Darjeeling was the crown of hills. I remember from the trip my family took me on when I was barely 12, the winding roads where an avalanche had happened last night, and dad reading the newspaper he had carried in a jute handbag while mom prayed for deliverance. The driver was a man of the hills and he had learnt not to pay attention to tourists who only came to Darjeeling when a heat wave hit their cities in the plains.
I sat beside the window of the rented car, with an obedient monkey cap covering half my face and eyes; only my nose exposed to the cold breeze, and mom waiting for me to sneeze so she could scold me for being careless in this weather.
But that was almost a decade ago, and all that’s left of Darjeeling in my memory, are the winding roads with their fear of avalanches, a Gurkha driver adept at ignoring troublesome passengers, and my freezing nose.
We had long swapped the heart of the hills for the entrails of this city. Neon signs over a café serving beer and fish, for sepia toned Marwari snack shops with samosas and chutney.
And now, she was leaving for the hills again.
Shromona packed the last set of bras into her already bulging travel bag as I stood by the window, watching a rickshaw go by in the street below. Bras were the last thing to go in, because they were the least likely to be used when she unpacked her bags. We waited in silence for the conversation to start flowing, but she struggled with the zip and I wondered how long it had been since she had whispered, in a matter-of-fact kind of way, that she never wore bras. And I had accepted her secret, and become the river in which you could float just about anything, and know, somewhere down the sides, it’d arrive safely back to you, if you were so persistent.
It was Shromona who took me through long winding streets that led like a maze, and she’d laugh and say ‘run’ and we’d be running with heavy steps and heavier breaths, till there’d be a dead corner with a municipal dustbin and on the wall someone had written in bold letters ‘Raju loves Mina’, or ‘full fuck, 99008791..’ with the last two digits missing, like an unfulfilled orgasm. Shromona who never liked cologne and had slightly uneven teeth and canines which showed when she smiled and made me want to offer my lips to them.
But I never did.
Shromona turns to me, her bag packed and waiting approval to be carried away, and I return back to this moment. Her room looks so much bigger now, with all the furniture gone. Soon, she’ll be gone too.
Over time, memories will fade, like those of Darjeeling, and play tricks with me. I’ll remember things differently at times. Sometimes I’d wonder if she had a mole beneath her chin, other times I’d be sure she had a scar beside her temple. She was waiting for me to say something, and there was so much I wanted to tell her, about the long walks and treasure hunts and her pretty teeth and the only secret I’d never shared with her.
But it was too late now. Niladri was probably hailing a cab already, to take them to the station. I had hung on to this secret for so long now, it felt useless to give it up now.
Besides, she was moving to Darjeeling with her fiancé. That’s pretty much where all secrets find their graves.
“I’ll miss you”, I finally say. She has sadness in her eyes; can it be, that after all this time this city had finally gotten to her?
“I’ll miss you, and I’ll miss Niladri”, I say once again. She nods and I go on.
“He was always more than a friend to me, you know. And now that he won’t be here, things won’t be the same. There’d be no more books to borrow and conveniently forget about. No more scavenging for free tickets to shoddy music shows. No one to ask me to abandon ship, to empty my drawers off trinkets from old lovers. No one to fight me over deciding whether Darjeeling, or this city has more number of pet cats. I’ll miss all of that.”
I pause, unsure how to conclude this burden of secret. Would she understand it was all about her? We had been best friends for so long. Wouldn’t she see through this facade? Wouldn’t she know without her, this city will cease to make sense, cease to exist in my memories?
I didn’t realise when the stillness of the room had dissolved into tears. I hurriedly wiped them away. She smiled. “Take care, you”, she said. The cab honked impatiently downstairs. I carried her bag for her and set it down lightly in the boot.
I stood there, for a long time after the cab had disappeared behind the curve of the road, and tried to remember if she had turned back to look at me as I was disappearing from view.
‘He loves you, you know. I don’t know how you never saw’, he told her.
Shromona made a face in return.
‘Fuck you. You were the one he loves, the one he’s going to miss. He fucking cried for you. I knew there was a reason why he never made a move on me, even though we spent all our time together.’
Niladri laughs, his loud reverberating laughter. Shromona moves closer to him, and traces her fingers on his chest. She had always loved the way he laughed.
That night, Shromona slept early. The day had been an exhausting one for her, Niladri knew, besides, it was never easy to leave a city you had lived in for so long. Trees are easy to fell. But roots, the roots that travel far into the ground, never give up without a fight; never agree to be severed completely.
In Darjeeling, the night breeze was cold this time of the year, and Niladri pulled the blanket more securely over Shromona as she snored slightly. Then he went to the study table and powered on his laptop. Before logging in, he turned to check on Shromona. She slept motionless, only her back heaving with each breath, she always slept on her stomach.
Everyone has their secrets. For Shromona, it was her aversion to bras and her fascination with getting lost in mazes, trying to find dumpsters. For the city she had left behind, it was the burden of love letters that never got posted, and the river which accepted sins like currencies.
As he entered the gay chat forum with his username ‘bigdaddy777’, Niladri searches me, in the cesspool of suggestive usernames.
Somewhere, the Gurkha driver’s mother prays for his safe return from another mountain avalanche.
Sentiments don’t change with landscapes, here.
[ Samosas: stuffed and fried snacks prevalent in India.
Gurkha: People who originated from the Gorkha village in Nepal, known for their courage.]
Nilesh Mondal, 22, is an undergraduate in engineering by choice and writer by chance. His works have been published, or are forthcoming in Cafe Dissensus, Inklette Magazine, In Plainspeak, Kitaab Magazine, Coldnoon Journal, Textploit, etc. His first book, ‘Degrees of Separation’ (Writers Workshop) is slated for a 2017 release.