It had been three months since I had had a good night’s sleep. It was 3 a.m. again and I got tired of staring at the pattern of flickering light my ceiling fan had been making on the wall. Since I had shut down the lights of my room, it had been a losing battle with sleeplessness. Tomorrow - I decided - I must seek a doctor and get myself some sleeping pills. In times of COVID, finding a doctor for sleep is going to be another hundred calls and two-hundred WhatsApp messages.
The last one year has been a roller coaster ride professionally. I had left a well paying job to work for an up-and-coming start-up promising to be the next unicorn, and making us all rich in the process. The bet had gone wrong in all ways possible.
The start-up was being run by crooks who got caught three months ago. All the rest of us were left behind in the ensuing mess. Not only were we now dealing with the law and worried for ourselves, but we were also looking at a potential loss of personal reputation and a severe setback to our careers. I was not sure till when I would continue to receive my salary. And even though I had floated my CV around, I was not getting any responses. I felt caught too! Maybe not like my crook employers… but in my own web of helplessness. My freefall was a fall all right… but I was paying a heavy price and nothing was free about it.
The cost was not just professional. The new job came with a lot of stock options and a 30% pay cut. This pay cut was hurting our travel plans, plans to buy a new car, ambition of moving to a plusher neighbourhood and what not. And now this scandal at my company. Things at home too have always been better than they now are.
It was past 3 a.m. and my mind was a fizzy concoction of bad memories and horrible scenarios. And gradually I was unable to tell the past from possibility. It was best if I focused on something peaceful. What was the best place to be now? Ok, let me force myself to my Himalaya trek I had gone to. It was a fun trip from ages ago and revisiting it tonight could help me with this damn insomnia.
And the trek started. Somewhat fuzzily… but it started all right. The overall feel of the Himalayan hillsides was clear. Every living thing I saw around me was some version of green. The track was rocky and muddy. Small streams cut across the path every few hundred meters. Some clouds were clouding my path… some were floating even lower by the hill sides. Other than the company of trees and clouds, I was all alone on the path. For some reason, I could not remember any friends who had accompanied me… not even any faces.
At home, if I were alone, my hand would reach out to the remote and the flat-screen box would start making an idiot of me. But here, there was a lush green path that curved around the mountain and seemed endless on both ends. But it is interesting how instincts take over when one is really alone in an unknown place. So I saw a path… instinct told me to walk! I couldn't tell if the path would take me up or down the mountain. But I guessed it would still be somewhere that I needed to be in.
I had walked some distance and the rucksack I had been carrying started feeling heavier. Sun had started to become shy - it was blushing into a full orange-red and was seeking to hide behind the mountains. And I heard rustling behind me - definitely steps. Definitely someone walking behind me. I turned around to look and could make out a slight image of a man walking towards me. Best I take directions from him, I thought.
I kept my burden next to my feet, and gave myself a rest as I waited for him to catch up. While he walked closer and I watched him walk, my brain started analyzing the image of the man… and as all well-trained modern brains do, my brain got ready to do an exercise of slotting the man in one of the various compartments even before I had a chance to know him.
He was a slight man, just over 5-feet tall. His body was thin and erect. His face was unremarkable. Salt-and-pepper grey bush of hair covered his head and face. Could be in the early forties. Eyebrows so thick I couldn't see his eyes. His clothes were rags but his shoes sparkled - a new pair of Nikes but clearly too big for him. His hands were empty. I just got the impression that a little change of garb and a nice shave and he could pass off as an MNC employee living in my uptown neighborhood.
Now his rags were not orange - so I ruled out right away he was a monk. Shoes were new and too big… he could be a thief who has stolen these shoes from another hiker? Other than that, I could not place him. He reached me, stopped and stared at me, waiting for me to start the conversation.
"Namaste," I greeted him. He kept staring unmoved. I continued, "I probably came here with my friends for a hike and it seems I am lost. Could you please direct me to the closest hikers' stop?"
"Namaste". He greeted back. "Where have you come from?"
His voice struck me. It was a smooth voice - not very deep - but with clear diction that smacks of a college education.
He had answered my question with a question. It bothered me a bit because I was literally and figuratively looking for answers… not more questions.
