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HOSTAGE TO FEAR IN THE FOREST OF DWARIKHAL

   EVENING shades were descending at Shrinagar, in Garhwal, as I searched frantically for a ‘cab’ (euphemism for a dilapidated contraption on four wheels crammed like sardines) to take me onwards to the town of Pauri. My destination lay further than Pauri. My native village, Onchar. Some 40 km away from Shrinagar.

Eleven heads were counted before the driver was satisfied that every millimetre
of ramshackle jeep was taken. As we put distance, with deafening sounds of the vehicle, between Shrinagar and us, the contours of the historic town took several shapes before our eyes. The lazily curling river Alakananda seemed to have stopped for a night halt, perhaps to mourn the death of three activists of the Uttarakhand movement at the Shree Yantra Tapoo or a patch of sands in the middle of the river.

Suddenly, a thought crossed my mind: How would I reach my village in the descending curtain of darkness. That would put an edge to the treacherous
trail full of, as Calvin of the comic strips would say, full of no-see-ums. Fear mounted, my stomach slowly twisting into knots.

Reaching Pauri, the town where some faint imprints of the Raj are still intact, I walked hurriedly to the point from where I might just be lucky enough to get the last bus to my village. But it was too late. I had missed the last bus. No other transport was in sight. A cold stillness enveloped me. Despair gripped me till a
cab appeared on the horizon. A charming young boy was at the wheel. With him was a middle-aged couple busily munching. The drunken male was trying to repeatedly express something but his wife seemed uncomfortable with her husband’s overt expression.

The jeep-taxi moved as dusk turned to gloom before an inky darkness descended, shutting out all light. The precipitate fall of night made it apparent
that there was no hope of reaching home before the no-see-ums made their appearance. Somewhere along the way it dawned that the cab had no intention
of moving in the desired direction. This knowledge came to me as a shock
chilling my spines.

Seething with anger and yet realising the pointlessness of arguing, I watched gloomily, while treading the Pauri-Deoprayag road, the awesome Chaukhambha peak sitting calmly in meditation like an aged saint with white beard and similar robs. The lustrous Idwal Valley, down below, looked like a large black hole.

On left of Chaukhambha peak, the Chandrabadani peak, devoted to Lord
Shiva’s consort Parvati, looked blemish, as wings of darkness had already been unfurled. I wondered how Hinduism was practised in Garhwal in the most intriguing fashion. A sort of co-existence or intermingling of Hinduism with
the local religious flavours full of deity worshipping and rituals as well as festivals forming an important part of its life.

Soon, the cab entered the dense forest of Dwaridhar, almost pitch dark and menacing. Oaks, rhododendrons, pines, deodars, and shrubs had all fused in a satanic fortress. The Keenash Parbat just above the head, where Lord Yama or the God of Death is believed to have meditated, seemed calling me loudly. And with panic gnawing at my entrails, I realised that I had to get off soon. A little ahead, I got down as the cab came to a screeching halt and started running the moment my feet touched the cool metalled road.

Very soon, I ran out of gas. I was alone, even not god with me, I thought.
On the next turn, I saw some women, burdened with piles of fodder, coming
from opposite direction. It instilled a sense of reassurance in me, though they
were heading towards their village after a daylong search for fodder. Alas!
The women crossed me soon, paying no heed to my presence. Were they indifferent to my presence because of heavy piles of fodder on their heads
or were the times changed, I guessed.

In old times when I was a child, every passer-by used to at least say hello if not asked about the whereabouts. Before I could think more, the women had disappeared. Only dark serpentine road reminding of their footprints.

As I moved ahead, memories of my childhood seized me. Trees became ghosts playing evil music swinging, dangling, and making fun of me. My childhood fellows! I wondered why these same trees that grew with me were become so frightful.

The rounded Idwal Valley seemed to have fallen into slumber. Only the pale,
small lights in the distance gave an inkling of existence of life in the villages. The cacophony of birds returning to their nests fell silent and the winds whistled
in my ears, teasing me for being alone. My hiking boots began making strange squelching sounds. The road was the same on which I had trod umpteen times.
I knew even the milestones, as were the rocks sitting by the side of road. The
high hills, deep gorges, and verdant Idwal Valley looked like a land of ghosts.

Every village, where pale lights twinkled, looked different. Every shrub concealed a tiger. I mulled over the choices I had, if the mighty Sher Khan did make his appearance. Die valiantly or surrender to a painful death!

I opted for the former. I pulled out my muffler from the neck and wrapped it around my hands in a strange fashion so that I could tackle the beast the
moment it tried to pounce. Some yards ahead, I sensed as if there were some
wild animal on the shoulder of the road. I froze, straining to hear for the fateful footfall. But the animal did not move. I tried the best imitation of animal sounds with the hope that it would provoke whatever no-see-um lurked in the bushes. Yet, whatever it was, had apparently lost interest and moved on.

A grocery at Achharikhal, some three km from the place where I had got down, was my last hope for an escort. On reaching the grocery, I called out for the vendor, Puran Singh Rawat or Punna Lala as he was popularly known. I knew him as he belonged to a nearby village. No response came. I yelled at the peak of my weakened voice but again there was no response. This was the end of the world for me. I was unable to walk in the darkness any further. My legs would not move an inch. My heart was all about to blast.

Suddenly, I noticed lights filtering through the backdoor of the grocery. Persistent hammering and much coaxing finally got the old man agreeable to the idea of escorting me home or at least to a point from where I could call someone from my village. His company, however, proved far from reassuring as he first advised me not to worry about death, which in his words would come any moment. Next, he handed over to me his torch with almost exhausted cells and bade me farewell. The chilly and noisy winds sounded like the pounces of Sher Khan.

Torch in hand, I broke into a run, hoping against hope that he would hear my mortal cries in case the worst happened. When I looked back, nothing was there. Not even a silhouette.

Soon, I could see the pale lights of my village, nestled down besides a thick forest. But it looked hundreds of miles away. I did not dare to call out for fear of wild beasts. Also, I was sure my old mother sitting besides her choolha would never hear my voice. Besides, the voice does not travel downwardly in the hills. The rings of sounds always tend to travel upwardly like hot air, I would think.

Huffing and panting, I finally reached a place from where I cried at the top of my voice as fear, relief, and hope mingled in a roller coaster. The resident of the house that stood sentinel to the village responded to my distress call, and came out running. My journey was at an end with a hot cup of reassuring tea but every time I see darkness descend in hilly terrains, I relive those endless moments when I was hostage to the fears in the forests of Dwarikhal.

(This piece was written in December, 1995)

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By Suresh Nautiyal
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