Friday, January 12

Himalayan Tsunami

Little did we realise some months back that here we would be sitting and writing about nature's freak nature. Little did we realise that in a span of 4 months we would have been part of her game, be it at 18,000 ft above sea level or at sea level in Chennai's shores.

When we signed up for the Raid-de-Himlaya (India's highest, longest, toughest and most arduous car rally)... we did not know they actually meant that... we always thought the 'jargon' about danger was just to 'scare' people off...

We signed up as we had just had a bunch of personal tragedies (prabha's father passed away in may '04 and my uncle - whom I consider my guru in the creative arts, passed away a few months later)... we wanted to get our minds off these things ... so we decide to go on the Raid.

People who always said we were crazy just confirmed it when we decided to drive up to shimla (where the rally was flagged off) from chennai... a good 2500 kms. We decided to rope in two more crazy people and let the fun start.

Passing through nine states in four days was tiring but an amazing experience of a lifetime. Each region we passed through we could feel the culture differences (and similarities)... be it the language... or be it the clothes which moved on from white dhotis and caps to pyjamas and turbans.

Travelling through the entire length of the country, we were admiring the crops and flowers in the fields, the innocent smiles of the villagers, the rain clouds and sunshine over the hills and the plains, the bird nests hanging on telephone cables, the black topped smooth highways ending in eternity, the dhaba food cooked with grease and love... the list is endless.

We entered a new country when we touched the base of the Himalayas. From Manali upwards, the terrain, the language of the roads, the vegetation, everything changed.

We realised that the rally was just incidental... we were there at the lure of the great mountains and particpating in the rally, calculating at the end of the day our penalty points, checking our vehicle and preparing for the next day were all just part of the act of moving further into the lap of these great mountains.

We got to see the great himalayas as they are today... and it is said... "they are evolving all the time.. so when you get back here next year.. they may not look the same"... they are after all the world youngest mountain range... always forming... everyday there is a landslide... every-day!

Words are too restricting to describe our experience with these very-much-alive-himalayas. Someone who has never been here might ask what is the beauty of stones and rocks which are in fact the only things we found here. But these stones and rocks speak a language no mortal should miss listening to in his lifetime.

From the colours which turn from yellow to pink to purple (and these are just soil and rocks i'm talking about, mind you), to the millions of folds in mountainswhich are never the same from range to range... from the occasional eagle or probably a never-recorded animal that suddenly appears and disappears, to the huge hill that looms up ahead with a crown of snow, so majestic that we felt so miniscule in its presence.

Towards the end of the rally.. the day we were to go over to the Tanglang-la pass (the second highest motorable mountain pass in the world) we were hit by a freak snow-storm... it was freak as the INSAT (India's multipurpose satelite) weather picture did not show any storm ... or any danger.

But, an interesting thing was that the storm was predicted by the locals... they watched the 'chinese crow' ... looks very similar to the crow we see in the cities here. The crow flies in a certain formation and it come to the settlements for shelter when a storm is coming.... a sign that the INSAT picture did not give us.

We were blocked off from the rest of the world for over a week and we had to stay in Army refugee camps for that time... before we were brought back to'civilisation'.
Forced to stay at the mercy of the army camp, we had nothing to do for a few days... nothing except pull on and pull off layers of clothes to do just the basic rituals, nothing except walk through a foot of snow to the next room to have a cup of tea, listen to the experiences of the army officers in the camp who, along with several others had done nothing but put their lives at risk at the coldest, cruelest, highest posts.

To read a newspaper or watch a movie is something else, but to face these men and see the lines in their faces as they recounted their experiences was something else. The jawans in the camp made sure that our tents were always warm. They would bring warm water (fact - water can never get hot in -10 to -25 celsius) in the oddest of hours. They would cook food for us and what they went through to put up with us gave us the meaning of "Athithi devo bhava" (Think of the guest as God)

As we moved from camp to camp, we almost did a research on the different kinds of heating systems we encountered... from plain simple 'bukharas' to kerosene bukharas which worked in a simple way of dripping the kerosene using a medical iv drip onto a stone stove that heated up a tin pipe... to electric heaters and gas heaters.... the heating systems progressively improving as we moved up into permanent camps from transit army camps.

