It was a chilly December morning in Delhi. A slender beam of sunlight peered into Kaisha’s room through the window above her bed. The sunbeam was warming up her feet which were indolently floating out of her blanket. Kaisha was fast asleep and the warmth of the sunbeam seemed to mollycoddle her in the cold. “Kaisha”, called out her mother’s mellowed voice. Kaisha was lost in the world of her own, hardly being able to hear her mother calling her name. “Kaisha, do you hear me? Don’t make me walk all the way to your room again”, said her mother, this time the mellowness in her voice plummeting. Kaisha sneaked a look out of her blanket and was back to sleep. “Kaisha, will you get up now?” called out her mother, a little angry with Kaisha’s daily deferral. The slender sunbeam had broadened now and bothering Kaisha’s face. She opened her dreamy eyes to see her mother near her bedstead. “It’s a weekend and its cold mumma. I need some sleep. Can I sleep now? ”, murmured Kaisha with her eyes closing back again. “Of course not”, her mother responded quickly. “Don’t you remember that you have to leave for Chail today and you have not even packed yet?” Kaisha opened her eyes and looked addled. Drawing herself out of slumber she recollected that a week before a letter had arrived from ‘Chail wali Beeji’ saying that she was not keeping well. Kaisha’s parents had decided to send Kaisha to Chail to bring Beeji to Delhi and ask her to stay with them from then on.
Kaisha was apprehensive of going to Chail. She had never known Beeji well except for the fact that she was always referred as ‘Chail wali Beeji’, to identify her from the rest of the Beejis who lived all across the quaint towns of Himachal and Punjab. Beeji was Khurana uncle’s mother, a distant kin of her father whom she had last seen at her cousin’s wedding at Dharamshala, seven years before. Kaisha had no grandparents and had never felt like having them either. Being the sole child of her parents, she had been brought up with all the love and cossetting in the world. She had never been on a venture as this before. The thought that she had to visit a complete stranger as well as bring her back home kept making her edgy.
“Why am I supposed to do this? Why can’t Papa go? I need to work on my photography assignments.” cried Kaisha as she took a slice of toasted brown bread from the plate on the breakfast table and started coating it with butter. Her mother looked up from the newspaper and said, “Papa is very busy these days. Don’t you know that? He comes late and leaves early and that has been a routine since a month now. I can’t take a holiday from college. I need to deliver important lectures this session. Besides that Chail will offer you a fine opportunity for coursework. By the way, why are we discussing all this again? Why do you have to throw up tantrums after assenting on something? ” “Mumma, try and understand. I don’t know her. I haven’t spoken to her in years. Moreover you always say that she is very tenacious and that she would never agree to leave Chail. Why are you sending me on this expedition then? ” debated Kaisha. Her mother retorted, “We can’t let her stay alone anymore. Just because she is a little persistent, we can’t be indifferent to her aging. Can we?” “What if she doesn’t agree to come with me?” asked Kaisha. “Then you will have to cajole her” said her mother. “Me?” said an astounded Kaisha. “That is it Kaisha. Get started with the packing”, affirmed her mother.
Kaisha was about to say goodbye to her parents at the airport when her father asked, “You remember the name of the person who will come to take you at Shimla airport, right?” “Yes Papa. Maan Singh. Nikki didi’s driver. I know him very well. And yes I also know that Chail is 63kms from the Jubbarhatti Airport in Shimla and it would take two hours to reach Chail. I will be fine. I am not alien to Himachal” assured Kaisha. “Why don’t you talk to Beeji on the phone before you leave?” suggested her mother. “Here, take the phone”, she added. “Hello”, said a lax voice. Kaisha could sense the lonesomeness around Beeji. Her voice was augmenting the solitude that was incipient. “Hello Beeji, this is Kaisha here. How are you?” said Kaisha smilingly. “I am fine Kashu beta. How are you? All set to come to Chail? ”, responded Beeji. Kaisha could sense the affection in Beeji’s voice and quickly said, “Yes I am and what about you? All set for Delhi? ” “You come down to Chail, Kashu. We will talk about it later. I will wait for you” said Beeji and hung up. Kaisha had sundry thoughts filling up her mind. She waved a goodbye to her parents and was soon on board the airplane on her way to the second sister of Shimla, Chail. Throughout her two hour journey to Shimla she kept imagining the unaccustomed town and the unacquainted lady she was about to meet with whom she had exchanged a formal conversation a while ago.
