It was four of us — Sarath, Ronak, Shivani and me. We started for the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) at 0400 hours yesterday, caught the 0424 hours train to Khopoli and got down at Vangani station, around 100 Km away, at 0620. From there we caught a rickshaw to the village Bedisgaon, and then on walked till the base village, Vaghinichiwadi, which is located on a plateau around 4 Km uphill, reaching around 0800. We found the only shop in the village, had tea and Poha, chatted for a while, and around 0900 left along the trail that the woman at the shop showed us. By then, the Sun had become quite uncomfortable on the skin, and the prospect of being surrounded by trees was heart-warming.
However, soon we arrived at a crossroad of trails that were all too confusing. Google Maps wasn’t detailed enough, and we were left to try out all options at random. Unfortunately, one-by-one all led to dead-ends, once to a river where a few women and (naked) children were bathing in peace, and were clearly surprised and offended to see outsiders in full clothing!
Luckily for us, we found a local guy who was happy to show us the correct way. Apparently we were to make our way through semi-thick jungle, cross fences and hedges separating farming areas. I was left wondering whether the advised path was indeed correct, but his confidence and the fact that soon we found something that resembled a trail, put my doubts to rest. By now the Sun was quite uncomfortable and not much shade was available in this lowland. We were eager to quickly gain some height.
The surrounding jungle was much more thicker than is usual, wild flowers much more plentiful. Sometimes the path was blocked by fallen trees; huge spiders, the size of which I had not encountered in my entire life, had built massive webs hanging from them. The trail showed all signs of desertion.
Around 1000, we were again at a fix, as the path seemed to diverge into two equally narrow ones. Left to try them out randomly, the one at the right soon lead to thick jungle wherein even Sarath, the most optimistic amongst us, refused to carry on. Now confident that the other option was indeed correct, we quickly moved on.
After 15 minutes of climbing through spider-infested areas, we were faced with a massive cliff which looked like the deadest end that we could have encountered. The cliff was around 10 meter high, water was dripping through the middle chunk of solid rock, and there seemed to be no trail left. Ronak argued there was one along the right up the cliff, currently covered by trees. The only way up seemed to be around the left of the main cliff. The rocks looked slippery, and not indented enough to offer firm grip to the feet.
My GPS wasn’t working. However, we were confident that we had to carry on, the trail must continue from the top of the cliff. Shivani started climbing, and with difficulty, got up two-third of the way and appeared stuck. One of us had to help. I volunteered to go next, but what resulted from my efforts was rather embarrassing: I got stuck in an awkward position in the middle and was about to slip down. I tried getting a grip on the rocks on the right, but the water made them so slippery that I failed. To top it all, a big crab came out from on of the cracks very near my right hand and I freaked out. I found it hard to climb down as well, my bag was very badly balanced on one shoulder which was taking my entire weight and I was unable to move this part of my body. I barely managed to turn and drag myself down on my rumps.
Sarath literally stomped over bushes that were growing over the left of this stretch. It looked impossible but he managed. By this time Shivani had managed to climb the last part over a few loose rocks. It appeared to her that there was a semi-trail at the top. Sarath, however, was having trouble with this part. Ronak followed to help him. He managed to walk over the slippery first stretch, but there was trouble in the middle with very little space for two people. Sarath gave his bag to Ronak and successfully followed over the same rocks Shivani had used for support. Ronak was stuck in the middle with two bags!
At this point, my GPS finally located us: we were confidently climbing the wrong contours. Nakhind was at the summit of contours which was separated by a small valley from the one we were attempting to climb. It was enough confusion already trying to make our ways up the cliff, and then this. Ronak wouldn’t dare climb down the cliff, so he had to carry on. He was right, one needed serious rock-climbing skills to attempt that. After throwing bags in the air and a lot of pulling of T-shirt by Sarath, he managed to get both the bags and himself up, balancing on his rumps.
The others had climbed to the top. My previous unsuccessful attempt had psychologically affected me. Moreover, I knew it was a wrong way to go. My worst fear was having to climb down the cliff anyway. I was at a fix.
