By: Debashis Deb
She asked ‘Did you ever get lost?’ He was almost breathless after walking uphill along the winding cobbled path which cut through the exuberant tall green grass and the purple rhododendrons. The clear blue sky appeared silent and indifferent as though it was looking down with least curiosity, if any. The chilly wind was fragrant and intoxicating. At a distance, the iced peaks of the Himalayas were visible through a veil of mist, quiet and as if in a trance. He paused to catch his breath back and smiled. Nilanjan and Sukanya had started the trek today with a group of avid adventurists. The trek began from Leh and it would take four days to come back to Leh via Yangthang, Khaltse and Lamayuru, the tiny villages in the valleys of Ladakh, along the bank of the Indus.
Sukanya brought out a bottle of water from her backpack, opened it and took a mouthful before handing over to Nilanjan. He was gasping for breath. He took the bottle and slumped on a low rock. A heavy smoker as he was since last twenty five years, the sharp inclination was a tough test for his stiffened lungs. He sat for few seconds to regain his breathing rhythm back and then drank some water. Water overflowed and trickled down his cheek and wet the neck of his pullover. He was bad at it; drinking water without a glass was always awkward for him. He often got choked.
‘Yes, I got lost quite a number of times.’ Nilanjan said.
‘Where did you get lost?’
‘It was in a rather mela ( the Hindu festival of pulling the chariot, the moving abode of Lord Jagannath, the God without limbs, and the fair which was organized on that occasion).
‘Sounds interesting.’ She was amused.
‘I went to the fair with my friends. Have you seen one? You have to see one to believe! Thousands of devotees jostle to touch the chariot and the rope by which it is pulled. People holler, the dholaks (Indian drum) are played vigorously, spirited priests chime enthusiastically adding to the deafening cacophony. The frenzied devotees cavort, chant and the procession moves towards another point which is designated as Lord Jagannath`s masir bari, his aunt`s place. Funny as it may seem, but this augured the beginning of the festive season, the Durgapujo. We knew our school will close for a month soon.’
They had been formally introduced to each other before the trek started; the group comprised of fifteen people from different corners of the country. Nilanjan came to know about Sukanya, a NRI, who lived in the USA. She spoke with an accent; her long years of growing up there had inevitable effect on her speech, though ironically she had a typical Bengali look; expressive eyes and dusky complexion. She said, both her parents were from Kolkata, and she too was born there. She taught Social Anthropology at Rutgers University and is an avid adventure tour enthusiast. She had visited many lesser known places on the earth, and the Himalayas remained as one of her cherished destinations. She had been looking for an opportunity to be here and the group, “The Green Custodians” provided the precisely the same. She said she was enjoying the trek very much and was looking forward how the remaining days were going to unravel the mystery of the great mountain range and its stunning valleys.
Nilanjan paused. ‘This was one of my earliest attempts to sneak away with friends without telling my mother. But she found it out later, and I was taught a lesson.’ Nilanjan smiled.
‘Did you get scared?’ Sukanya asked curiously.
‘A bit, but Gautam found me out soon. I was staring at the crowd and suddenly found my friends were missing.’
‘Who is Gautam?’
‘A childhood friend. Don`t know where does he live now, no trace since I left Gauhati.’
‘Yes. Have you heard about Gauhati? It`s a small town surrounded by hills and the capital of Assam, a small state in the north-east corner of the country.’
‘Yeah, I know a little about it. About the great Brahmaputra river and of course Shillong which is nearby.
‘A wonderful place, a calm peaceful town. I have so many fond memories. I was born there, grew up and left the place after my plus two. ’
‘But you now live in Kolkata. Why didn’t you go back to your hometown? ’
‘Compulsion. Because I work here. Like you live in New Jersey, though you were born in Kolkata.’
‘I have hardly any memories of my childhood in Kolkata. When my parents moved to New Jersey, I was only one year old. I grew up like any American girl and only because my parents came every year to Kolkata to see their in laws, I knew I have a different origin.’ She shrugged gently.
‘Where do your parents live?’ She earnestly asked.
‘They lived at Gauhati, the house is still there and my brother lives there now. My parents are no more, both died five years ago, within a period of three months.’ Nilanjan said in a detached voice.
