A Fiction


IN THOSE DAYS FOR A BRITISHER to fall in love with India was to disgrace oneself. This my father did in full measure by marrying a hill woman. When I compared my mother's glowing complexion with the pasty-faced memsahibs of the nearest station I realised that I was going to be another disgrace to the Raj. After he quit the service we settled in our village Retola which lay fifty miles of winding bridle-path away to the north of Nainital on the ridge which divides the Kosi from the Sarayu waters. As a child I learned this fact and a thousand others like it from my father who knew the land and loved it almost to the point of worship.

Possibly this intense feeling for the hills accounted for the close relationship with his servant Kulomani, who was known affectionately as the scarecrow. He was a local man, a brahmin of sorts although he dealt in goats. He had worked in my father's office and very remarkably had quit when my father did, sacrificing his pension to stay with Phul Sahib. (My father's name was Poole.) He continued wearing his tattered peon's uniform and wore a skull cap that appeared as ancient as his brahmanical lineage. Each monsoon Kulomani changed his sacred thread though each morning he would renew the red tilak on his forehead when the grains of rice applied. He neither feared nor loved the gods but accepted their existence and understood that they had to be humoured — like Phul Sahib.

He always accompanied my father on his botanical expeditions into the interior though he thought the pressing of flowers into folios a tamasha and usually spat to emphasise his distaste of Phul Sahib's habits. Even so, to have such big books in your home was the sign of being a real pundit and my father's dedication to his hobbies allowed him complete indifference to what he wore or ate. Was it a sense of probing the mystery of life that united the affections of these two dissimilar men? The silent sahib who walked urgently throughout this dev-bhumi measuring and note-taking and the mocking brahmin who preferred to sit on his haunches and repeat the wisdom of the puranas between the contented gurgle of his books. Both asked the whys that face all of us. But these two, unlike most men, were prepared to put themselves to discomfort to try and find the answers.


* Popularly known a Bill Aitken


Sometimes after a forty mile trek my father's feet inside three pairs of socks would be badly blistered while Kulomani's bare feet would be untouched. He would sink to his typical crouch over the fire grumbling that the Sahib was truly possessed. Why deliberately climb an untrodden peak and invite the disturbed god to follow you home with ill-feeling? Then the tanned face would crease into delight as his favourite son drew near. He had three small sons from a second wife and doted on them. The boys looked after the goats and were scolded if an animal strayed. But it was clear from the tone used that Kulomjani was more concerned about his son's welfare than about his goats. When leopards were near you could sense he was straining to pick up the sounds of the jungle. When the flute surged out of the distance you could see the old man visibly relax and start rocking on his haunches. He would pull out a half-smoked bidi from one pocket of his flapping shirt and a matchbox from another. Before lighting up he would rattle the box close to his ear as though to count how many matches were left, then grin if someone noticed this favourite habit of his.

My mother was the typical fair, strong, hard-working hill woman with a mind of her own. In spite of the obvious unsuitability of the match, my father had been won over by her beauty and proposed marriage. She, having too much character to risk a loose relationship, agreed immediately although it meant she was made outcaste from her people. The marriage to the dismay of both British and hill society proved extremely happy. Though our village was exactly as its name suggests, a sandy ridge, we were comparatively comfortable. My mother ran the farm with her own capable hands (and voice) while my father compiled his life's work on the local geology. The two sons were sent to school in England but I returned as soon as I could. Even the highest mountain in Britain was lower than our village and like a Tibetan mastiff I never felt very comfortable below five thousand feet.

I had inherited my father's love of the Himalaya although I could not accompany him on his expeditions. He was so absorbed in his notes and treks that we saw little of him. Just before I left school he renounced the householder's life and became a sanyasi. He moved to a tiny white temple at Butkot, a sheer, cypress-clad hill above our village, leaving his book unfinished. Though he would visit the house on occasion he would never enter. Much later I learnt from my mother that he had left everything on the prompting of a dream. He had seen a Tibetan Buddha urging him that time was short and that he must try and discover the Guptanand pass into Tibet. This refers to a semi- mythical way into the valley beyond the high peaks, and was believed in by all the villagers though they considered it an inauspicious topic of conversation. My, father was convinced he had evidence of the whereabouts of this pass and throughout his life the subject intrigued him.

My mother accepted her lot and being both cheerful and busy never criticised her husband. Of course, she scolded him for his eccentricities. If he wanted to do nothing why couldn't he sit and loaf with the other men in the teashop instead of risking his neck climbing about the countryside and making the family liable to visitations in return by disturbed demons. We all knew that at heart she still loved him. Had he not chosen her to have his sons by, out of a whole district of fair women? Also before taking the robes he had provided for the family. And what is more precious than owning the land you have cultivated by your own effort?

She was close enough to her man to comprehend his end. One autumn day as she cut the millet harvest she suddenly felt a murderous rage and began racing across the field to the bridle path, Coming up it at an eager trot was a cousin-brother who hadn't called on her for over twenty years. Even as he gasped the news that Phul Sahib was dead, he turned and had to flee for his life as my mother chased him with her sickle. He had climbed the five miles from his farm on the river hoping to relieve the widow of her land. The next day Kulomani arrived.

