I wrote the following story for the Weekly Writing Challenge on Daily Post, but silly me forgot the deadline and couldn’t post. I thought I’d post this anyway and see what happens.
The Railing on the Mall
The town of Mussorie knew her as Dorji. People might have given her their own monikers, but Dorji was what she was known popularly as. There was no other beauty in town that rivaled hers. She was the epitome of perfect for them, all the people out there—she was beautiful, soft, slender, hard working and had all the qualities that small town mothers in law love to see in their potential daughters in law. Yes, she was quite perfect, but she was worshipped most of all by him.
He was what the modern and the world of Mussorie would call invisible, and for the sake of everyone’s sanity, let us keep him that way: He. If there was ever a devotee who would crucify himself for his God, I am sure that all his devotion combined and then some more would not have paralleled His love and affection for Dorji. He was nothing to be afraid of, though. He was just an invisible boy hoping to become visible to the lady of his dreams one day.
That morning, just like every morning before that, his morning ritual was in progress. He stood at the railing of The Mall (apparently the road in Mussorie, since everything else just seems centered around it), watching the throngs of people go to and fro in the chilly winter morning. It was the third day of the constant overcast that had been predicted last week on the news, and there seemed to be no break in the grey and black even if you squinted your eyes and looked to the end of the Earth (that was how the elders described it to the children). He was doing exactly that: squinting.
Clad in what he wore usually, he was wearing what would be considered normal for everyday wear in a small hill station like Mussorie but drab and rural in towns such as the ones we live in. His red sweater looked dull under the sky—everything looked dull in the winters—and his black jeans was held up by a belt, the faint outline of which showed under the red winter wear. His shoes looked old, but clean, and the gloves in his hand black and uncomfortable. He was wearing no cap, which made his hair ruffle in the cold wind, and his high cheekbones turn a rare shade of red against his alabaster skin. Only his green eyes could see and tell that his jeans needed a wash—there was a little paint on the lower creases, and an oil stain near the calf area which had been the consequence of an unfortunate accident with a roadside snack—and that his blue and white shoes were so worn out that they would fall off his feet if they could. They were ragged and torn around the corners and soles, and the white laces that once ran through them had turned yellow.
He curled in his toes, clearly troubled by the cold that his shoes were ineffective against, and took in the slight bulge that appeared in the front of them, highlighting the hidden tear in the front of the right one. The blue seemed sick on his feet: the spongy insides seemed like the pus that oozes out of a body when it is cut.
His hands shivered slightly in the arctic from the dew that had settled on the wool, and he brought them closer to himself, rubbed them together and blew on them, hoping that the meager heat from his mouth would warm his hands up a bit. But judging by how cold his own breath was he thought that was unlikely. He longed for warmth, had longed for it for years now, one that could only be provided by her.
He craned his neck to get a better look at the road, waiting, like any lover does, for his beacon of sunshine. The Mall was the usual it was everyday: crowded, bustling in the quiet intensity of a small town which coupled with the winter gave it a muted look.
Clad in a cheap brown coat, pants, and beanie, the local winter vendor sat against a backdrop of heavy read, maroon and brown tapestries, just one of the many fares that he sold everyday. He seemed to have aged horribly even after his relatively young age of thirty three (because everyone in small towns knows how old everyone is), and the winter fog seemed to settle in the creases of his forehead and the crevices of his skin. He looked uncomfortable and cold, but resigned to his own fate given the lack of buyers at this early in the morning. Once or twice a minute, he leaned over to the fire burning next to him and warmed his hands. He, from his place at the railing, wondered how much that kilo of burning coals had cost him.
He looked away to the shops and hotels to waste some more time. The pace was picking up slowly. The shopkeepers were starting to raise the shutters of their little shops—which sold a range of goods from grocery to cosmetics to clothes, as the boards said—and settle in for one more day of cold and business. He looked at the rising silver shutters and their patterns—like dunes of steel—and compared their movement, in his mind, to the way a monster yawns after a long slumber. Everything about the morning seemed sleepy—from the overcast in the sky to the red, dropping eyes of the shopkeepers. A few waste papers rolled on the road as he watched.
At last, when he got bored of looking at the people, he turned around at the railing where he stood (you see, the Mall is a road paved on a hillside, so one side of it is a rocky wall, and the other is a steep crevice, a void that seems to get nearer and nearer as you coil downwards while driving and finally meets its end at the point where the road extends to the town of Dehradun). He stood at his spot, feeling a familiar thrill race through his body. He had loved doing this every winter since he was a little boy. There was nothing substantial to be seen or noted here: just an expanse of white, caused by the clouds that had descended low enough in the night. The fog was so intense that he could hardly see beyond a few feet, and he imagined what he must look like from down below, standing above the clouds, literally.
