A Turbulence in the Hills

The bus lurched close to the edge. I closed my eyes and gulped, once more wishing away the horrible things happening to my stomach. Nausea for me is inevitable on hilly roads. For the umpteenth time, I wished I had driven my car as we rounded another sickening curve. This was hardly my first time. I had lived in the Nilgiri hills for the first seventeen years of my life, so I should have been used to the ghats.  

I was returning after twenty-three years to the Blue Mountains and it did seem like a homecoming of sorts.   

My father, a Kota, a native tribe in the Nilgiris, had passed away a year back. As the only surviving offspring, I had to find a way to sell the ancestral estate. My only other sibling, an elder brother had died in a plane crash a few years ago. There really was no one to look after the twenty-five acres of emerald green land that had been my dad’s pride.  

My co-passenger suddenly turned to me and asked me to which of the armed forces I belonged. I smiled, recognizing a fellow officer and told him that I had recently been discharged from the IAF due to my arm injury, which, while not leaving my hand unusable, had done enough where I would not be able to function effectively in the military. He clucked sympathetically and resumed his reading. My ambition to join the Air Force was all due to my father’s support and his efforts to remove all roadblocks. God! How I missed him!

I checked into a hotel in Ooty that night; not a great one but would suffice for my brief stay. This was not the Ooty I had left behind. Not this indiscriminate use of land, these buildings, and dwellings mingling in chaotic abundance, fighting to change the stoic and unchanging Ooty. The usual shops — Higginbothams, Charing Cross, Kurinji and Chellarams remained unchanged, right down to the flooring and doors. 

The next morning, I completed all the formalities for the selling of our land. It was made easier by the fact that our old estate manager, Chellappa, had done all the ground-work necessary and now it was only a matter of signing different forms.  

I was four when Chellappa first came to work on our farms as an estate hand. I fondly thought of our cricket-playing days when he uncomplainingly threw the ball to me and always fetched it back, no matter where I hit it. He was a quiet and solid individual who had very little to say but had a work ethic that I attempt to emulate even today.

I beamed at him with the easy familiarity of two people who have known each other a lifetime and his craggy face broke into a dignified smile. It was as if we had talked to each other just yesterday, he in his thick brown woolen coat, red scarf and his red monkey cap. I was sure that these were the same ensemble from when I saw him last.  

The work completed by noon, I thanked the old estate hand profusely and pressed some money into his hand, insisting that he take it. He reluctantly did so and waved goodbye and disappeared down the street. As I saw his retreating back and the slow measured tapping of his cane, I was certain that I would not see him again. I turned away with a lump in my throat. My bus to Bangalore was next morning; I had one night to re-explore my childhood haunts.  

The next morning was a typical monsoon day, thick swirling mists, slight drizzle and no hope of warmth or light penetrating the moisture-laden blanket of clouds. I struggled reluctantly out of bed and was at the bus stand well ahead of the scheduled 7:15 a.m. departure time. I got myself a magazine and a few biscuits to keep me going for a while. It was when I was paying that I saw her standing silently next to the door of the bus, taking in the world with her expressive grey eyes. She was quite a striking girl probably in her early twenties. The admiring from afar was cut short by a heated exchange in front of the bus. I walked over to see what the ruckus was all about.   

On casual enquiry, the driver announced that the bus wasn’t going anywhere as it would take the whole day to fix whatever had gone wrong with it. I cursed my luck and walked to the ticket counter to figure out my options. I reached there at exactly the same time as the girl I had seen before. The ticket clerk, a surly lady informed me that the next bus to Bangalore was not until 2 p.m. Even nostalgia could not keep me in Ooty for another six or so hours! I braved the unsmiling lady to ask about buses heading towards the plains of Karnataka and finally got a ticket to Mysore in a bus departing in a couple of hours. This would at least get me half way.   

The girl next to me was watching our exchange intently but by the blank look she had, I realized that she hadn’t followed the rapid exchange in Tamil. “Did you need some help?” I asked her. “Ye..yes,” she said. “I need to get to Mysore by tonight but my bus has some problem and won’t be able to leave”. I recognized the accent from the North Eastern states.  

I spent the next hour drifting around the familiar shops selling everything from auto parts to meat and soon got bored. A light drizzle had started so I returned to the bus-stand and found the Gudalur bus getting ready to leave. The bus itself did not inspire confidence; a dilapidated box on wheels with its glory days well behind it. I got in and found my seat among the din of the passengers, coolies, well-wishers and a few hens. Obviously, the Ooty-Gudalur route was not for the faint-hearted.   

A minute later the girl climbed and sat beside me. She gave me the same smile from before and got out a book from her bag. I introduced myself and asked her name. “Nina,” she said. I returned her smile.   

The bus started off amidst much grunting and backfiring. My misgivings that we would ever reach Gudalur increased as we spluttered on. 

