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BLink turns 5

My friend Finjo

Rijula Das | Updated on January 18, 2019 Published on January 18, 2019

The day the three of them came in their jeep, the snow had almost melted away. What remained was streaked with mud, splattered around by car tyres. I was 15. In the late days of February, when the bus from Bhuntur passed through our village on its way to Manali, dropping off the first tourists of the season, I was waiting for Finjo at the teashop. When he left at the end of October, before the snow and the hard winter, he told me he was going back to Nepal to farm his father’s land. His two-week affair with a backpacker had left him with nothing but imported sunscreen, a mountain bike and a hundred Australian dollars that he stole after the break-up. He kept the sunscreen and the dollars, and left me with the half-broken bike and promises to call from Nepal.

He never called. Which I took to mean that he’d return before the first tourists were gone, ready to run his pop-up bakery stall. I imagined him at home huddled together with his family, keeping each other warm with hot rotis, spicy lamb and strong raksi to drink.

The jeep stopped in front of Lal Bhai’s teashop.

She sat wrapped in a red shawl, waking startled and amazed in this accidental lap of the mountains. The thick pelt of her shawl hid half of her face, but her eyes were cast upwards in a wide sweep of the clouds and the hills.

Another woman poked her head through the window, Where are the hotels? she asked.

Lal Bhai gestured towards me. Ask him, he said.

You know somewhere a bit... nice? I nodded, looking away from the girl I had been staring at.

My father runs a hotel, I said. I’ll come with you.

She looked at the two other women in the car and said, Just tell me where to go.

I only took long enough to finish my tea, but when I reached our cottage, Finjo was already there. Magically at hand when three young women needed a friendly host and porter, looking like he’d never left. Outside the guest cottage, my father was hovering over their luggage with his toothbrush hanging from his half-parted lips, frowning at Finjo. He barked at me, Where have you been? Even the Nepali is here before you.

Finjo put a friendly hand around my father’s shoulder. All is well, uncle, all is well.

I hurriedly grabbed as many small bags as I could before my father lost his temper in front of the guests. My mother stood up from her washing under the tap in the courtyard. She wiped the white lather off her hands and went inside to fetch the keys to the cottage.

The girl in the red shawl walked around the two bedroom cottage, examining the false ceiling my father had put in the winter before last in an unusual burst of optimism. I looked furtively at her back, her tilted head, and the angle of her neck as I lugged a tripod under one arm, several smaller bags in the other. I bumped into the door. A box of film landed in my mother’s abandoned washing, scattering everywhere. My elbow caught on a nail in the wood, dripping drops of blood on their doorstep. I stiffened, expecting a slap from my father, who’d bounded up the path, closing the distance between our quarters and their cottage. I hoped that the girl wouldn’t see my father slap me. But he pushed me aside and began picking up everything that had fallen, blocking my view of the room. I walked away, hiding behind the shrubs and the apple trees, away from her eyes. I could hear Finjo inside the cottage with the girls; showing them the water heater, the switches, the trick to opening the door that stuck sometimes. My mother thrashed the clothes under the tap over and over, hunched between us, oblivious.

****

At eight, Finjo called me. What are you doing, little brother? Come down to the bridge. I didn’t want to tell him I was circling the cottage while the girls were out. I felt ashamed looking through the windows, watching their stuff strewn about. It was an odd kind of curiosity, an overpowering desire to peek into a different world, imagine their lives, their hands moving through their things. The girl with the red shawl — I wanted to know her name, wanted to see her move through these rooms. She no longer seemed real, the memory of her face had begun to break and rejoin in mosaic patterns. I wasn’t myself when she unlatched the door soundlessly and stepped out, with that thick red pelt covering her body. She held my gaze and walked away. I was caught, unable to hide from the shame of watching her. She was bounding down the steep trail, already on the road, and I followed after.

****

She walked ahead and I followed as quietly as I could, willing myself to be invisible, not wanting to offend any more than I must have done already. Familiarity with guests was a dangerous thing. I wanted to see Finjo. Finjo in his worldliness, Finjo in his cynicism and good humour would set things right. Finjo would know how to exorcise my romantic possession. I wanted to see him at the bridge, drink chhang and smoke his stolen Marlboros.

