An incident at death valley
The #MeToo campaign on sexual harassment triggers a long-suppressed memory, of a winter that the author spent in Gulmarg as a 12-year-old. Here, he recounts it for the first time
On 15 October, I came across the hashtag MeToo. At first, I was baffled. Quietly, I looked it up. Thousands of stories by girls and women across the world came up. Each story was prefixed by #MeToo. Some women simply wrote: MeToo.
I read horrifying stories of women who, at various junctures in their lives, were made to feel by men that they were mere objects to touch, to fondle, to smother, to exploit. Purely for amusement and sexual gratification. After reading the stories, I stood enlightened. I tried imagining what it must be like for those women to carry the burden of having been abused for life. What must it be like to live with such a burden? What must it be to remain silent, to not be able to utter a word to anyone, to friends, to family, even to strangers? Many women must certainly have genuine reasons to be discreet about their experiences with men. Their compulsions, whatever they may be, societal, personal, professional, are well justified. Their silence is as dignified as the rebellion of others who choose to openly protest and expose the so-called “stigma" of having been maltreated by men. Men will never understand the courage and fearlessness of such women.
I felt comfort at being a man. Showing solidarity and empathy towards women was easy. In doing so, I felt brave.
My mind wandered off to an old memory I had thought was dead. The memory came alive. Its sorcery gave rise to fear and trembling. I shall now, for the first time, recount an incident.
In the winter of 1986, I went from Srinagar to Gulmarg to learn skiing. I was 12 years old at the time. My father had enrolled me for a three-week beginners’ course at the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering. He accompanied me to Gulmarg to ensure everything was in order. Some of the administrative staff members at the institute were his friends. He left for home soon after the course commenced.
I was the youngest of all those who had enrolled. Strangely, there weren’t any women in our batch. There weren’t any women or girls in the intermediate and advanced batches either. I saw some women skiers at the state-run institute. The instructors were men. Some were Kashmiri, some Ladakhi, and some from Himachal Pradesh. We stayed at the posh Hotel Highlands Park, which was famous for its location and the celebrities who loved staying there. It overlooked the best slopes. The famed “death valley", at the foothills of the Apharwat Peak, was nearby; the Gondola cable car ran across it. True to its name, “death valley" evoked fear among learners. We gaped with awe and wonder at the skiers who skied effortlessly in “death valley". Right from Day 1, I dreamt of skiing there.
Most of my batchmates were from the Oil and Natural Gas Corp. Ltd, Assam. They were in the mid-30s. Some others were from Mumbai and Ahmedabad. A famous lyricist who composed songs for Hindi movies was there too. A Kashmiri instructor married to an American woman kept a close eye on me. He was my father’s friend. He always enquired after me. In case you need anything, please tell me, he would say repeatedly. He had instructed everybody else to pay special attention to me given that I was the youngest. My batchmates showered their affection on me.
With the help of the instructors, I started showing promise. My favourite instructors were the brothers Randy and Sandy, who could often be seen playing the roles of extras during the shooting of Hindi films. They were terrific at ski jumping. The chief instructor was called Guruji. He wasn’t a Kashmiri. I had no clue to his real name. His son, a professional skier, had won several competitions.
Guruji gave me personal attention, for which I was grateful. He assured me that he would ensure I won the competition later that month. I followed his instructions meticulously. I emulated his style. It was during a casual conversation that I expressed a desire to go to the “death valley". None of the students of the basic course were allowed to go there. It was too dangerous for beginners. Guruji saw promise in me and agreed to take me there. I graduated from snowplough to parallel.
One afternoon, Guruji did take me to the “death valley". We took the Gondola cable car, a 10-minute ride from the base (at 8,500ft) to the topmost point (14,403ft), from where we would start the lessons. I was impatient to ski all the way down. I wanted to overcome my fear. My technique wasn’t perfect though.
However, Guruji allowed me to ski all the way down. He followed me and kept instructing me. My elation was boundless. I felt indebted to him for all the special care. When it was time to return to the hotel, Guruji said he was impressed at my progress and offered to let me practise for some more time. The sun was about to set. The snow glistened in the yellowing rays of the setting sun. One last round and we will go, said Guruji. We hopped on to the cable car to go up.
As it started moving, Guruji took the ski poles from me and attached them to the harness of the car. Then he asked me to take off my gloves. Casually, he grabbed my right hand and placed it on his lap. Within a few moments, I felt the touch of a strange thing. To my horror, Guruji had unzipped his ski pants. He held my hand and rubbed it against his genitals. I felt a sudden gush of dread. Dread I had never known. The cable car played wicked and slowed down. I prayed for it to reach the top soon. I was unable to speak a word. Sensing my resistance, Guruji took a bunch of photographs out of his pocket and showed them to me. I looked at them in shock. They were photographs of naked men and women doing things I had never imagined.
Sensing my fear, Guruji told me not to worry. You’re going to be a champion skier, he said. Under my guidance you will win the competition. In three years, you will be skiing in Norway. I will teach you everything, but you must do as I say, he said without letting go of my hand. Then, in an instant, he unzipped my ski pants. Nothing will happen, he said, placing his hand upon my genitals. I withdrew my hand and put the gloves back on, conveying the impression that I was cold. It was minus 10 degrees Celsius or something. I will make you warm, said Guruji. The moment persisted endlessly. I saw beauty transform into ugliness.
The next day onwards, I resumed lessons, pretending nothing had happened. I have lived with this pretence for 30 years. Of all my memories of Kashmir, this is the one I wish to erase.
I have nothing more to say about the incident at the “death valley" in the winter of 1986. To all boys, girls and women who have been, and still are, made to go through unspeakable predicaments by filthy men, I wish to say, MeToo.
Something memorable happened towards the end of the course. I won the silver medal in the skiing competition that year. The credit goes only to one person.
Siddhartha Gigoo is a Commonwealth Short Story Prize-winning author.