Wednesday, February 29, 2012

A Man Whose Home Is A Devdar Tree

1st week of June, 2008

For almost a month now we had been trekking in the Himalayas. 2 of us. I and a friend.

Friend was too tired, but I was sure I wanted to visit Khirganga (Himachal): the place was not part of our itinerary but it had been described in the most savoury of terms by people and I had begun to fantasize about it.

It was 12 kilometers on foot. I was concerned because I had to return the same evening since I had booked my bus ticket back to Delhi. I would have 24 kilometers to cover in one day.

I set out anyway, all alone, took the bus to Varshaini, where the trek would begin.
When I had made up my mind not to take a guide or a porter this time and go alone, people came to me one by one and told me about a lone foreigner woman who had been murdered by a Nepali on the same route, a few days ago! Should I go at all?
I spoke to the boys around, haggled, hired a guide for Rs 150/- a day and started.

For the first few hours, the walk was difficult. I could see forests, trees on mountains all around, there was no shade where we were walking and it was very sunny.
And then we walked by apple trees for a while.
The scene changed by noon. The weather was cooler, there was the drone of water in the valley and it was greener.

The river Parvathi roared in the valley. Standing on a narrow wooden bridge I thought it was a beautiful yet frightening sight. It was one of the mightiest water flow I had seen in all my Himalaya trip. The plunge, the volume of water, the pace, the force…

After the bridge, the forest became denser.

It was green all around and moist. There were tall Devdar trees of different kinds, their leaves of different shapes, branches on some perfectly horizontal, others stooped low, the colour varying from parrot green to emerald – unlike in other places I had seen before where only one type of Devdar grew in an area and provided no opportunity to make comparisons.

As we trekked, we met people returning from Khir Ganga. Almost all of them said “Wahan kuch nahin hain (there is nothing there). Wapas laut Jao (Retrace your steps)”.
I continued anyway…

We stopped at a small dhaba for refreshments. There was a motley mix of people there. An experienced local fellow inhaled from the chillum a really long puff of smoke and exhaled a large amount of smoke. The others, some foreigners tried to imitate him but could not match his capacity. He surely had bigger lungs than the rest. Or perhaps, it was experience.

Right across me, sat a Mauni Baba. He was on an oath of silence: a 12-year period silence. He had completed 8 years. There were four more to go. He spoke in sign language to the locals who seemed to understand him completely.

By four, we reached a clearing. There were a few huts, wooden shops and makeshift dwellings here and there. The clearing offered a 360 degree panoramic view of mountains around – some covered in Devdar, some in snow.

The legend about this place is: Shanmukha or Subramanya, the elder son of Shiva had pangs of hunger. Lord Shiva planted his trident at a spot and what came out was kheer (payasam), a sweet made of milk. That’s why the name Khirganga.

On the way, my guide entered a wayside dhaba and greeted people he knew and told them what he was doing there, while I stood at the entrance.
A man seated on a chair, with his back to me, turned and said “Namaskara. Chennagiddeera?”, meaning ‘how are you’ in Kannada.
I walked up to the fellow Kannadiga, smiling, and spoke to him. He introduced himself as Arun. People there knew him as Arun Babaji. He invited me to visit his dwelling (not far from that place), after I had returned from seeing the milky water-stream. I said I had to return the same day. He said I had come to a beautiful place and I should stay there overnight. I smiled politely, not wanting to bluntly refuse.

When I and the guide reached the spot, what we saw was a narrow trickle of a waterfall. But on the bed, a layer of cream – like moss had formed, giving the water, the appearance of milk from a distance. Perhaps the water contained some natural chemicals which caused the deposit of moss on the bed.

Nearby was a hot water spring in the open, for men. Next to it was an enclosure for women.

As I returned, I saw that the grey blanket in the sky had parted in the west through which parting, the sun appeared on the horizon. The effect was that the whole evening was washed in a yellow. I love this effect. I’ve always loved it.

I changed my mind about returning the same day :-)

It was getting cold. I rested in the dhaba for a while. It was warm inside as there was a Tandoor that was lighted and stoked from time to time. The floor was covered with thick quilts. I rested for a while and set out with my guide to meet Arun Babaji.

A short distance away, in the midst of several Devdars and other trees, stood a giant Devdar. This must have been a very old tree, for I noticed that its root was forked into two or three all of which were big and broad. Usually, there is just one root. The area around the root had been dug and leveled with the effect of creating a sort of platform, 3 feet above the leveled ground on which stood the Devdar. A tarpaulin was raised to a height of 6-7 feet from the ground. On the platform was a small bed, a few boxes containing provision and eatables, some blankets and then some firewood.
This was the home of Arun Babaji. This has been his home for 18 years.

As I entered his home I saw that Upma was cooking in a pan that sat on a heap of firewood. Baba was sitting in front of the fire and stoking it. He welcomed me with a smile, placed a mat before the fire on which I made myself comfortable.

He wore a white dhoti and a T-shirt. He must be in his early forties. He had a salt-and- pepper beard and wore a cap in the fashion of the local people. He spoke to me in English. He had a calm face, a fair complexion, a smile on his face and eyes that betokened innocence and humility. I was simply exhilarated about coming close to a person unlike anyone I had met before.

