Rani’s mood had perhaps improved a bit after the jaggery break, and Mumtaz was holding on to her reins. The rain was now tool cold for double t-shirt-clad me, and I asked Mumtaz to stop so that I could wear the soggy jacket. Each of us had carried out jackets and worn whatever we thought we could bear to wear in the heat of Gourikund. We had packed the stuff we would need in Kedarnath in two bags and left everything else (we had a lot of luggage between the eight of us) in a room in the GMVN lodge at Gourikund, which we had booked (thanks to my “smart” thinking) well in advance. The porter who had been charged with or baggage had loaded everything in a pittu and had vanished, before we could realize what was happening. So, now I had no option but to wear the soggy jacket. My hands were freezing, and I realized that my gloves were in Ayan’s backpack (damn!). So, I had to hold on to the now stinging metal handle with bare hands which were wet, freezing and slippery. Mumtaz turned a deaf ear to my request of stopping. I repeatedly asked him to stop and then he said that we could stop at the next shelter, which was, of course, nowhere in sight. Not that there was much in sight any longer, given the intensity of the rain.
Finally, the shelter arrived, but of course, given the intensity of the rain, it was overcrowded and we could not go in. These shelters are basically covers put over a stretch of the road, so people can either wait there or pass through. Mumtaz made Rani stop near the shelter and asked me to wear the jacket and be quick about it. I said that we should find some space under the shed, but he shrugged and said, “jaga hai nahin” (there is no space). Rani was not happy to stand in the rain, so he hurried me. I had to take off the raincoat, put on my soggy jacket and wear the raincoat over it, getting nicely drenched in the process. The raincoat had protected my head until then, which was not fully exposed to the rain for a minute or so. When I had finished the process, I was not sure whether I was warmer or colder, but I was sure that my head was much wetter and soon enough, I began feeling a dull thud in the head. I know this is sounding like a never-ending series of minor disasters and you might be getting quite saturated with this by now. Unfortunately, this is exactly what this trip was. Pause for a while and put yourself into my (by now quite soggy and cold and smelly) shoes, I am sure you will feel some empathy for all of us who were on that road at that time.
Thankfully, Maa had worn thermals under her clothes and had put on her two thick cardigans and the raincoat earlier, and this kept her a little warm. I was shivering, not just with the cold, but also because of a fear that was gripping me – what was my little girl doing in this kind of weather? We had no idea how far they were, and I was hoping that wherever they were, it was not pouring like this, or that they had taken shelter. I couldn’t imagine her sitting on a horse all alone in this rain. The rain seemed to be thickening and getting colder under a charcoal gray sky that threatened to fall on our heads. And then, something hit my spectacles and I jumped with surprise. It was ice! The rain was no longer just rain, but it was a mix of rain and snow, which rapidly turned into hail. The hail came down on us, hitting hard and making it more and more difficult to hold on to the metal handle. My hands were numb, and I realized after a while that my left leg was so numb that I hadn’t even realized it had been hanging out of the stirrup until a passing ghorewalaa pointed it out to Mumtaz. What was Jhilli doing, where were they? These were my only thoughts as we climbed up slowly.
The road had, needless to say, become worse. There was a stretch where there was a waterfall on our right, which ran across the road, and in this stretch, there were some slippery stones and no path. The horses balanced their hooves precariously on these stones, with Mr. Grumpy leading by the reins of his horse and Mumtaz cheering us on. He had this interesting habit. Every time the horse had to master a sharp bend (all of these invariable were steep slopes with steps on which the horse tended to slip), he would make encouraging noises, say things like “are wah!”, “zor laga ke”, “bahot achchha” etc, all words of encouragement. He also invoked Lord shiva now and again, saying “Jai Bholenath”, “Jai Keadrnath”, “Bam Bam Bhole” etc. Initially, I had not noticed this. But soon I realized that here was a Muslim man, invoking a Hindu God continuously, and it appeared to be a habit with him. He was being quite load, and nobody seemed to bother, though I was told that the Ghorewalaas were mostly Muslims. Even in the gray, biting cold that dampened my senses, I felt a little flicker of elation, thinking, “This is my India!”
