It was the most difficult journey I have underwent so far, including the 10 hrs long treacherous trek to Hemkund Lokpal (4500mts above sea level). The memories of that one day of trek stay lightly with me and I look back at it without much feeling. But memories of those 10 days in Naggar stay close to my heart, strongly as ever. The experience which changed I way I perceive myself, it was like the feeling which you get when you first step in the pool. It’s a strange environment, you don’t know how to swim so you hold on to the railing tightly, and even though the water has a cooling effect, it’s the fear which takes hold of you.
Why did I go to Naggar?
I wanted to go to the hills and live there. A simple and sweet reason. Was it good enough? I didn’t know, so I had a backup reason. You need reasons to justify your actions to yourself – all the time! I was visiting a local NGO which was working in the area of cultivation and protection of medicinal plants and such endangered species. As a part of their programme, in exchange of manual labor which they require at their nurseries they used to run free computer and English classes for the local adolescents. Some of their kids have got placed in past 2-3 years. I was to teach English and help them design computer training classes during the time I was there.
How safe was it to venture into something like that?
I had read all about them on the internet and knew it was a recognized NGO. But, it was more or less a judgment call which I had to make about the risk I was about to take. There was not too much of risk, considering Naggar is a tourist place and I could always get a room in any hotel and take the next day bus if things go wrong. That was the solution to the worst case scenario. I usually don’t bother to work up alternatives to bad case scenarios.
The broken road winding upwards.
You need to be a very skilled driver to be able to take your jeep (car wont go) above the Naggar castle towards the Krishna Temple. It is not so famous among the many temples of Himachal that you would find it listed on internet, but while I was there, a Japanese guy did show up at the temple once. He was a graduate student from JNU, fluent in Hindi. Infact, he spoke better Hindi than me (which wouldn’t be a surprise to many I admit). He told us that he is doing his PhD in Hindi something. He was visiting the temples of HP as a part of his research, as a result his presence at the Krishna temple.
When I reached the temple, I was a little tired from the 15hrs bus journey and quite overwhelmed by the fact that I was actually there. Pappu (Neeraj), MD of NGO, had waited an hour at Patlikul bus stop for me. I was quite grateful to him for coming to pick me up. On our way to temple, he hinted me that I should not expect to be given some work right away. This put me to some unease as I am not a very social person. It is easier for me to find friends and comfort through a medium than none. Work was supposed to be just that medium. Now I would be put to a very difficult test. And an ordeal it did turn out to be.
Manju, the chirpy girl.
The youngest in the family, the most talkative one, a rebel at heart. The ngo (Ananda) was started by Neeraj and a British friend who like many other Europeans had decided to settle in Manali. Through the years they had fallen apart and ran two different NGOs. Ananda now mostly had family members, a few relatives and few headmen of the village as its trustees. Another Britisher, John, was also in the process of becoming a trustee who was the financial head of the trust and who was about to donate his entire life savings into it. He lived in the premises close to the temple which were used as guest rooms and often occupied by the family itself. He was very close to everyone in the family. One could safely say Ananda was more or less a family occupation. Of course, apart from being Brahmins and Pujaris of Krishna Temple, which meant no social function/ceremony in the neighboring region would be complete without them. They were required at every birth, marriage, death ceremonies anywhere within 4-5miles of radius.
I was to live in the room next to John’s and eat in the temple with everyone. The first question which was inquired by Pappu’s father, Pujari, was about my caste. At first I was a little taken back to get such a direct question, but later realized it was only to guarantee a legitimate entry anywhere within the temple and in the kitchen. It was Manju’s job to make me feel at home. She was the unacknowledged PR manager. We hit off quite well though of course everyone in the family including Manju had a difficult time placing me – I was neither a true guest being an Indian, nor a close friend. The only guests which these people have are foreigners who come to spend summers in Himalayas staying cheap in return of volunteer work. The foreigners have to face and respect certain customs – which include ‘weird’ untouchability practices. They can’t enter kitchen, or touch the cooked food, or enter the main temple area. These practices were implied on John as well, who would usually bring the raw vegetables from the town below for the dinner! What an irony!
