It sounded like the drone of an airplane overhead. Kiran pricked up her ears and sat up along with her sleeping bag. She looked at the huddled figure next to her in the cramped tent. He stirred, and peeped out with a question mark on his face. His head and neck were wrapped in a woolen cap and a muffler. He had ignored her advice that he does not need them inside the sleeping bag.
And then, they heard what sounded like gunshots – “khat-khat-khat” – followed by a rumbling of the earth underneath. She knew what it was and unzipped her sleeping bag in a hurried frenzy.
He heard and felt that too. “Oh my God! Is that an earthquake?”
“No, it sounds like an avalanche. Get up fast.”
There was an urgency in her voice and total panic engulfed him. He spluttered something loud but unclear and tried to stand up while still inside the sleeping bag. This resulted in a tumble that knocked off several things packed closely in the tent. She turned on the flashlight, unzipped the top of the front opening of the tent, and shouted for Raju, the cook-cum-guide who had accompanied them and was sleeping in the kitchen tent a few meters away.
She then fished out her pair of hiking shoes placed between the inner and outer layers of the tent and tried to put them on in a hurry. No sign of life stirred in the other tent while chaos reigned in theirs. Her ten-day-old husband Ramesh was trying to extricate himself from the sleeping bag, blabbering incoherently.
She felt that she hardly knew him. She had given in to the community norms and had agreed to the arranged marriage. She married a stranger and now had a whole lifetime to get to know him.
Kiran stepped out of the tent and surveyed the immediate surroundings, relieved that she was standing on the firm ground covered with a few inches of snow. She looked up at the dark sky with thousands of twinkling stars. She thanked God that they were not buried under the avalanche, which must have occurred somewhere close by, considering the intensity of the sounds that she had heard.
She ran towards the other tent, calling out frantically to Raju and trying to rouse him from his deep sleep. By now, she could hear cries of human voices from the small hamlet in the valley, which was hidden from view from the camping place where they had pitched their tents. They were at quite an elevation and anxiety gripped her at the thought of more avalanches triggered by the first one.
Raju, the young adolescent, stepped out of his tent half-awake, rubbing his eyes. Being a hill person, he understood the situation immediately but was of little help as he ran around in circles shouting in his native dialect. All his tall claims of knowing the mountains like the back of his hand evaporated in the face of actual danger. Kiran knew then that she was on her own.
She ventured out a few steps from the camping place.
“What are you doing? Don’t go anywhere. Stay inside the tent.”
The desperate cries of her husband irked her. He had zipped up the tent and left a small opening through which he stuck his head out to survey the outside scene. He was a different man last evening when, stretching out his hands in the style of Shahrukh Khan, his favourite Hindi film actor, he had declared, “we have the entire place to ourselves.”
While hiking up the steep, snow-covered trail off Narkhanda yesterday and during their evening stroll around the camping area, she noticed that they were the only hikers and campers that day.
Once the stiff climb was over, the tents pitched and he had had two cups of hot tea, Ramesh’s groanings and grumblings stopped and he was bubbling with a sense of exhilaration. He was happy that they were far away from the crowds of Shimla and happier that their mobile phones received no signals at that place. But she knew what it meant to be alone at high altitudes in the Himalayan wilderness if the weather turned bad or something untoward happened.
Putting aside her misgivings, she said “Yes, isn’t it fun?” After all, it was her idea to include a little bit of hiking and camping in their honeymoon to Shimla.
She surmised that in all probability, they would have been cut off from the nearest hamlet in the valley below, which they have to cross to reach Narkhanda on foot and from there, by road to Shimla. It was three in the morning and they will have to wait for daybreak, a good three hours away, before any help could reach them or for them to start finding their way down.
After instructing Raju to search for spots nearby where mobile signals could be received and to establish contact with the village below, she returned to the tent. She found Ramesh cowering in one corner, his face ashen and eyes wide with utter fear. On seeing her, he let out a volley of complaints in a loud and trembling voice. For a moment, she could not make out what the dominant emotion was – anger or fear.
She heard a lot of “I told you”, “you don’t listen”, peppered with “you think you are a hero”. She controlled the rising irritation and tried to tell him that they were on firm ground, deliberately omitting the “as of now”, and that they will be able to get out of this place. She did not tell him about the possibility that the firm ground under their feet could be a part of another avalanche and slide down taking them along.
He was not listening. Engulfed by his fear, he whimpered “I should not have listened to you. I just want to get out of here and I will never come to the Himalayas again”.
Something moved within her and the initial anger at his outburst gave way to empathy and concern. Crouching next to him, she held him and pacified the frightened child in him.
As she continued to soothe him with reassuring words, she realized that hiking in the Himalayas was not for everybody. He would have been content to remain in Shimla, take a stroll on the ridge, drink hot chocolate at one of the eating joints along the mall and watch the snowfall from the comforts of their room in the high-end hotel that they had booked. They could have taken a day trip to Kufri on a bright sunny day, with blue skies overhead and soft piled-up snow on the ground. He could have been drunk with joy, making a snowman or throwing snowballs at her. He could have had the perfect honeymoon that he had yearned for.
She had nothing against these pleasures, the tourist trappings. But her passion lay in hiking on off-beat Himalayan trails. She loved breathing in the fresh air, listening to the sounds of the forests, and camping under the open sky. She was a fiery girl, different from other girls in her hometown in Gujarat. During the four years in an Engineering college in Chandigarh, close to the Himalayan foothills, she had picked up several interests, a passion for hiking in the Himalayas being the foremost, followed by a weakness for Punjabi cuisine. Ramesh liked nothing other than Gujarati food. Yet another one, among the many differences between them, she had noted.
He, who had lived all his life in the plains of Gujarat, with occasional holidays in nearby hill stations like Matheran in the Western Ghats and Mount Abu in the Aravallis, was wide-eyed when she talked about hiking in the Himalayas. He had eagerly acquiesced to include the hiking and camping in their honeymoon trip to Shimla with not much insight and no experience whatsoever.
As Kiran spoke to him softly, his trembling stopped gradually. He was quiet now and laid his head on her lap, his body curled up in the foetus position. She called out to Raju.
The youngster, after his initial reaction of panic, had picked up courage and ventured a distance on the downhill trail. His mobile phone could catch a signal at some point and he brought back news about the avalanche and that a large section of the trail was washed away. The two of them exchanged views about its location and how they should navigate their way after daybreak.
They decided that they would leave at the crack of dawn with only the essential belongings and some biscuits, nuts, and water for sustenance till they reach the hamlet. She felt responsible for both of them and hoped that her experience and skill in manoeuvring tough terrains would see them through. She asked Raju to prepare tea.
She bent down and murmured in her husband’s ears that they should be back in their luxurious hotel room in Shimla by lunchtime. With a protective arm around the huddled figure and waiting for the hot tea, she felt something like love for this stranger with whom she had agreed to share her life.
PS: I submitted this story for Reedsy’s prompt contest #143 on the theme “Beautiful world, there you are”. It was approved and published on their blog at blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts. I did not win the contest though.