“Tasveer banaye kya koi…kya koi likhe…tujhpe kavita
Rango, chhandon mein samayegi… kis tarah se itni sundartaa…?”
(How can anyone paint your picture? Or write a poem on you?
Colors and words are not enough, to capture your immense beauty)
Some stories are temporary, their journey lasting for a short while. They gradually fade over time, unremembered and lost, leaving behind nothing to indicate that they ever existed.
Some stories last forever, causing grief and hurt, frustration and despair, long after they’re over. They leave behind tears and scars and a lifetime of pain and anger.
But some stories, some special kinds of stories exist just momentarily, like dew-drops over petals on winter mornings. Yet they leave an indelible impression on your mind, their memories fragrant with the aromas of youth, with the pregnant possibilities of a beautiful ‘what-if’ life. They bring back smiles, and tears, and inexplicable joy and warmth.
This is one such story.
“Hi! I’m Riya. I’m 17 years old. I have just finished giving my FYJC examinations and am awaiting my results. This is my first Himalayan trek, and I’m here with my sister. I look forward to having a nice trekking expedition with you”, she stated matter of fact-ly and gave an awkward, plastic smile to the circle of people assembled for the mandatory round of introductions on Day 1. We were on our acclimatization hike in a small forest just off Kasol village in Himachal Pradesh. I looked up idly at her, and then at the scores of men around, all aged between 16-55 years staring at her shamelessly, with mouths wide open. Some immediately broke off their stares self-consciously. Others, particularly the ones over 40, just couldn’t contain their amazement at this exquisite lass less than half their age, who had quite literally taken their breaths away. The girl nonchalantly sat down on the dried grass and twigs on the slope, unmindful of the complete disarray she had caused in the entire male population around her. Perhaps she was used to such attention; perhaps she was too naïve to notice.
Me, I wasn’t too impressed. I looked at the girl dressed casually in loose climbing attire and faded hunter shoes. She had put on a hat, her curly medium sized brown hair messed up in the dusty summer mountain air. No, I didn’t swing the other way, neither was I married. I was just 19 myself, and on my third Himalayan trek. But I was clearly in a confused state. Before I’d left Bombay, my girlfriend of 4 months had just broken up with me for the 9th time. This time, she hadn’t even bothered to inform me that we weren’t together anymore. She just abruptly stopped responding to my messages and phone calls, leaving me to my assumptions. So after 4 months, I was single again. Or was I? I still very much liked her, loved her even. But clearly I didn’t mean enough to her for her to even let me know that we were over, and that I should go my way. The opposite of love isn’t hatred; it is apathy. So yes, without any choice, I was once again young and single in the magic mountains.
The Magic Mountains
We were a large group of mostly strangers from close to 10 states across India. Which actually meant that people broke up into smaller groups, based on their ages, mother tongues, friends, and their home states. I naturally fell into the group of youngsters in the 16-23 years’ category. Riya too gravitated towards our group instead of sticking to her sister and her friends. We all started and completed our climbs together. We ate together, took our water and rest halts together, even huddled around the same campfire. But clearly there was magic brewing in the mountains.
At first it was candid and barely noticeable. On 8-hour long routes, she and I would end up usually walking 10 steps ahead of the group, lost in idle chatter. During our rest halts, we used to end up sitting on the same rocks, sipping from one bottle of water. Our packed lunches were laid next to each other. On long winding slopes, we even stopped to catch our breaths at the same tree or bend. At every camp, we stepped outside our tents and sat on the same boulder, watching the sun set with an alabaster glow on the himalayan snow. During the day time, as I scoured the skies with my camera for the perfect angle of the mountains, she always jumped in front of my lens, attempting to spoil my shot. She always giggled and joked that I should click her picture instead, while I laughed and dismissed her nonchalantly. Our friends teased us, joked about us; but we always laughed them away.
Today, 16 years later, it would be impossible for me to remember and pinpoint who initiated this inexplicable proximity, and who sustained it. All we knew was that something was brewing, fast and real. We never realized it, but we both were helplessly and hopeless drawn to each other.
Did I mention that she was beautiful? And strong? She was fair, with a round face, and had pink, full lips, like a baby. She moved like a swan, with poise and grace. But she couldn’t dance, just like me. She pronounced some English words funnily, in an incredibly cute accent. She adored Marathi literature, and loved acting and poetry. Her eyes were bright and dewy-brown, and they twinkled and widened and came alive as she play-acted and recited her poems around the campfire, to the chorus of her delicate fingers animating the poem as she recited it. Her hair were golden-brown, curly and messy, and she never took care of them. They were always scattered all around her head, sometimes tied in an awkward bun. I’d never seen a girl as exquisitely delicate, yet physically strong as her. There was a candid nonchalance about the way she carried herself, completely oblivious of the effect she had on everyone around her. She wasn’t just humble; she was plain confused about why everyone found her that pretty. She had an understated magnetism that drew everyone towards her. A sweet lady in the group wrote a poem about her while her husband made a sketch as an ode to her beauty, gifting it to her on the last day. Through all this adulation, she remained blissfully unaware, going through the rituals of the trekking regimen like the rest of us commoners.
