It was the kind of evening that didn’t allow you to break a sweat even if you walked all the way from Laitumkhrah to Police Bazaar. Tei had done just that – not to warm up, for it was impossible to do so in this gut wrenching cold, but to save on taxi fare. That twenty bucks would buy him an extra drink. It would keep him warm.
He walked briskly all the way, stopping only to drop a coin for the blind duitara player on the street corner before his destination. The roadside fare smelled good – chillies stuffed with potato and mint, brinjal fried in thick besan batter – but he was in a hurry.
Bisesh, the Nepali chap at the counter, nodded as Tei walked in. Bisesh only spoke to regulars, and behaved as though he owned this place. He didn’t; some Marwari did, but he wasn’t usually at the bar. Shillong was safe for outsiders to own businesses now, but not that safe. It was best to keep behind the scenes like an elusive puppeteer. Even if Embassy had changed hands a thousand times, from one dkhar to another, nobody inside knew; a few didn’t care. It looked the same as it had when it first opened in the mid-60s – two sparse rectangular rooms joined by a short, stubby set of steps, rows of wooden tables, and on the ceiling, long-stemmed fans that blossomed like tragic flowers.
Tei surveyed the scene and for a moment his intention wavered – he’d come to drown his sorrows over a girl but there wasn’t a single table free – until a rumble of slurry voices called him over. The drunks were in an amiable mood, and more than that, could recognise a thirsting, despairing soul. Hey, bro, they beckoned, join us. Ei, shong hangne. And from a dark corner, a single word, Teiskem, someone who knew his name.
From that distance, Tei couldn’t make out the man’s face. It might have been anyone. Even as he approached the table, he couldn’t place him. It was a face that wasn’t uncommon, marked by the singular weariness that settled over everyone’s features in a town landlocked by more than towering mountains. Somewhere, the light shifted, Tei caught the highlight of his nose, the familiar eyes, and a name snapped into place like a cocked gun.
‘Lang?’ he asked to be sure.
The man replied by lifting his glass and knocking back the remaining liquor. His hands shook. They wouldn’t be swift and nimble enough to make kites like he used to; Lang’s kites flew highest in the locality, and his mynja, his string dipped in shards of glass, were the toughest to cut in a mid-air fight.
‘You look the same,’ said Lang, pouring out two generous drinks. Tei couldn’t say that about Lang. A decade ago he was good-looking, in his mid-twenties, but now he was an old man. His eyes settled on nothing in particular and flickered like dark moths around a bare bulb, his skin hung on his face like a wrinkled suit.
‘What brings you here?’ he slurred; the smell of stale alcohol clung to his breath. Tei drew back, a little uncomfortable, a little repulsed. He couldn’t believe this was the same person he’d looked up to as a kid.
‘Still stay in Laban?’ Lang peered at him over the rim of his glass. The golden liquid sparkled in the dim light.
Tei shook his head. ‘We moved…ten years ago. To Nongrim.’
To a better part of town, less rough, less poor.
‘That’s why I don’t see you anymore.’ Lang chuckled in good-natured humour. The drinks were going down particularly well this evening.
‘And you still fly kites?’ Lang scrambled on the table for the match box. Tei pushed it over with a finger.
‘I work.’ In the agriculture department…special rural development officer. To his alarm, Lang tilted his head and howled like a wolf at the moon. A few of the other drunks turned around and told him to shut up. He stopped and said, ‘Good, good. That’s what we fought for. To give our Khasi youth employment and opportunity.’ He hiccupped and gulped his drink to subdue it.
Tei sipped at his glass uncomfortably. He didn’t want Lang to bring up the KSU days. He’d come here to think about Josephine and her laughing eyes and full, pink lips that he would never kiss. He watched his companion struggle to light a match, the cigarette dangling out the corner of his mouth like an embarrassing dribble. The murmur in the room was louder, the air warm and sticky, the number of figures seemed to have grown silently like a damp patch on the wall.
‘So what brings you here?’ asked Lang again. Maybe he remembered Tei hadn’t answered the first time, maybe he forgot he’d already asked. With the alcohol sharp and snug in his throat, Tei replied, There was this girl…’
‘The most beautiful girl in the world,’ finished Lang. ‘And she left?’ Tei felt a spray of spittle and drink on his face. He wiped it and nodded.
‘Was her name Angela?’ Lang had managed to light the cigarette by now and puffed at it.
Tei shook his head. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to tell his story. But what was there to tell? He loved her, she said she loved him. But she didn’t really. She loved the Anglo-Indian boy with the blue-grey eyes, who played the guitar like Slash.
‘My girl’s name was Angela. She was…,’ Lang struggled to find his words.
‘Like an angel,’ finished a small, supremely intoxicated man from the next table. ‘Or a devil in disguise,’ continued his equally inebriated companion.
‘Don’t make fun of her, Rit.’ Lang lurched forward.
‘What happened to her?’ asked Tei and hurriedly poured out more drinks.
‘Kai khlaw,’ Lang muttered as he settled back into his chair.
Those days, Lang was in the KSU, running from the CRPF who were sent by the droves to this hill-station town in the middle of nowhere. He and his ‘brothers’ hid in the jungles (plenty at that time, not like now), ate wild animals and camped wherever they could find a dry patch in the undergrowth. But he went to see her everyday.
