HOMECOMING- A SHORT STORY

As the car zoomed along the winding hilly roads, enclosed by majestic pine trees and mighty mountains, Kabir rolled down the window to breathe in an aura of the fresh mountain breeze. The lush foliage of subtropical pine, Silver Oak and Cedar trees danced to the tune of fluttering wind. Far away, some houses looked like glowworms, stacked on the snowy peaks. It was almost late evening and many women could be seen walking back home with big baskets glued to their backs, carrying the produce of the day. Little children, tucked to their mothers, wore striped multicoloured sweaters and looked excited. That was the thing about Hills- no one would pass you without giving a smile, a smile that started from their eyes and reached their lips. As Kishore Kumar’s songs played in the background, Kabir took out his DSLR Camera and started clicking pictures of the landscape. The hairpin bend, brilliant changes in the sky color, famed lovers point, a shack in the corner, intermittent springs, narrow roads, cheerful faces, all captured and stored, as an ode to the beauty of life.

Kabir was headed to a quaint small hamlet called Dhanachuli, his home town. A place with 200 odd homes, nestled in the foothills of Himalayas. He remembered how the clouds cuddled the windows and floors, as the evening hues spread across the beautiful blue skies during his days of childhood escapades.

“Sir, shall we stop somewhere for a cup of tea”, the driver asked, yawning.

“Oh, sure. Sorry, I was so lost in the landscape”, Kabir said.

“It is okay. There is a nice food stall just a mile ahead. Shall we stop there?”.

“Sure”.

 “Are you visiting Kumaon for the first time?”

“No, I have grown up here”, Kabir said smiling.

“I am sorry. Since you were taking pictures of everything, so I thought”, Kamal remarked casually.

An uneasy silence ensued.

“That is for my friends back in America”, Kabir said after a pause.

“America! Are you from America sir? You must be very rich then”, the driver sheepishly remarked.

“Not everyone in America is rich”.

“Really?”

“Yes. There are poor and homeless people there too”.

“That is surprising”.

“That is how life is. Everything is not as it appears to be”.

“Right Sir”.

The car stops at a zigzag corner. The food joint is a small cabin-like structure, made of concrete. The walls are painted green with some calendars hanging, depicting God Shiva, Bollywood legend Madhubala and some newspaper clippings. There is a shelf with some food items like Maggi, cookies, Bread, and eggs.

The shop owner was a man in his thirties. He was petite with a paunch and a mustache. He looked extremely happy, for the reasons Kabir could not fathom.

“Hello, Sir! What can I get for you”?

“I will have one Egg Maggi and a cup of tea. Please add extra green chilies”, Kabir requested.

“Certainly”.

He went hurriedly towards one corner, which was separated by a red curtain and ordered the cook to adhere to instructions.  Kamal went towards the right side, sat on a table and ordered a cup of tea with cookies. The waiter came and served him tea in a plastic cup and an old white china plate.

Maggi arrived in a nice blue plate, curled up in the center, garnished with a dash of green chilies and egg whites. ‘Chai’was served in a nice red clay pot, whose ends were dotted with white lines. Kabir took a picture of it and posted it on Instagram Story.

#Onwaytodhanachuli #traveldiaries #maggiandchai.

Relishing every bite of it, Kabir felt a sense of joy. After a while, he got up and went to the counter to pay.

“How much?”

“Sir, it would be 75 Rupees”.

“Oh! Here”. Kabir handed him 200 Rupees, asking him to keep the change. The shop owner refused at first but kept it at Kabir’s insistence.

They resumed their journey along the spiraling roads.

After an hour’s drive, they reached Dhanachuli. Situated at an elevation of 7000 feet, Dhanachuli was a tourist’s delight. The glorious views of snow-clad Nanda Devi and Trishul Peaks, coupled with lush green forests and super cold weather, were a perfect assortment for anyone looking for solace and adventure at the same time.

The car stopped right in front of a big palatial house, called Te-Aroha, a palace of love.

 Kabir took his American Tourister bag, paid the driver and thanked him.

————————–

As Kabir stood before the big wooden blue door, a deluge of memories ushered in. The images of his childhood, running up to the next hilltop, evening walk in the woods, women knitting sweaters, mother’s consistent admonitions, and father’s everyday lectures; showed up as an uninvited guest. He heaved a sigh of relief and entered.

He was greeted by the caretaker of the house, Suleman. Suleman had been taking care of this ancestral property for the last 10 years. He did not seem to have aged at all. Wearing a white Kurta-Pyjama with a brown sweater, and a wide grin, he still managed to go up and down the valley three times a day. Kabir hugged him and they went inside. Nothing had changed much in the house.