In addition to the rain and snow and hail, and my constant worry for the others, I had one additional thing to worry about – Rani’s mood swings. I told Mumtaz that his mare was called Rani (queen) and she tended to behave like one. “Iske nakhre to mere gharwali se bhi zyada hai”, replied Mumtaz (her tantrums are more than my wife’s), hitting her in the rump with his stick. I asked him not to keep hitting the poor animal and he told me to mind my own business and let him manage his mare. I felt guilty seeing the animal hit, but most of the men were doing the same to their horses in order to keep them under control. Mr. Grumpy was actually much better in this regard, he mostly controlled the horse by the reins and hardly hit him, and his horse was quite well behaved. Rani was the opposite of well behaved – she was like a teenager with a bad upbringing. Mumtaz had kept her tied to Maa’s saddle with a rope about two feet long. In spite of this, Rani tried her best to run away or at least create disruption. She tried various strategies like butting into Maa’s horse, butting into other passing horses, jumping off the side of the mountain, jumping over the grill barricade on the side of the road, rushing people walking alongside us, shaking her head vigorously to set herself free of the rope (she succeeded once). On one occasion, Mumtaz had strolled off to talk to someone (he kept doing this) and Rani decided to turn back and, in this attempt, the rope was a hindrance. She gave Maa’s horse a hard tug and Maa screamed. I shouted for Mumtaz and he came back to hold the reins. One thing that I must say is that the journey never got monotonous, there was just too much ongoing drama at every turn.
At one point, there was a watering zone for the horses and Mr. Grumpy took his horse to drink water. While the horse drank quietly, Rani refused to go anywhere close to the water and insisted on turning around in one spot. Mumtaz had some trouble keeping her steady and I had to hang on for dear life, ignoring my poor left knee which kept getting bumped into the sides of random horses, who didn’t seem to bother. Given that this dance was happening at a spot where I could see a sharp drop on my left and the right side was full of downward traffic, I was a little worried. Another couple of kilometres later, we came to Linchauli, which is the only place on this route that offers tents for those who want to call it a day and take a break before Kedarnath. We had watched a travel blog video while planning this trip, and the guy had mentioned this place. I had even suggested that we should halt here, but Ayan had been apprehensive about everyone staying in tents. These are really trekker’s tents with minimal amenities, and he was not sure that it would be suitable for the elderly people. When I spotted the white tents through the rain, all I wanted to do was to get off the horse and curl up in a sleeping bag inside one of those. I thought it would be good idea to wait here for the rest of the party to arrive and asked Mumtaz if we could stop here, but his answer was an emphatic no.
We left Linchauli behind. The snow and hail had stopped by now, and it was only raining. After a while, we had to stop again. This time, Maa’s otherwise calm horse came to a standstill and refused to budge. Mr. Grumpy explained that this was his stand and he would not move without eating and resting. So, again I had to get down in the most painful manner. Maa had to dismount too and we took shelter in a nearby tent which was basically a tea stall, because the rain had again changed into a downpour. Inside the tent, there was some warmth. We found a couple of plastic chairs in one corner and sat down. I realized how bad my knee was when the simple process of sitting down in a chair took an immense lot of effort and caused substantial pain and I had to keep my leg somewhat stretched out while sitting, as it refused to bend properly.
We asked for chai, and waited in the warmth of the tent, me desperately covering my nose and mouth to keep off the acrid kerosene smoke from the dilapidated stove that filled the tent. Added to this was the smoke from cigarettes and bidis that the various people occupying the crowded tent were smoking. I am severely allergic to smoke, to the extent that Ayan calls me a smoke detector, and this air inside this tent was quite toxic, as far as I was concerned. Everyone else seemed to be oblivious of the smoke and smell and people chatted and sipped tea happily. Maa and I were constantly watching the road from inside, and every time we caught a glimpse of pink, we thought it might be Jhilli’s jacket. But we were disheartened every time. In a very gloomy mood we were trying to tell each other that they must be right behind us, and every time we ended up with the same worries – what if she was not okay? What if the rain and hail had been too much for her? What if they had met with an accident? We were scared stiff. I felt suffocated, with the smoke and the fear and the helplessness of the situation.
