Symbiosis

Stop…Please…Both of you…Let’s refocus. We have to try and not get derailed. Why don’t you tell me exactly what happened?

The Husband: Yes, let me. It was a pretty normal evening. I came home early enough. She was a bit late than usual. Probably purchasing that huge torch on the way over….

The Wife: No unsubstantiated accusations or assumptions. We have talked about it many times. Now who is the one not following the rules?

Yeah…okay…not again please…She is right though. You don’t know what it was so let’s not succumb to conjecture.

The Wife: ….and if you must know, we already had that torch.

The Husband: So why were you late?

The Wife: It needed new batteries.

I must insist…this is about finding a common ground for discussion…please continue.

The Husband: Well….as I said… a fairly mundane day. We had dinner at about 9. I was tired so I went to bed early. She probably took advantage of that…yeah ok…anyway, I remember waking up and there she was, kneeling on my bedside with that huge torch just lighting up her face as she stared at me like one of those dolls from horror movies. Don’t laugh. You see, she still doesn’t care.

Please, let me finish.

The Wife: Oh, you would have laughed too, if you had been there. He yelped….and yes, yelped not yelled…like I imagine our six-year-old son would have.

The Husband: That is not the point here. You are so juvenile.

The Wife: Well, it should be a point….and I am not juvenile; your reaction to a harmless prank was though.

Why did you do it?

The Husband: Why do you think? This is the sort of thing that gives her pleasure.

The Wife: Stop behaving like a child. It was nothing.

It was pretty harmless, though, like she said. You don’t think so?

The Husband: Of course, but let’s not mask over the fact that it was very mean spirited.

The Wife: Now you just are embarrassing yourself.

No he isn’t…let’s be a little more generous here. Go on.

The Husband: Thank you.

But why do you think it was mean spirited?

The Husband: I didn’t at first. Even she would agree to that…

The Wife: Not particularly

The Husband: …the point is, I felt a little embarrassed initially, but the more I thought about it…and the ensuing events after that, convinced me that it wasn’t simply a “harmless prank” as she puts it.

No…I must stop you before you interject again…let him finish what he has to say. You shall get your chance.

The Husband: The first part is the effort. She sat in that position near my side of the bed for I don’t know how long. It wasn’t as if she prodded me so that I woke up. She waited for it to naturally happen. And she has bad knees.

The Wife: It wasn’t that long. About forty minutes. And my knees are fine. Better than yours I suspect.

The Husband: Let’s kneel right now; both of us. We’ll see who can stay that way the longest.

The Wife: You’re being a child again.

40 minutes, I must say, is a lot of time. Your knees must have started hurting, irrespective of their condition.

The Wife:  Well yeah but that wasn’t the toughest part. The light of the torch really burned my eyes, but I couldn’t risk shutting them because he could have woken up at any moment. They started watering from the strain. Don’t look at me like that…Let me assure you, it was all worth it.

The Husband: Don’t you think that this is psychotic behaviour.

The Wife: Hey, I think one should be committed to the cause.

This is a little unusual for sure…But, ok, let me ask you again. Why did you do it?

The Wife: I like pranks

The Husband: That’s not true! You just like to prank others.

The Wife: Isn’t that the point?

The Husband: I mean, you don’t like pranks when you are the victim.

The Wife: Oh please! What you did, wasn’t a prank.

Wait a minute here, you pranked her too?

The Wife: It wasn’t a prank.

The Husband: Why don’t we let him be the judge?

The Wife: Gladly! It was a weekend, but I had some work in office. He was probably getting bored at home…

Again…

The Wife: Right…I got a call from our son. He was speaking in a very weird voice…

The Husband: I told him to “talk like a grown-up”

The Wife: and he said that something is wrong with Dad. Please come home quickly.

Oh I see…

The Wife: Exactly! So I rushed home and the two of them were just sitting in the living room, playing Monopoly.

The Husband: And then she got so mad, yelled at me for like an hour, that too in front of our son.

Well, it was a bit of an extreme prank

The Husband: See! He agrees it was a prank.

No…I mean, let’s not get caught up in terminologies. Prank or not, I am sure you can understand why your wife got angry. She must have been so worried on the way over.

The Wife: I was! I could have had an accident on the way over.

The Husband: And I could have had a heart attack the other night.

The Wife: You nearly did.

The Husband: There she is laughing again. Everything is a big joke for her. She even told our son about her little prank.

The Wife: So what? He is our son, not a stranger.

The Husband: You told our neighbours too

The Wife: Well, technically, they are not strangers either.

Okay, let’s pause and unpack this. Did you feel embarrassed about your son and your neighbours finding out that your wife pranked you.

The Wife: He sulked for days…

The Husband: I did. I am not particularly proud of the way I yelled out…

The Wife: Yelped

The Husband: Yelled out. It’s not fun to see your own son laugh at you.

The Wife: He is six. He has probably already forgotten about it.

The Husband: But I haven’t. Not to forget our neighbours. It was humiliating.

And how long after this incident did you decide to prank your wife.

The Wife: Not a prank.

