The limits of human endurance are not defined by the body alone and it is the power of our minds that determine how far we can go. The body is often weak and needs training and dedicated effort, to realize its own strength. Many years ago I remember a time when my cousin and I were stuck at a monsoon landslide in the local bus; on the way to Dalhousie and asked the local Himachali paharia (The state of Himachal Pradesh’s mountain man), how far was it to walk. He said that it was not too far and said as there was no idea how long the road repair would take, he planned to walk up the mountain paths to his village that was close to Dalhousie. Having found a guide we also decided to lumber our luggage on to our shoulders and trek up the mountain paths following him to our summer home.
It was still late morning when we started following the long strides of the paharia and the views were beautiful, as we climbed one hill then descended into a valley and then climbed up the next hill and the grade would get steeper progressively, and we kept on going. After four hours of walking my legs were getting sore and there was no sight of Dalhousie on the horizon. The Afternoon passed into evening and we passed many beautiful villages where only the stray dogs barked at our approach, and the life had probably not changed here for millenniums. The people were friendly and smiled and often exchanged news with our guide, as we continued our climb up the mountains. We passed beautiful streams and fields carved out of the hillsides and saw cows and sheep grazing on the meadows, attended by young boys and women working in the fields in their colorful costumes. The men walked upright in their white clothes often carrying heavy bundles with an easy gate; that just ate up the miles of the paths that we climbed on, as they passed us cheerfully, as I was clearly struggling to keep up.
Evening turned to dusk and we approached the village of the man who was our guide. When we asked him how far it was to Dalhousie he pointed optimistically up the hill, and said you are not too far now and it is just over the next hill above. I told my cousin that we are better off just spending the night at this village; as I was exhausted and my legs had turned to lead, and would not move another step. The Pahari just laughed and said that I was just fine and would make it easily, as we had done most of the long walk already. At the urging of my cousin we trudged on and dusk soon turned to night and still the elusive lights of Dalhousie did not appear above up on the hill top. We went down another short valley and climbed into a pine forest which was a welcome sign, as I knew that Dalhousie was above the line of the pine trees. Each step by now had become something my body would not take; and my poor feet protested in pain, as we passed another village and I was ready to crawl into a hut and sleep.
The smell of the pine and the feel of the needles on the path kept me going, as my cousin refused to yield and insisted we continue on our quest to get home. The light packing by now seemed like a heavy boulder across my back and any light we saw, gave hope that civilization was just around the next corner. In the night a man came down the path and gave us the good news that Sadar Bazaar, was just past the next hill. This was the lower market of the town and it cheered me up; and my strides became longer and the struggle a little easier, as we crested another hill and saw the lights of the Bazar on the top of the next hill. It was a welcome sight and now I was determined that we should sleep there once we got to the bazaar, as I knew that our house in Middle Bakrota hill was still a few miles away and another long climb.
We found one straggling shop still open and ate quickly and I was happy to sit on the hard wooden bench and consume whatever the man served us in his little shop, on the wooden table made of planks. The food tasted so fresh and tasty and even the cool spring water was a welcome relief. This I reflected was the perfect place; and dreamed the welcome thought of clearing the table and just curling up and passing into a deep sleep, soon as the meal was over. The food obviously revived my cousin more than me and he paid the cook and owner and shouldered up his pack and dragged me off to start the final ascent despite all my protests, complaining that I couldn’t possibly walk another step after the arduous and harrowing experience that we had just gone through. Mercilessly he just headed on up the bazar’s winding lanes and I had little choice but to follow.
We passed Charing Cross and the convent after climbing out of the bowls of the bazaar and then took the relatively flat but ill lit road on the warm side of the next hill and our strides were longer on the asphalt, as we were back in our elements. Being in more familiar territory gave me barely enough strength to keep moving; and we reached the post office and Gandhi Chownk and the library, where I had read To kill a mocking bird just two years ago. We took the road up to middle Bakrotta and the last couple of miles; as we knew this area by heart and each turn of the road and each house on this hill, had a history and familiarity that only the old Punjab town dwellers knew. We are the children of this town and now the weight of the journey was not heavy, as we are headed home again. Eventually we crossed Feroze Villa and then Chimney’s old house and there finally after countless hours; below us was the twinkling light of the upper left flat, of Ganga and Tej Niwas.
We climbed down the pathway to the house and there we were welcomed by the eldest Khanna clan member as he sternly asked “Where have you two boys been and why are you turning up so late in the night? The bus arrived at the Agency hours ago and Chattru the caretaker came back saying you were not on the bus? These kind of shenanigans may be allowed by your loving parents but I will not tolerate such lose behavior in our house.” He then proceeded to graciously offer us another meal which we gladly consumed; as he roused Chattru from his quarters below, to come and make our beds. We slunk off to our rooms after the delicious meal and heard him muttering to himself about spoiled brats; who have no sense of hard work, or how life must be lived. Weaklings, who have no moral fiber left in their bodies, and are spoiled to no end by their doting parents. In his times things were different and men were men and acted responsibly and did not go wandering aimlessly in hill sides in the middle of the night. He would have to talk to his sisters as these spoiled soft boys, would not come to any good end, at the rate they were going.
We crossed over to our flat across the connecting walkway in the other building; glad to get away from our uncle and just the fear of his authority, as the head of our clan. Chattru had found and unrolled the bed rolls left by my mother and made our beds on the cots and the white sheets and the woolen comforter was a welcome sight. I took off my shoes and felt the blisters that did not look all that pretty in the low voltage hilly light. Changing into cleaner clothes I washed my face in the cold mountain water and brushed. My cousin talked about heading to Khajjiar which was only a 20 mile or more hike to get away tomorrow, and I snorted in disdain at the suggestion. I climbed into bed just glad that I was alive and had made it home; and pushed the thoughts of the next hike just over the next hill into the future, and passed into a blissful and deep sleep.