By: Murari Sharma
He was shivering and alone, trekking on a trail in the Annapurna Range of the Himalayas. An unseasonable snowstorm caught him near Kangla Pass and dumped more than two feet snow in a couple of hours. He crossed the pass through the knee-high snow. From there onward, there was no trail at all. Just the cotton-like snow.
In New York, he would have walked for a hot cup to Joe Coffee Shop, on Columbus Avenue in Manhattan, at such times.
A shallow cave came to his view at the pass. Half-burnt firewood and empty cans inside and outside the cave. The cave smelled like a kitchen not cleaned for months. He threw the cans out of the cave, made a fire with the firewood, and zipped in his sleeping bag to protect him from hypothermia. He placed his trekking stick and knife on beside him. As the fire mildly crackled, he ate the canned food and drank the water from his rucksack. The hell with his girlfriend and parents, who had put him in that situation.
The girlfriend whom he had met at New York University. Heck of a student but small-minded. She had jilted him over a non-issue. His parents, constantly fighting over issues big and small.
All night, the wind hummed and whistled. In the morning, he made fire, ate his breakfast, and waited for the weather to improve. Around noon, a black bear, bigger than him, walked towards him from a distance, in a lazy gait, against the white snow, leaving a trail of tracks behind. Once, the animal raised his front, scanned the landscape, smelled around, and headed towards him, faster than before. Fear chilled his spine, drenched his body with sweat, and sped up his heart.
Fight? No, the bear could be much stronger than him. Follow the textbook safety procedure, he said. Quickly, he put out the fire, zipped him in the sleeping bag, lay prostrate, and watched the animal from a small opening. As the animal approached near, he sucked in the air, held up his breath, and played dead.
The acrid-smelling bear sniffed and pawed his sleeping bag and rummaged through the empty cans. His arteries and veins swelled, as his heart and lungs cried for oxygen. The animal walked away before he choked to death. He gasped and panted for a while. No bear had come that close to him, not even at the Bronx Zoo, which he had visited with his parents 12 years back.
He made a small fire, this time in the corner, consumed his food and water sparingly. If the snow did not clear within a day or two, he reckoned, he would starve to death even if he survived other odds — cold, animals, and thieves.
On the third day, flue caught him. A warm air and sun melted the snow substantially, but the trail remained under it. Only on the fourth day, the trail somewhat cleared, but his body was as hot as an oven, his head ready to burst, his stomach to throw out, his eyes full of butterflies, and his body caught in inertia.
Bears, cold, thieves, dwindling food and water supply. No time or safety to recuperate, boy. He dragged himself down the trail. At around noon, he hit a stone platform — he had read those platforms were built in memory of the deceased — and sat down. He popped Diamox and Promethazine into his mouth, washed them with water and lay down, placing his rucksack under his head.
When he woke up, he was feeling slightly better. The emerald sun scooted towards the distant mountain to the west. A green rhododendron forest with crimson flowers in their full bloom decked the landscape around him. Insects made a strange din of confused noise and a few birds flew overhead. But no house or barn in sight. The night would descend very quickly in mountainous terrains, after sunset.
No, he had no fear of death, but he did not want to die unnoticed, in that goddamned trail. Find a safe place before dark or be prepared to lose your life, he told himself. He stood up and walked slowly and painfully down the route, strewn with sharp gray stones. By the time he reached the next stone platform, his legs refused to budge any further. Only half of the sun-disc was visible over the mountain at that time. Oh, God.
He had never prayed to God. For one thing, He did not seem to help those who needed most. For another, He had failed to stop his parents quarreling even though they went to their church every Sunday and on special days.
A melancholic howl of jackals – yaoo oo, yao yao – greeted his ears. The settlement must not be far. Push on, he said. In half an hour, the trail descended and reached a little stream. He looked around. Something gray under the trees, a quarter mile away, off the route, came to his vision in the brown evening. He left the main trail and headed cautiously towards the gray stuff, which was a barn’s decaying thatched roof. The muddy smell of rotten cow dung wafted greeted his nose.
