The Way to Khajjiar

We had been walking for over three hours on the rough tarmac that swerved around the hills of Dalhousie when, quite unexpectedly, we arrived at the crossing that the old man at the bus station had told us to look out for. On our right, the road continued to climb further until it disappeared into a blind corner. It was, however, the dusty gravel path on the left that held our attention. We stood there for a little while, passing a bottle of water between us, until our breaths regained their natural rhythm.

“The final stretch,” said Kunal. “Three kilometers”.

Ajay’s brisk laugh betrayed his exhaustion and he gently slapped Kunal’s back. I just smiled silently and took another sip of water.

About ten minutes later, the path widened and we could see a huge metal pole barrier some distance away, beyond which stood a couple of huts overlooking a field where groups of small children and women were binding wooden logs and sticks into bundles. I noticed a man standing next to the barrier who seemed to have spotted us as well. A few meters above his head, adorning the barrier like a crescent shaped crown, was a board that said – “Welcome to Lakadd Bazaar”. The man gave us a wave and we walked towards him.

“Are you looking for a place to stay?” he asked us when we were still quite a few steps away from him. Despite the cold, he was very lightly dressed. His thin frame leaning against the pole formed a very amusing image, as if he was just about to launch into a particular circus act. He looked at us expectantly.

“We already have a booking,” replied Kunal. “The forest rest house at Kalatop. How far is it from here?”

“Oh. Very good! Ah…it is fifteen minutes away. Follow the path behind those houses,” he said, pointing to the small huts that I had noticed from afar. “Do you want to do a trek through the forest? It starts from behind the rest house. All the way to Khajjiar.”

“We are here specifically for that trek,” smiled Ajay. But we just walked all the way from the bus station. It has taken us about three hours.”

“Oh not right now. It is too late. I can take you tomorrow morning. It’s the best time to do it. Note down my number and give me a call tonight.”

“How much would you charge?” asked Kunal.

“800 rupees for the trip. That’s our standard rate. We conduct paragliding and rock climbing too for the same rate.”

We promised to call him by evening and continued on our way. The tarmac had disappeared the moment we had turned left at the crossing, and had taken with it the last remaining vestiges of the moderately urbanized surroundings that we had initially walked through. We encountered many small children on our path, who I presumed were heading back to the Lakadd Bazaar from the forest, with huge bundles of wood on their shoulders and heads. There weren’t any adults accompanying them. Their faces were extremely cheerful and happy and they couldn’t stop talking incessantly. One of the groups even tried to engage us in a conversation and it was rather obvious that it was part of some game of theirs. They left us soon, almost shrieking with joy and laughter, no doubt having played their joke on us.

Though we were quite tired after this walk, our steps had suddenly quickened. The soft dirt felt much better under my feet as compared to the tarmac. None of us was saying a word and there was a sense of heightened expectation as we neared our destination.

The guide’s estimation had been more or less accurate. We entered the gates of the Forest Rest House around 20 minutes after we had left him at the barrier. It was around 4 in the evening. The dirt road had suddenly given way to a beautiful and evidently well managed small estate, with large gardens spread all around us interspersed with numerous old cottages. We were taken to our room by a smiling porter who informed us about the timings for tea and dinner, which he was quick to point out could be served to us in the room itself if we wanted. We threw our backpacks in one corner and then fell on the large double bed. It was just about big enough for the three of us. My feet and calves immediately started to hurt.

I was the first one to wake up. I tiptoed outside our room and sat on the front steps of our cottage. It was dark and cold, and the only reason I could discern the outline of the surrounding mountains was that I knew they were there.

“It is really cold,” remarked Kunal with his head sticking out the door of our cottage. I turned back and nodded at him.

“I am enjoying it.”

“Well I am going to ask that guy to get us our food. Are you hungry?”

“I guess I will be when I see the food.”

“I can see it already. I’ll wake up Ajay. Let’s discuss about tomorrow’s trek.”

“Yeah. We should call that guide. He seemed friendly.”

“That’s his job. Anyway, come inside before you enjoy yourself a bit too much.”

I leaned against a brick column and continued to gaze into the darkness. I started stretching and flexing my legs in front, which were still in the process of recovering from the day’s walk, though now the pain was soothing and infinitely more welcome. I began to feel very optimistic about tomorrow’s trek.
When I went back to the room, Ajay was still in a bit of a drowsy state while Kunal was busy on his phone.

“Just go outside once,” I said to Ajay. “Quickest way to feel completely awake.”

“I want to take my time.”

“Food! The trek! The guide!” said Kunal, looking up from his phone. “Let’s decide things. It is 8 already. I am calling them for the food.”

The guide must have been quite near the rest house because he knocked on our door just five minutes after I had called him.

“Do you live nearby?” I asked him as he entered.

“Oh no. There is nothing nearby. I live in the town below. Right near the bus station from where you all walked this morning. I am staying the night here with the guards.”

“We wanted to finalize tomorrow’s trek,” said Kunal.

“Ah yes! We should start early. It is around 12 kms and begins just at the edge of the rest house boundary. All the way to Khajjiar through the forest. It is called the Switzerland of India! And we didn’t give that name, it was the foreigners.”

“What is your best rate?” asked Ajay.

“The rates are fixed here by the forest authority. January to December, with or without snow, the rate is 800 for less than five people.”

“Why is that?” I asked.

“I don’t know. It is simpler.”

We all looked at each other with an expression that suggested we agree to the guide’s proposal.

“Is it okay if we start by around 9 in the morning?” asked Kunal.

The guide smiled. “As early as you can manage. I’ll be right here. You only have to call me.”

He left around the time when one of the workers arrived with our tray of food. It comprised of Rotis, Dal, Paneer and some salad, all cooked in the way one would expect at home, which was exactly what had been told to us. Although our journey had tired me a lot, I wasn’t excessively hungry and ate lesser than I normally would.

