Participate in the 3rd Season of STORYMIRROR SCHOOLS WRITING COMPETITION - the BIGGEST Writing Competition in India for School Students & Teachers and win a 2N/3D holiday trip from Club Mahindra
Participate in the 3rd Season of STORYMIRROR SCHOOLS WRITING COMPETITION - the BIGGEST Writing Competition in India for School Students & Teachers and win a 2N/3D holiday trip from Club Mahindra

Hold On To Me: Part 2.5

Hold On To Me: Part 2.5

41 mins 10.4K 41 mins 10.4K

You can”t blame gravity for falling in love- Albert Einstein

“What a brat you are!”, Raj looked at Savi and laughed.

She revved the bike and shouted back, “That’s what you think.”

Raj shook his head and laughed. “This would make quite a scene, if one was making a Bollywood movie’, he said out loud, “An exasperated guy trying to keep up with a headstrong feminist.”

Without looking back, Savi zoomed out of the gate.The ride through the Pahalgam valley was rejuvenating and the winding road gave her an adrenalin kick. Clear blue skies dotted with white fluffs, the green expanse of the valley, the gushing river alongside the road and the fragrant wind blowing into her face; all added to the exhilaration. It seemed as if the road had entered a Renaissance master’s painting, with lush meadows, scattered sheep and distant log cabins - all in one frame. The remains of an ancient hill fortress could be seen high up on one of the hills. The slopes were lined with thick pine trees, giving a distinct woody fragrance.

Savi captured the vista with her eyes and savoured it with a deep breath. She knew Raj would catch up with her sooner than she expected, but she didn't want anything to blur her mind.She wanted to live in the moment. The day had been tough. She had tried to get her point across, but the responses she had received had left her infuriated.

‘What the hell happened to equality of the sexes?Are my ideas not good enough because I am a woman?’, she thought to herself and sped down the road.

All she now wanted was a glass of wine and a hot tub. And of course, the soothing voice of Rahat Fateh Ali Khan. With those thoughts in mind, she revved the bike even more.

While most of her colleagues preferred four-wheel drives, she preferred bikes. She had always loved riding bikes and the winding roads of the valley were perfect to rekindle her love with the mean machines.

Her first bike in college had been a Yamaha R4. It had been quite a rage with all her friends and also with the residents of Centre Park. Her mother had voiced her concerns about road safety in Gurgaon and Delhi, but this had not stopped her from getting one. It was then that Savi’s penchant with rules had worked in her favour. She had reassured her parents that she would adhere to the rules and not endanger her life.

“But what about the other drivers? We trust you, but do you think everyone on these roads follows rules?”, her mother had argued.

As always, her father had come to the rescue and pacified her mother.

Savi smiled and instinctively reduced her speed as she remembered her promise. She reached the camp and rode towards her chalet. Parking the bike outside, she rushed in. The day had been a harrowing one and she wanted to unwind completely. She envied people who could switch off the minute they left work. Her work was her passion and it seemed that even subconsciously, she couldn't detach herself.

Pouring herself a glass of red, she flicked through her phone and put on the music. Instantly, Savi felt her nerves relax and a calmness settled all over her. Music did this to her. Rahat Fateh Ali’s voice reassured her and she had a feeling that everything would eventually work out. Discarding the dusty clothes on the floor as she walked towards the bath, she thought back about what had transpired....

“So I feel, we should look at the proposal of letting the women form a cooperative and handle the project themselves”, she had stated.

The project chairman,Mr. Singhal, had looked at the figures, before cutting her down, “Savi, I don’t see the point. Let’s form a committee of independent observers to oversee the project. I don’t think these women can manage anything. We are trying to uplift their status, their earning capacity, but I don’t think they can run their own show.”

His words had made her angry. She was the only woman in the room and she took it upon herself to defend the entire feminine race.

“Mr. Singhal, trust me on this one! I have spent enough time here to assess what is possible and what isn’t. And I say with full confidence, that these women can run the show, and better than the independent observers. After all, it’s their lives we are talking about!”, she had said, with imploring eyes.

“Let’s not get emotional about this. We aren’t running a feminist movement here. I am also answerable to ADB and the other NGOs. If the project fails to take off, I will be held responsible”, the chairman had roared. A thorough gentleman, he could be quite stubborn when the situation demanded. His mild demeanor, liquid brown eyes and peppery hair had fooled many into thinking of him as an easy guy. The steel-like determination and wrath came out in full force in the boardrooms.

Raj had looked a little uncomfortable, “Savi, the women are the ones who will ultimately benefit, so why not let the project be run by a committee?”

“Raj you know what I am talking about!”, Savi had stared.

The chairman had adjourned the meeting for the day and everyone called it a day. Raj had stayed back and tried to pacify Savi.

“We all know what independent committees and observers do! Money from one pocket goes into the other and the projects get delayed. Who are they kidding Raj?”, she had fumed.

“Your problem is that you are always on your flying horse!”, he said, running his hand through his hair, visibly irritated. “For once, take one step at a time. Decisions have not been finalised and you know Singhal. He is a decent man!”

Savi had stormed out, almost walking into the glass partition, with Raj following closely behind. His sardonic laughter had infuriated her even more.

She had revved her bike and left Raj laughing behind her....

The bell rang, but Savi ignored it. Whoever it was, would give up and leave. She was in no mood to chat. She sank back into the hot tub, closed her eyes and went back to enjoying the song. The singer crooned about unfulfilled love. For Savi, it brought back memories of an age-old crush. She dismissed that train of thoughts and chuckled, ‘God knows where I would have been, had I followed my heart!’ She knew life would take it own course. With that thought she let herself drift off into an intoxicating stupor.

