Jayanti. A small village on the banks of a river of the same name. In the Dooars region of Bengal – at the foothills of the eastern Himalayas. River Jayanti completely submerges the lower parts of the village almost every year during the monsoons. Difficult to even imagine, looking at the expansive bed of stones and sand at any other time of the year, since there’s just a narrow stream flowing for most of its course along the village.
At the point where river Jayanti looks quite vicious even during the pre-monsoon month of March, there’s a narrow bamboo bridge – always rocking – one has to cross for a short hike up to the Mahakal cave atop that hill. Mahakal – Time, with a capital ‘T’, signifying a phenomenon beyond human control. A name of Lord Shiva, the God of Destruction, as per Hindu mythology. I’d go, of course. Not for the religious bit of it – but because it’s a short trek along a fairly difficult but breathtakingly beautiful path on a hill bordering Bhutan. I managed to stimulate the rest of the team to join me as well.
As we started walking across the dry, stony course of river Jayanti, I noticed a young girl – I’d guesstimate her age to be around 16/17 – sitting alone on a biggish stone. She caught my eye because she was sitting, while everyone else was on the move – either moving towards the Mahakal cave or returning from there. There was nothing like a teashop or anything there for anyone to stop, really, unless one was so out of breath that halting to rest a while was imperative. Unlikely for a girl her age on a downhill trek – I thought. And too soon after starting if she was to yet to go uphill. Odd, indeed!
As we reached the rocking bamboo bridge, I looked back once to see if the girl was still sitting on that stone back there – for she would disappear from view once I reached the other side of the river. To my surprise, I found her just a few steps behind us. She must have started walking almost immediately after we crossed her. A girl of her age, clearly not a local – I could make out from her looks – trekking alone to the Mahakal cave just didn’t seem right. Something kept bothering me, but there was nothing much I could do about it, for uninvited prying is not my cup of tea.
She crossed me when I stopped to regain my breath about halfway up the hill, but stopped after a few paces – never looking at me directly. She’s trying to be around me for some reason, I had a strong hunch. Years of working with adolescents living in difficult situations have given me many insights and I haven’t found reasons yet to dismiss those instincts. Should I go and talk to her, or just continue on my way? I was in a fair bit of dilemma, but decided against butting in. As I continued trudging up, I did notice from the corner of my eye that she was following a few steps behind.
‘Is there something you want to tell me?’ I simply couldn’t help asking her when she stopped again as I halted for a second time to drink some water. ‘Actually aunty, I’m a little afraid because I’ve come ahead, but my family members are somewhere behind. They’re taking a very long time to catch up, but I’m afraid to wait alone. That’s why I’m trying to walk with you. I saw you all when you were having tea before beginning the hike. All women, and you’re about my mother’s age . . . I was just waiting for you all to start walking so that I could go with you.’ She was panting by the time she finished, having rushed out these words without a pause.
‘We might have gone a different way, right? How did you know we’d walk towards the Mahakal cave? We could have gotten into a car and gone inside the Tiger Reserve, we could go towards Pokhri.’
‘I didn’t think of these possibilities. I just assumed that you’ll go the Mahakal way.’
‘Fair enough, but why didn’t you tell us when we first crossed you? In fact, you never spoke to any of us on your own at all.’ I was quizzing her, for I was certain that she wasn’t telling me the truth. There wasn’t that much distance between where we’d first passed her and the crossing where everyone alights from a bus or an auto or a jeep to start walking to any one of the various short hikes in the area. She simply couldn’t have left her family that far behind.
‘I was afraid. Thought I could just follow and you wouldn’t notice.’
As I took the last gasping step to reach the level where the Mahakal cave is located, I kind of sensed the girl stiffening behind me. I steadied myself and looked back. She stood frozen on that apology of a narrow mountain path. I followed her horrified gaze to look at a strongly built tall man, thirtyish, sitting on a bench just outside the cave.
I held her upper arm before asking if everything was okay. I was afraid that she might be startled out of her stupor by my question, lose her balance and fall off the steep cliff. She shifted her gaze from the man to me, her eyes reflecting absolute panic. ‘That man. He’ll kill me. Please save me, aunty.’ She gasped through suppressed sobs that made her entire body shiver.
I helped her up to the tabletop of the hill and steadied her, carefully standing at an angle that would block that man’s vision of her. ‘You’ll have to tell me the whole story for me to help you. The truth. No more lies please. Let’s go towards the back of the cave and talk.’ I wasn’t sure what I could do at a place where I was a tourist myself, but I had to try. Couldn’t just shrug my shoulders and walk off.
What she told me wasn’t very different from what I’d already guessed. She had eloped with him, but after what she’d had to go through on the first and only night she had spent with him – she had managed to run away again this morning, hoping to somehow escape from his clutches. She had boarded the first bus available and landed up at the Jayanti bus stop. Apparently, she was gathering the courage to tell me the truth and ask for help – but the last thing she expected was to find the man at the Mahakal cave ahead of her.
I didn’t have any ready words of reassurance to offer, but my brain was racing to figure out the best solution. ‘Aunty, he’s here!’ Her shriek broke through my chain of thought. As I turned back to look at the man, I sensed rather than saw the girl jumping up to her feet and take a plunge – towards the wooded valley 3300 feet below.
Every single person was there – arrived, arriving or ready to start on the downward trek. There was a deafening din. One of the priests of the Shiva temple lodged inside the Mahakal cave was trying to quieten people down even as he instructed someone to call the police. One of my team mates was asking me what the matter was. I was sensing all of this as if in a dream as time stood still for me – my entire being paralysed from this failure to help a young life emerge victorious from her moment of crisis.