The bus that took us to Tansen from Butwal was ancient. We were under the impression that it was kept from falling by a generous use of Sellotape. Every nut and bolt crackled and rattled as it moved along the winding Siddhartha Highway. The cold metal seats, rusty at places and smelling of vomit at others, also moved a little at every jolt. The conductor, a lean boy of fifteen, collected our tickets with a stern look when we said that we had student’s id-cards. The old men in the bus chattered continuously. The rustic boys smoked harsh cigarettes and chewed betel, occasionally spitting the coloured spittle out of the open windows.
The road was meandering and bumpy. Some of the village women were nauseous, and started vomiting into plastic shopping bags. Two goats bleated in the narrow aisle. With slow, slumberous movement—like a buffalo coming out of a mud-pond—the bus moved on, panting and sweating in the mild May sun, and we were left to our own thoughts.
A week ago, we had planned the whole trip. Ravi, our leader, was the one who brought up the idea while we were in the fearsome Mathematics class. Bikram and Mandeep agreed unanimously, while I was sceptical as usual.
“This Bibek is such a coward,” remarked Ravi.
After the terror of that categorical remark, and after much complaining and discussing, I gave in.
“So, that’s it,” they said, and added, “this is going to be the most memorable trip of our lives.”
The bus stopped at Tansen Bus Park at eleven. We got off and walked across the road to the tea stall, dodging several stray dogs nosing around in a garbage heap. We drank tea and smoked, and after a lunch of thick chapattis stuffed with mashed potatoes, we set off up the rough track, a two mile walk by the bridle path, to the Srinagar Hill.
The mountains slowly rose up above the mist-filled Tansen bazaar. The forests of rhododendron, spruce and deodar, soughing in the wind, welcomed us.
The sun had climbed the mountains, the day was warm, but not humid. We walked slowly, pausing at several places to smoke. We reached the top of the hill in about an hour. It was eerily quiet. Not a soul was seen. From the top of the hill, we saw the mountains, the Himalayas, striding away into an immensity of the sky.
Capturing the spell of the Himalayas into our hearts, we sat down on the grass, and were once again lost to our own thoughts.
“The sea has had Conrad and Stevenson, but the mountains continue to defy the written word, heaving like giant celestial bosoms,” spoke the young poet in me, as I kept marvelling at the beauty of nature. I was ashamed to say it aloud.
Ravi gave a mischievous little laugh, and said, “here he is—our pervert poet.”
The three boys laughed, but I kept staring at the mountains while a mild anger brewed in the bottom of my heart.
“Now . . .” said Ravi, standing up like a political leader before delivering a great speech, smoothing his collar and clearing his throat. “Now,” he began again, coughing twice: “today marks the ten years of our friendship, ten years of ups and downs, ten years of happiness and sorrow; and we all know that this friendship is the most important thing. How shall we celebrate this historic moment?”
“By doing something that we have never done before,” said Bikram, Mandeep nodding in agreement.
“And what is it that we have not done before?” asked Ravi, looking at me rather gravely.
“I . . . I don’t know.” I turned red with humiliation and anger.
“Oh, how sad it is that he doesn’t know!” said Ravi, sneering. “Friends, come let’s show him what we all are going to do.”
Following that final remark Bikram and Mandeep got up, the three of them formed a small semi-circle, and shouted dramatically: “We are going to live our lives. To the fullest.”
“What?” I asked and kept staring at them, puzzled and angry.
“Yes, my friend. We are going to live like the Kings. And how did the Kings live? Oh, yes! By eating the wild fruit.”
My heart skipped a beat, and the first thought that crossed my mind was of the purple berries of the thorny bilberry bushes ripening in May and June, then of the wild strawberries like drops of blood on the dark green leaves, and of the sour yellow cherries with hidden tang and sweetness.
Another thought flashed across my mind. Is it the weed, the ganja? No, it can’t be.
“What wild fruit?” I said feebly.
“You’ll see in a minute,” said Ravi, and continued, “this wild fruit, my friends, is eaten even by the Gods, or the Gods of the Gods, the Mahadeva himself.”
I needed no further details, no more clarifications. I knew what he was talking about.
“No way!” I muttered under my breath.
“That’s not what we are going to do,” I said, quite resolutely this time.
“I don’t see why not!” said Ravi, and Bikram and Mandeep beamed with pleasure.
“No,” I repeated.
“Alright. If you don’t want to do it, you can just sit and watch. Don’t spoil our mood now.”
“What if you get ill?” I asked.
“Shush!” said Ravi, touching his lips with his index finger. He then brought out a packet, or rather a small bundle clumsily wrapped in yesterday’s newspaper. Inside it was cheap cigarettes, the ends of which were twisted.
Is that it? I said to myself, and laughed a short cynical laugh.
“What if someone sees you? We could be arrested.” I said again, but they shushed me with them usual waving of their hands.
I had a feeling of arrival of the greatest danger possible from some unexpected disaster, such as an accident with an axe or scythe, or an attack by a wild, savage animal. What if something sneaks up from behind, say a man-eating leopard, and pounces upon us? That seemed probable because last year several village children and old women were killed by a man-eating leopard. I had read that in a newspaper. I tried to talk about this to my friends, but they were too busy passing the ganja around, taking deep drags, and exhaling the smoke.
“Friends?” I said, but again they hushed me into silence.
I let them enjoy themselves on their own.
I got up and walked toward the end of the hill. There was not a soul around, and the whole hill was sleeping quietly in the silence of the cosmos. I walked uphill to the creek, which was usually dry in summer, but a small, serpentine stream was flowing.
Through the pines trees, in the rushing creek, I saw something—a man, a man lying in the middle of the creek.
A chill crept inside my bones. I had difficulty standing straight. My knees gave way to the trembling of the land. My head grew heavy to the sounds like the din of a factory buzzer, or the music of thousand vociferous cicadas from the pine trees and cedars.
I turned around to call my friends, but they seemed far away, like small blurry dots on the other end of the horizon. I cried, I shouted. Slowly, the dots grew bigger and bigger, and finally they took the shape of humans.
Minds numbed with ganja, legs shaky with tiredness, my friends, one by one, inspected the man lying in the creek. His body was bloated and blue. A broken shard of a soda bottle protruded from his head. His throat was cut from ear to ear, but his face was calm, at peace, and that was the most terrifying of all things.
“Awful!” said Ravi, standing frozen in front of the body.
Deep in the forests the animals started making a rattling, rumbling sound. The treetops lashed backwards and forwards. The earth shook. The crows all took wing, wheeling wildly overhead and cawing loudly. Nature seemed to rebuke and reprimand.
Then and there, I knew the fate that was awaiting us. It was what I had seen in my last night’s dream. It was this vision. In the warm yellow afternoon light, I saw it. In the fresh fragrance of pines, I smelled it. In the soft rustling of the leaves, I heard it. In the calm breeze, I felt it. Inside the dry, parched mouth, I tasted it. It was death.