We are another step closer today! The hardcopy of my book is now available on Amazon for pre-ordering!
For e-book version on Amazon Kindle & Google Play Books, hang tight and hold your breath!
As the release date comes closer, the time warps and the time seems to crawl. However, moments like these are delightful!
I share with you the cover page of my debut Crime Fiction novel: The Ryders’ Riddance.
Hang on for just a few more weeks until you can lay your hands on this book!
Thank you for all your love and support. Without it, this day could never have been more than a dream.
You know how life is. You meet people you never thought you would and take away from them what you never thought you would.
I, in my life, have been blessed by those who have let me take away values and virtues that have enabled me to complete writing a novel.
As my expression of dedication to each one of those gentle souls, I have named one character in the book after their initials. While I am bound by the limitations on the number of characters I can have in the book and the number of people I can dedicate this book to, I would like to assure you that this list is not exhaustive and I feel terrible for not being able to include them all.
Meanwhile, feel free to browse through the names of my beloved people & their character names:
|1||Abhay Soningra / Ayaan Sayyed / Angela Shao||Ashton See|
|2||Abhinav Umbarje||Alexys Underwood|
|3||Ajinkya Adukia||Alvis Alekseev|
|4||Akash Pol||Aaron Palmer|
|5||Anuja Mulye||Alan Myke|
|6||Bhalala Raj||Benjamin Ryder|
|7||Bhavesh Parmar||Brando Purnell|
|8||Bhavika Shah||Bob Sally|
|9||Chetan Gandhi||Clyde Galloway|
|10||Chetan Vartak||Cristos Viera|
|11||Deeptanshu Thakar||Donnie Trugirl|
|12||Dilip Mulye||Dom Miller|
|13||Dominik Klaus||Darren Knox|
|14||Elesh Mehta||Emily Min|
|15||Emily Coe-Bjorsell||Eliah Cassia-Barrco|
|16||Eugenia D’Amario||Enid Douglas|
|17||Filippo Qiao||Fabian Quine|
|18||Flora Chardigny||Fitz Cresto|
|19||Francisco Santos / Furqan Sayyed||Faye Sebastian|
|20||Garv Gandhi||Glen Gonrow|
|21||Gautam Rajadhyaksha||Gene Rocco|
|22||Geeta Vadhani||Garrey Vicari|
|23||Geoffrey Brown||Gehard Berner|
|24||Gianmarco Clementoni||Graham Carlton|
|25||Gwyneth Perreira||Giuliano Penna|
|26||Hardik Mehta||Husani Maalouf|
|27||Harshad Vadhani||Heike Vicari|
|28||Heena Gandhi||Haemon Gedney|
|29||Jan Otta||Jaffar Osman|
|30||Jasmin Thakar||Jake Trent|
|31||Jessica Thiry||Jurgen Tobias|
|32||JF Mlaki / Jigna Mehta / Jiyaan Mehta||Jeremiah Miko|
|33||Jyothi Bhat||Jacob Barnes|
|34||Kedar Naik||Kimberley Nettle|
|35||Khusbhu Botadra||Kirk Bradford|
|36||Kirtan Mehta||Kris Mahone|
|37||Kunal Sehgal||Kristine Sebastian|
|38||Kushal Dave||Khloe Denver|
|39||Leelavati Vadhani||Lars Vosz|
|40||Lev Fomchenkov||Layton Fishler|
|41||Macher Gabor||Myriam Ginny|
|42||Marta Csaszar||Micah Chambers|
|43||Mayuri Vora||Mario Vaccaro|
|44||Miriam Vergara||Mel Vatican|
|45||Monali Mehta||Merrick Martin|
|46||Mrinmayee Anerao||Mervyn Aubrey|
|47||Namrata Kudav / Nandha Kumar||Nelson Kraft / Nene Kris|
|48||Namrata Vadhani||Nolyn Vicari|
|49||Nandan Chiklikar / NC||Nigel Castillo|
|50||Naveen Narayanan||Nadeel N’Cree|
|51||Nikunj Mehta||Nelson Madden|
|52||Nimish Fadnis||Nicholas Floros|
|53||Parag Shah / Parth Shah / Pranav Shetty||Pauline Salters|
|54||Paras Botadra||Pam Bryan|
|55||Pia Doshi||Prince Dunce|
|56||Piyush Mahendru / Pratham Mehta||Peter Martin|
|57||Prachi Pandya / Pooja Pawar||Petronela Peska|
|58||Praveen Kumar / Prashant Kale||Panlo Kippins|
|59||Rishikesh Ganapathy||Ryan Greg|
|60||Rohit Solanki||Ronald Salters|
|61||Rushabh Doshi||Ricky Dexter|
|62||Rushali Thakar / Robin Tiroloque||Ramsey Towner|
|63||Rutuja Mulye / Rupal Mehta||Rodwell McLarty|
|64||Sagar Raiyani||Samson Ryder|
|65||Sahil Maru / Sushila Mulye||Sugreev Murthy|
|66||Sarfaraz Hussain||Shannon Hoover|
|67||Sergio Cano / Shishir Chitnis||Slade Collymore|
|68||Shilwardhan Wakode||Seline Watt|
|69||Soniya Sanap||Scoville Som|
|70||Sudhir Kedar||Selwyn Karpin|
|71||Sumit Upadhyay||Samuel Underwood|
|72||Sunny Ambekar||Simeon Ang|
|73||Tania Cameron||Ty Colton|
|74||Tanuj Diwate / Tripti Daulatani||Timothy Denver|
|75||Tejarshi Hardas||Tam Heinersdorff|
|76||Uthi Sree||Ulrich Sebastian|
|77||Vaishali Mehta (Doshi, not Mehta)||Vaughn Mills|
|78||Veer Bhalala||Vincenzo Baldwin|
|79||Vidya Mulye||Vestar Marken|
|80||Vidya Rishikesh||Vincent Ryder|
|81||Vikrant Hardas||Vetero Heracio|
|82||Vikrant Naik||Vitus Naim|
|83||Yolande Chen||Yusuf Chandi|
|84||Zachary Smith||Zavier Schutz|
|85||Zuzana Mullerova||Zane Martinez|
- The above list is arranged alphabetically and not in the order of my closeness with them. I do not like Abhay any better than I do Zach. They both suck.
