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My short story based in Landour, Uttarakhand, found a place in All Your Stories – a lit mag based out of Somerset, UK – and also garnered the Editor’s Choice slot.

The mountains have stories to tell! They have eyes that watch, ears that listen, and a voice that only a few can hear. Or comprehend.

Sitting on a padded chair in the square balcony of my rented cottage, I key in the opening sentences of my latest fiction. Click clack, the lap top springs into action after a rather long and unwelcome hiatus.

A month back, I had just signed on the dotted lines for my forthcoming novel with an esteemed publisher when a writer’s worst nightmare came true. I was struck by a severe and enduring bout of writer’s block! The days wore on as I stared blankly ahead, my computer screen waging a losing battle against ennui. Until I decided, as if by epiphany, to spend a few days away from the bustle and recoup my wilting imagination. Landour, with its serene mountains and natural splendour, served as my travel lodestar and I promptly contacted my travel agent.

Sipping on the finest ginger tea, I look up. It’s summer time in Landour – a small cantonment hill town in Northern India with a strong British-era vibe. The view from my balcony is mesmerising! The towering Garhwal Himalayas are swathed in green. At a distance, the snow-crested peaks seem to kiss and seal their eternal romance with the skies. A few dwellings are scattered on the lower slopes, beyond the periphery of our property. A pahadi (mountain-related) folk tune from the radio wafts in through the breeze. I osmose the tranquil beauty of the place for a while. I’m about to resume my typing when I spot a little girl near the houses, playing hopscotch all by herself.  The sunrays bounce off her very fair skin tone. She absent-mindedly brushes away the tendrils of golden hair that stray into her face. A bright yellow hairband sits pretty on her head, trying to rein in her unruly curls. She looks like any other eight-year-old or thereabout – playful, energetic, full of gay abandon. Except that, there’s something riveting about her…something that makes it difficult to tear my gaze away from her. She continues to play and soon disappears into the thickets, as easily as she had appeared. I smile, and return to my laptop. A tsunami of plot ideas floods my brain and my laptop goes into an overdrive!


A few days pass. I’m up with the lark every day to witness the sky splashed with ribbons of mauve, tangerine and gold. The sun gently peeks in from behind the rolling Garhwal ranges as the twitter of birds enlivens the nippy air. I’ve made some progress with my story. Today, I set off to explore some of the hotspots of this quaint town. I reach the fabled Landour Ridge (locally called the Gol Chakkar) and amble up the cobbled streets lined with burgeoning deodars, pines and rhododendrons. The musty whiff from the woods rejuvenates the city slicker in me. I stop by at the famous Lal Tibba, the highest point in the town that offers a panoramic view of the majestic peaks far away. The iconic Landour Bakehouse floors me with its array of mouth-watering confectionaries. I settle down with a steaming cappuccino and their signature blueberry cheesecake. The mood is upbeat. The place is brimming with tourists, all eager to soak in the all-European experience. I click a few pictures and some selfies as well– the latter, always a difficult exercise for my staid self! However, even as I seamlessly blend in with the crowd, I get a feeling of being followed, of being singled out and observed. I turn around, trying to zero in on a familiar face or a known voice. I find none. As I proceed towards the exit, I catch a fleeting glimpse of red outside the glass door. My friend, the little girl in her red frock and yellow hairband, is skipping along the road, licking on an ice-cream bar, unmindful of all the activity around her.

I’m surprised. I quicken my pace and try to reach out to her. I lose sight of her very often, what with the weekend crowd milling around. Only her head, with its dash of gold and yellow, bobs and bounces ahead at regular intervals. I feel surprised. And indignant.

Why is not a single person concerned to see this wisp of a child all alone in such a busy area? What if she has lost her way? What if she’s been abandoned? How come no one is even casting a glance at her…such heartless townsfolk!

The road snakes ahead, past the souvenir shops of Sisters Bazaar. Droves of visitors in colourful woollens stroll along the narrow roads – laughing, talking, clicking countless Insta-worthy photos. The steadily increasing elevation makes me huff, puff and pant.

How can my heavy-set 42-year-old frame match the energy of a child!

As if on cue, the child ahead stops. The road forks, and for a few moments she looks unsure of which way to go. Then she turns around and smiles at me…her cyan blue eyes and arresting smile melt my jaded heart. She looks relaxed, unhurried, almost waiting for me to reach her. I plod up to her and we both plonk ourselves on the narrow, uneven brick culvert on one side of the road.

“Hello, my friend,” I offer in a cheerful voice, my feeble ice-breaker sounding both awkward and lame.

“Hello DeMello Uncle, how’re you doing?” She coos in a singsong tone. The name catches me by surprise.

How on earth does she know my name? Or does she remember my photograph on my previous bestsellers? But isn’t she too young for such recall…?