He fished out his torch and checked the barn. The barn stood on several kinky wooden poles, as the deformed legs of a polio-stricken person, and seemed vague, empty and desolate. On one side, it had a ladder, a tree trunk in which steps were cut in. Barley straw sheaves piled up to the ceiling, next to the ladder. A heap of rotten cow dung just beneath the barn. For some reason, the barn was temporarily abandoned.
He shouted, “Is anybody home?”
No answer. When he was a child, he had returned to his empty house and cried. His parents had gone somewhere and returned later than expected. He had not spoken to them for two days.
He cautiously climbed up the narrow steps to the barn’s upper story. Locked up with a big padlock was a room, but there was no sign of human beings. Back downstairs, he threw his worn-out body over the straw stack.
When he was a child, he had visited a relative in Minnesota and hid him in the straw. His mother had fretted looking for him.
Eat and hide fast, he told himself. Though he was not hungry, he ate and drank, hid the empty tin containers in the straw, peed over the cow dung, and took tablets for his fever. Then he made a hole in the straw stack, wrapped himself in his sleeping bag, and pushed himself into the hole as deep as he could. He pulled his rucksack in and closed the whole with the sheaves of straw.
His sleep was intermittent. A rustling sound just outside the hole woke him up. The acrid smell suggested that it should be a jackal or some other wild animal. He sniffed and listened, but the sound and smell died away soon. Besides, a choked breathing woke him up twice.
At 8:30 am, he came out of his hole. A cold, crisp and sunny morning welcomed him. He stretched his limbs and felt his pulse, both of which gave him some courage. Before resuming his journey, he emptied his food and water for breakfast and slogged out of the barn.
Half an hour into his slog, his legs refused to support his body. So he sat on a stone slab by the trail for a long time. A group of four young Americans from the opposite direction arrived there. He introduced himself as Brian Smith from New York. The four men were from different parts of the United States. They sat and shared their trekking experiences and cracked jokes about women, whom they had missed.
Brian asked if they could spare some food and tea. Adam, the tallest boy with the beak-like nose, poured some tea from his flask into Brian’s. Rocky, the fattest, took out some cans from his backpack and gave to Brian.
“How far is the next village?” Brian asked.
“About three hours’ walk from here,” Adam said.
Three hours should not be bad, Brian convinced himself.
Mark, the youngest among them who looked barely 20, asked how far the next village on our way and Brian told them. The group of four left.
The food and drink energized Brian. He plodded along. At two places, he met some locals and tried to speak to them. But they could not go any further than the polite, customary greeting “Namaste.”
In the afternoon, Brian’s fever came roaring back, giving him uncontrollable shivers. His body started aching as if it was going to shatter into pieces as a fragile glass thrown on a concrete block. He wanted to lie down, but it was a bushy, soggy and leech-infested area. A little ahead, the trail snaked up the hill. He crawled up until he reached an elevated stone platform, popped up four pills of Cetamol, and waited for the medicine to work.
As he felt slightly better, Brian set on his trek. That evening, he finally reached a cluster of houses surrounded by barley fields, which from distance looked like a huge green carpet. He went to the only shop there. The shop was divided into two sides. On one side was a provision shop, selling items of daily need like biscuits, chocolates, papers and pens, spices, etc. A middle-aged woman, with a flat nose and round face, was dealing with a customer there.
On the other side, there was a firewood-stove, two black pans, and a few glasses. In an old cabinet nearby, brass utensils and dishes were displayed. Two tables and some chairs stood near the stove. Seated in the chairs, some men and women were gossiping vigorously. A brown dog was sitting under one of the tables, and a hen with her chicks was picking food and grub on the trail in front of the shop.
When the woman became free, Brian asked if she could make a cup of tea. She looked at trembling Brian and asked if he had a fever.
He said, “Yes, Do you have a doctor around here?”
“Doctor? Doctor in Pokhara. Three day. Walk.” She poured some water into one of the pans, put it on the stove, and stoked the fire. “Health worker. Two hours.”