The white wall in the living room was full of black-framed family pictures- Kabir’s childhood, his parents’ wedding day photograph, the one with Kabir on Suleman Chacha’s back, giggling like a five-year-old and then the ones with him winning trophies, a fancy-dress competition, and Diwali party. In one corner of the room, was placed a mint-green bookshelf with literature books. Kabir’s mother Sushma, was a book lover. A major in literature, and a poet at heart, she would always find solace in Gibran’s writings or Rumi’s wisdom. She was the one who had inculcated a profound love and respect for literature in Kabir’s heart. Kabir stood up and picked up a notebook. Sushma loved to scribble and make notes about her day to day life. As a child, Kabir used to play a game of randomly opening any page from his mother’s scribbled notebooks and imagine that, that was the universe’s message for him. He felt tempted again and opened a page with his nimble fingertips. It read-

“What you are seeking, is seeking you”. Rumi

That hit him like a dart. What was he seeking? Pure Unadulterated Joy.

Before he could further dissect his emotions, Suleman called him to the dining area for dinner. He had made sure to cook his favorite Basmati Rice with Butter Chicken, lentil soup, green salad, Fried Cumin potatoes, and tomato chutney.

Suleman sat on the next chair and looked at Kabir eating, with a sense of gratification.

“Have you spoken to some potential customers”? Suleman murmured.

“Yes. Some people have expressed interest and they will be coming over tomorrow to have a look at the house”.

“Well. That is good. Once everything is finalized, I can also decide what to do next”.

Kabir was taken aback. He had not thought about it. How selfish of him to have utterly disregarded the very existence of Suleman, who spent his entire life in their service. Guilty conscience, he gulped the morsel of food and said, “Sure”.

Post-dinner, he retired to his bedroom and slept like a baby. Early morning, he woke up to the clouds entering his bedroom through an open window, as if welcoming him back. Kabir looked outside and was greeted by golden-hued mountains, spreading the wings of first rays of light on the beautiful valley.

“Kabir Beta. Are you up? Shall I get you, Chai”?

“Yes, Chacha. That would be great!”

Kabir looked at his cell phone. Still no network. It was good in a way, he thought. A break from the mad world of technology and intrusive social media. In the last 10 years, Kabir never has had the time to reflect on his own life and desires. Perhaps there was no need for it either. He was well settled in Chicago, with a well a paid job and a good circle of friends. He was in one of the best countries in the world and had all the amenities and luxuries, one could conceive of. He had no problem connecting with people and he was essentially, a charmer.

However, even in Chicago, he would have this consistent urge to connect to his roots. Devon Street, Mini India as it was called, was his ‘place to go’ to have his share of Indian delicacies. 2034 W Devon Avenue, commonly known as Patel Brothers was his frequent haunt to address his culinary longings as well as the soul’s desires. It was funny, how he would spend about 5 hours at Patel brothers every Sunday, looking at everything, taking a stroll and filling his shopping cart at a slow pace. That was his ritual, weirdly. He had done it for so long that it seemed normal to him. Sometimes, it amused him.

A gentle knock at the door.

“Here Beta, your Chai. 1 Cardamom, 2 cinnamon sticks, and loose Taj mahal Tea leaves. Just the way you like it”.

‘Thank you, Chacha”.

“Oh, and get ready quick and come for breakfast. I am making your favorite Aloo Poori and Lassi”.

“Ji”, Kabir said, overwhelmed with love.

The sumptuous breakfast was followed by 30 minutes sunbathing in the Verandah, amidst the green garden, consciously designed by Suleman. It dawned on Kabir that this day was a replica of his childhood days. A sun-kissed morning, followed by a delightful breakfast and a lazy afternoon. Was it too simplistic for his mind that hankered for and had attained the American Dream? Maybe not.

———————————-

In the evening, Mrs. and Mr. Dutta came to see the property. They stayed in Mukteshwar, further up the hills. Mr. Dutta was a lawyer and Mrs. Dutta was a housewife. For long, they had been wishing to buy a property in this area, to convert it into a boutique hotel. Kabir introduced them to Suleman, who accompanied them to show the house.

“Please come! We will start on the ground floor. This was the main house built in 1970 by Samar and Sushma. I had just got a job with them to run errands around the house.  I was only 15 then. So, this area, was once just a raised Hill and that is why this property has an elevated structure”. Suleman started speaking, with a tinge of nostalgia.

Mr. and Mrs. Dutta nodded and smiled, as they followed him.

“The second and third floors were made when Kabir Baba was born in 1980. This room is where he was born. This entire floor houses all his toys, books and playthings. Look, Kabir, that is your old study table. Remember how you threw a tantrum to get this one at midnight?”. Kabir was lost in the moment.

