Himalaya Watch

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Saturday, April 13, 2013


It was already past midnight as the old man cathartically told me the entire story of his family's misfortunes. Looking at the window from outside where we were conversing, I noticed the lamp in the room had not gone off. I slowly moved to the window and peeked inside. The girl was sitting half-squatting in a wooden 'Pirka', right ear pointed to the window, face buried between two knees and head covered by a thin shawl. The lamp atop a dirty brown tin box had been much fainter and was fluttering as if about to be doused after exhausting the oil. Everything was peaceful and tranquil. Dozens of insects could be heard producing a peculiar sound in the background.

I had been aware of the odd glance given by everybody else in the crowded jeep. Was it my attire or was it my face that was drawing attention of so many people? Either way, I chose the spot where I would get off and asked the driver to stop the vehicle. Everybody looked startled: much of the day had passed and this part of road lay in the middle of the jungle. Even the driver looked me through the rear-view mirror with doubt in his face. When I firmly said this was indeed where I wanted to get off even though I had paid fare for much more distance, no one could really object.

Soon I was there, in the new life, as the jeep sped with people who might have thought all sorts of things about me. But what mattered, after all? This was also the part of my past life now, something to be forgotten soon.

As I stepped beyond the paved street in the clay, this was the first step into my new life. It was indeed in the mud and clay, silt and sand where I had grown. I had seen the pitched road only when I was 14 years old or so. Everything related to this artifice had colluded to destroy my first life and there was no reason why I should grieve for having to depart from this road. Yet somehow I felt emotional as the world ahead that had merely been drawn in my imagination was now materializing, exactly in front of my eyes. I was bartering this new world of seclusion, insecurity and uncertainty to the earlier world with the opposite virtues.

But what if my survival is threatened? What if my new life gets aborted prematurely because of some unforeseen complication? I had no answer to these questions. With the requests to the jeep driver to stop, I had broken all the bridges to my past life. There was no use of pondering on what could now happen to me; the life ahead just deserved being lived and nothing else.

As the last vestige of my past life, I dropped the SIM card of my cell phone to the gutter. I could realize my hands trembling as the card fell tumbling down to the bottom of the gutter. With this task accomplished, I was now untraceable.

As another vehicle blew horn at distance, my instincts were enough to keep me sprinting uphill along a small trail, just to disappear in the bushes as the truck roared past. Now I was totally in my new life, on my own, for all practical purposes.

As I climbed up the hill to the tune of my feet, a strange sense of foreboding began to creep inside me. Had it been a disaster? Should I be living my old life? Was I committing a crime by placing my own life at risk? 

Apparently I had planned for the transition well in advance and meticulously prepared strategies to survive in the new world. But what if everything does not just go as planned?

I had reached a larger trail in the terraces as another vehicle could be heard passing in the road and I viewed it as the last link between my past and present life. I sat below a Chilaune tree to mull over my options. By now the word must have spread that I was missing. People must be fumbling to find me. A panic must have spread among the relatives while asking my whereabouts to one another. If I disliked anything the most in this world, it was being asked by so many people as to where and how I had disappeared miraculously. That would merely complicate the problems I had in the past life. And now living in the same hostile world with the added stigma of a ‘Bhagauda’, how could it be possible? A return was sure to exacerbate every problem that had forced me to seek this desperate measure.

A journey to new life, on the other hand, had the solid possibility of infusing me with enough energy so as to make this life not only viable but also desirable. The potential complications in the short term were to be averted at any cost, that was all. Soon as the sun was seen approaching the western mountain fast and the ravines in the south were fast turning dark, I passed the last glance to the road that was faintly visible between the foliage of the jungle. 


The evening of first day of my new life. Having walked uphill for at least two hours, I was drenched in sweat. Some of it had even percolated inside the lips giving a salty taste. The sweat in the trunk had now cooled as I took a brief rest on the plain part of the trail and suddenly I shivered with cold.

