At Varanasi, they whisper to the fish and set them free in the water.
I’d come to the Ghats to watch the sunrise, an event that was turning out to be more spectacular than I had imagined. Ahead of me, the sun spilled molten gold onto the calm waters of the Ganga. Majhis (boatmen) were ferrying passengers across in similar-looking rowboats, their silhouettes adding to the drama. A million seagulls circled above the boats, their squawks accompanying the sound of temple bells and the chants of worshippers performing pooja on the stone steps. Men and women were bathing in the holy waters, their faith shielding them from the biting cold of a winter morning. Wash away our sins, mother…
From the high octagonal stone platform I was sitting on, everything seemed surreal.
A while ago, I had bid goodbye to Pooja, a young engineer from Poona who was sharing the platform with me. She had come to the ghats with her brother and sister-in-law, and was kind enough to click a picture of me for memory. We had found each other on Instagram, and parted with vague promises to keep in touch.
I sat there alone for a long time afterward, at peace with the world that was bustling around me.
As I got up to leave, I saw a couple of Muslim men – father and son, presumably – carrying transparent yellow plastic bags, making their way to where I was sitting. I noticed that the bags held water, with small, black, live fish in them. I stopped in my tracks.
“Are those fish?” The father ignored me. Talk about stating the obvious.
The son nodded.
“What are they for?”
“To be released in the Ganga,” he mumbled without looking at me.
“To be…what! Why?”
“Why?Because…” He looked at his father, but the old man did not help. Then he turned and met my eyes. “...where else do fish belong except with Ganga Maiyya?”
Where else indeed.
I followed them as they went to the edge of the platform, asking their permission to click pictures. The son looked at his father again. Though the old man decidedly turned his back on me, the son did not seem to mind. I decided to take their silence for consent, but maintained an unobtrusive distance.
They sat down and carefully opened the bags. The older man took each bag separately, brought it close to his face and blew softly into it. Then both the father and the son gently took the fish one by one in their palms and dropped it into the water. That done, they got up and left.
No one gave a second glance. Except me, that is.
Later, I came to know that this is a sadka, a ritual performed by the members of the weaving community regardless of their faith. Meant to ward off evil, to protect their person and property.
Protect us, mother, protect our livelihood. You, who are all-accepting, all-forgiving. You who do not distinguish between humans and their faiths.Guard us against evil, Mother. Within and without…
A prayer or two, breathed into the slim, dark bodies of a dozen fishes. To be carried to the heart of a mighty river brimming with the desperate pleas of generations and lifetimes. Of the living and the dying, the hopeful and the hopeless.
Down there in her womb, these prayers too would feed on human sins and grow. As guardians, protectors. Shielding mortals from themselves…
As a child, the high point of my life used to be the storytelling sessions we had during summer vacations. When Preetha, Praveenchettan, Pramod, Rajesh, Dinesh and I gathered around Jagdish (or Jagguettan, as we call him; our eldest cousin on my father’s side), listening in rapt silence to the stories he told us. No one, but no one, told a story like he did.
In a matter of minutes, he could make the walls of the small side room in Krishna Vihar disappear. And I would be standing on an unpaved street in the Wild West, watching Clint Eastwood enter, eyes screwed up against the sun, a cigar dangling from the side of his mouth… I would see his hat and poncho, his black horse, the taunting men…Now he is taking out his gun and— Dhishkyaun! My heart would jump to my mouth even as the bad guys lay dead on the ground. Jagguettan could, with the same ease, take me to a studio in the Greenwich Village where Jhonsy would be looking out of the window and counting the leaves on the ivy vine opposite. And when Sue revealed Behrman’s masterpiece, my eyes would sting with tears too embarrassed to flow out.
Jagguettan, with his endless supply of stories, trivia and comic books, used to be my hero. This, despite the fact that he had once declared me dead, while showing me how to find the pulse point on my wrist. After probing my then-skinny wrist for a good minute, he let go of it with a shake of his head. “No pulse,” he informed. “You’re dead!”
Growing up deprives you of a lot. For one, it takes you far away from cousins who tell stories. And when life decides its time for you to grow up, it comes at your bubble with a sledgehammer. All you can do is to quietly fold and pack the broken pieces of your childhood and stow them out of sight – in the farthest corner of your heart. Then you turn to books, a small part of you forever seeking your master storyteller between their pages. In hope.
