Trina woke up as their minivan came to a halt. They had reached their hotel. She felt almost guilty about falling asleep. There was so much to see around that missing wasn’t an option. Seeing wasn’t enough, she devoured each sight – soaking in Mother Nature with all her five senses.
Trina, along with her parents, uncles and aunts, was touring the Dev-Bhumi – Kedarnath and Badrinath. Initially she was skeptic about this tour. What’s in a shrine? She’d mused! Also she would be the only one in her twenties, so lack of company was another concern. But now she could not thank God enough that she came. The abundance of nature had kept her wide eyed so far. And they were already completing their tour. The breath taking beauty of the stiff cliffs, the wild flowers, or the people, their ability to work so hard and their simplicity had etched a permanent mark in her mind. She already had the sketch of the article she would submit to her editor ready in her mind. It would mostly speak about the nature, at its purest form, as she had experienced till now.
The journey from Kedarnath to Badrinath was long but laden with so much beauty that it was almost impossible to blink. There were Alkananda and Mandakini flowing together leaving two distinct colored streams of water as they merged. The lush green and the vibrant chirp of never seen before birds made her a little dizzy with liking. The hill on the right hand side bore marks of recent land slide and the road was almost always broken. She was fascinated at how nonchalantly their driver drove through this road while she had to hold her breath at every hairpin curve. When she looked at her left, the narrow road that zig-zagged uphill came into her view. It was then when she felt the overwhelming nausea. Her mom had given her a medicine to sleep off after she vomited the whole of her lunch and triggered a fit of nausea among the other people in the van.
The 28 kms of trek to Kedarnath from Gaurikund had left Trina’s muscles stiff. She being the youngest among the older company had decided to walk the whole distance up and down while others played safe by hiring horses. She could barely move a foot now without wincing. It took her a great effort to get up from her seat and proceed toward the exit of the car. A friendly hand was extended and she took it gratefully without even looking who it belonged to. She was freezing in the cold weather. The hand on the other hand was welcomingly warm and cushioned.
After getting down from the car with great effort she looked up to find a handsome face with stark blue eyes smiling down upon her. “Kedar Trek?” asked the handsome face. Trina half nodded, too preoccupied with the stranger’s clear blue eyes.
“Room number 210”, shouted her dad and proceeded hurriedly behind the porter. Trina tried to follow only to realize that the stranger still held her hand. “I can go from here. Thank you.” She said. He nodded and let go.
The whole population was sick from vomiting too much and tired from a ten hours long journey and they wanted nothing more than a hot bath and a long nap. Trina on the other hand, in spite of being almost immobile, wanted to explore the evening beauty of the hilly town and put her new camera to good use. So after taking a warm bath she stepped out in the chilly wind again.
She found the stranger in the lobby, sitting with the porters. Now that she looked at him closely, he appeared less impressive. He was wearing a pair of worn out jeans and a ragged brown leather jacket. His boots bore signs of settled dust. His head cap was exactly same as the other porters. Yet somehow he was different. He was with them but wasn’t among them. Was it just his looks or something else? Trina couldn’t decide.
Trina crossed the threshold and stepped into the crisp chill. The river Alkananda flowed just outside over a vast bed of colorful pebbles breaking the silence of the evening. It was a mesmerizing sight.
“Ma’am, did no one tell you, it is not safe to roam all by yourself during this time of the day?”, a voice spoke in perfect English behind her. Trina spun around to see that it was the same stranger.
Her first reaction was surprise – he spoke English! But soon she was taken over by rage. This guy, whoever he was, had the audacity to flirt with her. Just because she had taken his help to get off the car, it didn’t mean she had given him the free pass. She was even more annoyed because the poetic mood she was getting into was gone. But she suppressed her desire to be rude and said, “No one did actually. I guess my guardians are confident that I am capable of self-defense.”
A small throaty laugh escaped the stranger, “Ahh.. A brave city girl. So ma’am what do you do? Back in your city?”
