A fine mist enveloped the woods, giving it a surreal, almost dreamlike atmosphere... the trees, indistinct grey shadows, seeming to move and shift in the still morning air as the fog rolled in from the east. He could barely see beyond a few metres, hardly make out the ground ahead in the swirling haze.
The air too was cool and he felt a slight shiver run down his spine as the damp air caressed his face and arms, the thin cotton of his tee already moist. Shoving his hands deeper into the jeans pockets, he rebuked himself for forgetting to wear the jacket, especially since he was aware of the early morning chill during this time of the year.
"This area is too steep, sir, slippery and dangerous," they had opined, offering to show him some decent, and safe forest trails instead.
Though juniors, ignoring the tea estate protocol steeped in the raj-era snootiness, he had happily accepted their offer, and had gone along, and he didn't regret his decision for even a moment...
About two kilometres away from his planter's bungalow, the area was breathtakingly beautiful, incredibly charming. The path going through some of the most pristine forest land, shady with giant magnolias, spruce and other sub-alpine trees, the ground covered with innumerable varieties of orchids and ferns, awake with the swishing bamboo groves... and some of the most spectacular view of the snow-capped eastern Himalayas... and the distant Kanchenjunga peak.
He had instantly fallen in love with the place, going back to the area every day since then, following the well-marked trails that the men had shown him, morning and evening, going further and further down the path, thrilling at the amazing beauty, taking unbridled pleasure in the bridle path.
"Always follow the path, sir, and be sure not to venture too close to the edges," they had advised him. "Landslips are common here, and especially after the monsoon we have whole hillsides just falling away."
He stood for a while, totally overwhelmed by the beauty of the spot... so calm, so silent... the ground bare, as if freshly swept clean... He wanted to sit down, spend some time there... enjoy the peace and quiet, but looking down at his wristwatch he noted the hour and realised that it was time to turn back, return to the bungalow and get ready for work, and as he was about to head back, a sudden, intense desire to see what lay further, hidden by the misty screen beyond the grove beckoned him, an uncanny urge tugging at him... And relenting to the call, he stepped ahead... eyes searching the thick haze... pausing every few moment to look around and listen... for suddenly he noted the eerie silence, so unlike the woods in this part of the forest.
Soon the tall trees gave way to smaller ones, the shrubberies suddenly retreating into the background, the land slowly rising higher. Wispy tendrils of fog, like creepers, twisted and circled around him... smoky fingers reaching out, as if desirous of welcoming this strange visitor on the un-trodden path with a lover's embrace... With another shiver he reminded himself to wear a jacket the next morning before venturing out for his walk and then went on, seeing a large clump of trees ahead, thin and spindly, unlike the other trees in the area, standing on a bare, rocky hump... and beyond that was just the swirling haze, dense and impenetrable.
Going further, he reached the mound... climbing over, his feet skidding on the gravelly surface... and then suddenly something made him pause... A call? Grabbing a frail limb of the nearby tree for balance he looking down at his feet, horripilating as he saw the earth fall away... a huge, yawning chasm... an empty void... just where the tip of his hiking boots had stopped...
With a loud gasp he staggered back, gripping the limb tighter as a severe bout of vertigo swept through him, making his head swim... and as the feeling passed, he cautiously stepped away from the edge, his heart slamming at the close brush with disaster. And as he stood, petrified, now hugging the trunk of the tree, still wracked by the tremor that coursed through his body, still panting, he felt the toe of his shoe touch something... something sticking out of the earth, but barely... and looking down he noted that it wasn't a rock... or even a twig or broken piece of branch. It seemed out of place... metallic...?
Stooping down he held the corner sticking out of the ground and slowly loosened it, pulling it out... a small, slim, rectangular object, encrusted with dirt and soil. Tapping it against the tree trunk and rubbing his fingers over it, he cleared away the grime and saw an iPod!
'Well, that's an odd item to be found here...' he wondered as he looked at the still shiny piece... almost fresh, with just a hint of damage at the top edge.
And as he studied it, turning it over in his palm, he sensed a presence... behind him... from where he had come...
Spinning around he saw a young person in the distance, almost hidden in the thick haze, standing still, observing him... A bright yellow sleeveless tee, about a size too large, and knee length denim shorts... a baseball cap, worn to a side...
Still in a numbing stupor, completely disconcerted by the intensity of the horrifying experience of finding himself on the edge of a precipice, it took him a moment, but then, recovering, he straightened up and smiled at the youth, giving a slight nod of acknowledgement.
