HOLIDAY :MOUSHUMI CHAKRABARTY
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Moushumi Chakrabarty is a full time writer/reader combo,
an occasional poet and a mother. Her book, Fighting for Women's Rights
- The Extraordinary Adventures of Anna Leonowens was recently released.
She is busy working on her second book, Water Matters and lives in Ontario,
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outside the taxi, groaning as the blood stumbled through his legs. After
a journey of five hours through winding mountainous roads in an Ambassador
taxi with the driver whistling continuously and his father’s knee
jammed sideways, he was ready to take a break. He peered cautiously
around in the deepening gloom, trying to ascertain whether they had
reached their destination.
“You promised me a tip, sahib,” whined the taxi driver with
his cap askew over his bald head. Wisps of frosted breath rose from
his lips as he spoke the words.
“I have already given you what is on the meter. Plus I have added
an extra twenty. How much more do you want?”
Rohit heard his father’s familiar grumbling as he lifted the two
suitcases from the taxi to the side of the pavement. His mother was
smoothing her hair and holding on to his younger sister, Paro. She had
slept through most of the journey, missing the wonderful scenery of
towering pines and sudden bends in the mountain roads where waterfalls
Mist was beginning to swirl around the tiny street and the street lamps
came on dimly as if awakening reluctantly from a deep sleep.
Across the railings as Rohit leaned over, his mother warned, “Be
careful, son! It’s dark and you never know if the bars are strong
enough. Here, help your father with the bags, will you?”
Rohit went forward moodily. He was hungry. A hot meal was what he wanted
most of all. His father was still arguing with the taxi driver, “But
my good man, what did we agree on when we started the journey? You tell
me, go on, yes, go on…”
He lifted the light green suitcase which had his father’s name
stuck in a label. He had written it himself with a black pen - ‘Mr
B N Dubey/154, Somnath Apartments/ShivajiNagar/New Delhi.’
“Not there Rohit,” his father gestured through the turbulent
spate of the taxi driver’s words. Rohit banged the suitcase next
to where his mother was standing patiently. Paro was yawning again and
beginning to whimper, “Why can’t we go to the hotel now?
“Sahib, I know what we agreed on, but that delay at the market
made us late and now it is dark and I will not get any passengers back
down to the plains. A man has to eat, how can I survive if my passengers
don’t understand that I too have a family to feed?”
“The delay was not my fault was it? If there is too much traffic
in the market, I can hardly be blamed,” his father was shaking
his head firmly and shouldering a heavy bag with an air of finality.
He took up the other suitcase, the brown one, and Rohit picked up the
green one. His mother led the somnolent Paro through a street almost
deserted except for a few scooters which whizzed by with frightening
speed into the dusk.
The taxi driver knew when he was defeated. He muttered and seated himself
in the taxi, revved up and took an about turn up towards the shrouded
His father heaved a sigh of relief and said, “You have to be firm
with these chaps. They’re always looking for ways to cheat you.
Come, let’s get into the hotel.”
Across the road, the lighted neon sign blazed ‘Paradise Hotel’.
The door looked inviting and from within came the sounds of human habitation
and the smells of the restaurant.
Rohit realized just how hungry he was. Since the time they had had lunch
at a restaurant in the foothills, he had not really eaten anything.
He had munched on an apple, but what is an apple to a thirteen year
“It does look nice,” murmured his mother. He saw that she
had faintly black shadows under her eyes. The journey must have tired
her more than anyone else, he thought.
At the receptionist’s counter, his father was signing the register
and smiling. Rohit thought he detected a certain triumph in his father’s
manner. After all, he had won with the taxi driver.
They were shown to their room by a young boy with a limp. They went
past a narrow corridor with white tiles and yellow lamps, up a wooden
staircase and then a long open balcony where other doors stood shut.
A cold breeze arose from the lake for which the tiny hill station was
famous. It blew the curtains of the window as Rohit leaned forward.
“Oh, I’m going to sleep, Ma. I don’t want to eat anything,”
Paro had kicked off her shoes and dived into the double bed. She lay
with the covers up to her neck and kept closing and opening her eyes
His parents fussed about with keeping the luggage stacked neatly in
the corner of the small room, shutting the window and visiting the bathroom.
Rohit stood for some time, lowered himself on the bed and looked around
the room. There were two double beds, one for his mother and Paro and
the other for his father and himself. An elongated mirror loomed in
a corner of the room, a naked bulb hung from the ceiling. He heard the
water running in the bathroom, his father clearing his throat noisily
and his mother wondering distractedly, “Now where did I put the
towel, Rohit? Do you remember? Is it in this bag or in the suitcase?”
Settling into the bed was not going to be easy, Rohit realized with
a sinking heart. His father’s body occupied half the bed, the
mattress was a bit lumpy and he felt his flesh shrinking at the cold.
