“But memory is an autumn leaf that murmurs a while in the wind and then is heard no more.” – Kahlil Gibran
14 July 2019, Meghalaya
The three Menhirs – grey, vertical monoliths – stood tall like sentinels, preserving the sanctity and secrets of the forest for centuries — a mute witness to the ebb and flow of life in these parts.
Luna dutifully bowed before them, more out of habit than for paying obeisance or getting a wish fulfilled. At 45, Luna had perfected the art of detachment — there was no canker in her heart any more, seeking an immediate panacea. Not after all that she had lived through.
Miles and miles of unending greenery greeted Luna at the entrance of the hallowed Mawphlang forest. Or, the Sacred Woods, as it was locally called. A hundred images and voices swirled inside her brain, momentarily throwing her off gear.
Instinctively, she closed her eyes and took a deep breath. This was no time to delve into the past, she chided herself. Dressed in a yellow handloom kurta-salwar ensemble, her long silken hair gathered in a messy bun, the petite 45-year-old Luna presented a pleasing personality.
She did not have particularly striking looks but emanated an easy affability and brightness that come naturally with age, experience and wholesome living. Regaining her calm, she started walking deeper into the woods.
Meghalaya in monsoon — the perfect time to explore and embrace the beauty of the Sacred Woods. Luna smiled to herself as she recalled this much-loved refrain from her days of childhood and youth. She walked past the moss-slickened stones, boulders flecked with the chartreuse lichen, stopping to admire the white coral mushrooms that were so famous here.
A cluster of Lily Cobra caught her attention — these poisonous shrubs had so many scary tales associated with them. The rains had stopped just an hour earlier. She walked carefully over the slippery forest floor, the groves forming a verdant canopy overhead.
The tree leaves and the tendrils of creepers had droplets of water suspended from them — glistening, clinging, unwilling to let go, a lot like memories. Memories which refused to leave their home, her heart.
It was a rainy mid-week afternoon, hence the forest was largely empty. Only a few foreign tourists were lounging around, lugging heavy photographic equipment, soaking in the ambience.
All the better, Luna mused. It was after a lot of deliberation and soul-searching that she had convinced herself to return to this place after twenty-four long years. And now that she was here, she did not want any distraction or clamour.
Luna was surprised at the sharpness of her own memory – every turning, every clearing, every nook and cranny was still clearly etched in her mind, alarming in its vividness and precision. After crossing the clumps of dense undergrowth, she finally reached a narrow stream that gurgled playfully over a bed of shingles, flowed some distance, and then forked into a Y.
She started stepping down the uneven, slimy path which led to the assemblage of large boulders, flanking the stream. Their stream.
Luna felt a surge of adrenaline as she slightly hitched up her salwar to avoid getting it wet. Her heartbeat quickened, as did her footsteps. She nimbly tip-toed ahead, her verve and impatience belying her age.
She suddenly felt like a child trying to net an elusive butterfly, a butterfly which carried blissful dreams on its dappled wings. And it was at that moment that she saw him.
A tall, lean male figure dressed in plain brown trousers and an oversized beige shirt, stood on the periphery of the rivulet, about a hundred metres ahead of her, looking intently at the water. She could see only his side profile.
She kept telling herself it wasn’t him. It couldn’t be! Even as every fibre of her being screamed his name. “Meban Tsangpa!”
The erudite, young monk of the Nongmel Monastery — was there anyone in her former village who wasn’t familiar with Meban? The man who knew how to operate the computer. The only one who volunteered to share fascinating stories and interesting scientific facts with the village children.
The monk radiated a brilliance even in his simple maroon robe, who spoke very little with outsiders but whose eyes had a strange sparkle which communicated a wealth of emotions. And the only one who could manage to make Luna go wobbly in her knees.
But that was twenty-four years ago, Luna realised with a start. And here he was today, without his maroon garb or his clean-shaven look. He had a week-old stubble, a curly mop of salt-and-pepper, and, from what Luna could make out from a distance, he looked like any other middle-aged Khasi gentleman. As if on cue, Meban turned around and saw her.
Luna stood still, frozen in a moment of inert reality. She struggled hard to fight back an overwhelming sense of déjà vu as Tsangpa walked towards her with faltering steps. His face, more like a canvas of myriad hues, mirrored a thousand crisscrossing emotions.
“L-Luna?! Is it really you?” Meban whispered, almost dreading to hear his own voice. “You’re back here, after all these years?”
For a few moments, the universe came to a standstill for both of them. The breeze stopped blowing, the burbling rivulet halted mid-course, the natural orchestra of the forest fell silent. In a trice, they both went twenty-four years back in time, when the world was full of love, longing, and hope.