- Some of the characters in the book are short-lived, while some are running the show. Once again, it does not reflect my true admiration and love for the people after whom I have named them.
If you are interested to know more about the character, ask me in the comments! Sending you a lot of love. Hold on to your seats until The Ryders’ Riddance is out in the market for your grab!
I would like to start with an apology for not having touched this blog for an unacceptable duration of time. All this while, I hid behind an excuse of being busy working on something much bigger than a short-story.
Since the last seven years, I have battled against a bucketful of self-doubt, a dollop of laziness, several handfuls of procrastination and the nerve-shattering contender of all: fear. Fear of judgement, fear of failure and fear of having wasted my time. Not head on, but slowly and steadily, I allowed my perseverance to take over, which put every contender to sleep eventually.
And through these enriching struggles of working & reworking & reworking yet again, I have compiled a Crime Fiction novel.
If I know you, or if I know about you, then I want you to know that you have been a major influencer in helping me shape a series of stories and plots and sub-plots into singular novel, which I am going to call ‘The Ryders’ Riddance‘.
I have felt not unlike how the legendary author Stephen King says,
“The journey of writing is like sailing the Atlantic Ocean in a bathtub; there is plenty of time for self-doubt.“
My journey on this bathtub is approaching the shore and this 120,000+ word-novel is coming your way.
I pray for your continued support and your well-wishes, now, after the publishing of the book, and beyond, for this is only the beginning.
Stay tuned for more updates.
Deploying tools of insensitivity, succumbing to the easier way out, the society today stands proof to the fact that not everyone is alike – some put the cart after the horse, some before.
“I am going to break your bones when I see you next,” a shrill voice pierced through the slum as a crone voiced her anger at me for drenching her in a water balloon.
“What does it matter to you,” I provoked her. “It is already raining, what harm can a water balloon do to you, aunty?” I resumed laughing and chortling, only to have it interrupted by a loud crackling sound of a threatening thunder from kilometres away. It was scary and I was sure that it was God’s punishment for my misbehavior. I felt proud to remember the lessons my father teaches me about the God.
The old lady ambling without an umbrella had vanished in between the narrow passages of the slums, when I had my eyes back on the courtyard, two floors under.
My thoughts circled back to the time. It was 10 PM already. At least that is what his beaten wristwatch displayed. I honestly could not yet tell apart minutes from hours. I wonder how adults do it. At times, I find it amusing to assume that they are simply making up words with numbers. Past fifteen, quarter, etc.
It was getting late enough to be worried. I once again stepped into the balcony and looked down. Except for a drenched street dog that was lying down miserably near the gate, there was not a soul to be seen anywhere. Rain water had puddled under the lamp post. A breeze ruffled the mango tree in the courtyard and a few twigs fell down and broke. Thunder rumbled in the distance. Did I hear a soft knock at the door? I turned back and I sprang back to life. Mom and Dad got out of their rooms and hurried to the door. I played my classic act of keeping my eyes shut next to the window. So far, it has successfully fooled them into believing that I was fast asleep. However, the beans are spilled when I am not able to get up for school in the morning. And, tomorrow is the first day! Wonder who it is and I wonder why neither mom nor dad has thrown metaphorical rocks at me!
The knock on the tattered door was louder than the regular creaky knocks that our regular intruder – winds. It was only a few months ago since I began to tell apart from a breeze and a human knock. Saves me a lot of trouble now, believe me.
This knock had inspired my parents very differently. An odd hour. They know I was awake and they were not surprised at a visitor this late. They must be expecting someone. As a matter of fact they looked happier; dad more than mom. Mom had a dull undertone of sadness that I could see through her false pretense of delight. A man in a dress as white as milk, a skull cap on par with his dress in colour and a voice thick as the swooshes of wind outside brought a glow to the house, which was subsumed by an even powerful glow of the tube lights.
He was welcomed, greeted with water, and refused any offers of food and sweets. He kept looking at me with a friendly stare, but he received back none until my parents introduced him to me.
“Ashraf, he is a very close friend of mine. He is the one who has helped your father through all the difficulties that your father was going through in the past few months.”