Then one day, another lifetime or so later, comes a book. “I saw the home of a god at latitude 28º28′ south and longitude 105º21′ west — a deserted rock crowded with seabirds far, far out in the Pacific,”it begins. Your ears perk up. That voice – you know it! You’ve heard it before, in an almost-forgotten past. You read on, now eager, hopeful. And as the “…wave-battered, treeless, bush-less cliffs devoid of fresh water, grass, flowering plants and moss” unfurl before you, you realise with a thrill that it’s him, your Great Storyteller. You’ve found him again, inside the covers of this magical book titled ‘Atlas of an Anxious Man’.
You are, once again, that wide-eyed child standing at the open gates of wonderland.
As Christoph Ransmayr begins each story with “I saw…”, I see what he saw. I see people – living, dying and long-dead. I see oceans, islands, rainforests and polar ice caps. Icy peaks, salmon-filled rivers and volcanic lakes. Abandoned graveyards, sunken ships, and remains of ancient civilizations. I hear batwings, birdsongs, and five laughing men. And sometimes, as when I see “an empty park bench, one of three on the market square beside the wrought-iron fence of the adjacent apothecary garden in the village of Lambach in Upper Austria,” my eyes fill up.
Translated by Simon Pare for Seagull Books, the note in the jacket modestly describes Atlas of an Anxious Man as a ‘unique account that follows (its author) across the globe’. I would rather call it a book of stories. Stories woven out of Ransmayr’s experiences as an involved observer of people, places and events. Stories of love, grief, courage, heartbreak and lasting hope. Narrated as if to a group of close friends gathered around the fireplace on a cold evening.
The text inside the gorgeous jacket designed by Sunandini Banerjee is lyrical. It meanders unhurriedly through the many geographies Ransmayr has visited, pausing every so often to admire a garden or a graveyard, talk to its keeper, or listen to the sound of a sheepdog barking at a distance. The journey that starts from that first barren island 3,200 kilometres off the Chilian coast continues in no particular order across oceans, islands, mountains and continents, across treeless hillsides and tropical rainforests, across countrysides, cities and suburbs, until it reaches its lofty destination. As if the author is opening his atlas at random pages to shows us what he saw there.
“This crater, riven by erosion and tectonics, and half collapsed, resembled a skewed cauldron whose contents – a small house with a corrugated-iron roof, animal sheds, a barn and, above all, bellowing cattle and skin and bone horses on stony, black pastures – were about to be tipped into the sea. The cauldron’s lower rim lay so close to the surf that it was flecked again and again with flakes of spray whereas the upper edge of the crater faded away high above the breakers into scudding patches of fog.”
And I see it all. Every little thing.
Geography, however, is just one facet – albeit an intensely alive one – of this gem. There is also history, anthropology, politics, biology and astronomy. Philosophy too, among other things, woven intricately into the narrative by this master craftsman. Ultimately, Atlas of an Anxious Man is about human beings, as they come.
“I saw the dark, sweaty face of the fisherman Ho Doeun on a stormy November night in Phnom Penh. The capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia was celebrating the water festival that night. Ho was kneeling on the bank of the Mekong, under the sparkling bouquets of fireworks whose flaming arches and bridges of light spanned the river for two or three heartbeats before fading away in a thundering spectacle of colour.”
What makes this book so exceptional to me, however, is the silken thread of compassion that runs through the length of its narrative. There is no judgment – none at all. The man who narrates these stories has already made his peace with vagaries, both human and otherwise. He is merely telling us what he saw, heard, felt and remembered.
“…an autumn bird no longer really had to impress anyone very much. It sang, when it sang, more for itself than for or against another bird.”
And if I feel a lingering sense of melancholy after turning the last page, it could be because the afterglow has lit up some forgotten corners of my soul – where the wait for the next Great Storyteller has resumed.
“All grown-ups were once children…but only few of them remember it.” – Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince
In the little resort town of Hakone, just outside of Tokyo, I visited a part of my literary childhood. The moment I learned that Japan has the only Little Prince Museum in the world, I made a mental note that I had to visit it should I ever visit Japan. That dream came true in June 2017 when I visited Japan for the first time. On hearing my Hakone plans, my friend from Tokyo asked me, “Why are you going to Hakone? Onsen (hotspring)?” Most people do go to Hakone for the hotsprings, to visitthe famous lake, or to see Mount Fuji if the sky is clear. The look of amusement on my friend’s face is one I’ve seen on many non-readers’ faces when I tell them about my literary aspirations, but that has never stopped me from my single-minded bookish pursuits. Fellow bookworms will understand my love of bibliotourism.
