Ch1: 'The Beginning Of The End'
It was a mysterious chill cloaked under a starry night; stars about a million, some shooting into the oblivion, others waiting to die. The sky was growing, more like expanding and bursting with a glittery magnificence, as a few clouds, greying against the black of the night, floated westwards. And as they did, they made shapes that we sat guessing: an elf with a hat, an elf with a hat sitting on a hat. “Ok, don’t exaggerate; it’s just a hat.”
As the clouds crawled to disappear behind the mountains, the sky began playing a coy invasion on my senses. For that matter, the particles in the torch beam that Omar occasionally flashed did the same. The vivid elements of the valley time and again replaced the ambiguous attention I had on my breathing, which would soon be replaced by the patterns my mind was making-- patterns like the ones we see after having rubbed our eyes a little too hard.
The river in its most ferocity flowed right in front of us, and the deep, dense, dark forest extended into the night. The silhouette of the bridge that joined the two mountains, and the one that the Parvati flowed under, smirked at us. This—the beauty of the Himalayas draped in the black of the night— somehow had us intoxicated, or, maybe, it was the LSD.
Aryan had insisted on sitting by the river, was sort of adamant on it for the party that we were at; its loud music, neon lights and the crowd gave him a ‘bad trip’. So, with no intention of leaving him alone and with none of us letting the crowd feed his paranoia, we decided to head down to the river.
Here, by the river, he sat staring at the forest occasionally pointing his flashlight towards the woods. “What is it, bro? Do you see something?” asked. “Eyes, green eyes; they appear and disappear,” he replied still staring in the direction.
“Where?” I saw them too. Two big red ones I saw; two big red dots moving down the woods, turning and stopping; then moving down the trail all the same. Whatever it was, it was nearing; the eyes growing and seemingly fuming like burning coal. I tried getting up, but I felt like I was stuck in a dream that you can’t get out of. They grew bigger as they neared only to stop by the last trees that drooped over the water. My heart beat loud in my head. As I finally managed to get up, my legs wobbly, I saw the black shadow of the red eyed animal descend onto the water.
Omar caught a hold of my arm and made me sit back on the rock. “What do you see?” he asked. “A beast...Let’s go, he’s moving towards us,” I hurried up getting his hand off me. “It’s not safe here, let’s go!”
“Show me where,” he said, and I pointed. He flashed his light in that direction. “There’s nothing there!” and as he said so, the beast disappeared for me; more like dissolved into the air and vanished. Omar shook my arm, “Snap out of it”. Taking the torchlight from him, I flashed it where I had seen the animal-- all over the water and around the three of us. A little comforted, I sat down and, once again, turning to ensure that he wasn’t behind me, I let Omar’s hand find mine. His fingers, marking a pattern on my wrist, made me feel like he was almost touching the surface of my soul. And as he did, it felt as if he was making tiny adjustments like one would unscrew a wrongly put nut and fix it where it was needed the most.
“It wasn’t such a good idea to try acid, now was it,” Omar asked holding me by my elbow. “Yes, not so much,” I said pointing towards Aryan. “I am worried about him”.
“He is much calmer now, I feel. Don’t worry,” he said putting an arm around me. Aryan opened his eyes and turned to look at us only to get startled and fall backwards. I held him by the arm, “Ah fuck. You guys scared me. I was in such a beautiful place.” He said, resting himself back on the rock. “Go back there then,” I said. He smiled and lit a joint, the smoke from which made a perfect swirl up towards the stars before touching and igniting them to burst; and as one burst for me, the millions followed. It seemed as if the sky showered these burning bodies onto me and my reflexes got me rubbing my arms.
Omar tapped me on the shoulder, “I got to pee.”
“Yes, I think me too.” I began getting up.
“Is that a secret code to ‘let’s go, make out’?” teased Aryan as Omar’s fingers found mine and locked in a hold.
As we walked further towards the bridge, I said, “Considering what Aryan just suggested, I’d actually like to make out with you and see how it feels while tripping.” Omar smiled and held me against a big coniferous by the bridge. His hand found the back of my nape and moved up towards my hair, sending chills down to the small of my back. With his eyes seeking something in mine and a smirk laden mouth, he kissed me, and the kiss felt like a Tame Impala video, with paints dripping and smudging, and skies and blood bursting around the two of us. It felt like a wave and a whirlpool only until Aryan’s scream broke the spell “Bhola! What are you doing here?”
Bhola, our village host’s 5-year-old son; what could he be possibly doing there at that hour? We got out of under the bridge to see what was happening. “Stay there. We’ll come get you,” Aryan continued. On his toes towards the bridge, Aryan froze. His face turned pale. “God...guys, guys get to the bridge! Get to the bridge, he’s falling.” He screamed with his arms shaking almost like he was having a fit. We began hurrying up the bridge, but the ground began warping for me. The rocks dissolved to become water and the water turned chilly. My feet froze, and I sunk down. Omar went ahead.
