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Friday, August 29, 2014

Someone, Somewhere, Somehow Always....

My story is about that day in late 90s since when I met someone in remotest jungle.  
Late nineties were some interesting times. We had seen liberalization for half a decade. Sachin the wonder boy had added multimillion coffers to BCCI and himself.  IT industry was booming thanks to Y2k bugbear created by one of the masterminds in IT space. Things were promising. I had bagged the best paid job in IIT campus then.  With my first job in pocket felt like a king. I was a yuppie all set to conquer the world. I stayed at company provided quarters in city like Mumbai. I used to be chauffeured in a company provided car to commute from office to Home. My first pay cheque had created ripples in my house. My company sent me to Bangalore by newly launched Jet Air. I stayed at a five star hotel in Bangalore. Every weekend we partied in south Bombay on Friday night. And i use to visit my home in Pune on Saturday morning. I used to have another party on Saturday night in Pune and travel back to Mumbai Sunday evening.  Life was a big party. My whole family was excited and whole world seemed to be at feet.

But then this was not what i was happy with.  I wanted to gain experience for maximum an year and then move on to greener pastures either though GRE or GMAT. Who wants to remain just a techie in life?
 On a long weekend we decided to trek from Lonavala to Bhimashankar.
Somewhere in November few of my friends at a trekking group which i was a part of in Pune till twelfth, planned a trek on a long weekend. I had done many treks in Sahyadris and Himalayas with this group. So it was all set to meet at Lonavala station Friday Morning. They would be taking local train from Pune and i was to take a express train from Thane.
We met at Lonavala station. And three people ditched us at last moment. Actually six were confirmed including me.  But only Milind and Shailesh had turned up. The group size of six was good enough from safety, logistics point of view for an unknown trek. We felt, three of us was bit of a small group that too when we had no one who had done the same trek in past. But then we decided not to back out. Three again is a tricky number. Anyone less would have resulted in cancellation but three is a crowd as they say.  And anything negative was not a part of our thought process at that age and during those times we were in. So we decided to move on. All other logistics were planned. Each one was to get dry ration which we planned to cook, some light snacks, water etc. So the SAM group (based on our first names) started towards destination with very small information about route and lot of overconfidence
As we left the station we were approached by a small boy who was begging for money. He was so thin and his clothes were ragged.   He asks for 5 Rupees. I lecture him that he should stop begging and go to school and so on. He completely ignored me with a look which made me look stupid. He approached Shailesh and Milind who also drove him away. The look on his face really made me think if i was right in lecturing him. Did he gain some wisdom or lost Rs 5/- using which he could have bought at least some food which was still possible in late nineties? Today i don’t think Rs 5/- can buy you any food. And it was not like that i had put any great thought in my lecture as it was just out of my habit and an assumed high moral ground and saved Rs 5.
Trek went ahead with small ST Ride taking us to the base camp village.  As we got down from the bus, we were swarmed by small boys who wanted us to use their services as a route guide. There were few trekkers also in the same ST bus. They also faced same fate of being pestered by those boys.  One boy approached me and asked if we needed guide. Taking a guide was so out of fashion for ‘know it all’ people like us. But still Milind out of his habit to study every minute detail of information, asked him that what should we use guide and at what cost.  Not surprisingly Milind remained topper throughout his career. He then had a scholarship from a leading institute in US and was to fly there next semester. Shailesh worked for big automobile company in Pune.
“There are two possible routes. One route is easier where even bullock carts can ply. It is almost 7-8 km longer route. Other one is difficult and has a steep climb which turns into straight rock patch which needed to be treaded carefully. Also the road is very difficult to find” said the boy in local Marathi dialect hard to understand.
Milind asked how much will he charge
“Rs 300”
That amount was not large divided between three of us. But then out of habit we negotiated. Do we negotiate anything in super malls, branded shops where we know prices were high even for the quality of product? Do we ever bargain at multiplex while paying Rs 300 for an idiotic movie? But then these are soft targets.
“No we can consider if you take Rs 200/-“ i said
Boy simply refused. He said if he accepts that rate then all other guides will scold him for undercutting.
How can a village boy refuse us? India is poor country and even Rs 200 is big amount for these poor guys. We tried again but guys simply refused. We asked other boys as well. They seemed to be all acting in tandem. Few boys got customers. Others waited for the next ST bus arriving from Kamshet in next 10 mins. STs are somehow lifeline of remote villages in India. With all liberalization, privatization can any enterprise dare to start private buses in these areas. They will be in loss.  Thus the private players stick to the main routes. Debate on nationalization vs liberalization is eternal.  I have seen some private enterprise in northern hills but again they remain focused on cash rich routes.