A few days after landing in Tokyo I took the Shinkansen to Odawara, and from there I took the bus to Hakone. The lady at the Odawara bus station nodded knowingly when I told her I was going to the Little Prince museum, and with gestures told me to wait until the bus driver calls the stop of Hoshi no Ōjisama Myūjiamu (The Little Prince Museum).
Bookworms are strange, I’m the first to admit it. I’m compulsive and obsessive when it comes to my literary loves. Having literary experiences ranks higher than a lot of things in my life. With The Little Prince, this book goes back with me a long way; the love runs deep. I was 10 years old when I first encountered it, and I was immediately smitten, probably due to a mixture of the great pictures (to this day I believe that all novels should contain illustrations), the characters, the simple truths. It was also due to being a child, nodding fervently when the prince says, “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.” I totally got that, being a misunderstood child myself. Now as an adult, I believe that book helped me keep my childlike curiosity and heart, and it’s a book that seems to have grown with me, one I have gained a deeper understanding of.
When I stepped off the bus in front of the museum, I realized I had picked the perfect day and season to visit. The sun was shining bright, and the flowers, particularly the roses, were in full bloom. The Little Prince museum was built as a sort of replica of a French village. It was, like I said, a perfect day to visit. The gardens were spectacular. We could explore the book and also the life of de Saint-Exupery
It feels cliché to say this, but I honestly felt like I was walking in the book. Books that really impact us as children, I believe, become a part of our souls. When the mind is still young, naïve and growing, with childlike curiosity and still not fully aware of the world, it is a mind that is malleable and fertile for new ideas and words. The first talking rose you meet you will probably remember, and subsequent talking roses won’t be as strange to you. When you learn that grown-ups only care about numbers, you vow not to be like that. At least I did.
Rowena and I met in the great world of Twitter, brought together perhaps by a shared love for the written word. It was pure serendipity that she feels the same spiritual connection I have with The Little Prince. Perhaps more, because she travelled all the way to experience it!
When I requested her for an introduction of herself to the readers, she sent me this: “Due to her Third Culture Kid upbringing, Rowena has always been passionate about culture, language, and communication. The arts are her passion and keep her grounded and curious about life. Other hobbies include nature, cooking, travel, and hiking.”
So now I learn that we share much more than a love for the written word! Nature, cooking, travel… And flowers. Isn’t it wonderful that social media enables birds of similar feather to flock together, even when they roost in different ends of the world?
I have written, rewritten, read, reread, edited, added, deleted and generally done to death those notes on my first time pilgrimage. All that needed to be said has been – or should have been, logically, seven posts later. I also took to heart an advice to ‘put it all together in one place for god’s sake, so that we can read it in one go, not in bits and pieces from here and there’ and did sum it all up in one piece for translation.
[Now, will the Malayalam publication that had asked me for the story still accept it after almost two months past deadline is a question I am tossing up in the air. It can fall either way. Or just fly away!]
So what is left to say now, you might wonder. Well, the thing is, with me there’s always something to say. Al-ways.
And here I am, talking about the one thing that never ceases to fascinate: people. This time, people I saw in the course of my journey. My choice of ‘saw’ as against ‘met’ is deliberate – most of these photographs are of people I saw in passing; some even taken without their permission. I normally don’t do that – makes me feel as if I am violating their privacy. In this instance I did, and I’m begging their pardon now, after the deed is done.
I would have liked to add to this the photographs of my fellow pilgrims – they were so interesting! But since I’m not sure it would be appropriate, I’m just going for the strange faces…
Fascinating faces… faces with stories to tell.
I saw him in Haridwar as we waited for Ganga Aarti. He was making his way through the crowd with a small diya made of leaves and a few flowers in his hands. He was determined to offer it to the river with his own hands – and did it too, disregarding the protests of the people he pushed and shoved out of the way to get there.