I pondered on it for a while and although too late, it wasn’t too little for it to dawn upon me that my parents seemed jollier than the usual quarrels that they used to have.
“Does that mean that you will not hit my mom anymore?”
Embarrassed, my father did own up his sins and bravely confronted them. “Yes, beta. I will never hurt anybody ever again.” Tears welled up in his eyes, which made me feel little inside, a feeling that I could not describe so well.
A part of me considered him an angel already. The boisterous days and querulous nights, the sounds of which travelled through half the slum attracted gossip and back-biting to a level which was hard for me to handle. While some kids in the slum made fun of me, elders cheered me up and sent undue pampers, which I could barely digest. Apart from my difficulties, my mother used to get beaten so much. My mother hid behind several excuses. Her most favourite one was that she slipped and fell in the kitchen. She thought of it as an excellent excuse, and I let her believe it.
If someone comes home saying that he resolved all of this, then he is angel to me. I dreamed of playing normally with the kids again, without being the centre of the bullying.
And my dream was then interrupted by another pleasant surprise from a man, an angel whom I saw first only a few minutes ago. A gift. I quickly unwrapped the pink foil sheathing the gift underneath, while his thick voice spoke.
“It’s for your first day in school, son.”
I jumped in joy as I saw a new school bag. I used the one that my brother used to for three years, which he had used for over many years – I can’t remember how old he is than me. This bag was a brand new, pure black bag with cartoons over it. I remember some cartoons from Sumi’s TV, but can’t recall others. It didn’t even matter. I’d be happy for this bag even if it had no cartoon on it.
My mom I saw was in tears again, perhaps the tears of joy or perhaps the tears of seeing me joyful, I didn’t look deep enough for I allowed myself some moments of refined happiness.
I hugged the new man who’d come in our house and thanked him hard. I was then asked to go inside the bedroom and that my mom and dad would come soon. Having handed over the remote control of my happiness in their hands, I agreed to go to bed immediately and thus began my presence game.
“Is this the only way, Bhai? Is there no other way to find peace and heaven?” I heard my dad speaking softly with the visitor. The rain had stopped and winds gave way for words to flow from our living room to the bedroom.
“If not this, there is no other way. God is forgiving, and it asks for very little. You’re doomed to this fate for it is what He wants from you. My sermons never fail to stress on the fact that God gives ten in return for one. With your jewel so precious, you’ll be soon rid of debts, will have a house of your own and also a car. You’ll have more kids.”
At this point I got bored of their talks. I wished they would rather discuss about more gifts for me.
Early morning, I woke up with a surprising zest and energy that my dad had not seen before he said.
“Will I please take the new bag today?” I begged. I was told that I look cute when I say please. So, I said it until he gave up his shield and agreed for it.
“Of course you can, beta. It’s for you only. And it’s all packed with your books and tiffin. Go, get fresh.”
Like an obedient one, I hurriedly got dressed, mom combed my hair flat on my little skull and I put on the bag. Had we had some money, which I think this angel will give us someday, we’ll buy a camera to take my picture with this new bag.
“How do I look mom? I think I look very good. See, I assure you that all the kids in the school are going to be so awed.”
My mom knelt down and hugged me for quite long, tears again in her eyes. “You’re the blessed one, Ashraf. May God look after you.”
“You too, mom.” I said in a kind of a hurry that one would have who wants to eagerly show off his new school bag to the world.
Dad dropped at school. While I had forgotten, he reminded me of his promise. “Beta, remember my promise? Believe me, it will come true today itself.”
I simply had a very hard time trying to contain the rush of happiness within me. I got a bag yesterday and will get to see my brother too after so long. “I will return his old used bag to Shasha today. But I’ll never give this new one to him.”
My father laughed a little on my childishness and that is the last I saw him for the moment. School bell rang and all kids fresh with memories from summer vacations found it hard to focus on the studies.
When I pulled up my bag to take out the books, I saw that the bag didn’t have any books at all. It had a strange box. Curiously, I pulled it out gently and I fell asleep. I do remember harsh cries and heat radiating through my head and body, but I remember it faintly. I tried to check if my new bag was okay, but what he saw barely looked like his school anymore. Where his classroom walls were white, now there was a dancing fusion of yellow and orange. Where I remembered my friends seated in excitement and new school clothes, I then saw undisciplined order of enflamed wood and broken furniture.
I was feeling an odd sort of a pain, and especially since my bag wasn’t in sight, I cried. I remember falling in a deep slumber before I was done crying.
When I woke up a few hours after, I ran and I ran very fast to my mom because I could not wait to tell her about what happened with me. As strange as it was, I was free of pain and my mom needs to know or else she will cry again. Probably she was already crying. And she was!
I approached her. “Mom, look I am here. My bag, my clothes, it’s all here. I am all fine.”
Dad tried to calm her down too, but she kept crying harder and harder. I spoke louder. My voice passed through her. I was confused. I touched her cheek because I knew that was always calmed her down. But my hand went through her body. I could not touch her. I could not be heard. I started to sob and I sobbed hard and heavy.
Dad spoke to her. “The sacrifice was necessary!” He shouted. “It was necessary. We will now be free from all our miseries. This is God’s will and he is now going to be so happy with his brother, playing together once again in His paradise, His heaven.”
