Saturday, 30 August 2014

Himalayan Adventure Part 3

Küshál Singh and Hüküm Singh

See here for the Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 4 and Part 5 of this series

'I take my sheep to mountains "over there"'
The peace of the late afternoon soon gave way to the bustle of setting up camp, as the rest of our group reached the meadow. Amid the gasps of delight at the view and the sighs of relief as the weary trekkers sat down at last, two of our guides quietly unpacked a huge plastic drum and slipped away down the forested valley behind the mud bank to get water from the closest stream.  Others started setting up the tents and while two went off in search of firewood further up the hill. Our tent was of the modern folding type looking rather like a curvaceous pyramid when set up. It could be zipped up against the wind and the warm sleeping bags inside looked very reassuring, considering that there was already a nip in the evening air. In contrast, the tent for the guides consisted of a tarpaulin sheet thrown over a rope stretched between two vertical wooden stakes driven into the ground. It was under this sheet that they would cook for us, and sleep at night. At best the sheet would provide some protection from rain or hail, but certainly not the wind and the cold. Once again, my sense of achievement at sleeping on an open mountainside in a tent was quickly given a reality check by the flapping tarpaulin sheet. Soon the provisions were unpacked and a kerosene stove got going in the guides’ tent, while water was set to boil on a wood fire to one side.

Enjoying the evening: Lālu the dogthe lamb, Küshál, Hüküm Singh and a friend
As the sun dipped lower the golden colour of the light deepened, and shadows of the deodars streaked across the grass. Sitting across a rock at the edge of the meadow overlooking the Tïrthán I saw a man smoking a chillum. A lamb frisked about near him. As I thought of how similar it looked to the fat little creature I had photographed earlier that afternoon, another figure appeared over the edge of the rock, confirming my suspicions. It was Küshál with his dog, standing over the rock taking in a view of the sunlit valley below. The rich evening light was too good to resist a photo opportunity, and I strode off towards them with my camera to try my luck. The man introduced himself as Hüküm Singh. “And this”, he said pointing to the boy, “is my nephew Küshál Singh, and his dog Lālu. We've camped just further down the hillside”. I said Küshál and I were already acquainted, and asked if the lamb had a name too. At that Küshál, for the first time since I had met him, broke into a big smile. For some reason he had found the idea of a lamb having a name extremely funny .

Hüküm Singh poses for the camera with an uncooperative Lālu
Hüküm Singh was a great big old man with grubby hands and dirty fingernails, and a sunburnt face furrowed with deep lines like the hills and ridges around us. He turned out to be as talkative as Küshál was taciturn. As soon as he found out that I was one of the trekkers camping at the meadow tonight he threw a barrage of questions at me, as direct and blunt as only village folk in India can ask. Where was I from? So I lived in the city, did I? How much did I earn there? How much did my camera cost? How did I find out about this place? Where was I put up here? How much was I paying them?

He told me he was a shepherd, and had been one all his life, taking sheep every summer to the mountains pastures ‘over there’ (at this he pointed across the clear evening air to the shining peaks on the other side of the valley). Sadly he could no longer go there because of the park boundaries. But he still went as far as he could and stayed there all through the summer. Most of the animals belonged to the villagers from the valley, and he earned a few hundred rupees per season for every sheep or goat he took care of. He also had a small flock of his own among the 200 or so animals that he said were grazing downhill.  But it was hard living and he was thinking of giving up the shepherding business. He wanted to start something that would attract the city tourists instead. (Hearing what I was being charged for the trek seemed only to corroborate his plans) This was his land, he said emphatically, with a sweeping gesture across the meadow, and he meant to do something with it that would bring more money than grazing sheep. Perhaps he would get ferris-wheels and carousels and organise a fun-fair in the mountains. He would play the latest film songs and get the best lighting system from the city to illuminate the fair. He would leave no stone unturned to make city folk feel right at home here. I listened to his plans with increasing disbelief.

