After a 3-4 day assignment in Shimla, it was found that Garhwal in Uttarakhand could be reached via a beautiful winding route. I had always been a light packer until this trip, now I intended to travel & write while traipsing around for an extended period and hence carried 2 bags weighing 20 odd kilos.
Read : An expert guide to Shimla
A very educated old man sat next to me in the bus, imparting detailed local knowledge. The drive was picturesque, cherry blossoms appeared near Theog and snow walls around Kharapathar in Himachal Pradesh created a surreal landscape.
I saw the Jubbal Palace from afar as the bus pulled in to Hatkoti just before sunset. Hatkoti is famous for the 8th Century Hatkeshwari (Hateshwari) Mata Temple Complex on the banks of Pabbar river.
Even after wandering for an hour, I couldn’t find a place to stay as every possible accommodation was booked for a marriage. The whole town was in a festive frenzy. After some phone calls, the PWD Rest House Caretaker finally agreed to let me in. The temple bells rang as I rushed to the evening aarti at 7. There were fewer than 10 people in that moment of tranquility. I closed my eyes and an unknown fear encapsulated my thoughts, perhaps imagining the impending disaster that was to befall me.
I was keen on extending my stay in Hatkoti for another day, but luck had started deserted me. Reluctantly, I made my way to Hanol in Uttarakhand, crossing over the border into Uttarakhand at Tiuni. Tiuni is also the place of the confluence of Tons & Pabbar river.
Hanol has been declared as the 5th Dham by the Uttarakhand Govt. courtesy of the Mahasu Temple. The Mahasu Devta is revered as the most powerful of all mountain Gods.
Drums were out and people gathered in the sanctum of Mahasu Temple. The weather was cloudy and I was intoxicated on nature, walking to a pretty village called Thadiyar to see the Pavasi Devta Temple. The Pandit enquired about my caste & only upon hearing my last name allowed me to sit in the prayers.
It was an aarti, the kind of which I had not seen earlier. A long and elaborate ceremony which was attended by the entire village. Designs on the door looked like ancient Egyptian Symbols. I was invited by the wife of one village priest to stay at their home and savour the local cuisine. Mist & clouds gathered as evening came, while delicious chai kept me cozy indoors. Aske – Rice flour pancakes cooked in steam were served, I savoured them with glee while it kept pouring all night.
Next morning, my destination was going to be wherever the road took me. After waiting for an hour, a bus appeared, its destination being Barkot. I was lapping up the views from the window, green & yellow fields separated by the Tons river. A chance conversation with a gentleman in the bus resulted in me getting down at Mori instead, the Har-Ki-Dun trek was a possibility. My intended place for the night would be Sankri now.
In hindsight, this was my first error. My worst fears were about to come true. I caught a direct bus that would take me to Sankri, that never started. After hanging on the road for the best part of an hour, I had a meagre breakfast of two flimsy aloo paranthas. Another bus came, broke down after going only 3 kms ahead. My instinct told me that I should go to the original intended destination, Barkot. But I came back to Mori and got into a bus to Purola. Alas, that broke down too in Mori itself.
Maybe all this was overconfidence. I don’t know if I was on cloud nine or super confident having just returned from a successful solo winter trip to Ladakh in January.
A taxi-wallah seized the opportunity and started shouting ‘Sankri, Sankri’. Everyone clamoured for a seat and I jumped in too. We set off but the smart fellow that he was, stopped halfway in a place called Naitwad and said he aint going no further. It was here on the street that I met with ‘the locals masquerading as tourists.’
They were 3 guys and were going to another place close-by, and said that I would love the natural beauty there. I have always been in awe with the kindness of mountain folk (7 odd years of solo travel) and had no reason to suspect them of any wrong-doing. The shared taxi was off and running, arriving at a place called Dhaula after a 1 hour drive. The hamlet was on the other side of a hanging suspension bridge.
Immediately on crossing to the other side, the words Rupin Pass were visible written on the walls of a dhaba. I asked my co-travellers if this was the same trail, they confirmed and then told me we were indeed headed that side. I would not have dared to trek with 20 kilos on me. Immediately this concern of mine was shared with them, and one of them said ‘We have come together, don’t worry – we will take turns with the bags.’ My worries were put to rest.
