For the longest time, I had believed that Love was the emotion that had the greatest impact on our lives. That our world depended on the amount of love we received or didn’t receive. That Love (for various things and people) determined our own propensity for life. That Love was supreme. But no. I had been grossly mistaken in my identification of man’s most influential inner element.
The most dominating feeling that we carry in our system is fear. It is what governs our character and actions. It’s what makes us think in weird manners and irrational ways. When fear seizes us, even the moon can look menacing, the wind can feel toxic. Even the most innocuous smile on people’s face can seem devious. Fear is the biggest curse of man.
The seed of apprehension that was sowed in my heart by my own illogical calculations began to grow into veritable fear as Bittu stopped the car at Srinagar to ask people the way to Pokhri. I found a government-run guest house to use the washroom quickly, while Bittu made his enquiries. Upon return, I saw that Bittu was on phone with someone. It was important for me not to look or sound concerned. I had to keep my fraying nerves from showing.
‘Aaj raat ko yahan rukna padega, madam,’ Bittu said categorically after he disconnected the call. ‘Ab hum aage nahin jaa sakte.’
In one stroke my fear died. What it was replaced by, I still don’t know. An emptiness perhaps. Or a numbness that made fear suddenly alien to me.
‘Where do I find a place to halt, if you say this so suddenly?’ I said. The stand-by plan of going to a homestay that Kiran had referred was abandoned after buoyed by Bittu’s confidence at the airport, we had decided to drive straight. I had called the homestay and informed them of my drop of plans to halt. Now, if Bittu suddenly asked me to break journey, where would I go?
‘Why do we need to break here? You said we could go.’ I tried to maintain equanimity.
‘The road ahead is bad. And we have to drive through thick forest, and they don’t permit driving at night. We will be stopped at the entrance to the forest. We have another 100 kms to go to reach your place and I won’t be able to go.’
“But where will I go now? I don’t have a place to stay.’
‘I have a contact. I know some place. I will take you there.’
I should have been rattled by that offer, but I didn’t let the malevolence of the mind take charge of the situation. Letting fear takeover was the last thing I should allow myself to do. I just had to think through and do what could be done.
The only person I could reach out for help was Kiran. She had been such a bulwark throughout. I asked Kiran to speak to the driver, and while they spoke, I felt a very strange calmness descend on me. It is impossible to trace the source of that calmness, but I just felt all the worries melt away. It was a complete submission to the Universe without a dreg of fear or doubt. Earlier, when I had handed myself over, there still were worms in my head. But now, there were none. The surrender was complete, in heart, mind and body and that infused strength of a kind I had not known I was capable of feeling. A sense of fearlessness that comes when you have transcended the final frontiers of fear.
Bittu handed the phone back to me and said, ‘Aao baito.’
He was going to continue the drive, I surmised.
What had Kiran told him? What made him change his mind? I didn’t want to probe anything. I texted Kiran and she said that there was no such thing as night restrictions to drive through the forest. She knew the place as sure as the back of her hand. At the most, we will find wild animals staring into our headlight, and that too would be an experience to remember, she quipped.
The confidence with which she said that added to my strength and I let Bittu take my fate forward. Driving alongside Alaknanda, of which I could only catch a few glimpses in the night, we left Srinagar to proceed to Rudraprayag. And then we had to proceed to Karnprayag. It is after Karnprayag that we must take a detour from the Badrinath highway and enter the forest route of several kilometres that leads to Pokhri.
‘Is everything OK?’ My husband texted.
‘Yes, so far so good,’ I texted back. “Continuing the drive.’
‘Should I talk to the driver’s boss?’ he asked.
‘No, I will let you know if you have to.’ I could feel a feeble sense of worry in his text. Not a person given to panicking easily, his concern meant I was in a vulnerable position, if not in acute danger. It was the first sign of his concern, and my immediate task was to put his worry to rest.
As we ascended the mountains, I saw a full moon emerge from behind the hills and create a deep silhouette of the mountains. The imposing image it presented made me feel as if I was fortified by nature from all dangers. I craned my neck to see the moonlight fall on Alaknanda down below. A mercurial ribbon accompanied me along with the torchlight above. As we left behind the town of Rudraprayag, I saw electric lights below that seemed like Milky way splashed on earth. From the rear windshield, the moon shone in; there was a white aura surrounding us, and in that moment, if there was one emotion that I consciously chucked out, it was fear.
