Tuesday, February 22, 2005

The River Inside Her

“Peace I ask of thee, o River
Peace, peace, peace
When I learn to live serenely
Cares will cease.
From the hills I gather courage
Visions of the days to be
Strength to lead and faith to follow
All are given unto me
Peace I ask of thee, o River
Peace, peace, peace.”

(Camp song – Poet unknown)

Everywhere she looked, vast expanses of rolling green countryside met her eyes, dotted at times with flocks of sheep or a clump of trees, but mostly a velvety green carpet that made her itch to reach out and run her hand on it. Occasionally she spotted a house or two nestled in the hills with their bright red-brick roofs, making her wonder about the people who stayed there, so far away from any conveniences and how they survived in the wilderness. It reminded her of the Arcadian stories of shepherds leading idyllic lives in the mountains, content with driving their flock of sheep every morning out into the mountains and back into their pens at sundown. But could someone really be content with living on cheese, bread and wine for a lifetime? What about the other necessities of life? Surely there was more to life than chasing some wooly creatures around the mountains? Or was there? Was her life more meaningful? Wasn’t she too, chasing something across the countryside?

She broke away from her reverie as the train started approaching flat lands. Within minutes the speeding ICE had entered a city – a quick consultation of the halts mentioned in her map of the train’s route across the country confirmed her suspicion that they were about to enter Frankfurt. Briefly she wondered if she should get down at Frankfurt for a quick visit of the city, then dismissed the thought as she spotted a row of factory-chimneys spewing out black smoke.

No, she wasn’t in the mood for that kind of a city today. Perhaps some other day. For now, her destination was decided. Besides, she had to get there by this evening or she’d lose the job. Ignorant of the admiring glances she was getting from the young man sitting across her, she smiled to herself and thought of how lucky she was to get this wonderful opportunity. This would be the best opportunity she’d gotten ever since she’d started working as an au-pair to finance her voyages across Europe. She’d worked and stayed with families in France, Spain, Italy and Germany in the last three years. She stayed with each family for six months, traveling around the neighbouring towns and villages during weekends, which she insisted were hers and hers alone. During the week, she spent her free time exploring the meandering lanes of the town she was living in, taking pleasure in discovering the quaint nooks and crannies of the city that were known only to the locals, picking up cultural nuances and the local dialects. She’d always been adept at picking up languages and had a fairly good grip over several European languages, so her time spent in these countries had merely polished her mastery of these languages.

“Nächste halte Mannheim.” She looked up startled and started putting away her Discman, book and remnants of the salad she’d picked up at the station in Braunschweig. She had lost track of time, so lost was she in her ruminations of her experiences in these last few years. Pulling down her navy-blue backpack from the overhead compartment, she shrugged it on, shaking her head in a polite but firm refusal when the young man offered to help her with it. Checking that she had taken all her belongings she made her way to the other end of the compartment where her steel-gray valise was stowed away, pulled it out, swinging her long braid back over her shoulder, and joined the queue of people who were waiting to get off at Mannheim. She had three minutes to make her way from platform 4, where this train would pull in, to platform 7, from where she was to catch her next change.

She made it just in time. The train was pulling in just as she stepped out of the elevator on platform 7. Her eyes widened as she took in the sight of the train, a quaint old train run on a coal-engine. This was going to be interesting. As the train trundled its way noisily out of Mannheim, she settled back in her seat. Being the shortest leg of her journey, not to mention the last leg, she decided not to attempt drowning the cacophony of the train with her Discman.

Her senses prickled in excitement as her destination grew closer. The Dortmunds had said they would meet her outside the Heidelberg Bahnhof Eurail counter. She pulled out the photograph they’d sent – their three year old daughter stared back defiantly at the camera, her thumb stuck in her mouth stubbornly despite what looked like a rather valiant attempt her by elder brother to pull it out of her mouth! Mentally crossing her fingers, she hoped they wouldn’t be too difficult to handle. So far she’d had only one troublesome charge – Maria-Jose had been a royal pain in the neck with her constant demands and daily tantrums. It had taken all her patience to keep from giving the girl the beating she deserved. Though she didn’t normally condone corporal punishment for children, this was one time she’d agreed with the adage of spare the rod, spoil the child.

“Wilkommen Fraulein Up-Upadhaya!”

“Upadhyaya. Rema-ni-ka Upadh-ya-ya. It’s wonderful to be here in Heidelberg.”

