Saturday, December 31, 2016

Garwhal Days

State Bank of Gongi
We had a few hours to kill before meeting a government official at Ukhimath and that's why we decided to drive to Ransi. Soon the conversation steered to money supply, and... Gongi. Two days ago, a public sector bank at Ukhimath had received deposits from an entire village, to the tune of 4.5 crores (about 700,000 USD). The banking staff of this remote township were so overwhelmed that they asked the villagers to wait till end of day, just so that they could disperse other irritated demonetized customers waiting to withdraw and deposit small amounts. The bulk deposit was from Gongi, a village consisting of about 60 or 70 families, mostly goat and sheep herders, located about 23 kilometers away from the nearest road-head - Triyuginarayan village.

The savings from cattle herding are treated as a common village asset, a socialist corpus out of which they give out loans to people from nearby towns. Local lending, what's so special? To start with, they charge an interest rate of about 20-24% (lower than credit cards and way lower than loan sharks). Surprisingly no collateral is needed, just your promise of repayment at an agreed upon date would do. No documentation! No KYC norms! An ancient tradition based on integrity and trust.

But how would anyone, forget a medieval remote village up in the woods, enforce payments, I wondered... unless they set their goons upon you or something. How do they deal with NPAs, I wondered.

What if someone does not pay back, I asked. "Not pay back??? No question of that sir, people pay back promptly, else their entire family will be doomed", Manwar replied. Now, Manwar is a good driver. I trust him to drive me and everyone I like, around the mountains.

But how will the NPAs be doomed?

"Sir, everyone in the errant family suffers, ek dum." Some sort of divine intervention, if you want to call it that. To buttress the theory, he recounted tales of people he knew, including that of his uncle whose wife went mentally unstable, before the fellow lost his life... and his son died in a road accident. They say the curse of Gongi will not spare even the future generations. Wow!

The drive back from Ransi was beautiful and uneventful for the most part and silent. In the middle of a field, I spotted a lone tree filled to the brim with white flowers. Now, this tree is not uncommon around here, and I'd been meaning to ask someone what its name was. I'd seen a similar tree on Dodi Tal trek route, where it was more of a wishing tree with people punching coins into its bark to have their desires answered.

We call it Painya, Manwar said. It is a special tree with great powers. In fact, all the loans at Gongi originate with the parties sitting beneath this tree and agreeing to the terms of the deal.
I asked Manwar if it would be technically possible for me to take out a Gongi loan. He laughed dismissively, but said "haan haan possible hain, kyoon nahin, par local guarantor hona chaahiye. (possible if you have a local guarantor.) "That should not be a problem", I said, "You will be my guarantor, will you not?" One of those what-say-you moments. He said "yes, ha ha ha, yes of course" in a veiled attempt at humor while looking at me in the rear view mirror to see if I was being serious. I did not push the matter much. In those seconds, I'm sure he visualized the horror awaiting him in his future in which, unable to repay, I flee to the relative safety of the plains while he and his generations to come are left stranded, staring at the unforgiving curse of the State Bank of Gongi.

The Legend of Prem Singh
Prem Singh is an honorable man. He was the first employee we hired and the first employee we fired. He is about 45 years young, but looks much older. He stands firm at about five foot six inches above the ground, bulky, almost bald, with a weathered-and-worn/ bruised-and-battered-villainous look adorning his face.

Not ones to judge anyone by their countenance, we put him on our rolls. His task for the first day at work was to cut the overgrown grass and weeds (pun intended) from 5 or 6 small parcels of farmland. Something that should take about a day and a half, at the most, to complete.

So, when on the evening of the Fourth day, when Prem Singh came up to us and declared proudly that he still had some more ground left to go, we were clearly not enthused. A day before, Chachi had complained to us about his slow pace. She claimed that she could have completed all of it in three days, using her blunt sickle, in her spare time.

