Land Beyond the Growing Hill
It had been three months since I was in Leh. If you were to visit the Stupa before sunset on any given day that week you would have seen me, a man with a camera on a tripod, wearing shorts and a furry jacket that even Liza Minnelli would shy away from wearing, and balancing a pot of Namkeen Chai on a tiny erosional fin. Everyone on the road from the guesthouse I stayed in to the bazaar knew me, and I knew everyone
Being a videographer was a relatively new concept for the locals. I had set up my camera in the exact same location every day for the past week to capture the perfect footage of the sun rising from behind the barren hills. The old man selling Namphey, a kind of huskless barley, on the foot of the hill questioned my ability to click a simple picture. The lady with a baby strapped on her back, who visited the Stupa every evening, offered to click the picture for me. I could hear the silent applause from the locals the day I announced my success in shooting the sunrise.
Summer had officially arrived with the increase in uprooted spinach and garlic saplings being sold in the market. The woollen mufflers and sweaters that the women knit through the winter were now on sale. The day-bazaar collected more people than lived in the town. The road from Srinagar had just been declared open a couple of days earlier, which would mean an entry of heated buses, filled with tourists who could never have known how different the wild camomile flowers growing along the sides of the inner lanes of Leh smelled from the tea sold in the supermarkets of Delhi or Mumbai.
I left the town the next morning, this time to shoot the sun rising from the horizon of the Pangong Lake. The sky was unusually clear that day. The juxtaposition of the brown spotless hills with the blue spotless sky seduced me to stop the car and begin filming on the way, but the long journey ahead and the thought of seeing the same blue sky above the partly turquoise, partly teal and partly sapphire lake was too alluring to risk a weather change.
I crossed villages, the highest motorable passes, valleys, streams, rivers and tunnels made of snow with protruding snow cones. Just when I had begun to get oblivious to the majesty around me, a thick unending cloud of loose dust blanketed my car. I stopped. I had no courage to let go of the brakes. What if there was a blind curve at the end of the haze?
The brown cloud started thinning as the wind blew. I still held on to the brake, fearing the car would roll down the hill if I didn’t. There was a vibrating noise at the left rear window interspersed with a knocking sound that echoed inside. With my hands tightly clutching the steering wheel and my feet firmly holding down the brake I turned my head back as much as I could.
It was a local Ladakhi woman knocking and saying something simultaneously. I gestured to her to come to my window. I rolled down the glass a little while fanning the dust out with my hand.
I greeted her with a ‘Jullay’ and tried making conversation with the little Bhoti I had learnt in Leh. She replied in Hindi highlighting my incompetence in the Ladakhi language. She said that she saw me halt there for a suspiciously long time and thought of inquiring if everything was alright. She was speaking to me but her eyes were scanning the inside of my car. She lived in a village miles perpendicular from the highway. Cars never stopped on that road. But my car had been stationed there so long that she mustered her courage and walked up to it. She said she had never been in a car in her life.
What kind of a person has never been in a car? I offered to drop her to her village. Without a moment of hesitation or contemplation, she agreed.
She sat in the car with her head-dress of orange ribbon curled up like a flower touching the walls of my car. I could tell she belonged to the Dard community by the burst of floral accessories in her attire. She firmly held the seat with her hands as the car went down the highway towards her village which she said was beyond a hill that had been growing ever since she was a child.
We passed a boulevard of wild yellow flowers, mysteriously unbroken sand dunes and strange rock formations. She felt disoriented at such high speed. ‘The last time I went so fast was on a wild donkey. All the villagers came searching for me that day’, she said.
Her village was nothing but a vast stretch of land with a dozen scattered houses beyond a hill overlooking a stream. I stopped right outside her house. She didn’t invite me in. Instead she took me to a farm across the stream.
I had seen nothing as delicate yet innately strong as the multitude – running almost in hundreds – of stone pyramids ornamenting the barren land. The wind and sand blew hard against them testing their ability to balance. ‘This is our guardian land,’ she said.
Every stone had a story, a wish. She took me from one pyramid to another, telling me the story behind each structure. We ended at a pyramid that was erected by her parents wishing she would be born. ‘They found the perfect stones on the bed of the stream,’ she said.
The sunlight reflected off one pyramid and the next, creating a rhythmic show of light. We reached a yellow pasture. Himalayan marmots emerged from the bushes unaware of our presence. Some fought playfully, some ate flowers, some collected them, and some just wandered about aimlessly. They occasionally gave way to the donkeys passing through the pasture, but most just stood there staunchly, expecting the big guys to take a detour.
I told the Ladakhi woman to wait there for me. I ran back to my car, returned with my camera and began filming. I recorded everything as quickly as I could. I could not bear to look at the sight through a view-finder for long.
When we returned to the village, a group of people had circled the vehicle trying to peep through the tinted windows. What kind of village has never been in a car? I took them all on a drive, in batches.
Daytime was spent in the vast space with an unending horizon on all four sides. Every person was accompanied by an animal in the fields. Some people toiled the land, some planted saplings, some instructed others, and some just sat staring at nothing in particular. Time was a concept unknown. Space, boundless.
I departed the village late in the afternoon. I reached Pangong in the evening, captured the setting sun and left for home the next week.
When you chose to live in a city, you tacitly sign up to adhere to the rigid deadlines that a city life demands. I did freelance work for an international travel website that required me to upload video blogs. The same evening that I got back to Mumbai, I edited the footage I had captured in the village, cleaned up the rough edges and uploaded it on the website. Feeling quite conceited about my work, I shut the laptop, made myself a hot cup of Kahwa and drifted off to sleep.
I woke up the next morning to a multitude of messages, tweets and emails. No one had tried to communicate with me with such urgency before. I turned on my laptop and went through my phone simultaneously. My video had gone viral overnight.
My phone buzzed all morning. Everyone was asking for the location of the village. The website owners called me the same afternoon. ‘You struck gold,’ they said. A travel agency offered them a partnership to publicise the place and promote it on an international scale.
I sat on my bed, opened my laptop and read the long string of comments below my video and saw the number of views rise every hour. My phone vibrated on the side table. Another person wanting to get there. Disclosing the location of the village would mean an influx, of the same tourist buses that I so resented into a village where people had never even seen a car. The cacophony of tour guides on loud speakers, the allure of money, the adherence of deadlines, the constant flash lights of cameras. But who was I to decide their fate?
I cleared the voices in my head and reloaded the website. I signed in as an uploader, took down the video and shut the laptop with a thud. It was time to travel again.
Kennith Rosario is a Mass Media-Journalism graduate from St. Xavier's College, Mumbai. He has studied Creative Writing at University of Oxford as an International Scholar. Travelling, reading and writing are three things he can never have enough of. Writing short fiction has always fascinated him along with reading and discussing other people's work and understanding the diverse thought-processes and experiences that play a role in fiction writing. He lives and writes in Mumbai.