And then there are discoveries you make about yourself when you are out gallivanting without a care. One of them being – you need to take care. Not sure if it is long Covid or there is something else lurking in there unbeknownst, but as soon as I arrived, I realised that my lungs did not have enough power to steer me around the uneven terrains. There are several things a cloistered life will not disclose. It is when we move out of the comfort zone that truths will reveal themselves and make us sit up and take notice.
It was only after I came to the hills that I learnt that I had an irritating health issue which had been in hiding all this while. A few steps on a short incline could get me huffing and puffing as if the next thing I will need is a ventilator. I would hear my heart hammering in my throat, its timbre clobbering my ears – boom-boom, boom-boom - making me wonder if I would soon retch my heart out. It wasn’t mere palpitation; it was sheer breathlessness. A total end-of-the-road scenario. Although it turned out to be a huge limitation on my movements, making me abandon bigger plans on longer and higher routes, I trudged on. Because there was a spirit that was willing, although the body was fussing big time.
When I planned for Karthik Swamy temple, a popular spot roughly 28 kms from Pokhri, I had no clue what I was in for. I was told there was a three and half km trek to the temple from where the car stopped, and it sent alarm bells ringing in my head. But I was also told it was doable. Yes, doable under normal circumstances, but now when the heart was waiting to fall out of my mouth?
With huge worry loaded on my chest, I took the trip accompanied by Kamla’s son, Pankaj, who had by then warmed up to me very much and had started looking up to me as his mother. Such bonding happen very seldom in a world that is losing its essential bearings and I have only my good luck and some old karma to thank for all the love I have received on this trip from people I have newly met. Pankaj learnt from the driver (who was his cousin) that a horse could be arranged to take me up the hill. People normally went on foot, but with the cousin’s contacts, a horse could be arranged. Now I would call this divine intervention. You can call it by any other name – miracle, coincidence, chance, luck.
I am not sure if it was a pony or a mule that cantered in. I can’t tell the difference, but she had a pretty name. Tina. And a fragile-looking groom, Jaspal. Getting me on the horseback was a hilarious spectacle, the horse moving away from me every time I hoisted my leg to get astride. It took four to five attempts for me to finally get into position and start upward to the temple.
Jaspal kept giving me instructions on how to maintain balance, and where to put weight to make the trek easier for Tina. It was confirmed beyond doubt during that ride that I had a spine in place. And bones in other places too that made their presence known with pokes and prods into the flesh. Every time the path sloped, and the ground got uneven, Jaspal would intone, ‘Tina, pyar se, pyar se.’
The man knew Tina as much as she knew him. He lavished expletives on her whenever she veered a bit, but she didn’t seem to mind. There was a distinct bonding between the two, which Jaspal said was several years old. Tina followed only his instructions and no new groom could get her to behave. Jaspal has been helping tourists go up the hill for eight years now. He made at least two trips a day. He didn’t own the ghoda and was only an employee, and hinted that he made ends meet with his paltry salary and the tips that tourists gave him. I made note of it and had no qualms giving him his due when the trip ended.
Our hike of 45 minutes provided Jaspal with ample time to relate his life story to me. I didn’t ask, but he seemed keen to share it with me.
Sad stories always make me sigh. There was a time when I used to cry; a tear would break in the corner of my eyes when a someone shares a sad chapter from their personal archives. I would spend long hours vicariously feeling their pain, wallowing in their borrowed melancholy that would leave my peace in splinters. But now, I only sigh and don’t cry.
I have learnt that to be compassionate is to understand and appreciate their plight and not to assume their sorrows and emotions as mine. I have suffered self-attrition of the worst kind because of this unhealthy practice of mine. So, I now listen, not laying myself on them like a blotting paper, but quietly offering my shade for a respite. And there are stories galore in this world. Some spill over from burdened hearts, some just fester inside and die.
Jaspal’s wife died at the age of 21, he said, leaving him with three little boys. He spent all his life raising the boys the hard way who now have left him and gone their own ways.
‘Are you married?’ he asked Pankaj on our way.
‘What’s the hurry? I am still young,’ said Pankaj, who was walking it up all the way for my sake.
‘Yes, I suffered for marrying young and gained nothing. You must not do the same mistake,’ Jaspal handed out a life-lesson learned from hard knocks he had taken in 52 years.
I felt a twinge of embarrassment as I watched little children and families trot up the hill, while here I was, looking privileged atop a mule. It was a moment that made me resolve that the first thing I would do when the tour ended was to get my breath back in cadence.
Turning a full circle, I caught in my eyes snow-clad peaks and green mountains all around me, the air so pure that it was impossible for me to believe that my lungs didn’t want to stuff itself with it and revel in its freshness. I spent some time letting my spirit saturate with the ambience and abundant scenery. There was nothing to think about, nothing to fret over. Just the moment of being there in total unison with THAT WHICH IS on a patch of earth with heavenly attributes made for mortals like us.
As per mythology, it was at this spot that Lord Muruga (Karthikeya) parked himself in protest after his brother Ganesha won the test of allegiance that Shiva and Parvathy had put them to. This is the only Karthikeya temple in the North and I wasn’t surprised to spot tourists from Tamil Nādu visiting the little hill-top shrine that has only a rock serving as an idol.
With less than a handful of pilgrims in sight, and the distant vistas spreading out as if the arms of the universe were open wide for me to walk into, I spent some time just soaking in the absolute stillness of the place before starting my downward trek.
At the base, where Jaspal and Tina were waiting, we had some hot samosas made to order. I don’t know what makes Garhwali chai so different and refreshing, but every time I have had a cup, no matter where, it has been manna to me. It is a lapse on my part to not have taken notes on tea-making from them before I left the place. I need a reason to return to Garhwal some other time, and maybe I will use this as an added ruse.
The ghoda-climbing theatrical repeated at the base, and I felt I had some extra bulk that was making the exercise more difficult. Nevetheless, we got on our way down, but not before getting Jaspal to pose for me. I needed to put him in the tour album. These are faces I will imprint in my memory forever.
‘Jaspal bhaiyya, zara yahan dekhiye,’ I said impressed by the pose he was striking with a distant look in his eyes and a beedi to boot between his lips.
The moment I called his attention, Jaspal threw the beedi away, readying for a sanitised pose. I was disappointed and made no bones about it.
‘Bhaiyya, beedi kyon phenka? Uske bagair to photo hi nahin banta,’ I said.
‘Arre! Ek aur jalaoon?’ he asked excitedly, pulling out another stick. As he put it in the mouth, lit it and gave me a grave-looking pose, eyes fixed in an intense gaze, I said, ‘Abhi aap ekdum Deewar ke Amitabh bachchan jaise lag rahe hai.’
The way he blushed at that remark made me think how small compliments can lift a sombre face, and yet how often we grudge it even when it is genuinely called for. I don’t know what might have made Jaspal’s day – the Amitabh compliment, the two hundred rupees that I handed out, or the pat I gave him in the end and said, ‘Tina ke saath khush rahiye.’