In Pursuit of a Story, 10,000 Feet Above the Sea

With no reservations and no equipment, we embarked upon a Himalayan trek in Uttarakhand in search of a screenplay. What we found instead, was an ending.

To be swaddled in the arms of the Himalayas is an entirely singular experience. Language becomes superfluous. There is no talk, no thought, no nothing. Just pure being. It fosters moments of inner contemplation. These moments stretch into spells of soul searching, and time seems to lose all meaning. Look no further than the tale of the Hindu sage Adi Shankara, who spent five years meditating in a mountain cave up in the Himalayas.

It was with a similar, singular focus that our party of two embarked upon a Himalayan trek in Uttarakhand one October. We had just completed a screenplay on which we’d worked very hard for six months. But then we junked it because it’d just become a clever script that said nothing.

This would be the beginning of a new search. We had no reservations and no equipment. But we had help from a spaced-out guide, and that was good enough for us to set off on our journey.

By the time we had spent eight days up in the Himalayas, all thoughts of conversation fled my mind. All I focused on was shooting and documenting as much of the natural splendour around me as I could before my equipment failed me.

Photograph / Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri

Armed with just a faint outline, we headed for the mighty mountain, Nanda Devi, where we hoped to find our story. Granted, we had a threadbare premise in mind before the trek began, but the mountains, we found, hide a treasure trove of stories of their own. At over 9,000 feet above sea level, you can do more than just hear stories like the one about the Kalpvriksh, a 5,300-year-old wish-fulfilling tree under which Adi Shankara spent five years in meditation. You can do one better, and actually see and touch the tree, viscerally experiencing legends through your own senses as I did.

“What do I really, really want?” I asked myself when it was time for my turn at the tree. What I eventually prayed for is: “God, let everyone be happy and safe. And let us make a true and beautiful film that moves us, and everyone who sees it, a little closer to you.” This was also the first time that I realised what it actually was that I want from this quest. Not just a story inspired by true events, but truth itself.

The whole region simply throbs with stories. Nanda Devi is one of the most imposing peaks of that section of the Himalayan range, and her legend pervades the area. The myths say that Nanda Devi (she who gives bliss) was the daughter of a local king. An invading prince wanted her hand in marriage. Her father refused. A war ensued. Her father was killed, and Nanda Devi went into hiding in the mountain that bears her name.

She chose a good spot.

I also hiked up to Lata Kharak, a plateau nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, in the company of an Italian couple who barely spoke English. United by the mountain on whose back we were trekking, we didn’t need to speak much.

Photograph / Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri

But there are also the more ominous stories. Like the tale of the hundreds of ill-fated souls who became trapped in a hail storm at the Roopkund pass about 500 years ago and froze to death. In Bedni Bugyal, we learned that we were at the spot where some of the Vedas were believed to have been written, close to the lake where Ma Durga is said to have killed Mahishasura.

These are the stories that go down better with the conversational currency of the mountains: McDowell’s Rum and Absolut Vodka. This little factoid became vital to our search for a story at the feet of Nanda Devi. We spread the word each night around the camp. If anyone had a good story to tell, he or she was welcome to our hut, our fire, and our booze. One by one, people streamed in and shared their stories.

We heard them all, from the myths and legends of the mountains to the personal stories of their inhabitants. I heard a tale of survival from a porter who was hurled from a moving car down the mountainside, and I heard a tale of joy from a guide who had just been married. At the end of their stories, disparate though they were, both men thanked the goddess Nanda Devi for watching over them.

In fact, the mountains watch over us all. Each motley group of adventurers and roaming spirits that wander under their shadow are swallowed up by them. The people you will meet at the roof of the world come in all types. Apart from guides whose methods were like chalk and cheese and the women who ran the show in the villages, my trek led me to some memorable encounters. I happened upon MP Veerendra Kumar, a former Union Minister meditating in the same cave that Adi Shankara had used all those years ago. The minister was writing a book on the ancient philosopher and theologian. He was waiting in the cave to see who would come in immediately after him so he could give away the first copies for good luck. We were obviously, overjoyed at the serendipity.

The mountains watch over us all. Each motley group of adventurers and roaming spirits that wander under their shadow are swallowed up by them.

Photograph / Sanjay Ray Chaudhuri

I also hiked up to Lata Kharak, a plateau nearly 13,000 feet above sea level, in the company of an Italian couple who barely spoke English. United by the mountain on whose back we were trekking, we didn’t need to speak much. Silence was the language of choice amongst us.

By the time we had spent eight days up in the Himalayas, all thoughts of conversation fled my mind. All I focused on was shooting and documenting as much of the natural splendour around me as I could before my equipment failed me. At the near-zero temperatures you experience on the heights, electronic machinery can sometimes just freeze up. At this point, screenplay or not, we were unsure about whether we could even get a film crew up to this remote location!

Before we knew it, ten days had elapsed, and it was time to return to Delhi. On the way back, we stopped at a village called Mana. It is a magical place, tucked away on the Indo-Tibet border and the source of the once mighty river Saraswati. When I got there, the rainbow was trying to tell me something. 

I knew immediately what it was. 

The village of Mana became the place where I decided I would immerse my father’s ashes.

I came to the mountains in search of a story. What I found instead, was an ending.

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