There are many ways to begin this story. Here’s one:
In the summer of 2010, I took a film course, paid for by my then-employer. I’d been producing a lot of video, and hoped to upgrade my sound and camera skills. I didn’t realize that this unknown film school had aspirations of forming Hollywood filmmakers: the outcome of the course was supposed to be a three-minute narrative film, from an original screenplay.
I was non-plussed but willing, especially after the writing teacher’s warm-up exercise to get the juices flowing: “Write about something humiliating that your parents did to you in childhood” …but that’s another story.
He also gave the very common advice that: “For beginning screenwriters, it’s best to write what you know, perhaps some story out of your own life.” For simplicity’s sake, the three-minute scene had to involve only two people, seated in a single location. I knew almost immediately what my scene would be, and over the next few weeks I drafted and refined it. We discussed our ideas in class, but were not required to say whether a scene was entirely (or at all) based on reality.
When it came time to share my scene with the class, the teacher commented, on one detail: “Take that out, it’s too much of a coincidence for your audience to accept.” I gave him a long, raised-eyebrow look. “Uh, unless that’s the way it actually happened.”
Here’s another way I could start this story:
“During Activity Week every autumn, students leave campus in chaperoned groups, in pursuit of activities that interest them: trekking, community service, tourism, sports, music, etc. The tradition was that seniors could set their own programs for Activity Week and go pretty much where they liked, or at least the boys could. For safety reasons, girls could only leave town with chaperoned groups, although they could do independent projects alongside whatever the group was doing. The only way for me to avoid supervision was to stay in Mussoorie and do some sort of project right there. So I elected to stay in a guest house near the school, and learn about Mussoorie and its history.
There wasn’t much printed material available on Mussoorie, so I had to get out and see things and talk to people. My homeroom teacher (Mrs. Kapadia), a long-time staff member well integrated into the local community, arranged for me to meet some of Mussoorie’s leading lights, such as Ruskin Bond, a famous Anglo-Indian writer.
Though I reveled in my week of unsupervised freedom, I did not actually break any school rules. But I had some adventures, met lots of interesting people…”
“Met lots of interesting people” deliberately elided the most significant person I met that week, another local luminary that Mrs. Kapadia arranged for me to meet. “Sudhir Thapliyal – he’s a journalist. You’ll love him!” she said. I can’t remember how the appointment was confirmed (phone calls were difficult in Mussoorie in those days), but I duly showed up at his home, Cliff Hall, a long walk away from campus on the other end of Mussoorie. I think it was a Saturday, the first day of Activity Week – my first day of unsupervised freedom.
I knocked timidly at the outside screen door of the old colonial house. A servant appeared and told me to “wait one minute, sahib just coming”. I stood, fidgeting, on the scrubby, uneven lawn, feeling shy and uncomfortable, wondering who this man was and why I should meet him. Yes, I wanted to be a writer of some sort, but what could I ask him about that? My Mussoorie history project sounded amateurishly arrogant for an outsider to attempt, or just plain dumb.
And who was he, anyway? “Journalist” had conjured in my mind a Clark Kentish image: a serious, nerdy-looking guy (Indian, in this case) in a white, short-sleeved shirt and black-rimmed glasses, hunched over a typewriter.
The door flew open and Sudhir came bounding down the steps to the lawn. Vital (verging on manic), black-haired, bright-eyed, compactly-built (not to say short) and – oh, yes – good looking.
I never quite caught my breath as, for the next several hours, we drank tea at a table on the lawn, looking down on the Doon Valley below, while he regaled me with random stories of his life. How he had wanted to be a pilot, and had joined the National Defence Academy as an Air Force cadet, but then had to get out of it when his cousin died in an air accident and his mother became hysterically afraid that she would lose her only son in similar fashion. There was no way to simply resign without repaying the Indian government for the expensive education he‘d already had. His family couldn’t afford that, so he accomplished a dishonorable discharge by allowing himself to get caught for something he’d already been doing for some time: taking exams on behalf of his classmates (because he could achieve grades that they couldn’t).