When she opened her eyes, it was all dark around her and the bath water had become cold. She had no idea when she had dosed off. The music was still playing. Getting out of the tub, she grabbed her robe and walked towards her phone.

It was almost 7:00pm. She put off the music and checked for messages. There were ten missed calls- eight from Raj, one from her mother and an unknown number. She quickly texted her mom, saying that she would speak to her soon and that all was well.

Though she wasn't in a mood to meet up with everyone for dinner, she knew she would be taking the day’s events too far and making the whole issue an ego tussle.

Putting her phone away, she quickly rushed into the bedroom. There was a slight nip in the air. She took out her jeans and a black turtle neck and added the chequered wrap, for extra warmth.

Usually, Savi’s long hair was always tied up in a loose bun, with a pencil holding it in place. She decided to put in a bit more effort this evening and brushed her shiny tresses. Once brushed, she held them back with a claw and left them loose. A light lipgloss and dangly tourmaline drops added colour, and Savi stepped back and looked at herself.

Her Mom’s philosophy was, “Always brighten up the appearance when the mood was down!!”

Savi had never been overly conscious about her looks. Growing up, she had heard compliments- “Pretty like the mother”; “Beauty runs in the genes” etc. etc. Her Mom, pretty and grounded, was always immaculately dressed and she had instilled the same in both

her daughters. Not to say that she had not taught them humility and the other typical Indian values. Her younger sister Niamat was a carbon copy of her mother. Fair complexioned, petite and light eyed, her face reflected serenity. Savi’s face was a reflection of her mother’s too, but her eyes were like her father’s- eyes which reflected inner wisdom and worldliness. With thick eyelashes and deep brown eyes, her delicately chiseled face was framed by her thick straight hair. Almost 5.8 feet, she had always been the tallest amongst her friends. The crisp Pahalgam air had added a light blush to her cheeks. She looked into the mirror and smiled to herself while outlining her eyes with kohl. As she finished, her phone rang and Raj’s face beamed on it.

“Yup!”, she answered casually.

“Hey!!! How can you do this? I have been trying to get through to you. What the hell is wrong with you?”, he said irritably.

“Sorry Raj! I had just dozed off. Am ready now, so see you soon.”

Before Raj could say anything, she disconnected the phone.

All done, she switched off the lights and locked the door shut.

The walk to the camp lounge was short. Deodar trees formed thick clusters in the valley. Amidst the sound of crickets and the rustling of the leaves, Savi could hear the roar of the mighty river. The glacial ice of the Kolhoi had melted and there had been flooding in certain areas along the banks. The tranquil Lidder, a tributary of the mighty Jhelum, had unleashed it’s fury on the already devastated residents of the valley. Luckily for them, they were at a height, so weren’t inundated. Every fifty metres, an oil lamp burned, lighting up the winding path.

The resort used to be quite full, but since the insurgency, the drop in the number of tourists had forced the owners to close it down. When things started deteriorating in the region, the Department of Reconciliation and Rehabilitation was given the responsibility to empower the area. With financial aid from ADB and a few other NGOs, their task was to make the area economically self-reliant. Most of the inhabitants were women,those who had lost their menfolk to the incessant battle. DRR made their base at the resort and with the backing of the security forces and the local government, started laying the foundation for an uphill task. Savi had heard that there was an opening for her. Her stint in Ethiopia was to last another six months and just for the heck of it, she had sent in her application to DRR.

Savi specialised in rehabilitation of women in conflict zones. Her parents had encouraged her to follow her dream. But when she had been assigned her first posting in Ethiopia, her mother had been a bit apprehensive about her doing field work.

“With your specialisation, you can easily get a cushy desk job with an aid agency. Why don’t you do that?”, she had moaned.

Savi’s father too had been unsure. Somehow she had managed to assure them that she would be fine.

Ethiopia had been tough. Conflict and famine reigned strong. As far as the eye could see, there was despondency and starvation. Nothing had prepared her for the onslaught of despair. Her job entailed going into the heartland of devastation and evaluating the best way to emotionally and economically empower the women. In an area where the land was sparse and barren, the only way forward was to set up a handicrafts industry. The women, some of them refugees from neighbouring nations, were adept at weaving. With the UN setting up a base camp for health and food, Savi’s fervour was directed at setting up the centre. Days would go, with wasted trips from one house to the other, trying to convince the women to come out. The evenings at the UN camp worked like balm. Though basic, the living quarters were clean and comfortable and there was enough company to keep her sane. The stories shared in the evenings, reassured and strengthened everyone’s resolve to continue despite failures. Slowly, women had started coming forth and Savi’s joy knew no bound. She worked closely with the families and her efforts reached fruition, when the centre got it’s first order for indigenous textiles.

When DRR offered her a position back in India, her family had been overjoyed. Savi too had missed her family, but it had not been easy for her to leave Ethiopia. It had after all been her first posting. A part of her would always be there, with the women from the weaving centre. Her time in Ethiopia had also made her wiser in matters of the heart. What she had perceived as an emotional bonding, had merely been a profiting friendship for someone else.

When her assignment finished, she decided to spend a month with her family in India, before taking on the new job. She needed to recover from the emotional and physical stress that she had brought back with her from Ethiopia.

Back home, a little dejected, she had given in to the pampering at home. Her mother had sensed her disillusionment and reassured Savi, “Nothing can stop true love.”

“Mom! Seriously? Those days are gone. It’s all about who can use who, to get what they need”, she had cried.

