Sunday, November 30, 2014

A Shillong Tale

I’m rocking from side to side like a passenger in a train. Someone is shaking me awake. Opening my eyes just a third, I see a blurry face poring over me - Aleya's, the girl with wide-set eyes and curly hair I think I just met somewhere I cannot quite ascertain right away.

“Sorry to wake you up,” she says softly.

I manage to open my eyes fully, and sit up in my chair. “I’m sorry, what time is it?”

I hear strange, loud noises from outside.


Two am? Holy cow!

”You look uncomfortable in the chair. You are talking in your sleep. You need to sleep on a bed.”

 My head is heavier than a bowling ball. I have to go home and crawl into my bed. I stagger unsteadily towards the door.

“Take it easy. There’s a storm outside. You’d rather stay here,” a male voice cuts into my head.

Ray Norgrum, in a holiday sweater and slacks, is picking up empty glasses from the coffee table. We are inside his immaculate living room with a vintage bookcase, a mantel with scented candles and framed photographs, and a poster of a green valley on the opposite wall. A log fire is crackling in the stone fireplace.

By now, my head is clearing up. I’m still not completely awake yet, but I can piece together what had happened. There was a party, yes - a few hours ago, I waited in the dark along with Ray’s many other friends preparing to spring the biggest surprise of his life. And then? I cannot recall much.  Ray’s stupefied expression at the sight of us leaping out of our hiding places, blank, dancing, blank, blank, and shots of some kind of strong alcohol.

The awful noise outside must be the storm – howling, and rattling. I look through the window behind me. Dark and grey, swirling winds, and showering snow. There is no question I’m trapped here - alone with Ray and Aleya.  Awkward, to say the least.

“I’m sorry, I should have left earlier,” I say.

“Don’t apologize! We love your company – awake or snoring!” Aleya laughs, brushing her curls back.

“C’mon,” I smile, “you two should be enjoying the evening without my presence!”

Silence. Oh boy!

Aleya speaks first (mildly amused): “You think we are seeing each other?”

Ray smiles, flashing his white chiseled teeth. “Buddy, she is also stuck here. She drank too much, and just passed out.”

I look at Aleya again who is sealing the open bottles on the dining table. She is delicately pretty with lustrous dark skin and pixie curls. Heck, she looks sober to me. I don’t believe them for a moment.

“I really must go!” I hurry to the door and yank it open. Whoosh! The wind almost sweeps me off my feet. The party decorations tear off from the walls, a wine bottle spins and smashes to the floor.

“Shut the door!” Ray pleads urgently.

I close the door, and turn around red-faced. Aleya is already down on the floor to clear up the mess. I drop down on one knee to help her out only to sense a huge rip - my pants tear in the back, ripped asunder from stretching the leg! My night cannot get any worse. I hop back up again and flop on the nearest chair taking great care not to display my back side.

Aleya, who watched my comically strange behavior without questioning, clears her throat.

“Whatever gave you the idea about Ray and me?” She says, looking menacing with giant shards in her hands.

 “I heard you two were classmates in Calcutta.”

“Yes. But we never really got to know each other till the last year. He was an introvert. Always studying.”

“And she was always hanging out with her Bengali circle.” Ray says, sweeping the floor.

Aleya waves her hand - “Besides, Ray’s heart is in Shillong. There is a girl. Isn't that right, Ray?”

“Don’t believe her!” he adds, dumping the trash, “My heart is in Shillong! But not for a girl.”

“Ray!” Aleya exclaims. “The girl from your neighborhood!”

“If you are talking about Isa, it is over. I ran into her at my father’s funeral.”

“Where is she?”

“She’s engaged to someone. It’s inappropriate to think of her now as anyone but a friend.”

“I’m sorry – but what happened?” Aleya asks.

“Oh I’m fine. It is a long story. I will spare you the details.”

“But we have the whole night! I’m dying to hear it!” Aleya is pleading.

There are also two bottles of good wine, and some Turkish delight.  

Ray sits down with his glass. The alcohol is working on him. He is normally humble and reserved, but I can sense he is pondering Aleya’s request. He pinches his thin lower lip with his thumb and forefinger, and smiles leaning forward:

Only if we take turns.”

Aleya throws up her hands. “Hey, I’m a bore. I don’t have any stories.”

Neither do I.

“Then, forget it!” Ray says, leaning back.

