If you care to notice then this is my fiftieth post. In the past 49, I have shared with you stories of my travels, climbs, crazy thoughts, friends, impossible dreams and one lame excuse of limericks. The golden jubilee post demanded something special, something unique something as fundamental to me as the air I breathe. And I decided to pay tribute to that one person who single handedly steered and shaped the course of my life from a stage where I did not even know if I had one. He is my uncle Fred and to him I owe all that I am today. He arrived exactly a year after my father had departed. The only other person, to whom I owe more, is my mother. Here’s to you Uncle Fred, wherever you may be.
I was mid way to my thirteenth summer on the planet and a truly spirited truant that you can imagine. I spent more time kneeling outside my classroom than inside and hence learnt more. By this time, everyone who knew me, including my mother, had reaffirmed their belief that I was not one destined for academic excellence; though no one was certain what it was that I was destined to excel in, if I would excel in anything at all. My only claim to fame till then was three Himalayan peaks, India no 2 in badminton sub-junior category and being the brother to my genius sibling. Therefore, when one early evening, with my clothes torn and splattered with mud, I zoomed in with my school bag without a care in the world, I found my mother opening the door with perplexity, I was little worried. She should have been perplexed if my clothes had retained their creases and neatness in that order. ‘Your Uncle Fred had called,’ mother said, ‘I didn’t know you had such an uncle?’ Amazing, neither did I. ‘Who is he?’ I asked, ‘What did he say?’ He wished to speak with me, mother informed, and he would be calling up in the evening.
Around 9 p.m. our landlord’s son hailed from below, ‘Satya, there’s a call for you.’ I rushed down and picked up the phone, ‘Hello, Satya here.’ I said in my best polished English and manners. ‘Hello Satya,’ a large booming voice filled up the room, ‘I am your Uncle Fred.’ I remained silent. ‘I am, was a friend of your father. He told me how much you love the mountains and climbing. Would you like to come to Europe and climb in the Alps!’ Uncle Fred asked. I learned later that he always spoke in a suggestive manner when he was actually telling someone to just do what he was asking. I cursed for sleeping through my geography classes, though I knew Europe but the Alps only sounded a faint bell in my befuddled brain. Though I knew for sure that it was my wildest dream coming true. I remained silent lest the spell is broken. I wasn’t even sure if there was indeed anyone on the other side of the line. ‘When does your school close for vacation?’ He asked. I told him the dates of my summer break mechanically. ‘I won’t imagine you have a passport!’ he continued. What’s a passport I wanted to ask but remained silent. ‘Tell your mother that you would spend next year’s summer vacation with me. I will talk to her later.’ Finally I found my voice, ‘How did you find us? How did you find this phone number, it is not even ours?’ ‘I have means, my boy, to find things out. Don’t worry I will be in touch. Give my regards to your mother and your brother.’ Uncle Fred cut the line.
Fourteen months later I touched foreign land for the first time. One simple sunny morning, I disembarked at Charles De Gaulle airport, Paris with a small backpack that contained nothing beyond few warm clothes and my trekking shoe. I had no money and I was scared and apprehensive. A tiny wiry boy lost in that maddening milieu of Parisians and luxurious travelers from all over the world. I knew next to nothing about Paris and spoke no French. I had no idea if my fictional (till then) Uncle would be there at all or how he looked like. Much against the advice and judgment of anyone and everyone, my mother had let me go and here I was on the greatest adventure of my life, and was I excited!
Everything that I saw had me agog in amazement. Surprisingly, no one took even the slightest notice of the lost boy. Being a minor I had been escorted by an airline staff till the exit gate. As soon as I saw the tall gaunt figure standing upright and high above the rest I knew it was him. He looked straight at me with a smile, bright enough to light up rural India, beneath his mutton chop whiskers. He waved and rushed forward. He lifted me up in his arms with a bear hug, adopting me right then and there as his own. From then, over the next six years I traveled with him across the globe from Alps to Andes and Atlas to Altai charting routes through forbidden valleys and forlorn mountains. As always my passport would be collected by one of his Indian contacts and my visa would arrive followed by the air ticket and off would I go on another adventure. I waited for my summer and winter holidays and Uncle Fred’s bear hug.
He was reticent about his personal life and I never learnt much about him.
Apparently he was a gentleman of leisure with a private income, though he had an honorable occupation as the piano teacher in the St George’s British School in Montreux, Geneva. No one seemed to know if he had a family anywhere though it was known that he was born into a Scottish family with considerable wealth.
