Fiction – Coffee Break

There I was, minding my own business, slurping my Java Chip Frappuccino and staring at the Kindle in my hand, lost in a medieval fantasy far removed from the sweltering streets of New Delhi — when she walked in. It was the sound of her heels on the wooden floor that made me glance at the woman, but it was her striking beauty that made my eyes follow her to the faux-leather couch a few metres away.

My brain, jerked back to reality from the walls of Winterfell, registered her silky voice as the barista took her order for a cappuccino grande, non-fat. She laughed as the man behind the counter asked her name a second time. “Sheila,” she said. “Sheila, with an e and an i.” She looked back and caught my eye; her wide smile partially obscured by strands of thick, black hair. I held her gaze and smiled back.

She was in her 30s and dressed for the Indian summer, teaming a white lace shirt with blue palazzo pants and a black stone necklace that matched the sparkle in her eyes. She was the prettiest woman in the room and way out of my league.

The next thing I knew, Sheila was asking me something, but I didn’t quite catch it.
“Are you alone? May I join you?”
“Well, sure”
“Good! I need to speak to someone,” she said, easing into the seat next to mine.

Before I could regain my composure, Sheila burst into laughter. I stared, nonplussed, until she pointed to the side of her coffee cup where the barista had scribbled ‘Sila’.
“They misspell it all the time,” she said. “I’ve been called everything from Seela to Shayla.”
“Oh, that’s nothing. I’ve been called Bony.”
“Really? How awful,” she said. “What’s your name?”
“Ah, it doesn’t make sense till you know my name. I’m Tony.”
“And I’m Sheila, although you knew that already.”

I smiled sheepishly as she rummaged through her handbag, pulling out a blue silk scarf and a small package wrapped in a newspaper.

“Tony, are you married?”
I stared at Sheila, too startled to respond. Beautiful women don’t strike up a conversation with strangers in public places. At least not in India. Even if they do, they don’t ask invasive questions to break the ice. If I had done the same thing to a woman, she would have probably told me I’m a creep and left the place in a huff.
“Just confirming. I noticed you don’t wear a wedding ring. It’s OK if you don’t want to talk about it.”
“No, I was just a bit taken aback. I am not married.”
“Don’t mind me. My friends tell me I’m weird and ask the first thing that pops into my mind.”
I smiled. But she didn’t smile back, and pursed her lips instead.
Sheila leaned towards me, and dropped her voice to a whisper.
“The thing is I’ve just killed my husband.”
“I couldn’t take it anymore. I stabbed him.”
She unwrapped the package in front of her, revealing a kitchen knife, its blade stained red with blood.
“I need your help,” she said.

I stood up. I didn’t know what to do. No one else seemed to have heard Sheila. Her words had been lost in the babble of caffeine addicts. I could make out the strains of Audrey Hepburn’s “Moon River” in the background. Over at the next table, a pair of young lovers was lost in each other’s eyes. A young man hunched over a laptop with headphones plugged in. At the back, giggling schoolgirls were busy smearing birthday cake on the face of their victim.

I looked at Sheila. Her words had shattered my perfect Saturday afternoon. It couldn’t be. This was a joke. It had to be. Perhaps it was part of a TV show. I remembered switching channels once and chancing upon pranksters preying on unsuspecting people, telling them outrageous things to gauge their reaction. I looked around, hoping to spot TV cameras or spy cams or anything suspicious. Nothing.

Sheila was looking at me with her beautiful kohl-rimmed eyes. I sat down, my brain in overdrive, thoughts flying and connections being attempted and failing. I needed more information.

“Is this true?”
“But why are you here?”
“I wanted coffee. I couldn’t think without a cup of coffee.”
“You should go to the police.”
“They’ll arrest me.”
“Obviously, you’ve murdered your husband.”
“He deserved it. He was assaulting me.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“I need to tell somebody.”
“Why the hell were you laughing earlier?”
“I don’t know what to do. When I’m stressed out, I react in unexpected ways.”
“What do you want from me?”
“To hide the body and give me an alibi.”
“Dream on. I’m not crazy.”

I picked up my Kindle and left, rushing out of the door and ignoring the security guard, who was holding his hand out for a tip. I crossed the road before I turned to steal a look.

She sat in the Starbucks cafe, sipping her coffee and staring out of the window. The blood stained knife lay next to her handbag, covered with her blue silk scarf.