So far the land was mostly barren and I had emptied the water bottle. I looked to the sky, it had been, till a hour ago, as clear as it was possible in a spring day. As the darkness triumphed over the daylight, suddenly a sense of deja vu overwhelmed me as  the fragrance of flowering orange tree reached my nose; one could never explain the pleasure of inhaling cool breeze full of such fragrance in a serene spring evening in a quiet village. And what if the father of a kid came back from the day's work during such evening bringing some goat meat for the evening meal? The joy would be simply inexplicable. The child would reluctantly restrain himself to sitting in the hay-mat with books around him desperately waiting the call from his mother for the meal. When finally the moment came, he would speedily empty his plate, gulp the leftover soup from the bowl and throw his body to the bed, only to fall asleep within a minute. And in the night he would dream of celebrating a Dashain that never ended. I thought: 'the bliss that is called childhood!'

Sight of a young girl with a water pot on her waist brought me dragging to the dilemma of the present life from the pleasant imagination about childhood in the village. She hurried up the steps in the terraces as if she had seen a snake and I could clearly see the trepidation of meeting a stranger at this hour of time in this stretch of trail on her face. I was apparently entering a village and first house on my way was nearby, it seemed. But, this was not my village and these were not the people who knew me. Also, I was no longer a child. The life I had lived so far, the forbidden fruits that I had tasted so far, had made me a different man; a mere stranger in this world. Even though most of my time during the planning phase for new life had been spent on sorting out how to get accustomed to new people, this was a domain I was most skeptical about my ability. 

Four or five terraces up, there materialized the first house, rather hut, in my new life. A kerosene lamp must have been alighted inside as the rectangular bands of light were seen falling on the orange tree in front of the house. Elsewhere, the night was now nearly pitch-black as moon was nowhere to be seen. The girl had already eloped inside, I guessed as she had left me a minute ago in the terraces. An old man came out from the door clearing his throat after a hushed conversation inside. "Who is it at this hour of time?" asked the old man. 


Yes, this damn question "Who was I?" struck me like lightening. Who was I after all? A loser? A fugitive? An ascetic? A fortune-hunter? Or a simple stranger to this world? There were dizzying possibilities. Till some hours back, I had been a respectable ordinary gentleman in the society. Now, with all connections to the past severed, I had none of the identities from earlier life. The more troubling set of questions began to spiral inside my mind: what was I up to now? Why was I changing identity in this world, for my own good or for the larger good? 

The old man apparently sensed something unwelcome in my silence and retreated a few steps towards the threshold as I merely stared at him. "Why are you here?", he asked once again in a firm but low voice and added "Are you alright?". 

I was anything but alright. But how could I clarify my position to this old man? "On way to district headquarters. I lost the way in the afternoon and arrived here. Are there any hotels where I can stay for the night?" I somehow uttered these words.

 I could not see the expression in the face of this old man but he must have looked serious as he stood in silence for nearly half a minute.

Somehow it struck to my mind that a favorable identity was a must if I was to get a shelter and I added: "I am a teacher at a primary school in a faraway village."

The old man finally broke the silence: "We poor people and our small village, sir, how would we have things like a hotel here? If you wish, you may well stay at our hut but there is no good bed to sleep and nice food to eat." The trick had finally worked and the old man's tone became quite friendly. Shadow of the girl was already hovering around the door in the dim light of kerosene lamp.

"Nani, come. He is a teacher just like your teachers at school. You will have to cook rice for him." The old man said as he led me through the door into the only room in the hut which was partially partitioned and had oven at one corner where something was already being cooked. The room was filled with smoke and the timbers overhead were pitch-black.

Apparently my new host sensed my discomfort and offered to sit in the charpoy outside. The girl meanwhile started her chores after giving a faint smile to me when I was introduced.

Not long after, I had had the first dinner of my new life in relatively amicable circumstances. My stomach was not empty and my head had a roof above; moreover, I had the whole night to plan for the day ahead.

After the dinner, we were soon talking like friends of long time. I created a brief and believable story of myself and the old man had no reason to suspect otherwise. When he mentioned the difference in my accent from that of the region, I said it was my education in city that made all the difference. "I know English also well and teach it to classes four and five" I gloated.

Then it was the old man's turn to open the book of his own life. The girl was his grand-daughter and only company for past five years. His own wife had died long ago after giving birth to a son. Just like all his predecessors, he had tilled the earth from very early on and was still doing so. He had, however, different plans for his children and grandchildren. Indeed the life of others in the village had seen a momentous transformation from one generation to another.

