The Himalayan Adventure…
“Get up bro! We have a bear outside,” shrieked a frightened Rohan. His voice shook the entire tent more viciously than the growl of the Ursidae. In the middle of a phantasm about what all could this trip put me through, such rude awakening wasn’t so cool.
“What’s wrong with you man? This better not be a prank, you idiot,” sleep deprivation had always annoyed me.
“We have a bloody bear outside you, idiot! Now get the f**k up!” persisted Rohan.
Now I realized how dysfunctional my brain had become, ever since I moved to these mountains of Uttarakhand to volunteer for an NGO. They say it is the hormonal response that prepares our body for a fight or a fright, but in my case, when common sense fails to prevail, I wondered in equanimity — if my adrenalin had been intoxicated as well. We had a carnivore prowling the shrubs some 200 meters from our tent; my buddy was browsing through all possible evasive measures in his mind, in case Mr. Bear decided to greet our tent with a sniff. And here I was, of all the things in the world, I was looking for the best possible answer to convince myself to move out of the sleeping bag.
With an air rifle and a torch, he moved in full combat gait just a few yards outside our tent.
And then I heard him sigh, “Thank God! It was just a cub! Guess it came for some tamarind leaves. Ran atop the valley when I flashed the flight.”
I wasn’t convinced though.
“You sure? If it was a cub that had wandered off, wouldn’t mommy bear be nearby?”
“What do you wanna do then, brother? Should I call Vipin?” Rohan was now confused after this chance encounter with a sloth bear cub.
“Naah..No way…leave it. I guess doing a bit of a vigil won’t kill us tonight.” I checked my watch, “Two hours to sunrise, let us light up that fire and cook some noodles. Others could use it as well.”
Rather than the sense of adventure, hinted in the suggestion of lighting up firewood or the spirit of being considerate towards our camp-mates, it was my exasperation with our guide Vipin Thappa, that primarily factored Rohan’s amusement.
“Dude, you would push him off the K2, if you ever got a chance, won’t you?” laughed a sarcastic Rohan.
“Not really bro! Won’t I need him to get me back safely, if I ever made it to K2 summit?”
A moment of laughter followed some quality breakfast time, as we savoured the sight of a beautiful sunrise adoring the snow-clad peaks around us.
Let’s get to business…
Six hours and a tiring trek later, we found ourselves in a hillside elementary school. I was told it was the last operational government school before the Indo-Tibet border buffer zone. For someone like me, who was a first timer to the Northern part of the country, the landscape seemed straight out of an eighth-grade geography book –terraced farms all over being worked upon by the locals with characteristic physical traits, pretty womenfolk & exceptionally cute kids — typical of life at high altitude. I lived all my life at sea level, could swim good enough during normal swell breaks and was predominantly accustomed to a torrid latitude belt. This place seemed to me like one of those movie sets in a retro-romantic Bollywood classic of yore. Wow! God must have sketched this place in his choicest colours, for nature seems to be flaunting her glory all around. The budding orchid-laden shrubs leading up to the steep mountainside where the cattle could graze seamlessly, while the fact that something with four legs could walk around comfortably in such a gradient, seemed like a divine spectacle in itself. The school was typical of most elementary schools in Gharhwal sector. It had a modest outset featuring a storage room, that would most likely act as a granary, a long corridor with a painting of the ‘Sarva Sikhsya Abhiyaan’ logo, an open field just big enough for the local kids to play their beloved game of cricket with the most primitive gear, often improvised from Woodstock, and of course, a dirty, dilapidated restroom without any doors — compartmentalized symmetrically for both the genders — although the compromised sanity of the place would entitle it solely to the men, while the females would have to fend for themselves in a remote wilderness, during their times of distress. Simplicity was the way of life here — you would consider yourself lucky if you got any reception on your cell phone, let alone an Internet. Some homes hadn’t been even familiar with a marvel called electricity yet. With all these surmising features, nestling in the foothills of the greater Himalayas, this village school was our workplace for the next 2 weeks.
I always excelled in procrastination. Dad would often tell me, “Only when you step into the lap of nature, you can see how fundamental is discipline to existence.” When I first informed him of this trip — his joy knew no bounds. While Mom instinctively threatened to come over to my place at the mere mention of ‘no cell reception’ in places where I was planning to go, Dad was very appreciative of the fact that I decided to explore the beauty of nature, while serving a generous cause.
Now here I got my first assignment. I couldn’t believe what shades life can turn on — they asked me to teach! “A teacher — are you kidding me?” Having known me from college days as a nerdy introvert, Rohan roasted the hell out of me with his prosy proverbial taunts. “What are you going to teach these kids? Quantum Physics, Fourier Transformation? Oh sorry, you are going to talk to them about the cool nightlife of Mumbai? Aren’t you?” his amusement knew no bounds.
