Wednesday, 19 February 2014

The Road.

The road to Hemkunt is paved with landslides.

That they will be there to greet you, there is no doubt. The only variables that exist are the magnitude and “stopability” of these landslides. I know of some who had attempted the journey and not even made it to the base at Gobind Ghaat, whilst some others were stranded on their way back, having to spend an uncertain number of hours in their vehicle while the road was cleared.

This I knew, and I went prepared for either eventuality. I had already decided, after all, that being able to go was really not in my control anyway, regardless of how much I wished it or how intensely I prayed for it.

And because of this little acceptance, I tried to look at each landslide as a part of my journey as opposed to an obstacle. This wasn’t difficult… the road was windy and the movements of the bus were relatively slow, unless Vijay Bhaiya was feeling particularly enthusiastic. Each bend, each pothole, each bump, gave me ample time to push my nose up against the window and inspect my surroundings. It goes without saying that my faith grew by leaps and bounds every time I felt, actually felt, the bus drive over a part of the road that was not wide enough for us... so maybe I should add that the road to Hemkunt is also paved with logic-defying optimism!

What I saw amused me. An interesting choice of word, you may say, and I would have to agree. Today I am brave enough to use it because I have the benefit of hindsight; we were fortunate that our journey was fairly uninterrupted and we could stick to our schedule. So yes, today, I am amused. Had the situation turned out differently, I suspect my word would perhaps instead have been @?&;%!$ or something of that variety :p.

One has this preconception that a landslide is about mountains and cliffs, rocks and stones, sand and dust. But isn't everything more vivid, more exaggerated, more layered on this subcontinent? :)

The landslides to me were a photo book, a CliffsNotes, an India 101. Not quite the Incredible India that is on the posters all around the world, but India as it was; uncensored, unInstagrammed, and real.

“Horn please” signs were painted on almost every available rock face, occasionally with paintings of horns (it is very likely after all that you may not know what one looks like), and often accompanied by words of wisdom on the perils of speeding. “Be Mr Late, better than Late Mr”. Ha!

These were naturally followed by ring tone horns with an average 3-5 second sound time, going off one after the other in a curious medley of beeps. Just making sure you heard them the first time. And then the second. And the third. And wait.. why are we honking again? 

“All India Permit“ trucks with missing bumpers skirted the curvy road, the latest Bollywood hits blaring from the hand-painted external speakers in a great spirit of music-sharing with the local villagers who may not enjoy the good fortune of owning a radio. This is real peer-to-peer technology, yo.

Traffic jams with buses packed like sardines (I wonder what the Indian equivalent is to this expression?) lined the path, with kohl-lined eyes and bits of saree cloth peeking through the prison-bar windows. Each vehicle an artist's palette, bursting with colour and heat, waiting to be plucked out and freed.

Cows chewed. Grass that grew on the roadside. Plants that sprouted out of the gaps in the face of the rock. Leaves that stuck out of their semi-covered transport trucks. They chewed, and chewed. Occasionally they gave dirty looks to the sweet Punjabi girl trying to sneak up for a photo. But still, they chewed.

(Now this next one isn't something the prudish me would normally write, but one is determined to be frank!)

Men stood with their backs to the road, performing a certain ritual that is known to grant relief. There. I've said it now. Don’t judge me! Or roll your eyes :p.

Conveniently located food stalls and dhabas, created an entire industry just for slowed-down vehicles, with arms waving through the windows exchanging rupees for street munch, fruits, paan, Kurkure packets, and refilled mineral water bottles. We were significant contributors to this economy. Burp.

Water flowed through the rocks, down to the Ganges far below, where many a pilgrim waited to receive his drop, his purification, his answer. It tickled the rock, reaching into all it's funny hidden corners. I wonder if to the Earth, a landslide is just the mountain laughing as it is tickled by trickling water. A great, big, giggle, with loose parts. We see it as destructive but maybe it's just a matter of perspective, eh?

Half-constructed bridges, like forgotten ideas, decorated the bends. I imagine the men came one day, started building, went off to have tea, and never came back. Why bother, when a landslide would wash it down anyway, and you’d have to build it again?

Audiences gathered, especially at larger landslides. Men with shirts rolled above their bellies (such shiny drum-like bellies!), arms akimbo, and waited for the next piece of action. Add a muffler or two, and a beanie perhaps, and there you have it... I'm laughing too :)

Miniature yellow suns lit the path on trolleys. There were rows and rows of glass Coke bottles, now home to mountain water adorned with beautiful yellow nimboo in the place of the caps. The eternal Indian question for me: to drink or not to drink? The water was pure, but could the same be said for the bottle, the nimboo, and the handler? Where lies the line between caution and surrender?

Statues of gods were auspiciously placed at particularly perilous parts. They may have appeared old, but you would be wrong to think them abandoned. The uneven garlands of marigolds around their necks and red tilak on their foreheads suggested recent invocation. The Gods are kept busy out here, be it by soul-searchers or businessmen. 

So… just mountains and cliffs, rocks and stones, sand and dust?

They say a picture speaks a thousand words. But sometimes, it takes a thousand pictures to describe just one.

For me, all those images came together to summarise the experience of one (just one!) little-big, sweet-pungent, beloved-awkward, practical-ridiculous, colourful-bleak, spirited-nonchalant word.


Every day a journey, every road a mystery, and every destination a blessing.

~ notes from my road, Hemkunt 2012 ~

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