The trail kept thinning. The group of girls I was walking with had left only a few minutes ago. I was sure I could catch up with them and so had ventured forward alone. But now they were nowhere in sight, and the path didn’t look familiar.
‘They must be a little further away,’ I thought to myself.
One of the girls was not well enough to walk without resting every few minutes. They couldn’t have gone far. I kept walking forward.
It didn’t take very long to realize that I was indeed on my own. And on a different trail from the one which I had taken upwards. I started reasoning out to myself before panic could settle in. I had read about different routes to Kheerganga, and that all of them started and ended at the same place. A few locals passing by confirmed that this trail did lead to Barshaini, the starting point of the trek. I took a deep breath and started walking again.
‘All roads lead to home,’ I told myself.
Before long, I felt the spark of hope die and my legs becoming weaker. I sat down on a boulder to rest. There was no network, no way to contact someone, or for someone to contact me. Maybe a group of girls would reach me if I waited. I tried to ease my breathing.
Like a much needed miracle, I saw him appear through the bend. A tall, middle aged man dressed in a black and white striped t-shirt under a black coat over a pair of blue jeans, he didn’t seem like a local. But the ease with which he walked on the sloping path conveyed he knew where he was going.
“Neeche jaane ke liye yahi raasta hai?” I asked him.
“Haan, Barshaini?” he asked, to which I nodded meekly. “Main wahin jaa raha hun, chalo chhod deta hun’”
I got up nervously, all the sirens in my head screaming, ‘STRANGER!’ I had no real choice. I couldn’t wait here too long, it would get dark soon. I couldn’t walk alone without knowing where I was going. I was all alone and this fact was quite obvious to this man. His offer of help could mean anything. But this was my only hope. I followed him slowly, hitting the tip of my trecking stick hard on the ground to quieten my mind.
“Kahan se ho?” he asked, leading the way. Sirens. What should I say!
“College se,” I said stupidly.
“Nahi,” he clarified, “Matlab kahan ke-“
“Delhi se,” I answered curtly before he could complete his question.
“Delhi se… acha,” he said, continuing walking, “Mai raha hun Delhi kaafi saal.”
I didn’t say anything. I was focusing on trying to recall the uphill climb and checking if he was taking me on a similar one. We walked the next few steps quietly. He maintained his distance all this while.
“To kaisa laga humara Himachal?” he asked, his hands pointing towards the scenic beauty around us.
“Bahut sundar hai,” I replied with a forced smile.
The trail sloped dangerously downwards and required, at few points, to walk over stones. Most of them had dents to step upon but the one I had to cross now was smooth. I could jump over to the next stone but the distance was too much. I needed a hand.
He had crossed it with ease, thanks to his long legs. I stood there awkwardly, searching desperately for a spot to keep my foot on. He turned and noticed me.
“Rakhlo uspe pair,” he said, “iss pathhar pe pair phisalta nahi hai.”
On the contrary, I was sure I would slip if I kept my foot on that rock. I didn’t move. He came towards me and extended his hand. I took it gratefully and kept one foot on the stone. It did slip, but his grip was firm enough to prevent me from falling. He giggled. Once we were on soil again, he bent his leg and pointed towards the sole of his shoe.
“Jab trekking pe jaate hai to aise wale sports shoes pehenke jaana chahiye,” he said. I watched blankly, not pointing out that I was wearing sports shoes.
“Hain to wo bhi sports shoes,” he realized, “par waise ye pathhar…”
He continued speaking but his voice faded in my ears. From here, I could see a good length of the trail ahead. There was not one familiar face there. It meant that either the group ahead of me had already reached somewhere near the starting point, or…I could feel my nerves getting the better of me again.
“Idhar udhar dekh ke mat chalo, phisal jaogi,” he instructed, noticing I was distracted, “Raaste pe dhyaan nahi dogi to phisal sakti ho.”
“Mere aage jo group gaya tha, wo zyada der pehle nahi nikla tha,” I said nervously, “Ab dikh kyun nahi raha?”
“Aage pahuch gaye honge,” he said, “Koi guide tha aapke saath?”
“Sir the,” I replied.
“Sir ko bolna sab bachon ko saath me leke chale,” he said, “Aise-”
“Yahi raasta hai na?” I cut him off. There was no point of asking this but my head wasn’t working very clearly now.
“Haan, haan, aap chinta mat karo,” he assured, a bit offended maybe.
“Raasta yaad nahi?”
Damn. Could I give away anything more?
“Yaad hai…” I mumbled to myself.
“Raat me aaye the kya?” he asked, “Kab aaye the upar?”
“Din me hi aaye the…” I answered in a low voice, ashamed.
“Hota hai,” he said, trying to comfort me, “Pehli baar me rasta yaad nahi rehta.”
I stayed quiet, concentrating on the path. He led the way silently for a while. My pace was slower. I was tiring out and wanted a sip of water. But I didn’t want to stop anywhere with this stranger.
“College trip pe aai ho?” he broke the silence.
“Hmm,” I replied.
“Kaunsa year?” he continued.
“Final.” I answered shortly.
“Final…” he repeated.
“Main bhi shuru shuru me pahadon ke raaste pe nahi chal pata tha,” he said, noticing my slow pace, “Utarte samay zyada dard hota hai pairon me.”
Then some more quiet steps followed. It was a clear, sunny afternoon. I was wearing a woollen cut sleeved top, which wasn’t helping the sweat. The trail was winding downwards, with more stones than soil, which slowed me down even more.
