We completed three hours walk that day and decided to make a night halt. Sheltering was little tough but the way we selected the spot and met our needs are worth mentioning. We prepared huge bonfire, used three ‘ghos’ as the substitute for blanket and collected wild ferns and mosses for the cushioning of the beds as well as preventing ourselves from the dampness of the ground. Understanding the situation, we slept in turns and I came last in the priority list.
The next morning we had hot black tea with ginger and salt in it. We had some arguments whether to add butter (to make taste like Suza) in it or not but a majority decided otherwise. Within a while we began our destined trip in a long linear procession. Each of us held a wild bamboo walking stick that served as a walking tool. We had to climb up the hill from one side of a mountain, go downhill from the other side; cross the rivulets and continue the ranges one after the other. Keeping in mind the condition of the detainees, we did not cover too much distance in a day. We took rest, sang melodies, whistled beautiful tunes and enjoyed the serene beauty of the gorges. By the dusk, we could feel the pain in the calves and decided to halt for another night.
After having carried out the normal routine, intuitively, yet logically a bad weather forecast was made; that would have adversely affected our journey, had we slept there that night. So the group decided to continue walking at night, with the help of a double cell torch light that only one of us had. Apparently, there was a dense snow fall the previous day. The path was not easily traceable. The sky was clear, so we could at least trace the foot prints of yaks. Without much delay we packed up everything again and started our journey. Initially, I felt little scared but got used to it as we carried on. There were challenges, both in terms of meeting the deadline to meet our dear ones before they got evacuated as well as the fear of diminishing provisions that they wouldn’t last longer than we wished for. The more experienced ones predicted that it would at least be two to three hours before we crossed the peak.
Dhakal Maldai was always the end follower on the line. Gradually there appeared some complexity that we could trace by the way he was walking. To our despair, we found out that he had a very fatal accident some six months before his arrest. He had fallen down from a tree and fractured his two ribs, dislocated his left pelvic girdle and had other bodily injuries. He underwent some traditional healing and never used the modern medical treatment. With just the partial recovery he was arrested with no cause. In the captivity, he suffered the most due to physical torture and the cumulative impact of accident. Prisoners were not having warm clothes on their body and not all were having the sleepers at their feet, forget about the boots. There was no head covering and the mountain storms were very strong as if the blowing wind could fly us away. The top of the peak was a special ecological zone with typical dried grasses, mostly solid barren cliff clad with white snow and there was some cyclonic effect of the wind in the pass.
Frostbite/ Acute mountain sickness
We felt as if it had been hours we had started walking but we were yet quite far away from the peak. Dhakal Dai really found it tough to cope up and when we were almost at the top, he got sick. All we saw was that he shivered a bit, stretched his arms and fell down on the snowy ground. His hands were frozen, jaws tight and body was cold. He became senseless. He had almost stopped breathing and we all were too scared of the situation. I don’t know what others thought on that occasion but I began praying and begging the almighty to spare our Dai and let him be not denied of the chance to meet his beloved ones back home. My Kaka used to be a spiritual healer which he used to practice at times by doing some ‘jhar-phuk’. He caught hold of his hands, chanted some spiritual mantras blew some air that smoothly ran through the victims palm.
Kaka knew it was the altitude problem and tried to protect him from cold but there was no chance to make the fire and warm him. He took out a thin bed-sheet from his basket and wrapped him up. No difference. The one and only alternative we had, was to carry him on our back and continue to cross the peak at the earliest. Kaka handed his basket to me, took out his ‘kera’ and tied Dhakal Dai to his back. He carried him for half an hour, then came the turn of my cousin for almost the same duration and finally I did for last half an hour. By then we reached at a place which had some bushy vegetation. We ignited the fire with great care, collected some ice, melted it and boiled it. We warmed our sick Dai, gave him a glass of ginger hot water and finally he sense came back. It took almost an hour for him to come to the speech. By the time he started to talk he totally broke down and began to cry. We tried to console him, but it wasn’t easy to make him listen. He spoke out all his frustrations, wanted further to end his life there, but we all encouraged him and made him realize that he did not live just for himself. We couldn’t make a complete halt there and so we decided to move further. We entered a very thick wild bamboo forest and visibility was diminishing due to canopy.
