This short story was published (in two parts) in The MockingOwl Roost, a US-based art and literary magazine.
14 July 2019, Meghalaya, India
The three Menhirs – grey, vertical monoliths – stood tall like sentinels, preserving the sanctity and secrets of the forest for centuries — a mute witness to the ebb and flow of life in these parts. Luna dutifully bowed before them, more out of habit than for paying obeisance or getting a wish fulfilled. At 45, Luna had perfected the art of detachment – there was no canker in her heart anymore, seeking a panacea. Not after all that she had lived through.
Miles and miles of unending greenery greeted Luna at the entrance of the hallowed Mawphlang forest. Or, the Sacred Woods, as it was locally called. A hundred images and voices swirled inside her brain, momentarily throwing her off gear. Instinctively, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This was no time to delve into the past, she chided herself, and started walking deeper into the woods. The petite 45-year-old Luna did not have particularly striking looks but emanated an easy affability and brightness that come naturally with age and mindfulness.
Luna walked past the moss-slickened stones, stopping to admire the white coral mushrooms that were so famous here. A cluster of Lily Cobra caught her attention – these poisonous shrubs had so many scary tales associated with them! The rains had stopped just an hour earlier. The tree leaves and the tendrils of creepers had droplets of water suspended from them — glistening, clinging, unwilling to let go. A lot like memories. Memories which refused to leave their home…her heart.
It was a rainy mid-week afternoon, hence the forest was largely empty. Only a few foreign tourists were lounging around, lugging heavy photographic equipment, soaking in the ambience.
All the better, Luna mused.
It was after a lot of deliberation and soul-searching that she had convinced herself to return to this place after 24 long years. And now that she was here, she did not want any distraction or clamour.
Luna was surprised at the sharpness of her own memory – every turning, every clearing, every nook and cranny was still clearly etched in her mind, alarming in its vividness and precision. After crossing the clumps of dense undergrowth, she finally reached a narrow stream that gurgled playfully over a bed of shingles, flowed some distance, and then forked into a Y. She started stepping down the uneven, slimy patch that led to the assemblage of large boulders flecked with chartreuse lichen, flanking the stream. Their stream.
Her heartbeat quickened, as did her footsteps – she nimbly tip-toed ahead, her verve and impatience belying her age! She suddenly felt like a child who was trying to net an elusive butterfly, a butterfly which carried blissful dreams on its dappled wings. And it was at that moment that she saw him!
A tall, lean male figure dressed in plain brown trousers and an oversized beige shirt, stood on the periphery of the rivulet, about a hundred meters ahead of her, looking intently at the water. She could see only his side profile. She kept telling herself it wasn’t him, it couldn’t be…even as every fibre of her being screamed his name! Meban Tsangpa! The erudite, young monk of the Nongmel Monastery — was there anyone in her former village who wasn’t familiar with Meban? The man who knew how to operate the computer. The only one who volunteered to share fascinating stories and interesting scientific facts with the village children. The monk who radiated a brilliance even in his simple maroon robe, who spoke very little with outsiders, but whose eyes had a strange sparkle which communicated a wealth of emotions. And the only one who managed to make Luna go wobbly in her knees!
But that was twenty-four years ago, Luna realised with a start! And here he was today, without his maroon garb or his clean-shaven look. He had a week-old stubble, a curly mop of salt-and-pepper, and from whatever Luna could make out from a distance, he looked like any other middle-aged Khasi gentleman. As if on cue, Meban turned around and saw her.
Luna stood still, frozen in a moment of inert reality. She struggled hard to fight back an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as Tsangpa walked towards her with faltering steps. His face, more like a canvas of myriad hues, mirrored a thousand crisscrossing emotions.
“L-Luna?! Is it really you?” Meban whispered, almost dreading to hear his own voice. “You’re back here, after all these years??”
For a few moments, the universe came to a standstill for both of them. In a trice, they both went 24 years back in time, when the world was full of love, longing and hope.
After what seemed like a herculean effort, Luna managed to find her voice.
“Yes, Tsangpa, it’s me, Luna. I was in the vicinity for some work. Had some extra time, so I just decided to…” Her voice trailed off, unable to complete the sentence. Her own words rang so hollow in her ears, so jarring in their artifice, that she stopped.
Hadn’t I come here with a clear purpose? Hadn’t I specially chosen this date for my visit to Mawphlang? Didn’t I spend sleepless nights, debating on this visit? Wonder if Meban will buy my excuse, considering he’s also here today!
“So how have you been, Luna?” Meban’s voice nudged her back from her reverie. “You don’t seem to have changed much. Where do you live? And are you still working with an NGO?”
Same old Meban Tsangpa and his endearing ways. Luna smiled involuntarily.
