Avinash came to pick her up. Her limited conversation with him on the Airbnb app had left her curious. His place was what had drawn her in - a quaint little cottage tucked away among the wilderness, overlooking entire Manali. It was obscure but it was exactly what JB was looking for. The past few weeks had been very difficult at work. Everything was threatening to tug at her nerves. She desperately needed a break!
As decided, they met near the temple. A mere handshake exuded warmth and left a faint welcoming touch. He led her up a few steps, up a trodden path and then through a steep climb. She was quickly out of breath. He waited patiently for her to catch up while telling her about the place, the waterfalls, the unheard hikes and other little gems hidden around it. Everything about his place sounded perfect.
After 20 minutes of breathless climbing, they reached the cottage. It was exactly like JB had imagined. A two storied wooden house perched perfectly at the edge of a sloping cliff overlooking snowy peaks and a cluster of red roofed little homes in the distance. The sound of the Beas gushing strongly below lent it a strange calm. Avinash led her to the common room which also served as the kitchen and asked her to wait while he got her room ready. JB bundled up on one of the mattresses laid out on the floor, resting her chin on her knees, and was immediately sucked into a deep reverie. It was strange. Her mind which was always pounding with chaotic screaming thoughts suddenly felt silent.
Life wasn't easy for JB - the responsibility of her aging parents, the financial tug-of-war, a job that demanded every last ounce of her sanity and a city that threatened to explode around her any moment - everything was proving too much for her highly sensitive nerves. As a 29 year old single female in a country plagued by patriarchal malignancies, she was trying fiercely to pull everything off while secretly pushing away the pining in her heart. People around her thought that she was one of those cliched travellers who sought the mountains for its psychedelic pleasures. She didn't know about that, and neither did she care. All she cared for was a few days of break from her mundane life. A trip to the mountains now and then proved like therapy to her.
She had almost drifted off when Avinash announced that her room was ready. She didn't feel like moving. The room with its humble surroundings made her comfortable. Avinash started prepping for breakfast while she sat silently watching him and soon they started talking. He told her about his entrepreneurial stint as the founder of a software company which he was now running remotely from the mountains. He described himself as a small town guy who had long ago decided that the cities were too much for him. He had leased the cottage three years back and had recently opened it for guests to keep him company sometimes. JB listened to him while silently reflecting on the wild contrast between his and her own chaotic life. Her heart deeply craved to have a place like his. "Someday maybe" she sighed.
After breakfast, JB retired to her room. The busy work hour and the long bus journey had left her completely depleted. She wanted to lie down and stretch her aching muscles. Her room was simple. It had a mattress on the floor for a bed, couple of framed pictures on the walls and an empty cupboard in the corner. It was basic, unadorned yet cozy. She quickly changed into her pyjamas and snuggled inside the light yet surprisingly warm blanket, and before she knew it, she had drifted off into a sound sleep. What a rarity! The girl who struggled to sleep everyday, was asleep today without a blink.
That evening was one of those rare evenings that JB had all for herself. The old fashioned wooden balcony that sprawled in front of the cottage lit up with the view of millions of little houses glimmering like fireflies below. She welcomed the faint nip in the air. It was probably her hundredth trip to the mountains, yet everything felt so new. She sat there staring blankly into the distance but after a while the usual cloud of dark thoughts threatened to come crashing around her. "Have you sent the money home" "Are you silly! Stop acting like a maniac" How long would it take for you to update the deck? Finish it asap" "Why can't you just talk to him? Not all guys on matrimonial sites are blokes"JB shuddered. She got up hurriedly in an attempt to push the noise in her head away and went to the kitchen.
She found Avinash busy preparing for dinner. His help had fallen ill so he was left to manage everything alone. She offered to help but Avinash politely refused. He seemed mildly reserved and shy. JB did not want to make him uncomfortable so she did not insist. She took her corner and sat there watching him discreetly while he chopped vegetables, kneaded the dough and whisked together a simple yet wholesome meal. The aroma that wafted across the room of that simple daal and sabji pointed undeniably towards his culinary skills. Maybe another thing that life has taught him, JB wondered.
It was not just cooking, turned out that Avinash was adept at a lot more. Over dinner, he told her about the various expeditions he had undertaken - the difficult treks and some near death experiences. JB gasped when she heard about how he had once been stuck for 4 days without food and water because of a sudden landslide in spiti and how he had lived off his backpack for a month and spent nights on river banks and pitching his tent on the edges of cliffs. Having been to the area herself twice, she knew that a feat like this would require tremendous bravado. Spiti could be quite harsh and unpredictable at times. JB also learnt that whenever he was not hiking or travelling, Avinash liked to read, paint and spend time studying various cultures and traditions. He wanted to create a community of like minded people who could come together and have a place to share their adventures. "This is my dream plan" he said.
After dinner, Avinash asked her what she was planning to do the next day. "Nothing much" she replied "I probably would sleep it off". He laughed good naturedly at it and said "Sure, rest tomorrow. Then maybe day after take the hike to Jogini falls? I am sure you'll love it" Jogini Falls!! JB stared wide eyed. Was it possible to take the hike to the waterfall from there? She had heard so much about it. Suddenly she was all curious and brimming with energy. In the next half hour ,JB had coaxed out all the details of the short hike and every other nuance related to it. Avinash provided answers to all her questions patiently, and when JB finally decided to retire to her room, her mind was full of thoughts of the waterfall.
