Lal disappeared one afternoon, nine years ago, along the path from Tonglu to Sandakphu, the eastern edge of the Himalayas. Shan remembered it well; that day, latched on to the end of an unusually long monsoon, when the mountains had been battered for months by cold, hard rain and a tinge of leaden grey still stained the sky. The locals said it could have been one of two things — a boksa witch had cast a spell on him or he’d followed a ban khankri and the shaman had carried him to the spirit world.
“Or,” an elderly man had offered, “he ventured too close to Kalipokhri,” a pool of black water that never froze over no matter how low the temperature dipped.
On the eve of the trek, Lal and Shan had sat around a bonfire at a guest house in Tawang with the others — Captain Muktan, a wiry old gentleman who was leading the expedition, a German couple, and a trio of friends from Australia.
“We’re going to the base of the highest mountain in the world,” said the Captain, smiling over his glass of rum. “Of course, it chooses who gets to the top.”
Shan remembered the prickle of excitement, the glow of enthusiastic faces, the alcohol burning in their throats, the sense of being on the brink of adventure. Captain Muktan said they must be ready to leave at seven the next morning.
Now, Shan was trekking the same road, sloping and winding before him. He was alone; he’d decided he wanted to make this journey on his own. He stopped at a shack pressed against the hillside, with wooden benches by the door and a wood fire tended by a young lady with a face like a soft full moon.
“Tingmo,” he said, “and butter tea.”
The bread was freshly baked, soft and warm with a hint of sweetness. While he ate, she placed a tumbler of steaming golden liquid before him. He lit a cigarette, and took a deep drag. The road lay quiet as it had all day. He’d passed a few dajus on their way to or from town, carrying conical cane baskets on their backs, loaded with vegetables. They reassured him that he was on the right trail, and the trekker’s lodge wasn’t far. One daju had asked, “No guide?”
Shan shook his head.
“Trekker’s lodge this way?” he asked the woman as he paid, pointing to the left. She nodded, smiling. He wasn’t sure she’d understood but he was quite certain that parts of the trail, even after all these years, looked familiar. A solid stone bridge, a strange outcrop of rocks where they’d all rested, distributing water and bars of chocolate, the small cluster of houses where they’d been offered roasted chestnuts.
When he passed Kalipokhri later, it looked different from how he’d pictured it. In the early afternoon sun, it lay serene and calm, deeply carved into the ground. It seemed smaller, edged by bursts of rhododendron, its waters shrunken and contained, not lapping across the path along its side. The sky was clear, marked by birds taking flight, gradually growing smaller. Only the stillness of the place remained unchanged. Whether cloaked in mist, like the last time, when the lake was indistinguishable from the sky, or bathed in sunlight, the silence lay deep and reverent. Shan walked on; the path wound into the mountain now, flanked by moist, red earth riddled with a profusion of delicate ferns. He remembered something Captain Muktan had said, “A wall of ice or earth is easiest tackled, its difficulty easily judged and weighed. But a road that ascends slowly continues to fool you with its promise of returning to level ground.”
The scenery changed little along the way; sometimes the path grew so narrow he had to stop to make way for locals, some of whom tugged mules carrying enormous, precariously balanced loads. Occasionally, he caught sight of colourful Buddhist flags, strung for miles on open hilltops, fluttering in the wind. He’d once hung up a line back home but they lay limp and listless against the wall. So he tied them outside in the balcony and hoped the prayers would reach Lal, wherever he may be.
As the sun slid behind the hills it grew colder. Shadows around him lengthened. Soon, the ground sloped and a small cabin came into view, nestled in a forested hollow, a dim glow of light at the windows. There was no one inside. The room was as sparse and basic as he remembered it — a large table in the centre, wooden chairs and beds, and a giant coal stove lying cold and dead in a corner. All those years ago they’d huddled around it, warming their frozen fingers, waiting for Captain Muktan, for news of the others who were missing.
Shan turned the lantern wick higher and light spilled into the corners. A rucksack lay by the stove; someone else was camping here for the night. He set down his own bag and rummaged for a sweatshirt; the cold seemed more poignant in the dark. He unpacked tins of tuna, and realised with some annoyance that he’d forgotten to buy bread.
Walking out into the veranda for a smoke, Shan smelt the scent of pine needles mingling with wet grass. The sky was clear, studded with stars, more than he’d ever seen. It was similar to the skies near the mountains to the north, Lal’s favourite destination. “Because,” he’d once explained as they shared a joint in Manali, “I love the sense of there being no end to how far we can go, valley beyond valley.”
They both came from a small town far to the east of India and became friends in their later school years, when they were thrown together in extra classes for subjects they both detested. Shan sat next to him, a brooding, rather sulky boy, slouching over his desk in the second last row.
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” Lal had whispered when the teacher turned to the blackboard.
“A rocket scientist,” Shan answered. “And you?”
They made a trip to the west coast in their first summer while at university in Delhi, a rather ill-timed vacation. Temperatures soared and their unreserved tickets only got them some space to squat near the train door. But he still remembered the smell of the sea and the feel of wet sand. Lal running ahead and diving straight into the waves. A sense of freedom and of being young stretching out before them, endless as the waters that lapped at their feet. Their last journey together was made the year they graduated. Lal had wanted to go “somewhere different” before he headed off to Japan to teach English to school children and Shan left for Singapore for further studies. They chose the mountains around Darjeeling.