They weren’t entirely convinced that Google Maps could be trusted — this had been the only alternative we were left with on our way up, to which I agreed. I was not convinced of carrying on however — the conversations were leading nowhere. Having no other choice, they egged me to come on, trying to raise my spirits. Shivani bet me 200 rupees that the trail at the top of the cliff would indeed lead to Nakhind peak. I accepted the bet gleefully, but that did not pacify my fears. My instincts kept telling me going up would be a disaster. After 10 minutes of negotiation, I decided to separate and head back. They had no choice than to carry on. I assured them my safe return to Vaghinichiwadi, and that I would wait for them till as long as they would take to return. Only if they had indeed reached Nakhind and decided to descend via the other side — Neral, via Peb fort — they should please let me know over phone.
Now this was an irony. I am always the person in the group of trekkers egging the tail-enders not to give up in the middle, providing encouragement, company and drinks from time to time. This time, no amount of encouragement was enough for me — simply because of the conviction that we were on the wrong track. It was too late to stay together. We parted ways.
It was 1045 and the Sun was fully up by now — I was sweating all over and the heat was becoming unbearable. I decided to find my way back as quickly as possible. I had climbed down a few minutes when I found that the way ahead was leading nowhere, being covered by fallen trees, but there seemed to be a U-turn to the right. I recalled definitely that we had not taken any U-turn on the way up. Moreover, the U was ascending instead of descending. After a minute of exploring the place, I discovered that one could manage to reach the other side of the fallen trees and this was indeed the way we had come. However, while coming up, the cover of the broken branches being from the top, and us having our feet on the ground at a lower height, we would duck and easily climb up. Going down, however, was more difficult, since my feet was at the same level with the branches. That offered an explanation to another puzzle: the correct way to Nakhind was along the other line of ascent, the position of the branches being such that we had completely missed this alternative. Having realized our blunder, I immediately shouted this news at the top of my lungs, hoping the other three could still hear me. They did, but by then it was too late to change course.
On one hand lay the correct way to Nakhind — the general direction indicated by Google Maps also confirmed that — but came with the prospect of me getting lost at some such other treacherous bend, all alone. The other option was safety.
At this point, all sorts of philosophical thoughts started filling me up. The main theme was that this trek represented life. I started thinking how easy it is to get carried away in the wrong path all too confidently, how treacherous life can be. How some people have to carry on in the wrong path even being warned, how others get left behind in life, etc. Not very happy thoughts. I realized that the Sun was affecting my thoughts. It was close to 1100, and soon it would be noon. I decided to stick to the plan of returning to the village.
I climbed down the bend cautiously and increased my pace downhill. Within 10 minutes, the trail was joined by a stream and as I climbed down further, it kept looking more and more like a waterfall: the gradients becoming sharper and the water reaching greater speeds. This was a big surprise. We had not encountered any such stream on the way up, it was mostly thick jungles. Descending a little more, I soon reached a stage where the water had reached knee-depth and taken to vigorous speeds. I realized I was lost — in the middle of nowhere.
I panicked. Primarily because while descending, I had followed the trail like a dog follows a thief’s smells: there could be no other way now! However, I thought I heard footsteps, regular and persisting, and not too far. I started screaming for help. I waited for a reply for 10 more minutes like that, what felt like a lifetime. I continued my screaming from intermittently, to no avail. I finally concluded that probably the sound of the water was drowning my voice. There are moments in life when no amount of money in your pockets can help you — only human kindness can. Nature had played a dirty trick on me — my hopes of reaching out to a human being were drowned.
Moments from the first season of Man vs Wild started coming back to me — how Bear Grylls always followed the rivers as it always led to establishments, how he followed his logical thoughts rather than intuitions, how he described stories of people being lost in jungles for days: only to be found by rescue teams much later, sometimes dead. The only positive thing I remembered from the episodes was that he always advised not to panic — you panic, and you are dead then and there. So I decided to steady myself, gather some courage, and marshal my thoughts. Honestly, if I allowed myself to indulge in my fears, I was sure to have broken down in tears.
The only option left for me at this point was to start climbing back and find a place I was sure to have come across before. I did just that.