In no time, we heard a thump and a splash.
Seconds later, as if waking up from a frozen moment, Aryan jumped into the water after him.
Ch2: "What Demon Possessed Me?"
I had been awake for the past 52 days and 51 nights. The last I slept was the morning after the night that I had spent drinking my guts out. And for all the days that followed, I was drinking my guts all the same. The only difference between Charles Bukowski and I was that he was a drunk man, and I a drunk woman. And a drunk at work in the 60s of Los Angeles was only asked to leave with the week’s pay check but for his female counterpart in India of the 2000s was something to be ashamed of. So, getting fired for the said corporate crime only increased my appetite for alcohol.
An inclination towards travelling as a career is barely ever respected in a house filled with doctors. And while a millennial might disagree, an average 90s kid with doctor parents of the conventional belief will only hand down the handbook that reeks of no passion but blood.
The more elite a family is, the lesser are the times you’d have felt or expressed real emotions for them. I don’t remember ever having hugged my parents. Seeking no apologies for exaggerating here, I’d like to tell how we get our photographs clicked at a one arm distance. Click. Go home.
Go home. “Mom, I want to play a little more.” Go home. “Mom, let me talk to my friend”. Go home. “I want to travel and study literature”. “Yeah, study medical literature. And go home.”
So, while I tried balancing literature with my parent’s aspirations, Agatha Christie and F. Scott Fitzgerald with Dyslexia and Spinal Cord Atrophy, I failed the first semester. The night of the result, my father had his first heart attack, or what he pretended an anxiety attack to look like. And it marked my story to be one worthy of a Bollywood screenplay.
As is often the case, the few days of my father’s bed rest emotionally incensed me enough to not read or dwell on what I wished to do. And soon, with the medical course taking its time and the time about the course of my life ascended to the age- old push and shove of the rat race. I too became a doctor; a physiotherapist, if I may, with the lack of wit and a revered prefix.
I had had trouble sleeping since college. You walk into my room and I’d wake up. You turn the tap on, three floors down the building and I’d sit up. For the first few years of this pseudo insomnia, I took to watching movies to sleep only to live through the night—half dead half awake—until I could finally sleep no more. There was a constant sense of dizziness, drunkenness that my tired mind blessed me with. I was intoxicated without the substance only until I decided to intoxicate myself with the substance, so it at least seemed justified. And as it turns out, the drunkenness of being drunk for dear life at work broke the doctor’s oath. And my parents were now on their way to Chandigarh to have a talk; you know ‘the talk’. And I was done with the talk. It had anyway always been them talking and telling me how travelling was just a passion and I needed a real profession to make a real living in this thing they called society; how “good girls” don’t travel around like junkies; and how after having pursued my career as a doctor I’d have enough time and money to do whatever I liked. “Yeah, like you ever got time to do whatever you liked”, I’d think; only think, never say.
And as Henry Thoreau would rise from his grave and ask, “What demon possessed me that I behaved so well”, to behave completely in disregard to what I wanted all this time. I decided to leave. And I left a note for my parents telling them why. They wouldn’t even realise I was gone till they had read it.
I was distancing myself from this to let my chances breathe. I was going to live the average dream that I’d tucked under my pillow each night to dream about. I had no idea where I was going, but I packed my bag and with a clichéd copy of On the Road got a ticket for the first bus I saw at the bus station. It was one, as it turned out, to the Himalayan village of Bhuntar.
As I got off there, I heard a few people—bus drivers, car drivers—call out for Kasol. It felt much appropriate to follow the journey that I was being offered, so I boarded a bus to reach the Parvati Valley in its prime; untouched by the number of tourists that flock to suffocate the villages now.
Kasol in the early days of its tourism was barely an 800 metre stretch of food and lodging. And lodging did I take at Lucky Dhaba where, too tired of the journey and the years I had lived, I got blessed with a long nap with a steady stream of dreams the sort you can’t explain.
I was woken up by a heavy pounding on my door. The wind gushed against my window pane and a dark night had taken over. There were some distant mumblings that I could hear, and the constant knocking scared me.
Ch3: 'The Musical Bridge'
The pounding was now replaced by the sound of a heavy metal against the wood of the door. They were hammering the death out of it. “Who is it?” I shouted, to make them stop. “Madamji, open the door. Are you alright?” someone enquired in Hindi. I opened the door to find the manager of the lodge standing there with a hammer in his hands. He looked tensed. Two more men, foreigners, stood there with him. “What is this madamji? We have been trying your doors for days. We’ve been worried.”
