Monday, December 6, 2010

The fear of death, to the death of fear

Once upon a time, in a forest far far away, some people lived a strange somewhat magical life for a decade or so. Many events that occurred during this time were of a nature that cannot be explained or described to anyone. But those of us who were there (me included) know.

Other tales from that part of my life, are simple enough to be classified as "adventure", so here is one, possibly my biggest.


Date : During the year 1999 I think, the month of August
Time :  10 AM
Place : Supin(Tons) river valley, Hari-ki-dun route

I left home -or the little half constructed dwelling that we called home- to get to the nearest town, to buy some provisions. The weather had been drizzly and rainy for more than a month now, there was a putrescent odor that hung over the river bank, on account of the green (yet rotting) trees that had been swept up on the banks. Turbid water was churning under the bridge, hiding the truck sized boulders that were normally part of the "river bank" in the winter.

There was a kind of low pitched vibration in the ground itself, the effect of tonnes and tonnes of raging water, often rolling huge rocks downstream within the coffee colored depths.

The PWD chaps had started work on fixing the bridge, but no one was around. The bridge decking had been cleared of the tar/gravel mix, it was all corrugated sheet metal with bolts sticking out here and there. The "twisty" part in the middle was hard to navigate on the slick wet sheets. That was the reason the bridge was being refurbished. Hard to walk across a surface that wanted to be a mobius strip!

Made good time uphill, still never could beat Naren's record time of 28 minutes... Reached the village on the road - No point in waiting, so started walking down the road - Seemed like a routine trip, Hello!  guess again!

It wasn't long before the  "Commander" jeep came rattling and groaning along and a shout of "Oye Rokkkey!" brought it to a squeaky halt. I was in no mood to squeeze in next to the locals with their filthy, wet, smelly coats, so I clambered onto the roof, being careful to step only on the struts lest my feet go right through the canvas.

The trick to sitting on top of a badly suspended "jeep" on a rough and curvy mountain road is in pre-emption - You just can't hold on against the centrifugal force by brute strength for long... The smart way is to lean into the turns before the vehicle itself. With a little practice, you can balance without holding on much at all. Hard to explain, you had to be there!


The weather wasn't so bad, it was a bright gray sky, and rain seen only on the mountain tops. There were menacing dark grays over the ranges that the locals called "Parvatiya side". Far off place, off the regular track...

Jeep halts at the infamous "Manora Khad" stream, The damage it did every year put mankind to shame - This year there was no trace of a road for about 50 feet on either side of the stream.

The "bridge" was two tree trunks of pine, weak Pinus Roxburghii, green and heavy, sagging under its own weight. Not the tree I would ever rely on - How could we forget that gargantuan pine tree in the forest across our home (the biggest for miles and miles) which fell suddenly in the middle of the night in a mild storm?

Of the two tree trunks one sagged more than the other making progress very lopsided. We sidled along them, all the villagers went on fours, while I struggled to make it on two, with the occasional descent to a quadruped form.

On the other side, down the muddy road, shortcut across the forest department quarters, entered the repulsive town of "Thaatru bazaar", I've never ever felt at ease in that town, something about the place, the people that make me want to move on. That ugly diesel engined oil mill, the apathetic "Lalas" and bums hanging around, filth and decadence all around.

Luckily, jeeps a-plenty, so it was an in and outer, I ended up in the jeep with the "Gorkha" driver, an old man, entertaining chap who talked incessantly with great gusto. I remember that he was the guy, who once described to a jeep load of incredulous, but awed villagers,  how comet Hale-Bopp would wreak havoc on Jupiter and the civilizations that existed there. They seemed to share a mournful moment as they considered millions of beings being annihilated by a fireball.

Onward to "Mori", the next town, about 13 kilometers by road - Halfway, and reach the "Myangaad" stream - It had a bed that rivaled that of a river, and we had never seen it cause any trouble to the road embankments or bridge, in all the years we had lived there. But this year was a good year (not for the roses, but for the floods) and the road was impassable - and for the mountain drivers it takes a lot to call it impassable.

As usual there was another jeep across waiting to shuttle folks to the town, each jeep was stuck in its own zone with broken road on both ends - a sort of relay race with people and provisions.

It was around 2 in the afternoon by then, I finally got down at Mori, and went to the "Control" guy (Ration chap) and bought me some sugar.

Picked up some provisions from old "Mirchu Lala" and envelopes (they would play a key role later in this story).

Didn't waste much time, got a jeep back to Myangaad, but no jeep on the other side,Uh oh!

