“Dada, aap agey a jaiye”, said the driver of the Tata Sumo who was supposed to take us to Shillong from Guwahati on a winter morning in December. I noticed an old man with a young lady approaching the vehicle and looking for two seats inside the car. I got down from the window seat in the middle row, which is generally my favourite seat, and took the front window seat with two other passengers sitting almost one over the other’s lap beside the driver’s seat. The old man and the lady occupied the seats in the middle row and the vehicle set off for the misty hills of Meghalaya.
It happened almost twenty years ago when I along with one of my senior officers were travelling to Shillong from Kolkata for some official work. This happened to be my first visit to Shillong and I was very excited to be able to finally visit the place glorified by Tagore in his “Shesher Kobita”. The morning was extremely beautiful and soon we left the hustle and bustle of the city of Guwahati and found ourselves cruising amid the breathtakingly beautiful hills and streams of the “Abode of clouds”.
We had not reached Nongpoh yet when a light drizzle started which in no time turned into a heavy downpour. The driver told us we would have a stopover at Nongpoh to have breakfast. He drove in the rains as effortlessly as he would on a sunny afternoon.
“Please shut the window completely”, the lady told me in clear Bengali. I guess she addressed me because the other passengers were assamese or Shillong locals as I gathered from their looks. I closed the window and asked her whether this was her first time in Shillong. She replied no and that she was familiar with the city. She also added that they were actually visiting a relative who lived in Shillong.
The car stopped at Nongpoh for breakfast. The lady and her father went inside an eatery. I asked my boss whether we should go for breakfast. My boss told me he didn’t feel like eating anything, so I just waited inside the car. A few minutes later I was really surprised to see the young lady beckoning to me from inside the eatery and asking me why I was not coming for breakfast. I told her it was raining so I couldn’t go out. She came up to the car holding an umbrella in her hand and told me if I wanted I could use her umbrella. I looked at my boss who was fast asleep in the backseat. So I politely refused her favour thanking her for her help though I must confess that there was nothing in the world which I wanted to do more at that moment on that cloudy drizzling heaven of a morning than to go with her to wherever she wanted to take me! Because that was the time when I had a clear look at her for the first time and though she was not gorgeous in the traditional sense of the term but I had never seen a more graceful and elegant beauty than the person standing in front of me.
We continued our journey and reached Shillong around noon. At the parking taxi stand near Police bazaar, we all got off and the old man and the young lady thanked us- for no good reason whatsoever- and left for their destination. Before leaving she told me the name of the place in Shillong where they would be staying and I also told her if possible I would go and meet her.
I don’t know what happened during the next week and how I spent the next six days though I remember that I used to go to the office everyday with my boss who excelled in sleeping inside the office sitting on his chair and sometimes while in the middle of a conversation with another person. I had to share the full load of the office work but that was not what had kept me busy the entire week. It was just the thought of her and her alone which had kept me occupied the whole time till it was next Sunday.
I still remember the name of the place the young lady had given me before departing that day. I took a cab and gave the address to the driver which was in Laitmukhrah area of Shillong. I reached her house around 11 AM. It was an old house constructed in the traditional Khasi style but currently lying in somewhat dilapidated condition for lack of maintenance.
An old lady opened the door and asked me what I wanted. Then I remembered that I had not asked her name the entire time we were talking. I told the lady whom I wanted to meet giving her as much details of that day as possible.
I must confess that I had never seen a more shocking and bewildered look on a human being’s face in my life before. The lady invited me inside the house and waved towards a sofa for me to sit down. I looked at her, she must be not less than sixty five years of age with wrinkles criss-crossing all over her face and despite the frailty of her age her poise and personality told me she must have been a ravishing beauty in her youth. She looked straight into my eyes while talking and gave me the feeling that she could read my mind pretty easily. She brought a glass of fruitjuice and asked whether I wanted some tea or coffee. I thanked her and just asked her to tell me if she knew anything about the person I was talking about.
I was not prepared to hear what she was about to tell me, but nevertheless I am going to write exactly as I was told. She told me the old man and the young lady were her husband and her daughter who had died in a car accident while travelling from Guwahati to Shillong some twelve years ago. She pointed towards a photo of the three of them hanging on a side wall and despite the accumulating dust on it, I could see the face that had kept me awakened every night during the last week, the face that I had almost begun to worship in my thoughts, the face that had not allowed me a minute’s peace in my heart.
I just sat there dumbfounded not knowing what to say. She went on-“ my daughter was 21 years old when she died. She was pursuing undergraduate course in English from Calcutta University and used to stay as a PG in North Calcutta area. My husband who was a retired college professor in Shillong sometimes used to visit her in Calcutta. That year like every other year she decided to spend the summer vacation in Shillong so she asked her father to come over to accompany her. On that fateful day, the train was late to reach Guwahati. When they started from Guwahati it was already late afternoon. On the way just after crossing Nongpoh, it started raining heavily. But for the drivers on this route, driving in the rains is nothing new and so he drove on. However due to heavy rains for the past one week or so some portions of the hills caved in all of a sudden and huge chunks of rocks and boulders just swept across the road in no time drowning with it at least half a dozen vehicles down the slopes and into the depths of the dark valley below from where it is not possible to return. Fifteen people lost their lives in the landslide that day including my husband and my daughter.”
“Twelve years have gone by since then but it seems that it happened yesterday. I live alone in this big house like a soulless spirit waiting to die but even death it appears has forsaken me.”
I was brought into my senses by a cracking sound of thunder nearby that pierced through my nerves! I looked at the blurry glass window as the heavens had opened up the floodgates outside and the howling winds were trying their best to scare us.
There was nothing that I could ask the old lady though in my mind there were a million questions rolling up and screaming for answers! I just could not bring myself to ask those questions in that room with that old lady sitting before me wiping her tears that were rolling down her face.
I just thanked her and went out very fast as if that room and everything in that room were starting to advance towards me to swallow me into their nothingness. I stepped outside the door without waiting to look back at the old lady. The storm and the rains had made the Shillong hills look like a ghostly town. I didn’t have an umbrella with me but I could clearly see the girl who had offered me her umbrella that cloudy morning at Nongpoh standing not very far from me on the road with an open umbrella in her hand and asking me to come under the umbrella as it was raining so heavily.....
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