I was always a very curious child. Nothing deterred me from my insatiable urge to explore. In the family reunions, my aunts and cousins love exchanging stories of me getting lost in one place or the other. Am I proud of the fact that I could get lost that easily? Not really, but neither am I ashamed of it. I have accepted that part of me as a natural extension of my identity. You could say that I am a bit absent-minded that way. Perhaps, I like the idea of me as a whimsical genius, and that notion fuels my absent-mindedness. Who knows? At any rate my ‘lost in the unknown land’ stories have never been tragic, and they have ensured that I have something to fill the awkward silence that permeates the space between a man, a woman and their meals together.
In summer of 1994, I was having a rather awkward lunch with a beautiful girl. We were close, I think but I can’t be sure how close. I don’t remember if I ever felt that life wouldn’t be worth living without her. I don’t remember if I thought of her every day while I was away. The memory is a bit distant. Every time I tell this story, I try to remember how it felt to be with her, but I can’t shake off the alien nature of the memories. Its as if someone has just sucked out all the emotion from them, and has left me with just the bare-minimum dry facts. The closest thing I can equate it with is the texture of a frog’s heart or a dry chewing gum on a summer afternoon. I won’t talk about how I know what the texture of a frog’s heart feels like. Anyway, back to the girl I was having lunch with. Her name was Akshi, and she used to work as a Japanese interpreter in a travel company. Although she wasn’t a Japanese national, she had a distinct ‘Japanese’ look on her face.
My theory is that learning a language makes you imbibe a little bit of the culture, forever altering a part of your soul. Akshi certainly had the exuberance of a Japanese school girl with her sing-song style of talking. Her eyes danced with ethereal lights every time she said “Hello, how good is the morning!”. Since she was a voracious reader, and like to think of herself as an art critique, sometimes I would humor her with some of my poetry. Now, my poetry is rather pedantic in my opinion, but she never seemed to get over the fact that I was a real poet. She was silly that way.
“Are you for real! How can you write so easily, and so simply…” she would say sighing dreamily. I would just flash a grin at that. It never mattered to me what people thought of my poetry, and even the appreciation of it has never given me any high. I think I did it just to fish compliments from people, or to have something to talk about in case a conversation lasted too long and I ran out of classic topics such as gossip and weather. On one evening in May though, I realized that I had already discussed all my poems with Akshi. Usually this is my cue to get out of a relationship. Perhaps I am a petty man who cannot sustain a meaningful relationship due to my unwillingness to put in any kind of real effort.
“Aren’t you a jackass, Sir” I recall thinking to myself as I sat in front of her at a uniquely placed restaurant near Bombay.
You see, the city does not have many high inclines or vantage points. You need to travel quite a bit to see some hills in Bombay. So, a restaurant at the base of a hill is a rarity. It was around thirty kilometers from the city, and we had just taken a quick ride to the place on my bike. I had begged and pleaded her to take this trip with me. It had taken a lot of deception to fool both of our parents, including bribes to our friends for an alibi. Finally, we were there, and the moment was mine to seize. However, I had never imagined that I would have nothing to say, and being in that situation frustrated me to no ends. I think I would have been happier if she had simply refused to come with me. That way I could have just blamed her for being boring, and moved on. Now that she was across the table waiting for me to say something, I had to entertain her with a meaningful conversation. I finally decided to go to my fallback option. The good old childhood misadventure stories.
“Have you ever gotten lost?”, I asked her. She asked me what I meant by that.
“You know, completely lost, not knowing where you are, where you were before you reached there, and where to go from there, that kind of a thing…”. I said playing with the salt and pepper containers on the table.
She kept tapping her plate with the fork, trying hard to remember. Her eyes rolled like a reverse pendulum. Finally, she stopped thinking with a sigh, and made up her mind.
“No, nothing that drastic, maybe once or twice I got lost in some social gathering, I couldn’t find my parents, and then they announced over the speaker about a child lost etc. I can’t think of being completely lost otherwise… what about you?”
She put her hand under her chin, leaning forward. A pose that would suit either a psychological counsellor or a journalist. I leaned back, taking a breath, looking at the hills behind her.
“Well there have been quite a few times actually, but the most interesting story is about this time I stumbled upon a hill dog.” I waited for her to ask me what was a hill dog. I loved explaining things like that to anyone who would bother to ask. When she asked what was a ‘hill dog’, I continued with a smile.
“It’s a normal dog really, except that it has been living in the hills for too long. It knows how to navigate steep inclines with ease. Sometimes they guide people on their path. When I was about 10 years old, we moved to Pune, and it’s a bit of a hilly region. Our home was near a small hillock. The day we move in, we noticed huge cracks in the wall, with all the cement crumpled on the floor below. It looked like the house had been through an earthquake. We were also given a servant who explained that it was because of the mining done in the hills. Many years later there was an agitation about the mining, you know.” I said, swiping back a lock of hair that had fallen on my eyes.
I tried to gauge Akshi’s reaction. She seemed riveted to the story, asking me to proceed silently, so I continued.
“Both my parents were working professionals, seldom staying at home. I was left to my devices in afternoons and evenings. We hardly knew any of our neighbors, so I had no friends. I would spend my time exploring the area, and on a Friday afternoon, I decided to climb the hillock behind our home. It didn’t take long to climb all the way up, maybe half an hour. There was a plateau on the top, spread across till as far as I could see. Since it was the afternoon, there was no one there, not a single soul. I started walking in one direction and before long, I had reached a small forest like area. It was mostly filled with Eucalyptus trees, so there was some space between the trees. Light filtered in through the trees, and the wind brought the fresh citrusy smell of eucalyptus. It was an open invitation to explore further.” I paused to drink some water, and immediately Akshi prodded me to continue.