Surprisingly, the boy didn't respond, remaining still for a while, his face impassive, before suddenly turning away, walking into the swirling mist...
He stood a while longer, bewildered, and then with a shake of his head retraced his steps, heading home... looking around, trying to see if he could spot the strange boy in the woods...
With some of the highest elevation plantations, the century old gardens produced the finest, and most expensive, tea in the world. Natured by the intermittent precipitation, sunshine and moisture laden mellow mists, the tea, imbued with an incomparable charisma and quality was universally acknowledged for its subtle flavour, so unique that nowhere else in the world could it be replicated.
And the temptation of the romanticised planter's bungalow, a charming little cottage ensconced in the emerald green gardens, the diminutive steam locomotive, puffing and panting, winding its way up through waist-high tea bushes contouring the steep hillside... the dazzling snow, that in a magnificent cirque bordered the horizon from east to west... the proximity of the stars in all its primeval majesty... the unhurried pace of existence... and of course, the long walks along the narrow paths through the coniferous forests, settled it for him. And without any further debate he had accepted the offer.
A small herd of wild elephants, like often happened, had strayed into the harvesting area, setting the pickers all excited and scurrying for safety... But thankfully the herd wasn't aggressive, probably having lost their way into the garden, running around in confusion, as scared as the humans. And since their attempt at chasing the herd away didn't seem to work, and as it was soon getting dark, the workers were asked to leave, a few men retained to keep an eye on the pachyderms, try and guide them out of the garden... And finally when Upamanyu returned to his lonesome cottage, it was already very late, with no hope of going for his usual evening walk.
The elephants had remained in the gardens the whole night, and early next morning Upamanyu got a call to visit the garden, along with all other managers, and therefore had to skip his morning walk. They had engaged professional help, but that didn't seem to help much as the elephants remained, roaming around the garden... Fortunately, since elephants didn't like tea, there was minimal damage to the bushes... but with the animals roaming, the workers refused to enter the gardens or do any work, and so harvesting couldn't happen... and by late afternoon, when the herd finally left, it was already too late for work to begin and the workers were let off, a whole day wasted!
More meetings followed, that to Upamanyu seemed a waste of time and effort, to sit and discuss what had already happened and couldn't be undone... but silently he sat, listening... rueing the fact that another evening had passed without his jaunt into the woods... It was decided that work had to start early the next morning and accordingly the work force was informed, the management team asked to be available. And with a sigh Upamanyu returned home, cursing the elephants...
Work was hectic, but went smoothly and by afternoon Upamanyu was again thinking of visiting the woods... his mind suddenly going back to the boy he had seen there... wondering if he would get to see him again, suddenly curious to get to know something more about that strange youth... And just as he wondered what he might ask if they met... another crisis unfolded...
A scuffle between two male pickers over an inconsequential matter soon flared up into a nasty confrontation. Work got affected with things quickly spinning out of control... people splitting down personal loyalties and interest, taking sides... and as the management intervened, things simmered for a while before coming to a flash as a local, self-proclaimed leader stepped in...
Late night discussions and hectic negotiations finally calmed frayed egos, settling matters, and finally people drifted away, Upamanyu driving back to his cottage, another evening wasted and a morning that would be spent in bed, catching up with lost sleep...
And after two full days of being stuck in the office, plantation and then the lonely bungalow, he was on the verge of snapping... desperate to get away... and that afternoon, at the first opportunity he got, he slipped away... back to the woods, back on the nature trail...
Without a conscious thought, he had walked off the trail... and gone back to the cliff where three days back he had nearly plunged off the precipitous fall. He felt his heart beat a bit faster as he paused for a moment and then moved forward, towards the clump... irresistibly drawn, as if by some invisible force, ensorcelled... slowly going up the incline...
A sudden breeze rose up and blew in from the cliff edge, cold and moist... the smoke screen shimmering and parting, as if torn away by the wind and then rolling in once more... blocking out the view... With an involuntary shudder Upamanyu stuffed his hands deep into the jacket pocket for warmth... his fingers touch something... Puzzled, he extracted the object and stared at it in wonder... it was that same iPod that he had found the other day, but he just couldn't remember putting it in the jacket pocket. After all, he wasn't wearing one that day... and once he was back home, he distinctly remembered putting it on his work table... and he had seen it there each day, these past three days! Then what was it doing in his pocket... how did it get there?