This was crazy. This had to be weirdest thing that ever happened to me. And in a strange way, I found it thrilling. This was the most excitement I’d had in years. After we broke up, Priyanka had moved on with her life. She now lives in Mumbai with her husband and two-year-old son. I was stuck in a dead-end journalism job, a couple of dates which went nowhere, and now this mysterious woman wanted me to help cover up her husband’s murder. Weirdly enough, it made me feel wanted. Do not judge me.

I returned to the café. She watched me as I walked back to my chair and sat down. Over at the next table, the young couple hadn’t noticed my absence. The man twirled a strand of the woman’s hair, while she caressed his ears. The guy on the laptop was furiously typing something. The schoolgirls, finished with their merrymaking, were huddled up on the couch and talking animatedly.

I looked at Sheila. She had finished her cappuccino.
“Do you want another?”
“No, thank you”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Why did you come back?”
“I don’t think you are the kind of person who goes about murdering people.”
“Well, this is definitely my first.”
“I think I’ll help you.”
“You will?”
“I’ve my car. We’ll get rid of the body. And we’ll go away to a new city and start over.”
“Why should I go with you? We’ve only just met.”
“Ah, you think that’s creepy. Asking a stranger to get involved in a murder is way creepier.”
“And why do you assume I want to go with you, just an hour after killing my husband.”
“Do you want my help or not? We have to leave. We need to go to your house asap.”
“No, we can’t. I’m waiting for somebody.”
“Ah, there he is.”

Sheila got up to greet a bearded man in a T-shirt and jeans. He looked at me, smiled and held out his hand.
“Hi, I’m Rajesh, Sheila’s husband.”

As I stood there, speechless and unmoving, Sheila whispered something to him. Rajesh nodded and sat down, his eyes still on me.

“Please sit down, Tony,” said Shiela.
“I can explain everything”
“Is he your husband?”
“So you didn’t kill him?”
“And the blood on the knife?”
“Fake. Calm down. Everything’s fine”
“Why did you tell me you stabbed him?”
“I’m sorry. The thing is…”

And Sheila explained it all. How she was a forensic psychologist delving into criminal minds. As part of her research, she spoke to random strangers at cafes and restaurants, analyzing their responses to potential situations that could involve breaking the law. Rajesh wasn’t part of the study, but he helped her occasionally.

I was still having trouble taking all this in.
“You expect me to believe you go around telling people that you’ve killed your husband.”
“Well, it’s a different scenario each time – rob a bank, assault somebody, smuggle cocaine.”
“And do people help each time?”
“They rarely do. It was a shot in the dark, and I didn’t think you would agree to help.”
“Wait a minute. You said yes?” said Rajesh, his smile waning.
“Well, yes. I’m sorry. I have no idea why I agreed. I’m a really nice guy if you get to know me.”

Sheila leaned forward and clasped my hands.
“Why did you agree, Tony?”
“I don’t know. I still can’t believe it.”
“You were ready to risk prison for me. Do you trust people so blindly?”
“You didn’t seem like a bad person.”
“A wise man once said that if you give your trust to a person who does not deserve it, you actually give him the power to destroy you.”
“I’ve learned my lesson.”
“Trust no one, Tony.”
“That I won’t. Not after this.”
“I wish you the best in life. It was nice meeting you.”

And with that, Sheila and her husband walked out of the café and out of my life. I sat there for a while, breathing in the aroma of coffee beans, and thought about what she had said. The sun was setting when I left, but I was ready to face the world again.

(This short story was originally written for the TOI Write India: Chetan Bhagat contest)

Creative Commons License
Coffee Break by Tony Tharakan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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Photo credit: I don’t have a grinder 😦 via photopin (license)

Posted in cafe, coffee, fiction, game of thrones,, india, Sheila, short story, starbucks, Tony Tharakan, winterfell | Leave a comment

More Books

One DayOne Day by David Nicholls
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dex and Em love each other, or do they? This novel uses the unusual format of using one day (July 15) over a course of 20 years to offer snapshots of their lives. I felt myself drawn to these weird but believable characters. And it’s not as rom-commy as “When Harry Met Sally”. Spoiler ahead – there isn’t a happy. I wish there was one though. The Hollywood adaptation stars Anne Hathaway and Jim Sturgess.

