I’ve been going to the Himalayas regularly since around 2006. In the beginning, there was wonder and curiosity, a deep anxiety to know them better along with the people who inhabited them – in particular, how they responded to an entirely different scale of living. The sun and the cloud, the trees and the nature of mud – all of it did not mean very different up there as much as its meaning magnified itself. The shaodws impressed upon them by nature were darker and longer, I felt. Slowly, the wonder started melting, it changed form and led to relative familiarity with the unknowable. On subsequent trips, there was a lot that I could predict, sense, feel on my own but never without awe.
There was indeed a great amount of intimacy, but it was never without the hierarchy. Mountains taught me the importance of knowing one’s place within one’s own matrix. They taught me to prepare myself not on the time-space axis as much as on the mind-body axis. They inspired me to go deeper, acquaint myself with my limits yet acknowledge the importance of making the right choices within those limits. It may not mean much to be able to climb a few meters higher if one has to come down, it may not mean much to bear the cold when one knows one must go back to the plains, but it may be relevant to remember that what the body teaches the mind, the mind cannot teach the body. When in mountains as someone from the plains, we are never the native. We can always plead ignorance and unpreparedness. There is no absolute communion with the mountains. They’ve been there forever. We can never go high enough or stay there long enough. The challenges we set in front of ourselves are of our own making and must be revised. What matters is the dialogue one has with the mountains.
To know a mountain is to know the collective wisdom of humankind. To sit next to a river and see the dark clouds deposit fresh snow over a mountain only to see it disappear the next day when the sun shines bright, is to sit next to an old man and read the shadows between his wrinkles, to listen to the richness of his voice not the accuracy of his claims. That is why perhaps, there is a thing to be said about the old men in the mountains. The young may keep you engrossed for they often speak of the city, but the older men bore you more often than not. They repeat themselves endlessly, even supply the same answer to different questions. When they speak, they often cannot help but return to the same point. In their narratives, most trajectories return to the same old conclusions. Their wisdom is often uncomplicated, most importantly significantly lacks comparative, relative, differential thinking. I have often wondered why. The best reason I can come up with, however, is that the scale over which they operate is like a fretless instrument. They don’t stack up people, their possessions, and their achievements distributed over differential grades as we often do. The mountains take over their imagination of relative thiniking with the mountainous scale – of time, of space, of order, and of chaos.
The most important lesson one learns from a wrinkled old man, therefore, is not how to climb but how to think when one’s worldview stands disoriented and requires recalibration. It helps to observe the old man for he can teach you how to measure oneself up against the monumental, when to believe in oneself and take the step forward and when to know one’s limits and retreat. Indeed, they teach you to be honest with oneself, to trust the ground beneath and the spirits around, but most importantly, to wait. One can sense the sounds time makes within their wrinkles, time they didn’t allow to be unleashed upon them. They waited till the next opportunity, till the next season, till help arrived, till dark clouds went away, till sun shone, till winters receded, till rain stopped, till cattle returned – events that never followed the clock.
When in the mountains, one learns how time heals, how one receives grace in the form of help. To see it as luck or coincidence would be missing the point. Every journey that takes you beyond the cozy but artificial confines of a hill station, requires a dialogue with the mysterious. I’ve been helped, protected, guided, and saved on innumerable occasions in the mountains, often by old men who seem to have the strength of the mountains in their arms and legs. And everytime I’ve felt slightly guilty for not being strong enough. As if one could be strong or smart enough! One becomes much more human everytime one waits without reason, everytime one seeks and finds a helping hand, much more than when one extends it. To seek and find is to shake hands with the mysterious, to reveal upon oneself that if you wait, there will be light… someone shall come along and show you the way, or take you where you never intended to go but where you shall find what you set out for, or to return to come again for something that is not destined for you yet.
Till the next journey into the mountains, till the next handshake with a wrinkled old man, till the next stretch of timelessness…I shall wait!