"See sir, not everyone has same thing written over his forehead. Some are lucky and they achieve all the good things in their lives. The others, like me, keep dreaming throughout their lives and gain nothing at the end. Once upon a time, I had a big family and I was happy. Now you can see the situation."

The old man paused for a moment and continued his story. As every other young man in the village, his only son had also left for India some 15 years ago. Everything was going well at first but eventually bad news kept pouring from India: a mysterious illness had caught his son. One day, he returned home but instead of money, he was carrying a disease that soon took his life itself. This happened some seven years back. Subsequently it was proved that even his daughter-in-law was suffering from the same disease. It transpired that his son had caught the disease long before and had transmitted it to the wife during some of his earlier visits. Along with the woman, the whole family was stigmatized for carrying a 'disgraceful' disease.

Soon, his daughter-in-law developed severe depression and people's behavior only aggravated it. One day, she was found hanging from the branch of a tree. People refused to touch her body and police had to force them into carrying the body to district hospital for post-mortem examination. Ever since, the girl gets easily panicked and falls into spells of inconsolable crying. Villagers have distanced themselves further away from the girl and only the old man maintains a degree of contact with the society outside home.

"Sir, we are so lonely here. Sometimes I feel like abandoning this village forever to settle in some place far, far away. But who will give us land there? And how can we feed us in the new place? I am not here for long but what about this poor kid……?" The old man could not proceed and I could easily realize a lump rising in his throat. "Sir, we are devastated" said the old man after a pause, "It is after so many years that we are having a guest at home. People here won't even pass through our Aangan. It is so utterly hopeless situation."

It was already past midnight as the old man cathartically told me the entire story of his family's misfortunes. Looking at the window from outside where we were conversing, I noticed the lamp in the room had not gone off. I slowly moved to the window and peeked inside. The girl was sitting half-squatting in a wooden 'Pirka', right ear pointed to the window, face buried between two knees and head covered by a thin shawl. The lamp atop a dirty brown tin box had been much fainter and was fluttering as if about to be doused after exhausting the oil. Everything was peaceful and tranquil. Dozens of insects could be heard producing a peculiar sound in the background.

I was so engrossed by the story of the old man that I had nearly forgotten the troubles of my own life. At the end of the story, the old man offered me his usual bed in the charpoy. After my insistence, the old man folded the thin bedding that he had readied himself in the floor beside the charpoy. The bed was inconvenient for two people but, as I already knew, there was no question of falling asleep that night. The smell from the body of the old farmer was intense, as I could remember from my own childhood, it was a mixture of cattle-dung, human sweat and more than a dozen other things that come into the contact of a farmer. We lay there, side by side, like two small siblings.


Soon, I don't know why but I could not resist the temptation to tell everything about my life to this old man. After all, if he could lighten himself up by telling his story, why could not I? He listened to it carefully, the way I had done until some moments earlier.

When I came to the part of the story when I actually started to implement the idea of entering a new life, the old man could not resist the temptation to interrupt . Eventually I completed the story and stared in the dark expecting a rebuke from the old man.

There was one more long gap in the conversation. In the meanwhile, I noticed that the sound of the insects had changed somewhat and become less intense. The dogs that were barking earlier had now stopped it. The darkness was as intense as ever but I could easily assume it to be diluting, preparing to give way to the daylight. A cool breeze passed as the gentle sound of fluttering grass leaves could be heard. A thud was heard in the adjacent cowshed as a cow or buffalo must have stood up to search for strands of grass or hay. Suddenly I closed the eyes and assumed to have been sleeping with my father, in my village, in the charpoy outside my own home; and as a child.

"Listen, sir, you are like my own son. Do you know what is the greatest remorse in my life? It is the realization that I was somehow responsible for the fate of my own son. Even though there was no way out in our time, people had started sending their children to school at the time of my son. Had I sent him to school till grade 10 then, who knows what he might have been today. He could have pursued higher studies on his own and could have ended up a teacher, just like you pretended earlier. We would have a large and happy family now and people would come begging for help. This poor child could have been educated even better and moreover, moreover……………………there would be someone ready to marry her off……."

