The face in the lake
( Story written when I had not developed my breasts also, hence close to heart. It doesn't matter it got published at various places.)
I rode fast in the highway, leaving my hostel and the town far behind, whistling the tune from the latest hit number. The sun was bright and high above in the sky. It spread its warmth over the road, the fields, the trees and the grasses. The breeze was cool and refreshing and I filled my lungs with it. I was happy about my decision and broke into another gay song.
For the past fifteen days, I had confined myself within the four grey walls of my room in the hostel. Books, notes, various study materials and numerous sheets lay scattered on my study table, floor and even on one side of my creaky, wooden cot. An ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts and burned matchsticks, a few stained, stale and dirty tea cups inviting an army of ants and a half eaten plate of rice, dal and mutton curry was shoved under the bed. The heap of my dirty linen had grown considerably in the last days and lay on a broken chair near the door. The room was in a mess and its occupant resembled it with his unkept hair, unshaven chin and untrimmed nails.
I had taken recluse in my room to study for my final Engineering examinations. They were a fortnight away. And though there were still many books demanding my attention, I had felt I needed a break. I got up, shaved, took my bath and changed into a fresh, crisp white shirt and a matching pair of trousers. I gave my cycle key to the mess-boy, who had come to collect my last night’s dinner plate, to get the tyre checked and filled with air. He was back soon complaining about the thick layer of dust gathered on the bicycle. I brusquely shut him up and rode happily, away from the brown hostel building and its black unwelcoming iron gates.
I left the main road and took the less-travelled path, which led towards the countryside. The path was a yellow, dusty ribbon, which ran through the mango grove, passed from the outskirts of a village and finally forked near a thick line of some thorny bushes.
Unsure about which path to take, I stopped my bicycle. The sun had become hot and I was breathing heavily. Then I saw it.
Behind the shrubs, lay a huge lake glittering like thousands of shivered mirrors in the sunlight which filtered through the Palas trees bordering the lake on its three sides. The trees had not flowered and looked unhandsome but the lake stretched majestically, unconscious of its not so royal surroundings. The silhouette of the distant, wooded hills made a fuzzy backdrop to the lake. I stood there gaping. The world outside the college, outside the town looked so beautiful.
I heard footsteps behind me and turned to see a village girl approaching towards me. She was eighteen or a little younger, and wore a mustard sari. An earthen pot was balanced precariously on her head but she seemed at ease. She saw me and stopped. I tried to look away but I found her face captivating. It was soft and charming with delicate features and her eyes were darker than coal.
“Have you lost your way?” Her words broke the silence and the awkwardness.
“Yes…..No…. I am just wandering around.”
She smiled and walked passed me taking a curve to avoid the prickly shrubs. I followed her unaware of myself. At the edge of the lake, she lifted her sari up to her knees and cautiously stepped down into the lake. She swayed her pot in the lake disturbing its stillness and filled it with the cool clear water. Carefully she climbed up, adjusted the pot on her head and started walking away. Her shoulders were broad and continued as two endless, slender arms. She looked so ethereal that I did not want her to go.
“Won’t you tell me your name?” I asked her, doubtful if she would answer me but wanting to force her into a conversation.
“What is yours?” she questioned back and at the same time, to my pleasing astonishment she lifted the pot from her head and put it under a tree and settled herself next to it.
The barrier had broken. I stood there, unsure for a while and then found a place for myself on an old tree stump a few feet away from her. We talked first hesitantly then gradually our conversation reached a fervor. I told her about myself, my studies, my exams and my dream to become a successful engineer. I didn’t realize that many of my talks were too complicated for her to comprehend and either to spare me from any embarrassment or probably, in wonder, she kept on nodding her head as if she understood every word I said. Her days spent at home in cooking food, in fetching water from the lake and sometimes in the fields. But she dreamt of going away to far lands, to the sea and sail in a boat.
It was the Golden Jubilee Year of my college. I had come, like the hundreds of other alumni to participate in the celebration. Two decades had passed since I last walked within the towering iron-gates of my college. It was exhilarating to relive the past in the lecture rooms where many minds had got access to the world of bridges and buildings, chemicals, machinery and electronics; the long corridors where we had goofed in between the lectures and where I had spent the very important five years of my life - my room. But the room did not look like the room where I lived twenty years back. Its latest owner, unlike me, did not unbother about the appearance of the room. It looked neat and clean and flaunted towards me its new possessions about which I never cared or thought. Pin-ups of the latest Bollywood heartthrobs covered the walls. Cards from friends and family stood on the study table. An expensive music-system showed itself off rather prominently, on another smaller table. Where were the books? I wondered but could not see any. I thanked the student who had been generous enough to let me see my room - his room - my old room, though now it had lost its familiarity and the cozy untidiness.
Somehow, a little disheartened by the state of my room, I decided to replenish my memories by going for a drive around the town. I started my car and drove around slowly, trying to match the big departmental stores, the boutiques and the restaurants with the tiny shops, which had boasted of some toiletries and groceries and the wayside tea-stalls of yesteryears.