Later, he had gone to Vietnam as a newspaper photographer; he told me about the weird journalistic detachment that lets you treat it as a photo op when your colleague is having a gun held to his head by the Viet Cong (they didn’t shoot).
He had spent time in the US, where he’d once found himself laughing at a wealthy white man at a Dallas country club having his boots removed by a black man bent over with the white guy’s boot between his thighs, while the white guy shoved against his rear with the other foot. When the white man took umbrage, Sudhir explained that he recognized the posture: he’d had to do the exact same with his polo teammates; there’s no other way to remove tight riding boots.
He’d traveled From the Ocean to the Sky with Sir Edmund Hilary, as a representative of the Indian press (and a mountaineer in his own right).
And… after years of conflict and on-and-off separations, his wife had left him – for good – just the day before, moving back to Calcutta with their young daughters. That was all he said about that, and I never asked more.
The stories went on – bawdy, self-mocking, and probably more revealing than either of us realized – until I was burned down one side of my face from sitting, transfixed, in the intense Himalayan sun all afternoon. When evening fell, he swept me along to meet Ruskin Bond at his home in Landour, then walked me back to my guest house nearby.
Evenings are chilly at 7,000 feet. On my way to town that morning I had bought for myself, at Prakash’s shop at the top of the hill, a rough shawl of undyed homespun wool – 30 rupees, a big expense on my school allowance.
“Let me show you how to wear that,” Sudhir said. He tucked one end over my right shoulder, draped the length of the shawl around my front and then my back, and caught the other end over my left shoulder – “Like a proper Garhwali. See, now you can lift your arms, but you’re all covered, and it won’t fall off.” I was dizzy from that brief touch. Thirty years later, I still own the shawl.
The next day, he took me on a perilous drive along narrow, unprotected gravel roads to see the site of limestone quarrying that was tearing up the hillsides below Mussoorie. Three of us (Sudhir, myself, and a driver) sat in the front seat of a jeep. I was by the passenger window, where I could see just how close we came to the edge when the jeep had to squeeze aside to let the trucks pass, carrying their loads out of the quarries. I am not good with heights, but I was not about to admit how scared I was. My fingers went white from clenching my hands together, until Sudhir gently took my right hand and held it. “Hey, be kind to yourself,” he said. At some point we stopped, stretched our legs, and I looked around while he talked to people who clearly wondered why I was there (as did I). I picked up a sample of white stone as a souvenir. I still have that somewhere, too.
Sudhir told me later: “You made one hell of an impression on me that day. I could tell that you were terrified, but you never complained.”
I saw Sudhir – and was seen with him – once or twice more. Then Activity Week
was over, I moved back to the girls’ dorm, and my normal, supervised, boarding school life resumed.
What exactly had happened? I’d met a fascinating, charming older man (he was 35) who seemed to enjoy my company. We’d eaten meals and talked for hours. I had a mad crush on him, but I didn’t for a moment imagine that my feelings were reciprocated.
After Activity Week, Sudhir and I exchanged letters across the larger-than-you’d-think expanse of Mussoorie. We met once or twice for lunch in town on Saturdays, the only day students were allowed off campus. Back at school, I tried to fend off my ex-boyfriend, the only boy I’d “gone with” at Woodstock, with whom I’d found myself odorifically incompatible.
In one letter I mentioned this persistent ex, named Krishna, to Sudhir, who responded jokingly that Krishna was supposed to be amorous: he was named for a Hindu deity who had “more lovers than the Tokyo telephone directory.” Odd the details that stick in my mind.
Six weeks or so passed, during which, as it happened, I turned 18. The fall semester was drawing to a close with traditional school activities like the seniors’ One Act Plays. I daringly invited Sudhir to attend the night I wasn’t on stage, and was somewhat surprised that he agreed – he actually wanted to attend a silly school theater production? As my guest? I wasn’t even sure I wanted him to, or wanted anyone at the school to see him there. A few of my closest friends knew about my feelings for him (we joked about it), but I was afraid that his presence would cause talk in the small, gossipy school community. I didn’t realize that the chatter had already begun.
photo: I took this during that Activity Week at the guesthouse, Edgehill, part of the ceiling of the delightfully strange room I was in