“None of your business really! Tell me, have you followed me here to small talk with me? Listen I had just taken your hand because my limbs were clipped from sitting in the same position for a very long time and I appreciate your concern but I am fine.” Trina said with a tone of finality and turned back toward the river. She felt disgusted that she was momentarily dazzled by him. She took out her camera and started clicking the dancing river.
Though she had elaborate plans of sitting on the banks of the river for a longer period of time and recite poetry, the chilly wind discouraged her. As she got up and started to leave, she found the stranger seated a little farther away. Her heartbeat raced. What was he? A stalker?
Trina quickly walked past him toward the hotel expecting him to catch up every second. But nothing happened. It was just seven by the clock and dinner wouldn’t be served for another hour. So she went to their room to take a quick nap. She snuggled against her parents who were resting. Resting her head against her mother’s bosom she closed her eyes and let herself wonder about the stranger. Was he back now? Why didn’t he say anything after her rebuke but waited silently? Slowly she drifted off to a quieter world of sleep.
She woke up from the loud bangs on the door. She took her time to adjust to the wakefulness while her mom opened the door. “Get up, get up”, her aunt shouted, “the first sunrays on the Neelkanth.” Trina was awake in a second. She grabbed her camera and leapt outside ignoring the screaming protest of her rigid body.
“There would be plenty of time to tend to it once I go back”, she reasoned.
The Neelkanth peak of the Gadhwal Himalayas glowed like molten gold in the virgin sunrays. Trina peeked through the lens of her camera but some trees obscured her view. Maybe the roof would be a better idea. As she articulated her thought, the whole gang ran to the roof. Recharged by a good night sleep, those six people with an average age of 45 were a delight to watch.
There he was, the blue-eyed stranger. The way he started from the buzzing sound that her people made, it was clear that he had been in a reverie. He looked at her and then away, at the golden peek which now loomed large enough to captivate its viewers immobile. None of them remembered how long they stood there, but the gold became silver and then pure blinding white in front of their eyes.
Even after a lot of persuasion Trina’s mother failed to make her daughter come with them to take a bath at the hot water spring. While Trina was fascinated at nature’s thoughtfulness to provide natural hot water in such cold weather, she could not picture herself taking bath in it with semi naked strangers. She would just take a hot bath at the hotel and join them in the temple for puja in an hour’s time.
As she came out of her room, the stranger stood there, holding on to the iron railing of the balcony and looking into the river. She crossed past him, but he called out, “do you always like to roam about all by yourself?”
In the daylight she felt bolder. What the harm? She would be leaving tomorrow anyway.
“Yes. But it does not seem so easy now that I have a stalker like you.” She replied.
“Stalker huh? This is my place. Remember? I can be anywhere I like.” But she saw a hint of smile.
“Your place? Are you the owner of this hotel?” Trina asked.
“No. But my father is.”
“And what do you do in your father’s hotel?”
“Oh. So you are a freeloader?” Trina said and started to walk away.
“Not really. I take care of the power supply in the hotel.” The stranger called out.
“How? By running a generator?” Trina stopped. She couldn’t help but feel bemused.
“Umm…you can say so…yeah!” The Stranger looked amused too.
“Why are your eyes blue?” Trina blurted out, immediately regretting her unrestrained tongue.
The stranger now turned to face her completely and Trina realized that his eyes looked bluer in the daylight or maybe from the sweater, she didn’t know.
“Because my mother had blue eyes. Lots of people have blue eyes. It is pretty common.” He replied.
“Not around here! Where did you learn to speak English?” Now that Trina’s first question was answered so nonchalantly she was determined to quench her every curiosity.
“We get lots of foreigner guests.”
“Did they teach you the accent as well?”
“Well, I see that you are as curious about me as I am about you. Why don’t we start from the beginning?” he said, amusement overflowing his eyes.
Trina felt so embarrassed suddenly that she felt all her blood rushing to her ears. “I don’t have so much time, I must meet my parents at the temple.” She mumbled and walked away.