An unforgiving trek to meet The Most Forgiving One.
For those who wish to skip the detailed narrative, a short summary is in the end.
Lord Shiv, who shall be called as Bholenath, Mahadev or Bhole in the following post is known to have taken solace in one of the deepest recesses of Himalayas, far away from the human greed and chaos. The Amarnath Cave at 12,756 feet or 3,888 m altitude, it is said that He let out the secrets of immortality (Amar Katha) to His beloved wife, Parvati.
An ice stalagmite that naturally forms in a cave surrounded by snowy mountains is symbolic to the Ling that represents the Almighty Mahadev. While it is well known that finding God is never easy, I am about to narrate the experience that I had with my beloved fiance on this greatly distinguished trek.
Back in 2012 or around, I was introduced to trekking by a dear friend and vet, Kushal Dave. The child-like enthusiasm that drove me to the belief that if I could conquer a trek in a tropical weather, with cool rain washing off the summer sweat, set trails showing us the path to the top, which still somehow felt to me as an insurmountable 3-hour trek in the vicinity of my home, then I can also march through the snowy 3-day trek, about 2,000 kms from home, in an extreme environment that robs one of oxygen among other things like self-respect, dignity and arrogance.
Given the superior overestimation of my fitness, I consider it fortunate that the plan that I had made in 2012, to see Mahadev along with dozens of friends did not turn out well and the plan had to be cancelled. The next opportunity that showed up to my door was when it was favourable for me to attend to this mighty zest for the Almighty in 2017. My beloved, Anuja, packed her bags in her mind, 4 months prior to the trek. I could not be happier.
Arriving in Kashmir was an enchanting experience, as their airports, the systems and the unrestrained politeness of the local folk was charming and most welcoming. Amidst the stress that they are subjected to due to the political unrest between Pakistan and India, Kashmiris seemed to be unaffected and rather caring of the tourists. Tourists for them were nothing but the sole source of income, for Kashmir demands a sort of tourism that any other part of the world seldom does. Green plains, white mountains, blue lakes and white rivers, they form an integral part of the Himalayan paradise, suitably concomitant with unparalleled hospitality of the Kashmiris.
Srinagar and Pahalgam saw us for the first 2 days where Anuja and I took our rest before we began with the notable two days of our lives.
Dal Lake @Srinagar
Of the two routes that reached the Cave, one was from Baltal, which was a one-day affair. A 14-km one way ascent to the Cave was famous for those having too little time for their devotion for the Mahadev, while was infamous for being monotonous, depriving the trekkers of the purest of views that the route #2 offered.
The route #2 was the harder (which of course, I chose, given my inclination for challenging bigger powers), started from Pahalgam and if done on foot, would take 3 days to get to see the Almighty. Blessed with picturesque landscapes, it was sinister and influential.
Pahalgam – Chandanwari
We awoke at 3 am, for the simple reason that we should be among the first people to reach the base camp and to start the trek. The penchant for being early at the trek was tantamount to the one we had for getting ourselves registered (4 months ago) at the hospital and the bank at the earliest. The expedite actions allowed us an entry on the 1st day of the Yatra. It was a blessing for me. Although I knew that there would be thousands of Yatris along with us, I was hoping that the public toilets would be cleaner. As you can now imagine how seasoned a trekker I am to expect spotless and hygienic sanitation on the remote mountains of Himalays.
An evening before, Pahalgam was pouring rain droplets, small enough to be called as harmless, but for long enough to threaten the commencement of Yatra the next morning. We prayed for the rain to stop much like the nursery rhyme, but the rain did not budge. We slept on it.
Morning was dark, and the only sound that could be heard outside the room at 3 am was the monstrous gush of Lidder river across the hotel and gentle, much despised rain droplets. It rained all night and due to pilgrim safety, Amarnath Yatra could have been reasonably postponed. But, it did not.
Chandanwari – Sheshnag
Pahalgam (2,740 m) is the initial base camp for the Yatra, while Chandanwari (16 kms away) is the next. Chandanwari (2,923 m) is the last point until which the motor vehicles go (and we went), where horses replace the cars and buses. A long queue for baggage checking and the entry pass verification saw several devotees, some of which exhibited their unwavering passion for the Mahadev in form of fake entry passes. Sadly, in the name of security, they deprived entry to such passionate devotees.
Thus began our ascent of the 12 kms for the day. Horse guides were swarming in numbers and it was hard to tell a pilgrim from a horse guide. Obeying to every instruction we had from the previous Yatris, we were ready to pull out our negotiating cards. And we did. We secured a pony for a certain amount, with an understanding that he would take us to the Holy Cave, bring us back to the base on the 3rd day. Filled with energy and positive vibes, we utilized the pony for our bags (10 and 13 kgs rspectively – again, aren’t we phenomenally smart?) and began the trek. Good we purchased the wooden sticks that helped us pierce through every sort of unholy mess on the ground created by men and horses alike.
The key highlight of the Yatra was spirited Langar-waalas (the ones who ran restaurants) serving hot milk, water, tea and delicacies from all around the country, all for free! That is right. You pay not a penny for anything you eat and drink. They are there for the duration of the Yatra (~40 days) – no less than Gods – enabling the pilgrims to safely and healthily complete the Yatra.