“Long time, Meban! Yes, I’m good. I live in Shillong. I have my own boutique there – we source traditional fabric and craft them into garments and accessories. We call it Weave ’n Warp. I love the work I’m doing, more so because it’s a joint venture with my daught…” Luna stopped, as if struck by lightning! She turned away, her mind in complete disarray.
“Oh, that’s wonderful news, Luna – so now you’re a thriving entrepreneur running a successful business. You always had that spark in you…I’m glad you were able to re-kindle it, even after marriage and kids!” Tsangpa’s voice was soused in admiration, respect and…did she sense a hint of longing?
“Aah, well, it’s nothing so spectacular, really,” Luna fidgeted with her wristwatch as she spoke, “just trying to make a difference in the lives of the local artisans, that’s all! But you tell me, Meban, what has kept you busy all these years? From what I see, you’re no longer in the religious coven, right?” Luna fleetingly glanced at his casual attire.
“Yes, you’re right, Luna, I live in Nongpoh town. Far removed from everyone and everything. I teach there in the government secondary school and stay in a men’s hostel. I left the monastery long back, just a year after we…after you left, Luna. Let’s just say, I lost both faith and focus. Thankfully, I was still a trainee back then.” Tsangpa tried hard to prevent his voice from quivering as he uttered the next sentence, “I come here every year on this date.”
Luna abruptly turned to go. She wasn’t sure how long she could sustain her composure before the past overpowered her.
“Luna, wait! Please don’t leave yet! We just met…there’s so much to talk about.” Meban was almost pleading now. “Please come back here tomorrow, same time. There’s a café outside the forest, they serve the best black Urlong Tea in the entire Khasi district!!” Meban’s eyes lit up as he said this, his lips curling into a boyish smile.
Something stirred within Luna.
No one knows me in these parts. Not anymore. Besides, I’m genuinely free tomorrow. So why not come down and listen to his side of the story? After all, I have nothing to gain or lose!
“All right, Meban. I’ll come tomorrow. And we shall talk. But for now, I must leave.”
Returning to the hotel, Luna took a leisurely shower and retired early to bed. Sleep, however, evaded her. The Sacred Forest, its ambience, its memories and finally, meeting Tsangpa – together, they took her back in time, down a long, dark tunnel of emotions. Emotions, which she thought she had carefully sealed with a vow of secrecy and buried in the innermost recesses of her mind, suddenly surfaced with a force that surprised her! The precious moments she had spent with Meban, almost a lifetime ago, had left a breadcrumb trail in her lovelorn heart. And today, sitting in the solitude of her modest hotel room, Luna was tempted to walk down that path.
Twenty-four years earlier….
The rusty bus rattled over the uneven roads, braking and accelerating alternately, sending the primary school children sitting inside, into peals of laughter. The two teachers chaperoning them, looked on indulgently and continued with their usual chit chat. A Shillong-based NGO had adapted this village school a few years ago. Luna Lyngdoh, the young 21-year-old teacher, loved being with the kids and was passionate about her profession. Her father was the Senior Supervisor in a tea factory, just outside their village in Meghalaya. Along with her home-maker mother and teenage sister, the family was content with whatever they had.
Today was special. The Grade-4 children were reading about Gautam Buddha in school and were being taken to the Nongmel Monastery on a Field Trip, to know more about His life and teachings. The children were excited and happy. But the highlight of the event was clearly the momentous meeting between Luna Lyngdoh and Meban Tsangpa, a Samanera or novice monk. A woke, computer-trained graduate, he had been inducted into the monastery as a trainee. He was following many of the cardinal religious precepts but had not yet attained higher ordination which would make him a Bhikkhu or a full-fledged monk.
Luna and Meban felt an instant spark, as if they had known each other for ages. They both had a humble background and hailed from the same village. In Meban’s case, however, his family always faced financial hardships because of his alcoholic father and the large brood the old man had produced. Family considerations topped his list of priorities, and it also formed the primary reason for his ascetic way of life – one mouth less to feed, along with the benefits it accrued.
A few times, thereafter, he visited the school, mainly on Sundays, to fix their computers or hold informal life skills sessions with the students. Meban had a way with children – his easy affability, disarming smile, and his play-way method of instruction, made him a hot favourite with the kids! On her part, Luna would invariably volunteer to assist Meban on such days, although her Sundays were, otherwise, strictly earmarked for family.
As the months progressed, Meban and Luna started having clandestine meetings in places far beyond the brick-and-mortar confines of the school, and even the village. Being a trainee monk, he enjoyed some leeway which allowed him to venture out of the monastery at certain intervals. He always changed into regular clothes during these episodes, to avoid curious glances. And the more they met, the deeper their emotions ran. From sipping the famed black Urlong Tea to sharing their love for poetry, nature treks, and retro music, they had developed an organic bond that needed no rationale. Being a fresh recruit, Meban had not yet been able to purge himself entirely of these little worldly pleasures, especially since his spirituality had more to do with difficult circumstances rather than a holy epiphany!
