In this blistering Delhi heat, when the mind flounders to find an oasis in the white fury, I indulge in some nostalgia – of a stay in Leh where the temperature plummeted to twenty degrees below zero. Over the years I’ve felt that a tourist’s perspective is transient, a sweet memory till the next trip. However, living in different places changes the way one looks at life – humbling, enlightening and teaching tolerance in many ways.
As the winter stealthily swept in freezing everything in its path, I realized what it was like to live in barren and cold lands – stoic and dignified in their acceptance of the elements and yet unrelenting in submission. The green patches of summers with traipsing streams and gurgling waters of the Indus and Zanskar turned silent, quietly biding their time. Even this silence threw up some beauties like the quaint tinkling music of the Indus as the many ice pieces clinked against each other. The fading prayer flags over the narrow bridge brought in some colour relief. This was a great place to sit down with a book or simply with your thoughts.
The many Ladakhi homes that edged the road were layered with hay on the roof to insulate against the cold. Smoke twirled over as the women got busy cooking hot meals with sun-dried vegetables stocked for the winters. I learnt the thriftiness of “thukpa”when vegetables became scarce. A simple wholesome meal in a dish with some vegetables, pieces of meat and strands of noodles served with a fiery chilly garlic chutney that kept the stomach full and the body warm. For someone like me used to the abundance of assorted greens and vegetables of winters like lai xaak, spinach, carrots, green peas, babori from Beltola bazaar, it was quite a revelation and a new found reverence for the produce of the earth. I now considered myself blessed if I could find a frozen cabbage from the corner shop. I learnt to respect the dehydrated onions and bitter gourds that we got as a part of our ration and coax some flavor out of them.
In the darkness before day-break, I often heard the porters talking and stamping their feet as they broke the ice in the Syntex outside our tin sheds, to melt into water for our needs. Doing the laundry was in stages. Sitting near the bukhari , a kerosene contraption, with buckets of water fetched in by the Tashi, as the porters were called, clothes were scrubbed and rinsed from one bucket to the other. I’d seen many Ladakhi women washing their household clothes, utensils, vehicles down to their carpets by the river. Water from the taps was a luxury for most of us whether civilian or in uniform . Although the sun was out, the drippings from the washed clothes froze into icicles at the hem. These then were snapped off and the clothes brought in and dried around the bukhari . I realized the importance of the stove and how the lives of a family revolved around it. It brought to mind the many Russian tales I read as a child and how the stove was a permanent fixture in them. Even curd was set near it by my North Indian friends with the utensil snugly wrapped in a muffler!
But what took the cake was managing the loo at night. We may wrinkle up our nose at such unmentionable bodily functions but it was a routine that ensured a smooth function for morning ablutions. However tired we were, late night parties or whatever, one chore none of us ever forgot was to pour some kerosene into the pot at night to prevent the water in it from freezing. Amnesia in this case would result in grim faces of the shed occupants in the morning. The only remedy was firing up the respective crude sewer pits behind our sheds to melt away the ice inside. So that’s one chore none of us forgot. Ever.
As I learnt to adapt myself to this exotic land the more I fell in love with its nuances and its people. They were warm and friendly, wrinkling up the corners of their eyes when they smiled with a cheery “Juley”. The sky over Leh was the bluest I’d ever seen. The mountains changed colours as the sun travelled across the day. Climbing up the hill to nearby Spituk Gompa, on one of my long walks mandatory for acclimatization, I found some interesting offerings to Lord Buddha. A “half” bottle of Old Monk, a packet of Maggi, some glucose biscuits and assorted dry fruits. In a land that does not yield much especially in the winters, even the Gods are not demanding. It reminded me of the myth of Shiva devotee Kannapan who offered meat and water from his mouth in his innocence.
Serene Gompas abound in the Ladakh region, each with its own aura and veil of mysticism. But the one that intrigued me was the Hemis Gompa which according to local belief, was never plundered by looters from across the mountains. While all the other Gompas lost their riches, Hemis was spared the ignominy since it was well hidden within a mountain. I actually never realized it till we literally reached its doorstep. One of the oldest in the region, it is famed for its architectural uniqueness of the monastic complex. The colourful murals and the courtyard where the mask dance during the Hemis festival takes place, only added to the charm of this shrine.
Walking down the road I heard at a distance the lilting notes of some melody. On the far side of a field was a group of men and women, singing the notes of their land as they went about their work in the benumbing cold. Strangely it reminded me of the ice tinkling on the Indus river and the poignancy of Wordsworth’s “Solitary Reaper”…
Please Note :- This write-up was published in the Melange supplement of The Sentinel dated 16th June 2013.