Impulse can be a very strong force though its origin is unknown. Perhaps it is an intrinsic desire, or a passing whim, or just a moment of void that causes the sudden force of impulse to take over the reins of life and leave you such that you can never be the same again. It was on one such wild impulse that I allowed him to enter my dreams, or better said, I allowed myself to fall in love.
There was already a sharp chill in the air though it was early October and we were all huddled around the campfire. I had wrapped the baby in a blanket and held her close to my breast. Taoji (uncle-father’s elder brother) and Buaji (aunt – father’s sister) were sipping hot chai (tea) from a flask and Badi Ma (Aunt – father’s elder brother’s wife) was half reclined on the chaddar (sheet), about to doze off any moment. The wind was blowing through the mountain forest to our left, shaking the sleeping trees and making them whisper conspiratorially, and making me tremble with its sheer audacity.
His name was Khalil. He was our guide for the tour. And today, having gathered us all after dinner, around the fire, he began his tale.
A long, long time ago, in these forests, there lived the spirits of the woods. These spirits guarded and protected the forces of nature that nourished the forests. And one such spirit, known for his wild adventures, was called Kara which means ‘wild’ in the language of the tribes. They said that Kara fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a woodcutter named Tasha. Now, when the ruler of the forest spirits found out about his love, Kara was warned to harness his passions as the spirits forbade any of their own to fall in love with a human. But Kara, being true to his name, did not heed the warnings. He would take the form of a mountain goat or a wild horse and try to catch the attention of Tasha. But Tasha was always lost in her own world to notice.
One day, when Tasha was out to fetch water from the spring, Kara emerged from the woods as a handsome young man and the first glance from Tasha was enough to seal their destinies in the bond of love. After that, very often Tasha would come alone by the mountain stream and wait for her lover. Kara would surprise her by suddenly springing from apparently nowhere. But he was a spirit and could do as he wished. In his reckless passion, he forgot one golden rule of the spirits of the forest, that no matter what, they could not take the form of a human, unless it was absolutely necessary to guard the forest.
At this point, Buaji coughed. Badi Ma blamed the chill in the weather. Taoji looked sternly at the women and with one glance he stopped them from continuing their banter. Someone from behind asked impatiently, “What happened then?”
I looked at him. The fire seemed to dance in his eyes. He was a simple mountain fellow with a proud moustache that determined his arrogant demeanour and for the cultural session tonight, he had donned a local costume of the Pahadis (mountain folk). His features were rough and weather beaten and there was a deep resonance in his voice when he spoke. His voice… it was that which had entrapped me and which held us in a trance now, as he wove a story around the fire.
So it was, that the news of Kara donning the form of a youth for attracting a human girl reached the ruler of the spirits and in his anger and fury, he expelled Kara from the forests. Kara now became a free spirit who belonged to nowhere. He would pace the rocky mountains and play around the waterfalls. Each morning he would wait for his love to emerge by the spring with a clay pot to fill water. Then one day she did not arrive.
At this point, he paused, as if waiting for a furious gush of wind to play havoc with the fire and eventually tame down. While the flames leaped and dodged, Buaji shivered and asked me yet again, “Is the baby warm? Check her feet, feel her hands. Are they cold?” I obeyed dutifully. I was after all the mother. If I cannot keep my own baby warm, who can? What a lot of fuss these old ladies like to make!
One day she did not arrive...continued our story teller. The news had spread in the village that Tasha was seeing a young man who could become invisible at will. The village elders resented this news. They knew that he had to be a spirit from the forests. If the spirits of the forests knew, it would augur disaster for the village. No spirit can romance a human girl. The villagers were afraid to invite the wrath of the forest guardians. Last time when a female spirit had enticed a village youth, the entire village had been burnt to ashes by a forest fire. Something had to be done! Tasha was locked up in a room. The village exorcist was summoned and he came armed with a broom, a stick and some fallen feathers of the mountain birds. Tasha was tied to a tree despite the protests of her father. That night, on the eleventh day of the lunar cycle, the spirit of Kara was evoked by reciting some strange chants. Then, drums were beaten and the exorcist started to beat up Tasha with the broom stick in rhythm with the drum beats. Madness pervaded the skies. A clap of untimely thunder made the villagers shudder. The feathers were scattered all over the half dead screaming girl. A piercing voice asked the exorcist to stop. It could have been the spirit of her mother but the exorcist took no heed. He called out for the spirit of Kara to come and embrace Tasha and with one final blow he hit Tasha across her ribs with the stick. Just as the moon disappeared behind the clouds, she screamed out one word...Kara!”
But now she was beyond pain as the spirit of Kara had shrouded her and warded off all the pain and humiliation. She was free; free like the winds and the dust. And together with Kara, she flew off to claim the freedom of the world that only true love can claim; the freedom that comes from having everything by not owning anything, of belonging everywhere by belonging to nowhere.