Aleya ponders for a moment. “No, wait! I don’t have a story, but I will tell you a secret.”

“That is a deal! What about you?” he asks me.

I fidget, but give in – for another little secret.

Aleya claps: “Excellent! Let me get the drinks.”

Aleya picks up our wine glasses. She pours red wine for Ray. She winks at me - and fills our glasses slyly with grape cider. 

Ray is resting his head on his arm, as he looks far away. “When I close my eyes at night, I hear the market, the sound of closing shutters, and the rickshaws dragging empty wood pallets on the road. It is tiring. This job,” he says, “and my education – are not the normal trajectory. Where I grew up, a career in Engineering was unheard of.”

He describes Shillong, a Northeastern city, up in the rippling green Khasi hills, surrounded by lakes and waterfalls. It is the town in the poster hanging on his wall. But that’s Shillong from the outside, he says.

“I grew up within, at the bazaar living with the sounds of the mill grinding the flour, the din of bargaining, the odors of roasting meat and fish. The seasonal rains soaked the stalls, created puddles all over, and flooded the open gutters. The winters are cold and desolate with rolling mists and the smell of kerosene heaters.

“My father ran the family bakery at the bazaar. My great-grand-uncle started it as a modest little general store. Over the decades, it turned into a bakery and my father grew it bigger than ever as a catering place for festivals and weddings. We had a little shed in the backyard that was our factory, Pa sometimes would let me watch while he prepared cupcakes himself. He was a meticulous baker, experimenting and recording in his green-covered folder. I remember he used to smile easily in those days.

“But, suddenly my mother died in a road accident. I was just thirteen, my uncles and aunts helped take care of me. My father went into a shock, business suffered until the day he snapped out of it when I brought in my yearly school report. I had topped my class head over shoulders. He read it quietly and looked me straight with his piercing grey eyes.“

At this point, Ray jumps up to swipe a Karakul cap from the bookcase. He puts it on and changes voice like a switch went off - it is a rough, abrasive voice:

“Raymond, you got cent per cent in Math! No one in our family ever got more than 50%! When you grow up, you shouldn't be a baker like me. You should be a gentleman with a fine salary.”

“He got back into work more devoted than ever – to save as much money as he can. He sent me off frequently to my aunt’s little flat where I could study in relative peace.”

Ray pauses his story again, doffing the cap, to pour himself another glass of wine.

“That’s where I met Isa who lived in the same block. She was a skylark, very active in the local festivals, singing and dancing with troupes. I got to know their family slowly over the years. Her father became Pa’s friend and supplier. We’d go for picnics to the lake shore. In one of those trips, Isa and I went on a long hike to get know each other better. That was the turning point in our … er… friendship.”

Aleya smiled: “I bet a lot went on in the turning point!”

Ray winked. “My father wasn't thrilled that he had to send a small search party to find us. When we returned home, he confronted me – I told him it was nothing serious. He didn't buy it.”

Ray wears the cap again and speaks in his father’s voice:

“Raymond! Do you want to be a great engineer - or a stupid lover?”

“Not fair. You could be both,” Aleya said.

“You really have to understand,” Ray says, running a hand through his dark thin hair, “We are a family of bakers, wedding singers, and ticket agents. My father dropped out when he was only sixteen. He could read, write and do basic math. With that legacy, he really didn't know what it takes to be an Engineer. He thought any distraction could derail my plans."

“What did you think of her – a distraction?”

“Then? Not me. She was a great girl. Except, she wasn't quite the one.”


Ray scratches his head. “Now, remember I was just a young teen there, my head filled with crazy notions. She wasn't really pretty like the heroines from movies. I couldn't get past the mole.”

“The mole?”

“Yes, she had a mole on her right cheek. It was repulsive. The more I got to know her, the bigger it seemed to become. You wouldn't understand.”

Aleya crosses her arms: “Oh, I understand! The specter of the mole - sure. You thought you were going out with a mole, not a girl. That’s stupid, you know!”

Ray doesn't answer as he pauses to roll up the blinds. The window glass is frozen and near opaque. I suddenly notice a thick, green-covered binder in the bookcase. I wonder if it was the same one his father had kept for decades.

“The blizzard is slowing down,” he says, peering with his face against the pane. 

 “Well, then get on with the story!” Aleya says impatiently.

“A year later,” he says, still looking outside, “I got into Jadavpur University, in their Computer Science program. My father was ecstatic, of course, as his dreams were coming true. Isa was also cool about it.”