I look at her closely. The red dress is badly frayed at the edges. She has an emaciated frame with her collar bones and ribs clearly jutting out underneath her pallid skin. I wonder at the discrepancy – her lively face so belies her malnourished body! My heart goes out to her – suddenly I want to know more about her, to feed her a hearty meal, to buy her some new clothes and toys. I start by striking a conversation with her.

“So little girl, what is your name? Where do you live, and who’s there at home?” I ask in my gentlest, friendliest tone, to put her at ease.

She licks her melted ice-cream bar one last time before flicking away the wooden stick, and starts speaking animatedly.

“My name is Clara. I live over there,” she scrunches her eyes and looks somewhere far beyond the pine forests flanking the streets. Her raised index follows the direction of her eyes though I can make nothing of it. “My father is a soldier, he left for his duty many months ago. My mother and I are waiting for him to come back. Mama is not keeping well…” Clara’s eyes suddenly cloud with concern. She falls silent, her buoyant face mirroring a hundred flitting emotions.

“Have you spoken to your Dad about it, Clara?”

“No, we couldn’t reach him. Maybe we’ll meet him soon, when the time comes.”

Her words sound like they’re floating across from a different universe altogether – distant, muted, dreamy.

How does such a young child bear the wisdom of a matriarch? She has barely seen life…never witnessed death…and yet seems to understand the unhappy realities of our existence?!

In a bid to reverse her crestfallen look, I suggest that we eat something nice – my time-tested hack of cheering up people. Her face lights up immediately.

“Oh, thank you, DeMello Uncle, you read my mind! I so want to have my favourite veg and cheese sandwich from Anil Uncle’s shop. It’s been ages since I had it…” Clara’s voice trails off, pathos and longing clearly lining her juvenile tone.

We immediately rise and head towards Anil’s Café, the mecca of sandwiches and pizzas, one of the four shops at the famous Char Dukaan area of Landour. I scurry to keep up with her merry sprint. We laugh, we talk, oblivious to the world around, though I cannot help but wonder at the curious looks I get from fellow tourists.

What is it that they find surprising? A middle-aged man and a child having some innocent fun? Or a person of colour getting along famously with a European child?

I choose to look past all things negative and we reach Anil’s café. Char Dukaan, true to its literal meaning, is actually a set of four modest shops that has stood the test of time and regaled visitors through decades. I buy her a scrumptious sandwich loaded with the goodness of cheese and fresh, crunchy veggies. She hungrily bites into it as droplets of melted cheese ooze out and rest on her lips. The look of gratification on her face is priceless! I see a few mountain pooches nearby, making puppy eyes at all and sundry, hoping for a bite. I buy a large pack of biscuits and feed them, primarily to veer them away from Clara and her sandwich. They lap up the biscuits in no time but seem blissfully unmindful of the aroma of fresh cheese. I find it somewhat curious, but not enough to dwell upon it for long.

The Landour sky is fast changing colour. The sky looks overcast and the pine shadows lengthen on the streets. The breeze is steadily turning cold and crisp. Time for us to get back home, I suggest. Clara nods. She happily clasps my wrist and gives me a wide smile – pristine, heartfelt, child-like. I gently pat her on the cheeks and we continue along the scenic walking trail till the crowds start thinning. We find ourselves approaching a relatively secluded area with a small cluster of red-tiled houses scattered unevenly. They are flanked by grassy patches, overgrown weeds and colourful seasonal flowers growing wildly all over. Beyond the dwellings, the circuitous road is seen ascending towards the Landour Christian cemetery, a worn-down graveyard dating back to the 1830s or even earlier.

Clara suddenly stops. She lets go of my hand.

“Okay DeMello Uncle, my home is right up there…I shall take your leave now. Mama must be waiting for me,” she chirps. “And thanks for the sandwich. The last time I had it was when Dad was around. But it slipped out of my hand and fell on the dirt. I had been waiting to have one since.”

“Oh really? Why, you could have asked Mom for it, Clara…I’m sure she would buy you one,” I offer helpfully.

She smiles again, waves goodbye and sprints across the rough-hewn track. The wind gathers momentum and a dense haze descends till I can only see a petite frame in red, hopping and skipping at a distance till I can see no more.

I turn around and start walking downhill towards my resort. The events of the entire day keep replaying in my mind like tape in a spool. I have a light dinner and retire early.  The pregnant clouds of the afternoon crumble and a heavy downpour further dips the mercury. I curl up under the warmth of my duvet. My sleep tonight is fitful – I dream of an enormous cheese sandwich, of Clara playing with the friendly furries, and of the grim gravestones of the cemetery looming high over us.