While we were drinking hot, life saving tea-laced-with-the-smell-of-kerosene, the rain increased its force, with a wind howling around us. Mumtaz was chatting with some people at the other end of the tent and he declared that it was not safe to go out now, so we should wait. I was happy to wait, as I hope Ayan and Jhilli would come by soon. The rain was looking and sounding scary, even from inside the tent. Someone had raised the flap at the other end of the tent and we could see a sheet of gray over the valley beyond. It felt like the gloom would never end. After the initial feeling of warmth, the cold came back with the rain and the heat from the small stove could nothing to stop us from shivering in our cold and soggy clothes. My sling bag was also dripping wet, and I was scared to think what state the camera would be in. I decided not to check until we had reached the safety of the hotel, if we did.
Half an hour or so later, we were mounting our rides again, in a now slightly less intimidating rain, having paid for the tea that we had drunk and the tea and snacks the two ghorewalaas had consumed. Though they were already overcharging us for the horses, I was happy to buy them tea, for the sake of the road travelled together. Mumtaz didn’t have a raincoat, unlike Mr. Grumpy, and used Maa’s raincoat cover as a cap. He didn’t seem to be bothered about the rain, and sang from time to time as he walked beside Rani. He had been alternating between singing, talking to people and hailing Lord Shiva all along the road. He hardly seemed to be able to keep quiet for more than 15 minutes at a stretch. He was from Bihar, he had told me, as were many of the others here. The ghorewalaas came from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand and the pittuwalaas were mostly from Nepal, he had informed me. They spent six months in the year here, doing business, when the route was open and went home for six months, when they did some farming and tended to cows and got to have a family life. Even within these six months, the major season was at this time of the year – mid May to mid July, when most people came for the “yatra”, before the monsoon came in.
The road was becoming more tortuous and slippery and I was finding it slightly difficult to breathe, as we started this last leg of the journey. I kept looking out for the milestones, breathing a sigh of relief at every half kilometre gained. We were gaining altitude rapidly and the wind was biting into us, chilling us through the bones. My frizzy hair felt stiff and I realized that the rain water in the hair was turning into icicles. When I had fallen in the morning, my mother had asked Alam where we can get ice, obviously, for my knee, and Alam had replied “upar, upar” (above, above). She had periodically asked Mumtaz to get ice, and he had said the same, “upar milega” (we can get it above). Now we knew what they had meant – we saw a large frozen chunk of snow on our right and left along the road, with a very muddy, slippery and dirty, narrow path in between. This was basically a mix of melted snow, horse dung and pebbles – a rather dangerous combination. I would have thought that the sight of snow so close at hand would lift our spirits, but it did the reverse. The snow was really dirty and stinky and all it served to do was to make me feel irritable, because it was making the road more dangerous. The horses stepped on the sludge rather tentatively and Mr Grumpy pulled at his horse’s reigns, while Mumtaz urged them on with gusto, screaming “jai kedarnath”, “jai bholenath” and “samhalke!” (carefully), “araam se” (go slow) in random order. Once we had entered the snowy climes, Mumtaz started complaining mildly of the cold, and I heard him mumbling, “aaj to raat ko afim chahiye, bahot sardi hai yaar!” (Oh! its very cold, I need some opium tonight). And then, Mumtaz started going off every now and then, leaving Rani tied to Maa’s horse, talking to the returning lot, most likely in the hope of acquiring some opium, or maybe even stronger stuff. Alcohol is strictly banned in the holy region, but it seems opium is quite acceptable. After all, the lord himself is a connoisseur of opium and cannabis!
Rani took this opportunity to try jumping off the mountainside twice, and once, nearly succeeded. This time Mumtaz was nowhere in sight and Rani was precariously at the edge, having succeeded in tearing off her harness again. Mr. Grumpy came to the rescue and pulled her in, seizing the reins. I gave Mumtaz a piece of my mind when he came, but he was in high spirits, and just said sorry and assured me that this will not be repeated, only to go off at the next turn to say hello to his uncle. Finally, we spotted the horse stand in the distance, and it was the second most welcome sight of the day! The last few hundred metres seemed to take an eternity to be covered, with the traffic being quite thick in this stretch and the road being completely murky. We were helped down from the horses, one last time, and I hoped, the last time ever in my life. We handed over the parchas to the two men, and umtaz asked Maa for bakshish, because he had brought her daughter up in one piece. “aapke ladki ko ekbaar bhi giraya nahin mai” (I didn’t let your daughter fall even once), he said. Maa handed over a hundred to him and they left, the old man grumbling that the parcha was wet, and he would have kept it dry if only we had had the good sense to let him keep them.