Trudge Trudge - Twenty five kilograms on the back - I weighed about 52 then.
Thinking... Challenge : how long can I keep from thinking of the load? When does the pain turn to numbness? Ooh what a lovely Rhododendron tree ... Hmmm.. that's a pretty nice log stuck in the river there, pity it's not 20 KM upstream, we could-a grabbed it... Looks like a "kail" (white pine) tree from here... Two feet thick - Plenty of board feet ... Love the feel of the frame saw through it ... all that resinous sawdust... the sweet smell. Oh well, plenty more wherever that came from...

Nine kilometers to go, weather is holding... muscles holding too, sort of... Its the shoulders - always the shoulders... The legs can always take it, the back won't complain until the morning, but the shoulders... Obsessing about shoulders for quite a distance... It's a matter of time before it becomes a dull ache and the body adapts to the load as the "default state". Glad I wore my "Hunter-sole" shoes, Chappals would have been awful considering all mud and gunk at every stream that crossed the road.

What was it with the waterworks this year? Where do these tiny brooks get enough water to mow down trees overnight? And yet, no trace of any of that water now! How come the trees that get washed down are so gigantic? Why should mud stink? Ah the pain....

Almost at Thaatru now, this is that one spot along the road where I can see "our mountain", yes that big fat stony mountain!
If you have never been to the Himalayas, you won't realize that a mountain is to a hill as a Baluchitherium is to a dormouse. When your range of vision and horizon is smaller than the mountain, then you got a "real live un".

Hoping I'll get one of those jeeps at least at Manora, it's almost 6 PM now and the darkness is creeping in. Thankfully the street is deserted in Thaatru, and I'm glad that there's not a soul there (not that there ever was anyone in that town with a soul anyway!)

I pass Myangaad , the stream has swelled enough to look dangerous, so quite a bit of sweaty brow to get across in the fading light, backpack and all. This time no heroics, I do it on all fours "like humans do".

There is a sprinkly, messy drizzle now, the most annoying kinda rain, what old Pradhan "Shankru" once termed "kabaadi baarish". It's more like the rain is condensing right out of the air and humidity is so high that earth and air are all soaked.

It is dark now, well past seven. Devoid of luggage, I could easily do a kilometer in 10 minutes - the power walk - but here I'm slowed to a crawl and I succumb frequently to the "Let me put this burden down for a minute or two" idea. Haven't eaten anything since morning, but hunger is something that I never usually feel intensely. Naren would have gone crazy with this hunger, but then he's done much further, much heavier load in much worse weather. Good to have a standard set high enough to make you not want to lax off. Someday he will write about his victories, I believe....

Now it's pitch darkness and rain, - a proper drenching rain, nice to have that sweat wash away. I'm distracting myself by counting my steps and thinking of things to do with those numbers - 59, ah the 5th and 6th digit of pi, 60 seconds in a minute, 61 thousand thundering typhoons (I make one up).
It never works, eventually you will focus on the part of your anatomy that pains the most and quiver with exertion. That succumbing to "rest stops" is more and more tempting, but I have to push on - Miles to go before I sleep and all that jazz. Good thing, that I didn't get a jacket, it would have been more misery.

I reach the stable area of the road, as good as it gets in those parts, "Bikne dhaar", Can spy a feeble light on the opposite mountain top, "Kalap" village - I count my blessings that I don't have to trudge uphill 10 kilometers like the folks from that village have to.

So far it was a gentle climb, but now it's a level road, I realize I will face another nemesis soon - the "downhill knee". It's all cool when your muscles have been working concentrically for hours, they can take it... When they switch to eccentric mode where you need to decelerate, that's when you will actually decide uphill is way better...

So I finally reach the village, in pitch dark - There are not many people who stay in this "village" - there are about six houses in all, and a tiny store with nothing much except matches and beedis. 

There was no way I would stay there at night. I know, when you go as a tourist you see the fun parts of the culture, you get taken in by the advertisement, you spend some time with the locals and think all is wonderful, but that whole illusion of "the innocent villager" is all crap.  It wasn't to do with safety, but more that I didn't want to associate with them.
Live long enough with them you realize they're amoral creatures, lying, cheating, stealing, anything to make a quick buck, or get the next drink. People are people! Everywhere!  When we lived there, we were aloof from all people, from those we had left behind and those that surrounded us sparsely.
(Same goes for gypsies - that's another story though)

The few who were bearable and some who weer our friends were because they were bucolic and pastoral in their lifestyle, or young children.


