The six-hour road journey had played on her body and she was definitely tired. But the excitement and eagerness that she carried along the six hours and much before that seemed to suppress most of her fatigue. As she saw the large, green gate to the front, she knew the exact way the road ahead would turn till they were parked in the porch.
At this time she took out two browned, aged photographs. One had a big, black dog sitting a little away from the road. He had a wise look on his face as if what lay beyond the gate belonged to him and it was his rightful duty to inspect anyone eyeing to cross it. Kurbi had always liked this picture. She had found it in one of dadi’s books. Behind it was written in smudged black letters ‘May 1991’. Not only was this photograph special because of the date but Kurbi liked the entire look. The dog’s wise looks, glimpses of the Bougainvillea plant growing on the boundary wall, the rough, uneven road that led to the house, the sun setting and the red roof peeping out from behind. It all just made Kurbi want to visit this place soon. And that day was today.
Knowing she couldn’t undertake this journey all alone, she took Mahi along. Since the past 10 days, all Mahi had heard about was the trip that Kurbi wanted to make. She knew this was something Kurbi wanted really badly. Not only did she want to be there with her best pal now but she also knew that she would herself love the excitement. There was no way she would miss this trip.
Kurbi couldn’t stop talking throughout the journey (repetition). Mahi took up the task of driving. She didn’t want her friend to worry about anything. But the worry was so evident. Kurbi would bring up two random topics and would go on and on about them. ‘Nitya’s college is calling Strings you know. Isn’t that awesome? I mean, that would surely pull in the crowd!’ A second of silence would precede a sudden change in topic. ‘And did I tell you that my mum’s never gone back to Kashipur after ‘91?’ Mahi would just nod a yes or a no or maybe even add to the conversation. But mostly she would dismiss her questions by telling her to relax and not worry about anything. ‘But I’m not even sure if it’s there Mahi’, Kurbi would say with an anxious gaze.
Kurbi finally dozed off to her own bantering. Looking at the book she clutched in her hand, Mahi recalled that day after their winter vacations when Kurbi had promised to show her something really exciting and ‘damn neat’, in Kurbi’s words. Even though college was declared open, the fog was still around, with a definite plan of sticking till the end of the month. But nothing could dampen the students’ spirits when they got back to college. Apart from braving the chill early in the morning and awaiting their term results, they were excited to be back in college, where time just flew. But Mahi and Kurbi had even bigger reasons to re-enter their red building. The surprise!
She ran up to Kurbi as soon as she saw her sitting on the rock next to the entrance. Kurbi’s face was hardly seen but the multi-coloured muffler that almost covered her face gave her away. She jumped right in front and squealed, ‘God, you have to tell me right away Kibs. You have no idea how hard it has been for me to wait till today!’ Kurbi was as ecstatic as Mahi. She pulled her to their class on the first floor. It was still early and she could use that one full hour to clue Mahi in. As Kurbi shut the windows to prevent the morning breeze from swaying in, Mahi grew more and more agitated. ‘Kibs, just get your stupid self here and begin!’
‘Ok, remember how I told you that my dad had passed away when I was three?’, Kurbi began. ‘Mum always told me that I had never seen him as he had been away on assignment in Nepal and that he had a stroke as soon as he got back to Delhi. But that’s not true! She said that only so I would never try hard to remember him. So that I wouldn’t cling on to old memories’. She took a deep breath and continued. ‘But guess what? As I was dusting dadi’s books last week, I found that ‘Agatha Christie’ book you were looking for.’
‘You did? Oh sweet!’, Mahi exclaimed. ‘I finally can complete the series!’
‘Oh but that’s not the deal Mahi.’ Kurbi tapped on the table. She took out the book from her bag and continued, ‘There’s more. As I was checking if the book was in a readable condition, I found this photograph folded in there.’ She held it for Mahi to see. ‘I don’t understand. It’s just a gate’, Mahi grumbled.
