Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rescued from a dream

Rescued from a dream

That’s exactly how I will always feel about the night of the 15th of July 2008. Vivek and I, we were living out a dream. There we sat in the chillingly warm afternoon, in front of our tent in Sarchu, eating piping hot Maggi out of plastic bowls. There was so much I wanted to say to him, so much that was suddenly clear to me in the lifeless mountains and deathly cold of a place which was content in its state of inertia.

But I did not. I was to conserve energy. Breathe deeply. High altitudes mean lack of oxygen. I needed to use whatever oxygen I could get sparingly. But as the setting sun glinted off his windswept hair, I had this sudden urge to grab him and run out of the place. The tents were eerie in their calmness. It was as if they dared life to defy their existence. I took in a deep breath. Of course, it was just a passing feeling; it would blow away, like all the other senseless paranoia of mine had.

After a dinner, which I could hardly taste, we headed back to the tent. All along I was conscious of vivek bearing the brunt of the movement. Asking me to slow down, trying to keep conversations to a minimum, never leaving me alone even for a moment. In fact at this point I must mention something adorably funny.

Sarchu being a place of no vegetation and very little human habitation, sanitation was taken care of by building a make shift tent around a pot. The entire idea was ridiculously absurd in itself and well somehow very fascinating too. So when I had to use the rest room, I naturally had vivek tag along till the ‘loo-tent’. I didn’t want to be left alone. I was too scared to be alone. When I emerged from the ‘loo-tent’ I saw vivek promptly seated ten feet away, cross-legged on the cold ground, right outside, waiting my arrival. I was never more touched or never before did I feel so loved and cared for.

Back in the tent, we snuggled under four thick blankets to ward off the chill. The cold whipping winds were kept at bay by the secured confines of the nailed walls of the tent. We fell asleep almost instantly. Maybe it was the realization that there was little else we could possibly do or maybe it was the cold and the mounting lethargy which did the trick, but we were soundly asleep.

I have no clue how long I slept. But suddenly I found myself gasping for air. I could not breathe! It felt like something was clogging my wind pipe, blocking passage of air either way. Don’t Panic! I told myself. Breathe. Slow, deep, long breaths. Vivek had been telling me all along the trip to do just that.


A simple command I was trying to issue to myself. A simple command which would keep me alive. A simple command I couldn’t seem to follow.


A little by little the pressure eased. I found I could breathe, albeit with a little difficulty, but I could at least breathe. I thought of turning over and waking vivek up, but as the pressure seemed to ease, I saw no point in bothering him.

I closed my eyes and willed the sweet gods of sleep to embrace me once again. But all I seemed to feel was a deathly chill. It began right in the pit of my stomach and spread through my entire body. Within seconds my feet were cold as death and I was shivering under the weight of four blankets. I snuggled further into the blankets, seeking the warmth which was fast eluding me.

The same command – breathe!

The same instruction – don’t panic!

The same results – no effect!

The meager dinner was finding a way to escape the confines of my body. Every system in my body, seemed to be grinding to a slow halt. The only thing capable of rapid movement, was the quick spreading chill claiming every sense organ. I knew I had to wake vivek up!

I did.

And then I threw up.

And then I knew I was going to die.

I had used up all energies I possibly had in throwing up. I was cold. I couldn’t breathe. And then began the ache in the chest. It was a searing ache. Like someone was twisting a rod right inside my heart.

I didn’t want to die. Not right now, when I had just discovered the bliss of togetherness. Not now, when I had finally succeeded in making vivek believe in faith. Not right now, when he had opened new doors to a promising future.

“I don’t want to die!” I whispered to Vivek, not caring what effect my words were having on him. I wanted to tell him all that I was going through, but I did not seem to have enough energy to do so.

“I am panicking!” I managed to tell him in sheer panic.

I held on to him. If I had to die, I wanted to do it in his arms. I know he was trying a different rescue strategy. But all I cared was that I had given up. He hadn’t.

I was trying to draw faith from his optimism. In all the haze the pain in the chest kept magnifying. My mind refused to function at a normal pace. I couldn’t comprehend anything. I knew then that the blood had thickened and was not reaching either my heart or my brain. I also somehow, just knew, that if I pulled through the night and saw the light of the day, I would have a second chance.

I took eternity in pulling out the sorbitrate from my pockets and popping them under my tongue. I knew it would be a couple of minutes till the sorbitrate would help.

In those couple of minutes I was transported to the car. Vivek was talking to me and I so wanted to make sense of what he was saying. But I could not. And I really wished he would stop talking because I hated not understanding him.

A calm sense of darkness swept over me and like I knew I would, I slipped out of consciousness….


