The bus wearily dragged itself on the upward slope, black fumes of exhaust polluting the cold heavy air.
“You can’t expect luxury on a budget tour.”
Sudha thought to herself. Ironic that one should have chosen to skimp on money at a time like this, but habits of a lifetime were not easily overridden. The fat aunty was sleeping with her mouth open, head rolling on to her neighbors’ shoulder every time the bus made a turn. Thank heavens she is not sitting next to me, Sudha thought.
She had been acutely aware of her full bladder for the last 10 minutes and hoped fervently that the bus would stop somewhere soon. She did not want the romance of the journey to be spoilt by trivial discomforts. It was her very last trip anywhere and she had determined to enjoy herself thoroughly, to soak in all the sights and sounds. The smell of the towering pine forests, the majestic mountains with their snow caps were gradually becoming part of the experience of the landscape and Sudha decided to focus on them.
The bus soon stopped for tea at a small shack like shop. All the passengers made a beeline for the make shift toilet, some of the males rushing to empty their bladders on the vegetation at hand. The area around looked dry and barren .There was white dust everywhere and the chill wind blew into the very marrows of their bones. Sudha felt better after her visit to the bathroom, which though rather dirty served her purpose.
She studied her fellow passengers as they all sat on the makeshift stone seats near the shop sipping the hot tea. Apart from the fat aunty who was with someone who looked like her sister, there were 3 other couples all middle aged, a young man in his thirties with a very expensive looking camera and equipment with a girl; assistant, girlfriend, colleague? Sudha speculated. There was another man, in his late 50s by himself always jotting down stuff in his little notebook; could be journalist, travel writer or compulsive journal keeper.
She was not interested in making conversation with any of them and had been avoiding more than cursory eye contact and a brief smile so as to not appear stand-offish. Not that making a good impression mattered anyway. She would never see them again. She would never see anybody again. Sudha went over all the preparations she had made in the last six months. She was almost sure, she had missed out nothing. It was just perfect.
She had already insured herself to the tune of 20 lakh in the last few years; the nominee was her nephew. That meant his education would be taken care of. Her house was insured too so that would take care of the mortgage. Accident insurance was part of the package to Manasarovar, as it was known to be dangerous journey. Since her death would be an accident, it would mean a small nest egg, a sum of about 40 lakhs for her sister.
God knows they needed it! In the last 6 months she had also made a careful assessment of her life. After her mother’s death there was no longer anyone who really needed her. The work in the university no longer held any charms. She knew there was no earth shattering research that she was going to do and teaching had become a chore. She had Rajesh but she realized that an affair with a married man held no future. It was just a matter of time .The wife and kiddies would always win.
She was already 45; hardly the age when anyone would leave a wife for her. No chance of a marriage or kids too at this age. Yeah, Rajesh would miss her but he would be ok. He had his family, his friends, his club and other pursuits. He was getting more and more enmeshed in domesticity, after his daughter’s marriage. She had thought he would be free after the marriage but things turned out to be otherwise. First it was the in laws, adjusting with them, managing them and now pregnancy and preparations for her delivery. There was no end to it. There never would be. The two of them had once planned a trip to the Himalayas; ironic Sudha thought with a smile.
How did she feel about dying? Would she have the nerve to go through it? She thought of the alternative, living a completely purposeless life, a lonely old age perhaps one racked by disease or dependence. No there was no more doubt. She had to go through this. No other scruples held her back. She was a scientist. She knew that her body would go back into nature and that was full stop.
Who could choose a better place to die? Pilgrims who died at Kailas were supposed to ascend bodily into heaven. She smiled again at the thought at the choice of place she had made; just in case all those fairy tales were true. As she looked away smiling, she found the journal writer looking at her.
‘A private joke?’ he asked abruptly. ‘I am sorry. It’s really none of my business and I should have introduced myself. It’s just that you have been smiling to yourself for the last 10 minutes or so.’ Perhaps he caught her irritated expression. ‘I am Ameen, Ameen Sinha. I work for the Delhi Corporation. I am an accountant.’
