I enjoy hiking as much as disco dancing on a bed of hot coals, which is to say not a whole lot. Still, here I am, huffing and wheezing on "The Knees-breaker" with mister Ajit for company who is leaping from rock to rock like a horny mountain goat. Ajit has got it all - VP of a 200-strong IT company, a tri-athlete, a blogger with 1000 hits a day, and even a finger-clicking Bollywood dancer.
At the first switchback, I collapse on a rock panting like a strangled cat where Ajit is waiting clicking keys on his Blackberry.
"You took a while, Baddie! Just a second while I finish this tweet ... my 3000 followers are dying for my daily wit" Ajit says, as he thumbs down his wisdom. The sun is unbearable with no cover, I quickly fall on all fours and scoot my butt eastwards.
"What in the world are you doing?" Ajit asks.
"Hiding my face behind my butt. Saw it on Discovery Channel. Called the stoop-down. Chacma baboons known to do this - to cool head in open sun."
"Remind me again why you are here." Ajit asks.
"Ch ... chol ... cholesterol," I pant. Kind of hard to speak with chin resting on a piece of rock.
"Oh yes. Classic - wife worried about your lipid profile, mandates physical work. What is your score anyway?"
"300. Plus." I can't see him but imagine his smirk. Hear a low whistle.
"Tsk, tsk, Baddie - that is very high. I'm, ahem, just 106, but you know me, I always worry about my numbers even if it is the lowest it can get."
"You are not normal, Ajit."
Ajit laughs. "Now, that is bloody ironic. You know you got to move your ass off the couch. You will feel fittest in the great outdoors."
"I feel fittest watching television." I grunt. "How much further do we have to go?"
"Well, we have hardly begun. Listen, man, can you just stand up and look at me? I cannot go on talking to your butt while people are walking by."
From my unique position, I spy something glinting in the sun hundreds of yards away on the side of the hill.
"Hey, what is that?"
I get up to point it out to him. It glints like an aluminum box, maybe some kind of com device, strapped to a huge boulder on the northern side of the hill.
"What the hell is it? No one around, let's investigate," Ajit says jumping over the side rail separating the trail from the gravel.
"Hey, that is off-trail ... illegal!" I protest.
"I'm going anyway. C'mon, before people see us." Ajit is moving fast, picking his way across the patchy gravel-and-stone lie-way . With a shrug, I follow him on the path and onto the narrow ledge leading up to the boulder face, where we stop in front of the box. It is actually not stuck to the wall, but strapped to a rusted iron pole rising from the ground. The door on the box is latched but not locked. Ajit opens it without a moment's hesitation.
When I was five years old, one of my mother's friends K brought me a gift in a strange metal case. I didn't trust her, she had a habit of continuously tapping on my head when she spoke to me, but I was intrigued. Never before did I get a gift in a metal box. I tried to pry off the top but it didn't budge. Mrs. K tapped on my head again to show me the little push-button on the side. I pressed it firmly - the top flew open and a spring-loaded snake jumped right into my face. Since that day, I added one more thing to my don't-trust-list - mysterious metal boxes.
I stand my distance as Ajit opened the box. But nothing pops out this time. Inside is a plain wooden handle tied to a piece of rope threading through the back of the pole. A tape across the handle has an ominous message written on it:
"WARNING: UNAUTHORIZED TRIGGER IS LIABLE FOR PROSECUTION AND/OR $1000 FINE."
"What do you reckon it is," Ajit asks.
"I don't know, but this gives me the creeps. Let us go."
"Now, why would they have anything like this in the middle of nowhere?"
"Maybe it is some alarm or something. What are you waiting here for? Let us go."
"Just a minute." Ajit pauses, he is thinking hard. "Is there anyone on the trail who can see us?"
"No, not unless, of course, if they are engaging in the stoop-down like Chacma baboons."
"Ok, so we are safe. We might as well try it out."
"Try out what?"
"Yank the sucker."
"Are you mad?" I ask, horrified. "We can go to jail."
A strange inscrutable expression is on his face.
