The following book excerpt is from the book The Night Hikers: A True Story of Three Boys’ Adventure, Survival and Friendship written and e-published by the author. The book is availabe on Amazon.in both as Paperback and Kindle edition.
I was in a state between dead and alive. I lay down in the ditch by the side of the road and cool water flowed all over my body. A soft feeling spread from my skins all the way to the core of my heart. It caressed away my fatigue. It pacified my mind to a Zen-like state. I could finally give it a rest from constant thinking, planning and most of all worrying.
I raised my head to take a peek at the others. I saw Pondy lying down nearby. Machchhu was a bit farther away. We had no energy to talk. Tenzin and UD did not show any interest in getting in the water. They stood on the road and laughed at us. Tenzin kept making his typical silly jokes followed by hysterical guffaws. He never cared if anybody else found his jokes funny or not.
I was not in the mood of listening to his jokes. Instead I tried to remember what happened in the last two days. It all seemed like a bad dream.
A long time has passed since then. Seventeen years! In these seventeen years I have gone through the events of those two days many times in my mind. The memories are still there. When I try to recall them, they surface in my mind in a stream of fragmented pictures. Every time I go through them I alter them with my own imagination. Perhaps, by now, those memories have diverged far away from reality. I wonder how my two companions Machchhu and Pondy think about those same events. I have listened to them telling some parts of the story to other people. I cannot say that I was satisfied with the way they narrated the story. Although, the facts were the same, their perspectives and descriptions were different from mine. I guess this is normal. Anyhow, I will tell you my version of the story, the only version I am capable of telling because for me that is the reality, my reality.
When I got admitted to Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) to earn my bachelor’s degree, I had little idea about what was waiting for me there. Before arriving, I heard that the institute campus was surrounded by beautiful lakes and hills. There was a wildlife sanctuary close by. I also heard about the occasional visits of leopards and snakes to the campus. This was the first time I was going to live with a bunch of guys of my age without the constant surveillance of my parents. I was going to have the freedom to do whatever I wanted. I could hardly wait.
A long time has passed since then. Seventeen years! In these seventeen years I have gone through the events of those two days many times in my mind. The memories are still there. When I try to recall them, they surface in my mind in a stream of fragmented pictures.
The last two years of painstaking preparation for the entrance examination had burned me out. My craving for the unknown was channeled into the dreadful marshlands of integrals and differential equations. My power of imagination was used in visualizing intricate plays of electric and magnetic fields. My most adventurous days consisted of travelling in overcrowded buses to attend multiple private tuitions after the school hours. I was impatient to end my monotonous life in Kolkata and go somewhere faraway.
Both my parents accompanied me when I arrived at Mumbai. They helped me to settle down, made sure of everything and left after a couple of days. I bought a second-hand bicycle and started exploring the campus. My first glimpse of the Vihar Lake from the hilltop was an overwhelming experience. The calm water of the abysmal lake reflected the mystic clouds hanging over it. A tiny island nebulously floated in the distance as if calling me to reveal a profound secret hidden in its chest. The lake was surrounded by green hills from all sides. It was as if a band of trolls came wandering through the forest, found the lake, quenched their thirst and fell asleep with their colossal bodies covered under lush green blankets. A spell of perpetual slumber was cast on them.
It was not until my second year that I went on my first trek. The idea of going on a trek came quite randomly. I was walking back to my hostel after a disastrous exam on a hot Friday afternoon, happy to be done with it and looking forward to the weekend. Right after passing through the hostel gate, I met Jagdeep Deogade, a shy and amiable guy who lived in the same hostel. He was loitering around the entrance after eating his afternoon snacks.
“What’s up Jagdeep? You look bored,” I said.
My most adventurous days consisted of travelling in overcrowded buses to attend multiple private tuitions after the school hours. I was impatient to end my monotonous life in Kolkata and go somewhere faraway.
“Yeah buddy! All the local hostel residents are going home for the weekend. There is nothing much to do around here other than watching TV, reading books or playing computer games.”
“Right, let’s do something new dude.”
“Yeah, that would be good. But do you have any ideas?”
