Last year we met a shepherd in Bedni, a Himalayan Alpine meadow at 11,000ft in Chamoli district. I was fascinated by how similar my husband and he looked as they stood chatting on a gentle mountain slope, their profiles silhouetted against the evening sky. We were more than 500km away from our home and the shepherd was in his home. We were jubilant and exhausted, we had just reached the highest point in our trek. For the shepherd, it was the end of yet another summer day. It was time to herd his sheep back into their pen.
There were snow-capped mountains in the far distance and sheep on the slope I was on. The light of the setting sun formed a golden rim on their back. The grass below their hooves was aglow. Instead of sinking calmly, the sun had set the horizon on fire.
As my attention returned to the conversation, we discovered that the shepherd had lived in our neighbourhood for three years.
“After school, I tried to get into the army, but I didn’t qualify in the entrance exams,” he said. “My father had been in the army. I went to Delhi to find work and lived in Greater Noida for three years. I worked for Moser Baer, LG, Honda. The money was decent but I saved nothing. I shared a room with other migrants like me.”
I imagined the room in one of the densely populated villages that have been surrounded by the acquisition and development of agricultural land around them. Our driver, Idris, lived in one of them and preferred to spend all his time in parks after work hours.
“I came back for the thandi hawa,” said the shepherd. “The cool breeze.”
My husband discussed the arithmetic of his business model with him. He said he saved about Rs.2-3 lakh a year. His living expenses in the mountains were minimal. If and when he decided to return closer to a city for his children’s education in a few years, he would have good money to invest in a livelihood there.
“How do you keep track of your sheep?” I asked him.
“I recognize them by face,” he said. “If one schoolchild goes missing, everyone will know which child is missing. Like that, I know my sheep. It is impossible to count them. I cannot make them stand in a queue.”
His analogy made perfect sense at the time. I wrote down notes in my phone later that night, but I forgot to write down his name.
I am revisiting memories of last year’s trek. I like to see what remains with us after so much else is lost through memory’s sieve.
Mules and dogs, butterflies and eagles had been comforting companions. The dogs particularly, as they raced ahead and then came back to the group, as if they were taking a headcount.
The tinkling of bells around the neck of the grazing animals. The smell of food and the sputter of fire. The security of potatoes and rice. A lake on the first day and a river at the end.
I remember the cold of the water when I first put my hand into a mountain stream. My legs were like lead, my back wasn’t speaking to me any more, but my hand in the stream was alive. I took a photo of it. My thin hand, a blue ring, the waves of light in the cold water. I can walk through forests and scale mountains again for that sensation.
I remember that my husband and I had private arguments over tea. After the tents had been set up and everyone had a place to rest, I was cranky that even though we had tea twice a day, the tea was no good. I’m not sure what he was angry about but he had no tolerance for my whining. I, on the other hand, felt so accomplished at the end of every day of scaling heights with my parents, my children, my niece and my sisters-in-law, that I felt it was almost cute that the tea was making me break down. I was ready to empathize with the man who was trekking with his parents-in-law, but he would not give me any leeway to complain about the tea.
Maybe it was altitude sickness. It was a mystery. One of those couple moments when you are doing so well overall and yet you can ruin the present by fighting over the quality of tea. Does it make sense?
I don’t know about sense, but it does happen a lot, I can hear you answer as you read this.
On our way down, we stopped at a two-storeyed home where there was a grocery shop in one room. Our children watched me create a pile of biscuits, chips, packaged juices and other assorted edible things.
“When we travel, you always buy us things you don’t allow at home,” my daughter said to me.
“That’s true,” I said, proud of myself. We both thought about what she had said. I didn’t have any words to explain myself.
“I found out what all I am still capable of,” my father said, sitting down to rest. “I had written myself off. But no, I have a lot left in me.” He had triumphed over his varicose veins.
My mother was chatting with an elderly woman who was sitting outside the home. The woman must have asked her where she was from. My usually reticent mum was telling her the story of her life, starting from a village near Lahore to every town and city she had lived in, first as part of a refugee family in north India and later as the wife of my father, an engineer in the steel industry.
A younger me would have been embarrassed. Now I listened to her looking back at her life from the distance of the mountains. Sharing her story with someone she had just met. Just like the shepherd, being away from home had brought her closer to one she really belonged to.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and mother of three. She tweets at @natashabadhwar and posts on Instagram as natashabadhwar.
Also Read: Natasha’s previous Lounge columns