“Savi, trust me on this. One hurtful experience should not make you lose hope. When the right person comes along, everything will fall into place”, her mother Aliya had said, giving her a tight hug. Savi had cried, but the time spent with her family had worked wonders and she had been all set to take on her new assignment. The joy had however been short-lived, and her mother had again fretted over her being posted in the dead-centre of the troubled area.

“Mom, something could happen to me right here at home. Is there any guarantee about life?”, she had said, a bit irritated, but also understanding her mother’s conceren.

Her sister Niamat had sided with her, “Mom, let her follow her dream. You and Dad have always told us to fly.”

“That doesn't mean that one starts going into the lion’s lair and the other puts herself in a position where she is surrounded by hardened criminals all the time”, her mother had cried.

Both had exchanged an amused look. Niamat was apprenticing with a criminal lawyer in one of Delhi’s top most law firms. While on one hand, both the parents were proud of their daughters’ dedication and determination, they also feared for their safety.

Their father Neel had assured Aliya. “We have never let the girls feel restricted in any way. Let them live their dream. All your prayers and wishes will protect them.”

“Remember when Savi got a bike?”, Niamat had piped in.

Aliya had winced while the three of them had laughed....

And her she was, in paradise, following her passion, but always aware of the uncertainty and danger that lurked in the background. As soon as Savi reached the lounge, she saw some of her colleagues gathered around the bar. Raj was sitting next to Mr. Singhal and both men looked relaxed.

“Savi, you just disappeared after today’s meeting? No hard feelings! I am just doing my job”, the chairman chuckled.

“It’s okay Mr. Singhal. You know how passionate I am about these women.”

“Yes! I know that. But, you also should understand the bureaucracy involved. There are ways to go about this. End result is, that the widows in this area will benefit”, he smiled.

“My point is that we should give them the confidence to manage their own affairs........”,she started.

Mr. Singhal interrupted her, “They don’t have the backing of a fancy education like yours. So confidence is not something we should talk about when we refer to them. Anyways, lets see what happens on Monday. Why ruin a perfectly peaceful weekend?”

He got up and moved to the bar.

“You really have the knack of making that poor man uncomfortable”, Raj laughed.

Savi gave him a sheepish grin and sat back,“Enough of all this! Let’s try and go across the valley tomorrow. It’s been quiet lately, so it’s not like it’s risky.”

“On the condition that I drive the jeep. No bikes”, Raj said adamantly.

“My God! What the hell is your problem? Why jeep?”, she said exasperated.

“Listen Savi, no negotiation on this one. It’s safer and much more convenient”, Raj replied. Reluctantly she gave in.

“Let’s drink to you giving in easily!!!!”, Raj laughed.

Some of the others joined them and the conversation went back and forth over varied topics, making them all laugh. Someone plugged an iPod into the dock and as the melodic voice of Kishore Kumar crooned out mushy lyrics, Mr. Singhal asked Savi for a dance. She laughed and waltzed with him around the room.

“Savi, you should laugh more, you know!”, he chided, affectionately.

Some of the others joined in. Raj lounged on the sofa and watched everyone, with a glint of amusement in his eyes. The evening was a relaxed one with everyone looking forward to the weekend. The week had been tough, with field visits and nonstop brainstorming sessions.

Dinner was announced and they all went out into the special tent that had been erected. The sides were open but there were enough angeethis all around to keep them warm.

A typical Kashmiri Wazwan had been arranged for them. The seating was arranged on the carpeted floor around a low centre table, which was laden with all sorts of Kashmiri delicacies. The chef explained that Wazwan was the pride of Kashmiri cuisine. It was prepared overnight under the supervision of their master chef or vaste waze.

The trays were laden with rice, divided into sections using Seekh Kababs. Methi Korma, Tabak Maaz, Gushtaba and Dum Aelva, added richness to the platters. Each delicacy stood out in terms of aroma and preparation.

“Now isn't that something to soothe everyone’s nerves, especially after the hectic week we’ve had?”, Mr. Singhal proclaimed, in his usual affable manner.

Savi was a small eater, and even she realised that pecking on this beautifully crafted meal would be sacrilege. They all dug in and Savi was overwhelmed by the burst of flavour.

A silence had descended inside the tent, broken only by ecstatic outbursts every time someone discovered a hidden nuance in the tastefully crafted food.

The last course was Phirni, a rice based pudding, sweetened with milk and sugar and flavoured richly with cardamoms, saffron and nuts. After they all called it a night, Raj walked Savi to her chalet. They had taken cups of Kahwa, Kashmiri tea, which they drank as they strolled along the dimly lit path.

“OMG! I have never felt this pampered. The food was divine”, she beamed.

“An extra one hour burning it off tomorrow”, Raj smirked. “Savi, you know that I care about you”, he said changing the topic.

“And you know that I do too. Good to have a likeminded person on the same team”, she replied.

“Well, for one, you wouldn’t have survived here”, he jibed.

“Ha! You really think? Would have been difficult but I am sure I would worked my charm on someone. You never know, maybe Singhal!!”, she winked.

The sound of their laughter echoed and added to the cacophony of the crickets. The river roared in the background. As they reached her chalet, Raj looked at her hesitantly and just when she thought he was about to say something, he waved his hand and left. Savi looked at him quizzically and then let the moment pass. They had a long day ahead, so she quickly changed and snuggled into her bed.

There was a message from her mother. ‘Tried calling. Call me. Love.’

It was almost midnight, so she decided to call her mother in the morning.

The sun was out and the morning looked bright and beautiful. The song of the crickets from the night before, was replaced by the chirping of the birds. Savi tried calling her mother, but couldn’t get through. She messaged her and told her about her excursion and promised to call Sunday morning.

