People who are close to me know that I’m a scaredy-cat; a chicken. If you hide behind the door and surprise me, there’s a good chance that I’ll shriek louder than at least five howler monkeys. Loud enough to scare you in return, yes! It’s hard to understand why I’m like that but trust me, I’m not proud of it either. From this disorder, stem other problems like the fear of water, fear of the dark, fear of animals biting/poisoning me, fear of losing loved ones, fear of dying by drowning/choking and the list is probably endless.
It’s not always that fear accompanies me during travel. But this time was different and fear was my constant companion on my recent trip to the Valley of flowers, Uttrakhand.
It was the time of monsoon and our parents had tried to dissuade us to not go there, warning us that a lot of landslides happen during this time. We didn’t pay heed to any of their advice. On our way up, almost nothing happened. No rain, no roadblocks, no landslides. Easy-peasy. It’s not that bad afterall, I thought!
But, oh well! All hell broke loose while returning from the Valley of Flowers.
It was a Sunday morning and we took our bus from Govind Ghat at 5.00 AM for Rishikesh. It was raining since night and I was scared that rains may have caused some trouble on our route. But we had no other option other than boarding that bus because we wanted to reach home by Sunday night.
So, we boarded the bus with 5-6 more people who were headed towards the same destination as ours. We ran to grab seats on the bus and managed the first row seats, just next to the driver.
It was still dark when we left from Govind Ghat and sunrise was still an hour away. It was constantly raining and the road was only lit by the headlights of the bus. It was dark, foggy and rainy. What a deadly combo! I was wondering how our driver would be able to drive. But as it turned out, he knew every twist and turn and didn’t even seem troubled by the fog. Mountain riders, I tell ya!
But my chicken heart was miles away from understanding that. I turned to my right and saw my co-passenger, a middle-aged man snoring hard. I turned to my left and Tarun smiled at me knowing the death war that was waging inside me. I tried to look calm, smile often but he knew I wouldn’t sit straight till the sun came up. My eyes were hooked to the front glass and I was looking at every twist and turn the bus took (probably more intently than the driver). I realized it later that the reason why I was so worried was that I didn’t want to miss which turn led me to death (if at all we died that way!)
Death anxiety, I tell ‘ya!
The mountain sunrise that we had expected to see from our window never happened. However, the black sky was now replaced by murkish blue hue. I was happy as some sunlight is better than no sunlight and was planning to catch some sleep when suddenly the bus driver pulled brakes. I was the first one (among passengers) to know why?
6.15 AM, Landslide one
A landslide had blocked the way nearly 100 meters away from our bus. My heart skipped a beat. Landslide, to me, was just a phenomenon I had read in my NCERT books and seen on TV during yearly monsoon coverage. I never imagined experiencing it.
The bus stopped and the passengers took turns to go out and check the ‘severity’ of the situation. They came back and clicked their turn to gesture it was ‘bad’ and ‘we’re stuck here until god-knows-when’. I wasn’t scared until then but I wouldn’t deny I kept looking at the tree which stood tall on the mountain in front of my bus. I kept a close watch at it just in case it fell on my bus and threw us in the deep valley while everyone was busy looking ahead! Yes, I saw a lot of Final Destination movies.
I wasn’t in any mood to go out but I sent Tarun to go and check out what exactly had happened. I asked him to click pictures for me. But after a while when he didn’t come back, it became a bit gloomy inside. So I put on my shoes and went outside to have a look at it myself. It was bad, indeed! But not hopeless. The villagers had gathered there and I heard them talking that this happened at 1.30 AM in the night and since no JCB (the machine that removes the debris) could be available at that time, all the vehicles were stranded there since night. We were probably the 15th vehicle in the queue.
It was the usual mountain chaos for the villagers. I heard whispers that it would take 3-4 hours to clean up the mess (last year it took 2 days, someone said). So I went back to my bus, pulled out my book from the bag and started reading. Tarun came back a while later and showed me pictures of the landslide further down the road– the road was totally blocked with debris at two places. One location was so prone to the landslides that there was already a 100 meters path made on the debris by the JCB heroes which was now further buried by the recent landslide.
It was nearly 7.30 AM and we both were hungry. Just about then we heard that people from nearby villages were up and had opened the shutters of their highway stalls. I had expected a huge surge in prices but was surprised to get apples at Rs.60/Kg and Maggie at Rs. 30/Plate.
It might not look like a thing worth mentioning. But what surprised me is their humility. We were stranded, there was no other option around within walking distance, they knew it would take hours before the road opened, they knew that we were hungry– that makes for a perfect extortion moment. And trust me, this is not sarcasm. We were hungry and I would have given them anything to buy food. But this incident made me realize that not everyone is living to make more money. Especially people in the mountains. They probably love their peaceful life, without worrying about chasing and hoarding more money.
