In the late Sixteenth Century, Sir Francis Bacon described ‘history’ (or ‘historia’) as “the knowledge of objects determined by space and time”. From the beginning, historians have used sources such as monuments, inscriptions, pictures, artifacts and oral tradition to reconstruct and record events long past. In the process, they have established a symbiotic relationship with Archaeology, a discipline that is especially helpful when it comes to buried sites and objects.

The landscape of the Subcontinent is dotted with old and forgotten remains that tell tales of adventure, conflict and even romance. For those blessed with a ‘footloose’ nature, a passion for sleeping under the stars and adventure, these sites provide experiences that transcend description. In my own case, these experiences were enhanced, when I took up a career that offered unlimited opportunities to work outdoors and indulge in this past time.

Many decades ago, I had discovered that the impulse to explore hidden pathways, crumbling edifices and local legends was not restricted to me alone, but ‘infected’ a fair number of people. It was therefore inevitable that we gravitated into a group, forming lasting friendships, which endure to this day. Our favorite pastime was to pick up a map and look for old monuments dating back to the colonial era and beyond. We would then stock a backpack with necessary provisions and make a beeline for the destination. The word ‘beeline’ is most apt to describe these jaunts, for the trek was usually cross country, irrespective of terrain difficulties.

Many of these trips were undertaken alone, which offered ample time to absorb the things around me and introspect. I found this activity extremely therapeutic, since it generated respect for nature and a feeling of infinite gratitude to the Creator for the bounties that I saw around me. It was during these treks that I came across some amazing characters.

I met Lal (in spite of repeated attempts I could not discover his second name) in the middle of an earthly paradise, midway between Thandiani and Nathiagali. My new boots had not been ‘cured’ and for the first time in my ‘walking career’ I had developed a blister just above the heel. I was therefore in considerable discomfort that had been aggravated by the discovery that my matches had become soggy and temporarily useless. I was also troubled by reports of a leopard in the area. As I trudged on with gritted teeth, I heard the sound of a perfect melody being executed on the flute, followed by a small heard of long haired goats and a wizened old man with missing teeth and perpetually laughing eyes. Half an hour later, I was sitting in a crude verandah extending from a stone built room reinforced with crudely smoothed logs. This was my host’s home, which he shared with six goats and a feisty mongrel dog. With rising concern, I waited for Lal to return, since he had disappeared into the pines after depositing me at his cabin.

It was the dog that ‘informed’ me of his master’s arrival, who emerged moments later from the forest carrying some stuff in the old blanket that served as his ‘khes’. That was the night, when I had the best dinner of my life, made up of a curry with some tiny round root vegetable (that tasted like potato) and long flat beans – all harvested fresh from the forest, accompanied by thick cakes of bread, roasted under hot charcoals and ash. This wonderful man then rounded off a perfect ‘banquet’ with his repertoire of local folklore mingled with haunting tunes on his flute.

When I joined the media industry and began writing, I decided to seek out Lal and do a feature on him. Little did I realise that what I sought may not be there after so many years. I nonetheless, asked a younger friend to accompany me on the quest. After losing our way twice for much change had taken place, we stumbled upon the cabin or what was left of it. As I looked around, I saw what looked like a pile of stones with a distant resemblance to a grave – we began the return trek to Thandiani, but the image of the stone pile haunted me all the way – as if Lal was asking me to return and at least say a prayer for him. I soon forgot about the incident until last week, when at a private dinner, I heard a familiar melody being played on the flute.