Sunday, August 16, 2009
My Friend Kasoori Lal
As I stumbled into the gathering dusk, now thankful that the rain had finally lost its momentum, towards the cowherd’s hut that I had passed few days earlier, I observed that a solitary figure, dressed in white shirt and a rolled up dhoti stood outside gazing at my approaching form. I was tottering at the edge of my mental and physical limits. I reached the hut and crashed on the ground with a loud breath escaping my dry lips. The man came forward.
‘I was expecting you, Bhaiji,’ the man said through smiling eyes. ‘My humble home is yours. Please come inside, I will make food for you.’ He picked up my sack and entered the porch that doubled as the cow and buffalo shed as well. With such humble beginning I found Kasoori Lal, a cowherd of 50 years from the village of Juhul. He never bothered to explain how he knew of my arrival and I never bothered to ask. It just seemed natural that in that godforsaken place amidst the godforsaken weather I would appear before his hut at that godforsaken hour. I quickly changed into dry clothes, leaving the wet ones hanging outside above the head of a fat and calmly disposed buffalo.
I entered the stone-walled hut with thatched roof. Through the glow of my headlamp I discovered an antediluvian man huddled at a corner wearing threadbare clothes to cover his fragile frame. ‘I am Kasoori Lal, Bhaiji, and this is my father Moti Lal,’ my host declared. ‘He is 80 years old and used to be a champion bear fighter of this region. But now he has gone senile and deaf though his eyes are perfect.’ I looked at Moti Lal and marveled at the number of creases marring his once handsome face. How did he reach this place at his age was what I wondered. Kasoori Lal added few wood strips into the hearth and placed a small aluminum bowl on the flame. He poured rice and water into the bowl and commenced stirring. ‘We have already eaten, I wasn’t sure when would you arrive, I hope you don’t mind rice!’ Kasoori said. I protested that he need not take the trouble of cooking only for me and that I could simply do with a glass of curd or milk, but he would not hear any of it. ‘You are my guest, Bhaiji,’ Kasoori said, ‘how can I not offer what I have.’ While he continued stirring the pot, I observed what he had. The father said nothing and his head nodded spasmodically as is natural at his age.
The hut scarcely had any possession. Measuring barely 6 ft X 6 ft to the left was the intended kitchen and to the right on the mud floor lay a pair of threadbare ‘pattu’ (woolen blankets) and from the ceiling hung a wooden rack that was lined up with meager means of survival in such places. My sack and other belongings now lay atop the rack as well. The kitchen side held few pots and pans and two bags containing rice, maize wheat and two distorted steel mugs. Their food consisted of either rice or flat-bread leavened with buffalo milk or curd with perhaps few pinches of turmeric to lace the taste.
‘You will find us here every year from June to September. This is my hut and grazing pastures. We have been grazing here since the days of my great great grandfather,’ Kasoori said. ‘What’s your father doing here?’ I asked. The old man suddenly shouted (as deaf people are wont to), ‘You hungry, my son!’ ‘He is crazy, he has one buffalo, that fat one outside and tends to it. He drinks her milk and gives it to his grandchildren and the neighbors. Looking at him now you won’t imagine what strength he had. Let me tell you a true story about him.’ Kasoori blew into the dying fire through his cupped palm and commenced, ‘Once during the corn season, when our fields are in full bloom with orange corns, father visited one of his friends in the neighboring village. Now as you know, bears love corn and they often hide in a field, eating and damaging the mature corn crops. As he walked through the corn field towards his friend’s house, he spotted a dark shape squatting on the ground, well hidden in the field. He I guess was a little tipsy that day. He presumed it was his friend’s dog hiding. He walked up to the animal and caught hold of its ear and pulled him out of the field and dragged the brute to his friend’s house verandah. Only when his friend, who was waiting for him outside, started screaming in fear did father realize that what he held by the ears was not a dog but a huge black bear… that’s father for you.’ Kasoori and I broke into a hearty laughter. Moti Lal joined us too through his guffaws. ‘We are not Gaddis but traditional cowherds and you will find us on the lower pastures unlike the Gaddis. Our cows and buffalos can’t climb up so high, but I have done that job too.’
