He walked away from me, jumped off the boulders with an agility of a mountain goat, looked back to wave at me, turned the corner and vanished.
I had realized by this time that in these mountains anything was possible. Maybe it's the air, makes everyone a little light headed, a little other worldly.
Let me begin at the beginning, as all good stories should. Like, how come I was sitting on a mountain alone, looking at the valley below me and wondering if it was real.
I had come to Kullu valley as part of a trek group. For past week I had been sleeping in damp tents, walking up to twenty kilometers per day and eating food that didn't agree with me.
Just before we reached Malana I had suffered a nasty fall which made it impossible to continue forcing me to leave the group. The relief on the Leader's face hurt a little. No, it had hurt a LOT. Not one person had spared a thought on how I was planning to walk those seventeen kilometres with a busted knee, so keen they were on getting on with their trek. They just advised me to walk through Malana village to the hilltop and to reach Malana Dam in the valley which I will see from the hill top. I will find the cab from there to the base camp.
I had nodded faking confidence.
"When the going gets tough, tough get going" I reminded myself of that cliche as I heaved my pack on my shoulders.
3 kilometres through a very hostile Malana village and I was on top of the hill. On one side I could see our camp. On the other side, in a valley much deeper, Malana river glistened like a silver ribbon. My eyes followed the river till far away on horizon I could see the Dam. I took a deep breath. So, thats where I have to go. Okay. Lets just take it one step at a time, shall we?
I kept clambering down the path. Who ever called it a path had a weird sense of humour. It was just a rocky trail almost vertically down from the top to the base of mountain. No doubt created by goats and goat herds. And now a girl from Mumbai was trying to attempt it.
After a descent of an hour I decided to take a break.The sun warmed rock felt good againt my back. I closed my eyes and felt an unfamilier sensation. The Total silence. Only mountains have a silence such as this. And then slowly I became aware of other sounds, the lub-a-dub of my heart, faint rush of blood in my veins, the sounds felt unnaturally loud. I took several deep breaths and for the first time since last few days, felt completely at peace. Pain in my knee, pain in my heart, a sense of betrayal that had haunted me, all was forgotton as I sat there soaking the sun. I even closed my eyes for a few minutes for a catnap. When again was I going to get a chance to sit alone on a mountain this way ?
Suddenly a shadow fell across me. A young man was standing on the rock just above me. To say that this was a most unexpected meeting would be an understatement. After an open mouthed stare at each other I was the first one to speak.
"Hello! Where did you come from? Are you with a trekking group?" I had noticed his trekkie boots, jacket and a light backpack.
He had a slight frown on his face.
" I work up there. Who are you with?" He replied looking past me, his eyes searching for others. I was a little surprised to find such a good english in these mountains. Just my city girl snobbish attitude I guess.
" I got hurt during my trek, so I am going back to base". I explained
He looked worried. "Are you alone? It's very far to Jhari. Almost fourteen - fifteen kilometres".
" Oh I will be OK "
" You can walk with me if you wish. I am going to Jhari too."
" Thank you, " I said, a little relieved,"But if you are on a schedule I might slow you down. I walk slow."
" I am sorry, but I have to catch the five o clock bus from Buntar" He looked distressed, undecided.
I said with an inward sigh,
" Please carry on. Or you will miss that bus. I will be fine. Really", I even smiled, trying to look unconcered and cool.
He nodded and left me. I felt even lonelier than before. People seem to be leaving me rather easily today. May be there really was nothing to worry about. But I had enjoyed that brief encounter. Now fifteen kilometers stretched long before me.
I looked at the dam on the horizon and picked up my backpack once again, strapped it on carefully and started.
I walked on. Around the bend, I found him, waiting for me. I hid the surge of joy and relief I felt and said "Oh ! what happened to you ?"
He looked at me and said in very measured tones,
" I don't think you should be walking alone in these mountains". He waited for my protests, but I offered none. I was busy beaming at him.
