It was a bright Ladakhi afternoon and she was boiling Maggi when I first entered ‘Rangdum Hotel’, called ‘hotel’, even though it hardly seemed to have any guest rooms. It was lunch time, but one probably didn’t need a taste of the noodles to say that they were disappointing, a look at the pan was enough. They were soggy and unappetising, somehow devoid of all the life that a sunny summer day in Ladakh embodies. When she spoke, Read More
‘Photo bhejoge ya yuhi mere judwa bachcho ki taswire leke ja rahe ho?‘, the mother retorted. An english translation would put her words as “Will you even send back these pics or are you taking pics of my twin boys just like that”. I didn’t have an answer to that. I was at Rangdum, a tiny village (if it could be called one), in the middle of a road (if ever there was one) to the valley of Zanskar from Kargil. For miles at a stretch one doesn’t come across anything alive here. Padum, the administrative center of Zanskar valley, is a hamlet light years away from what you call ‘civilization’. How in the world could I have sent back processed pictures of these kids in Rangdum where even cell phone networks didn’t work (forget photo printing)?? My guilt knew no bounds here. Shamelessly, I just backtracked my steps to the taxi which was waiting for me to finish the photo session. I had volunteered in Ladakh five years before and had returned with some wonderful pictures of kids then (Read : Us & Them – Kids of Ladakh). I wondered if I’d go back with guilt ridden pics from the current trip. This time, the trip to Zanskar had started with a drive from Leh to Kargil. It’s an arid route. Dry as a desert. Stark as moon. One would wonder how any life sustained here. Yet, one realises, that it is regions like these, far off, on the fringe, that preserve humanity at its best and humans at their warmest. A chai break on the road to Kargil gave a wonderful opportunity to meet a group of kids on their way back from their school.
Strangely, I never understood the reason for this but all the way around Kargil and the Suru valley, there were so many kids out on the roads, streets, highways everywhere. My friend later surmised that it could be due to lack of too many entertainment options, that they were out. No PS3s, laptops, Counter strikes. But only the legendary Views of a valley, grand mountains, gurgling rivers and apricot-loaded trees. Talk of trade-offs.
And then there were those children in the Zanskar valley, who probably walked kilometers at a stretch every morning to get to their schools, some of which could be in different villages altogether. These two kids we met during an early morning car drive, stood on the edge of the road, frantically waving their hands joined together in the gesture of a ‘namaste’ or a prayer. It was dramatic enough to remind me of those days as a kid when I’d miss my school bus and sadly wait for a friend to pass by in his car and give me a hike. Here, I had to force the taxi driver to stop and offer those kids a ride. Their thanks in the form of ‘ju ju‘ , ‘ya ju‘ still echo in my ears. And ofcourse, there was a bunch of school boys with whom we hitchhiked in a pick-up truck to go from a far off monastery to the local grounds for Independence day celebrations. Such a vibrant bunch, all of them.
Some other children we met in Padum, a small hotel owner’s son, a candy crazy little girl, a kid perched upon his father’s shoulders ..
And finally the twins with whom this story started. To my amazement, I did actually manage to find a photo studio in Padum and print those pictures. I handed over a couple of those to their mother while returning back to Kargil. Expecting a hearty thanks, I asked her what she thought of those pics. Her reply – “Kaha achhe hain, naak toh beh rahi hai dono ki inme” (“Hardly good, both have running noses in these pics”). But this time I’m not upset. I just smile. I know better of the Ladakhis than to feel let down by her reply. They have known enough hardships in life to feel too elated or too sad about most things. I had just forgotten this in these five years. Nice to be back, finally.
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This is the fifth in the writer’s series of photo-blogs focussed on the people of the places where he visits – Us & The
It is here that I decide to be a Lens. Just the lens of a camera. Period. But I secretly wish I was a human here, in this princess of lands, that an emperor once called ‘Firdaus’ – Persian for paradise.
How I envy the splendour of the valleys that these locals dwell in, the silent opulence of their lakes and the exquisiteness of their cuisine, the wazwan. But there’s hardly ever a thing called a free lunch. Being a human has its own costs, especially in a land that evokes the strongest of pathos, from the natural beauty of a landscape & equally from the unnatural ugliness of a conflict and as much as I may yearn for it, I can’t afford to be a human here. I’m glad being just the lens, that doesn’t belong to any human, not even an eye, for even then I may end up taking sides!