But this time the stranger caught up with her. “Aren’t you hungry? You skipped your dinner last night. Your mom said you were sleeping so peacefully that she didn’t want to wake you.” He added as an afterthought.
“And you spoke with my mom?”
“No. She was telling her sister I think. But the question is – aren’t you hungry?”
“I am. But I mustn’t eat anything till the puja is over.”
“So you are religious too!”
“This place is so wonderful that one cannot help but feel thankful to God.”
“True. Isn’t this place beautiful?”
“Hmm. But I never saw a local appreciating the nature’s beauty this way!”
“You are observant. Actually I was away for quite a long time which I have come to regret now.”
“Where have you been?” Trina heard herself asking.
“Lots of places actually.” He said.
“And you are persistent too!”
“Are you here to observe my characteristic traits?”
“Easily annoyed!” he smirked.
“If you have problem with telling me the places you have been, you could just tell that! I don’t like people who can’t be straight forward.” Trina was feeling very irritated now.
The stranger sighed, resigned. “Well. I have a mixed ancestry.”
“Well. I guessed that much!” Trina felt impatient.
They had already reached the temple alley lined with beautiful shops on both sides.
“Why didn’t you want to take a shot at the hot water spring?” he asked.
Though she didn’t like deviating from the topic, she answered. “Because I am not comfortable with the idea.”
“But it would have helped you a lot, you know, given the stiffness you are feeling in your body right now. The Sulphur and Chlorides in the water are very good for curing muscle stiffness.” He said.
“You seem to know quite well about hot springs. But no thanks. I will take some medicine after going back.” Trina said.
“City girl!” he chuckled.
“You said you have been to many places?”
“Hmm. Yeah. I roamed a lot with my mom when I was a kid.”
“And your dad?” Trina asked. But then they had already reached the temple and she saw her parents at the gate waiting for her.
“There’s your people. See you later then?” he asked.
“Yep.” Trina replied.
The colorful temple of Badrinath loomed large in front of her. If Kedarnath was quiet, this one brimmed with people dressed in all types of warm clothes. Yet, the puja affair was done with quickly unlike Kedarnath because given the sheer number of people it was not allowed to stay long.
Back at hotel Trina’s eyes wandered about but she couldn’t find the Blue Eyes. They had their breakfast at the dining hall. After that they were set to start for the Vasundhara Falls. Trina was reluctant at the prospect of another 4 kms of trek, but the promised sight of a milky waterfall was tempting.
She wanted to see the Blue Eyed Stranger before leaving the hotel, but he was nowhere to be seen. She even made a quick trip to the roof. She didn’t know why she wanted to see that guy but she just wanted to see him. How ridiculous, she thought! She would be leaving tomorrow. And then she wouldn’t see him again. It didn’t matter. Yet the entire purpose of her tour had now converged to the sole matter. She wanted to know more about that man. There was something mysterious about him.
But then why did she even care?
The waterfall turned out to be more beautiful than she had imagined. When seen from distance it looked like milk pouring down. But Trina was shocked when she caught herself still thinking about the blue eyed stranger while looking at the falls. “What a horrible infatuation is this?” She thought to herself, “the earlier I leave this place, the better”.
Back at the hotel however, her heart leapt – he was there, back in the same brown jacket and blue jeans. Their eyes met. She thought she saw something there, but couldn’t read it.
After dinner Trina wanted to stay back a little but her mother wouldn’t let her. The more she pleaded that she was fine, that she just wanted to stay a bit more by the river, the sterner her mother became. Tonight she ought to take her medicine and sleep well, her mother said, if she wanted to survive tomorrow’s long journey. Trina gave him a last longing look. His mouth was an amused line. Clearly he had followed her conversation with her mom.
