New husbands are like burrs: they stick, they irritate and they’re mostly unwanted. Mine turns to me and says, “Do you know that Gangtok is the only part of our country from where you can see another country?” He beams at me as though I’m a gift he doesn’t deserve.
I understand now why we’ve come here, so far from Mumbai, for our honeymoon, although I’m certain there are other, closer, places in India from where one can see foreign countries. I don’t say this out loud, of course, for even I know that a woman must choose her battles carefully in marriage. Besides, I’ve been married for only four days and know my husband the way a student knows a professor, with familiarity but no intimacy.
Nikhil’s smile has the full force of his teeth. I smile back as though I’ve won a battle I didn’t know I was fighting. Is this just the beginning of marriage?
I look outside. The Sumo we’re sitting inside is snaking its way past the mountain to Nathu La pass. The mountain is on one side of a narrow road that drops into a deep valley. There’s place only for one car on this treacherous road, yet every minute or so a car edges its way towards us. Just when I think it’ll topple over—and my jaw clenches—it splutters past. I’m glad that we have the solidity of the mountain on our side, but I worry about the rosy-cheeked children in these cars, wearing their multi-coloured sweaters, nibbling desultorily on alpine cheese, black seeds from passion fruit stuck to their mouths. Do they not see the sheer fall and the shining pine trees, poking out like teeth from the valley below, ready to stab and take out their little lives? Do they not see the mountain open and close its jaw?
I see a small prayer wheel on the dashboard spinning round and round, calm, a blessing. I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
Last night, Nikhil had put a bamboo tumbler to my lips. The Tongba slithered down my throat like a porcupine wriggling its way into a hole.
“Is this alcohol?” I coughed.
He mistook my question for an accusation and defended himself. “It’s fermented millet. I thought it would relax you.”
The Tongba tasted buttery enough to finish. The burning in my stomach turned into something soft. I could hear the hum of the electric current feeding the naked heater in our room.
“Your eyes are big, so innocent, twinkling like … stars in the sky,” Nikhil said to me with a slur. I giggled. Emboldened, he put his hand on mine. It felt different. His touch cold and unfamiliar, nothing like Kabir’s. “That’s what I love most about you. You’re untouched, like a flower that hasn’t bloomed.”
His unimaginative compliment made bile rise in my throat. I guess some people savour the fire, while others get burnt. Nikhil’s matrimonial ad had asked for a “conventeducated homely girl”, aka virgin. I’d read more such ads than the hair I could count on my head. I’d met many such men seeking virgins, and told them about my Kabir and my one abortion. It was the 21st century, goddammit! They ran, each and every one of them, and left me an unmarried, 31-year-old, childless woman; virtually a crime in India. So I learnt what every woman eventually learns, to never reveal her past or bra strap.
By the time I met Nikhil I was too weary to show my true self. All I wanted was to roll into one pocket of the roulette wheel of arranged matches and stop my head from spinning. Besides, Nikhil was neither a lout, a drunk, a loafer nor a smoker. He wasn’t smelly or hairy. That was all I needed from a man.
When life doesn’t give you what you want, you learn to live with what you get.
I told Nikhil that I’d never had a boyfriend, never been kissed, and—yes—I was saving myself for my husband. My lies burnt my cheeks red. Nikhil mistook my guilt for coyness, so appropriate for a bride, and agreed to our match. I don’t recall saying yes, although it barely mattered. The jumble of family around us had already consulted a priest and set our wedding date. And why not, our rashi koota was close enough to seven.
I didn’t know the man I would spend the rest of my life with, and I certainly didn’t love him. On the flight from Mumbai to Bagdogra, the start of our honeymoon, I gasped for breath. I’d never flown before and everything around me was suspended and airtight. Nikhil put his hand over mine. He held a brown paper bag into which I blew out my panic. This man was trying to fall in love with me, and—more importantly—trying to make me fall in love with him. That made me a lucky woman. My breath came back to me.
I open my eyes and look at Nikhil. With him I can take love in and give it back, rephrase my understanding of it. I can create a semblance of happiness, so that everything is gained and nothing is lost. With him I can have a wonderful marriage. But I’ve based our relationship on a lie. With such a shaky foundation, how will the structure last?
