The excitement was such that I couldn’t sleep. It was already 11 PM, and I had my bus at 5:30 in the morning next day. Clearly, something was not letting me sleep, and I soon realized it’s more than just excitement. Midnight descended and a strange feeling of fear griped my mind—it’s not safe to visit Spiti. The more I read about the road that leads to Spiti, the stronger the fear grew. News about vehicles falling off in the ravine is not uncommon. The roads are treacherous, especially as you cross Kunzum pass, it’s only a long stretch of dirt track with small streams crisscrossing it. At times you will find yourself driving over a stream. The route is pretty isolated and getting stranded there could only mean one thing – you’re stuck for days without help, especially if you come via private vehicles. Taking all these considerations, I felt for a moment that I should drop the Spiti plan. Fear gripped my mind and I couldn’t shake it off !
4 AM I woke up with an intense urge to pee; I had taken Diamox few hours before as a preventive measure for acute mountain sickness, and the medicine does make you pee like crazy. An hour later we were waiting at roadside in a great dilemma ! It was dark and the route to bus stand was not easy to walk in such darkness. The dogs are very hostile at night in the Himalayas, and the last thing I wanted was to get surrounded by unfriendly street dogs.
My friend though is a different type. He believes dogs are not threat if you don’t appear one to them. He goaded me to walk through the dark alley, assuring me that the dogs wont attack. Well, I don’t know how to appear less threatening to the street dogs in the himalayas. Maybe, just run? Not a good idea, said my friend. You run, and they take you for a crook, and then you’re at the mercy of their jaws. So, we started walking calmly towards the bus station, hoping to avoid any rendezvous with the dogs. Finally we were at the bus station. It was still dark.
“We have a booking for bus to Kaza”, I said to the man at the bus counter, “May I know where we need to board?”
“I am sorry”, the guy at the counter said, “No buses will ply for Kaza today”
“Why?”, I said, heartbroken.
“The bus hasn’t returned from Kaza last night. Landslides on the mountains…”
“How long will it take to clear?”, My friend jumped in.
“We can’t be sure.”, the guy at the counter said.
“Not less than two days. That’s for sure”, his associate added.
Alas ! Our plans of visiting Spiti was shattered. We walked out the booking office with a heavy heart, unable to decide what to do next.
“What’s the matter?”, someone asked from behind. Clearly he could see the distress on my face.
“We wanted to visit Spiti, but they say the roads are blocked due to landslides”
“That’s unfortunate, but not uncommon. This is how things are as you go higher.”
“I guess there’s no way I can see Spiti this year”, I said with a pathetic face.
The man looked at me confusedly, and said: “Spiti? You said…”
“Yea, Kaza, Spiti…”, I said, my words sounding like an interrogation.
“You can still go to Spiti; it’s just that you won’t be able to go to Kaza, but there are many places in Spiti worth visiting, and they are equally splendid.”
Clearly, my geography was misinformed.
“Let’s do this”, said my friend, with an eager face.
“Take a bus to Keylong?”, I couldn’t believe he was ready to take the unplanned journey to a place which the man recommended.
“Why not?”, he replied.
“There…Run, it leaves now!”, the man ejaculated, “The bus…to Keylong”
For some reason we started running towards the bus. We boarded it, and crawled our way to the only two seats vacant. Sadly, the seats were far apart –one in front, other at the backside, so we couldn’t sit together.
I rushed to the front seat and secured at seat beside a woman.
The dawn broke in about half an hour. The bus was pushing up through steep zigzag roads of the leh-manali highway, and it was not very soon that I realized that I was inadequately dressed. The cold wind was piercing through the thin jacket that I wore. My face was already numb and tingly, and a slight dizziness descended over my head.
“This only get worse as we go up”, the woman beside me said in a motherly tone, “You must be feeling cold.”
“It’s indeed very cold”, I replied.
“You can sit close to me”, she said extending her shawl, “here, use this”
I felt a little awkward, and humbled at the same time.
“I have a thick jacket in my bagpack. Maybe…I should take it out”
“Do take it out, son”, she said.
What followed next was a conversation which continued for most part of the six hour journey.
Her name was Pema, and she was from Bhutan. A Buddhist by faith, she had been travelling to Triloknath, which lies on the way to Keylong. Her 22 years old son sat in the back seat of the bus, and I was informed that he was angry with her over some matter and wouldn’t talk. They both had been traveling to Triloknath to visit the shrines considered sacred by Buddhists.
Pema was 54, but she looked too young for her age.
“Where are you going to?”, she asked me.
“Keylong”, I said.
“You should visit Triloknath”, she replied, “You’ll definitely get interesting stories there.” I had told Pema earlier that I work for a news organization called Reuters, and since it’s difficult to explain people what news analysts do at Reuters, I just told her that I work for News and she took me for a media person.
