As the sun set over the hamlet of Shivpur, Mohin squatted at the edge of a cliff. Even in the fading light he could see his house in the valley below.
I must be at least ten kilometres away from the village, he thought.
This place was special to him. He used to come here to graze his animals when he was a little kid. He couldn’t quite remember when exactly he stopped coming; perhaps it was after the death of his father. He remembered his eight or nine year old self squatting at the spot, looking down the valley, and day dreaming.
He got up, turned around, and looked at the rising hill behind him. The track that he had followed skipped the thick cover of trees, and went downhill. He had often been on that trail; it led to a small abandoned temple of their local deity. But that was not where he was headed today. He was supposed to climb up, into the forest, towards the hilltop.
He took a last look at the way that went back to his village, sighed, and walked into the forest. Through the bushes, he slowly made his way towards his destination.
Mohin looked up, and through the small window between the tree tops, he saw night sky, teeming with stars. He couldn’t see the moon, but his surroundings were lit by its weak light.
His eyes had well adjusted to the darkness, and even though he had a torchlight in his pocket, he did not feel the need to use it. He had never been the scared kind.
He had been walking for a good two hours since the sunset, yet his body craved neither water, nor rest. He only wanted to walk, until he reached his destination. What would he find there? he had no idea; he just knew he had to get there.
Ever since he could remember he had a recurrent dream with a tree, lit by moonlight. He saw it so clearly he could remember every leaf, and the angle of every branch. He felt the heat of the small oil lamp burning under it, and smelled the wet soil grasping its roots.
He staggered through thickets of Beul trees, pushing the low hanging branches aside with his hands.
Just an hour more, at most, he said, aloud.
Before he had left, his mother had asked him where he was headed, and he had lied that he was visiting the nearby town and would be staying the night. When he had seen concern in her eyes, he had told her he would return the following morning.
Finally, he reached the hilltop and saw what he had come seeking. At a small distance a tree stood atop a small mound. He knew this tree.
He walked around it, too stupefied to touch it. It was all real—every detail he had seen in his dream. With shaking hands, he finally found the courage to feel the trunk. His spine tingled, he fell to his knees, and bawled like a child.
The tree cast a mighty shadow in the moonlight, and he felt safe under its blanket. He knew he wasn’t supposed to stay — he had a job to do. Something was directing him, as if whispering instructions in his ears. His eyes filled with tears, he crawled feeling the roots, fighting every urge in his being to stay put. He saw a small oil lamp burning at the end of one of the roots, and felt a mound just at the edge of the tree’s shadow. And then he started digging.
It must have been a few minutes past three that he finally felt what he was looking for — a hard slate surface. He kept removing the dirt on and around it.
The moonlight shone upon the perfectly laid stone. This was the moment when his dream would end, and he would wake up, covered in sweat.
He looked around, first time in hours realising where he was and what he had been up to. His heart was pounding, and he took out his torchlight, but it wouldn’t turn on, even though he was sure the had put in new batteries. He touched the stone, trying to feel if it had engravings, but found none. He reached for its edges and tried to lift it, and was relived to feel it budge. With all his strength he lifted the stone, and flipped it over to a side.
As the dust settled, Mohin saw a man, his face white and his hands folder over his chest. It was a grave, and he knew the man. It was his father.
Three weeks later, the noon sun saw a man in khakhi trousers, and sandals that were ready to fall apart, walk out of a bus. He was wearing oval shades, barely holding on to this nose.
He walked slowly to the nearest tea stall, and asked dryly, “Where’s Mohin Mahajan’s residence?”
The shopkeeper, hell bent upon outdoing this stranger’s rudeness snapped, “There,” without pointing to any direction.
The man walked away, and went into the next shop, and this time, he was kinder and got the directions he wanted.
Thirty minutes later he arrived at his destination. He saw a double storied house, with the top floor being abandoned in the middle of construction. The white paint on the stone walls had worn out, and had been mostly replaced by moss. He could hear cows in the adjoining shed. The wooden door stood open, and through the window next to it, he could see the kitchen. A cot lay not too far away from the cow-shed.
“Is someone there?” he said, as quietly as he could.
A middle aged woman came out.
“Namaste, Mahajanji. My name is Archit. I’m a reporter with a local newspaper in Shimla. May I speak to you about your son’s disappearance?”
The woman nodded and gestured at the cot, and disappeared inside. He sat down, and heard commotion in the kitchen.
He stood up when he saw the woman come out the door with a steel glass filled to its brim with tea.
“You’re the only one who has given any attention to us. The daroga just told us we’re crazy and our Mohin ran way. He would never abandon his poor mother. He has a wife, and a one year old son. Why would he leave us?”
Archit looked at a young girl standing just inside the door. She couldn’t have been a day older than nineteen or twenty, and a toddler was clinging to her waist. He cleared his throat, and said, “I’ve been informed by darogaji about this case, you see he is a friend of mine. He believes there is no case. Mohin had no animosities, nothing of value. He had no reasons to kill himself, either — you guys have no debts. There’s no reason to think anything would have happened to him. He probably ran way to the city to start a new life. It happens all the time.” He heard a whimper from the young girl, and added swiftly, “That is what darogaji thinks. I on the other hand…”
He stopped. He did agree somewhat with this explanation. He sipped the sugarless tea, and said,” I have come here before, mataji, when your husband disappeared.”
The woman looked at him in disbelief.
“You probably don’t recognise me. I never met you back then, you see. You would’ve been a girl of sixteen. I met your mother-in-law, and even her I never saw. She spoke to me through the door. Your husband disappeared too, right?”
The woman nodded, and Archit took out a file folder out of his satchel.
“Back then, I was here on a vacation. Darogaji and I were school mates, you see. And I remember hearing back then that even your father-in-law had disappeared.”
The woman shrugged. “I never met my sasurji. He was gone before I came to this house. My mother-in-law never mentioned him. Her life was dedicated to my husband, like mine has been to Mohin.”
Archit scratched his stubble. He didn’t know what he had expected. He had travelled for days just out of morbid curiosity. He knew this poor woman had nothing more of value to tell him.
“OK, mataji, I’ll be on my way. I’ll let you know if I find anything.” He reached into his wallet, and took out a five rupees note. “For the baby.”
The woman shook her head. “We don’t need money, sahib. Please find my son.”
In the evening, Archit was sitting across the table from Rajan, the local police inspector. The latter was a man in his late forties. He had an unkempt beard, and he was still wearing his uniform. He was holding a glass of cheap Indian whiskey in his hands, and was occasionally sipping it.
“So you found nothing interesting?” Rajan asked.
Archit waited a while before shaking his head.
“Told you, this was waste of time.”
“The old woman just wants her son back,” Archit replied.
Rajan snorted. “He’s gone. Probably got tired of his wife. Imagine being fed up with a piece of ass like that. I wouldn’t mind taking her in, if my wife wouldn’t mind.”
“You don’t think it’s curious that he disappeared, just like his father? No note. No lover. Never had been outside the village his whole life, but he decides to head for a new place?”
Rajan shrugged. “Like father like son.”