“Things change fast,” I muttered marvelling at the glimpses of modernization. I lingered in the town for some more time. Past and more of it flashed on my mind. And then I remembered those two smoky, raven eyes. Something stirred in my heart. A quaint, mystic spell overpowered me and before I knew I was on the same road which ran across the country and was met by dusty, straw-coloured path before it continued its journey ahead to distant cities. I drove for half and hour before I saw it. It was the same dusty, bumpy path, which twisted and turned through the mango grove to lead towards the lake. Some things do not change. I stopped. I remembered the path was too narrow for the car. I got down and walked. The winter wind seared through my bones. I pulled up the zip of my jacket and started walking briskly. The mango leaves fluttered in the wind. I walked and walked. The quiet village yawned in the purple, cold afternoon. A sudden excitement grew inside me. I started running till I reached the lake. Gasping for breath, I browsed around. A pall of dust covered the place, making the lake look grey and lonely. The trees had shed their leaves and stood gauntly, ashamed of their ugly nakedness. I walked closer to the lake; my heart beat faster, and peered in the water, wondering where it had lost its lustre. I remembered the last time I had visited the place.
It was a bright afternoon in the month of April some twenty years ago. The Palas trees had bloomed into raging red flamed of fire. Their awesome glory reflected from the lake which unlike now, had given away it’s coldness and was steaming with lust. The vapours rose to kiss the hot air above, hungrily. The bees fluttered around to suck the sweet, life-giving nectar from the flowers’ breasts making them shimmer, flare and explode into a radiant orange – red. A surging sensation took over me. I looked towards her. Her soft, angel – like face glowed in the sun. Her, warm, sensuous mouth was slightly open and beads of sweat decorated her shapely nose and forehead. Her little, virgin breasts rose rhythmically towards me with her every breath. I wanted her at that very moment. I could feel myself growing, desiring for her. I took her face in my hands. I was trembling. I did not know what to do; how to make any moves. And then I looked into her eyes. They were two furnace burning in desire. Soon we were in each other’s naked limbs; wet with sweat, our bodies merging into one and in complete empathy with nature.
We lay there, together; sleeping blissfully after moments of exhausting but fulfilling love making. It was only the loud chirping of the birds, which had come back to their nests on the surrounding trees, after a long, tedious search for worms and the hum of the cloud of mosquitoes hovering above us, which woke us. Coyly, she stole herself away from me and picked up her crumpled sari. She wrapped herself with it, her graceful hands moving languidly around her. I watched this beautiful figure in front of me with intent, longing eyes. Oh, I wanted her again; her long, shapely arms, her firm, slender thighs. I wanted to bury my face, my mouth in her body. But the growing darkness made me aware of the time. I remembered I had miles to cover before I would see the first lights of the town.
“Will you come again?”
I knew she was embarrassed, even scared. We had met a few times before, thrice, to be exact but I had never touched her. We had shared three afternoons, sitting beside this vast stretch of water. We had thrown a few pebbles in the lake causing ripples in its serene stillness, while we talked or silently watched the sun turn from red to crimson to purple before it finally set behind the hills. But we had stopped there. I didn’t know what possessed me that day that I did what I did. Was it her griping beauty or the untamed demon, which lives in every youth, waiting with its claws sharpened, to pounce on him on the very first opportunity? Or was it nature itself which provided a provocative ambience to nurture the seeds of desire making it swell up to a gigantic form where it knew no bounds or restrain.
“Yes,” I said.
“Do you love me?” she looked like a frightened girl who had broken her most precious toy.
“Yes, I love you. The hills, the Palas blooms are the witness of my love for you. I’ll come again, very soon. And when I have a job, I’ll take you with me…….” I kept uttering words and more words to console the frightened figure. But I think my words were unconvincing as much to her as to me; for she walked away slowly but with firm, sure steps.
“Come soon. I’ll wait for you by the lake, everyday.” I heard her say.
I thought I saw her, her face, in the lake beautiful and radiant, as always, bringing a glitter in the water.
“Come soon. I’ll wait for you by the lake everyday.” She was saying; her arms spread towards me, invitingly. Some female voices and giggles brought me back to the present. I realized I was standing perilously closer to the edge of the lake. I moved back gingerly and came face to face with a group of five to six village belles who had come to fetch water. I stood aside to let them pass.
Who is he? What is he doing here? Man from city……..They asked themselves as they crossed me.
They looked so alike in their dull clothes and shared a young, gay spirit. Conscious of my presence, they lowered their voices but threw frequent glances in my direction as they stepped down and waded into knee – deep water. I remained there aimlessly but stubbornly. I watched them fill their pots. Their movements were so uniform and their faces, too. I observed. But there was one face, which stood apart from the rest and somehow seemed familiar. I looked keenly. I had seen the face before. It was the face I had seen twenty years ago and just now in the lake. Bano! But how could she be still so young. The girl was nineteen or twenty but not older. Bano’s daughter?
The girls were crossing me again. They gave a strange look towards me, as though I was a loon. I think I looked one as I gaped at the girl who resembled Bano so much. And then I saw her eyes. They were the same pair of shiny black eyes. I knew, instantly, she was Bano’s child. How was Bano? My beautiful Bano? Was she alive? Was she married? Did she still have those arresting looks and eyes? ……….. I took a step towards the girl. I had to know everything. But the faces of my simple, devoted wife and my children who adored me came between us. I halted. Word froze in my mouth. The girls and Bano’s daughter walked away and faded behind the trees in the twilight. I stood there, watching. The cold, heavy air settled down around the lake. I felt cold, numb, forlorn and old and dragged my heavy legs towards the car.