Next day, at the crack of dawn, a girl was ready with her daypack strapped on her shoulders, looking like a teenager in her oversized jumper, ripped jeans and comfy shoes, climbing downhill from the cottage. Apparently her 'sleep-it-off day' had to be called off because her itchy feet could not wait. According to Avinash, she had to reach the temple first, then hike for another 1 hour to reach the waterfall. She wanted to set out early to avoid the crowd that could throng the place. Tourists in India are notorious for creating a ruckus and JB wanted to stay away from that. It took her 20 mins to reach the temple. "Take the lane that runs beside the German bakery" Avinash had said. She looked around and spotted the bakery at the right. Surprisingly, it had already opened for the day, along with a few other shops and small cafes around it. JB decided to halt for a few minutes before starting the hike and have some breakfast.
The German bakery looked enticing. She knew that the food there was touted as being extremely good, but unfortunately it was already full with a large group of foreigners. So, JB took the small cafe adjacent to it. As she sat down on one of the tables laid out in the front, she spotted only one other person - a man probably in his mid forties - sitting on a table next to her, intently rolling a (herb-that-cannot-be-named) joint. While waiting for her breakfast to arrive, JB noticed that the man was trembling, and was having a hard time rolling the paper. He was also coughing continuously, sometimes in one breath and was bending over with the pain that ensued. "He should quit smoking and seek some help" thought JB. The man looked up, almost like he could hear her thoughts and caught her staring at him. He smiled. JB smiled back faintly. She was taken aback, next, when the man winked at her and offered her the now perfectly rolled cigar. JB shook her head and picked up the menu to divert attention. She found the man still staring at her and smirking when her food arrived. She busied herself with the buttered toast and spanish omelette trying to not look at him, but everytime she stole a look, the man was there, staring at her, smiling mischievously. JB quickly pushed the food down her throat, paid the bill, collected her belongings and got off to leave. She took the small lane that ran along the German bakery and kept at a good pace for sometime. After a while, when she was out of breath, she looked back and saw that there was nobody following her. She exhaled with relief.
JB realized that she was behaving absurdly. It wasn't that the man meant any harm. But some ugly experiences in the past had marred her deeply. She remembered the time when a harmless looking man who sat beside her in the bus had tried to grope her in the dark. She still recalled the putridness of his breath and the coarse prickliness of his face against her palm as she tried pushing him away and shouted for help.
JB shuddered as the ugly memory came flooding. She tried frantically to banish the incidence to the dark corners of her mind while walking steadily forward. She looked back once or twice to ensure nobody was lurking behind.
In all this commotion, JB had failed to notice that she was now walking on a well defined trail of roots and boulders and could hear a faint sound of crashing water in the distance. She knew that the waterfall was near!
She kept walking and in another 10 minutes had reached the 'no shoes' sign board that Avinash had told her about. Despite the sign, she saw a few locals go ahead with their shoes and she decided to do the same. Ofcourse, no one could be expected to climb the 100 odd stairs laid out with sharp rocks, barefoot. A part of the waterfall was visible and accessible from that point too but JB wanted to climb higher and see the great fall from up close and in all its glory.
She started climbing. Having hiked all her life, the climb did not seem strenuous to her. She walked merrily as the waterfall kept playing hide and seek with her, showing itself on one bend and then hiding on the other. After a while, the view cleared to reveal the full vista of the thunderous mass. It was gargantuan! Everything that Avinash had said about the place had suddenly come to life in front of her. A huge stream of water crashing straight down on the rocks below, blowing up a cloud of mist and spray. What a wonderful sight it was! As the first hints of spray hit her, JB froze. The water was unexpectedly cold! She quickly stripped to her shorts and a halter top and went ahead to touch the revered waters. "Don't go too close, Avinash had warned. "The force of the water can wash you away or worse still break your neck" JB remembered the warning and did not dare much closer. She sat on a rock for an hour, her body immune to the cold, while the waters crashed in the background soaking every cell of her being with their warm frigidness. The experience calmed her.
As she got up to leave she spotted a young couple staring incredulously at her. Probably, it was because of her lack of clothes or because she was all alone, but whatever it was, JB did not care. She shrugged, got into her jeans and jumper and got up to leave. All the way, she kept thinking about the stories that she had heard about the falls. Stories about how Yoginis in olden days would hide in the caves behind the falls and meditate for days. The falls did have a mystical and almost soporific vibe to it, JB agreed.
Thinking about these mythical stories and walking steadily, JB did not realize when she almost reached the cottage. Seeing her coming up, Avinash came out bewildered and asked "where have you been? I looked for you everywhere" "I went to the Jogini falls!" JB jumped in glee. Avinash's worried face instantly changed color and then slowly split into a wide grin. "I knew you would not wait".
JB smiled back happily and winked. Of course she could not wait.