Maa and I took stock of our situation. The horse stand was about 2.5 kilometres away from the temple, which meant that our hotel was nearly 2 kilometres away! The two options that we had were sitting in pittus and being carried on human-back, or walk. We chose the second. Mumtaz had discarded the stick that he had given me, and I had asked if he could find me one before leaving. He stood in one spot, looked around, said that he couldn’t see any sticks and bid us goodbye. Before leaving, he advised me to get some herbal oil for my knee, but of course he didn’t tell me where I could get this magical ‘‘maaleesh ka tel’’. I realized how slippery the road was, with the very first step. Maa and I held hands and walked very, very slowly, my knee giving out warning signals with every step. Still, it felt better to be on my feet, than on horseback. We walked out of the horse stand and found a shanty by the road, which was relatively empty. We went in, and I took out my phone, hoping that there would be a signal, even a weak one. The man inside the stall promised tea, but asked us to wait, as someone had gone to fetch water. I wondered what kind of water this would be, but decided not to bother – he would boil it anyway. We were both shivering badly, with our teeth chattering hard, and I found it difficult to speak. I made Maa sit, but when I tried to do the same, I realized that the stool was too low for me, my knee simply couldn’t take it. So I tried standing with my weight balanced on one leg. Maa asked the shopkeeper whether we could get ice somewhere. The man gave her an incredulous look and pointed towards the nearby mountains, which were all snowclad. We hadn’t eaten anything since a single and very horrible aloo paratha in the morning, so I asked the man if he had some biscuits. He said no, he could give us tea, and if we wanted food, we would have to go further up. After a cup of tea, we moved out of the shanty, which was by now too full of smoke as the owner was working up a wood fire.
A kilometre or so ahead, we saw a row of tents and a kind of office which had a crowd around it. A sign said GMVN, and we were relieved to have arrived. After a long wait, I approached the window and told the man there that we had a booking in the name of Ayan Banerjee. He asked where we had rooms and I told him Swargarohini cottage. He shook his head and said “yahan nahin” (not here) and asked me to move on. I was completely bewildered. Then someone asked me what the confusion was about and I told him. This gentleman helpfully explained that the Swargarohini cottages were further ahead, and this was the booking counter for the tents, also by GMVN. We were both overtaken by fatigue, and after the initial relief, this news of more road to cover was devastating. I felt that my leg would not move any more. There was a canteen next to the office, which had a shed with tables and chairs. Maa and I sat down there. Taking the two steps to this place was a humongous effort for me and I thought with trepidation what the rest of the trip would be like, since you could not travel in the mountains without taking steps. We waited and waited, hoping to catch a glimpse of someone, anyone of our party, but nobody came by. We were convinced that Kaku and Gabala (Ujaan) would have reached the hotel long ago. But we hadn’t seen Mamoni and Mama, and we were constantly worried about Jhilli and Ayan. I wondered how he was managing her in this kind of weather. The rain had nearly stopped and the sky ahead was clearing, but the sky behind us was nearly black, which meant that bad weather was continuing on the road. Snowclad peaks drenched in a soft golden light were being revealed on one side, and green mountains on the other. After waiting for nearly half an hour, I decided that we should move ahead. I had tried calling everyone, and Kaku’s phone had rung twice, but there had been no response. We stepped out of the shed and had our first sight of the Kedar dome. It looked beautiful in the fading light, and we could see the road ahead teeming with people. Maa and I paused for a selfie – after all, we had arrived. We walked slowly and Maa stopped to take pictures every once in a while. I clicked some too, but I was really not able to take in the beauty around us which the photos cannot do justice to. Somewhere, in the back of my mind, I registered the beauty of the scene around us, but all that I could focus on were the red and green roofs that could be seen ahead of us, where, I assumed, our hotel must be.