As for Luna and Tsangpa, both knew they were staring at an uncertain future. But as they say, falling in love is not something we choose to do – in fact, we often choose to love someone who, we know, can never be ours. And that, probably, is what makes the exercise even more alluring…somewhat like biting into the sweet, forbidden fruit of Paradise! Thus, the young monk and the naïve teacher embarked on a dangerous journey together with no roadmap in sight; where the destination appeared nebulous; where gossamer dreams were woven with the silken yarn of amour.
On the morning of 14 July, her birthday, Luna wore a dainty fuchsia net blouse and paired it with a long cream skirt with lace and crochet detailing. A pair of simple pink hoops and a dash of glimmer on the lips completed her dewy look. Meban took a day off from the monastery on the pretext of visiting his family in the village. Together, they headed straight to the Mawphlang Forest.
The forest left them completely enamoured with its stunning array of vibrant orchids, flaming rhododendrons, verdurous ferns and shrubs, towering pines and the sacred rudraksh trees. It was a warm, humid day with occasional bouts of rain. Luna and Meban talked, laughed, admired the flora, and shared many happy anecdotes. They had reached almost the end of the trail that was kept accessible to the general public. On their right, a bubbly rivulet suddenly emerged from the dense undergrowth, gurgled its way over small boulders and pebbles for some distance, before disappearing into the thickets again. To their left, they found a stack of boulders that formed a natural cave – not huge but large enough to accommodate the two of them. They crouched inside the cave and giggled like kids, delighted at this serendipitous discovery!
Luna suddenly felt Meban fiddling with her hairpin.
“Hey, what exactly are you trying to do, Meban?”
“Nothing much, just adding some colour to your dark mane, Luna!” Meban chuckled as he tightly tucked a pretty scarlet bloom into her hairpin.
The moist breeze induced a gentle psithurism while the birds continued to coo in a somnolent monotone. The minutes were ticking by at a furious pace, and both realised that these idyllic moments would soon come to an end.
“Meban, do you realise what we’re doing is probably not right?” Luna finally found the courage to voice what had been nagging her for days on end. “You had chosen a certain way of life for yourself. But now you’ve strayed far from it.”
“Yes Luna, I’ve often thought of this,” Meban’s face clouded as he spoke, “I’ve never felt this way for anyone earlier, how I feel about you, Luna. You’re always there in my thoughts, in all my waking moments, and even in my dreams.” He sounded so utterly helpless, so vulnerable, that Luna’s heart went out to him. She cupped his palms in her own as he continued in a trembling voice, “I can’t imagine a life without you now, Luna. My feelings, my thoughts, are nothing short of blasphemy, I tell myself every day…will the Lord ever forgive me?”
“No Meban, please don’t lose hope!” Luna hugged Meban tight, tears trickling down her face. Was the dreaded moment here? Would he choose propriety over emotions? “We’ll figure something out. And whatever decision you choose to take, be assured, I shall always respect it.” Luna looked at Meban earnestly, smiling feebly through her tears.
And that was the moment when the universe conspired to unhinge their world and turn it into a tumultuous farrago of desire and daring. Shunning every religious diktat, sundering all moral sinews, Mebaan embraced Luna in a vice-like grip. The dams of restraint broke, and Luna found herself swept away in an overwhelming deluge of passion. The shrill symphony of the cicada, crickets and katydids celebrated this unusual union. The velvety algae beneath, offered them a duvet of taboo dreams and unbridled passion and together they explored the dizzying heights of pleasure!
It was almost five when Luna and Meban walked out of the forest in silence and headed to their individual homes. Later that evening, while Luna was knotting her hair into a tight bun, a dash of red dropped on her lap – it was the same flower that Meban had pinned to her hair. Luna let out a gasp! The holy forest had a strict rule – not a single leaf, twig, stone, flower – in short, absolutely nothing, was allowed to be taken out of the forest. Anyone who did, was bound to face the wrath of the presiding deity, Goddess Labasa, in the form of a deadly affliction or misfortune! Luna shuddered involuntarily, an uncanny foreboding engulfing her. Would the deity curse them? Were they doomed to suffer a terrible fate? Only time would tell…
Over the next couple of months, both Meban and Luna meticulously avoided meeting each other. Meban, especially, suffered mortifying guilt pangs whenever he thought of how he had tainted his sacred robe! Luna noticed the first red flags when she started feeling unwell during mealtimes. Her monthly cycle evaded her, and she often felt too sick to attend school. It wasn’t long before her mother sensed something amiss. Luna felt compelled to confide in her – together, they visited an unknown doctor in faraway Shillong who confirmed their worst fears. Luna was with child – Meban’s child!
