‘The man I hated for his decrepit appearance became my friend’

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Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

My boss once rebuked me, “Ashim, it’s not enough to work! You have to appear to be working.” It had nothing to do with unmet deadlines or the quality of my work. She was complaining about my laidback attitude. It gave the impression I was not working hard enough. It was amusing, putting up an appearance even at the workplace.

We have all been guilty sometimes of judging people by their appearance. I was no exception until I met Bhairon in the cold, remote surrounding of Shruting Valley in Kinnaur. Whipped by icy winds, surrounded by snowcapped mountains and cut across by a shimmering river, the only human habitation here was a small ITBP outpost where four of us had halted for the night after a 21-km trek from Thangi.

While my friends planned to go further to Charang, and then to Chitkul through the treacherous Charang La pass, I had decided to return, realising I could not undertake the arduous journey.

How would I find a porter for my solitary return in that desolate land? Fortunately, someone discovered a porter who had taken refuge at the ITBP barrack the night before. Lachhi, our porter, said, “Saab, this fellow will take you with him tomorrow.” I was horrified with what I saw. The nondescript fellow looked like a bundle of rags. Thin and bony, his hair unkempt, he had a dazed and unclean look about him. “I would rather stay put in Shruting than go with this fellow,” I thought.

I checked with my friends if they would exchange Lachhi for this guy. They refused. More than the fellow’s bedraggled appearance, what bothered me was that he seemed absent-minded. So next morning, when my friends waved goodbye going uphill, I retraced my steps towards Thangi pretending I had no company. For a good half an hour, I didn’t even speak to the porter following me, my bag on his thin shoulders. But soon after my initial burst of energy, I slowed down and fell behind. Every now and then, Bhairon had to wait for me to catch up.

He would follow me during steep climbs so that if I tumbled, he could stop me from falling. Then he would wait for me to get my breath back. During treacherous descents, he preceded me, just in case I lost my balance and hurtled down. When the cowherds or sheep came from the opposite direction, he tucked me into the rocks so I did not fall off the narrow path. “Babu ji, you must be careful when crossing a gorge. That’s where the rocks mostly hurtle down,” he warned. By the time we reached Lumbar, midway, the man I hated for his decrepit appearance, had indeed become a friend, philosopher and guide.

Bhairon was a worldly sort, who had once worked in Delhi as a Blueline bus driver. He planned to visit his family in Nepal, who he hadn’t met in more than a year, as soon as he had made enough money. Three kilometres short of Thangi, we stopped by the only tea shop above which Bhairon lived in a shared plastic tent. He would not let me pay for the tea, saying it was his privilege.

Then we came across a particularly treacherous stretch where the narrow ledge on which we were walking had literally disappeared. I froze. One missed step and I would hurtle into the gorge a kilometre below. But Bhairon was there for me. I held his hand to cross that risky stretch. I felt as though I was born again. If it was not for that “bundle of rags”, I wouldn’t be alive.

He found me a hotel and I was sad when he waved a final goodbye. “Never again will I judge a man by his looks,” I thought. To Bhairon, I owe my life. And to hell with putting up appearances at the workplace!

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