“I’ve always been fascinated by Buddhism”, I told her, “I find it very interesting. What’s so special in Triloknath?”
“It’s all in the holy books”, she told me, “This is what my guru believes in. In your faith you call her Kali. But we have a different name for her. Tara Devi”
I was struck by a deep surprise. All I knew was that Buddhism is an atheistic religion, but here I was listening to a different story all together!
“But what about Buddha?”, I told her, sounding quite naïve.
“Buddha was the one who got enlightened. But Buddhism existed before him. We have many deities, most of them are worshiped by hindus too—Laskmi, Indira, Shiva. The names are different and so are the contexts.”
“That’s really new to my understanding. But I am very glad to know so much about Buddhism from you.”
“Are you a believer?”, she asked me.
“I don’t know”, I replied.
“I know boys of your age”, she chortled, “Bikes and all…My son is like you. You should make him your friend.”
I looked back, and found that he was aslept with his legs spread out over the length of the backseat.
When I looked back at Pema, she was browsing through some pictures in her phone. Then she showed me many pictures of her trekking adventures in Kathmandu, Buthan, Arunachal, and Laddhakh. I was surprised to see her passion towards trekking. She told me that while trekking in the Arunachal with her sister and her sister’s daughter, she walked through the mountains for 13 days to reach a place where there is a sacred shrine dedicated to Buddhist Goddess Pema.
I looked out of the window. The bus had to move back a little to let a truck pass. This is a common scene on the Himalyan roads.
We moved on and the conversation continued.
“Your adventures really inspire me.”, I told her, “I too love to travel. I like to write about my traveling experiences.”
“It’s good that you write. It’s a gift only few have”
“I wish to write a book someday”, I said, “Maybe someday I will find something worth writing a book on”
“You can write a book about me”, she laughed, “I think the story of my life will make a great book”
I looked at her and smiled.
“You do have a very interesting life.”, I told her.
“But you know nothing about it yet.”, she replied, looking out through the window.
The bus halted at Sissu where we got down for refreshments.
It was a beautiful experience, and for the first time I could see Buddhist prayer flags hanging along the roofs of those small eataries lined along the foothills. Far beside the stream there were a dozen of Alpine Tents, probably some kind of a resort facility catering to the trekkers who wished to halt for a night.
We had our breakfast in a small dhaba at the hands of a lovely Tibetan lady, who ran the place along with her mother-in-law. I had a huge omelet along with bread, and then ended it with a generous cup of coffee. It cost me around 150 indian bucks for the whole thing. Then, having cherished the beautiful landscape for a while, we boarded the bus back and set for towards Keylong.
For some reason, I wanted to know more about Pema. She narrated how her husband, who worked in the military, fell victim to alcoholism and ultimately left the family. But what was striking was the description of her childhood which she narrated with great passion and fervor.
“I was a beautiful lass”, said she, “barely past the age of 17”
I listened with a smile.
“It was always there in me. I wanted to do something big. I knew something big was waiting for me out there. I just had to grab it.”
“So what was it like to be the owner of a flower shop at such a young age?”, I asked her.
“I was hardly earning anything out of it. Everyday, I would wake up at four to collect flowers from the valley which lay across the stream. It was scary. Girls of my age were not quite safe during those days. Anything could happen. We would hear stories of Abduction and rape. This was a common thing back then.”
“It still is…in many parts of India”
“Having run the shop for a few months, an idea struck my mind ! Oh ! How crazy I was.”, she said, her face lit with excitement, “Next day, there was an unusual crowd at the stop—mostly men from the military. They loved it, and they would tell me jokingly, ‘give us some more, give us for free, I know your man wouldn’t mind’. Surely, they loved my home made wine. It was a hit idea.”
“Were you married by then?”
“It was common for girls to get married at 14. That’s a terrible fate, but it wouldn’t stop me. Well, some would say, ‘what a shame ! you’re the wife of a soldier, and you sell wine in the streets.’ Sometimes I would cry, but it would only make me stronger. I had a big business plan, and I would do anything it would take to accomplish it. And I continued making wine and selling it for long despite the humiliation”
“How did your husband react to it?”
“He was indifferent. I would hardly see him. He would be at some far-fetched border post, delivering his duty. Some nights he would come, drunk, the next day he’d be gone before daylight. This was it until one day I heard he had eloped with another woman. Never returned. He left me pregnant with my fifth child—the youngest of siblings, my son.”
Pema looked back at his son, who was still aslept.
“It has been two years since he dropped out of the school.”, she continued, “he does regret it, sometimes, well, when he is mad at me. *laughs* Says it’s crazy in here. Wants to go back to school.”
“Isn’t that a good idea?”