“We’re glad to have you here at long last! Come let’s go home. You must be tired after such a long journey. Allow me, “said Mr. Dortmund, reaching to take hold of her valise.

The Dortmunds had a swanking-new silver BMW, she discovered as they walked out into the autumn sun and made their way into the parking lot. They didn’t talk much, giving her time to absorb her new surroundings as she looked around taking in the huge billboards that adorned the tall steel and glass sky-scrapers. To one side the road sloped down and disappeared while the other way it curved upwards and joined a fly-over that snaked its way through the maze of concrete structures into the city. They stowed her luggage away in the boot of the car and settled in. The strains of Mozart filled the car as Mrs. Dortmund started it up.
“Mozart isn’t it?” she asked.

“Yes, of course. We’d met in Salzburg during a recital of Mozart’s Orchestra,” answered Mrs. Dortmund. Mrs. Dortmund smiled at her in the rear-view mirror as she pulled out of the parking lot and turned towards the fly-over.

They were making their way through the city now. She knew already from their correspondence that they lived by the Neckar valley in a cottage nestled in the hills that overlooked the Altemarkt and the river. It was an elite locality, or so she gathered from her readings about the city and she was looking forward to staying there during her tenure with them. She looked out of the window, reading the road signs and the billboards as they sped past the commercial district of the city into the residential areas. The Dortmunds were nice so far, she thought to herself, mentally sighing in relief. Now for the kids – Gordon was six and had started school, but Anna was still in kindergarten.

Soon, they were crossing the river and going up a winding road. They pulled in to the driveway of a charming two-storeyed house with a bright red portico, sand-blasted brick walls and wooden lattice-work windows which had cheery curtains adorning them. She turned around to look at the valley below and stopped dead in her tracks, for the sight she beheld was breath-taking. The Neckar river that ran through the city wound its meandering way below her. It seemed busy on getting to its destination, gushing away below the bridge, ignoring the hustle-bustle around it. Across the river stretched out the old city, the Alte Markt and looming above all this was the Heidelberg Schloss that she’d heard so much about. With the sun beginning to set behind the castle, it was glowing softly in the dying rays of sunlight, looking down at the city in all its splendour.

“It’s beautiful”, she breathed in a hushed tone, afraid that if she spoke too loudly the magical web she found herself in would break.

“Yes it is. We never tire of the sight ourselves. Tomorrow you can go down to the market and walk up to the castle – it’s a breath-taking view from up there and the organized tour of the Schloss is an educating experience. But for now, let’s go in and get you settled in. Our children are waiting for you excitedly.” With that, Mr. Dortmund went around to the boot of the car and started pulling out her bags.

“Oh please allow me,” she said running over to help him. “It’s quite heavy. Besides I’m accustomed to carrying my luggage around!” She took hold of the backpack, allowing him to pull the valise up to the door and followed them in…
***************************************************

Four months later, she was walking by the river after dinner, as she was wont to. The last few months had been a very enriching experience. The Dortmund family had warmed up to her and she had soon developed a very close bond even with the children. She knew the streets of Heidelberg as well as the back of her hand, having spent hours exploring the city, had traveled extensively around the region and had even gone down to Bavaria during Christmas with the Dortmunds.

During the week, she spent her days helping Mrs. Dortmund with the children, teaching them when they returned from school and reading something from the vast family library. Evenings were usually free, for they ate early and then the children were put to bed. Mr. and Mrs. Dortmund usually had a drink in front of the fireplace, discussing the day’s events before retiring themselves. Sometimes she joined them, but usually, she went out. If she wasn’t at the Student’s Pub down in the city, she was walking by the river, like today, lost in her thoughts.

Lately, she’d been finding herself increasingly restless. Perhaps it was time to start looking out for a new position? Time to move on? She sighed, pulling her coat tighter around herself. It had become very cold in the last few months and today was particularly windy. Spotting an unoccupied bench she made her way towards it and sat down propping her face in her hands, staring gloomily into the depths of the inky river.

