I have already published three of my books through Amazon.com:
In the meantime, I intend blogging the first few sample chapters of the novel for everyone to read. Every alternate day, a new chapter will be released through my blog. Avid readers may please read and send me their comments.
I would appreciate if readers can indicate their preference about using their comments as part of the book
Here you go with the chapter 1.......
Sukwinder, the tempo driver dropped Mani Shankar in a corner and drove off. Joshimatt was just nearby. For Mani Shankar, hitchhiking with a tempo driver seemed a better option than waiting for another State Transport bus. The bus, he took from Haridwar, broke down on the way. The conductor and the driver looked quite casual about it, as though that was a routine affair. It must be. The very few who occupied the bus, too, didn’t seem to be unduly concerned. Some of them got down, sat on the pavement and began smoking and gossiping, while others continued to doze off. The engine of the bus fumed, coughed, smoked, rumbled, but didn’t move an inch.
Mani Shankar became restless, for no reason. The bus conductor couldn’t assure when a relief transport might come. He stood in the middle of the road, a little away from the bus and signaled to a few passing vehicles for a hike, but they all sped past him.
One tempo stopped by. ‘ki hoya? Gaddi rukk gayi?’ (What happened? Did the bus break down?)
Mani Shankar nodded and asked the driver, “I want to go up to Joshimatt.”
‘Bhaitona!’ (Why don’t you sit down?)
The front seat in the tempo was good for just two people, including the driver, to squeeze in. Mani Shankar threw in his bags in the carriage of the tempo and got in. Sukwinder, the driver was quite an interesting guy. He blabbered a lot, joked a lot and laughed a lot. He even offered a bottle of beer, but Mani Shankar politely declined. There was never a talk about money. But he kept up his word, except that he stopped the tempo, a mile away from Joshimutt.
‘bus, thodihi dhoor hai idhar se!’ (It is only a short distance from here)
When Mani Shankar extended two, hundred rupee, notes to him, he exclaimed, ‘Wareh wah! Thakdi aadmi ho!’ (Hey, you seem to be a rich guy), but he refused to take it. ‘Hamne dosthi ke liye kiya! Aash karo, dosth!’ (I did it for friendship. Enjoy, my dear friend)
He drove off into a small side road, without looking back. ‘Sardar jis are great friends,’ thought Mani Shankar.
The sun was settling down in the West. It was late March. He started walking. Soon, the contours of the Joshimutt town and the reflections from the shimmering lights from the buildings slowly appeared in the distance.
‘Why did Sukhwinder drop me off in the outskirts, rather than bringing me into the town? After all, Joshimattt had been just another five minutes drive for him.’
Mani Shankar had no answer.
He felt very lonely, once again. The deserted road, the barren hills, the deep valley behind, the winding river down the valley far below, and the darkening horizon all dampened him further. He took out his handkerchief and wiped the dirt and sweat from his face.
He walked into the town. He felt cold. He put on his jacket and the woolen cap. Hardly anyone was on the road. A few laborers alone sat by the wayside campfire, smoking beedies. Many hotels around the market had not reopened, as it was off-season time. Very few tourists came to Joshimatt around this part of the year. They would, by the end of April or early May when the Badrinath temple opened for the new season. A couple of hotels, that were open, were untidy and badly maintained. The only vegetarian restaurant, that was open, was crowded inside a small, cramped space. A brisk, young boy was seen serving there as the cashier, the server and the cleaner.
Mani Shankar approached him and inquired, “Are there any decent stay arrangements nearby?”
“Hey, Gopi, ithna late khyon ho raha hai?” Someone shouted at the young boy from the table at the back.
“Abhi aa rahaa hai, bhai sahib!” The young boy, Gopi shouted back and then turned to Mani Shankar and said, “aap thoda wait keejiye, chai bhej dhoom?” He quickly ran to the kitchen.
Mani Shankar waited at a table near the entrance. Someone brought him some tea.
Gopi came back, a few minutes later. “maaph keejiye, mein aapko kaise madhadh karoon?” His tone was extremely polite. (I am sorry, How can I help you?)
‘Idhar koi decent jaga milega, teherne ke liye?” Mani Shankar repeated his inquiry to check whether there were any decent places to stay nearby. He explained that he didn’t like the few hotels he had already seen.
“See, this is off-season. You appear to be from the cities. You may not get anything decent here, within the market area. Would you mind staying away from the town?” He then directed Mani Shankar to walk back a mile or so and take a small elevated road where he said Mani Shankar could find a few decent lodges. He excused himself again to attend to another guest in the restaurant.