Let me give him the satisfaction of an answer. "From Delhi," I replied. Perhaps now he will become obligated to return the favour. "I was here with friends and somehow I got left behind. Any idea where hikers normally head to?" I revised my question.
"Delhi? Nice! You must be on a vacation here. City people are always looking for a respite in the mountains". A banal observation and still no answer to my question. Was this going to be difficult? I am generally very good at hiding my emotions. But something gave away my frustration - maybe it was my head that tilted sideways, or my eyebrows that were raised, or my eyes that rolled, or the deep sigh… something, but not sure what.
Anyway, he sensed it. Then just plainly said: "What would you have done if I had not happened to pass from here?" Another question! But wait… think about it… he is right. I was headed in some direction wondering if I had any companions and how I came to be alone here. And I was already headed in a direction and would have continued to do so, had I not met him. Now, I was getting a bit frustrated at him not showing me to my imaginary companions?
"I would be walking onwards, I guess," I replied.
"So why don't you keep doing that and I'll simply keep you company?" he said simply.
This was strange. A strange man meets me on a lonely path and instead of offering directions, offers to join me. Now like any good modern urban mind, my mind was working overtime and generating suspicions. He was most certainly a thief? Or worse? He must be eying my rucksack and my money. Gotta find my way out of this. This feeling, however, was prodded in the side by another instinctive tickle I had - curiosity. The way he counter-questioned me was pretty intriguing!
I think he understood right away the mixed signals of distrust and curiosity I was sending out. "Don't worry brother," he said. "I am simply headed in the same direction as you. I am sure a man my size does not scare you."
He was smart, I'll give him that. He had done just enough to assuage my fear but nothing to mollify my curiosity. And what he said was right anyway. So no harm in playing along. But let me at least strike a bargain. "Sure we can walk together… but what is your name?" I asked.
"Bhola… nice to meet you," he said. "Kabir… nice to meet you," I responded. So I got something at least. His name was a good start. We started walking together. We walked for about an hour as Bhola kept talking about the different kinds of plants and vegetation on these slopes. He seemed equally knowledgeable and equally ready to impart his knowledge to me. While I half listened to his discourse, my mind was preoccupied with curiosities. When I could not hold it in very long, I finally asked him.
"Bhola. You haven't told me where I can find my friends. I asked you twice. Do you know or not? Are you from these parts?" I asked.
"My friend, I am indeed from these parts but before I show you the trekker's hut you are seeking, let me ask you something." Great! Another question coming. "Are you sure you came here with your friends? If yes, why were you alone?" He asked.
Wow! He had again asked a question and this time, it was THE question that was frustrating me. Ever since I had started wandering on this trek, I had no recollection of how I happened to be there. Or if any of my friends and companions had come with me. Or how we had driven down from Delhi for this trek. I was just there.
I had started by enjoying the beauty of the Himalayas, but by the time Bhola came along, the tiredness of my rucksack had taken over and I was getting somewhat desperate to return to familiarity. With his question, it was now official - I had a bad case of short term amnesia. And I had no idea if I was alone or came with company.
While I was still digesting this realisation, Bhola halted. And I halted with him. Where he had stopped, there was a path that cut downhill to the right. He went to the edge of that path and pointed downhill. "There," he said. "That's the place you are asking about". I could see the faint outline of a wooden structure in the valley below. It would be an easy twenty minute trek down the hill. I would make it before it became completely dark.
With the Trekkers’ halting place in sight, I felt assured. There was a relief in me now and I could now trust Bhola. On my own, I might not have taken the diversion. I might have missed looking down the valley and the destination I was hoping for. But Bhola pointed me in the right direction. Now that the mistrust exited me, the vacated space was taken up by my curiosity. I still hadn’t figured Bhola out.
“Where are you headed, Bhola?” I asked. “Just further on, my friend. Why?” he replied and asked back.
“You have told me a lot of things about the surroundings, but I know nothing about you. And I am really curious," I said.
“You wanna walk with me? Maybe we can talk as we go along. I’d love the company and you can always find your way back," he replied. Good. Let me walk with him.
“Are you going to drag that rucksack with you? The path goes uphill," he said. Of course I was not going to leave my precious rucksack behind, and I told him so.
So we started walking. And talking. “I gotta ask, Bhola. I am a bit intrigued. What’s the deal with these new oversized shoes?”
