“Would you like to come to some villages around Chamba?” a friend asked. I happily said yes. He wanted to visit the kin of former servants of his family and bring them gifts before Diwali. After buying boxes of sweets and drawing money from an ATM, three of us set off from Mussoorie.
The air was crystal clear and the snow peaks shone in great splendour. How beautiful to be out in the open at the height of 2000 metres! What wonderful surroundings the villagers live in. Blue mountain ranges were rolling one after the other like waves of the ocean. Kids in school uniform walked on the road. Their school may be much simpler than those in cities, yet the location is enviable and the openness of space may be conducive for an open mind.
Our first stop was in a tiny village near the old road to Tehri town, which has been submerged in the Ganges due to the Tehri Dam. It was a steep climb down the hill. An old woman was sitting in a courtyard sieving grain. She had few teeth left, yet her smile was warm and welcoming. It was a surprise visit, and immediately her neighbours gathered, too. “Kursi lao” I heard, and children brought chairs from a neighbouring house. The woman lives alone in an old house. Her husband, who was a servant to my friend’s family for decades, had passed away several years ago. Her only daughter is staying with her in laws.
We had to stress really hard that our stomachs were very full and had no place even for a cup of tea. Yet water we took and she sent a girl to pluck some lime. My friend had to show her how to use the zip on a jacket he had brought and then the talk was mainly about people she knew from the olden times and about crops.
When we left, she said she would come to Mussoorie to see the father of my friend who was about her age. Will she still be able to climb up the hill? Probably she can do it. Village folk are hardier than city folk.
Next we drove to a tiny village some 30 km away. It was a 2 hours drive in wonderful environment. The car climbed over a mountain range down into a valley and in the end very high up on a kachha road which was only as broad as our jeep. It was frightening. A mantra kept automatically and continuously repeating itself in my mind.
We were expected, because Panditji, as the former servant was called, had a mobile. Two boys waited for us at the road head to guide us further up and a table with sweets and namkeen was already laid. His three daughters are married nearby and his eldest son is working in Hyderabad.
After leaving my friend’s house some years ago, Panditji became a part time pujari in a mandir further down the hill – for Rs 150 a month. Meanwhile he stopped going there. The money was not worth the climb. He was offered a full time job as pujari for Rs. 1100. It would have required him to stay the whole day and sleep in the mandir, too. He declined the offer as he felt that he was too old to live alone. If something happened to him, nobody would know. His son is sending him money from Hyderabad.
His house had two rooms with a buffalo staying downstairs, and here too, neighbours gathered straight away when we arrived. The view from his narrow veranda was truly spectacular. It became dark and the hills lit up with lights sparkling everywhere, down in the valley and above in the sky.
Last we went to a house near Chamba on the new road to Uttarkashi to visit the wife of a former servant. My friend was all praise for this servant who was with them over 40 years ago in Kalkuta, when my friend was still in school. Once, the servant went home to Chamba for a holiday. While there, he started working for daily wages on road construction. After a few days a rock fell on him and he died on the spot.
His wife was young, his only son barely two years old and physically slightly handicapped. Now his wife was in her sixties and lived with her daughter in law and three grandsons in the village and her son worked in a restaurant in Ludhiana over 200 km away.
When we reached the simple house made from mud and wood, she had just come back from Ludhiana after a check up in a hospital. Her health is not good. She has water in her lungs. Yet her nature was very sweet and loving. It was a pleasure to be with her, her bahu and the grandchildren in the small room, which had a garlanded photo of her husband on the wall.
Their belongings were stashed away in trunks and boxes, quilts were neatly folded, and only school books were piled up on a trunk. Though she must have been tired from the long journey, apart from being ill, she enquired about everyone she knew from that time, while her grandsons were leaning on her. Her hard life has made her into a beautiful person.
I once again realized that it is neither status nor money that ultimately counts. Important is how one takes the experiences in one’s life; whether one can accept them or not; whether one has trust and faith in life or not; whether one feels support from within or not and whether one can ultimately let go of one’s life when the time comes.
While walking up to the road two young men passed us on the narrow track. “Hi!” one of them said in a tone that one hears occasionally in cities, yet it sounded odd in the village. “Where are you from?” he asked further. “Germany”, I replied. “Oh, I worked for 3 years in a restaurant in Munich”, he surprised me in fluent German.
Driving back to Mussoorie several jackals got trapped in the light beam of our jeep. We stopped in the silent night and admired the vast expanse of flickering lights down in the valley which was Dehradun.
What a rich, inspiring day it was! I had been allowed a peep into different lives which are side by side on our beautiful earth. Each person is the centre of a unique, private world that depends heavily, if not fully, on the mind. The outer circumstances may be determined to a great extent. Yet the option to be at peace with one’s life seems to be open to everyone.
By Maria Wirth