Next morning Trina woke up early. Her mobile said it was 4 o’clock in the morning. Today they would be starting from Badri toward Rudraprayag. They would spend the night at Rudraprayag and then would leave for Rishikesh and then to Delhi the same day. Heaviness filled her chest. She had a nagging feeling of leaving an unsolved mystery behind.
She climbed out of her bed with great difficulty. Her parents were sleeping. Having already seen the golden Neelkanth yesterday, they didn’t need to see it again. She slowly made it to the roof. She felt a knot release at her heart when she saw him there. He looked peaceful as he looked at the golden peak. She stood a little behind, silently. After a while she spoke, “Do you come here every day?” she asked.
“Almost. But today I was hoping that you would come.” He said.
“I just came to see the golden peek one last time. Today I am leaving.”
“I know. I checked the roster. What time?”
“Ten o’clock.” Trina said.
“Great! Happy journey.” He extended one arm.
“Thanks.” Said Trina as she shook his hand. It was the same – welcomingly warm.
She felt a little put off. Why though? Did she expect the stranger to say something else? How different their lives were! How could she even indulge in these stupid feelings? She would go back to Delhi; get involved in her daily life and everything would be okay. But she still felt insulted and hurt and couldn’t explain why.
“So you came up here just to see the golden peek?” he asked, almost as an after thought. Or was it hesitation?
“You could have seen it from your balcony.”
“The view is better here.”
“Why did you want to stay back then after dinner last night?”
“I just wanted to go to the river.”
“Is it? Alright then. I will leave you to enjoy your sunrise.”
What the heck. Do hell with the ego, she wasn’t even going to see him again, “Wait! I have some questions. For you.”
“You do?” he turned.
“What’s your name?”
“I thought you’d never ask!” he smiled flashing remarkably whiter teeth than is expected from a man in this surrounding. “I am Mayur.” He extended his arm again.
“I am Trina.” She took his hand.
“I thought they called you Tuni?” Mayur smiled.
“That’s my pet name. What about your mom? I thought you said you had a mixed ancestry!”
“You are not swayed easily, are you?”
“I am just curious.”
“Some may find it intrusive!”
“No! My mother was from Luxembourg, a small country in Europe. She came here travelling, fell in and out of love with my dad and in between she had me.” He laughed casually.
“Oh! Where is she now?” Trina asked.
“She died when I was thirteen.” Mayur answered.
“I am so sorry.” Trina didn’t know what else to say.
“Don’t be. It’s alright. I wasn’t at that time. Sometimes, you know, I felt trapped with her. The endless moving from one city to another and then again to another. Not having a proper place to stay. I just wanted to have a normal childhood a normal friend circle and a normal schooling. So you know, I felt, in a way I was being freed when she died.”
Trina kept silent not knowing what to say. She didn’t know why he was telling her this. She shivered a little, partly from the cold and partly from an alien emotion she couldn’t quite grasp.
“So yeah. I’ve had a pretty different life than yours,” Mayur said. Then he shook his head and laughed, “I honestly don’t know why I am telling you all these in the crack of the dawn. Am I scaring you? You look quite pale.”
“It’s just that you know, it’s just that I have never known the feeling you just described. But I can understand how terrible it must have been for you.”
“Yes it was. I hated her at that time. But later I have come to realize that if not for her I would never have learnt things I know now.”
“How did you end up here?” Trina asked.
“It’s a long story. But given that you already know more about me than everyone else combined, why don’t I show you something?” Mayur’s whole face lit up. “Can you manage a couple of hours from your parents? I promise I would bring you back by 8.” He said.
“Please. Don’t get scared now. I want to remember you as a brave city girl.”
Mayur drove Trina in an open jeep through a dwindling pass between the hills. She looked at his direction but could not read his expression. Misgivings built strongly in Trina’s stomach and with each passing second she regretted her decision to come with a stranger more and more. They had been driving steadily for over twenty minutes now and Mayur had not said anything about their destination.