“Do you speak Nepali or Lepcha?” Nikhil is asking Kazi. Some men do not want to be forgotten by whomever they meet. My husband, it seems, is one of them.
“Bhutia,” Kazi replies. “That is why I wear bakhu.” He points to his robe, tied on the waist and trimmed with gold brocade. It contrasts with the peeling interiors of the car.
Nikhil nods and says absentmindedly, “I should get one of those.”
“But my boss … he Newar,” Kazi says with a slight hiss.
Nepali businessman, my husband whispers to me.
“They think business in our blood. This is old Silk Route, no?” Kazi tells Nikhil. He lowers his voice. “But I think blood is business. Remember in 1959 how Tibetan refugee come to India and Chinese soldier push them down this mountain?”
I imagine bodies falling down the mountainside and shudder. Nikhil looks at me, as if he can read my mind, and changes the subject. “I read that wool, fur and spice were traded earlier, but now only yak tail and silk brocades are allowed.”
“You know too much! You know also that every two weeks letters are sent by post across border?”
They continue like this: men comparing knowledge. I zone out. I cannot listen to the history of this land while my own history whispers to me. I want to tell Nikhil the truth. I should. But how will he react? Will he be angry? No, he doesn’t behave like a person with a temper. Will he divorce me? No, he doesn’t strike me as courageous. Will he tell my family, or worse, his? No, he hasn’t got the stomach for drama. He wouldn’t pull his wife through mud even if she were drowning in a swamp.
So what will he do? Nothing, my mind tells me, but this could be my mind’s way of taking for granted love that is promised in the way that it takes for granted love that is long.
Suddenly our Sumo swerves to the left. A sheep, the size of a man, has skidded on the wet road in front of us. I scream.
“Not worry. Baba protect us and we protect this nature and its creature,” Kazi says to my husband and continues driving.
“Captain Harbhajan Singh.”
“The cricketer? He’s joined the army?”
Kazi laughs, “No! No! Captain Harbhajan Singh is India’s greatest soldier. He protect thousands of jawans at Nathu La. If enemy about to attack he warn soldiers three days in advance. That’s why we never lose battle here. We have shrine built for him. ”
“He’s dead?” Nikhil asks.
“How he can be dead when he is immortal?” Kazi says impatiently. “Ask jawans who make his bed and clean his boot morning after morning. If he dead, would his bed sheet crumple? Would his boots become muddy?
Would jawans send his every month salary to his family, and take him to visit family in Punjab?”
“The jawans take a dead man to meet his family?” I ask.
Kazi glares at Nikhil in the rear-view mirror and says, “Every September one berth is booked in train under his name. The jawan carry his photo portrait and suitcase. His family wait at rail platform with garland and whole village.”
Kazi does not talk directly to me. Is this how it will be?
“What nonsense!” I say it more aggressively than I mean to. Kazi has made me lose the strength I’d gathered to tell Nikhil about Kabir.
“Shhhh …” Kazi whispers fiercely. “Let not the mountain hear. The wind will carry her voice to Boongthing and we become in trouble.”
“Shamans,” Nikhil whispers to me.
“First priest born out of purest snowflake from mountain,” says Kazi.
I roll my eyes.
“Some men can be saints,” my husband whispers, as if the Boongthing can hear him.
Can you, I want to ask Nikhil. But I don’t.
“You will meet Baba in Nathu La. He patrols the border when soldier sleep. They have kept chair for him when he is tired. If you lucky, and he think he can save you, he will show you his shadow.”
“Why will he save us?” Nikhil asks. “We are not soldiers.”
“Why will he save us?” Nikhil asks. “We are not soldiers.”
“Harbhajan Baba ki Jai!” Nikhil shouts to cover up, and Kazi laughs, though I’m not sure he speaks Hindi.
We drive on. My husband and Kazi chat in broken English about this and that, while I watch the mountain change its mood from verdant green to rocky brown. I should’ve told Nikhil the truth earlier, so that its acid taste was absorbed by the day and its many distractions. Never mind, I’ll tell him once we reach, I decide. I’ll tell him and he’ll forgive me. For, he’s like the stars in the sky, the flower that hasn’t bloomed.