“Hmmm…Let’s go somewhere! Let’s go on a trek! What do you say?”
“Excellent idea! It will be fun if we can make a group and go together.”
“Yes! We can ask some people to join us.”
“But it is too hot these days. I am not sure if people would be so enthusiastic about it.”
“Let’s go in the night then. It will be more fun, we will have a great adventure!”
“Do you think we can convince people to go in the night?”
“Maybe, I don’t know. Let’s ask Machchhu if he wants to join us!”
I was sure if there was only one person who would be interested in such a whimsical, completely unplanned, last-moment idea, it was Machchhu. In fact, the stranger the idea was, the more irresistible it was for him. We used to call him the josh machine (the enthu machine) for his bottomless reserve of energy and impulsive activities. He delighted in the bizarre, adored the unpredictable and worshipped the impossible. Whenever somebody proposed a genuine and unconventional idea, it had an immense power over him. Like a malicious virus, it would creep up on his brain, take control over the gray matter, drive off any common sense and would not stop until it transformed into action, often resulting in disaster. Actually, he did not even need anybody to give him these ideas. He seemed to have access to these bizarre ideas from a hidden dimension where no commoner could barge in.
To give you an example, I can think of one afternoon. It was raining hard. Since I had no class at that time I stayed in the hostel. It got quite dark outside as if the evening arrived early that day. The gloomy sky and the monotonous noise of the raindrops made me feel lazy. After eating our daily allowance of afternoon snacks, a few of us were looking for a warm and cozy place to start playing some card games when Machchhu came running from somewhere and said excitedly, “It is raining like crazy! Let’s climb up the Mandir wala pahadi (the hill with the temple)! Who wants to come with me?”
Whenever somebody proposed a genuine and unconventional idea, it had an immense power over him. Like a malicious virus, it would creep up on his brain, take control over the gray matter, drive off any common sense and would not stop until it transformed into action, often resulting in disaster.
Everybody froze for a moment! The ones who did not know Machchhu very well struggled to trust their ears. Their faces clearly showed that they never heard anything more insane than that in their whole lives. The ones acquainted with Machchhu’s whimsical nature whispered among themselves, “this is another of his diabolic plans” and “pretty soon you will see him in a hospital or something.”
“Are you mad?” somebody yelled from the back.
A moment of silence followed and then everyone went back to minding their own business. Needless to say, Machchhu was habituated to such cold and apathetic responses. He did not lose hope and started pleading everybody. I felt sorry for him.
As a matter of fact I was attracted to Machchhu’s proposal. To tell you the truth, it was irresistible for me. All my life, I could not even accidentally get wet by a drizzle without terribly worrying my mother and there was this chance to voluntarily go out in a heavy rain and climb up a hill! How could I say no to that?
It turned out that it was just me who agreed to accompany him. I dressed quickly and took my umbrella.
“I have a good rain coat. Take my rain coat and I will take your umbrella,” Machchhu told me.
I took up his offer and pretty soon we were outside walking toward the hill. We reached the base of the hill and started climbing it without wasting any time. I do not clearly remember how we managed to climb up that hill against the strong and erratic wind and water gushing down the muddy trail. Both the rain coat and the umbrella turned out to be absolutely useless. But we did not care. Pretty soon we found ourselves at the top, completely bedraggled. The positive side of that was that it took away all the worries about getting wet and we were ready to experience the thrill. From the top, we speechlessly watched the whole sky lashing on the hills all around us. We caught a glimpse of the tumultuous beauty of nature, something we miss every time we comfortably sit on a sofa watching TV on a rainy day. I would never have done such a thing if it was not Machchhu who thought of it first.
So that was Machchhu.
All my life, I could not even accidentally get wet by a drizzle without terribly worrying my mother and there was this chance to voluntarily go out in a heavy rain and climb up a hill!
He took over the plan of the night trek like it was his own. Interestingly, we succeeded in finding four other people to join us on the trek.