Then suddenly they came to a halt. It was an open field with few brick and asbestos buildings that looked like warehouses. Gushes of steam blew from the chimneys on the roofs. Busy looking men and women scurried past them. “This is how I ended up here.” Mayur finally spoke.
Trina’s surprise knew no bound. She got off the car and looked around. “Is this some kind of industry that you own?”
“It’s a geo-thermal power plant. And yes I own it.”
Trina felt her mouth fall open. “You mean you are generating power here using the hot spring?”
“I knew you were smart!” he beamed. “It is small now. I can only power the hotel and a handful of shops on the temple street.”
“But this is huge! I have not heard of another geo-thermal plant in India.”
“Yep. Mine is the first.” He said proudly.
Three Months Later
Trina panted heavily even as she yanked the door to the auditorium open. She was already ten minutes late even after starting early from home. The TED talk she was covering for her magazine had already begun. She rushed past the gate security by flashing her Press ID and frantically looked for her designated seat. As she scanned the rows of seats, her eyes fell upon a pair of blue ones, fixed directly at her. Her heart promptly skipped a beat.
There he was – Mayur, in a dark suit and a tie exactly the color of his eyes. And he was looking at her. He tilted his head slightly to gesture at the seat beside him. But she turned and headed toward her seat – Chief Reporter, Indian IQ Magazine.
The one article that had put both of their careers on fast tracks was about a stranger with blue eyes, who, tucked away in the depth of the Himalayan Mountains, had achieved a great engineering feat. The 1000 words she wrote about him had gone viral for two weeks. She received numerous inquiries and appreciations. But the person the article was about, never got in touch. She wondered, maybe, even though unlikely, he lived in too remote a place to know that he was famous. Or maybe he preferred his isolation too much. She hadn’t asked his permission before publishing the article. She’d thought he’d be pleasantly surprised. But then days became weeks. And she came to reason that maybe he never cared for her the way she’d done. Fearing the worst she never tried to contact him either.
But then one day, he’d called. To thank her. He got the attention of a lot of venture capitalists because of her, he said. Quite a few researchers came by as well. And that with all the new investments he’d be able to expand. All because of her. He said, he was not sure if this was what he wanted, but thanks anyway because people now knew about him. It was a formal call. Not at all how she’d imagined.
There was a lot of unsaid things, or so it had seemed to her, when she was leaving Badrinath that day. It had seemed that this thing (whatever it was) between them was far from over. Even though he hadn’t expressed any interest to know about the ways to keep in touch, she’d automatically assumed that in this era of social media it was an easy thing – keeping in touch. But proving her wrong, their acquaintance had ended as abruptly as it had started. As months passed Trina thought less and less about him. Sometimes it was nothing more than a passing thought, but, some other times it was uncomfortable like a chipped tooth.
She’d spent many an indecisive moment whether to come or not today when she learnt that Mayur was going to be one of the speakers as a young engineer turned entrepreneur who set up India’s first geothermal power plant. But then her curiosity took over and here she was!
Mayur’s nonchalant behavior infuriated her. He’d been avoiding her all this time, but instead of being apologetic about it, he behaved as if all was well. She was even more bewildered when he trotted to her place, convinced the person sitting next to her to move to his seat (that girl was only too eager to move because clearly she thought Trina’d written that article only because something was going on between them!).
“Hey!” he said.
“Hi! How are you?” Trina put her poker face on.
“How do you think I am?”
“Well! You look well.”
“There’s really no need to be so formal, is there? I know you are angry!”
“And why would I be?”
“Well, partly because I am a selfish moron and partly because I am still showing the audacity of talking to you.” He quipped.
“If you know it so well, then probably you shouldn’t be talking to me!” Trina retorted.
“But I have to”, he was suddenly serious, “I have to talk to you. In fact, I came here as just an excuse to see you.”
Trina couldn’t help but roll her eyes.
