Huffing and puffing up a long, steep, slippery slope, AR and I reached the edge of the Zero Point in front of which, a razor sharp, scree-ridden slope led our eyes deep into the valley below and the glacial wildernesses beyond. Unfit mortals like myself weren’t allowed to venture ahead of this area and for very good reason. Just standing there staring at the slender thread of the Pindari river snaking through the barren, snow-capped gorge was enough to give me a vertigo attack.
“That’s Nanda Khat, that’s Nanda Kot and that’s Pindari glacier,” said D, perfunctorily pointing out the hazy peaks in the Himalayan panorama visible in front of us. While the view might have impressed anyone just waltzing into the place, having toiled long and hard for 3 days, fighting hunger, lack of sleep and the sort of body aches I never knew a human being could endure, my expectations were obscenely high and they found these views underwhelming. To make matters worse, my camera stopped working and I felt like all the hard work I had put in to get there was futile.
D might have sensed the disappointment writ large on my face because he saw a ripe opportunity to throw more salt on my wounds. He said, “The views aren’t great today. But if you had come in October, it would have been much better. It’s all crystal clear that time of the year. That ridge you see next to the Pindari Glacier is the Traill’s Pass. When you lose 20 kilos, get fitter and buy a good camera, I’ll take you there.” I was weary and tired but I summoned all the energy I had to give him as fearsome a death stare as I could.
We walked back down the rocky hillside to meet the most famous resident on the Pindari trail, the Pindari baba. The baba was born in Orissa but after years of wanderings, he became a disciple of an aged guru and took a vow of asceticism. One day, his wanderings took him to the icy wildernesses of the Zero Point. He was so impressed with the landscapes here that he chose to make it his abode for life.
The baba had been living alone in his modest little wood-and-stone ashram for over 20 years. D said some of the people in the villages had weird theories about him. Some suspected he was a CBI agent, some thought he got funding from foreign NGOs, some felt he was a spy. But what he did know was that the baba could speak over 36 languages fluently and did a lot of work with the schools in the villages to spread education and improve infrastructure.
When AR, D and I entered the ashram, Pindari baba greeted us with a plate of dal-rice and endless cups of tea. He was a gentle, cheerful man, very curious, uninhibited and open to conversation.
“We’ve heard a lot about you”, I said.
“Haha I don’t know what you’ve heard. People say all kinds of things about me. Most of it is untrue. I’m just a simple man living a simple life.”
“How do you speak 36 languages?”
“I can speak more than 36 languages. Many foreigners come here. I talk to every single one of them and try to learn as much as I can. What’s the point of life if you stop learning?”
“Don’t you ever feel afraid or lonely living alone?”
“Everyone asks me this. But what do I have to fear? Every morning I go down to the river to collect water and watch the bharal (wild sheep) grazing on the high mountain slopes. If you had come here earlier, you could also have seen them. Then the trekkers keep coming during the day. After people leave in the afternoon, I have all the time to myself. There’s no one to disturb me. I do my meditation, prayer and a lot of reading. People keep sending me books. Just a minute, I have something to show you.”
He went inside and got a hard cover copy of a book called “Spies in the Himalayas” by M.S. Kohli.
“I just got this book last week. Do you know there’s a nuclear device hidden in the Himalayas? This book gives you all the details. The Indian Government tried to install a plutonium device in the 60s to spy on Chinese nuclear instalments but they somehow lost it and haven’t been able to find it ever since. Why do you think people aren’t allowed to go close to the Nanda Devi mountain? It’s because the radiations might kill you. You should read it. It’s about the deepest secrets hidden in the Himalayas. The author was in the army before. So he knows what he’s saying.”
I would have loved to spend an entire day chatting with the baba but we had a long walk ahead of us. D was especially anxious to get going because he wanted to cross the snowfields on the way before they began melting in the afternoon sun. Walking back in the thick forest, I was consumed by the idea of living alone in the wilderness and entertained thoughts about living a simple life satisfying only my basic needs. I asked D what he thought of these ideas.
“Terrible”, he said, sounding decidedly unimpressed, “First of all, many tourists, especially foreigners, try to do this after seeing babas in the Himalayas. No one survives for more than a few days because it is impossible to live alone for so long. Pindari baba is good and I don’t want to say anything bad about him but there are many babas like him in the Himalayas and not all of them are genuine. Many of them hardly ever stay for winters and have a lot of money in the bank account. They have connections, investments, back up plans and are as materialistic as you are. Some even have money to visit Europe every year. So if someone like you wants to do it, without any tapasya (meditation) or training, you have to have a business plan in place.”
