“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Monday, April 30, 2012

You don't have to look when you are in the mountains - a story

Looking back, I am not sure if I could talk about my last trip in the usual way. Like, I set off from point A to point B on such and such date and met so and so, saw this and that and finally got back to point A. Or start from the destination, walk back and forth and wind it up. I can’t. Because it happened in the last lap of the journey and I can’t think of anything else. You ask me how your trip was and I get confused and mumble well I was in this plane from Mumbai to Trivandrum. You look funnily and ask, didn’t you go to Germany and then to Himalayas  and why didn’t you get back straight Delhi-Trivandrum instead of via Mumbai and why you talk about Mumbai first? 

Well, you see they gave me a free ticket and there I was, with seat No.8F in the first row of Economy class and the middle-aged handicapped (what? Physically challenged? Okay, okay) lady sitting on 8F at the window and I say its all right and moving to the aisle seat – Anne was sitting in the middle, you know, with her head bowed and nodding, it seemed, to the soft notes of Chaurasia[1]’s flute… . Of course I hadn’t known her name then. All I saw first was that black mop of hair and while fumbling for the seat belt I saw her left hand with those beautiful fingers and green veins.

Across the aisle this forty-ish matron wore sleeveless and her shoulder was very fair and fat and rich black hair in the armpit and the swell of her breasts was rather huge. I look the look and she knows and she knows I know and then sighs deeply and opens her mouth to ask me so so huskily, are you Mr.Pillai? I am amused at the eager jump of the fish and flash my trademark grin and say - I could be.

The Hostess appears and thrusts packs of fruit juice. She bents down right across my knees and I look in vain for the cleavage but she zooms her face close to the black mop head and shouts ARE YOU ALL RIGHT YOU WANT ORANGE JUICE? Mop-head has a soft voice – it says, No, thank you.She’s tiny, you see, fair and fragile, nice nose and lips – she goes back to her nodding. Odd, I think, Chaurasia is playing to another beat- it hits me then – Mop-head is blind.

Oh yeah, I know that look on your face. The oh-so-sob-story about the pretty peeper-less girl romantic thing, uh? Listen, but I can’t think about Frankfurt and  and Kedarnath and Badrinath,2 see? Okay, maybe I’ll tell you all about it later on, but I got to tell you about Anne first, all right?

The music stops. Sleeveless straightens the seat and her bloated belly strains against the seat belt and her assets saaaaaaag. The plane is moving down the runway and I look at the residences of Chattrapathi Sivaji’s3 descendants just outside the walls of the airport. Mop-head is quietly nodding. Up in the air. The sky is clear and blue and the clouds are fluffy. I slip the belt off and twist around to take a good look at Mop-head. I am a big guy, you know, and Anne is tiny and sitting all doubled up. I glance at the lady at the window and asks, ‘Ma’am, is she with you?’ Anne raises her head and says, ‘No. I am alone.’

Her eyes are pale milky green. You know that soothing shade of green, like that silk tie you used to wear. What? Yeah, maybe, the colour of phlegm on the third day of the cough. I say, ‘Hello What’s your name?’ ‘Anne.’ I say brightly, ‘Ever read The Diary of Anne Frank?’ Anne says, ‘No. You see, we don’t get many books in Braille. Who is she?’ I say- ‘Someone like you, as beautiful and tiny like you.’

I sense the familiar wrench creeping up my heart. I think of the walk up to base of Nilakanth at Badrinath, yeah it was snowing, what do you expect in mid-November? I see the wind-swept hillsides and the glacial stream and the ice clinging on the grass as I bent down to lick the water. I see Nilakanth soaring up to the sky and the glittering snow.

The Hostess stuffs up the curtain and rattles down the meal-wagon. Gives me a look, says Non-Veg and without waiting for my answer, dumps down the meal tray. Anne says, No thank you and the Hostess moves down the aisle. I bent down to Anne’s ear and tell her, ‘See, they are supposed to ask Veg or Non-Veg, you know. But this lady with one glance decides I am a Non-Veg.’ Anne giggles softly. ‘How do you look like, Uncle?’ I say disparagingly, ‘Me? I am big, bald and black. I have a grey moustache and my lips are cracked and the skin is peeling off on my nose.’ Anne giggles again.Whatever happened, she asks. I have been walking in the mountains, I tell her.

