Somewhere in the Himalayan Hamlet: A Story by Lata Vishwanath

I was panting unable to breath. My legs were shaking, and I was at the verge of collapsing, even though I had obtained an oxygen cylinder at a previous station. I turned around and saw my cousin far behind trying to catch up with me. “I can’t climb anymore, “I tried to shout. I saw her smile amid her panting. She was determined to continue the remaining distance on foot. But I had given up and made up my mind to hire a mule for rest of the climb. I was also terribly disappointed with breaking the promise I made to myself. After all, like any devoted pilgrim, was I not seeking some salvation by climbing my way all through to the Kedarnath temple?

Nevertheless, I got on a mule happy with my decision. Led by its master the mule made its way upwards on the narrow-cobbled pathway. Every now and then I felt my heart jerk and miss a beat as the mule stopped short of colliding with everyone and anyone on the way, including those on their back journey. At one point it stopped from slipping against a large stone bordering the track overlooking a steep valley. I was astounded that never once it collided or slipped but maintained precision in negotiating the gaps between people and mules. The entire climb of seven kilometres, filled me with awe and admiration. The mule never failed the trust placed on him- the hybrid of horse and donkey, taking the best of both in faithfulness, intelligence, and humility, carrying the burden on his back in those challenging conditions.

I reached the beautiful Kedarnath temple with the Himalayan ranges in the backdrop, its snow-covered peaks reflecting the rays of the afternoon sun to an orange glow over the temple. Completely mesmerized, I requested the mule master to stop over a river bridge to soak in the beauty of the crowning glory. At the temple, my cousins, uncles, and aunts who had travelled by different ways congregated to go near the shrine and pay our obeisance to Lord Shiva.

There was no other way than to depend on mules for our return journey too. The descending path in the darkness was scarier but the mules knew their job well and we reached back fast.

Till much long time later I could not stop having mules in my thoughts. I wondered if they ever worried about salvation and recognition for slogging day and night to complete the pilgrims’ journeys.

Two years later, I spotted a mule’s picture floating among the pictures of those that perished in the Himalayan tsunami. Somewhere in a Himalayan hamlet a mule perished along with human beings, the news article read. The mule’s face looked peaceful as though in salvation.