Over breakfast, she chatted with her colleagues and told them her plans. Some of them were planning to chill out at the resort. Mr. Singhal was flying down to Delhi to meet his family. “You’re sure you don’t want head back into civilisation?”, he laughed.

“No Thanks, Mr. Singhal! I am anyways heading home soon. I just thought it would be nice to explore this area. I’ve hardly seen anything around. With work and then with the security concerns, we have been confined most of the time. Anyways Raj has agreed to come with me.”

“Where is he by the way?”, Mr. Singhal looked around.

“Must be sorting out the jeep and supplies. He said no to bikes!”, she frowned.

“Savi, you are a very spirited girl and I am quite fond of you. You remind me of my daughter! Just try and be a little careful. Better safe than sorry”, he smiled.

Savi was touched by his concern. When they finished, everyone headed their way and Savi went looking for Raj.

She found him rolling back the top of the jeep. As soon as he saw her approaching, he called out to her and carried on with what he was doing.

Savi stood watching him work meticulously. The tarpaulin was off and Raj slid it under one of the back seats.

Walking up to her, he gave her a quick hug. Before he could say anything, they were joined by two others.

“There you are!”, Raj said to the new arrivals, “Savi, two fellow explorers with us now. This will be fun.”

Two of their American colleagues had joined them. Rita and John represented the NGO that was part funding the project. For them, this stint in India was an adventure. When off work, they trekked the nearby mountains. Security was tight and they were both given satellite trackers.The rules had been slightly relaxed recently, as the security forces had managed to comb out the area. Nonetheless, everyone was told to stick to the charted territory, marked on a defence ordinance map.

With greetings out of the way, they all jumped into the jeep, Savi next to Raj in the front and the two new arrivals, at the back.

“All set!”, Raj smiled and off they went.

The morning drive was exhilarating. The bright sun gave the morning a surreal glow. As the jeep sped down the winding road, cold wind hit their faces.

Savi wore a sleeveless jacket over a bright red knitted top and jeggings. Hiking boots and a pair of aviators completed her ensemble. She had tied her hair back in a ponytail, to keep them from coming on to her face. John and Rita, used to colder climates were dressed for summer in their t-shirts and cargos. Savi looked at Raj. He was busy chatting away with the two Americans in the back. Tall at 6 feet, with a rugged physique, he looked like someone straight out of a Marlboro ad. His deep brown eyes were hidden behind a pair of Ray Bans. The dark stubble around his jaw added to his appeal. Clad in cargoes and a V neck ribbed jersey, that outlined the sinewy curves of his arm and torso, he radiated virile charm.

Savi knew that Raj liked her, but she didn't want to complicate her life. She found him attractive too, but the disappointments of the past, still tugged at her heart. She had learnt her lesson and never again was she going to invest emotionally in any professional friendships. She left her train of thought and joined the conversation.

Rita was telling them about the various excursions she and John had been on. Halfway across the valley already, Savi looked up from her phone and gave Raj the directions. With

her flair for navigation and map reading, she had mastered the map and even marked some places of interest on it. A few miles ahead was an ancient Shiv temple. Savi had found it on Google Maps and had convinced Raj to go check it out.

Rita and John had wanted to trek close by, so Raj dropped them off. They planned to meet at the same spot in a couple of hours. All contingency plans discussed, Raj drove off towards the temple.

It was a beautiful day and Savi sank back into her seat and enjoyed the ride. At a fork, Raj turned the jeep left and they found themselves on a narrow track.

“Seems ok”, he assured, putting the jeep into four wheel mode. The road was bumpy and seemed to go around the hill. Slowing the speed down to 20 kmph, Raj continued uphill, as Savi checked the map. The route was clear on the phone, but the track suddenly seemed to get bumpier.

“This is a dead end. I think the rest of it is an upward walk”, he said as the jeep screeched to a halt.

“But Google Maps shows us as approximately 2 kilometres away from the temple”, Savi confirmed. “I wonder why the road ends here!”

“Let’s just go on foot”, Raj replied. “You are sure of this, ya?”

Savi nodded, checking her phone diligently, before getting off the jeep.

Parking the jeep, they started the trek. There was a dirt track leading uphill.

The valley below shone brightly; deep green shimmering in the morning sun. The distant ice caps glistened. As far as the eyes could see, the area was a myriad of colours- rich and bountiful. The insurgency, though deadly, had failed to mar the natural beauty of Kashmir. Known as “The Abode of Gods”, it still boasted abundance. Seasons came and went, and the rich flora of the valley continued to colour the landscape. Nature always brought out the best in Savi. She felt rejuvenated.

“About 20 minutes or so”, she pointed, looking at her phone.

Up ahead, Raj cleared the path with his hiking stick. The fear of snakes was always there and they didn’t want to take any chances. He hit something with his stick and bent down to inspect.

“Savi! Can you make out what this is?”, he frowned, pointing to a shiny piece, half-buried by the path.

Savi bent down and started brushing off the earth with her stick. Raj put the stick aside and used his hands to clear the earth away.

The piece was carved intricately and the curved shape gave the impression of it being an ornament.

“Raj! Wait!”, she exclaimed, “I want to click a photograph. Such a beautiful composition.” She took her phone and clicked a photograph. The dull metal with it’s intricately carved pattern stood out against the dirt. Satisfied with the picture, she bend down next to Raj, as he sat prying out the piece. Impatient and excited, she joined in and started using her hands to ferret it out of the ground. Raj stood up and dusted his hands. Savi tried to pull the piece out, but there was something that was holding it back.

“Let it be Savi. It’s stuck. Let’s carry on”, Raj said impatiently.

“Just a minute! Looks interesting.”

“I’ll go on forward and see where this trail leads”, he said moving up the path.