We went to visit the fort of Rajamachi. Around midnight we arrived at the base of the hill and climbed up the gentle slope of the hill during the rest of the night taking short and long breaks in the middle. We made a bonfire, played music, danced around the fire and took naps on the way. In the early morning we arrived at the top of the hill where the fort was built. We checked out the fort and started our journey back. On the way back we got into a little bit of trouble. But that is another story. The story I am going to tell you happened soon afterward.
Since we had a lot of fun and adventure on our first trek, we decided to go again two weeks later. That was perhaps too soon for another trek but Machchhu and I were very eager for more.
But unlike the last trip, which went smoothly except the return journey, strange things started to happen to us that time. As we started to plan for the trek we felt as if a mysterious power was acting against it. We had little idea about what was waiting for us in that trip but from the beginning we got many signs that clearly told us not to go on this journey. I cannot think of another occasion when so many things went wrong one after another.
But these hindrances and misfortunes had the opposite effect on us. Instead of discouraging us, they boosted our energy and strengthened our determination. The more it seemed to be impossible, the harder we tried. We constantly changed our plans to adapt to the new and adverse situations that arose on our path.
We made it happen. It had to happen.
When we proposed the plan for the second trek, all seven people from the first trek showed interest. But we had a hunch that it was too good to be true.
In the afternoon of the planned day I met Machchhu just outside the gate of our hostel.
We had little idea about what was waiting for us in that trip but from the beginning we got many signs that clearly told us not to go on this journey. I cannot think of another occasion when so many things went wrong one after another.
“Machchhu, I tried to talk to Jagdeep and Ashok but I could not find them. I guess they are not coming. How about your roommate Tenzin? Is he coming? And how about UD? They are coming, right?” I asked him.
Machchhu was furious. “You can never trust these guys. They always promise to come and don’t say anything until the last moment when they come up with the lamest excuses in the world,” he blurted out in disgust.
“So they are not coming?”
“Tenzin says that he has a loose motion and UD is not coming because he will have to finish his assignment,” Machchhu said mockingly.
I got very disappointed hearing that. Since we felt that at least four or five people were needed for a trek in the night, canceling the trip seemed to be the only reasonable option under the circumstances. A day hike would be painful because of the heat and we wanted to have the fun and adventure of a night trek like the last one.
“How about Pondy? He seemed to be very enthusiastic last time I talked to him,” I asked Machchhu.
“He is up for it and he has been really looking forward to it.”
“Too bad that the other people dropped out.”
“Yes, too bad. I hate these damn traitors.”
We continued cursing the dropouts for a while. At the end, we realized that there was no use of getting mad at them. If they didn’t want to go, they didn’t want to go. There was nothing we could do about it. We could not force people to go on a hike, especially a night hike.
“You, me and Pondy,” Machchhu finally said. “Three of us can still go, what do you think? We don’t need these other people.”
I thought for a moment and said “Why not? It will be like the last time, if we have done it once, we can do it again.”
“And let’s not go to Bhimashankar. Let’s go to Harishchandragad, I heard that it is the most difficult trek around,” Machchhu was boiling with enthusiasm.
It sounded like a dangerous thing to do. I was a bit afraid of going to the most difficult trek, that also in the night. But then I thought we are probably not going to climb in the night but wait until daylight or something like that. As long as I had some company, I did not care much. So I agreed with him.
We ate our dinner, met up with Pondy and started.
As preparation for the trek, we carried a couple of flashlights, about three liters of water, a radio, a roll of toilet paper, some bread and butter, a pack of cigarettes and a lighter, a towel and a bed cover to sit on. We did not have the time to think about anything other than the basic necessities. We first went to the store just outside the campus gate to buy some batteries for the flashlights. One of us came up with the idea of buying some lemons as a refreshment and remedy against the heat. We also bought a packet of salt to go with it. Since we did not have a knife to cut the lemons, we bought a blade that is normally used for shaving or cutting papers.
Little did we know how each of these items would be useful later.
We got into a train at Kanjurmarg station to reach Kalyan. I looked outside the window. The daylight was fading rapidly. The cool evening wind felt good on my face. The memories of the last trip were flashing in my mind. I remembered there was a full moon in the sky, exactly two weeks ago. But that time there was no moon at all.
Another sign of an inauspicious journey? May be.