A THING OF BEAUTY

Memories from an eighteen month old trip:

I slip on the snow-crusted road, land on my arse, and laugh. My first sound in four hours.

Apart from ragged breaths in the thin Himalayan air. The scrunch of ice powdering beneath my shoes. And the drip-drip of icicles melting into miniature waterfalls and streaming across the road.

Towering conifers crouch on the mountainside to my right. To my left and far below, the Bhagirathi meanders down to the Ganga. Dharali, where I’m staying, is some kilometres behind me. And I’m on the road to Gangotri.

I’m the only tourist in town, and didn’t tell anyone where I was headed. Didn’t meet a soul on the way. I have no money, no bag, and no intention of reaching Gangotri or anywhere else. Out of coverage area, I lost contact with my parents two days ago. No one knows where I am.

No responsibilities, no expectations, no worries. I don’t have to be back anywhere at any time.

As the sun suddenly kindles the blue ice into blinding white, I realise that this, then, is what they mean by living in the moment.

*

The bus conductor wondered why the boy had chosen not to board his train at Rishikesh, or at Haridwar farther down the line. The boy just smiled to himself and recalled the first chapter of Vagrants in the Valley by his favourite writer Ruskin Bond: ‘From Raiwala, we’ll take the train’, Rusty said. ‘It will cost us about five rupees.’

He got off on the busy highway. They walked through the narrow Raiwala bazaar, looking in at the tea and sweet shops. He strolled through a copse of trees and stumbled upon the railway station.

A single low, low platform. Three tracks. A couple of disused goods wagons. A tiny station-master’s office-cum-booking counter, the ticket-seller fast asleep. Benches. A man selling spiced cucumber.

Now a cool breeze came across the plain, blowing down from the hills.He set his backpack down and paced up and down the platform. A cow ambled across a level-crossing nearby. An elderly lady squatted on her haunches and glared angrily at the horizon.

The Bandra-Dehradun Express chugged in. No one got in or off. It chugged out.

The treetops seduced the auburn sun down into their arms. A bell clanged on the station platform and the stranger looked at his watch and said it was almost time for his train to arrive. A feeble crowd gathered. He heard the shriek of the whistle as the front light of an engine played over the rails.

The Hemkund Express lumbered in. As he hoisted himself through the door, the boy believed he’d spent an evening in a story.

*

The sun had disappeared behind the Dhauladhar Himalayas as I sat in the bus at Kangra, idly staring out the window, waiting for my journey to commence. Some movement near the door caught my attention, and I saw her get in.

She was so beautiful.

She walked down the aisle and settled into the seat behind mine. God, how much I wanted a second look! Just then, I felt a tap on my shoulder and a sweet voice above and behind me said, ‘excuse me, yeh bus Pathankotkihaina?

I twisted around. She was standing, holding onto the back of my seat for support, smiling slightly. I hope I didn’t spent too much time staring before replying, ‘haan’.

She thanked me and sat back down. For five minutes, I considered moving to sit beside her. But alas! A rotund man with a disinterested moustache fell into the seat I wanted. Too late, too late!

I spent the rest of the journey pretending to observe the dark countryside whilst stealing uncontrollable glances at her reflection in the window-glass. At some point, I fell asleep. When I awoke, she was gone.

All my memory tells me now is that she had a luminous face and lustrous black hair partially covered with a dark dupatta. I suppose she was a few years older than me, and plumper too. But I can’t be sure.

I may forget what she looked like, but I can never forget what I felt when I looked at her.

* * *

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