Around 10 minutes later, I encountered a spider web that I instantly recognized: this was a huge relief. I remembered also that on the way up, we had encountered this web soon after a long stint of walking through a stretch surrounded by long grasses. What this meant was that, in my hurry to climb down, I had missed this narrow jungle path. It is always easier to find broader paths when you are walking on a narrow one, but not the other way round. This discovery narrowed down my search of finding the correct path to 10 minutes. Having had my spirits raised, I started climbing down slowly this time, as watchful and careful as one could be, trying to sniff out the junction I had missed last time. I was determined not to go around in circles — something lost people often do in thick jungles.
After around 5 minutes of climbing down, I found an extremely narrow trail on the left, leading to rather long grasses through which one had to find the way. I was not sure if this was the correct way, but I decided to follow it, having had no other option left. It led to thicker and taller grasses on both sides, and the visibility of the ground below became very bad. I had a sense of deja vu — indeed, we had come up through such a thicket — this was it!
Relieved, I gathered some pace. Soon I reached a clearing from where I could see three cows foddering at a distance on another clearing. I had to go in that general direction, since the village could not be far. It was still around a Kilometer away. I almost started running again, but on remembering what my hurries had led to last time, regained composure and slackened pace.
A rather uncomfortable mess of equally narrow trails presented themselves. Gathering that this was where we had initially had our trials and errors, I chose the options that would most likely lead to the grazing grounds, keeping the general direction of the cows in mind. In another 15 minutes, I could see the tops of huts not much far. I had missed the cows but reached the village: it was 1135, and I needed rest, drinks and most importantly — shelter from the peltering sun.
As I reached the huts, I was overwhelmed by the cries of “Khao den! Khao den! Khao den! [Give us food! Give us food! Give us food!]” from a bunch of kids, and as I collapsed in the shade of a hut, an old woman overlooking the children remarked: “Tumchya Mamala khao den! [You guys give the Uncle food!]” and the kids started laughing. Well, the conversation was in Marathi, but three years of living in Mumbai and I can pick up this much. I rested on the rock for a while, drinking water. The kids were overtaken by a massive curiosity about who I was and what I was doing here. All the pairs of eyes followed my every move. I had a packet of biscuits, I took two and distributed the rest amongst them, their smiles were worth more than a million rupees.
I dragged myself up and tried to find my way to the shop where we had breakfast earlier. This could be a different village altogether, couldn’t it? I asked in a hut, where I found a young man amongst a bunch of kids, who started shouting “Khao den!” repeatedly at my mere sight. This man, to my utmost relief, replied to my broken Marathi in Hindi and a know-it-all smile, confirming that I had reached Vaghinichiwadi, the straight path ahead led to Bedisgaon, and showed me the way amongst the huts to the only-shop-in-the-village.
When I collapsed on the dried cow-dung smeared stretch in the front of the house, called the “dawa” (dried cow-dung makes it cool so that people can sleep on it), the woman-at-the-shop recognized me instantly and quickly fetched me a chair. The shock on her face on seeing me so early and that too alone, was evident. I gave up trying to speak Marathi, and tried to explain to her about the situation in a mixture of Hindi and sign-language. She gathered the gist of it, and laughed at me, saying we had not even managed to climb! For the first time since we had left her shop, I felt in a light mood. I explained that the route was covered with broken tree-branches and we had encountered a cliff. At this, she looked alarmed, expressing that there was definitely no cliff to be climbed on the correct way. She said that it was a simple trail and there was no alternative. I tried to explain how we had missed it but the language-barrier was proving too costly. Thankfully, the only-Hindi-speaking-guy-at-the-village came to the shop at this moment. I was only too happy to provide more details and he too was happy to translate. The woman said that this was not the right time to go there, in the monsoon the trees are cleared by the flowing waters, and the waterfalls leave no alternative. The dry season was at the root of all the confusion we had faced. Only if she had warned us before!
