I was told a delightful story last night.
Many years ago a young woman went off to India in search of herself. After some months of travel and rest and adjustment and contemplation, she found herself heading north, and heading up into the mountains where the air is cooler, the grass greener.
Somewhere up in the foothills of the Himalayas she met an old man. His face was thousands of years old – absurd wisdom radiating out – and the body of child. His secret was readily apparent – the field of laden, aromatic plants nodding on the steep slope on which he squatted. Gathering some between his hands, he rubbed and showed her the result. She stayed for some days, squatting beside him on the slope and knowing.
A different knowing, she thought, from the pressing, urgent bursting of thought back in London – bustling along some roaring street in Brixton or Soho. ‘All the rubbish they put in it,’ said the old man. ‘Here we do not put.’
She looked at the old man with his cloth around his loins. The cracked faced woman and naked children at the corner of the field that might have been his family. A tear slipped down her cheek. She would return, she said. A little business would benefit everyone.
Some years later – years of roaring streets in Brixton and Soho – she returned to the Himalayas. Such was the progression of the world that the old man was now on Facebook, and arranging their meeting had been straightforward. He was expecting her. The elements had been kind, and the plants nodded more affirmatively than ever.
Sipping tea at a pleasant hill station more or less half way up to the old man’s field, a startlingly handsome man in a white shirt asked with tremendous politeness if he might sip his tea with her a moment or two. She smiled. He sat, shyly twiddling the ends of his thin moustache. Like her, he said, he was there for the mountain air. ‘Certain kinds of mountain air, in fact, are a great aid to the mind,’ he said. ‘Are you going much further up?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘To where the air is very clean.’
‘The road is dangerous, of course.’
‘It is very narrow up there. But there is no need to climb higher. In the right hands, the cleanest air can be brought down the foothills.’
‘Yes, madam no problem. Look.’ And he rubbed his hands and showed her. ‘Just the same, and because we are down here, where everything is a little easier, I can make a better offer.’ He made his offer. It was tempting.
‘Let me think about it.’ She licked her lips, trying to survey the handsome stranger in minute detail and at the same time afraid of doing so in case it insulted him. She was hardly your average, suspicious newby gori.
That night, on a cot in the hill station’s rickety guesthouse, she woke, sweating, from a dream in which she was busted and thrown in jail.
But after dahl and chapattis and two cups of fresh mountain coffee the night seemed like another world, of which memory was already dim. She was sitting on the verandah with her face to the sun when a shadow fell across her.
‘Good morning, madam.’ The handsome stranger sat down beside her. ‘Bad tidings from the higher mountain,’ he whispered. ‘They are stopping people. Very sad that you will not this time see the beauty of that place. Perhaps another time. But there is really no need for you to risk anything. I have everything here.’ He rubbed his hands and showed her and repeated his tempting offer. The thought of the dream broke her out in a sweat. He saw her anxiety, became anxious himself, peering at her with his moist, dark eyes. ‘You must trust me, madam. There is no need to climb higher.’ She thought of the empty track up to the old man’s field. Several days travel, every step clouded by the dream’s dark outcome.
‘Alright,’ she said. The handsome stranger was solemn. Things changed hands. She packed her bag carefully and came out onto the verandah again, expecting to wave the stranger goodbye. She did not see him. She was being naive: why would he hang around! Then she was glad to be out in the morning sun, heading downhill after a long time climbing.
They were waiting for her at the next hill station, twiddling their moustaches and trying not to smile. She tried to determine if these were the men from the dream, but she could not remember. It didn’t matter. Juddering on the hard seat of the Land Rover to the police station, all she could think was how simple it had been, how obvious.