In spring of 2001, my good friends Bruce Lee Mani and Rajeev Rajagopal (better known as guitar player and drummer, respectively, of Thermal And A Quarter) dragged me to the Himalayas on a trek for which I was quite unprepared. Bass player Rzhude, who had been there and done that before, had charted out our ‘itinerary’ – which meant heading to some nameless Himachali hamlet and hunting out people he remembered only by first name, then coaxing them to help us find accommodation. All on a budget that resembled my frayed shoestrings.
I had spent the last six months in California driving on freeways to every national park within driving distance and getting fat on all the hormone-laden meat and milk and Washington apples I could shop at Safeway. A cardio workout in the Himalayas seemed a perfect way to burn off that ill-gotten tallow, and also to reorient myself among my countrymen.
So much for excuses.
Without even a pair of proper trekking shoes (I had on a pair of morning-walk-worn Power sneakers) and no backpack to call my own, I was bundled into a train that took the longest possible route to reach Delhi. On the bus to Manali, I got over my jet-lag only by listening to a tribe of multicultural fellow Hindustanis snore away in unison. What a homecoming!
We trekked from Manali to Solang, but could not go to Rohtang as the pass was snowed in. No disappointments, though. At the end of our trek, we made our way back through the cobbled, undulating streets of old Manali village hopping goat-like across streams and trying to make polite conversation with the villagers (mostly with the intent of scoring some hash – as luck would have it, every second man turned out to be peddling some).
Passing a stone fence in that village, a flash of hot orangey red caught my eye. A ribbon of movement among the piles of boulders, it was about an arm’s length away. I had to peek over the wall to see what it was, and that earned me the opportunity to stare into the wrinkled face of an ancient woman with truck-window glasses who was either hard of hearing or irate or both. She hollered at the top of her voice at this outlandish peeping tom (moi) and waved her arms about, while I peered into the cracks of her compound wall.
A black-tipped nose emerged, then a pointed white snout. Then a pair of beady, insolent eyes and a mouth that opened to reveal a row of sharp teeth. Here it was – a Himalayan Weasel (Mustela sibrica), that tiny little giant-killer of the foothills. He frowned his carnivore frown and slunk his sinuous body around the rocks and emerged now and then to look us in the eye, not hesitating to bare his fangs lest I found him too cute.
Despite his huggability, he was a carnivore all the way – right from the bloodthirsty quivering of his nostrils to the merciless gleam in his eye. But, of course, these are human attempts at personification and what really matters is that this little fellow can bring down prey many times his size – such as hares, pikas, marmots, squirrels and small birds.
The Himalayan Weasel is not getting any commoner in the hills, and we were very lucky to see this guy up close. Humankind’s war against nature has pushed these little carnivores to the brink. Meeting this fierce little killer in the hills, I was reminded of Strange Meeting, Wilfred Owen’s telling poem on the futility of war, especially these three lines from it:
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.