Holding it in his palm he carefully edged forward... taking cautious steps, one at a time... and then he saw the empty space... a sheer drop, the ground falling away all of a sudden. He felt a shudder pass through him and quickly, but carefully, stepped back, holding a branch of the same tree that he had held that other day... Coming there, and looking down that yawning chasm had made him realise, once more, what a miraculous escape he had had that morning, the full import of the event sinking in with a force that shook him... and as he turned around... he gave a loud yelp, a frisson of shock passing down his entire body, the iPod slipping from his numbed fingers, falling down to the ground.
It was that same youth, standing behind him, just inches away... and yet he had neither heard a sound, nor a rustle! That same yellow tee and denim shorts... the cap pulled to one side.
"Oh, my God..." he exclaimed as he regained his composer, "you really startled me."
The youth simply smiled, stepping back slightly, his eyes leaving Upamanyu's face to look at the object on the ground. He then slowly crouched down, reaching out and taking it... before standing up once more, a pleased look on his handsome face, "I had lost this last year..." he said in a low, hushed voice, looking back at Upamanyu.
His knees wobbly and his hands still shaking, Upamanyu sat down on the bare ground, leaning back against the tree, too shocked to respond. And as he watched, the boy looked down at him and then with a dazzling smile dropped down beside him, holding his iPod in a tight grip, as if afraid to let go and loose it again.
"Well," Upamanyu finally said, "I'm Upamanyu..." offering his hand.
The boy looked up, into his eyes, but made no attempt to take the proffered hand as he mumbled, "I'm Kinshuk."
They sat for a few more minutes in silence, Upamanyu watching as the boy fiddled with his player, like a child who had suddenly discovered an old, much loved toy in the attic, studying him... Tall and slender, with soft features and dewy lips... the boy had amazing large, long-lashed eyes. Incredibly cute... painfully young.
"Um, you live somewhere near here?" he asked, suddenly feeling weird, sitting there in silence, the boy almost oblivious of his presence.
"Yes," he replied... and as Upamanyu looked around the thick woods, as if searching for the boy's home, he added, "well, down below that cliff..."
"Oh, and do you come here everyday?"
"Yes, I spend most of my time here..." he replied, but his eyes still fixed on the iPod, the fingers twiddling with the click-wheel.
"Then how come you never found you player before?" Upamanyu asked, curious and intrigued by the youth.
"Never searched for it," he replied, matter-of-factly.
"You're with the tea estate?"
"Yes," Upamanyu nodded, "how do you know?" trying to remember if he had ever seen the boy at the plantation.
"Oh, I know..." replied Kinshuk with an enigmatic smile, suddenly moving closer, "I've seen you in the gardens."
"Your father too works in the estate?" Upamanyu asked, sure that it wasn't the boy, he was too young to be working...
He shook his head and then after a brief pause asked, "You love going off into the woods, right?"
He nodded, observing the face, noting the deep cleft on his chin.
"I too loved hiking..." he said with a far away look.
"Why 'loved', you still have the trails all around you, and you live in this beautiful place, so why don't you like it anymore?"
The boy shrugged, his eyes clouding over, but he didn't reply.
"I also loved music..." he said after a while.
"Uh, 'loved' again, why, don't you like music any more?" Upamanyu asked, curious and intrigued.
"This was a birthday gift from Ma, my seventeenth birthday..." the boy said, not bothering to answer Upamanyu's question.
"Oh, when was that?"
"Last May, just before coming here..."
"OK, so you must be in college?"
Kinshuk shook his head, eyes back on the small instrument in his hand, the amazingly slender fingers back on the click wheel.
"You... you don't go to college, um, or school?" he asked, trying to fit things in. The kid didn't look like the typical village lad, rather, he seemed city-bred... and very well spoken... and yet he was in this desolate jungle, claiming that he lived there.
He shook his head again.
"And your parents, I mean they don't..."
"Oh, they live in Mumbai," he replied, looking up briefly, into his eyes.
"You live here alone?" Upamanyu asked in shock and disbelief.
Kinshuk nodded again... and then lowering the iPod looked up at Upamanyu. "Must be wondering, trying to fit things in, huh? Well, last year, during summer we were here, you know, me and my classmates, for a trip organised by the college. And I never went back..."
Upamanyu sat, his jaws open, scarcely believing what he had heard.
Kinshuk smiled, "I just couldn't leave..."
"And your... your parents? They allowed you to stay here... and what about your education?"
