“There is life in death. There is death in life”, my dad used to say.
It was April 2nd, 2015 and I remember wiping my tears as he lay on the hapless bed of the Intensive Care Unit on a ventilator fighting complicated diabetes. Was he the same man who once scaled the lofty Himalayan hills in his youth? The father whose shoulders carried me once like a lion cub as we roamed free was barely a shadow of his former self. The towing rucksacks he once carried on his shoulder and the wide open prairie he crossed were almost faded now. The irony of being his daughter and doctor weighed heavy on my mind. While I was wiping my tears with one hand, the other one reached out to him imploring him to not give up on me, yet.
Avalanche of memories brushed past me.
“My dad was a mountaineer who introduced me to mountains at an early age. “What mountains will teach you, no book ever will”, he would say.
Growing up in the picturesque valleys of Kashmir (India), my first trek was at age 5 when my dad took me hiking to Amarnath, a remote Shiva (Hindu God) cave shrine at 12,800 feet on foot crossing glaciers, rivulets, high passes. I was amazed to see nature in all its glory and my first brush with wilderness is still fresh in my mind. The echoes of wayward wind and mighty peaks somehow gave me confidence that in the hardest of life challenges they will open the doors for me to find a way. For a young girl, it was a dream but like all dreams, it came to an end.
As militancy spread across Kashmir in the 1990s, I was forced to leave my home.
“I remember the day when my Dad handed me a wooden ice axe and said, “You are stronger than what might happen here. As militants came marching towards our home, I stood motionless and frozen in fear holding that ice axe with tears rolling down my eyes.”
Down the years, the same ice axe became a symbol of my strength and defiance, which once took me to Amarnath Cave as a child and shaped my life as a mountaineer later. Although my father is no longer around, I can still feel the power of the grit that he passed onto me and the words that he whispered still echo in my heart.”
We were forced to evacuate and leave our homes overnight. As fires raged around us and the deafening militant slogans echoed through the night, we fled the valley. For a young girl, the sense of being “home” was erased in a flash. Life became unforgiving as we lived out in makeshift settlements with no access to basic amenities or drinking water. The mercury was as high at night as it was during the day.
Where had all the dreams vanished? Each day was a fight for survival. My heart was like the single empty room where my entire family of four was crumpled together. I no longer dreamed and my ears no longer listened to the sound of music. The billowing smoke and occasional wailing of someone nearby turned my eyes into stone. Childhood was snatched from my tender hands. Amidst all the mayhem, as we huddled together each night, my dad would softly say, “this too shall pass.”
As I grew older, the memories of our forced exodus remained buried deep inside, but my dad made sure that bad memories did not make me bitter. Our hikes together were far and few as I studied to become a Doctor. In the far corners of my heart, a dream lingered when my dad and I would go back to our home and climb mountains together. Alas, it was never meant to be.
In those final moments of his life, I recited his favorite poem, “Invictus”, as the limbs grew still and the body grew cold. And then it happened. The thread of my hopes snapped. With a final gasp, he exited his body. Perhaps to another world where he would climb and look back at me in his usual carefree manner. The monitors continued to give out a single beep as I kept looking at his lifeless body in disbelief. As he wrote in his diary as a 21 yr old,
“The incredulous inventions of life shan’t deter me to live. My very own life chokes my breath. My very own tears shine like dew.
His soul was unconquerable, the head remained unbowed, and he indeed was, the master of his fate and captain of his soul.
Over the years, tears haven’t stopped. But I learned to build a life around the avalanches of tragedy. I had never known a life without him. He was the epicenter of my life whether planning hikes together or discussing the last climb. He had always dreamed that I would take up mountaineering one day alongside my medical profession.
During the darkest of times, I dug deep down and spoke to the mountain gods. In return, his face smiled back through the fleeting clouds. He reminded me of my immense willpower. Was I the same girl who had fought death and bounced back to life after being comatose with a near fatal head injury? The girl who studied night and day to become a Doctor after her head injury .