But then it all rubbed on our egos and our over confidence to manage on our own finally sealed our decision to move ahead. We had saved another Rs 300/-. Milind had a friend who had done this trek so he had studied some details about the shorter route. But then his information was very sketchy. For eg. As you reach a small hamlet on main road, take a small walkway adjoining a rivulet as you reach the mountain, turn right to climb. Leave aside two sparrows (as we call the hillocks) continue walking and start climbing the waterfall.
We started by main route and we had few other trekking groups walking close by. All was fine. We reached the small hamlet in late afternoon after walking for almost for two-three hours. Weather was fine as winters were just about setting in after a good monsoon. But then even in late November sun beats you down in early and late afternoon.  We were bit tired. We decided to wait for snacks.. Other groups who were better guided somehow chose to go ahead using well established longer route guided by locals.  But we the conquerors of the world want to do things differently. And we don’t like crowds that too at such scenic location.
We had our snacks and left for the route by early evening.  Now we were guided by our own misinformation. We started traversing sparrow. While calculating three sparrows we also counted a small upward hillock popularly known as ‘Dumba’. Sparrows are triangular by definition while ‘dumba’s are like small thumb. So we made a mistake and turned left to climb along the dry waterfall as guided by our informants. The climb was treacherous. At a point we believed we were lost. But then coming back was so stupid. Instead we thought lets climb up and then find our way as we reach up.  The climb was most difficult climb we had ever done without mountaineering kit. And it was almost dark as we reached the top.
And we knew we were lost.  All possible avenues to reach main path were abandoned either in shrub or overlooking valley. So we were stop at top a mountain with only way ahead was to return back using the same path we climbed. But it was pitch dark by now so a climb down on that treacherous path was a bad idea. So what to do? We decided to camp on open. We found an open spot on the top.  We collected all dry wood sticks to light up camp fire for protection against animals and cold.  We searched for water but could not. We had only quarter of bottle left in someone’s bottle. So we decided to ration same. Cooking was ruled out as priority was drinking water. We had only last ¼ kg packet of salted bundi as snacks and some onions which we could roast on camp fire. We talked and talked.  We sang songs Marathi and hindi.  We ate that divine pack of namkeen. Ate roasted onions after some hard work to roast them. Finally drank quota of water and settled near the fire. It was 10 30 after all this. Night was dark and sky was starry away from city which was at least 30 km away. Could see some lights in the valley below giving us hope that there was civilization around and it was a just day break that we were waiting to reach those hamlets. We were tired so we decided to take our turns of sleeping while a single guy should keep watch. Mine was the easiest shift decided by toss. So i guarded first and rest slept. It was scary experience keeping watch in shrubs or from valley if any wild animal came. I started hearing strange noises of jungle or was that my own imagination. Those were the longest two hours of my life 11pm to 1 am. At 1 am i woke up studious Milind for his turn and went inside my sleeping bag. After some efforts of counting sheep, i dozed off. I woke up when suddenly Milind woke me up screaming at top of his voice. We saw something rushing into the bush? What was it? Was it a leopard or a hyena?  We were scared. I thanked Milind for being attentive and saving us all. Milind started screaming at Shailesh. In fact that was more a shout of anger of being cheated than real fear of unknown. Later i realized that Milind had kept his watch till 3 am and had woken up Shailesh. He then slept of. And it seemed Shailesh had dozed off while keeping watch. Even the fire was extinguished for lack of refuelling to be done. We three of us were soft targets for any worthy animal of any attack. But thanks to our lucky stars, Milind is a light sleeper and heard a grunt and swish of bushes and we were saved (?) from unknown by his scream. No one slept after that and we waited for the sunrise. We talked again. We had kept very small water for morning. As we saw lights of dawn on eastern skies, we really thanked nature to show life to all living beings with the most scared event called as sunrise. I bet it was the most beautiful sunrise i have ever seen in my life. Life teaches you everything. We the three conquerors were conquered by might of nature. And while taking journey back we learnt that there is victory in retreat as well.  But then we lost again. Our hopes to reach back were shattered as we realized that we could not find path back to water stream from where we had taken path up the hill. All our efforts were in vain as each time we ended up at cliff. And now we did not have water and food.