‘It’s a gate in Kashipur Mahi! And that roof peeping out is of a house in Kashipur! That road is leading up to a house in Kashipur. It’s dad’s house in Kashipur!’ Kurbi had goose bumps as she finished. Mahi had seen that look on Kurbi’s face a million times over but this was different. She knew exactly what Kurbi felt and she felt the thrill too. ‘Are you sure? I mean, I know you’re sure but this is awesome.’
‘Yes it is’, Kurbi was happy to see her friend as delighted, ‘but there’s still more. When I asked dadi about the photograph, she couldn’t hide anything anymore and told me about the place. She pointed to the date and said that this photograph was taken the day my dad saw me for the first time. His assignment was finally done with and he took the bus to Kashipur the same morning his flight reached Delhi. Her eyes welled with tears when she added that dad wouldn’t leave my side cursing himself to have kept himself out of my life for three whole years. Mum was also there. We stayed there for a good one week when suddenly dad had a terrible stroke when he was in the garage one day.’
Mahi listened with all her senses frozen. ‘Wow. But certainly your dadi had more pictures’, she said trying to shift Kurbi’s attention from her father’s sudden death.
‘Exactly. I don’t remember any of this as I was too young then. So I asked dadi if she had more pictures. I was quite certain she did as how could one have a picture of only the entrance to the house, right? But I could see that dadi was a little hesitant having already told me so much that my mum hadn’t ever. She anyhow realized that enough had been told to hide anything else. She sat me down and told me that when mum and she shifted to Delhi after dad’s death, they hadn’t got any of dad’s stuff with them. Mum had told her that it would be better to let me forget dad as I was too young but said that they could keep his stuff locked in the Kashipur house. Dad didn’t have much stuff of his own but dadi said there was one thing there that I would love to have.’
‘What is it?’
‘I don’t know. But I plan to go there the next weekend.’ Kurbi looked at Mahi to see what expression that would bring on her face. It was just as she had imagined. Mahi raised both her eyebrows. ‘No you’re not, I mean yes you are, I mean but…’
‘Will you come Mahi?’
And now they stood at the green gate in Kashipur. Both Kurbi and Mahi looked at the picture in the former’s hand and then at the red roof peeping from behind. There were no more bougainvillea plants growing but the road was still uneven. Mahi pulled the car slowly through the path and finally landed at the porch. Greenery was still visible in patches, like in the mango orchard towards one corner and in the moss growing on the boundary wall. Apart from that, the house had the typical look of a place abandoned and not looked after for nearly two decades. Kurbi remembered nothing of the place except for what she saw in the photograph. And now, all she wanted to do was go into dad’s study and see what dadi thought would mean a lot to her.
They circled the house till they found a rusted, old iron ladder going up to a wooden door. This is the exact place dadi had pointed out. Kurbi started climbing first and when she almost reached the top, went through her pocket for the key that would open the door to what she made this trip in the first place. Surprisingly, the attic which served as a study wasn’t eerie as the spider webs were visible only in the corners and the dust didn’t really bother the girls. Kurbi headed straight to the corroded aluminium table leaning against the wall across the door. She was impressed with dadi’s accurate memory. Trusting her memory further still, she opened the two drawers simultaneously. She shut the first one immediately. In the second drawer were stacked about a dozen photographs. They were similar to the one she found in dadi’s books. All of them were of the house with the red roof. Some of rose bushes growing in front of the house. Some of the cats that would come to drink whatever milk dadi would leave in the bowl outside. But there was one which was different.
It had the same big, black dog in it. Behind the dog stood a sky blue Bajaj scooter and leaning against the scooter was a tall man with a lean body. He had bushy eyebrows over small, intense eyes. He smiled at the lens and his grin was that of a happy man. You could see his slight paunch but it didn’t come in the way of his otherwise fit body. He was wearing a dull yellow-checked shirt with slightly creased black pants and a brown leather jacket flung across his shoulders. The man had a personality that shone through the picture too. He carried a little girl in a blue frock in his arms. The girl seemed to be looking at the big, black dog.
Back home, Kurbi pinned the photograph on her board right next to the one of mum and her on her last birthday (her last birthday means Kurbi’s previous birthday? Or the last birthday before she lost her mom?). Her family was finally complete.