The car swerved and looped into the meandering road which snaked its way endlessly around the mountain. I glanced outside the window – eternal green, blue and white. The river far far below had become a child’s painting, tiny and hand-drawn in its artless charm. The few vehicles looked like toys, tourist cars to be easily fit between my thumb and index finger – a tiny flick and I could send them flying to another dimension.
The mountain created illusions of power, provided a high, more addictive than love. D had fallen asleep beside me, her head lolling rhythmically to the roller coaster turns, as if she was a groupie at a rock concert, banging her head to the invisible music of the hills. Like all our trips, this one too, was spontaneous and unplanned – almost a silent statement against the usual inflexibility of life.
“Can I play music?” asked the driver. Geared with a haunting local tune, the car dovetailed into a pool of clouds.
The car came to a stop at the base of the trek. We had researched about this short, glorious trek to the top of a mountain where an ancient temple was situated. The driver enthusiastically shared a piece of heritage with us, a timeless lore featuring demons and goddesses: “There was actually a kund”, he claimed, “Many many moons ago, this mountain was haunted by dayans”.
“They had an enormous pit where they performed black magic. The people were terribly troubled by this and prayed to the Goddess to come and save them. Pohlani Mata appeared and there ensued a fierce battle between good and evil. She emerged victorious and threw the witches into a burning pit. Since then, the land was blessed“, he concluded.
As we began our ascent, shooting boomerangs, giggling, taking innumerable photos, I wondered how for centuries, women have been pitted against each other – the goddess and the witch, the good and the evil. The world has etched womanhood in binaries, either creating goddess, putting them on pedestals atop high mountains, worshipped by male priests, or, more significantly, effortlessly forgotten, criminalised, othered, ostracised and killed.
I remembered D, casually smoking, sitting in the balcony of our resort, gazing at the mountains ahead. The burnt tip of her cigarette merging into the allure of smoke and making overtures of friendship with the standoffish, chilly wind. I remembered us, overexcited with our rucksacks as we stepped into a luxury sleeper bus for the first time, our chattering infuriating all the passengers. As she grumbled about her bad knee, I held her hand and hauled her up a high rock. We stood there gazing at the spectacular panorama and I wondered – who between us is the goddess and the witch?
On the first trip we had taken, we were asked repeatedly by groups of disparate people whether we were travelling alone. The idea of young women travelling together is almost as mythical as folklore. D looked gorgeous in traditional women’s attire, worn for photos, typical touristy stuff. When I asked for the man’s cap, they were confused, ready to dress me up in women’s garbs. I looked horrible in the photos, ill at ease with a bejeweled scarf, a wraparound dress and a basket of artificial flowers.
Coerced performances of femininity were never my forte. So I rebelled by rolling around in heaps of snow, knee deep in snow – laughing until tears blurred my vision and till my cheap Sarojini Nagar trendy green coat and black tights were completely drenched. As I shivered on the ride back to our pathetic hotel, D hugged me tightly, scolding, laughing and taunting in turns. One of the few people I allow to hug me. Who is the witch and who, the goddess?
We trudged on, laboriously up the hill, out of breath, our complacent city asses unused to physical labour, but nevertheless determined not to surrender to adversities. Birds chirped our names, sang melodious notes and cheered us on. As we trekked through breathtaking cliffs, on one side were the dense forests, quite appropriately called “Kalatop”, more black than green; and on the other, the uninterrupted blue-green mountains.
The snow-capped peaks played peekaboo – at times glistening with the rays of the sun, and immediately enveloped with floating tales of the mist. The mist created a folklore more intimate and familiar to us – touching our earlobes, giving us goosebumps, settling at the corners of our lips. All we wished for was more and more time, infinite time, so that we could gaze and gaze and gaze till benediction overwhelmed us.
As we continued our climb, words became sparse, conversation dwindled till it stopped altogether. I smiled imagining the witch and the goddess comfortably sharing silence, walking treacherously side-by-side on a narrow pebbly path, the width of one person.
“Do you hear that?” she whispered, clutching my hand. Gushing, unearthly sound-waves beckoned us from somewhere nearby. We followed it like destiny rolling out rainbow ribbons under our feet. “Waterfall?” I asked. “Maybe a wild river,” she said shaking her head. “Maybe thousands of birds assembling for an emergent meeting,” I joked. “Maybe the witches are still here, biding their time patiently, planning a counterattack,” she ventured.
The actual scene took our breaths away, we stood there spellbound, gaping, awestruck at the magic only nature can unveil, spontaneously, unpredictably. As the wind flowed into the trees, erotically caressing the branches and playfully toying with the leaves, the trees sang an otherworldly melody. Thousands of trees simultaneously uttering infinite whispers in an ancient. undecipherable language – a language which shattered binaries, ushered in dialogues of hope.
We had reached the whispering woods, something we had read in numerous blogs as a must-see, offbeat thing-to-do. Time transmuted into light, encircling us till we glowed as we stood. Time pushed eager saplings from underneath our feet, entering our bodies, moulding our flesh. The whispers echoed our names, our thoughts, desires, worries, frustrations – till time broke into a millions stars inside our blood.
I remembered a broken D, few months back, deliriously weeping over heartbreak. I remembered myself calling her at 1’o clock at night, with a pulse rate of 150, anxiety gripping me till everything became disorienting. I remembered us fully dressed, decked up on her birthday, about to leave for dinner, but suddenly glued to the TV screen, ardently watching a BTS music video and unconsciously copying the dance-moves of Idol. “C! Saranghaeeeee!” she screamed tenderly to the trees… “saranghae saraanghaee saraanghaaeeeee” came the echo, making me giggle. “Now you!” she said giving me a nudge. “Aaniyo,” I said laughing, shaking my head. I love yous were tough for me, rare and problematic.
The temple and its surroundings somewhat dismayed us. Too many people, too many words, too many stalls selling noodles, chips, cold drinks. Too much of trash, carelessly strewn. The Goddess sat proudly, beautifully adorned with colourful streamers, ornaments, garlands.
Offerings were placed at her feet. I stood looking at her on her throne, questioning endlessly, a one way dialogue, a forever empty exchange. I turned and looked at the wide expanse of unbridled natural beauty. A mysterious smoke rose from the embers of the dying day making us shiver inadvertently.
Sunlight was dwindling. As if touched by thousands of years of repressed rage, dusk inflamed everything around us, trees mountains meadows blazed orange red yellow pink blue green violet, a blinding display of colours. D glowed as I captured her with my eyes, “Saranghae,” I whispered, too soft for her to hear.
Dr. Chaandreyi Mukherjee has pursued Ph.D. on Womanhood in Haruki Murakami’s Fiction from Jamia Millia Islamia. Presently, she is working as an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Vivekananda College, University of Delhi. She is an avid reader and a regular reviewer of books on Instagram
Featured Image Source: The New York Times