We reach Nathu La, hidden, like a young bride in purdah, by a heavy mist.
“You going to shake hand with Chinese soldier?” Kazi asks.
Apparently you can do that. Nikhil nods excitedly.
A red gatepost with Nathu La written in English and Mandarin announces our arrival. I jump out of the car, happy to have my feet on the ground. A sharp wind slaps me across the face. I zip up my rainproof jacket and wrap my shawl around my head. I run up the stairs, not even waiting for Nikhil to tip chai-paani to Kazi. On the way up I see flags, electric poles and many signboards, of which one reads “Indian Army Welcomes You To Nathu La, 14,420 feet”.
I reach the top, where there are two nondescript buildings painted red. One says “India” and the other “China”. A few feet below this is a small outpost, painted in white and blue, cordoned with barbed wire. Soldiers stand around it in absolute stillness, their rifles leaning against them like the fallen enemy. This is the first time in my life that I’m seeing a border, and a new country. I try to feel excited, but what I see across the border is my own country. The same sky, the same trees, the same chirping ravens and wild asses; that same anticipatory air of life’s hope and defeat.
This is a place where the sky meets the ground. It is a no-man’s land. There are no rules of architecture for thoughts built in the clouds, so I let them run. I feel free, despite the shawl I have to cling to. Virginity is not a virtue, I decide. No great woman has died a virgin. It is the virginity of the soul, and not the body that matters. I am a good person, honest and kind, and I will make a good wife and a good mother. All these things cannot be wiped off the slate because I once loved a man, in mind and body. My husband should know better than to link my morality to my sexuality. Besides, why do I not get to ask him if he’s a virgin?
Finally. I feel like I have crossed over into something new.
I will tell Nikhil of my past. Of how I met Kabir at Wilson College when we were both sneaking out of class through the back door. How we spend the rest of the afternoon sharing a plate of soggy noodles. How we fell in love before the monsoons were over that year. How he kissed me on the day the last raindrop fell on my lips. How he sneaked me into his paying guest room and took off my clothes underneath the blanket, in case his roommate returned before the expected 45 minutes. How he pressed his tongue against my clit. How it was over in a matter of minutes, and we spent the next 38 minutes in a state of shivering ecstasy. How I had decided to tell my parents about the man I wanted to marry, when two planes crashed into two buildings, killing my New York uncle, the one with six-year-old twin daughters. How my distraught Hindu mother fired our Muslim cook and stopped eating kheer on Eid. How Kabir understood that we would never be married, but we continued to meet, and be in love. Till this; till this marriage. Even a night before it. Yes, five days ago, we had gone back to his paying guest room, this time bigger and better, and he’d held me under the blanket, not because his roommate would come early, but in case my future did. And he wept. I wept. We held each other so tightly that during the wedding people said my nose looked flatter.
I’ll tell Nikhil all this. I go in search of him.
That’s when I spot the chair. The one Kazi mentioned. Baba’s chair. It’s wooden, dull and faded. I look around to see if Baba’s shadow will also appear. At that exact moment a mist comes out and surrounds me. I cannot see a thing. A cold hand grips my neck. I turn around. “Nikhil?” I shout. There’s no reply. No one is there. I shudder and start walking blindly through the mist. I see nothing but white. Suddenly I freeze. Something is standing in front of me. A silhouette. A shadow. A soldier. I can’t see his face, blurred as it is by the mist, but I see his arms and legs coming straight towards me. Stop, I shout, afraid at how fast he’s approaching me. He doesn’t stop. He comes straight in front of me and, as I stiffen with fear, he passes right through me. I hear a whisper.
Then he’s gone and the mist is gone, as quickly as it came.
And Nikhil is standing in front of me, smiling.
“Wha––” I start.
“Hi, Akku baby!” Nikhil says brightly. “I was looking for you.” Seeing him beaming again, like this may be his happiest moment, I lose the courage to tell him about Kabir, or Baba. How can I fly when I can’t even jump?
“I’m hungry,” I tell him instead. He obediently walks me down to the army canteen. But we’re late for lunch; the canteen only has tea and biscuits. Food, I ask my husband.
“Actually, I was hoping that you could wait,” he replies. “I’ve made a reservation at one of Gangtok’s best restaurants. They have delicious sisno, gundruk ka jhol and soyabean chutney. We’ll reach there in less than two hours.” I stare at him.