It was 8.30 AM by then and we ate maggie and saved apples for later. Who knows what might happen later, I told myself? I had picked my book again and was deep into the story, enough to call it “hooked”. Sameera (my protagonist) was wading through the ups and downs of her routine, rummaging through life and never feeling a hint of despair.
Occasionally, I looked up from my book, out of my window, away from the rubble and pondered over how the two sides of the valley were completely different. The one where humans had not interfered was peaceful and serene– the river flowed with grace, the clouds played hide and seek every now and then, the green cover was magnificent. On the other side, the area where humans had made roads and bridges, it was a disaster.
I wondered if the mountains from that side envied the ones which had been left untouched? Did they curse their fate for lying on the wrong side of the valley? Just like we humans do! Curse our fate for being poor, or regret being the ones who suffer while looking at those in privilege.
My bizarre thought-chain was broken by some howling from the outside. The mountain was falling again and the bystanders were running to take cover. I decided to go outside again. I put on my shoes and looked at the first-ever ‘how-mountains-fall’ scene of my life. I know it’s easy to say it now, but I wasn’t scared while looking at the landslide. It was mostly rubble and nothing major. But the experience made me a little sad.
It was like death by poison– slow and cruel. Imagine looking at a majestic mountain collapsing into rocks and boulders. It was quite similar to looking at my hunky-dory grandpa succumb to death with cancer.
This time, I intentionally stepped away from my disturbing thoughts and started walking towards the bus. I went back to Sameera’s world and found solace in the chaos of her life. The city where she lived was going through a major political upheaval and her world was turned upside down when she discovered that the violence in her city was against the immigrants like her. And all this while she had thought that people had accepted her and it was her country too!
Life’s so unfair, I mumbled.
Nearly after an hour or two, I heard a huge cheering outside and people started coming back to their respective buses. The road had cleared out and our driver kicked the ignition of the bus to announce that all passengers of the bus must now return and onboard. Life is fair, sometimes– I made a correction!
After our first landslide, we covered a good 60-70 km without any major interruption. There were a few places where we stopped for a while, but nothing major happened. I was praying all the while for ‘no-more-landslides’, but who am I to decide that?
We had stopped for lunch around 2 PM and the bus driver had taken a little over half an hour for the break. After leaving from the Dhaba, we had not even covered 5 KMs when we were stopped by another major landslide. This one, at an arm’s distance. We were probably saved by those extra 5 mins which the driver had taken at the Dhaba.
2.50 PM, Landslide two
Our driver pulled back the bus at a safe distance from the landslide area and nearly everyone got out of the bus to take a look. It was scarier than the last one and it made me a little worried. The entire mountain was coming down in pieces- one by one as if giving up on life. It was as if it was tired of being cut every year to make way for human’s desires for better, wider roads. I could sense the despair of the mountain– who likes being cut and pierced every fucking year?
I couldn’t help but feel a little repugnance against my own words when I had coaxed our government for not doing enough to make mountain roads safer.
Just about then, a big boulder fell from the top, bringing together the tree, the bushes and a whole lot of soil along with it. All of it settled on the big pile on the road that had totally blocked the road now. And it didn’t end with that, just meters behind our bus, another portion of the mountain started melting away, as if giving company to the old man.
This was the point when I felt most scared. Imagine being stuck in between two falling mountains! There was no guarantee that the mountain where we were standing wouldn’t start falling. So, I ran to my bus, pulled out my phone from my bag and dialed my mother’s number. At that time, I thought it was the best thing to do– I just wanted to hear her voice.
She picked up and hearing my gloomy voice started scolding me for not listening to her and going to the mountains in the rain. I cut the phone immediately saying that this was not what I had called for. She realized that I might need her and called back a few minutes later to ask if I had eaten something. That’s how mothers are- they’ll always be worried about if you’ve eaten or not, even in your last moments. Nevertheless, I felt a sudden calm after I put the phone down. It was like my last wish was granted. I could die in peace now, even if the entire mountain came falling down. I love you, maa. Just saying!
I sat inside the bus with Sameera. She had lost her father in religious riots. I was shattered, so was she. Why do bad things happen to good people?
An hour passed and I again heard the cheerful sound from the outside, which meant that the road had cleared. The passengers of our bus slowly started filling in their respective seats and we set out on the road again.
Our destination was still nearly 100 KMs away when the third landslide happened. It was 5 PM by then. I bet everyone on the bus was hoping and praying for “no-more-landslides” but those things don’t work. Been there, done that!
5 PM, Landslide three
This time I didn’t even go out to look at the chaos. From where I sat, I could see that it was a massive landslide. There were at least 100 vehicles in view (and a lot more behind) which were standing there since god knows when! There were the army, locals, and everyone who could help.