Not ones to let operational inefficiencies pass, we asked him to sit down (on the stone slab of the temple) and tell us what HIS problem was. I still wonder what we were trying to accomplish with that question. May be we wanted to watch him squirm at the realization of his snailish pace, probably confess his lethargy, or just may be extract a promise to work faster from the next sunrise.
But, we had completely underestimated Prem Singh. He stared at us for a small while, mumbled something totally incoherent, stood up, and left. We were a bit taken aback...did he just leave? Did he just curse us in Garwhali and leave????

Baba was not too surprised when we told him that Prem Singh had left. "Chale gaye? Wo aisa hi hain. Jaane do usko. Jisko kaam karna hi nahin hain, usko rekhne se kya fayda, hain na?" (He left? He is like that. Let him go. Why suffer a worker who does not want to work?)

That was it. Altitude Syndrome's first firing. Baba promised he would convey the termination note if and when Prem Singh reported for duty the next day. The sun had set by the time we walked down to the village. It was mid-September, so the chill wasn't too bad. A few womenfolk carrying their 30-kilo burden of firewood (each) for Mamaji’s daughter’s wedding gave us warm company with their chatter.

But we still had a problem to solve. There was an acute near-term labor shortage in the village. In hindsight, the September of 2016 was a good time for people to travel to these parts, and Deoria Tal (situated 2.6 km away from the village) was attracting its share of tourists, trekkers, and fell people. By extension….anyone in the village who was able to lift an arm or leg was gainfully employed. We badly needed two or three break down and clear some chunky boulders on our proposed site. There were two people shortlisted for the job, but we had just fired the only one who had showed up.

Two days later, we walked up to our site to see two people at work breaking boulders. The sound of hammer (gun, in local lingo) hitting the bit came closer as we tried to make our way through grass and plants "cleared" halfheartedly by our friend two days ago. Much to our surprise, along with the new person, Sundar Singh, was our very own Prem Singh.

Wait, didn't we fire this Prem Singh? What the hell is happening???

Well, the story is short. Sundar could not single-handedly do the job. To break boulders, he needed a guy who could wield the heavy man-o-war hammer. Short of men, Baba had asked Prem Singh if he wanted to try out this new assignment on a temp basis.

And….did Prem Singh take to his new task with gusto - not just breaking stones and boulders, he excelled at any task that called for tough labor- ferrying rock pieces around, lifting equipment, what not. He even erected a 45 by 10 foot stone reinforcement wall, all by himself. Not for him, the “sissy” task of cutting a bunch of overgrown weed or some pesky plant. (We are working on the policy document that pays good attention to job fitment.)

Prem Singh thus holds the uniquestest distinction of being the first employee we hired, the first we fired, and the first we rehired. As somebody texted once, Prem Singh ki jai ho!

Holy Cows

Mamaji's cow fell off the village path on to the field below and snapped something. Most people assumed that it was her spine; others thought it might have been one of her hind legs - though there was nothing protruding from her body to suggest that that was the case; and a minority consisting of die-hard optimists opined that she was just shocked and would get over it in a few days. She could not move an inch on her own nor could pull herself up, that much everyone in the village knew, for the men had to lift her up on their shoulders and carry her to the cow shed.

When the vet arrived two days later, Mamaji's cow was still slouched to the ground. The five or six people who had assembled to help, positioned some bricks around her. They then lifted her up using a few wooden flats kept below her belly. The flats were placed on the bricks and she could now stand again on all fours, albeit on artificial support. The inspection lasted for about thirty minutes. They then removed the flats and lowered her gently on the the ground. Someone sprayed water on her using an ordinary garden hose in an obvious attempt to clean her up.

The vet pronounced his judgement. No spine, no bone was broken. She would be able to mind her own business in a few days. All she needed was some sunshine, which was relatively abundant in early November, and a regular cleaning up. The optimists rejoiced; the rest of the village went their own way.

Whatever was to become of her, this particular cow was lucky....luckier than the one caught by a leopard four nights ago. They say that when a leopard goes for the kill, it can devour thirty kilograms of meat in one sitting. One can safely assume that no mammal can make it out of that kind of an ordeal alive. The remains of that cow was still a feature in the middle of a less-frequented road for a few more days. I walked past the spot to see a desperate lone dog trying to make the most of what's left of it. I clicked a few pictures despite the bile inducing stench.