After what seemed like a herculean effort, Luna managed to find her voice. “Yes, Tsangpa, it’s me, Luna. I was in the vicinity for some work. Had some extra time, so I just decided to…” Her voice trailed off, unable to complete the sentence. Her own words rang so hollow in her ears, so jarring in their artifice, that she stopped.
Hadn’t I come here with a clear purpose? Hadn’t I specially chosen this date for my visit to Mawphlang? Didn’t I spend sleepless nights debating on this visit? I wonder if Meban will buy my excuse, considering he’s also here today?
“So how have you been, Luna?” Meban’s voice nudged her back from her reverie. “You don’t seem to have changed much. Where do you live? And are you still working with an NGO?”
Same old Meban Tsangpa and his endearing ways. His words are still so full of genuine concern, earnestness, and goodwill. Luna smiled involuntarily.
“Long time, Meban! Yes, I’m good. I live in Shillong. I have my own boutique there – we source traditional fabric directly from the small-scale weavers and craft them into garments and accessories, adding a contemporary look. We call it Weave ’n Warp. I love the work I’m doing, more so because it’s a joint venture with my daughter…”
Luna stopped, as if struck by lightning. She turned away, her mind in complete disarray. She wanted to run away from the forest and the demons of her past.
“Oh, that’s wonderful news, Luna! So, now you’re a thriving entrepreneur running a successful business. I’m so happy for you, Luna. You always had that spark in you. I’m glad you were able to rekindle it, even after marriage and kids!” Tsangpa’s voice was doused in admiration, respect, and… Did she sense a hint of longing?
“Aah, well, it’s nothing so spectacular, really.” Luna fidgeted with her wrist watch as she spoke, “I’m just trying to make a difference in the lives of the local artisans, that’s all. But you tell me, Meban, what has kept you busy all these years? From what I see, you’re no longer in the religious coven?” Luna fleetingly glanced at his casual attire.
“Yes, you’re right, Luna. I live in Nongpoh town. Far removed from everyone and everything. I teach there in the government secondary school and stay in a men’s hostel. I left the monastery long back, just a year after we… After you left, Luna. Let’s just say, I lost both faith and focus. Thankfully, I was still a trainee back then.”
Tsangpa tried hard to prevent his voice from quivering as he uttered the next sentence. “I come here every year on this date.”
Luna abruptly turned to go. She wasn’t sure how long she could sustain her composure. Before the past overpowered her, she knew she needed to leave. Yet again.
“Luna, wait! Please don’t leave yet. We just met. There’s so much to say, so many events to share, news to exchange.” Meban was almost pleading now. “Please come back here tomorrow, at the same time. There’s a café outside the forest which usually remains empty at this time. Besides, they serve the best black Urlong Tea in the entire Khasi district.”
Meban’s eyes lit up as he said this, his lips curling into a boyish smile.
Something stirred within Luna.
No one knows me in these parts. Not anymore. Besides, I’m genuinely free tomorrow. So why not come down and listen to his side of the story? After all, I have nothing to gain or lose.
“All right, Meban. I’ll come tomorrow. And we shall talk. But for now, I must leave.”
Returning to the hotel, Luna took a leisurely shower and settled for an early, light dinner. Later, she opened her mailbox to check if there was any important message from her daughter or any clients. Finding none, she retired for the night. It had been a long, eventful day and she hoped to get a sound sleep. She had to meet an important online client the next morning at eight.
Sleep, however, evaded Luna. The Sacred Forest, its ambience, its memories and finally, meeting Tsangpa – together, they took her back in time, down a long , dark tunnel of emotions.
Emotions, which she thought she had carefully sealed with a vow of secrecy and buried in the innermost recesses of her mind, suddenly surfaced with a force that surprised her.
The precious moments she had spent with Meban, almost a lifetime ago, had left a breadcrumb trail in her lovelorn heart. And today, sitting in the solitude of her modest hotel room, Luna was tempted to walk down that path once more.
To be continued…
Come back later this week for the beautiful conclusion of this evocative tale.
In the meantime, check out these other fantastic stories from the MockingOwl Roost contributors and staff.
- The Boy at the Back of the Room
- Of Bats and Ravens at the Black Orb
- Joy, a Diwali Tale
- Epiphany (in Peaches)
- The Book
- A Moment of Discovery
- Before They’re Gone
- The Outcasts
Urmi Chakravorty is a former educator and freelance writer whose articles, short stories and poems have found space in The Hindu, The Times of India, multiple social and literary platforms, and over twenty national and international anthologies. Reviewing and editing are areas she dabbles in. Urmi has won national awards for her poetry and writing on LGBTQIA issues. She believes in the therapeutic power of words. More often than not, her pieces enclose a slice of her soul. Her other interests include music, and playing godmother to community/street dogs.