“Please, Akku baby! I want tonight to be special.”
Tonight: the night he hopes to get laid. Men.
I agree, still shaken by Baba’s shadowy vision.
On the way down the stairs I see a sign on the gatepost that reads “Pass Of Listening Ears”. I look up for the last time and swear that there’s a shadow in the mist.
Someone’s really hungry, Nikhil says, and hurries into the car. “Fast, fast, take us back,” he tells Kazi.
We move, pretty swiftly. I catch fleeting glimpses of lakes that look like spilt milk, faraway mountains like chocolate ice-cream with swirls of vanilla, people with monkey caps and woollen gloves.
I catch Kazi glancing at me through the rear-view mirror. Does he know something?
The prayer wheel in front is quickly turning round and round.
“Tell him to slow down,” I tell Nikhil, loud enough for Kazi to hear. Nikhil smiles at me in return; his answer to every problem, it seems. I keep the faith and pray for our safety.
We pass tiny villages and reach the mountainside dotted with terrace fields that I find hypnotic. The car begins to curve around the mountain bends, hairpin roads that open straight into the mountain mouth. Kazi is still driving fast. I feel nauseous and shut my eyes. Suddenly he stops.
Landslide, I hear him say. Part of the road has fallen. I open my eyes.
“This, very common,” he says, switching off the car engine, as if ready to wait for a long time. “Every day it happens. Erosion due to excessive height and steepness of mountains.”
Ahead the roads are neverending, coils in the sweeping panorama. Next to our car is a sheer drop. I see pine trees trembling like weather-beaten men with frowning moustaches.
“Then why keep the roads open?” I ask in panic. “Why make them narrow when cars come from both sides? It’s so dangerous.”
“This is Nye Mayel Lyang, our land pure as heaven. It do nothing that not in our destiny. Especially when Baba protect us.”
A crane is lifting mud and rocks, and dumping it in a giant heap at one end of the road. Men with spades are clearing the rubble the crane cannot reach. What holds up the automobile rarely holds up the mountain folk, and they pass us nonchalantly, some leading goats, others carrying cardamom and oranges to the town square.
o the town square. A man knocks on our car window. He’s selling raspberries on leaves shaped like elephant pugmarks. The raspberries look fresh and delicious. My stomach growls and becomes an empty fearful pit. I cannot move. The fruit seller is standing on the mountainside, much lower in height than our car. That’s how close we are to the edge.
I take a deep breath. The oxygen here is thin. Nikhil puts his hand on mine.
“We took the cheapest car when a Bolero or Scorpio would have been safer,” I snarl in Hindi, hoping Kazi doesn’t understand.
“Akku baby, the Sumo was cheaper by one thousand,” Nikhil replies.
“Cheaper than our lives?” I’m being overdramatic. I can see it in the way Nikhil has willed his lips shut and in the feathery touch of his hand.
I see junipers shiver in the cold wind, much like my mind. Then, mist—the breath of nature—gathers around us and covers us like a shroud. I tense. When the mountain inhales, will it swallow us?
The prayer wheel at the front of the car stops moving.
“Hai Ram,” I mumble, and a tear rolls down my eyes. “We are going to fa––”
A BRO trooper comes in front of our car and raises his hand, asking us to move forward.
“How will you see?” I ask Kazi. “How will he see?” I ask my husband. But Kazi starts the engine and shifts gear.
We move forward, perhaps a foot or two, when the mist clears. I see Kazi smirk in the rear-view mirror. Even nature is pitted against me. Kazi inches the car slowly to the left to avoid the mound of rubble, taking us back towards the edge, then stops. We have to wait for the road to be further cleared of the many rocks, which are shiny and menacing like the mouths of bombs. Men and women with tiny chisels are chipping away at the gigantic mountain front. Some of them have formed a human chain, where a single rock is passed from one hand to another, carried to someplace hidden from our view. This could take years.
I look down from the window and my heart leaps to my mouth. The land below our car is giving way. It’s falling! We’re going to plunge thousands of feet.
“Kazi,” I shout, not understanding how my voice still works. “Go back. Reverse!”