The next morning, I was once again the first to wake up. It was around 8. I sat at the front porch and looked at the scenes around me that I had only been able to imagine and sense last night in the darkness. But perhaps an even bigger difference than the sights were the sounds. The morning was quiet with a somewhat lethargic feel to it, interrupted only by the occasional chirp of a bird or the rustling move of a squirrel, while the night had seemed to compensate for its lack of visual presence by a chorus of insects’ calls.

We had a quick breakfast of Maggi and coffee after which we settled our entire account for the stay as we weren’t going to return. The guide was waiting for us at the reception, wearing the same smile and perhaps even the same clothes. He took us behind the reception building that ran along the forest’s border where a small wooden gate marked the beginning of our trek.

“This shall be fun,” he announced rather theatrically.

The change in scenery, though had been quite perceptible from outside, was still quite sudden and very welcoming. The narrow and dusty path, in less than a hundred meters perhaps, led to an even narrower and dustier route where we were sandwiched between tall and entwined trees. It took me a while before I realized that we were actually heading downwards so that soon our rest house was perched upon a hill high on our left.

“We are going down initially?” I asked

“Oh yes. It is a 6 kilometer downward slope until we reach the stream. From there we will climb 2 kilometers before covering the final 4 kilometers on a straight level.”

We were all walking in almost a line as it wasn’t possible to comfortably walk side by side. The guide was at the front while the rest of us seemed to be automatically changing our positions from time to time.

“Where are you from?” he asked

“Delhi,” said Kunal. “All of us, though I now work in Bangalore.”

“Most of the people coming here are from Delhi or Punjab,” he said. “Just a month ago, we had two families from Punjab who were living at the rest house. They weren’t interested in this trek. Each of the three nights they stayed, they would sit in the garden with their food and drinks while we had to ensure their children didn’t run off into the forest. Such horrible children…”

He stopped and picked something off the ground. It had a conical structure with small serrations that somewhat resembled the gears on a bicycle all over its exterior. He handed it to us.

“That’s a cone. They fall from the trees and are buried under the snow. It is how the forest goes on.”

We stopped and took turns to hold the cone in our hands before I tossed it into the inner reaches among the trees. The moment I had stood still, a dull pain had somewhat started from my toes and traversed the length of my legs. I hadn’t noticed it while walking.

“What kind of trees are these?” I asked

“They are mostly Deodar,” he replied. “Their quality of wood is renowned. They don’t rot for years. But I was telling you about those two families. I wanted to ask them why they had travelled all the way to this beautiful place only to experience it as one would a park in whatever dreadful city they came from. And their three fat children….”

Our mild and gradual descent deeper into the enveloping forest continued at quite a fast pace. Apart from the noise of the leaves and twigs getting crunched under our feet, and the intermittent squeak of a bird, it was the guide’s voice that seemed to soar through and become a part of the setting itself, to the point where it would have started to seem unnatural if he wouldn’t have been speaking. The rest of us merely exchanged glances from time to time, which acknowledged the fact that we were quite enjoying his performance. The pain in my legs, though not excessive, was fairly constant, and in quite an ironic way, the very thing causing the pain was helping me to not focus too much on it.

“…there is no signal here, of course, apart from Vodafone in a few corners. I don’t know why. There are no poles. Once a young couple, acting too modern, thinking they could do the trek without a guide, got lost inside here for hours. When finally one of their phones connected, the only thing they could tell us was the shape of the trees around them. Imagine that! We found them eventually, of course, but I almost felt like…Can you hear the water?”

It took us another five minutes before we could make out the sound and another fifteen before we arrived at a small wooden bridge below which we could spot the trickling water meandering between the huge shiny rocks that had most of their surface covered by moss or algae.

“The water is clean and fresh. You can rest here for some time and fill your bottles. The ascent begins straight after that. Watch out now, the path here is very slippery. You’ll probably fall but that’s ok.”

We followed his footsteps as there was no clear defined path that he was taking to reach the shallow stream. Every leaf or piece of wood that I brushed along the way was damp and started sticking to my hands and clothes. I put my hand on a rock to steady myself as we slowly reached lower and lower, only to slip and fall towards my destination, my backpack rather awkwardly getting flung almost over my head. The earth was soft and damp enough to ensure that the fall was simply a humorous incident.

“Hands are of no real help,” said the guide, waving both of his near his head as a mime artist would. “You will all fall. If you don’t, it doesn’t mean you have good balance. You are simply lucky.”

“Do you still fall?” asked Kunal. The guide laughed.

“Of course not. I really have good balance. Unmatched in all of Dalhousie. It took me years of falling to develop it.”

He was right. By the time we reached the point where we could sit on the rocks in the middle of the stream and rest, all three of us had tripped on an average at least twice during the way, so that we had to take off our socks and walk around barefoot while our shoes dried.

The area was beautiful and picturesque, almost like a small refuge from the wilderness surrounding us, so that when we looked around at the enveloping green hills that rose quite sharply away from where we were seated, it seemed that we were in the very heart of the forest.

While we rested on those rocks, the guide was prancing around quite comfortably, apparently bidding his time until we felt ready enough for the climb.

“Now we’ll see how fit you are,” he said and, as if on cue, my attention was once again captured by the pain. “Let’s go. The initial ten minutes would be the hardest.”

The climb was steeper than I had imagined. The stream fell further and further below at a staggering pace. The distance between us all also began to grow as Kunal surged ahead with apparent ease, followed by Ajay who looked as if he was struggling but clearly not as much as I was. The guide meandered between all of us from time to time.

“We get groups who come during the winter when a thick layer of snow covers the entire area. That is just a completely different experience. We ask only the fittest to walk in the front, as they have to make the path for the rest to follow. It is much easier to walk on trampled snow…….Don’t have too much water. Have a small bite of chocolate if you have one. That’s better than water.”

I nodded and gladly accepted some from Ajay. Even though it hadn’t been long since we had started, I really wished to stop and sit down for a bit but knew that it would then be even more difficult to continue.

“We should finish this stretch without stopping too often.”

But we stopped every few hundred meters, perhaps more on my account than anyone else’s. I was lagging behind and they would wait for me to catch up to them. I would have felt embarrassed about the situation if I had the energy to do so.

