Devi sat silently on the grassy, uneven earth that made the road. She was accompanied by her mother, now dead. It was dusk and the tall deodars had begun to look grey. On other days, Devi would have raced with the wind, heart pounding with fear until she reached the safety of her village’s flickering glow. Today she knew no fear, only anger, only grief. She was staring blankly, nowhere in particular, her eyes fixed on something that she could not register. Her mother sat inside a ‘doko’, a big basket weaved by bamboo. She was still, cold and quiet. Except for the occasional rustling of leaves, nothing moved. The wind sighed along with her….
An hour had passed and the surrounding turned from grey to black, Devi was awakened from her trance by the howling of a wolf. She quickly lit a match and looked around. Nothing. She lit her lantern carefully. Her mother was still quiet, still cold. She had carried a small bag with necessities. She took out a shawl and wrapped it around her mother. It was a chilly December night, almost time for the snow to make its arrival. She had worn a ‘Dhaka cholo’; a cotton top and saree traditional garb in Nepal, brown sweater and a woollen hat. That was almost enough to keep her warm but on her feet, she wore only slippers. The dry, freezing, rude wind bit her toes and cracked her lips and cheeks. Devi had walked since morning carrying her mother in the basket on her back with the help of a jute rope.
Her mother was the only family she had. He father had passed away long before she knew how to speak. Her brother Ramesh, had gone to work in the city four years ago, they had never heard from him since. So, the two had lived all alone in the small mud hut, poor they were but not unhappy. They lived off the few vegetables that they grew, some tomatoes, radish, ginger, cauliflower when season permitted. The village soil was kind and giving inasmuch as they never went hungry. Their surplus vegetables had many takers who took it to town for profit. She and her mother toiled in the fields of zamindars sometimes for extra cash. Life was not bad, until that star-crossed day when her mother had collapsed while tending to her vegetable garden. Devi had been dumbstruck. After a moment of hesitation, she had run like a headless chicken knocking on every traditional and witch doctor’s door. To her relief, the doctor said that it was nothing serious but how wrong he had been, for after few days, she only got worse. She started fainting frequently and could not climb out of bed on her own. She got weaker by the day and Devi knew she had to do something. She had to take her mother to the town’s doctor.
The town was very far, she had heard. You had to cross the hill on the east, then follow the river and it took two days to reach, that is, if you did not make many stops in between. She had never been to the town. She had heard horrible things about the hill; that they were dangerous creatures out there and a lot many people did not return. But the men went frequently to sell their goods, she reasoned with herself. Well, women didn’t go to town, especially, without men. So what? no women ever ventured into the hill alone didn’t mean she can’t. She lay awake the entire night with these thoughts. Early next morning, she swept the negativity along with the mud floor, packed her bags and her mother and off she went.
As she sat in the middle of nowhere in the dark of the night, she kept talking to her mother as if she were alive. She kept telling her that they would make it to the hospital by next evening and that she would be fine. Suddenly, she noticed a pair of golden eyes glancing towards her. Her heart leaped to her throat. Though she could not see anything else of the creature, she knew what it was. She slowly took out a ‘Khukuri’ a knife-like weapon of Nepalis and held it tightly in her right hand. Devi was sure that it would pounce on her at any moment now. She had heard many stories of people not returning from the woods. Devi slowly increased the flame of the flickering lantern, her gaze fixed at the animal. The yellow light illuminated a head the size of a large water melon, yellow with black stripes. It was standing about three feet away, she suddenly felt very hot and was thankful for the occasional wisp of air that blew towards her. Even in her fear she saw how beautiful the tiger was. Its limbs looked strong and muscular like that of an athlete, must have gained from years of experience. Its eyes looked fearless and proud. None of the two were ready to give up. They kept staring at each other. Devi got reminded of the game where a person who did not blink for the longest time won. She was great at it and had always won, she was not losing now. Finally, the animal broke the spell and walked away as if it got bored of the game. It dissipated into the dark trees. Only crunching of leaves could be heard, that too faded soon.
She had to make a move or she would not reach the hospital the next day. She took out two small aluminium tiffin which contained rice and lentil soup. She placed one near her mother and she opened the other one. She silently ate the cold food, hot tears flowing from her eyes at last. Between sobs, she looked at her mother whose tiffin remained unopened; this made her cry with more vigour. She kept on calling ‘mother..mother..wake up! Please wake up!’ There was no response. She felt helpless, cold, hungry and most of all, lonely. She kissed her mother on the cheeks and lumbered down the hill. The tall dark trees looked like the devils, ready to swallow them, something scurried but she could not see what it was; she was too tired to care anyway. She knew what the doctors would say but she hoped against hope that her mother was alive. How could she leave her? She had promised never to leave her. What would she do without her? No, she was just sleeping, the herbs that the village doctor gave always made you sleepy. But she was cold…but it’s winters so obviously, she was cold! She kept arguing with herself in her mind. She didn’t seem to be breathing. Maybe she was breathing very softly. Maybe. Maybe.