His mountain attire smacked of early twentieth century when the Alps had started becoming a playground for the British, Swiss, French and Italian alpinists. When I saw a sketch of Edward Whymper, that indomitable climber who led the first ascent of Matterhorn, I could have sworn that Uncle Fred dressed exactly like him. Hobnailed boots, though crampons were common, deerstalker cap, though fleece caps of much lighter weight were available, and checkered tweed with leather elbow patches and leather riding gloves completed Uncle Fred. He was not a real climber, preferring hill walking and scrambling to sheer rock and ice faces, as I did. He would often watch me from below, while I climbed alone or with one of his alpinist friends and on my return to ground he would give my back a pair of hearty pats and say in his baritone, ‘Well, my boy, face and friction is for you. I would rather rely on only what Lord granted me.’ And he would lead off sprightly down the slopes with me trying hard to keep pace.
He was my window to the world. I learned more about Earth from him then from any books. He sponsored my Alpine courses at Chamonix, Leysin and Innsbruck. He took me to Russia, to Mongolia, to Turkey and Tibet. He was full of stories and hilarious episodes. What amazed me more than our travels was the fact that he had friends everywhere. Wherever we went, there were people both local and foreign to welcome us. Everyone treated him with great respect and admiration. He introduced me to all as his Indian son.
It was funny that he would get me the latest mountain climbing equipment and clothing but for him it would still be those that were being used fifty years ago. From him I learnt that mountains had all the answers, no matter what our question was. He taught me wilderness camping and survival. Though we were poor and he was definitely rich beyond my imagination, he never offered us any financial assistance only sponsoring my trips abroad or climbs anywhere. He never let me feel in any way less abundant or fortunate than him. He never visited our home or India, always saying, if I so insisted, ‘Well, my boy, my ancestors have already done enough damage to your country. I think I will not add to it.’ I met him at strange places and unknown airports. Besides what was necessary for our adventure he never brought me any gifts or any fancy stuff, instilling within me a simplistic approach to life.
I still remember our camping trip to Lake Baikal. As one evening the sun set, painting the water orange and deep blue, I walked along Uncle Fred while he swung his hazel-wood cane in the air like fencer’s epee. I scurried to keep pace with his lengthy strides. It was late autumn and the air was decidedly chilly and we were the only two people in sight. We reached a round rock. ‘Come, my boy, let’s rest a while.’ Uncle Fred levered himself to the top and pulled me up. We sat side by side and gazed hypnotically at the deepening waters of the placid lake. My heart was brimming with unspoken joy. I was just happy to be where I was. I was lost in my own world of wild dreams.
‘What do they say to you?’ Uncle Fred asked at some point of time. ‘Who?’ I asked looking around. I didn’t see anyone else.
‘They,’ Uncle Fred pointed his cane around, ‘the water, air, the earth beneath your feet, the sun, the birds, the breeze, the flowers, the waves on the lake… what do they speak to you?’ I stared at him incredulously. What was he talking about!
‘My boy,’ he said, taking my hand and putting it up in the air, ‘you and I and every human on earth is a part of this, this family, we all are linked; we all belong to each other and we all say something, we communicate, we speak, we mean. You need to listen from your heart and open the doors to your mind to understand. You are a part of them as they are yours. No matter how old you grow or whatever may happen, never close your heart or your mind. Always listen and always understand and you will find a friend at every corner. To understand you don’t have to know the language only the humility to accept, even when you do not understand. Come, my boy, it will be night soon and it is time for you to brew some soup for this old man.’
At that moment as we walked back into the gathering dusk, my throat was choked with some unknown emotion. As if I had suddenly been given the secret key to the entire world and I was too merry to know what I could do with it. Most of my life’s philosophies were the outcome of such scrambles by the tall figure of Uncle Fred. He infused in me the love for nature and a world without boundaries. He taught me to recognize and trust the goodness of humanity in every man and showed me the path that I must follow all my life. The only mountain we ever climbed together was also our last.
I had only two weeks of winter break from college and by now I was one of the most promising badminton players in the country hence had national camps to attend, play tournaments etc but Uncle Fred insisted that I meet him in London. He met me at the airport in his car and we drove off heading straight up north. We made a night halt at Carlisle and the next day evening drove into the base of Mt Ben Nevis, the highest spot in UK. There was considerable ice and snow all around and the mountain was completely covered up in white. My heart of course leapt up with joy as I hadn’t climbed Ben Nevis yet.
We camped next to the shallow stream. Next morning I was surprised to see Uncle Fred donning a pair of gaiters and water proofs. ‘Are you climbing Ben Nevis?’ I asked. ‘Yes, my boy, and we will climb together.’ Uncle Fred said. ‘You will climb, through this snow? Are you sure? You never climb, I have asked you so many times. Can you climb?’ I was worried about him. The snow on the trail looked deep and dangerous. It was fresh and unbroken, not many people would climb here in the middle of a freezing winter. ‘I will have you know, young man, that your Uncle Fred can easily outpace a gazelle on a slope. Now lead on and save your breath for the mountain.’ He handed me one ice axe and hooked another to his right wrist, a long shaft wood one, I noticed to my bemusement. The normal trail to the hut on the summit of Ben Nevis is well marked with sticks and rope and is easy to follow even in deep snow. The sky was blue and the sun warm. It was a perfect day for climbing.
