“I think Goa would be best, what do you say, Pari?” Atul and Pari were planning their weekend trip together.
“Please Atul, grow up! You can’t be stuck on to that one place forever. It’s Goa, Goa, and Goa every time! Why can’t we make it to Darjeeling, or at least to Gorumara?” Pari was exasperated.
The indecision was perpetual, right from their honeymoon days. What with Atul’s fetish for the beaches, and Pari’s first love, the mountains. They hardly zeroed in on a location without their customary conflicts.
“Me? Me stuck on to one place? Hello, Madam, it is you, not me. The Himalayas is stuck on your head like a leech. It won’t come off so easily you see?”
“Huh! So what? What are you trying to say? Yes, it won’t come off so easily. Not before I have visited the place once.”
“I mean, seriously Pari. Come to think of it. How many times have you been to the beaches, and how many times, to the Himalayas?”
“Please Atul, not again. I am really sick and tired of the same old discussion, over and over again. You know, you can’t finish off the Himalayas, not in a lifetime! We are going there, and that’s final. Now you decide which place to. I leave it on you.”
Atul smirked. He knew exactly what she meant by “I leave it on you”!
So, the Himalayas it was, for the ‘n’ th time over. Well, Atul didn’t mind being there either. He was wanderlust. In fact, both of them were. It was only an excuse to be away from the maddening hullabaloos of the mundane city. As long as he was safely tucked in Nature’s lap, he was as blissful as a poised full moon in a pitch-black night.
Pari lay in her bed, contented and composed. She knew her choice was the ultimate, and she left it at that. Air tickets, finalizing a BnB, booking a Land Rover, getting bags ready, it was an uphill task from here. She could fall back on Atul completely for every nitty gritty detail. He was a perfect planner, and Pari, a perfect dreamer! She would stretch herself on the mattress dreaming of ice-clad mountain ranges ahead, or the rhododendrons that ornamented the wilderness. They reminded her of the oriental hats that adorned her head. A few days of complete bliss – fresh oxygen, woods of pine and chinar, hot chocolate and Murakami – Pari had dreams of a perfect vacation ahead.
Atul had the route map too. It was Calcutta to New Jalpaiguri by train, and from there, they were to take the Land Rover to go up to Mouchiki, a tiny settlement carefully nestled in the midst of the woods. After a night’s halt there, they would turn back to Darjeeling.
This was not Pari’s first trip to Darjeeling, though. She had been there a couple of times before, once with her parents, and a second time before Kavya was born. Horse-riding on the mall, getting pampered at the local shops – looking out for the latest trends, or taking the Toy Train to Ghum, she had done it all. What she loved most was to hang out at Glenary’s. The lip-smacking platters they dished out, were out of the world. Whenever in Darjeeling, Glenary’s for a place she used to crave for.
Pari and Atul had planned their vacation pretty differently this time around. They were leaving their 5-year-old behind. Kavya, their daughter, was to stay at her grandparents’, while they took some time off, for themselves. Kavya, however, was not too happy with the idea.
“I’ll go on a mountain trip too, when I grow up!”
“Of course, you will, my pretty, why not!”
“And I won’t take you and Mamma along. I’ll go with my friends only!”….
Atul broke into a fit of laughter.
“Okay, okay, enough of discussions. Now quickly have your breakfast and off you go! Nanu is waiting downstairs, Kavya.” Pari hugged her little girl tight. “Be good Dear, and please don’t throw tantrums at, Nani. Is that clear?”
“Don’t worry Mamma, I will be your best Kavu, I promise.”
This was their first vacation without Kavya, and Pari felt a bit unsettled. She did not need to. The little girl had never been much of a trouble to her parents. Pari had always left for her official trips, planting Kavya at her parents’ and the girl had hardly complained.
Mouchiki was not a popular holiday destination, neither much of a tourist attraction. It was a true nature-lover’s paradise. It was still virgin, totally cut-off from the everyday hustle-bustle the city dwellers were so accustomed with. Situated at the tail-end of the Neora Valley, Mouchiki was sparsely dotted with a few isolated shanties here and there.
It was a mere two hours’ drive from Sumsing, along a narrow mountain trail, that meandered through the pinewoods up to the cliff. The journey uphill was punctuated by the sound of silence, to be broken occasionally by the rustling of leaves, the call of crickets, or the willowing of the wind. As they approached the guest house, Atul and Pari found themselves engulfed by complete wilderness. They realized that they were to spend the night under the celestial sky – with neither any phone calls to attend, nor mails to reply to. They were to have hours of restfulness for company.
Soon the woods thinned out in the distance, and not faraway, at the edge of the cliff, stood the Mouchiki guest house. The Land Rover dropped them at the entrance, and headed back for Sumsing. While Atul went in to look for the caretaker, Pari found herself standing in the middle of nowhere. A thick veil of white cloud hung across the valley, marring the beautiful sight. The sun too, had long bid adieu, smothering the horizon with vermillion hue.
Pari, by then engrossed in her thoughts, didn’t notice Bahadur come and stand by her side. The friendly old caretaker escorted her in.
“Use electricity modestly Sabji,” his voice echoed serious concern. “Please do not light more than a lamp at a time. And we do not have room-heaters, or water-heaters, for that matter. Hope you have enough woolens with you! Oh, and do inform me beforehand in case you need hot water.” Bahadur blabbered on.
“Does the place run on solar power?”
“Thought as much.”
“On top of that, we are facing poor weather conditions here. The last two days were really miserable.”
“Will it improve anytime soon?”
“Who knows, Sabji. It may, it may not. Time will tell.”