The rain had not stopped. Slowly, but surely, it guaranteed difficulty for hundreds of pilgrims who let it not hinder them…yet. The consistent drizzling had rendered the path muddy. One could not tell apart safe step for a ditch. But, like a herd, pilgrims rocked their trek. Several shortcuts showed up and people – dozens of people – would follow the shortcuts. Our first shortcut was an act of defiance towards the popular advice we had received – Do not take shortcuts. The temptation lay in fact that the shortcut was although steep, a shorter route to the top. We were safe.
The second short-cut we chose was an innocent blunder, where we were following a group of people who were hiking and suddenly found themselves holding on to slippery rocks and fidgety smaller rocks in order to ascend. It was then when we realized that we should not have come up there and then was the precise moment when we realized that going back down was far from sound an option. We climbed up towards a man who was resting on a big rock, which slipped slightly from its location. The destination of the falling rock could have been several dozens of meters downwards, taking along as many pilgrims along as it could. The fellow pilgrim had his heart in his mouth. Both of us shouted warnings to the pilgrims underneath to watch out in case the rock falls. Most of the pilgrims were busy chanting Jai Bhole while others were assessing the next rock to set their foot on. After applying my rudimentary engineering knowledge, I blocked the bigger rock with a smaller one under it. The rock did not fall, the pilgrim climbed up the the actual walking track and I followed.
By this time, Anuja’s nimble and relatively smaller body enabled her to be on the track, waiting for me with bated breath. I almost reached the top and had just one climb to make, but without adequate support. Here is when, I rested myself, awaiting some help who would pull this clumsy, heavy pilgrim out of misery and someone did. Jai Bhole!
The end of this first patch of arduous trek came after 4 kms at Pissutop, where an Indian flag with a backdrop of milk-white fog attempting to mask the white-peaked mountains welcomed us. Truly a delight. Sheshnag, the day’s destination was now about 7 – 8 kms away. Anuja alternated between a horse-back ride and trekking, while I was more stubborn than her in wanting to reach the destination on foot and I did, not without challenges.
Kilometers passed by and yet the distance boards did not seem to change. After every kilometer I passed, it still showed that Sheshnag was 6 kms away. Now, not only was the weather playing games with me but these men who put up the sign boards were, too. A winter jacket, preventing me from the rain helped cover myself but also was seeming too hot at some instances. The weather love was non-existent. Sweat inside, mud and rain and occasional heat waves outside. I was happy that Anuja was covering her distance as her horse sped her away, but the joy of walking along in this dream trek was somewhat compromised.
After another what felt like a couple kilometers, of upward trek in sticky mud on a narrow road occasionally dominated by horses, another Langar came up. I was glad that I would see Anuja again. I waited. I could not find her in the 1st Langar (there were 4 – 5 in all). I pulled up my phone to notice that there was no network on my phone. I cursed the Airtel salesman endlessly for coaxing us into buying their SIM card. My curses were interrupted by the grumbling noises from inside my stomach. I ate sumptuous food in far lesser a quantity than what I am known to eat (fatigue and tiredness) and then walked ahead to another Langars. On the last one, I found her! Happy were we both. She had not eaten a morsel yet and she was not wanting to eat, she said. I should have insisted. Sufficient carbs and water were the mandatory inputs for those willing to conquer the trek.
The trek continued for another million kilometers in the same sticky mud where my shoes got stuck at every step and my pants and jacket were decorated with mud. Shoes were appearing more brown than it’s original olive green. Picking up a foot for every step was a pain, and the pain was not abated by the sore leg muscles that the trek had caused. I overheard people saying that rain ruined the trail and I got influenced. I remember vividly, stepping in ankle height mud and hiking in it for several hundred meters. The mud was now the new normal.
If this frustration was not enough, my walking stick that aided me to get through the worst now fell in the mud, too. Funnily, now is when my lid blew off and I got angry at the circumstances. Imagine – it shows how the only thing going right in my life at that point was that my stick was clean.
Nature pitied me and then showed me some beautiful sights like the Sheshnag Lake. Was I happy to see it? Maybe. Am I happy to see it when I am sitting comfortably on my relaxing chair and writing this post? Absolutely. This eerily clam and green lake at the lap of a snowy peak giving off a strangely calm vibe to the otherwise disturbed or excited pilgrims was a sight I’d happily die for. Sheshnag lake (3,590 m) is the highest lake I have ever seen in my life and the sight is just as good as a wallpaper.
Sadly, Anuja and i had to grasp the sight of this view independently. The few moments we spent under the watch of this landscape were of my complaining about the difficulty of the trek (such an amateur i am) and in taking some pictures with the lake in the backdrop.
Another 1 – 2 kms and we will be at the destination. As much relief this thought gave me, these kms were deadly. By the time we reached, i was parched dry in my throat. The cold environment had chilled every bottle of water i could find and thus making it unpleasant for consumption. Anuja was waiting at the entrance of the Sheshnag camp site, shivering in cold. Now, we awaited entry into the camp, rent a tent and sleep for 12 hours. It was nearing 4 pm.