That’s when it happened. I mustered all my strength and love for my father and set out on a long and tumultuous journey into myself. I took a break from my professional life to fulfill the dreams I had weaved together with my father. I undertook a 250km hike to Kailash Manasarovar in Tibet as a tribute to him. In those bone chilling harsh conditions, I found solace and a rejuvenated will to live and survive. It gave me closure and I felt his ethereal presence, guiding and nudging me in the form of a gust of wind or trembling of a wildflower.
As a head injury survivor and having risen from near death to breaking life’s barriers, I am now an aspiring mountaineer with multiple summits behind me.
I want to reach the remotest of areas to scream it’s ok to be NOT ok. In a society that curbs and curtails the rise of women, I climb to prove that we can overcome mountains within to realize our true potential. It’s my dream to inspire those who stand apart and whose dreams get crushed. Every mountain I climb is a war cry to those who once told me “you’re a weak woman, get off this mountain.” Their misogyny only fueled my passion and convinced me that I am stronger than the challenges that life throws at us.
Grief, I believe, is a very personal thing. You can’t measure it or put timelines around it. While some bounce back in no time, there are some who struggle for years. Healing is an ongoing process and the hardest of them all is letting go. Memories of the days gone by that are so thick that you have to brush them away. That is the lesson I found in the mountains. Perhaps, it was time for me to let my father go. Let him wander off in the mountains he so desperately loved.
Perhaps somewhere, sometime when time has come to pass and this world would no longer last, you and I will meet again. In another dimension. Not as father and daughter, but as energy. All part of the same source whose bliss emanates throughout. I hope we can share the same breath that flows in the mystic mountains and drink the same nectar from the eternal river of life.
Often as I sit and watch the sun come up in the mountains, I catch a glimpse of you as the golden rays of the morning sun strikes the snow clad peaks. The vacuum that your absence has created has left me with no mountain buddy. Who will now motivate me and root for me? Yet I pick the pieces together and celebrate your life every moment. Memories are my intangible hugs and my fireplace in chilly winters.
To me, mountains are not merely of stone, snow and elements. For me, they hold deeper secrets. Those secrets shall not be revealed unless we make an effort. With an ironclad will and divine grace, transformation shall surely descend.
Honoring his wishes, I completed my mountaineering courses and later climbed the highest peak of Kashmir, Mount Kolahoi that we both had dreamed of climbing together. As I trudged and hiked my way up through the mountain, I felt his presence.
At times when I feel down and the world around me makes me feel that as a woman, I’m inadequate and not strong enough, I flip through the letters my dad wrote to me and his voice resonates deep within.
“One fall doesn’t make one a fiasco.”
The subtle strings of attachment are weakening
As you implore to be set free
With each letting go
Your colossal being hits me
In gushing rivers,
In magnanimous mountains,
In trembling flowers,
In a dying bee’s sucking last nectar
Snuggling with you in pheran (Indian kashmiri traditional woolen wear)
And my little red nose and cheeks
Warming up, little knowing,
Winter of life will hit them hard..
Sometimes regret runs deeper than abyss
But over the years,
I have only felt gratitude,
That someone like you,
Called me his daughter,
And held my hand
When world stood no longer kind.
Is that you, dear father in disguise..
The gentle flake that touches my cheek
Is that you telling me that love never dies…
Ephemeral but eternal..
seeking the winter Sun.
The bond shall last..
As long as father’s and daughters shall be..
Dr Amina Akhter
Hey Varuna, I always have looked upon you with great love and admiration,saw a mystic soul in you.There was something different in you.Googled your name and that led me to your posts.Sorry to hear about your dad,my condolences. I adore you for keeping your passion alive in such a busy life of ours as doctors.
Sangar means mountain in kashmiri, should I call you
Dukhter e Sangar……pahadoon ki beti !!!!
Dr. P.K. Koul
Dear Dr Varuna
You have shared a commendable tribute to your dear dad. I salute you for sharing this. Maej Dayakar Sarney.