn’t approachable in any respects.
I made a clinical response, “Fine, but if you don’t mean it, please don’t say.”
He was hurt, and I had succeeded in my mission. He asked me to come and sit beside him.
“Son don’t mind my words. I am a very old man. I lose temper because I have lost all battles in life and have lived a miserable life of a refugee, as a burden to this house. I am a miserable old man.”
I was bothered. “Cheng, our house did stand the test of time because you were there with my grandparents, as my father tells always. Nothing matters to me, you have always been my hero”, I said.
He smiled, for the first time in several days. This time I asked him a question of my own pursuit,
“What was the language in that notebook?”
“Mandarin” he replied. He was grim and serious again.
“How is it with you?” was my immediate question.
He remained silent. I waited for a reply, but it did not come. He looked away silently at the distant mountains.
I rose to leave. He replied, “long story.”
“I want to listen”, I pleaded.
He turned towards me, his face glistening in the sun, eyes as red as burning charcoal. Thus, he began to unfold the thread of a story, few knew about, a simple story which happens to be a part of an epic past.
“1966, China… I was a young man then, perhaps twenty-two, a little older than you. As a child I always wanted to be a soldier, like my father. Some days, I would wear his uniform, service rifle and boots, pose in front of the mirror. I preferred sleeping with them on, it was my mother’s duty to remove them from my person while I would be asleep. I was in college then, young, and zealous.
There was nothing in the world which attracted me more than a life of adventures. I took a lot of interest in international politics, in those days. Ours was a group, perhaps of three or four friends, we would spend nights reading on Russian Revolution, World War periods, famous quotations on war. There was a famous Latin quotation we came across.
“Dulce et Decorum Est; || Pro Patria Mori”,
which says that it’s glorious and decorous to die for one’s Fatherland. When mother lost my father forever at a war, she urged not to go the same way. She didn’t want to lose me, but I was blinded. I joined the army, and soon rose to the position of a soldier. I was satisfied, and perhaps there wasn’t anything in the world which could have stopped me. People’s Liberation Army sent me to India along with many other officers and soldiers, in wake of China’s dream of annexation of the Indian protectorate, the state of Sikkim.
The notebook that you discovered is my pay book”, he pointed to the wardrobe where he had locked it in the morning.
I was delighted. “Continue…”.
“Life in Sikkim was different, but far from being adventurous. We lived in camps. We were trained in the local language, not to be caught easily. Clashes occurred every day between soldiers of either side. Some perished, others were wounded. I missed home, my mother’s food, and her touches. It was a difficult life, bloodshed every day, bizarre visuals of young people, their bodies blown by machine guns.
My mother wrote to me regularly. In February, I got to know that after I had left, she had been diagnosed with a terminal disease. I felt sorry for her. I lost her in March the following year while I was still in India. We weren’t allowed to leave on any account.
There was no respite, except gulping down army rum and sleeping as long the intoxication persists. That month, I met a girl. Her name was Apti. She had bright eyes, and a brilliant smile. She lived in the valley; her father was a farmer. I still remember the day I met her. Her thick black hair, open and the ends of her dress were fluttering in the wind. Her hands and feet were soiled.
She smiled at me, the brightest of her smiles and asked,” Are you a soldier?”
I hesitated and answered,” Yes, I am. Are you a locale?”
She nodded and whisked her head away. I saw her cheeks blushing.
“What are you doing about? It isn’t safe for a young girl after all.”
She wasn’t pleased with my query, nevertheless answered,” I come here every day, with my cattle, but I want to go uphill to get some wild lilies for myself that I have heard grows there.”
I was concerned about the girl. Anything might have happened to her had she continued to be this daring. “I will bring those flowers for you, if I can.”
She seemed pleased and smiled.
I knew I would find this girl every day at the mountain side with her herd of cattle.
She told me she lived in a small village in the valley. Her father grew crops and sold dairy in the neighboring market. She was uneducated, yet intelligent in her speech, independent in her spirit and honest in her appeal. I fell for her beauty and her charm. She wasn’t conscious about herself, yet attractive in the best possible way.
I did not forget to bring those wild lilies for her. “I would love if you decked your plaits with these”, I said
She smiled, perhaps even she had started liking my company, and replied” sure”.
She talked how much she hated the taboos prevalent in her tribe. She wanted to liberate herself, marry someone and visit a distant city that she had never been to.
I promised her to take her with me to my city in China. I told her about my parents, my father whose body was ripped apart in a war and my mother whom I missed dearly. I kept her the sole witness to the numerous pains I had inflicted upon my soul with my decision to choose this profession. I told her how I hated the blood being spilt everywhere, heads being hacked, and bodies cut to pieces, how in the guise of adventure I had chosen sleepless nights.
She was compassionate and generous, her motherly touches would melt my heart and we kissed, one day.
It was a beautiful experience, her thin lips touching mine, eyes rolled up and heavy breathing. We both tasted each other, and a part of our lives were exchanged for ever. That moment of bliss found a shelter in my heart. I started missing her every night. I wanted to run away from life, and desired her for the life to come. I had sincerely fallen in love.
Those were tough times. Indian and Chinese spies were appointed, many of them were killed ruthlessly. It was fateful, how a fellow Chinese officer came to know about my unnatural courtship with a local girl. He threatened to inform about it to the Head. I knew if it happened, both of our lives would be in danger. I pleaded him and he made an indecent proposal to devastate the girl behind a bush and get the matter off our hands. I couldn’t keep my patience and injured him with my service rifle and threw him off the cliff.
It was a tough situation. There was nothing which could be hidden for long. To betray her love and innocence and leave her behind was beyond me. We eloped and took shelter on a small hill. It rained heavily, nothing being visible except the lightening and the thunder which surprised us, until we fell asleep. We were caught unfortunately.”
I was surprised. Suddenly I realized it was already sunset and a long time had passed. I was thrilled by the story.
“And then?” I asked with quite some anxiety down my throat.
Cheng turned his head towards the window again and resumed, “We were arrested. Apti was accused of being an Indian spy, as per the information provided to them by the officer I had nearly murdered.”
Cheng was silent again for a while.
“I pleaded to them, tried to explain. There was nothing they would listen. She was shot in the head. “
The setting sun, blood-red, dimmed its radiance upon the Earth, giving way to darkness.
“I was arrested. I knew the only punishment for betrayal would be death. I sat near her body for a long time. Her pale eyes, wide open had lost all its luster it had, the first time we met, the eyes which rolled up when we kissed, wide open now without expressions. Her face had fallen long and pale. Blood was spattered everywhere on the floor, her plaits still decked with wild lilies, stained with her own blood.
I did not want to die. I wanted to live, the way I had learnt to from Apti, independent and liberated, compassionate and meticulous. I couldn’t prove out to be a soldier. I couldn’t protect her when I had well promised her to do so. I had lost. I did not want to die and diminish this disgrace. I wanted to live and feel it every moment.
I escaped from Sikkim. I came to Darjeeling, where I met your grandfather and accepted his shelter. His wife was pregnant then. Your grandmother was a young woman, I have always taken a good care of her family all my life.
This is my story.”
I was speechless. Perhaps, none of us wanted to speak. Life had never appeared this painful. The Burnt Hill, encased in a curse would always remind me of a cursed love story in the hills. Perhaps growing old with a mystery is itself a curse. May be this was the reason Cheng chose to disclose it to me.
– Rittika Das