It was the second day of our four-day trip to Manali. Our motley gang of 18, including an infant of not more than 14 months, were rollicking on the fresh snow in the Solang valley. What seemed like a white breeze on the far off peaks quietly, but swiftly, reached us. In no time, a bone-chilling cold had enveloped us and tiny bits of white fell and landed on our wild and flying hair. It was a light, gentle snowfall. Just as my eyes adjusted to the faraway whiteness of the mountains, intensified by the snowfall, I caught sight of a moving object playing hide-and-seek with the clouds. It was a paraglider! I let out a squeal and declared that no power on earth could stop me today from flying. And, off I went with few other women from our travel party to conquer the clouds.
And, conquer we did with elan and style! And, claimed our share of the sky, just a day after the International Working Women’s Day.
The first leg of the journey was to reach the actual spot to book your trip and find yourself a pilot. The pilot is a certified paragliding expert who takes people on his aircraft for a fee and shows them the skies, as he does a slow, romantic dance-rendezvous with the mountain wind. My pilot was called Teja. Somebody scrawled out his name on a carelessly torn out bill and thrust it in my hand. “Please find your pilot and stay with him, “ declared the guy at the counter. Teja found me, took the bill from my hand, and proceeded. That was a cue for me to follow. Teja, a lanky young man of not more than 30, walked on the snow as if it were a grassy meadow. And, I was trudging with all my might on snow that was almost 8-ft deep. Soon, we were on the rope car, which would carry us right to the summit of the mountain. Things were getting serious when Teja asked for my weight. Why? Am I too heavy I asked. “Oh, no, no! Rest assured, I was asking to check if I’ve picked the right paraglider.” This, after I had successfully bumped off 15 kg in the last year or so.
Miles to go, my mind wandered off…
After a good 10-minute ride up the snow covered hill, we reached the top. Teja instructed me to follow him on a single track road and ran off with his heavy paraglider. Intent on staying close on his heels, I decided to run. It seemed like he had just made a slight turn on the track, but was nowhere to be found when I reached that exact point. He materialized on the other side of the hill. He had covered a distance of almost 500 metres under 5 seconds. And, 500 metres on the side of a snow-covered mountain. The other side being a steep drop on almost 2000 feet! Yes, no kidding. With nothing but loose snow, a racing heart, and gallons of adrenaline for support, I trekked up to Teja holding on to dear life. This probably was also true of the 5 other women travellers who followed me. Soon, we were on the slope from where we’d take off on our paragliders. Teja saw me advancing, came up to me, and slung on my back the required equipment and walked off. He repeated the same with all other women and sauntered off on the slope casually. What are these guys? I wondered. Are they mountain goats mutated into humans? I stood rooted on the slope looking down, wondering about K if I were to tumble down right now and never be found. Or, maybe I should have given my son my email passwords, or at least my iPhone passkey, so that he could see all the notes I had written to him since he was born. Oh, what about my German lessons? Will I never again set foot in Europe? Snowflakes fell on my eye lashes and quietly condensed as I heard Teja call me, “Aajo madam…”
I gaped and gawked, mouthing, “Come and get me, you arrogant little mountain goat.” In response, he sent a scrawny lamb to get me. The scrawny lamb didn’t even look me in the eye. One arm out, caught me by my hands, and passed me over to Teja. At the actual take-off spot, two more mountain goats took over as Teja was getting ready with his equipment. Together they strapped me to the paraglider and instructed me to run on the slope. I could have choked them right there, if only I wasn’t myself choking in fear!
In no time, the two guys holding me on either side started to sprint. In a split-second, I decided to embrace what was coming; death or whatever! After a short gallop, the wind took over. I had planned on screaming, but everything halted to screech, and the instant reminded me of the moment my son’s eyes met mine for the very first time. I gaped at the expanse of the scene that opened up. The infiniteness of being was spread out right there for me to see. “Relax ho jao,” Teja advised. And, I did. It was all so quiet, white, and blue. We were just swimming through air, with almost no care. As we let the wind take us up and above, 3000 ft to be exact, we were touching something far too powerful for the human mind to grasp and grapple with. I took deep breath of the pure wind, closed my eyes, and opened them again. Was this rebirth? I wondered. Just then, like an answer came a gust of cross wind almost toppling us. A shot of fear-induced adrenaline pumped in. But then, Teja piloted the glider like how Kavin manoeuvres his cycle through windows that open amidst crowds of people.
We were dropping altitude as humans on the snow began to appear like dots. I smiled, as childhood memories of the bible verse “What is man that You are mindful of him,” came to me. Soon, it was time to land. I hadn’t died, but I was reborn.
“Stretch your legs out as far as possible, madam,” Teja bellowed over the wind. The landing was smooth; not even a thud. The paraglider’s wing fell around us in a flourish as I knelt on the snow, smiled, laughed, and thumped the ground in great joy. The sort of joy I hadn’t known existed until that moment. I hugged a friend in excitement.
Teja and other mountain goats collected all the equipment and set off to find new clients. All in a day’s work, for them. A life changing work for the rest of us.