The Snow Leopard
The team for the trek to the mighty Himalayas from Leh, was all set to leave. The ten members of the team were very excited for their two week trek. They had already been warned about a not so easy trek and that in fact had added to the excitement and thrill. They had pithus, people to carry their luggage for them all through the trek. The trek began. It was the seventh trek for Igua, as a pithu. He was sure to get to see a snow leopard this time. He had been praying for this on his every trek, but alas! it had not happened so far.
The trek was breathtakingly beautiful to say the least. The stark, rugged brown mammoth mountains, simply dwarfed the humans. Noyonika had been planning this trip for a long while. She was a mountain lover and she wanted to trek these naked mountains and see how it feels to be amongst them. She had read a lot about the snow leopards and they too were a major attraction for her. Her pithu was Igua, a red cheeked young teenager, of who she really was not too sure if he could do his duty well. The shine and determination in Igua’s eyes belied her doubts though.
“Ma’m, is this your first visit to Ladakh?”asked a smiling Igua.
“Yes, it is,”gushed Noyonika, looking around as if to soak in all the beauty.
“You will fall in love with this place, Ma’m!Mark my words,”Igua said confidently.
Everyone had started walking.They were all taking it easy to get acclimatized to the thin air there. The day seemed to just flow by and they all camped for the night. Darkness fell fast there, so everyone was told to restrict themselves to the camp and not wander alone anywhere. Night fell and it seemed that there was a diamond studded dark blue canopy over their heads. Noyonika had never seen anything like that. She felt like stretching her hands and reaching out to the stars. They seemed so very near. She lay on the folding chair and kept gazing at the beautiful sky. It looked ethereal. She did not feel like belonging to this world.
Igua too lay on his backpack, gazing at the sky. His family too would be sleeping under the same sky, he thought. He felt connected. He had his mother, grand parents and three sisters living in a remote village in Ladakh. His father had died of tuburculosis some seven, eight years back. He had very faint memories of him. After the death of the sole bread earner of the family, they lived on the produce of a very small patch of land. They were miserably poor and little Igua would desperately want to do something to bring some relief, but in vain. There wasn’t much work in the village. The village, on the whole was living below the poverty line.
One night, Igua had a dream. An old man with a flowing long beard, came in his dream. He had a long pointed nose and shining red eyes. He picked Igua up by his hands and said in a weird, shrill, pipe like voice,
“You silly boy, wasting your time here! Go and find the snow leopard and he will bring you fortune.” Having said this, the man vanished. Igua woke up, shivering, drenched in sweat. He couldn’t sleep the rest of the night. The snow leopard? He had to find it. He had heard of them living high up in the mountains. How would he go there? Ocean of thoughts raved in his mind. One morning, Igua was no where to be found. Everyone waited for him to return by evening but there was no sign of him. This happened around two years ago.
Igua left his village and walked to Leh. It was almost a three day walk. Some kind tea-stall owner gave him some bread and tea in exchange of washing some dishes. He was nearing Leh when he saw a tourist with a sprained ankle, struggling to walk with his bag. Igua offered help and he carried the bag to the hotel where the tourist was staying. He was rewarded with some decent amount of money. That was his first earning. He went to the reception of the hotel asking for some work. The tourist with a sprained ankle asked him if he could carry his bag with the photographic equipment foe the next full week. Igua readily agreed and that was the beginning of his hard work in Leh. Very soon he became a well known pithu, carrying people’s luggage for them. In no time, he learnt the ways of the mountains and started making decent money. He would use the least to survive and would save the rest. He was waiting to see the snow leopard for that was supposed to bring him fortune.
The team trekked for a good ten days. There were two professional photographers amongst them. Every one was having a great time and the trek was way beyond their expectations. Noyonika had become quite friendly with Igua and was immensely impressed by his knowledge of the mountains and the stars at night. He had some story or the other to speak about the planets, stars, some stream, some rare vegetation and made the whole journey very interesting and mystic.
Two days remained before they would start their descent and there was no clue of the elusive snow leopard. Some members were very disappointed but the most disappointed was, Igua. He some how had a feeling that he would get to see the snow leopard for sure. The photographers too were all set with their cameras to capture it when ever it decided to come out of its hiding. It was the last night of the trek. Igua was very restless. He could not sleep. The team members were all in deep sleep. The diamond studded bright blue canopy seemed to be even closer above. Igua was sitting gazing the mountains. Suddenly he felt a shiver run through him. He sat upright. Something moved. Igua slowly fixed his gaze towards the movement. He then saw the camera fixed in position and slowly crept to it. Adjusting the lenses, he saw the snow leopard, stealthily coming out of the mountains. He started clicking pictures. And then he froze. He saw Noyonika fast asleep in her sleeping bag, in the open, under the star studded sky. The leopard was coming towards her and Igua did not know what to do. There was no time to even think; he took his strong walking stick and ran towards it, giving out a loud cry. The leopard did not expect such an attack. It pounced on Igua and holding him by its mouth dragged him up to the mountains. Everyone was awake and was watching this horrifying sight. By the time anyone could act, Igua was gone, forever.
A stunned silence engulfed the team. Noyonika was uncontrollable. Igua had given his life to save her. Igua had told her, his story one day. Dawn was breaking and the team had to start their descent; without Igua. Each one was shocked to the core and Noyonika was a completely different person altogether. They all came down. The photographer was amazed at the beautiful clicks of the snow leopard. They could match any professional’s. Noyonika traced Igua’s family to the village and donated a huge sum of money that would take care of their future. Many others did the same for this brave, young boy. The snow leopard did bring fortune to his family.