Lang shook a finger at nothing in particular. ‘Everyday,’ he repeated.
She lived in Malki and he’d tramp through the adjoining Risa Colony forest just for a glimpse of her long, black hair and her smooth, amber-coloured skin.
Just like my Josephine, thought Tei.
She was beautiful but poor. Her father, a tailor, had died of TB when she was nine, and her mother was wilting to the same disease. Angela had five siblings to look after and bring up on her own.
‘I couldn’t help,’ said Lang, clutching his glass so tightly, Tei thought it might break. ‘Running for my life, living in the wild. I didn’t have any money to call my own. How could I help?’
Angela tried to make ends meet by working as a secretary in a bank and in as many households as she could manage after work hours. But it wasn’t enough. What with her mother’s medicines and her siblings’ school fees and food to feed so many hungry mouths. In desperation, she approached the manager of the bank for a loan.
‘He’ll give it to me,’ she said, her eyes shining like the fireflies in the jungle. ‘He said he’ll give me the money.’
Try as he might, Lang couldn’t believe a dkhar, and that too a lazy, filthy Akhomia, would be willing to help. But she was happy and relieved and he kept his reservations to himself. Weeks passed, and every time he asked about the money, she’d clam up…he knew she was hiding something from him, but what?
‘What? What was she hiding?’ asked Tei.
Lang held up his little finger and shuffled out to the loo.
‘Ei, ei.’ Rit was leaning back on his chair and calling Tei. ‘Ask him if he’s sure she wasn’t a puri.’ Lots of them in Risa forest. ‘They were so stoned most of the time they wouldn’t know a real woman from a ghost,’ added his companion.
Rit laughed and almost choked on his drink.
At that moment, a waiter brought another bottle of whisky to Tei’s table.
‘Bah Lang ordered,’ he said.
‘To Angela,’ chanted the two drunks behind him, lifting up their glasses. ‘Or whatever he’s calling her today,’ added Rit’s friend.
When Lang returned he asked, ‘What happened?’ Tei hesitated. ‘Nothing,’ he said, ‘continue your story.’
One afternoon, Lang and his friend Bantei (killed in a police shootout during that year’s monsoon) went to the Risa stream to bathe and wash clothes. It was a pretty spot where lovers usually lingered, but with all the trouble in town, nobody came there anymore. When they reached, they realised that two people were sitting by the stream just before it tumbled and vanished deep into the forest.
‘Can you imagine my surprise when I saw Angela? Sitting there in her Sunday dress with a white ribbon in her hair. And next to her, a dkhar man with a thick moustache and lecherous eyes. “My mother is unwell,” Angela was trying to say, “we really need the money…please…”
“I will give you the money,” he said, “but what can you give me? The bank calls it collateral…,” and he laughed and put his hand on her knee. Then he tried to force himself on her, his black moustache scratching her velvet skin.’
‘What did you do?’ asked Tei.
‘I…I was paralysed.’ Lang’s head drooped, the grip on his glass loosened. He stubbed out the cigarette. Only when the man took out a pair of scissors to threaten Angela, did something snap inside him and Lang charged at them…but it was too late.
‘Too late for what?’ Tei leaned forward. The whisky buzzed in his head, he clenched his fists.
Lang tipped his glass over. The liquor flowed over the table and splashed to the floor. ‘Like nohkalikai. She became a waterfall.’
When Tei left the table later that evening, Lang lay slumped over to his side. Maybe he was asleep. Tei didn’t try to find out. He staggered out between the empty chairs and tables as though on a boat at sea. When he reached the counter, he fished into his pocket for money and, with some difficulty, counted out the notes. Bisesh, who was tallying figures on a long sheet of paper, glanced up at him; his eyes were sharp and shrewd like a bird.
‘You been sitting with Lang over there?’
Tei nodded. Bisesh crossed his arms and rested them on the counter.
‘What’s he been telling you? About his girl. What was her name? Mabel. Or Angela.’
‘Yes, how did you know…?’
Bisesh laughed. ‘He tells that story to any dumb fuck who’ll listen.’
‘But it’s true…,’ Tei protested.
‘Oh, it’s true alright. Lang was part of KSU and all, but there’s another version of the story. Where the girl fell in love and ran away with an Akhomia bloke. Hurt Lang’s pride it did. And his…,’ Bisesh tapped his temple, and laughed again.
When Tei emerged onto the empty street, he realised it had been raining. In Embassy, things like seasons, Christmas, changes in weather passed unnoticed. It was bitterly cold. Tei stamped his feet and blew into his hands, his breath turned white as though he was exhaling ghosts. As he walked, scanning the road for a taxi he was sure wouldn’t pass, rainwater gushed around his ankles. It was dark and murky, it could be blood for all he knew. Wounds ran deep in this hill-station town in the middle of nowhere.
Janice Pariat is a freelance writer currently based in her hometown Shillong after many years away in Delhi and elsewhere. Her writing is informed by her mixed Portuguese, Khasi and British ancestry, Shillong's troubled past and her childhood in Assam. Her work has featured in Art India, The Caravan, India Today, Outlook Traveller, Timeout Delhi as well as a host of online literary/poetry journals. Janice has been awarded a 2011 Swiss Arts Council Grant to work on a graphic story in Lucerne. She edits Pyrta, an online journal of poetry, prose, photo essays and sketches.