Brian saw a signboard in English over the door of the house opposite the shop: Reshma Lodge. He asked if the lodge was hers. She said adding tea leaves to the boiling water. He asked if he could have a room. She said that she only had a bed, adding milk and sugar in the hot water and that another lodge was only three kosh away. He knew three kosh was six miles.
The woman poured tea into a glass through a strainer and gave it to him. He took a sip of tea and popped in two Cetamol pills. Though it smelled of smoke, the tea tasted refreshing. He asked for some more to fill his empty thermos. She made some more tea and filled his flask.
He paid for the tea and said he would take. The woman called Reshma. A girl appeared at the back door of the shop. She was 17/18 and had a shining, round face, small eyes, and short nose. The woman said something to her in the local language. She asked if he wanted a bed.
Climbing the wooden stairs, she said, “You will have to share the room with someone. I hope it will do for you.”
“You speak good English. Where did you go to school?”
“Oh, you are flattering me. Anyway, I studied in a boarding school in Pokhara when my father was alive.”
Reshma showed him the room. The room had two narrow beds, covered with clean white sheets, and a white duvet was rolled at the foot of each bed. Brian felt one of the beds, which was hard. He asked the price per night. She said three hundred rupees a night; tea and food extra.
He introduced himself and informed her that she could call him Brian. “And you are Reshma, right? It is a nice name.”
“How do you know my name?”
“Well, um, I guessed. But I don’t know your surname.”
She smiled. “Gauchan. But call me Reshma.” She threw the shining lock of her rich black hair to the back.
He asked if there was any doctor around. She said there was a health assistant, two hours walk from here and told him that they kept Paracetamol and other simple drugs in the shop if he wanted. She informed him that dinner was served at the shop from 7 to 8 and the morning meal between 9 and 10. She said, “If you want anything else, please let me know.”
“For now, I will lie down.”
Reshma left the room. Brian threw his backpack one of the chairs and lay down in bed. The ceiling had protruding wooden beams, like his ribs. Soon his sleep hitched him into a void. When he woke up around midnight, the moon was on and a middle-aged white man was sleeping in the other bed. A rooster’s call woke him up again. He cursed the rooster and went to sleep, only to get up after his room companion had left.
Brian did not have the strength to go downstairs. When Reshma brought him tea at around 8 am, he was still in bed. She said she had brought his food because he did not go downstairs the previous evening as well. She put the glass on the table and felt Brian’s forehead, like a doctor, without any hesitation. “Still some fever. You need to see the health assistance.”
Brian enjoyed the soft touch. “But I cannot walk two hours.”
“Three hundred rupees and he will come running. I can send a message.”
He said yes and she left. He lay closing his eyes. He opened his eyes when he heard a coughing sound. Reshma came in and put a tray on the table.
She felt his forehead. “You can boil water with your heat. Your eyes look like strawberries.”
“I also have a headache and constipation.”
“I will do something if you like.” She went out.
In her absence, he tried the food — rice, lentil, vegetable, and chicken – and did not like it. She came back with some laxative tablets, a bowl of water, and a towel, gave him the medicines, and asked him to swallow them with tea.
He had fallen sick once, and his parents had a hard time making him take his medicines. But now he complied Reshma’s instruction like his obedient sister who had died of some rare disease.
She said, “If you do not want to starve to death, you will have to learn to like the local food.”
She pulled the chair near his head, sat down, and with the towel and water, gave him a cold compress on his forehead. She said she had learned it at the boarding school in Pokhara. She asked why he was trekking alone while others usually trekked in groups, particularly on that trail. He said he had left without a prior plan to overcome his grief.
She waited for him to speak.
But he did not explain. When the fever came down, she brought him hot chicken soup. After informing that she had sent word to the health assistant, she left.
Next morning, the health assistant examined Brian’s pulse, eyes, tongue, and chest, asked a few questions, and declared that he had typhoid, requiring several days of medication and rest. Any negligence, he warned, could be fatal. He gave antibiotics for seven days three times a day and laxatives twice a day for three.