Nature has her way of showing us that we are but guests in her house... all who had come to himalayas during that week were stuck in different settlements along the highway... nobody able to do anything against the avalanches and avalanches of snow that kept blocking the road during the nights, right after they were cleared using expensive snow-cutters and other exclusive machinery meant for the purpose.

So there we were looking up at the milky way, (for those who wonder if milky way is an icecream parlour up there - milky way is the galaxy in which thousands of solar systems - our sun and planets - like ours move around in their respective orbits), wondering where we, as individuals, stood with respect to this millions of years old nature and what were we really, really trying to do in our 80-year old life!

Getting back to civilisation was no problem after some days when the snow falls had subsided and we got back into the maze of our lives, finishing our car rally in the top ten.

Four months later, we were enjoying a great saturday night (moonlight and the Christmas spirit adding to the beauty adding to the spirit) sitting atop the single room in our farmhouse by the sea, we were basking in the pride of having conquered the Himalayas (though the fact remained that the Himalayas had conquered us).

The dogs were barking their heads off from about 3:30 in the morning (we have a black labrador - Yoda and we were baby-sitting another fawn labrador - Jessica) ... we thought they wanted to go for a walk... and prabha took them for a walk about 6:30... on the beach... so she did not even feel the earthquake... i was fast asleep though.

We left the farmhouse about 8:45... just minutes before the Tsunami struck.... and we heard about it...and came back there to see the second one hit the seafront plot and literally shatter the entire wall of my neighbours place... the stones were scattered all over .. like popcorn... nature's fury at it's best.

For the next couple of weeks we were busy trying to help organise things for relief work... talk to contacts... get supplies at discounted rates... get some money from people to buy medical supppies, water and home needs to be shipped to the various relief camps being organied by various friends and organisations that we have come to be associated with for the last 20 years in chennai.

We decided to go and see what was being done in the relief camps .. so we went to the affected town of Nagapattinam last weekend... and we saw the devastation caused by the Tsunami... amazing that 'water' could cause so much damage... but there are a few incredible things about the TSUNAMI...

The villagers do not want to give away the orphaned children to people who want to adopt (the children) from other vilages.... or towns... the reason - they feel that with over 50% of the children dead in the Tsunami... if these children leave the village too... there will be a generation gap in the village... so they are proposing to setup a central 'home' where these children can stay and the entire village will contribute towards their schooling, and emotional needs... great eh?

Another thing we found was that the 'self respect' and 'self esteem' has not gone out of these folks... some of them owned fishing boats that are more expensive than a Honda City... sometimes as expensive as a Merc... :)

They are ready to go back in the sea and start work.... they dont want anything free.. some of them are asking for assistance so that they can start work.. and they dont want it as AID... they just want a loan... they want to repay... just a lower interest rate to help them tide over the crisis...

Almost all of the people we met were saying the Govt. and Non-govt-organisations are doing so much that they can hardly find 'fault' with anyone.... but they are very frustrated with just having to sit around all day doing nothing.

There was an un-official ban on people going out to sea (more like a warning issued by the govt.)... till last weekend.... but now they are all slowly going back... and if people start eating fish the trade will begin to boom and they will be back in business.

There are many stories of bravery... and luck.. we met one child (13 months old) who was thrown into the attic by her mother (just before she died) and was found by rescue workers 3 days later... alive! Another family had a story to tell about the 'family dog' that rescued an infant while the mother was hanging on to another child... this was a mongrel... not a trained rescue dog!

Speaking of animals... it was amazing to know that very few wild animals have been affected by the Tsunami... only city animals (cows, domesticated dogs and cats) have been found dead... they seem to have lost their sixth sense... naturally.. with all the 'plastic covers' and papers we feed them i suppose.

One interesting 'fact' that was pointed out to us was that the Tsunami was predicted in the panchangam (almanac) last year... when we were sitting at the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) office in Nagapattinam... we were shown a copy of the 2004-2005 almanac which said that 'giant killer waves would strike the coast of India near Chennai and Pondicherry as a result of an earthquake in Asia'.

From the chinese crow to the animals and almanacs.... the signals were there, the signs were clear... why did we no see them.. hear them... or atleast 'read' them.

Happy New Year... I do wish to wish aloud... despite freak snowstorms, despite tsunamis, despite personal tragedies.... after all, life is about hope and "in celebration of being alive".
Prabha & Harsha Koda


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