There is one more character for me to introduce before I tell of my own strange journey to locate the hidden Pass that had occupied my father's last hours in his beloved mountains. Bahaduria was a genial Dhotial who helped around the village whenever there was really heavy work to be done. Even when back-packing enormous loads he would manage to grin. Dressed only in sacking and a rope girdle he looked superbly muscular. The villagers considered him simple and laughed at his strength which they could never acquire. He had accompanied my father and Kulomani as porter on several expeditions and always proved loyal. He was to become my companion on treks because Kulomani never stirred from the village after the accident at the Pass. His loyalty was cemented when one day I told his taunters at the teashop that one mule was worth more than a pack of foxes. Bahaduria from being a casual worker became a family figure and lived in a shack leaning against the side of our house. In winter he would bed down with the animals cosy amongst the pine-needles while I slept in my father's glazed verandah above, shivering in spite of the pile of sheepskin covers.

Looking down the fixed rope on Sepu Kangri.

Article 15 (Carlos Buhler)
45. Looking down the fixed rope on Sepu Kangri.

Sepu Kangri summit from Camp 3.

Article 15 (Carlos Buhler)
46. Sepu Kangri summit from Camp 3.

View above the icefall of Thong Wok glacier.

Article 15 (Carlos Buhler)
47. View above the icefall of Thong Wok glacier.

Somehow it has been my luck in relationships to be thrown with people whose understanding of my deepest feelings and motives came readily. Both Kulomani and Bahaduria shared with me a subtle sensation that I can only translate by 'destiny'.

It was on a winter's night that I felt the urge to find that pass. I was sitting hunched up in the little temple my father had made his own, watching the oak-logs burn brightly. Bahaduria was sleeping on a plank opposite me. We had gone out for the day looking for herbs and were benighted on Butkot. Rather than trudge down through the snow to our suppers we had chosen to spend the night here watching the fire. Bahaduria had sounded the temple bells vigorously so that my mother would have concluded it could only have been that 'son-of-an- owl' or his ghost, up there on Butkot.

The scent of the damp cypress and the folds of snow falling away into the night seemed to take away my breath lest my presence shatter the stillness of a spell. As I nearly choked to hold my breath, suddenly the moon leapt up over the peaks of Nepal. A shaft of silver seemed to bore through the Nanda Devi massif aimed straight at this tiny mandir. Excitedly I knew several conflicting certainties all at once. That I had to go where the beam pierced the mountain; that I had to take whoever insisted on coming with me; that it was a dangerous undertaking and would be opposed; and that I would find the Pass - but not as yet...

Bahaduria had got up on hearing my strangled breath. He saw the eager look in my eyes and turned towards the moonrise. Then he lay down again and said mil jayega (will find it) and slept.

I planned to set off with Bahaduria the following hot season. The journey need only take us three weeks and we would be back to help thresh the wheat. Imagine my exasperation when old Kulomani insisted on going with us: Everyone told him he wasn't up to it and that if he wanted to die he should go to Haridwar. There was a certain dignity in Kulomani's obstinacy which impressed me. It obviously meant a lot to him. I argued to myself that the time we lost in walking at his pace would be made up for by his knowledge of the route. Since he was prepared to carry his own rations we had to agree. Even my mother took the old man's side and began to fuss over him as though he was her son. Normally Kulomani would never eat at the hands of a woman and on matters of caste, between him and my mother there was a lifelong truce. He knew if he called her anything but Devi his dealings in goats would be elaborated upon. She in turn was sensible enough to call him Punditji in public. To our astonishment Kulomani began to eat from our kitchen. He made it clear that it was Phul Sahib's roti and not Devi's dal-bhat he was eating!

It was in this mellowing mood that Kulomani first broached the subject of my father's death. All we knew upto now was that my father's body had never been found. He swore that my father had found the Pass. The two of them had been resting on a black mountain just below the snowline, my father convinced that he was near his goal. Higher up there did appear what might be a path over the ridge but from their camp the way seemed hopelessly sheer. Kulomani was reminding Sahib that the Pass was used by the gods and therefore could only be found by using the third eye. He grumbled that only an Angrez could be so foolish as to believe he had actually seen the Pass of Hidden Bliss. As he drew hard on his pipe he spat to show the finality of his opinion, Phul Sahib jumped up and was listening to the faint jingling of bells, with a rapt expression. Kulomani wondered why pack animals should be driven up this track that petered out at their camp. Suddenly a burly Tibetan appeared driving an unladen yak and both climbing at a great pace. The Tibetan's face was gleaming with sweat and as they swirled past he grinned and pointed upwards saying Jaldi, Jaldi. Kulomani had no high opinion of such energy and took another draw on his pipe. My father fairly leapt to join the smiling. Tibetan whose clothes suggested he was from a monastery. To Kulomani's surprise the party seemed to disappear down and behind a ledge that he had not previously noticed. Then he heard the bells climbing higher and fainter. In a panic he realised what was happening and began to follow. A storm had come up out of nowhere as they do at eighteen thousand feet and the old man had to cling to the rock to save himself from the clutching wind. He could climb no further when he glimpsed something shining yellow where my father had pointed out the Pass to be. He felt relieved to know that the Tibetan had climbed up safely and waited until the storm had passed before seeking to join them. But there was no way up that he could find. Weeping at his loss he returned after three hours to the camp. There, spread out on the rock against which Kulomani had been resting, was my father's mala (necklace). He had been wearing it all the time, so who had put it there. And it had clearly been arranged by some hand, for a mala will not fall open on a rock. For the first time Kulomani began to feel that things were not so bad for his Sahib. Someone was looking after him and had shown by returning the mala that Kulomani's services had been fulfilled.