So I thought of borrowing some kerosene from someone decent, and making a "panja" firebrand (the kind that people in lynch mobs have in Bollywood).
One of the "friendly neighbourhood annoying boys" coerces a "master-ji" to help and douses my firebrand thing with kerosene, it's just jute burlap wrapped on a stick. I think I'm all set for the final 3 KM back home... Downhill on a "che-footi" (six foot) mule path, but doable. How wrong I was.....


I set off with a jaunty stride (I knew it would be murder on the knees soon, but wanted to get home STAT), the flame flared brightly in the rush of wind and I thought I could blitz through the forest path in 20 minutes flat.

Two hundred meters downhill the kerosene runs out and the torch does a "frap-fra-frap" kinda noise, i rub it in the ground to rid it of the carbon, but there is no kerosene soaked deep, and all I have is a bit of burning sack....on a stick. Damn that annoying kid and his stinginess with masterji's kerosene!!!

Now I am in a real hole! Going back uphill is out of the question, besides it's still pouring like mad and  the path is rocky and full of loose stones. Not navigable in the dark. By this time, it was past 9 PM, it had been almost 12 hours since I set out, and my body was shaking due to exertion, knees revolting and thighs cramping up. Pain was the default state now, I remembered no other state of being.

I just sat there in the rain for a few minutes, letting myself relax and enjoy the rain, neutrally. Then a bulb went off in my head  - more like a blazing arc light -

I HAD DRY COMBUSTIBLE MATERIAL!!!
MATCHES AND ENVELOPES....

100 of them - pity I had to "combust" them, but there you go, between spending a soaked soggy painful night in the forest and burning paper - the choice was obvious.

The method : Light an envelope, in the flickering light, get my bearings and dash down 30- 40- 50 meters whatever possible. Light next envelope from previous one, matches were tricky in the rain with wet hands. Rinse, repeat.....

Some parts of the forest path were so familiar, that it was possible to creep along blindly.  I fell often, but my legs were so weak, they buckled as soon as I tripped - so I generally just ended up on my butt.
There I took rest - all this downhill sprinting and falling and stumbling, was making me wanna curl up and die... in a painful soggy grave of soggy leaves. But this was home ground, and the very trees were so much friendlier... They knew I'd make it, and seemed to tell me so.


After much stumbling and dashing and burning and sooty wet hands, the familiar roar of the river came as music to my ears.It was as if I had crossed level 99 of Super Mario or something. But there was the final catch....(two actually)


When I reached the bridge, THERE WAS NO DECKING!!! Yeah that's right, one girder on the left, and a railing, and one on the right, in between, 8 feet of deathly emptiness punctuated by a feeble steel flat.

At least the cables were there!!!

After this far, I didn't even stop, I started doing the side shimmy, alternately grabbing the rail in a death grip with each hand, Wet steel girders, wobbling away to glory, the cables themselves swaying, and the water seething below, malevolently inviting you into eternal embrace. Even in the darkest nights you can still see the froth and the flow and you dare not stare at the moving water, you get the illusion that you are moving backwards at tremendous speeds. Not good while doing a circus act without safety nets.... Not good at all...

I think the sweat that was pouring from my brow rivaled the rain falling on me! And I crept on, white knuckled....

At almost the middle, it took on a new level - there was no railing or girder either, only the cable for 10 feet or so - They had extricated the twisted damaged part of the deck frame and there was nothing except a gap...  void, nothingness, shoonya, vacuum - MUHAHAHAHAHA 
What now? No option but forwards!!

At that moment, When i finally let go the railing and grabbed the cable, something snapped in me, I stopped shaking, My tendons felt like steel and the weight on  my back felt like it wasn't there. My body had probably exhausted it's supply of adrenaline, so fear itself shutdown. I actually grinned at this point and clambered the cables, crawled along them like a reptile across the "INSTANT DEATH" zone. I did the second half of the bridge in record time,  as if it were a six lane Highway.

Soon as I was on terra firma, I was at the point of collapse, but just another 30 meters to home... Slowly trudged up the slope, went inside, changed, drank some sweet concoction . It was almost 11 PM
I had no energy to even speak in more than monosyllables and I slept for 16 hours straight...

All in all I walked about 27 kilometers in all, not a big distance on a regular day without luggage, but this was ... Well, with the weight in the rain and the darkness and all ... It was physically and mentally, the hardest thing I ever did.

So that, boys and girls, is how I made friends with the grim reaper.... and all he reaped was my fear of him....


Disclaimer : All events described above are highly accurate. Any deviation from truth is totally absent...

2 comments:

  1. Fascinating !And now I a waiting for Naren to put one off his experiences.

    ReplyDelete