Can I tell her, I wonder, about Nilakanth? About Kailas, about Manasarovar? Can I tell her about Nandadevi or Kanchendzonga or Nun-Kun or Ladakh? Can I tell her about my wanderings all these twenty-five years, the peaks I have seen, the dregs I have been in?

Anne, were you always blind?’ She nods- ‘Born blind, I was.’ A hot iron sword is run through my heart and I whimper. ‘Do you wish you had eyesight, Anne?’ Anne’s head is erect and she looks straight ahead. Anne shakes her head, ‘No. What’s there to see in this dirty world?’

Dirty? Dirty? I frown at her. ‘How old are you, Anne?’ ‘Fourteen. But Uncle, tell me about the mountains.’

Anne. Anne. ‘When I am really up there, you know, among the mountains walking alone slowly and then leaning back on to a rock where I would rest my haversack, I would close my eyes, Anne, you don’t look at the mountains then, you close your eyes and listen. You listen to the wind, you listen to the Chough or the Thrush, you listen to the stream bubbling by, you listen to the flutter of the prayer flags, you listen to the silence and after sometime you become it. For a time, you are that. Then of course, you have to wake up. But really, Anne, you don’t have to look when you are in the mountains.’

Anne is silent. ‘My Dad also likes mountains; and my Mom too did. He is up there in Kashmir , you see.’ ‘What’s he doing there, is he a terrorist?’ Anne purses her lips; she isn’t keen about my weak wisecrack. ‘No, he is in the Army.’ ‘Aha’, I say, ‘what is he, Captain? Major?’ ‘No, Much higher.’ I sense the reluctance; I sense the shutters closing down. I fall silent. Anne says, ‘Uncle, I am sorry…’. ‘Its okay, Anne.’

I open the food packets. The thimble-size sachets of jam, sauce, butter, pepper, I put into my bag for my kid. I ask Annie why she isn’t eating. She doesn’t say anything first. ‘Its difficult for me, you know, to open all that without spilling’. Oh, my child, my child! ‘Shall I ask the Hostess to bring you some? I will open it and give you?’ NO, No, Uncle, thanks.’

I plunge into my chicken and cheese or whatever. I am careful with the chicken, because the Lufthansa chicken on my way up to Frankfurt  had burned my entire goddamn mouth. I couldn’t spit it out, I couldn’t swallow it. I had to roll and roll the piece in my mouth and the oven-fresh chicken merrily burned on. Well, I always gorge my food, I like it that way. Moreover, it was the first meal in more than 12 hours.

I tell Anne about the incident and off she goes into fits of laughter. Sleeveless is obviously disgusted. The Hostess keeps a wary eye on me.

Anne is a beautiful girl. She doesn’t have that odd disfigurement around the eyes like some blind people. Anne has a north-Indian look with her pale skin and clean features. Little diamond-like studs glitter on her ears. A small gold Cross hangs on her neck.

Uncle, which language are you most comfortable with?’ ‘Well,’ I say, ‘ Malayalam is my mother tongue and good enough for me, but when I start talking seriously or when I want to express myself better, I unconsciously slip into English.’ Anne switches, I am surprised, to Malayalam. ‘I can talk Hindi and Punjabi as well, but I like Malayalam the best, even though my Dad is a Punjabi. My Mom is half-Malayalee that’s how I learned it so well. And I study in Kerala, you know.’ ‘ Ah, so you are going to your Mom, uh?’ Annie smiles, ‘Not really. She died an year ago.’

I tell Anne that her father must love her so much; he must be so brave to bring her up all by himself.

I tell her, ‘Anne, my wife’s name is Aditi and she is a scientist. My son is Agastya and he is 10 years old, no he doesn’t have any brothers or sisters.’ ‘I am a single child myself,’ Anne says. ‘Why didn’t you have more children?’ 

Agastya once asked, Acha4, why can’t I have a brother or sister? I told him we got married rather late and it is difficult to have many children late in one’s life. I don’t tell him about my decision not to have another child because that would affect our research work and future plans.

I am a single child myself,’ says Anne, ‘my parents too got married late. And I feel terribly lonesome. When Mom was alive, she was my best friend and I never felt lonely. In the hostel where I stay, its a Working Women’s Hostel, you see, they all are elders and say Po Kochche,  (Get lost, little one) all the time.’