Two hours later, at the Shimla airport Kaisha saw Maan Singh waving to her. It was a freezing afternoon. She kept rubbing her palms to keep herself warm as he dumped the luggage into the car. “Madam Ji would you like some tea?” asked Maan Singh. Kaisha looked at her watch. It was 3:30 in the afternoon. She gestured a no and asked to start for Chail immediately. She sat back and relaxed to enjoy the drive. All along the winding road on the Sadh Tiba, the hill on which the township of Chail is located, Kaisha could see the majestic soaring deodars and oaks flanking the valley and the massive snow clad Himalayan ranges spectacularly gleaming in the scanty sunshine. It seemed nothing less than a paradise to her. Dusk was about to cast its orange spell and Kaisha was beginning to doze off when she suddenly felt the car slowing down and halt near a kothi. She came out of the car and as Maan Singh started pulling out the luggage she started strolling near the gate. The house was nothing less than a huge palace carved in wood with slanting roofs patched with snow. Kaisha was wondering how Beeji managed to live alone in this colossal abode. She saw her waving from the window, her wrinkled face with a spectacle on the nose barged against the iron grill. Kaisha waved back and entered the kothi.
“How was your journey? The drive must have been good. Chail is a heaven this time of the year. Even when there is snowfall there is unusual featured warmth”, said Beeji with a smile widening across her lips as she came walking towards Kaisha with a little struggle, taking the support of the giant furniture kept in the hall way. Kaisha glanced at her. Her hair was all white towards the end with a tinge of black on the parting, plaited and tied into a tiny bun touching the back of her neck. She was dressed in a crusty white Kashmiri salwar-kameez and a grey knitted cardigan. As she came close to Kaisha, she removed her glasses, cleaned them with edges of her kameez and wore them again. “Oh! You look so similar to Simmi, my granddaughter. Thin and tall with pretty eyes just like her” exclaimed Beeji. “Glad to know that Beeji” said Kaisha. Beeji held her hand and asked again, “I hope you didn’t find it difficult. Young girls are an enormous responsibility and they are so vulnerable these days.” “Absolutely not Beeji. I am fine. I am used to travelling alone. I am graduating in documentary and film making. I keep travelling for my term work” comforted Kaisha. “Yes. I know. Your mother told me. Simmi also keeps telling me that time has changed. When I was young my parents didn’t even allow me to go to the market alone”, sighed Beeji. “Nandu keep Kashu’s luggage in Simmi’s room and ask Bindiya to get the snacks onto the terrace”, she called. “Who is Nandu?” asked Kaisha. “He is our housekeeper and Bindiya is our maid. She has been with me since I was a child and came with me after I got married. Come, I will show you around the house now” said Beeji and started narrating the stories about the kothi of how ancestral and lavish it was and how expensive it had become to maintain it. Kaisha tacitly deciphered that it was going to be a loquacious encounter with Beeji.
Kaisha entered her room after having the evening tea with Beeji. She could smell the scent of chir pine from the furniture that adorned the room. She had stepped into this place the first time in her life but she could not feel any eccentricity there. She opened the giant French window and was enthralled to see the spellbinding view. The window overlooked the Sutlej valley and everything looked snow covered under it. Kaisha lay down on the bed and unexpectedly it felt very familiar to her own bed back home in Delhi. It had a similar milky bedspread with purple bougainvillea on it and similar pillows that were large in size and soft as fur. She felt she was at home again amidst the serenity of her room. The salubrious air and the scintillating scenery engulfed her to the world of peaceful and carefree sleep. An hour later she could feel the balminess of the evening lights in her room and heard a quivering voice calling out, “Kaisha! Dinner is ready.” Beeji had walked all the way to her room to wake her up for dinner. Kaisha opened her eyes and saw Beeji making an effort to sit on the mammoth chair. “I will help you Beeji” said Kaisha and quickly came out of the coziness of her bed. “I can do it beta. Just lend me your hand”, said Beeji as she stationed herself on the chair. Bindiya came along and arranged the table for dinner in Kaisha’s room. “Beeji it’s eight in the evening. You eat dinner this early?” asked Kaisha. “It’s good to have an early dinner for old people like me. Moreover it has been ages since I shared a meal with someone. So I was eager to eat” replied Beeji. Kaisha smiled and asked, “Do you mind if I eat later? I am not used to early supper and I am not hungry yet.” “It’s perfectly alright Kashu beta. I am used to this” said Beeji dejectedly and began to rise. Kaisha felt a strange guiltiness. She held Beeji’s hand and curbing her from rising she said, “You can still have your dinner here Beeji. It will be a nice change from the dining area. What do you say?” asked Kaisha. Beeji settled down and smiled. “Yes the view is amazing from this room. You can even see Kasauli and Shimla from here in the night”, she added. “Do you know that Chail was built by Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala?” she began narrating the story of Chail while she ate.