The next few days passed in a blur. The entire family was initially in a state of shock, which eventually spiralled into pure rage. Endless questions, a barrage of stings, toxic accusations and censure followed. Luna was literally made a prisoner in her own house. Meban tried his best to communicate with her but failed miserably every time! The days and nights seemed to stretch endlessly as a thousand misgivings assailed her.
The curse of the goddess has actually come true…we should have never brought that flower out of the forest. Oh Meban, are we destined to meet again in this life? Will you ever come to know what happened to me…to us?!
A decision had to be taken and it had to be taken fast. She was already in her second trimester and the city doctor ruled out abortion as an option. After much deliberation, it was decided that Luna would go to Shillong to her aunt who worked as a nurse in the government hospital. Her husband had abandoned her after she birthed three daughters in a row! Hence, Luna was expected to double up as nanny for the teenage girls when their mother would be out on work, besides performing all the household chores. And also manage her own ‘blight’, whenever it chose to arrive!
The entire village was told how Luna had landed a fabulous new job in Shillong! Even today, Luna vividly remembered how she was unceremoniously bundled into a rickshaw in the wee hours of the morning and taken to the bus depot by her father. As the rickety bus pulled out of the village, Luna frantically looked all around her, trying to bottle up in her mind, every sight, scent and sound of a place which, for more than two decades, she had called ‘home’. And where, probably, she would never set foot on again!
Back to the present
The following day, Luna reached the café on time. Choosing a table at a secluded corner, Luna osmosed the tranquil surroundings. Meban arrived shortly afterwards. Over steaming cups of Urlong tea and dumplings, Luna narrated all that had transpired in her life in the past 24 years. At the end of it, she showed Meban photographs of her 23-year-old daughter, Twinkle. Their daughter. Twinkle had studied Fashion Designing in Guwahati and was now assisting her mother in running their boutique. Meban cast a fixated gaze on the picture for a long time, heart pounding, too astounded to speak.
“Luna, this is our daughter? She is beautiful…just like you!” He finally spoke through his tears. “I can’t wait to meet her…can I accompany you while you return this time?”
This was going to be the most excruciating moment of truth, as Luna had already apprehended. Steeling herself from within, she drew a deep breath, squared her shoulders, and faced Meban. And when she spoke, there was no trace of hesitancy or indecision.
“Meban, I told you about Twinkle because as a father, you have a right to know. My so-called family had snapped all ties, once they dumped me with my aunt. And there was no way I could contact you in all these years. And believe me Meban, they were really difficult years! But now that I have some semblance of sanity and stability in my life, I do not want to reverse it.”
Looking at his stricken face, Luna paused momentarily. But almost immediately, she regained her resolve and continued, “Twinkle, too, had a challenging childhood. An existential crisis…a single, struggling mother who could not fulfil even the tiniest of her wishes…a father, forever in absentia – she had a lot on her plate, believe me. But Twinkle is a gifted child who resiliently forged her own path ahead. And now that she has finally come into her own, I don’t want her to experience yet another emotional whiplash.”
“Well Luna, if that’s what you’ve decided for Twinkle, who am I to contest it?” Tsangpa spoke in a choked voice. “Although I’m curious to know how you managed to cater to all her needs and sponsor her education, all these years… it’s nothing less than a feat!”
“Well, once Twinkle was a year old, I managed to find work in a handloom factory in Shillong and we shifted to their humble staff accommodation. I was known as this young, widowed mother with a mewling child. Empathy and support came hand-in-hand with crude advances and sly innuendos. The salary was inadequate; the labour, herculean; the living conditions, dismal. However, I soldiered on. My life revolved around Twinkle, the click-clack of the shaft and the shuttle, and the warp and weft of the fabric. A few weeks of training offered the much-needed fillip to my confidence, and soon I became a valued employee.
“In all these years, my daughter served as my raison d’etre. After years of relentless labour, I finally had enough resources and with Twinkle by my side, I realised my dream – Weave ’n Warp.”
“You’re right, Luna. It’s been a long and arduous journey for us all. And now that we’re healing, it’s only fair that we don’t upturn the natural rhythm of the universe. The cracks and scars will always be there; but aren’t they like Kintsugi…adding beauty to our life, and making it more meaningful?”
Luna’s eyes misted as Meban spoke.
“I shall take your leave now, Luna. But you, and my darling Twinkle, will always remain in my prayers, till my last breath!”
And thus, they stood, holding hands one last time, steeped in the twilight haze, as the sun went down in a blaze of lilac and gold, leaving them with sepia memories and the promise of a brighter, happier, calmer morrow.