"They have no choice, but I visit them occasionally. And as for education, is there any better teacher than nature, a better educator than life itself?" he said, looking around the vast expanse, "I don't need one, not anymore..." Upamanyu following his eyes, looking around... suddenly realising how dark it had become... the way forests are famous for, one moment light and then pitch dark!
"Oh, I better be going, it's dark and I don't even have a light," he said, rising.
"Don't worry, I'll take you to the edge of the woods and then you won't have any problem once on the road."
"Aren't you afraid, of this dark jungle, I mean, living alone and all that, huh?"
"Initially I was, and also very confused, but then I learnt... and now it's OK."
Walking silently, they inched forward in the darkness, Upamanyu stumbling over the uneven ground, following the bright yellow tee in front of him... and as they crossed the grove and reached the narrow cattle trail, Kinshuk stopped... Upamanyu too paused, looking ahead, seeing a distant, bobbing light approach them.
"Well, now you are safe, they will take you home," said Kinshuk and even before Upamanyu could thank him or ask him over to his place, the boy was gone... and Upamanyu didn't even notice in which direction he went!
Shaking his head he slowly walked down the path, seeing three figures coming towards him, wondering who it could be, out in the forests.
"Oh, it's you, sir..." said a familiar voice as the man lifted the lamp high, lighting up both faces. "You shouldn't be out this late, especially in the woods," he said.
"Oh, I was out for a walk and didn't realise the time," Upamanyu said with a smile, seeing the face of the man, a picker from the plantation.
"Were you in there?" the old man asked, shock and surprise writ large on his face.
"Yes..." Upamanyu replied, turning back towards the tree line that he had just walked out of.
Saying a quick prayer the men shook their heads and then moving closer the first man whispered in a low voice, "Sir, these woods are bad, never go in that area again."
"Well, sir, you are young, from the city, you don't know the ways of the hills. These woods are haunted, evil spirits, please don't go in there. You like to walk, and there are many other trails around here, safe ones."
"Come, sir, we'll take you home..." he said after a brief pause, turning back the way he had come.
"But aren't you already late, you have a long way to go," Upamanyu said, catching up with the man.
"Oh, we belong here, and know our way around," the man replied, leading the way, the light from his lamp casting a faint glow on the path ahead, "besides, we are three..."
Together they walked out of the woods and onto the road and then back to his bungalow.
"Sir, you are young and unaware, but please never venture into that part of the jungle. There are many stories and even more horrifying incidents associated with a grove in that area. I can't stop you, but at least I can warn you..." he said, and then turning around, the three men walked back into the darkness, the faint light bobbing for a while before growing faint and then vanishing in the thick haze.
And as he approached the hump, sure enough, he saw the bright yellow through the haze, the only thing visible in the heavy fog.
An inexplicable thrill coursed through him and a smile broke out as he saw the slender form standing by the clump of trees... one hand resting lightly on a trunk, looking out... into the swirling mist...
"Hi..." he said, going up to the figure.
"Oh, hello..." the boy replied, turning around.
"Well, you are up early..." Upamanyu said.
He smiled, pursing those dewy lips.
"This is a lovely place..." Upamanyu said, sitting down.
Kinshuk nodded, turning back to look out over the edge.
"You too like this place, right?" he asked again, hoping that the boy would speak, say something.
He nodded, and then slowly turning back looked down at Upamanyu, "These woods are of great significance to me, I'm tied to the place... I can't leave even if I want to..." he said.
"Well, since you live here, like this place, then there is no reason to leave," Upamanyu replied with a smile.
The boy shook his head, looked into his eyes, as if to say something and then fell silent, sitting down by his side.
They sat in silence a while longer, Upamanyu admiring the surrounding forest... watching the mist roll along the ground and through the branches of the trees... feeling an incredible joy in his heart... but every few moment his eyes were back on the boy by his side... watching the handsome face... his eyes caressing the slim figure... the smooth, slender arms, observing the fine strands of dark, silky hair peeking out from under his arms... the bare calves... so well formed, flexing as the boy shifted his legs... And the more he watched the more weird he felt... the boy was driving him crazy... making him ridiculously hot!
"You don't talk much, huh?" he finally asked, trying to will down the painful hardness that had grown between his legs.
The boy gave that same pursed-lip smile, looked at him and then just shrugged. "Well, you better return now, or you'll be late for work," he finally said, standing up.
Upamanyu nodded looking at his watch and then standing up, both walking back to the path...