They say that every 11th day of the lunar cycle, the spirits of Kara and Tasha still come to visit this village and they pause by the mountain spring for a while and if you listen carefully that night, the voice of Tasha beckoning Kara still resonates around the mountains.
Thus the story teller concluded his story. He had cast a spell, which along with the night and the fire held us enchanted and captivated and for a while no-one said anything. The flames danced mysteriously and gazing at them intently I was momentarily transported to another dimension where time stood still and untouched. It was only the intensity that mattered. And I could hear the voice of Khalil as if coming from somewhere far away, in a distant dream telling us what our next day’s travel itinerary would be.
Then the baby started wailing and the spell was broken.
Next morning we visited a temple on the hills and some exotic sites with amazing views of the valley below. All throughout Khalil kept us entertained with local tales and customs, yet we knew that he was not from this place originally but from the city of Lucknow, miles away. Having allowed myself to fall in love I let myself be totally mesmerised by his persona, his undercurrent of passion when he spoke, his magic of words and his dark, brooding eyes. But most of all it was his voice that caressed my fancy and made my heart beat faster. Oh, the joy of being in love!
In the evening, I left the baby with Buaji for some time and decided to go for a walk all alone. This was the last evening of our tour. Tomorrow, we would all be in a flight, heading back home. I decided to take the time to fully assimilate the sights and sounds and scents of the place that I had absorbed in the last few days. I was at peace with my solitude and hummed a note that had been playing in my head since morning.
Suddenly, I rounded a corner in the hills and came face to face with a wooden house with an inviting porch. Again driven by the same impulse I found myself climb the few steps to stand on the porch. The view from there was mind boggling. So lost was I in the moment that I did not hear footsteps till a familiar voice boomed “Hello”. I turned around and found myself facing Khalil. “Welcome to my humble abode,” He said.
“You live here?”
“This has been my home for the last eight years.”
“And your family?”
“Back in Lucknow. Our whole parivar (family) lives there.”
“What made you choose this job so far from your home and family?”
He looked amused and smiled an arrogant smile.
“What makes dreams ride miles away from the dreamer?” he asked in response.
“So this had always been your dream?”
“Not really,” said he, “As a youth I had always wanted to study Hotel Management and start my own inn, but fate took over. My father died while I was still in college, and I had to take charge of the finances of the family, get my two younger sisters married off. I never had chance to pursue higher education.”
“Are you….are you married?”
“Yes. I have a ten year old son. And yourself?”
“You have seen my baby.”
“I know she is yours but you have not given birth to her.”
I was startled out of my senses by his perception. I wanted to ask him how he knew but then, some things can only be respected by leaving untouched.
“You are right,” I said. “She is my sister’s child but I care for her as my own. My sister is no more.”
“She is your child by choice, which means that she is incredibly lucky to be wanted by you.”
I was touched and to my dismay, my eyes flooded. I quickly found myself blinking away the tell tale tears. I looked away.
“That is an amazing insight coming from a stranger,” I said, “Given that most people think I am inexperienced and not a good enough mother, just because she is not my biological child.”
“Look there,” he pointed to a tip of a distant hill that was surprisingly untouched by the forests that invaded the entire landscape. “What do you see?”
My heart was playing tricks with me. “I see a place untouched by the evidence of life; yet more alive in its intensity and vitality.”
“Yet most people would say they saw a barren tip of a hill.”
I turned around. He was looking at me, his eyes, boring, imploring, reaching naturally beneath layers of my mind.
“Why does it matter what people think?” he asked, “She is your daughter as much as the virgin mountain tip is full of life.”
I don’t know why but I asked him then, “What is the meaning of your name?”
“Khalil means friend,” he said, “and I am a friend of the mountains, the wind, the wild trees and….”
He left the sentence unfinished. How did he know? How could he possibly know that I longed, craved, to be caressed this way?
The wind picked up and the forests all around echoed with its sound. I welcomed the chill. I spoke to the hills and the valley below, knowing that they will connect to the strange passion blowing from one heart to another. My entire body was tense with anticipation. And then I heard a low, deep laughter. Maybe it’s the spirit of the forests, I thought.
My companion had left.
We were all packed and ready. The suitcases and bags were being lifted by the hotel porters and placed inside the dickey of our van. Last minute photographs were being taken.
Badi Ma called me to pose with the baby outside, near the flower bed in the lawn with the hills as backdrop though we had taken hundreds of such photographs already.
He came to see us off. Taoji asked us all to pose for one last group photo with our guide. I couldn’t. How could I? How could I insult and ruin the moments of connection with a photograph that could be seen and touched? How could I let a picture try and capture all that is unsaid? How could I stifle the free wind of the wild that connected two hearts in a wild moment and entrap it through the camera?
Some things are too precious, they are always better left untouched.
“Hand me over the camera,” I announced knowing that my world will never be the same again, “I will take the picture.”