Fittingly, the name of this guy was Bhagwan, which means God. Thanks to him, all lingering doubts got cleared. The woman asked me where we had come from, what we do for work. The mere notion of me hailing from Calcutta, which she knew was very far, and having travelled all the way up to Mumbai, surprised her — rural India is still living in a bygone era. I asked them about their village — education, jobs, facilities. The answers were shocking. There is no medical facility, not even at Bedisgaon — in case of something serious they would have to take the patient to Vangani. There is only one school, a primary one offering only up to the fifth standard, that too in Marathi medium: forget English, even Hindi isn’t taught. If one has to pass the tenth, he or she has to travel to Vangani everyday. However, no one can afford such education. Not a single person in the village, except the woman and her husband — who brought the goods for the shop from Vangani — has a permanent employment. The crops are good only in monsoon, the busiest time for all the villagers participating in the process some way or the other. Also, there is usually a lot of trekkers to Nakhind in monsoon and winter, and the kids earn extra by being their guides. In Bhagwan’s words, everyone works “temporary” rest of the year around. Bhagwan works in Matheran — a very popular tourist destination — for a few months a year as a coolie, and sometimes as a guide, and this is where he has learned Hindi. Currently, his “temporary” work is to collect woods from the fallen trees, sometimes having to axe through the roots to get the better wood, a laborious and monotonous work. This, he said, had occupied his morning. This explained the `footsteps’ I had heard from near the river: the sound had traveled from below, creating an illusion of someone coming up. He took my contact, gave me his, and advised to call next time we are here, he would be happy to personally guide us to the peak. I thanked him for his kindness and time. All the information I had gathered saddened me, and I kept thinking whether there was anything I could do to help the villagers. Nothing, unless I was ready to sacrifice my current life and start teaching the kids: I wondered whether they would accept the offer in exchange of food and shelter.
At this point, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a text message from Ronak, expressing concern for my whereabouts and asking me to call them. However, the reception of network was very poor and the calls did not go through, nor did my reply to the text message. I had to again go walking around the village in the Sun, followed by curious eyes, until I found a corner where my reply got delivered. I updated Ronak when the call connected at last and requested them to return at the earliest. Thankfully, by then they had also realized that there was no way up and were mulling over the possibility to return.
I quickly changed into dry clothes and let the Sun dry the sweat off the wet ones. Having removed my shoes and had a mango drink I was carrying, I felt a lot better. I had by now become quite the talk of the village, and thanks to Bhagwan’s translation to the curious kids, also the butt of their jokes. I laughed with them, mostly at the stupidity of planning such a trek at that time of the year. The reason was primarily this — near the peak, there is a hole, called Nedhe in Marthi. This place is very windy, and offers a magnificent view of the valley around and the Peb fort at a distance. However, a maximum of eight people can cram at the top. In monsoon there is significant cloud cover affecting the visibility, and in winter, there are way too many people and one doesn’t get enough time at the hole. In October, though, there would be no one other than us, and provided we could brave the Sun in the initial part of the climb, cool wind and peace would await us at the summit. Only now our dreams lay shattered.
Around 1230, I gave Ronak another call and he confirmed that they were coming back, to the “general direction of the village.” Relieved, I went back to the shop to ask for lunch, but hearing that the woman was about to close shop and leave to help her husband who was stuck with a lot of goods in Bedisgaon, didn’t bother her. I went peeping into the nearby huts. In the balcony of one I found a few women — I promptly asked in picked-up Marathi if lunch was available. The women were clearly offended at the time of the day at which the request had come — they had only just finished their lunch and were preparing to take a midday rest! My Marathi had again fallen short, and I had to resort to sign language. An elderly woman in the lot told the others that it was their duty to help. I was touched. She wasn’t thinking about money or rewards, she promptly told them they had a guest and couldn’t say no. I realized that the poorest people have the biggest hearts. Some of the women were having fun at my efforts at Marathi and how I had finally given up. However, I had successfully conveyed that any meal would be great, only it had to prepared for four people, they could take their time since it would be at least two more hours for my three other companions who were still stuck up in the hills to come back. The last piece of news sent shock-waves through the crowd of women, and shattered any lingering hesitation of disturbing their routine. I was relieved, and thanked them in plenty. They smiled.