We were all full of questions but Kulomani would offer no further information. Only the cryptic: 'His time had come'.

According to plan we set off in mid-May to allow the snow time to melt on the passes. Kulomani predicted an early monsoon so we were apprehensive about reaching the higher ranges before the rains. We stole off at three in the morning. We had made our farewells the previous evening. Kulomani had embraced his sons and the youngest had made us all laugh by asking if his father had remembered to fill his famous matchbox. The old man solemnly took it out and rattled it against his ear. His needs were so few, only a few cloth bags containing rice, lentils, flour, salt and chillies, that Bahaduria cheerfully added these to his own load. Instead of the customary remains of pyjamas that the old man wore, he opted for the dhoti. The significance of this was not lost on my mother. She promised to look after Kulomani's family, and said that Phul Sahib had wanted this. The next morning she found her husband's mala placed carefully on her small puja table.

The journey turned out to be much more difficult that we had imagined. Each evening we suffered the misery of thunder-storms, which convinced Bahaduria that the gods were obstructing us. All the short-cuts remembered by Kulomani turned out to be traps: often we found that a landslide had swept away the path and we had to extricate ourselves from dangerous places. Only Kulomani was undisturbed by these omens of everything going wrong. When Bahaduria slipped on a wet rock, fell and severed the rope containing the old man's supplies which crashed into a gorge beyond retrieve, Kulomani shrugged it off as a sign from the gods that we should worry less about food. He was the only one who never wanted to go back and it was his composure that encouraged us to face the next crisis. Worst of all was the early rain which clamped blindfolds on our directions. Kulomani never showed signs of uncertainty but I knew we had come too far to the west of Nanda Devi's Sanctuary. Occasionally we met a lone Bhotia shepherd but they were too shy or puzzled to give directions. In spite of their insistence that we should not climb higher, Kulomani headed straight for the heights and the snow. Through the mist we thought we saw the black mountain steepness described by Kulomani but in our miserable state we were ready to believe almost anything . Besides, to hungry men the outside world tends to look alike in its bleakness.

I was past caring now and sat sodden and defeated by the spluttering twigs of Jupiter that even Bahaduria's greathearted efforts could not ignite. Kulomani rested under his blanket on a rock, smoking and seemingly far away. Bahaduria stopped blowing up the fire and turned towards the old man with a whoop of joy. I had leapt up knowing the call would be answered and certain it was no echo. Everything happened so pellmell. The cry seemed to come from above and be heard amidst the bells. My thoughts were confused. Perhaps it was the Bhotia caravan we had seen two days earlier. But my heart was set on seeing for myself and I forced my way up and over the black jagged rock. I dragged myself to a ledge and discovered it to be part of a well-used path winding round the hill. Now the going was easier and I could hear the Bhotias whipping their animals to take the crest at a run. The mist was blown by the whining wind coming through a gap in the mountains and suddenly I was looking down at a glorious and unexpected view of a Tibetan valley. The beauty of those austere mountains, which seemed to glisten with a blue-grey polish streaked with veins of green and turquoise, was set off by the overwhelming serenity of the cultivated valley far below where the sun picked out the gold of a monastery roof. The scene was familiar though I had never beheld this view in any book. As I lay panting on the ridge the rearguard of the Bhotia caravan came up. With him was Kulomani and strangely he didn't stop but kept up with the fast pace of his companion over the ridge. The Bhotia turned smiling as he passed and with a shock I saw that he was wearing the yellow and red robes of a Lama under his blanket. As recognition dawned, the Lama's bare arm rose and made the sign of the Buddha's blessing. The mist played back into the Pass and the valley was blacked out with storm clouds. The wind increased and forced me back the way I had come. Bahaduria's shouts guided me down to our camp. The sight from the Pass had removed all my tiredness and my mind was elated.

Bahaduria was in a similar mood and embraced me as I ran into his arms. 'What about Kulomani,' I asked. 'Did he leave anything?' Bahaduria smiled and nodded. He pointed to the rock where the old man had been sitting — which was now wet with the drizzle. Lying quite dry was the matchbox, I picked it up and knew before I rattled it that it was empty.


A story by Bill Aitken.


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