Tonight the air was filled with the sound of crickets. Shan remembered standing here, waiting, while the others had fallen into exhausted sleep. The storm had quietened, and the night was almost as peaceful and motionless as this one. Except the ground was marked with patches of white. He’d wanted to head back, to start searching immediately but Captain Muktan stopped him, saying the villages had been notified, and people would be out at the break of dawn. Yet he’d kept watch all night, and awoke crumpled on the stone steps. The morning was as quiet as the night had been.
Shan heard the crunch of footsteps. A figure walked towards the cabin, a tall, gangly man, carrying a plastic bag and a bottle; he had precision and lightness in his stride, as if he knew exactly where to place his next step in the surrounding dark. Shan greeted him. The man glanced up and asked, “Do you have food?”
“It’s lucky I bought many,” he said with a smile and held up a bag of tingmo. He introduced himself as Pierre, explaining that he’d been down to the guard’s hut to buy food and water. Usually a lady came to do the cooking if there were guests at the lodge but her son had taken ill. The guard had offered him everything he had in his kitchen and refused any money.
“He is a good man,” Pierre said as they walked inside.
He spoke briskly about his day — he’d trekked a new path. It had been tough, he got lost twice and had to make his way through a patch of rough bramble.
“Look,” he gestured, sitting on the bed and holding out his left ankle. Scratches ran above his sock, deep and red, some still bleeding. Shan looked up, expecting to see a grimace but there was none.
Pierre asked him to open the cans of tuna and unpack the tingmo. Then he picked up a towel and said he was going for a quick wash. Shan remembered an evening when two men had walked into the trekker’s hut where he and Lal were resting for the night. One of them had a mangled hand, bleeding profusely; he’d slipped down a slope, and ripped it on some sharp stones. After his friend bandaged it, they sat and plotted their route for the next day’s walk. There was no waste of time or words. Looking at the knapsack on the floor, he sensed a kinship he hadn’t felt in years.
When Pierre was done, Shan washed at the tap running clear, icy water. When he returned, the food was laid on the table. A small bottle of rum stood alongside the bread and tuna. They barely spoke during the meal. They were both very hungry. Afterwards when they sat on the steps outside, sipping their drinks, they talked. Pierre asked him whether he’d been this way before.
“Just once,” answered Shan, “nine years ago.” He hesitated before adding, “I lost a friend on the trek, and I never came back.”
Pierre remained silent for a long while before asking, “Was he lost in a blizzard? Near Sandakphu. About four hours from here?”
“Yes. How did you know?”
Pierre shrugged, pouring himself another drink. “These stories never leave the mountains. You know how it is. They remember.”
When Shan asked him how he happened to be in the country, the Frenchman said he was a student of architecture.
“I came to study the Mughals. A friend told me about this place and we came for a trek here.” He laughed. “He returned and I stayed.”
But, asked Shan, he must go back sometime?
“I used to. My mother is Jewish; she lost most of her family in the Holocaust. She never let me forget that to be alive is to be living for a reason. And this,” he gestured around him, “for her, is far from reason enough.” He smiled. “It is odd, for her favourite prayer is Psalm 121… ‘I shall lift up my eyes to the mountains — from where shall my help come?’”
They lapsed into silence. They finished their drinks and went back inside, latching the door behind them. Lying in his sleeping bag, Shan thought of Lal. For him, there had been no choice: to leave, or to stay behind. All these years he’d felt anger at himself and at his friend. And guilt. He replayed the scene in his mind as he had on numerous sleepless nights — the group lingering by the lake, fascinated by the mist swirling over the waters of Kalipokhri, Lal bending over to tie his shoelace, telling them to carry on when Captain Muktan said it was time to move; there was a blizzard coming, he could sense it in the heavy air.
It was a hailstorm. It nearly took the lives of three others, but somehow they’d made it back, stumbling into the cabin, the two girls crying, the young man with them pale and exhausted. Lal hadn’t been with them as everyone had hoped. They hadn’t even seen him along the way. The storm made tracking difficult the next day, with landslides and fallen trees, though it had been as thorough a search as possible. By the evening they had to conclude that Lal had taken a wrong turn, or missed the road leading to the trekker’s lodge. They never found his body.
Shan awoke the next morning to find the room empty. Pierre had left, his rucksack and shoes gone from the side of the bed. Outside, the guard was standing in a patch of sunshine on the veranda. A plastic bag lay on the table with the remaining tingmo; Pierre had left it behind. Shan put it in his knapsack, and packed up the rest of his things. After a quick wash and breakfast, he was ready to leave. The guard explained the way to the nearest viewpoint, the place from where the mountain range could be best seen. It was easy to get there but the path could often be tricky.
“The boksa,” he warned, “can make you confused and lost.”
Shan set out with a milder sun on his back than the day before. He walked as fast as he could, knowing he must return before nightfall. The guard had been right, it was a rough trail, ridden with bramble and crumbly rock and many small paths that lured him away from the top. The sun was high above him by the time he reached. His eyes met the snow-clad mountains rising before him — a line of peaks jagged against the sky. They stretched all along the horizon, seeming so close he felt he could reach out and touch them. He stared for a long while, a swift breeze rustled past, the sunlight warm and comforting on his back. Perhaps Lal had chosen to stay behind after all, he thought, and this was where their journey ended.