“Then what happened?” she asked putting both her elbows on the table. I was only happy to continue.
“I remember running through the trees, drinking in the surreal scene before me, completely lost in the moment. After a long time, I realized it had gotten dark, I could see the rain clouds gathered above. I wanted to head back, but I had no idea how to! I was completely lost in the trees, and no matter where I looked all the trees looked the same. I walked till it got darker and darker, but I just could not get out of the small forest. I think I must have been walking in circles.” I took a break to light up my cigarette, Akshi frowned but it wasn’t because of the smoking, she never voiced her concerns over my health. Her frowning was more about taking the break from the story. I deliberately took a long drag, trying to feel the smoke burn in my chest. I blew a small circle and then an arrow of smoke through it. Sometimes I agree with friends who say that I am a bit vain, but blowing a circle of smoke is a hard-earned skill. One that Akshi secretly liked I think, as she would look away when I did that, with a small smile on her face.
“So did you see the dog then?” she asked, unable to curtail her curiosity.
“No, not then. I wasn’t completely lost. I had a vague sense of direction. On my right side there was a slope that descended towards what could only be lights from our colony, or some colony. I knew that if I could reach there, somehow I would find way back home. It had suddenly dawned on me that there would be questions asked by my parents. So, to avoid any unpleasant consequences of this little adventure, I tried to rush down the slope.
In my haste, I stumbled and fell into a small pit. It’s probably something that the municipal corporation dug out near the foothills of the hillock.”
She stared at me and asked “Why would they do that?”. I just shook my head. Why would I know what they think? Aren’t municipal corporations crazy worldwide? I thought they never needed a reason to dig things around. I continued with the story after another drag.
“Well that’s not the point of this story. Just as I got out of the pit, I saw a mid-sized little dog sitting quietly, flapping its tail at me. He was dark brown, but looked darker in the twilight. I have a neutral relationship with dogs generally. I don’t hate them, but not crazy for them either, so I am never sure how to pet them, when they want it. Luckily, this dog wasn’t very affectionate either, but he did motion for me to follow him. I was still shaken from my fall, but the lights now looked closer than they were earlier. So, I figured I could follow the dog till he is taking me closer to the lights. He was an unusual dog, really silent, and somehow very much aware about the fact that I was just a child.”
We paused to tell the waiter what we wanted, but I don’t quite remember what we ate. “Is that it? Seems kind of abrupt to me” she said after the tea had arrived. I was exasperated. It was just the way she had said it, while running the finger on her cup. It was a look of absolute disappointment. How I hated that look!
“Of course not”, I said. I don’t know why I said that, there wasn’t much to the story apart from the fact that the dog had gotten me home.
In my head, it always seemed like a nice little anecdote, and plenty of times I have completely enthralled my audience on many campfires with it. “Maybe the allure of night time, the campfire, and a few drinks are needed to tell this story effectively” I thought.
I looked back at her with some needless defiance and continued “When I reached close to my home, the dog kind of paused, and turned. I don’t know how he knew I had arrived close to my home. They must have some way to track residual scent, and trace it back to me. However, it wouldn’t move from there. It just kept staring at me, and I had a feeling that it wanted something, but I wasn’t sure what. I did not have any food on me anyway. So I just ran past him, straight to my home. I heard a groveling sound in background. The hill dog wasn’t very happy with me. I cared the least about it though, as I was too anxious to face my parents. As soon as the door opened, I braced myself for a good scolding. It never came. My mother seemed in a rush to go off somewhere, she just asked me to get ready. We were going out for some dinner party. They thought I was just playing around somewhere, and I didn’t want to challenge that notion. I thought of carrying some bread with me, for the hill dog, but my mom did not allow it. By the time we came back from the dinner, I had completely forgotten about the whole incident.” I finished blowing out another drag from cigarette.
“You should have done something for the poor dog! I think you were a mean kid” Akshi said. I just sighed, this wasn’t the desired effect that I had in mind at all.
“Well, maybe a little, but I was just ten. Also, you don’t know what happened later. From the next day, whenever I went near the hill, I would see the dog just behind the woods, staring at me, warning me not to come near the hill. Till date, I have never gone there by myself! Sometimes at night, he would stare at me from the forest, and at exactly midnight, I would hear him howling, promising me that he will have his due. I tried to leave some bread by the forest a few times, but it would always remain untouched, until it was eaten by squirrels or ants. The hill dog never ate my bread, and he continued to stare at me for a long time. I am not kidding, it’s a true story”. I rubbed the stub of cigarette as I finished the story.
There was that awkward silence again until she said something strange.
“It did not want bread, it wanted you to accompany it back to forest for something. It must have been something like that. Probably you just thought that the hill dog was leading you home, but maybe he was leading you somewhere else…”
I was silent for a long time. It had never occurred to me that I could have simply misread the motivations of the dog. I did not know how to respond. The statement had ruined one of my stories forever, making it a useless anecdote. Maybe I could have chosen a different ending for it, but then I would be reminded of the look of being completely disinterested that I would be reminded of. Somehow I felt that I had lost more than just a remedy for awkward silences that day.
Harshad Karmalkar is an aspiring author and poet from Banglore, India. His works have been published by other journals in past such as MuseIndia.com, and Harvests of New Millennium. He has also been part of the mentor-ship program conducted by Author Anita Nair. In his spare time, Harshad loves trekking and blogging.