People, places & perceptions

People, places & perceptions

In this breathtakingly beautiful and rugged land I met three people who shall remain in my memory for a long time, writes Bharathi Prabhu


Every time we visit a place, we bring back with us as much memory of its people as that of its sights. Our visit to Ladakh just before it became a Union Territory was no different. In this breathtakingly beautiful and rugged land I met three people who shall remain in my memory for a long time.

The first was our driver and guide, Rigzin with whom I had the longest contact. Rigzin, a stocky young man of around 30 years had the typical north eastern features. Reticent at first, he slowly opened up. His soft voice and strongly accented Hindi made conversation difficult but we managed. Rigzin told us about his wife and daughter: about the wife’s preference for her maternal home and his hopes for the child; he told us about his wedding where the bride was “stolen” as is the custom among his people. He spoke about his best friends, also drivers by profession. Over a week, I became adept at identifying who he was talking to on the phone. The friends got the maximum laughter and time, the wife got the silent treatment punctuated by a placating phrase now and then. Rigzin knew the best places to eat and would quietly disappear into the kitchen as we sat outside. We would hear pleasant conversation from inside.

While we marvelled at the beauty of Ladakh, Rigzin felt that the neighbouring Jammu and Kashmir was more scenic. Rigzin had travelled only till Delhi and was curious about Bengaluru but was sure he couldn’t survive here.

The second person from the trip was Shabbir Khan, “Call me SK, like Shah Rukh Khan” he said twirling his shades around his fingers. We were travelling to Manman top, a region that has seen a rise in tourist interest after the Kargil war. SK was to be our driver here and he was a study in contrast to Rigzin. Flamboyant, talkative and reckless, he promised us an exciting trip and boy, did he deliver! Driving us up the treacherous slopes in the Dras sector from where we could see Pakistani posts, he steered with one hand and pointed with the other. While I mouthed silent prayers, SK said, “Don’t worry ma’am.  I drive this stretch often. I am a sought after driver. A foreign crew approached me to drive them around to shoot their documentary. They helped me set up an FB page and now I am famous,” SK told us about a grand uncle who stays on the other side of the border and how all the villagers were evacuated during Kargil war when he was just a boy.

The third and sweetest memory is that of eight- year-old Namgyal, my knight in shining armour. On our last day at Leh, I decided to take a walk by the pristine stream flowing next to the hotel.  I left the phone behind to fully soak in the moment.

After about 15 idyllic minutes, I realised I was lost. Rosy-cheeked children playing in the fields and old ladies in the shop further up were of no help as we didn’t have a common language. It was then that someone summoned young Namgyal who spoke English. He gave me precise directions to my hotel and when I started walking back, Namgyal quietly walked behind me. “I have to pass by your hotel anyway,” he said. I knew that it was to ensure that I did not get lost again. I was touched. We made small talk on our way back and I found  the child remarkably perceptive. When we reached the hotel, I gave Namgyal a hug — much to his embarrassment.