I shoot upright on the floor, my eyes wide open and my body on high alert, but my mind is still in the hazy arena between nightmare and awareness. My mother is shaking me and my fingers are damp, “It is just a nightmare.” She murmurs softly. I let go immediately, I am fully awake now and avert my face from the worry in her eyes, I can’t face it and I don’t deserve it. I stood up and took my phone; I have to make this road trip now for Veera, for Samay, for myself.
In 20 minutes I am in my car with my rucksack packed and I hit the accelerator. In next the 10 minutes, Sneha and Diya are in the car as well, Sneha lives in Delhi itself, not far from my home and Diya is visiting her grandparents. Sneha claimed the shotgun so Diya have to sit in the back. We all are passed out from Officers Training Academy, Chennai in the same year along with other 64 lady cadets. One more Lady Cadet was with us, commissioned with me in the same battalion, the girl who taught me to tie my shoelace when we were five. Veera, a girl I vowed to protect. I shoved her thoughts from my mind and hit the accelerator some more, it’s 5:30 am when we left Delhi, roads are free to zoom. We reached Panipath by 6:38 am, I could sense the uneasiness oozing from both of my companions; they haven’t said a word since we started. We all are accustomed to quick packing, unexpected wars, and journey, but I am sure they still don’t understand the reason behind this road trip, to speak the truth neither do I. Sneha slide up the windows and switched on the AC.
In Panipat, I took the Shahadra flyover to ISBT then to ring road. Traffic is scanty so I drove fast and crossed into Haryana. I maintained the speed of 110-120 Kmph, being in my menacing car gives me power, rushes my adrenaline like I am on war field, not fighting for my Nation but for my destination. It’s strange though, Vera used to say that “Road trip is a journey, not a destination, it’s an ultimate getaway so never hurry, enjoy the journey, soak up the sunshine, scenery and discover the hidden beauty in it.” And I am doing just the opposite of it, my destination is Rohtang pass, I am going to hurry and touch Manali in 10 hours. I found many roadways buses which use this route to get to Chandigarh and around and the road construction made me slow down the speed. We entered Ambala Cantt at 8:00 am; I continued to NH1, avoiding even looking the road signs begging me to drive into Chandigarh.
“I know she wouldn’t but she isn’t here. Is she?” I snapped at her regretting instantly. We were quiet again and I continue driving ahead without diverting my eyes from the road. The road from Ambala Cantt to Ropar (Rupnagar) was wide and well surfaced still it took a while to reach Ropar, around 1 hour and 18 minutes.
“Silence is killing me” Diya announces connecting her iPod to the stereo and playing her annoying girly pop music.
“For god sake, Diya, change it.” Sneha selected the gazal folder and hit play. God they both want to bore me to death, the silence was better as they say it’s the source of strength but I reached and chose 70’s rock folder and played it. I notice a hint of a smug smile playing around Diya’s lips getting some reaction from me, she is trying her best to hide it but I am a fauji, nothing gets past my eyes. Suddenly I am smiling too. Something with the ambiance and situation seems so surreal that I almost smile after two weeks; I can almost feel Veera around me.
I drove straight to Mehmadpur, the road isn’t in its best condition, with many broken shoulders and potholes and the buses seems to be in hurry, more than I am so I slowed again. I took the unofficial bypass of Chandigarh then taking NH21 we reached Bilaspur at 12:30 pm.
“I am famished Apeksha, let’s stop at roadside dhaba.” Divya said.
After brunch at dhaba and slow driving, we reached Mandi by 14:40. Onwards on NH21, the road surface was quite good and there was more traffic than the previous stretch and I made slower progress than the previous leg.
“Woah, many sharp bends. Good thing you are a safe driver.” Sneha observed. We were never this awkward and hesitant before. In spite of having no-nonsense strict personalities we four used to become girls-having-no-care-in-the-world whenever we used to meet but now –
“Watch out Apeksha!!” Sneha exclaimed and I hit the brakes mere inches before hitting the car ahead.
“Woolgathering much?” Diya mutters.
“They hit the brakes too fast.” I defend myself
“No they didn’t,” She sighs “Don’t think too much Apeksha, just enjoy the trip. Okay.”
We reached Kullu by 15:15.
“Beas River looks so serene,” Diya gasped “slow down, I want to click pictures.”
“Samay would have loved to click many pictures here.” I thought to see the snow peeked pristine mountains surrounded by their lover clouds making it hard to see them.
“Hmm.. he would have…when is his knee surgery?” Sneha asked after a pause. That’s when I realized I have said my last thought out loud.
“In five days.” I croak feeling a lump rising in my throat so I hit for speed again at least as much as the crowd allows. Kullu town is crowded in the evening time, so progress is slow. Some parts of the road were in bad shape with waterlogged and minor landslides. I took a turn to Pandoh Dam, a power generator hydro-electric dam, a man-made beauty built on Beas River.
