Sitting at one of the innermost, corner-most tables of the restaurant, I stare at the view. Fog climbing up from the valley. The Pine trees are dense with white. The mountain range in the distance is blue and purple with the haze of the setting Sun. There’s a break in the thick, white and grey cloud cover. A shock of bright blue here and there. It is cold enough to warrant a light jacket but not cold enough for a wool shawl or inner thermal wear.
As an outsider from the warmer plains, I want to be safe from falling ill in the colder mountains. I am wearing sneaker and socks. My toes are freezing. As is the tip of my nose. In between staring at the view, I am also attempting to write. I am writing about my second day vacationing in the hills. More documentation than creative storytelling. The fingers of my writing hand are also freezing. I try to warm them up by stuffing them under my thighs, between the thighs and the cushioned chair. That’s the break I take when I get to stare at the view.
I am wearing a baseball cap to hide my half-shaved head. Partly to protect myself from the cold and partly to prevent shocking the locals. Despite the availability of the Internet and smartphone ownership, they seem to like their women in sarees, with long-hair parted down the middle. The parting literally stuffed with bright orange or pink “sindoor”. I want to be left alone. Eye-contact is only for the server who knows it is soon going to be time for my glass of wine. It is quiet except for the server pottering about in the makeshift kitchen and the occasional vehicle rumbling on the road below, past the restaurant.
From the moderately loud voices, I can make out that it’s three men. One is clearly in-charge. The glass windows of the restaurant had rattled a few seconds earlier. I had assumed new patrons were coming in. I was prepared to pull my cap closer to my eyes, look doggedly at the paper I was scratching with ink. Avoiding eye-contact at all costs. If they were outsiders like me, they were likely to leave me alone. Locals were more curious and uninhibited.
I was distracted by this one voice. The one in-charge. Not loud but crisp. He was giving orders to the other two. One of the order-takers was scribbling on a notepad furiously, trying to keep up. Since I was so averse to eye-contact, I tried to get a look at them using the reflective glass windows of the restaurant. Hill station buildings tend to have floor to ceiling glass doors and windows – if you’re lucky. I was lucky.
All three of them were in camouflage print Army uniforms. The officer distracting me was also wearing a baseball cap – camouflage print of course. In his reflection, I couldn’t make out his face or eyes but I was attracted and wanted to know more. I wanted to see more. But, if I made eye-contact, he would most likely come up to me, say Good Evening and ruin the mystery far too quickly. I needed to sustain the mystery long enough to last the vacation. At the very least.
The three of them walked up to the window right in front of me, which is when I realized they hadn’t been aware of my presence in the restaurant till now. Their side profiles were in my field of vision. I stared at the view from my window – this way, my eyes were level with their side profiles and I could steal a quick glance without moving my head and attracting their attention. When they were in the process of turning around, presenting their other side profile for viewing, I quickly stole a glance.
His nose looked like it might have been broken a few years ago. Maybe he was a boxer. He wasn’t tall. About an inch taller than I am. Ramrod straight spine, great posture, looked super fit. He was at least a Major if not a Lt. Col. ( I’ve never managed to learn what each rank looks like on an officer’s uniform despite being the daughter of a now retired Brigadier. ) Must be married. Definitely local in that he was posted at this army station in the hills.
I was thankful for the momentary change in the view. I knew I probably wouldn’t see him again but it is a small station. One never knows. He had definitely noticed me but not as much as I would have liked. Maybe I should lose the baseball hat next time he’s in the vicinity? Since there was no way to predict where / when I would see him next, I was considering enduring the cold 24×7 and getting rid of the hat in my suitcase for the rest of the vacation. I had to be prepared.
…to be continued.
(All the characters and incidents in this story are imaginary, resemblance to any person dead or alive is purely coincidental. Or maybe not. Who knows! The story is set in Ranikhet, Uttarakhand, which I visited for a vacation recently. Photos from the actual trip can be seen under the #NAINAxRanikhet hashtag. )