“Days,” I rushed to check my phone: 63 missed calls it showed, numerous texts and the day Thursday. I had reached Kasol on Monday. “We thought you had overdosed or something,” he explained. “Ahh, overdosed, no. I was really tired. So, I guess I kept sleeping through these days, what, four days really.” I yawned. “Thanks for waking me up.” The men smiled. One of them drinking the last of something from his flask went away. “I reckon you are hungry,” said the other one.
“Yes, I reckon I am,” I replied and asked the manager, Kamal, to cook me some food to help me get my appetite back. All these days of sleeping and my face looked puffed as if pumped with some air. My body could barely spread itself awake, even the cramps felt well, lovely even. I somehow dragged myself out of the room, where the man, Omar, offered me a joint that he had just rolled. “This might make you feel all the more sleepy,” he grinned. “I’d like that,” I replied, “I swear to sleep at least a hundred more days.”
We made our way down to the dining area where an appetizing fragrance of burnt butter wafted in the air. My nose caught it and my stomach roared its hunger in response. “Yes, you sure are hungry,” he giggled. Some top notch paranthas Lucky’s mother had cooked for us; all laden with buttery goodness of the native cows.
Omar’s friend joined us holding the flask now filled with a green concoction, “So, what were you on to be sleeping like that?”
“Pure sleep, my friend. That’s what I was on.” He smiled, lit a joint and passed it in my direction. “Gubriel leaves tomorrow.” Gabriel, Omar meant, but that’s how he pronounced his name. Austrian, he sounded.
“No, not really. I have been here about five weeks or more,” he said.
“Wow, I too hope to be able to stay here this long.”“Something stopping you?” asked Gabriel.Awkwardly, I replied, “No, not really. So, where are you off to?”“I am going to Vashishth to attend this therapy session there.”
“Acid therapy as they call it,” said Omar, “It is a kind of therapy which uses psychedelic substances to let a person connect with his spirit and might to...”
“Hey, hey. You are telling her too much. She could be an Indian cop for all I care,” Gabriel nosed in.
“We’d tell her that we are the FBI then,” he joked.
To Gabriel, I said, “To correct you, a doctor, physiotherapist, in fact; an ex physiotherapist to be honest.” To Omar, “Are you leaving too?”
“No. Not yet. I am planning to be here a long, long time. My friend has a party here this weekend,” he replied attempting a sip from Gabriel’s flask, cringing. “You can go with me if you want.”
I nodded in consideration. Gabriel excused himself for a call and disappeared down the narrow corridor. Having finished the food, we decided to go for a walk down the quite night of the Himalayan roads.
“So, what kind of a party is this?” I asked Omar as we paid for our food.
“One of my friends recently opened a cafe in Khatagla and he invited everyone he knows to invite everyone they know to this little gathering, as he calls it.”
“Sounds interesting,” we walked down the uneven stairs, out on the street where the gush of the waves as Parvati flowed to meet Beas could be heard even louder. Omar turned his flashlight off and I asked why to which he pointed up to the sky. Through the canopy of the huge pines and firs that marked the edge of the road, shined a million-billion stars; all almost fading the moon that was about to set behind the dark mountains. An unintended smile danced on his lips as his face shone with the cosmic light of the night; his grey eyes reflected the stars perfectly as they glistened. He caught me staring at his face. Embarrassed, I looked away. I could see him smile from the corner of my eye. My lips curved in one too.
We walked the rest of the way without torchlight to finally reach the centre of the village. With barely any lights marking the street, I loved the face of the village which was yet far away from the commercialised version that it now is. A gentle smell of plants, wet pine needles and incense flowed in the air, as a few street dogs, furry against the cold, cuddled with one another on the stairs of the few shops that were shut by now. Lazy during these days, Kasol was not so eager on making money. It used to sleep early at 9 pm to wake up later into the morning. The dead silence amplified the only sound of the river and of a flute playing in the background.
Following the music from the flute, we passed by a man sleeping in a foetal under his insufficient blanket outside the only barber shop of the village. Out of the village and through the wretched amount of woods, we reached the banks of Parvati, across which, as Omar mentioned, was the sister village of Chalaal. We couldn’t hear the flute anymore, and within a few minutes, a man, seemingly Indian, with a long beard and ragged clothing, passed by us muttering something.
“I think we interrupted his music,” I told Omar. “Yeah, but there’s one music that we can never interrupt,” he said holding my hand and walking towards the bridge that connected the two hills. The bridge was merely steady. A gush of the wind shook it in entirety. And it creaked as it did so. Suspended by ropes holding sheeted wood to walk on, I could not trust that bridge one bit. I stopped as Omar went ahead onto the bridge. “No, no, no, no. I am too young to die.”
“What? You are not going to die. This bridge is as safe as any other place on this planet. And if you don’t get on, you might miss the best music you’d have ever heard.”