To me he is the face of Sitapur market. Among the rows of shops where they were selling equine paraphernalia, his stood out for some reason. Determination, perhaps? The will to survive – in that desolate township that has been half washed away by the floods? I don’t know. I just felt the need to capture that face – and in those surroundings.
He was there outside Triguni Narayan temple, an angry, foul-mouthed old man with many axes to grind. He chose to be provoked by what he thought he heard someone speak, and started raging. In the process he terrified many of the members of my group who were already shaken by the desolation of that part part of Himalayas. Living example of how not to grow old.
We saw her walking down the non-existent path in the mountainside carrying this burden. Bowed down by it, she just kept walking, not heeding the group that was for once silenced by the sight. Life there seemed relentless.
These are sights from Joshimath, where narrow paved pathways connected houses and shops, and people were manoeuvring their way through them with heavy loads. Note how the man has to sidle his way as the planks would otherwise hit the wall.
Loved this lady on the spot! Met her while we were walking from the bus to Mana Gaon. She told us that her children were all working and very well placed too, thank god, but she still likes to work for ‘timepass’. When asked if I could take a picture with her she said: Hum to sundar nahi hain na? Isliye to aap photo kheench rahe hai! Now if that isn’t fishing, what is?
We assured her that she was sundar which was why we wanted to take a picture with her. Oh you should have seen the way she bloomed! She posed with me and allowed me to click solo pictures of her too. Must have been a force to reckon with, in her youth… I can just see the neighbourhood men going gaga over this one.
I saw them on the way to Ganesh Gufa. The lady refused to look up when I asked permission to take a photograph, muttering ‘Everyone wants to take pictures, but no one wants to buy anything. I won’t look up and smile for your camera.’ And true to her word, it was only after I bought some herbs that she deigned to look up and pose for me!
This sweet lady, on the other hand, was very fine with being photographed. It was only afterward that she tried to sell anything. She patiently waited when I told her I’d buy on the way back as I had run out of change, and was thrilled when I actually came back for my purchase.
Just because I found her quaint! Oh-so-serious Li’l Ms Muffet was sunning there by the wayside, within view of her grandparents. She was pleased to be photographed, though you wouldn’t think so looking at her looking at me.
Ok, let me admit to a bit of cowardice here. I’d have loved to take a good shot of him; he was in the little temple near Bhim Pul. But he looked intimidating – which made me too nervous to ask for permission to, or be caught, taking pictures. So this was the best I could manage.
My story would be incomplete without them. They were staying in the same hotel as we did, in Badrinath. They had come from Rajasthan prepared, complete with a stove, utensils and enough food to see them – and their menfolk – through the journey. They posed for me with permission duly taken from their men. I was given a bowlful of halwa as a parting gift.
And last but not the least, my crew minus the cooks and driver. I was sure I’d clicked their pictures too, but can’t find them now. Here you can see Mahavir, who forcibly carried my backpack all the way up and down the mountainside while we were walking, and little Gopal who helped equally. Gopal is the driver’s son, looked all of twelve but claimed to be eighteen, that too with a ‘Plus Two Degree’ under his belt!!! And that’s Chauhanji, brimming with stories from history, mythology and real life.
These are the people who risk their lives on a daily basis, ferrying passengers up and down the Himalayas, living there, and what they earn is a pittance.
A reminder to count blessings… to sort out priorities…to generally look at life from a different perspective. After all, that’s what pilgrimage is about.
As I said, there were ghosts that needed to be laid to rest.
What are ghosts but stories interrupted? Fragile stories that slipped out of the hands that held them and shattered on the floor, or were snatched away without warning or mercy… Orphaned stories from whom both the narrator and the listeners have turned their faces away… Dejected stories with their heads hung, eyes down and shoulders sagging…
Stories without closure, or that by any other name. Resolution, grand finale, happily-ever-after… That which we seek, eternally – like so many Tantaluses reaching out for the elusive fruit and water, even as the dark shadow of Sisyphus’ boulder falls on us.
Stories, theirs and mine, that I have carried for as long as I have lived.
What was it that I sought up there in Moksh Dham? Closure? Or the wisdom to accept the futility of seeking it? Either, perhaps. Or both. Or something else altogether… Like release. From the need for closure.
The 9th of October found us trudging uphill the higher Himalayas, towards our final destination – Sri Badrinath – at an altitude of 10300 feet above sea level. There is no beyond – just Vaikund. That’s why it’s called Moskh Dham – liberates you. So pray, pray for as long as you want, pray for all those you want to pray for.