On a late night drive from Theda village (where Pandav Mela was happening), in an isolated stretch near Talla where the road becomes narrow, the lights of our vehicle landed on a stranded cow. Too late in the night for a cow to be out in the open! This one was past its productivity date and was possibly dropped off there by its owner from some distant village. Such behavior pattern is not rare. Maintaining a cow is not a minor task, and without the dairy incentive, the cow becomes just another big mouth to feed. Some are loaded on vehicles and dropped off - sometimes in herds and they end up turning parts of lush green meadows into huge brown patches of muddy earth, before they meet their end due to exposure or beast attacks. Some just roam around the village only to meet a similar fate. Some end up like Bindi's mom.

Bindi was upset when we met her in the morning the other day. The black calf with a white mark on her forehead (hence the name) usually runs to us when she sees us, scanning us for biscuits or other goodies that we usually carry. That particular day, she was in an irritable mood, even nudging Baba away when he tried to pat her on her forehead. "Iski ma ko kal bech di na, is liye. Doodh dena band...aur kya kar sakta gareeb?" (We sold her mother yesterday, that's why. What can poor people like us do when a cow stops giving milk?) I did not ask where Bindi's mom would end up. I could take a guess and wag my tongue, but it would have been a slippery conversational slope.

On another fine winter morning, Yashwanth knocked on the door with a cup of morning tea and announced, "Saab, baag ne phir maar diya....ithar hi" (The leopard has struck again....nearby.) What??
We stormed out, yanking the hot tea served in stainless steel glasses... and there it was....about 250 meters away..... dozens of Himalayan eagles - some seated, some hovering over the kill, set on top of a huge boulder. The crows were being kept at a distance. With a wing span of about 7 to 8 feet, the Himalayan Eagles have a majestic air about them. Sighting a single eagle is in itself awe-inspiring. Thanks to the leopard, we counted about 40 of them that day.

By evening, the feast of the Himalayan Eagles was over, and the rest was up to the crows and whatever else that came when darkness fell. But before that could happen, another cow fell. We were alerted by loud cries calling for help coming from the Temple above...Sundar, Yashwant, Prem Singh sab aa jao... We ran up. A cow had fallen over the edge of a farm into the space between a retainer wall and the brick wall of the house - hardly 1.5 feet in width - and it was trapped upside down, all her legs up in the air, grunting, squirming, struggling to get up. "Uthao isko jaldi, nahin toh yeh mar jayegi...taangein pakado," Baba yelled. (Lift it, else it will die now.) I tugged at her front leg but realized I'm not good at it. Our laborers gripped her legs, pulled her up, and placed her on the open ground. She struggled for a bit - and I wondered if she would end up like Mamaji's cow - but then she got up and walked away as though nothing had happened. She would have died of breathlessness and exhaustion in some time, Baba said.

It's been a month now and Mamaji's cow had still not budged. The days were getting shorter. She was now placed in a small makeshift enclosure to provide some sort of protection against the early winter Himalayan chill. On the day I was leaving for Rishikesh, I asked him - Mamaji, aap ki gaay ki tabiyat kaisi hain? (How is your cow doing?) It was our version of small talk. "Mar jayegi woh. Ab bachne ka koi chance nahin. Woh saala doctor bhi koi kaam ka nahin." (She will die for sure. And that goddamn vet is useless.) The optimism had vanished.

On our return journey that day, just before the U-turn at Talla Village, we once again came across the stranded cow, the one we had met late in the night, two weeks ago. Iska toh number ab tak laga nahin hain sir, Manwar joked. (This one's time has still not come.)
I know, I said. The leopard had been busy.

Illustrations by Sreejith PV.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Daadi Ma - The Story of a Painting and Much More

It was May 2014. Shyam, Kishan, Lakpath and myself had been roaming the hills for a week or so, documenting the pain and the aftermath of the Kedarnath tragedy of 2013.

