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Saturday, March 20, 2010

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 by the coach at four in the afternoon but due to a last minute snag I missed it. I had to rebook my self for the next one, 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 the sky changed and very dark clouds began to form. 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 through 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.
The convoy was to begin forming at around six in the morning but the slushy ground made it a difficult task. The authorities found it impossible to herd this teeming mass of coaches in a straight line. It was still raining non-stop.
Around nine, the convoy finally took shape and slowly began to snake along 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 to be 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. More than three hundred coaches stood stranded there like a train without the engine. It was raining without any let up and pretty soon the drinking water that we were carrying with us ran out. It was about one in the afternoon.
Some one had 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. It was still raining heavily.
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 town all the food in every restaurant in that small town was gone. There was no cooked food, no loaf of bread, no milk, and no bottled drinking water.
I was wet, cold, hungry and miserable. I couldn’t stop shivering. Some one decided to look for the most expensive eating joint in the hope that it would have been spared. He was right. 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 they might allow us to stay overnight. The only trouble was it was dark and we didn’t know the directions. It was raining without a letup.
Some how we staggered 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 on the floor. 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 just sit. 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. I 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 was nowhere to be found. Milling around the mass of pilgrims I saw a familiar face from my coach and he pointed me to where it 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 unstopping 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 late 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 commands one to offer every facility to a guest. 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 down with the debt of gratitude that he had freely lavished on our motley group.
I made another pilgrimage to Amarnath the following year and successfully accomplished it. More about that some other time.
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 in my mind and 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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