Content after a tasty lunch of rice & dall, my heart sang amid the dense forests with the pretty Rupin-Supin river flowing. The guys were well behaved and seemed like genuine travellers. I was very happy to be embarking on a trail few knew about and the opportunity of staying like locals in the winters made me very excited. We left for a nearby village for the night, an hour’s walk away, they said.
It was a beautiful hike where the path clung to the river and various streams crossed us. We reached in the nick of time as it had started raining and snow was visible in the upper reaches of the mountains. I was happy to see pretty three-storey wooden houses in the middle of nowhere, and cattle living on the lowest floor welcomed us. One of the guy’s relatives owned a home in this village and we entered our room made of Deodhar wood. My olfactory senses were in for a treat, a lovely natural aroma emanating within the entire house.
I took my DSLR out and began clicking pictures of the home. Dinner was organically grown red rice and locally grown rajmah and dall. It might be the most delicious meal I’ve ever had. The lady of the house served us lovingly and ensured all of us ate well. Their fourth friend who lived nearby also joined us for dinner.
When I woke up the next morning, it was immediately known that a 212 VIP perfume & iPhone headphones were missing. I knew for certain that it was one of them who had done it. Without making too much fuss, I politely told everyone about my loss in front of the lady. The boys said, ‘The bag was opened in Dhaula, perhaps they might have been left there.’ I wasn’t convinced but chose to believe their story as they confidently asked me to check their bags if I was suspicious. My mood was made better over chai & photographing the locals while listening to stories.
I had carefully locked my bag and kept the keys in my pocket, to avoid further damage.
After a lunch of more red rice and wonderful dall, we headed towards the bigger village of Hadwadi, because the fourth guy had his home there. This was a steep walk across the river and took around 3 hours. This home was even more palatial than the earlier one, made entirely from Deodhar wood. There were some ancient looking wooden tower temples in the village, which gave it a feel of being lost in time.
We immediately cleaned the hitherto closed room & set about preparing our dinner. When I saw my bag, the lock had been broken down and my iPod was missing. I didn’t know what to do. I told them they were the ones who were robbing me. I was slapped, beaten, kicked with boots & threatened with my life. They didn’t agree with the accusations. I realised the kind of danger I was in and tried gathering my senses.
My heart started beating faster and faster. I thought I would faint. It was night, I cried and told them to let me go that day itself. They took turns slapping me and told me to not make any noise; talked among themselves, murmuring that I should be done away with and my body thrown in the river. I still had a Nikon dslr, a Macbook Air, an iPhone & cash (4000 Rupees) on me.
One of them took me aside and told me not to worry as we were all going to walk to Dhaula the next day. Its funny how we cling to a little ray of hope when everything seems down and out. I had given up on my stuff and the animal instinct of survival had kicked in.
I don’t remember how the night passed. I knew inside my heart, they were not going to let me walk away just like that. Inspite of promising that we would walk back, they were chilled out and relaxed till 9 in the morning. Then I insisted I be left alone on my own. It made them agitated, this talk of mine. One of them bought an iron rod from somewhere and waved it at me. I froze.
At that moment I told them my bags were theirs and that I wanted my life to be spared. They started pacifying me and quickly made lunch. I was forcibly told to eat and wipe my tears lest anybody in the village know what was happening.
One of the guys and me left earlier than the others to walk to the village where we had stayed the first night. My money had already been taken away and they had left a paltry sum of 500 Rupees with me. They kept asking for my atm card, which I had safely hidden. Once in the open I felt relieved, almost as if fresh life had been injected in me. Upon reaching, I tried to start walking all the way to Dhaula but I was warned to not even attempt doing that. My heart shuddered to think if I could survive another night in captivity.
The other three reached a little later with a live chicken in hand and commanded us to join them. I had no choice in the matter and we ended up at a fortune teller’s den. It seemed that they wanted to scare the living daylights out of me, I’m ashamed to say but they managed that. After some weird rituals, the chicken was sacrificed on top of my head. They say a man’s strength is judged on how he reacts when everything has been taken away from him. I didn’t flinch and confidently got up and asked if we could continue to Dhaula or I make a hue & cry. It was all or nothing in that moment.
They were taken aback at the sudden turn of events. I had assumed the worst case scenario and in my own mind wasn’t gonna be alive to see the morning. We started walking towards Dhaula, where all this had began. I was almost running, the incentive of being a free man made blood course rapidly through my veins.
I told them repeatedly that I wasn’t going to lodge a Police complaint nor tell about them to anybody. That was one thing that put them in a fix, whether to believe me or not. We reached Dhaula before sun down, but they had more plans in mind to harass me.