“I wasn’t talking about becoming a baba. I only wondered if it’s possible to build a hut and settle down in the mountains somewhere and live peacefully for the rest of my life.”
“That’s even worse. You’ll kill yourself in a few days. You won’t have anyone to talk to. You don’t look like you fast a lot and you probably don’t know how to grow food either, so what will you do? I have a better idea for you. Come here every year, have fun, spend a few peaceful days walking in the mountains and go back home to your wife and children. Better still, bring them with you. You’re 28 years old. It’s about time you got married. Then you’ll be so busy your mind won’t think of these stupid ideas.”
As we were walking and conversing, the long trail of school children walked ahead of us. One of the kids was traveling on top of a mule, crying uncontrollably. She had twisted her foot close to Zero Point and was unable to walk any further. The mule walked awkwardly and every few steps, it would jerk around and one of its legs would threaten to slide down the trail deep into the gorge below. The girl wailed every time this happened and one of the rescue specialists who was part of the team ran to pacify her.
I was a bit disgruntled with D’s straightforward assessment of my life choices and walked with the rescue specialist. He, too, was a frustrated man.
“It’s not as if I don’t like doing this”, he said, “Of course, it’s wonderful to take children deep into the mountains and show them natural beauty. But as an adventurer, I’m sick of walking on these easy trails. I have seen these mountains so many times it’s boring. I need some new adventures. Just last week, I was climbing Satopanth with a Korean expedition and see what I’m doing today. But if you want to put food on the table, you have to run after mules. Chances for big expeditions don’t come very often.”
“But from my perspective, you’re very fortunate”, I said, “If someone gave me your job, I’ll very happily take it and do it for the rest of my life.”
The rescue specialist laughed and said, “This is not an easy job. I had to train for years at the Mountaineering Institute to be good enough to qualify. If that mule falls down the slope, I would have to put my life on the line and run down the gorge, pick up the girl and climb back here. There’s no option to fail because it is my responsibility to see that everyone finishes the trek safely. That could be a huge burden to deal with every day of your working life.”
We soon arrived at the Tourist Rest House in Dwali without any casualties. The angry caretaker who had shooed us away just the day before didn’t look any happier when he saw AR, D and I striding towards him. He looked at me and said, “What did I tell you yesterday? He is your guide! He has to come hours before you do and tell me you are coming. How can you make the same mistake again and again?”
“So you don’t have any rooms today as well?”, I said, wearily.
“No, I don’t. All the rooms are taken by the school group.”
D smiled sheepishly and said, “Wait here. I’ll do something.”
He managed to find a “friend” among the guides working with the school group.
“You know that if it was up to us, we could walk down to Khati in a couple of hours”, he said to his friend, “But these clients, they get tired too soon. So just do something.”
The friend spoke to his crew and managed to get AR and I some space in a dark, dank store-room space filled with quilts and rugs piled on a filthy floor. My feet were aching so bad after the strenuous 8 hour walk that I could barely move them. We had to wake up early the next morning for another long day’s walk up to the Kafni glacier and back, a thought that sounded more agonizing than pleasurable.
D was right, if this was the way I felt after only 3 days of walking in the mountains, maybe it was a terrible idea to even entertain thoughts of settling down here.
I have always marvelled at the uncanny ability of rickshaw drivers to spot an outsider and know where they’re going. I wasn’t dressed too differently from a lot of other people at the bus stand; a simple blue t-shirt, jeans and a small backpack. But there he was, in my face, asking no one else but me, if I wished to go to Palitana. He would take me there for only 700 Rs., he said, and put me up in a nice dharamshala close to the big temples. First, I refused politely with a gentle smile saying I would rather take a bus. Then, when he refused to go away, a curt, dismissive “no”. And finally, when he became overtly insistent, a very angry “no” which appeared to shock him with its vehemence.
It also annoyed me immensely that the bus to Palitana was taking such a long time to arrive. If the time-tables at the station were to be believed, there was a bus that went every hour. But I had been waiting for well over an hour and there was no sign of any that went to Palitana. I went over to the “Enquiry Counter” to interrupt the men sitting inside who had been loudly gossiping with idle drivers and conductors in Gujarati. Someone had made a joke that made them all laugh very loudly and my frantic appeals went unheard. Finally when I broke the sound barrier with the loudest “excuse me” I had ever uttered, the laughter died off abruptly and all the faces turned to stare at me with a stupefied gaze.
“What do you want?”, said the man seated behind the square grill at the counter. “When is the bus to Palitana expected to arrive?” I asked. He gave me a piercing stare, like I was a student who had asked the dumbest of questions, then showed me the palm of his hand, closed the shutter of the window and turned back to entertain his colleagues before I could figure out if the five fingers meant “5 minutes”, “wait” or “get out of here”. When I went back to the Palitana stand, the rickshaw driver, seeing that my situation was becoming more hopeless with every passing minute, made another opportunistic move.