Post dinner as Kaisha was about to tuck herself in bed the room suddenly turned pitch dark. She could hardly see a thing. “Beeji! Beeji!” cried Kaisha but there was no answer. She stepped out of the bed and started discovering her route to Beeji’s room. She saw a shimmering candle light in the corridor and heard Bindiya calling out to her, “Kashu didi stay where you are. You would bump into something.” Kaisha kept walking and called out, “Give me the candle. I want to go to Beeji’s room.” She took the candle from Bindiya and walked towards Beeji’s bedroom. She could sense a strong whiff of coconut oil from a distance. “Beeji! Can I come in?” asked Kaisha sheepishly. “Oh Kashu! You are not asleep yet? Come on in.” asked Beeji. “The power failure scared me a little. The house seems so mystic in the dark. You too aren’t asleep? ”, said Kaisha as she approached Beeji and the smell of the oil became apparent. “I wanted to apply some oil in my hair but it seems I can’t” said Beeji. Kaisha saw Beeji’s fingers and palms wrapped with cereals and pulses of various kinds and held on tightly with tape. Beeji looked at Kaisha’s perplexed face and explained, “This is Sujok therapy. A therapy where in seeds are used to cure illness by using acupressure on various points on the hands and feet. I have been using this therapy since seven years. It deals with all my ailments in heart, stomach, legs and back.” Seeing Kaisha’s concerned face Beeji solaced her, “I am in good spirits Kashu beta. I have a deal with the almighty Krishna that as long as I live I want to walk with my legs and cook and eat with my own hands. So you need not worry.” “Can I apply oil to your hair? My mother says that I massage well”, said Kaisha. “Oh, sure! I am delighted”, elated Beeji. As Kaisha ran her oiled fingers through the silky strands of Beeji’s hair she proposed, “Beeji, don’t you think it’s high time you thought of moving to Delhi. You will be taken better care of there. The medical facilities in Delhi are far superior to Chail.” Beeji smiled and said nostalgically, “Chail has been my home ever since we left our house in Karachi during partition. I was a little girl back then, a meager five year old. I can still recall our house in Karachi- the charpoy, the verandah, the street that led to our house, everything. I remember coming to India via the seas and the ship being docked at Bombay. We stayed in the refugee camp for months and then moved to Chail to my uncle’s place. I grew up here at the foothills of Shivalik midst the rolling meadows and watching the seasons change on the mountains. I can’t imagine leaving Chail.” “But Beeji you are alone here” reasoned Kaisha. “I was. Now I am not” said Beeji with ease. Kaisha and Beeji spent the rest of the night talking about Beeji’s childhood. Kaisha gazed into Beeji’s eyes as she recounted stories from the past and took her to the mystical land where Beeji played hide and seek, climbed trees, sailed paper boats in the Ashwani stream, went on excursions to Kandaghat hills which she believed to be the abode of Gods, sneaked out with friends to Rajgarh hill to see the Chail palace and the cricket ground, made rotis at the gurudwara, dreamt of lord Krishna, sang and performed Punjabi gidda.
The next morning, Kaisha got up to the sound of chirping sparrows in Beeji’s room. She rubbed her eyes to drive away the laziness and saw Beeji feeding those grains of rice. “They are my best friends ever since I came to this house. Simmi loves them too.” she said. Beeji had been living in the kothi since fifteen years after she and her husband separated from her son and daughter in law who lived near Sadhupul, a tiny village half way between Kandaghat and Chail and had continued to live here after her husband passed away. “Where does Simmi live Beeji?” asked Kaisha. “She lives in London. She went there after her marriage last year. She studied at Shimla and came here every weekend. I miss her a lot. She always reminded me of my college days when I wanted to be a rebel. I fought with my parents to go to high school. I was so fond of studies and I loved music a lot. You will be surprised to know that I succeeded to become a science teacher at a primary school here which has manifested into Swami Vivekananda School, a popular school here. The then principal, Mr. Shyam Shail allowed me to change the school uniform for the first time and it has been the same ever since”, Beeji exclaimed coming out of her reminiscence.