The HippopotamusThe Hippopotamus by Stephen Fry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This has to be one of the funniest novels I’ve ever read. Fry’s work is best described as a kind of raunchy P.G. Wodehouse. And in “The Hippopotamus”, there’s the mystery of miracle healings to boot. Fry’s second novel is incredibly witty – and filthy. Be warned. There’s a horse involved. Highly recommended for fans of British humour. And a movie adaptation is being filmed.

A Clash of Kings  (A Song of Ice and Fire, #2)A Clash of Kings by George R.R. Martin
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Continued with Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy, having watched the corresponding episodes of the TV adaptation after every few chapters of Book Two. There are some chronological continuity issues, but I still think reading the books helps you enjoy the TV series better. I’ll go slow, and hopefully Martin will publish the sixth instalment by the time I catch up.

The UnnamedThe Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I found this much-hyped novel about a successful lawyer who suffers from an unnamed affliction — well, he is a compulsive walker and often finds himself waking up on the ground miles away from home — too dreary for my tastes.

Ferris writes beautifully, but the premise would have worked better as a short story. I couldn’t connect with the characters and they seemed one-dimensional. For an amazing novel about how illness affects the family, read Jerry Pinto’s “Em and the Big Hoom” instead.

Those Pricey Thakur GirlsThose Pricey Thakur Girls by Anuja Chauhan
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

To those who say this book is a desi version of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, let me just say that such comparisons are utterly unfounded. Yes, it is a breezy read and it’s nice to have a rom-com set in New Delhi in the 1980s. Still, Chauhan’s The Zoya Factor was far more enjoyable, perhaps because of its autobiographical elements. But I should tell you “Those Pricey Thakur Girls” does trump the soppy TV adaptation. No, I don’t watch it. I just happened to catch a few minutes of one pathetic episode.

View all my reviews

Posted in Anuja Chauhan, books, david nicholls, George R R Martin,, Jane Austen, Joshua Ferris, one day, Pride and Prejudice, stephen fry, the Hippopotamus, The Unnamed, Those Pricey Thakur Girls | Leave a comment

Four books


My Kindle cracked from side to side,
With a heavy heart I put it aside,
For now, I return to books unread,
Till a new one arrives in its stead.

Here’s what I finished over the past month:

A GAME OF THRONES by George R. R. Martin

I’m nine years late to the party, but Book 1 of Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” fantasy was still a fun read. I took it slow and steady, watching the corresponding episodes of the TV adaptation after every few chapters. The TV series is fantastic, but they do leave stuff out while fitting 700-plus pages into 10 episodes. I believe reading the book does enhance the experience. But be prepared for some surprises. Martin killed off one of the main characters towards the end of Book 1. And it felt as if Harry Potter had died in the first book. GoT addicts warn me there are major shocks ahead, and I’m intrigued enough to continue. I’ll go slow, and hopefully Martin will be done with the sixth instalment by the time I catch up.

by Stephen Fry
Volume two of the British actor’s autobiography is just as engaging as the first. This one describes his early years at Cambridge, his theatre collaborations with Emma Thompson and Hugh Laurie (Dr. House), and his foray into television. Sounds boring? Ah well, if only I could be as funny and witty as Fry – the P.G.Wodehouse of his generation. Up next, Fry’s best-selling novels.

MIDDLESEX by Jeffrey Eugenides
This Pulitzer-winning work is ostensibly about its protagonist, an intersex male of Greek descent. But this sweeping novel also traces the lives of three generations of the Stephanides family, and their dark secret. Some critics found it verbose, but I feel “Middlesex” would’ve lost much of its appeal had the author stuck with the slim fictional account he initially set out to write. Highly recommended.

MUERTE EN VALENCIA by Loreto de Miguel and Alba Santos
Detective Pepe Rey has a new love and a new case. While celebrating the traditional fallas in Valencia, a theatre actor is found dead with a dagger through his heart. In this 40-page novella, part of a series for those learning Spanish, there is enough mystery to keep one hooked until the end.

Posted in books, game of thrones, George R R Martin,, jeffrey eugenides, kindle, middlesex, muerte en valencia, stephen fry | Leave a comment

In Lansdowne, the crickets drown out John Denver

In Lansdowne, the crickets drown out John Denver.

We sit outside in the gathering dusk, our ears attuned to the insects in the trees.