“Now, this third floor, Dutta Sahib, was specially constructed for guests, so that they could have beautiful views of the pristine mountain ranges. And do you see this Poster Bed here? That was the favorite of Samar Sahib. He would often say that half of his patients would heal if they lived close to nature. So, every weekend this was a kind of retreat for ailing patients and I had to run up and down at least 20 times”, Suleman said bemused.

When they reached the fourth floor, they were all greeted by misty mountains and incredibly exquisite sunset. All of them became silent as if any word would be the treachery of this beauty.

After a long pause, Suleman said, “So this is it. The dream house, a palace of Love weaved with thoughtfulness and feelings”.

“We love it”, Mrs. and Mr. Dutta exclaimed together.

“When can we finalize the papers”? Mr. Dutta asked.

Kabir was not quite ready for this sudden decision.

“I am here for a week, so I was thinking maybe in about three/ four days”, Kabir responded.

“Okay then”. We will wait.

—————————

It was Sunday morning. Kabir decided to go for a short trek to the old village side. After a quick shower and breakfast, he started packing. Meticulously he kept his DSLR, extra batteries, a torch, some medical supplies, an umbrella, and a raincoat. It had been so long after all. He wanted to go and revisit all the old places, a canvas of lost times. As he tied his shoelaces, Suleman came with a bottle of water and a packet of dry fruits.

“Keep this with you, else you will starve. I will have dinner ready by the time you come”.

“Okay, Chacha”. Thank you!

He started his descent to the old village side. As he walked, he was once again mesmerized by the abundant rows of apple, walnut and potato farms. Every now and then, some face would appear out of nowhere and beaming with excitement, ask him-

“Bhaiya, do you want me to show you all cool places around”, a young boy of about 12 asked curiously

Kabir played along and said,

“Yes. I don’t know anything. Why don’t you lead me”?

“Sure”! he giggled.

“What is your name?”

“My name is Kshitiz”

“What does that mean?”, Kabir inquired.

“It means a place where earth and sky seem to meet”, Kshitiz said putting his collar up.

“Wow!”. “Do you think there is such a place/ point”?

“Yes, of course”. My teacher says every time you do a good deed, the earth and sky meet to form a rainbow.

Kabir could not help but smile. “Where does your teacher live?”

“We are going to that side. Let us meet her! Her name is Shikha Ma’am”.

Reluctantly, Kabir agreed.

“So, where is your school? There used to be one somewhere here, I think”

“There is no school. Shikha Ma’am teaches at her house. There are 10 students in my class and I always come first”, Kshitiz chirped with his eyes wide open.

“Then you must be quite intelligent, Huh!”?

“Of course,” came the swift reply.

“Let us hurry up”, he caught hold of Kabir’s arm, signaling him to run.

The goal was to reach the original Dhanachuli village further down and they made rapid progress since the walk was completely downhill. Kshitiz led the way and Kabir followed. The village had changed a lot. Many houses were in ruins. In spite of the tough walk and lack of basic amenities, people seemed to be joyous here

 In a span of a few minutes, they walked straight, as if into a different zone. There were beautiful palatial empty huts, standing in the middle of nowhere. Vast open skies, the sound of chirping birds, people going about their day to day chores with calmness, dream catchers hanging from the window side, blue windows and yellow doors, everything was draped in the hues of perfection.

Suddenly Kshitiz stopped by an old house, which was almost in ruins but had some unexplainable beauty about it.

“This is our hang out to play Hide and Seek”, the boy exclaimed.

Kabir took a good look and captured a shot, setting the lens on zoom. Soon, they were on their way to meet Shikha. When they reached her house, Kshitiz went ahead and knocked at the door three times, whispering ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever”.

“What is that”, Kabir asked curiously.

“That is our secret code to enter and of course, a quote by John Keats”

“Wow”! Kabir was now actually looking forward to meeting this amazing teacher. An elderly lady opened the door. She was Shikha’s mother. She was lovely and chatted with them about life in the village while chiding Kshitiz gently for not informing her that he was bringing guests.

 “I would’ve arranged for milk and snacks well in time!”, she said, clicking her tongue.

“Don’t worry. This was just an impromptu plan”, Kabir defended Kshitiz.

Shikha entered the room and Kshitiz happily started talking.

“Ma’am this is Kabir Bhaiya. He has come from America to meet you”!

Kabir could not stop laughing and said, “Hello! I am Kabir. Kshitiz was showing me the cool places around the village. He also mentioned about you. You are doing quite a good job here with these kids”.