I had finished my book by then (don’t ask me what happened to Sameera, read it yourself!). Tarun told me the location where the landslide had happened and showed me the part of the road which was destroyed. Part of it had gone due to the landslide. Gone down into the river. That scared the shit out of me! I hadn’t seen it before my eyes but it did sound deadly.
From where I sat, I could only see the poor mountain. It looked like its arm had been cut off. It was covered with lush green trees all over, but just a portion of it gave away. Old age? Weathering of rocks? Or, human selfishness?
By this time, I had stopped blaming humans/nature for the inconvenience it has been causing us since morning. I gave up the thought that I’ll die after being crushed to death by a mountain rock and resolved to the fact that there’s nothing that I can do to stop what’s happening now. But, there’s definitely a lot of things that I can do if I reach home safely.
After about an hour, the road was cleared again by the JCB heroes and vehicles lined up one by one to cross the broken road. When our bus went past the rubble, I noticed the monstrosity of the damage and how difficult it would have been for the JCB to make way for us. In my prayers, I thanked them for their help and smiled remembering the stories my grandfather used to tell us– about the real everyday heroes.
The bus started again and I feasted my eyes with the last few moments of greenery around me before the sunset. I realized that this is probably the maximum amount of greenery that I had seen in my life and that thought put a smile on my face. It was lush carpet-green scenery, the one that you only see on a painter’s canvas. It felt so plush and enticing, even from a distance. I imagined that in a parallel universe the other Shruti would have crossed the river, walked on the wet mushy grass, and took a little nap.
It was 6.00 PM by now and we were still 100 KMs far from Rishikesh. There was no way we were going to make it to our destination before sunset. My fear returned with this realization. But this time I confronted myself- Why are you so full of fear? What are you afraid of? Dying? If it’s dying then you really are stupid. Everyone dies, okay? Face it.
That was some self-bashing! But I wasn’t getting knocked down easily. So, I thought about it. What am I really afraid of?
I’m afraid of a huge boulder rolling from the top and pushing our bus down into the valley, into the river. It would all happen within seconds and no one would know about it. We will topple, tumble and break all our bones before finally dying by sinking in the holy river.
But what if you survive? What if you manage to leap out, just in a flash of time and plunge to a nearby tree?
Well, it sounds impossible. But even if you consider it, It wouldn’t be long before my body will give up. No one will ever know that I’m hanging there and that they can rescue me. They all will look at the damaged bus, cover the story in the local newspapers and it’ll be all over for them. I’ll just keep hanging for a few hours, or max a day– just like a fossil in the ice. Alive, but no one knows that its heart’s still beating. And then I’ll probably give up and lose the grip, fall into the river, and finally die.
After this self-realization, there was a peculiar silence inside me. Probably my inner human understood what was the whole fuss about. On the outside, I was happy I mustered the courage to dig into my demons and was thankful that my mind-numbing self-chatter had subsided.
It was completely dark outside when we finally pulled for another roadblock.
7.30 PM, Landslide four
I wasn’t disturbed or scared or worried. It was another long jam, lots of people were stranded and by that time, I had accepted that this can be handled with maturity. And just like Arya Stark from The Game of Thrones, I had told the God of Death- “Not today!”
By this time, I was responding to jokes by Tarun, conversing with people around me and just being all merry and cheerful. I was just 70 KMs away from Rishikesh (and 120 KMs home) but I was positive that there won’t be any more landslides on the rest of our way.
And truly, there weren’t anymore.
We reached Rishikesh by 11 PM and home by 12.30 AM and slept like we’ve never slept before.
Moral of my story
What you just read was the most exhilarating experience of my life and whether you liked it or not, I loved experiencing it. It’s mostly about my fears but there was one thing that kept coming back to me when I was stranded in a landslide.
It’s been more than 15 days that I was stranded in the mountains, praying to every Hindu god to take a pause from the incessant rains. And today, I’m sitting on my sofa and writing down my story for my blog. Sometimes, I wonder at the futility of the thoughts. If nothing bad is meant to happen, wouldn’t it make sense to stop worrying about it at the moment?
But then that would make everyone unconquerable, wouldn’t it?
Life’s better when it’s unpredictable.
The other thing that I learned from my experience is that humans are a speck of dust and we can never conquer nature. This experience reminded me of the clip from Disney’s movie Moana. I’m not sure if you’ve seen it or not (if you haven’t, watch it TODAY!)
Here’s the clip that I remember– Moana returning the heart of Te-Fiti (AKA Te-ka) which was stolen by a demi-god and which disturbed the balance of nature.
I felt like Moana many times that day- young, confused, afraid, sometimes strong, but all the while, determined to restore the imbalance. I wish to be her someday– with all my demons and fears. It helps keep me in check and not become too adventurous!
Because, let’s just accept it– we are too small in comparison to Mother Nature. It’ll take minutes (not even hours) to make humans an extinct species on Earth. So, we better respect what has been given to us.