“No. Never. Don’t say such a thing. My God! How can you…?” Tara kept repeating, holding her head. Amar had just entered the living room. He was surprised by the tension on her and Leela’s faces.
“What’s up?” he asked.
“Oh! You. It’s all your fault. We have lost everything…”
“Ask her!” She screamed, pointing a shaking finger at Leela. “Ask your shameless daughter.”
Leela for the first time looked up at them. She wasn’t very tall, nor could she be called very pretty. But she definitely had a charm. She parted her dry lips but Tara burst out, “what will she say? I am telling you-”
“Well…” Leela broke in, “no one needs to say anything for me. Yes. I said I want to…”
“Be a mountaineer?” Amar asked. For a long moment, both women looked at him. “Leela, just listen to your Mom.”
“You want me to?”
“Yes.” He said, “she is only passed high-school. But she has managed this house for twenty-three years. She got married at sixteen and has brought you up. Look at her sacrifice. And look at yourself. Twenty-two years old. Post-graduate! But can you handle a house like the one she handled at your age?”
“I can’t and even if I could…”
“Stop it.” Tara screamed. “Amar, see what you made her? Was it proper of you to take her to hill-climbing and educate her to that level? Yes, high-school is okay. But intermediate, graduation and on top of it post-graduation!” She stopped to breathe deeply, “Yes, go on and tell her the boy’s family is coming to see her day after tomorrow and she is going to be engaged next month. Tell her to take off these shorts and wear something proper for that day.”
“No!” Leela suddenly backed off a step, her eyes widening with shock. “No! What’s this? And besides who is he? I don’t even know.”
“But that’s not the point. I’m just asking you to dress properly…”Interjected Tara.
“I have already said I’m not getting married now.”
Tara was ready to rant again but this time Amar spoke, more quietly but clearly, “Look… I have seen him. We both have seen him. He’s tall, good-looking and a bank manager. His parents are rich and I tell you, you cannot wish anything more. And he isn’t asking for much dowry as well.”
“But I said…”
“It doesn’t matter!” He said sitting down on the sofa, “We know what’s best for you.” For a moment there was complete silence. The clock struck eleven.
“Tall… Good-looking!” Leela muttered to herself but the words didn’t reach her. Yes, she wanted to be happy. She looked down for a moment… But could any tall, rich man, even good-looking, make her happy? And what kind of happiness? Happiness bought with money? Something began to hurt her.
“No.” She suddenly glanced up and blurted out excitedly, “who says I will be happy and why?”
Her parents seemed a bit nonplussed.
Leela laughed a little and continued, “Yes, he may be handsome, well-off and even love me some day. But can he buy me the thrill of being at the peak of a mountain? I am young and brave and can achieve anything I want. What does that boy think he is buying with his money?” She stopped to gasp, “my dreams, my soul. My body. And who is selling these? You?”
Amar suddenly got up, went to the girl and said disgustedly, “What the hell are you talking of?” Then he slapped her hard across her cheek and continued, “Go to your bed and don’t talk to us like that again.”
Leela burst into tears when she reached her bedroom. She fell on the sheets and started crying. Every part of her body ached as if trying to tear apart. She was broken, helpless and shaken. She remembered her father holding her hand while hill-climbing when she was just a small girl. Was he the same man who had slapped her just now? Should she poison herself? But then she shut her eyes, imagining herself on a hill, surrounded by mist as far as the eye goes.
She raised her tear-streaked face and looked around. On the bedside table, three of her trophies stood, shining in the moonlight coming through the open curtains. Leela kept staring at them for some time, then went to the window and laughed aloud.
Next morning her parents came to find two suitcases open on the bed with clothes and other things sprawled around. Tara picked up a tiny note lying on the table – “I was born free and will live free. Maybe some peaks are too high to take two of you along.”