What Do You Think About When You’re Dying at 5000 m? FabIndia Kurtas

Outdoors

What Do You Think About When You’re Dying at 5000 m? FabIndia Kurtas

Illustration: Akshita Monga

H

ow do your triumphal survivor-type stories end? Do you stagger toward the sunset, exhausted but exultant? Fall to your knees, kiss the ground, tears streaming down your cheeks?

Mine began at the end of a solo four-day trek in Ladakh’s Hemis National Park, marked by fever and classic AMS-related confusion. At the top of Ganda La (4,980m), in the middle of a hailstorm and a fit of breathlessness, I’d unsuccessfully tried to phone my mother – only to be reminded by my guide Dechen that we hadn’t seen a single bar of network in three days. Still, I’d passed through the gorgeous Shingo Valley, which had made the trying four days before it seem almost worth it.

Shingo Valley

So we trek another three hours – dirty, crotchety, and completely immune to the song of the Zanskar River flowing alongside.

Image Credits: Karanjeet Kaur

The trek ends at Chilling, one of the three entry points into the high-altitude national park, from where you collapse into a car and head back to a loud but uncomplicated death-by-eyeroll among fellow North Indian tourists in Leh. Except, there’s no warm embrace of a rattling chassis and Ladakhi muzak at Chilling because, “Madam thoda aage road mein blasting hua hai.” As I’ve learnt in my limited time in Ladakh, “thoda aage” could mean five minutes down the road or two hours, who knows, because if I wanted answers, I should’ve headed to Thiksey Monastery.

So we trek another three hours – dirty, crotchety, and completely immune to the song of the Zanskar River flowing alongside. When I feel a full-blown tantrum coming, we hitch the longest 15-minute ride in the back of a passing truck bearing construction material, which makes me wish I were back at Ganda La because that was safer.

The “blasting” sites – not one, but three – turn out to be giant JCB earthmovers carving up the side of a mountain, leaving a gap in the road as wide as this country’s income disparity. On the other side of the mountain, I think I can see a few die-cast Dinkies, one of which could be our taxi back to Leh. I ask one of the supervisors how long it will be before the road is cleared up enough to get to the other side, hoping it’s going to be fewer than a couple of hours. “Ek-do din mein khul jayega, madam,” he informs me reassuringly.

ladakh 2

As urban millennials, we travel to get away from our cloistered lives measured out in wine glasses and glass towers, somehow convinced that “real” life is out there.

Image Credits: Karanjeet Kaur

There is no way in hell I’m trekking five hours back to the last homestay. And despite all my foreboding, there is no other way out but through this mountain of freshly moved earth.

So I climb this 30-foot mound of cold debris, to loud cheers and encouragement from Dechen, the foreman, and a handful of migrant Bihari workers, even though the supervisor looks a bit doubtful. After four days of practice, the ascent is easy. I’m used to the four types of Ladakhi terrain now – dust and sand (plain), dust and sand mixed with stone, stone (plain), and stone mixed with gravel.

Now that I’m staring at certain death, I ask myself, would I have done things differently? Or rather, assuming on the off chance that I can pass this muddy Rubicon, will my life make a complete volte-face?

It’s the descents that always get me.

At the top of this shaky mountain, I have an anaphylactic reaction – to sudden death. Oops, haha, sorry guys, bit off a little more than I could chew, can’t finish this, I’m out, you guys carry on, I’ll stay right here. My audience is dejected but not the least bit surprised. They exhort me with encouraging chants of, “Ho jayega!”, “Dheere dheere se aa jaiye,” and “Madam JCB waapis shuru karna hai.”

I am completely out of options, so I start my shaky descent, beginning by completely ignoring the shouted advice of my expert audience – as I have all these years – to correct my posture and not lean backwards. Obviously, I slip on my shape-shifting, protean turf and within five seconds, am buried waist-deep in the malba.

