It is said, “We don’t meet people by accident. They are meant to cross our path for a reason.”

An exceptional stranger crossed her path when she was a little girl. She was too young to realise the depth of this meeting. Its profound significance dawned on her only when she grew up.

This is a story of a small journey in the heavenly valley of Kashmir. It is a story about trust; about harmony; and about exemplary customary service. As for the little girl, it is an everlasting memory – beautiful and enlightening!

It was in the late 1980s when Kashmir was still the most sought-after travel destination in India. Tourists still visited the valley fearlessly. And they returned home with much more than stunning photos, dry fruits, and pashmina shawls. They carried with them enriching memories of the warm Kashmiri hospitality.

A group of friends from Mumbai was touring Kashmir, along with their families.  The ten year old girl, and her parents, were part of the group. On that day, they were visiting Gulmarg, a lush green town, laced by the milky white Himalayan ranges. A horseback trek through this mystical landscape was a popular attraction among tourists. The horse owners (known as ‘ghodewalas’ in India) huddled around every new bus that arrived. 

Two such ghodewalas approached the girl’s parents. The child was allowed to share the horse with any adult. It so happened that the girl’s dad could not ride due to a back ailment. So they had no choice but to hire just one horse for the mom and the girl together. The other ghodewala was visibly disappointed. “Can the girl ride alone on my horse?” he requested. “Your entire group will be together. She will be close to her mother.” At first, her parents were hesitant. But since the mother and their other friends would be close enough to supervise, the parents finally agreed.

The ghodewalas helped their clients mount the horses. The girl, too, safely sat on the saddle, her feat well tucked into the stirrups. The tourists were given basic instructions and the horses were about to leave. “Follow chacha’s (uncle’s) instructions,” dad told his excited daughter, pointing to her ghodewala. Dad then put his arm around the ghodewala’s shoulder and said, “I am entrusting my little girl to you. Take good care of her.” The ghodewala was a Muslim while the girl’s family was Hindu. But that did not come in the way of their small tie-up.

All the horses set off together. Chacha held the reins of the horse in one hand and placed his other hand on the horse’s back as a safety measure, just in case the girl loses balance. “Sidha baithna beti,” was all he said to the girl, meaning “sit straight my child.”

Chacha was a middle-aged man. He was thin and wore a checked tweed cape over his shoulders.  It was going to be a long trek and chacha was quiet. His focus was on the path ahead. So the girl decided to break the ice.  “What’s the name of the horse?” she asked in Hindi. Chacha smiled and answered, “Sunflower.” Oh! It was a mare. A brown mare. Not very tall, yet so very elegant.

The trail was not easy, but the ghodewalas skilfully guided the horses along the narrow pathways. Throughout the trek, the girl kept asking questions, mostly about Sunflower. Chacha gave short answers for he did not want to be distracted. Not that guiding the horse was a difficult task for him. He knew the terrain like the back of his hand. But chacha had a promise to keep. Trust to uphold. 

So chacha took the girl on a journey that she would fondly remember for the rest of her life. He took small detours to make the ride as comfortable for her as possible. But, never losing sight of the rest of the group. If the road was rocky, he guided the horse through a grassy patch instead. If the melting snow had made the path slippery, he walked the horse through a rougher terrain instead. If the trail ran over a narrow edge of a hillock, chacha slowed down.

The horses trotted through tall pine woods, traversed gurgling streams, and passed snowy hills. While the rest of the group was mesmerised by the dream-like landscape of Gulmarg, the girl could not take her eyes off the mare. She had fallen in love with “Sunflower.”

After a long trek, the horses stopped at a small plateau on a hill. This was a bustling area with eateries and souvenir shops. From here onwards, the slope of the hill was covered with snow.  The tourists were told that the top of the hill overlooked a waterfall. But those who wished to climb to the top would have to trek on foot, while the horses and the ghodewalas waited on the plateau.

The adults in the girl’s group decided to rest and snack at the eateries, but the youngsters were eager to trek up. They volunteered to take the children along with them. One teenager, whom the children called didi (older sister) assumed responsibility for the little girl. Tightly locking the girl’s palms into her own, didi started climbing along with the rest of the group. The hill had a gentle slope, which made the climb very comfortable.

The little girl was thrilled. In fact, all of them were. Hailing from southern India, it was their first live encounter with snow. They made snow cakes, aimed snowballs, rolled in the snow, and much more. The trek up the hill was filled with childish fun.

Soon the group reached the waterfall site. It was a rather small waterfall and a narrow stone staircase led to its base. The youngsters decided to go take a look. Didi and the girl started descending the steps. But suddenly, someone held the girl’s hand from behind. The girl, and didi, were taken aback. They turned their heads. It was none other than chacha!. “Do not take the children down,” he warned didi. “It is very slippery. Not safe for children.” Chacha had followed the group all the way up. He wanted to ensure that the girl was safe under his watchful eye. He was not going to delegate the responsibility to anyone else.

On hearing Chacha, everyone in the group paused. Some of them were already hesitant to go down. They volunteered to stay back with the children until the rest of the group returned. Chacha made sure that someone was looking after the girl and disappeared again.

Soon, it was time to return to the plateau, where the adults were waiting. The youngsters made sure that everyone from the group was together and started on their return trek. But a pleasant surprise was waiting for the girl.  It was Sunflower! Chacha had led her to the top of the hill. While the rest of the group walked down, the girl was treated to a majestic ride on Sunflower’s back. She felt like a princess on a royal parade.

The entire group met at the plateau and rode back together to the foot of the hill. The girl’s father was waiting there. She wasted no time in telling him how chacha had taken care of her. Dad expressed his gratitude and also offered chacha more money, which he was reluctant to accept. As the girl’s bus started to leave Gulmarg, chacha and sunflower were waiting on the way to bid a cheerful goodbye.

Decades have passed, but this memory of Gulmarg is still fresh in my mind and engraved deep in my heart. As a little girl, I did not realise that Chacha was a rare gem. But as years unfold, chacha reveals himself in new ways, like an epic whose relevance traverses time.

He taught me that you need not be smartly dressed to be a true gentleman. He taught me how to be worthy of someone’s trust. He taught me that no matter what work you do, mere knowledge is not enough. It has to be complemented by responsibility and commitment. And most of all, he taught me, that kindness has no religion. Bonds built on compassion are everlasting.

Chacha was a stranger! And I certainly didn’t meet him by accident. He crossed my path, to ensure, that I travel on the most serene trail of humanity, forever.