Friday, December 4, 2009
An Old Man and his Mountain
Tears flow down the speaker’s face as 226 pair of hands clap in unison to fill up the auditorium with a resounding applaud. Standing right at the back leaning against the wall I beam through my ears. The speaker is a young man of 76 just back from a high and difficult Himalayan trek two months ago. Three years before he was completely wheel-chair bound having lost the entire use of his lower limbs due arthritis and lung cancer and all hopes along with. No one expected him to live for long or have a life if at all. What he hadn’t lost though was a simple wish. He is, was my friend Charlie (as I called him) and he would die two years hence. He never went back to the Himalaya, instead in those two years he inspired and motivated thousands of people, filling them up with hope, with impossible dreams and helping them redefine their limits. It is my privilege to have known him in my life. This is his story. Charlie; here’s to you…
My friend calls me one day, ‘Satya, my grandpa wants to meet you.’ I visit his house the next evening. ‘He is crazy and cranky, don’t mind if he says something,’ my friend and his mother caution while leading me to the old man’s room. ‘He has been wheelchair bound for nearly ten years; makes him grumpy.’ My friend’s mother adds conspiratorially. ‘I like crazy people,’ I mutter and enter the room.
He is a gaunt old fellow stuck grotesquely to a wheelchair. I go up to him and say, ‘Hi, I am Satya.’ ‘I know, why didn’t you come to see me before?’ he states. ‘I didn’t know you exist.’ I reply with a shrug. ‘Fair enough,’ he nods, ‘tell me a story; tell me about the mountains you climb.’ I need no further bidding and over the next hour or so I take him atop and across several mountain ranges through several continents. Even as his eyes sparkle in wonder I discern some deep latent anguish in them as well. While I take leave, I ask him what I ask everyone on my first meeting, ‘What’s your wish?’ He holds my hand for a while and whispers, ‘I wish I could walk again.’ ‘That’s a given, you will walk,’ I affirm, ‘what’s next?’ I ask. ‘Really, you think so?’ ‘I don’t ‘think’ so, I ‘know’ so. Wish something more.’ ‘Wish I could climb in the Himalaya like you.’ He says. ‘Brilliant, you will.’ I pat him on the back.
‘I believe you,’ the old man says.
‘I believe in you.’ I say and leave.
Over the next three years I visit him as often as my own gypsy life would allow, telling him more stories and reinforcing his dreams and his self-belief in his abilities. After eight months of our first meeting he leaves his chair for the first time in 11 years. He transforms into a kid, rolls in the grass outside refusing to return home. Much worried for his health, my friend’s mother gives me a frantic call. By now it is well established that for the old man, I am his best friend. I reach the house and am directed to the neighborhood park. I join the old man in his frolic. Together we roll on the grass, chase butterflies, climb trees (I do, he cheers), watch the squirrels, smell the flowers, follow the birds’ chattering and finally at sundown I get him home. He is tired and exhausted, his knee throbs and buckles but he is immensely happy. That evening when I leave him he says, ‘Call me Charlie.’ ‘Charlie it is.’ I nod and leave. Two days later I depart for an expedition.
Three months later when I return and call up Charlie he screams into the phone, ‘I have stopped all medicines and driven all the stupid doctors out. Bahu (daughter-in-law) is using the wheelchair for shifting heavy stuff around the house.’ On his 76th birthday Charlie declares, ‘I am ready to climb, when do we go?’ His family is horrified, petrified and incredulous in various degrees. They plead me to say ‘no’. ‘Sure thing,’ I tell Charlie, ‘we need to dress you up nice and warm.’
In the following summer I drop out of my expedition and take Charlie up on a Himalayan glacier across crevasses and moraines up to 18,500 ft. Huffing and puffing under his backpack Charlie walks steadily, never giving up as I struggle to walk slow enough to stay by his side. His body breaks into sweat under physical agony. His face and his mind is nothing but a bundle of joy. Charlie knows and so do I that each step could be his last but he is not going to give up. He is living and I am sharing his dream. I feel sorry as I feel euphoric at the miracle unfolding right next to me. Charlie fumbles and tumbles, limps and labors and keeps going on. He closes his eyes and wallops on ground as we step on fresh soft snow. He has never seen snow before. We throw snow balls at each other, at other people on the trail. Even I feel a bit embarrassed at his behavior.
The day we reach our high point from where we would return, the sky clears at night. The black moonless sky is sparkling with million stars as comets and meteors scamper every now and then. Charlie pulls the sleeping bag out and refuses to get in the tent. He has never seen anything so spellbinding in his life. Even he quietens down. Our staff has gone off to sleep. I sit with him and trace out the constellations and stars and the mythological figures across the black canvass. We ascend to the heavens and walk through the galaxies. We fantasize and we live our dreams. Eventually the sun rises and we return home.
A week later I call up one of the schools where I conduct outdoor workshops for kids and ask the Principal to call Charlie over for a talk. It is difficult to convince her but she finally agrees. I convey the invitation to Charlie to address the school (kids, teachers, parents) on the next Foundation Day. It is even harder to persuade Charlie.
At the end of a very crude but sincere and passionate talk, where often I had to take over the mike, Charlie got a standing ovation from the audience. Words spread, media picks it up, he gets featured in magazines. Invites follow and Charlie becomes a motivational speaker telling his stories to anyone willing to listen. Soon I make myself redundant. Charlie has the entire stage and the audience to himself. I ask him to drop my mention from his talks. I begin to miss his talks often as I leave civilization frequently. Charlie stands totally on his own feet. He becomes an idol, a life counselor. Hundreds of terminally ill people of all ages learn to dream and live through Charlie. Children emulate his eccentricities and cite his examples when they wish to do something outrageously imbecile. In short, Charlie becomes a hero.
Despite his will to live Charlie dies peacefully in his dreams one night when I am far away climbing a mountain of my dream. When I return home a month and half later, my friend’s mother gives me a sealed envelope that Charlie had left for me. I am extremely happy. I reach home and open the letter.
‘Dear son,’ it says, ‘did you ever wonder why I named myself Charlie!’ ‘I sure did,’ I think aloud. ‘Because you are and will always be my Snoopy and I discovered Peanuts through you. Though Charlie would never say to Snoopy but I will, “Thank you”. May your journey never end.’ Charlie.
That was 12 years ago. My journey keeps going on.I wish Charlie was by my side.
P.S. The above story emerged out of a delightful evening few days ago that I spent with my friend Kavita on a rooftop hangout. As we watched the sparkling city beneath we exchanged ideas and thoughts and in the course of conversation Kavita asked, ‘Can I do it?’ This simple question from her brought back memories of Charlie about whom I had stopped thinking consciously. I told her the above story and then thought now that it had come back maybe I should chronicle it in my blog as well. Kavita agreed by the time we parted for the night that yes she can and she would do it. Charlie’s story is dedicated to you Kavita, whether you read it or not one day. And to you it is now my turn to say, ‘Thank you,’