Savi tried yanking the piece out with a little force. The earth loosened and she found the piece in her hand. What she held, took her by surprise, and she screamed and threw it away.

Raj had not gone much further and hearing the scream, ran back to where she was.

Savi was in a state of shock and she sat back, furiously rubbing her hands. On the ground near her were the skeletal remains of a hand with the silver bracelet, adorning the bony wrist.

“BLOODY HELL”, he ran his hand through his disheveled hair, “ What in the world is this?”

“I can’t believe I touched it!!!!!!”, Savi grimaced. Her face was pale and Raj could see beads of perspiration dotting her forehead.

“Please shove it back in”, she said vehemently.

He examined it closely, “ The bracelet seems old. This could have been a burial ground close to the temple.”

“Let’s just shove it back and go back. I don't want to go on further.”

Raj used his stick to shove the hand back into the place where they had first seen the metal. He covered it with the earth and said a silent prayer.

“Let’s just go to the temple. We’ve come all this way now”, he said.

Savi took out the hand sanitizer from the rucksack and cleaned her hands.

“I still can’t believe I touched it”, she said trying to scrub her hands clean. “I really don't think I want to go on further”, she said.

“Seriously? This isn't something to get scared of. Let’s just go a bit and see the temple”, Raj cajoled.

Savi’s mood had plummeted and she didn't want to go on further. Raj held her close. She trembled and felt his arms tighten around her.

“Hey! Just relax. This was just a freak incident. Let it not dampen your spirit.”

“Raj, can we just leave?”, she said. “I’m not in a mood now.”

“Hey! It’s nothing. Let’s jut go a bit further. It’s broad daylight. What are you scared of?”, he asked.

“I’m not scared!!! Just feeling off. It’s not everyday that one pulls out a hand from the ground!!”, she looked at him fiercely.

Raj folded his hands in mock apology and smiled, “ If you insist. I just feel, we have some time to kill, till we rendezvous we Rita and John, so might as well go ahead with our plan. It’s not like this area is infested with zombies or remains, that we will encounter at every turn.”

His point seemed valid, so reluctantly, she agreed. Raj put his arm around her and started guiding her towards the summit.

“I’ll manage, thanks”, she smiled at him, moving aside.

“As you like it”, he said raising his hands in mock surrender, and laughed.

They continued their trek upwards and Savi let out a deep breath. She had always been pragmatic and she didn't want this incident to change her outlook. Her mind flitted across to another level and started wondering what was going on in Raj’s mind. The girls she knew would give an arm and a leg to be close to someone like Raj; good looking, independent, and with a heart in the right place. She had been very cautious with the affairs of her heart. Any proximity, even if due to unfortunate incidents, could give out the wrong signals.

She attributed her jumbled up thoughts to what had just happened and decided not to over-analyse. Raj was a dear friend and if destiny had something else in mind, she would wait for it to pan out the path. For now, she decided to just forget everything.

They reached the top of the hill and found the ruins of the temple. What might once have been a massive stone structure, built in the pahari style, now stood derelict. Parts of the wall were down, with weeds and small peepul plants jutting out from under the stones. A broken Nandi guarded the entrance and some steps led up to the inner sanctum. Inside was a moss-encrusted stone shivling. The rusted trishul stood on one side with tattered scarves tied to it.

“WOW! This is amazing. The temple looks quite old. Look at the images on the wall”, Raj pointed out.

The walls though broken in places, had intricately carved images of Shiv and his consort, Parvati. Each image depicted them in a different mood. In one image, they were shown as blissfully lost in each other’s arms. Another image showed Shiv doing his fiery Tandav dance. In Indian mythology, though Krishan was known for his romantic entanglements, Shiv and Parvati’s union, was seen as the ultimate cosmic alliance.

Savi’s mood elevated and she excitedly took out her phone and started clicking away.

“Look Raj, there are flowers at the base of the shivling”, she said, pointing out. The flowers seemed a few days old.

“Maybe the local villagers come here to worship. Let me see what’s outside.”

Monday was Shiv’s day and throngs of unwed women flocked to temples to pray for an ideal partner. There were temples all across the valley. Savi wondered why someone would come all this way. She bowed her head in reverence and said a short prayer.

Her family was not overly religious, but they did respect all faiths. Savi believed in a higher force, but unlike her mother, stayed away from over-glorifying this domain. The calm of the temple rubbed off on her and she tried to forget the unfortunate incident on the way up. Raj ventured out of the back door and walked towards the edge of the plateau. As Savi followed out, she saw a mound on her left and walked towards it.

The mound had a narrow opening and Savi looked down into it’s deep emptiness.

“What’s this?”, she beckoned Raj.

“Looks like a well”, Raj said, pointing to the shovel and bucket, which lay near it.

They sat down at the edge of the cliff and looked around. The Lidder cut through the valley below, sensually and melodiously gliding past the settlements on its banks. Its crystal blue waters refracted the sun’s rays, sending them dancing in all directions. Hidden in the deodar trees, a bird sang it’s lament and all other sounds seemed to have dissipated into thin air. Not a word was uttered as they feasted their eyes on the paradisal beauty below.

There were some things that cameras could not capture. Savouring the view, both silently hoped that the image in front ,would stay in the deep confines of their memory forever.

Raj lay down on the grass and closed his eyes. Savi sat quietly looking into the horizon, as she felt an invisible shield of calm descend over her.

Time flew. When Raj sat up and looked at his watch, he was quite surprised, “Let’s move. John and Rita would be waiting. We have been sitting here for almost an hour.”