The window was ajar, just a little bit, because his mother could not
sleep in a totally closed room.
“I feel claustrophobic, I can’t help it,” he remembered
her telling his father on another holiday many years ago. He didn’t
know why the memory came back at this time. He was rather young at the
time, Paro was not yet born. His mother looked the same as she did now,
only her hair was longer and somehow, more polished, he thought.
“Oh, your fancy college psychology!” his father had sneered,
upon which her face suddenly lost its lively look and became like a
closed door. Rohit yawned hugely and drew his knees upwards. His eyes
were closed and he pictured the closed doors of the balcony where their
room was. He wondered who lived in those rooms. Were they guests like
his family, coming to visit the hill station on holiday? Or did they
hold some deep dark secret?
“Will you stop tossing around, Rohit? Let me sleep,” his
Rohit tried to lay still, closing his eyes and breathing evenly. His
tired mind wandered over the hairpin bends and distant vistas of green
valleys that he had seen on the journey. At last, he fell asleep just
as his father’s snores were rising in crescendo.
It must have been in the middle of the night that Rohit was awakened
from his deep sleep. He looked around the room with bewildered sleepy
eyes and furrowed his brow. Where was he? His father’s snores
rose and fell with rhythmic consistency; his mother was breathing evenly
and Paro’s mouth was wide open. In the little light from the open
window facing the balcony, he watched sleepily the unfamiliar room.
The mirror was almost black, the suitcases stacked solidly beside it.
Some of their clothes were strewn on the fat armchair. It seemed like
a person was sitting there looking at the sleeping family.
Carefully Rohit moved his head towards the open window and thought,
“That’s nonsense, those are just clothes.”
He remembered how, as a child, he used to be afraid of sleeping alone
because he imagined the clothes taking on strange shapes in the dark.
His mother had wanted to allay his fears by telling him stories and
waiting till he fell asleep before going to her room.
“You’re spoiling the boy! Let him be alone. He’ll
get over it. All children do,” his father’s voice had sounded
muffled through the half open door of his parents’ bedroom.
Rohit turned over carefully in the dark, the window with its sliver
of light attracting him like a beacon. His father muttered something
unintelligible and pulled the covers to his side. Rohit was suddenly
conscious of the cold. The warm cocoon he had built for himself with
the covers was broken. Sleep fled instantly as he tried to make himself
warmer, gently pulling the blanket towards himself.
Nani, his grandmother used to always cover him up, good and proper,
whenever they visited her house in the ancestral village. He used to
sleep in the big bed with the four posters and mosquito net, warm and
comfortable, her bulky body redolent with the smell of spice. She had
a ready stock of stories for him - all about the demon king, the gods
and the invisible mysterious beasts who inhabited the earth.
But she had looked nothing like she usually did on the day they visited
her house for the death rituals. She looked smaller than usual, as if
shrunken by some power beyond her control. Her features were stiff and
unnatural, there was no light on her face. He remembered the hysterical
desire to laugh when he had seen two wads of cotton stuffed into her
“Oh, the old lady was so fond of Rohit! Come here, son, look at
your poor Nani,” someone had pushed him forward in that hot peopled
space. The sound of wailing and sniffles had risen alarmingly as he
was made to stand beside that much-loved bed and told to ‘pay
his last respects’. He had no idea what he was expected to do.
Rohit recalled with a shudder how someone had taken his small hands
and made him touch her feet. They were so cold, so indecent, that he
had screamed and screamed, sobbing wildly, torrents of tears raining
down his face.
He sighed and shifted his body towards his father’s. A huge yawn
broke through his memories. Lazily, with delicious pleasure, he watched
sleep coming towards him in colorful swirls.
The next day, Rohit and Paro had a wonderful time. They
took rides on the pony, ate their favorite snacks and made faces at
the monkeys which swung by the trees beside the temple. On the other
side of the lake was a small temple dedicated to the powerful monkey
god, Hanuman. A bell tolled as his mother entered the dark interior
and folded her hands to pray.
An old man with piercing eyes and a tuft of hair which swung jauntily
whenever he moved, handed them a few slices of coconut. That was the
‘prasad’ - the food blessed by the god for his devotees.
The smell of incense was strong in the enclosed space. Rohit chewed
the sweet coconut slices and shuffled his bare feet on the cold floor
of the temple.
“Come on, son, put your hands together, pray to Hanuman. Ask for
strength of mind and body,” his mother whispered.
He folded his hands together and closed his eyes. His mind was blank,
but he stayed obediently for a couple of seconds before escaping outside
into the green and blue sunshine. A couple of boats, paddled by tourists,
dotted the lake. The hills ringed the shimmering lake, as if encircling
it in a hollow. Tying his shoelaces, Rohit felt a wild sense of joy.