“Don’t roll your eyes Trina, I am serious. I am too much like my father, you know! I like settlement, a niche of my own. Daily monotonies inspire me. Why else do you think I abandoned my studies in Germany and came here? But you came to my hotel and it changed. For the first time in my life I felt the need to brag about myself, to show you that I was more than met your eye. I felt that I had to prove my worth to you. When you were impressed, it just felt good. Had I known that you were a reporter, I wouldn’t have shown my plant to you. Or may be I would have, and made you promise that you’d not write anything about it. But I didn’t know, and you didn’t ask. The shock was too much.”
Trina was listening patiently till now. But she couldn’t anymore. “If being recognized for something you did is shocking to you, then why are you here today? The “Young Engineer turned Entrepreneur?”” her voice dripped with sarcasm.
He stood up. “I have to go now. It’s my turn to speak next. You are too angry at me to believe me if I say the truth now. I will tell you later.”
“All the best Mr. Young Engineer turned Entrepreneur!” Trina called out mockingly.
The audience applauded as Mayur walked onto the stage looking every bit as professional as any other. As he started to speak, Trina turned her concentration to forming the skeleton of the article she was going to write, shutting off his speech.
A few minutes passed and suddenly she was brought to attention by the sound of her name. As Trina looked up unwillingly, she was surprised once again, to find the shabbily dressed person she’d met in the mountains replaced completely by a charming man who knew his place.
“…. It is all because of her of course”, he was saying, “I was just fine until she came along, happy in my own world. But since the day I met her, all I can think is, how can I impress her! How can I make myself worthy of her? Alright, she is impressed that I’ve set up a power plant, but is it enough for her to consider a future with me? I thought it all the time. But it was hard work. So the pessimistic part of me wanted to shut her off. That it was all very futile, didn’t make any sense. My becoming successful didn’t guarantee that she’d be mine. It probably was the best to accept the worst and move on. By moving on here I mean staying put. But then the optimistic part of me took over. It told me that I at least had to try. I could not be a coward and not not try! So I worked my way up, from the platform she’d provided me. So here I am today, in front of you, being recognized as a young entrepreneur. Alkananda Power Plant will be the sole power supplier of the town of Badrinath by the end of the year. By the end of next year, we’ll have enough capacity to power half of the Gadhwal population . But I was just following my heart. I was just trying to prove myself to her. I still don’t know if I have impressed her enough, but I have at least given it my best shot.”
The auditorium erupted with applause. Trina silently left the auditorium.
Halfway through the corridor he caught her. The challenge in his eyes was clear: the ball was in her court now. The decision was hers.
“I don’t like drama, and the people who make it.” she said.
“Then let’s go somewhere where we can talk. Really talk! Don’t tell me that we don’t need it.”
“Do we? Even so, I don’t see why we can’t talk here. I Don’t see we have something private going on here.”
“Fine.” Sighed Mayur. “You win. I will talk right here right now. As I said on the stage, I like you – a lot. I thought it was just a passing attraction at first, and that it will go away with time. I didn’t want to get involved because this, you and I, is very inconvenient! You must see that! And I kept telling myself that you were not what I remembered you to be, I was skeptic that maybe it was I who was conjuring you up as I liked. It felt foolhardy and impractical – like something my mother would have done. I was resisting it. But I failed. I knew I had to come today because you were going to be there. I thought seeing you again will help me know what I really wanted. And the moment I saw you today, I knew it will be worth every hardship I’d have to face if you’d say yes to me.”
There was a small crowd gathered around them now. Trina felt her face flush with embarrassment even as a lone drop of tear escaped her eyes. It would be inconvenient for sure, unlikely as they were as a couple, but as he’d said, she was ready to take those odds. She whispered, “Follow me.”
Bewildered, Mayur followed her half running through the crowd. She led him up the stairs and to the roof. And then before he could catch his breath, she kissed him. The setting sun’s glow illuminated these two odd figures. It took Mayur a while to catch on, but as he deepened the kiss the last orange sunrays set Trina on fire and wrapped Mayur in shadows – as different as possible, yet always together.