From my TOI blog, Freeze Frame
This is a story about the mighty Himalayas and some grand old people from a time not so long ago but from long before Uttarakhand had come into existance.
In Calcutta, Kundu Specials is an institution. The Kundu family run travel company, for four generations, took good care of the travel bug that lay dormant in a middle class Bengali’s mind, selfishly hoarding casual leaves, sick and rainy day leaves through the year and building a corpus for that one annual vacation, to any where the heart desired. Because, when it comes to vacationing, the Bengali represents the Japanese tourist in India. Travel where you will, and you are bound to chance upon the inimitable saree draped Bangali lady, with kids popping out of monkey caps and sweaters and the harried gentleman trying to fit all of them into his photo frame against the sea, mountain, desert or historical monument backdrop. Kundu Specials, over the years, have ensured that the Bengali gentry travelled in comfort to places they had only dreamt of visiting, ate four Bengali meals a day cooked by the Bengali cooks who accompanied the group and brought back albums full of memories from the customised-and-guided-yet-affordable Kundu Special trip.
This story is from the days when Kundu Travels had moved their Strand Road office to the heart of Calcutta, on Chittaranjan Avenue, closer to where my Dadu’s (grandfather) shop stood. The second generation Mr. Kundu, Kundu dadu to us, would sit in my Dadu’s shop, sipping tea and hatching plots of sending out his annual troops to various parts of North India, to cooler climes and also chalk out itenerary for a handful of his friends like Dadu, to the mighty mountains, to the maths and ashrams hidden in the valleys among those mountains, to Gomukh, Gangotri, Yamunotri, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath. Dadu, on those days, would evidently return home happier, having reserved four seats with Kundu Specials.
My Dadu loved travelling and nothing could ever come in the way of his wanderlust, not even money. I remember his tale about one such trip, when he had spent a few months of his twenty-something years in heart of India, Madhya Pradesh, in the estate of Rewa, interning at the Royal estate, where the morning breakfast, among other things comprised of bread with a really thick layer of butter, “about 5 mm thick. Imagine biting into such a slice and ending up with butter smeared over your lips and teeth,” he would tell us, eyes glistening from the memories of his carefree youth.
The first four seats reserved for Kundu Dadu’s tirth yatra to the Himalayas would be that of Dadu, Dida (my grandmother), followed by her best friend, her Boudi (her brother’s wife) and her brother. Come our summer vacation, the foursome would pack their leather suitcases with clothes, woollens and thermals, roll up their hold-alls and be gone for their summer sojourn.
Someone whispers the names ‘Joshi Math, Kedar Nath, Badri Nath, Amar Nath, Shesh Nag, Gaumukh, Lal Baba ka Ashram, ek roti ek kambal….’ as I sit writing this post. Voices from the past surface, ebb, flow and pour forth stories of walking up to Gangotri, riding horses that trotted perilously close to the edge of the road, narrow passes that opened up into valleys in the foothills of snow capped monsters, freezing, moon lit nights spent in makeshift Kundu Special tents, eating Luchi-alur torkari on the way up to Amarnath, Lal Baba’s Ashram at Gaumukh that dictated the rule ‘ek roti, ek kambal’ – the traveller would be given blankets equivalent to the number of Rotis he would have – ‘to keep the cold and weary traveller warm from outside and from within’. I remember Dadu telling us about that one time when on their way up the treacherous mountaineous terrain, he had been separated from the group, having lost his way in a sudden blizzard, very close to Kedar Nath and his only hope to guide him through the storm was his horseman. His horse had trotted off into the blizzard, they had nothing to guide them, their cry for help enveloped by the howling, raging storm, the late afternoon had darkened into an impenetrable, pitch darkness, and only long walking sticks to help them discern between the road and the slope that plunged into the deep ravine below. “Part of the way we had to slide down the barren, snow covered mountainside, do you know how?” he would ask the little heads who would gather around his knee, eyes popping out in trying to imagine the snow storm. “After the storm had passed, we moved ahead a few kilometers, stopping every few feet to dip the walking stick in the snow before stepping there. Then the ghorawalla pulled out out a thick plastic sheet, perhaps a part of his tent, laid it flat on the snow almost along the edge. We thought we had seen lights in the valley below. He asked me to sit down on it, and as I did he gently pushed me from the back, following right behind me on his sheet. It was a slightly bumpy but smooth ride down, perhaps a kilometer or two long – who could tell in that darkness?” He would smile.
“And when he had finally reached the camp, after the storm had passed, about eight hours later, I had thought it was his ghost that had appeared before us”, Dida would add, who incidentally had spent those eight hours, according to Dadu, “only thinking about the worse and howling her heart out”.
I distinctly remember four of those summer vacations, when the fantastic four had galavanted to the mountains and had brought back bags of walnuts, almonds, Gods and Goddesses carved out of marble and bags full of stories. I have treasured some precious moments from those summers, reading big fat books that belonged to Chhotomashi, the late evening card games with my cousins, nights I spent lying under the stars on the terrace with Chhotomashi listening to Vividh Bharati and Radio Ceylon, the eerily dark corridors on the ground floor mostly populated by over sized rats, the quiet of the night broken by the abuses of the neighbourhood drunkard, lazy, late morning breakfasts – almost a circus of sorts. And some afternoons, wandering through the quiet house, when all else were lost in post lunch siesta, touching my Dida’s fine bone china, her starched sarees on her closet rail, going through my Dadu’s drawer, his hair brushes and his collection of old coins, I would feel a fear gripping me, ‘what if they don’t come back this time?’
Dida, after all these years, spends most of her time by her aging window, quietly lost in her forgetfulness, once in a while the past flashes through her mind and she tells us those stories, again. The neighborhood has changed, the bougenville that my Mama had planted outside the house the year Dadu passed away has climbed along the wall and reached the terrace, the afternoons are far from quiet and the house doesn’t seem so large any more or perhaps I have grown up finally.
The last conversation I had with her was on my last visit, last year. She had thought that I was her long lost best frind from her childhood, I had played along and we spoke about her childhood, her marriage to Dadu when she was just 15, raising her children in a big city, Dadu and Dida’s Saturday evening ritual of watching a movie together, their trips, Vaishno Devi, Amarnath, Badrinath, Kedarnath, Joshi Math… And she suddenly turned to me and asked, “What if he hadn’t returned after the storm had passed over Kedarnath?”
Today, when I sit and write this post, thousands are still trapped, hungry and cold in Kedar, awaiting rescue with time ticking against their destiny. And her fears and mine have suddenly come true.