She woke me up with a whisper. A gentle chilling whisper that felt colder than the night itself. And the worst bit was that I had been unknowingly anticipating it since evening.
She said, “Vivek. I can’t breathe, and I am panicking.”

She is the strongest woman I have known, and I hate her for just one thing. She is the type who hides her pain. She has seen the extremes where even the most tenacious of will powers break down, and she has come back from it alive and kicking in every sense. Whenever in pain, she manages to throw the same smile at you that she otherwise would have smiled had she not been in pain.
And when such a woman breaks down to say words like, “I am panicking!” and “I don’t want to die!” something is really wrong!
I was scared and the sheer loneliness of Sarchu came back to haunt me in a different light now. No people, no help.
I told her to relax. I told her that she’ll be fine. I told her that I won’t let anything happen to her. The moment and the words weren’t very clear but I knew I had to do something. I was scared that she just might not be fine. Especially if her blood began to thicken. I don’t know if she heard any of my words but I heard them.
She asked for the time. It was hardly 10.30pm. Almost 5 to 6 hours to dawn. I knew she would feel better if more of the night had passed. I told her its 12.00am.
I wanted her to breathe and I knew it won’t help. She had to be taken to a lower altitude as soon as possible. She needed oxygen.
After she vomited for the second time, I pulled myself away from her inspite of her clinging on to me and not wanting me to leave her side. I knew she was the last person I should be listening to at this point of time. I tucked her in and stepped out of the tent without my jacket. The chill that hit me then, still runs down my spine when I think of that moment. I slowly began to move the luggage into the car. There was no energy in the air and none what so ever in the body. I couldn’t move fast. I dragged my way to and from the tent and slowly emptied the tent into the car. It was 11.30 by now. The driver was confident of driving back on these dangerous paths at this hour. I put her in the backseat of the car and we started one of the longest road journeys of my life.
On the way back from Sarchu, one needs to climb the Barlacha height before beginning to loose any altitude. I knew that the first 45 minutes of the journey would only make it worse for her. I wasn’t sure if she could hear me but just in case she did, I wanted her to feel positive. Although we were climbing, I told her that we are actually loosing altitude, and that there is more oxygen in the air now. I told her that the time was 1.30 while it wasn’t even 12. I just wanted her to be strong. I didn’t want her to give up. I didn’t want her to loose, right in front of my eyes.

And then I sensed her falling asleep. It was too deep a slumber. I feared that she was loosing consciousness. I didn’t have the heart to wake her, but I so badly wanted her to move. I wanted her to give me a sign that I was not going to loose her. Not this way ever. I could do nothing but wait. Minute by minute. Meter by meter. Loosing altitude and inching closer to not sure what, I felt lonely.
The 3 and a half hours before we touched Keylong were painful. The moment we hit population I started looking for a hospital. Just then I heard another whisper. A feeble but warm and magical whisper.
“Why are you looking for a hospital?”
“Ya rright!” I smiled.
I saw her breathe and I was glad. She was feeling better. Some rest would be enough for her to get back to normal. And some rest was indispensable for my sorry arse, stuck in the same position on the back seat of the car for three and a half hours!

By morning, she was out of danger. Mornings, as always, are beautiful!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Having slept through a beautiful night in a beautiful Manali cottage, 3.30am wasn’t exactly the right time to begin the next day. So I snoozed around while she was getting ready. (It’s a different feeling altogether when you know that your bags are going to be packed and you’ll be all ready to leave right when you wake up ;) ). 4.30 am it was as we began the exciting journey towards and into the mountains above Manali (2,050m approx).They say Rohtang pass (3,980m approx) is quite high. And usually altitude sickness begins to hit. But we were crooning our way through the clouds, the hills, the curves on the roads and the mini-waterfalls on each curve. We stopped for breakfast at what was the last dhaba for the rest of the journey. After this point, you get maggi!The first glitch in the journey was an overloaded truck (loaded to 17 tonnes while the maximum limit on these roads is 9 tonnes only), unable to pull itself out of a muddy track. Groaning in agony with whatever meager available horsepower, it only managed to generate sympathy rather than gain height. A few adept hands saw to it that the path was finally cleared and we meandered ahead.

After crossing the Rohtang pass and coming down to Keylong (3,349m approx), we started climbing the heights towards Barlacha (4,892m approx). This part of the journey is lonelier, and in a way lovelier. A few moments of peace amidst the gigantic overbearing mountains makes one comfortable in a strange way. Higher you go towards Barlacha, lesser is the vegetation. All you see is dead barren rocks, rising to monstrous heights, indifferent to being called mountains. Indifferent to curious eyes and indifferent to the noisy river gushing its way down, they stand there with only one purpose, putting one in awe of them. We came across a couple of peaceful lakes as well in the smaller more gentle corners of the mountains.