Küshál Singh
Finest ram in the flock
There may have been some truth about the land being his, for we were still outside the borders of the park, and the rights to various grazing pastures in these mountains have always been held by different shepherd families over generations. This alarmed me all the more about the man’s grand plans.  I decided there was no harm in telling him exactly what I felt. “Why do you think a fun-fair would bring in tourists”, I asked. “Yeh sab tō sheher mein bhí miltá hai.(You get all that in the city too)” On the contrary, I said, we city-dwellers come here to get away from it. All the while I was trying to stamp out of my mind a horrible vision of neon lights and carousels wheeling away to the lusty beats of a bollywood chart-buster on this lovely meadow. He seemed to ponder over that, especially since it came from a city-dweller. I pressed my advantage and went on. Why in the world would we bust ourselves climbing up this hill to ride a ferris wheel and listen to Bollywood numbers? We took the trouble to come this far come here to experience the mountains just as they were now. If there were a fun-fair here I would never bother and neither would any of the other trekkers. Instead I suggested he was better off working with the trekking co-operative, knowing the mountains as well as he did. He was silent for a while and presently admitted that I did have a point, though I don’t know whether the point was taken.  

Soon he turned his attention back to my camera, which I had been using to click pictures of the valley now partly in shadow, the forests and the peaks now glowing golden, all the while that he was talking to me. He was delighted when I showed him some on the camera’s preview screen, and then looked in wonder at my lens. “Does this allow you to see things that are very far?” he asked. When I nodded in assent, he probed further “Is it better than a binocular?” When I said no, a binocular was better (marvelling to myself that the man knew about binoculars and saw the similarity between them and my lens), he asked how much a binocular would cost in the city. I said I had absolutely no idea, but asked him what he wanted binoculars for. “So that I can keep a better eye on my flock, and keep a look out for bears and leopards. My eyes used to be better than any binoculars, but I’m getting old now. When you come back here the next time, get me a pair of binoculars”, he said.  I told him what he really needed was a pair of spectacles, but it didn’t seem to have much effect. “Áap tō dürbeen hee lekar áō jee! (Just get me a pair of binoculars!)”. Clearly, binoculars had taken the man’s fancy in a way that spectacles could not.

Oblivious to the glowing mountain evening around them
By this time I was aware of the approach of an indistinct but incessant sound growing louder by the minute. Soon I realised that it was the bleating of hundreds of sheep and goats coming up the hill. At first a few tentative animals came up over the mud-bank against the sun, all with their heads down, nibbling the grass in the meadow. Gradually more and more spilled across the bank into the meadow advancing a couple of steps every few minutes, eating their way through the grass. All the time, mothers were calling to their young and the young calling to their mothers and others were calling to no one in particular. For some time the peace of the meadow was replaced by the collective din of their bleating. (Goats seemed to have a higher register than the sheep). Küshál and Lālu the dog disappeared, probably to help bring up the rear of the flock. Küshál’s lamb had also gone looking for its mother, but having failed to locate her it came back and decided to follow me around in Küshál’s absence. I wandered through the flock for a while, my long shadow falling over the white, black, tan, dun, and grey figures with their mouths to the grass, totally oblivious to the glowing mountain evening around them. Then Küshál turned up again holding a magnificent billy goat with a shaggy white coat by its long twisted horns. It was the finest animal in his flock, and clearly the boy was very proud of it. He seemed to have at last overcome his camera-shyness and posed for the camera with great glee straddling the goat. The lamb also had its chance to be photographed with its now smiling owner for a wonderful portrait.

The sun was now very low over the western hills, and the wild flowers in the meadow shone like jewels in its last rays. As it dipped below the horizon, a chill descended on the hills and valleys like a curtain coming down. Our guides had come looking for us through the silver twilight with steaming cups of sweet milky tea. The snow peaks were flushed with deep orange and pink hues while dusk settled on the valleys casting them into dark gloom. The huge indigo dome of the sky seemed close enough to touch, yet floated feather-light above the landscape, just out of reach. We set off back towards the tents for dinner and some warm clothing, bidding adieu to Küshál Singh and Hüküm Singh, although I didn’t know that I was to meet Hüküm Singh once again on my way back. “Don’t forget the binoculars”, Hüküm Singh called out after me through the semi-darkness. “I won’t”, I said.

Jewels in the grass