One day at around 5 PM, there was a giant rockfall at one end of town, a few hundred yards from the house. It sounded a bit like thunder, but went on for several minutes, creating a large cloud of dust. At first I didn’t pay much attention to the noise, assuming that it was thunder, which we had earlier that day, but then I stuck my head out the window, and not seeing anything, I continued reading. When the sound continued, I went to the front of the house which faced the opposite direction. The dust cloud was still quite visible, though most of the rumbling had stopped by then. Above, the Gulabgarh-Manali road had been cut in half by tons of rock debris, and several cars were stranded on both sides, unable to move. Tashi and I, along with half the town it seemed, walked over to see the damage. A couple of shops and houses had been completely destroyed, and there were several truck sized boulders on the road leading out of town. Although not visible, I was told that one woman had been killed when she went back into her shop. We all milled about for a time, until a group of soldiers and policemen, some with machine guns, came running up and insisted we clear the area.
Road being repaired after rockfall
I returned to Tashi’s house to find him sitting around with several other relatives discussing what had happened. The drinking had already begun. Soon after, the rain began to fall in earnest, a real problem given the almost constant rainfall of the last two months. It was the first actual rain since my arrival, but although each day was clear in the morning, clouds usually appeared in mid-afternoon. No doubt all the rain was a factor in the rockfall. These young and intimidating mountains are still unstable. As they are pushed up by the collision of tectonic plates, they are simultaneously worn down by the forces of erosion and gravity. Despite man's obvious presence, we are still visitors here. We are not in charge in these mountains. Nature is, and life is tenuous. It always is of course, but here the feeling is palpable.
Later in the evening more people showed up at Tashi's including a pony man from previous treks, as well as some villagers who had worked as porters. Ram was also there, a man of about Tashi’s age, mid to late 40’s, who is headmaster of a government school, some 15K up the road. Or rather, 15K, and then a 3-4 hour walk beyond the road. It is a Hindu village, though Ram is Buddhist. He is well educated, with a master’s degree from a college in Manali. Now that he is headmaster, after 12 years of teaching, he only has to be at the school about 15 days a month. The rest of the time, he lives in Gulabgarh, where he has a house and also owns a small restaurant which serves Chinese food. His English was quite good, although with a thick accent that got harder to understand as he continued drinking. Apparently he too has been on a couple of treks with Tashi during the summer months, first as a cook and then as a guide. He has two daughters and a wife who in live in Jammu. This way his children can attend school there.
As headmaster, he earns about 40,000 rupees per month, and then his little restaurant brings in another 10 to 15,000. At one point, he and Tashi got into a drunken discussion about the benefits and disadvantages of a government job vs. the private sector. According to Ram, in a good year Tashi can earn twice as much as he does in just a couple of summer months, but as Tashi pointed out, nothing is certain in the trekking business.
Once again they attempted to ply me with wheat hooch. Although they made it hard to refuse, I managed to avoid drinking more than a glass or two, as the stuff gave me a headache the night before.
Ram, more or less talked my ears off, even telling me about his French girlfriend who he met on a trek in the late 90’s, when he was young.
“She really wanted to get married,” he said, but he encouraged her to go back to France and think about it. After that, he never heard from her again.
He made a point of telling me that I would be welcome to stay at his house, or any house for that matter in Gulabgarh
He said that the Buddhist community really goes out of their way for a guest and a foreigner.
I have no reason to doubt it. I can certainly say that Tashi and Puti have gone out of their way to make me feel comfortable, like an honored guest.
Ram also questioned me about life in America, and whether kids there are the same as kids here. Not an easy question to answer. Tsering, Tashi’s 8 year old daughter seems incredibly responsible. She understands a fair bit of English, but like so many kids here, is reluctant to speak it. Even so, she goes out of her way to take care of me, just like her parents, without being asked by them to do so. She does things like getting me an extra pillow to sit on the floor, getting my water bottle so I don’t have to get up, etc. I doubt whether too many 8 year olds in the states would just take it upon themselves to behave this way. On the other hand, perhaps Tsering is just a great kid. Unusual. She certainly is a great kid, but I suspect she is not unique in this way.
After a few hours of rambling conversation, Ram came right out and asked me what I thought about him, obviously wanting my approval, the approval of an American, and someone he considers his better.
