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With the weight over his shoulders his knees wobble as he makes his way down the steep path. Clouds begin to gather and he can see his worst fears come to life.
While trekking my way up to the Valley of Flowers, I noticed a fairly old man walking ahead of me. He was half crouched but kept climbing at a steady pace. I then noticed a very large basket on his back; the ropes of the basket ran all the way from his back to his forehead. I was stunned when I saw an elderly woman sitting uncomfortably in the basket. Till date I have no clue how that the poor man carried all of that weight on his forehead.
These are the palanquin bearers of the valley. They carry tourist on their back between Govind Ghat to Ghagaria (almost 15kms uphill) and from Ghagaria to the Valley (round trip of around 8kms). Their customers are generally senior citizens or young children. Once in a while you do see a few young but exhausted souls being carried up to Ghagaria.
What is saddening is the fact that despite carrying the weight of a full grown adult across a terrain where your own weight feels like that of an elephant, they are paid a meager sum of around INR 1,500- 2000.
Their business peaks during the monsoons when the valley is in full bloom. A majority of them live from hand to mouth, their wages depending on the vagaries of the mountain climate. They do well only on days when the sun is in abundance and the gates to the valley are open for tourist. This short story is inspired by the pitiful plight of these palanquin bearers.
“Yaha pe rokh dena bhaiyya,” she said. He heaves a sigh of relief and stops immediately. As he lowers the basket down against the side wall, he feels his muscles relax. The sun is slowly rising across the skyline and he can feel the heat pulsating through his body. He splashes some water from the nearby stream. The cool water feels like paradise as it touches his skin. He takes a few sips and lets his mouth feel the freshness of the water.
“Bhaiyya, chalo abhi…” he quickly sprints towards her and begins to pick the basket. As he walks up towards the valley, he can hear the river gushing alongside. The sight is magnificent, the river flowing in all her grandeur as she trips and falls over the rocks that come her way. He begins chanting praises to his river goddess just like his mother had taught him when he was only seven. It helped him to maintain his pace and not lose balance, perhaps it was the chants that keep him going.
The sun is now high in the sky and each step begins to feel like eternity. Just a few more steps, he says to himself as he finally catches a glimpse of the meadows. The landscape has changed dramatically, with the meadows now covered with a layer of pink and yellow flowers. It never grows old; each day he climbs up to the meadows and each day he is left spellbound by the abundance of beauty, which is this valley.
Once they reach the meadows, he puts the basket down and helps her get off. Sitting with his friends, a cigarette in his hand, he gorges on the lunch his wife packed for him earlier this morning. After lunch they sit down and discuss about the ongoing unrest at the border and most importantly last week’s bad weather that had taken a toll on their business.
Pictures of last week’s rainy cloudy days flood his mind. He looks up at the sun glistening down at him and whispers a quick thank you. As he lazes down in the meadows, the lady is busy peering and peeking at the flowers. Hours pass by and the sun slowly begins to make its journey back home.
He calls for the lady as the weather slowly begins to cool down. “Madam, abhi hume neeche chalna chahiye”. She protests since she is still left with a lot of ground to cover. He tries to explain to her that the weather in the hills is very unpredictable, and it would be difficult to get down with the rain pouring down on them.
After a little tantrum, she climbs into the basket and so begins their downward journey. With the weight over his shoulders his knees wobble as he makes his way down the steep path. Clouds begin to gather and he can see his worst fears come to life. But the rain gods are generous today — the drizzle keeps fading away as the clouds make way for the setting sun.
After hours of walking with gravity showcasing its full strength, he finally reaches the exit gate. As he lowers the basket, he can see his baby girl walking down the path to meet her beloved father. The lady is grateful and thanks him for all his effort. The reward is a tiny sum of 2000 Rs.
He accepts the money and with a full smile on his face, he thanks the lady for her generosity, and turns to his daughter. “Papa, dekho mujhe aaj Lilly aunty ne kya diya!” he looks at her face lighting up as she draws out a chocolate from her pocket. He picks her up in his arms and kisses her on her cheeks. How he wished that this moment would last forever. As they walk home under the orange sky, all the hardship endured earlier in the day is forgotten. Today he will go home to a happy house, today he will be able to feed his daughter and wife, today he will have a goodnight sleep.
Published here earlier.
Image source: Flickr, for representational purposes only