They grabbed my bag and took it to one of the rooms on the first floor of the dhaba. I was like a broken record who just wanted to escape from their clutches. When upstairs, they threw open my bag and made away with the dslr. I said don’t bother, take it all away. They were convinced the first thing i’d do after getting somewhere was report to the police. One of them tried to reason with me asking about getting money from the atm and wanted to take the 500 Rupees I had. I cried and cried and said I had nothing left and how was I supposed to walk back home without my ipod & dslr camera.
One of them walked up with a cane in hand and made a waving sound, the door was closed when they started pushing and shoving, resulting in me getting shit scared again. Various accusations against me started to fly, one said ‘you have raped my sister’. Another said ‘you have stolen ancient jewellery from our home’. I understood the grave implications of what that meant and gave my word, saying ‘I give a Rajput’s word, what happened here, stays here.’
My heart was stuck in my mouth as I could not fathom a way out of there. Someone suggested that they should come to drop me to Mori the next morning and take money out of the atm. I had given up on life and thought of it as a bonus if I made it out safely out of there. One guy was going to Shimla and wanted me to go with him, I kept resisting.
My night passed in relative peace as the owner of the dhaba slept in the same room as ours, the other rooms being fully occupied. The little pup from the dhaba made squeaking sounds which seemed like music to my ears. I woke up at 7 am and told them I was going. They made flimsy excuses to keep me waiting, but I kept at it, moving here and there so that the world could see me. They were hell bent on accompanying me to Shimla. Shared taxis were visible on the other side of the road. At 11, one of them got frustrated with me and shouted ‘run, you bastard.’
I didn’t look behind, took both my bags and walked steadily to not invite any attention. While crossing the bridge, I noticed the Nepali worker at the dhaba was following me. There was a mini tempo going all the way to Shimla, but not leaving anytime soon. I stood in the middle of the road, breathing again, my mind refused to believe my ordeal was over. I was hungry and hadn’t eaten anything since lunch the previous day. I didn’t even have water with me.
A shared taxi came, was full, but they stopped and i jumped in, the Nepali didn’t see me. I counted 37 people on board, some of them sitting on the roof & some just standing.
There was a range of emotions flashing in my eyes. I controlled my tears even though it seemed like the most natural thing to do. The share taxi stopped in Naitwad. I walked across town, wore my clothes inside out, removed the hat & changed my appearance a bit. After walking for 10 odd minutes, I asked for a hike from a two-wheeler till Mori. The wind-in-my-hair moments on the motorcycle had a crazy feel, just 2 hours ago I was struggling, hanging on for dear life.
In the meanwhile I had also thought of an alternative way out, different from the route those guys thought I would be on. At Mori, I thanked the guys who had given me a ride; withdrew some money from the atm, wore a jacket inside out and walked out of the town.
Two roads bifurcate at Mori, one going to Shimla & the other to Purola. There is a Forest Department office at the intersection from where I could not be visible even if someone had tried to follow me. I was ecstatic, realising I might be out of danger. I bought a bottle of water & a packet of glucose biscuits from the nearby shop.
The first mode of transport that appeared was a small auto meant to haul luggage. I hitchhiked to Purola, 35 kms away. We stopped for food at the main market, right opposite the Police Chowki. The dhaba wala was astounded to see me struggle for every step, I ate in a haphazard manner. My head started spinning awkwardly, perhaps with the zillion thoughts crossing my mind.
I decided to stay here in Purola and decide my next course of action. It was a shabby little room but felt like luxury, I was free. I had posted about this incident on twitter, with a single tweet and ending with I’m alright. Serendipity ensured the best part of a week was spent recuperating at a serene place near Uttarkashi. Perhaps, that description of beauty would require another post.
Let me here take the opportunity to thank these twitter friends. I might have never recovered from the initial shock, but for them.
twitter.com/bunnyshoots For calling me and letting me cry.
twitter.com/thyurbanmonk For making me believe in the goodness of strangers again &
twitter.com/parvati786 For convincing me to do what thyurbanmonk said.
It would be a travesty to try and thank Pallavi auntie, Michael & Pranav for everything that they did for me. I hope if ever the time of calling comes, I am present to be of any kind of help. I owe my sanity to you, for keeping a stranger in your home and treating him like family.
‘The choice between hating and forgiving can become the story of your life.’ – Shantaram.