Bamboo Flower, a novel – Part 32
By Akendra Sana
“Bamboo Flower”, serialized here, is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Contd from last Sunday
‘Water will do. I am sure water is more natural than juice,’ Rajen said smiling.
‘I think we will have a lot of nature together,’ she said.
Again before Rajen could say anything, she continued, ‘I am taking certain liberties. Can you help me to collect some herbs? I know where to get them. I just need your company so that nobody could accuse of a lone woman in the wild.’
Intriguing was all Rajen could now say in his mind. Then he said, almost without thinking, ‘Well, then, we’d better be on our way’.
‘Two minutes’, she said businesslike.
He saw her wiping her feet with a damp towel through the part open door to the toilet. Then she put on her sneakers. She added a red silk scarf around her neck to complete her attire. She did not lose any time to grab her bag and then they were on their way.
He found it a little strange that he was finding her like an old friend. There seemed to be some unexplained understanding. What also made him like her was perhaps her independence and the appearance of knowing exactly what she wanted to do.
Soon after she settled in the front passenger seat of the car, she began to say many things about what nature have given to humankind. Such things from anyone else and at any time would have sounded odd. Nevertheless, coming from her and directing such views to Rajen who was now driving, cruising comfortably at fifty-five kilometres per hour was welcome. He was not particularly keen to pick up speed because she had not said where they were exactly going except indicating the general direction to take.
There was nature and more nature, he thought. Possibly, because there wasn’t anything more universal than nature, he mused. However, was it only the content, he was not sure? Here, form was probably equally important, as they used to say. He liked what he saw and heard and he told himself, obviously in that order. Nini had a lot of interesting anecdotes and personal experiences when she talked about the various forms of life. Herbs seemed to have a special place in her heart.
When they reached a portion between two hillocks after they had driven a little over an hour, Nini asked him to take the path on the left. It was a poor resemblance of a road with boulders strewn on both sides of a mud beaten track for vehicles to pass through. It was obvious that motor vehicles passing through during the rainy season had dug into the loose soil to leave behind the tracks. There were, therefore, boulders in between the two tracks. Any other vehicle with lower ground clearance would find it difficult to pass through even during the dry season like that.
She, of course, appeared familiar with the surroundings as she told him to slow down in front of a hill house of stone and tin. The house had a boundary fence of spikes of bamboo and sticks and had natural fortification of thick undergrowth. Rajen immediately knew that the spike fortifications were additions during the Naga-Kuki conflict that had been raging for a few years then. Rough slabs of dark grey stones lined the small path to the stilted floor of the house with one side open veranda and a number of dogs barking all around.
The house was built on a raised terraced portion of the foothills. It had stone foundations and plinth on which wooden planks smoothened by regular use stilts was the floor. Then stonewalls and tin roof completed the house. It was larger than the neighbouring houses. As if to answer, his mental observations Nini told him that it was the house of the village chief.
They did not enter beyond the veranda.
An elderly couple came out of the living rooms perhaps awakened by the barking dogs. They looked pleased when they saw Nini. Nini introduced Rajen as a friend from the valley and said that they would be leaving the car at the house when they climbed the neighbouring hill.
She introduced the couple to Rajen as only uncle and aunt without however, suggesting any blood relation. In fact, in these parts, elders close otherwise to one could be referred to as an uncle or aunt without being blood relations. He would not know exactly what kind of a relation Nini had with this couple.
The Chief’s wife said that she would have some food ready. After a while, there were some bananas, bread and some boiled eggs. It was thus lunch with hot tea. There were of course green chilies and salt.
Rajen noticed Nini getting some of the food packed and put them into her bag. The aunt looked pleased to be of help to Nini.
Although it was only about one o’clock in the afternoon, the hills had a way of making it appear later. On a quick mental calculation, he thought that with about an hour and another for the return drive he would reach his office in time for the afternoon tea. However, he did not say anything about this calculation. He felt that it was only appropriate that he should not rush Nini with whatever work she had set for. And didn’t she say that she would help him find a solution for the rat menace? He reminded himself.
‘So, we begin the ascent. The Chief’s house was the base-camp’, Nini announced.
Was she not sounding as if they were on a Mount Everest Expedition, thought Rajen?
He could not resist and asked, ‘How long do you think we will be here?’
‘It can be an hour, a day or even a week’, came the reply.
Rajen gave up. He knew she was obviously joking.
She continued, ‘I am sure once we find what we are looking for, we will return. You have honestly stated what your problem is. And I have taken upon myself to find a solution.’
Now all he had in his mind was this woman, however unusual now, who probably was honestly trying to relieve him of his woes. His doubts about her abilities of combating the rats seemed to be receding.
His mind again went back to his problem of the rats and the present effort to find a solution. “Will there be an answer? Will this newfound friend be of any help?” he kept wondering. He did not now doubt the good intentions of the woman. However, would there be a solution after all, he thought.
As they climbed up the hill slope Nini collected small leaves and buds. At times, she bent to reach the foot of certain plants to take out barks with the knife she was carrying. Rajen did not know if she was looking for whatever it was was to combat the rats or she was collecting those things for other purposes.
It was already more than two hours that they had been walking and climbing and yet there was no sign of Nini turning back. He did not know how much longer they would have to be on their feet. He did not want to ask. It was not that she was not good company. She was definitely interesting, always had ready wit and definitely attractive.
All the time Nini was picking up many things from the herbs along the way. Rajen only followed her with an occasional word or two.
He had given up inquiring if it was not time to return. However, by sunset he thought he had had enough and made his intentions clear.
There was a quick flash of anger in her eyes and as if, possessed, she almost shouted back, ‘You can leave me alone. I have been to these places for any number of times all by myself. The choice is yours. I thought I saw a friend in you.’
Rajen was speechless for a while and could only meekly reply a little later, ‘I didn’t mean to hurt you. I know that you are doing all this for me. Please go ahead. I apologize.’
He did not know why he was so submissive after what she had done to him and when she had not yet even replied for how long they were going to be in those hills.
To be contd...
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