Brian used up all the local currency he had to pay the health assistant. He could not climb up and down the stairs to go to the shop or toilet. Reshma or her mother brought in food for him. Reshma felt his forehead and, whenever fever soared, applied the cold compress. Reshma gave him a brass pan to clean his bowel, and she or her mother washed the pan for him.
In New York or during his previous treks, no one had given him the cold compress or cleaned his dirty pan by anyone as far back as he remembered. He was sick once when he was trekking in Argentina, but so badly that he could not manage himself.
Occasionally, some trekkers arrived in the evening and left in the morning. Once or twice, a trekker took the other bed in Brian’s room, giving him the opportunity to speak to Westerners.
Most of the days, he would be alone. He would either lie down in bed or look from his small window at the Himalayan massif and sparkling snow-capped peaks at a distance, green hills and forests a little nearer, and barley fields close by. The barley field had weeds here and there with yellow flowers that attracted butterflies of various colors.
As a child, he used to run after butterflies in Central Park when his mother or father took him there.
In 10 days, he began to feel the rush of the blood in his arteries when Reshma touched his forehead. The soft and warm touch. He had not been close to any woman since he had left New York, after breaking up with his school sweetheart, Kimberley Dixon. He had never been happy with the vain and selfish Kimberley or other women he had dated. They were too selfish, materialistic, or spoiled. He wanted a woman who was courageous, idealistic, and pure. But his search for an ideal woman had always hit the wall. Even his mother was not his type. This, he thought, must have made him the man he was. Reshma was his type, except that she did not have enough education; but she could study and rise.
In the morning of his 13th day at the lodge, Reshma came to Brian’s room with a cup of tea and some biscuits on a plate. He was sitting on his bed. She said, “You look much better now.”
“Thanks for your care. By the way, why are you taking so much care of me? Who am I to you?”
“You are our guest, and we treat all our guests like gods,” she said casually. Then she told a story about a famous geographer who had carried a Japanese man in distress on his back for a whole day to the nearest health facility. The Japanese man had later become a very important person in his country and helped Nepal in every possible way. “Who knows, you could be a big man in the future and help Nepal as the Japanese man.”
“You took my care for the sake of your country?”
“Do you think I have done it because I have some other motive?”
“I cannot believe it,” he said.
What a selfless and high-minded girl, Brian was impressed. His heart fluttered for her, like a honeybee for flowers. She felt his forehead with her right hand to gauze his fever. He put his hand over hers with the boldness only Americans can show. Reshma turned pink and withdrew her hand abruptly. Brain said sorry, but she did not stop.
Leaving the room, she declared loudly, “From now on, you will have to come down for tea and meals.”
She kept her word. He had to go to eat and drink. The food was served at the tables in the shop. The menu was the same, except for some days when mutton or chicken was served. Tired of the same menu every day, Brian asked Reshma’s mother what else they could serve. She said she had noodles or she could make flatbread from barley and corn. He tried the bread but did not like it. So he alternated between the regular meal and noodles.
The eating ambiance was not appetizing either. Under the dinner table, a stray dog would be sleeping or watching him eat; chickens would be picking food, rubbing their feathers against his calves except at dinnertime. Interesting coexistence of human beings and animals, he thought.
Brian tried to speak to Reshma, but she kept avoiding him. He did not want to leave, not just yet, but he was running out of money. So, during dinner, he asked Reshma’s mother for his bill. Next morning, Reshma gave Brian his bill during the morning meal.
Brian looked at the bill and then Reshma. “I don’t have cash. Can I pay with the travelers checks?”
“No. The bank will not cash them without the check-owner. You will have to go to the bank.”
The bank, Reshma told him, was in the district headquarters, about two hour-walk away. Her mother asked Reshma to go with him and some porters and bring some supplies for the shop as well. So the next day, Reshma, Brian and two porters walked to the town.
On the way, as long as the porters were nearby, Brian and Reshma talked about his life in New York and his trekking experience overseas as well as her experience in Pokhara. When the porters fell behind for some reason, Brian said, “I am terribly sorry for my mistake. I should not have touched you the way I did the other day.”
“I cannot fall in love with every trekker that stays in our lodge.”