The two kilometer distance marking the end of the climb came and went, and the path leveled to a more manageable contour, but the fatigue that had set in seemed beyond recovery. My legs, feeling quite independent from my body, continued to fall on the ground one after another, being carried forward not by will, but by momentum and adrenalin. Kunal and Ajay sped further and further away until I could neither see nor hear their footsteps. The guide, rather dutifully, was giving me company.

“You can go along with them,” I said rather magnanimously but the guide only smiled.

“What work do you do?” he asked me.

“I’m an engineer.”

“My son has just started going to school.”

It was strange to hear him suddenly speak of his family and for some reason I found it rather hard and almost fantastical to picture him as a father. But he seemed to have left his jocular tone for the moment and was speaking in a sedate voice. I found myself drawn in by the conversational manner of his speech.

“He very much disliked it the first few days. My wife had to almost shut him out of the house to make him go. Now I think he enjoys it.”

“How old is he?”

“Five. He is very quiet. My father says that’s a good thing. He said that the only thing I could do was talk and that’s why the only thing I could be was a guide. And a vegetable seller….Give your bag to me…”

“No no. It is fine,” I said and slipped my fingers through the shoulder straps. For a moment the increasing pressure on my shoulders seemed like a good diversion but then soon all the sources of pain compounded and acted together, creating an almost burning sensation that ran across my body. The trees, the rocks, the sky, the path, all lost any sense of meaning or importance. Sheer physical fatigue took hold over me in midst of all that beauty and my eyes drooped towards my feet, refusing to lift or deviate in the slightest. I almost expected to see my shoes in tatters with my toes having cut through the fabric. I smiled, as much as I could without disturbing the muscles of my face, on noticing the almost perfect condition in which they were, albeit just a shade darker because of the moisture in the dirt. I became almost fascinated with the movement of my feet. Their symmetry and coordination seemed to confound me, more so now since the numbness had turned them into complete strangers who I was finding very hard to rely on. During all of this, the only exterior presence that pierced through the haze of pain and inconvenience, was the guide’s voice.

“You are a vegetable seller too?”

“In the months when we have no tourists. This can never be a permanent job. I am dependent on you. My uncle was a vegetable seller. It is very easy. But the real fun is here. I don’t even like vegetables that much.”

“How much further,” I asked.

“Ten minutes.”

“Do you never get bored of this walk?”

“I always have different people with me. Last year, we had a young lady who wanted to camp for a week near the stream. We would bring her food from the rest house, and every evening she took out her guitar and sang while we sat and listened to her. She had a great voice, almost like the one you hear in movies. She even asked us to sing and we sometimes did. She said I was a good singer so I started singing more often. I even sing to my son but he doesn’t like it. Do you sing?”

I could have told him I didn’t, or even implied the same through a shake of the head, but at that moment my ears picked up the rather welcoming sound of a vehicle that I couldn’t see.

“Almost,” he smiled.

“Do you get people like me?” I asked, finding a little energy for a self-deprecating joke now that it was almost over.

“Always. At least I don’t have to carry you.”

I felt quite inclined to accept that as a bit of a saving grace. The path we were walking on rapidly widened and become more and more devoid of grass as we approached the main road. There, at the junction where the two met, Kunal and Ajay were sitting under a tree. They started cheering as I approached.

“Good news,” said Kunal. “Now we walk a bit on the main road before we reach the lake. A few hundred meters.”

Ajay laughed and pointed to the place next to him.

“I am not sitting,” I said. “Let’s go.”

Five minutes later, we stepped down from the road and onto the green patch of land that had the famous Khajjiar lake in the center with hills rising in the backdrop. There were a few people around, most of whom were scattered at the edges of the field where the small eateries were set up. The lake lay all by itself in the middle, with only some stray animals for company. Even from the distance we were at, I could notice the dark and murky colour of the water. The guide gestured towards a wooden board that stood a bit to our left in the shape of an arrow with the words “Switzerland 6194 km” written on it.

“That’s the distance between Khajjiar and the capital of Switzerland,” remarked the guide on following our gaze. “In that direction.”

I finally relented and sat on the grass, letting out quite an audible sigh as my legs almost convulsed with relief. Ajay paid the guide and he shook our hands before taking off.

“Thank you,” I said to him. He smiled, turned around and almost ran up the steps to the main road, on his way back, I assumed, to his home in the city.

“Maybe this is how Switzerland was when they made the comparison,” commented Kunal.

“More likely, this place was just much better.”

“There are food stalls here,” I said. “Once food stalls are set up, nothing can save a place.”

“Some people actually drive up to here,” said Kunal. “What a waste! At least our journey was worth in itself. Otherwise it would have just been….”

“Painful,” I smiled.

We all laughed and sat at the spot for almost an hour before getting a cab back to the railway station. I fell asleep as soon as we sat in the cab, only to wake up during the middle of the journey when both Kunal and Ajay were sleeping. It was still early in the evening and the cab had just entered the city from where we had started our ascent yesterday. The station was another two hours from here.

I looked out of the window at the people bustling around the market area, the tourists interspersed with the locals, meandering through the little shops lined at the edges of the streets. I let my head fall back and eyes lose focus, so that it all started appearing as one big moving mass of activity, dissolving in a maze of colours and emanating a myriad of sounds, among which I thought I quite distinctly heard the sharp and loud pitch of a vegetable seller.

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A Year Later

The path between Half Moon and Paradise was riddled with huge black rocks that felt smooth under my palm. It was early in the evening as we made our way through those rocks – up and down, constantly using our hands to steady ourselves; putting our trust in the robustness of our slippers – and the advance of the tide had only just started to become noticeable. The sea lay on our right, undisturbed except for a small boat, carrying not more than five passengers and gliding through the water towards our intended destination. One of the five gave us a nonchalant wave.

“Why do people do that?” remarked Aryan, as he replied with a quick thumbs-up.

“Maybe we should sit down for a bit,” I said as Aryan continued to stare at the boat.

