Boom! Went off the dynamite.
For a moment, as if the earth had shaken. The hillock, which had been standing in front of us, for God alone knows how many centuries was suddenly not just there, but every where. The 100-foot-high crag was no more just 100-foot high. It now reached up, up till the sky, which in turn was now no longer blue, but brown. Yes, everything went brown and everything shuddered. Just like the flame of a candle gives a last bright flicker before dying away altogether, the mighty hillock had taken a final leap into the sky before reducing to a flat pile of rubble for ever.
And from our safe spot about 200 m from the blasting site, we engineers and labourers were congratulating each other. After all, another hill had been cleared. The highway project would now go on smoothly, and the flat space could later be used for more useful purposes like housing and agriculture. Development would continue in this remote, dry part of the Vindhyas…
Presently, my junior engineer came up to me. His eyes were gleaming, but as he came closer, I sensed that everything was not right. But he came to me, and embraced me, and warmly said, ‘Congratulations, sir. We did it once again.’ He then looked into my eyes, His eyes gleaming even more than before. ‘This calls for a party,sir. Our calculations were so very accurate.’ and I said ‘of course Satish, of course. Tonight at the rest house…’
So there we were, the two of us later that night at the rest house, together with our drinks n’ stuff. It was really my first chance of an informal chat with Satish, and I soon found that even without the drinks, he would’ve opened up quite easily. A very friendly person with an affable smile, Satish told me that he was from Rajasthan, and immediately after completing his degree in a civil engineering school, he had joined our firm. He told me that climbing was his hobby, and asked me if I shared his enthusiasm about the rocks.
Now for a person like me, rocks and mountains just meant the highway scenery. Or the locations of the various mushy hindi movie songs that I hated. In my school and college life, I had had no experience with the mountains whatsoever. And before joining civil engineering, I was not sure if I could tell a piece of wood from that of a stone! But this young fellow was fascinating to talk to, and after pleading my ignorance on this subject, I urged him to tell me about some of his experiences with the mountains.
He was silent for a moment, and I was later to realize that the thoughts which he gathered during that silence were going to keep us busy for a very,very long time.
‘The Aravalis were my first love.’ He started, and then with a dreamy look in his eyes, ‘I really don’t remember when I climbed my first peak, but it was at an age when children are hardly allowed to even walk on the roads. My dad used to take me out climbing on low hills, and when I used to get tired, he used to carry me on his shoulders and show me around the wilds.’
‘All through my school life, my favorite escape from the burdens and tensions of that mundane school life used to be the nearby hill range, and even now, no visit home is complete without a visit to the hill range, where I spent some of the happiest moments of my childhood.’
Saying this, he became quiet, and with his gaze fixed to a spot slightly above my shoulder, he took a swig of his drink. I was surprised, my city-breeding forcing me to wonder how could anyone have one’s happiest childhood times spent in some dry, hot and rugged jungle when there were pc games and pool parlors one could go to. And as if reading my mind, Satish continued, ‘You must be wondering what one could do in such mountains, isn’t that,sir? But sir, there’s always a new thing to discover in the mountains. No peak, no slope, no piece of rock is the same as another. You are free to do as u wish with the wilds, they never complain. Run, dance, sing, shout at the top of your voice…the wilds take it all, they’re very unlike us humans.’
I was gazing at him intently, seeing an unconditional love in his eyes. And suddenly, I felt small. I could not say the same about my pool parlor. The proprietor would throw me out if I didn’t pay up. In Satish’s case, the wilds, as long as people let them be there, would always welcom him.
Sensing my serious mood, Satish finished his peg, and laughed out aloud. ‘Come On mon sir, it’s OK. Don’t be so serious. Let me tell you the various things I’ve done with the beautiful aravalis.’
‘You see sir, the aravalis are basically made up of sediments and consequently, they’re very rugged. There’s sparse vegetation, so the rain creates some very loose pebbles, making most of the hill slopes very slippery. But once you get used to it, climbing on such hills can be very much fun.’
‘In fact, my friends and I used to have races on such loose pebbled hills. We’d start at the bottom, and would try to outrun each other to the top. Say, if the hill was 500 ft high, we’d slip at least once or twice on the hills…’
‘Slipped’, I said involuntarily, ‘on the hills, were u crazy, Satish?’
