A few years ago, I was in Germany at a party at the Berlin film festival. One of the guests present was a famous mountaineer who had recently scaled Everest. Deeply impressed, I congratulated him. He looked long and hard at me. ‘You are Indian, right?’ ‘Yes’, I said. Downing his whisky he said, ‘Then you deserve to know the truth. Listen.’
On the day of the ascent, Wolfgang (his name is changed for reasons you will soon appreciate), strapped on his oxygen cylinder, fought howling winds, snow and zero visibility and after eight hours, scaled the summit. As he was about to plunge the German flag into the peak, he felt a tap on his back."Excuse me, perchance you have can openaar?" Oxygen deprived, at the edge of human exhaustion, Wolfgang knew he was hallucinating, yet he turned in the direction of the voice. He saw a diminutive man in a bright checked shirt clad in a yellow sweater with a lady bug sown on it, wearing an olive green balaclava, holding out a can of roshogollas. He teetered, the flag falling from his hand. Twenty two years of maximum-altitude climbing had taught him that an oxygen-deprived mind can play tricks, but nobody had warned him about this. "Eyou have can openaar, please?"
Just as Wolfgang was beginning to wonder what part of his mind was collapsing under the strain of decompression, frostbite and starvation, a large woman and two children in sweaters and monkey caps noisily trudged up the summit.
“Ekhaana kono bathroom naiee. Oof, ki muhkil bolo to. Pultu hishi korte chai. Ki korbo? Shuncho?!” (There is no bathroom here. Oof! What a problem! Pultu wants to go urinate! What do I do? Are you even listening?!) Wolfgang’s worst fears were confirmed. This was a dark, dreadful hallucination. A fat Indian woman in an sari, speaking gibberish on the summit of Everest. He meekly lay down and prepared to die. The next thing he remembers is eating something soft and beautifully sweet, his hands and feet being massaged.
“Dekhecho Gutli! Monkee cap aar roshogollaer ki ephaict! Taijonne amar dadabhai bolten—naivhaar liv thee raisidence hwithout monkee cap.” (You see, Gutli? The effect of a balaclava and rasgullas? That’s why my grandfather used to say—never leave the residence without one.)
“I owe my life to the Gangulys,” Wolfgang said as he downed another whisky. “But what shook me more than anything was what Mr Ganguly said when I asked him how they managed to make it up.” He said—”Kolkata hwas hvairy hot. So we deecaidaid to go to a cooler place. Climbing, climbing, we mait you. Bas, aar ki.” Next week, I will narrate another tale—of the Gujarati family in the Sahara. All true.