By now I was a seasoned climber with several first ascents and technical climbs across the globe and also much bigger so I easily outpaced Uncle Fred who seemed less than his usual self. Even then he stayed only few steps behind and we reached the hut on top after two hours. He got his burner out and we brewed hot tea. The day was unusually clear and bright and I could see almost the distant shores of the Northern Sea. As I sipped my tea I also realized that this old man now sitting close to me was no stranger to mountain climbing. He had handled himself like a pro on the steep parts of the trail and even when I intentionally left the trail and plunged into an ice covered gully near the top using my finest rock climbing skills to gain leverage, knowing full well that he would either stop me or leave me, I was surprised to see him following me with an agility much beyond his age and my expectations.
‘I saw today that you are a climber,’ I said, ‘Uncle Fred, but why would you not climb with me ever, and why did you climb today?’
‘How many peaks do you see around, my boy?’ Uncle Fred pointed at the horizon.
‘I don’t know, fifty perhaps.’ I offered.
‘Hundreds and I have climbed each of them as I have climbed many in the Alps and Alaska and in other parts of the world.’ Uncle Fred said. ‘You are good, my boy, I have seen you, you are good, and you need to be better if you wish to stay alive.’
I kept staring at him, puzzled and elated at this sudden revelation.
‘I lost the only woman who ever meant anything to me on this very mountain. Abseiling on an anchor I had fixed, it broke, and she fell and died even before reaching bottom. I vowed never to climb or step on any mountain face ever.’ He fell silent. He did not seem sad or unhappy, rather at peace with himself.
‘Then why did you climb today?’ I asked.
‘Satya,’ Uncle Fred put his right arm around my shoulders, ‘mountain climbing is like the notes of piano. Played individually they may sound nice but do not make much sense whereas together they complete the symphony. I had to conclude mine some day. I will never climb again. She will understand.’
As we retraced our steps down the mountain, I realized that it was only the second instance in our six year long friendship that Uncle Fred had addressed me by my name.
From Ben Nevis we drove around Scotland, along the cliffs of North Sea and Uncle Fred dropped me back at Heathrow on the day of my departure. I still recall as he hugged me hard and said, ‘My boy, remember, never stop climbing no matter what till your heart tells you to complete your symphony…’ ‘And what if it never tells me to complete my symphony?’ I had asked in my own mischievous way. ‘Well, my boy, then you must know that you are a poor piano player indeed.’ Uncle Fred’s booming laughter followed me till I entered the departure lounge. For some unspeakable reason that day, my eyes were brimming as the aircraft taxied out on to the runway, and I was terribly sad at leaving Uncle Fred.
I never saw him again. He died the next year walking through the alpine meadows of the Waltzmann Range in Upper Bavaria. He slipped and fell from a high cliff ending up into the ravine below. I only learned about this a year later when I called up his school number in Geneva. I located his grave in the picturesque village of Oberammeragau and laid two stones from the Himalaya next to the bunch of fresh flowers. I was intrigued that why an English gentleman teaching in a Swiss town should be buried in an obscure German village. I looked up the parish priest and had one of the most incredible conversations of my life. The parish priest, whose name I don’t remember now, knew all about me and towards the end of my visit he took out a small box and handed it over to me. ‘Fred left this for you.’ The kind priest said. As I sat by the blue waters of KÖnigssee (King’s Lake) two days later and read the letter from the box perhaps for the twentieth time, I felt as if I was back with him by the shores of Lake Baikal. My eyes were full of tears and the lump at my throat seemed to choke every ounce of air out of my lungs. The letter read,
‘Dear Satya, if you are reading this then you must know that I am no more. But fret not my boy. I am always with you since you have been the son I never had. I knew that you would come looking for me and you would find me in Oberammeragau since I could not be anywhere else but here, the land of my fraulein. Yes, my boy, I am now with Maggie and climbing all the hills of hell. You gave me endless joy and a reason to be proud of myself and I only wish one more favor from you. I wish you to place both of us on top of the world. Maggie wanted it so much and she would have been so proud of you as well. God bless my son and keep playing your symphony, I am listening.’
Along with the letter was a velvet pouch that held a silver locket containing a sepia portrait of Uncle Fred and a woman by the name of Maggie.
It is not known by any soul on earth and I am revealing it here for the first time that when I reached the summit of Everest and prayed on the summit to the mother goddess of Earth, I left three objects at the apex of the world. One of them was a silver locket.