“Let me out!!! Let me out NOW!!!! NOW I said! Stop this car!! Open this door!”
Okay, this is not a rape scene from a Bollywood movie. That’s actually me screaming and yelling and weeping, well almost. Before anybody gets alarmed, I have to quickly add that the other occupants of the car were my poor scared fiance, and a gentle mild mannered pahadi driver. If I may borrow a famous dialogue from a Malayalam movie, the poor guys couldn’t rape a fly if they tried to. (Okay, okay, so it doesn’t sound so funny when translated from Malayalam, but then..well..). Anyway, I digress. To provide more context to the situation, I have to tell you that we were on our way to Spiti valley. This was one of the deadliest roads in the world – we had started from Manali, past Marhi and Rohtang Pass, almost at Kumzum Pass, and a long way from Kaza which was our final destination. The Himalayas were all that I expected it to be – actually more, much much more – but more on that later. As I said, I was screaming and yelling and almost at the verge of tears. We were at almost 12,000 feet, our SUV was hugging the cliff side, its wheels barely managing to catch the edge of the so-called road. All we could see was miles and miles of majestic mountains, and the dirt road sneaking and curving across the mountains, with a sheer drop across the cliffs. It was stunning scenery. One that I had never known, one that I had never experienced. It was also bone chilling, shit-in-my-pants kind of scary.
But that wasn’t why I had screamed.
It was obvious that Mahesh, our Pahadi driver knew the mountains well. He had been driving with quiet confidence, which suggested that he was comfortable, both with the heavy vehicle in his hands, as well as with the mountains he was climbing. He treated both with respect.
But what happens when things are not in his hands?
I could see the other SUV inching towards us, crossing the curve of the mountain, disappearing for a while, and then coming back towards us again. As I watched, both drivers continued driving, Mahesh actually taking one hand off the wheel to increase the volume of music, humming the song, bobbing his head in a gentle rhythm. I have been warned off backseat driving by different people; therefore I actually sat on my hands, so that I don’t actually grab his head and stop it from bobbing, gritted my teeth, and waited to see what would happen. The inevitable did. Both cars came towards each other, stopped a few feet away from each other, the drivers rolled down their windows, and started yelling at each other. Again, this is not the point when I screamed.
After a lengthy discourse, through which I was alternating between looking subdued, and throwing daggers at S, the drivers decided that we would reverse the car for some distance till the time we come to a place where the road widens slightly, and both cars could pass each other. “What..what did you just say”, I spluttered when I could get actually get my mouth closed, and my brain to some kind of working order. “You actually want to reverse…” and then just in case he couldn’t understand the implications, I rephrased, “You actually wanted to drive backwards on this road along a cliff…”.
But by this time the car was in motion. S told me later that there was a time gap when I was actually staring at Mahesh with an expression that was somewhere in between “I just got whacked on my head” and “oh dear lord, why on earth did I ever think I could trust a man!”. He couldn’t decide whether the man was Mahesh or him. Wisely, he didn’t ponder on it too much and concentrated on being scared.
And when the shock passed, I finally screamed. Screamed and yelled and screamed.
S was scared too, but he does a better job at hiding it. More power to him. And then forgetting that we were in this together …and through life, I did the unforgivable. When the screaming didn’t work, I settled down to a more polite query. “Why don’t I get down here and wait… while you guys reverse and then come back here.” Perfectly reasonable, don’t you think? S gave me an aggrieved look. “Yeah, why not – it’s okay if we go hurtling down the mountain, while you wait here.” But sitting at 12000 feet, in the midst of the most majestic mountain range in the world, I discovered one thing – fear is more powerful than shame. So I sat unabashed and scared and totally willing to let go of common decency, while S tried to sulk while being scared. Thankfully in the midst of this domestic drama, Mahesh had kept driving, humming along, thankfully not bobbing in his head. Later he insisted that it was only a few meters, but S and me would agree that it was the longest 100 meters ever. The only thing we agreed during on during that drive. Apart from the scenery; we agreed on that. The scenery was spectacular.
I didn’t mean to give the impression that this drama was the highlight of the trip. Spiti valley is beautiful. There’s much more drama in the landscape. Huge brown layered mountains overseeing narrow deep gorges; jagged cliffs competing with thin narrow crevices; wide open flat land merging with dark grey rocks; Spotless bright blue sky gazing down on blue aquamarine streams; wrinkled creased hills that seem as wise and old as a revered and respected grandfather; snowcapped ridges that look menacing and breathtakingly beautiful; clumps of light green vegetation growing along streams winding through a white desert; miles and miles of barren white pebbles which strangely didn’t seem incongruous with the huge brown mountains that ran along the cold desert; clumps of neatly painted white houses with brown roofs placed with needle thin precision on a huge vast mountain. It’s like being in a new world. A different planet.
Oh yes, Spiti had a lot of drama in its landscape. Perhaps that’s why it appeals to the drama queen in me. But no, saying that would be an injustice as well. Spiti is also one of the most calm serene places I know. And yes, it’s one of the inherent contradictions in nature – intense dramatic landscape with the calm placidity of atmosphere. Spiti was an experience – every single mountain, every single ridge, every single stream had a contribution. The villages – whether it was Kaza, Kibber, or Komic, were small and clean, the people warm and generous, as large- hearted as the mountains where they live. The air was pure, crisp, and enervating. Spiti was all of that. And more.
I had been wanting to go to Himalayas since I was a kid. Some of it was the curiosity of a south Indian towards something that was so far, and so unfamiliar from what she had seen. Some of it was the longing to see the gorgeous locales seen in Hindi movies portrayed in Eastman Color. Most of it was a natural affinity towards the mountains. Mountains, not hills. That longing only got more intense when I heard Mika’s stories and pictures as she trekked up the mountains. And here I was…where I had always wanted to come. Was it as I expected to be?
It was much more. No place on earth has generated that amount of emotion in me. I am no stranger to mountains. Travelling across the Alps in Europe, I had thought that I would not see anything as spectacular as that. I was wrong. As I walked with the mountains towering over S and me, I was overcome with a sense of overwhelming gratitude, gratitude that such majesty exists. Gratitude that I could witness this beauty. Gratitude that I could feel that much emotion.
..And that’s when I made my second major discovery. That gratitude could be a bigger emotion than fear. And this time, l didn’t scream.. I just held on to S and smiled at the mountains. And this time, S said that I had a “oh dear lord, thank you for getting that man to bring me here” expression! 😀