Have you ever panicked? I mean really panicked, almost in a state of terror? I have, several times.
Not just in nightmares that seem real, when you are being chased by some horrible creature/thug or whatever and you can’t move your limbs. Normally I try to wake up and think of pleasant things to replace the horrifying dream and then go back to sleep. Then there are the times when you have misplaced some really important document and can’t find it for the life of you. The panic can only be experienced, not described. I am sure you must have all had some such incident to recall.
What I am going to tell you happened nearly two decades ago but the sense of panic bordering on terror is still fresh in my mind. I mean, it was a granddaddy of all panic.
I had gone to Pune to visit my parents with the two boys. The older one was about 14 and the younger one eight. My second oldest brother with whom my parents lived, had two daughters aged about 12 and four. We took the children sightseeing to the Kelkar museum, Appu Ghar and the like, but the older kids yearned for some adventure. So we decided to on a trek to the fort atop Sinhagad about 30 odd kms from Pune.
So off we set out, my bhabhi, the two older children and I. We took a bus to the foot of the hills. I don’t know how ‘developed’ it is today, but back then Sinhagad village still had a ‘village look’ and we could feel the excitement of other trekkers like us. We were a little late since trekkers are known to come back by 10-11 am after completing their trek. My bhabhi who is a diabetic was not sure she would be able to climb all the way and said that she would go as far as she could manage and then wait for us to come back.
The trek was not a difficult one but the paths were narrow at places and looked pretty dangerous at least to us mothers. The fort was situated at a height of over 3000 feet and we were told that it would take about an hour and a half to make it to the top. My bhabhi looked up a little uncertainly and then said, ‘Come let’s go!’ with a steely determination. She set the pace and we scrambled after her. We three were going great guns when we realized that we hadn’t heard my bhabhi’s voice for a while. When we looked back she was sitting on a rock a little way down. She had made nearly a quarter of the way! Voices carried far on mountains and she called out, ‘You carry on. I will wait here!’ We waved to her and set off. She had some snacks and water with her and we knew she would be fine.
The going was getting a little harder and steeper. At some places the path was really narrow. There were not many trekkers but locals were there aplenty. Some carried bundles of kindling on their heads and deftly negotiated the narrow paths, some of which led to their settlements en route and required them to walk on paths that bordered deep precipices.
As we neared the half way mark I began tiring too. The sun was up and it was getting hot though it was only January. After some time I noticed that the distance between the two teens and me was lengthening imperceptibly. I quickened my steps. After all what was a mere hill when I had climbed the seven hills of Tirupathi not once but twice – the first time when I had been just 10! I willed myself to keep up with them though I was getting short of breath.
At one point I sat down. ‘Wait!’ I called out.
The two stopped but didn’t come back to where I was sitting, engrossed in their conversation. They wanted to reach the top fast and here I was slowing them down! After a couple of minutes my boy came back, ‘Amma, you can come slowly. Let us go ahead.’ I looked at the fort at the top. It didn’t look too far off I could see dots of men, women and children making their way up like so many ants in colourful clothes (Back then I still had very good vision). It looked safe enough to let them go. After all the boy was nearly 14!
‘Okay,’ I allowed reluctantly. I idly wondered how far below my bhabhi was and what she was doing. We learnt about it later and were zapped for words. More about that later.
‘Bye ma!’ called the boy and ran on, with his cousin close at his heels. I relaxed a bit and then began walking again. The going was not so bad, maybe because of the rest. But then the path became rocky. By now the kids were way ahead and going fast. There was no way I could catch up with them. I was worried now. I looked behind me and couldn’t see another soul. What had happened to all the trekkers? Hadn’t so many of them started out with us?
I began hurrying, stumbling along, missing my step and falling in a heap. ‘Don’t worry. Keep the kids in sight and everything will be fine. They have to come back the same way. So relax,’ I told myself frantically and glanced up. My heart stopped. The kids had vanished!
‘Oh God, let them be ok. Let nothing have happened to them, please, please,’ I was sick with worry. Had they fallen into some ravine? Had they got hurt? How to find out? Whom to ask? I had been a fool to agree to let them go by themselves. How old is 14 anyway? He is not an adult and sending a younger child with a child! Had I lost my mind? What answer could I give her mother, father, my husband… myself?
My heart was beating so loudly I could swear that it echoed over the hills. But why were my legs not moving? Why couldn’t I walk straight? My throat was dry and my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. I will wake up and then I will think of something pleasant before I fall asleep again, I decided and then stubbed my toe! I was not sleeping. This nightmare was real!
I stumbled blindly along till I came to one really steep rock and couldn’t climb over it. I tried all tricks – first with one leg and then the other; I tried to vault over it. Nothing. I looked for some big rock to use as a step to climb but couldn’t find a thing. That moment was one of sheer terror, folks.
Here I was, seemingly alone on a mountain crawling with trekkers who were nowhere near to help and my two wards vanished without a trace. Who would help me? I began chanting God’s name like a demented soul, for at that moment no one except God could have helped me.
‘Taak pinaar?’ (will you have some buttermilk?)
Uh? My numb mind couldn’t comprehend anything. Did someone speak? I must be hallucinating.
‘Masala taak ghya taai!’ (Have some masala buttermilk, sister) This time I saw the woman. She had a basket in which she had an earthen pot of cool buttermilk. She ladled some in a glass and handed it to me. I took it silently. Suddenly I felt like crying. It usually happens, doesn’t it? You are acting all brave when some kind word sets you howling.
But I swallowed the tears and gulped the cool buttermilk down. I told her in a teary voice about my missing children and how I had let them go alone. She assured me that they would be fine. She chatted for a while before going her way. I wanted to ask her to stay but didn’t. Once again all my fears came back to haunt me.
Desperately I scanned the mountain trails and there they were! I couldn’t mistake the long tresses of my neice and the tall boy next to her. They were my kids! They obviously had walked down a valley to ‘vanish’ and then became visible as they climbed again!
The relief was so overwhelming that I did something totally unexpected…..
Can you guess what I might have done? Put yourself in my place, think and tell me.
I will tell you what I did in the next post!
Image on top courtesy: en.wikipedia.org