If only Rohit had been able to come, Nitin thought, as Richa stopped to take a breath for the umpteenth time.
To think that he had looked forward to this holiday in Manali so much. His friend Rohit and he had planned so many treks and climbs together. But Rohit’s father had not been able to get away. So here he was, stuck with his twelve-year-old sister Divya and her friend, Richa.
It was utterly ridiculous! He was almost grown-up, a fifteen-year-old, and they were just kids. But they insisted on following him wherever he went. The worst was, that while his sturdy curly-haired sister was almost as energetic as him, Richa was a frail little girl not used to walking on hill roads at all. She could barely go a short distance without getting tired. And his parents expected him to take them with him all the time.
Nitin’s tall, wiry frame was tense with frustration. His good-natured face was fixed in an uncharacteristic frown. He was so off-mood that he could not even enjoy the beauty of the scene before him. Gloomily, he gazed at the snow-clad peaks thrusting fiercely into the sky, the turbulent Beas foaming and rushing its way downhill and the dark green deodars lining its banks in serried rows.
For Nitin, the high point of his holiday was to be all the endurance testing activity the hills promised – the stiff climbs, the grueling hikes which could be a challenge to his strength. He happened to be an ace athlete and excelled in almost every kind of outdoor activity. So it was particularly infuriating that he should have to drag the girls along everywhere.
Last night he had told his father that he wanted to trek to the Vashisht Hot Springs. He had meant to go all alone, but his father said, “Take the girls along, too.”
“But father,” he had protested, “they will never be able to do it. At least Richa won’t. Do they have to tag along wherever I go?”
“It is not such a long distance, son,” father had said. “And you must remember, Richa is our guest. You must not leave her behind when you go on an outing.” Nitin had been sullenly silent. Angry thoughts had boiled in his head. She was Divya’s friend, not his. Why did he have to entertain her? Why did they have to spoil his holiday?
“You are a big boy, son,” father had added. “You must be mature and considerate. If you walk slowly, I am sure she will manage.” He had patted Nitin’s back encouragingly but it did not make him feel any better. “Take care, huh,” he had said. “Remember, you are in charge.”
Walk slowly! That was just what he did not want to do. Manage! Of course, they would. Crawling along at a hundred yards per hour. What was the point of going there at all?
Frowningly he looked at Richa’s flushed face.
“Sorry,” she said. A sharp girl, Richa seemed to sense his impatience. “This is really boring for you. Why don’t you go ahead, Nitin bhaiya?”
Nitin shook his head glumly at first. Then he felt a spurt of excitement. Go ahead! Why not? The two of them would be perfectly all right on their own. The busy road was swarmed with tourists, and if they were unsure of the way they could always ask. He could go on at his own pace and they could follow.
But Divya said, “No, no. We are supposed to stay together, bhaiya.”
How typical of Divya, Nitin fumed. Why shouldn’t he go on his own as Richa suggested. They could join up at the Springs later and everybody would be more comfortable.
That very moment a voice called, “Yoo-hoo! Tired already?”
Nitin turned. It was Amar, a boy from his school. He was also holidaying in Manali. Nitin met him in town last evening. He had a group of friends with him.
Nitin felt a spurt of fury. Did Amar have to come along at this time? He had never liked Amar much, though he was not sure why. Perhaps because he was such a clownish type of a guy, never serious about anything except playing the fool. This is all he seemed to be good at – cracking jokes and getting up to silly tricks. Nitin despised such people. So it made him feel worse that Amar had to come along and catch him in this ridiculous predicament.
“I am not tired,” he replied sharply.
“No, you just needed a little rest,” Amar said in an artificially high-pitched voice. His bright black eyes gleamed mischievously.
Nitin’s face flamed. If he knew Amar, he would tease him about this for months in school. And that strong, invincible athletic image of his would take quite a beating. How could he allow that!
“Huh,” he said challengingly, “I will be at the Springs long before you!”
“Let us see!” Amar replied in the same tone. “It does not seem very likely. Bye, slow poke. I am off.” He turned and marched off at an exaggeratedly brisk pace, along with his friends.
This was the limit! The guy putting him down like that. It was more than Nitin could take. “I have had it!” he snapped at the girls. “I am going. You two follow at your own sweet pace.”
He turned and stomped ahead. “Stop!” Divya cried. “You cannot leave us and go, bhaiya.” She ran after him waving and shouting.
Nitin ignored her. He did not even turn though she kept yelling, “Stop, bhaiya, please stop!”