“Shut up, bugger! I really don’t know! That son of gun – Vipin assigned me with this job I think, you know what? I don’t need K2, if I can push him off the cliffs here at Uttarkashi itself. Dude…I am really clueless. Bail me out,” I prayed.
A thoughtful Rohan now sympathized, “Relax, Bro! It’s no big deal! Just look around. There is hardly any human population around for miles. They made a school here because they just had to. These kids come here to be able to finish their primers. You aren’t even walking into an anganwadi elsewhere in India. I bet these kids hardly come here to study. Just be jolly and playful, sing a song, crack a joke and make the kids laugh after a good day at school. We are in the middle of a volunteering session for heaven’s sake. Just make sure you teach them textbook stuff when Vipin eyes you. You are here to chill and for some relaxation. Don’t attach yourself too much to the state of dereliction of the administrative machinery here.”
“Whatever bro… let’s see how it turns out.” I was a bit relaxed now.
Damsel in distress…
I walked into the classroom. And there were hardly any students! I could figure out a few girls sitting a circular formation, presumably having a group discussion to decide the timing for their next gooseberry hunt. A couple of boys up front awaiting further instructions and a row of boys in the back who seem amused by my presence. Breaking ice had never been tougher.
“Okay, class! What do you want to learn today? Let’s do some math…shall we?”
A few nodded their heads. Others looked at each other. Just as I assumed their gestures,
“But Sharmila ma’am would always start with Saraswati Vandana,” a crisp voice commanded.
“Who was that? Someone said something?” I was curious to meet the first sign of trouble.
“Our class teacher starts with Saraswati Vandana. Aren’t we supposed to pray to God first, Sir ji?” she raised her hand.
A pale little girl with blue eyes, and a face that seemed to express curiosity of cosmic proportions.
“Well…ok…that’s a very good idea. But I don’t know the prayer, you know that prayer?”
“Yes..we do! All of us girls remember it by heart,” spoke the little one with a stroke of confidence that would put many of us to shame.
“Great. What’s your name?” I was actually amazed.
“Rani Semwal… Sir ji,” not an eyebrow moved.
“Ok..what about the boys? How many of you can recite this Saraswati Vandana?”
Most heads looked down towards the ground, baring the one in the first row.
“I don’t remember after the second stanza, sir ji.”
A tickle of laughter got to me as well. I was now enjoying interacting with them.
“Sir ji! Girls in our class are way smarter than boys,” an impulsive Rani exclaimed with her held high.
“Ha Ha…I can see that too, Rani.” I was looking forward to some good time in the coming days.
Laughing off at the first introduction didn’t go so well for me. Screw Rohan and his obnoxious ideas, these kids were inquisitive beyond what I was preparing myself for. Days rolled and I could literally count their curious questions to me which outnumbered my set of questions for them towards the end of the day. We switched from Maths to Science to English. They would punch it hard with me. And somewhere down the line, I was actually enjoying my role. To the extent that Vipin had to remind me one day that I was actually stretching the class beyond the stipulated time.
“They want to learn about Solar System today, Coach! Shouldn’t we finish it off before leaving?”
Vipin reprimanded, “They’re kids dude. They need to go home. Learning can go on tomorrow.”
“But more than them seeking to learn, you want to teach it seems. That’s great,” and for the first time since I met that guy at our Boot Camp, we seemed to have agreed on something.
“So, how’s the class going on?” an inquisitive Rohan would always look for bed-time humour.
“It’s actually great! Nothing like we thought it would be. The kids are very eager to learn. Especially, the girls — I don’t remember ever being so eager to show my homework to my teacher like this girl Rani does.”
“You are telling them anecdotes outside their books, brother. A dreamy world of information their teachers might not be telling them. They find it very interesting. I am proud of you though,” said Rohan.
As days rolled by, I became fonder of my classroom sessions, especially of little Rani. She had this charismatic zeal that was unusual at her age. A passionate and determined student who would rush to show me her homework, as soon as I settled down in the class. I would provide her feedback about something as little as a spelling, handwriting, a formula etc. And she would make it her life’s sole purpose to win my admiration. I started spending time with her after school, often walking her home. She lived on the northern part of the town on a mountainside. Her family included her elder brother and her granny. Her brother Ramesh was an assistant to a shopkeeper; educated till fifth grade, and dropped out thereafter to look after his little sister. Their father had died before Rani was born & mother had succumbed to breast cancer two years ago. Her elder brother was her sole guardian, with the granny not keeping well. Their hospitality surpassed the legend of the mountain folklore when they invited me and Rohan for a meal. Seated on hand-woven mat, and dining on planar utensils was a unique experience for us city lads. Humility shone brightly in their poverty. On that note, Rohan couldn’t help ask Rani, “What are you planning to do when you grow up?”
