Kaushik’s eyes opened and saw darkness. The eyelids opened and shut with trepidation several times since, when they opened, the retina they housed weren’t used to capturing a somewhat similar image to what they’d been seeing with the shutters down. Still dark. From somewhere close, came the sound of snoring. He felt damp and realized he was still wearing his jacket, which combined with two blankets and alcohol, had made him sweat. He also realized he needed, urgently, to relieve his bowels. He sighed, sat up and fumbled under the bed, first for the glasses and then for the mobile phone. The phone’s screen, once it lit up, informed him it was three in the morning and cast a ghostly halo around the tent. Kaushik spotted two bodies on the other two beds – Ashish and Raakesh – although he couldn’t be sure which was who. He stepped out of the tent and immediately a chill breeze blew into his face and he stepped back inside.
His backpack lay by his bedside, upon which a woolen cap and gloves had been carelessly tossed. He put them on and stepped out again.
It was a brilliant moonlit night and Kaushik was staggered to find how clearly he could see. The white sand stretched out ahead of him and he could see exactly where it met the water. The Ganges, blusterous and white foamed, hurtled down towards Haridwar, eager to complete the remaining distance to the plains, barely twenty kilometers, as soon as it could. On the other side of the river, the Himalayas loomed dramatically, the summits hidden by a luminescent sheet of white clouds that, miraculously, seemed immobile in the gusty breeze. Overhead however, unguarded by the mountains, the clouds scurried off, also in the direction of Haridwar, and Kaushik glimpsed a sky filled with stars. Looking directly up made him sway a little. The effects of the alcohol had evidently not worn off completely. He didn’t detect a headache though, a good sign.
The makeshift toilets were about fifty meters from the tents. He walked lazily in that direction; his slippers sunk into the soft sand and threw up miniature volcanoes each time they came back up again. He passed by the bonfire they’d lit earlier that evening; the embers were dull grey with patches of simmering deep red. Thin tendrils of smoke still rose from them and hung a few feet above. Kaushik stopped for a moment and flapped his arms through the smoke. He chuckled.
When he’d reached the first of the toilet doors, he looked back at the line of tents, about a dozen of them, milky white against the thick dark cluster of trees in the background. Apart from them, he had spotted only one other group that evening. He decided he would return with his camera after he’d relieved himself. The toilets had no roofs and no taps. One plastic mug, half broken, was placed inside each. Outside, a solitary cistern stood; its dark wet surface glistened in the moonlight. He picked up two mugs from adjacent toilets and fetched water, freezing, from the cistern, although, going by the smell inside the toilets, he was convinced that carrying the extra mug, which he intended to flush the toilet with, was a futile exercise. Squatting inside the toilet, he stared up, partly to savour the view he was afforded and party to escape the stench. He inhaled in short sharp bursts and exhaled deeply. The sheet of clouds above and the walls of the toilet below hid from view most of actual peaks.
He returned to his tent a quarter of an hour later, his buttocks and palms numb from being exposed to the water. He thought of the camera and then abandoned the idea. He slid back under the blankets and did not budge until the morning after.
Two years later, when he was reading of the Dharma Bums’ climb up the Matterhorn Peak, his mind threw up that image of the barely visible mountains from inside the toilet. It made him reminisce, fondly, of the bonfire of that night and the white water rafting of next morning and of Raakesh and Ashish and Lucknow. It was the three’s only trip together. And yet, for Kaushik, the defining image of it was of the mountains at three in the morning, and he suspected it would endure through his life, entwined as it was now, with The Dharma Bums.