"Ah, Upamanyu, the Japanese delegation is arriving today," the General Manager said, "they're here for the Second Flush Auction. I've sent Mr. Gurung to receive them at the airport, and Mr. Ghosh will be taking them around the gardens. But I want you to show them the plants and be with them, you know accompany them around," and then quickly added, seeing the look on Upamanyu's face, "yes, that includes joining us for dinner..."
"Oh, OK, sir," Upamanyu replied.
"My dear young man, it won't harm you much to skip an evening's walk into the woods, besides, you'll get enough walking to do showing them around!" Mr. Roy said with a smile.
With a resigned sigh Upamanyu nodded, "Anything else?"
"Ah, yes, no doubt ours is the best tea out here, but show them our other facilities too, the school for the kids, and the hospital for the labourers. You know, how you treat your labour force is a big thing these days..." he added with a chuckle, "And the waste disposal unit that we have installed for the processing unit."
"Sure..." Upamanyu said as he rose to go.
Mr. Roy had already joined them, and with him doing most of the talking, Upamanyu hardly listened anymore... his mind occupied with the thoughts of Kinshuk... He had become totally fascinated with that boy. It was becoming an all consuming obsession... constantly thinking of him... remembering that peculiar way of pursing his dewy lips when he smiled... that far-away look in those large eyes. There, yet so remote... captivating, yet so inaccessible. And that morning, as they had sat in the forest, he had realised that his fascination was way beyond mere curiosity... much more, the frantic stirring in his pants was ample proof of that! And now, the more he thought about him, the more aroused he got... Maybe it was being so far away from home, going without sex for such a long time... but he wanted that boy, wanted to take him in his arms, hold him tight... make passionate love...
"Oh, hi," said Upamanyu with a happy smile, "do come in..." he added opening the door.
"You couldn't come to the woods, so thought I'd visit you," Kinshuk said as they entered the quiet house.
"Yes, wanted to, but work..."
"Yes, I know," Kinshuk said before he could finish, adding "and you did a splendid job, they were real impressed."
"Uh, how do you know?"
"I know," he said, with another of his enigmatic smiles.
"Sit down, I'll be back in a moment," Upamanyu said as he walked into the bedroom.
"So," he said walking back and sitting down on the couch, facing Kinshuk, "had your dinner, or want me to fix something for you?"
"No, nothing... thanks."
"Well, not that I can really cook or something, but yes, I can rustle up some scrambled egg and bread!" he said with a grin.
"Really, thanks, I'm not hungry," Kinshuk smiled back, getting up and sitting by Upamanyu's side, looking at him, "Upamanyu, you like me..." he suddenly said in a low voice, more a statement than a question. "I know you want me."
"I like you too, and I want to be with you tonight..."
Upamanyu could hardly believe his ears as he stared at the boy, his heart slamming wildly... and as he sat... still dazed, Kinshuk slowly leaned forward, kissing him on the mouth... a hand already reaching between Upamanyu's legs... gently petting his arousal....
With eyes still closed Upamanyu reached out... wanting to touch, to caress... feel that smooth flesh as he took Kinshuk in his warm embrace... kiss and nibble him... make love once more... But instead of the soft body, his hand encountered an empty bed... cold... and opening his eyes he stared, seeing the rumpled sheet...
Sitting up with a start he called out, wondering where the boy could be. And as he didn't get an answer he got out of bed shivering as the cold air licked his naked body, and then wrapping the blanket around himself, peeked into the bathroom... it was empty. Going out of the bedroom he called out again, looking into the kitchen and the other room. But there was no Kinshuk... the house was empty and silent.
And as he returned to the bedroom, to pull on some clothes, he heard the click of the back door.
"Kinshuk, is that you?" he called out.
"Good morning, sir," came the reply of his gorkha cook.
"Your tea is ready, sir," the old man said as Upamanyu came out of his bedroom, dressed to go out.
"Later, I must go now..." he said reaching for the front door and then he paused, "Bahadur, did you see anyone leave when you came in this morning?"
"Anyone, sir?" the man asked, still holding the tray in his hands.
"Yes, a young boy..."
"No, sir, you slept late today, I cleaned the rooms and prepared your lunch, but there was no one here..."
"Oh..." Upamanyu said, opening the door and rushing out.
And as he ran up the jungle path the night flashed before his eyes, remembering those glorious moments as time and again they had united in love... the touch... the whimper... the whispered encouragements... each word reverberating in his mind... words that they had shared as they cuddled between their frenzied sessions of love-making... And the more he thought, the more confused he became. He just couldn't imagine why Kinshuk left, left without waiting for him to wake up, without saying his good bye...
