She gently touched the water scurrying under her minimalistic raft. The tip of her finger would numb in the cold river if it stayed for more than a minute. She had nearly reached her next abode – a far- away land nestled cosily amidst the Himalayan range with the gushing Tirthan river playing the background score day and night. The boatman anchored his boat and she hopped to the shores feeling safe as her feet landed on the ground with a thud, like a hammer banging against a concrete wall after placing the nail at its right place. Her heart was hammering too – it was a big step. A giant leap – away from the confines of her colloquial house in Delhi.
She went to the small reception of the guest house which was a few steps away. It was inapt to call it a reception as it looked more like a desk in the veranda of an auberge in the hills. It housed two rooms for travellers who wanted to get away from mankind inhabiting the whole planet and would one day not leave any air to breathe. She took a heavy sigh and rang the brass bell lying carelessly on the wooden table. An old man slowly emerged from nowhere and took his own sweet time to perch on the chair next to the table. He eyed her with a questioning look.
She felt anxious.
“What if there was no vacancy?”- She thought. She had not even enquired before arriving. She had tried to place a trunk call from Delhi, but the operator always found the line busy. She just knew the address of the place from the travel magazines and it was a spur of the moment decision. A quick decision!! hurried…very hurried that she had taken years to come to!
A hurried decision to break the barriers and cross the boundaries, leaving her family behind, may be shattered or may be rejoicing. She could only guess. Her family – a son, Jai and a husband, Shudhanshu. They were now hundreds of kilometres away. But, they had a life of their own – they would survive. If she could all these years, they could as well! Wouldn’t they? Her son had semester exams next week – would he flunk? No, he won’t, she evaluated mentally. He was too brainy to make mistakes. He was perfect, and she had been a proud mother! She had raised a perfect child.
Though, everybody would now get an opportunity to gossip – ‘Imperfect mother of a perfect child!’ Her family and house were the reason her neighbours had always envied her, now she could imagine happy voices rejoicing in her Delhi neighbourhood.
“Madam ji, you alone?” – the old man, who told his name as Raju, enquired. His eyes wandered around her trying to find traces of her family.
“Hmm…Yes.” Jayanti said hesitantly. The reality struck her for the first time that indeed she was alone. She had been lonely for a long time now, but today she was standing here ‘alone’.
“Ok. How many days stay?” – Raju, the old man’s list of questions had just begun.
She didn’t have an answer! How much time she had? At least a couple of weeks before her family might realize that she no longer was living in their Delhi mansion. Shudhanshu was traveling to the other part of the world and Jai seldom noticed her. He was a scientist in making who generally kept to himself surrounded by journals and books. She knew he would make an excellent one – he had already got a call for an internship in NASA. She had never heard of NASA till he had put their letter of acceptance in her hands. He said he had been working very hard all his pre-university life to get this internship. And here she was – just coming to Himachal had taken her four decades of deliberation!
She always gloated of her son’s achievements! Always aiming for the sky – no less. She was the one who had to be on ground watching her family fly.
“A week! Hmm…No, please reserve for 2 weeks at least” – She had enough money to sustain for a month easily even if she splurged. Otherwise she would get it wired from her personal account which her father had so dearly setup for her in case of emergency. Emergency it was – she had turned insane!
“Madam ji, sign here. And you pay when you leave. All meals will be home made and served in the dining hall at the scheduled hours. If you want hot food, you need to be there on time. Will you have your meals here?” Raju, the old man, enquired.
“Yes, for the first few days. Then, I might go to the national park. Is it a long trek?” she could feel as if her hands would suddenly transform into wings and she into a butterfly.
“I know a guide and porter, Babulal. He is my relative. You tell me when you need, and I tell him to come here.” Raju, the old name, led her to the vacant room upstairs. He said 50% of the rooms were always occupied and she was lucky to grab the best of the lot. She nodded with a smile -the math was very easy when the rooms were just two.
Jayanti slowly unpacked her belongings and laid down all the hiking and camping equipment on the bed. It looked state-of-the-art equipment – she had been collecting these for years now. Sudhanshu had got her most of them during his overseas trips. He had always laughed when he used to unpack them for her – “For my dear wife who I don’t know, what will be doing with all of these!” – he had always said.
She missed him. She missed her house in Delhi – her cosy nest which she had built straw by straw and then just left it unannounced.
“Don’t be a fool. One wrong step and you will end up in two pieces!” she imagined how Sudhanshu would react if he would have known her plans. He was never the adventurous kind – always meticulous, sincere and gave just the right time to family and of course excelled in his work! He was an achiever. He had achieved new heights very early in his career – the Himalayan heights would not hold any significance for him.
Jayanti leisurely took a bath in the hot water. Luckily the iron rod heater was provided – that was a luxury in these hills, she had seen only bigger hotels having such facilities. She stepped out of her room to find Raju, the old man, still sitting on the chair behind the desk. He was very still. She wondered if he was dead. She looked closely and jumped back when he suddenly sprung up from his chair.
“You need anything madam ji!!” – he asked.
“Oh no.. no.” She replied while eyeing at the door opposite to her room.
Raju, the old man, followed her gaze and as if sensing her curiosity. “It is vacant.” After a pause, he added, “But not to worry – you will find a lot of people in the village down there”.