The feeble glass lantern wibble-wobbled with each step Bahadur took. Even in its faintest glow, Pari didn’t miss the ornate interiors of the guest house, a tasteful blend of vintage and modern. It had four rooms in all. The two downstairs, were a bit too cramped. A winding wooden stairway led them to the floor above. It had an expansive hallway with two adjacent master bedrooms. One of those was to be their home for the night.
No doubt Pari enjoyed such trips – exploring places totally cut-off from the mainstream. They had been to similar places quite a few times in their years of marital bliss. She had not felt so uneasy at any instance, as she did that day. There was something eerie about the place which she could not fathom. It could well be her whim, but as she crossed the hallway, up to the room, a sudden chill ran down her spine. Nothing queer drew her attention; nevertheless, she couldn’t brush away the uneasiness.
She could not discuss her hesitations with Atul either. He, of all people, would laugh her suspicions away.
“Bahadur, are there no other guests around?”
“No Madam. These are not the busiest months of the year. And anyway, we don’t have too many visitors here that often – not enough modern facilities, you see. A second family will be arriving from Calcutta tomorrow afternoon. Till then, it’s the two of you.”
“That is even better”, Atul interrupted. “Can’t we arrange for a bonfire this evening? I was long planning to have one. What do you say, Pari?”
“We don’t have the permit, Sabji. Still, I’ll go and check if you insist.”
“I so hope we do have one. We can’t be here and not have a bonfire.”
“Ji Sabji. Hurry Madam, please. We must head for dinner first. I’ll have to wind up and run home before it gets too late. After that, you are free to do anything.”
“God! You mean there won’t be anyone staying here at night?”
“No Madam. Hahaha, no need to worry, Madam. You won’t have any problem. Remember not to stay out for too long. It won’t be safe outside. There might be wild animals around.”
“My my, Pari! Are you afraid?”
“Not afraid, Atul, a bit worried for sure.”
“Don’t be. There can’t be a more romantic place than this. We’ll enjoy the most memorable time together. Come on now, let’s grab a bite.”
Bahadur made quite impressive arrangements for the bonfire. It was a perfect night for the cheesy couple after a very long time. With a canvas of constellations overhead, they cozied themselves by the warmth of the fire. They danced and sang, chatted and romanced to hearts’ content. Mouchiki remained witness to their romantic sojourn.
Atul’s watch reminded them, it was 2.30 a.m. Pari was sloth with sleep, zombied by the wakeful night. Dragging herself by the stairs, she crashed onto the screechy bedstead. The room felt dark and depressing after the long hours by the fire. Pari palpitated from the awkward quietude and the creepy silence that encroached upon her. “Relax Pari. It’s a matter of a few hours. And then it will be dawn”, she reflected. “I am being a bundle of nerves, that’s all.” She took Atul in her tightest embrace and in no time, sank into complete oblivion.
It must have been a little past dawn. Pari couldn’t recollect. All she remembered was being jerked out of sleep by a sudden sense of someone walking past her. The feeling was clear and distinct. It tingled her sixth sense. Dragging his weary feet past her, he went in the direction of the loo. But no, it wasn’t Atul. He was lying by her side, fast asleep. Pari hesitated.
“Atul, wake up.”
“Mmm.. what’s wrong dear? Thinking of Kavya?”
“Shhhh. Get your torch. I think there’s someone in the room.”
“Seriously? That can’t be. No one can break in. I have double-locked the doors.”
“Arre please check there once. I sure sensed something. Please, Atul!”
“Don’t be absurd, Pari! Who will be wandering about at these hours! Even a thief wouldn’t dare.”
“You keep on talking. Don’t do anything.”
“Ok. Have a look yourself. There’s no one around.”
“God, can we go back to sleep now, please?”
“Wait. Put on a light and check the loo. I am sure I heard a noise, I’m telling you.”
“Pari! You can be so ridiculous at times. Must have been a cat or a rat. Has gone away by now. Look at the way you are reacting!”
And then, each nook and cranny of the room was well scrutinized – till Pari was appeased that there wasn’t a soul around.
The warm Mouchiki sun caressed Pari out of bed. Looking out of the window, her eyes met a dense thicket of pine trees rolling down the hillside. Further ahead lay the mighty mountains, stretching across the horizon. Or was she a seductress, basking in the mellow winter sunshine!
Downstairs, Pari could hear Bahadur do all the running around. Getting breakfast ready, packing their lunchboxes, he had so much to do. Thapa was at the exit too, in his Land Rover, ready to escort them to Darjeeling. Atul, as always, was on the go. It was farewell time and Pari was, in a way, relieved. She couldn’t get over the previous night. How could such a perfect site turn so scary all of a sudden? The thought kept on haunting her mind. It was not about the darkness or the seclusion. It was something else. She knew, the deepest secrets of the guest house were well guarded from them. She knew they were not just the two of them that night, at the Mouchiki Guest House. There was only one person who could settle her doubts. Bahadur. Would he ever confide in her?
Phew! We are done with Mouchiki. Finally! What a huge risk I’d taken! If anything went wrong, I was to blame. They said the place was haunted. Who buys all that crap now? Neither did I. That was stupid of me. Boy, last night was unnerving. What was all the noise about? Looking back, I think I should have informed Pari before coming. Then again, had she known, she would have canceled our booking here. Now that it is over, I need to speak to Pari, I need to confide in her real soon. But, I can’t tell her anything right away. It will come as a shock. Let’s get back to Calcutta first. Till then, everything else can wait.
The Land Rover zoomed past Sumsing and Sunthalikhola, in its onward journey to Darjeeling. How Pari and Atul enjoyed their stay there, and how they ventured into their maiden trek to Sandakphu, was another story!