“The purple rocks are just beyond that cliff,” he replied. “Why don’t we sit there? The view is much better.”

For a little while, during which we continued to climb through the rocks amid the slow gushes of sea water, we could still see the boat being pulled by its sole oarsman, until it disappeared from view behind the very cliff that hid those purple rocks.

“Tomorrow let’s take the boat to Nirvana,” suggested Aryan. “We didn’t the last time.”

“We could,” I replied.

It took us another ten minutes before we found ourselves on the other side of the cliff with the patch of purple rocks staring at us from afar. The color of these rocks was in extreme contrast to that of the surrounding area, which was basically an envelope of green and blue.

“It reminds me of what you had said last time,” said Aryan as we sat down. “It is like falling down a rabbit hole.”

“I hadn’t said that. It was Kunal.”

“Oh, yes it was. I forgot.”

Little crabs scurried around on the purple rocks and through the little streams of water in between. I felt a little uneasy by their sudden bursts of speed between moments of absolute stillness.

“I don’t think I can get tired of this sound,” said Aryan, lighting a cigarette and pointing his fingers towards the incoming waves. “I am becoming used to it, but still not tired of it.”

I smiled and slowly shook my head as he held the cigarette in his outstretched arm, just a few inches below my left shoulder.

“When did this happen?” he asked as he retracted his arm.

“A few months now.”

“Well,” said Aryan, taking a long draw, “we can’t linger much longer. I don’t want to be going through those rocks after the sun has set.”

“Yes. Finish your cigarette and then we’ll go,” I said,” my eyes fixed on a crab that had just started to climb a rock after emerging from a shallow stream of water near my feet.

We left the purple rocks and I felt much better. Half an hour later, Paradise beach came into view, and our tired feet quickened until we could feel the softness of the cool sand beneath our feet. We removed our slippers and walked with them in our hands. I was happy to notice that the boat wasn’t present there. It must have gone straight to Nirvana.

“It is just as you expect it,” remarked Aryan.

It was. It was completely deserted, except for one makeshift tent that lay perched on a small cliff top towards our left where the beach met the hill. It was small and serene; just like it was last year. However, at that time, there had been three of us and we had expected nothing.

“The Israelis are few in number,” I said. “I see only one tent.”

“I can see one guy in the water,” said Aryan as we placed our bags containing our wallets, phones and sleeping bags near a rock. “There were more at Half Moon though. Anyway, let’s take a dip.”

We took off our shirts and walked towards the water. It was cold and I quickly took a few dips to make it bearable. I stayed near the beach but Aryan, being a better swimmer, went further. The Israeli was far deeper and towards his left. Aryan waved at him and he waved back.

The seaweed that would intermittently brush against my legs made me uncomfortable. I got tired of the water and waded back towards the beach. As I didn’t want to get mud on my shorts, I stood there for a while to let them dry. Aryan waved at me, probably wondering as to why I wasn’t in the water. I just pointed towards the sand in reply, as if to say that I was fine here. But I knew I wasn’t because all of these little things were annoying me very much; annoying me all the more because I couldn’t remember any of this annoying me last year.

I finally sat down and waited for him, thinking about things I could say when he came back. The sun was very near the horizon now, having reached the stage where I could easily look at it without hurting my eyes. I lay on my back and stared at the sky.

The sound of splashing feet woke me up. At first, I felt a little disoriented because the sun had set, lending a much different colour to the sky. I sat up and saw the Israeli walk towards me with a smile on his face. Aryan was still in the water.

“The crabs will start exploring you if you stay still too long,” he spoke in a very clear and concise accent.

“I didn’t mean to sleep.”

“The sand is like that,” he said with a shrug.“I’m Jaron.”

“Neeraj”

“Are you with that guy?”

“Yeah.”

“I’m here with my friend Yael,” he said and pointed at the tent that we had seen earlier. There wasn’t anyone to be seen.

“He’s probably asleep. You guys would be staying the night?”

“We will. We only just got here.”

“That’s good,” he said and felt around his shorts to see if they were dry. “You should join us later.”

“Thanks. We might.”

He lingered for a bit, glancing towards the sea from time to time, where Aryan seemed quite content at just being pushed around by the waves. At first I thought that he was going to sit down and I hoped that he wouldn’t. Then, all of a sudden, he just nodded at me and walked away.

I felt hungry but decided to wait for Aryan to get back. He took his time, like I knew he would, while I sat there in the sand, just looking at and listening to nothing.

He returned after a while and immediately fell on the sand beside me.

“You’ll get muddy,” I warned.

“It doesn’t matter. It’ll dry. Do you want to eat? I’m hungry.”

“I’ll get the food,” I said and walked towards our bags, returning with two burgers that we had bought at one of the shacks on Half Moon.

“We should have got something to drink too,” said Aryan as he took a bite. “This is great.”

We just sat there and did nothing, except watch the relentless roll of the waves and hear the water crash on to the rocks. It was what we had planned to; last year we had done the same. The beauty of Paradise had been enough and there hadn’t been any need for conversations.

“The Israeli guy met me when you were in the water,” I tried. “His name is Jaron.”

“Oh yeah?” asked Aryan. “What did he say?”

“Just that he is here with his friend Yael,” I said and pointed towards the cliff where their tent stood. We could see the two of them standing outside with a horde of thin wooden logs kept in front.

“They are trying to make a fire,” said Aryan. “We should give it a try too. It looks great. Maybe tomorrow.”

“We could,” I said. “By the way, he has invited us to come over.”

“He is a different sort,” said Aryan. “Last year, none of them even seemed interested to talk to us.”

“Yeah they didn’t,” said I.“I don’t know if he meant it.”

“It might be fun,” said Aryan. “It will get cold in a while. A fire would be nice.”

But before the cold, there were the stars. They always came before the intense cold and that was perhaps the best time to be on Paradise. This was a different kind of beauty than what the day presented. The blue of the water, the green of the trees and the black of the rocks all slowly went away. The colours didn’t matter much anymore. We could still hear the sea; that was the same. Now we were lying on our backs, looking at the stars and I was feeling much better.