Swaty is quiet. She slouches in a plastic chair with her feet up on the parapet and a steady smile on her lips. As the strains of “Annie’s Song” fade, she puts down an unread Haruki Murakami novel and picks up her phone to play a Don Williamsnumber. The country singer’s baritone fills the air, but the crickets prevail.

Lansdowne is a sleepy colonial-era hill station a few hundred kilometres from India’s capital. Six of us are here for the weekend, escaping the everyday worries of city life in New Delhi and renewing decade-old friendships.

When not ensconced in our cosy wooden cottages, we stroll up and down meandering mountain roads, staring into the wilderness, our incessant chatter interspersed by moments of satisfied silence. A brown calf walks past, looking askance at this motley group of humans. At Bhulla Tal, a man-made lake and tourist magnet, we embark in our pedal boats with great enthusiasm. Only to tire and return to shore before our allotted 20 minutes are up. A family of ducks mocks us. At the nearby eatery, a box is filled to the brim with packets of Maggi instant noodles on sale. Ban! What ban?

Anima buys a packet of locally made chips, and makes a face as she bites into one. The six of us are lounging in the shadows of St. Mary’s Church when the monkeys come. One, two, and then they multiply till a sea of brown blobs closes in on us. We move away in time but, in her haste, Anima leaves the chips behind. A monkey stumbles upon the spicy wafers. But he doesn’t like them. A second primate gets his hands on the loot, and flings it aside. The monkeys retreat into the darkness, leaving us to ponder over a vital question – does anyone like these chips?

We stay at a government-run tourist centre, perched on a hill that overlooks Lansdowne, and any illusions of our seclusion are dispelled on the second day. Hordes of daytrippers visit the adjacent Tip-N-Top point for a glimpse of the Himalayas, and invariably traipse up the walkway outside our cottages. Honeymooning couples, restless children, pot-bellied men, high-heeled women, and bevies of giggly, pimply girls. They all pose on our porch, brazenly taking selfies as we stare them in the face, horrified at this invasion of our mountain retreat.

One of the girls wants to use our washroom; we reluctantly agree. But her companion riles up Swaty with an insolent remark about us owning the place. And Swaty, usually the epitome of sunshiny happiness, retorts that we do – at least for the weekend. When we walk down to the café, the girls are there. They notice us and break into fits of giggles. We ignore them, but their ponytailed ringleader — in heels and a denim miniskirt — has the last word. As they walk past us, she turns to her companions and says, “I hope you don’t have to use the washroom.”

To be honest, the chilli chicken and cottage cheese served at the café is so orange (thanks to dollops of added food colouring), that tourists may feel rather safe in the sanctuary of the washroom. My cottage is almost certainly meant to be a honeymoon suite; the artistic designs of our bathroom tiles are meant to echo the erotic sculptures of Khajuraho. My friends don’t see any resemblance and say I’m exaggerating.

The TV sets in the cottages do work, but only a few Hindi channels are on offer. Which meant that Upasana, controller of the TV remote during our stay, juggles between one or the other music channel and subjects us to trailers and songs from “Dil Dhadakne Do“, “Hamari Adhuri Kahani“, and lesser known Bollywood films of dubious origin. This goes on till Anima has had enough. Anima, introduced to the music of Yo Yo Honey Singh during this trip, rolls her eyes and nearly faints when apprised of the hit-churning rapper’s status as Bollywood’s next A.R. Rahman.

We stay up at night, playing Bluff – a popular card game of deception. I struggle to make sense of the game, invariably finishing last each time, but luck favours me in the final game. I raise my arms in triumph, gloating as if I’ve just won Wimbledon, and my friends collapse in a heap of merriment.

A dull throbbing in my head, which had manifested itself in the evening, had by now mutated into the frenzied tom-tomming of the African jungle. I bid my friends adieu and went to bed. My roommate Sumit, a stoic chap of the first order, endured my snoring all night. Unverifiable reports say my snores were audible outside the cottage. Apologies again, Sumit.

Sunandita, our ever-dependable guiding light, takes charge of toting up our bills the next morning, and ensures we are bathed and ready for the trip back to New Delhi. As the clock strikes 8 a.m., the deadline insisted upon by our driver, we park ourselves and our luggage next to the car. But where is the driver? Several frantic and unanswered phone calls later, we spot him walking towards us, freshly showered and clad in a towel. We eventually leave a half-hour late, taking in the sights and sounds of Lansdowne one last time.