With one last look around the place, they retraced their steps back. The trek downhill was faster and uneventful. Savi had steered clear of the point where she had seen the hand. As they reached the jeep, she felt a sense of loss, as if she would never see this place again. The experience would always be marred by the unfortunate discovery of the hand. Raj tried to lighten the mood, “Think of what Howard Carter felt when he unearthed Tutankhaman’s tomb!!!! Now you have joined the ranks of famous archaeologists!”

As they sat down in the jeep, Savi turned back and looked at the hill. Raj put on some music and Savi melted into the seat, giving in to the soothing melody.

“What an adventure”, she said, managing to finally smile, and the two started their journey back to the camp.

“Bye Mom!”

Savi waved goodbye and started climbing towards the camp.

Aliya waved from the main gate and waited for Savi to reach uphill.

“Take care”, she said, “And always remember that you are always in my thoughts.”

It was already getting dark and every time Savi turned back to look, she could see Aliya’s silhouette getting smaller and smaller. She waved.

As she crossed the inner barrier to the camp, she noticed a bus parked on the side. The windows were completed frosted.

Savi hummed one of her favourite songs and started moving faster. For some reason, she could feel fear creeping up her back. She looked back to take another look at her mother and became aware of two dark shadows creeping out of the bus.

Panicking, she thought of running towards the camp. Then thinking of her mother, she decided to run past the shadows, to the main gate. She tried to scream, but found herself choked.With all her strength she let out a loud bellow. She saw the shadows advancing towards her and shrieked. She could not imagine her world without her mother. As she ran, she tripped. She looked up before passing out. The last thing she remembered was the stricken look on her mother’s face. And then, that face was replaced by Raj’s.

Savi woke up screaming.

‘What a crazy dream that was’, she thought to herself.

Her nightshirt was clinging to her sweaty body. She removed the duvet and suddenly felt the chill in the air. It was 5:00am and the sky outside was grey. Faint hues of orange could be seen on the horizon. She sat in bed and tried to calm her nerves down.

Her dreams had always been far and between, and she hardly ever remembered them. This one had seemed real. She remembered the shadows and a shiver ran through her body.She also remembered the stricken look on her mother’s face. And then Raj’s face! Taking her phone from her bedside, she messaged Aliya to call her.

Her parents woke up at 6:00am every morning. Their routine was like clockwork.Every morning her father went for a walk with their dog, while her mom practiced her yoga.

Savi thought about her mother and how her outlook made her stand apart. Aliya believed in simplicity and high morals. Her spiritual approach reflected in whatever she did, even in her paintings. Last year, her exhibition at The Oberoi had received critical acclaim.

Named “Infinity and Beyond”, each piece took the shades from the rainbow and used them to give various forms to spirituality. From free flowing patterns to pagan forms, the paintings gave a deeper meaning to everyday life-lessons. Her mother always spoke about energy fields and karmic retribution, which both Savi and Niamat laughed at.

Their father stayed out of such discussions and dismissed them jokingly, “The energy fields in our lives all stem from your mother”, he would say. “And karmic retribution!!!! I am paying the price for what I have done”, was his standard line.

Aliya had gotten so used to this rhetoric, that she too laughed it off, “I know for a fact that one day, you will all believe me.”

Savi was not sure why her line of thought took this turn. She decided to get up and go out for a run.

‘Will help me clear up my muddled head’, she thought to herself.

Quickly getting into her tracks, she grabbed her phone and headphones and went out. The camp, 45 acres in all, had clearly paved walking tracks. With her music, Savi got into a brisk pace. The previous day’s incident and the horrific dream were enough to send a shiver down her spine. She tried to concentrate on the music and remembered Raj.

“What the hell is happening to me”, she said out loud.

For some odd reason she felt irritated. Raj was a part of her life, but not in a way where he invaded into her subconscious privacy. It took quite some effort to divert her thoughts, but she managed to get her concentration back to the exercise. By the time she finished, the sun was rising.

She stopped at the edge of the plateau and took in the breathtaking scene. Every single sunrise was magical. As the bright yellow ball broke through the thick blue sky, it’s rays kissing every leaf, stone, dewdrop and each blade of grass, Savi saw the world awaken in front of her. Birds chirped, welcoming a new day.

Her phone rang, breaking her reverie. It was her mother.

“Hi Mom.”

“Savi! How are you? It’s been so difficult getting in touch”, Aliya said, sounding almost disgruntled.

Smiling, Savi explained, “I think the signals have been down. Hope all is well with everyone. I’m back home soon. So looking forward to being pampered.”

Savi contemplated, whether to tell Aliya about the visit to the temple and her dream, but decided against it. She didn't want Aliya to worry. Her mother was giving her a full account of a case Niamat’s firm was handling.

“The amount of research they make their interns do, is no joke....we are so proud of her. Her firm is offering her a job as soon as she is done with her degree.”

Savi smiled, half listening to what her mother was saying. “...I only want both of you to settle down now.”

“Mom!!! and now we are back to the same old dialogue”, she laughed, “Everything happens at the right time! Isn't this what you always say?”

“Savi, when it’s convenient you throw my dialogues back at me!!!!”

Savi could mentally picture her mother’s brow crinkling into a frown.

Changing the topic, she quickly added, “ Mom, please tell Dad to take off time when I am there. Also Niamat.”

Both got busy making plans for the upcoming visit. Once the conversation ended, Savi headed back towards her chalet.

It was a bright Sunday and she wanted to head to the weekend bazaar. Rita and John were planning to do the same along with a few other colleagues. Raj had opted out.

Savi had a quick shower and got dressed.

Taking a detour on her way to breakfast, she found herself outside Raj’s chalet, knocking on his door.

Her heart fluttered and she wondered why she had taken the detour. Flabbergasted at her uncertainty she bolted before Raj could open the door.

