Saturday, May 12, 2012

Poems, Prayers and Promises

By Gaurav Parab


It is the song that plays, or maybe it is a trick one’s mind pulls – but my thoughts go back to a few years ago to breakfast with a South African tourist whose boyfriend was stuck near the Zingzingbar pass in the Himalayan mountains.

I vaguely remember the small talk about India, the upcoming football world cup in South Africa and sweaty Varanasi. I also remember having a nagging thought about having forgotten something.

We were joined by the restaurant owner, who shared the legends of the peaks that surrounded the rooftop restaurant and also spoke about surviving the beautiful yet challenging Lahoul Spiti region. His words were ancient and vivid, and I asked for a pen, excused myself to another table, and quickly wrote Keylong, one of my favorite poems, on the back of a paper napkin.

Then I closed my eyes and whispered to myself that if there is one place I would like to die, this is it.

The previous night was completely different.


It was the scariest night of my life. The fear was so real, so close and so strong – that the sounds, smells and the sheer blackness of the night sometimes comes back in my dreams to remind me of the shapes that terror can take.

To our right, we could not tell how far, was the river. It moaned every time it was slapped by the rocks – and I imagine it looked up at our five little lights as we snaked through the mountains – waiting for a loss of control like it has waited for millions of years. Every now and then we also looked down towards the general direction of where we thought the river was- not in defiance- but out of pure and simple fear.

I wondered how does a man on a motorcycle go down a cliff? Does he go headfirst, or do human and machine entangle themselves in one last embrace before slamming into the steel cold river. Is death instantaneous, or would I be a doll inside a washing machine that gets shredded thread by thread.

I prayed a lot on that motorcycle on that night. I prayed for light so I can see how far we are from that river. I prayed for my life. I prayed that if there is any place in the world I want to be alive in, it is here in the Himalayas.


A man was waiting for us outside a quaint little lodge called the Nalwa Guest House. As we switched off our engines and coasted the last few meters towards him, he pointed in the distance and said he had seen our lights about an hour ago, and he had waited outside to make sure that we stop at his place instead of going further into Keylong town. He said he could do with our business before winters came calling.

We did not ask him to explain, but he nevertheless continued, “Out here, in cold moonless nights- the lights of travelers are the only thing that gives us hope.”

We were so relieved to have made it safely to Keylong that we chose to stay in his lodge, and he woke the cooks to prepare hot dinner for us. We washed it down with glasses of brandy, deciding to start for our next stop early next morning to avoid the situation we had found ourselves in again.

I was the first to get up. It was already seven, and when I was unable to wake my friends up, I realized that there was no way we were going to start early. So I came out of the lodge and walked down to another restaurant a few houses away. But I still felt a constant thought about forgetting something.

Then I had breakfast with Nikki, the South African with a missing boyfriend, and wrote Keylong.

Poems, Prayers and Promises is one of my favorite songs. It has Denver’s haunting voice and signature melody. It was the song on my iPod when we had packed and I went up to the owner of the Nalwa Guest House to pay our bills. The plan was to pay the owner, go back to the petrol pump we had seen late at night, fill our empty petrol tanks, and proceed towards Leh.

And then I knew. We had forgotten Money. Amongst the six of us, we barely had enough cash to fill our tanks. We did not have any money to pay for our hotel bill. We had forgotten to withdraw cash at Manali – the last ATM till Leh and now we were stuck.

I looked at the owner. He asked me if there was a problem. I said, “No sir, but is there a bank nearby where we can withdraw money?”

“The last ATM is in Manali son. There is a State Bank in the town though.”

“Will they give us money if we tell them our account numbers?” I asked with a straight face, giving him my I am-not-kidding -you look.

He smiled back. I looked at the bill and took out the money we had earmarked for petrol. After paying him, I started walking outside – unsure of how we were going to proceed.

“Beta, is there a problem?”

The owner called me back inside. I said no, we are fine and we would manage.

“But you would need money to fill petrol. There is no petrol pump till Leh” He gave me the you-must-be-seriously-stupid-to-travel-all-the-way-without-cash look.

“You don’t have any money left, do you?”

Over the years, I have learned that more difficult a place is to live in, the more helpful people become. It is as if there is a part inside of men, below all the flesh and bones – that finds the strength to fight back against nature and circumstance through acts of kindness. Be it sweltering Rajasthan, the inhospitable Himalayas, or the hell holes that are Mumbai’s slums –the people there trump us city dwellers with our air conditioned lives and high definition TVs - when it comes to being humans.

This is how our Keylong drama ended. The owner gave us our money back and insisted that we use it to fill petrol. He then gave us some additional cash – saying it is always sensible to have some handy. When I told him that I will leave my credit card as collateral with him, he refused. He said you can repay me on the way back.

“But we are going through the Kashmir route Sir”.

“No problem. You can pay me back through money order, if you feel like it”

I was stunned. I asked him his account number, so I can do an online transfer from Leh. He said there was no need to go through all that trouble. We should focus on enjoying our holiday. Finally, after relentless pestering - he agreed to settle our account by paying his daughter in Chandigarh.

In return for his kindness, I gave him my word that whenever I tell my story about Keylong and that long scary night and the morning where we had no money – I will tell my friends about the man who waits in the cold moonless night for the lights of travelers and the hope they bring. I promised him that my friends would always stay in Nalwa Guest House. I hope you help me keep my word.

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