Who knows if there’ll be a Lansdowne in the coming years? At the local museum, adjacent to a parade ground where errant Garhwal Rifles cadets roll about under the hot sun, I overheard a man and a woman talking about a proposal to rename Lansdowne. In the Indian tradition of Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai, there are moves afoot to rename it Kaludanda (black hill), the name of the site where the British established the cantonment town in the 19th century and christened it in honour of the reigning viceroy. That would be a pity.

Posted in Bollywood, cottages, garhwal, hill,, kaludanda, Khajuraho, Lansdowne, tourism, trip, uttarakhand | Leave a comment

Why you should watch "Tanu Weds Manu Returns"

While the rest of India sizzled in the 40 degree heat, Bollywood baked some unexpected May treats for movie fans. And set up a tough fight for this year’s best actress honours. Deepika Padukone (“Piku“) squares off against the twin heroines of “Tanu Weds Manu Returns“, whose charm stems largely from the effervescence of Kangana Ranaut.

Back in 2011, when Indian audiences lapped up the oddball pairing of Ranaut and Ranganathan Madhavan in “Tanu Weds Manu“, Ranaut was a relative unknown who played neurotic women on the big screen.

But that was before the success of “Queen” (2014) catapulted Ranaut into Bollywood’s big league, ensuring enough eyeballs for the sequel to Aanand L. Rai‘s unconventional rom-com. She does not disappoint in “Tanu Weds Manu Returns“, playing a double role with such panache that audiences find themselves rooting for one Ranaut over the other.

Four years after feisty Tanu (Ranaut) hitched up with the imperturbable Manu (Madhavan), there’s trouble in paradise. The seven-year itch comes prematurely for a couple constantly at each other’s throats. Long story short, they separate in London and fly back to India. The seemingly alcoholic Tanu heads to her hometown Kanpur, getting chatty with her former lovers while Manu picks up the pieces of his broken heart in New Delhi.

While giving a university lecture, Manu sets eyes on Tanu’s doppelganger and is intrigued. But pixie-cut Datto and curly-tressed Tanu are no two peas in a pod. Datto hails from a pastoral setting in Haryana, is training to be an athlete and speaks in a heavily accented English that sparks a few laughs. But it’s her unflappable determination to conquer the world that endears her to audiences. When street-smart Datto flashes her smile, she projects an underlying goodness that makes it impossible to begrudge her the love Manu showers despite being at the receiving end of her hockey stick.

Things speed up when Manu is served divorce papers from his wife, done without Tanu’s knowledge by one of her spurned lovers. A wedding date is set and all interested parties, including a repentant Tanu, turn up in Datto’s village for the big day. Will Manu’s mind waver?

No spoilers here, but Manu’s eventual choice is no surprise for audiences used to happy endings. Faced with the same choice in the Hollywood rom-com “Sweet Home Alabama” (2002), Reese Witherspoon wavers between her recently divorced hubby and the handsome New York boyfriend – and follows her heart.

“Tanu Weds Manu Returns” is not a film without flaws. The first 10 minutes are insufferable, with an unrealistic castle-like setting for couples therapy and Manu getting locked up in a London asylum. But things get better as director Rai gives audiences an insight into the beehives of middle-class life in New Delhi, Kanpur and a nondescript village in Jhajjar district. Screenwriter Himanshu Sharma impresses with an inexhaustible supply of one-liners, most of them uttered by Manu’s sidekick. The music, including Banno’s swagger (a whole other blog post), is catchy. And the talented cast, too numerous to name here, steps in to plug the occasional loopholes.

But Ranaut’s nuanced performance is the show-stopper, one that cements her place as a Bollywood heavy hitter and helps “Tanu Weds Manu Returns” outshine the first film. Not to be missed.

Posted in Aanand L Rai, Bollywood, Datto, film,, india, Kangana Ranaut, Madhavan, Tanu Weds Manu Returns | Leave a comment

Sweater? Swagger? What Banno needs most is a Swatter

There’s that song again on television. Bollywood film “Tanu Weds Manu Returns” features a peppier version of a popular folksong performed at north Indian weddings. The lyrics have been updated to reflect the times, making present-day “Banno” an unabashed bride surrounded by people who find her sweater sexy.