Nina had fallen asleep and I was surprised at the swiftness of her transformation from wakefulness to slumber. I examined her now at leisure knowing she was in deep sleep. She was even more beautiful this close — her shapely nose, beautifully shaped ears, the most glorious jet black hair all the way to her shoulders. She suddenly opened her eyes as I averted my eyes. However, she held my gaze and I was taken by the boldness of her eyes. “I was visiting my younger brother in a boarding school here. We just put him here last year and I hadn’t visited him since”. “Oh, ok…,” I replied. “I was here to sell some land”. “Are you going to Mysore?” she asked. I told her I was going further on to Bangalore. We chatted for a few minutes more after that and both fell silent lost in our own thoughts.   

We had now left Ooty and were passing through small hamlets and settlements. The weather, in the meantime, was turning ominous. The sky had turned dark and though it was only about 9 a.m. We were jolted out of our various states of inactivity by a loud explosion somewhere in the rear that was followed by a grinding noise. The driver immediately stopped on the road. There was not even a shoulder to pull off on. He took out a cigarette, lit it and got down as nothing had happened. Always, the impatient one, I got out and went around to the back. The back tire was shredded through the inner rim looked in good shape, probably because we had stopped before significant damage was done. The driver stared thoughtfully at the tire. I asked him if he had a spare and he nodded. He was an elderly frail gentleman and it didn’t look like he had it in him to change a tire. 

I had replaced my first tire when I was eleven. Chellappa had helped me replace the farm pick-up truck’s tire. I became quite fond of doing this and Chellappa had always made it a point to call me whenever a tire needed to be changed. This experience came in handy as neither the driver nor the ineffective sidekick looked motivated with the task ahead. I was met with confused stares from both of them even as I let them have an earful while changing the tire.    

The steady drizzle had turned into quite a downpour. I was drenched. A trickle of wet mud started to drop from the large embankment on our left. We had just about finished putting in the new tire when I heard a slurping sound. I watched in horror as a portion of the mountain broke away. The wall of mud was still way up but picking up speed. Yelling, pushing, hurrying, we all got back into the bus…panting and fearful. We probably had gone about a few hundred meters when we saw the entire road behind us blocked by the landslide. The place where we had been a few moments ago was under a heap of wet mud.   

I was shivering now, more from cold than anything else. Nina took off her jacket and asked me to put it on and we were on our way.   By this time, the drops of rains became buckets. We were probably going at about 15 kilometers an hour going by feel rather than sight. I hoped that the driver could see something more than what I could. One wrong turn in these curve — instant doom for all of us. He seemed to know his way through and I was gratefully surprised that his skills with the steering wheel surpassed his tire changing abilities.  

The rest of the passengers didn’t seem unduly bothered by the turn of events. Nina and I seemed to be the only ones who were perturbed. The others simply took a little mud on the road in their stride.   We reached Naduvattam taking two hours more than usual. Naduvattam is a sleepy little hamlet about 20 km from Ooty. The breathtaking natural landscape here has been allowed to stay pristine & untouched by the absence of tourists. Numerous tea plantations blanketed the hills in a rich green canopy.  

More bad news awaited us here. An ancient boulder had come off the hillside and had landed smack in the middle of the road just past Naduvattam. Minor landslides had followed essentially rendering the Gudalur road unusable. We were entirely cut off on both sides, with the power lines also down & all modern modes of communication exhausted. Though the district collector had been called for to clear the road ahead, no solution presented itself for the immediate future. I enquired with a shop owner if there was a place to rest and get some food I was directed up a narrow road towards a Travelers Bungalow. There was no cellphone network for me to let anyone know of our predicament. 

Nina magically appeared by my side. I would not be alone.   We found the bungalow atop the hill. It probably had been part of a tea estate before. Inside, to my surprise, was a young man who gave us a warm welcoming smile. “Hello, my name is Vinod. Welcome. We don’t get too many people stopping over in Naduvattam these days,” he announced in a loud voice. “Are you looking for a place to stay until the road clears up? There’s not much we can offer here. We have only a single room as the others have been unused for a long time. Would that be okay?” We were a bit taken aback by the barrage of words and the clipped English accent in a hamlet.   

Nina shrugged her acceptance. I was fine with it too. Vinod extricated an ancient key from the key holder and led us through a corridor behind the reception area. We passed a couple of locked rooms and he opened the door of the room at the end of the corridor. It was a well-kept room. Just right for us. “We only have one bed here. There is no place to put one more. I am sorry,” Vinod informed us. “I will make arrangements for lunch. I don’t cook but I will ask the cook who lives in the village to come and make something. Vegetarian food okay?” Nina spoke for the first time now. “Yes, that will be fine. Can we get some extra blankets?” Vinod nodded and left. We looked around the room once more. There was an attached bathroom which was also thankfully clean and dry. I quickly changed into something dry.   