“Aur Kejriwal kya kar raha hai Delhi me aajkal?” he struck conversation again.
“Odd-even phir se chalu hone wala hai.” This topic was more comfortable.
“Hahaha, ye to karta hi rehta hai,” he remarked, “Acha hai waise.”
I rammed the stick on a flat portion and stepped down a stone, leaning my weight on it.
“Log khush hain usse ki nahi?” he continued walking ahead of me.
“Nahi,” I replied, smiling for once.
“Maine suna usne schools ache kar diye…” he seemed glad I was speaking.
“Haan,” I answered, “Government schools me padhai strict ki hai”
“Acha hai,” he said, “Har koi private schools afford nahi kar sakta.”
I nodded in agreement, though he was looking ahead.
“Aap kya karte ho?” I asked.
“Main?” he replied slowly, “Mera camp hai yahan. Mai Himachal se hi hun na.”
“Delhi se yahan kaise?” the path here was less steep. The pause in his reply raised suspicion again.
“Mera bhai hai na Delhi me,” he told, “Uske saath rahan hun kaafi saal.”
“Dekho,” he pointed downward some distance away, “Wahin se aaye the na?”
I shrugged. I couldn’t see anything familiar yet.
“Ek steep sa utaar tha, jahan khacchar chalte hain,” I described, “Phir ek nadi cross ki thi…”
He nodded, “Haan, dikhega aage. Chinta mat karo, main chhod dunga aapko wahan tak.”
We continued walking. The slope was easing itself and the path was becoming wider, but still not familiar. I cursed my memory. My pace was slower and I was falling behind. A dog came up from the opposite direction. A dog! The dogs here were trained to keep people on the path, like they do with the sheep. One was let after every trek group for the same reason. This dog could confirm if I was being led in the right direction. It came up to me and stopped. The man, a few steps ahead of me, stopped to watch. I caressed the dog’s head with the back of my hand. The man started walking again. The dog turned and walked in the same direction as we. The trek for the next few metres was quiet. I was now reassured that we were indeed in the right direction. The dog stopped to rest in an open area. I caressed it to walk further but he wouldn’t budge. The man continued straight without noticing. I left it there, I was more confident now.
I was walking faster now that the path was more even. Still, I was dehydrating in the heat. I licked my lips, not wanting to stop now.
“Apne friends ko call karke pucho kahan hai,” he suggested.
“Yahan network aaega?” I took out my phone hopefully.
“Haan,” he said, “Kaunsa hai?”
I switched it out of the airplane mode, which I had done to save charge. As soon as the first lines of signal appeared on the screen, the phone rang up. It was my mother’s. My throat choked. What would I tell her? I was lost in the midst of nowhere with a stranger? I declined the call and texted I would call back later.
“Chaon me baithke baat karlo,” he called out to me from under a tree. I ignored. I rang up my friend. She told she was already in the traveller with a few more students. The teachers hadn’t reached there yet. I shared my live location with her, just in case.
I slid the phone back inside my pocket and walked upto him. He had removed his coat.
“Thodi der baithna ho to baith jao,” he patted the grass. I shook my head, determined to reach back as soon as possible. He got up to lead the way.
“Apne sir se kehna sabko saath me rakhen,” he said again.
“Unki galti nahi,” I admitted, “Maine thodi der pehle ek group nikalte dekha tha, to akele nikal gayi, socha catch up karlungi…”
“Acha,” he said, “Phir bhi, aise kya hai na, girne ka darr rehta hai.”
I nodded silently.
“Wahi nadi thi na?” he jerked his head towards a bridge.
“Haan!” Relief must have been evident on my face. I remembered the way from here. We crossed the bridge over the thundering river. Now came the steep climb. The stones here were huge and placed far apart. They required me to stretch and bend over to climb up. It was taking a lot of effort. He, on the other hand, had climbed up swiftly. I gestured him to wait for two minutes while I catch my breath.
“Haan, aaram se aao,” he assured.
I took out my bottle and took a few sips fervently, before sliding it back into the side pocket. A row of donkeys was approaching.
“Thak gai?” he asked from above. I nodded.
“Thoda side ho jao,” he said.
I did so, dropping my bottle in the process. A man was passing by, leading a donkey. I looked at him, pointing towards the bottle.
“Utha do wo,” the miracle man told him from above. He picked it up and handed it over.
I continued walking upwards with the help of the stick. I needed to cross another big stone. The look of it drained me.
“Aajao,” he grasped my right wrist and pulled me up. I bent over and managed to get my feet on the rock but my legs gave way. I couldn’t stand up. He held my wrist tightly. His melodious laughter reached my ears.
“Utho!” he said, laughing. I smiled. I pulled myself up to standing position with a growl. He let my hand go.
We were very close to the staring point of the trek. I took out my phone and called my friend to ask where the traveller was standing, while he covered the last of the distance.
“Yahan se seedhe jaake kahin bus khadi hogi,” he told me. I nodded, busy with the call. I climbed the final steps onto the road after ending the call. He was nowhere in sight. I sat down on a plastic chair that was kept outside a nearby shop. My gaze searched for him while I was catching my breath, though in vain. With a heavy heart, I got up, picked my stick and walked onwards towards the parking, turning back once in a while, hoping to catch sight of him, to thank him.
He was gone. I had talked to him curtly, had been mistrustful, letting my suspicion show, yet all this while he tried to comfort me, talk to me and got me safely to the destination. I had forgotten this was Himachal, not Delhi…
‘Bahut acha laga Himachal,’ I thought to myself, with a genuine smile.