“Sweater?” asks my colleague Anupriya.
“Yes, they are referring to Banno’s sweater.”
“It’s not sweater,” she sighs, rolling her eyes. “It’s swagger.”
“Swagger? But that doesn’t make any sense.”
“Banno tera swagger,” she enunciates, marvelling at my talent for mishearing Bollywood lyrics. [I was initially under the impression the song Chittiyaan Kalaiyaan was about women who wrote a lot of letters, but that’s a whole other blog post on mondegreens]
“Swagger?” I repeat, somewhat disbelievingly, until a quick Google search proves Anupriya right.

I am not happy. I could live with a sexy “sweater” but Banno had no business having a sexy “swagger”. Well, she could obviously do so if the rest of the lyrics were in English, but “swagger” is violently yoked to the Hindi words “Banno tera“, producing an effect akin to a teaspoon of vinegar in a Starbucks Java Chip Frappuccino. It just doesn’t work.

Not that “sweater” sounds better. It’s tough conjuring up images of sweaty wedding guests getting jiggy on the dance floor while commenting on the bride’s woollens. But at least it’s plausible.

And there’s nothing else that goes with it.

Sexy “sweeper”. Nah, unless he sweeps Banno off her feet.
Sexy “sweetener”. Nah, unless Banno has Type 2 diabetes.
Sexy “swatter”. Hold on. “Swatter” isn’t half bad. It’s India and it’s summer and a fly swatter might do Banno a world of good. What do you think?

Posted in Bollywood, film,, lyrics, mondegreen, song, swagger, swatter, sweater, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, TWMReturns | Leave a comment

Notes from a Kashmir trip: Part 3 – The Tulian trek

The Lidder is ice-cold. I dip my toe in the water, but instinctively retract it. I marvel at my colleague Sankalp and two Kashmiri friends who shed their clothes for a quick dunk in this burbling river at a campsite some distance from Pahalgam. They badger me to join them, but I dig my heels in and park myself on a boulder on the Lidder’s banks.

A dozen kilometres away from Pahalgam, Aru makes for a pleasant car ride on a winding hillside road that mostly runs upstream, never too far from the Lidder. This scenic meadow is a tranquil spot often upstaged by the touristy Betaab valley, named after the Bollywood hit that was filmed there three decades ago. But locals prefer Aru for weekend getaways.

We amble past grazing ponies and pick a spot to rest with pine trees and snow-capped peaks in the distance, while the tin roofs in the village below glint silver in the August sun. The conversation turns to Kashmir’s troubles (and it didn’t take into account the devastating flash floods a few weeks after our trip).

My Kashmiri friends, both journalists, describe their lives growing up in Srinagar – the narrative is dispassionate, but there are occasional flashes of smouldering emotion. I look at the wired fencing behind us (put up illegally by nomadic goatherds); it’s conspicuous in the landscape. A microcosm of Kashmir.


Early next morning, Sankalp and I set out for Tulian lake at an altitude of 11,000 feet (3,350 metres). We were riding ponies. Sankalp was on Chetak while eight-year-old Raja, older and more experienced, was chosen to bear my heavier frame. Munir and Shabbir, their handlers, walked with us.

The ascent was easy at first, aided by breathtaking vistas of the Himalayas. We passed the meadow of Baisaran, which is where most tourists turn back. The never-ending trail headed for what looked like a sheer cliff, but we didn’t stop. The handlers prodded the ponies, but about halfway up the narrow zigzag trail, Raja struggled to cross a jutting rock. I dismounted gladly; the prospect of hurtling to my death didn’t appeal to me.

We later ran into another group of pony riders, a Gujarati family settled in Leeds, England. And an Australian – a weatherbeaten, sinewy old man who had been trekking alone for two days, and easily overtook us on foot.

When we reached the point where the ponies could go no further, it was a welcome break. My buttocks hurt and I was desperate to walk. But then the guide pointed up, towards our destination a kilometre or so away. Only a couple of glaciers and a sea of boulders to cross. My heart sank at this last-minute addition of obstacles to what was becoming a ‘Hunger Games’ quest. To add to our troubles, the Australian trekker returned, saying the first glacier was too dangerous to cross. But everyone was going on ahead, with the exception of a woman with a sprained ankle.