The Husband: A few days later. I was angry and just wanted her to feel what I was feeling.

And did you feel better afterwards?

The Husband: Not exactly. She was more angry than scared. That sort of ruined it.

The Wife: That’s because it wasn’t a prank! It was a very poor joke.

The Husband: Well I am sorry I don’t have your level of expertise in this! Or your decades of experience.

Decades of experience?

The Wife: He is exaggerating of course. Just a few years of experience. Have you seen that show “Just for Laugh?” I used to work for them.

I have seen it, yes. You were on that show?

The Wife: Not on TV. I was one of the writers.

How long ago was this?

The Wife: About 9 or 10 years. I was still working for them when we got married.

The Husband: I remember you had just started working for them when we met for the first time.

The Wife: Yes. You had loved that about me. You thought it was very cool.

The Husband: I did.

The Wife: Remember the first time I had pranked you…

The Husband: I had loved it. I told everyone about it.

The Wife: And not just the first time.

So, what do you think has changed?

The Husband: I don’t know. It just…seems harder to laugh at myself now.

Did it have anything to do with becoming a father?

The Husband: I don’t think so. Did it?

The Wife: You did become progressively more sensitive to this.

The Husband: Why couldn’t you have just stopped?

The Wife: I didn’t want to give up that part of myself. A part of us, really.

Would you like her to stop?

The Husband: Yes…No…I don’t know.

How would you feel if he asked you to stop?

The Wife: I would be a bit disappointed…yes. But…it’s not that big a deal. We are talking about pranks. They are supposed to be silly, supposed to be things that people laugh at. If we start taking them seriously, then I suppose it is better not to do them at all.

The Husband: That just makes me sound like such a spoilsport.

The Wife: That wasn’t my intention.

Have you both noticed this in other aspects of your marriage? Things that you both used to like or agree with before but don’t do so anymore.

The Wife: Oh, that’s a dangerous question.

The Husband: I don’t know. Small things maybe.

The Wife: We don’t watch movies together anymore. Can’t tolerate each other’s tastes.

The Husband: True.

What are your individual tastes?

The Wife: He likes all the Marvel stuff. I like most movies except them.

The Husband: I like some of the others too.

The Wife: But you wouldn’t want to see them at a Theatre with me.

The Husband: Not always. But I do sometimes.

The Wife: Grudgingly.

The Husband: Well it’s tough to be accommodating and enthusiastic at the same time. And you don’t watch my movies with me either, by the way.

The Wife: Those are not movies.

The Husband: See! That’s not fair. I could say the same thing.

The Wife: But in your case it wouldn’t be true.

Now then, let’s ease off. And, in the past, you both would have agreed to go with each other, right?

The Husband: More times than not.

The Wife: And not grudgingly.

The Husband: Almost willingly.

Does the change bother you?

The Wife: A little bit. Now that I’ve been reminded of it.

The Husband: But those were early days. I…I know it sounds bad. But, surely, it’s natural for such changes over the course of a relationship. Isn’t it?

It doesn’t sound bad. That’s why I wanted to bring it up. It’s perfectly okay to not get excited about the same things that you used to.

The Wife: But how do you know this course doesn’t go on and on and….

The Husband: …and make many more changes. Permanent changes.

Well that’s why you two are here, aren’t you? To rein it all in.

The Wife: Yes

The Husband: Yes

When was the first time you began to feel that your relationship was going a bit awry?

The Husband: I don’t know if I can place it specifically. It was gradual.

The Wife: When our son was born.

The Husband: Really?

What makes you say that?

The Wife: Well, not when he was born. Maybe it started at the time and I didn’t notice. But definitely when he turned around 3 or 4 and started having basic conversations with you. You just became so uptight and so particular about things.

The Husband: I wanted to be a good father and just not slip up in front of him.

The Wife: You so overdid it; you weren’t yourself. It was as if you were trying to be someone you wished you were.

The Husband: And that’s a bad thing? To be better than oneself?

The Wife: Not at your own expense. You just vanished. You went away from me.

And you did not mention any of this at the time?

The Wife: I was just confused. He was trying so hard…I didn’t want to…

The Husband: I was trying hard because I wanted to and also because you weren’t.

The Wife: Excuse me?

The Husband: I was nervous. I was trying to do the best I could. And…you just seemed so casual about it. Even a little dismissive. I am sure it was all a joke to you. Everything’s a joke to you.

The Wife: Only if it’s funny.

You felt she was dismissive of your attempts to be closer to your son.

The Wife: That wasn’t what he was doing. And I wasn’t dismissive.

The Husband: Yes

What do you think he was trying to do?

The Wife: I don’t know. There was an element of fantasy to it. It just bothered me, and yes, I tried to play it cool but only because he was so rigid and fixated.

Did you feel neglected?

The Wife: Maybe

The Husband: You were envious of our son?

The Wife: What you were doing to him could never invite envy. But you became distant, ever so slightly, every day.

The Husband: Maybe, but only because I wanted to be close to him and be the best father I could. I don’t care if that means I was being, as you are implying, inauthentic. I wasn’t trying to be distant.

