He almost missed the hut. Navigating the capricious turns of hill roads, it is easy to miss those dust tracks that skulk away from the traffic. The path leading to the hut disappeared into long grasses and wild bushes almost as soon as it appeared. But still, Ashok noticed the narrow trail.
Among the many virtues of good photography, keen observation is foremost. And Ashok was a very good photographer. It was not for nothing that he was commissioned for a photographic tour of Darjeeling by an international nature magazine. Anyone could click pictures of popular sites, but Ashok’s specialty lay in finding the treasures hidden among the untrodden ways.
The dust track took him down a winding slope. The path was lined on both sides by unruly bushes, and Ashok wondered where it would lead him. The path turned abruptly and as soon as Ashok turned the corner, he was in a clearing. A quaint wooden hut welcomed him. Its doors were wide open, and he could hear the clash and bang of utensils inside.
Ashok felt a sense of comfort overcome him. He drank in the vast panorama of Darjeeling hillside as a breath-taking backdrop to the little hut. Birds twittered in ceaseless conversation, interrupted only occasionally by the swoosh of a passing car. Competing with the chirping of the birds was a childish, sing-song chatter emanating from the hut. As Ashok trained his camera at the scenery, he wished he could also capture the sweet, youthful sounds that complemented the serenity of the landscape by hinting at the vitality of its inhabitants.
Reviewing his click, Ashok realized that his wish had been granted, though partly. A tiny head was peeking from the door of the hut. He looked up, but there was no one at the door. He confirmed with the picture again: the head was very much there. Were his eyes fooling him? Lifting his head toward the hut, Ashok glimpsed a child disappear behind the door. Ashok smiled; it had been a while since anyone had played peek-a-boo with him.
“Hello! Koi hai? Anyone there?” Ashok teased the child.
The child stared at Ashok inquisitively, before running into the house. She returned with her father. Ashok was at a loss with the astonished man. They could only exchange smiles. Neither understood the other’s language, yet the man gestured to him to join them for a meal. Ashok had all intentions to decline; he had not meant to intrude on someone’s lunch. However, when the child tugged at his little finger, Ashok was unable to refuse.
He enjoyed their simple hospitality in the amusing company of the child, who was excited to have a guest at her place. Initially, she only surveyed Ashok with curiosity. Then, watching her parents share their smiles and meal with him, the child forgot her inhibitions, and overwhelmed Ashok with her enthusiasm.
Even before either had finished their meal, she swamped him with her homely toys. She also spread drawings, scribbles, and primers, showcasing her puerile amusements. The embarrassed parents could do little to separate their daughter from their guest, partly because Ashok was taking cheerful interest in the child’s activities. If they could have understood him, Ashok would have told the parents that their daughter reminded him of his own. Now in university, Ashok’s daughter had little time to spare for her travelling father, just as he had continually been on the move with photography assignments when she was a child. The realization that his daughter was no longer a kid had dawned on him too late.
Time flew while Ashok was engrossed in the child’s play, and it was late afternoon when Ashok left. The parents were amazed with Ashok’s unselfish devotion to their child’s games. Little did they realize that these harmless games would draw Ashok to their hut again.
The next day, Ashok came in the evening, bearing gifts for their home. He intended to repay their generous hospitality, and also to relive the jollities of childhood with their affectionate daughter. In her play world of make-believe, the child transcended the barrier of language, and invited Ashok’s attentive, childlike absorption.
Ashok’s trips to the huts continued throughout his two-week stay in Darjeeling. The parents soon overcame their surprise at his repeated visits, and looked forward to his lively company. They appreciated how much their child enjoyed playing with Ashok. Their daily meetings had become a routine, when Ashok’s work in Darjeeling came to an end. Ashok had dreaded having to say good-bye to the child. Every day, he left her with the knowledge that he would be returning the next day. How would he make her realize that there was to be a final good-bye?
On his last day, Ashok visited the hut earlier than usual. His sombre demeanour conveyed much to the parents. However, the child kept up her usual play.
“Little friend,” Ashok tried to draw the child’s attention. Ashok had heard the child’s parents refer to her as Ruby, but Ashok only called her “little friend.”
The child looked up for an instant before returning to her dolls and cars. Taking her notebook, he drew a bus, a car and an airplane in it.
“Aye, little friend, look at this.”
The girl glanced distractedly at the paper, busy in her game. Pushing a doll toward Ashok, she asked him to hold it while she combed its hair with a baby’s clumsiness.
Ashok was impressed by the impossibility of his task. As he left the hut that day, the child followed him to the door. She did not wave at him with excitement as she did every day, but regarded his retreating figure with confusion and a hint of wistfulness.
“Will you remember me, little friend?” Ashok called out to her as he reached the final turn in the bushes, after which the hut would be lost to view.
Reverting to their first meeting, the child quickly hid behind her door, before jumping out with dramatic surprise. Ashok laughed, cherishing his final game of peek-a-boo with his little friend. As he turned into the bushes, he felt guilty for leaving their game of hide-and-seek abruptly. He imagined the puzzlement and momentary dejection of his little friend, when she would find that Ashok had disappeared for good. Trudging toward the main road, Ashok scrolled through the photographs on his camera, pausing at the snapshots of his little friend:
“At least here, you will be my little friend forever.”