Listen, Annie, do you think no one else is lonely? We all are lonely. The thing is to be comfortable in your solitude, to be comfortable with yourself.’ In the mountains people ask me, Aap akele aya hai Keral se? (Have you come all alone from Kerala?). In Kerala, people ask me, Ottaykko? You went alone? In the mountain people’s eyes I see admiration and understanding; back home, I see envy and caution (the look says, you got to be careful with this chap). ‘But then, Anne, there is a little game I play. You know that there are these two guys inside you? The Good guy and the Bad guy? These guys are always talking to each other, you know. Always talking and fighting. And I listen to them and I never feel lonely.’ Anne breaks in excitedly. ‘Yes, Yes, Uncle, I know them, but Uncle, he is not a BAD guy, you know, just naughty.’ I say, ‘Right, just naughty.’

The Hostess walks by, and throws a blank look at me. She is an experienced lady. Seen a bit of the world. She notices this middle-aged man huddling close to a blind, pretty teenage girl and her look says it all; Brother, I am watching you.

Would you like some water to drink, Anne?’ She shakes her head. ‘It’s difficult to go to the toilet here, Uncle.’ I am numb. I try to imagine walking blindfolded to the toilet. I try to imagine being a young girl with no eyes, no one to love me, staying in a hostel far away from home (Home? Where is it?). I wonder what Anne would do when she has her periods, who will help her?

Uncle, I was in Delhi for the last couple of weeks, you know, at my Aunt’s. Dad had come there too. We had a great time. I got so many presents for Diwali, see the bag near my feet, it had nothing when I went, now its so full.’ The travel bag was indeed full; its sides bulged, its curved top strained at the zip. ‘Yes, it looks like a potbelly’. Anne laughs. ‘Its full of presents for my friends.’ I am glad. ‘Do you have a lot of friends, Anne?’ Anne’s face changes. ‘No. Not really. Just classmates and those at the Hostel.’

I am your friend, Anne. And I will bring Aditi and  Agastya to meet you, he is a great kid. Can we come and meet you, Anne? We go to the forests often, you know, and maybe we could take you with us in the weekends, will you tell your father about us, will you let us come and see you, Agastya would love to have a sister like you and Aditi could tell you a lot about plants and animals and we have a couple of dogs at home, do you like dogs, Anne, you do, please Anne, do let us come and meet you, here is my card, will you call me, Anne, will you call me?

Anne straightens her Duppatta and her hand touches my arm. ‘Men are so lucky, Uncle, you don’t have to wear all these complicated dresses. In the flight from Delhi  to Mumbai, there was this man sitting beside me and my hand brushed him a couple of times and he got angry and scolded me.’ ‘What? Didn’t you tell him to go to Hell? Or jump out of the window?’ I was really worked up. Annie smiles gently. ‘This man didn’t know I was blind, see. I was wearing sunglasses and he thought I was just another silly girl. I used to be very short-tempered, Uncle, but somewhere I realised that people get angry because they don’t understand things fully.’

The plane droned on. Suddenly there are a couple of thuds and we are jerked up and down. The captain regretted the turbulence. Lots of white clouds all around.

Anne asks: ‘Uncle, when will we reach Trivandrum? I have a tuition class at 1530. Would I be able to go? Do you think I should?’ ‘What tuition? Nonsense! You go and relax. Sit with your friends and have a good time.’ ‘Shall I? Shall I? Its okay?’ Anne clasps her hands and giggles excitedly.

Anne, what do you think of your future? What plans do you have?’ Anne smiles shyly. ‘I want to help people, Uncle. I want to start a school for people like me.’ She pauses. Wistfully she says, ‘But then how can I help others, I am so helpless myself!’ I grope for an answer. ‘No, Anne, you can help others. You know just like you have helped me now.’ Anne turns her head at me. ‘Helped you, Uncle?’

I tell her why I went to the mountains. I tell her about my sick mother, I tell her about the fights with Aditi, I tell her how much on the brink my marriage is, how we are about to fall apart. I tell her how sad Agastya is, how easy it is for people to bring down something they built together. ‘But then, Anne, I am sitting beside you and when I listen to you I realise how trivial my problems are. You helped me, Anne, to hope and perhaps put things correctly all over again.’

I would like to touch this little girl, hug her close and tell her that I would take care of you, Precious. I yearn to mess up her mop-head, to tweak her beaky nose. I would like to dress her up like a princess and hold her arm as she walks up the aisle.

We are nearing Trivandrum. Anne says, ‘Next to New Delhi, I like Trivandrum the best’. I look out and tell her about the green carpet of coconut palms and the coast and the blue sea.

The crew are at their stations and the hostesses look at me from near the door. Do they see this middle-aged boor with tear-filled eyes? Do they see this once carefree man now devastated?