Yes, I needed to pray – though perhaps not in the conventional sense of the word.
So onward we went, past rivers and valleys and hamlets and small towns. Past prayags and countless temples small and big. We stopped at Hanuman Chatti where mythology says Hanuman and Bheem had their altercation, before a humbled Pandava bowed his head to Vayuputra. We visited Joshimath, where the idol of the Lord Badrinath is brought for pooja during winter when the passage to the temple itself gets blocked due to snow and ice.
The temples were fascinating, but so were the lives of people in and around and on the way to those temples. At least what I could see of them in passing.Life is obviously harsh up there in the mountains. I saw children doing hard physical labour at worksites, women bent over with the weight of what they were carrying to and fro, men manipulating heavy objects through narrow pathways. One of the most common modes of transportation for tourists was ‘doli’, a basket that seats a grown person, and is carried by another on his back! All in a day’s work, I could see. Heartbreaking and humbling at once.
I can see now why pilgrimage is deemed an inevitable part of a person’s spiritual journey, regardless of which God one believes in. For those who don’t, that is, the agnostics and atheists, substitute pilgrimage with travel – the underlying point is the same.
Get out of your comfort zone, walk the lands your feet have never touched. Eat foods that are different to yours. Drink soupy, over-sweetened tea from wayside stalls. Marvel at the vagaries of nature. Appreciate the way trees have bent and twisted themselves out of shape to accommodate the angry mountain winds. Wonder at the soaring birds you cannot hope to see where you live. Breathe in the feeble mountain sunshine and let the cold air parch your lips. Be humbled by the thunder that reverberates across hills and vales.
Talk to people who don’t speak your language. Smile at them till they smile back. See their lives from ground level. Observe their traditions, rituals, costumes, and try to reason out why they are what they are and how they do what they do. Step into their shoes and walk a mile in them.
It changes you, imperceptibly yet profoundly.
I’m wondering whether to use the word arduous to describe this part of the journey, but then maybe it’s better saved for the trip back – especially the last leg from Haridwar to Delhi, caught in the unending/unbelievable traffic jam that beat Dubai’s hollow. Yes, that one was arduous. This one, up roads flanked by grim rock face on one side and plunging valley on the other, roads that seemed ready to disintegrate at any moment, was – well – nerve wracking, so to say. Prayer came easily to everyone.
It was late evening when we reached Badrinath.
This was what I had come for… This.
The seedy, still-being-built-and-will-continue-to-be-built hotel, the ‘breathtakingly’ (literally) steep, narrow and rail-less staircase, the large, haphazard room with one window that looked out at snowy peaks (the best they could offer in terms of a room with a view), were all a blur.
I honestly did not care – as long as there were running hot water and a working flush – which there were. Ok, the bed did faze me – I had this nagging vision of a bedbug or two getting onto my body in the middle of the night. Or into my suitcase which I will then carry back home. A daunting vision, honestly. So I insisted that the sheepish caretaker change the sheets – a concept he took a while to understand – yes, and the pillow covers, please; no thank you, I’ll use my own blanket.
Looking back, I must have been like one possessed – the weary traveller lugging herself with one final burst of frenzied energy, desperation, upon getting the first glimpse of her destination. I bathed and got ready in no time, and must have really pestered Chauhanji because he arranged for a person to take me ahead to the temple while he waited for the rest of the group to assemble. My urgency somehow touched my co-passengers too because Teacher and her son joined me in my sprint to the temple.
I was there. Just like there are moments that elude the camera, there are experiences that defy words. Those that are better left unsaid.
I spent the rest of the evening there, inside the temple, until it was closed for the night, and was back before daybreak on the morning of the 10th. I was there, waiting, when the temple opened – having washed myself at Tapt Kund, a steaming sulphur spring that rubbed shoulders with the icy cold Alaknanda. I lost count of the hours I spent there, just sitting and absorbing it all.
This was what I had come for, after all.
Later that morning, I sat shivering uncontrollably on the banks of Alaknanda, repeating mantras after the Panditji, invoking all those souls, living and dead, that I had been carrying inside me…pleading, pleading silently all the while for closure, liberation. I was vaguely aware of the biting cold, the numbing hands, the frozen legs – but not enough to take my mind off from my desperate prayer. Peace. Peace. Peace… Please.