“Until you come to a place like this,” said Aryan, “you would never realize the impact of pollution. They are just so many stars.”

“Can you make out a constellation?” I asked.

“I’m bad at that,” he replied. “I once memorized the layout of Ursa Major. It was the most obvious one. It’s all gone now. Kunal knows a couple. He is good at this.”

“He knows more than a couple,” I said with a laugh. “And he could never stop talking about them.”

“Yeah,” said Aryan. “It is funny what can grab someone’s interest.”

Their fire was burning nice and steady now and we could see the reflections of the flames in the water. I looked towards them and saw that the two were sitting outside their tent near the fire. One of them was playing a small guitar. Maybe it was a ukulele. I couldn’t make out whether he was singing or not because I couldn’t hear anything over the sound of the sea.

“Can you hear what he is playing?” asked Aryan. I noticed that he too was looking towards them.

“No. He is playing too softly,” I said.

“Do you think it is cold enough now?” he asked with a smile and got up. “Should we?”

“We could.”

We stood up, searched for our slippers that were buried in different locations in the surrounding sand, and walked towards the cliff. It took a while for them to see us approach. Eventually, one of them, most probably Jaron, waved and pointed towards a particular section of the hill that we could use to climb up. It was difficult to see in the dark and we had left our phones in our bags next to where we had been sitting. We climbed slowly, using our hands from time to time, until the path was clear and wide enough for us to feel comfortable. We finally stepped on to the cliff and now I could clearly see their faces illuminated by the flames. It was Jaron’s friend Yael who had the ukulele in his hand. He wasn’t playing at that moment.

“It is good that you came,” said Jaron. “This is my friend, Yael.”

Yael stood up and shook our hands before assuming his position beside the fire.

“He doesn’t speak much English,” said Jaron and Yael nodded.

My eyes fell on their tent, which basically consisted of a large piece of cloth hung over a protruding branch of a tree and then fixed to the ground using bricks. The entrance was uncovered, but the interior wasn’t visible because of the dark. It was much less impressive than the makeshift houses of the Israelis living on Half Moon.

“It’s a nice tent,” said Aryan.

“No no,” replied Jaron. “It cannot stop the rain and keeps flapping in the wind. But sit down, sit down.”

I sat next to Yael, who was keenly looking at his ukulele and gently plucking on the strings, creating a discordant sound that, when I started to focus on it, seemed very loud. He caught my gaze and held his ukulele out in front.

“Oh no,” I gestured. “I cannot play anything.”

The warmth of the fire felt nice and here one could clearly hear its crackle over the sea in the background. We were all silent for a bit and then Yael started to strum louder and slowly broke into a rhythm that Jaron, by the look on his face, clearly recognized.

“He is making a mockery of it,” he laughed and then spoke in Hebrew to Yael, who smiled but continued to play the tune rather seriously. “It is Od Lo Ahavti Dai. In English that would be I haven’t loved enough,” he explained to us. “It sounds so different on a Ukulele.”

It sounded ok to me and I looked towards Aryan who too seemed to be enjoying it. Yael continued to play, while Jaron passed over some sandwiches that were wrapped in a foil. I declined but Aryan took one.

“Have you guys been to Gokarna before?” asked Jaron just as Yael finished.

“Last year was the first time,” replied Aryan. “It was just after our graduation.”

“You get holidays after your graduation?”

“We had a month before our jobs started.”

Jaron nodded. “We get a holiday after our conscription period is over. We heard about this place in the army. That’s where we met.”

“Did you like the army?” I asked.

“Yael still does,” he said and Yael nodded in agreement. “He wants to join it again when we get back.”

“And you?”

“I don’t know. Not the army, though. For now I am here and this is nice.”

Yael picked up the ukulele once again and started strumming, but gently and without any real purpose.

“How is this place the second time?” asked Jaron.

“Different,” said Aryan and I looked at him. “The previous year it was new and there were three of us.”

“Our friend Kunal,” I explained. “He couldn’t get away.”

“But it’s as beautiful.”

“Yes,” agreed Jaron.“We have been here for two weeks now, half of which we have spent on Paradise. When do you guys leave?”

“We reached today,” I replied. “Another three days.”

“You’ll stay the nights here?”

“Today at least,” said Aryan. “That was the plan. We might go to Nirvana tomorrow.”

“Ah..we’ve been there. It is too long a beach. One feels very small there.”

By now the sand had swallowed my feet up to my ankles. The fire was dying a bit but the warmth could still be strongly felt on our eyes and faces. It was very comfortable there. I stopped talking and just heard Jaron and Aryan converse. They were doing it very easily.

It was only when Aryan put his hand on my shoulder that I realized that I had dozed off. Yael was still strumming his ukulele and the fire was now burning well. Jaron and Aryan were smiling at me.

“The sand gets to you easily,” said Jaron.

“Let’s go back,” said Aryan. “It’s late.”

I was a little embarrassed and quickly nodded to both Yael and Jaron before getting up. My left foot had gone off to sleep and it was a little difficult going down the same path we had come through before. Away from the fire, I started to feel cold and, on reaching the place we had sat earlier, we immediately unpacked our sleeping bags and unrolled them on the sand. Inside, it was not as comfortable as on the cliff, but it wasn’t that bad.

“They were okay,” said Aryan.

“I suppose,” I replied. “Yael was weird. It seemed deliberate.”

“Maybe it was. But Jaron was fine.”

“Yeah. You guys talked a lot.”

“It wasn’t much. You slept.”

I was glad he didn’t look towards me when he said that. But then it wasn’t so easy to turn our heads within those sleeping bags.

“We should definitely go to Nirvana tomorrow,” I said.

“Ok.”

“It would be something different.”

He nodded and closed his eyes. I turned my head and stared at the stars, not feeling too sleepy. For a moment, after I had been staring for a long while, I thought that I made out Ursa Major, but I was mistaken.