The immensity of the situation still weighing on me, I waited for the miles to fall behind us. We came to a point from where we had to divert, and Bittu looked confused. There was no one around to ask, and I tried to turn my GPS on, but failed due to poor network. There were no vehicles on the road, it was completely deserted, with only the moon for company. But it was enough. It was a sign that I was not alone. It was Karthik Poornima and its full glow was falling on me as if it was there on God’s command.
‘Go, guide the girl through this. Be her escort,’ He must have told the moon.
For some reason, my suspicion and misgivings about the driver and his intentions suddenly felt unwarranted. He was making every effort to take me to my destination. That the route was long-winding, and the drive was arduous was true. But my assumption that every man on earth will be tempted to ruin a woman’s honour or exploit her vulnerability should he find an opportunity was slowly beginning to fray. It was an assumption that I had probably built up from hearsay. There are bad apples, and there are untoward things happening, but to imagine that it would happen to me is ridiculous and self-restricting.
It was an occasion to let go of my invented fears of the world and strap myself with grit and tenacity, and I wasn’t going to squander the chance to do it.
Bittu waited a bit for a vehicle to pass by to ask for directions. Spotting a lone vehicle coming from the opposite direction, Bittu flagged it down and found the way forward. Our next target was to reach Karnaprayag after which we will enter the forest.
At some point again, Bittu needed guidance at a crossroads in what seemed to be the last spot of any human habitation before the forest began, and there was none to ask. The few shops that were there were all closed and there was only a lone jeep parked on the side of the road, and Bittu stopped for a while, wondering which way to go. He got out of the car and paced a few steps up and down, by which time two cops appeared from God knows where. They were policemen on night patrol and seeing us parked with headlights on, they had come forward to enquire and direct us on the right path. These are divine interventions, in my view. Believe it or not.
The night rolled on and the stunning silence of the forest soon encountered us. The only ambient sound that we could hear was that of buzzing insects that makes forests so eerie and enchanting at once, and the bubbling noise of water streaming down once in a while. Thankfully, the roads had been bad only in stretches and not as it was made to sound by Bittu’s friend on phone. Short poles with reflectors lined the edge of the lonely forest path like sentry on watch. The drive reminded me of the song -
‘Sansar ki har shay ka itna hi fasaana hai, ek dhund se aana ha, ek dhund mey jaana hai.. Yeh raah kahan se hey, yeh raah kahan thak hey, yeh raaz koi raahi samjha hai na jaana hai’.
Winding up the road in the complete conviction that the worst is behind me, I read a road sign that indicated that we were 27 kms away from Pokhri. 27 kms on a mountainous jungle road could take long, yet the destination had never felt so close to me. On one side was the hill, and on the other, dark, deep gorges cloaked in thick deciduous trees. I prayed that Bittu did not take a wrong swerve at the turning or nod off on the way, for it could mean plunging to an irretraceable end. Accidents of that kind are not unheard off in these regions.
But then again, anything could happen to anyone, anywhere. Unpredictability is something we must live with, but the only way we can escape its effects is by not getting swept by dreadful anticipation of things to come.
As we approached the road to Pokhri, and saw the distance shrink to single digits, I had a strange thought. Forgive me my sentimentality, but this was precisely what flashed in my mind. The image of Krishna charioteering Arjuna in the battlefield. In an unbelievable turn of thoughts and a sudden spark of insight, Bittu now appeared to me like the Lord Himself, steering me through the long way to Pokhri. A deep sense of guilt and gratitude descended on me as I made my first phone call to the caretaker of Birdsong & Beyond, Kamla, to get the exact location of the cottage. After a few wrong turns in the final stretch, we finally arrived. Kamla and her husband, Ramesh were waiting for us eagerly there.
As I got off the car, I asked Bittu, ‘Aap ne Bhagwan ko kabhi dekha hai?’
‘Nahin’ he said. I could see his face only faintly in the moonlight above us.
‘Mey ne dekha hai. Aap me. Aaj aap mere liye Bhagwan se kam nahi hai. Sahi salamat jo muhe yahan thak pahunchaaya. Thank you, Bittu bhaiyya.’
He said nothing. He must have smiled in acknowledgment or dismissed my remark with a scorn. He might have cursed me for making him undertake this journey. Or might have been just stoic. I don’t know. The moon couldn’t reflect his response to me.
It was well past 11.00 pm. The long way to Pokhri had taught me lessons that I will mull over again and again. It will be food for contemplation for a long time to come. It was a journey that gave me lasting lessons and brought life-changing realisations. About human beings. About the world. About myself. And above all, about our perceptions of reality.