Do you two realize that you both are principally in agreement with how things transpired? But label them differently.

The Wife: Isn’t that obvious?

I mean, you more or less agree on each other’s allegations, but just don’t see them as that. You agree that while he was trying to be more involved with your son, you took a backseat and a casual approach to parenting. And he agrees that his actions were not really in sync with his personality, which might have alienated you a bit. So, in a sense, you are taking each other’s accusations and reframing them as natural or obvious responses to the situations in which you were. What does that tell us?

The Husband: That we are both right and wrong?

No. You see what’s right and wrong differently, which is perfectly okay. But what’s not ideal, is declaring it as right or wrong in your own head and not having a conversation about it and letting it become a point of contention, only for it to come out years later on a day like today.

The Wife: So, we should communicate more? Is that your million-dollar diagnosis?

Are you looking for a million-dollar diagnosis? One simple trick or solution that will put you two back on track?

The Wife: That would be helpful.

The Husband: Of course we are not.

The point is not to tell you to communicate more. You rightly alluded that that is obvious. But to make you realize, through an example of conflict that you yourselves presented, how your lack of communication let fester a simple misalignment of views. And to ask the bigger question – what stopped you from talking about this with each other?

The Husband: Avoiding a conflict

The Wife: Evidently, more like postponing it.

Until it becomes something bigger than it is. More contentious. Are you afraid of hurting each other, thus avoiding a difficult conversation to not inflict emotional pain?

The Husband: That certainly doesn’t seem to be the case during these sessions.

The Wife: You do bring out our worst sides.

Seriously, think about it. All couples fight. It’s natural.

The Husband: We did fight sometimes. It was never very serious.

The Wife: And we managed to resolve them too. That always helped.

The Husband: You were always much better at resolving our disagreements. As usual, saw the funny side of things. That was good.

The Wife: Until it just wasn’t so funny. And it became more and more difficult to resolve them. I guess that’s when we started to avoid the conflicts.

The Husband: I suppose we thought we were good at this, until it became difficult and we discovered we weren’t.

Let’s go back a bit. The time when you both started to feel it was getting difficult. For you it was more markedly so after your son was born. But you said it was gradual and couldn’t point to a specific event. But did that gradual nature also began post your son’s birth?

The Husband: Maybe. I think so, yes.

The Wife: Are you trying to pin all our difficulties on our son, when he is clearly the only good thing we have with us right now.

The only good thing?

The Wife: You are reading too much into that.

No, I am just reading it differently. I think when you say “only”, you mean “obviously”. It doesn’t take any energy to think of him as a positive example of your marriage. So, after his birth, he has replaced all other examples you would have had.

The Husband: This does feel like you are blaming him for our troubles.

That is not my intention. Children can often be inflection points in a marriage. I am trying to see if that’s the case here. It is obviously not your child’s fault.

The Wife: Yes, it’s all our fault. We are well aware of that. Thank you very much.

The Husband: So, what if that’s the inflection point? We cannot go back. This is where we are right now.

And it is where many couples find themselves after they have had children. So, there’s no reason to be too dispirited. It’s good that you two have recognized that there is a problem and chosen to address it. The idea is not to go back before the inflection point but to learn from those times when you both mostly saw eye to eye and employ that in the present.

The Wife: So basically, learn from the time he used to love my pranks.

The Husband: Not again.

The Wife: Learn from the time he had a sense of humour.

The Husband: I grew up and matured while you still behave as if you are in your twenties.

The Wife: I’ll take that as a compliment. And please don’t equate being matured to being humourless.

The Husband: You know what I mean. Don’t take a sentence literally only when it suits you. And after all that we have discussed, is it just this that upsets you? That I don’t find you as funny as I used to?

The Wife: Not just that. But it’s what you always liked most about me. Without it, I don’t know what I have.

The Husband: No…that’s not true…that’s not the only thing.

The Wife: What else then?

The Husband: Sorry?

The Wife: What else did you like about me?

The Husband: Come on. That’s not fair.

The Wife: Hard to think of any, right?

The Husband: What if I asked you the same question? It’s not as easy as you might like to believe.

The Wife: Well, it should be. But it isn’t. Isn’t that a problem?

You both are expecting a bit too much out of yourselves right now. It’s good to strive for ideals when you are sailing in calm waters. Difficult times need a more practical approach.

The Husband: Yes, we’ll do it.

The Wife: You are always too enthusiastic about “being practical”.

The Husband: Isn’t that what you always liked most about me? And so, what am I without that?”

The Wife: Touché. Alright then, towards practicality. But not without a bit of humour.

Good. I would say that’s a nice point on which to stop for today. See you next week.

The Transition

Surely one day
I’ll roam the streets of Guadalajara
the way it befits them.

Now, bound by my feet,
subject to my senses that
influence more than just

the purposeless splash of colour,
the true sentence,
the unremarkable feeling or detail,

I recognize the irony
of being imprisoned within
my scaffold of convenience.

The way is long and unfamiliar,
as far adrift from the world
as my understanding of it,

and as free of inhibitions and restraints,
as I might never be comfortable with.

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.