“Doctor, Sir ji. I would treat everyone from our village.”
(Pointing at me now), Sir ji told that if I study hard, I can go to good colleges and become one of the best doctors in the world.
Rohan looked at her with nothing but admiration for her beautiful dreams. At her age, his sole worries were conventionally mundane.
That night, a very jovial buddy of mine seemed lost in thoughts.
People we care for…
“What’s wrong brother?” I wondered.
Rohan: “Don’t you feel betrayed? You showed that little girl dreams with unimaginable possibilities. Why? You ever think she will set her foot out of this mountain land.”
Me: “Relax, bro.. where is this coming from? Aren’t we supposed to motivate kids about their future?”
Rohan: “Nonsense! I know how this would end for girls in places like these — middle school, then high school and then, if her stars shine, a degree college in Dehradun. Look at her family support system. Granny is a dead meat. Her brother himself is hardly an adult. He would not be earning more than 7000 rupees a month. How do you think he’s going to support her education? Even if he could, for women to complete their education itself is a challenge here, in fact in rural India, at large. And you are trying to show a little girl, a cosmopolitan dream? Eventually, as she would figure out her destiny, she would break down at its futility.
Me: Mr Rohan Srivastava, I agree with your concerns, they have been quite genuine in the past, but that time is gone. Today women even from rural India are making it big. After all, you need to dream big to make it big, right. If you can’t let them dream, they can’t ever realize a possibility for their future.
Rohan: Your moral compass is bang on target, brother! But it’s not based on only the urban-rural landscape. Even the most educated women in our nation, unfortunately, are not admired for their credentials. What is expected out of them is still the same. They ought to raise kids, maintain home the perfect way. The broadest of your thoughts are actually quite faint in our society. Our attempts at women empowerment are quite futile in their true sense.
Me: Empowerment! Quite a word! Our attempts? Even stranger choice of words. Who on earth are we men, to empower them? I mean who gave us the right to decide what and what not should either gender do. It’s not that women in rural India aren’t sophisticated enough to make it big. Point is — do we men respect their fundamental right to choose for themselves? Empowerment is needed for the weak. No one is weak here bro. It’s just that we dictate obnoxious terms at will. That’s it. If one gets the right to choose, everyone can make it big in their life. Be it a boy or a girl. Even our Rani can make it really big in life. Neither gender needs any kind of empowerment. It’s our society that needs some common sense. Period.
Rohan: Hmm…logic has always been your strength. Isn’t it? Where is this coming from?
Me: You remember my cousin Priya?
Rohan: Yeah! I do! The entrepreneur right?
Me: Yup! Top in her class and too bright — an inspiration for all of us. I couldn’t remember how many times Dad would exemplify her in our home, especially when my progress reports were out. And then, what? Marriage, although she wasn’t really ready for, & demanding in-laws expecting a conventional daughter in law who would succumb to their orthodox mindset. They wanted grandchildren and stuff. Was she put under any less trouble? No. But she didn’t give up. She was ok with raising a family but not with having to give up on her dreams. Got into a prestigious B school and the rest is history. Dude! She gives Ted talks now around the world on “how not to give up on your dreams”. Of course, the major pillar for her perseverance has been her husband. He was ready to fight with his parents and sideline their demands over her freedom to choose for her life. Those very people who hustled her to be a typical housewife, today go around and brag with pride about their entrepreneur daughter-in-law.
Rohan: That’s really good to hear. But she was lucky that her husband was so caring and broad-minded.
Me: I agree! But it starts with the individual’s indomitable will to succeed & when that is established, one day the universe will conspire to put right people in your life.
Rohan: Okay, Mr Coelho! I can’t remember the last time I won an argument with you.
Me: Ha Ha! Not just for the sake of an argument, but it is these kinds of stories that girls like Rani need to hear from us. In fact, all the kids — they need to believe in themselves first.
Rohan: Agreed. I won’t push this any further, but I am really glad that you are so committed to the purpose of your visit to India. Anyways, too much gyaan for the night. Let’s rest up for a while! I hate Vipin’s vile attempts at dawn, with those whistles trying to wake us up.
Me: Oh..don’t even remind me of that! Chalo…Good night bro!
Time passed by and it was our last week at the camp, I couldn’t wait to be back home to amazing food, air conditioning and above everything — high-speed internet. At the same time, I left my heart in the classroom. Every time I saw Rani, I would remember my conversation with Rohan the other night and would envision a free bird destined to fly high but chained by society. But I couldn’t let that thought compromise my mission to motivate these kids in my class for their future.