I sensed that Kasoori Lal was full of stories and wanted to share some with me. ‘Where did you go?’ I asked. ‘That was a bad year for us and the cows were not healthy so I grazed sheep and goats and walked from here till Darcha and Ladakh border.’ I was curious to know the route he took; it was definitely a long and tortuous way from here till Ladakh. Over the next fifteen minutes he took me on a wonderful journey across half a dozen remote Himalayan passes and unknown hamlets as he traveled with his flock from his village to Darcha and back. I kept nodding my head in confirmation as I had myself crossed each of those passes. ‘Do you know about the legendary strengths of the Gaddis?’ Kasoori asked as he poured me rice and curd on a twisted steel plate. I nodded my ignorance. ‘They get their strength from the goat’s milk they drink each day. These goats and lambs eat the best Himalayan herbs and roots and the milk has amazing potency and strength. But the Gaddis lost their legendary strength nearly a hundred years ago. I will tell you how.
‘Once Shivji and Parvatiji (the god couple of Hindu mythology) were traversing through air atop the Himalayan valleys when Parvatiji noticed that a huge rock was rising and falling through the air on its own accord. It intrigued her to no end and she asked Shivji about the occurrence. Shivji was busy dragging his chillum and couldn’t be bothered with such minor earthbound things. But as is always a man, including Shivji, has to bend to the woman’s will. They descended to earth and noticed that a Gaddi slept under the rock and with each breath he expelled the rock rose in the air and with each breath he inhaled, the rock came down to his nose. The God couple were amazed at such strength. “What do you eat, my son?” Shivji asked the Gaddi. “Only maize-wheat bread and goat’s milk,” came the reply. “You must do something about this,” Parvatiji whispered to Shivji fiercely, “if he is so strong he can seriously challenge you some day, he could lift you up as well.” Shivji thought for a while and then uttered, “My son from this day on, you will get ‘do mutthi bal baaki sab jal’ (only 2 and half fist of strength and the rest of the milk will be water). So saying they departed and since then the Gaddis no matter how much milk they drank could get no more strength than the ‘do mutthi’.
I had finished eating and as I washed my hand in the bowl, Kasoori asked, ‘Did you reach the pass and the mountain top?’ I nodded. ‘You are a very lucky man. This mountain is very complicated and no one goes there in this time and you were alone, you shouldn’t have done it. But I guess you are blessed by the gods and you were lucky; unlike my wife and daughter.’ He fell silent as he got busy clearing the fire and making a space for me on the tiny floor. Then he narrated a heart wrenching story.
Nearly fourteen years ago, almost to the day as today, his wife and 10 year old daughter were returning after the Mani Mahesh pilgrimage. They had to cross several ranges and passes en route and they were with two village adults. At the last pass before reaching home, the group got caught in a sudden snow storm. While the men wanted to go down his wife and daughter found it impossible to continue in the pounding snow. They decided to take shelter under a rock at the pass and wait out the weather. They would descend when the snow stopped. The two men left them there and returned to the village. The snow did not stop and only grew in proportion. Kasoori Lal was away with his herd and did not know any of these. Two days later when they hadn’t returned the village folks went up to discover the two frozen bodies at the same place as they had been last seen alive. When Kasoori Lal related this to me there was no grief or remorse in his eyes. Simple acceptance of what he could not help or alter and what he believed in. ‘Mata ne bula liya apne paas’ (Mother Goddess had called them to her) was all he offered. ‘No mountain top, however beautiful, is a place to stop,’ he further observed.
Kasoori Lal roamed around these enchanting meadows each year from June – September with his flock tending the cows and buffalos and a pair of mares. Often fighting with bears and leopards to save his animals. In autumn he went down to his village to pluck the ripe corns from his field and looked after his surviving family. He is happy, simple and content. The mountain gives him his sustenance and water. He looks up at the mountains every morning and says his prayers offering last night’s breads to the god and then goes out with his cows. He was born in these surroundings and he would die here one day without any desire to go anywhere else.
When I bid him goodbye the next morning he let me go only after I promised to visit his home and village one day. I took to the trail and near the uphill mound where I would lose sight of his cottage I paused and looked back at the two figures, one upright and the other slightly bent at the waist waving at me with sun from behind. I couldn’t see their faces but I knew that they both were smiling. I waved back and turned around; I still had a long way to go before reaching anywhere.
As I ambled away I felt a strange tug at my heart. A simple man in a simple place and a friend for a lifetime, I had left all the three behind not knowing if I would meet them ever again. I was not bereaving but only wondering about what I could not alter nor could help. With acceptance returned peace and once again as I sped down the slippery slopes I took up the chatter of the monkeys and the song of the birds from the trees.