A Saving Grace
A Saving Grace11 mins 218 11 mins 218
It was a setting to be admired. The picturesque and sylvan valley of Setughat in Himachal Pradesh was a sight to behold. No soul that ever visited the place returned home without leaving a piece of their heart behind. No one except me of course, that is!
As our car rounded the bend and we headed back to Delhi, I was glad to leave Setughat behind. My companion's wistful look as Setughat's pine trees retreated in the distance left me feeling a little guilty. Only this morning I had woken up and insisted on cutting short a vacation that had only just begun.
'Why so soon?' Sarita had asked grumpily for the ninth time again with a baffled look over her face, the wind caressing the tendrils of her hair as our car gathered speed.
'Look I'm sorry, but I have already told you that for the last two nights I had been having this recurring and rather disturbing dream about huge boulders blocking access to our apartment. As if, someone has placed something dark black outside the door…it has made me restless…as if something or someone is warning me of…anyway I wanted to return home because of this and I am sorry for cutting the vacation short,' I replied crossing my hands across my stomach in a self-defensive manner.
On hearing this Sarita shook her head and moved slowly towards the edge of her seat, her face literally hanging outside the window. She was taking in the view, the pine trees, the verdant green valley, and the tiny cottages dotting the landscape as it passed us in rapid motion. Her face was turned away from me and I could almost see the tears that she was fighting hard. I felt horrible deep down inside for doing this to her.
For months now, both of us had looked forward to getting away from work and the city. Colleagues at a garment factory in Delhi we had bonded over shared lunches and our hometown, Jaipur. The Pink City had forged between an unspoken friendship and bond. We had often talked of our favorite jaunts in the city and how much we missed Jaipur and our families there. Unlike me, Sarita lived in a rented apartment which was a long commute from the factory but had a cheaper rent to pay. I had been lucky to have inherited some money from my grandfather which along with a loan had helped me own an apartment in the otherwise expensive city, Delhi.
One thing had led to another and when my roommate and renter left to get married, I asked Sarita to share my small apartment. She had accepted with alacrity saying the reduced commute distance would help her save some extra money which would go towards paying for her younger brother's tuition classes. That had touched a chord in me and I had quietly mentioned a ridiculously low rent that she would need to pay me. A grateful Sarita had then thrown her arms around me and wept. When the storm within her had died, as she sat sipping her tea in the cafeteria she had confided about her family's dire state of finances.
Both of us had wanted to take a vacation but the opportunity to take leave together had not presented itself so far. So, we had sighed enviously each time we'd seen the picture of a glistening golden beach or pristine snowcapped mountain in a WhatsApp forward by colleagues who had visited various locations.
Finally, in March, we applied for and received consent for our leave together from our respective departments. Setughat appealed to us since it was easily reachable by car from Delhi. Surrounded by mountains, its green valley was crisscrossed by a meandering Clearwater stream even as crisp unpolluted air habited its territory. Setughat held the promise of a relaxed and splendid Nature retreat far from the maddening rush of the city. 'No air tickets to book, no queues to stand in, no hassles…just sit in a car and zoom to our holiday….Setughat, here we come!' Sarita had shouted aloud almost clapping her hands in unbridled joy.
D-day had been fixed for March 15th, and at the crack of dawn our hired car had arrived. Since we had been waiting for so many months to take this trip we had decided to break the bank a tad bit and take a car there instead of bussing it to the place. When we reached Setughat we were enthralled by its magical beauty. Tired though we were after the seven hour drive, we could not hold back our enthusiasm as we explored the hotel property and the long winding road outside which had little shops selling basic provisions. A thin drizzle late evening had forced us indoors where a sumptuous hot buffet meal awaited us. 'I could live here forever, really,' Sarita had sleepily said as she fell asleep. I had sat on my bed near the window for a while watching Nature's nocturnal drama through the partially drawn curtains. Somewhere in the distance, I could hear crickets, the croaking of frogs, and the rustling of leaves as the wind blew through the trees. The plop of raindrops from the roof to the now sodden earth below was a strangely comforting sound after Delhi's harsh sounds of quarrels over parking slots, the ear-deafening traffic honking in the street below, and the loud beat of the night watchman's stick as he patrolled the housing society. Here Nature was still and also moving all at once, the duality a sharp contrast to Delhi's constant monotonous din. With a smile on my face, I had thanked Mother Nature for the opportunity it had afforded me to behold its wondrous face and then fallen asleep.
Around 2 AM, when all around me was shrouded in a cloak of deep silence, I had woken up with a start. Blinking in the dark, I had gathered my surroundings. My heart was beating rapidly. In the dim light of the night lamp I could see that Sarita was curled up and asleep in her single bed near the door. The dream…the horrible dream! I had recalled the vivid details of the rough, jagged, and spikey rocks. So many of them piled high outside my apartment's door, they sat juxtaposed to each other. The midnight black of the rocks was darker than anything I had seen before. Blocking my access to the door of my house in Delhi, the rocks refused to budge when I tried to push them away. Relentlessly I tightened my grip on a few of them prying them loose from their vice like position across my door. Then one of them closest to me suddenly rolled and crushed my left foot. A scream had formed in my mouth but despite trying hard I was powerless and no sound emerged from me.