What will happen to my career, what will happen to my family, if we could not find road back. But then our hope was small hamlets we could see from top. But how to find path that would lead us to those human establishments?
Suddenly we heard a human cry to call cattle. We ran following the sound. We saw a small boy. It was first and only time in my life till now that i was so happy, relieved to see a poorly dressed stranger that too a small boy in his early teens. Life is a great leveller. He was surprised to see us there as maybe no one ventures there except the locals who mend cattle. We told him that we were lost. He gave us a look that is normally reserved for some villager by an upmarket city dweller.
He eagerly volunteered to take us to his hamlet from where we can walk to nearest ST pickup. He guided us through a very narrow road. We asked him what about his cattle, he said he will come again up and take them back. It was safe in daytime. He coolly told us about a stray leopard spotted in night which made us shivered remembering last night. He then offered us part of food he had paced with him. We declined either out of shame or out of concern for hygiene so typical for snobs like us. I am not sure.  His name he told was Kisan.
As we reached the hamlet, he invited us to his house. To our surprise we found that he was only able bodied person there. He managed a small rice farm, cows and sold some berries to the traders in village which was accessible by ST. He had seen school in that village but did not have time. But he had a friend there so whenever he went there tried to read or at least try to learn from him. His next project was to install pump in his rice farm. His hamlet was promised electricity by local administration. But he wanted to save money to buy one. In fact he had already located a second hand pump from village. That will save him some time using which he can study. By then his younger brother can help him with mending cattle. That will help both of them to study. He asked many things about cities, he had curiosity about how trains run, aeroplanes fly. He wanted to change village around him, bring school there. He wanted tar road, ST and school for his village. He said that he would not migrate to any city as many of his villagers did. He wanted to serve his village. He wanted to create a big farm where he could provide food to all. He wanted to create a rice mill so he could give jobs to all. He wanted to teach others so they could earn. He also had an entrepreneur mindset. He wanted to invest in   a second hand davy light that could help him guide trekkers who wanted night trek especially on full moon nights.  So he can earn more even during nights
Who taught him all this? That took me to next level of thoughts, if such kids be given proper training in real world what would they achieve.  He was a very likable guy. He offered us food again but insisted we had tea, so we could not refuse. We wanted to thank him. We offered him to pay money but he simply refused saying he had not done anything and as per his village oath he would nver refuse to help guests. We did not have even chocolate to thank him.   We bid him farewell and walked our way to reach ST point. We reached kamshet by ST from there to Pune and then to my job

And i compared myself. On the same day when someone like Kisan saved us,  we refused Rs 5 for empty moral rightness to a begger boy of same age, bargained for Rs 100 to poor local guide of same age.   We only cared about ourselves. If i were put in same situation of that boy, would i have helped strangers? Forget strangers, do we even help our friends, relatives in need? Would I have been that positive, generous helpful in such gloomy conditions where he lived? That day we saved Rs 305 but earned lessons for our lives from that good boy.
Next month we decided to meet and thank Kisan with some gifts, Davy light, books which he can refuse. In fact we had arranged for water pump as well from a dealer. We took the ST, walked that same road to that village. And to our surprise, no one in the village knew Kisan and his family. The house that he had taken us as his own was occupied by people who were different and they told us they were staying there for long time. Either we had gone to wrong hamlet or what had happened? We asked about possibility of another hamlet connecting the ST. We were sure it was that hamlet as we had walked that road. There was no other village could match proximity to that ST stop.
Who was Kisan? If he were not there we could have been eaten by leopards or had some mishap. We owed him something. Was he part of some other divine design? Oh that’s too self pompous. It just must have been our lucky stars resulted out of prayers and love of our families? I am clueless. Our trip was futile and some questions unanswered even after 20 years.
After that day for a year I remained confused with my career choices to go abroad or management? But when the opportunity came i decided to react like Kisan would have sticking to roots and picked up entrepreneurship as a path. I don’t know whether Kisan was real or fictitious, figment of tired imagination, answer of all prayers, or just coincidence. But then that ‘something’ unknown helped me come over fear of unknown and helped me venture beyond trodden paths. I then firmly believed that someone overlooked the situations always. I still believe....
 I am yet to realize if i am success or failure, but i am still there and have done something of matter which i owe to someone unknown. Always someone somewhere overlooks that things are taken care of at the end of the day.... Don’t you agree with me, each one of you will have such experiences?
(Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictional story about some inexplicable experience)
This story is in continuation with blog post on divinity published on occasion of Ganesh Chaturthi)
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