His eyes stunned me. Otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed him at all. How could I ever expect to meet a school classmate of mine in a jungle of Uttarakhand wearing the garb of a sage?
I was on a trekking expedition to Hemkund and the Valley of Flowers along with a few students of mine. We were all nearly exhausted after the previous day’s trek from Govind Ghat to Ghangriya followed by the present morning’s trek to Hemkund. We were at an altitude of 3600 metres, nearly in touch with the angels or at least the clouds. Some of my students had cheated by ascending Hemkund on the backs of hired ponies. A teacher has to be very understanding, almost like a god who is eager to forgive his creatures, his very own creatures. That’s why our ancient tradition puts the guru on a par with the gods. But meeting Shivan on the way to the Valley of Flowers unsettled me notwithstanding all the understanding I had acquired during the thirty odd years of my career as a guru.
Shivan and I were not the best of friends in school. Shivan was the black sheep while I was a line-toer. Whenever I was sick of toeing the line I went with Shivan to the rubber estate near the school to have a cigarette with him during the lunch break. Shivan had brown eyes. “Cat,” we called him. His eyes resembled a cat’s. When Shivan hurled his choicest abuses on those who called him Cat, I felt both admiration and pity for him. Once I gathered the courage to pat on his back and say, “Why do you bother?” He stared at me with his cat’s eyes and said, “Come with me.” I went with him. To the rubber estate that lay outside the school campus. Those were days when walls had not begun to divide borders.
Shivan gave me a cigarette while lighting the one he had thrust between his lips. I watched the smoke emerging in circles and spheres from his lips. I lighted my cigarette too. “Never mind,” said Shivan when the smoke made me cough.
My admiration for Shivan boomed. I couldn’t even smoke while he could create art out of the smoke that emerged from his lips.
“Shall I create a cloud now?” Shivan asked me one day. I admired the cloud he created with the cigarette smoke.
The friendship ended soon, however. The annual exams came and Shivan failed. I went on to attend college and eventually became a teacher. There was absolutely no connection between Shivan and me after school.
Until I met him three decades later on the way to the Valley of Flowers.
“Life is funny, man,” he spoke through the beard that covered his lips and slapped my back as he used to do when we were in the rubber estate, he creating clouds with cigarette smoke and I struggling not to cough.
He had been staring at me while I was ascending the trekking path with a few students of mine. The eyes caught my attention. Cat’s eyes.
I stared into those eyes which stared back into mine. That’s how we met. I told my students to go ahead. The Valley of Flowers awaited them.
Shivan told me that he had left Kerala during the Emergency in order to escape arrest because he was a political activist questioning Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship. “I really didn’t know anything. I just acted as my leaders told me,” he said. “Later I learnt that all political leaders are the same.”
His political leader wanted to make him a martyr in order to gain popularity for the party. Shivan was shrewd enough to see through the game. He ran away to escape being a martyr for the sake of some crooked politicians.
Shivan’s journeys took him to Haridwar. Then Rishikesh.
“These swamis,” said Shivan, “they are no better than the politicians.” He met hundreds of them in Haridwar and Rishikesh. “So I carried on. On and on. Searching for something. Something which my cat’s eyes could not catch. And after a lot of trekking, trekking you say, trekking, after a lot of trekking, man, I reached here, in this jungle, peaceful jungle…”
“I’m glad you found peace at last,” I said.
“Peace,” he grinned through his unkempt beard.
I couldn’t decipher whether it was a question or an exclamation or a sarcastic statement.
“I wish I could spend more time with you,” I said. “But my students are moving on and I have to be with them.”
“Dharma,” he said. Rather cynically, I thought. “Go on, fulfil your dharma.”
I was about to leave when his voice arrested me, “Hey, do you by any chance have a cigarette with you?”