Shikha politely said, “I do my bit to make a difference. Since the school closed 3 years ago, I decided to teach them on my own. What another way these kids will learn? The other school is 25 miles away and there is no proper public transport”.

Kshitiz asked, “Why did the school shut down?”

“The management committee said that it was incurring losses and could not continue going on, with no funds. Besides, there are only about 70 children in the whole village, so no one sees it as a lucrative investment”. Shikha said with concern.

“This is just so sad”, Kshitiz mumbled.

“Yes, it is.”

The mother joined them again with some Lassi and cookies.

“This will refresh you and give you the energy to climb uphill”.

“Thank you”

Kabir looked around the plain house, decked with some pictures and loads of books and stationery. There was a single bed with a blue floral bedsheet. Two bamboo chairs faced the small center table, which had a vase with plastic flowers. As he scanned the room, he could help but notice a writing desk with an old chair.

“Is that your desk?”, he asked Shikha.

Shikha said, “Yes. I love to write”.

“What do you like to write about”?

“People, Places…”

“That is interesting”, Kabir complimented.

“Yes, after finishing my studies I knew this is what I wanted to do”.

“Which is?”

“Bringing happiness to people’s lives”.

“How wonderful”, remarked Kabir sipping the last drop of Lassi.

“Well, I will take your leave now. Nice to meet you”

“Same here”, she returned the compliment.

Kshitiz said, “I am going home now! If you come tomorrow, I will show you more places”.

Kabir insisted on clicking him and he happily obliged, turning and giving a side pose with a wild naughty laugh. He bid goodbye to the family and resumed his walk. He went to the temple that he often visited during his school days and sat there, reflecting over his life.

Kabir had always looked back at his childhood and village life as an idyllic place but had forgotten how living amidst this beautiful place, had its share of hardships. Long walks to get essential food items and supplies, unpredictable weather changes affecting the lives of farmers, shortage of basic services like education/ health care were not very pleasing avenues. But he wondered how even with the bare minimum, these people were still happy. In spite of the challenges, these villagers had something that he had lost somewhere, following his material dreams.

Chicago was his home, so was Dhanachuli. What was missing in Chicago, was magically fulfilled here.

“What is missing here?” He asked himself.

“Dhanachuli did not have many amenities, perhaps it could do better with some generosity”, he mused. He got up as if with some resolve, bowed his head before leaving and left with a sparkle in his eyes.

With the evening transforming gradually into the night, Kabir’s journey back home was magical. The uphill trek took him about one hour and by the time he reached home, it was already 9 pm.  Suleman had prepared dinner and was waiting for him. There was no power supply for the last 2 hours. Candles illuminated the living room and they enjoyed dinner in the silence of the night.

“You must be so tired. Get some sleep”, Suleman said.

“Not really, but I will sleep soon. Good night”.

——————-

“Suleman Chacha”, Good Morning.

Kabir was unusually happy today.

“Are you free today? Can you join me for a day trip to Nainital?”, he inquired.

“Yes Beta, but I have to arrange your things, settle the house and put everything in order before you sign the property papers tomorrow and give it to Mrs. and Mr. Dutta”, Suleman replied.

“Don’t worry about that. We will return early evening and do that. Please come!”, Kabir requested.

Suleman agreed and asked him to wait for 10 minutes. As he opened his old wooden trunk to choose the clothes, Kabir came running by and said,

“Here, I forgot to give you this. This is a new pair of Kurta Pyjama. Wear this one!”.

Suleman acquiesced. He looked handsome in the new pair and the fact that he was going out with Kabir made him happy.  Kabir had rented an Innova for the day and they started their journey. Suleman looked a little nervous and conscious.

“What is the matter, Chacha”?

“Nothing. I am just excited to be traveling with you. It is just like yesterday that you were riding on my back as a 5-year-old and now you are all so grown up, taking me places”, his voice choked with pride.

“Come on. You are like my father. I so enjoy being with you”, Kabir beamed with confidence.

The car went downhill, round and round like a roller-coaster ride.

Their first stop was Sattal, a beautiful freshwater lake. It was a quiet weekday and all Dhaba owners were laboriously working- checking food items, ordering the waiters to clean the tables and constantly cheering as any tourist came by- “Sir, Have our best lunch buffet only for 150 Rupees. It is super fresh and delicious”.

Kabir asked Suleman to wait at one of the tables and went off to the ticket counter. He got 2 boat ride tickets.

“Chacha, let us go!”

“What? I am too old to be enjoying boating. Why did you buy the tickets? Must have cost so much”, Suleman frowned.

“It will be fun! Let us go”, Kabir almost pushed him.