“Oh ok!! Uncle, can you tell me how soon I will be able get the porter to go to the national park?” – Jayanti had to prepare for her trip. She planned to start after a week which gave her ample time to acclimatize – to the height and also to the depth of change she had inflicted not just upon herself but also on her family.
“When do you need mam? I get Babulal for you. He is very familiar with the national park area and also the mountains beyond that!” Raju, the old man’s eyes lit up. “Are you trekking for the first time?”
“Hmm…Why?…No No…I have trekked in the south!” – Jayanti remembered once she had gone hiking in Mahabaleshwar a few years back. That counted, didn’t it? After all trek is a trek!
“No No..Madam..south only hills..these are Himalayas- the real mountains! One wrong step and you can die” His words reminded her of Sudhanshu.
Not wanting to continue this conversation, she told Raju, the old man, that she would go for a walk and would be back only by evening.
Jayanti inhaled the crisp mountain air and headed towards the settlement across the bridge. The river gushed like a thunderous cloud waiting to burst. She could hear the temple bells from a distance. Her steps followed the sound, leading her to the small hamlet. The temple area was buzzing with the locals as she stopped to see the procession.
“Marriage happening!” – an old lady told her sensing her questioning look.
She could see the bride and groom from a distance. They were surrounded by the relatives as she guessed – beginning a new journey of their lives.
Jayanti didn’t want to stop – her feet were on a journey of their own and she just followed them.
She had a good life back home – predictable and slotted in a routine which she had painstakingly worked on for so many years. A husband who doted on her when he was at home which was usually for a few minutes in a day. A son who respected her. She couldn’t ask for more – but she desired for more.
That day, having finalised the route for the trek, she had stopped at the tea shop, chit-chatting with the locals. They were all praises about how courageous she was in deciding to scale these heights.
The week had just flown past – but it had been a long week. Jayanti had seen so many places just being on foot for the past one week, interacted with the residents of the village. The surroundings now had known faces; she felt as if she belonged here. The week was also long because her mind was crowded with memories – memories so many that each minute of the day seemed longer remembering them. There were no calls to the guest house. It meant Sudhanshu had not been able to trace her. She hoped he would finally find her, not just in the literal sense.
She had often talked to him about the Tirthan valley and this guest house about which she had read in many traveller magazines. Or maybe, he had traced her but didn’t want to find her – she sometimes wondered pessimistically.
As those days and nights gave way to new ones, Jayanti had started to discover herself – how she loved travelling, experimenting and not being in her comfort zone. She decided to savour it and let the course of time determine her life ahead.
“Hello Jayanti!!” – her train of thoughts screeched to a halt at a known voice – was it a voice in her head? She looked around to find known eyes looking at her. It was Avinash!! Her college crush!!
“Don’t tell me you have forgotten me?” he challenged her. She wanted to say yes, especially after remembering her last meeting with him.
“hmm…I think I remember you – not that clearly though” she tried to feign disinterest but failed miserably at it!
“What are you doing here all by yourself?” he asked.
“I have come for a trek!” – she said – her voice a bit unsure.
“All by yourself? Alone?” he asked again, as if that was the last thing she could do.
“What about you? What are you doing her all alone!” she asked in return.
“I am writing a novel and for that I prefer to be alone. It’s part of my profession.” – Avinash revealed.
“I need to head back – it’s getting dark” – she blurted, escaping from an uncomfortable chat. She couldn’t handle bumping into Avinash after all these years.
“Aren’t you delighted to see me?” Avinash hesitated.
Delighted? She was exhilaratingly delighted and uncomfortably confused and surprisingly on the verge of panic.
Avinash was a dream that was crushed long back when he had rejected her and here she was running away from him after all these years when time and again she had allowed ricochets of his memories to touch the otherwise pristine waters of her life.
“Ok allow me to at least walk you back!” he persisted.
They walked in silence – she trying to locate all the hazy moments of their time together that had gathered layers and layers of dust.
“Where is your family?” she asked.
“I don’t have one” Avinash paused – “I couldn’t have one after running away from you”
After covering the rest of the distance in silence, she was in front of the familiar veranda of her 2-room guesthouse – “So this is where I have put up. Hmm.” Jayanti was ready for goodbyes – they were long due.
“Really? I am there myself!!!” pointing at the other room’s door, Avinash jumped with delight like a kid in front of a toy shop.
It was turning out to be crossing more barriers for Jayanti and suddenly she was showered by a lot of attention and time. The milieu was idyllic, and the companion was flawless. She had to postpone her trek by a few days on the insistence from Avinash that he won’t come in her life again and again. He was right – it was just a few days and then she would be on her way as planned. Avinash was very inquisitive about her life and family and why she was all by herself. And she was frank – she still loved her husband, but love was not everything. She knew that her capabilities were far more than just being capable to love and spend doing just that all her life and that had brought her to the wilderness.
“I can be your porter and your guide too” – Avinash insisted as he munched the breakfast on the day of her trek. She was adamant that she didn’t want to do this journey with him. It was unplanned and unexpected meeting him there and while she would again like to meet him once she was back, but she would be fine even if he decided to leave. He would be a beautiful page in her book of life, but the rest of the pages would be about herself.
The short Story The Himalayan Escape continued here...