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Of Innocence and Promise

November 2003
Of Innocence and Promise

A chance encounter on a Himalayan trek provides glimpses of the promise of childhood.

By Vijay Vemulapalli

"Aren't you going to wait for your wife?" Pashupati asked me. Without waiting for my reply, she stopped, looked at her watch, made sure that she is not running late for her school and waited for Madhuri to catch up with us. I got some time to catch my breath too, as I was losing it, walking stride-in-stride with this charming young girl. Pashupati was about 7 years old and I was "privileged" to have walked with her on that pleasant morning.

While trekking the 225km Annapurna circuit in the Himalayas, enjoying the beauty of the region was our primary interest. But, we had a lot of secondary interests. Meeting people - different kinds of people - was one of them. We met a lot of "interesting" people. We met people who climbed Mount Everest, more than once. We met people who didn't know where their next destination was. We met people who left comfortable but mundane jobs to see the world, in search of some higher truth. We also met young ones who are out to enjoy the world, before settling down in serious careers. We also met junkies who are using it as an excuse, wasting their youth. We met middle-aged people gathering few more experiences under their belt, as they approach their retirement. We met an old couple in their 70s, who made trekking in the Himalayas a habit, rather than a hobby. We also met the most memorable of all, the simple villagers - such happy souls - all along the trek. But, even after three years, when I recollect that trip, some memories and some images come up, quite vividly. Pashupati was one such image.

Pride?innocent pride, sense of purpose, dignity, freshness - that's what defines Pashupati's image. I do not have a face to recollect. I couldn't take a photo of her. By the time I decided to take her photo, she reached her school and didn't want to wait a second. She vanished into the tiny school shed before I could ask her permission. She remained in my memory ever since, as a bright image. Each time I think of her, a sense of freshness and brightness surrounds my thought.

That was the penultimate day of our trek, and incidentally the second toughest one - next only to the day we crossed the pass. By then, we had finished 12 days of trekking at various elevation levels, including the Thorang Pass at an elevation of 17599 ft. We started off quite early from Kalopani and we were to gain an elevation of 5440 ft over a 15 km trek to reach our destination at Ghorepani. By the time we reached the first of several hills that day, the sun had come out fully, but the cool breeze made the trek pleasant.

It must have been around eight o'clock, because we saw an occasional child in school uniform crossing us. Pashupati was one of them. She was also in her Navy blue skirt, and light blue shirt school uniform. Her hair was well combed, parted into two, braided and tied with a colored ribbon at the ends. She was carrying a heavy school bag on her back - a picture perfect school kid. I smiled at her and started the small talk. We continued the conversation as we walked together for the next three kilometers.

She talked about herself and her family. She is the elder child and has a brother. She goes to school everyday, walking (It's trekking to us!) about 5 kms one way. (Here we are, complaining about our daily drive to work. What a shame!). She is among the top in her class. She need not have mentioned that - I could see it. Her face was brimming with brightness. She helps her mother after school, mainly by taking care of her brother. Her father is in the Indian army. He comes home once or twice a year and brings gifts from India. I asked her whether she had visited India. She said no. I realized the inappropriateness of my question when she said she has not even seen Pokhra, the nearest town.

When I asked her what she does during holidays, she really grounded me with her answer - she works in her fields. She educated me that the schools are closed during the harvest season and hence she works in the fields. She talked about all of it with such pride that any of my quick impulse to feel sorry for a young child to be working in fields seemed so low.���The equal pride with which she talked about her school and her fields, struck me and remained with me ever since.

Most of the other conversation was only to prolong the conversation. I liked talking to her so much that I had to engage her, often with silly questions; as otherwise, I was afraid, she might get bored and walk away, fast. She could have, you see, I was the one trying to catch her pace.

When I think of her now, I feel good about her. I feel good that she is happy. I feel good that she has pride in what she is doing. I also wish the best for her and children like her. They are ready to walk 5 kms each way to attend school, to learn, to be enthusiastic about it, and feel proud of everything they do. To look at life positively - not even knowing what life means. I hope she completes her elementary school and I hope that by then a high school will be opened within her vicinity. I hope she goes to college in Pokhra. Whatever she becomes, I hope she lives a happy life. She deserves one. The cool breeze around me promises that she will have one. n

[November 14th is celebrated in India as CHILDREN'S DAY as it is the birthday of Pandit Nehru who was known for his love for children. It's a day of fun and frolic and celebration of childhood.]

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