The first time I saw her she was leaning against a bench and laughing at me. Ok, I agree I was overreacting to a situation that nobody could do anything about. I was mad at a local in the scenic hill station because I had not been warned that it could start raining on a perfectly sunny day.
I had come to chail, a couple of days ago, to clear my head. Didn’t want to meet anyone I knew or anyone who remotely had led a city bread life. No plu’s- people like us. Yet this woman who was an epitome of grace and beauty even at her age, was clearly someone who was moneyed, classy and well educated. I was intrigued.
I followed her and she walked quite a distance before she turned into a cottage with a white wooden gate. She looked back at me and gestured that I come in. I was embarrassed and awkward but she waited for me smiling. I went in, the house was cozy and classy. Wooden flooring, a fireplace, plush rugs, antique silver, comfortable sofas and overlooking a beautifully tended garden. Without asking she walked into the kitchen and came back with mugs of steaming hot chocolate. It was divine and I felt a sense of peace that I hadn’t experienced in years. Riya Ghosh, is what she offered as an introduction. Bookcases lined with books intrigued me and as if reading my thoughts she said that both she and her husband loved to read. They had different tastes so hence she had an eclectic mix.
Over the next couple of hours and four rounds of coffee riya knew all about my life. I couldn’t believe how much I had shared with a rank stranger. She smiled and said perhaps it was easier because I didn’t know her. But it wasn’t that. She had a peace that was rare. Now i needed to know her views on my life. I had ranted and told her all about how I was about to call off my wedding with Ronak who I had been dating for the last four years. I loved him immensely yet his irritating family, his lack of ambition and his laid back attitude was driving me up the wall. I wanted more out of life and I wasn’t willing to compromise.
She asked me to forgive him and forgive myself and build a wonderful life together. I looked at her angry and she asked me to go back to the hotel and come the next day. I mumbled something and walked away, sure that I wouldn’t be coming back.
Yet all night I thought about her forgiving myself stance that I did not get and wanted to meet her again to know more. I also needed to more about her life. So I went back. She had a picnic basket ready, like she was expecting me. We went to a brook nearby and sat there for hours, she had an awesome voice and we sang to the birds. It was so wonderful and healing. When I got back to my room I realised I hadn’t asked her a thing. It was so magical just being with her.
I went to see her everyday for the next two weeks. Always after eleven because before that she taught local children and looked into her correspondence. Soon I got to know that included mentoring phd students who were studying comparative world religions. A subject she was an expert on. Each time asked about her life, she would smile and say she would tell me some day.
And one day she did. Told me what had happened over the last 70 summers of her life. She told me about her childhood and youth in Amritsar where she lived in a progressive Punjabi family. She grew up with her grandparents since her father was in the army and her parents kept getting posted to places that didn’t have good schools. How she met and fell in love with Inder, who was from a huge land owning family. How they dreamt of a future together, how they met on the terrace, how they wrote poetry for each other. How he had decided to rebel against the family and marry her as soon as she turned eighteen. How his family would disown him but they had already found a piece of land they would till and live on. She came to chail for the first time with him and they decided to live here when they were old...
Inder got killed by terrorists one evening. Just like that, to prove a point to rich families that were not coughing up money to support their cause. Riya didn’t know who she could cry in front of. Other than the two of them no one knew of their wonderful love and future planned out.
Riya moved to delhi and did brilliantly in academics. Her parents fretted over her wedding and she always said no. Till Major ranjan ghosh was decided upon by her father. He had known him since he first joined the army and was a liberal, understanding man. He would let riya work and she had no reason to say no. She married Ranjan and was the dutiful wife who never felt any love for her husband. Ranjan sensed that and gradually over the years, the mundane humdrum of marriage made her get used to Ranjan. He was a wonderful patient man, a solider with an artistic temperament. A writer who only let his wife read what he wrote. She fell in love with him but unlike Inder this was a mature, deep, calm love. They never had children and after a point never missed them. They were just so happy together, cooking, reading, gardening, listening to music. She still celebrated Inder’s birthday every year and Ranjan never objected.
Post retirement ranjan wanted a quiet place in the hills and chail beckoned. They bought a plot and hoped to leave the nomadic life at some point. But ranjan had a sudden heart attack and passed away. Riya was alone but not bereft. That was Riya. The memories of having been loved so completely by two wonderful men had given her a lifetime of memories to live by. That is what she was doing. Happily, grateful for what she got and not resentful of what she didn’t have.
I felt so small compared to her and yet she never told me what I should do in my life. She was just who she was and if someone could get inspired by her, so be it. She never went out of chail so she didn’t attend our wedding but every summer ronak and I come and spend some time with her in chail. We would always go back rejuvenated and when she kissed me on the forehead before we left and blessed me, I felt truly blessed.