Heading back towards the lounge for breakfast, she took a couple of deep breaths and laughed at herself.

The sight of Raj, boisterously chatting away at the breakfast table, sent her heart somersaulting and she felt a wave of excitement wash over her spirit. Hurriedly, she went and sat down at the end of the table, and started chatting with John. She didn't want anyone, especially Raj to get an inkling of what was going on.

“All fine with you?”, John asked casually.

“Yup! Went for an early morning run and now looking forward to the bazaar trip. Where’s Rita?”

“She has been a bit down since yesterday. I guess the trek was a bit strenuous for her. She’ll be taking it easy today.”

“If there is anything she wants,...”, she felt Raj’s hand on her shoulder and stopped mid sentence.

“Hi Savi, all well?”, he asked with a concerned look in his eyes.

“Hi!!! Yes, all is good. I was telling John about the morning run”, she answered nervously.

Raj pulled up a chair and sat down next to her. Her heart fluttered and she wondered where the old Savi had disappeared. Not being in control of her emotions was something new. She hoped desperately that Raj would not notice this shift.

“ let’s do it together”, Raj was saying. “Savi! you look lost. You haven’t heard a word of what I just said”, he said, looking quizzically at her.

“Sorry, my mind was elsewhere. Tell me.”

“I was saying, that I have changed my plans. Let’s all go to the bazaar together and then there is a nature trail close by. We could check that out”, he repeated.

“Rita’s not too well, but I’ll join in”, John added.

“Fine by me”, Savi confirmed. “How many of us are going for the nature trail?”

“Bazaar, I guess most of us. And then once we get back, four or five us set out on foot”, Raj replied.

Once breakfast was over, everyone scrambled on to the bus. Raj sat next to John and Savi found an empty seat at the rear end.

Always pragmatic, Savi had a very realistic and balanced outlook to life, ‘Except that one time with Ryan’, she thought to herself, before consciously changing her train of thought once again and concentrating on the view outside.

Looking out of the bus, she saw nature at its best. While everything around her exuded calm and serenity, her inner turmoil left her shocked.

The drive to the bazaar was a short one and as soon as they reached, everyone alighted from the bus and scattered. Situated in the centre of Pahalgam, the bazaar was a maze of undulating steps, with small stalls along the edge, all converging into an old amphitheatre.

Lining the milieu were the distant ranges and a viridescent expanse of pine and deodar trees.There was a buzz all around, with traders selling an assortment of ware. Langurs with their sage like faces and long grey tails, languorously swayed amongst the overhead branches. From roasted peanuts and succulent peaches to woollen shawls and intricately carved walnut wood items, everything added to the magical charm of the local bazaar. Scattered amongst the locals, buying their daily vegetables and fruits, were a few tourists and outsiders.

At the edge of the amphitheatre was a small stupa, resplendent with the Buddhist prayer flags above it. The kiosk next to it caught Savi’s attention and she wound her way towards it.

From behind the Buddhist prayer wheels, florescent Laughing Buddhas, beads and miniature drawings, a toothless Tibetan lady grinned at Savi.

Next to her sat a young boy, no more than twelve years of age. He was dressed in a brown robe, with a bright handwoven jacket over it. His shaved head shone in the morning sun and the flawless, cherubic face was highlighted by his sparkling black eyes. His smile was priceless and Savi found herself enamoured by his angelic face.

Didi, what would you like to see”, he smiled and asked. “If you want a special necklace made, I can do that for you too.”

“A necklace for sure! But before that, shouldn’t I know the name of the master craftsman who is going to make it?”, Savi asked, beamingly.

“Everyone calls me Chota Lama, though my parents had named me Dorje.”

“Ah! Do they also call you Chota Lama now?”, she enquired.

He shook his head and started getting his tools out. Handing her a plate,“Choose the beads you like and I will make the necklace”, he said.

Savi got busy choosing the beads and the boy quickly got up and got two cups of tea from the back of the stall. Handing one to the old lady, he offered the other to Savi, “This is our special butter tea”.

The beautiful smile was so infectious that Savi found herself smiling. Taking the tea, she sat down quietly while Dorje started making the necklace. His hands moved fastidiously and Savi was impressed with how deftly he worked. The old lady sat there smiling, enjoying her tea.

“Is she related to you?”, Savi asked.

“She is my grandmother. I live with her.”

Savi smiled back and sat there quietly drinking her tea.

When the tea finished, she handed the cup to the old lady, who kept it aside and took Savi’s right hand into hers. Taking out a monacle, she effortlessly placed it in front of her right eye and started reading Savi’s palm.

“Her favourite pastime and she thinks she is quite an expert”, joked Dorje.

Her brow furrowed and then she said something to Dorje, who just dismissed her. She looked up at Savi, her eyes full of compassion, and then kissed the hand. Savi was a bit surprised. Taking her hand back, she asked Dorje what his grandmother had said.

Didi, she just rambles on in her old age. My great-grandmother read fortunes in Lhasa and now my grandmother also thinks, she is blessed with foresight. Ignore her please”, he laughed.

As the grandmother rummaged through her robes, Savi noticed her bracelet. Made of silver, it had a very intricate pattern. It was quite different from the piece that she had unearthed yesterday, but the reminder managed to send a shiver through her entire being. “ Dorje, what does this bracelet signify? I have seen something similar”, she asked anxiously.

“Didi, it’s a Tibetan pattern symbolising infinity. It’s believed to connect you to your loved ones forever. I have some beads with this design. Should I add them to your necklace?”, he asked enthusiastically.

“No it’s ok!”