"You see, there are multiple classifications of people in a region affected by a calamity - there are those who are affected, there are the unaffected, and then there are those we could refer to as the affected/unaffected."  The gentleman running the NGO for hand loom workers at Lamgaondi Village was trying to explain to us how official disaster relief may not be sufficient because some people would not just show up in the books. The first two categories were self-explanatory - the affected and the unaffected, but the third classification required him to give us some examples (like people who are "technically" unaffected, but are equally battered by the event). He need not have given examples, we were about to meet someone soon enough.

The next day walked up to Deoli-Bramhagram- a village set atop a small hill above Lamgaondi - a fifteen minute hike from the tarred Panchayath road that snakes its way from Guptkashi township in Northern Uttarakhand. Deoli Village was rattled in 2013, despite physically being no way near to the sites of disaster. More than fifty five men from the tiny village and its surroundings who were earning their livelihood in Kedarnath and the areas adjoining it perished in the flash-floods and landslides. Deoli nowadays is ominously referred to as the village of widows, a grim reminder of the casualty in almost every other home that you walk into.

After the short hike to Deoli, we came across a chirpy young guy who took a fancy to us and agreed to take us around the place and introduce us to the people we wanted to talk to. Pravesh, it turns out, was doing his graduation in Dehradun, and was home for the holidays. He pointed out a few houses in the village that were locked..."the remaining family has moved downhill to their relatives after the men passed away", he said. "Hope everyone in your family is safe," I asked him more as a reaffirmation of what I wanted to believe somehow he would have been shielded. And he said, "no....mere papa, mere uncle."

By the time we reached, eleven months after the disaster, life had returned to whatever normalcy it potentially could have, given the circumstances. Like Pravesh's mom told us when we met her later that day, "you have to work in the fields, you cannot sit idle lamenting your fate, can you?"

We spent the next couple of hours talking to as many people as we can, documenting the conversations on camera. All sorts of emotions came forth - grief, anger, contempt, hope...perhaps the five lakh rupee compensation provided to the family of the deceased came in for the harshest criticism "ek insaan ka keemat panch laakh rupaye hain kya?" (Is a man's value 5 lakh Rupees?)
We had seen similar reactions before (and "there will be a revolution if the government does not help us") but we were taking them in our stride trying hard to not get emotionally involved.

Till we reached Daadi Ma's house. Daadi Ma takes care of her two grandchildren - Rajnikanth and Lovekanth (rather strange names for Uttarakhand, I should add) - both in their early years of schooling. Unfortunate start they had in their lives, as both their parents perished in a fire that gutted their house a few years back, and all they could count on from then was their grandmother. Daadi Maa had little to count as income but she was somehow able to look after the kids, thanks to the financial support provided by her elder brother. And that brother happened to pass away in the Himalayan tragedy. His immediate family must have received some compensation. She was left, so to speak, in the lurch. In the books of the administration, she was "unaffected". Of course, we could not gather all of this when she spoke to us on camera...her age, her way of speaking, and the Garwhali language erected huge communication barriers between us. But, when the tears started tumbling down from those ancient eyelids without eyelashes, and all that was coming out of her choked throat was some guttural sounds...I could clearly gather she was saying this..."how will I be able to look after these little kids from now?"

I stopped clicking pictures; Kishan stopped asking questions; Shyam had already lowered his camera saying he cannot shoot any more. None of us had a different take on things. We wanted an exit - we were clearly adding to her angst. We promised to keep in touch and moved on. That evening, at the guest house in Guptkashi, Shyam recalled the episode and broke down - the only time I have seen him do that.  I have spoken to Daadi Maa two or three times after that - Pravesh or Rajnikanth translates for her - but I should say I get her even without the translation. We all do, don't we?

And that, my friends, is the story of Daadi Ma, among other things. My wife, Babitha, tried to capture those emotions in this oil painting. Daadi Ma's name, btw, is Sulochana Devi.

And this, is the confident and affable Rajnikanth, one of the many affected/unaffected.