‘Sudha Choudhary’ she said somewhat mollified by his apology. ‘I am a chemistry teacher.’
In the next lap of the journey, Ameen sat next to her and they struck up a cursory conversation about the destination they were going to. Sudha found his talk restful. He did not ask any personal questions nor did he volunteer any information about himself. He had a lot of knowledge about the terrain and professed to be an avid traveller and in love with the Himalayas. She turned out to be right about the travel writing part. It was a hobby he said and named a few magazines he had published with.
They had a couple of days to travel before they reached Manasarovar. They had often had to rough it out as they were venturing far away from the rough hamlets. Sudha amused herself watching her fellow travelers make a beeline for the basic lunch which the tour operators had packed for the next few days. It had to be dry stuff and many of them were craving for hot luscious parathas and masala dosas.
Fat aunty and sister tried to cram in as much food as they could. The couples were protective of one another. It sometimes gave Sudha a pang to see the men folk making sure that their wives got enough to eat and drink. Had things been different with Rajesh…Sudha shook off those thoughts before they could take root. Sudha saw Ameen popping some pills after lunch and wondered if he was hypertensive. All of them had to pass a rigorous physical before the pilgrimage. Your heart and lungs had to be fine if you wanted to climb the Himalayas. The group later visited one of the small shrines of the pahadis. There were loud chants of Om Namah Shivaya as the devotees rushed in to do the evening pooja.
Ameen and Sudha found themselves the only ones outside.
’Atheist?’ quizzed Ameen.
‘Agnostic ‘was Sudha’s reply.
‘Why are you on a pilgrimage then?’ Asked Ameen
‘Why are you?’ countered Sudha not wishing to reply.
‘I told you .I am a lover of the mountains.’ Ameen replied. ‘But there is another reason too. A year ago, I had been diagnosed with very bad myeloid leukemia. I was on chemo and radiation. 3 months ago my doctors told me that I had gone into remission. I still need to take my chemo medication but I am fine. In those months when I had thought that my life was at an end, I had promised myself I would do a Kailas yatra to celebrate my return to life. That is my story. Your turn now’ he said laughingly.
‘I have no particular reason. I just wanted a change from my routine.’ Sudha said without looking at him. Ameen said nothing though he looked disbelieving. Their conversation was interrupted by the ringing of the temple bells after the ‘aarati.’ The photographer and girl friend emerged from the temple wrapped up in each other.
‘Ah! Life is good when you are young and in love.’ sighed Ameen. Sudha wondered about him, wanted to ask him about how someone who had had a horrific illness could love life but did not dare to ask because it would mean having to share confidences for which she was not prepared. The aunties had already extracted some of her biography; that she was single. They gave coy looks at her and Ameen probably pairing them up together in their nasty little minds Sudha thought to herself angrily. She would try to avoid being with Ameen, she thought but the fact was that they were constantly thrown together, both being the odd ones out.
Sudha was getting more and more preoccupied with the purpose of her journey. It was bizarre,she knew; committing suicide on a pilgrimage. That was the beauty of her plan; no one would suspect it was not an accident, not in a million years. How would she manage it? It should be done without an iota of suspicion. She did not want her sister and nephew to experience any survivor guilt or feel responsible and she also wanted them to get the money.
As they walked along the narrow winding paths in the mountains she looked down to identify a spot in the slippery slopes where she could seem to fall down accidently. The other alternative was during the Kailas ‘parikrama’ (circumambulation of the holy mountain) where she could slip away from the group. It would appear that she had got lost and perished due to hypothermia. Many pilgrims did in fact and so groups were always told to stick close together. How would it feel to die? Perhaps hypothermia was the best way to .She would just drift into a sleep from which there would be no awakening.
