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Tuesday, August 25, 2009

My tribute to an Unknown school teacher

Amarnath is a shrine of Lord Shiva and nestles deep in the Himalayas in the state of Kashmir in India. Its altitude is high – about sixteen thousand feet – and the shrine as well as ninety percent of the approach route is above the tree line. It’s a barren and rocky landscape all the way and affords no shelter to man or beast. It’s a real desert in the mountains.

Every year in the month of August the pilgrimage to Amarnath begins and thousands of people from every walk of life from all over India congregate in Jammu – the capital of Kashmir. From there the buses and coaches move in a convoy to Pahalgam under military escort as terrorist violence is an ever present danger.

From Pahalgam the pilgrims travel to Chandanwari and it’s from here that the trek begins and takes about three to four days to the shrine.

In 1997 I booked myself on a coach, which was leaving Delhi for Pahalgam. I was listed to be picked up at four in the afternoon but a last minute snag caused the coach to leave without me and I had to rebook my self for the next coach, which was leaving after three days.

The overnight journey to Jammu was uneventful and we reached there late morning the next day. There were about three hundred other coaches in the specially constructed parking area. We were to leave in a convoy the next morning.

It was a clear day with blue skies and bright sunshine. Around two in the afternoon the character of sky changed and very dark clouds began to gather. Around four it became so dark that lights had to be switched on. Then the rain began. I had never seen rains of such intensity. The downpour was extremely heavy and water fell in thick sheets. Very soon the visibility dropped to zero and the ground underneath turned to mud with the consistency of kneaded dough. It rained throughout the night and next day the parking area resembled a lake with water rising at places up to the height of coach wheels. It was difficult to step out to answer the call of nature, get drinking water or just to stretch our cramped limbs. The orderly parking had given way to a chaotic situation as the coach drivers tried to find higher ground.

From Jammu onward the buses travel in a convoy guarded by Indian military. This is to prevent Jehadi terrorist threat to the Hindu pilgrims. Military truck carrying armed soldiers travel in the front and back of the convoy. A military helicopter flies overhead when passing through terrorist infested area.

The convoy was to begin forming at around six in the morning but the slushy ground made it difficult. The authorities found it impossible to herd this teeming mass of coaches in a straight line. It was still raining non-stop and without a let up.

Around nine, the convoy finally took shape and slowly began to snake on the Jammu-Srinagar highway towards Pahalgam. We traveled for some time at around Forty kilometers per hour and passed the city of Udhampur. About five kilometers past the city the convoy came to a grinding halt as torrential rains had washed away a two hundred yard long stretch of road taking two supply trucks along with it. All we could see was brown colored slush and mud. The trucks were buried somewhere under it. No trace of the crew was found.

Further journey was impossible. The military escort decided to route the convoy back to Jammu until the situation stabilized.

There was however one snag. The road was not wide enough for a coach to make a U-turn. Three hundred coaches stood stranded there like a train without engine. It was still raining pretty soon the drinking water that we were carrying with us ran out. It was about one in the afternoon.

Some one hit on the bright idea of collecting rainwater for drinking and we started filling our bottles from the water running out of the drainage channel on the roof of our coach. Mercifully it was not dirty, as the roof had been washed clean in the past eighteen hours.
Finally around two; some of us – I included - decided to walk balk to Udhampur town and get something to eat. We donned our raincoats and started to walk. With in the first fifteen minutes the rainwater seeped under the collar and slowly began its way down. It took us about ninety minutes of brisk walking to reach the town. By the time we reached there we were drenched to the skin.

Unfortunately for us, several hundred other people had the same idea. They too wanted some food and they had the added advantage of being nearer to the town. By the time we reached the main market all the food in every restaurant was gone. There was no cooked food, not even a loaf of bread, no milk, and no bottled drinking water.

I was wet, cold, hungry and miserable. I couldn’t stop shivering. Some one suggested to look for the most expensive eating joint in the hope that it would have been spared. He was right and we had a nice hot lunch and some very welcome coffee.

Hunger pangs satisfied the next task was to find a shelter. We couldn’t trudge back to our coach as one lone co-traveler who had left sometime later, informed us that our coach was no longer there. The military had used bulldozers to make a clearing for the coaches to make a u-turn. It was now lost in a sea of buses some where on the highway.

It was about six in the evening and it was getting colder by the minute. The rain was unrelenting and pretty soon our partially dried clothes were again soaking wet. The rain was especially trouble some for me as my glasses kept misting over.

We went from place to place to find a room to spend the night in. Every room was taken. Finally a kind soul directed us to the local Hare Krishna temple where he thought we might stay overnight. The only trouble was it was dark and we didn’t know the directions.
Some how we lurched up to the temple and asked the head priest to let us stay. He didn’t have any room with beds but he did have a dormitory where some other stranded people like us were sleeping. We were advised to go there without disturbing any one.

When we reached the dormitory, I found it to be a room, which could house about twenty people. Thirty people were already asleep there. There was barely enough room to even sit there. I had no bedding and the floor was covered only with a thin cotton durry or rug. I was seated next to the door, which was kept open to allow the air to come in. It was wet and cold and very uncomfortable. Later that night, some how the fatigue overpowered the cold and I slept fitfully.

Next day it was still raining as I stepped out to look for a rest room, some hot tea and some breakfast - in that order. My luck had apparently changed overnight because I found all three in quick succession.

I focused now on finding my coach, which had all my belonging including the change of clothes and underwear. It had vanished. Milling around the mass of pilgrims I saw a familiar face from my coach and he pointed me to where the bus was parked.

I found it empty except for the driver who informed me that a group of about twenty people had been offered a place to stay in the home of a local school teacher. The rest had found shelter elsewhere. He took me to the house and it was a relief to find myself amongst people I knew. The school teacher very kindly extended his hospitality to me as well.

The rain was unrelenting even on this third day and all of us were confined to the two bedrooms that had been vacated for us.

We stayed in his house for two more days and were treated like honored guests. His wife provided tea, snacks, lunch and dinner for next three days. All this time the downpour was continuous. The rain finally stopped on the third day and we begged our leave from him.
All of us wanted to pay for the expenses but he wouldn’t even hear of it. For him we were pilgrims to the shrine and to take our money would be sacrilege. He was simply adhering to the ancient Hindu tenet of a house holder which enjoins one to offer every facility to the guest who is considered equal to gods. Sanskrit adage “Atithi Devo Bhavha” (Guest is god) perhaps never found a more thorough expression as far as I know.
He had a daughter of marriageable age and we pooled in enough money to buy her a decent gift for her wedding.

We left his home with moist eyes and heavy hearts. Every one of us was bowed done with the debt of gratitude that he freely lavished on our motley group.

The landslide had canceled the pilgrimage that year and we were forced to return. I made another pilgrimage to Amarnath the following year and successfully accomplished it. More about that some other time. In Udhampur, I wanted to meet that angel, and thank him once again, knowing fully well that words were a poor substitute for what I felt for him in the depth of my soul.

Circumstances conspired against me however and I could not do so. But even now after so many years every detail is crystal clear to me and forever imprinted on my mind. Every time I think of that anonymous school teacher, I can not but pray to God for his utmost happiness and prosperity.

One doesn’t meet angels easily. I must have done something really good in my past lives to have met a man like him.

Rajiv Sethi

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