“The bus to Palitana will never come”, he said, “and even if it does, you won’t be able to get a seat.”
“I’ll take my chances”, I said, “Please go away. I’m not going in your rickshaw.”
“Okay, 500 Rs. You’ve come as a tourist to see the temples. It’ll be more comfortable for you if you come with me.”
“No”, I said, “Please go away.”
“As you wish”, he said, shrugging his shoulders.
The bus to Palitana tottered in after half an hour and to my utter dismay, he proved to be right. All the seats were taken and the people who had been waiting patiently all this while took up the standing space as well. There was no way I was going to hang out the door for a 2 hour journey.
The rickshaw driver rubbed his palms gleefully and walked towards me for another round of negotiations. This time, I didn’t know what to do. If I was to reach Palitana, he could be my only way out. But before he could reach where I was standing, a man who was sitting in the waiting area and who had perhaps been observing the dejected look on my face when I couldn’t get a seat on the bus, came up to me and said, “You’re going to Palitana?”
I said, “Yes.”
“If you hurry up, there’s a passenger train leaving in an hour”, he said.
So when the rickshaw driver looked at me with a smirk on his face asking if I was finally ready to go to Palitana, I said, “No, but you could take me to the railway station.”
The driver was appalled at this suggestion and tried every trick from the Book of the Touts to dissuade me from taking the train. The trains don’t go every day, he said. They always break down on the way. Too many people take them because they’re too cheap. The coaches are filthy and the train would take far longer to get to Palitana than his rickshaw would. And it won’t take me to those fabulous dharamshalas where I could bed with all the worldly comforts at bargain basement rates.
I’ll take my chances, I said, as I scooted across the bus station to find the first rickshaw I could find that would take me to the Bhavnagar railway station. Since I had the desperate look on my face that screamed “Yes, rob me of all the money I have”, I totally expected to be robbed of all the money I had by a rowdy rickshaw driver charging extortionate rates. But I was pleasantly surprised to find that the rickshaw drivers of Bhavnagar were gentle, honest souls who only charge 30 Rs. for a 2 km journey.
The route to the train station passed through parts of the old town I hadn’t seen and as I had another fleeting glimpse of the exquisitely photogenic stone and timber architecture of the buildings in this part of the city, I swore to come back some day and take a better look at them.
The train station was utterly deserted with not a soul in the vicinity. There was nobody behind the ticket window either. I walked down the platform to look for a station master to enquire about the timings of the train to Palitana. But I couldn’t find anybody. If I didn’t know I was wide awake, I could have sworn I had dreamt up a ghostly apparition of a haunted railroad, stranded all alone on a line that went nowhere.
The first human presence I came across was a bearded man, sleeping on a bench at the far end of the platform. I don’t like waking up people who are asleep but I was anxious to know when the train was going to arrive. So I nervously sputtered, “Bhaisaab” a couple of times and when he didn’t respond, shook him up slightly.
Two bleary, heavily reddened eyes stared at me angrily and asked, “What do you want?”
“I’m sorry”, I said, “I was looking for the train…”
“What train? There are no trains”, he said and shooed me away vehemently with his hands before going back to sleep.
I strolled back to the main entrance where I found that a human being had miraculously surfaced behind the ticket counter. “I’m looking for a train to Palitana…”, I began tentatively. “What train?”, he said, interrupting me curtly, “There are no trains.”
“But I heard there was a train to Palitana going around this hour”, I said.
“That train left long ago. The evening train is cancelled.”
I walked back dejectedly to the bustling market outside the station and hailed a rickshaw. I asked the driver if he would take me to Palitana and he laughed and said, “No, no. I can’t go to Palitana. It’s too far away. I’ll drop you off at the bus stand and you can take a bus or a rickshaw from there.”
After reaching the bus stand, he pointed to the platform where the buses to Palitana arrived. I didn’t want to take the bus, I said, and asked him if he knew someone who could take me to Palitana for a reasonable rate.
He looked around and yelled, “Raju! Palitana jaoge?” (Raju! Will you go to Palitana?) Raju came running from the distance and when he came closer, I was dismayed to discover that it was the same driver who was chasing me to go with him earlier at the bus stand.
This happenstance gave him the opportunity to rub his hands in glee again. He said, “Toh, sir, chalein? Kaisa laga Bhavnagar railway station?” (So, sir, let’s go. How did you like the Bhavnagar railway station?”