Her thoughts drifted back to December 1999. She had finished her studies and joined a prestigious school as an English teacher. With her flair for languages, the Head had soon asked her to take on French and German as well, having recently introduced the latter to the curriculum. It all seemed to be working out for her, but then she got a call from home. Her father was ill – Leukemia, the doctor informed her. He’d been suffering from it for over a year now and been on medication too. She felt betrayed. She’d visited her father in May, just before joining the school and he’d never mentioned a thing to her. Now he was on his death-bed, drifting in and out of delirium and had asked to see her. But she’d spoken to him just last week! He’d said he was down with viral fever, but he sounded fine! They told her that it had been rather sudden; he’d been admitted just two days back. The driver had brought him in early on Tuesday morning, after having discovered him unconscious in his bed. She’d applied for a leave and rushed back. Just in time, for her father slipped away barely two days after she reached Bombay. She had spent those two days by his bedside in an almost un-interrupted vigil, leaving only when she had to shower and change and timing that too, with the time the nurses came in to sponge him.

She’d moved away from home when she left for Delhi to pursue post-graduate studies in English at the Jawaharlal Nehru University. B.Ed had followed and then this job in a residential school in Shimla. She had gone back just thrice since she left, for short trips of a fortnight, to spend some time with her father. His death left her devastated. He was, after all, her only family. Her mother, she’d been told, had passed away when she was just two. There were photographs of course, but she’d never been able to identify with the fair brunette with sparkling mischievous eyes.

Her mother hadn’t been an Indian citizen; she was of German origins and had come down to India for her research on the Aryan race. She had met Anirudh Upadhyaya at an Indo-German conference and it had been love at first sight for the dynamic German anthropologist. They’d never married, for Ulrike Wehle hadn’t believed in the institution. A bohemian at heart, she was fiercely independent and this was the first time she was attempting to sink roots anywhere.

So she’d been born as Remanika Wehle. Her name was a fusion of two cultures, to represent the love of her parents. Or so her father had told her. After her mother’s death, her father, had officially adopted her and brought her up with so much love that she never felt the absence of a mother. When she’d moved away to Delhi, he came at least once a month, scheduling unnecessary business meetings so he could check up on his daughter. And now, in the blink of an eye, he was gone, leaving her alone.

Tying up the few loose ends he’d left, took up nearly a month, during which she often wondered about her next step. One day, as she cleared away her father’s cupboard she came across a box of old photographs. It seemed they must have been her mother’s, for they weren’t photographs of Indians. She recognized the Brandenburg Gate in one of them and smiled as she remembered the time her father had taken her to meet her grandparents in Berlin. She’d been ten years old and that was the first time she was going to meet them. They were nice people, but they’d never understood their daughter and so they couldn’t relate to this man their daughter had chosen to live with, or this little girl with dark hair who stared back at them with her black eyes. She had exchanged postcards and Christmas greetings with them till they had passed away some years ago. And she’d never gone back.

In that instant, she knew what she wanted to do. She set about making inquiries and started surfing the Internet looking out for job opportunities. A week later she’d found what she was looking for – an agency in London offered to set-up arrangements for young women interested in working as au-pairs across Europe. She sent in her curriculum-vitae, knowing that with her qualifications and experience she stood a good chance. She wasn’t wrong. Barely two months later, she had resigned from her job, locked up the house, and left. Her first job had been in Germany, in Berlin. She’d spent six months there, tracing her origin. She visited the University where her mother had once studied and worked, traced and looked up old acquaintances, asked innumerable questions about her mother, traced the family genealogy and had gone to meet cousins. Her curiosity had been satiated, but she hadn’t really found what she was really looking for. At the end of six months, when the time came to renew her contract, she asked for a new placement. Somewhere far away from here, she requested. So they sent her to France, and then Spain and then Italy.

When her last contract was due for renewal she asked them if they’d send her to Germany again. Before she left for Heidelberg, she went back to visit the people she’d met and befriended in Berlin, some of them her cousins, with whom she’d stayed in touch these past few years. And then headed to this magical town about which she had heard so much from her father, who used to come here quite often for conferences or other work-related meetings. She’d been missing him more and more these past few days. Coming to Germany, had been a decision spurred on by her desire to know the mother she never knew. But when she didn’t find what she was looking for, she had fled, living a nomad’s life these past few years, moving every time she started sinking roots and forming close relationships. Feeling that odd sense of restlessness once again, she wondered where she would go next.