“You ask too many questions, don’t you?” Bhola laughed.
“And you answer none of them. And when you answer, it is with another question," I laughed with him.
“Well these shoes were given to me by a friend like you,” Bhola said.
“A hiker gave you his shoes? Did he have a spare pair? Why would he give you the shoes?” I asked.
“Maybe he did not need them anymore.” He replied simply.
“How did that happen?”
Bhola narrated his meeting. “Well, like you, he found me on this trek. Just like you are tired, he was weary and sitting down. He was weary because he told me he had been walking for too long. Anyway, I sat with him. And we talked for a long time. Suddenly he realised he had walked enough and wanted to stop. He did not wish to continue on the path that he was on. I showed him a village on the hillside and the villagers took him in. And when he decided he would stay, he gave me his shoes”
“Really?” I said with disbelief. “So you keep meeting tired and lost people on this path! And now you have met me?”
“Oh yes. I have now met you,” Bhola said.
“Anyway, you tell me… why did you decide to walk with me?” Bhola asked. By now it had started to get dark. The path was now getting steeper and narrower. With the dying daylight, I could make out that the path had started to lose its edges and looked more and more like a trail. And, I was starting to get really tired.
“I was curious, Bhola. Curious about you and the things you said. Specifically, the question you asked about what I would have been doing if you had not come along. It is still ringing in my head,” I said.
“I told you my name. Now, Bhola means innocent in Hindi. And an innocent just asks more questions than he answers, right?” he said. I could see the irony and smiled.
Suddenly I tripped. It was dark, I was tired and the weight on my back did not help. I ended right on my hands and knees and stayed that way as Bhola turned towards me and helped the rucksack off my back. By now I was so tired that all I could do now was shift slightly without getting up, and sat myself down right there. “Are you hurt?” Bhola asked. “No, I am fine… let’s just rest awhile,” I said. Bhola sat down next to me.
As my legs rested and some blood found its way to my brain, my senses returned and I turned my head towards the valley. Wow! I had been too busy being the donkey and missed the beauty of the dark outlines of the hills and mountains. Down the valley lay a mesmerising potpourri of different couloured lights. The city below looked busy. But its noise didn’t reach us.
Bhola noticed me taking in the view. “You’re from there, right? Is it as beautiful from the inside?” I had lived in a city all my life. And I never once remember thinking it was a beautiful place. It was always the ugly noise of a news channel, or dirty streets, or a rude neighbour, or fight on the road. “No. It is bloody ugly from within,” I said.
“From a beautiful place, even the ugliest places looked beautiful, eh?” Bhola remarked.
“You are right, Bhola. Maybe I will stay back in the same village as your previous trekker friend,” I said.
“But his tiredness was different. He was tired because he had walked a long way. Unlike him, you are tired because your back is not yours anymore… it belongs to the rucksack you carry. You still have a long way to go, my friend,” my new friend said.
“That’s a strange way of putting it, but you have a point.” I responded.
“What are you carrying anyway?” asked Bhola. Of course I didn’t remember. “Let’s look inside,” I said.
I opened the rucksack top and let it roll to one side as its contents came rolling out slowly. And out came beautiful rocks. They were different colours, different shapes and pretty. But heavy. Really really heavy. They were probably collected from various spots I had passed on the way - a riverbed most likely. Why would I do that?
“You are a collector! All you cityfolk are collectors. You were going to define this trek by the number of rocks you brought back, not memories, eh?” Bhola remarked. He was right again.
“Your trek would be far smoother and less tiring if you travelled light, my friend. You could carry these rocks on your back or these worries in your mind. But look down there,” he said pointing at the city down below. “It is all so small from here.”
“You are right, Bhola.” I said. “Would you like to have this rucksack?” I handed out the empty rucksack to him. Now he had an oversized bag to go with oversized shoes. How long before the next trekker that he meets trusts him, I asked myself.
And before I could hold another thought, my alarm chimed and told me it was 6 a.m. Who had I just met? Where did he live? Was he my own imagination? My own innocence? I will never know. Doesn’t matter though.
I sat up, my eyes wide open right away. My head felt light for the first time in the last three months… so light in fact that I started dusting off the year-old dust from my treadmill.