Darkness descended and the afternoon had not yet ended. I hopped onto the back of my uncle’s motorbike and prayed that we’d make it home before the heavens parted to allow a river to crash onto the hills and mountains of the Kumaon.
It was a serious worry; the monsoons are no joking matter, especially not in the foothills of the Himalayas.
Mudslides are common, thanks to over logging and forest fires that light up the night all summer, there are no trees to hold the land in place. Roads get washed away, which is a whole different kind of terror – think of a sinkhole in the middle of a highway. Now imagine that said highway is on a cliff – with no barrier to keep you from going over. I’ll never forget sitting on a bus, going up the sickeningly winding mountain road, and seeing one side of the road missing directly ahead. It was as though a boulder the size of an Asian elephant had punched its way through the road.
A truck was attempting to continue its climb to the next hill station. The driver must have had no fear of death; he inched the vehicle around the gaping wound in the ground, mere centimeters from the mountain on his left, and below, on the right, a sheer drop to the brown, roiling rainwater that had become a thundering, over-flowing river along what had been a dry river bed mere days ago.
Not quite ten minutes after we left the hill station town of Nainital, it started to rain. The drops felt like hail and as we sped down the mountain. I clenched my teeth, my tongue curled up in the back of my mouth out of fear. My uncle knows the mountains and has ridden a motorbike up and down the mountain state of Uttarakhand for much longer than I’ve been alive, but that meant little as we hurtled down in the darkness and I wondered how useful the brakes would be. The road was slick and as I peered out over his shoulder I saw nothing, blinded by the rain that splashed across my face. I retreated behind my uncle’s back and hunched over.
I don’t know how long it took for us to arrive at our destination. What I remember most vividly is watching the trees and bushes that separated us and the edge of the mountain, blur as we drove past, veiled by the thunderstorm. And the darkness, I remember the sudden descent of darkness that came with the rain, as though there had been an eclipse.
Completely drenched, my hair felt heavy down my back and strands curled and clung to my neck as though fearful of being washed away by the rain. As I got off the motorbike I felt a slight chill and realized that I needed to pee. Desperately. My uncle parked his motorbike and we walked towards a roadside tea shop that covered all of maybe 3 sq meters. A few of the village men had huddled under the wooden boards that made up the roof as they stuck out over the road, providing some shelter from the rain. I resumed the clenching of my jaw, hoping it would lessen the need to relieve myself. It didn’t work.
My uncle, unaware of my predicament, waved me over and asked if I wanted to have a glass of tea and wait till the rain abated a little, or try and go up in the dark. The thought of more liquid sloshing around inside my body made my pelvic muscles tighten involuntarily. Besides, it didn’t seem like the rain would stop before we’d all evolved to have gills.
I scanned the area for a tree or bush I could duck behind, but there was nothing this close to the road that I felt I could disappear behind for a few minutes. People wandering around despite the rain. (The paharis of the Kumaon don’t let mere torrential downpours keep them cooped up indoors!)
Well, there was nothing for me to do but leg it up the mountain till I got home. I could have stopped somewhere along the way as it was unlikely that I would meet anyone on the lonely mountain path, but for one thing: leeches. The leeches come out in the monsoons. Despite having jumped in puddles and wandered around in the grass in only slippers while a child visiting the hill in the monsoons, I had since developed a distaste of leeches that bordered on the hysterical.
It was only my second day back in the hills after years of being away. I was older and had slightly longer legs than the last time I was there. That half hour trek to the top would half in time if I ran, and run I would – all the way!
As I sprinted up, I leaped over the rivulets and foot-wide streams that had formed across the mountain trail and dodged puddles which were sure to be infested with leeches. The pressing call to nature, coupled with the possibility of giving a leech a hike and complementary meal if I paused for even a moment, kept me going. I didn’t think of myself as particularly fit, but I must have done something right because I surprised even myself at how I was able to keep my pace steady and fast.
I’d underestimated the mountains and the weather gods that rule the Himalayas. I’d thought the road dark, but that was simply curtains of water obstructing one’s view. As I climbed higher I realized there was less light, as though I was climbing into the thunder clouds.
I hesitated and ran back down, thinking I’d missed the side path that would lead me to Ropra, to home. I hadn’t. But I ran too far down; my uncle halloo-ed and realizing my mistake I turned and sped up the mountain once more. This time I did overshoot and for a few minutes I hopped in place trying to orient myself in the gloom. I jogged down the mountain, worried I’d miss the turn again. Ah! I found it.
The lane had turned into muddy canal. Three steps in and I jumped out of the lane and onto the grass. I’d not thought it possible to get any wetter and I had been wrong. My socks and trainers were now waterlogged. I looked up and I could see home!
I bounded up the stone steps that had been jammed into the mini cliff face and launched myself onto the dry, lit verandah. Half a dozen steps separated my from the loo but even in my desperate state I couldn’t bring myself to trail mud and water into the house, not to mention my ridiculous fear of having given a leech a ride and meal wouldn’t let me. I pulled off my shoes; the laces still tied, hauled the hem of my jeans to my knees and stripped my sodden socks off. I’d been fairly good about not staying in one spot and I’d only really stepped in a handful on puddles, so I was quite confident I was leech free.
I gazed down at my feet, the bright turmeric glow of the exposed light bulb giving my skin a slight yellow tinge. And then I saw them: two of them.
Both were just barely 2 cm long and, thankfully, only a couple of millimeters thick. They wriggled, their shiny black bodies glinting in the light, in sharp contrast against my skin. It must have been when I stepped into the watery path below the house that I’d picked them up. They were still too thin to have started feeding, and couldn’t I feel them on my skin. Not that that means much, I suppose, as even really fat ones who’ve been on your body for hours are often never felt. I pulled at one and it stretched, like an elastic band, unwilling to let go of its food source. But it was still small and absolutely no match; had it been bigger, it would have hung on and it would have hurt to pull it off.
I dropped it on the floor and tugged on the second one, one eye on the first. The second landed unceremoniously next to its fellow. I ran a careful eye over my legs and feet again and examined my jeans. Yes. I was leech free.
I bit my lip. I still really needed to pee! I grabbed the jar of salt that was kept on a table on the verandah for just such occasions and sprinkled a liberal amount of salt on them. They writhed and lay still. Satisfied, I fled into the house.