In Our Time

The young boy didn’t need his mother’s help to wake up that morning. Despite the cold, which ensured that the process was gradual and unpleasant, he prevailed with what he deemed as a satisfactory display of early morning courage. He had managed to sleep soundly amid intermittent dreams about the coming day and about what it promised to entail. He sat up on his bed and, ignoring the silent pleas of his left arm that lay well ensconced within the warmth of the thick quilt, used it to draw the curtains aside from the window above his left bed post. The view increased his excitement even further and made him leap from his bed on to the cold floor.

He immediately regretted this unplanned leap and climbed back in. Another look outside restored his enthusiasm and he stayed still in that position until his mother arrived. She wasn’t surprised to see him awake.

“Yes,” she said with a wry smile. “Everything’s closed.”

The root of his excitement, confirmed by the most reliable source he knew, made him laugh loudly with pleasure. He affected his mother alike.

“Everyone is at home then!” he exclaimed.

“Yes” laughed his mother. “But they are all sleeping so be quiet.”

“I’ll wake them,” he said and started to remove his quilt.

“You may try,” she said but then stopped him. “But I better not see you outside this room without your socks and sweater.”

Some moments later, having appropriately clothed himself, he rushed inside his elder sister’s room. He began prodding her on the back, gently at first and then, realizing that the quilt was softening his finger’s impact, with much greater intensity.

“What is it?” she asked in frustration.

“The snow! We’ll be at home today.”

The sister, in accordance with the universally accepted way of displaying disappointment, tried to bury her head deep within her pillow but then, remembering that she was a rebel, sprang from the bed and looked inquiringly at her brother.

“Are you sure?”

“Mother just told me.”

“This is perfect.”

“Yes,” the boy beamed with pleasure, still too young to understand the devastating simplicity of sarcasm. “I’ll wake up father.”

After her brother left the room, she retrieved her cell phone from somewhere within the folds of the quilt and texted her friend. The two had a forty minute conversation about the misfortune that had befallen them that day, the inadequacy of the government’s snowfall mitigation techniques, and how all of this was their parents’ fault.

During those forty minutes, the boy tried, rather unsuccessfully, to wake his father. The only responses that he managed to elicit out of him were “So you will all be at home today” and “Let me sleep. I love you”. This was followed by long and deliberate snores that finally made the boy leave the room in search of his mother.

The mother had been rather busy all this while. She had been trying to think of activities that would engage her son and hence act as effective channels for his burgeoning enthusiasm. She knew that he wouldn’t get very satisfactory responses from either his sister or his father and would then eventually rely on her.

No house should suffer the misfortune of having all of its members present inside at the same time, she thought. It leads to such conflicts of interests.

She saw her son leaving his sister’s room with a surprisingly happy disposition. It wasn’t something she generally expected whenever he did venture near that area. He waved at her and, using small brisk leaps to propel himself, entered inside the adjacent room. She smiled at him and then frantically turned her attention towards the television. She realized, at that moment, how she had always underestimated its importance. She said a quick prayer to the Gods of Unwholesome Entertainment, apologizing for her ignorance, and switched it on. A sea of black and white dots danced mockingly in front of her. She said another quick prayer that mostly contained curses for the Gods of Unwholesome Entertainment along with a derisive footnote for the Gods of Weather.

While the Gods reviewed the mother’s contradictory prayers and tossed them into the “They don’t know what they want” pile, her phone gave two sharp beeps. It was a message from her boss who wished her a very good morning and expressed his concern about the weather. He then reminded her of the irregularities in the media budget that they had come across yesterday, and how, after much thought and consideration, he had taken an executive decision that made it solely her responsibility to make the necessary rectifications. He hoped that she wouldn’t let her inability to reach the office deter her and that she would provide him with the corrected data by tonight.

“Mother? You look red.”

“Oh,” she replied, noticing her son. “It is the cold I suppose.”

“I thought the cold makes a person blue.”

“Well it makes me red. Now, could you wake them?”

“Yes,” he said triumphantly. “Almost.”

“This is perfect.”

“That’s exactly what she said,” he smiled.

An hour later, they were all seated at the dining table, a bowl of cereal in each of their laps and a Monopoly game board lying between them. Two other board games, “Life” and “Scotland Yard”, lay beside the boy who really felt as if he was in charge of things. Ever since he had heard about the impending snow storm, he had prayed for this day. The Gods had tossed his prayer into the “They know what they want but we cannot give it to them because they will just want more” pile. In fact, on such occasions, they always ensured that the wish wasn’t fulfilled coincidentally through natural means lest it be attributed to the effectiveness of the prayer. But the boy didn’t know that yet.

The minutes progressed and so did the little coloured pieces on the board – both using similar cyclic trajectories that relied on repetition for progress.  The boy kept them all together, made them smile and occasionally laugh. He didn’t notice the similarity and the lack of spontaneity in their laughter. But for a few moments, spread intermittently and lasting merely seconds, the rest of them managed to focus on him and forget each other.

So it was quite a telling coincidence when the very moment that Chance provided his sister with a “Get out of jail free” card, her cell phone rang. She excused herself and galloped back to her bedroom. The boy, well familiar with the longevity of such phone calls, looked in dismay as his well constructed plan for the day suffered a major dent from a rather regular occurrence that he had somehow forgotten to account for.

“I suppose we should wait for her,” said the father and then gave the boy a quick pat. “I do need to finish at least a chapter today. I love you.” With that he rose, smiled at them both and retreated to his study.

“They shouldn’t take long,” said the mother. “We’ll play later. Why don’t you read your book?”

“I read my book every day,” he replied with a dismal look. “I don’t need snow to read my book.”

The mother tried to think of something comforting to say but her mind was too occupied by her boss’s message and the opportunity that this sudden interruption now presented. Even something as obvious as guilt, which usually manifested under such conditions, was finding it difficult to become a part of her thought process.

The boy walked back to his room, climbed inside his bed and looked outside through the window.  It was almost noon by this time and the heat of the sun had started to melt the upper layer. But the process was so slow and gradual that it would be completely undone by the chill of the evening.