“I understand. Sorry for my impudence again . . . If you don’t mind, can I ask you something?”
She did not answer.
“Why don’t go to Pokhara or Kathmandu to study? You are bright and smart. You could become somebody.”
“I cannot leave my mom alone.”
“Both of you could go and set up a business there.”
She looked at Brian. “My father died here. My mom does not want to go far from his spirit.”
“Do you believe in spirit?”
“We all have our beliefs. I am talking about my mom’s belief.”
They reached the town. The town had some 50 houses divided by a stone-paved path. Several of the houses had shops and restaurants on the ground floor and some had offices, including a commercial bank. Brian cashed his travelers’ checks at the bank and paid Reshma. With the money, Reshma bought supplies from one of the large stores. The two porters loaded the stuff in their wicker baskets and carried on their back, held by a rope clung to their forehead.
On the way back, the weight slowed the porters. Brian and Reshma walked ahead of them but within the porters’ vision. Almost halfway through, he stumbled on a stone on the trail. She held him. They breathed into each other’s face, which almost collided. They stared at each other for a few seconds.
She blushed and said, “Be careful. Our trails are treacherous.”
“Your trails also have people like you. Thank you for saving me.”
He said his girlfriend was selfish, and she had quarreled and broken with him because she had seen him with another girl though that was not the case. She had refused to meet him and take his call. His father had lost his job with K-mart in its downsizing and taken to drinking. His mother, an accountant, had started seeing another man. They were never a happy couple, but things had taken the worst turn. So he had suddenly decided to trek on the remote trail, away from the rest of the world.
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“What do you think about going to America . . . umm . . . let us say, to study.”
“To visit for a few days, yes, when I make enough money. But I cannot leave my mother for long.” She threw her hair back. “Would you stay in Nepal if your mom thought the same way as mine?”
“You sound very selfish.”
“Perhaps, I am different from you. I don’t have the same high ideals as you do. But the more I know you, the more I like you. You are my ideal type of woman. I have never felt for any other woman the way I have felt for you. I will invite to America if you agree.”
He sweated in nervousness, as never before, fearing her fiery reaction.
Her round cheeks turned pink. She looked around, and shrieked, “Do you think I could be your sex toy?”
“No, no. I am talking about a serious commitment. Let us say I invite you to America.”
“Why would you? I am fine here with my mother.”
“Let us say I come back for you.”
“Look here. You and I come from different worlds and hold different values. We are like two banks of the same river that never meet. So stop talking this nonsense.”
“Perhaps, we can build a bridge. That is how societies have progressed. Would not you agree?”
“Let us not talk about it, please,” she said firmly.
They remained quiet rest of the way. Reshma engaged in her household chores. Brian went to his room, only to come down for dinner. There was no outsider that evening. Brian ate, speaking a few words with Reshma’s mother.
He said, “Go to Pokhara or Kathmandu and set up your shop there. Reshma study. No hospital here. No college here.”
“Good here. God with me. He save, He kill.” She laughed loudly.
The talk did not go very far. At the end of the meal, he thanked her for the hospitality and informed her that he was going to leave the following morning. Brian went back to his room and tried to sleep but could not. He tossed and turned in his bed most of the night. In the wee hours of the morning, he fell asleep only to be woken up by the rooster, signaling the arrival of dawn.
He could not leave without seeing Reshma. When he saw her go towards the communal waterspout, holding a brass container, he followed her. He said, “You look good in this dress.”
She was wearing a yellow kurta, white suruwal and a red shawl under a heavy gray sweater. She just continued walking without a word.
But she did not speak to him. Midway to the waterspout, he blocked her way and said, “I know I have been stupid and you have been avoiding me. But I cannot leave this place without telling you how much I am in love with you. If you do not talk to me, I will go with you to the waterspout and announce to the villagers that I love you and tell your mother as well. Either you speak to me quietly or I will have to make it public.”
She stood up, her face going crimson. “Are you blackmailing me?”
“No. I am serious. I love you. Please marry me and come to America. I will send a ticket and sponsorship letter for you.”
“I do not love you. Cut the crap out,” she said loudly.
