Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Climb a hill

Someday, go up to the hills - up, up and up.
Up the narrow 'highway', which cannot allow two cars to pass , simultaneously - where the army has gates and specific times to allow cars to pass in batches. Once every two hours.
Up, where the road is so steep, the best engines won't claw their way up the incline.
Up, where roads cease, and a goat-foot-beaten path is the only way up.

Up, where a local activist will tell you 'Can you walk a little? Maybe half a kilometre... er, or maybe one kilometre.... or maybe its one-and-a-half. Not more."

And once up there, you will swear it was no less than three kilometres and you will rue the day you rediscovered your love for high heels.

Go on, up, where your back seeks a natural bent, against the now warm-now chilling wind, and where you will sit after the first twenty minutes, down on the edge of the cliffs, looking down at sketchy lines that are a melting summer river. And when you get up to walk again, your calves will allow the ache to fall aside, as easily as the dust brushes itself off your skirts.

Up, where you look at this side of the world except that it is no longer there - only a wispy mist beginning at your lashes and densing up at the edge of the cliff. So that, when you stand at the edge to look at nothing, you see... nothing. It is easy to imagine that this, finally, is the end of the world. And if you took two steps forward, you'd be falling off the planet, and who knows where you'd land. It is also easy to imagine that, perhaps, you would not 'fall'. Perhaps, you'd float in the mist... float and fly until the sharp edge of some pine caught your clothes, and you could cling to the tree and be completely consumed by the blinding greyness around you. And perhaps you'd stay that way, through the rain and through the fog, until a very bright sun came up... and then you could climb back, up.

Up, when slowly, all sounds of civilization fall away, and all you hear is the sound of your own breathing. Or the breathing of the person climbing just behind you. You could shut your eyes and place this companion - just ahead, just behind, now at your shoulder. Breaths snaking in, shivering out.

It takes over the hillside, this intake of breath - it is all you can focus on; all you want to focus on. And the only other thing you see is the pair of sure footsteps ahead of you, and you breathe. You breathe long, long breaths. As if you want to swallow up the hill air - fill each sac in your lungs to bursting and let go of it, jealously, slowly. (And though the local journalists will joke about how you should pack a few boxfuls and take it down to the city, for your friends... but you know you'd really do it, if only there was such a box. You swear you wouldn't share any with friends. It is too precious a gift.)

And the locals will laugh and joke about how women carry upto 40-50 kilos worth of goods or fodder on their backs, and climb these steep inclines - climbing directly up the waterfalls and rivers, where one wrong step means certain death. Where no one else dares set foot, not even people who live barely 15 km away. There is a whole world between this side of Chakrata and that. 15 kms is a race apart, a tribe apart. Even now...

Up, where you know, finally, that this is no global village. For this is where your lunch is brought to you free, off the apricot trees - which they call Chullu here; khamani, to us of the plains. We don't need to ask. It is offered; brought to us from a hut by the roadside, where a very silent onlooker and a giggling little girl sit. They ask no questions. No explanations are offered. The local activist slips into the hut, borrows two handfuls of chullu and later, we drink off the streams - piped in stone, naturally, down the hillside villages.

Up here, you know you have never tastes cleaner, colder water, not even when it rains down from the skies. And this is the fabled land of the Mahabharata - Lakhamandal lies close (where it is rumoured that the Lakshagrah was built, by the Kauravas, to roast the Pandavas out of existence.) And here, people refer to polyandry as 'draupadi pratha' (the system of draupadi). Up here, the women are known to take pride in how many men they marry. Just like the men.

And, all breath and stumbling sandals, you ask, "But what about the other women? If one woman has so many men, what do the rest do?"

And they tell you that the place also has polygamy. Across castes, it was so - some men married many women. Some women married many men. And some married whoever they could get. And so went civilization.

Up here, it is easy to imagine why the hill tribes are reluctant to leave their villages, e ven if the government compensates them with houses on the outskirts of the capital, Dehradun. They are used to worlds that fall off the edge of a cliff. They are used to the end of civilization, just off a hillside.

And then, with your breath ringing in the valley, as if you were actually underwater and not on the top of a hill, and with your heart pressing against your ribs, like it was rebelling against the constraint of your skeleton, then you will see a village.

The first hut, the second. And you will see horses and mules, and three young men - barefot, with their skin-soles thicker than your shoes. And you will think of the point you'd driven past - a horse sacrificing ancient temple. And you will know that humanity has always sacrificed what it valued most. What it wanted most. And you wonder what we sacrifice now? Our generation? What do we kill and offer up to our gods, as a peace offering, as appeasement, as an incentive to send more our way.

What is our sacrificial horse? Our holy cow?


R. said...

For a minute I could almost feel the walk up that hillside.

Great writing!

Anonymous said...

Wish I could be there instead of this dumb cubicle :(

Ishieta said...

What can I say... your blogs ALWAYS make me think! and some, like this one, wish...!


Annie Zaidi said...

me too wishing, feeling and sighing... hills, mist... sigh!

Anonymous said...

Hi Annie,

Have been dreaming of place like this since childhood.

Had read about it as a child while eagerly devouring proofs and research done on Mahabharata.

I was captivated by a place called Jonsar Bavar, from where Pandavas left for the Himalayas.

Sounds very much like what I had read then.

Ofcourse, with the difference that your description of the surroundings actually transports one there.

~ Neel.

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