On melancholy, and hope in times of despair: notes from Sitapur and thereabouts

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I like melancholy. It speaks to me. It speaks to me of sadness: profound, lingering, filling the eyes at unexpected moments –  yet, unlike depression, it’s not without warmth.

To me, melancholy is about the sadness you feel when watching a quiet sunset from inside a bus, or when you come across a little yellow flower nestled among the debris of a torn down building that you are walking past. Or the catch in your throat when, out of the blue, the words from a particularly beloved piece of poetry drifts into your mind…

Yes, that kind of sadness. Dark, but lit from within by a feeble sun. There is hope in the despair. Yet. 

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October 8, 2015:

It’s almost a month now, and the details are not as sharp as it should have been, but whenever I think back on the day, it’s the melancholy of it that precedes.

Since our Kedarnath trip was completed ahead of schedule, we could take things a little easy – we had just two visits scheduled for the day. We had stayed the previous night in a hotel in Sitapur that overlooked a valley. There were people, animals and huge machines working relentlessly through day and night, trying to rebuild all that had been destroyed by nature in a moment of blind fury. The atmosphere was so bleak that the lights and sounds at a distance were somehow comforting.

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View from my balcony, ahead…
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…and looking down

Our short bus ride to Sitapur market that morning was through roads being painstakingly repaired. On both sides were the still visible aftermath of 2013 flash flood that washed away entire hamlets in and around Kedarnath, taking with it thousands of human beings, livestock and resources. What was marvellous still was the human spirit evident there, its tenacity, persistence. Hope in times of despair.

We hopped on to a jeep that was to take us to Gauri Kund. This was the place where Parvati did ‘hard tapasya’ to win the affection of Lord Shiva – which she did, ultimately. [Hard tapasya was Chauhanji’s favourite term – he was full of stories of Gods, Goddesses, demigods and humans who did hard tapasya (hard penance) to achieve something or the other.]

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Rebuilding what once was

All through the way to Gauri Kund, Chauhanji would point out to one pile of pale grey debris or the other and tell us about what there used to be, a government lodge, a hotel or other signs of life from the past. Now there were only huge JCBs, tons of steel rods and rock – and of course people – working, living…trying to, at least.  The scene was heartbreaking all the way, and I was appalled to note that a good number of little children were involved in manual labour. It wasn’t a familiar sight to me; in Kerala, children go to school these days. Mostly.

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The child was at a worksite helping carry a rock; my inept shot from the moving jeep did not capture it properly.

The end of the paved road where we got down was the beginning of utter desolation. We continued our journey on foot through a narrow cemented path flanked on one side by the remnants of houses washed away by the flood and on the other by the craggy mountain face with Vasuki Ganga flowing beneath it. The hamlet must once have been quaint, but now there was a silence, a darkness, there – as if someone had pressed the dimmer button on the landscape.

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Things they lost in the flood – they weren’t just things.
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Vasuki Ganga

Gauri Kund temple, small and ancient, was untouched by the calamity, but the once famous hot spring has been reduced to a narrow stream of water flowing through a PVC pipe, and there were no signs of the Ganesha temple that used to be. Devastation was everywhere – you could smell it in the air. Standing there, it wasn’t difficult to imagine water gushing down the mountain in torrents and taking everything with it. Though still sweating from the exertion of walking, I shuddered.

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Gauri Kund – the temple
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The kund – pool/reservoir in the temple

We returned in relative silence, but there was a warmth between us pilgrims now. Perhaps the remains of one disaster and the imminent possibility of another brought with it a fleeting recognition of human transience…and with it camaraderie. When we talked, it was with more friendliness than when we had started.

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Still ravaged by the memory of a disaster

We came back to the hotel, had breakfast, and then went on the second leg of our trip – to Triguni Narayan temple where Lord Shiva’s wedding with Parvati took place, post the hard tapasya. It was at the edge of a quaint little hamlet – the kind that makes you feel as if you have stepped through a portal to reach a time in the past when life was lived at a more leisurely pace. The view from there was one to die for – snow covered peaks gleaming in the sunlight, against a blue, blue sky…

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View from Triguni Narayan

The architecture of the temple was exactly the same as Kedarnath – at least from the outside. The prevalence of rough hewn dark grey stone everywhere – the interior, exterior, roof, walls – lent an air of timelessness to the place, a distinct feel of sanctity brought about as much by age as by anything else.  A thought here: is that why we have this endless fascination for antiques? Because we feel that they are touched by the divine? Is that why we go looking for relics, digging up the past, literally, from under tons of earth? Maybe.

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Triguni Narayan temple

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I have a problem with clicking sneak photos of the inside of temples – I end up feeling as if I am violating something sacred, and it’s not a nice feeling. So again, my camera and my head are full of uncaptured shots – the beautiful row of idols, the sacred fire that with huge blocks of firewood burning in the middle, the old man feeding the fire with grains and sprouts and little splinters of wood (he would allow you too, for a price)…  Shots that will forever remain within me.

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The school building

A small building by the side of the temple, I found out, served as a pre/primary school, with a couple of dozen children being taught by another. An unsmiling duo of ‘teachers’ sat there – watchful, as if ready to repel any overly curious pilgrim with her camera. I did manage a couple of shots though, having decided to take their grim nods as permission to do so.

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Class in progress…
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…so do not disturb!

The way down was scenic, with windswept trees having shaped themselves into sculptures that were beyond any human hand.  However, we came down the winding mountain road at a speed that occasionally made our fists fly to the mouth and eyes widen in sheer terror. Used as we were to our bus driver Vijay’s super-smooth driving, the jeep ride was like being trapped in a game of NFS. It was a relief to alight at Sitapur market, where our bus was waiting.

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This is how…
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…this looks, while speeding downhill.

Horses and mules [the latter looked suspiciously like horses to me and were called ‘ponies’, but apparently were not] seemed an integral part of life there. They were everywhere, and used to transport people and goods all the way up to Kedarnath.  Everything from pilgrims to firewood to potato was carried up the treacherous mountain trails on these animals; there was no mechanised alternative to it.

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It’s a long way up!

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The market sported many shops that sold equine paraphernalia – something unimaginably alien in terms of where I come from. A severe-looking shopkeeper, when asked about whether I can take a picture of him and his shop, asked me in all seriousness: Humko kahan le ja raho bhai? Dilli? I replied that I was taking him further, to Dubai. He rolled his eyes, but posed for me anyway.

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Where are you taking me to? Delhi?

We reached back in time for lunch. Everybody was restless – we had the afternoon and evening left with nothing much to do except rest. We were so used to rigorous  schedules by then that the loose end seemed a little intimidating. Chauhanji said he would take us to the river behind our dwelling in the evening.

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Where a river runneth at a distance

Nature, however, had other plans. By four the sky darkened menacingly, and it started raining, complete with thunder, lightning – the works. How can I describe what it was to stand there by the balcony, watching nature unleashed? The mountains looming ahead of me, people scrambling for shelter from the lashing rain across the valley, and a couple of mules frolicking in abandon below our balcony, as if revelling in the sudden wildness…

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There where we stayed

Our kindly cooks went the extra mile that evening and made us some hot onion fritters to go with our tea. Soon all of us weary travellers drifted out of our rooms and gathered in a group, talking about families and friends, and sharing anecdotes and jokes.  For the first time, there was positive camaraderie among us.

Watching the sky clearing up – though briefly – before sunset, I felt grateful…for the underlying warmth in the day’s melancholy.

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