" But won't you miss your bus?"I felt I ought to offer a tiny protest.
" It's ok. I will give you company till the river. After that the path is comparatively easy."
We started walking down in silence, clambering down the rocks and boulders. He offered to carry my pack, which I refused. he offered his hand as a support a few times, which I scoffed it with a curt "I can manage, Thank you!" He stopped offering any help and walked on in silence. I was like a wounded animal I guess. I needed to be tough.
Soon we started talking. He wanted to know where I had come from, why, where will I go from here, and where from the base camp. He listened to my breezy, casual replies with growing concern. He listened to me with a slight frown of concentration, looking puzzled and asked next question, as if the replies really mattered to him.
Finally he asked in great amazement and slight exasperation,
"Isn't there anyone in the whole world who is worried about you?", I assuered him that I come from a large and doting family, but he didn't look very convinced.
His voice was very soft, just above a whisper, I had to strain to hear his replies. I found getting him to talk about himself raher difficult. The conversation was a little stilted, not keeping to a pattern or flow. He talked like a person not used to social interaction. He loved reading and confessed to owning hundreds of books.
By now bond had been developed between us and I had started accepted his tentative offers to help me over boulders and under the fallen trees gratefully.
He was a teacher in the school up there. He also told me in same breath he had 200 sheep which seemed to be a thing of some consequence. A real sheep farmer! This was getting interesting!
"Why aren't you with the sheep then?" I asked.
"My mother had decided her sons won't run after the sheep. She made us study and go to college." His mother seemed like a remarkable woman.
"So why not go to Delhi after graduation? Why not Simla, Chandigadh, Manali? There are schools there. Why Malana? It must be a difficult life."
He made me stand facing the valley, spread my hands, and inhale deeply. As I exhaled, he asked me, "Is air in Delhi as pure as this one?" I had no reply for that.
We continued our descent. Conversation flowed with the ease of old friendship now.We even bickered abount silly things, like old friends do. I felt a rare kinship with him. It felt natural to be walking this way on a lonely, rocky tarrain, help1ng each other. We could be the only people on the entire planet. Even our silences were comforting. Do soulmates exist? What is the definition?
He walked a little ahead of me, turned around to look at me and said a little apologatically,
" Just follow the river and in a few hours you will reach the dam." I realized with a shock that the time has come for him to go!! We had climbed down the entire five kilometers of mountain.
"Wait !" I said urgently, "I don't even know your name. Here, keep my card, call me some times, do you ever come to Bombay? Please do. What's your name ?" I was babbling, afraid he will run away without giving me a chance to thank him.
He was reading my card and name with intrest and said softly " I don't know "
" You don't know ? You don't know what ? when you are coming to Bombay or your name ?" I joked.
" I don't know who I am", he softly added.
"what do you mean " I repeated stupidly "You don't know your name? "
"No. I still have to find out" He said a little stubbornly. " when I do, I will tell you".
I was having none of it. I dropped my backpack, ran to block his path and demanded to know his name.
" Everyone has a name. What's yours? "
He must have realized that I was not going to let him go till he gives the information I was seeking.
" People call me Naresh P. But I am still trying to find out who I am".
What was good enough for people was good enough for me. I had to let him proceed,
I stood aside to let him pass, we shook hands. I wanted to hug him, but didn't know how to. I felt very fragile and circumstances demanded that I be strong once again.
He walked away from me,jumped off the boulders , turned the corner and vanished.
I watched him go away, and bending down to pick up my backpack got ready to trek those unending kilometers once again, this time alone. Only 9 more KMs to go, I told myself as I stepped on those rocks to follow the path I had seen him take.
I turned around the bend as I had seen him do few minutes ago. The river bank was streched in a long curve before me. I could see the winding path till perhaps half a kilometer. But he was nowhere to be seen. Can he walk all this distance in such short a time? Or may be he had vanished? Or may be he just didn't exist?
Adjusting the pack, I started walking the uneven rivar path towards Jhari.