I sit by the window overlooking a lonely dawn. The air is chilly, but not harshly so. The sensation of cold is invigorating, slowly stirring my senses awake. An inquisitive moon stares down from the inky sky, and most of the city – with the exception of a few lonely lights at the 24-hour facilities – breathes peacefully in a collective slumber. It is all strangely evocative of that night a few years ago, and nostalgia trickles in.
It’s a shame that I don’t have a physical photograph. A Polaroid would have been romantic, but who had the money then? This photo is my favorite from the lot. A slice of uninterrupted sunlight falls across my face, turning my hair into a lovely shade of burgundy, making it look fuller than usual. My eyes shine golden, like luminescent pennies in a wishing well. But of course reality paints a different version- starker, flawed, yet more human. It might as well be the case with memories, but that does not stop us from fondly recounting the past.
After months of anticipation, it was finally time for our official Industrial Visit, but our travel itinerary suggested otherwise, and our professor smirked, knowing our plans all too well. The bus jostled with sixty twenty-year olds singing songs and dancing, flouting all traffic rules in a way that would have aroused concern in any other country. But this was India, and it was considered a revered tradition, a sort of rite of passage in college. Truancy, check. Cheating on tests, check. Breaking your heart several times, check. Dancing on the bus, check.
Heat was a distant entity, the sun just having risen, but overpowered by the fog that reigned the altitudes. The bus came to a halt at a precarious spot on the hill, and it was a while before the pleasant commotion died down. A reed thin officer appeared on our aisle, randomly poking at bags in the overhead compartments. My friend and I exchanged furtive glances. A group of guys nervously whispered among themselves, eyes darting from their bags to the officer. “Sarakku.” Alcohol. One word stood out from the low din of the provisional conversation. I rolled my eyes. How ridiculous could we be? The officer looked around for the source, but gave up almost instantly. The practicality of the matter was simple. There were too many bags, and we were students from a reputed institute. He got off, giving the gate controller a nod, and the vehicle jerked to a start as we entered Kerala, a dry state, with liquor in our bags.
Munnar welcomed us with a scenic shower. As the day grew brighter, the rain thinned into a fine drizzle before lulling into a breezy morning. The land blushed with fresh greenery and strange, exquisite birds that flitted busily from one treetop to another. Stray branches whipped dangerously against our open windows, spraying our faces with cool bursts of water.
We stopped for breakfast after a while. A picturesque valley sprawled beneath us. Vast terrains of tea garden looked like neatly sliced pieces of chocolate cake from afar. We loitered for a few minutes, clicking silly photos, just taking in the rich air, and relishing the prospect of the week we were about to spend there.
A few hours passed in the journey. Our bus squirmed its way up on the tortuous roads, all while we danced vigorously to the latest Tamil songs. Our next stop was a famous river, and my girlfriends and I discussed how we were going to stay out of water, sit by the rocks, and have a nice conversation, or something along those lines. As it was the case with most things in college life, this plan too fell into pieces. We arrived at the river, whose main attraction was a small, private-looking falls. Unlike other water-bodies, there was no floating debris or garbage in sight, and, at that time, very few people were actually in the water. So, on we went, our leggings and denim rolled up to our knees, still ambitious about not getting ‘too wet’ and ‘just clicking pictures by the falls’.
I now look at the pictures on the dull screen, of a bunch of excited college students, drenched to the bone, standing waist deep in water, struggling for their respective spots in the group picture.
That night we carried all our luggage uphill in a medieval looking vehicle. Having picked our rooms and roommates, on a first come first serve basis that left a few of us miffed, we began to warm up to the new environs – still chilly, more like an alternate reality, compared to our eternally sun-drenched Chennai. I took leisurely strolls with my group of friends, some played cricket and other games in the luxurious garden, the lazy ones slept in worn-out hammocks.
Nature asserted her authority with nightfall. The air grew progressively colder and heavier, and my fingertips turned a light shade of purple. We wore heavy jackets that used to sit at home, gathering dust. Thick blankets of mist blockaded many of the routes to the top of the hill, and we retired to our respective rooms after a hearty dinner and steaming cups of tea.
Except that we really didn’t. A few of my girlfriends and I quit our rooms in silence and headed to the guys’ room. Our path glowed a sickly yellow from the row of night lamps that ran along the length of the hallway. A subtle knock, and we softly shut the door behind us. Girls were to be in their rooms, all dainty and safe, not with boys, and certainly not with boys with alcohol.
Without beating around the bush, our glasses were filled. Some of us drank in leisure, with sips punctuating the conversation, and some of us in a few large gulps. We sat scattered across the big bed, the television droned on the backdrop. I walked over to the balcony, but could hardly see outside. The glass door was cool and soothing against my forehead. I could hear my own heartbeat as I leaned against it, and my warm breath fogged up the glass. It felt intimate, like sharing a kiss with a lover.
The bottles drained sooner than expected, and someone pulled out a tiny plastic Ziploc. Now, I had never smoked before and did not particularly intend on starting either, but I was the worst at sticking to commitments, the weather was lovely, and why the hell not? I needed very little persuasion. Pot smoking being the greater breach of law than alcohol consumption, a few of us decided to smoke outside for safety measures and chose a secluded spot behind the outhouse, lit by a single bubble of light.
Descending the crooked stone steps, we were at par with what looked like clouds, majestically hanging over the entire valley. It was a sombre sight, a treasure map in the dark. The river was a large patch of grey from where we stood, ominous and brooding. Yet the night had a sedative beauty to it, artfully blurred by the mist and my pathetically low tolerance to alcohol.
I wondered what we looked like to the people down in the valley, to the sleepless souls that looked out the window, seeking the moon for solace. We would have been little pinpricks of golden light, flickering in a circle, as we passed around the lighter. Like fallen stars.
My first time self could not gauge the experience. In retrospect, I owed much of that night to alcohol, my tolerance (or lack thereof), and the fuzzy climate. I took inefficient drags, and my throat burned, as if it was a bowl of potpourri set afire. The novelty of the experience exhilarated me, a lifetime vice inaugurated by a dreamy night in God’s own country. Our gauzy smoke strived to join the clouds, but dissolved into thin air, half way up to the sky.
Later that night, in the dark coolness of the room, I lied in my bed, catching and entertaining a stray thought or two. The pillow cover felt damp against my cheek, and sleep teased my senses. I felt it take over my body, diffusing like mist through dense foliage, throwing a veil over my mind when a random memory drifted its way into my half-conscious mind. I thought of the jagged outline of the mark that a certain ring left on my finger. I no longer wore it, and the mark would fade for good in another year or so, but I still carried it around in my purse, a relic of a time gone by. Thoughts of the ring or the boy who gave me the ring hardly crossed my mind anymore, and if it did, the cruel sensation in the pit of my stomach no longer accompanied it. I watched the grey silhouette of my fingers succumb to sleep. I smiled to myself. And there I was, having had my first smoke in Kerala, with the boy that I once had a fancy for, but those feelings seemed to have dispelled with the passing of time, and I smiled to myself, knowing that all was good, and life, too, was good.