They sat in a boat with canopy. Kabir took many shots of the lake and the man. By the time they reached halfway, Suleman had eased a bit and started enjoying the scenic view around him. The crystal-clear water surrounded by big rocks that cast their shadows in the water was a scene to behold and remember.

It was all so new to Suleman. He had always worked for others. Hardly, there was a day in his life when he experienced any adventure or took a vacation, for his pleasure. Vacations were a rich man’s luxury. Now, here he was, so happy and thrilled like a child that he didn’t want the day to end.

After the boat ride, they rested for a while and watched people passing by- children playing waster sports, young couples enjoying and a line of shopkeepers advertising their products. There was serenity about the whole place that translated into a quiet calm and peace.

From here onwards, they headed to ‘Subhas Dhara’- a natural waterfall close to the lake. The sound of water cascading down from a dense oak forest was no less than a symphony. There was a small shop selling tea, pakoras, and beverages right in one corner. Kabir ordered 2 bottles of Coke and 2 plate Pakoras.

While they waited, Kabir took out his phone and said,

“Here, let me show you some pictures of my friends from America”, Kabir started swiping the pictures in the gallery.

Suleman adjusted his round glasses on his square face and saw them all.

“Who is this?”, he asked, looking at a picture of one fair blue-eyed girl.

“She is my colleague, Maria”.

“She is pretty. You should marry her!”, excited at the prospect, he remarked.

Kabir laughed, “No, she is just a friend”.

“Okay”.

The waiter came with two plates of pakoras and Coke bottles.

“Anything else, Sahib”?

“No, thank you, Kabir said politely.

They sat there for an hour, relishing the beauty of life and a great connection.

Kabir suddenly got emotional and said, “Chacha, do you know who got me my first ice-cream? Do you remember who saved me from Maa’s scolding? Do you recall who played cricket with me every evening? I wonder if you have a memory of the times when you took me to Dusshera and Diwali Fair and bought me toys and candies with all the money you had?”

“I do Beta. Those were the golden days”, Suleman said.

“Is there a magic machine that could transport me to childhood again, so that I could relive all those memories with Maa, Papa, and You? Perhaps not”.

“Maybe not. But you could always come back here anytime and….”, Suleman stopped midway, suddenly remembering that the house sale had been finalized.

Attempting to hide his pain, he changed the topic and asserted,

“We must go now. It is already 5 pm. There is a lot to be done”.

“Yes, but let us take a picture before we go”, he called one of the waiters and asked him to click a picture.

The waiter said ‘Say cheese’ and clicked a picture.

A moment stored in eternity.

————–

Suleman started packing Kabir’s stuff. He carefully ironed and arranged all his clothes in a suitcase. He crosschecked with him about the passport, ticket and all other important documents. It was all set for Kabir’s departure but Suleman’s heart was heavy. He did not know how to express his sense of loss. He stayed quiet.

The next morning, Kabir had to leave early. He got ready and ordered a taxi. Before leaving, he went to take a short tour of his house and felt nice.

“Kabir, the taxi is here”, Suleman shouted from the ground floor.

“Just a minute. I will be right there”, he replied.

He took hurried steps and reached for his suitcase and bag. Suleman had already kept everything in the Taxi.

“Okay, Chacha. I will leave now. I have signed the property papers. Please show it to Mr. Sharma, our lawyer. He will come in the evening and give you all the details. I will call you from the airport”.

“And there is something for you too at the table, next to papers! Do have a look”.

“Okay Beta. God bless you. Take care”

As Suleman saw the taxi going downhill, he started crying at the thought that an era of his life had come to an end and that perhaps, he would never see Kabir again.

———————-

Suleman dragged his steps towards the living room. He cast a long gaze at the house. With a sigh, he went to the table and saw a neatly folded letter in a blue envelope, addressed to him-

Dear Suleman Chacha,

It took me a while to realize that home is not just a building. It is who we are and who we become. It is a storehouse of zillion memories that play hide and seek with us, on the lonely days and nights.

Home is a space of safety, a cocoon, a non-judgmental nook where you can be yourself.

Home is restful sleep after 14 hours of journey and terrible jetlag.

Home is your favorite food and favorite Chai served in the bed.

Home is not having to change for 2 days in a row.

Home is savoring a dollar’s worth parantha better than the fancy international cuisine of a 5-star hotel.

Home is looking at the stars and not feeling lonely.

Home is “being with you”.

Thank you for being my home.

The property transfer papers are in the drawer. You are the owner of this house now. Could you please give one floor for running a school in the village and make another one a library?

I will see you soon.

Did you think this was our last meeting?

Love,

Kabir

Teary-eyed, Suleman folded the letter and sank in the chair.

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