My cousin was leading the line, then me and then the rest. We were walking very slowly, hardly being able to trace the footsteps left behind by previous travelers. It had been probably another half an hour walk when we reached a sunken hump area that was very steep. All of a sudden, a huge black creature jumped and attacked us in the mid night. It was four footed, hairy monster about four feet tall but too sturdy. All shouted together ‘it finished us’. My cousin faced it directly as he was in front. The monster pushed him aside so strongly that he went rolling for quite a distance and then it was my turn. I do not know where I got that courage and energy from, but in a fraction of a second, I decided to hit the monster with my walking stick. I first hit it on the nose, and others behind me followed me. May be 10 to 12 sticks in its body everywhere, the monster turned away and ran away. Everyone sat there, lips dried, sweating in the snow. Then we pulled the cousin up and found out that he had some cuts here and there but not very deep and serious ones.
We sat there for 10 minutes, unable to decide what to do next, either to move ahead or take a halt. Both were equally risky options. Kaka lighted the match and smoked a ‘bidi’. He was holding a touch light and began observing the spot where I hit that monster. He collected some long black hairs and began to check the footprint. He went some 15 feet ahead watching the marks as the prints were very distinct in the wet path, and came back saying, “Oh! That was a yak”. Until then we all thought we fought a bear, but we actually fought a yak. We continued further and finally reached a big cave which had been a shelter spot for most travelers who used that route (once in a blue moon) and we slept there for the rest of the night.
A shocking conversation
The journey for the third day was mainly a steep downhill slope, and with a significantly heavy bag-pack, it wasn’t easy to balance ourselves. We knew we were closer to our destination comparatively, but because we were from different villages, quite far apart, our route had to bifurcate at some point. The point, still at a distant, we were convinced that we would not reach there in the day light. From the day we penetrated into the forest, we never encountered a human being, but at least now, we started seeing some cattle graze in the pastures. This actually made us feel closer to home and the fear and pain converted to excitement and positive energy. We began to hear the ‘Hoowee’ sound from the cattle herders and we too replied in a similar way. Finally, the time did not wait. We had to separate. We decided to sit there for a while and exchange conversation. This moment has been remembered by me as one of my most emotional moments in life, as we started to predict that this could be our last meeting for ever. We did not know what fate had in store for us. Our emotional exchange of words was distracted by the appearance of an elderly man, in a light dress, who was recognized by everybody accept me. He began to tell the incidents that occurred in the village like a narrator in TV channel. That man was the neighbor of our Rai Dai. Raidai was in mid 40s that time. He had a happy family with his wife, two sons and two daughters and the eldest of all was a daughter of sixteen years old. His house was just 15 minutes walk from the then existing school. That very school was used as a secondary army cantonment during the search operations. When the battalion made the night halts, the local government staffs had to find girls from the villages to serve the personnel. If samajpati, karbari or block members failed to provide them, then they had to face the consequence. While sharing all these updates, the strange person very innocently and lightly told ‘your Thuli is raped by army’.
This was a horror shock to him. He must have felt as if the whole mountain fell on him. Not able to withstand the shock, he turned pale, eyes wet and mouth foaming. He took a deep breathe with a whistle sound, sat down on the ground. He began weeping but he couldn’t produce the sound. He stood up and fainted. I caught hold of Raidai and lifted his head on my lap. Cousin began to give some fresh air by waving his sweated cap and kaka rushed to fetch some water. Some of us shouted at the man, accusing him of the guilt that this was not the right time to say all these things. We also warned of the danger of any consequences that may have arisen, but Rai Dai would have known this any way at a later stage. I leave it up to the readers to figure out who was right, and not make the story too long by explaining how Rai Dai got up to his sense. But what he told us after he got up is worth mentioning here. A part of the school building was ablaze by some miscreants and army asked Raidai to explain who, how and why the school was ablaze. Raidai never knew the answers as he always lived at forest shifting his cattle. He never knew local incidences also. When he couldn’t give the statements, he was detained and forwarded to the central jail. His only guilt was to have his house close to the school.
Click here to read the first series of ‘The Struggling Journey-I’