At the breakfast table Kaisha asked Beeji, “When should I get the tickets booked for Delhi? Mumma was asking me if this Saturday would be fine.” “You will have to go to the station for that. It’s quite far. I will ask Nandu to do that,” said Beeji without looking at Kaisha. “I have my laptop Beeji and I have a USB modem. So…” stopped Kaisha midway in her speech seeing Beeji’s astonished and reluctant face. “I mean I can book the tickets at home Beeji”, she said. “If that is the case we can do it anytime. Right?” asked Beeji. Kaisha nodded her head in agreement. “Let’s go to the Sidh Baba Ka Mandir then. We will book the tickets later. Get ready”, beamed Beeji. Nandu blew the horn to indicate the car was ready. Kaisha went to get Beeji from her room and she saw her walking with a stick which had four small legs at its end. She wore a soothing yellow chicken worked salwar-kameez and the same grey cardigan underneath a brick red Pashmina shawl. She wore pure white pearls around her neck and in her ears. Beeji looked as pretty as her picture that was taken on the day of her marriage which Kaisha had seen the previous night. As they walked towards the car Beeji said, “I used to go to the mandir every Saturday with Kailash, my best friend. We had promised to meet every month at the same place after we got married. She never led me down.” “Isn’t Kailash supposed to be a guy’s name?” humored Kaisha. “Yes. Punjabi names are a little strange. What do you think about Satinder?” asked Beeji. Before Kaisha could respond to that she answered, “We were not even allowed to talk to cousin brothers. Forget guys being friends. Satinder Kaur was a close friend”, laughed Beeji. All the way up to the temple Beeji narrated stories of her marriage and that the attraction of her wedding was Mohammad Rafi. Rafi Saab was a friend to her husband’s brother and his presence in her wedding was a grand highpoint. She also told unusual incidents that happened on her trip to Vaishno Devi. Her tales were full of magic and Kaisha had started enjoying as well relating to them. On their way back Beeji asked Kaisha if she liked golgappas. Kaisha immediately affirmed and Beeji asked Nandu to stop at the supermarket. She got all the ingredients for the golgappa preparation and on being back home Beeji showed the most authentic way of preparing golgappas. They merrily gulped the golgappas and Kaisha was again lost in Beeji’s maze of stories.
A fortnight had passed since Kaisha arrived. Beeji’s life had changed and so had Kaisha’s. Kaisha had settled down at Chail. She woke up to the vande mataram on All India Radio on Beeji’s radio that was ages old. Every morning she set out into the deodar and pine forests and the tapered and hilly streets of Chail to capture life at its best. On her return she would water the rhododendrons, the bougainvillea and the china roses with Beeji. She was now used to the exclusive heavy breakfast of varied parathas made by Beeji which she relished with white butter or makkhan as Beeji called it. Before lunch she took cooking lessons from Beeji as her abstinence from the kitchen was caught by Beeji. They spent the afternoons basking in the sun on the terrace where Kaisha showed Beeji her daily photography. The pre evening time was spent at the supermarket or with Beeji showing Kaisha to make best out of waste or at Rani Devi’s ashram, Beeji’s spiritual guru. At dusk they sipped tea from the large porcelain cups that they had painted and watched the stereotyped soap operas. With the fall of the night they had dinner and Kaisha didn’t find eating early unusual anymore. After dinner Beeji narrated one of her several amusing tales and almost every day they slept late into the night listening to K.L.Sehgal on the records.
