4 am when we stumbled to the car. On the horizon, the vaguest recollection of light. Not quite nighttime and not quite dawn: an unreal, liminal time. I only half registered bleary goodbyes, fumbling handshakes, hugs. The bags tumbled into the car boot with quiet thumps. Kibber was silent. Not even a bleating goat.
I had thought to sleep away the ride down—it was a late last night talking, first shivering outside against the cold, and then hushed conversations in the room—but I pushed the tiredness down. I didn’t want to miss anything of this final descent.
Rickety hairpins, the car lurching drunkenly over the stones. Down from Kibber to the valley, the Spiti River a hazily gleaming plateau. Quicksilver water slipping away from sight. I had not woken up here this early before, had not seen in this landscape in these shades. There was so much more I would never see or know.
The brightest thing was the mountain. Sunrise somewhere far away. Their edges blushed, the snow a lightest rosé. As we drove beyond Kaza the moon re-emerged in their gaps, between the crags, nestled in the small valleys. The moon gleamed a hard silver disk, so large it seemed on the verge of swallowing the peaks. I wanted to take a picture but if I got out of the car I wasn’t sure I’d get back in. My heart hurt.
Gradually sun passed from intimation to pink reality. Gradually the world fell into shape around us. Gradually the snow peaks faded into the distance. We sunk. I kept the altitude-meter on my watch ticking: 4000, 3600, 3500…
We moved past the shrubby desert-landscape. Trees emerged: my first proper ones in weeks, thick-leaved and gnarled with age and girth. One or two at first, and then suddenly orchards of them filling the spaces outside the villages. By the river grew bushes thick with berries that the animals love eating. Flowers by the roadside that blurred together as we passed into streaks of colour.
Down, down, down. Long flanks of the mountains stretching somewhere far below, rainbowed with rockfall. At points you could see the shapes of the great upheaval that shaped them. We imagined it: a sea now become calcite and spiralling fossils. The lowest point in the world now the highest.
We held our breath on many patches of the road, fearing landslides, the mountains shrugging off themselves. We let out sighs when we passed, further, further, further. Now more villages; now more trees; now the great ugly sprawl of hydropower over the river emptied of all but silted water. Tunnels ribbing the mountainside. Fresh growth of acacias, silver oak. The scars of logging. The creeping fingers of the towns, and now cities; we came to Shimla and it seemed like a site of devastation, rubbled with hotels and humanity.
It started raining as we stuttered through the unfamiliar urban traffic: an unseasonal curtain of water that fell, and fell, and fell, and fell. The road a river. The hills around drifted like spaceships, in and out of clouds. No snow anywhere. We washed down into the dark, towards the plains and Chandigarh. When it was clear we had finished our last descent finally I fell asleep, and dreamt of ridgelines.
We flew back to Bangalore the next morning. When I saw my mother at the door of our house I started crying. “Did you miss me so much?” she asked, a little surprised, and I nodded. But it wasn’t only that. As I unpacked my bags and dumped everything into the washing, wipe the dust off my camera, my stomach refused to settle. A restlessness simmering. My body still thought itself in the deprivation of altitude and now, faced with an excess of oxygen, it tugged me to do something, to make use of this energy suddenly available. I went to the gym late at night and ran and and ran and kept running till my muscles sang.
I was glad to be back with my mother, my family, the comforts of home. My cousins were there; my grandparents were coming. There were people to meet, dinners to be had, plans to make. But the city jarred around me in a way it never had before. There were so many people—cars—shops—space—consumption—roads—I had been gone three weeks and it was so stupid, but it felt like the city was a dream, and the mountains a reality I had fallen asleep from for a moment. The abundance of it all chafed, surreal, somehow. I expected to look up and see white on the horizon. To wake up to the bite of alpine chill in the air. When the rain fell, I thought there would be snow with it.
One of the first news articles I read when I came back was about the Himalayan glaciers. The mountains, a recent report said, are on track to lose two thirds of their ice by the end of the century. Already alarming decreases—a foot and a half of ice every year—have been discovered. The rivers fed by them will dry up. And anyone who relies on them—which is to say, nearly everyone in India—will parch.
I finished the article and I closed my phone. The news felt removed, as if this wasn’t where I’d just come from, as if they were talking about some other range, some other country’s problems, something that would arrive distantly and quietly and fade to nothing. I imagined what would be happening in Kibber. Lunchtime; a cup of tea. A bath in stream-water, which was glacier-fed; you couldn’t escape that, but I hadn’t had to think of such things—hadn’t had to think of anything beyond the next hour, or at maximum the next day.
Suddenly I ached for that illusory simplicity. I wanted to keep pretending there was nothing else beyond, I wanted to not have to deal with people, I wanted to avoid contemplating problems or future or existential dread or anything beyond the next day. For a moment more I did not want to have to acknowledge the world as a complicated and uncertain place, and to only pass through it, my path smoothed, my direction assured.
But the moment passed. Later I recoiled at such a juvenile, escapist fantasy. After all, I’d had just over a year of escaping already. And it was ending: Spiti was my last independent trip, and the rest of the time unspooled before me. Bangalore, then Singapore, then America and the beginning of the rest of it.
In my inbox piled up placement tests and forms to fill out. There were people to contact and tasks I had to coordinate. Projects to finish, articles to follow up on. I needed to decide my classes, start planning the next four years.
I avoided opening my photographs from Kibber as long as I could, afraid that if I started going through them they’d inspire another intense wave of longing and throw me off my careful readjustment. In the end it took a week after my return before I started downloading all the memory cards. I flipped through the images I’d taken of the house being constructed outside base camp. Bit by bit we’d watched it rise over the three weeks. Through sun and snow and rain, the dirt patted down, another block hoisted.
Outside my room, the monsoons were late. Though it was raining hard in Shimla, in Bangalore the clouds hovered on the horizon and then vanished to a dry blue sky. A couple hours away Chennai withered.
I closed my laptop and flopped onto my bed. From my window, I could see the sunbirds rotate through the bushes. They peeked out from behind the leaves and tenderly dipped their beak into the flowers. With their pollination, hopefully, later more would bloom, somewhere else. It would be easy to keep watching them. Easy to reduce my world to just the next movement of the birds. But I turned and opened my laptop again. I had writing to finish. I had things to do. I had a place to make. This was my home, which means I am a citizen, not an observer. I had a duty to grow what I could.
If I had the privilege to escape, I also had the responsibility to come back.