I wasn’t convinced. He shrugged and walked on. At almost the centre of the bridge he turned to look at me, a creepy smile playing on his face, and lay down on the bridge. “What are you even doing?” He lifted his head and replied, “Can’t explain. You’ll have to feel it yourself.”
Holding the vibrating railing of the bridge, I dared to step on it. It shrieked under my feet and Omar looked up again. “Yes, very well. I am sure you can do it.
“Shut up and come help me,” I said. A haughty ‘No’ was the reply.
I walked on further, trying to focus on my breathing and not the savaging current that seemed to whirlpool under the bridge. I reached the middle of it and he made some space for me, held my hand and helped me lie down.
The constant flow of the water underneath and its slaps against a big boulder echoed under the bridge as the momentary swish of the wind against the ropes of the bridge set the chords right. It felt as if the waves drummed against the rocks and the wind played a harp on the bridge, as our breath misted up in the air towards a sky studded with about a million to delight and wonder; and wonder how I must have fallen asleep for that fusion on the bridge; and how the bridge must have broken.
Ch4: 'The Cold And The Bare Blanket'
I opened my eyes out of a dream built on paranoia that, I think, even the calming music of the nature couldn’t shake me off. And as I did, I woke up to Omar’s perfect eyes looking down at me. A smile of wit played on his face as his hands warmed mine, too cold of the Himalayan wind. “You are so beautiful,” he said. I looked at him with an expression that was more like “I believe that I am but how can you believe that too.”
“I didn’t wake you because it didn’t feel right but since you’re up now, I think we should get going.”
I got up to the slight vibration of the wind on the bridge only to sink back down with ailing worries from my dream. “What time do you think it is?”
“Must be about 2 because the Orion has set too,” he said getting up and giving me his hand. “Did you have a bad dream?”
“Yes, that the bridge broke and we fell to our deaths.”
“Ah, it’s usually only the fear that we fall to a death to. The real death, the one that I’m sure is to be the least scary, will come any time to catch us by surprise,” he said shaking the bridge by its railings on both sides. Laughing, as he did so, he somewhat made me believe that my fears were of a bridge that can break and not the one that may connect.
Smiling, I followed him off the bridge and while I did, I stopped at one point to look at the final bit of moon illuminating a mountain, which had sort of lost itself to the night, coming back into existence.
We walked back to our guest house, hand in hand, without realising when I had held his. Weariness had taken over him and it showed on his face a little. He had probably stayed up all the time that I slept making sure that I didn’t roll over and fall within the folds of the river to get lost.
We got home and climbed up the stairs to our rooms. “I had a really good time. Thank you,” he said while knocking at the door to his room. I went back to mine and there, I didn’t dance like a maniac -- the kind they show in the movies, nor did a song start playing in the background for me, but I could hear silence, a sense of calm passing through me. I don’t know what changed, what happened to cause this kind shift within me. I’d like to believe that it was nothing spiritual but a happy mind after getting a good sleep. The soft music that the wind was playing on that bridge still sung a faint melody into my ears as I sat dwelling on the goodness of it, suddenly evaporated with a knock on my door.
It was Omar, “Err... Do you have a hammer?” I looked at him confused. “Gubriel has slept too deep, I feel, today,” he said rubbing his palms together and blowing into them. “Can you give me a blanket if you have an extraone? I think I’d have to sleep on the sofa outside.”
“I don’t have another blanket. But I think you can sleep here,” I offered.
“You think that’d be okay?”he asked.
“Umm, it’d be fine on the condition that you take me to the other side of the bridge tomorrow.”
“To Chalaal, yes, sure. I will,” he nodded walking in.
The cold and the bare blanket had us snuggle close to each other, not that we wouldn’t have otherwise. A little finger from here, a little toe from there would have anyway caught the other’s and it’d have taken us hours of no sleep to finally get this close to be huddled up against each other. This was conveniently ideal. His breath close to my ear warmed me and my core as, in no time, he twitched a little and sunk into a quite sleep.
I don’t know how long I had stared at his face -the slight freckle on his chin, brows that marked his beautiful eyes well in their socket, the bridge of his nose – all until sleep took over.
I woke up as a warm daylight flushed in through the window to the door being opened and shut behind. I saw a faint figure walk out as the sleep caught me back into its charm. I woke up again as Omar lifted the blanket to get back in the bed. “Ah, I’m sorry to have woken you up.”
I held his hand.“No, it’s okay. Where did you go?”
“Gubriel was leaving so I went to say goodbye.”“He left already? I hope you wished him well from both of us.”
“Yes, I did,” he said kissing my fingernails. “Wow, what do your hands smell of,” he asked.
I smelled them, “You, I think.”“Wow, I smell brilliant.”“Sure,” I laughed. “Anyway, tell me something, what exactly is this acid therapy?”