"Sorry, I got to do this." In a flash, he rips the tape apart and pulls on the handle! Tugs it down. Nothing happens. We wait in stunned silence. No sirens, no lights, no yells. Ajit frowns almost in disappointment.
On the way back, Ajit lapses into a thoughtful silence. Suddenly, he yelps.
"I think I should have tugged it harder."
"What do you mean?"
"Remember the emergency chains in Indian trains, you got to tug them really hard. I should put more force into it."
"If you are going back there, you are on your own. I'm not risking my neck for someone's idle curiousity."
"You are right. It is not worth the trouble."
We come down to the trail head and I bid him farewell.
SIX MONTHS LATER ...
I receive a call in the morning while watching Regis-Kelly over breakfast.
"Baddie? This is Ajit. I need a big favor from you."
Fifteen minutes later, I'm pulling up at the corrections center still confused as a goat led into the sea. The guard outside ushers me into a hall where I almost trip when I recognize Ajit in a pink bodysuit standing at a counter.
"There you are! Did you get everything?" He says and grabs the document folder from my arms.
"What is this place? What the hell is all this?"
"Tell you all about it later. What did you tell my wife?"
"The cock-and-bull story you gave me."
"Excellent," he passes on the packet to the woman behind the counter.
"What is with that dress?"
"Some code they have here for offenders. Ok, buddy," Ajit says, "you remember the hike when we pulled that lever?"
"Well, it turns out to be an alarm. It is meant for the rangers to notify forest and brush fires in the neighboring Henry Cowell state park. It is like the place with the best lookout. So, it worked, it alerted the fire station and cops and they all went to the Henry Cowell park and found nothing there. In the meantime, they sent the ranger out to investigate who tripped the alarm."
"Oh no, don't tell me you went back."
"You guessed it. Remember I thought I didn't pull it down hard enough? So I went back for another shot and was in the act when the ranger caught me red-handed."
"What did they slap on you?"
"$1000 and 80 hours of community service in a pink suit in the middle of the busiest parks in the Bay Area. I really got ridiculed. But I managed to do the time without the family and friends knowing about it thus far. If I didn't forget the documents, you wouldn't know either."
"Why did you do this? Why risk your neck?"
Ajit looks flummoxed. "What do you mean? There is a lever in the middle of nowhere. Didn't you feel like yanking it?"
"No, not me."
"You are not normal."
"Now, that's bloody ironic. Don't you regret it now?"
"Funny you should ask. Strangely - no, I don't."
"I don't get it."
The woman calls him and hands him his clothes and documents. He is free.
Ajit pauses in front of the restroom.
"You know, let me ask you something - when you are alone with a fire alarm, do you ever feel like triggering it?"
I ponder that question. No, but I know someone who did. He was making a call from a payphone in a public building and the alarm was just within reach. He couldn't resist fiddling with it. The siren went off, and as he legged it from there he saw members filing out in drill formation, fire engines approaching, and sprinklers raining down the corridors.
Ajit scratches his head. "Well, some people do, some don't. The first time I travelled alone, I was thirteen on the Mangalore-Madras overnight train. I got the uppermost berth, where when I placed my head on the pillow, the emergency chain was only inches away. I couldn't sleep. I was staring at it until the wee hours when I realized a boy on the opposite berth was also awake staring at it - same reason. He gave me first pickings - for 10 seconds, he waited, but when it was apparent I lacked the balls, he jumped across and yanked it, packed his bags and jumped out of the braking train. He pulled the damn chain, even if it means he has to get down in the middle of nowhere 100 km from Madras station."
"I'm sure there is a point here, but I'm missing it."
"Baddie, that is my only regret. I should have yanked that chain, not him."
I still don't get it.
"Maybe you will never understand. I don't know how to explain. I gotta go. By the way, the boy's name is Aravind Adiga."
"The Booker prizewinning novelist?"
It has been ten days since that conversation. I don't think I will ever understand the significance of the "tug" - that urge to pull chains and yank levers. I'm trying, see I even chose this spot in the apartment business center not only to write this article but also to test my biological radio kit.
The fire alarm is within an arm's reach. Been that way for over two hours. Yet, I don't feel the tug. Strangely disappointed with myself. Don't even know why.