Sometime later, I said adieu to the temple, promising to be back. Someday.
After breakfast, we hopped back into the bus to visit Mana Gaon, India’s last village with its India’s Last Teashop among other things.Where the present and the real share space with history and mythology. The little hamlet was quaint beyond belief, with a narrow pathway leading up, and houses on either side with their handkerchief sized gardens that grew mustard, cauliflower and cabbage in abundance.
There were wayside vendors selling handmade woollen sweaters and carpets, and every Garhwali woman in her thick, dark, maxi-like dress seemed busy with something: washing and sorting cut wool, weaving, sewing, peddling spices and other goods to tourists or carrying loads up and down the narrow path.
Walking further, we stepped on to a piece of land where Mahabharata and Ramayana, so far deemed mythology, came alive. Here’s from where Vyasa dictated the Mahabharata and here’s where Ganeshji sat and wrote it down. That’s Bheem Pul, Bheembali brought that huge rock as a bridge for Draupadi to cross the river, and that gateway up there, that’s where she – Draupadi – fell during Vanaprastha, and ascended to heaven. Chauhanji revelled in the narration. To me, everything seemed surreal.
The Himalayas have a way of taking your breath away at unexpected moments. One such was the when I first saw the site where two great rivers, Saraswathi and Alaknanda, originate. I have not seen anything awe-inspiring like that in my limited life, nor do I expect to, ever – unless I return to that place someday. But when I look at the carefully clicked photos from there, I despair – my camera fell completely short of capturing the magnificence of the sight ahead of me. The 2D images I now have hardly do justice to it.
It was nature at her grandest, beyond anything the human mind or technology ccould hope to encompass.
Our return journey was uneventful, yet incredibly tedious. We stayed that night in a hotel in Peepalkoti, and continued the journey early next morning – a journey that lasted until past 11 at night. On the way we stopped at Haridwar where most of us bought gifts to take back home. It was during that trip back that we passengers really thawed to each other, sharing jokes and stories and photographs of family and friends – just before we were to go our separate ways.
Teacher and her son were staying in the same guesthouse, and as our flights were around the same time, we left for the airport together on the evening of the 12th.
When we parted, there were no promises to meet or keep in touch – I suppose we had seen too much of life to make promises of that sort. “You have my number. Call me if possible when you come to Kerala, and I’d be really happy. Come over if you can, sit at our table and share our meal. It will please us. If you are able to, no stress.” Teacher hugged me and walked over to her gate, with her son leading the way.
I waited for my flight, watching the sun set over Delhi, thinking of them, thinking of our trip, thinking of my home, my life, and my ghosts… The ones I had laid to rest.
Had I, really?
Again, there has been no epiphany, no miracle. Yet, looking back from the distance of more than a month, I see a shift. A subtle one – just a single degree, perhaps…a tiny seed sown deep within. One I hope will take root, eventually.
A river runs through it – the college where I did my graduation. ‘Sokanasini’ they call her. As in ‘the one who ends grief’.
I had spent some of my happiest hours there, by her banks, with some of the finest people I had known in my life. My friends who did better than all the king’s soldiers and all the king’s men in putting me together.
The river was my friend too. I had sat in contented silence on her banks, hidden from the world by teak and acacia trees, dreaming impossible dreams. We – my friend Honey and I – had talked, laughed, read poetry and shared secrets as only the very young could have. We had waded through the weeds to sit on rocks, sighing as her gentle waters caressed our feet. At such times, I had almost believed that all was well with the world.
Sokanasini… Who had named her thus? Another lost soul who must have, at some point, allowed their pain to be washed away by her gentle waters?
Who names rivers anyway?
As our bus wove its way through mountain roads, there was always a river that accompanied us: Alakananda, Mandakini, Bhagirathi, Saraswathi, Ganga, Dhauliganga, Pindar… Chanting those names in the loud silence of my head, I had wondered, a hundred times during the bus journey: who names rivers?
These beautiful names that originate in the heart and roll out of the tongue in whispers. Teasing, sensuous… yet somehow aloof. Names that carry a wealth of meaning, just like the water that meanders its way through rocks and bramble, a world of secrets glinting in its jade-coloured depths.