I straggled behind the rest, lost my footing several times on the glacier but eventually slithered across. I lost sight of Sankalp, who had been bounding like an antelope from one boulder to the other. It was getting colder by the minute and I was wearing a T-shirt, but thankfully the sun was still shining brightly. But I lost track of time, and was struggling to place one foot above the other.

Tired, cold and irritated, I was ready to give up. And to my relief, so was a fellow trekker. A sullen teenager from the Gujarati family had thrown in the towel, and was leaning on a boulder, staring into nothingness. His dad offered words of encouragement and eventually, the boy struggled to his feet and pressed onwards.

I sighed. If he could do it, I couldn’t stay behind. Damn this Tulian trip. Sankalp got a few mental curses, for not gauging how difficult this trip would be for all my 83 kilos. I brushed  the dust off my jeans and trudged on. After what seemed like an hour, I reached the summit for my first glimpse of why this expedition had been worth it.

I did not dip my toe in the lake. One of our pony handlers said the water was poisonous; legend has it a Hydra-like serpent dwells within its blue depths. I don’t believe in monsters; I was just too tired. So I rested on a boulder, clicked and posed for photos, and gathered energy for the descent.

I wouldn’t have believed it, but I soon realized going back down was the hard part. I kept slipping on the boulders and small stones that littered the path, landing with a rattling thump each time. Sankalp, who has good climbing genes (his family is from hilly Nainital), came to my aid and held on to my arm as I slowly made my way down the sea of boulders, and past the twin glaciers.

Near where our ponies were grazing, a Bakharwal (a nomadic tribe of goatherds) woman took us to her hut for refreshments. I don’t drink tea, but even I couldn’t resist a glass of steaming, milky tea that day. The wrinkled old woman said she had been serving trekkers to Tulian during the climbing months for as long as she could remember. Outside, a few Bakharwal children are playing with a goat and I was going to have a sense of déjà vu at Thajiwas glacier near Sonamarg, a trip we were to undertake a few days later.

But I wasn’t quite in the home stretch yet. As the afternoon wore on, our guides lost track of the trail and blundered further into the forest. As the slope was very steep, I preferred to dismount and let the ponies go on ahead. As Sankalp and the pony handlers quickly disappeared down the hill, I straggled behind. I took tentative steps and found gravity was working just fine. Losing my footing, I slid down the hill, grabbing nettles to slow my fall. I steadied myself and looked around, trying to map the best way down. But I slipped again, turning over on my back and sliding. Pebbles and sticks tore into my limbs like razor blades till I caught hold of a low branch. My head was aching, there were burrs stuck to my midriff and there didn’t seem any part of my body that wasn’t bruised or sprained.

I was just entertaining dark thoughts when I heard Sankalp and Munir call out, trying to figure out my location. I reply, relieved that I wasn’t going to meet my maker after all. Someone told me to hurry up, there are bears in the area and they come out in the evening. That did it for me. I stood up, slowly digging my feet into the mud and shuffled along in a zigzag line. Munir caught up with me, grasped my arm and helped me down, steadying me whenever I slipped, my legs flailing out under me. They had found the trail again and I climbed on to the pony, dead tired and aching all over, but knowing that within a few hours I’ll be at the hotel, where I hoped to crawl into bed after rubbing pain reliever cream all over. And I did just that. I felt much better the following morning and the Tulian aches and sprains had healed by the end of the Kashmir trip.

After our stints in Srinagar and Pahalgam, Sankalp and I spent the rest of the week in Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Manasbal; the first two are regular tourist haunts. Gulmarg has its gondola car ride and overpriced “self-service” eateries where employees ask for tips. Sonamarg has its pony ride and sledding on the glacier. But Manasbal is somewhat off the tourist trail, with an army camp and a village adjacent to a tranquil water body.

The ruins of Jharokha Bagh overlook Manasbal lake. Four centuries ago, Mughal Empress Nur Jahan spent several summer hours here. There’s something to be said for the beauty and quiet of Manasbal, still unfrequented by most tourists traipsing across Kashmir. Were she alive today, I can just about imagine Nur Jahan curled up in her terraced garden, immersed in a book of Persian poetry on her Kindle, occasionally lifting her regal gaze towards the placid waters.

(Photos taken on my Nokia Lumia 925 phone. Some photos have been Instagrammed)

Part 1 – Srinagar, flatbread, and the Bengali connection
Part 2 – The German flag, Cupid, and Naseeruddin Shah

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