“Jadavpur - that's where you two met?” I ask Aleya.

“Yes,” Aleya says, and smiles wryly, “I had no idea he left a girl behind. I learnt about her only when he was leaving for America.”

 “I didn't leave her. I went back whenever I could. But the distance was making her jumpy, she thought I was slipping away from our so-called relationship. See, that was really the problem. She assumed there was something permanent going on. I did not.”

 “You were misleading her!”

 “Not intentionally. In the third summer, I really wanted to end this before it got any deeper. When I got down at the bus station, I saw her waiting at the gates looking entirely different. She had changed into a young woman. She was very pretty.”

“What about the mole?” Aleya asks, deliberately stressing the last word.

“It shrunk … almost invisible. I was seeing the girl, not the mole. She looked like a heroine from the movies.  And there she was – waiting just for me.”

I stand up to clap as Ray takes a bow. Aleya stares at us with clear contempt. Outside, there is a sound like a crack. Probably a tree branch breaking under the weight of snow. Ray downs rest of the wine in his glass, and excuses himself to the bathroom.

I notice a particular photograph on the mantel. It is of his father – a tall light-skinned man in his fifties with white sideburns, pursed lips, and stern grey eyes that belie hardship and pain.

“Hey, look at this,” says Aleya, pointing to the next picture of a group of scrawny teens in a clearing among trees on a lush green hill. Ray is easily recognizable, sitting astride on a blanket. A cherubic girl is next to him lying flat on her stomach. The mole on her cheek is unmistakable. Her face is childlike and flushed.

 Ray saunters back in, walking a bit unsteady. I can tell he is buzzed. He fills his glass again.

“When she looked so beautiful at the station,” he continues, “I changed my mind. I wanted her for life. But first - I had to talk my father about another matter – America.”

“Yeah, Ray cracked the GREs. He was really obsessed about American colleges,” Aleya says.

“I asked him about going to America on a scholarship. I thought he would be mad, but it was just the opposite.”

The Karakul cap went back on his head and his voice changed again:

Raymond, you should go to America whether you get a scholarship or not! I will make it happen.”

“Father loved the idea, but I didn’t want to tell Isa yet, but she got wind of it anyway.”

“What did she think?”

“Funny, she was strangely indifferent. Her only comment?  We were like two planets in separate orbits. Suddenly, she didn’t seem to care that much. Isa had joined the local college, moved around in a new company of high-spirited friends, participated in dance shows, and could not fathom a life outside Shillong.“

“Let me get this straight,” Aleya says, “Now you wanted to commit, and she did not. The tables turned on you.”

Ray sits down, his voice softening.

“I think I should have spent more time with her on that trip. But there was an emergency at home. One night, I was helping Pa with his accounts. He asked me to pass him the pen. I tossed it over, and it landed right next to him on the cushion. He kept on looking at me.

Raymond, didn’t you hear me? Please pass me the pen!”

Ray falls silent. Aleya seems to understand, but I don’t get it.

“My father,” he says at length, “was losing sight. He couldn’t spot a pen flying right at him in a dimly lit room."

He sighs: "I took him to the doctor the very next day. A specialist told us he had a genetic defect in his eye that leads to degenerative night blindness.”

Again, he pauses to look outside. The world is clearing up. The worst of the storm is over.

“I insisted on staying back in Shillong, but my father would have none of it. He was extra cheerful. The only thing that mattered to him was to find a manager for his accounts.”

“Bless his soul!” Aleya says.

“I have to ask you,” I interrupt pointing to the bookcase, “is that green binder the one your father was using?”

Ray nods, and retrieves it. He put it on the table, unties the string, and opens the flaps.

“After my finals, I was back in Shillong helping Pa when I received the letter.”

“What letter?”

He doesn't say, just beckons Aleya closer to whisper something in her ear. Her eyes widen, and she grins. Then he looks at me with wide eyes.

“We will make this special. We are going to enact this for you, buddy. Give us a few minutes to get ready and then all you have to do is clap twice.”

He takes out two letters – gives her one and keeps the other. He  also scribbles some notes on a post-it note, and attaches it to her letter. They both exit to opposite rooms - Ray to the bathroom  on the left, and Aleya to the bedroom on the right.

I wait for what seemed a long enough pause, and clap twice.

Aleya appears from the bedroom door. She is wearing the Karakul cap now, with a letter in her hand.