Our guide Chauhanji told us stories. Stories about Ganga who had once made her queenly way through the heavens. Who at first laughed at Bhagirath when he pleaded with her to come down and bless the earth, and her eventual decision to relent at the behest of Vishnu. About Shiva who conceded to absorb her impact, thus taming her into what she eventually became.
He told us about Saraswathi who disappears into the earth right at her birthplace in the Himalayas, and surfaces only at Allahabad…
There were more recent stories too. Of the time when these rivers raged through Himalayan valleys, punishing, erasing everything in their path. Stories repeated at each new scene of devastation. Chauhanji pointed out to us the ravages of that flood, all the way to the top. Damaged roads, destroyed mountainsides, wasted lives…
Water – the giver and taker of life. Untouched by all it touches.
Then he showed us where they meet – the rivers. And they are sights to behold. These confluences, prayags, are considered holy, with much history and myth associated with each. And not without reason. There is something awe-inspiring about them, even when you merely see them from a distance.
Two rivers that wind their way down mountainsides, each carrying its own secrets, its own stories, its own hues. Converging, unwillingly at first – as evident from the differing shades of jade they maintain for quite a distance. And eventually, just out of our sight, they begin to accept each other with all the commitment of two souls that have decided to journey forward in accord. United they flow.
I lost track of the details of prayags we came across on the way, but I know there were five – Panchprayag, as they are known. Their names are as resonant as those of the rivers that meet.’Vishnu Prayag, Nand Prayag, Karn prayag, Rudra Prayag and Dev Prayag, in the descending flow sequence of their occurrence’ as Wikipedia tells me.
To me they are a confluence of beauty: nature at her best. Green and blue and every shade in between; sometimes calm and tranquil, sometimes turbulent and moody – always, always heartbreakingly lovely. At times, while browsing through the photographs from those days, I chant the names: Rudraprayag, Vishnuprayag, Devaprayag…
Who named them, these prayags? The one who named Haridwar as the door to the Lord and Rishikesh as the hair of the saint…and decided to call the land beyond as Devabhoomi, the land of Gods? Someone with bright eyes and endless curiosity, who loved the sound of Sanskrit words and would listen to it in the stillness of the mountains? One who revelled in the depth of meaning buried in those syllables? And a group of like-minded others who sat around a fire and listened to his/her stories, seeing the wisdom in them?
A twilit afternoon. The sunlight that accompanied our chopper all the way from Phata abandons us just as we step down on the tarmac. The air is different here – crisp, blue and bitingly cold. Mountain peaks that appeared a friendly green from the helicopter loom intimidatingly dark from ground level, their tips lost among thick white clouds rapidly turning grey. At a distance, you see the temple, Kedarnath, lord of the mountains – grey, ancient, majestic, aloof… and one with nature.
A moment later it begins to drizzle – large, ice-cold drops that fall with searing randomness on exposed skin.
Despite the noise and presence of hundreds – vendors, visitors and officials stationed here – there is a prevalent silence, a solitude that urges you to speak in hushed tones. You look around in awe, suddenly, acutely aware of your own insignificance in the grand scheme of things.
Intruder, know thyself: you may visit, but you don’t belong.
The morning of the 7th is a blur.
I had to go through my set of unusually out-of-focus photographs to recall the events of the day properly. Photos, the app that has replaced iPhoto on my Mac, is better than me at documentation. It shows the time and location of each photo taken, which I find amazing. Technology has been a continual source of fascination for me, much to the amusement of my boys. They find my naiveté funny, at times exasperating, as I often come up with ‘new discoveries’ that they have been using for God knows how long. Their “Ammmaaaa….!” (roll eyes, shake heads) is a familiar part of my life.
And so, thanks to Photos, I know that we were in the bus at 6:17 am, trudging up the Shivalik ranges. The idea was to reach Sitapur by late afternoon, settle there for the day, perhaps look at some temples around and visit Kedarnath the next day.
There was a noticeable sombreness at the mention of Kedarnath – I am not sure whether it was due to the still vivid memory of the devastating floods of 2013, or the mere fact that it is located at an altitude of 11,755 ft above sea level. We had opted to skip the 4 – 5 hour trek for a 10 minute ride in a helicopter to save time.
I watched mesmrised from the bus as the first rays of the sun fell on the mountainside and reflected on the waters of Mandakini meandering across the Shivalik valley.