"Well, where do you hide so much passion, eh?" he had asked after the second time, as he lay panting.
Kinshuk had giggled, nuzzling close, resting his head on Upamanyu's heaving chest,
Running his fingers through the silky, long hair, as he caressed the boy's head, Upamanyu had asked, "You must have been popular back home, then how do you manage it here... or, is there someone?"
Kinshuk remained quiet for a while, his fingers crawling over Upamanyu's belly to gather up the spent phallus... stroking it gently, "No, I have no one here..." he finally answered, pausing for a moment, as if making up his mind, before adding, "and as for 'back-home', well, I knew I was gay from when I was about twelve or thirteen, but I was also very clear about what I wanted, for me the first time had to be very special... with someone equally special."
"Oh, so who was that lucky first?"
"There wasn't anyone," he replied, "not until tonight..."
"Oh, yes, after my sixteenth birthday I did try the internet, you know, the chat rooms... and even went out to meet a few guys. But nothing happened. It was always the same, just sex... like I was some kind of desirable object and nothing else, and the way they made it so sickeningly obvious, that put me off..." he added.
"And what about you, have a lover?"
"Not exactly a lover, but yes, I've had sex with guys... but ah, nothing... um, special..." Upamanyu panted out his reply... feeling his stomach knot as that amazing suction engulfed his penis once more...
And it was early morning when finally Upamanyu pulled away, falling back on the bed, exhausted, but highly satisfied... and as he lay, his chest heaving, Kinshuk slowly turned, getting up on his elbow and leaning forward to kiss his open mouth, "Thank you, Upamanyu," he said softly before laying back.
He had slept then, peacefully, till the afternoon sun blazing into the bedroom had woken him up...
In desperation he called out, "Kinshuk, are you there?" But only silence answered him and the sudden gust of air that blew in from the edge...
Returning home he sat down at his work table as Bahadur entered the room, "Sir, shall I set your lunch?"
He shook his head absentmindedly and then sat up, "Uh, Bahadur, do you know about a grove deep in the woods, beyond the porters' hamlet?"
The man stopped, looking at him in a funny way before he spoke, "Sir, I've heard that you've been going into that area of the forest. Please, don't go there..."
"Bahadur, I know, I've been told about the evil spirits. But that's not my question, what I want to know is, beyond that grove there is a cliff, and below that cliff there is a valley with a settlement, how do I get there?"
The man looked surprised and then mumbling something he came forward, "Sir, that is an evil grove, no one goes there and that cliff drops into a deep ravine, there is no valley and no settlement down there."
"What? But there has to be a valley... I know someone who lives there."
"Sir, it's a deep ravine, rocky and wooded, nothing else."
"No Bahadur, it has to be under that cliff... the boy told me!"
The man now looked totally bewildered and also a bit scared... He started to say something, and then stopped, shaking his head and walking out of the room, leaving Upamanyu to sit alone and fret over the fact that Kinshuk had left without waiting for him to wake up...
He was restless, unable to relax, to concentrate... constantly thinking of Kinshuk, wondering why he had to leave in such a rush... And then getting up he again rushed out... running down the road and into the woods... back to the cliff, walking aimlessly as he searched for the missing boy. Calling out his name in desperation... wishing that Kinshuk would somehow pop out from behind a tree...
And as he turned homewards, worried and hungry, he met Bahadur on the trail...
"Sir, you went in there again?" the man asked.
"Yes..." Upamanyu replied and as they walked out of the woods together he asked, "Bahadur, you get a lot of tourists and vacationers here every year, right?"
The old man nodded.
"OK, do people, you know, the tourists stay back, I mean, settle down here?"
"Sir, this is a lovely place and lots of people visit us... and a lot of them come back again and again... but no one settles here, in these tiny villages and hamlets. But yes, some people do settle down in Darjeeling and the bigger towns.
"No, I mean here in your village or the valley down below the cliff..."
"Sir, there is no valley there..."
"OK," Upamanyu cut him short, "last year did a group of young college boys' visit this area?"
The man seemed to think a little and then nodded.
"Did anyone from the group stay back?"
Bahadur seemed startled as he paused, mid-step, looking up at Upamanyu, his eyes wide with shocked surprise... tinged with terror.
"Well, sir, as it happens, a group of about fifteen boys and two masters did visit this place last summer, nearly a year and a half back. They were staying at the guest house of the plantation on the other side of that hill," he said pointing towards the south. "And the day they were supposed to leave, one of the boys vanished... they searched, even the police searched, but no one found him, they didn't even find a body."
