It was happening again. I was sitting in a cab, looking alternatively at the hills and the valley I was leaving behind while approaching the higher destination. Unexpectedly, the journey was also witnessing the changes that I had only heard about or seen in the news.
I was visiting Badrinath soon after the floods devastated Uttarakhand in 2013. Multiple theories by environmentalists, the state forest department, politicians and people both affected and unaffected by the tragedy were playing the blame game. It had been an emotional, intense year. I was moving out of my beautiful state of Uttarakhand to a dry, polluted city in the west to start a new life. And the mystical hills I had been visiting since my childhood now had more dead bodies and broken shelters than the pine trees.
I had seen the course of both the rivers alter, the Ganges and Alaknanda. Haunting images of the human and animal bodies, gas cylinders, bikes, and trees were flashing in my mind. Only a baby elephant had been rescued alive. We all had seen the BBC clip of Lord Shiva’s pristine statue being washed away by the fierce waves. Misery and beauty come from the same source. They called it an ‘Act of God’.
I reached Badrinath before dusk, left my luggage in the cab and started walking towards the temple town. Many people sat on the streets. Shivering, sipping tea served by relief volunteers, adjusting blankets and trying not to think about the lost possessions, people and hunger. There was a peculiar whiff in the chilly wind, a blend of dampness, ginger, tobacco, and despair. The melancholy was new to the pilgrim town otherwise visited by thousands in hopes of soul searching and redemption each year.
My go-to restaurant was unusually crowded. At the counter was a line of tourists waiting to make a phone call to the families they had left behind in the comfort of their homes. Some tables had blank faces resting on them, slowly eating the food being served. But mostly the place was loud and chaotic. From a distance, I recognized the restaurant owner. We exchanged a glance, he approached after a few minutes and enquired, ‘What makes you visit the place everyone has been trying to leave?’ I said that the news had the better part of me for a month and I wanted to see things in person before finally moving out. I had dodged a certain amount of hell, after all. A waiter came to ask him what was to be distributed to people for dinner. The restaurant had been serving food to stranded people who would also sleep in their hall at night. I asked him when were they planning to wind-up and go back home. He responded, ‘Once the old, women, children and stranded are safely transported.’ That’s practically everyone, I thought to myself. He offered me some soup and bread, refusing to take any money in return. Then smiled and said, ‘We have enough inventory to feed people for a month, and we would hopefully be back home before the stock lasts.’
Outside the restaurant was an old man on a wheelchair, wearing an oxygen mask. I asked him if I could escort him somewhere. He pointed towards a couple, apparently his son and daughter in law. I politely asked if it was recommended for a man his age, to be in that harsh weather and situation. The couple informed that after surviving the second heart attack, it was his wish to come for this pilgrimage and pray for a grandchild. They had been married for six years.
Before retiring at the hotel, I wanted to visit a viewpoint while the Sun was still setting. My not so conscious steps took me to the end from where I could see the temple, the river and the valley. More lives were at a standstill than in motion, yet the mountains stood as firm and loyal as ever. Pointing human error in my face till I could see the vermillion hues no longer, only a silver lining in the dark sky.