After the rains…
While I was engulfed in this conflict of emotion, one fine afternoon, the weather over the mountains grew worse. I was with the kids in the classroom evaluating their homework. Rani wasn’t there in the class. This had never happened before. That girl never missed a single class. Was something wrong back home? In a span of 2 hours, we had three distinct hailstorms. While our tents were battered badly, we had a gush of water in our sleeping bags as well. Most of the villagers now rushed to seek shelter in the school. What’s happening I asked myself?
“This is an insane amount of rain, Coach,” I said to Vipin.
“You bet! This is a damn cloudburst,” he affirmed.
The situation worsened quickly when they informed us of a huge landslide on our way out of the school, right next to a glacial river — some tributary of Mandakini. The flood water breached the embankment and inundated the nearby areas. Gosh! It didn’t take us long to realize that we were in the middle of a catastrophe. Only prayers were our last resort to escape the wrath of nature. After six hours of rain, and bereavement, we finally saw a few Indo-Tibetan Border Police rescue rafts coming towards us.
“Gentlemen! There’ve been multiple landslides and most of the village has been inundated due to the cloudburst. We’ll try to make it to the high ground near Ramgarh. Once the water recedes, you guys can leave to Uttarkashi town. We are mobilizing earth movers as well to clear the roads to the extent possible,” assured the ITBP officer.
Abiding by their instructions, we finally made it to Ramgarh village. Somehow our colleagues at the base camp could salvage whatever they could of our personal belongings. After a day of witnessing the dance of death all around, I was seated at a remote corner in the relief camp. Rohan was out enquiring about the next possible ride to Rishikesh or Haridwar or even Delhi. I told him to pay off any cab, tempo, whomever he could find to get us to a safer town.
After an hour, he finally found a ride to Rishikesh. We double checked our stuff one last time. Just about then, Vipin came over. “I am sorry folks, it had to end like this! Mountain weather is unpredictable. You see, rain was on the cards, but this unexpected cloudburst ruined everything. We hope you did enjoy some part of your stay,” remarked a dejected Vipin.
“Most part of it, Coach! You can’t control the weather. Right? It was still an unforgettable experience,” I consoled him.
Just as we loaded our stuff atop the tempo, one of the aid workers waved at us. He came up to us and told that someone had been waiting to see us. We were startled. We looked around to find it was Rani. Rohan called her up. As she made her way towards us through the crowd, I felt multiple emotions running through my mind.
Flight of Conviction…
“I don’t believe this. You alright? Everyone back home safe?” I asked.
“I & granny were inside. I couldn’t come to school as granny had become very sick all of a sudden, and bhaiya asked me to stay indoors,” said Rani.
“Ok… How’s Ramesh?” Rohan asked.
“He was outside — caught in the landslide. He’s injured. These people brought him and my granny here. He’s inside the hospital building. They have asked me to wait.”
“Sahib! If you are planning for a gossip, I’ll find someone else,” yelled the tempo driver.
“Okay! Listen, Rani, I am sorry that we have to leave like this in hurry. Please be a brave strong girl for me. Everything will be alright. Remember, future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams,” I said giving her a candy.
“No wait..please..please 2 minutes..I’ve to show you something,” she trembled as tempo engine cranked up.
“Ok! Make it quick please…” I said.
“Hey, dude… we need not be so worried about her anymore. Ramesh will take care of her once he’s out of the hospital. I’ll be in touch with him for any assistance he might ever need. Our Rani will surely become a doctor,” said an assuring Rohan.
As she made her way back through the crowd to fetch something, which I thought might be a parting souvenir, Vipin turned towards us in dismay, “I thought you guys knew. Ramesh died this afternoon. Declared dead on arrival. We didn’t tell her yet.”
An era of silence fell upon both us. The strangest yet inexplicable emotion made my heart race at the rate of knots. As I gathered the courage to look at that little girl running towards me, I saw a notebook in her hand.
She came panting to us & held my shirt tightly, “Sir ji, please see….I completed all my homework, please give me a ‘very good’ remark. Bhaiya promised me to buy new books if I got good remarks from you. Please..please sir ji.”
I and Rohan looked towards each other. The tempo driver switched the engine off.Weeks later, when I was at home with my parents and we were browsing through my photographs at the camp, I stumbled across my selfie with Rani. Dad asked me, “Wait..who’s that? Oh! you were teaching there in a school, right? one of your students?”. I could only pause and smile, “No Papa! She was my teacher”.
[After her granny passed away later that year following a long struggle with Hepatitis, Rani was adopted by Rohan’s parents, who are currently bearing all the expenses for her boarding school in Dehradun. Till date, she never failed to top her class.]