It was mid-January.
The fierce North-Western wind with its icy breath shrivelled every leaf of the Sal trees which covered most of the areas of the sprawling campus of our university.
The dry ground beneath was covered with heaps of pale red Sal leaves.
As the harsh wind passed through the Sal groves it sounded as if it was humming the dirge of the dying vegetation and nature looked completely defeated in the hands of the cruel cold wind. The wind seems hell-bent on reigning supreme over dull grey earth. Winter dressed in a long grey cloak cast a sad spell not only on nature but on me as well.
An unknown sense of foreboding had me fretting over since early that morning and unable to concentrate on the task at hand I decided to visit the library for necessary distractions from these disconcerting feelings.
A brisk walk to the library from my hostel took fifteen minutes. By the time I settled down on one of the benches in the library, I was already feeling refreshed and reinvigorated both in body and mind.
At an arm’s length from my bench was a newspaper stand with all the leading national and local dailies in English and regional languages. I picked up ‘Himalayan Darpan’ -a Nepali daily and began skimming through the news and articles. My eyes suddenly fell on the obituary section and my hands went limp and my eyes bleary. The newspaper fell off my hands. A full deep cry rose within my dry throat and with a sudden violent jerk of my body, I dashed out of the library. I felt a heavy tug on my left chest and tears began to roll down, hot and fierce. When and how I reached the campus post office I didn’t realize but there I found myself frantically dialling the number back at home. Mother picked up the phone and to my utmost fear confirmed that Dalli, my childhood friend, was no more.
“Dalli, Dalli” – merrily we teased her. Oh, how she detested being teased thus!
Knitting her eyebrows with such irritation she would give us a look of exasperation and sometimes sulk and run away. But we were a bunch of such incorrigible teasers and mischief-mongers back then. Bullying was just a part of a game of enjoyment for us then. The fact that her name was so unique and sounded funny had sparked a bullying side in us all the more.
Like children all over the world, the common trait of bullying was in us too. But the depth of its adverse impact on the one at the receiving end was something our little minds were unable to grasp at that time. For us, it was a harmless way of having fun.
But we loved her as much as we loved each other. The entire neighbourhood kids were a family back then. A big extended family – a necessity for our existence.
We would fight claw and teeth about a point in the ‘Am I right’ game now and the next moment we would be seen merrily sharing and munching a pear or licking a raw tamarind.
Dalli and I studied in the same school. So, we were not just neighbourhood friends but school friends as well. We would go to school together, sit in class together and do homework together. We were inseparable.
But who would have known that with each step we took towards adolescence such intimate childhood friends would eventually choose different routes!
Adolescence ushered us- the coy teenagers to an entirely different world of excitement, wonder and adventure. Each child in the neighbourhood responded to the surge of the rebel hormones in his or her own different ways.
This transition stage of our life metamorphosed me into a shy, introverted and bespectacled bookworm whereas Dalli, into a beautiful and spirited adolescent. In high school, her friend circle changed. She hung around with those glamorous looking giggly teenagers of the locality – The coveted possessions to the love-struck boys and an eye sore to many plain and ordinary-looking teenagers like me.
We began seeing less of each other. I began to find solace in books and she was very happy in the exciting world of her newfound friends.
After class tenth board I was packed and sent to a college in Siliguri for my higher studies. I topped the district in class ten board and in this excitement of my achievement and in the moment of glory and celebration I totally forgot to enquire about Dalli’s result.
Much later after all the merry din had settled down, I came to know that she had got compartmental in two subjects. I wanted to call her up and console but something always stopped me. What could a district topper say to her friend who had failed in two subjects?
And with the passage of time, I myself got so busy with my new life in a new place that I completely forgot about her.
Occasionally I used to get the whiff of my neighbour’s whereabouts from my garrulous aunt who would call me just to make sure that she got enough news of the city life and college life from me. In her last call a year back, she had casually mentioned that Dalli had gone to Singapore.
In our hills time and again a regurgitation of a century old suppressed emotions and frustrations takes place in the form of a new wave of strong current that stirs and enflames the entire hills.
Sometimes it is sparked by the news of linguistic hegemony of the Bengal Government trying to impose Bengali in all the schools in the hills and sometimes even a reality show like Indian Idol on
National TV leads to widespread agitation and demand for the recognition of identity. Burdened by the sheer weight of unemployment the youths of the hills keep exploring their entrepreneurial skills in anything that promises even the slimmest hope of good returns – be it the latest fad like downline and upline business, investment in dubious financial schemes.
They don’t want to miss out on any employment opportunity – be it a teaching job in some remote part of Bihar or Nepal, recruitment in the army, security personnel in some company that sends them to war-stricken countries like Syria and Afghanistan, domestic help down in the sweltering plains and even far off foreign lands like Singapore, Israel and the Middle East.
During one such wave of alluring assurance of employment in Singapore, Dalli like many other youths of the hills had gone there hoping to earn a decent livelihood.
The next day I woke up early and boarded a jeep bound for Darjeeling. As the rickety jeep climbed up the serpentine road of Rohini and left the dusty and humid plains of Siliguri behind I let the cool breeze of the hills caress my face by jutting my head out of the window just to catch a scent of home. The gentle wind on my face and the constant drumming of disturbing thoughts in my mind refreshed and exhausted me simultaneously.
I got down the jeep at Ava Art Gallery and headed straight to Dalli’s home at Shyam Cottage, Rose Banks. With a measured step, I entered the sitting room of the cottage where almost all from the locality had gathered there standing with sombre expressions.
And there I saw the garlanded photo frame of my dear old friend. I offered the khada and immediately rushed out as the room began swirling. Out in the open veranda, as I tried to gasp for breath, I could overhear some of my neighbours talking in hushed tones.
“Tsk tsk tsk the family don’t even know the actual reason for Dalli’s death! They say they just informed them of their daughter’s sudden demise over the phone and asked them to come to Delhi airport to receive the body” Someone remarked, “They also say that there were burn marks and bruises all over her body!”
I couldn’t bear to hear any more so I ran as fast as I could towards my home.
Nobody could muster up any courage to ask the poor parents the real cause of Dalli’s death. The unfortunate parents wished at least to bid a dignified farewell to their daughter so they remained silent.
The only thing that remained afterwards was different conjectures about her untimely death. It appears that the prevalent socio-economic and political situation in our hills has claimed another victim in Dalli.
Another sprightly hill youth disappears into the vast faceless cities of the plains. Another neighbour with a benign smile and friendly twinkle in the eyes probably won’t be seen again, as another rickety Peugeot Jeep tumbles down the treacherous hill roads and vanishes into the thick – grey haze. Only the rustle in the silent pine forest, the gurgle of mountain springs and the plaintive call of the barbet echo in the hills.