Trying to shake off the dream, I had slowly slid off the bed and reached out for a drink of water. After steadying my pacing heart, I had snuggled inside the warm duvet provided thoughtfully by the hotel staff. At night, the temperature had dipped and it had suddenly felt cold. An hour later I had settled to a fitful sleep.
Next day, my sleep deprived self, had tried to keep up with Sarita's enthusiasm. Together we had visited the large Lord Shiva temple in Setughat. I had closed my eyes tightly and asked Him to ward off all evil as I had tried to push the images of the rocks out of my mind. Yet, I could not shake off the feeling that something was amiss. Never one to pay too much attention to dreams, I had never believed they had any significance attached to them. People spoke of premonition and sixth sense but I never believed in it. How could humans look be clairvoyant, I often asked when I found anyone peering at their horoscope? How could someone foretell the future or explain the prognosis of seemingly disconnected events? So, I always steered clear of such discussions stating that I was neither clairvoyant nor intelligent enough to possess a sixth sense. 'But all women have a sixth sense! Its second nature to them,' my uncle had often argued. 'See your aunt. She can always guess what's going to happen just by what her simple gut feels on a particular day,' he would add with a twinkle in his eyes. My aunt would Justen listen to him, get provoked, and with her familiar toss of a sari's Pallu exit the room muttering under her breath.
I had wished then for their comforting presence. Perhaps if I called them or my own parents, someone could help me make sense of this dream. Then dismissing my own abdication of being responsible and in control of my life, I had done nothing. Later in the afternoon we had toured Setughat's village and bought a few trinkets like a handmade ornament made from apple tree wood and a decorative plaque made with pine cones and painted twigs. My pragmatic brain had silenced my inner self and outwardly I appeared my normal self. The following night, I had stayed awake with a book lit by the bed lamp. I do not remember when I must have dozed off, but I awoke again around 2 AM alert as ever. Then I recalled what had woken me up. They were there again. The rocks! This time their forbidding, harsh contours were accentuated by the contrast with the smooth white door of my apartment. There were more rocks now and some were strewn as far as the road to my housing society. Something in me, an amorphous and unexplained feeling, was telling me to return home at once. The pathway, my apartment's lift, the main door….the rocks were everywhere blocking my access to my home.
I was convinced this was not just any dream. I discovered I had a sixth sense one that my pragmatic brain was trying to stifle. It was warning me of something. I had woken a reluctant Sarita up at dawn telling her my intention to return to Delhi. 'What!' she had exclaimed, half-anger and half-disappointment writ large on her face. 'Look, it must be a bad pillow. Those things can cause bad dreams you know,' she had suggested. Describing my recurring dream in vivid detail, I had shaken my head, resolute in my desire to go back.
Sarita had stayed petulant even over breakfast. Now, as I watched her forlorn and hanging out of the car's window trying to hold on to every view, every curve and every tree of a retreating Setughat, I felt awful. She had tried to dissuade me from returning so many times at the hotel only this morning, scoffing my sixth sense.
We had returned home on March 17th and to my utter relief, all was well. There were no rocks and my home was just as I had left it. It was then that I had serious misgivings and had almost apologized to Sarita for cutting short the stay. However, she had just turned on her foot and buried herself in her room. Next morning, she had emerged, her face bearing tell-tale signs of crying. 'We had taken the whole week off, so I have decided to go home to Jaipur for a few days now since we are back so early,' she had said softly and left later by bus. I decided to rejoin work even if it meant risking raised eyebrows of many colleagues on the quick return.
Then on March 22nd, came the 'Janta Curfew' and later the nationwide lockdown due to the pandemic. Watching the images of the deadly virus raging across the globe, I had been shocked to see how it was ravaging our lives and throwing all asunder. Sarita had called from Jaipur. Over a long call she had apologized for her behavior and thanked me for listening to my sixth sense. 'Thanks to you, I am now with my family for this lockdown period. The factory is closed in any case. Thank God, we aren't stuck in a hotel room in Setughat. I only wish you too could be in Jaipur with your family instead of being there alone. Call me as many times you wish, please will you, whenever you feel lonely. I will be checking on you often too,' she had said.
I had smiled after her call, settling down before the television with a cup of hot tea and my favorite chocolate bourbon biscuits. It would have been great if I could have gone to Jaipur to my family. But then, I was glad I was at least in the next best place on earth – my very own apartment in Delhi. I had lovingly decorated every nook and cranny of this place. It felt cozy, familiar and so comforting at a time like this. My home's ambiance and cocoon-like comforts could easily, hands down, beat the picturesque surroundings of Setughat and a hotel room there. And, my newly discovered sixth sense had told me to return to my safe haven in the nick of time. My sixth sense, a saving grace, now also told me that being safe indoors in my own home was better than being on any holiday in an unfamiliar hotel room.
Author's Note - If you liked this story, read my published Book - The Folks Who Hope (a collection of poems) that feature the Fortitude, Hopes and Dreams of the Common Man. Available on Amazon and Flipkart