No big deal

When I was little, I once slipped and nearly fell into the valley.

We were traveling along the western coast, me, my Dad, his two best friends, and their families. It was the middle of summer, and everywhere it was scorching hot. It was an annual thing, the three families on a coastal road trip. Mothers with their sun hats, us girls in frilly frocks and the fathers looking more relaxed than they did all year round.

On this particular afternoon, we had stopped at the high point of a mountain pass. We stretched our legs, admired the scenery. We watched the river flow far beneath us in the valley. We drank some water, we cracked our backs, we laughed. We may have clicked some photographs. And then, I slipped and nearly fell into the valley.

It happened so fast that no one screamed. One by one, they turned to stare at the spot I was standing before disappearing out of sight as if they were watching a magic show and were waiting for a rabbit to be pulled out from a hat. One by one, the faces appeared, peering down from the side of the road.

I still remember my Dad’s face. It was not worried. He looked down at me, a few feet below, where I hung on for dear life to a creeper growing out of the side of the mountain. My Dad had known I was safe. He lay flat on the road and gave me a hand. His friends did the same thing, and together they pulled me back up.

When I had both feet back on the ground, my Dad smirked at me. There was no dramatic hugging and thanking God I was alive and well. I smiled back at him, got into the car, and we drove on, just like folks on a vacation, chattering about film stars, the weather and whose turn it was to play songs on the cassette player. Nothing amiss had happened that day. Life goes on, and sometimes a kid nearly falls into a valley. No biggie.

Smokescreen

Only one thought has weighed on me all day long. Do I want to be the writer or the story?

You tell me you are writing me, and I long to be written about. I am the story you were born to write. And since I cannot write my own story, I shall wait. I shall wait for the writer to meet the story.

Meanwhile, I went to a café today, sat outside on quaint wooden chairs, drank some smoke and inhaled some caffeine as the gentle evening breeze caressed my face and the mosquitos danced and welcomed the darkness. A storytelling workshop was going on inside, and a turbaned fellow in folk attire narrated his story, his voice rising to a crescendo and then falling to a whisper as the audience listened in rapt attention. Old people, I thought, observing the white heads lining the window.

A part of me, I will admit, was curious. I wanted to go in and see if the story could move me as deeply. And yet another part of me wanted to be invisible. I could not bear the thought of walking inside in the middle of a story, all eyes on the young newcomer. I could not bear the burden on engaging in social activity without the convenient façade of digital personas. And so I lit another cigarette, and another, and hid behind my laptop and my writing, letting the mosquitos suck my blood and wishing I was the smoke curling up into the fading light. A crescent moon was rising, and with it, my shame, and inside the lights grew brighter, illuminating wrinkled faces and the sound of humans in harmony.

Strangers in sync

It was the fall of 2016. While the temperatures in the Valley were moderate, after sundown, the wind picked up and howled through the trees, making them shiver and shed their autumn foliage. We were bundled up in our winter jackets and scarves, and in search of whiskey to burn our throats and warm our innards. Up in the Himalayan mountains, it is a question of survival; it doesn’t really matter whether you ordinarily drink or not.

It had been a rough hike; with the sun beating down on our backs and sweat soaking through the layers, it was hot enough to experience a stroke. We occasionally sat and cooled off, but this part of the Valley had scant greenery, and sometimes there was not a single tree for miles. We were walking through a landscape of endless mountain ranges of brown and grey, a deserted trail beside a frothing white river and a clear, blue sky; despite the hard terrain, it was achingly, breathtakingly beautiful.

The population of the entire Valley was in four digit numbers, and the locals played host to weary travelers with undisguised delight. Food, water and shelter – your basic needs got taken care of with hardly a dent in your pocket, and beyond that, there was not much you needed, for travelers in the Valley never care for luxuries, rather, they are on the run from it.

After the day’s hike, we had chosen a small hostel on the outskirts of the village; it was cheap, promised decent food and had 5 rooms for rent. We were a strange group – me and my boyfriend, a girl with glasses who wrote poems and skipped stones, two musician guys from Mumbai who had been roaming these parts of the mountain for more than a month now, an American super-athlete couple and a young German girl and her Indian boyfriend who had been volunteering for the past year at a blind kids’ school in rural India. Incidentally, it so happened that that night would be the last time all of us met together in the same place, for the next day, we would all be going different ways.

Our search for a warm beverage proved more than fruitful, for the two Mumbaites not only had a bottle of scotch saved for some such occasion, but also produced some good quality hash, a souvenir of their travels. And so that night, a group of strangers gathered in one of the rooms, lit some candles, poured themselves some scotch, lit a joint, and sat in a circle to swap stories.