Shwetal Mehta’s Birthday
Birthdays are special days, and it always excites me if some traveller’s birthday falls while we are on a trip.
A couple of weeks before our Ladakh May 2015 trip, Shwetal Mehta signed up for the trip and happened to mention she was coming because her birthday fell in the middle of it. On the trip, two of her friends told us that she, a (half?) marathon lover, had always wished that she could go running in Ladakh on her birthday. The day before the birthday, we were in Nubra Valley. At over 10,000 feet above sea level, nubra is a cold valley desert and is a collection of scanty populations in small villages clustered in the mountains around the blue river Shyok. By night, we were all in our camp, dancing and singing around a bonfire.
Then around 1130 pm, “according to plan”, people started saying they were sleepy and started retiring to their camp tents. So did Shwetal and her two friends. Then, while they engaged her inside, the rest 17 of us slipped out quietly and went out and lined up on one side of a dark road. Each person stood at a distance of 10 metres from the other. When it struck twelve, Shwetal’s friends asked her to go on a short run outside the camp, by herself. And not suspecting anything, she did exactly that. The night was absolutely dark and you couldn’t see a thing two feet ahead of you. Literally. Hardly had Shwetal run a few metres, when out of the darkness, the person she crossed first (and did not see till then) switched on a torch and illuminated her immediate path. As she passed him, he gave her a chocolate. As Swetal Mehta kept running, and kept crossing each trip member, the torches kept lighting up in order and soon an illuminated path sprung up. All those she passed, would give her a chocolate, a little something, and Shwetal kept laughing, out of surprise and out of excitement. At the end of the lot stood a friend and me, in the middle of the road, with a large cake on a chair.
We had all brought the cake earlier in the day, from a small remote village stone house village bakery, the only in all of Nubra Valley and one of the highest bakeries in the world. The room was small, there were no fancy machines, the one light that was there was a small bulb flickering weakly. But the freshly made bread was soft, the man working there had a beaming smile and the whole place smelled wonderful. As Shwetal came closer to the cake, the friend and I picked up the chair bodily and ran backwards. The birthday girl gave chase, and everyone following her was singing loudly. Fifty more metres of running in the darkness, and then we finally stopped and she cut her cake, under torchlight, the stars in the sky, and a stream gushing somewhere in the background. Birthdays are indeed special days.