First signs of lack of oxygen began to show at Barlacha. It’s a feeling quite comparable to being high on wine, if only one could ignore the breathlessness. You move slow, you talk slow, and you don’t realize it until you try to move and try to talk. We crossed Barlacha and inched towards Sarchu (4,253m approx) which seemed to be getting more comfortable as we lost a little altitude.

The feeling of being disconnected from the world seeps in right when you cross the last cell phone tower around Keylong. When you race against time to make frantic calls and send hectic messages so that they reach before you cross the last known cellular footprint, you know that you are moving away from something and towards a beautiful nothing.

By the time you are at Sarchu, the beautiful nothings have taken real shape. There isn’t even much vegetation, let alone the absence of shops, people, or cell phone networks. There are camps at Sarchu, with 8-10 tents each, which are managed by a few brave locals during summers. Apart from this, there is an army base camp nearby, which provides medical support and a weekly telephone service.

It was almost 3 to 4 pm when we reached Sarchu and we had warm Maggie for dinner. The low on oxygen air and low air pressure had begun to take effect. The chill factor was manageable unless the wind hit you directly. Life wasn’t really difficult, but it was slow. In words, movements and thoughts.

While we lay inside the tent, saved from direct winds, the loneliness of the place magnified by the warmth of having your loved one in your arms, gave a surreal meaning to the word beauty.

It felt nice and it felt complete.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Even the smallest of steps can be a major beginning which leads to big plans. Like embarking on one of the most exciting journeys through the mountainous terrains of the Himalayas. As the car droned along the precarious curves of the steep mountains, life and togetherness were redefined for us. Through the highs and lows of the snow-clad peaks, through the wandering thirst of meandering streams, in the invisible embrace of the drifting clouds, we came alive.

Leela Huts, Manali

We had decided to take a break in Manali, en route to the foreplanned trip to Leh (which I must add here, didn’t quite happen), so that we could acclimatize ourselves to the mountain air. Before I go any further, a little bit about me. I am a stickler for plans. I would not venture on a trip without my bookings in place. So as was bound to happen I forced vivek into checking out this beautiful place (ok admittedly a place which looked beautiful online) called Leela Huts. All keen to set going on this trip he promptly called the owner, a certain Mrs. Thakur (who he claims has a male-child like voice) and booked us in.
With great apprehension we headed towards Leela Huts in a rumbling auto-rickshaw. What if it was just online pfaff and what we really got was a rundown cottage? Wisely, neither of us mentioned a word about it, till we actually reached Leela Huts.
Boy! Were we bowled over or bowled over! For beginners Mr. Thakur didn’t turn out to be quite as old as I thought he would be!!

That apart, Leela Huts is a cozy dwelling of a couple of cottages far removed from the buzzing world. It is ensconced and preserved in natural beauty and right from the minute one steps on the cobblestones leading to the cottage, you are enraptured by its almost magical existence.

I had insisted on booking the cottage with the fireplace for us and lo behold we stepped into perfection. The cottage given to us at Leela Huts was straight out of a dream. The living room boasted of a majestic fireplace, which made us long for the cold evening, just so that we could enjoy its warm glory. The cottage had its own kitchen equipped with utensils et al (I did not explore further as I had no intentions of cooking whatsoever) and led to two absolutely comfortable rooms.

The cottage was surrounded by trees, shrubs and flowers. It felt like we had stepped right into some fairy tale. There I was this princess in the land of perfection, spending time with the prince of my dreams. Adding their touch to my perfect paradise were wisps of clouds which sprinkled happiness as the winds urged them into a different direction.

As the twittering birds were silenced with the onset of a beautiful evening, the two of us decided to pamper our romantic souls with the perfect walk.

And a perfect walk it was! Hand-in-hand with vivek (who looked like the complete brit gentleman, with a big black umbrella folded into a walking stick) along a bridge over gushing waters, I couldn’t have asked for more.

The walk wasn’t as aimless as I make it sound. We were walking with a purpose. The purpose of this walk was to satiate our alchoholic appetites by picking up some wine. As every wine lover would know, wine is not wine, till it is elegantly sipped out of elegant flutes. Now Leela Huts might have it all, but it did not have elegant wine flutes!

So after picking up a bottle of wine, we set out in the middle of the night, in the dead markets of the mountain, to find wine glasses! Of course, we didn’t find any! What we did find instead were oriental egg holders, which could be used as wine glasses. What can I say? When the call is for desperate measures, we so heed them!!

We returned back to the cottage to a roaring fire burning in the fireplace. It was a moment out of my mills and boon pages. I was cuddled with the love of my life, sipping one of the best wines, in front of a fireplace… all I could think of was “If this is a dream, I wish I never wake up!