A warm morning sunlight floods my room. I prepare a writing schedule for the day. Surprisingly, my writer’s block has become a thing of the past and my imagination is all fired. Words and plots tumble on to the laptop screen and I make up for yesterday’s lost time. However, amidst this melee of words, I find myself looking out of the balcony, seeking Clara. She is nowhere in sight. My writing regimen continues unabated over the next three days. On the fourth day, a mounting restlessness takes over my mind and I head out to the Ridge. The verdant scenery no longer allures me as I look for Clara at all her possible haunts. I ask shop and restaurant owners, local street boys and residents, cab drivers, even tourists and their guides — no one seems to have spotted her anywhere in Landour in the last few days.

Maybe her mother has taken ill again…wonder who is looking after them. I hope they have enough resources at home. Has her father come back? Does he even know that his family needs him? Isn’t it strange that they don’t communicate regularly, especially in today’s digital world? Or perhaps he is posted at some inhospitable terrain where the phones do not work…

Myriad thoughts assail my heart till I can bear this uncertainty no more. I decide to visit her home, social familiarity be damned! I march along the same path that we followed earlier, my heart hammering against my rib cage. I have an uncanny feeling that all is not right. I let out a silent prayer for the young, innocent girl.

I knock on the door of the first house in that cluster and a lady answers it. I greet her, introduce myself, and ask her about Clara. She is stumped – she does not know of any such girl.

“But Madam, Clara lives here, I myself dropped her here last week. Would anyone else here know?”
The lady looks undecided but agrees to walk me to the next house. I ask the same question; I receive the same answer. By this time, a few local residents have gathered around us, intrigued by the discussions. They all try to help me with whatever information they have of various towners but none matches the profile of Clara. At length, a hoary woman hobbles out of a house and approaches us.

“Are you talking of Kaptaan Sahib’s daughter – Tara or Sarah, I forget the name…”

The lady looks upwards, squinting her wrinkled eyes, in a bid to remember.

“Yes Madam, Clara. And her mother…would you know where I could find them? I fear they are in some distress and might need help.” The words rush out of my mouth reflecting my turmoil.

The lady starts speaking slowly.

“Young man, Kaptaan Bentley Sahib was a good man with a lovely wife and an angelic daughter. He was a trusted soldier in the British colonial army and was posted here. They used to live in the last house on this row,” the lady gestures at the ramshackle dwelling in a clearing ahead, bordering the cemetery wall. “During the Great war of 1940, he was sent to fight for his native country. He was martyred there…god bless his soul! But those were disturbed times and news of his death never reached his family. The mother and daughter kept waiting for him to return. Poverty, ill-health and sadness took their toll and after a few months they both passed away – impoverished, hungry, and all alone in a foreign land. They lie buried in this graveyard behind.” The matron stops here and sighs deeply, as if in respect. “I heard about them from my father who was a sepoy in the military when the sahibs lived here.”

My head is reeling. I mumble a few incoherent words and stagger out of the place in a trance. Everything seems to fall in place now. I now understand why nobody paid any attention to her – she was visible only to me!

I pluck a few wildflowers from the bushes and drag my leaden feet towards the cemetery. The breeze suddenly feels frigid. The sun has crept behind grim, ominous clouds as I carefully weave my way through the granite gravestones in eerie hues of grey, white and black. Signs of neglect are evident all around. Numerous plaques lie covered in dust – at times, leaning towards each other like old friends, burying numerous secrets in their bosom. After walking around aimlessly for a while, I stop dead in my tracks. An ancient headstone, large enough to preserve two coffins underneath, stand slightly tilted on a half-broken sepulchre. As I mechanically gravitate towards it, my eyes spot the names engraved on it.

Dorothy Bentley

Clara Bentley

(Family of Captain Wendell Bentley)


I kneel down and place the flowers I’m carrying – an inadequate but heartfelt homage to the brave soldier and his loving family. Clara’s ebullient face dances before my eyes and the latter mist involuntarily. After a few minutes, I rise. As I turn to leave, I spy something familiar. It’s a tattered, familiar piece of red cloth caught amongst the bushes. On a twig below, fluttering in the breeze, hangs a threadbare yellow hairband. I stare at them for a few moments and then leave.

Did Clara reach out to me from the other side just to have her favourite sandwich? Or was it to cure me of my writer’s block? Or perhaps she was seeking a respite from this undeserved anonymity and oblivion?

I shall never know. My mind is a like a giant cesspool of questions and thoughts, none of which will ever find closure. All I understand is that, I’ve experienced a hitherto unfamiliar sense of tenderness and protectiveness for this child.

I return to my hotel and start working on my novel. I retain only the initial sentences and scrap the rest. The laptop types at a furious pace – Clara’s story finds a voice through my words.

Image: Urmi Chakravorty

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