A month and a half swept away on the sands of time. Kaisha had yet not returned to Delhi though she had returned back to her childhood and this time she had a grandmother there to shower all her love. Kaisha had to go back to Delhi to appear for her final exams. Beeji’s health was on a decline and Kaisha didn’t want to leave. Beeji assured her that she would be fine and that she would wait for her. The night before Kaisha was to leave she saw Beeji writing into her diary. Beeji had been writing into it all the events in her life. “Beeji your diary can be made into a documentary. It is a bundle of enchantment!” said Kaisha as she packed her clothes into the suitcase. “You want to take it?” asked Beeji. “Do you plan to give it to someone else?” smacked Kaisha. As morning dawned Kaisha stood at the porch, hugging Beeji tightly and absorbing the warmness of Beeji’s love. “I am leaving Beeji. But I promise I will be back soon”, sobbed Kaisha. “Kashu dear never say that you are leaving. Oh! It’s a matter of a few days right? I will wait for you sweetheart”, said Beeji. Kaisha kept looking out of the window till the car drove off far and Beeji’s figure faded into a silhouette.
Kaisha got busy with her exams but she never failed to call Beeji. She talked to her every day and they giggled and gossiped as they used to in the night in Beeji’s clandestine looking room. Time flew fast and summer arrived. Kaisha’s exams were over and she was all set to go to Chail. Seeing her awake early on a weekend her mother asked, “Kaisha! It’s a weekend. Don’t you want to sleep?” “Of course not Mumma. Don’t you remember I have to leave for Chail today and I have not yet packed”, responded Kaisha. By evening Kaisha was back in her second home. The snow had cast off its mantle and the valley was draped in russet and gold. As soon as the car stopped at the kothi she wasted no time and rushed into the house. Beeji sat at the armchair assiduously knitting a handkerchief. “Beeji!” yelled Kaisha and had already hugged her enormously tight before she could get up from the chair. “Happy Birthday to you!” sang Beeji. “I have a very special cake for you”, she said with a shine in her eyes. “Really”, said Kaisha. “Come along” said Beeji and led her into the kitchen. On the table lay Kaisha’s favorite dessert, ‘gajrela’ molded into the shape of a cake and decorated with cashews, raisins and almonds. Kaisha cried and smiled simultaneously, overwhelmed with love.
Summer had given way to rains and the rains had begun making way for autumn. Kaisha had decided to stay with Beeji. It took some time to convince her parents but they agreed to her commuting from Chail to Delhi once a month since she wanted to make her first documentary on Chail. Kaisha once again had to go back to Delhi, this time to come back for a long time at a go. Kaisha came to the kitchen to tell Beeji that she would have to go to Delhi for getting her stuff. Beeji was wiping the dust off the crockery that Bindiya passed her. She coughed as she asked, “Kashu beta, will you be back before I leave?” “Where are you going Beeji?” asked Kaisha. “I might be going to Kandaghat”, said Beeji. “I will come back and take you. You need not go alone”, assured Kaisha.
Few days after Kaisha arrived in Delhi she had to leave for Dehradun from Delhi for a film making seminar. Before she left she spoke to Beeji, “It might take a few more days Beeji. This seminar is very imperative to my career else I would never go. Don’t go to Kandaghat alone. I want to see it and understand why you call it the abode of gods.” “I will wait for you”, Beeji confirmed. When Kaisha came back she found a note from her mother stuck on the door. It said, “Kaisha rush to Chail immediately.” Kaisha swallowed the tinge of saliva down her throat and called her mother, “Is Beeji fine Mumma. Can I talk to her?” “She can’t talk at the moment Kashu. You come down as soon as you can” retorted her mother. Kaisha reached Chail as dusk was about to fall. She felt an eerie stillness outside the kothi. The rhododendrons and china roses had worn out their glory. Bindiya came running to Kaisha and handed her Beeji’s diary. “Beeji asked me to give it to you”, she said. Kaisha held the diary close to her heart and walked towards the house. She saw her mother bawling slowly. Kaisha’s heartbeat sank as she saw her Beeji’s portrait adorned with flowers. Beeji had passed away the previous night soundly in her sleep.
Later that night Kaisha sat on the porch, still holding the rusty diary clutched close to her heart. She flipped through the pages and opened the last page that was bookmarked. Her Beeji had written, “Kashu beta, I am afraid that I have to go to Kandaghat without you. There are some places where you have to travel alone. Well, I call it the abode of Gods because the last time I suffered a heart attack and I had gone into a mild coma I had seen myself running towards Kandaghat from Chail and I saw myself intermingling into the panoramic view. I have asked Bindiya to give you the diary as I promised. So do you really think this can be made into a documentary?” Kaisha wiped her cheeks and gazed into the dark till she could see Beeji’s silhouette fade into oblivion.