They had reached the Chinese border where they had to get their passports checked before they crossed over into Tibet. The group wandered around in the dusty border town trying to get their rupees changed into Yen. The photographer was being eyed with a great deal of suspicion. His equipment ran the risk of being confiscated by the Chinese and he was looking troubled. The older women were already suffering from rheumatic complaints exacerbated by the cold weather and had decided on hiring ponies for the parikrama.
Most of them had some problem or the other and all of them looked a thoroughly miserable lot except Ameen who looked as serene as ever. Sudha had developed a blister in her foot which made it difficult for her to walk and she often found herself trailing behind the others. Ameen would often keep her company and she could hardly refuse his help without appearing churlish and ungrateful. They would sometimes halt to look at the splendid view of the valleys.
Ameen drew her attention to some of the shrubs which he claimed had medicinal value. He had made a paste of some of the plants which he said would help heal her foot. She actually did feel much better. Under other circumstances Sudha would have thoroughly enjoyed the journey. Everything else seemed so very far away, it did not seem to matter.
They reached Manasarovar the next day. It was an exhilarating experience for all the pilgrims. Everyone agreed it was worth all the hardship. Sudha had read a great deal about the beauty of the lake but even she was spell bound. It was beyond anything she could have imagined. The deep blue transparent waters in its pristine purity flanked by the majestic mountain ranges; Kailas looming in the background in haughty snow capped splendor; it was easy to believe that this was the abode of Gods.
Sudha sat on the banks of the lake watching people collecting the water in containers to take home. Her life and its problems seemed so far away and trivial; they seemed completely insignificant. A great peace filled her soul. Ameen joined her as she sat there.
’Isn’t it just great to be alive?’He exclaimed, probably feeling the same joy.
Sudha smiled at him saying ‘Yes .Right now, right here, it is.’
‘You have a beautiful smile.’ Ameen remarked. ‘It really transforms your face. You should smile more often. Before I got the leukaemia, I too was like you. I was serious, focused, and full of things I had to accomplish. I realized all of it doesn’t matter a damn. The Cancer taught me to live from day to day, that life itself is what matters, not having a grand purpose or being successful. I even stopped hurting that my wife, the woman I had loved since I was a teenager, had left me for another man. I could finally forgive and just be happy I was alive. You know what? I resigned my job before I started this journey. I am going to pursue my passions –travel and writing. I know you are unhappy now, but believe me it will stop mattering. Life is so full of unexpected surprises, it is a fun game. In our insecurity we try to force it into our straitjackets. That is when we get grief.’
Sudha remained silent.
‘I am sorry I got carried away. Forgive me for the lecture.’ Ameen apologized thinking that perhaps he had said too much. Sudha continued to look at the vast expanse of water. She then pushed back her hair which the wind was sweeping into her eyes and looked at him and asked. ‘You really believe all that?’
‘Most certainly’, was the reply. ‘Death has finality. Life on the other hand is full of possibilities. I think I never killed myself because I’d hate to die without knowing what else might have happened.’ Ameen laughed.
Sudha looked the group returning from the lake. They seemed so much more likeable. She wanted to smile and wave at them. The photographer and girlfriend were walking hand in hand. They seemed so young, so vulnerable; like some of her students. A ridiculous tenderness for them filled her and there was a lump in her throat. Perhaps there was something around the corner waiting for her too.
Nearly 1 million people worldwide commit suicide each year, with anywhere from 10 million to 20 million suicide attempts annually.While a majority of suicide attempts are impulsive,a few are the result of an existential dilemma ,feeling of anomie or lack of rootedness.The protagonist Sudha in this case feels that her life has no meaning because she has no significant other in her life. Loneliness, old age and emptiness is all that she can see ahead of her. She feels that she should put an end to her life in a way that will benefit her sister and children who are struggling financially and sees her suicide as almost an altruistic act. The peace and serenity of Manasarovar and her distance form her day to day environment made her problems suddenly seem very trivial. Ameen ,her fellow traveller too was responsible for a paradigm shift in her perception of life and making her realise that life is full of infinite possibilities. A spiritual awakening of sorts was what made her change her decision.