“Bahut khoobsurat” (Very beautiful), I said, “Kitna loge? 500 Rs?” (Will you go for 500 Rs.?)
“Haan, sir, aapke liye toh jaan bhi haazir hain”, (Yes, sir, I could even give my life for you), he said, smirking uncontrollably, sarcasm dripping from every pore.
1). It’s not easy.
2). The first two months are the easiest because your body is fatigued from all the travel and is happy to have one place to spend all the time. Because your friends haven’t seen you for such a long time, they are keen to meet you and you have a decent social life. This is the most you’ll ever see them. Make the most of it.
3). As your social life wanes, you feel sadder and lonelier. The monotonous routines take a toll on your mental health. You stop getting out of the house. You try to engineer random encounters like you do when you travel but realise that it doesn’t really work when you’re at home because you live in a boring suburb where people like to keep to themselves and some unmarried loner who hasn’t been around for such a long time is too weird to engage with. It’s not as if you never felt sad or lonely when you traveled but there was an inherent flux and movement of people in and out of your life then and that made sure you were never in that state for more than a couple of days. It’s the stagnancy of this city that hurts.
4). You learn to get used to the fact that you aren’t going to meet new people every day. Every other day you plan to pack your bags and get out but you look at all the money you’ve spent and the money you have and it doesn’t make sense anymore. So you try to make the boring monotony work.
5). You learn not to call any of your friends to meet because you get sad when you realise that no one’s ever free when you want to hang out. So you wait for that rare occasion when someone calls you. But when the occasion comes, you don’t feel like meeting anybody. Because you haven’t had any conversations for so long after you stopped traveling, you fear that you would feel awkward and not as interesting, sharp and uninhibited as you like to be. Sometimes you get over this fear and try to make the best you can out of this rare social evening but after it’s over, the loneliness hits you like a bullet. You feel like you should be doing this every day and you miss your traveling days when you were having these long conversations all the time.
6). You learn not to blame your friends for the situation you’re in because you’re the one responsible for the life you make. These are conscious choices you’ve made to feel freer and happier without having to work for somebody else and if you live in a city built purely for working people, you need to claw your way out of there.
7). You wonder if you should look for a proper job but you’re a snob and your skills are so individualized and specific and unnecessary that you’ve practically thrown yourself out of the market. And then you think it’s probably not a good idea to work for someone else while being consigned to a claustrophobic cubicle after flying free for such a long time.
8). You think you’re depressed but you google for signs of depression and realise you’re just plagued with anxiety and sadness. You think about going to a shrink but you remember that you don’t have a job and good shrinks are expensive and you would rather use that money for future travel because that’s the one thing you know that truly works for you.
9). Your sleep takes the biggest hit. There are nights when you sleep very well and there are others when you don’t sleep at all. Sometimes it’s because you’re anxious about the fact that you’re alone. But you learn quickly that it’s okay if you don’t sleep at 3 am if you can’t. Even if you sleep much later, you can sleep till the afternoon and get your 8 hours. Perks of not having a job or a vibrant social life and being a master of your own time without anyone telling you how to live.
10). You become sadder as your time in the city gets longer. But you also learn to cope with the sadness. If you’re sad, you stay sad and let the sadness wash over you. Don’t look at the phone or the laptop even if it may temporarily get you to a neutral state. That only serves to make you sadder when you look away. When you let yourself be sad without any crutches, you realise you get a clear head and some happiness at the end of it because your mind is done dwelling over the useless drivel it had been moping about.
11). Stay away from social media as much as you can because nothing takes you down like reading about other people doing cooler things and making a ton of money. When you go to facebook and see everyone else leading a normal, happy life, be conscious that it’s only a mirage. You have no idea what’s going on in other people’s lives and how happy or miserable they really are. The only way you’re going to learn is if you meet them face to face and ask questions and you’ve stopped talking to them a long time ago. Also your life is unique and specific to your experience and if you compare it to other people, it’s only going to make you feel terrible.
12). 80s heavy metal and old Hindi film music always works like a charm to alleviate the blues.
13). But the only thing that truly works for you while you’re wallowing in misery all alone in the city is burying yourself into the work you like to do i.e. editing the thousands of pictures you’ve taken over the years, walking around the city shooting and exploring its corners and writing about your travels. They won’t make you any money but they keep the sadness away. And you feel as if you’re doing something worthwhile instead of thinking about where you could be right now if only you had x amount of money in your bank account.
14). Make plans to get out of the city as soon and as often as you can but also try to make the city work for you. It’s difficult but not impossible. And it saves a ton of money. Make peace with the fact that your days of long, never-ending travels are over and that there’s a chance nothing you do in life from here on will ever be as good as what you did in those 10 years.