The horse guide we had hired turned back on his words and objected on his wish to accompany us until the third day. He expected us, whose spirits had half-died in 12 kms of first day to complete 20 kms on the second. We ignored him and penalized him for his non-co-operation and sent him back. Now we had to get into the arena of negotiating with another horse guide altogether. With Anuja freezing, with my throat giving up, we stood our grounds and negotiated with one seemingly nice horse man, who also showed us to the best of tent owners, Majid. Majid showed us to a tent, large enough for 3 – 4 couples to fit in, floored with woolen blankets and equipped with rough pillows. We accepted it without much hesitation.
Night @ Sheshnag
We changed into cleaner clothes, applied Vicks to our bodies and slept under 3 thick woolen blankets. My head was throbbing and she was shivering. We expected rest to cure it all. it was 6:30pm and Anuja was still jittery. I stepped out with the shoes untied (leading the laces to gather all sort of mud and mess along) to look for the camp hospital. I brought Anuja there, where she was instantly given an injection. Was she cured? No. Under several layers of blankets and warm clothes on her, she was not at comfort. A hospital with 6 – 7 beds was full with patients who were suffering from what the doctors repeated every time – High Altitude Sickness.
While she is having moments of extreme cold and rest, I was sitting there restless, praying for her good health. At one point, we decided to not continue further and that if she does not feel better, we shall return to Chandanwari and fly back to Mumbai. On top of that a doctor there told me that I was not helping her in any way and that I should bring hot beverages, which I then did. The cold outside was 4 degrees C. I walked over 200 m one way to get her some hot tea, which was not hot anymore, but consumable. After a few more minutes, she was injected with another medicine, which initially brought her miserable pain, but cured her after an hour.
In those hours that I spent sitting next to her, I witnessed patients coming in as cool as a Bollywood actor and as miserable as a fish pulled out of water. Whatever this High Altitude Sickness was, it was nasty and it came to people in all shapes and sizes, bring them to their knees. Shivering, unbearable cold and lack of breathing came along. Anuja was far better than most of the patients that came in. I felt proud of her physical and mental resolve. What an excellent start to the Day #1 of the Yatra, I said to myself. Rain had ruined it for several, but barely had it deterred anyone from the end in mind – reaching the God of the Gods – the Mahadev.
Majid was regularly following up with us in the hospital while doing his job as an owner of several tents. He wanted to be sure that Anuja and I are okay and that he will arrange better accommodation for us, no matter what. Later, when the doctor allowed her discharge, Majid welcomed us to his own tent, which was also his kitchen that was naturally warm as our bedrooms. A moderate dinner there was followed by a peaceful sleep, which Anuja deserved better than I. Majid had slept elsewhere to make room for us two while his father shared the tent with us. A help – a favour, we would never forget. Jai Bhole!
Next morning, at 6, the gates open for the pilgrims to move ahead on their trek. However, a loud announcement echoed through the fabric of every tent that the Yatra had been temporarily shut due to bad weather. The bad weather could have been the endless drizzles that the night saw or the snow that fell heavily on our way ahead. We did not bother and fell back asleep like babies. The gates had opened up at 10 am, until when we were ready to go and had decided that now, we would both take ponies until the Cave (20 kms) and get down to Baltal (14 kms) the same night. We did not want to risk falling sick yet again for another night spent in the tents.
Sheshnag – Panchtarni
The horse guide who assured us a horse had turned his back in the morning in order to find another customer who’d pay him more. (Possibly the only man we’d met on the entire trip who was unfriendly). Our day started with rejection by weather and by our horse guide. Majid picked up Anuja’s bag and we three went out to look for a horses for both of us. Another round of negotiations and agreements happened with a horse guide, who was ready to take us until the Cave. We were short on physical cash and requested Majid to accept a bank transfer after a day or two, for which he surprisingly agreed. Jai Bhole! He confessed that he trusted the two of us and were the nicest people who have rented his tent in the past few years. God bless him. Only nice people can see the niceness in others.
The sun came out. Mahadev was looking at us, we could feel it. Every mountain that passed, every river that was flowing threw out the fragrance of the Mahadev. Har Har Mahadev! Sitting on a horse was feeling better than trekking on the same sort of mud. Although this was not the initial plan (I wanted to do the entire journey on foot), I don’t regret choosing this over the potential health hazard that Anuja and I could have ran into – again!
Kilometres passed by faster than yesterday. The only complaint today was the soreness that the saddle caused and God, was it nasty! The horse was too short for my size, thus having me bend my knees in an awkward position and denying my relief on my legs. As much as I wanted to take a break to stretch my legs, my authoritarian horse guide denied me politely. He had a long distance to cover and get back to Sheshnag before it turned dark. As happy as I was about inching closer towards the Almighty Cave, my inner self was being relentlessly critical. Among other things, i also noticed that our horses were particularly slower than almost every other horse. We were being outraced effortlessly by every other horse, thus igniting a suspicion on the horse- guide’s time commitment. In the end, we reached two hours later than what he promised.
And in these trying times, I refocused my thoughts on Anuja’s wellness and the beautiful white landscapes uncovered by the sun, which truly brought me a kind of peace that I seldom experience.
