Tuesday 10 August 2021

Payal Gandhi, ShortStory 2021 Longlist

The Wisdom of Mountains

She was enamoured by the mystic mountain – what lay on the surface, to what lay within –what story did it have to convey? What was her relation with It – for she heard the elders in the village say where we are, who we are with and what we are doing is our real purpose. So, she wondered often to herself, “Did the mountain also have a purpose?” She was fascinated to see it right there always, unmoving; ever since she could remember. She woke up to see the mighty mountain every morning from the window in her two- storied house; where she lived with her parents and her younger sister Mia.

Lehma was a girl of the mountains.

She lived in a small town nestled in the laps of the eastern Himalayan ranges.

Every morning Lehma’s mother would enter the children’s room and pull open the curtains; while they were still in bed and waking from slumber to the view of the mountain. Lehma would hop off the bed, go closer to the wide glass pane window to have a good look at it

And off she went to begin her day. Her mother tied her braid with a red ribbon and dressed her for school in a blue pinafore with a blazer and tall stockings with garters to stop them rolling down. She would collect her tiffin and pick up her sack bag and be off walking to school, which was about half a mile from home. She walked - trotting and jumping, chasing a butterfly, plucking that small yellow flower growing in the wild along the long winding road.

Yet she was always aware of something that was constant along the way- it never left and always stayed…standing tall the mighty mountain. She drifted in her thoughts and heard her mind say “Today the mountain is dressed in green” just like teacher taught about many colours. There were tufts of thick green shrubs scattered all over the mountain, almost like her favourite polka dot dress her aunt had sent from the city.

Few days passed in oblivion. It was yet another usual day at the small shack school, with picket fences. Today, the teacher asked her students to draw a house. And most children set out to draw a house with two windows and a door, a path, some grass, a tall tree on one side of the house, and in the background were intertwined mountains and a happy sunrise. Some even drew a walking lane from the door or a small pond with ducks in it, on the side. But Lehma drew a mountain and a tiny box house tucked away in a corner.

She drew a black mountain – to which the teacher asked in a loving tone as how that was possible. She lifted her head gently to look up and it seemed like she was back from the world of her thoughts- to answer in her soft demure tone “Ma’am, it is night so the mountain looks black. And there are dark clouds, so one cannot see the stars in the sky.” The teacher looked puzzled for she had never witnessed art work like such and even better she reflected on what Lehma shared with her.

She smiled to herself and thought about how we tend to miss and take for granted the most obvious, for it always there.

The white lotus school was shut for winter holidays. There were small puffs of cotton-like snowflakes that had begun to fall gently all around. Lehma woke up from her sweet sleep, wrapped in many layers to combat the bone chilling winter. She peeked to see her favourite mountain and let out a cheer, for it had transformed its color to white. The white clouds looked like an extension of the mountain and it drew a beatific portrait-like view, with contrasting blue in the backdrop. The small stream flowing through and at the feet of that mountain was now a frozen white too. Though the white was way too bright and hurt her eyes as she continued to peer at it. All the green was gone. She wanted to go to the mountain and play with snow, but was forbidden by her parents to do so.

Lehma was an observant and curious child who spoke less and indulged in games of her imagination – like the one when she’d lie down on the grass with weeds and all – facing upwards, she’d gaze at the clouds in the pastel blue sky looking for different shapes of angels, birds, animals emerge and tell herself a story, moving from one character to another. This kept her absorbed for hours. Sometimes she would chase fireflies until she could trace them no more or walk and pick that lady bug red and dotted with black. Nature was a fascinating and magical place for her. She found a new game, by tilting her head to a certain angle of the sun streaming through the trees and catch a glint in her eyes. She would play hide and seek with sunrays.

The school reopened after the winter break and she was back to routine of waking to the mountain, walking along and back to school and sleeping to the mountain right before her was as before. But this season at school was special, because her little sister, Mia too joined school. She now had a companion to walk to school and back. She talked to Mia about the mountain every day and how the cloud’s shadow fell on it. Gradually, Lehma started becoming aware of how it never moved like they could – this was frustrating at times for the stagnation of it and yet awe inspiring to her for the way stood tall and dignified signifying something larger than life.

Few years later when Lehma was in a higher class; one lucky day she was selected to represent her school in a inter school art competition. This time, she painted the many shades of mountain from a frosty winter, to a colourful nature cheer cherry blossom spring, to withering autumn and bright summer highlight each ridge nook and corner. She stopped to look at the strokes that flowed smoothly like soft musical notes and the art work evoked in her the many seasons of her heart. She wondered how the mountain knew it all.

Which way really was it?

Does the mountain evoke the feelings or the feelings get played on the canvas of mountains? Does the heart feel inspiration when it encounters such a wondrous creation on this earth or does the heart chooses to create inspiration out of but just a pile of rocks layered over years to stand tall?

