[Short Story] The Diverging Road
It was early afternoon. Venu surveyed her surroundings doubtfully. She breathed a sigh of relief when she found the signboard. It read Venpani Peak. What lay ahead was a steep slope. She began the ascent, lips pursed.
She panted a little. The heavy camera that hung around her neck swayed and twisted heavily, with every stride, as she negotiated the jagged steps. Sharp branches of dead wood that grew alongside the path, grazed her elbows and legs.
‘Damn! I should have worn something more sensible!’ she exclaimed as she looked down with dismay at her sleeveless short dress. Several red marks marred the smoothness of her arms and legs. She rubbed them to relieve the pain.
She slowed down to catch her breath and clicked pictures of the golden sunlight filtering in through the curtain of leaves.
The charm of her surroundings engulfed her and she gave in to the pure mountain air, the greenery and the sound of the wind that whooshed through the trees.
Venu was pleased with herself when she finally reached the peak. She spied a wooden bench a little distance away and rushed towards it to rest her aching limbs. But as soon as she sat down, she stood up again drawing in her breath sharply. She was greeted by a sight that she had only seen in the screen savers in her computer. She ran to the brink to drink in the panoramic view of the hills covered in green, dotted with rocky precipices and straight ahead of her, lay a white, misty, waterfall that fell several meters below into a wide river that meandered and vanished through a bend in the rocks. She stood transfixed for a long while and then began photographing it all in a frenzy, eager to capture the sheer beauty and transfer it all into her camera.
She heard the soft rush of a mountain stream and set out to find it. She washed her face and drank the cool water thirstily. Rejuvenated, she moved about capturing wild flowers through her lens, all the while imagining the ripples and the envy it would stir up among her classmates, who were at the base camp. She and her college mates had arrived just that morning on a botanical expedition to the mountains and she had slipped out quietly at lunchtime for her own little adventure in the hills. Will they miss me? Would they perhaps look for me? Would Akil stall them? she wondered.
Venu wasn't the adventurous type at all, but Akil had challenged her to do it and she was never one to back down from a dare.
‘Thank you Akil, I have the entire hills to myself!’
She shouted hands cupping her mouth, waiting eagerly for the reverberation.
But thoughts of nature, beauty and peace gave place to fear doubt and panic.
Venu was seized by the thought that she had not seen another human being all through.
Her survival instincts kicked in.
She looked around anxiously for the path that would take her back.
But a few false trails later, Venu realized that she was completely lost.
What sort of a boyfriend was this stupid Akil?
He could have easily slipped out with me or he should not have put me up to this! She lamented.
Hunger pangs gnawed at her stomach. Just take any path downhill …it would lead to civilization, a sane voice spoke in her head.
She began her descent and came upon a clearing.
Then she saw him.
He was of a diminutive height, small made. He was brown skinned with an angular face. He wore an embroidered shawl of red black and white over his right shoulder leaving his left shoulder bare.
She ran towards him and began animatedly. ‘Oh thank god, you are here …’
She switched to Tamizh when he fixed her in a quizzical stare.
But when he continued to stare at her in puzzlement, she broke of a twig and began drawing on the ground. She spoke the words slowly and gestured animatedly with both her hands. He nodded and pointed to a pathway through the trees.
She drew money from her pocket and held it out to him. He slowly but firmly pushed her hand away.
As she made her way down hill, sending up a silent prayer, she saw another man.
He came up the stone path effortlessly, twirling a cane. He must have been in his thirties. Everything about him spelt style and fine taste, right from his khaki shorts, blue shirt to the Gucci sunglasses carelessly pushed back to his crown. An unlit cigarette dangled rakishly from a corner of his mouth. He waved at her and Venu waved back a little hesitantly.
He came closer.
'Are you part of that college expedition? She nodded smiling sheepishly.
‘Hmm… That’s what I thought, when I saw you from a distance!’
He gave an easy laugh.
‘What are you doing here all by yourself?’
‘ Oh, I am Sanjay, by the way’
He held out his hand.
She shook it with her fingertips.
‘I am a geologist … I am staying in the same resort.’
Venu merely nodded.
‘Are you lost or something?
What are you doing with him?’ He gestured to the adivasi, who stood patiently during the exchange.
‘Come with me. I could take you back. I can always come up here tomorrow. Twilight is almost upon us …’ he laughed again.
Venu deliberated for a long moment. She cast a sidelong glance at the adivasi who waited patiently.
‘No’ she began apologetically ‘I think I will go with him ... He has agreed to take me back and it would be impolite.’
‘Don't be silly. I could give him some money and send him away… let me speak to him.’
She turned and blocked his path. She looked him firmly in the eye. 'It's alright. I'll go with him. I am pretty sure we will have plenty of occasions to meet later on…’
She signaled to her guide to lead her and followed him, head bent.
The Noble Savage won the day.
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