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𝗧𝗛𝗘 𝗟𝗢𝗡𝗚 𝗥𝗢𝗔𝗗 𝗧𝗢 𝗣𝗢𝗞𝗛𝗥𝗜 - 𝗮 𝗻𝗲𝘃𝗲𝗿-𝗯𝗲𝗳𝗼𝗿𝗲 𝗲𝘅𝗽𝗲𝗿𝗶𝗲𝗻𝗰𝗲 3

Come to think if it, life isn’t all struggles alone. It’s just that we have a strange (and strong) penchant for celebrating the downsides with our sighs and sobs. The good things often get drowned in our hyperventilation and the not-so-good remain highlighted in our hearts.

In the midst of relating the shoe woes and flight plight, I forgot to mention that I got an upgrade to Business class on my journey from Dubai to Delhi. It is an instance that deserves special mention not only because of the extra leg room and special seating, but also because it gave me an opportunity to stuff myself with food, first at the airport lounge and then in the plane itself. I had no apparent reason to eat so much that night, but I did, as if prompted by an instinct that said I won’t get my next meal or beverage till noon the next day.

It was only after Simran redeemed me from my baggage worry that I went looking for a place to eat at 11.30. Not for a minute had my tummy growled with hunger till then. The binge of the previous night had stood me in good stead till I found Dilli Streat in terminal 3.

‘Do you have filter coffee?’ I asked. Nothing else could have rinsed the fatigue of the past few hours that had spun me around. ‘Extra strong, please,’ I requested and got it in a jiffy. I had two of it, duly served in tumbler and davara. If you had asked for a synonym for ‘relief’ in that moment, I would have exclaimed, ‘Filter Coffee’.

What’s more, they had curd rice too on the menu. The tambram in me exulted and I packed some for the journey. I had no idea when and where I would eat next.

Before I take the narrative forward, a slight detour. Let me tell you a little about Pokhri. Where on earth is this? And how did I decide to embark upon this journey to a place which doesn’t sound as familiar as Kulu-Manali, Dharamshala, Nainital or Kasauli?

For this, I must thank Mark Z. But for Facebook, I wouldn’t have connected with Kiran Chaturvedi some years ago. Like many other connections, Kiran too had been in the shadows only, with little interaction between us over the years since we accepted friend requests, but I had made note of her little homestay cottage, Birdsong & Beyond in Pokhri a long time ago. I had put it on my bucket list secretly, with no inkling of when, or whether it would happen anytime at all. It seemed as remote as going to see the Northern Lights, another bucket list item for me.

When my yearning for a getaway after nearly three years of confined living began to gnaw my insides, when life began to get so dreary that stepping out and exploring became an imperative, I decided to reach out to Kiran. All it took were a few text messages and things fell in place soon enough. And the rest is what you are reading in this narrative.

Time now to introduce Bittu into the story. He is the driver who was assigned with the job of driving me from Dehradun to Pokhri by his boss, Vijay bhaiyya. I had contacted them for the journey with Kiran’s reference and it was enough for me to believe that they were reliable. They sounded cordial and courteous over phone and showed exemplary patience through the flight uncertainty.

However, there was a dilemma that I couldn’t easily solve. If I landed in Doon around 3.00, a six-hour journey would mean going in a cab alone with a stranger well past sunset. It didn’t augur well for me; the safety of a woman often lies in the decision she makes, I have always contended. Being rash in the name of freedom and dare can be disastrous. To step on a minefield and not except to be blown to pieces is foolishness. And in some ways, I was doing precisely that. Getting into a vehicle on a long journey through the Ghats in the night! How dangerous it can get, I leave it to you all to imagine. And if we let our imagination run riot, there is no end to where it can take us. So, hold your dark thoughts back and think of propitious things.

Roughly three hours from Dehradun is a place called Srinagar where I could halt for the night if I didn’t want to drive all the way to Pokhri at odd hours. Bittu’s boss, Vijay bhaiyya insisted on it. Kiran, who was in touch with me throughout, offering me advice and directions, suggested a homestay known to her. It was an option that I kept in hand should the need to break journey arise, although it meant extra expenses and more uncertainty.

‘I will see what the driver, Bittu says,’ I said to Kiran. ‘I will meet him at the airport and make a call based on it.’

To believe that one can instantly make a true assessment of a stranger is also foolhardy, but when left with no choice, you only have your instincts to fall back on. The inner voice alone can come to our rescue when all else fails. And trusting it isn’t a choice but the only way to forge ahead.

I wore my in-built people scanner on my eyes as I walked out of the airport looking for Bittu bhaiyya. Soon we met, and my first impression of him was that of a henchman in a political Bollywood movie. The kind who stands behind the villain waiting to carry out heinous crimes at his boss’s behest. I know, that is a creepy description, but our movies have influenced the way we look at our world immensely and I couldn’t escape it either.

I might have been prejudiced, but truth be told, the ghutka-chewing Bittu with a stubble and goatie to boot wasn’t the kind of guy I would have wanted to go with on such a long journey.

But then again, I thought, why would I not want to trust him? Just because the media is full of bad news? Just because people have generally stopped trusting their fellow-beings? Just because people keep reiterating that the world is becoming more and more evil?

Just because I am a woman, am I tagged unsafe everywhere? And if there is one way for me to live, should it be in perpetual fear and worry of what somebody might do to me and my honour? Is fear my fate and dreaming my nemesis?