“No”, she said.
There was a long silence.
“I would never let him go to school. It’s vanity. And he knows it. It’s just that he says so to annoy me. When he is angry, you know.”
I didn’t know what to say.
“He’s going to be a big business man, I can tell you that”, she added, “for sure”
“I think you’re right. They hardly teach anything useful in school these days.”, I said, sounding diplomatic.
“Self-learning is the best learning. I cannot imagine my children live the life of a slave, working like mad, day and night, for nothing. Business is no easy game. You work harder, but you own what you do, and that adds value. To life. To existence. To everything.”
I was enjoying the talk. Every word that come out of her mouth sounded like a preaching.
“I too would like to do business someday, you know”, I told her, “It’s kind of intimidating though, to think of it.”
“Is it, but why?” she said.
“Well, I don’t come from a business background. So—“
“You don’t have to start big.” , she interrupted, “ When I was your age, well, I did a lot of different kind of businesses. And I did it on my own. We didn’t have any inheritance. Life was pathetic. But one thing that I did have in abundance was resilience. And patience. That’s more important than capital.”
“So what did you do after the wine business?”
“I reared pigs. Oh !”, she exclaimed, I still remember those days.”
“That’s great”, I said, sounding genuine.
“Well, not so great when you see them slaughtered right before you. I couldn’t carry on with it, because I couldn’t hold the sight of those pigs get killed before me. I said, ‘enough, I must give it up now’. And I stopped rearing pigs all together.”
“I’m sorry. It must be painful. What became of your business then? ”
“I started weaving cloths for the soldiers. I had it in me, quite too much of it—the art of it. I could do one in day, sometimes two. And they would be really surprised. I sold a lot of it during winters, and made enough money to expand my shop. I continued selling wine, and I also added more items to the inventory –jewelry, handicrafts, whatever I thought could earn me money. The shop was one of its kind. It was then, exactly, when people, even those who mocked in the beginning, started to appreciate me.”
“It must be very difficult, with all the kids, wasn’t it?”
“Kids were never a problem. I do feel that I haven’t given much time to the kids. They’re devoid of my love. But they never complained. It’s a compromise – on one side you have your ambitions, on the other, your social responsibilities. But I am proud that I have raised good children, and they are doing great in life. The eldest is in Europe. Others have their business of their own in Kathmadu and Bhutan.”
“Your kids are successful, what else does a parent want in their life?”
“You’re right. Too much of pampering and caring is disastrous thing. I never stopped my kids from anything. The youngest one, well, he got into the habit of drinking recently. I was not worried at all. Instead, I went up him and said, ‘I have something for you.’ And I took him to the kitchen. I had bought a very expensive bottle of wine, knowing that he would not be interested into drinking local homemade wines. I poured him a glass. He drank it. I am sure he liked it very much. Then I would give him a glass of wine everyday. He does not go out on a drinking spree anymore. He’s kind of bored of drinking. Sometimes goes a week without it.”
“It’s not very conventional thing to do in my culture.” , I said, “Indian parents would be upset to see their kids drink alcohol.”
“Not just in your culture son, it’s the norm everywhere. Even in my place. They thought I was crazy. I was a different kind of mother, and I have never regretted my parenting. You see, the more you stop a kid from doing something, he more vulnerable you make him towards it. The point is to let them experience everything, and then let them decide for themselves what’s right, what’s wrong. Some days I would see him smoke cannabis secretly on the terrace, and I don’t mind it at all. It’s such an age when you want to try out things; these things pass away with time. If you stop them, well, it stays with them forever, and comes out in nasty ways.”
I listened in utter shock. Here I was sitting beside a woman who sounded almost Freudian to my ears.
“He wanted to have big hair. I told him ‘go for it, it’s your life who am I to stop you?”
“You sound like a revolutionary”, I joked, “Well, but maybe you’re right. Some parents are too concerned about their kids…like over protective, you know? About going around, meeting people, having relationships…”
“He sleeps around with women”, she said, “and I have neighbors telling me how lose he has got. And I only tell them—what’s the problem being with a woman? Making love? Isn’t there too much of hatred already in the world?”
That was the point I started feeling a bit uncomfortable. For some reason I wanted this conversation to end.
I looked out of the window, and saw that the landscapes had changed quite a bit. The vegetation had become sparse, and the scene started to look more like Tibetian highlands. I saw huge flocks of sheeps grazing on the mountain slopes outside. There were so many of them—and the horses, stout and short stature, with beautiful manes. Occasionally, Pema would call out to show me snow clad peaks which had started appearing from that point. We’re already at 3300 meters. Pema got down in the next village from where the buses to Triloknath ply where as I sat amazed at the majestic mountains waiting to reach Keylong which was an hour away from there.