At dusk, the river was unbearably loud. She stopped and turned around to face me. I stood rooted to the ground, awaiting her judgement and her anger. Instead, she smiled.

Are you following me? She asked.

My answer could not have made sense. I would have run away if I could.

Where are you going?

I managed to say, “The bridge”, and “Finjo”.

I’m headed there, too, she said.

Along the river, drowned in its desolate roar, the mist rose from the water coagulating around the dark silhouettes of mountains. The dirt road ended at the bridge, a half-shape of rope and timber swaying above the river. Violent orchids hung around us, still gleaming among grey rocks. I pointed to the spot by the river shallows where Finjo liked to spend his evenings. They sat around a fire — the two girls from the cottage, Finjo, and a couple of white backpackers. Finjo was playing the guitar and introducing his new friends to chhang. He passed me a rolled-up cigarette. Welcome, brother, Lord Shiva sends his regards.

My memory of that evening is shrouded in a pall of earthy smoke. There was chhang, Finjo’s raksi and homemade joints. Finjo handed over his guitar to the red-shawled girl. I learned that her name was Marina. A name that Finjo whispered so softly that I thought he had known her forever. Marina, Marina, Marina — I repeated in my head like a chant. I wanted to find that word in a dictionary, write it down a hundred walls, carve it on the stones along the river. Finjo whispered, Marina. He placed a hand on her thigh, they laughed, he sang another song.

****

I cannot know what time it was, I’d lost track of it along with something else — a sense of being. I stood in the soft rain for a long time, walking away into the river’s darkness, where its gurgling drowned their laughter and their firelight flickered through the vaporous rain. I looked for a quiet spot to settle my head and a likely rock to piss on. Behind a thicket of brush where the hard rock curved into a cove, Finjo leaned on a tree, whispering in Marina’s neck. She chuckled and met his lips. Dim streetlights touched them lightly, in on the secret. Parvati is a beautiful name for a river, Marina told Finjo, leaning against him, looking at the water.

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It was early morning by the time I came back. My mother looked at me in a sad way and told me to go sleep. She was already knocking through the rooms, readying them for the next guests. She made soft measured sounds — that deliberate, unapologetic white noise of my mother’s mornings. I lay awake with my eyes shut in the middle of our threadbare rezais, stained by our shambling efforts at life. The moderately nicer blankets went to the lodgers, so they didn’t have to endure the stink of us. My mother’s meandering chore-walk wove through our two crowded rooms in the half-light of dawn, brushing past my father as he slept on a separate charpai in a low, belligerent snore. In the grey light his dirty stubble looked sick. Patches of darkness sat brooding under his eyes, on his chin, his temples. Untouched by me or my mother, in that stale smell of alcohol, moth-balled sweaters, chewing tobacco and bad breath — all huddled together in his own private universe. That is how I would remember him, I realised, in the long years ahead. We were three different planets orbiting each other, trying not to collide.

****

A week later Finjo texted me. Waiting downstairs. I tiptoed out of the courtyard, where my father snored on a charpai, a few mosquitoes buzzing around his open mouth. We walked to the football field on the way to Manikaran. It was a strange thing in the mountains — that small expanse of level playing ground. Finjo unrolled an old Hustler, ran a finger through Pamela Anderson’s breasts bulging out of a red swimsuit, down past her navel into that secret space.

Sometimes they smell good, sometimes they smell like onions. Finjo ran his hand through my hair, You’ll know one of these days, little brother.

Marina is where ships are moored, I told Finjo. I looked it up in the dictionary.

They come and they go, Finjo said. They’re tourists.

We sat for a long time, watching the floodlights bathe the green expanse. Planes passed above us towards the Bhuntur aerodrome. In the unearthly light of the bluish floodlights, the field looked like the sea. Years into the future, I’d really see one, and know how wrong I had been. But then, I was a mountain boy, 15 years old, and I made that field into my own particular kind of sea. We shivered in the windblown rain despite the chhang in our blood. Planes flew like showers of stars searching for us in their flickering tail lights. We hunkered in the darkness of empty seats, rows upon rows of them, lying on our backs, waiting for the crash from the unimaginable future.

 

Rijula Das’s debut novel Other Town will be published by Picador India in August

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Published on January 18, 2019
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