Sighing, she got up and started walking towards the bridge. It was quite late now, and there was hardly anyone out. Apart from a few cars she saw in the distance, she seemed to be the only person outside. Once on the bridge, her steps slowed down to almost a crawl. She always found herself lingering on the bridge. It had a magical feeling to it, often transporting her to a far-away land and time where she felt secure and protected. It was the same today. Leaning back on balustrade she looked up at the dark skies. It was cloudy night and she couldn’t spot any stars, so she indulged in her childhood game of guessing at the shapes the clouds formed. A few minutes later, she sighed in frustration, for it all just seemed like one big shapeless mass tonight. What was wrong with her today? Why couldn’t she escape this restlessness? Turning around she looked down into the river once again, wondering how people could possibly want to despoil the beauty of the river by jumping into it and ending their lives. How could they desecrate something of such deep and mysterious beauty, something that provided so much energy at time and calm at other times, with something as sacrilege as suicide? Surprised at this rather morbid turn of thoughts she shook herself and forced herself to turn around and start walking back towards home.

Home? She stopped dead in her tracks. Was that home? No. Not in this lifetime. Home could never be here. It could only be one place on this earth. But she’d fled from that place and never looked back even once in these past three years. But what was she fleeing from? From a lifetime of being loved? From her roots? She’d come here searching for her roots, for answers about her origins, but had she found any? Not really. She knew more about her mother and now had more friends and cousins to add to that postcard list, but nothing else. No real relationships. No feeling of belongingness. Just this aimless nomadic life. It was little wonder that she was feeling increasingly restless.

Perhaps it was time, after all to go home. Back where she belonged. Back to the house where she was brought up, the house with all the memories of growing up, of the tears over hurdles that once seemed insurmountable and the feelings of triumph at surmounting them. The house from where she’d left for many vacations with her father. The house into which she had always walked into knowing her father would be there. This time he wouldn’t. There would just be memories now. She had to learn to survive on those memories.

Yes, it was time to go home. Time to go back and sink those roots in. Time to start life again. To build new relationships and perhaps a family of her own. She turned and looked down in to the river one last time. As always it had helped her find answers and the peace that she was looking for. It was right then, that there is a river that flows inside everyone. A river never has any doubt -- it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn't want to go anywhere else. That’s what it makes it so peaceful. She knew now, where she was headed next. Back home.

Feb '05

9 comments:

Sreekesh Menon said...

wow!

livinghigh said...

hey - well, i can c that u haven't written on this space for quite some time, but i hope u'll come back n check it - and this comment - soon. Though I'm not much of a poetry guy, the 5000 year rant appealed to me - and how! As for the Legend of Sila Devi, I had read it ages ago on caferati, and have commented on it there - verry haunting story! I also checked out the little fable on the river and the moon - very cute. Take care, pal.

livinghigh said...

am sorry, am sorry - the earlier comment was meant for someone else's blog. the actual comment i wanted to make for this one is:
Madamji - ;-) Your quiet softness continues to amaze me. I love the quiet introspection ure protagonists always have, and the firm sort of resolution, once they've made up their mind. Of course, I always knew, u were a major travel-bug - I think u've spoken about a cross-Europe trip in an earlier story too, na? I guess the restless river is a phase all of us have to go through, huh? Hell, some of us are still on that stretch of choppy water! lol.. tc.

Akshay said...

"I was in Germany for a few moments thanks for bringing me back"

Wow, is right the story bring out strong sensary pleasures rich in experience and emotion, sometimes too real.As usual your charecters have this third dimension and they carry the story far.

Lovely.

erratica said...

U create a vivd imagery of the landscape. Wow! Cool stuff! Visit my blog sometimes :)

Anonymous said...

Hey Gulab Jamun! U really are a fantastic writer. I was totally mesmerized by the story, totally lost in its world and they are very few writings that have the ability to do that to me.........Keep it up gurl! U rock!

Luv, Sherreii

Geetanjali said...

Sreekesh, Rahul Akshay, Erratica & Sherry - thanks guys!

Rahul - quite introspection eh?:-) Haven't spoken bt this wander lust of mine in story, but yeah had posted a travelogue bt Sweden on Caferati around Xmas...

Akshay & Erratica - Glad you liked the descriptions - I travelled back myself as I wrote this piece!

Sherry - :-) You're just biased towards me! *Warm Hug*

Pincushion said...

'A river never has any doubt -- it is sure to get where it is going, and it doesn't want to go anywhere else.'
This line says it all for me!
Deeply philosophical and evocative with a natural flow...
Loved it!

Prashansa Taneja said...

Your story is very moving. For we must search and introspect into ourselves for what we think we want is not actually what we want. The description of everything is beautiful and it 'painted pictures in my mind'. There is a feeling of restlessness in the story which makes it more vivid and lovable. The river inside her (and all of us)...a brilliant work of fiction by you!