Kazi turns around and for the first time that day our eyes meet. He sees the fear in my eyes and peers from the driver’s seat. He sees what I see. Like a wild animal about to be caught in the net, Kazi shifts gears. But there’s a Scorpio behind us and behind the Scorpio is a serpentine queue of cars, all in the assembly line for death. We can’t move forward or backward. We’re stuck.
“Don’t move!” Kazi shouts. “Even small shift in weight make car go over.”
The car shakes. Behind me I hear people shouting. A crowd gathers in front of us, shouting and pointing. They’ve sensed that we’re about to drop to sure death. There is no mercy of sturdy trees or big rocks that will save our fall. It’s a sheer drop into the ravine with only a hard rocky surface to be smashed against.
I can see every pebble on the sheer slice of earth that’s keeping us from falling. I try not to look beyond that. I start sobbing. My sobs are deep but muffled, in case my rocking tips the car over. Nikhil’s hand begins to sweat on mine but he doesn’t remove it. He is absolutely still, frozen. He says nothing, as if words too carry weight.
Am I being punished for my lies? Is this my penance for not being a virgin? Will we be saved if I tell Nikhil the truth?
“I have to tell you something, Nikhil,” I say in between my sobs. I don’t care if Kazi hears us.
Nikhil presses my hand in response but says nothing.
This is it. Finally. The sense of destiny I’ve been waiting for.
“You should know, you deserve to know something. I––”
A mist enters the car and surrounds us. Have we fallen into the mountainside? Is this heaven we’re entering?
I don’t care. I continue, “I am not a––” Something grips the back of my neck again. I can’t speak. A voice from afar that is directly in my ear, whispers “say nothing”.
I shut up. The mist pulls away and I see that the road ahead of us has opened up like a miracle. Kazi immediately takes the Sumo to solid road. There’s a huge cheer from the with crowd gathered behind us. The three of us laugh with tears in our eyes. Nikhil pats Kazi on the back.
I sob in relief. Nikhil pulls me to him. I look into his eyes, into my husband’s eyes, for the first time in my life, and find myself at home. I rest my head against my husband’s shoulders. We don’t let each other go. Kazi smiles at us from the rear-view mirror.
I begin to notice the beauty of Sikkim that I’d missed on the way. The hills are awash with cherryred rhododendron and silver fir trees, coming to life by the chirping of fire-tailed myzornis. The waterfalls of glacial water are teeming with leaping black tadpoles. The houses far away glitter like rice bulbs. The plump Tibetan snowcock are flying, much to my surprise and delight. I realise that I’ve been looking at something beautiful without seeing it, small moments that I’ll later relive as happy memories.
“You must be starving,” my husband smiles at me and says. “It’ll be late by the time we get to Gangtok. Let’s eat at the next restaurant.”
I nod in agreement. We don’t need a fancy restaurant to make it a special night. We need each other. I know that now. I know so much.
What I don’t know is that we will not find a single open restaurant on the way. We will finally stop at a row of small shops. We will sidestep Chow Chow dogs and wild asses to reach the last shop. This shop will have a long wooden table and a bench. An ancient woman will boil noodles for us on a cylinder. We will eat soggy, delicious noodles that will cost the same as the price on the packet. We will drink temi tea laced with butter. We will reach Lake Tsongmo, and not see much of it due to the rain and mist. We will take a photo with a yak dressed in bells and strings, to prove that we were there. Sleep will have settled in Gangtok by the time we come back. Nikhil will be upset that he couldn’t take me to the fancy restaurant.
We will tuck into our blanket. My husband will pull this blanket over our heads. He will not press his tongue against my clit, for he is an Indian husband. But he will do the other needful. It will be his first time and he will last no longer than a minute. He will not look for virgin blood. We will have two children, both boys. My body will become full. We will settle into a comfortable marriage that is neither happy nor sad; something to be strived for, I’ll be told again and again. Nikhil will never trouble me, not even in death, for he will die quietly at 61 of a heart attack. I will live for three years after, become a grandmother, and then follow him loyally the same way. I will never see Kabir, or Baba, again.
I don’t know all this as I let my hand relax in my husband’s, and realise that the distance between a hand that is warm and a hand that is cold lies within the heart.