‘Of course not sir,’ he replied, his eyes shining, ‘we used to slip, but then there are always bushes, shrubs and pieces of rock to hang on to. And even if there aren’t any, One can’t slip far on a loose-pebbled hill slope? And beyond a few cuts and thorn incisions, there’s usually no scope of any injury. It used to be good, clean fun, sir. ‘
Unable to grasp this idea that people actually could have ‘fun’ slipping on hill slopes, I said, ‘but still isn’t that risky?’
‘Ha ha, no fun without any risks,sir. Wait till u get to the juicy part. The real reason why we used to roam the hills for hours at end. ‘Rock climbing!”
‘Rock climbing?’, I sat up in my chair. Now you are joking. That you do only in the Himalayas!’
‘Again u are very much mistaken, sir. The Aravalis may be short in stature, but they hardly lack any variety of climbs, except for snow capped peaks, of course. Some slopes in those hills are very steep, almost to the point of being vertical. And we used to climb them, without any ropes. It used to be a thrill and a half, sir. Looking for hand holds, footholds, testing the holds, bending your body accordingly, and going on climbing the ninety degree slopes for 50 feet, 60 feet without any ropes. A missed foot could hurl you 60 feet down, maybe even more and yet, u go on going up, foot after foot, hand after hand…’
I was much too bewildered to pass any comment now. Rock climbing without ropes..!!! But Satish was in another world. The world of his boyhood, of another land. The world of happiness…and his words, after the drink, were coming out fast and unclear.
‘And sir did I tell u about the Aravali skiing? No no, you have very right to be surprised. How can there be skiing without any ice? But we did that, too. On gentle slopes where there are big pebbles, I mean, really big and mobile pebbles, you just jump off from a slope. You won’t believe it, but just by keeping your balance and direction right, you can safely slip at an amazing 20-30 kmph on the pebbled slope. Of course you can not do that on all the slopes, but there are some slopes on which it is possible.’
Satish was now almost jumping in excitement. ‘These were just some of the tricks, sir. We used to go climbing any time we wished to. We used to go and sit on top of a hill in the evening, and gaze at the setting sun. And after that, we used to walk back through a 2-kilometer stretch of woods in almost complete darkness, with the woods alive with the sounds of jackals. From the top of the hill, the city used to look like a miniature toy set, and in the evenings when the city lights all of Aa sudden started turning on, it was as if a thousand stars were twinkling, and we were looking down at them, from a place someplace above the sky. And the shape of the hills, the green valleys, the smell of warm earth and the sun setting behind another range of hills…it was just beautiful. Sir, such was my country, and I am yet to see any sights matching those that I saw there.’
I handed him another drink, which he swallowed in one go, and sank back. The alcohol was very much having its effect now. He started in a sombre tone ‘the best thing about the wilds was that they never judged me. You know sir, wherever you go, people try to judge you. Even your friends, your teachers, colleagues, even your parents; They all judge you to a certain extent and treat you accordingly. But the hills, no sir, for them, every person is equal. The hills, the wilds do not judge. They accept everyone, they love everyone. Their beauty is on display, for enjoyment of everyone…’
There was silence for some time time. His words hung in the atmosphere, making it heavy and emotionally charged. He lit up a cigarette and started puffing.
I finally said, breaking the silence,”so u still are in love with those hills, right, Satish?”
He looked at me with gleaming eyes, and I recognized the earlier gleam in his eyes which had been there in the morning at the blasting site. And to my horror, I realized that the gleam was a reflection of…tears in his eyes. ‘I am still very much in love with the hills sir, only that my favorite hills are no more.”
‘What?’ I jumped up? Do u mean they were, they were…”
‘Yes sir’, he said, taking furious puffs at his cigarette. They were cleared away. Just like we cleared away the hill this morning. I’m sure some Satish roamed that hill some day. And I’m sure we’ve murdered a lot of memories today’. He paused to take another puff and continued, ‘I’m an emotional fool, I agree, but you are a man of this world, sir.’ And then, taking the last puff off his fag, ‘ why is it, sir, why is it that every good thing comes to an end?’
And he stubbed out the cigarette in the ash-tray.
I remember his question had hung in the air for a long time then, and it still hangs in my mind even now.
But this is a question that I, with all my knowledge of the world, am at a loss to address.