We took a halt twice in the 20 kms trek. One was at the highest point on the Yatra – at Mahagunastop (4511 m). The army men here insisted us all warm water to drink and were greeted gently and warmly. This was where the snow (in the peak of summer) had fallen to disrupt the Yatra schedule and delayed us all by 4 precious hours at the least.
The shortage of oxygen was first felt when we got down and joyously jumped around in the abundance of snow, in the indomitable setting of snow mountains and relentlessly courageous army men.
A longer halt was to be taken after a 2 km decline at Poshpatri (Post Patthar), where was a splendid Langar that offered Dosas, Tikkis, traditional Indian meals and a lot more – a top-class Langar in every sense. We thoroughly enjoyed the meal – the food and hot water to drink and clean our hands with were an absolute delight. My derriere got a much needed relief from the steel-like saddle that hurt me endlessly throughout the journey. The energy that this Langar emitted was ultra-positive and it fueled us.
Langar at Posh Patri
A few kilometers ahead, a large plain land, guarded by brawny brown mountains was another base camp – Panchtarni (3,500 m) (a confluence of 5 rivers). It is symbolic for the 5 elements that Lord Shiv had left behind – Earth, Air, Sky, Fire & Water. Over here, the regular checking of bags was to happen and the Yatris had to walk for about 500 m through the camp on the other side to reunite with the horse guides. 500 m was not a challenge normally, but in a situation where oxygen was less and bags as heavy as ours, it commanded us to give in. We complained, but we did not give in. We managed to carry our luggage on the other side of the camp and then we continued on a path that was only 6 kms in length but hazardous to life!
Panchtarni – Holy Cave
A narrow strip of curvy land that inclined towards the Cave was swarmed with horses, palkis (2 – 4 men carrying Yatris on their shoulders) and on-foot Yatris. How easy it was for a single mistake to bring death to a Yatri so close to the Cave! Nevertheless, we had our faith in Mahadev and in the horses that guided us.
In a matter of an hour, we could now see the Cave straight ahead of us. It had not yet sunk in the fact that we were almost at the pinnacle of the pilgrimage that not everyone is lucky to undertake. A pilgrimage that only a handful are fit enough to undertake and that pilgrimage’s main intention was right there in front of our eyes. And then another incident ruined the overly sentimental zone that we were in. The horses unloaded us. A kilometer incline away from the Cave. We had a kilometer long snow-paved track to hike until the Cave and climb roughly a 100 steps or more in order to take the darshan.
We kept our bags at one of the tents at the base, and we started. I slipped several times, aggravating my frustration and then is when Anuja snapped for the first time – totally ready to give up. After a bitter-sweet tiff, we agreed to chant Mahadev’s name and push ourselves – 10 steps at a time. We took over an hour to climb the distance.
The Holy Cave!
The last 20 – 30 steps were the hardest for we had to surrender our shoes and walk on stone steps garnished with ice-cold molten snow. Our feet were numb in a few minutes. We saw ourselves inching painfully towards the Ice Shivling. Another few steps and we can’t feel our legs any more.
The last few steps we crawled up to and there – an Ice Shivling over 6 feet tall took our breath away. We forgot who we are. We forgot why we were there. The enigmatic and mystic ice formation that could probably be explained by science, but the divine sense of blessing that gushed though in our veins will remain inexplicable. Every hardship, every mockery of fate, every single shock of adverse weather and health was forgotten the moment the Mahadev blessed us. The distance of 32 kms on a hostile land, in a hazardous environment was isolated and we felt one with the divine presence of the Almighty Shiv! Jai Jai Jai Bholenath!
I was overwhelmed with the kind of joy that nothing in the world can replace. I cried. An inability of being able to express the love and joy led me to shed some tears that I shed in the name of Bholenath! Although we could not spot the 2 pigeons who are said to live in the cave as the successors of those pigeons who had heard Lord Shiv’s tale to His wife about the secrets of immortality, we were pleased throughout.
A couple dozen of steps on our return, I asked Anuja to check how much money we have remaining, so as to know how to negotiate with the final horses that we would rent. Then she realized that there was one thing I had forgotten to offer to Bhole. With a sigh, I climbed back, with naked feet, my feet hurting now. Just when I reached the Cave, I overheard someone showing a pigeon and I saw them! I saw both the pigeons! Happiness of seeing them and sadness of Anuja not seeing them mingled with each other but I felt blessed all over again. After having second darshan of the Mahadev, I returned back with Anuja. We walked back until the end of the steps which is when I realized that we missed the place where we had surrendered our shoes. Travesty.
I climbed with my feet hurting to the point of being intolerable and lungs at the point of giving up, I collected the shoes, wore mine on wet feet and got hers back to the base. My legs were shivering until the knees – laughing at my foolishness.
After sipping on hot tea and warm water, we hired a couple horses and began our descent to Baltal (14 kms). They said that the road is good, well-guarded and well-lit. Thus, we were sure that we would not reach the base comfortably. Little did we poor Yatris know.
