“Daju! Will you go to Shipgyer today?” Dawkit asked the driver of the big yellow Savari Max.
“I might, if I get the gas cylinder.”
“Ok, keep one seat for me please,” she shouted at the rear end of the only taxi to her village as it drove past her leaving a cloud of dust behind.
Dawkit covered her face and got back to breaking stones. She broke stones for a living. It wasn’t as bad as it sounded. The Border Road Organization paid the laborers well in these hilly slopes of Sikkim, where good roads were a blessing that evaded the steep terrains most of the time.
“You going home today?” Saili asked her, sifting sand in a huge square sieve beside her.
“Yes. Mother has sent word, she is not well. But I’ll come back in the morning,” Dawkit said. Her mother lived in the village and could send a message only if someone came to Mangan bazaar. Phone was a thing available only at the main post office and people barely trusted it with their important messages.
Dawkit looked anxiously towards Mangan town where she lived with her husband and two kids. Missing work meant no pay and she could not afford that with too many mouths to feed.
Mangan was the biggest town in the north district of Sikkim. Being a district headquarter it housed all the important offices, hospitals, post office and shops. Everything that were of any importance could be found there. The grey dusty road divided the hill in two halves. The forested hillocks looked greener towards their extremities on the either flanks and remained in a grey haze in the middle.
Shipgyer was a tiny village in Dzongu, a land reserved by law for the indigenous community of the state, the Lepchas. A sacred land of the gods, nestled up in the misty mountain range of Khagchendzonga. A kacchha road led up to it but only one taxi plied that road, whenever it fancied. The inhabitants of the village would come down to Mangan bazaar for their supplies but it was an ordeal getting back. The one vehicle that ferried the people had quite an eccentric fellow for a driver; he would come and go as he pleased. The villagers would bribe the man with chang (local brew) or chicken to ferry them and even that would not guarantee that he would bring them back in the evening.
Sometimes he would come back after days at a stretch, but the villagers were used to this eccentricity so whenever they went to the bazaar they would locate his taxi and load their supplies in it; groceries, ration, and liquor. They then walked home with just some bare necessities like clothes or medicines.
The baggages would arrive at the driver’s whim and fancy but arrive it would, and save for a drink or two everything else could be accounted for.
“What if the taxi doesn’t go today?” Saili asked Dawkit.
“What else? I’ll have to walk,” Dawkit knew in her heart the taxi wasn’t coming today for it was already five in the evening.
“Okay Dawkit, be safe” her friend bid her goodbye.
“I will,” Dawkit looked towards Dzongu, the hills looked dark already.
It was almost five thirty now; she hoped to reach by nine at the most. She started walking in the last light of the day.
Evasive red pandas, curious civets, and sly jackals inhabited these jungles but were barely visible to an untrained eye. Dawkit could spot a civet near a cardamom bush hurriedly getting back to its burrow with food and mate. Incoherent singing of birds and insects together filled the air. She heard a scuffle inside the bamboo thicket next to the stream that flowed along the path, probably a jackal catching its last meal of the day. The screaming mynahs joined the commotion with much fervour. Every now and then a soulful cuckoo of the Koel bird could be heard. The cicadas and the crickets, the buzzing insects and the tree pies all rendered the otherwise lonely walk an exercise in ample gaiety and galore.
Night came swiftly as Dawkit walked uphill. The birds and cicadas had all gone silent now save for an irregular hoot of an owl and tapping of the beetle. The ever frolicking waters from the stream provided the much-needed groove in the background raising the tempo whenever it met with a gorge. The forested path cracked beneath her feet, being amply strewn with dried leaves and branches. She had lighted her pultho (lamp) a while back. It had been a little more than an hour since she had started walking but the path did not seem to have reached the half way point as it should have from what she last remembered.
“It must have been more than a year since I last walked this path,” Dawkit thought. She sang a few songs but soon gave up as it made her breathless and hindered her progress.
It was eight pm by her watch, she had been walking for two and a half hour. She stopped to look at the amount of oil left in her lamp.
“Dawkit!” Someone spoke in her ears like a soft whisper. She jumped with fright.
“Hey! Khamrimoo! You scared me! I did not hear you coming behind me.” It was Pemba, a man from her village, practically her neighbour. She felt relieved to have met someone on this lonely uphill path.
“I had heard you were not well?” Dawkit enquired of her old neighbour.
“Yes I had gone to the hospital, I am not too well.” He replied. He did not look well even by the light of the torch. His eyes looked sunken and black, they had a hollow look about them, he had lost considerable weight. There was a waft of disagreeable smell of pus and chlorine that reminded her of hospital, maybe he had some festering wound.
“I am glad to have met you anyway, how are you feeling now? You don’t look very good, what exactly happened?” Dawkit felt a rush of new energy for having met someone to talk to on this forest path. They talked as they walked with Dawkit leading the way.
“I had fever for two months.” Pemba replied.
“How are your wife and children, it seems such a long time that I met anyone from the village?”
“They are good, I think Pem Diki will fail this year, she is not too good in studies.”
“Oh! I thought Pem Diki had left school after she failed the class.” Dawkit seemed surprised.
“No, she goes to school.” Pemba informed her.
“I think I met your family last winter wasn’t it when we had come to celebrate Namsoong?“
“Yes.” Pemba ascertained that fact.
“How is my mother? Have you met her lately?” Dawkit asked.
“No, I was sick,” answered Pemba.
“That is funny”, thought Dawkit, he lived almost next door to Dawkit’s mother’s house.
They had reached the point from where the path descend down the valley into the village.
“Where are you coming from at this hour?” Dawkit was worried for his health for the foul festering smell had become overpowering now.
“I don’t like it here, It is stifling, don’t know why they buried me here.” Pemba answered from behind her in a strained rasping whisper.