"Huh, that means nothing, but do you know where those boys were from?"
"OK, what happened, where did the boy go? Did he stay back?"
"No, he didn't go anywhere and neither did he stay back. I had seen him once, he used to go off into the woods like you do and though the police didn't believe us, we know, he was taken by the evil spirits..."
And as they walked back into the house Bahadur looked up at Upamanyu, "Sir, have your food, you haven't eaten anything since morning," he said with concern.
Upamanyu nodded, sitting down at the table, his mind in turmoil yet realising that starving himself wouldn't help anyone. Bahadur served him and once he had finished and the old man had cleared away the table, he was back, a bit hesitant, "Sir, I had been to the village after you left, to meet the priest there..." he said.
"What are you talking about?"
"Sir, he is a very powerful man, and knows a lot of things about the unknown. He can cure diseases and also sickness that the doctors can't treat..." the man explained, "protect against evil spirits and black magic..." and before Upamanyu could stop him, added, "I've seen it happen, sir, many times."
"And I've also seen people healed by him. I told him about you, about your going into the forbidden grove..." he paused for a moment, "and about the boy you mentioned. He was grave, but he assured that no harm has come to you yet and he can help..."
Upamanyu sat, stunned... the anger slowly building.
"He was very concerned," Bahadur went on, moving slightly closer, reaching into the pocket of his shirt, "and has given a charm that you need to wear around your arm... it will protect you from all harm"
"What rubbish!" Upamanyu exclaimed, getting up, shoving the chair aside.
"Please, sir, please let me tie this..." persisted Bahadur, coming forward, a thin chord in his hand.
Already at the end of his wits, Upamanyu flared, but then, something stirred... a voice in his head... He paused, looking at the man, seeing the sincerity in those eyes, and with a shrug he sat down, allowing the man to tie the thread around his arm.
He wanted to go once more, go back to the cliff and see if he could finally catch Kinshuk... and as he opened the door, the rains started... The clouds had been gathering since late afternoon and now they burst... a heavy, unrelenting downpour, making it impossible for him to venture out. With a frustrated slam he closed the door and went back inside, sitting down.
And there, in the quiet darkness stood Kinshuk, silent...
"Oh my God..." he exclaimed, a bit startled, "where have you been Kinshuk, and why did you go away without even telling me? Do you know how desperate I've been? I was at that place twice already, hoping to catch you, but..."
"Yes, I know..."
"You know? You where there? What are you hiding from? Oh, please come in..."
"I can't come in now Upamanyu..."
"Can't come in?" he repeated, confused, "but why? Please, did I say or do something to hurt you, why did you leave?"
"Oh, no, not that... I had to leave before dawn came..." he replied and then with a far-away look in his eyes added, "and now, the thing you have around your arm... I can't come close to you..."
"Arm... huh?" but before he could finish Kinshuk spoke again, his face pale and impassive... the voice suddenly sounding hollow and distant, "Help me Upamanyu... please, help me..."
"Help you? What are you talking about? Why don't you come in?"
"Listen, and listen carefully... and please don't interrupt, I don't have much time left. I had come here with my college mates for a vacation last summer. It was amazing and I had a lovely time... In fact I was totally taken by the beauty of this place and while my friends just went for short walks or lazed around in the garden, I went off into the jungles... loosing myself in these woods... and then, I discovered the grove. I fell in love, just like you did and went back again, early next morning, the day we were supposed to leave... It was still dark... With my music playing, and lost in my own happy thoughts I didn't hear the footsteps behind me... but I was followed that morning, followed by one of the men who was in charge of us boys, a man from our college.
"Remember I told you about meeting up with a few men I chatted with on the net. Well, this person was one of them... He was a lab assistant, but I had never seen him at college since I never went to his classes. I only saw him when we started our journey, but neither of us acknowledged the other. Well, he followed me to that grove... and as I sat he came over... he was desperate and wanted to have sex... I refused, as I've told you what I wanted... he persisted. He was on me and we struggled... I slapped him, bursting his lips. He was angry, very angry... blinded by lust, willing to even rape if that was the only way for getting me. In my bid to escape him, I wiggled out of his grip and ran blindly, dropping my iPod and then... fell off that cliff.
"I didn't know what happened, it was all so sudden... everything seemed so bizarre... one moment I was sailing through empty space and then suddenly I was floating in air, free as a bird, looking down on the scene... And there was my body... caught in the branches of a tree that grew out of the cliff wall, like a raven's claw, lying lifeless...