Raymond, RAYMOND! Where are you? I have to talk to you.”

Ray emerges out from the bathroom, also carrying a letter in his hand.

“Pa! Where are YOU? I need to talk to you too.”

“Oh there you are! You go first, Raymond. What is it?”

 “Pa, I got scholarship from America. I got into the University of Colorado. No tuition fees. Financial aid. I’m just so happy.”

“Congratulations, Raymond! I’m so happy for you!”

“Pa, what did you want to talk about?”

Aleya reads from the post-it note on her letter.
“I found a manager for our business. I just wrote his offer letter. so don’t you worry about my night blindness.”

“That’s how,” Ray says, perspiration on his brow, “I embarked on this life.”

Aleya takes off the cap, “Just before the farewell party, wasn't it? I remember you just returned from Shillong. You mentioned to us that you probably lost a girl forever as you were going off to America.”

“What happened to your father?” I ask.

“The new manager he hired was a thug. He exploited my father’s increasing blindness. Stole money, hired gang members to force him to sell the bakery for a pittance. My father couldn't deal with the stress I think, because he died from a heart attack. No one knew ... not me, not my aunts and uncles.”

“I’m sorry,” I say.

Ray ruffles his hair, with a rueful smile.       
“It could have been different. Entirely different – only if our conversation that day played out in just a different way.”

“What was that?”

“Let us enact it again.”

This time, he says - I am going to be his father and Aleya the observer. He gives me the letter and leads me to the room.

I sit in the bedroom wearing the Karakul cap, holding the faded envelope without an address, and the post-it note with my lines.

A few moments later, Aleya claps twice.

I come out and yell:

“Raymond, RAYMOND! Where are you? I have to talk to you.”

Ray bolts out of the bathroom: “Pa! Where are YOU? I need to talk to you too.”

“Oh there you are! You go first, Raymond. What is it?”

“No, you go first, Pa! I insist!” 

That is the difference. His father talks first. For a moment, I hesitate, but Ray nods at the letter in my hand.  I open it. Written in shaky handwriting over ruled thin paper, with ink smudges here and there.

“Dear Raymond: I have told you all my life to grow your wings and chase your dreams. But, today, I come begging to you to stay back in Shillong. My blindness is getting worse, I cannot run this store. I cannot even manage my life properly. You are the manager I need. My boy, it breaks my heart to ask you  – ” I stop reading. This is too private, I really cannot go on.

I’m speechless, Pa,” Ray says, still in character. “I want to be your manager right here and stay in this town. In fact, Pa, I was just going to tell you that I didn't get the admission anyway – “, Ray crumples his admission letter, tossing it on the table, as he leaps across to hug me.

It is too uncomfortable, but sensing his emotional state, I try not to squirm.

"You're lying to your father,"says Aleya, "but why?"

"Because he'd change his mind if he knew I got the scholarship," Ray says. "Remember, he actually did in real life. He lied that he had found a manager as soon as he heard I got a scholarship."

"You better sit down, you are exhausted," I lead him to the chair.

“I could have had a different life,” Ray says softly, “I could have stayed back in Shillong. Taught at the local Engineering college. Not for Shillong. Not for Isa. Just for Pa, and the Bakery. All I had to do - let him talk first.’

It is only after the funeral when he found the letter in the folder – he really knew the whole story. 

Ray sits down with a shrug. “I'm tired. This is my home now. I really enjoy this life. I shouldn't complain, should I? I should never look back, of what use is regret?"

“That’s quite a story!” I say.

“Yes,” Ray says. “Now, it is your turn. Out with the secrets.”

“You go first,” says Aleya to me.

I get up. This ain't easy, but I have to keep my end of the deal. I turn around slowly and moon them. A little show and tell - I hear the laughter and hoots behind me.

“Well, what is your secret?” Ray asks Aleya.

She looks at me at first with an inscrutable expression. Then, she takes in a deep breath to address Ray.

“Ray, you thought I was too drunk to go back home. But I was only drinking cider the whole night. I was pretending to be drunk so everyone else left your house.”

She looks at me apologetically.

I fucking jinxed the plan! Oh no! I must leave. Right Now!

Ray says something to her, she replies,but I'm not listening. He is moving towards her. I pick up my coat and keys. I slowly open the door, and ease myself out as noiselessly as I can. Through the slit of the closing door, I see their faces drawing closer together.

The door clicks just as they kiss.