Saturday, January 12, 2008

When was the last time...

It always happens like this. Whenever I am supposed to leave early with a group and we get late, the blame comes on to my bathing time duration, even though I try hard to reduce it by half (approximately) on such occasions. It happened that day too (Hello!! I just took fifteen minutes). We left from our place later than expected (We were supposed to reach Kalyan by 5:30 AM and we could barely manage to leave home by that time), reached Ghatkopar station and I must tell you one thing I really like about this city, called Mumbai. Whatever hour you go to a railway station like such, you will always find it crowded. It hits away your claustrophobia.

Anyway, we boarded a train and got ourselves seated. In sometime, a kid of an approximate age of eight or nine years appeared. He claimed himself to be a beggar. After being rejected by almost everybody in the compartment, he approached us. He said, “Give me one rupee please.”

I asked him, “Why do you want that?”

“I am hungry. Will eat.”

“Come with me. I will feed you. I will give you good cloths and will send you to school.”

He laughed aloud. I tried to make it more believable, “Hey, trust me. I am a teacher. I will take you to my school.”

“He is a teacher?” He got it confirmed from my friend.

In the whole morning journey we talked about too many things – his family, his boss, his living and whatever came in mind that time. I don’t know how many things he said were true. But we had a conversation and that was important. A ghost popped out from nowhere, and asked, “When was the last time you held such conversation with such a kid with such care freeness?” At Kalyan station, we parted our ways. There I met the rest of the team. Most of the members of the group were new to me. We had to take a state transport (ST) bus to the base. Trust me, after sitting in a ST bus, the BEST bus appears to be a luxury!! We hired a Sumo from the highway to the base. There’s a beautiful dam through which we went. Seeing numerous birds around, my team tried my knowledge about them (I had been to a bird watching program in the previous week) to which I happily failed.

At base we had our breakfast, re-filled our water bottles and moved up after the customary introduction and prayer session.

Reaching the base, I looked up to the hill. The ghost whispered in my ears, “welcome to nostalgia.” Exactly seven years after I finished my seven years of schooling in the hills of Nainital, Uttaranchal, I was back to mountains.

I was told that we had to trek up and down two mountains to reach our destination, Harishchandragad. Looking at the mountain, I was stuck by fear for a moment, but hid to avoid the embarrassment of being a novice.

We started walking up on a narrow, stony path, sided by bushes and trees. The ghost asked me, “When was the last time you cared to look at the small shrubs, with little beautiful flowers, lined by your path?” I looked back; the part of my team behind me had stopped. They signaled the troupe which was ahead of me with an ‘AO’ sound to halt. Here I learnt – coordination and synchronization are two very important lessons when one is in mountains. I sat down. While looking down, I saw an ant near by. She was carrying a small piece of food. The piece was some thrice the size of her own. At times, it would fall off her. She would come back, pick it up and move again with her never-dying spirit. The ghost questioned again, “When was the last time, you watched an ant’s struggle to gather her food?”

On our way, we found a small water resource. We might fall short of water supply so it was suggested that we fill in our bottles. But when I looked inside the water, I found something horrible. I told myself, “No. Not this water!!” The ghost asked me, “When was the last time you forgot if the water was filtered and drank it from the same pond which was inhabited by frogs and fishes? The next moment I found myself drinking the same water!!

We walked up and we walked down, echoed at the echo point, ate on way, chatted, laughed and laughed again. When we reached the top, the evening arrived. We entered inside the Lord Shiv temple - A full stone built temple, carved and beautified by hardcore human labor. The ghost appeared again and asked, “When was the last time you stared at a stone-built temple and wondered who could build it at the place it was?”

We had our lunch and moved to the sunset point. It was again at a walk of around twenty minutes. But man, what an amazing scene it was!! It appeared like I was in the courtroom of King Sun, which was walled by the mountains from either side, and graced by the river in the middle. I sat down at a stone, closed my eyes and was about to sense something that the ghost popped up and asked, “When was the last time you sat quietly and allowed the breeze to caress your body and mesmerize your soul?” And I smiled. I could see the air. I opened my eyes and looked direct into the sun and told him, “You are beautiful.”

We got ourselves photographed in every possible pose, every possible mood and in every possible background. I realized in that moment that the child within us never dies or grows out. It simply gets sidelined by the act of being adult but gets into full swing wherever and whenever it gets chance. This was such a chance! We were kids again. We longed to photograph the setting sun. We waited and waited and waited for long. When we decided to get back to the temple, the ghost smirked in my ears, “When was the last time you waited for hours for sun to set under the mountains?” I looked back and found the sun was waning off.

On our way back to the temple, we collected some woods, to cook and to campfire. We all divided our work. Some of us took hold of kitchen, some the tent fitting and rest the arrangement of campfire and other miscellaneous tasks.