A different world
The untouchable practices were very much alive in other aspects also. The lady during menstrual days was to stay in a room (like a storeroom), couldn’t enter temple, couldn’t touch anybody, couldn’t touch food and so on. The low castes were not allowed inside the temple, though after the morning puja they were given the prashaad like everyone else. Ofcourse, the pujari was careful enough not to touch them while giving them the prashaad. The life was what Gandhi lead- an austere life. Same food everyday, sweets only on birthdays or for some important puja, basic clothes, and such lifestyle. They still used wood chulla for everyday purposes. Though they had gas connection, but it was used only very occasionally for some special purpose. There was no other electric appliance in the household apart from 1-2 electric coils. The business of trust which meant 4-5 lappys in the house didn’t influence the lifestyle or cultural life of the family much. It wasn’t the question of finances as much as the mindset that such things are not required for simple living. The washing soap used was the one cheapest available in market which is locally made. I was under impression that the costly surf excel though expensive is cost effective because a little bit of it works wonder. Especially when the quality of cloth is at stake. I thought that it might be of little use in a household which spends most of its time in the kitchen garden (which was huge), apple orchards or nursing the cattle. The day to day pattern was more or less fixed for everyone – difficult for the women who had quite a lot of work from early morning till night. At times, I couldn’t help wondering why not get a washing machine? They obviously can afford it!
The young generation did feel against the caste related rituals but they didn’t think it appropriate to speak against them. Why? – was my question at every instance. I was even more confused to find the pujari cleaning the toilets early morning everyday! John who had left everything he had for 50-60 years of his life to retire with this family was also being treated as an outsider at the end! The family took pride that John doesn’t like London but Naggar. It was kind of a testament that foreign countries were no good. It wasn’t that everybody was deep rooted into traditional thinking and ways. Veena di (Manju’s elder sis) is highly independent and works in a cooperative store. Manju herself wants to get out of HP and live on her own in cities like Bangalore etc, where she can manage her own life, marry the man of her dreams and live a lavish life. Pappu wants to take Ananda into marketing of herbs, expand the nurseries which would result in some visible changes in otherwise sad scenario of vanishing species. Yet, to get something you have to give something. Manju would have to give up her family. Pappu would have to follow the old customs and practices as Ananda’s growth depends upon the support from villagers.
The evenings at Ananda
They were the best part of the day. I used to water the plants in the evening if I wasn’t down in the town or helping in kitchen. After the sun had set, far below the valley I could see the river which looked like painted as I couldn’t see the water movement from such a height. The glaciers and the mountains in front looked serene and it was the only tine when I was alone. I missed my privacy and home. Delicious tasty food, thousand different ways to entertain myself, internet connection, friends to talk to. It was only Manju with whom I could relate to – she seemed to have similar fleshly desires as mine.
I felt sick in the last few days and so left the place in a hurry. I knew I couldn’t get any work even if I stayed because the computer center was under renovation. And I had enough of the adventure.
Coming back was perhaps a good decision, because the insect bites on my body didn’t look good and took a month to die out. It was the after effect of the trip which wasn’t so good. I was left with memories of a place I couldn’t understand. A place which was so modern in terms of collection of books, scientific research on herbs, accumulation of laptops, yet so antique in traditions, customs, values and morals. And lifestyle. I realized I was too set in my own ways to get easily accustomed to a different pattern of living. This was among the hardest thing I have accepted about myself. And it left me with a fear for the coming days. An inhibition is the worst enemy of man – not greed. That is the quote I hold true. And inhibited I became for my further travels. Till today. In these past three months at home, I have realized the comforts of home are incomparable. To travel you need some discomfort within.