This is it, I tell myself for the second time in as many days. This is how it ends, not with a whimper, but a loud bang. This is how I’ll go out, amid the oversold beauty of this high-altitude desert, as a slight disappointment to my mother and no book contract, leaving behind a flimsy legacy of FabIndia kurtas and Nicobar dresses. That I’ll have no chance to tell my beloved friends that, after five days of using Ladakhi composting toilets, I believe horse manure has a top note of sweetness. If I don’t die under the weight of this excavated Earth and my thoughts, I have the picturesque option of the 60-foot drop into the Zanskar below.

Now that I’m staring at certain death, I ask myself, would I have done things differently? Or rather, assuming on the off chance that I can pass this muddy Rubicon, will my life make a complete volte-face? Will I tell my mother I love her more often? Will I order dessert without the side of guilt, live more mindfully, use less plastic and segregate my garbage, go back and read all the books and watch all the films I’ve pretended to, learn a musical instrument, finally apply for another masters, and vend fortune-cookie wisdom to everyone who cares to listen? Will I tell all my ex-boyfriends what I really – really – think of them, including the one whose thoughts I came to bury here in the first place and who will now be directly responsible for my untimely exit? Most importantly, could I get an entire book contract out of this?

How do I have the time to think all of this stuck in this loose quicksand? Because all of these thoughts are collapsing one on top of the other, just like my stony grave, and I’m channeling all the energy I’m saving by not screaming.

Somehow, through sheer force of will and loud complaints from the men whose work I have stalled, I claw and plough myself out. With a mistimed mental joke about Easter, I emerge from the wreckage – miraculously, aside from a severely dented image and overworked adrenal glands, I don’t even have a scratch. My audience, bored by the undramatic, crowd-pleasing result, has already returned to work. But I’m welcomed enthusiastically by my guide, who asks me, “Darr gaya kya?”, to which I, rendered voiceless by fear, manage a half-convincing sneer.

As urban millennials, we travel to get away from our cloistered lives measured out in wine glasses and glass towers, somehow convinced that “real” life is out there. We’ve been raised on fodder that through this search for the authentic, we’ll discover something good and true about ourselves. We’ll get over mental roadblocks, realise what our physical bodies are and aren’t capable of, turn down our hubris, and life will turn a corner. That these magical, life-affirming or life-altering journeys, are modern-day revelations – and that revelations always occur in some far-off Away. Some of it might even be true; some of us will persuade ourselves into believing these fictions.

ladakh

We’ve been raised on fodder that through this search for the authentic, we’ll discover something good and true about ourselves.

Image Credits: Karanjeet Kaur

Except, when real life gets a little too real. When real life is not just a picturesque mountain pass atop which you take a jubilant selfie, but a capricious mound of debris that a migrant labourer, several thousand kilometres from home, deals in every day. You will fly back to the comfort of your inauthentic life in a couple of days – the migrant worker will hang around. Because honestly, it’s never as much fun when real life is other people’s lives.

I walk away from the mound and the encounter I’d describe as “too real, too real” in a couple of hours to my friends. Thankfully, one of the Dinkies I’d spotted from the other side did include our taxi and the driver who’d had the good sense to wait for us despite all the delays. After the rush of thick drama and the flush of embarrassment, the drive back to Leh is more or less sombre.

I’d love to tell you that this story ends on an uplifting, cinematic note. That I caught sight of a bird fly into the horizon and it reaffirmed my faith in life. That I watched the angle of the fading light change, laughed a delirious laugh and then instantly choked back my tears, grateful for the miracle of being alive before the credits begin to roll.

Instead, in the spirit of new-found gratitude, we picked up three women on the way, one of whom was pregnant. She threw up in the car. The rest of the drive was spent in the alternating fragrances of my dust-covered clothes, vomit, and the reek of a dissatisfying kicker to a story.

I’ve had my fill of real-ness for a while now. As for the book contract, I’m still waiting.

Comments