I think of my trip; the fun and happy times at Berlin, the respect and recognition they gave me, the self-respect I earned. I think of the walks up to Kedarnath and Nilakanth and the pure bliss as I stood before Nilakanth. I look at Annie’s little fingers and her bowed, nodding mop-head. I weep. I am chastised. I think of the ways God takes me, I am His favourite stone in the catapult, as He sends me higher and higher…. I say- ‘Lord, when will you tire of me?’

Anne doesn’t take my card. She says she’ll remember my number. She doesn’t tell me where she studies where she lives who her people are. I can see that it is difficult for her to trust me, just a fellow-traveller. But aren’t we all just fellow-travellers? In a bus, in a train, in an office, in a house, in this world? Do we know when and where the others would get down? Do we trust more if we live together a lifetime? Do we like less if we knew only for a short while?

The plane lands and slowly comes to a halt. Its been raining here. My home. My Trivandrum.

Anne and I haven’t been talking for a while. I tell her, ‘Anne, I have every respect for your privacy. I won’t try to trace you. But if you call me, if you need me, I will come over the next instant.’ Will you, Anne, will you call me, even if you don’t need anything? Because I need you, Anne, I need to love and take care of you.

Out there, I wait. Then I see the uniformed soldier holding Anne’s hand coming out of the building and moving towards the parked Army car. ‘Excuse me’, I say. The soldier stares at me. I tell him Anne and  I were in the plane together. Anne’s face is remote. I blurt out: ‘Anne, you haven’t forgotten my number, have you, you will call me, won’t you?’ I grab her hand, press it once. ‘Its been great knowing you, Anne’. She walks by me towards the car. Did she nod her head or was it just my imagination?

Could Anne sense something else? Like the fact that I was once the father of a blind baby girl which I gave away to an orphanage on the third day of birth? Like the fact that Aditi was sick and Aruvi was born eyeless because of the medicines? Like the fact that Aruvi is somewhere in the USA, happy and beautiful, a swimming champion, the sisters at the orphanage tell me? Like I had to give her away for some reasons, justifiable or not? Will she pass judgment on me, will she?

I once asked Agastya whether Anne would ever call. He looked out through the window and with all his 10-year old wisdom, pronounced: ‘No, Acha, I don’t think she will ever call.’ Okay. But she can’t stop me from hoping, can she?

[1] Famous Indian flautist.
2 Hindu shrines deep in the Himalayas.
3 Legendary Maratha King; Mumbai Airport is named after him. Slum dwellings abound around the airport.
4 Dad.

******** Balachandran V, Trivandrum, 30.04.2012

NOTE: Anne is a real person, though the name is changed.  I am I, though the painful incident at the end of the story happened to someone else.  I came across 'Anne' a year later at a shop. Her father, then a Major General was with her. That was the last time I saw her. 


  1. I do not remember reading this . Blame the middle aged memory bank. But I remember you telling me the vivid story about meeting this girl.

    The questions asked at the end may not be satiated . There may not be an answer to comfort. It is "perhaps" only "perhaps" and who can tell ?

  2. Tears welled up in my eyes reading this.

  3. What a lovely post ....
    My heart went out to both you and the girl ..... beautiful narration ....

  4. @Kavita: There are none in the world who haven't committed mistakes. We continue to, in spite of our wisdom and experience. There is an old cliche' - 'Our wisdom comes from our experiences and our experiences from our foolishness'. But we continue to condemn and judge others by our standards. The man in the story committed - maybe a mistake- maybe his state of mind at that time made him do so.

    One can only hope one would do the right thing at the right time...

    @Ruprekha: Thank you.

    @Anil: You are right.

  5. Yay!! Finally succeeded in posting the trial comment.

    It felt good to browse through your blog after a long time. It felt like visiting a friend's home :)

    Most of us are judgmental usually the degree varies with our frame of mind. But what most of us do not do, is to remedy the folly while it still matters.
    Lovely reading your thoughts a s always

  6. I hope Anne really grows up to start a school for blind and help people like she wants to!

    That would be a life better lived than lives of hundreds with sight.

    Lovely way of writing , Mr B...so different from your other stuff that i have read.

  7. @Sujata: Great to see you here after a long time. Must say you've missed a lot of fun in the blogworld.

    @Gymnast; I recently came to learn that 'Anne' is in Trivandrum and working for an organisation for the visually impaired. I hope to meet her again some day.


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