The gentle tinkling of the bells of the rickshaw pricked at his ears, and his heart started beating in synchronization to the melody and the volume of them. This was his cue, the purpose to this whole exercise, the ripe fruit of a long ordeal. He whipped his head around to where the sound was coming from, and waited with a baited breath. The change in him was not hard to notice. You could tell his breathing had sped up, and that his toes had curled in on themselves again given the slight bulge in his shoes. His gloved hands shoved themselves inside the pockets of his jeans and fisted, evidently trying to control the excitement that was running through him in spades. He rolled back on his heels, waited, and was then back to his original position, but the God knew his heart was running faster than a train.
The countdown in his head had been repeated so many times that it had become almost natural to him. You could see his eyes narrow—as if willing the road to become shorter—and his lips move in time with the tinkling bells, like they were chanting to make the rickshaw speed up.
Then, like from a dense fog, perhaps as dense as the one below all of them, the tri wheeler emerged wheel by wheel. The bells on its front were a rusty, old golden, much like the old driver who was pulling the vehicle. He heaved himself and his vehicle with each turn of his legs, which was evident in both his tone and the ringing of the bells. He had still got it, it seemed.
But His attention was not on the rickshaw, or the driver. It was on the beauty that had emerged from the shadows, seeming to his eyes like an oasis in a desert.
Dorji always looked beautiful in the winters. Her pale, flawless skin took on a permanent rose hue, and her lips looked more scarlet than ever. She had black eyes, and even blacker, straight hair to go with it. He couldn’t see those orbs from where he was standing, but he knew that if he could, he would have been staring into the depths of purity itself.
He stared as the vehicle came towards him: its bells ringing and wheels turning, the spokes on them turning so fast he couldn’t make out one from the other. She was sitting alone in the back, fiddling with the dupatta that she had draped over her jacket. She was in pink today: and he smiled at her vivacity. Only she would be determined to beat the grey by wearing the outrageous color. Her slender face and high cheekbones were raw and without any makeup, yet soft. Dorji never wore any makeup like most mountain women don’t, but she was still pretty as a pixie to him, as she had been to him all these years.
The rickshaw edged on closer and closer to him, and closer and closer yet came the difference his cold breaths. The tapping of his foot increased, but he was not worried about anyone seeing him. He was not worried about anything really: his focus was on her.
He noticed that she looked grim as always. Her eyes were cast forward, and her lips were set in a thin line. Her tongue came out to wet them often, and chewed on her lips and swallowed the bile in her throat. He never understood why she did that: she was the boldest girl he had ever known, but it was shielded under the cover of grace and melody, not that she did not have any of those.
It was almost time now. The wheels turned, the bells resounded in his ears, the squeaking of the thin rubber tires grew louder. His mouth fell open and he stared so hard and for so long at Dorji that he thought his eyes would water. He extended his hand, right in the path of the rickshaw that was advancing towards him, hoping that just once he could touch only a scrap of the dupatta that was flailing about her. He hoped that she would turn this once, turn her head just a little bit so she could see him, could feel him around her.
The seconds ticked and the time came. He suspended his hand where it was, looked, stared, hoped and dreamed, until the rickshaw came to where he was standing and passed right through his hand, right through the left half of his body to say precisely. His hand felt the iron go to through him—just a little bit of more cold than he was used to—and the fabric of the dupatta brush the insides of him, like the softest of silks, purest of pearls, sweetest of melodies.
But Dorji never looked. The rickshaw passed him, and on it passed Dorji. He closed his eyes at the electric sensation that ran through his dead, spectral body: a welcome change from the eternal arctic that he lived with. But the sadness that filled him was more profound than the temporary warmth.
He knew she was still desperately trying to escape her memories: remnants of her, his and their love, and his departure from this world right from the very point where he was standing at. That had been four years ago, when she had been at the doorstep of nineteen. Four years, and she had never faltered once, never spared even a fleeting glance at the railing on the mall where he had fallen from to the depths of the Earth and heights of the heavens.
He slowly brought his hand towards him, and rubbed the back of his palm which had touched her fleetingly. He could still feel the tingling on it, like one feels for the traces of a lover’s touch after a night of passion. He kept his eyes closed, fighting the desperate urge to turn around and watch her figure recede and disappear into the fog. His thoughts twirled in a maelstrom of longing, agony and exuberant joy.
He put his hands back in the pockets of his jeans—same ones he had been wearing for four years now—and started walking in the direction where the rickshaw had come from. The fog and he seemed one, except he looked like the faint outline of a figure, like splashes of color instead of the pure white. He looked invisible, because he was.
The shopkeepers were still half sleeping, and the fire in front of the carpet vendor was still crackling, much like the one in his dead heart. She might have passed him today, but someday, he hoped, she would look to where he stood everyday—where they had stood once—look to their love and the light it is dispelled in their lives, and maybe, through the mist in her eyes and the fog around the small town of Mussorie, she would see him, smiling and waiting for her as he was meant to by the railing on the Mall.