Returning to the shop, which was locked, I lay on my back on the ‘dawa’, resting the head on my bag. Reminding myself to be aware, I don’t know when I dozed off to sleep as a mixture of thoughts cooked up inside me: philosophical analogies of life and the trek, concern for my trek-mates especially how they would climb down the cliff, what I could do in case of an emergency, the standard of life in the village and how poor rural India is, how warm and kind its people are, my sheer inability to do anything substantial for them and how I only added burden to some. The tiredness, the beating of the Sun, and the lack of sleep from the night before had finally taken its toll. At some point during the interplay of thoughts and dreams, I vaguely recall hearing voices and sounds of utensils from the hut where I had asked for meals, and this must have relieved me more. Indeed, all we selfish beings care for are shelter, and assurance of food: they are enough to put our concern for poverty to sleep! We then wake up and go on leading our lives just the way we did before — telling ourselves we cannot do anything about it all.
Indeed, that’s what I did. I woke up to muffled voices I knew, talking in English, one exclaiming to another “He is sleeping!” I quickly sat up to see the three smiling faces as they came towards me, and I was only too glad to help them regain some energy. Even the villagers seemed happy at out reunion. It was 1430 by then.
They narrated to me their part of the story. Being too afraid of climbing down the cliff, they had decided to descend through the jungles! They had to crawl below tall trees, maul some of the shorter ones, generally avoid the thorny bushes, break through spider webs, and literally make their way, “in the general direction due down.” This explained what Ronak had said when we had talked over phone the second time. Having to literally find a way through everything that nature threw at them, the effect was clearly visible all over the skins. Sarath had developed an itch from the leaves of a tree, which was still spread all over his arms. Thankfully they did not have to take much of the toll of the afternoon Sun. After about two hours of descending like this, they were all too glad to find a clearing and soon a narrow trail. In hindsight, all this was too risky — but it had paid off and they were safe. I reminded Shivani that I had won the bet. They said they had fun. I was glad I did not have such “fun,” but even more that they were finally back without any mishap. Honestly, any one person, or maybe even two, would not have had enough courage to do this — it needed a touch of madness, a lot of stupidity, and people backing each other. I would have traded going down the cliff and breaking my legs, any day. Or probably not.
By this time, the woman-at-the-shop had returned, along with her husband and a lot of goods, probably a weekly affair. She too was happy to see the others, and laughed some more at them! Knowing I had asked for food somewhere other than her hut, she felt offended. I tried to explain, but she didn’t seem too happy. It was too late to change my decision.
We were informed by Bhagwan that food was ready. It surprisingly turned out that the hut where I had asked for food was the one in which he lived. We were hungry. The food was brilliant: simple rice, dal and bhaaji. The serving, headed by Bhagwan, was warm. Many had gathered to watch us eat, and be a part of this grand affair! It felt like being fed by a big family, and that everyone in the village was a part of it.
When we asked the women about the amount, they refused to quote any, including the senior woman, shying away to the back of their rooms, saying it was their duty! I was flabbergasted. Yes, even the woman-at-the-shop had not quoted any amount for our breakfast, but she had happily accepted the offer we had made. Even Bhagwan shied from helping us in this regard. Now these people were on a different planet! After a lot of coaxing, we gave them what we thought would hope to repay our gratitude, thanked them profusely, and asked for leave.
From then on, we walked back to Bedisgaon, took a rickshaw to Vangani and a train to CST. What stayed with me are realizations of how people live compared to us, how much bigger their hearts are compared to ours, and how little we ever do for them to lead a better life. They do not even know how much better it can be. Does someone care, or do we let them live under an illusion of how life is? Well, the kids know that they are poorer compared to people who appear in good clothes in the trekking seasons, their chants of “Khao den!” at the mere sight of a trekker was a proof of that. The walls of the primary school not only did not teach them Hindi or English, they also did not teach them the scale of their poverty. I was left wondering whether it was a limitation or a conscious ploy. They know how to laugh heartily, live in a village which is truly a big family, and are taught their lessons of life by grandmothers who value their duties to humanity and shy from accepting money in return. I was left wondering whether indeed our lives were any better than these kids’.