I’m glad being just a lens, I’d hardly ever have to face winds as fierce in a terrain as tough..
I’m glad being a lens for all I captured with this nomadic Bakarwal kid was his horse, and not the herculean effort of his family climbing the Himalayan passes up every summer and then down to Jammu every winter
I’m pleased that I could pretend to just glare incessantly into the eyes of ‘chacha‘ and not listen to his woes of insufficient payments and insensitive trekkers & inefficient travel unions
I’m glad that I could stare at the faces of these school boys but not at the uncertainty of their future
Oh and being a lens has its perks too, for I’m the only one an army would allow in its camps to capture whatever I want!
But then that’s all that a lens can gather from a scene. And it saddens me. A land like Kashmir deserves far more than my mechanical visions.
I’m sad because I could only capture the innocent look of little Ashfaq but could hardly zoom into his dreams of growing up and becoming a soldier..
I could take in the mountains and the pastures but not the delight of having a chai in the lap of the very same mountains
I’m angry that I could only watch with wariness when these eyes approached me, I wish I had emphasized more on the excitement in them while they recalled their travels to other parts of India
And I’m disappointed that even though I focussed on the eyes of the other ‘Chacha’ , I was barely capable of focussing on his pride of climbing those numerous passes and mountains as a Kashmiri
Truth is, it’s tough even being just a lens in Kashmir. I’v already been happy, glad, sad, angry and disappointed narrating this to you. Perhaps even as a lens, I was taking sides. May be, being an eye wouldn’t have been that tough. May be then I would have seen beyond the smoke that lies between me and them. May be if I had been an eye, I’d have known the better of taking sides!
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Have you been to Kashmir? What were your impressions of the place?
One needs to have a 3D card in his head to figure this place out, or may be a 3D GPS in the car. Clearly, there’s no other way to find out that 18 kms up the very mountain at the foothills of which one stood a while back, lies a superbly nested tiny village called ‘Sarahan’. The way to the village winds round and round, much like the traveller’s physical & mental state. To the uninitiated, it will seem a little crazy, to go through the torture of travelling all the way so high, and for what, after all? A view? But the truth, is a bit farther. Conquering a mountain, whether by foot, on a bike, a motorbike, or even in a car, has been about figuring that little something more about yourself (perhaps about the car as well) & not just the mountain. About figuring out how life can be as difficult as climbing the mountain and as simple as the view at the top, ooth at the same time. In some of the views that strike the climber, he discovers that one bit in himself that he never thought existed. Much like the settlements & the villages on the way. Like this one, ‘Sarahan’. One couldn’t have known it was here. Or the fact that it would conjure up such majestic views as one approached it.
The hamlet of Sarahan lies in Himachal, half way through to the Kinnaur valley from Simla. It’s one of its kind. Perched high up on a mountain, giving the most serene views of the Himalayas, yet known by very few. I’m not sure how may buses ply to this place, and at what frequency. But there’s a settlement here. And a life in the hills that’d charm any traveller without trying one bit. That of locals going about their chores in the hills, of ladies making chai and pakodas in a cold evening, of men lighting fire on gathered wood. Fat, grubby dogs, lazing around the streets and little kids with burnt cheeks and monkey caps, chasing around the same fat dogs, a (eco-friendly) traffic jam, caused not by cars, but by flocks of sheep, where even the most monstrous of SUVs would be rendered helpless.
There aren’t many hotels to interfere with this idyllic life or with the view either. There is, however, a Himachal Tourism Guest House, which apart from providing good facilities, has the perfect location. It’ll take a while for anyone to remove his eyes from the view that they behold at the guest house.
A little further from here, an ancient Bhimakali temple adorns the heart of the village. And if the sight of several mountains moving in & out of clouds is not enough, there’s another view point, further higher, for you to stare at the mountains endlessly.
It’s a place to build memories, to wonder at the greatness of the mountains, or sit alongside one of the houses built in a traditional architecture, or in a silent moment, to simply pause & listen to the sound of the Satluj gushing past in the valley several kilometres below. Come to think of it, Sarahan is just a simple village in the hills. Just that I still can’t figure out why I keep wanting to go back ever since I returned. Why don’t you go too & help me figure out?
Been to Sarahan? How was your experience?