On hobbled knee across the Nandakini

In the final episode of her Bedni Bugyal travelogue, Jennifer Nandi crosses a bridge and a river into another consciousness, one that holds the tranquility of the Himalaya and perturbation over its future in delicate balance

The snow-clad flanks of the hills reflected in Bedni Kund was a vision that sustained us on that trying and redeeming journey

The day breaks warm with birdsong. Always and every time, new and irresistible distractions wake us early. It is a good thing we are birders since the rooms are saturated with dust and stale odours. So, we escape the fusty accommodation to strain our ears at the muted lisps of birds fussing in the underbrush near the sun-baked mud hut of our host. With permission we approach, and watch her deft use of primitive tools to prepare our meal for the day.

The locals gather around and we learn their hazardous ways. They complain of diminishing reserves of fuel wood for cooking and heating homes, depleted soils, and overgrazed pastures. This surely suggests worsening conditions for life in the mountains. It brings notice to the linkage between alpine deforestation and lowland floods. The degraded forests hold less soil, catch less runoff and stabilize fewer slopes. Rapid weathering renders the soil fragile. Nature at odds with its environment can’t thrive; and when the depredation is ruthless, no seed can survive in such uncongenial ground.

Amid the balmy verdant forests are vast monocultures of blue pine

Water is a fragile commodity – the scarcity of drinking water in the villages is growing. In 2007 there was a high rate of run-off because of the variability of precipitation. The monsoon-like downpours we experienced in early May that year caused higher sediment loads in the rivers which must have surged in floods onto the Ganges plain – washing our future into the sea. The fragility of the biota is compounded by bedrock shifts. The Himalaya are dramatic testimony to the relentless power of drifting continents. In this context, is the Himalaya described as a high-energy environment.

Yet, the basic life-support systems – soil, water, and biota, the limiting factors in the mountain ecosystems – have failed to restrict this village community of Kanol in their dreams. Half a dozen of its young men have joined the armed forces. However, scarcity and degradation forces them to live frugally. We wander out alongside the terraced hillsides. A little path leads toward the forest. Spring flowers that feed the spirit clutch at the hillsides – wild gerberas, forget-me-nots, geraniums, and daisies like the different colours of the sunlight. Nature surely blunts even the worst excesses of man. It seems our path is strewn with flowers. But our hearts are heavy with the burden of knowledge that we inevitably soil our most precious resource. These sanctuaries of forest and reason on which civilization depends are ultimately made inefficient through degradation.

Water, clear and clean, appears abundant in the Himalaya but we saw enough to learn that its future is uncertain

It is approaching late afternoon. Devidutt is nowhere to be seen. He has consumed a powerful soporific to keep him insensate for the next three hours. We eat without him. His casual camp procedures have overwhelmed us. We neither look in horror as he wipes the skillet with a dirty rag before cooking; nor at his complete disregard for clean plates and cutlery.

Without our capricious guide Devidutt, seen here making tea in the hollow of an oak to keep the winds from snuffing the fire, our journey would have been wanting for character or anecdote

In failing light we gather for quiet reflection, meditation and thanksgiving. It is our last night together as a trekking team. We rejoiced in the simple thought that we’d had both a challenging and an enjoyable time. We were also safe.
The next day arrives too soon. There is much traffic on the way down. The history of human settlement in the Himalaya is marked by regular mobility for purposes of trade, resources, work, pilgrimage, or social exchanges. Travel has been an ongoing feature of these mountains. The intricate network of walking trails, resting places, and the cultural traditions of inn-keeping and porters, testify to that.

Wild geraniums poke out of the understorey

Early in 1991 when I had climbed to Kuari Pass, the public bus dropped us by the roadside at Nandaprayag. We then walked to Ghat and upwards to Kuari. Now the newly built roads have opened what had been inaccessible terrain to vehicular traffic and to new economic markets all over the range. Such efforts both materially and symbolically convey to the remote villages the opportunities and risks of the wider world.

The stony, steep descent to the River Nandakini has all but crippled us. Sunita and I lag behind the men. At last, with the river in sight, I walk to sit on the bridge. Sunita finds her way closer to the river. Clearly, she is in no mood to talk. I give her space.

Soon, we are joined by three German trekkers with their guide. The guide comes up to importune me with questions. After I had explained that we were birders, he asks what ‘equipment’ would one need to engage in bird-watching.

“Just your eyes,” I say lightly.

“No, no, one must have binoculars too.”

“Ok,” I say, “And a field guide.”

“What else,” he asks.

“A basic creative principle,” I say facetiously.

“Where can I buy that?”

Such simple-mindedness.

“One has to learn to observe – that’s the key. Birders must notice everything in its full, detailed richness.”

“Where can I find such people?” he asks.

“On a hillside, just watching,” I reply.

He dismisses me with a disbelieving look on his face. What a fortunate breed we are with an endless succession of surprises in life, by just engaging in the challenge of identifying.

It is now my turn to probe with questions. I walk up to this alpine leprechaun to ask why his legs were green. In the torrential rain of yesterday, the colour of his pants ran!

I turn toward Sunita to share the joke. She has finished smoking and is now inspecting her nails. She needs more time. The joke will have to wait. Now I wait for some signal of her readiness. She upturns her water bottle to her parched lips. That’s my cue, some physical sign of preparedness.

The Nandakini, one of the Ganga’s little-known tributaries, is one of the most beautiful of Himalayan rivers though our passage across it, over a quivery single-log bridge, was fraught with apprehension

Devidutt has been haranguing me to hurry up. He beams when we follow him. He is very encouraging. Our trek is nearly at its end. Sitel is in sight. Though it has begun to rain once more, we shelter in a shed while the men negotiate for a taxi. The women pile in with the driver and a couple of his friends. We have no clue what’s going on in the back. Fifteen men with all our luggage and theirs, sacks of village wealth, all pack into the back of the ‘tempo’. We didn’t hear a word of complaint from our fellow-trekkers, not even from the eternal comedian, Bijoy. We shall all miss this superb mimic. And I will always remember Sahastra, whose appreciation of visual delights was not just an indulgence, but rather an ennobling of ordinary need.

Leaving the Himalaya brings on the pangs. What traveler can forget the dark, silent shape of a Plumbeous Water Redstart as it flirts its fiery tail against the stone-grey foam of a rushing river?

While we wait to board the train at Hardwar, pilgrims laden with Ganga-jal jostle for a place to sit. I recollect reading somewhere that we must be “steady in what we do, not blown like feathers at the wind’s discretion, nor think that every water cleanses you.” I shall remember opening my pores to bathe in Nature. I shall remember the flirting tail of a Plumbeous Water Redstart, the Ultramarine Flycatchers confabulating on the quantity of gossamer needed for the nest, the shrill green of the parakeets – their colour as loud as their calls. Design in nature is a concatenation of accidents – chance genetic changes but so culled by natural selection that the result is not just effective but beautiful as well as to seem a miracle of purpose.

Thoreau once wrote, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” A century later, Wendell Berry proposed this necessary corollary: “In human culture is the preservation of wildness.”

By Jennifer Nandi

Photographs: Sahastrarashmi and Bijoy

Odyssey to Bedni Bugyal, a travelogue in ten parts, is now concluded. Follow these links to read previous episodes:
Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9

The Green Ogre – Birds, Wildlife, Ecology and Nature notes from India.

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