An obsession that changed my life
KISHTWAR – 1976
In 1976 I saved up Rs. 350 from my earnings as a neophyte and struggling freelance journalist and signed up for my first Himalayan trek that summer organized by the Youth Hostels Association of India (YHAI). I had seen Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling a few years earlier and the sight had mesmerized me, leaving a lasting impression. The only hills I was familiar with were the old and rounded protuberances of what used to be called the Chotanagpur Plateau in the state of Jharkhand – then still a part of Bihar. My grandfather’s village of Barutola was situated there and I had spent many summers tramping up the trails which led to the tops of these hills. My world had revolved around the suburb of Liluah and the city of Calcutta where I had gone to school and college. The snowy mountains were an alien and imaginary world for me.
The funds that I sent the to the YHAI via the old fashioned Money Order channel of the Post Office would pay for all food and camping during the 14 day program; all I needed to do was get to the Base Camp at Kishtwar. In those days I had not even heard of this little hill town in the state of Jammu and Kashmir, but I found out that I would have to take a bus from Jammu, the northern end of the Indian Railways. Since my father worked for the Eastern Railway I convinced him to part with one of his annual free passes so I could get to Jammu without paying a penny! After what seemed like an endless journey across the searing plains of northern India I staggered out 48 hours later at Jammu railway station. After asking around I managed to reach the bus station and boarded a bus bound for Kishtwar. The bus was crowded but I managed to get a seat. Looking around I found 5 faces which stood out from the crowd due to their urban look.
Two of them were sisters and lived in Jammu and they seemed like robust young ladies ready for adventure. After forty years I have totally forgotten their first names (their surname was Dua). The young men – Murli, Rakesh and Gopi – were journalists working for The Patriot, The Hindustan Times and The Indian Express respectively and had been assigned by their editors to cover the trekking program. Though I was not really affiliated to any one newspaper or magazine, they immediately adopted me as one of their group because of my tenuous links with the media – I had written a few articles in the youth magazine JS which was part of the Statesman newspaper group of Calcutta. We would form an inseparable foursome during the next two weeks and I would keep in touch with at least one of them for a few years more.
It didn’t take long to make acquaintances with them and we ended up sipping tea and devouring snacks at all the roadside stops that the bus would make during the course of its arduous journey through the mountains. They too were bound for the NHTP – the National Himalayan Trekking Program as the YHAI called their venture. It was a commendable initiative to bring affordable trekking to the youth of India who would otherwise never get an opportunity to experience one of India’s greatest natural wonders.
It was late in the afternoon when we arrived in Kishtwar. The cool air was a welcome relief as we settled into the huge canvas tents pitched in a big field. A clap of thunder shook the fabric of our shelters, lightning flashed in the night sky and a hailstorm battered the whole valley for at least half an hour. By the time the skies cleared the night had set in and a half moon had materialized. Instinctively everyone emerged from their tents and gasped in collective wonder at the scene outside : we were surrounded by a sea of hailstones shimmering and luminous in the moonlight and the magic tugged at our primeval souls. It was a moment of sheer unadulterated bliss and has stayed with me ever since.
The summons for dinner brought us all back to more mundane concerns and we lined up outside the kitchen tent where a hot meal of rajma (red chilli beans), rotis and rice was being ladled out. This combination would become the standard fare for the entire duration of the trek – the meal was certainly nutritious enough but after a few days on the trail our little foursome would seek out more options like eggs and perhaps a little chicken or goat curry in the small tea shops in the villages that we passed through to supplement our diet and to add a little excitement to our jaded palates!
The organizers provided us not only with the food but with large frame rucksacks, sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses as well! All we had to bring was our personal clothing and shoes. There were preset camps set up along the entire route which would take us over the Margan and Synthen passes over the course of about 10 days. We would wake up to bed tea and then head for breakfast at the kitchen tent, collect our individual packed lunches and then set off on the trail. Each group of trekkers would have a team leader who ensured that no one got lost along the way. When we arrived tired and hungry at the next camp site we would be welcomed with hot tea and dinner would soon follow. A campfire would be held every night to foster a sense of community and people would be encouraged to entertain the group by singing songs or performing short skits – it felt very much like being in a Boy Scouts camp (though I had never been one in school) and in spite of the wide latitude of ages the concept was well received.
The highlight of the trek was crossing the passes which were snowbound. Nothing can equal the wonder and fascination of life’s first encounter with this magical medium and though I would go back again and again to the Himalaya over the next 25 years and also see the white stuff in Europe and America, the summer of 1976 will always stand out in my memory.
Having spent all my growing years in the plains, this brief foray into the Himalaya made me realize that there was a beautiful world up there. There was a world where the air was crisp and clean, the brooks and streams and rivers flowed over polished rocks with patterns drawn as if by an invisible artist. This was a world where the people were honest and hardworking and incredibly tough. This was a world where children had rags for clothes but they wore some of the happiest faces that I have ever seen
When I returned to Delhi it was the searing month of June and I was immediately struck down by a severe case of heat stroke. I had to spend a couple of days in a hospital to recover. While I lay supine in the ward, a thought struck me : perhaps I should spend more time in the mountains and avoid the pitfalls of the enervating heat and humidity of the plains!
I continued to say Hello to Murali every time I passed through Delhi and we would relive the highlights of the trek over a beer and tandoori chicken at Kake Da Dhaba near Connaught Place.
PS. Murali died of High Altitude Sickness at Camp 1 on Leo Pargial a few years later while reporting on an expedition of paratroopers from the Indian Army.