A Mother-Daughter Trip That Helped Figure Out Life After Loss
“I think every parent should do something like this with their kids. Take the risk, head out with your child,” Dilshad Master tells me over the phone. “People tell me ‘we can’t miss school’,” she says disbelievingly. “Really? You can’t miss class six?”
Dilshad, a friend, cancer survivor, corporate warrior-turned-inveterate trekker, and her 10-year-old Saira, have just returned from a life-changing 15-day road trip that began in Delhi and wound through Punjab and Himachal Pradesh to reach Kashmir. The group camped, among other places, under the Gumbo Ranjan, a sacred Buddhist site in Zanskar, before returning home through the same states. “Ninety-five percent of us haven't seen this India,” says Dilshad.
“It’s so important for our kids to be cold, wet, hungry, and tired,” Dilshad joked on Instagram as her daughter napped on bags in Jammu during the trip. “3 out of 4 isn't bad.” Read more about her parenting style and the Barbie that went to Mars here.
In addition to being a real-life geography lesson—the kind that’s impossible to replicate in the classroom—for Saira, who has been homeschooled since the pandemic, the recent trip helped mother and daughter figure out the way forward after a sudden loss left them grief-stricken last year.
In a post-pandemic world where families are evaluating their life choices and struggling to come to terms with loss, this story is one of possibilities and promises.
Saira’s father and Dilshad’s partner Akshay Kumar and his friends had planned a driving trip to explore the new road (more a widening of the old pony track) that connected the Zanskar Valley to Kargil, Manali, and Lamayuru, popularly known as Ladakh’s Moonland. They called the route the ‘Cliffhanger’ for the stretch between Kishtwar (in Jammu) and Killar (in Himachal’s Pangi Valley in Chamba district). On the adventure circuit, it’s known as one of India’s most dangerous roads.
“If there was a new flyover in town, Akshay would be the first one on it, so this road was way too tempting,” says Dilshad. “But then Covid hit and the plan had to be postponed.”
And then Akshay, born into adventure, a trekker with many firsts, a rafter who had conquered more than 30 rivers, and skied in the pistes of Kashmir through childhood (he qualified for the Calgary Winter Games in 1988 but couldn't go because of an accident) passed away last September after a sudden cardiac arrest, at 51, and without doing this trip.
As his first death anniversary approached, his friends decided to go ahead and make this journey. They asked Dilshad if she would join. “I didn’t think I would ever do this without Akshay,” she says. “It was his idea, it was his route.” It was also Saira’s first proper trip without her favourite travelling companion, her dad.
After two decades in the television industry, including a stint as senior vice president of National Geographic Channel, Dilshad had decided she didn't want to spend her life in a cubicle. She joined Akshay’s adventure travel company, Mercury Himalayan Explorations (MHE), and began leading treks across India and Nepal.
“I have never done a driving trip without Akshay. It was a leap of faith,” she says, adding that her husband had taught “the whole world” off-road driving—how to negotiate flowing rivers, hairpin bends and steep ascents/descents—except her.
“Akshay ne hi sikhaya hai,” their friend Vishwas Makhija told Dilshad when they were driving on the treacherous stretch, in an effort to calm her. “I don’t want to look anywhere,” Dilshad said when someone asked her to take photographs of the 3,600m dip to their immediate right, while her nonchalant 10-year-old sucked a lollipop in the backseat and chanted, “Mama’s scared, mama’s scared.” Her mother had warned her in advance not to compare anyone’s driving proficiency with that of her papu.
The travellers crossed high mountain passes and five major north Indian rivers—Chenab, Ravi, Sutlej, Beas, and the Indus. Saira saw a glacier form in front of her; she encountered a slew of unusual wildlife such as a Himalayan Ibex, dzos, marmots, yaks and the Kashmir sparrow; and saw first-hand the layers in sedimentary rocks and how a river ‘meanders’. She learned about erosion, step-farming and the rain shadow effect. One night at a campsite in Kashmir, the adventurers spotted Jupiter and Saturn in the sky and have now resolved to buy a telescope.
Dilshad says the trip helped Saira understand that even though her father was gone, her mother could be a decent enough adventure companion. In addition to Akshay, Saira also lost her grandfather, Colonel Narendra ‘Bull’ Kumar, a mountaineering legend, last year, and her two long-time canine companions, Indies Aafat and Shanti.
Saira, who has been skiing since she was three and a half, has now resolved to take the sport seriously and train competitively. In October she will go with her mother to Rishikesh, to learn to kayak from a former colleague of her father. Her mother’s looking for a school that encourages students to participate in sports.
Saira was not the only one to take the next step forward. The trip helped clear Dilshad’s “brain fog”.
“It broke a barrier that I had in my head, that I can’t do this without Akshay,” she says. “After he left MHE just wasn't the same and I wondered, do I even want to do this anymore? I told myself I’ll decide after this trip,” she says. “And I realised this is the only thing I want to do. I don't want to do anything else. I want to spend time with Saira and I want to introduce the outdoors to more people.”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.