After the tents were fixed and the dinner was in preparation, people started settling down. A few were changing dresses, some lighting the fire, some filling in water bottles and all such thing. That was the time that a friend saw something moving towards the tents. By the time he could realize what it was he found himself announcing it to be a snake. It was a big, fat snake. With a sudden reflex everyone got into position - people inside the tent ran out with or with without pants (which ever they found fasterJ), those around the fire moved towards the place of discovery to see how the snake looks like. One brave person among the team took it on a stick and threw it at a distant place. And all the pants were put on by now!!

After the dinner, some slept, rest gathered around the fire. We started with some light humors and moved on to singing songs. Songs of all kinds – old, new, patriotic, regional, rock, pop, devotional and what not. I heard a voice singing along, a voice which I could identify with none present there. It was my ghost’s voice. When I looked at him, he asked, “When was the last time you had a campfire and sang all those songs you never heard of but your friends did?

That night was amawas – no moon’s night. But the sky was full with stars. Sitting in the most relaxed posture, resting my hands backward, I looked up to the sky. I thought – what if we add in all the stars? Will we be able to make a moon out of them? ‘Stupid thought’, it may appear now. But then, the quality of the thought didn’t matter. Just the thought did. The ghost asked, again, “When was the last time you gazed at the sky full of stars through out the night?

I realized I was feeing sleepy. I went inside the tent, unpacked my sleeping mattress and lay down. I shivered. And the ghost smiled, “When was the last time it happened that you could feel the earth beneath your bed?

Thanks to my team, I was not woken up for the night patrol. When I got up, there was some light. I got out of the tent and looked towards the east. I could hear a whisper in my ears, “When was the last time you woke up before the sun and awaited the moment of its rise?

This was one moment I was dreading about - To excrete in open. Man, I hate it but in life, at times, you don’t have too many options. I wondered why not these architects, who built such great temple, made a room for such activities. Stupid thought, once again!! When we returned to our tents, a friend told his experience. While he was happily sitting in the woods, he suddenly found two jackals staring at him. Imagine, who was feared more, the jackals or my friend!!

We finished our breakfast, opened and packed our tents and bags. It was when we were ready to leave, a thought crossed someone’s mind – we should tell the world we were here. So we wrote, with the ashes of our campfire, on the earth we slept on last night – “The FOM team was here.”

After offering our prayers at the Shiv temple, the team gathered in a circle to perform the team trek rituals. While I was happily singing along the team, I was questioned again, “When was the last time you sang the national anthem in its true spirit?

We started the journey back to town. My mood was heavy. There was a part inside me which was sad. I walked through the most part of the return journey as the last man, capturing every moment in my heart and every possible scene in my camera. The ghost asked me, “When was the last time you cared to photograph a caterpillar or a frog?

When was the last time a cactus appeared more beautiful than a movie actress?

I was getting tired. I told myself, “just a little more,” and walked the next stretch before I had to tell this to myself again. I could feel the pain in my lower body, but it was a Lilliputian in front of what I was going inside the upper left part of my body.

When was the last time you challenged your stamina to go beyond you assumed it could go,” he asked.

By the time we reached the base, we were all quite tired. But there we got to know that there was no Sumo available to reach the highway. And here, we had the toughest part of the trek. A team, marred more by the mental exertion than the physical, had to walk for around one hour in the fields. The sun was hot. And no shades. By the time we reached the highway, most of us were already short of energy. And we lost the bus also. Then we saw a truck coming our way. Some of us talked to the driver and we got into it. I choose to stand. I can’t explain the feeling with the limited vocabulary I have, but to give an idea I will say – it was awesome. And the ghost laughed, “When was the last time you boarded a truck back home when you had no other choice and still enjoyed it more than traveling in an airplane?

We reached the last stop for the truck and, bade farewell to everyone, and boarded our respective next mode of commutation to back home.

In these two days I had lived a life that I wanted to live, not the world expected me to. I was taken care of by people whom I had met first time. I laughed with them, a laugh devoid of irony or malice. I was happy. This was such happiness with was pure.

When I was there, the experience appeared to be a wonderful contradiction between the silence out side and the music within, both compelled by the desire to take over each other and still enjoyed the dominance by the other.

But, now when I look back, I find, it wasn’t contradictory, but complimentary. It was a silent music that kept on playing in my heart, a kind of serenade performed by the serenity of the place I was walking in and tuned in by the ghosts from my pasts. Ghosts born out of my psyche. They don’t haunt me but strengthen my existence.

Now I close my eyes. I can see them smiling. They ask me, “So when was the last time you lived life and not just passed your days?” I tell them, “In these two days of my trekking to Harishchandragad.” And I am content.

Thank you, FOM team for helping me in creating a wonderful, lifetime experience.

Note 1: The images on the right are from the trek and are contributed by some of the members of the group.

Note 2: Some events might have been fictionalized to suit the blog’s tone. Please excuse me for that.