Exactly five years ago, on a chilly Himalayan evening during my Kailash Mana Sarovar trek, I could not find a single pouch of instant coffee from the tray that was full just minutes before. I like my coffee strong and hot—more so at 15000 feet and the cup of coffee I was holding was light and weak with only traces of milk. I sighed and just as I put my lips to the cup to sip rather disdainfully, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I turned to face an older man with the whitest and thickest of eyebrows I had ever seen.
“Here, take this.” He offered me a sachet of coffee powder.
“I always carry my sachets,” he said and sipped his cup. I thanked him profusely for his generosity.
“Prabhakar Reddy,” he said.
“Mohan,” I said, shaking his not-so-firm hand.
“I had been planning on the Kailash trip for some time,” Reddy said.
“But for the past three years, my plans to visit Kailash have been continuously undermined by the Almighty. I was determined to make it this year.”
“I’m happy for you that you could make it,” I replied.
“Even this year, my wife was very reluctant to send me alone. I took time off work and convinced her that with my friends accompanying me, I would be all right.”
I thought of my trip and how I had reluctantly yielded to my wife’s pleas.
“You don’t want to retire?”
“Why should I?” Mr. Reddy said, somewhat angrily. “I’m only sixty-nine, and I still have years to go before I think of retirement.”
The next day was the most demanding day of the three-day Kailas trek. I looked at my watch, more as an excuse to leave than seeing the time. “Time to go to bed. Trek starts tomorrow,” I said and left him.
Another trekker in our party, Ganesh, accosted me on my way out. “You are the first person outside his coterie of his Coimbatore pals that he spoke to.”
After climbing the Dolma pass the next day, and within minutes of reaching the foothills, my Tibetan porter and I came across a tea shop. It was a beautiful place to unwind after the demanding climb and exhausting altitude. I chose a table small enough so I’d have it all to myself. Then I unzipped my jacket, stretched my arms behind the wooden bench, and ordered tea.
It was around noon, cold and sunny, but I was not all hungry, even though I had hardly eaten anything since morning. My porter Karma joined a group of Sherpas, chatting and arguing loudly.
He pointed me to his tea companions, saw I was watching him and gave a thumbs-up, indicating that he was praising me to his fellow Sherpas.
Soon the tea was served. Tibetan tea is made from boiling tea butter and what tasted like rock salt.
As I approached the exit with Karma behind me, I saw Mr. Prabhakar Reddy, sitting alone in the corner of the room, easily noticeable because of his thick white eyebrows. He had a glass in front of him. I waved, but he seemed to be asleep.
That evening at Zuthulpuk, as I came out of my tent, I saw my fellow trekkers Ganesh, Akash, Prasad, and Arun huddled around our guide Neelakanta. I approached them and asked, “Is something wrong?”
There was a brief moment of silence.
Neelkanra uttered, “One member from our group has passed away from a cardiac arrest on Dolma La pass trail.”
I was shocked. A fearful silence hung between us.
Shashi came running up to us. “He was one of the four older men from Coimbatore, the one with the white eyebrows.”
The 18th of June had been the day my late eldest daughter was born. I felt numb.
Nyingma, our Sherpa trek leader, joined us and blurted in fluent Hindi,
“Reddy’s Sherpa guide had noticed his head hanging down and his body sagging on his pony just after they had climbed Dolma. His guide pulled Reddy off the pony, slung him on his back, and ran the entire way down to the tea shop. Mr. Reddy was still alive when they reached the shop. Once in the shop, the Sherpa settled Mr. Reddy on a chair. He went to get Govind, and they all tried to resuscitate Reddy. But despite their efforts, he died.”
I had waved at Reddy’s body as I left the tea shop, but he had already taken his last breath. I felt a sense of unreality.
Both Hindus and Buddhists say that to die on a Kailash Yatra pilgrimage is one of the best ways to end your life. Mr. Reddy had tried many times to undertake the holy Kailash trek, and his trips had been cancelled. It was as if his death was preordained to happen only in the abode of Lord Shiva.
A very peaceful death, after fulfilling his lifelong wish of seeing the north face of Kailash.
Despite this, Reddy’s death cast a shadow over all of us. I was shocked as Reddy’s white eyebrows kept flashing in my mind. I went back to the room and anxiously waited for Mamatha’s return.
I was contemplating the birth of my first child just as I was made to reflect the death of a person who gave me his last gift.
“The two moments are much alike: birth and death are made of the same fabric” Isabelle Allende.
That is the mystery of life.
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