It started out as a wrong turn.
The road on the right went to Jhallong; Uncle insisted that we go left. As Father swerved Uncle’s car towards left, we were thrown into a stone path that led to a dead-end.
I was busy looking at the modest one-storey houses, where the structure of the bricks showed through the paint – yellow, pink, blue, nothing and never drab – and pots of red flowers ran around the modest body like a belt.
Women with Pekinese eyes and worn-out faces, sitting on their tiny porches, a heavy idleness grasping their hour of midday, gazed back at me.
It was a village – but, not quite.
Uncle leaned his head out and called out to a young woman passing by. Their dialect is not very different from Bengali. The woman physically appeared to be in her late twenties, but when she smiled widely on being spoken to, her wide, blue-grey eyes unveiled proof of inevitable innocence.
We were slightly in the wrong direction. From what she said, Kumai lay beyond the extremely steep stony path parallel to the street we were in, the one that ran over the river.
Hurtling down the slope, we stopped the car over the river. The breadth of this river contested that of Murti, but it triumphed in the field of solitude, wildness and secrecy.
The river sprinted over a rocky bed in its monsoon surge. A local woman washed clothes on its shore. Miles to its right, an expanse of greenery sauntered into the foot of foggy mountains.
What is so special about small villages, is that in all its intimacy, you come across people from all walks of life in a very short period of time.
We had stopped to photograph the river for hardly ten minutes, when we saw two young women in heavy make-up, styled hair and commendably fashionable clothes giggling on the bridge, a group of young girl students in blue school skirts talking loudly underneath colourful umbrellas, a band of bikers ogling at Mother and me and a shaggy hitch-hiker who wanted to know if we were headed towards Samsing.
We had a long way to go. I gazed at a chubby woman with a scarf on her head and hanging red overalls, who crept onward in our direction, as we sped away.
What we saw next was something out of an idyllic poem.
It all just happened to us. We were driving past poverty-stricken houses, amused villagers lazing in their little kitchen gardens and chalk signs of “We want Gorkha” on unassuming pieces of boulders, when it hit us.
Rolling pastures and grazing goats, an infinity of tea gardens and little matchbox trucks, blackish violet rain clouds and the kind of rustic everything we’ve read about in our childhood British novels.
It was overwhelming, to say the least. After satisfying my camera, I sprawled out on the deliciously grassy edge of a gigantic stretch of farmland, among yelping goats and strong, rain-kissed winds, and watched the land slope downward into the tea gardens, and beyond, into more farmland.
The clouds were intensifying up North, as we grudgingly got back into our car, every inch of fabric of our clothes seized with prickly chor kanta seeds.
I had travelled North Bengal half a dozen times. I had seen monsoon explode in Lataguri’s jungles. Yet, it was different here. It had to do with the fact that the village of Kumai is as good as a secret, a little settlement no one looks back upon while speeding their way through Gorumara and Chapramari into Jhallong.
We passed bamboo establishments in preparation for a haat, young children squealing in self-made swings, and a spattering of the sparse populace lazing by an unnamed river.
We stopped at a road, crisscrossing through thick tea gardens.
By then, the rain clouds had deepened into black, and slowly prepared to mingle with the charcoal mountains. The mountain range could be seen through varying curtains of fog – the farthest ones only barely clear and the nearer ones like smoke from its juxtaposed charcoal counterpart.
We roamed about in the stony riverbed, watching the black clouds finally meld with the black mountains, and assume an opaque canvas of dark grey.
The ride back was quick, and fuelled by bursts of thunder. When our car made an about turn, starting its journey homeward, I saw the plump old woman in red overalls, with a scarf on her head, slinking her way past the river.