In the meantime, the old lady had managed to find an old talisman from within her robes and offered it to Savi, who looked at her, uncertain of what she was trying to convey, till the grandmother held Savi’s hand and deposited it there. Dorje smiled and continued with his work.

The talisman was oval and made out of bone. One side had an elaborate knotted pattern and on the other face was a demon with coral eyes. Fascinated, Savi kept turning it around and feeling the engraving. The piece felt warm in her hands. Smiling, she extended her hand back towards the lady, “It’s beautiful! Is it yours?”

The lady just smiled and nudged the hand back towards Savi.

Confused, she looked at Dorje, who just smiled, “She keeps these for visitors who she takes a liking too. Especially the pretty ones”, he said, his eyes sparkling. “This pendant has the image of a Rakshak, not Rakshash. It will protect you.”

Masterfully working, he created an exotic necklace with turquoise beads and silver balls. Adding the pendant to his creation, he presented it to Savi with a flourish.

“Dorje! This is the most beautiful necklace I have ever seen!” Savi exclaimed, putting it on. “Please make two more for me.”

She sat down choosing beads for the two necklaces for her mother and Niamat. Dorje got to work quickly, while the old lady looked on smilingly.

Time stood still and Savi found herself engulfed with happiness. All the worries from yesterday and this morning seemed to have dissipated into thin air. Her hand played with the warm pendant around her neck. She had a feeling that everything would be alright. She decided to distract herself and took her camera out. The bazaar was vibrant and she wanted to capture the images.

“May I?”, she pointed the camera towards the old lady. Dorje nodded and carried on stringing the beads. She clicked the grandmother, who beamed as usual. She liked Dorje,

engrossed in his craft. When he looked up and smiled, Savi immediately captured the smile.

Once finished, he showed the necklaces to Savi, who couldn’t believe that something so masterful, could be accomplished by a child.

Dorje, wrapped the necklaces in tissue and handed them to Savi. He wrote down the price on a little pad and showed it to her. Happily, she paid the little master.

“Come again. We are always here”, he smiled.

Savi smiled back, “ For sure. You are a special friend now. How can I not come back.”

At an impulse, she wrote down her phone number on the pad and smiled,” Call me if you ever need anything or just to say hello”.

As she was about to leave, Dorje called out,” My grandmother wants me to tell you something.”

Smiling, Savi sat down again and looked at the grinning old face. The old lady spoke to Dorje softly, while turning to look at Savi intermittently. Savi was intrigued.

“She says that you are always running away from what’s good for you”, Dorje explained. Savi was taken aback and she looked at the duo quizzically.

“When opportunity knocks, if you don't open the door, it goes away”, he continued. “According to her, there have been signs, but you have been dismissing them. Our scriptures say that there are no coincidences in life. Everything that happens, is part of a larger scheme.”

For Savi, it had never been easy expressing herself or sharing her innermost thoughts with everyone. She found it strange and a bit infuriating, that a woman she had just met, and hardly spoken to, was analysing her life.

“I’m sorry? Is this what she thinks she saw in my hand? Please tell her she knows nothing about my life”,she said curtly.

Dorje looked a bit upset, but smiled nonetheless. His grandmother also seemed to have read Savi’s reaction and said something again to Dorje, who seemed a bit hesitant.

“I’m sorry! I didn't mean to be rude”, she added quickly.

Didi, she says that you will get another opportunity and that you must grab it. What has happened in the past was destined. There is something that still weighs on your soul and that stops you from listening to your heart”, he said reassuringly.

Savi closed her eyes and felt the old pain tug at her heart and was surprised at its intensity. Her work had been a way of getting over the disappointment. Little had she realised that it still resided in the closed confines of her heart. Savi had not managed to move past. Her life was still stuck in the vortex of disillusionment and disenchantment. Regaining her composure, she asked, “Dorje, please ask your grandmother something for me.”

Dorje nodded and she went on to tell Dorje about her experience at the old Shiv temple and the dream she had. Dorje’s eyes reflected his amazement and when Savi finished, he repeated the same to his grandmother in Tibetan.

Savi sat there wondering how easily she had confided into Dorje and his grandmother. This was so unlike her.

Didi, she says that when the time comes, you will know all the answers yourself...”, Dorje said, suddenly interrupted by Raj, who walked over to the stall.

“Hey! Where have you been?”, he asked, with a tinge of annoyance in his voice. “I tried looking for you.”

“Raj, why are you sounding so hassled? Everyone went their way and I wasn't supposed to keep up with anyone. If you couldn't find me, you could have called.”

“Savi, I did! I was just worried”, he replied in calmer tone, as she checked her phone.

There were a number of missed calls from Raj.

“I am so sorry”, she said sheepishly. She smiled at first and then burst out laughing. Raj looked irritated.

“You seriously are one crazy woman!!! God help the people who love you!”, he said rolling his eyes.

Savi caught the word love, but chose to brush the comment aside.

Turning back to Dorje, she introduced her new friend to Raj. The little boy and his grandmother had been observing the exchange, with a euphoric smile.

Didi, remember what she said”, Dorje said, winking at Savi, who at first frowned back and then laughed.

As Savi got up to leave, the old woman, caught hold of her hand and stopped her. She quietly took off her bracelet and put it on Savi’s wrist. Savi protested, but she just smiled back at Savi. With tears in her eyes, Savi gave her a hug. A connection had been made and Savi believed that this connection was destined.

As she walked back with Raj, she turned around to take one last look at the mystical duo. Dorje was busy stringing another necklace, while his grandmother sat there smiling. The Buddhist prayer flags fluttered in the strong breeze.

Life had given her a new chance and this time, Savi was going to grab it with both her hands!

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