'Kanchenjunga is the highest mountain in the world, right?' asked the 57 year old man on the train, sitting across me, sipping his third masala chai.
It was 7:00am and both of us had boarded the Rajdhani Express from Secunderabad. He was headed to New Delhi and I was coming home to Nagpur.
'Are you an athlete, sir?' - the gentleman started the conversation once we had settled into our seats.
'Ji sir, I'm a mountaineer'. I saw the look of confusion on his face the moment I proudly uttered those words.
'Accha, you're with the army' he declared as our attendant dropped in and served us breakfast.
'Nahi sir, I'm a civilian, this is more of an addictive hobby'.
He sat quietly for the next 15 minutes, slowly spreading butter on his toast, puzzled. I admired his thoroughness before he spoke again, slowly working through a maze of possibilities.
'Why? I mean why does a normal person feel the need to climb mountains if it is not for creating records or call of duty?'
He had reached the end of all possible scenarios and had turned up empty.
The man had a point and I had 8 hours.
'Sir, 10 days in the mountains makes me a better human being. I'm a better father, husband, son, friend, employer and citizen when I'm constantly reminded how short life is and how insignificant our worries are. I have learnt more about life from the mountains than any book I read. I didn't know I had the courage to climb tall mountains, the patience to raise a child or the ability to use words to share my experiences.'
The gentlemen hung to every word I spoke. A new door of possibilities had swung opened for him. A door, he didn't know ever existed.
'When I come back from my annual climb, I become more tolerant of my shortcoming and of those around me. It's not that things don't bother me or that I've become a monk. It's just that it takes me much shorter time to return to a peaceful state of mind than before.'
It's rare to see an elderly man listen to a younger one with awe. He reminded me of the times I would watch my son play with no care of time or worries of the world.
The sweeper had been standing outside the cabin door for some time and sensing the small window of silence, sneaked in.
The train attendant had passed by a few times too. He was polite enough to not enter seeing we were unraveling mysteries of life. But the vegetable soup in the tray was getting cold and he made his way in as well.
'Does this make you any money? I mean, who sponsors you? How do you take care of your family?'
Money isn't an easy subject to talk about. Even couples find it difficult to discuss, let alone two strangers on a train.
'Can I answer your question with a question, sir?' I asked.
'Yes, yes..sure beta' came the reply.
'What do you enjoy to do when you are not working?'
The man hesitated. His eyes were glued to the floor, searching for courage to open up. Then with a sheepish smile he looked up and said
'I enjoy singing. Every Saturday, my wife and I meet our friends and we sing old songs for hours. It is the most awaited night of the week. None of us are any good but that hardly matters.'
When one talks about their passion, their body language speaks different. Nose flares up, posture straightens. The gentlemen had gone from a curious and concerned senior citizen to an animated individual within seconds.
He continued, 'My friend Gupta has a spare room which we have converted into a studio with sound proof walls and karaoke system. His kids don't hear a thing. Everyone brings one dish and we all pool in for dinner'.
In that moment, this man was not an employee or a husband, he was just a human sharing his love for singing. Sparkle in his eyes.
'Do you make any money from singing?' I questioned.
'Of course not, yeh hamara kaam thodi hai, yeh toh hamara shauk hai!'
He realised the point I was trying to make. Gave me a nod that he understood.
'But, do you have to put yourself in danger? Aren't there other sports with the same benefits?'
I have been asked these questions a thousand times. I know you have been too. Only this time, I was not distracted or in a hurry to reply.
'Sir, I have come to the realisation that trekking or mountaineering is a journey first and activity second. Like any journey, there are few unpredictable situations that you have to be ready for. Look at us, we boarded this train knowing that many things can go wrong. There could be an accident up ahead that could delay our schedule, somebody can get sick on the train and pull the chain, a family emergency can arise while we are sitting here, helpless. But we still decided to come. Going to the mountains is no different.'
He was half way convinced but not quite there.
'Mountains are very unforgiving, sir. If you don't come prepared, they don't care who you are and you won't be able to climb. We prepare our minds and bodies for this journey months ahead. Take me right now as an example. I live in Nagpur but travelled to Hyderabad just to learn how to climb rocks with technical gear over the weekend. I could have comfortably stayed at home and enjoyed the long weekend but I decided to train instead.'
'Aapka commitment toh badiya hai beta.' the man said proudly.
'Does that mean that there is no risk? Absolutely not. It would be naive to think that nature works according to our whims and fancies. But the benefits outweigh the risk multiple folds.'
'Kanchenjunga is the highest mountain in the world, right?' asked the 57 year old man, sipping his third masala chai.
'Nahi sir, Mt Everest in Nepal is the highest mountain in the world'.
You might be thinking that how is it possible for someone in 2023 to not know this. I did too. Which makes it our jobs to educate others around us.
Start thinking of yourself as not just an adventurer but an educator. Strike up conversation with strangers, share your experiences with your colleagues, show photos of your recent treks to kids in the neighborhood.
Everytime I post a story or a reel about the mountains, someone somewhere looks at it and thinks 'Huh, showoff!' But, someone somewhere decides to pick their phone and send me a message saying 'Bro, even I want to go. Will you help?'
We had been talking for hours when it started raining. Strings of water made their way down the glass window. Water always finds it way. I wondered if my words had too? All this was so new for him, maybe some quiet time is needed.
Paneer kofta, lentils, chapati, rice and delicious curd got served. I picked up the english newspaper to avoid further discussion and let things marinate.
A nap followed.
When I got up, we were about an hour away from Nagpur. The gentleman had also enjoyed a siesta and called the attendant for a cup of tea.
I had bought a pair of new trekking shoes from Decathlon and they were sitting right next to my feet. I pulled out one shoe and handed it to him. 'Sir, these are the boots we wear. Look how strong and protective they are.'
He put on his eye glasses and inspected the shoe, holding it carefully. Every few seconds looking at me with awe.
'It was nice talking to you beta. Look, how time flew away and we are already near Nagpur' the man said.
'Thank you sir. I hope you have many more melodious evening with your friends'.
As the train rolled into the train station, I packed my backpack and shook the man's hand.
'Jai Hind, sir.'