The boy closed his eyes and prayed for the snow to melt and the roads to clear so that he could go back to school tomorrow and be with his friends. The Gods received the prayer, compared it with the asker’s previous entry, discovered the contradiction, and tossed it into the “They don’t know what they want” pile.

The End of Something

The old man rowed effortlessly and I wondered how hard it actually was for him. The water was murky and the weeds grew almost till the surface. It was a forty minute ride and we had been on the boat for just over five minutes until then.

“That’s where the Chief Minister lives,” spoke the old man, breaking our silence, and then continued with a chuckle, “It used to be a prison.”

“Is that true?” smiled my wife.

“Oh yes,” he replied with satisfaction. “That’s how it is.”

I looked over to where he had been pointing and spotted the green roofed house that stood on the hill to our far left. It looked nothing like a prison. My eyes soon wandered away from it and drifted from one Shikara to another. There were many that evening on the lake.

“This is the busiest time of the year,” said the old man. “A month later, it will all be empty.”

“What do you do then?” she asked.

“I make handicrafts. My son does it now. My eyes are not sharp anymore.”

I leaned back until my head hit the soft red cushions but then got up immediately as, in that position, the sun shone directly on my face. It didn’t seem to bother my wife though who, with the sunlight bright across her face, lay comfortably on my right.

“Have you been here before?” asked the old man.

“No,” answered my wife. “We are here with our friends. They are in another Shikhara.”

Another boat, much smaller than ours, appeared on my wife’s right and then kept pace with us. In it sat just one man, much younger than our oarsman. He let go of his oars for a bit and spread a thin cloth in front of us in which he started to place many little trinkets. The old man slowed down until both the boats were almost at a standstill.

My wife picked up a few rings, examined them and then put them back on the cloth. The seller didn’t say anything and seemed to wait for my wife to give him some sort of indication. She didn’t, so he packed his items, wrapped the cloth and quietly rowed away.

“This is the floating market,” explained the old man. “You can get jewelry, clothes and even food here. It is all very good.”

We had taken a right turn and entered into a narrow section of the lake with a line of houseboats forming a border towards our left. There were many people on the houseboats, most of them either sitting on the decks or leaning against the balustrades. They were mostly foreigners, though I could see a few Indians as well.

“They have such interesting names,” remarked my wife.

It was true. Each houseboat had a board attached to its front, on which were written some names like “Monalisa”, “Queen Victory”, “Lake Castle” and others. At the end of the line, just before the lake turned further right and back towards the direction from where we had come, there was one houseboat that caught my eye. It was called “The Rose Gate”. It was about the same size as the rest of them, but still rested on a larger area. It seemed unoccupied except for one man, most probably its owner, who sat on a stool near its entrance, leaning against a large semi circular gate on which huge red roses hung amidst a thick green bush.

“They only look good,” said the old man, noticing our gaze. “Those roses attract everyone. But they have no fragrance. It is such a waste.”

We were now well inside the market. Apart from the little boats, which glided around us, there were many little shops standing on stilts. The old man directed our boat towards many of them, and their shopkeepers smiled at us and displayed what they had to offer. However, my wife shook her head on every occasion. The old man looked at me a few times but didn’t say anything.

There were many Shikharas in this region and, for a little while, the old man forgot about us and focused on making his way through the crowd and back towards where we had started from.

“I am the oldest rower here,” he said as he brought the boat to a halt. “For everyone else, there is a queue. But none for me. I taught most of the boys here.”

I smiled at him as he handed me a rope that I used to get off. He asked me to pull it well to stabilize the boat while he helped my wife. I handed him his money and we walked away towards the stairs that led to the road. He pocketed it and sat down near his boat, looking a bit glum.

We had to wait a while for our friends to come back, so we sat on those stairs. They waved at us cheerfully as their boat came near and then quickly walked towards us. She was wearing one of those earrings that the young man had shown.

“That was fun!” he said as we started to walk towards our taxi.

“Yes,” replied my wife. “It is such a scenic place.”

“But the water’s too dirty,” she said.

“Too many weeds,” I replied.

“Yes,” he said. “Our boatman told us about that. He said that until a few years ago everything was clean and beautiful. But the weeds have been neglected and now they have spread and grown too strong. He said that it wouldn’t last.”

The Bribe

It wasn’t easy for him to go to work that day. In fact it wasn’t easy for him to go to work on most days but today that feeling was significantly more pronounced. Even so, he was happier and much more content.

But how long can I work here now, he thought. Everything has changed and thus shouldn’t this?

At the main gate, the security guard glanced over his badge and handed him the log book. He made his entry and then, just for a few moments, lingered outside the guard’s room, expecting the question he wished to answer. But then he remembered that the guard wouldn’t ask because he didn’t know. Disappointed, he smiled to himself and walked away.

I had been very discreet. It seems like such an unnecessary precaution now. I want everyone to know.

Minutes after he had reached his desk and set down his cap, one of the other officers approached him.

“How is the stomach?” the officer asked and handed him the keys.

He was a little taken aback by the strange way in which the question had been put and was about to reply when he remembered that the officer too didn’t know.

“Not too well apparently,” the officer continued on noticing his look. “Anyway, the Warden would like to see you right away. You shouldn’t have come in today either.”

He grabbed his cap once again, set it firmly on his head and walked towards the Warden’s office while the officer left for home. The imposing steel door to the office was, as always, slightly ajar. He gave the customary knock and was answered by a very expectant voice.

“Please do come in.”

On seeing him enter, the Warden rose from his chair in apprehension and gave him the inquiring look he so desired.

“It was protracted but safe,” he answered. “They are well.”

The Warden’s face cleared and they both partook in a quick and awkward embrace.

“This is so much easier away from work,” said the Warden.

“The uniform is a hindrance,” he smiled. “We are used to being stern while wearing them.”
The Warden laughed and returned to his seat.

“Anyway, I am delighted for you.”

He nodded and smiled. Some of the happiness that he had felt last night returned and, once again, he wished he could be at home instead of here.