As we were making conversation, the Upma was ready. He asked the guide to pluck leaves from a nearby shrub. He served Upma to both me and the guide. In that cold weather, and after nearly a month of having Roti - Daal, Upma came as a welcome delight.

He enquired about me, my family, my education, job, my journey, etc.
But I was not able to learn much about him.
He was born in Bangalore. He left home when he was 16 or 17 to live in the mountains. This tree was special for him and he knew it even before he had seen it. When I asked him why he had made such a choice, he simply said, he loved nature.
Didn't he feel cold, sleeping in the open under a tree? 'This tree God keeps me warm'. Occasionally a jungle bear paid a visit, but did no harm.
When I enquired about his lineage, he said he was a Harijan.
When I asked him “Do you preach?”, he said, “No, I practice”.

He spends a few months in a year under the tree and for the rest, he is travelling – all over the world, East Asia, China, Switzerland, England, Lakshadweep, Copper Canyon in Mexico, England and all the exotic places on earth.
He does not work for a living. He says he is not educated.
When I asked him who provided for all that, he said, “HE takes care of me”.

He shared with me a few jokes. Good ones, I must say.
“Hitler went to an astrologer to know when he would die. The astrologer said “On a Jewish holiday”. How did the astrologer know? Well, any day Hitler died would be declared a Jewish holiday!”

We chatted thus and did not notice that the evening had turned into night. He pointed to the sky and I looked up. There was the crescent of the moon against a dark cobalt sky. All the trees and their branches stood out in a single continuous silhouette. There was perfect stillness and silence in the air.

It was time for Babaji to bathe in the kund(hot water spring). He invited me to join him in the morning for a cup of coffee – Bru Coffee! We said good night and I returned to the dhaba.
There I heard from the people, more about Babaji - that he was the son a of a very important person in India – the top ten rich list, that Manisha Koirala had sent him a flight ticket when he wanted to visit Nepal, that he was not a Harijan but a Brahmin or a Thakur(Kshatriya), that he conversed with scientists, that people revered him a lot – they would not light tobacco before him and much more... half of which must be rumours.

As I slept that night, my last thoughts were of Babaji – had I just met someone really out of the ordinary?

The next morning, after bathing in the Kund, I went to Baba’s tree where I had Bru coffee with biscuits.

And then we trekked a short distance on the trail leading to Mantalai.

There was smoke rising from the bottom of a Devdar. Some shepherds had lit a bonfire and left the spot without completely putting off the fire. Babaji took a plastic bottle, filled it with water from a nearby stream and poured it over the fuming ashes.

Guess what flowers these are, he said pointing at a patch. Strawberry! In about 15 days time, all these would bear strawberry fruit. How I wished I could prolong my stay.

As we walked, we came by a bark of Silver Birch(Bhojpatra) fallen on the ground. Babaji peeled layers from the bark and gave them to me. These peels still rest between the leaves of my notebook.

There was a walnut tree close to Babaji’s Devdar tree. He gave me a handful of walnuts that still rest on my kitchen slab.

It was time to leave. Word had been sent to the cook who usually cooked for Babaji that he was to expect two guests that noon.

The cook had been taught by Babaji how to prepare certain dishes to his liking.
Meals arrived in two thalis. The rotis were made of wheat grown in the hills. The curry was made of vegetables grown there. The curds had been made from the milk of Buffaloes that grazed in the vicinity of the hills.
The chutney was made of Marijuana seeds!!!

When I had first seen the plant in Rashol, I had wondered why God had created such a thing.
But I realized soon, ‘it all depends on how we use it’. Nature couldn’t be flawed. All beings are wholesome and perfect. It’s when we, men make unwholesome fragments of them that there arise problems.

A great meal it was. As pure as it could get.

Babaji shared some more jokes.
An accused man was questioned in the court “How old are you?” “35” said he. The judge asked him, “Had you not given the same answer 10 years ago in this very court?”, to which he replied “I am not the kind of a man who says one thing today and another thing tomorrow”!

We exchanged phone numbers. I gave him my address and said farewell to him.

As I sprinted down the mountain I was glad I had ignored all hurdles and compulsions on the way – my bus tickets to Delhi, the girl who had been apparently murdered on this trail, the trekkers who had said there was nothing up there and asked me to return… I was glad I had not read them as ‘signs from the universe’.

I talk to Babaji when he is not travelling and he always ends the conversation with a joke. He has visited Bangalore twice after our meeting and each time, he has awed me with his stories. He would like me to visit him in Uttarkashi where he has a cottage and make Dosas for him. I have yet to fulfill that wish…



This post has been written as an entry for the Around The World With Expedia Contest organized by Indiblogger and Expedia


debajyoti said...

all the best for the contest. it was an excellent read. liked Babaji's jokes as well :)

vasu said...

Interesting babaji !His view on life makes us all look very small.

RamaDrama said...

Nice read of a road less travelled.

The Fool said...

Thats a really unique experience.Really well narrated.