Lunch was served in a little dining area and we attacked the food with a vengeance. It was remarkably well prepared and Nina passed along our appreciation to the chef whom we could hear in the kitchen humming a Tamil song.    The rains returned and to make up for lost time, lashed the little cottage with its full fury. Vinod read my thoughts and grinned infectiously. “Don’t worry; the roof has just been repaired. No leaks!” I grinned back.

Not having much else to do, we went back to the room. Fatigued and appetite sated, I needed a nap. Nina sensed this. She sat on the single-seater sofa, the only other furniture in the room with a book. I smiled my gratitude and promptly fell asleep the moment I hit the bed.   

I woke up around 5 p.m. or so. It had become much darker than before. Nina wasn’t in the room and it looked like the rain had stopped too. I walked out. She was watching the birds that were perched on the low branches of the trees. “Unforeseen vacation, huh?” I said by way of conversation. “Yes, but it’s amazing here. So untouched and peaceful,” she murmured. Vinod appeared and declared that tea was served. It felt good to sip the warm brew. I tried my cell-phone again but to no avail. Vinod saw my attempts and told me that the landline was also out.   

We had an early dinner and returned to our little den. “I hope you’re okay to sleep on the same bed?” Nina inquired uncertainly. “I used to be in the air force, so this is nothing,” I said. “Unless you have a problem”. She gave a non-committal smile.   

It was still about eight in the evening, and neither of us could sleep. We sat on the bed and talked for a long time. Vinod still hadn’t given us the extra blankets and we were about to ask for them when he knocked gently on the door. “Sorry, no blankets are available. They are not dry and this weather is not allowing them to dry” and disappeared.   

We continued to talk. It was great talking to her. I found myself telling her about myself and she listened intently, and I found myself wanting to tell her things I felt would interest her. She seemed fascinated by the military and asked me numerous questions about my life there. Slowly, the conversation switched to life and love. Then, her eyes started drooping. She struggled to catch each word of mine. I told her that we should probably call it a night. I reached over her to switch off the light. As I did, she suddenly raised her head and kissed me on the lips.   

There really is nothing that can prepare you for a situation like this. I was frozen on the spot. I turned and lay back on my pillow. It felt surreal. “I…I am so sorry…,” Nina whispered. I didn’t know how to respond. There was a strange sensation in the pit of my stomach. I had never felt this way before. I liked it. Nina put her face over mine and her hair fell over me. I could see the desire in her eyes. I closed my eyes with confusion. My heart and mind were racing and seemed to be competing with each other. She kissed me again, and this time I responded. I kissed her full lips. It felt amazing and right. It wasn’t like I was kissing for the first time, but this was different, in a lot of ways. Making love that night was beautiful…, gently at first and then with passion.  

We finally fell asleep. I woke up early in the morning and watched the peaceful smile on her lips, her hair in disarray, making her look more gorgeous than ever. I couldn’t believe what had happened last night. Nina stirred and slowly opened her eyes. She rewarded me with a smile. So genuine. So affectionate. “Thank you so much,” she said. I feebly tried to say something but I was still too overcome. I busied myself with getting ready. When I reached the main hall, good news awaited me. “They have cleared the road to Mysore,” Vinod told me proudly as if he had done it himself. “The bus will leave in 1 hour. I was going to come and wake you up”. I thanked him and went back to Nina and told her. She looked hurt. “This is awkward for me,” I told her. “I have never done such a thing before”. Her expression cleared instantly. “I understand. But, there’s nothing wrong with what we did. It happens,” she said. Somehow, that was enough.   

We got back on the bus and made it to Mysore without any more adventures. The night had changed everything for me. We reached Mysore around noon. I got down and helped Nina off the bus. I wanted to get a ticket to Bangalore so I walked to the counter and found out that a bus was going to leave in 20 minutes. I bought the ticket and turned around. Nina was gone. I looked for her but she had disappeared.

Still musing over what happened I got on the bus to Bangalore. I felt exactly like the mudslide; leaving the mountain, of which it had been a part for so long and compelled by forces beyond its control to separate from the safety of the mass. Something had woken up inside me and I didn’t know what to do with it. My journey was taken over by my introspection and the three-hour journey to Bangalore seemed to get over in an instant. I got down at the bus stand, hailed an auto and got home. As I opened the gate and rang the front doorbell, I took in a lungful of air.   

There was a sound of running feet and a small body hit the other side of the door with a tiny impact. The door opened. I eased the bag off my shoulder and crouched down as the human tornado flew into my arms.   Movies and plays are made from real world events, based partly on reality or are pure fiction. However, even with surprise endings, one can find creative ways of making them. I wondered how anyone could ever make a movie of what happened to me without spoiling the ending. I decided it couldn’t be done.   

I lifted my seven-year-old son and as he hugged and kissed me, whispering into my ears, “I missed you, mom”.

by Trivikram

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