There is such contrast. They represent such different things.

“So what is it?” asked the Warden while he rummaged through the little cupboard on the right side of his desk. “I know that isn’t the best way of putting that question.”

“It is a girl,” he laughed.

It took him a little while but the Warden finally managed to find the bottle of scotch and placed it on his desk along with two plastic cups.

“That’s great. I know you wanted a girl.”

“I had no such preference,” he said and held his cup.

“Nonsense. We all have preferences.”

He lifted his cup and was about to take a sip when he noticed that the warden had stopped and hence so did he.

“There should be some sort of a toast,” said the Warden. “The occasion warrants it. But I can somehow never say the right thing. I always make it a little too silly.”

“Better you than me sir.”

“Alright then,” accepted the Warden and gave a slightly cringed look before saying, “To family?”

“To family.”

They both emptied their cups and put it down. The Warden refilled them immediately.

“That was a little too silly wasn’t it?”

“Just a bit,” he replied and they both laughed.

“This is really good,” he said.

“Isn’t it? I had been looking for an excuse to open this bottle for a while now. You gave me a pretty good one today.”

“Why do you have this bottle in your office?”

“I received it here. Just never took it home.”

“Received it here? From whom?”

“Some prisoner’s relative. I don’t recall the name.”

He stopped drinking and looked at the Warden with surprise.

“And you accepted it?”

“Of course I did.”

“This relative didn’t ask for any favours?”

“Not yet.”

“But you know they will,” he said. “This is akin to a bribe.”

“It isn’t a bribe if I don’t do what they ask me to,” the Warden smiled. “Then it is just a gift. And it is rude to not accept gifts. Especially one that is so smooth.”

They both finished their drinks. He was about to throw away his glass when the Warden stopped him and asked him to place it on the desk beside his. He refilled both.

“Maybe we shouldn’t.”

“I believe otherwise.”

“Steadily then,” he said as he raised the glass and the Warden nodded.

“When I became a father eleven years ago,” said the Warden but then stopped and smiled to himself. “It is strange that when I think of my son, I think of him as a small boy who is only eleven years old. But when I think of the fact that I have been a father for eleven years now, it seems like such a long time.”

“That’s true,” he replied, not sure of what else to say. “It does seem that way.”

“Anyway, so when I had my son, I promised myself that I wouldn’t work here for too long.”

“I have had similar thoughts,” he replied, remembering his deliberations from the morning.

“I expected that. I guess it is natural. You are afraid of the questions.”

“Did you have to answer them?”

“There is no way out of that,” the Warden smiled at the hopeful nature of that question. “Sooner or later, all children are interested in what their parents do.”

“Well I do have a few more years.”

“True. But you’ll be surprised how quickly that day comes.”

“Are you trying to help?” he asked with a hint of irony in his voice.

“I am only asking you to be prepared and to think before you make any decision. I am trying not to lose you.”

There was a knock on the door and the Warden immediately lifted the bottle of his desk and placed it near his feet. One of the guards came in with the morning attendance roll. He was a little surprised to see his immediate superior sitting with the Warden.

“I thought you weren’t going to come in today sir,” he said as he laid the file on the Warden’s desk. “How is the stomach?”

“It is much better,” he smiled and looked at the Warden who turned a little red.

“Is the count right?” the Warden asked the guard.

“Yes sir.”

“Good.”

The guard left and the bottle resumed its place.

“I knew you wouldn’t want them to know,” the Warden explained.

“I didn’t. I do now.”

“Of course you do. You may tell them. In your own time.”

Then they both, for the next few moments, focused on their drinks as they tried to recall the subject they had been talking about. The Warden was the first to remember.

“We don’t really work at that bad a place,” began the Warden.

“Yes but it will always be associated in that manner.”

“It may be but the truth is the exact opposite. You and I know that. We do a good thing.”

“But that’s logic,” he argued. “Children can’t be answered with logic. It is too complicated”

“So is a fairy tale or Santa Claus or religion. But we tell them those things and they accept it. Children will accept or believe anything as long as it is packaged in the right manner – With glossy red paper and a ribbon on top. Try the truth that way.”

“Did you tell your child the truth?”

The Warden smiled and refilled. “No. But then, during my time, the Warden didn’t drink.”

“I better lock the door.”

He got up and, with a measured pace, walked towards the door and bolted it. The Warden watched him walk back slowly and take a seat.

“You are overreacting.”

“I don’t mind telling the truth,” he said, ignoring the comment. “But then the questions will follow.”

“Yes they will,” the Warden nodded. “The same questions that are always asked sooner or later. Just that in our particular case, they are always sooner.”

He leaned back on the chair, closed his eyes and put his hands out in front as if he were holding a box.

“Good people. Bad people. Punishment,” he said softly and moved his hands up and down each time for each little phrase. “I could tell her about that.”

“Exactly. Remember – for her you are the hero here. You are the one who keeps them locked and, as a result, keep her safe.”

“You are being a little too silly again,” he said and they laughed.

“Even so, try and imagine what our guests here tell their kids. Your situation is much better.”

“Yes what do they tell?” he said suddenly and sat up. The Warden took the opportunity to pour another drink.

“I guess they lie.”

“Isn’t that convenient.”

“Don’t be that smug,” the Warden said. “We too lie in our own ways.”

Now they were both leaning back with their eyes closed and with their glasses in their hands from which they continued to drink – the quantity decreasing with each successive sip. A few minutes later, there was a knock on the door and the same guard as before tried to turn the handle but was surprised to find that it was bolted.

“Sir?” the guard shouted. “It is time for the one hour exercise period in the yard.”

They both woke up and looked at each other with weary eyes.

“I am afraid he has fallen ill again,” the Warden replied and they both suppressed their laughter. “And so have I. You take over.”

They drained their glasses and this time the Warden didn’t feel the need to refill.

“What were we talking about?” asked the Warden as they both leaned back once again.

“I became a father yesterday,” he replied.

“Ah yes,” the Warden smiled. “Congratulations.”