She didn’t notice the sun creeping in, making the black forest look greenish yellow. She was still arguing with herself in her mind, convincing herself that her mother was still alive. The birds chirped all around as if make their presence felt. She saw glimpses of an imposing snow clad mountain between the trees, it looked warm and golden flooded with the sun. She instinctively let out a gasp ‘look mother!’ no response. She silently walked. Her back was hurting, feet sore from miles of cumbersome trudge and she badly wanted to take rest but she knew she had to continue till she reached the spot. Her mother had told her all about it. She would only stop once she reached the river, the river that led her to the town.
It was not until noon that she found the river. She was relieved to see white water gushing parallel to the path that she was walking. She found a big, flat rock where she finally sat down unburdening herself. She splashed the cool water in her face and drank some of it. Her stomach felt so hollow that if one shouted in it there would be echoes. She just had two apples in her bag, one was for her mother. ‘Mother, aren’t you hungry? You haven’t eaten since last night’ she turned to mother, who was as white as the mountain she had just admired. Nothing in her body moved, except a stray hair on her face that flowed quietly with the breeze. Devi was slightly shaken by this appearance. Her eyes welled up again but the salty tears dried before it could release itself from her big grey eyes. She took out a single apple from the bag and chewed on it methodically.
The town was not far now, she just had to follow the river. She continued her journey, talking, sometimes, to herself and sometimes, to her mother. She looked back, for the last time, towards the hill that she had just crossed and thought about her home beyond it. She had an instinctive feeling that she was not going to return. She turned around and marched ahead. Finally, some houses appeared, which looked tiny, like a speck from where she was. Relief rushed in her veins. Her pace got faster and though she was huffing and puffing and felt very hot, she did not stop. Gaze fixed to the settlement, she kept walking. After three fourth of an hour, she reached a concrete road and saw vehicles for the first time. She had never been to the town in fifteen years of her life. Her neighbours had warned her and some were sure that she would get lost on the way. But here she was, standing on smooth concrete snakelike path. Her chest puffed with pride and she beamed at the thought of her achievement. She had made it to the town all by herself.
Another two miles and many stares later, she finally reached the hospital. The worn-out building looked sad, as if it was mourning the death of so many who had visited, never to return. Devi could not understand what was written but she had been told that it was the hospital. She pushed the big door which led to a long wide corridor with rooms on each side. A guard stopped her
‘Where are you going?’ He barked
‘er, my mother is sick, I need to show her to the doctor’ she muttered timidly
‘Go to that room’ he almost yelled pointing to the room on the far left
She darted to the room, relieved to see a lady with a kind smile.
‘How can I help you?’ She said
‘I am here for my mother’ she said, finally unloading herself of the big basket that carried her
The kind lady’s smile withered as she checked her mother’s pulse, then her heartbeat with the stethoscope and finally she lit a torch right into her eyes. The lady turned towards her
‘she’s no more’ she said with some hesitation
‘What?’ Devi had heard but was in denial
‘Your mother is no more, she is dead’ the lady said plainly
Devi’s heart sank, so deep that she felt like she was falling in a bottomless pit. She stood there stunned. She knew her mother was dead but the lady’s words took the last strand of hope that was left, that tiny, the smallest ray of hope. That was gone. ‘where’s the rest of your family?’ she heard the lady’s voice but could hardly see her through her crystallised eyes. Everything turned black.
It was quite dark outside when Devi woke up. She looked out of the window above her bed, the roads looked deserted with only some stray dogs loitering around. She looked around and found there were beds all around her, most of them occupied. She was covered in blanket and the bed felt soft. Suddenly, she was jerked by reality. She looked for her mother, she was nowhere to be seen. She started shouting ‘Mother! Mother!’ Heads started popping up from the beds nearby.
The kind lady rushed towards her ‘It’s okay, don’t worry. She’s in the mortuary’
Devi started sobbing ‘Please don’t take her away from me’
Her sobs grew louder and turned into a howl as the lady hugged her tightly. Her howls slowly went back to sobs and she did not realise when she had fallen asleep. She woke up several times in the night, hoping this was all a bad dream. She pinched herself, slapped herself but nothing changed. The hall where she slept was dark and silent. Only some heaving and snoring could be heard. A lonesome frog croaked somewhere into the night. She felt hauntingly alone and she had no idea how she would survive.
After what felt like a whole life time, the sun rose above her head, piercing her eyes. The kind lady was now sitting beside Devi again.
‘Are you fine now?’ she enquired
Devi looked away without answering
‘Do you have anyone you know here?’ The lady had already understood that she was not from the town by her appearance
‘We need to cremate your mother’s body.’ ‘Don’t worry, I’ll help you’
Devi finally looked at her. She looked almost her mother’s age; not old, not young. She wore a cream coloured cotton saree and an odd looking white coat on top. She had almond shaped eye, round nose and an infectious smile, which right now had disappeared. She stared at the lady for a long time which made her fidget a little.
‘Who are you?’ Devi finally asked
The infectious smile was back ‘I’m Mira, do you want something to eat?’
Devi’s loneliness diminished slightly. ‘Yes please, thank you’