When the mind is at crossroads, it is hard to take rational decisions. All you can do is play the roulette. Turn the wheel of the mind and see in which direction it stops and follow the course. Consider it the will of the Universe. One can call it calculated risk or a divine sign.

‘Bittu bhaiyya, what do you think? By what time will we reach Pokhri? 9.30?’ I asked.

‘Much before that,’ he said as he loaded my baggage in the boot. I was tempted to read his face for signs of deviousness and mischief, but I resisted it. I didn’t want to get any funny ideas at that time.

‘Do you think we will have to break journey in Srinagar? I mean if you can’t drive all the way in one stretch?’

‘That won’t be necessary. We will reach.’

The optimism in his voice came as a huge relief. Yet that was no testimony to his character. It didn’t vouch for his integrity. He still could be a predator. Gosh, did that thought cross my mind? Sure as hell, it did. I mean, how long and how little would it take for things to go awfully wrong, in a manner we read here and there?

But as I sat in the car, I gave myself a sound reproof and reminded me that without a little trust in men and a lot of it in God, life would be impossible. I decided not to spend the next six hours in fear.

Keeping my husband posted on the developments, and only making a passing mention of my beavering apprehension, I started the journey. The last thing I wanted was to make casual conversations with Bittu. But I wanted a bottle of water, and I asked him to stop somewhere for one.

He stopped in front of a shop and asked, ‘Mey jaake le aaon?’ For a moment, he sounded genuine to me. With palpitating heart, I allowed myself to give him a brownie point.

He returned in a second. ‘Madam, Thanda ya normal?’

‘Thanda.’ Those were crucial moments of trust-building for me.

If he had something on his mind, he had full six hours to execute it. He could afford to be genuine now to win my trust. Clever predators plan it well. Damn! Such gross, uncouth thoughts, but were they not real possibilities?

The drive on the Badrinath Highway was supposed to be a memorable one, lined with stunning views, but it seemed like it would be spent in worries of the worst kind. There was only one thought on my mind – to reach Pokhri by night, safe and sound, without a scratch if I may add. Everything else, the Ganga, the mountains, the views, everything could wait.

We drove past Rishikesh, a place where I had buried a bit of my soul during my visit in 2018; I caught a glimpse of the mighty Ganga and then remembered Kiran’s alert about passing by Devprayag, the point where Bhagirathi and Alaknanda rivers converge to flow as Ganga downwards. This was something I had seen in documentaries and pictures, but the prospect of getting to see the Sangam for real filled me with an unprecedented joy.

‘Bittu bhaiyya, zara Devprayag mey do minute rukhna hoga,’ I said, in what were my first words after the pitstop for water. He didn’t respond, but I presumed he had heard me. We had to reach Devprayag before dusk to be able to capture the sight, and I left that to luck. If I was destined to see the Sangam, I will. But the anticipation of something so spectacular waiting to happen diverted my thoughts from the dicey drive I was on.

In some time, we reached Devprayag and Bittu stopped the car. I got off and took full, undivided five minutes to absorb the divine spectacle several metres below. The clear, light green Bhagirathi, coming from Gangotri and the muddy brown Alaknanda coming from glaciers beyond Badrinath, merging like two souls in love. It was holy communion playing out in front of my eyes.

Two funeral pyres flared on the banks of Alaknanda in the twilight grey, bearing witness to the confluence that formed the mighty Ganga. It was a picture of death and birth juxtaposed. I stood in silent obeisance to the flowing forces of nature, trying to fathom its immensity. The confluence represented the seminal process of creation to me. The stop at Devprayag was short, but solemn.

Bittu waited for me to return to the car and we got going. There was a long distance to cover.

‘Yah kaunsa jagah hai?’ Bittu suddenly asked, a few kilometers down.

‘Kaunsa jagah matlab?’

‘Jahan aap ko jaana hai.’

My heart was in the mouth. Didn’t he really know where I was going? Where then was he taking me?

‘Pokhri. Don’t you know where we are going? Didn’t Vijay bhaiyya tell you? Speak to him if you don’t know how to go there.’

‘No, it’s OK. I will find out.”

Did he say it was OK? Not OK, by me for God's sake!

What the heck was I doing in a taxi with a driver who had no clue where he was taking me? What did he think he was doing?

Darkness had fallen around us by then, and the headlights were on. We crawled our way up, twisting and turning with Alaknanda flowing alongside. The road started getting narrow and there was steady traffic going in the same direction as us. But that was little comfort to me.

The battery in my phone was dying and I pulled the power bank out. The power bank was a last-minute buy on the day of my departure, after a debate over whether I really needed it. Two of them were disposed off by the security people at the airport during our last visit to India. We had absent-mindedly put them in our checked-in bag.

‘How many hours more?’ my husband texted.

‘No clue. Will keep you posted,’ I said. I didn’t want to panic him with sombre details.

It was wait and watch time. I had only my faith to hang on to and Hanuman Chalisa to keep my spirit from deflating. ‘Take me where you want,’ I said silently, handing over my fate to the all-knowing One. At that point, there was little else I could do.

It wasn’t dare and overconfidence that put me in this position, if that’s what one may accuse me of. It was my faith that things will turn out well eventually, my belief that my love for the mountains will prevail over everything, and my urge to piece myself together back in order that made me undertake this trip which became more than an adventure. (𝘁𝗼 𝗯𝗲 𝗰𝗼𝗻𝘁𝗱...)

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