The old man choked to his words. I was absolutely speechless. I sat up in the bed and leaned to peek inside through the window. The lamp had gone off and it was even darker than outside. I grasped the cellphone and switched it on with the screen pointing inside the window. In the faint glow, I saw the girl, curled on her own and covered by the shawl, slightly changing the posture. It became clear that she was also awake the whole night, the way we were.

After another pause, the old man continued: "You will be cursed for seven more lives if you proceed with the plan. It would have been a different thing had your parents already passed away: you could have done whatever you wished. Tormenting the parents is a crime; you are lucky that you are still alive and can go back and erase all the mistakes. I know the price of losing a child. One becomes hollow, sir, hollow without the core once he is faced with such a disaster. If it were not for this poor kid, I would have never continued to this time. It is so painful, unbearable. You have not lost a thing in this world, you have everything in place, just everything."

Soon the arrival of the day became perceptible. Some birds started to chirp at distance and some people could be heard coughing and clearing their throats. One more breeze brought the fresh fragrance of orange flowers to our noses and a sense of nostalgia prevailed on me. I eventually fell asleep.


When I opened my eyes again, it was broad daylight. The spring sky was deep blue except for some small wisps of cloud hovering above the distant mountains. The day was exceptionally bright and it took some time for me to adjust my eyes to the brightness. It was as if I had metamorphosed into something else. A sense of lethargy still prevailed in me but the foreboding of the previous day had altogether disappeared. Soon the girl emerged from the door and gave a known-you-forever kind of smile. When I asked where her grandpa was, she pointed to the fields below. When I asked if she could read and write, she brushed off the question and instead asked me this: "Uncle, how much have you studied?"

Soon, the old man returned from the morning shift of work at the fields. We had the morning meal together and I offered to leave. "I will accompany you for some time." The old man said. I did not resist and soon we left the house and walked along a trail that led us to another nearby village. The old man would refuge to say our destination but was very enthusiastic to talk on any other subject.

After two hours of walking, we reached a small town beside a stream. The old man led me inside a shop and there materialized a telephone set. "Here, sir, you will inform your parents that you were on an outing and will be back soon." The old man said and offered me the phone. I had my own concerns and dialed the office first. They were worried but not to the extent I had thought. They were relieved to hear from me and did not inquire much. I had hoodwinked them by telling that I was going to Kathmandu and taking a jeep to the opposite direction. There was a worse news too: there was an inquiry call from home and the clerk said that my parents appeared terribly upset because my cellphone was switched off. "I'll take care of that right now", I said and hung up the phone.

When I called home, saying this much was enough: "My cellphone was lost and switched off since. Because of some urgent business, I had to return back to the office from midway and will be at home next month." No place for a shred of doubt on part of anyone.

The old man was smiling till then. But as we came out after paying for the calls, suddenly a tinge of gloom appeared on his face. When I asked why, he said these words that I will never forget: "Now sir, you will be gone and same old life starts. People keep complaining how much one can talk. But they never know it is much more painful to remain silent, not to talk and not to interact. Yesterday was first time in my life I talked so much with an educated person like you. I don't know why god let you go berserk with the 'second life' idea and again showed the trail to my hut. For the first time, I am really happy for someone; it is for your parents. They are quite lucky."

I took my visiting card and gave it to him saying it contained my address and phone number. I also asked him to give me a call whenever he was at district headquarters. "And here, keep this for chocolates for your grand daughter. Hope she can also go school and become a big person in her life." I said giving two thousand-rupees notes.

Soon I crossed the stream to catch the larger trail to the city while the old man returned back the same trail. After a single day, I was going back to my old life. Or was it? The life was same but I had changed, metamorphosed. Even  after an hour, the old man could be seen walking at distance to reach the summit of the hill. When his shadow was about to be hidden behind the hill, I waved at him forcefully but could never say whether he saw it. 

Soon a dusty trail was all that was left on the slope of the hill. My trail also took a sharp bend and now we were separated by two hills. But I was happy my two lives had now merged into one and I had no contradictions to resolve.


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