I was speeding along the onrushing waters of Gaj River, en route to the peaks and passes on the horizon. The jungles around were green and thick and full of chattering birds. I had only a few days to accomplish my climbs and speed was of essence. As I rounded off one big boulder, by the trail, I came across Sujan Singh (I learned his name later) sitting atop a rock, nursing a young sheep on his lap. He wore a deep red turban, wool waistcoat and a big bright smile. He looked around 50. Where was I going, he enquired, bidding me to rest a while. Hearing my objective he nodded his grey haired head few times and said, ‘Are you sure? I have never heard any outsider going there in my entire life. No one goes there. Do you know the way to reach there?’ I accepted my complete ignorance of the route, except that I could see the peak far up on the horizon and had thought of navigating by pure line of sight. He agreed to take me a part of the way, where his flock of sheep was grazing. He had come down to buy provisions and get the young sheep on his lap treated for some infection. After reducing my load by one packet of biscuit, we took to the trail.
Sujan walked briskly ahead, despite his age and the big sack of rice on his shoulder and the young sheep on his back. Soon we left the river and he took me over a shortcut through the thick foliage. The trail, slippery beyond belief being covered with dry leaves and grass, climbed steeply. I ducked and dipped under overgrowths and overhanging branches. At many places I had to grasp the branches or roots to keep from falling or slipping. Sujan walked ahead uninterrupted while regaling me with stories from his life.
Gaddis of Dhauladhar are essentially nomadic people who graze their sheep and lambs on pastures of the mountains, far above and beyond the reach of other mountain people. They are amazingly hardy, simple and surefooted. They know the mountains like the back of their hands. Gaddis are identified by their woolen blanket (pattu) which they always throw across the shoulders. It is not only warm in extreme cold but pleasant under the sun and nearly waterproof. They also carry an all purpose lathi (sturdy wooden stick), with which they can make steps on ice, break through jungles, keep balance on narrow trails and fight leopards and bears if necessary. Gaddis wear simple plastic shoe and they survive the long stays in the mountains from whatever food is available nearby, hence they know all the edible jungle plants and natural remedial herbs. They often live in caves or make temporary shelters with big blocks of natural stones. Gaddis are not known to be sad or melancholy about anything. And above all they are excellent story tellers.
With intermittent bidi (Indian cigarette made out of rolled leaves) puffs, Sujan climbed effortlessly across voids that had me feel giddy. Mists rolled in and out of the gorges and the mountain cold gripped me comfortably. After two long and exhausting days we reached his dera (abode) and he showed me the way ahead, cautioning that there was no way actually. Leaving him behind I continued to climb through some of the toughest pitches of my life. After three days on my way down, I completely lost sight of the mountain path and my descent route due to the heavy fog and snow.
Suddenly, from the fog, I heard a dog bark. After several minutes I was certain that I was not hallucinating and I hollered back into the mist. Soon Sujan Singh’s voice sailed through, much to my relief. His voice guided me to where he was. I found him and his friends with the sheep and the cutest possible dog. He was as glad to see me as I was to see him. They were rather confounded to learn that I had indeed climbed all the way up and despite getting lost on the other side of the mountain, managed to climb back and return this way. Sujan invited me to his cave for tea. I followed him and his dog to a cave that had a view worth killing for. The cave was squeezed tightly on a high ledge, perched opposite a mammoth waterfall and it offered a view of the mountain that I had just climbed. He had spread dry grass on the floor for cushion and had assortment of dried branches for fire. After tea, Sujan picked a bunch of Nip (a kind of wild onion plant) from the nearby slopes and gave me for my journey ahead.
I had absolutely no intention of leaving his cave or his flock but I had little time and had to go down the same day. But before I left, I made a pact with Sujan that in the next grazing season I would spent a month with him and learn Gaddi trade and sheep herding. He gave me a big smile as we parted. I left him there and descended once again into the thick mist swirling up the mountain. It was a pleasant day, I was alive, the sun shone overhead and to me the world looked perfect. I had absolutely no care or worry in the world, I was exactly where I belonged.
Going down the trail alone I did lose my way few times and had close misses and slips as well. But like the Gaddis and Sujan, my friend and god, Shiva kept me safe. Gaddis have been sons of the soil of these mountains since time immemorial, it is their land; I was happy to have simply shared their wealth briefly and to have enriched my life in a way that I did not know how to describe but could feel it right down into my heart that the ‘I’ who is now going back into civilization is different than the one who had arrived here few days ago. I may or may never again meet Sujan Singh, his flock and his dog but they will always be a part of me. In this world if there is anything that I really possess then it is only my memories and these new found friends have now become indelible parts of that memory.