Us at at Holy Cave
Holy Cave – Baltal
After a steep descent of 3 kms, a 12 year old horse guide of Anuja’s horse and a senior horse guide of my horse went on shoulder to shoulder. Now, came a 2 – 3 kms patch of steep accent. I was asked to get down for a few metres to make it easy for the horse. I complained but I managed to make the steep climb with my worn out legs with 13 kilos on my back for about 15 metres and I was short on breath. Oxygen and fate were playing games with me now that the weather seemed okay. When I got back on the horse, the horse refused to move. The senior horse guide refused to budge. Horses had carried both the bags and Anuja without their guides complaining from Chandanwari until the Cave (32 kms) for once and now a horse guide was complaining that the horse was not moving because my weight along with the bag was far too much.
I argued for his logic vehemently and finally I got down and kept walking hopelessly upward – stopping at every few steps due to the shortage of breath and strength. I then saw that the horse was not moving even when there was no pilgrim or a bag on it. I was beginning to get worried as now, on the narrow road going upward with hundreds and hundreds of Yatris moving in a single file, I could not see Anuja anymore. Moreover, the dusk was nearing. It was 6:30 pm.
As I was trekking alone on the path, desperate to get back with Anuja, a miracle was bestowed upon me. Jai Bholenath! A horse guide with an unoccupied horse offered to drop me until the end of the accent – after which remains 7 kms of descent, which he assured I can do it without a horse, too. I agreed. Anything that got me closer to Anuja was acceptable to me. Steering clear through several dozens of horses, this horse was stronger and faster and sure-footed. By 8 pm, I reached the top. Anuja was supposed to be there because there is a camp where horses and people had place to stop. Earlier, I did not panic with the hope that she would be waiting there for me, but now, I had no reason to not panic.
It was dark, the trail was narrow with mountain on one side and valley on the other, Anuja was lost in an unknown land and I had to give up the horse. Darkness was pitch. It was hard to identify any face, as hard as it was to identify the nature of the trail. I pulled out the torch that was truly feeble in every sense and i started climbing down for 7 kms. I took out the laser light she had gifted me, the kind that forms a glimmering trail as it pierces through, but the batteries had given up. If only something were to go easily for us. If things were not wrong enough already, rain started to pour down. Muddier trail became muddier. I screamed for Anuja – no response. I screamed again and again and again – no response. A 12 year old boy was guiding Anuja’s horse in a condition so hostile that it made me eat my heart. And to pile up on the things that were going miserably wrong for us, a lightening bolt pierced through the sky – the kind that scares Anuja, and thus, makes me worry.
I realized that if I keep marching, I am not going to reach her at all. It was too slow a process given the luggage, the slippery trail and the darkness that prevailed. I was sure that at that time of the day, there was no economical sense for the horse guides to bring their horses empty – there were no mid-way base camps where pilgrims would offload, but I gave it a try.
With fear ruling my voice, I cried that I want a horse. I yelled a few more times; every shout meeker than the previous. I was losing hope the way I had lost Anuja. But then a girlish voice from behind asked – Want a horse?
I begged yes and without any cost conversations, I climbed up. I prayed up to the Mahadev who I knew was looking down on me, regardless of all the self-centred complaints that I was making. Jai Bholenath! I cried for Anuja for more times while we were on the way. The horse guides assured me that I would find her. It did help me and also what helped me was water that soothed my desert-dry throat. After a few kilometres of having the third horse, I saw the face of the horse guides. The girly voice was of a young boy and the one who guided my horse was a full-grown man.
After what felt like an hour, my worry for her was big enough to not remind me of the physical pain I was in due to lack of food intake and the saddle. First Langar was seen up ahead, where there she was – standing with eyes full of hope. We saw, and we hugged in an embrace of tears. We promised to not part ways ever again. The brave 12 year old boy had guided her safely.
After all the drama that I had gone through, with the setbacks that I had, I had guessed that she must have been waiting for quite some time. When asked, she said that she was waiting for merely 5 minutes! Such is the grace of Bhole! Jai Bholenath.
After another couple kilometres was a spot called Dumail, 2 kms from Baltal – but we were so tired of horse-back riding that we decided to pay them and hire a taxi to Sonamarg (15 kms from Baltal), hire a hotel, take a hot water bath (much much much needed) and sleep for at least 24 hours.
We got a taxi, who said he will try, but police will not allow entry. Yet again, things did not stop being right for us. We tried and at the check-post police indeed did not allow us to pass through (Mahadev’s grace once again – 10 days after our Yatra, one pilgrimage bus broke check-posts despite CRPF warnings and were attacked by terrorists. 7 lost their lives.)
We spent 4 – 5 hours in a tent in Baltal; provided with endless blankets and a bowl of burning coal to keep us warm. Next morning, we drove to Srinagar and comfort was back again in our lives.
Happy together at Pissutop
The Yatra was full of challenges – hostile trails, unforgiving weather, horses giving up, getting separated in a threatening mountains, falling dramatically sick, threats of landslides, climbing barefoot on ice-cold stone steps, mercilessness of fatigue, disguised saving of life from potential terrorist attack and more, but Bholenath was right around the corner with an offering that rescued us from all the miseries and the divine memory of the Shiv Ling and the unparalleled landscapes remain in our minds.
As I write this post, over 1,80,000 Yatris have had their darshan. On 30th June, 2017, roughly 8,800 Yatris had their darshan, whereas on any other day, 12 – 14,000 Yatris are blessed by Bholenath’s darshan. Another blessing in disguise?