‘I am sorry. But wasn’t it little strange? Both dying in such a short period?’
‘Yes, that`s what I thought first. But you know, that was perhaps destined. And now I realize that was possibly the best for them. They depended on each other so desperately, it was unbelievable. I am yet to see a couple so happy, so contended. My mother used to say she would die first, but father had beaten her in the race, though not for long.’
The group of trekkers crossed them; the team leader Himangshu broke off from them, ‘Take it easy. We are going to camp in twenty minutes from now. Take your time, just don`t leave the trail. We are going to have our lunch there.’ Himangshu encouraged them with a thumps up and waved cheerfully before leaving. He founded the non-profit group, “The Green Custodian”, and always accompanied the trekkers; his vast experience of the Himalayan terrain was remarkable.
The campsite was a rugged piece of land in Zanskar valley beside a narrow unnamed rivulet which met the mighty Indus towards northern side of the valley. Huge boulders lay strewn brought down by the stream sometimes during previous episodes of flood. Cloudbursts are quite common here, as were veritable flash floods. The brochure cautioned all trekkers about the unpredictable fury of the nature. The mountains appeared closer and they had lost their green coverings now. The peaks were bare; the shinning faces of grayish white striped rocks appeared menacingly grave. The midday sun was up and bright sunrays glittered in the crystal clear water of the stream. By the time they reached the spot, the tea was in circulation; the provision boy was dispensing tea from his giant metallic jug. They untied their backpacks and kept them in one corner, relieved; the boy filled their paper cups with steamy hot tea.
Few enthusiastic men stood on the big boulders balancing themselves on the top, cascading stream pranced around the rocks and stirred out white foam. Some cheered, some yelled, and the note echoed with distinct reverberations. It dwindled slowly till it was inaudible.
The lunch was frugal, it had to be. They had a couple of sandwiches, an apple and another helping of tea each; though it wasn’t enough but that was the rationed allowance for each. Nilanjan lighted a cigarette. They had another three hours of trekking left for the day till they reached the spot of night shelter. Himangshu announced they were to leave the camp in another half an hour.
The next three hours were tough; the path was narrow and slippery, hewn out of the perpendicular face of the rocks. A deep gorge lay ahead; a foot bridge was visible at a distance which appeared picture perfect. When they reached the designated site for camping, they were sweating and panting for oxygen. Himanshu said this was the highest point of the trek and once they cross this, they would be descending back to the comfortable heights.
When they reached the designated spot for the camp, the sky appeared gently lit by the setting sun behind the mountain ranges, and the golden hue reflected from the white peaks. A cluster of rustic huts around a central circular lawn was their shelter for the night. Too basic, but nobody complained. Not even electricity was available. The open air kitchen provided hot freshly cooked food as well as warmth as they sat huddled around below the moonlit sky.
Nilanjan was following Sukanya, the way she spoke, the stance, every movement of her. She exuded a rare unspoiled charm of self-assurance and vulnerability at the same time. Nilanjan would compare her with Tagore’s Labonya at the first look, but dismissed it on his own. He didn’t know her, but later during the moonlit dinner he found him standing beside her. It took some time to overcome the barrier of two different cultures and his inhibitions to strike a conversation, but once done, he knew she had a similar kind of void, despite all her success, like he had, though apparently nothing was discernible. ‘You are from Kolkata, aren’t you, Mr. Mitra?’ she said. ‘That’s right. I am from Kolkata.’ Nilanjan had answered.
After the dinner Himanshu gave a short talk about next day`s itinerary, with the topographical map spread out in a board on a tripod. He pointed out the dos and don’ts and the need for drinking water at frequent intervals. He bade good night and stressed that a good sleep was necessary because they were to trek for eight hours tomorrow, and this segment had the steepest slopes which meant tough job was ahead for both legs and lungs.
Nilanjan lighted a cigarette, took deep drag and then exhaled. Sitting on a camp chair Sukanya was looking at the dark silhouette of the mountains, she seemed to be lost at the nothingness of the night. The trekkers had returned to their respective huts and the night grew desolate and unkind. The open air kitchen was now dismantled, and the support staff had retreated to their tents for the night`s rest. Nilanjan knew he had to wait, he also knew the night was perhaps one of those which he would remember for long time to come. This was more so because he felt that the stage was set for something he didn’t know, but a hint was dropped by the quietness of the night.