On the way we stopped for breakfast at a partially abandoned petrol station, where our duo of cooks conjured up a sumptuous spread, complete with semolina halwa. They were obviously up cooking breakfast and lunch while we were still in bed.
Back in the bus post breakfast, there was a sudden change of plans, as rumours that helicopter workers were going on strike the next day came via the phone lines. After another round of calls and consultation, we decided that the Kedarnath visit that was to happen the next day was better advanced to that very afternoon, just in case. As Chauhanji assured us, we could still make it if we rushed to the helipad at Phata. But then, when you’re heaving uphill the Himalayas through barely existing roads, there was only so much you could hurry!
We reached the helipad at sometime around 2:00 pm. There were rumours (again) that Kedarnath temple would close at three, which caused mild panic. The officials there, however, kept reassuring us that we would be able to make it on time. They advised us to leave our bags behind and carry only the bare minimum weight. The kind of precautions they were taking made me slightly wary, though it was also good to see that nothing was being taken for granted. The usual ‘chalta hai’ attitude was refreshingly absent.
The helicopter ride was uneventful though I could see that my fellow passengers were quite tense – they had done their research and were keenly aware of the risks involved. I had not; so my ignorance proved to be my bliss. Or perhaps I have a diminished sense of danger in certain contexts.
The surreal feeling that gripped me as I stepped out of the helicopter intensified as I walked up to the temple. I could feel my lungs crying out for oxygen, and like others, I was also panting loudly. It was pure will power that kept my legs moving forward. Till I reached the temple.
Stepping inside the ancient stone portals was sublime. Maybe it was because of the camphor being used there in the temple (they say camphor replenishes good old O2), but I was no longer aware of my thirsty lungs, nor my aching legs. All I felt then was this overwhelming need to let go… Of everything. And just be, secure in the belief that everything would take care of itself.
Sitting in front of the ‘swayambhu’ (self-manifested) Shivaling, automatically obeying the instructions of the poojari, I wept. Without inhibitions. Like a child. Maybe there is a child in all of us, biding time?
The best thing about travelling with strangers is that their presence does not intimidate you. It doesn’t matter if they think of you as silly, crazy or worse. You are secure in the transience of your relationship. Here today, gone tomorrow. Good while it lasts. That’s it. There is a sense of liberation that comes with that knowledge.
We were back at the helipad, sipping some much needed, overly sweet tea and waiting our turn with the chopper. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the ground was sprinkled with what seemed like white crystals – someone up there had decided to add a handful of salt to the already exotic mix of weather! In a matter of an hour or so, we sailed through sunshine, mist, drizzle-turned-almost-rain, and now hail/snow!
Flying back in a warm haze of profound gratitude, I looked out of the window, up at the clouds and the invisible sun beyond. Without thought, just taking it all in. The magic of the temple, the weather, the mountains, clouds… The lush white clouds.
As I watched, the clouds parted, and in a moment of divine glory, white, dazzling sunlight streamed down on the world! And then it passed – just like that – leaving me wondering if it were the fantasy of an oxygen-deprived brain.
Then, as if to prove me wrong, a moment later came a second display, as gloriously spectacular as the first. I was speechless. Up there, within view of that temple nestled among rainclouds, it felt natural to believe in miracles. I know I did.
Throughout the way back, the discussion was about the 2013 floods, and the unspeakable loss of lives and resources that happened in its wake. Chauhanji had first hand experience of the horrors as he had been on the road with a group that was doing the Char Dham yatra, on their way back from Yamunotri. (Or was it Gangotri? I don’t remember.) He recounted them to us with a surprising lack of drama, which in retrospect was more effective on the whole.
It was a subdued group that got down the bus in front of a desolate looking hotel in a valley at Sitapur. The mountains, valleys and rivers, the precariously positioned roads, the changing weather, the grim physical signs of a past disaster unfolding around us, were all beginning to get into our system.
The sun set to the quietude of the evening… passive, patient, accepting.
It’s too bad (or is it?) that my pilgrimage consisted mostly of moments unphotographed than otherwise. I’m reminded of the scene in The Namesake where Irrfan Khan’s Ashoke Ganguli says to his son: “All this and no picture, huh? We just have to remember it then. Will you remember this day, Gogol?”
I’ll just have to remember it then. Remember that I went to this place where there was nowhere left to go.