It was beautiful!
“Rohit, come here, I want to show you something. This side,”
Paro beckoned urgently from the other side of the temple.
“Coming,” he sang out, flying down the stone steps two at
a time. He found Paro in a little clearing of bushes, pointing at something.
Together they looked at a nest of some bird that was out, foraging for
food perhaps. Two perfectly shaped eggs, pale blue, speckled with brown,
lay in the nest and Paro’s eyes glittered with greed.
“Should we take the eggs? We could take it home and once they
hatch, we can have these birds as pets.”
Rohit shook his head, even though he was tempted.
“It wouldn’t work,” he said with superior wisdom,
“the eggs have to be warmed by the mother’s body.”
“How do you know?” angrily Paro refuted him. Though he was
her elder brother, she was not going to accept everything he said.
“We learnt that in science class,” he said, standing up
and looking away, drawing her up to her feet.
“Rohit, Paro! Come on, we’re leaving now,” their father’s
voice sounded loud in the silence of mid morning.
Walking back, they came upon the sight of monkeys hanging from the trees
beside the temple. Some swung by their tails, some sat and watched them
and some ate the fruit from the trees with careless abandon.
Walking away with their parents, Rohit and Paro made faces at the monkeys
and their parents laughed so hard they had tears in their eyes.
Before going to bed, Rohit stood for a moment on the
balcony looking towards the black lake waters. He could barely make
out the outline of the temple they had visited in the morning. It was
as if the temple and the monkeys had never existed. There was a thick
silence in the little street and the hotel. Strands of mist hung on
the trees bordering the lake.
“Rohit, come on in and put off the light. You’ll catch a
cold, son,” his mother called out from inside the room. He turned
to go inside and his eye caught a movement to his left. The doors of
the other rooms seemed to be shut, but he was sure he had seen a flash
of something - perhaps someone had closed a door which was ajar.
He shook his head and stepped inside the room. He lay down on the bed
and tried to fall asleep, thinking with regret of those lovely birds
eggs and that temple on the other side of the lake.
It was with a start that Rohit jerked awake. As was usual, his father
was snoring, his mother and sister were fast asleep and a pale band
of moonlight illuminated the room. Rohit’s blood ran cold as he
lay listening to a peculiar keening sound that seemed to come from the
balcony. It was as if someone was desperately sobbing, with a grief
too difficult to bear. At last he could take it no longer. He debated
whether to wake his father or not, but thought it would be better not
to. His father wouldn’t be in a very good temper if he was woken
from his deeply satisfying sleep.
Cautiously Rohit sat up on the bed. He looked around him and pulled
his sweater from the pile of clothes at the foot of the bed. He was
determined to see what the noise was about. He couldn’t go back
to sleep, pretending there was no sound at all.
In his socks, the floor still felt icy to the touch. He shivered and
silently wrapped his muffler around his throat. A wooden board creaked
accusingly as he stepped on it on his way to the window. The balcony
appeared deserted, but the sound still bothered him. It rose and fell
like waves. The moonlight made the scene more chimerical.
With bated breath, he watched and just as he was about to go back to
bed, a figure detached itself from the far end of the balcony. With
fascinated horror, he made out the long skirts sweeping the floor, the
thin arms, the covered head and round flashing spectacles. From that
figure issued a thin keening cry as it leaned over the railing of the
balcony. Rohit’s heart was in his mouth as he stood rooted in
awestruck terror. He seemed incapable of movement aware of the cold
but not heeding it.
A harsh word broke through the night from one of the doors and the figure
shuffled back into the shadows after a last despairing look at the shrouded
street. The sound of a door being shut roused Rohit. He crept back into
bed, huddling by his father, desperately trying to sleep.
In the light of the day, the balcony appeared an ordinary
one. There was no sign of anything that had happened the previous night.
The doors were shut, ordinary green painted doors with black borders.
Rohit was shaken and deeply curious. Who was that lady? Why was she
crying? Who had spoken in the night to shoo her off? Did he imagine
the whole thing?
Throughout the day, despite the activities his parents and sister involved
him in, Rohit’s mind was preoccupied with his knowledge. He planned
to keep awake just to make sure that he had not dreamed the whole thing.
“Hello Mr. Dubey! I hope you are enjoying your holiday. Is there
anything we can help you with?”
Joshi was the manager and owner of the hotel. He regularly greeted his
guests with this query as they had their dinner in the restaurant. The
steaming bowls emitted a wonderful smell - Rohit’s favorite chick
peas curry garnished with slices of lemon. Paro was sniffing the food
with pleasure and fidgeting as their mother served them portions of
roti and the curry. She smiled at Mr. Joshi pleasantly and murmured,
“Thank you, it’s fine.”