He thought about himself. He had a perfect married life, a doting wife and two loving children. He had a high paying job as the Vice-President of an FMCG giant. He lived in a high-rise condo in one of the posh areas of Kolkata and went to Europe and other places for pre-planned family holidays. The family photos, framed carefully, adorned their well decorated living room. Yet, he often thought that this was not a life he had treasured, this was not the kind of banal existence he had dreamed about. He wanted to do something else; he had a passion for painting, though he didn’t give it a second thought when it really mattered. He followed the well tested and proved route of success, the IIT followed by IIM. Later, whenever he asked himself if this success was what he craved for, he didn’t get an answer.
‘Did you really like trekking? You don’t seem to be adventure buff?’ Sukanya said.
‘How did you guess that?’
‘I am good at reading people`s mind.’ She smiled and her kind face appeared more forgiving.
‘This is my first trek ever. I wanted to go for trekking when I was younger, but couldn’t afford the time.’ Nilajan said.
‘Better late than never. But exactly what you had in your mind before you decided it?’
‘I just wanted to get away from the city, its maddening crowd, its frantic pace for some time. I needed a break desperately, and I wanted to be alone.’ Nilanjan suddenly found he had unearthed something for which he had been groping since long.
‘Is it necessary to be alone? You wife could have accompanied you.’
‘She hates the hills, besides she loathes the very conception of walking in a cold terrain.’
‘Did you try to entice her?’
‘No, I didn’t. I wanted to go alone. Is it a crime to go to a place one liked alone even if you are married? Is it too much to ask for a break entirely for myself?’
‘No it`s not. You have had taken a break long ago if you had listened to yourself. You could have made a wonderful painter or a writer. Am I right Mr. Mitra? ’ Sukanya said. But you are a family man. Now that suddenly you have decided to follow your heart, isn’t it too selfish anymore? ’
‘Are you teasing me?’
‘No, I am not. I am speaking on behalf of your conscience. Your existence revolved around your wife, your children and their well being. And this is absolutely alright if you are okay with it, if you have no qualms about losing out to yourself.’
‘Did I lose it?’
‘You had lost it long ago. I would rather say you had lost deliberately; it was a battle you never fought. Now look at yourself, the wretched life of yours. You have sacrificed all your life, to secure your future at first and then to secure the future of your family; you have never lived for yourself. But you have only one life, you shouldn’t regret about it when the time comes to say good-bye.’ The words resonated as if it wasn’t her, but his soul who spoke.
‘Perhaps it`s true. But again that was my duty, how could I act like a selfish? I had no alternative.’
‘There were many. You didn’t try them. You were too obstinate; I wouldn’t like to utter the truth, because I don’t want to hurt you.’
‘But how do you know all these? I haven’t told you anything? ’ Nilanjan said wistfully.
‘As I said, I am good at reading people`s minds.’ She said in a baffling voice.
Both remained silent as the darkness thickened and wind became still, motionless, when Nilanjan said, tell me something about you. You said you are single by choice but that makes me little curious.’
‘I knew you were going to ask me this inevitable question like all my relatives. You have married, you have a thriving family, apparently so happy and contented and yet you are not happy. You aren’t satisfied with your achievements but whatever you have achieved is quiet laudable. I know what it takes to be in IIT and IIM. ’ She paused.
‘I want to live my life on my own terms; I am not going to accept if somebody dictates it to me. I have had few relations in the past, with some wonderful men, handsome, magnanimous. But somehow none of those relations worked out, perhaps I am too independent, not a marriage material. But then that is me, uncompromising and unpredictable!’ She laughed.
Nilanjan didn’t know how he would react. This was what he wanted to do, follow his heart untamed, unshackled. But he didn’t have enough courage to speak out, the circumstances were so intimidating. He remembered his uncle quoting to him about the indigence which drove some talented painters mad, pushed them to self destruction. He was confused at that point of time. He missed somebody like Sukanya who could inspire him, reinstate the faith in him. But he still had some time left for him, he can start painting again for himself, he can visit the places he once longed for. He discovered it was not impossible to be happy again and the discovery enlightened his face. Perhaps he could again follow his heart and get lost like he did long back during the rother mela.