"It had been instantaneous, my spine and neck snapped the moment I hit the trunk and everything was over...
"The man went back, but he didn't tell anyone and when the time came for them to leave they realised that I was missing. They searched... and finally called in the police. Nobody had any idea as to where I was and though they had to cancel their departure and stay back for another three days, they didn't find me. My parents were informed and they too came... But no one searched near the grove, no one even went that way and so I remained undiscovered, listed as missing... The police said I had run away... The boys left, my parents, totally shattered, went too... but I remained here, unable to go ahead... tied to this place...
"I had a very happy and privileged life, but I had one dream, an unfulfilled desire... And then I saw you, as you wandered into the grove that first day, I was fascinated... you made me want again. And as I watched, you went on blindly, right up to the precipice, unaware, and I stopped you...
"Then you came again... wanting to see me, meet me, and I saw the desire in your eyes too. So, I wanted to finally realise my unfulfilled longing, live the dream that I could never. So, yesterday I came over, and you helped me fulfil my desire. Now I'm ready to go, but I need help... I want you to please arrange to recover my body from the ledge where it still remains, and perform the last rites, else I can't go. It's very painful... to be this way... I want to be released, be liberated... Please, Upamanyu, help me...
"I want you to help me..."
Upamanyu stood stunned... speechless. Scarcely believing what he had just heard... his mind numbed, his head buzzing as he tried to absorb all that had been said, make sense of it, completely rattled. Yet, the earnestness of the boy standing outside his window was so genuine... the plea so heartfelt...
"Help me, Upamanyu..." came the voice again.
"I will... I will help you Kinshuk... I love you," he finally blurted out, his vision blurred.
"NO!" Kinshuk said, "Don't love me. Not the way you want to, because it will only cause you pain, for you can never attain me. But yes," he said with a faint smile, "you will find your love..."
"No, I'll always love you and yes, I'll help you, I'll get the body and do the needful..."
Kinshuk gave him another smile, that same pursed-lip smile as he slowly retreated backwards.
"Please, don't go... wait, don't leave me..."
"But I must go, Upamanyu," he said, his voice barely carrying above the howl of the wind.
"Please..." Upamanyu pleaded, and then quickly added, "Tell me that man's name, he has to be punished for what he did!"
"No, I hold no grudge against him, and revenge has no meaning for me. He wanted me, wanted to possess me, consummate his lust, not kill me. My death was a mere accident. Besides, he lives in constant pain, for though the world will never know, he knows, and every moment that he lives, it's a miserable life for him, he is consumed by guilt... He suffers enough."
And then, right before his astonished eyes, the boy slowly faded into nothingness...
Upamanyu stood frozen, his mouth open, eyes wide and staring wildly into the empty darkness... listening to the howling winds... totally confounded... his face blanched as the blood drained out... the sound becoming an indecipherable hum, the world slowly swirling into a black oblivion...
]|[ AUTUMN SKY ]|[
And as he had informed them, the men found the ledge and the tree clinging to the craggy cliff wall... and in its branches, hidden behind creepers, were the remains of a human skeleton... bare bones covered in a tattered yellow cloth... and blue denim... hiking boots still covering the bony feet. Carefully untangling the remains, they carried it up, and the police took over from there... transporting the remains to the nearby town.
The parents were informed, and arrived the next evening. Composed and collected, yet the trauma evident in their moist eyes, they identified their son by his clothes (or what remained of them) and the gold chain and locket around his neck, claiming the body. They then went over to meet Upamanyu, to thank him for ending their terrifying year-long uncertainty and wait. He returned the iPod, and they showed him Kinshuk's pictures... Stunned, seeing that same youth that he had met in the woods, had spent the night with, grinning into the camera, a very happy teen... eyes so alive, twinkling with joy.
Through it all, Upamanyu had just stumbled along, still in a daze... a numbing stupor... and as he sat, watching the fine wisps of smoke from the dying embers of the pyre curl and rise up into the still evening air, he knew that it would never be the same for him... he could never be the same again... His life had changed forever...
Surprising his colleagues and the management, and refusing to reconsider his decision, Upamanyu resigned and left the hills the very next day... travelling down to the valley and then taking the next train home... away from the hills... the terraced plantations... Away from the memories of that crazy one week, culminating in that single glorious night... memories that he knew would haunt him for the rest of his life.
a story by outlaw