Just before the entrance to Manali, one has to pay a toll of Rs. 200/- for a car for 1 week in the Manali area, Diya suggested to show my ID card to skip toll but I refused, I want this road-trip for a 20 something girl in search of hope. Just for this trip, I am Apeksha, a commoner. We reached Manali by 16:30 then headed to Solang Valley, adducing a pictorial spot, awesome scenery of lush green valley and snow clad mountains and glaciers far away and spent rest of the day, I let the beauty take a bit of my sorrow away.
We decided to take a night halt at Manali.
I’m walking down a road in Srinagar. It’s a road we’ve walked often on patrol. I’m on point with Veera behind me. It’s cold, clear, and quiet, except for the crunch of our boots and the sound of prayer we hear every morning. Right now, though, the street is empty. The hair on the back of my neck prickles and I know something is going to go down. I saw Samay on the other side and then I heard a shot. We are trained to keep our emotions in check but as I saw Samay hitting the ground I ran, firing the militants, and Veera followed, All I hear is firing vibrating the streets, Samay is also firing towards the militant, I exhale in relief but then I heard a *Thud noise from behind and I watch helplessly as Veera fell on the ground, her eyes rolled back into her skull. The world shifted and the pain radiated from my heart, so excruciating that I screamed on top of my lungs –
“Apeksha..Apeksha. just a nightmare, it’s okay.” Someone is trying to calm me down. I frantically looked around to search Veera but I know she isn’t here, she will never be. She died, it was me who convinced her mother to join the military academy, I vowed to keep her safe and I have broken my vow. I let her down, I let everyone down. Samay is still hospitalised. The two people I loved more than my own life, one of them is gone forever and other is fighting to stand again. A tear skips my eye but I withhold my sob. I still can’t bring myself to face Veera’s mother, what will I say? I couldn’t save her girl and it is entirely my fault. Only if I hadn’t acted on impulse.. Only if.. it was me who was shot in the neck.
It’s 5:00 pm so we decide to head to our destination. Rohtang Pass is 51 km from Manali at an altitude of 3978m. It connects Kullu valley to Spiti and Lahaul and the NH-21 highway to Leh also passes through this. The word ‘Rohtang’ is literary translated in Bhoti as ‘pile of corpses’. People die all time from bad weather while trying to cross the Pass, last year the four of us decided to take a road trip to Rohtand pass, Veera wanted to visit it badly, she was intrigued by the name and the beauty of it, specially the precarious road, she used to like danger. It is thrilling to take in the vistas – high peaks and snow clad slopes; Diya got busy clicking her camera. After driving through endless serpentine road we finally arrived at Marhi, the last inhibited place before Rohtang Pass, we stop here for Paragliding. Though paragliding is illegal here but it’s open for skilled and licence people. I took out Veera’s licence from the rucksack and put it in my front pocket.
Finally, we are here at the Rohtang Pass. The wind is cold and calming, some might have a problem with altitude sickness but I have no apprehension with it. Usually, lofty peaks are covered in a halo of fog but today the sky is clear. The Pass is open for a short period from May to November and this is October so is a crowded terribly. Suddenly a snow ball hit my head and I saw Diya throwing another one and I dodged. Have anyone ever told you not to get in snow fight with an Army woman. Well, here we are, all fighting and dodging each other’s snow balls. Sneha and Diya ganged up against me and started to throw but I am good. I had a good laugh after two hours when they combined are unable to hit me. And I laughed, it feels good, laughing, my lungs are filled with cold and warmth at the same time.
After spending hours at Rohtang pass and seeing it from all the possible angles, we are finally ready to get back to Manali but I still feel this weight on my heart, why do I feel like it’s not my destination.
While returning to Manali I saw a car driving off the cliff.
“No one could have saved that car; no one could have stopped it even if they desperately wanted to.” Sneha spoke. I looked at her, trying to deduce it’s meaning.
“No one can save a dying person or die in their place Apeksha. Veera’s death isn’t your fault. She wants to see you strong not getting eaten by the guilt. You are making her sad. Let it go Apeksha.”
I felt something wet on my cheeks, and my hands started to tremble on the steering wheel.
“Let me drive.” Sneha said.
I simply nodded. I woke up after 5 hours when we reached Manali.
“Where to?” Sneha asked and I knew what she meant.
“Chandigarh.” There is only one word I need to say, only one place I need to be. I am sure about it and I have never been more sure. It’s time I face her mother and share her grief, she is my mother too, and I’ll be the daughter Verra always were. I promised her just before she took her last breath that I’ll accomplish all her wishes, taking care of her family is one of them and I’ll see it through. So far I have fulfilled two, paragliding and seeing Rohtang Pass. I realize that she will forgive me and I felt that weight lifting off my heart. I slept without nightmares, with Veera’s Lavender fragrance surrounding me. I slept all the way to Chandigarh. I slept because I know my destination wasn’t Rohtang Pass but Verra’s home. Rohtang pass was a road trip to make me realise about my destination, to set me free from my guilt so that I can find my peace, have my closer.It will always be one of the most memorable trips as I’ve made it for the two of us and I found Veera again.
©Ankita Singhal 2013