In a while we could see the lights of the temple and a long queue of people, that looked much like an ant trail. They were apparently lined up to offer their homage to Kedarnath, and the queue stretched on and on. “This is madness”, I thought, but that’s India. People like us, who come to the mountains to experience nature and appreciate the beauty of the Himalayas are a minuscule minority. The thousands of people of the road, the old and young, people walking with children on their shoulders, old men and women bent low over their sticks, people walking barefoot in the cold, were the people of my country, who come here to worship. What draws them here and keeps them going is not wanderlust, but “bhakti” that feeling which is a mixture of faith, love, loyalty, fear and awe, which is so powerful that people can bear any pain and brave any hurdle to reach their goal, at the end of which they experience bliss. I do not even claim to understand this. My mother is a devout Hindu and she offered silent prayers to Kedarnath from a distance on seeing the temple. She was perhaps afraid to say out loud that He had helped us to reach here because she knew how I would react.
We had disembarked at the horse stand at 5 pm. When we finally reached the Swargarohini cottages, it was 7:05 pm. The last 5-6 short steps down felt like a thousand. I went to the office and asked whether Ayan Banerjee had arrived, knowing fully well that he hadn’t. They said that four people had arrived – Kaku, Ujaan, Mamoni and Mama were settled in the first cottage. They looked pale and my son started crying on seeing me. He had gone through a shock because on arriving at the horse stand in the middle of the rain, my father-in-law had claimed that he would die here. Then the others had arrived in a very bad shape, and he had the immense task of making three of his grandparents, who seemed to be in a state of delirium, see reason and bring them to the hotel. Thankfully, they had come in pittus, each charging them Rs.500. Ujaan put his arms around me and cried. He had been extremely scared, but he had been very brave and had managed the three elderly people very well. I was really proud of my son, who is usually quite immature, but had behaved in a very matured way in a situation of crisis. He continued to do so, when he went out in the rain to fetch water and dinner for everyone, as GMVN told us that they have no room service, even in theie most expensive accommodation at Kedarnath.
But where were Ayan and Jhilli? They arrived finally, around 7:30 pm, in pittus, and in a really dilapidated state. After reaching the cottage, I had had to get help from Maa and Ujaan to pull off my wet and dirty jeans, because it was super stretched and stuck at the knee. I had collapsed on one of the beds and was shivering under a blanket, when I heard Ujaan yell, “eshe gachhe!” (they have arrived). I hobbled out to see Jhilli being taken down from the pittu. Ayan asked for cash and paid the pittuwalaas. He was soaked and shivering and looked very pale and pathetic. She was crying and shaking and I grabbed her and took her in. They had had a horrible time on the road and their experience is another scary story. I hope our daughter would not remember the trauma of this trip when she grows up, and will go back to those beautiful mountains some time, in September or October, when the skies are clearer and there are few people on these roads. Perhaps she will even ride a horse. But if she remembers anything of this trip, she might write her own blog someday. For now, the best person to describe that journey has already written about it, and I highly recommend Ayan’s blog to the interested reader.
The night of 31st May will remain etched in our adult memories forever, perhaps with different dark highlights. Everyone was traumatized and dead tired, to say the least. My knee was lost somewhere in a mass of bruised and swollen tissue. The area where the knee is supposed to be was a big swollen whole with angry purple blotches. We applied diclofenac gels and a hot pad to it and I took a painkiller, for a change. Ayan was constantly shivering, his teeth were chattering even under two heavy quilts. The food was non-descript, but hot, and it helped. Ayan sat with his eyes closed and I put food in his mouth – something that I would never have imagined to be possible, even when he is ill, he insists on feeding himself. Jhilli actually recovered faster, but she was still shaken, and insisted on sleeping with me in the single bed. Since I couldn’t sleep anyway, because of the pain and the nightmares that haunted me for several nights to come, it was good to at least make her feel safe. June dawned on us, fresh and crisp, with the mighty Kedar dome sparkling white against a blue sky, the vagaries of the night living on only in our memories and my increasing pain and bruises.