As he put it, “USA people on top of the world.”
How else could I respond other than saying that he seemed like a good guy.
On a different night, Tashi and I sat around with his older brother, 55, here for a few days from Kabban. They were drinking local stuff, and I was drinking beer that Tashi had picked up for me from Jammu. Somehow we got started talking about Karma. Tashi believes in Karma, but only in his life time. He thinks that If you do good things you will reap the benefits of your hard work and diligence in this life. He does not believe that he was born in a poor family with nine other siblings because of bad Karma.
“What would you brother say about this,” I asked.
And then he translated.
The brother, not surprisingly, said he did think he had done something to cause his birth in such a poor family during a previous life, and added that I must have been a better person in a previous life to have been born in the US, and to have all the opportunities that I have had. He then looked at me, put his hand together, and bowed his head.
Tashi had previously told me that his brother’s children were also studying in Jammu. One was in engineering school and the other had passed the initial exam to go to medical school. And so I said, “If he believes in Karma in the way he described, then why is he sending his children to school?
Tashi translated this.
His brother said that sending his children to school is not the same and that their Karma is not the same as his.
This seemed somewhat contradictory to me. How could their Karma not be influenced by his, since they too were born under similar circumstances? I did not ask him to explain, as I suspect there was no rational explanation. I am sure that he would think my Karma was still better than that of his children.
Tashi and I continued to talk about the fact that there is no reason for his birth in poverty with few opportunities, and mine in America to a middle-class family. Just an accident and luck. He said that with hard work and a wider vision of what is possible, no matter where he was born he could make something of his life.
Amen to that.
He is clearly an example of this, especially in relation to his siblings.
He explained that one day, he and his younger brother went to a fortune teller.The fortune teller said that Tashi would be a kind of king, and that his older brothers and sisters would be beneath him, and more or less his servants. He didn’t believe this, but his brother who has more formal education than Tashi did believe it. Tashi’s beliefs have clearly evolved over the years, probably because of his western contacts.
He told me another story. There is a section of road somewhere between here and Jammu that has been the site of many accidents. The Hindu’s have built many temples there, thinking that if they did so God would protect them. More recently, a well trained engineer came to that location, and pointed out all the technical problems with the road in terms of the grade, width, sharpness of the curve etc. If these things were fixed, he said, there would be fewer deaths.
"So," Tashi continued, "it wasn’t the fault of God."
This was an obvious conclusion to me, but perhaps not to most people who live here. I didn’t ask whether the engineer’s recommendations were ever enacted by the J&K government, but I think I know the answer. Perhaps that's why people believe that God will somehow protect them. They know that can’t count on the government to fix things, so what else do they have?
The discussion continued about local politics. Apparently there are two contiguous districts in Kisthwar, each with its own district magistrate and administrator. One of them cares very much about the people, and in that district, the medical care you receive in the local hospital is free, and each person receives 20,000 rupees if they have a serious illness in order to help pay for their lost wages. In the other district there is no free care and no stipend.
I asked, “ Doesn’t this make people angry?”
“Yes, it would, but 90% don’t know. Of the other 10%, probably 8% are in the pocket of that district administrator, and that leaves 2%. What can you do with 2%? Nothing.”
It is not hard to believe that 90% are unaware. There are no newspapers here. No reliable internet. The only news is word of mouth. And yes, there is more access in Kisthwar, a fairly large city compared to Gulabgarh, but how many can afford it?
While these discussions were taking place we were all sitting on hard cushions, on a cold, concrete floor. Not that easy for me with my creaky, older bones, but they are used to it. For the first few hours there was no electricity, true for most nights, and the room was lit with a single candle. There has been no water for two days now, and the toilet and bathroom reek. I have been going to the school to shit for the past two mornings because somehow there is still running water there. As we talked, the smell of urine wafts through the room. At around 10, Tashi fired up the kerosene stove to heat up the remains of lunch, dried beans from last summer and potatoes mixed into a curry. There was also rice and chapatis left over from lunch.
Normally Puti cooks dinner, but she was not here. There was not that much food, but as usual Tashi gave me the biggest plate, his brother next, and took the smallest one for himself. They have consumed two bottles of local hooch, whereas I have managed one can of beer.