Instead he quickened his pace and tramped on swiftly, his feet moving mechanically forward. In a few strides he had caught up with Amar and his gang. He could hear them shouting and laughing as he brushed past. Amar tried to race with him but he was no match for Nitin who triumphantly outpaced him. All that pent-up energy within him was being spent now, as he walked on briskly with the crisp, cool air fresh on his cheeks.
When he felt he was quite far ahead, he turned to have a look. He could see several people but no sign of Amar and his friends. They have given up, he thought, the useless guys. How could Amar have dared to challenge him! There was no sign of Divya and Richa either, but Nitin did not expect to see them. They must be there, he thought, behind a bend somewhere, straggling along.
How exhilarating it was to be walking at the speed he wanted to, instead of slouching along with those kids! He was so absorbed in that sensation that he almost missed the sign. “Way to Vashisht Hot Springs,” it said. A narrow foot-path running along a stream led up a steep incline. At last, a proper climb, Nitin thought. This was the thing he was looking forward to, a proper test of his strength.
He was a good way up when his feeling of elation suddenly fled and uneasiness smote him.
The climb was stiff, quite stiff. Would Richa be able to make it? She was supposed to be asthmatic, he knew, that is why she tired easily. Suppose it was too much for her? Divya would take care, he thought, trying to suppress his qualms. They would come up slowly, taking a lot of rest in between. Richa herself had suggested that he could carry on ahead, hadn’t she? And he had already warned his father that the walk would be too much for her…
Still, his pace slackened on its own and he stopped to look down. Of course, there was no sign of them. They had been way behind him. They would take a long time. But for some reason his uneasiness did not stop growing. Father’s words came back to him,” …You are a big boy, son… She is our guest…”
He had not behaved like a big boy. He had left Divya and Richa on their own when his father had put him in charge. He had let his father down by disobeying him. As he stood there gazing at the lofty mountains before him, so sharp and clear against the blue sky, it seemed so silly and childish that he should have allowed himself to be provoked like that. That he should have gone to such lengths to prove his superiority and his strength!
What should he do now? He could not go on with the uncomfortable feeling inside him. But for a while he stood there undecided, because his goal was in sight. He had almost arrived at the Springs. Yet, deep inside was a feeling of failure, rather than success. He had failed, failed to live up to his father’s belief in him. Suddenly he realized what he must do – turn back and see if everything was okay.
Immediately Nitin turned, almost raced downhill. He had not gone too far when he saw someone come up very fast. It was Amar. He would get to the Springs first now! But it did not seem to matter any more. It was more important to go back. Why was Amar all alone, though? Had he too abandoned his companions in the race for the Springs?
“Nitin!” Amar cried. They were face to face now. Nitin rushed on as if he had not heard. He did not want to hear Amar’s stupid remarks.
“Nitin, please, listen,” Amar’s tone was urgent. “Your sister, she is hurt!”
“Hurt!” Nitin was stunned. What could have happened? Why, oh, why had he gone ahead?
“Don’t worry, it is nothing serious. She was running after you and she fell and hurt her leg. Luckily we saw and were able to help. I have left her sitting by the road, my friends are there with them.” Amar stopped to catch his breath. “I told them to try and get hold of a taxi.”
“Oh-h.” Guilt, compunction hit Nitin with resounding force. It was all his fault. If he had not rushed off like that nothing would have happened. “Is…is she badly hurt?”
“No, no. She just has a deep cut on her knee. We tied it up with a hanky and stopped the bleeding. But she needs medical attention.”
Nitin just did not know what to say. Everything was mixed up. Till a short while ago his race for the Springs had seemed so important but now it was the last thing on his mind. And Amar whom he had thought a useless guy had proved so thoughtfully and efficient. Somewhere, something had gone wrong. But what? “Thanks, thanks so much,” he said awkwardly shaking hands with Amar. “I am sorry.”
“Forget it, Nitin.” Amar grinned reassuringly. “I n fact, I am sorry. You rushed off leaving your sister behind because of what I said. But I was just joking, just having fun. Why did you take it so seriously?” Amar gazed at him bewildered.
Nitin was silent. How could he explain to Amar that he had been so blinded by that puffed-up image of himself that he could not even recognize a joke! And that he took everything for a test of strength…physical strength rather?
“I guess I have been a bit of a dummy,” he said finally, trying to smile. “But I know better now. Come on, Divya must be waiting…”