We crossed the pass together, one behind the other. I held her hand through the narrow snow track, promising to not let her fall. As we reached its snout, I congratulated her, “You did it!” She shook her head as she said, “No, we did it!” I held her gloved hand as we sat on the snow and glissaded the final 300m to the base of the pass and the end of the snowline. As we got up, she had the prettiest smile that could’ve melted all the snow in the world, and gave me a giant bear-hug. We laughed and sauntered down the trail, towards the next camp.
We reached our penultimate campsite that evening, the next day marking the last day of the trek. The entire expedition would be over in 3 days. So much had happened over the last 6 days without either of us saying a single word suggesting anything more than friendship. But as the hours ticked by, reality started sinking in. In another 3 days, we would be headed on our separate ways.
The evening was unusually dark and dusky. The air was still. We were outside our tents, taking in the crisp mountain air. Suddenly, we heard pitiful wails of an animal close to the campsite. We all ran towards the source of the sound. A small calf had fallen into a ditch, both its hindlegs broken and badly twisted. It was apparent that it couldn’t make it out on its own. We tried to form a human chain and pull it out with a rope, but it was hopeless. The animal was trapped. A porter from our group, a local villager from the lower slopes, informed us that it was futile to rescue it in the twilight without outside help. The poor calf would probably be preyed upon at night by an Asian Black Bear, which was native to this region. There was stunned silence in the team. We all tried to swallow the bitter reality that sometime over the next 10 hours, this wounded little calf would be attacked and devoured by a ferocious wild animal, just 100m from where we slept inside our tents. We walked back to the camp in morose silence. Riya waked to the edge of the campsite and sat on a small boulder, looking at the last slivers of the twilight sun painting orange streaks on the distant snow-clad peaks. We all sat down beside her. As she started sobbing softly, one by one, everyone dispersed, until there was just the two of us on the slope. I took her hand in my hand to comfort her, and she put her head on my shoulder. I put my arm around her and held her tight as she kept sobbing silently. We didn’t speak a single word. There was nothing that I could say to comfort her broken heart, and all I knew was that I had to be there with her as she tried to fathom the quirky and ruthless laws of nature. I waited till she had settled down and brought her back to the camp. At dinner, we didn’t talk about the calf or the bear. Conversations were light and fun, with plenty of laughter and good humor. One by one, everyone retired to their tents.
But I was restless and couldn’t sleep. I came outside my tent, greeted by the chilly sub-zero Himalayan night. The sky was moonless, clear and crisp, without any signs of civilization on the surrounding slopes. Everything was so silent, I could hear my own heart beating. I lay down on the soft grass in my down jacket and watched the pristine carpet of the twinkling Himalayan night sky spread out before me. My mind was a riot of thoughts and emotions; a lot of things were playing inside; a lot of things that I couldn’t fathom or explain. A lot of feelings that I couldn’t resolve, a lot of thoughts that I was afraid to articulate into words. A lot of questions unanswered in my head; or rather, questions that I didn’t want answered, lest I lose control of my feelings. As if on cue, Riya stepped out of her tent too; she didn’t seem too surprised to see me lying down in the grass. Quietly, she came and lay down beside me, under the carpet of stars. We were next to each other, silent as strangers, yet a million emotions exchanged. Sometimes, the most powerful conversations are those that are never spoken as words, but as stolen glances, twinkles in the eyes, deep sighs, skipped heartbeats. We didn’t need words; we knew that the same thoughts were running amok in our heads. I was gregarious, adventurous, and outgoing, living in sin city, freshly single, dumped yet again by a girl who would dump me every few days, with scant regard for me or my emotions. Riya was like a daisy, beautiful and young and single, living in a conservative society in an orthodox city far, far away. But we were hopelessly, madly in love. Star-crossed and time-bound, we knew that this could never be. That we would never be together. We weren’t sad, we weren’t happy; we were just living in this moment, brief and powerful, content with this world that contained just the 2 of us, along with a million twinkling stars for company, under the velvety carpet of the Himalayan sky that night. Our beating hearts held together by the faint murmur of a distant mountain stream in the valley below.
Two days later, the trip ended. We stood at the gates of the camp and shook hands as friends. Her dangly earrings and towel dried hair looked endearingly cute and she gave me a warm smile as we nodded our goodbyes. We made no promises. Our eyes said all that we could never say to each other. Never before, and never since, has so much been said without uttering a single word. We wanted to hug, we wanted to kiss, we wanted to hold onto each other and never let go. But we didn’t. I watched in silence as her bus arrived and she climbed in. With a candid wave of her hand, she turned inside, and was gone. I walked away. Neither of us ever looked back.
Does she remember me? Does she remember this little story that only she and I shared? Were we just meant to be star-crossed lovers, like comets, touching each others’ lives for a minuscule instant, never to return? I don’t know, and I’d rather not know.
Sometimes love comes like a storm, a whirlwind of emotions and a cascade of hormones, tossing you around in disarray.
And yet sometimes, love sneaks in gently like the silent flutter of a butterfly’s wings, like ripples in a placid lake, like leaves in the fall floating down slender branches and painting the world in a riot of colors!
Love is in pandemonium and chaos; love is also in serenity, stillness, and quietude.