Lehma’s painting was adjudged a prize winner.

Her parents got it framed with a soft hue of gold lining and proudly hooked it in their living room. The painting was later picked up by an NGO for their greeting cards the following season.

She completed school and decided to move to town to pursue her further studies. As there were no avenues to pursue further education in her village. Lehma didn’t know what to pursue for higher education and was at loose ends. Her mind was woozy. She turned to her favourite indulgence - watching documentaries on nature. It was serendipitous, as she chanced upon a special on mountains on National Geographic channel. She embraced the sign from the universe and decided to make ‘geology’ her career for the sheer love of nature. After which Lehma studied day and night, whilst being mesmerised by the mountain transforming hues. After much labour and patience, she got through an undergraduate course on Geology in the city. While she wanted to jump with joy on top of ‘that’ mountain when she accomplished what she did – she did jump looking at the mountain and then sat for hours looking at it, standing still – grounded and unmoved.

The conundrum was to be with or without the wilderness.

She moved to the city, distant from her village and the mountain; into a small shanty room on rent. Her room was on the third floor with towering buildings surrounding and bustling traffic noise that was crystal clear even though, her building was two lanes away from the main road.

The following morning, she woke and paced towards the window to find another barbed window facing her. There was no mountain. She was taken aback for something big shifted within her. Days passed and the hum drum of city life took over along with Lehma’s pursuit of her studies. But there was this constant nagging feeling about the mountain and she felt gloomy waking up to a barbed wire. She missed home. That night she called Mia and her parents over the phone and asked her for the first time to send her a picture of the mountain. She made that picture her screen on her phone and felt comforted as she reminisced the mountain and drifted to sleep.

Lehma was driven to complete her studies and head home. Three years hence, it was time to back home. She bundled her stuff and off she went to the mountains! Her journey from the plains to the mountains had begun almost 2 days ago. She caught a cab to hop on to a flight to a town closer to her home, yet far. There, on the journey of plains transformed into meandering routes wrapped around the mountains. The journey was gaining height and the plains seem to be moving further away. The view became wider and the air was tingling fresh. She knew she was moving closer to her home and the mountain.

The road turned into and Lehma, opened and shut her eyes a few times. She looked around and she stared in disbelief. The mountain looked tired and arid. It looked spotted with black gray ash look. Her heart tugged.

She had been longing to sit by her window with a mug of hot drink cupped in her hands; soaking the joy of the mist unfurling on the mountain.

But this, was not what she had imagined.

Lehma felt her gut wrenched. She felt displaced.

Her family told her about the mountain fire that took place a few months ago; due to the increasing deforestation and increasing construction that had begun in the valley over the last few years. And how the mountain had been cordoned off since a while to avoid any further mishap.

She went into a silent sanctuary within.

Lehma had the same fire burn within, to save the mountain and extinguish the pain. She joined the mountain and forest restoration team. And began making many trips to the mountain, once it was safe. She often thought about the steep climb this restoration was going to be – for it took years for the foliage of the mountain to be what it was and it took a few hours and days to reduce it to but ashes.

She began to recee the area to a burn area risk assessment to take appropriate measures. Few months later, one day whilst walking into the woods, she chanced upon something sparkled – reflecting the sunrays. The clumps of rocks studded with small clusters of reddish-brown stones were gleaming from under the tar like dust. She called out to the team, and a Senior geologist, confirmed those stones to be precious Garnets.

It was a treasure trove that lay within. Lehma thought to herself as she lay on the bed that night – it was indeed a discovery of something that was already there within but had yet not manifested until now. Sheer adversity unearths the hidden treasures.

Lehma returned home moved by her the message she received from the mountain today. She decided to stay back; for she owed it to the mountain. It had taught her life, by being itself. It had dawned on her that, mountains are home to biodiversity, help manage climate on this planet, add to the aesthetic beauty of nature’s bounty… She embraced her relation with the mountain… She had found her true purpose and initiated a ‘Save the mountain’ campaign.

The following morning, she sat the onset of dawn bringing the mountain come alive. She dabbled with thoughts about how many had conquered mountains by scaling it; saints meditate to find nirvana; painters canvas its beauty.

Today she put words to her feelings

To conquer the mountain is to conquer self.

She wrote…

Woman and the mountain within,

It is but a mountain

An obstacle or a strong unwavering resolve,

What of the mountain- where did it emerge from?

Is it within the depths of the sea until it surfaces on land?

Or was it the standing tall on the land to evoke the depths?

There are mountains in the deep recesses which lie there buried in the dimly lit serene waters until when ruffled and again it becomes calm placid and quiet

Until when it towers and you have no choice but to face and conquer.

Why conquer?

Befriend the mountain…

1 comment:

  1. Loved reading it. Very well penned. Loved reading the small and daily mundane details in the story