Thanking him, Mani Shankar walked out. He was unsure. He walked to the nearby taxi stand. The drivers were making merry or drunken. He walked a little further up. Someone suggested to him about Shri Shankaracharya Mutt in Joshimatt, which was close-by. He took the steep road up, to the mutt. But the manager had gone away to Rudraprayag, a town down the river Alaknanda, and he wasn’t expected back before late, that night.
Mani Shankar was tired, as he walked back. He also felt hungry as he didn’t eat anything since he left Haridwar. He thought of going back to the restaurant in the market.
Suddenly, he felt dizzy and his head reeled. He knew what it was. He was probably getting ‘hypoglycemia.’ He scrounged his bag, nervously. His usual quota of chocolates wasn’t there.
‘But, I remember definitely buying them in New Delhi.’
There was a small open ground, on one side of the road, next to a dilapidated building. He rushed there to avoid fainting to the ground. A young girl was sitting around the corner of the building, watching him. She had her two fingers thrust into her mouth.
In the next few moments, as he tried to take shelter, Mani Shankar fainted and fell over the little girl. The girl panicked, made some strange sounds, but was strong enough to hold him from falling to the ground. Mani Shankar was saved from hitting a sharp rock that projected from the ground.
The place was virtually deserted and there was no other soul in the near vicinity, to know what was happening.
He regained his consciousness only when he saw someone fed him some warm tea. When the images became clearer, he realized that the ‘someone’ was none other than the little girl he saw before he fainted. He gulped the tea little by little, the girl silently looking at, not speaking a word. He found some energy returning back to him and his lips parted to ask something from the girl, but the words didn’t come out. He was still very weak even to speak.
‘Meri baath vishwas nahi kiye, woh log!’ the girl commented, after some time. (They didn’t trust my words)
Mani Shankar didn’t understand. Bet he felt better, soon.
The first thing he noticed was that the girl was very dirty and smelled filthy. Her clothes looked muddy and torn, exposing a part of her breast. Her hair was wild, matted and unkempt. She couldn’t be more than thirteen or fourteen. Either she didn’t bother about how she looked or she wasn’t aware of how she looked.
The girl helped him get up slowly. Everything was still very hazy. His knees felt very weak, trembled and collapsed as he took the first few steps with the help of the girl. The girl appeared to be surprisingly strong to support him. She slowly walked him, to the backyard of a nearby another abandoned building. He wanted to say something, but the words didn’t come out. It was dark now, except for some lights here and there. There was none on the road. He couldn’t resist the girl, even if he wanted to.
There was an abandoned, old, Ambassador-model, car. She walked him closer to the vehicle. Mani Shankar gave a meaningful look to her. What she understood, he didn’t know, but she nodded her head. As they reached the car, she opened the back door and shoved him inside.
She, then, opened the driver’s side front door, got in, closed the door and looked at him. Not a word was uttered. She offered a bottle of water that she removed from the dashboard. Mani Shankar drank slowly. Some more energy returned to him.
“Dhanyavaad. Yeh aapkaa ghar hai?”(Thank you. Is this your home?)
She appeared to understand his question and nodded. All their further conversation went in Hindi. Mani Shankar called forth all his power over his tutti-futti (broken) Hindi he had learnt almost three decades ago when he worked for a few years in Delhi.
If his Hindi was broken, hers was corrupted. Her accent or dialect was unusual. He now recalled everything clearly. Some part, he surmised from her conversation.
He thought he had given her enough trouble and that it was time for him to leave her alone. He took out a few hundred-rupee-notes from his wallet and extended them to her.
She looked bewildered and pushed his hand back. She didn’t seem to want his money. He opened the door, got out and started a few steps, even while thanking her once again for her help.
A few steps down, he noticed that the girl was right behind him. Further down, she walked by his side and held his hands firmly, as though she wanted him to stop going away. He looked puzzled.
She behaved like a small baby. She dragged him back to the car. He stumbled over the next few steps. They were back to the car. He didn’t know what he should be doing. He looked into her eyes.
He saw the loneliness in them.
Suddenly he felt she was no more, dirty. Rather, she looked cute.
‘What is happening here?’
He spent that night in that small, cramped space in the backseat of the car. He had nothing to cover himself, except the shawl. It was cold and chilly outside and it didn’t bother him anymore. He never even remembered to eat anything. He was overtaken by fatigue completely. The girl slept in the front seat. She didn’t eat too.
He opened his eyes, only when the bright sun lit the inside of the car, the next morning.
‘A very unusual night! A very unusual meeting with a little, innocent girl!’
She was still sleeping.
He quietly opened the door, got out of the car, leaving behind his backpack bag inside and walked to the nearby market. A new resolution was slowly taking shape in his mind. For the first time, he got a feeling that he was not alone feeling lonely.
....................... to be continued