The Lake in the Mountains

(TGM Challenge of first heartbreak)

When I was thirteen years old, I fell madly in love with a twenty-five year old man from the mountains of the North. He was the first love, the first crush; whatever you want to call him.

Yet now, even if I try, I cannot picture his face clearly in my mind. All that I can remember about the face of Abdul Khaliq — driver of jeeps, listener of Bollywood movie songs, wearer of cheap men’s cologne — was that he was fair of skin, had turquoise blue eyes and a neat moustache.

He was the driver/guide on one of my family’s excursions to the wild North West Frontier Province of Pakistan. The craggy, towering mountains, the narrow mountain roads, the fresh mountain air. And Abdul Khaliq. Silent and mysterious. Devastatingly handsome and so, so unattainable.

Five jeeps waited for us at our motel, ready to take us further on our trip. Canvas roofed. Hardy tires. Huddled near them, next to a fire, were the drivers of these jeeps. They were proud and regal looking. Rugged as the mountains they belonged to. All of them were men in their thirties or forties. All but one.

He was very tall and thin. He leaned back against his jeep casually. My overly dramatic thirteen year old heart did a flip. He was the one for me.

I pined away after him that entire trip. I stared at him with puppy dog eyes, hung on to his every word and stayed up nights; driving myself to near distraction with thoughts of him.

Our destination: Lake Saiful Maluk, a beautiful glacial lake which in the winter freezes over, becoming a bed of ice. In the summer, it is a lake with the most beautiful water I have ever seen.

Turquoise blue water. Just like the turquoise blue eyes of Abdul Khaliq.

The lake was absolutely breathtaking as it stood silent and glittering in the summer sun, nestled within the mountains themselves; the glory of the snow capped Malika Parbat, the Queen of the Mountains, in the backdrop.

Abdul told us the folklore surrounding this lake; of a fairy and a prince and a Giant who loved the fairy and whose heart she broke. “Some say that the Prince and the Fairy,” concluded Abdul solemnly, “still dance on these waters on the 14th night of every lunar month.”

Drum roll please. I swooned as I pictured myself as the beautiful fairy and Abdul as my Prince.

“Tell me, Abdul,” said one of my indomitable Aunts on our drive back from the Lake. “What is your age?”

“I’m not sure,” he said, staring straight ahead into the darkness of the night. “They say I was born in the year 1967 but there are no records.”

I looked out the window, my hands clasped in my lap. I could feel the cool mountain air on my face. He was twelve years older than me. I felt myself growing hot at the impudence of it all.

“Are you married?” persisted my unstoppable Aunt.

There was an Abdul-type silence. Finally he spoke, shattering my silly, teenage heart into a million pieces all over that jeep floor. “Yes,” he said, softly. “I got married six months ago.”

Be quiet Heart, I told it, as it fluttered and quivered and thumped so loudly I thought everyone in the jeep would hear.

“Is your wife very beautiful? Do you plan to have children?” continued my incorrigible Aunt.

“I think,” said Abdul in a very low voice, “she is the most beautiful woman that I have ever seen. And,” he continued shyly, “she is with child as we speak.”

I, who sat right behind him, looked out the window again. The black and silent mountains towered over us, almost cryptically, in the darkness. The cold night air blew my hair all over my face, hiding the tears that were starting to well up in my eyes.

I did not sleep the rest of that night.

The next day we bid farewell to our team of guides. I could not bring myself to look at him lest I gave myself away. My eyes were swollen and puffy. So I did the only thing I could. I ran away as soon as he approached me. I turned back to look at him and that is how I shall remember him for all my days to come, standing tall and proud, his Pakol hat sitting lopsidedly on his head.

And I never saw him again.

I also never went back to the Northern Mountains of Pakistan. I never again rode the winding mountain roads in a 4-wheel drive jeep with a canvas roof and garish, plastic car decorations hanging inside it.

I have never spoken to anyone about him. I have never written about him; ‘til now. He lives in a special place in my mind only. I often wonder if he managed to survive the devastating earthquake that struck the North in 2005 and killed hundreds, or the violence that that part of Pakistan witnessed after the birth of militant organisations like the Taliban.

If he did live through all the chaos, I think he would be shocked to know that thousands of miles away, on the opposite side of the world, there is someone who still remembers him, remembers the exact colour of his eyes, remembers his soft voice, remembers the lyrics of the Bollywood songs he listened to.

In the fall of the year 2010, I visited the province of Alberta, Canada. I saw Lake Louise in the city of Banff. This, too, is nestled in the middle of mountains. It is majestic and beautiful, surrounded by development and progress.

But I could not shake, from my mind’s eye, the raw and primitive beauty of the Himalayas. The smell of the mountain air here was not nearly so fresh as it had been twenty years ago in my homeland.

The water of Lake Louise, however, is a beautiful shade of turquoise.

Just like the turquoise blue water of the Lake Saiful Maluk.

Just like the turquoise blue eyes of Abdul Khaliq.