“You do not need to love me. If you treat me as a friend, it will do for me. So tell me, can I then come back for you? Will you wait for me?” His voice shook. He tried to hold her hand, but she pulled it back.
She stood quietly for a while and said, “I will see when you come back.”
“I will come back soon,” said Brian. “I will also write to you and you write to me.”
He wrote his address on a small piece of paper and handed it to her. Reshma tied the address at one end of her shawl. She scribbled her address on the piece of paper given by Brian. Brian put the address in his wallet. Then they waved goodbye to each other. Brian, after walking several steps away, looked back. Reshma was still standing there. He waved and she waved back.
After seven years, one day in summer just before sunset, Brian arrived at Reshma’s shop. There were a few more houses in the village. But no other shops or lodges. Brian put his backpack on the table and sat down, looking curiously around. Reshma’s shop and the lodge were freshly painted with white clay. On the side of the house, there was a freshly built wedding altar, surrounded by bamboo trees festooned with leaves and flowers.
A woman was seated in the shop. By her side, a little boy of about five was playing with an assortment of toys. He shared Reshma’s face. Brian wondered whether Reshma was married and had a baby already. If that was the case, who the wedding altar was for.
The woman asked him how she could help him. He asked for a room, which she said was available. She asked a boy, around 10 years old, to show the rooms. On the way, the boy told Brian that he could take any of the two rooms. Brain selected the room in which he had spent many days and put down his backpack. The boy informed him that the room charge was 700 rupees a night; food and drinks extra; dinner 7 to 8 and morning meal from 9 to 10; if he wanted anything else, he should let him know.
“OK. Who is getting married?”
He asked again, and the boy’s answer was the same. He asked when, and the boy said in three days.
His jaw dropped, his heart slowed, and his lungs balked. He sat on the bed and bent his head into his two hands. He must speak to Reshma, she said to himself. He went back to the shop, ordered tea, sitting in one of the chairs by the table. The woman made tea for him. Brian pulled the boy to one side, gave him a Cadbury’s and asked where Aunt Reshma was. The boy said she had gone to town.
He set out towards the town, hoping to catch Reshma on the way. It was already evening, and she could not be too late. He waited for her on the trail in the green barley field. Shortly she arrived with another woman, and three porters tagging them at a short distance.
His heart fluttered. Though Reshma had gained some weight, she looked as charming and fresh as before. She did not instantly recognize because of his beard and mustache. He said he had a business to discuss with her. Then her eyes and mouth opened wide. She asked her companion to go forward because she had a transaction to settle with the man.
Brian said, “I am sorry that I could not write after I left and could not come earlier. If you allow me, I want to tell you why.”
“There is no point of it now, as you might have already known.”
“Still, I beg you. Hear me out.”
“I lost my wallet and your address in New Delhi. Did mail a couple of letters guessing your address, but I presume they never reached you. Then parents’ divorce shattered the whole family. Besides, I needed money, and my community work did not pay much.” He hesitated for a few seconds.
She stared at him.
“I won’t lie to you. I casually dated two women, but my heart and mind were always with you. So here I am. Please, do not disappoint me.”
“It is too late for that, but I too have a confession to make. Your address washed with the shawl. Yet, I waited for you resisting the pressure from all sides. After my mother’s death a year ago, I was left alone, A few months ago, a distant relative of mine proposed to me in the Thakali tradition. I gave my commitment.”
“I am sorry that I could not come before your mom died.” He fumbled for word. “But change your commitment, please.”
“Commitment is made to keep, not to break.” She sharply looked him into the eyes. “I am not one who hops from tree to tree. So let us end it here. But you are welcome to stay to attend my wedding. You have come so far.” Then she trotted away.
Years back, he had survived the snowstorm, bear, and typhoid in the area. But none of those felt to him as perilous as Reshma’s marriage to another man now.
For the first time, Brian Smith wished Reshma Gauchan were not so high-minded and idealist. As he turned to walk back to the lodge, his eyes fell on the emerald son over the horizon. He thought it was not yet too late and followed Reshma.