We were sitting together in the lawn of our hotel in Leh for one last time. It was drizzling, the first shower of the monsoon were here. Ladakh has never been a monsoon-friendly region, but during this part of the year, when rain freaks out in virtually every corner of India, it comes to visit this place as well as if for formality. There was a slight chill in the wind. The snow-capped peaks contoured by carbon clouds looked beautiful. We fixed our luggage on our bikes and prepared to return, assured of a comfortable ride back to Manali.
First two hours we zoomed on the no nuisance road. We were fresh, packed with confidence to lord it over bullet. I was sitting behind Danish who drove with attitude, a little uncaring of the drizzle that followed us all the time.
We took our first halt at Rumtse, the same camp where we had stopped while coming to Leh. It was very windy and as I removed my helmet, the moisture-laden wind swept my face, dizzying me with its bite. We rested there for fifteen minutes, warmed ourselves by drinking some strong tea and decided to move on. I now took the reins from Danish. We now headed to Tanglangla, this time from its other end.
Almost ten kilometres into the dizzy curves I encountered such biting cold that I’d never experienced before. I thought I was some five jackets short, maybe more. All my life, I had wished to catch the falling snow with naked eyes but never did I fancy it at the stake of my life. God has his own strange ways of granting wishes. It was like whacking someone with his wish.
Every now and then I gave my hands intense jerks to spur them out of their numbness. The snow soiled the visor of my helmet to an extent that it impaired my visibility. As I raised the visor, a rush of icy wave marinated with a consignment of snow came to visit my naked face and almost bludgeoned me to shut my eyes.
Still three kilometres away from Tanglangla, we were arrested by a mammoth traffic jam. It could have put jams in our city to shame. We parked our bike on the edge of the road and rushed towards the nearest truck for shelter. My hands had turned inactive, not responding at all. Danish helped me remove my drenched gloves to expose them. There were red scars all over them. “Frost bites,” Danish suspected.
I gave my hands some desperate shakes trying to bring them back to life but to no avail. I imagined how my life could change all of a sudden if my hands were paralysed. Things that I took for granted in my routine life would no longer remain the same. They responded slightly to the sixth jerk, showing some signs of life in them. Another jerk and they responded sharply. I took a deep sigh of relief.
Bips and Raka looked out of sorts when they arrived, Bips far more than Raka. They calmed down a little when we pulled them inside the truck’s cabin.
It wasn’t feasible to ride in such precarious conditions and we were better off covering some distance in the cosy cabin of truck. We battled one of our bikes into the truck with the help of other drivers. As we set to launch the other, Raka and I glanced at each other, a ‘let’s do it’ kind of a gesture, and decided against it. There was a hint of mellowness in the climate and the traffic had also begun to move slowly. “Don’t be crazy,” Bips stressed. Raju, our guide, left the decision on us, which we had already made.
When we reached the top, the snow had stopped falling while the sun peeped from the clouds dazzling the landscape with its brilliance. There were many foreign tourists who had stopped there to click photographs. I shouted with joy to celebrate my second coming to this momentous milestone in less than a week, a feat that takes a lot to achieve. The truck moved past us, Bips and Raka waving us faintly as if regretting to have made a bad decision.
But as it turned out, it was a natural trap with showers starting to come down again, this time with vengeance. Our only ray of hope now was the shelter available at Pang, still 40 kilometres far. The road was dead straight in the middle of Morey Plains. I gave free rein to accelerator, best I could do to save our lives. Then I realised it was actually Murphy whose law was operating on us. As I maneuvered the leg brake, for the first time in our scuttle for survival, it didn’t bother to serve its legitimate duty of slowing us down. I pedaled it again only to realise that it had gone dead, ahead of us. With only a rather niggardly hand brake at our disposal and Raju miles ahead of our sight, we were forced to cut down our speed and endure nature’s wrath. I allowed the bike to run at a constant speed hoping God to take our side, least, Murphy to take a break.
Still 20 kilometres from Pang, we found Raju waiting for us. As he stooped down to fix the brake, the truck providing insulation to our fortunate friends emerged from behind. The driver applied brakes to check why we had stopped where we should not have dared. In a weak moment, Raka and I went up to the truck, hoping Danish and Bips to ride for the little remaining distance up to Pang. We had already done the hard work and it was now just a matter of few kilometres. They had horror in their eyes. The scenic landscape from the cosy seat of truck could have metamorphosed into nature’s fury when experienced on a running bullet. As it is, it was our own calculated move taken in or out of our senses, and the onus of seeing through it rested on the two of us. When it converges to the question of death, one shouldn’t expect others to volunteer.
So, it was left to us to grapple with the testing 20 kilometres that remained, that were to decide we would continue to live or not, that were to determine who was more powerful; God or Murphy. On a mutual note, we decided to equally share the grueling task of riding the bike, Raka taking it first, with a resurgent determination in his eyes.
At the decided milestone, he didn’t stop, and I wasn’t brave enough to remind him, one of those occasions in life when it becomes imperative to turn a blind eye to your call. I anxiously expected him to remind me any damn moment but he didn’t and ironically that made me more anxious. What could have propelled him to continue riding, I wondered.
Was it his streak of absentmindedness, or his unexplained desire to do something suicidal, or his repentance for having shown himself weak, or was in that touch-and-go backdrop he wanted to play God by becoming my saviour?
Like a thankless freeloader, I bundled myself behind him. Still the icy wind that visited me from sides penetrated through my skin and shivered my bones. With every diminishing milestone, my respect for Raka was strengthening. The noose of guilt was tightening around my throat but I kept breathing against its force. My conscience just couldn’t get the better of my fear.
By the time we reached Pang, Raka looked awestruck, as if taken by a mild hypothermia attack. Seeing him shivering, I almost forgot my own spine-chilling experience.
The shabby camp at Pang felt like the heavens. We removed our wet clothes and covered ourselves with a heap of quilts. A boy in the camp rubbed Raka’s feet vigorously, other brewed tea for him. It took him ten minutes to stop shivering. We smiled wryly thinking of our just concluded…whatever.
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