Fiction: Think Cool Mountain Breezes

Deepa Agarwal

Think cool mountain breezes, think sighing forests, think twittering birds…
Sometimes visualization fails, the imagination remains stagnant in the present.

The restless flames are the only reality right now, as the taxi creaks to a halt. In front of them, anuntidy cavalcade of cars, buses and trucks winds below the burning slopes. Dry pine needles carpet the hillside like witch’s hair waiting to ignite. Smoke drifts in random puffs, filling her nostrils with its acrid stench.
‘Why have we stopped?’ she asks irritably. Exhaustion is squeezing out her reserves of patience. The first tendrils of panic begin to coil around her. She hasn’t had lunch. Five hours have elapsed since breakfast on the train.
‘Madam, forest fire. Stones are falling.’
Behind them, someone honks insistently. An oversized car attempts to scrape past them on the narrow road.
‘Lunatic!’ she mutters in disgust, glaring at the man at the wheel.
It’s packed with goggled holiday makers—men, women, children. A woman shrieks as the car gets precariously close to the edge of the road.
‘What are you doing, sahib,’ her bony faced driver gesticulates. ‘The car will slip off the road.’
The sweating man is helped to maneuver his vehicle back. He inserts it at an awkward angle between theirs and the next vehicle that has closed up. She can hear a woman scolding, children whining.  And when she glances back, she can see vehicles queued up till the previous bend.
‘These Dilliwalas, they think they can overtake like they do in the city,’ her driver sniggers. The cloying scent of gutka fills the air as he shakes some into the palm of his hand, then hurriedly tosses it into his mouth as they hear car engines cranking to a start.
Her phone shrills. ‘Where are you?’ The urgency in her sister’s voice assails her.
‘Somewhere between Bhowali and Kainchi...’
‘Hurry, get here as fast as you can. She’s been asking for you, over and over again.’ She pauses to swallow. ‘She-she’s sinking fast.’
She nods, forgetting that Aparna cannot see her. ‘I’m coming,’ she whispers. But the call has dropped. A terrible helplessness overwhelms her.
Hope flares as they inch forward. Then, inexplicably, the vehicles come to a halt again. She can glimpse the spot where the stones are falling. A daring man accelerates and barely escapes a mini avalanche.
‘Bahut risk hai.’ Her driver shakes his head.
‘Why isn’t anyone putting out the fire?’
‘Madam, it spread very fast. The fire engines have to come from far.’
‘Fire engines? How will they reach there? Can’t people beat out the flames?’ she demands bitterly. ‘Are we going to sit here the whole day?’
The man from the car behindclimbs out and heads for the troublesome spot. She can see him arguing with some people. Then he stomps back.
‘The children are starving,’ he proclaims to no one in particular as he walks past.
‘My mother is dying,’ she wants to say. A thousand self-accusatory thoughts do battle in her head. If she had taken the night train. If her daughter hadn’t got  fever yesterday. If her sister hadn’t been such a perfect daughter, always doing things right. And…if she hadn’t had that awful blow up with Ma the last time they met.
A terrible ache builds up in her throat. The moments pile up on her back, press on her temples. Then she sits up as another flurry of activity energizes the column in front of her.Cars begin to take the leap, a few brave ones at a time. Some rubble showers on to the road. There’s a squeal of brakes and shouting as a vehicle barely escapes ramming into the one ahead.
‘I have to reach as soon as possible!’ she cries out. The words, ‘My mother is dying’ cannot be voiced. It would cheapen, dilute her anguish. Make it too melodramatic. And yet it feelsunreal. She must be granted time to say sorry, she thinks.
‘We’re moving, madam.’
And then…they too are past. The road is smooth sailing now.
‘No stopping for tea,’ she tells the man. ‘Sorry. I’m very late.’
He shrugs resignedly.
*
‘You’re late, as usual,’ Ma’stoneis despairing.
‘It-it was not my fault, Ma,’ the shrill childish whine dismays her. ‘Th-there was a forest fire.’
‘Forest fire?’ Ma sounds disbelieving. ‘How did you land up in the middle of a forest fire?’

‘Mansi, Mansi!’ Aparna stands there with a bemused look on her face. ‘You dozed off. Were you dreaming? You were muttering “forest fire”.’
Mansi rubs her damp eyes. ‘Yes…was dreaming of a forest fire.’
‘Well…she’s up and asking for you.’ She adds almost apologetically, ‘She seemed really bad when I called you.’
‘It’s all right.’
Her mother’s hand is warm and dry. ‘Was your journey comfortable?’ she’s barely audible. 
‘Yes, Ma.’ She gulps. ‘Very. You’re looking good.’
Jhoothi,’ Ma whispers. She sighs and goes still.
Smoke clogs Mansi’s nostrils.
 ***

About Deepa Agarwal: Author, poet and translator, Deepa Agarwal writes for both children and adults and has over 50 books published. She has received the N.C.E.R.T. National Award for Children’s Literature in 1993 for her picture book Ashok’s New Friends, while her historical fiction Caravan to Tibet was on the IBBY Honour List in 2008.Her work has been translated into several Indian and foreign languages. She has published a poetry collection titled Do Not Weep Lonely Mirror. Recent titles include You Cannot Have All the Answers (Niyogi Books) The Begum, (Penguin Random House India), The Teenage Diary of Nur Jahan (Speaking Tiger), Blessed (Hachette India) Friendship Stories (Scholastic India) and Journey to the Forbidden City (Penguin/Puffin).
  

5 comments :

  1. Many thanks for this opportunity to contribute a story!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Congratulations Deepa di. A beautiful story.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I admire the way you have slipped in and out of the present timeframe as thoughts run havoc through the heroine’s mind....

    ReplyDelete

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