“Mr. Joshi, there is something I want to ask you,” Rohit’s
father pushed aside his plate. They knew it was going to be awhile before
father had his dinner.
“Is hot water only available during the nighttime?”
Both men moved off towards the reception counter of the restaurant.
Rohit didn’t wait for his father. He dipped his roti in the gravy
and scooped up the soft chick peas. Transferring them to his mouth,
he chewed with pleasure, engrossed in the food.
“Yes, alright, you can go outside for some time. But put on your
cap. It’s cold,” his mother was busy with trying to get
Paro to eat another roti.
Rohit stepped outside the restaurant and sat on the low wall surrounding
the Paradise Hotel. It was only about eight in the evening and some
tourists strolled the street in front of the lake. Rohit looked at them
for some time and grew bored. He jumped off the wall and decided to
explore the grounds. It looked interesting with tall pines and deodars
shadowing the path behind the hotel building.
With his hands deep in his pockets, Rohit walked the flagstones of the
path. It was a circular property with the newer part of the hotel in
front. The original structure was built at least fifty years ago. Behind
the building, in the light of the muted street lamp, he noted the old
fashioned windows with wooden shutters, the peeling paint and air of
neglect. A silence hung about the trees there. Beyond the wall of the
property rows of trees stood silent until a wind sighed through them.
Rohit suddenly felt uncomfortable. He turned and ran full tilt into
“Sorry. I didn’t see you.”
He looked up at the figure. It was the young boy with the limp who had
taken their luggage into the room on their first day.
“What were you doing here? Aren’t you the one staying in
“Yes. I was just…”
There was an embarrassing silence. The boy brought out a cigarette from
his pocket and lit it. Dragging deep he let out a stream of smoke from
“Where are you from?”
“Oh yes, Delhi. Do you like it here?”
Rohit nodded and then an idea came to him.
He moved forward, “Have you heard anything at night? I…I
mean, last night, I was awake and heard a…”
The boy looked for long seconds at Rohit and then laughed sharply. The
sound bounced off Rohit’s ears unpleasantly. He rubbed his arms,
feeling the cold through his sweater.
“That is Joshi’s old mad mother! She scared you, did she?”
Rohit waited to hear more. The boy threw his arm around his shoulder
and the two of them moved towards the front of the hotel.
“Don’t tell anyone I told you. Especially not Joshi! I’ll
lose my job. But it is an interesting story…”
Rohit stammered, “Please, please tell me. I won’t tell anyone.
I just want to know.”
The boy looked craftily at Rohit. He murmured softly, “See, I
have to ask you, do you have any money?”
His face fell as he answered, “No, I don’t. My father doesn’t
give me any.”
The boy hesitated and then nodded his head, “OK, since you are
like a friend, I can ask you something. When you are leaving here, can
you make sure I get at least fifty rupees as tip?”
Rohit stood still for a minute and made up his mind - he would ask his
mother to tip the boy.
“Alright. Now please tell me about the old lady.”
As they sat on the low wall, the street lamp cast their shadows in crazy
shapes. The boy flicked his cigarette stub away, “The old lady
is mad. They never bring her out since it might be bad for business.
Years ago, her other son, Joshi’s brother, went into the hills
and never returned. Since then, she has lost her mind. She waits for
him even now.”
The boy’s teeth gleamed in the yellow street light and he pointed
a finger down towards the black hills. Rohit felt a strange sense of
pity and horror at the story.
“Rohit, here you are. I was wondering where you had got to. Come
on in, we’re going to our room,” his father strolled towards
him and Rohit jumped lightly off the wall.
The boy merely smiled and said, “Remember, friend.”
“Were you talking to that boy who brought in our luggage? What
was he saying? You should not talk to such people. They are only interested
They were in the long corridor, walking in single file towards the balcony.
Rohit glanced at the closed doors and wondered which room the old lady
occupied. How did she spend her days? She must have loved her son very
much to still wait after so many years, he thought.
As he waited for his parents to sleep that night, Rohit’s
mind was made up. He breathed in short slight gulps, willing himself
to remain calm. He would not give way to excitement. What he was about
to do would be worthy of a mature mind.
In the small hours of the night, he heard the hushed weeping echoing
through the room again. He got up and dressed noiselessly. With a trembling
hand he pulled back the bolt and slid into the shadows of the corridor
and out into the cold silent streets towards the dark hills. No one
saw him. He looked back, once. Up on the balcony the old lady leaned
on the balcony, her spectacles flashing in the moonlit night.
Then rounding the corner, he turned and approached the hotel from the
direction of the hills, keeping his gaze steadily on the balcony, his
heart joyfully beating, ‘Nani, Nani, Nani…”
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