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A Monsoon Bus Ride to Uttarkashi

Kaaren Mathias (kaarenmathias@gmail.com) is a public health physician working in rural Uttarakhand. She is the mental health programme manager for the Emmanuel Hospital Association.

Travelling through picturesque, lush Garhwal on a rickety bus, this writer makes two journeys at once.

As I wait by muddy puddles on the lower Tehri road, its horn blares through the mist many minutes before the Uttarakhand Roadways bus emerges through the clouds. I am off on a five-hour journey to Uttarkashi, to talk to the chief medical officer (CMO) about access to essential medicines in the remote health centres of this huge and hilly district.

I sit next to paan-chewing Gopal, who is returning to duty after Raksha Bandhan. “The roads are better on the Kumaon side,” he observes. Two hours later, he tersely adds, “And the clouds are not so thick.” An hour later, he remarks, “But working in irrigation, the job is the same everywhere in Uttarakhand.”

After just half an hour of swerving through the steep forested terrain, we stop for breakfast. Raunchy Garhwali music comes gurgling from the dhaba. The paratha and channa are tangy and hot—nothing beats dhaba food. Mules from the village below stagger up the road, laden with cabbages. Two young men swing the sacks of these green cabbages into the back of the small white “Jai Surkanda Devi” (“Victory to goddess Surkanda”) pickup truck. Nearly as laden as the mules, white and blue uniformed high school students trudge up onto the road too. They weave around the bus, the mules, the Surkanda Devi truck, and the disconsolate bus passengers.

Back on the bus, we speed through terraced fields with pink and purple houses. My eyeballs are marinated in the relentless green. August is the height of monsoon and every surface is coated with some enthusiastic chlorophyll at work in the foliage. Only the most recent landslides exposing horizontal gaps in the earth, (like gums exposed after one’s molars have been recently extracted)break up the green.

Outside the window, I see Uttarakhandi cows browse rather than graze—more like goats than their domesticated, apprehensive cousins who live on the flat lands. Temporarily bipedal on their rickety hind legs, they prop themselves up against steep grassy banks, straining for alluring grass just out of reach. These goat-cows are nimble and nonchalant on gradients that would have ordinary cows tumbling to the bottom of the slope.

Now, we are at the top of the huge hill, but today, Tingling Point shares no panorama of the sparkling shaggy Himalayas. We see only whiffs of mist and sombre roadside vendors, modest piles of muddy vegetables spread out on sacks. Seeing the bus though, two vendors leap to their feet and wrench the bus door open. They hand the conductor two muddy ₹20 notes, and heft aboard a sack of cabbages, a box of anaemic tomatoes and sheaves of bushy-tailed coriander leaves. The bus then points its nose downhill for the huge descent to the Ganga river valley.

We pause briefly between villages for a toilet stop. Orderly terraced fields are fringed by disorderly weeds and grasses. Two whiskery pilgrim-passengers from Haryana leap over to the field opposite, manically plucking at the unruly borders of the rice field, collecting seed heads. Although everyone is back on the bus, the driver indulgently waits a few minutes for these seed collectors. Finally, the driver toots the horn. They grab a last few seed heads before climbing into the bus. They explain enthusiastically to me through their paan-red teeth: “We are on a pilgrimage to Gaumukh (the primary headstream of the Ganga). We bring seeds and take seeds wherever we go. More plant diversity for the planet.” I am ignorant about these plants all around me, but still I stop and marvel at the different seeds wrapped in red and black plastic bags pulled out of Mr Bearded Pilgrim’s shoulder bag. They are fluffy and brown, green and
hexagonal, small and black; secret coded stashes of a thousand new shapes and greens.

Down, down, down, we wind to get to the valley floor, and the upper reaches of the Tehri Dam stare back at me—the glassy gaze of caged water. The valley floor is dotted with small towns, and the bus driver makes multiple stops to drop the cabbages at one shop, the pallid tomatoes at another. Passengers board and deboard all along the way. The driver leans out the window to chat with passing drivers. Progress is slow; I hope the CMO doesn’t leave early for lunch.

Finally, as we pull into the sprawled valley town of Uttarkashi, I find the Ganga has now shapeshifted back into her animated monsoon form, huge and unruly. Her brown waters leap and caper downhill, frothing, unedited, racing through raggedy rapids towards the sea.

A bus ride demands, more than other forms of transport, that I pay attention to what is outside the window. I read in a train. I listen to the stereo in a car. I see only clouds from a plane. This bus jiggles along at a slow enough speed to make me notice where I am. Winding through this hilly landscape, the inexorable green of this season testifies to the persistent presence of rain, cloud, and sun. I am late for my meeting, but perhaps arriving on time would have given greater surprise. On this cloudy August morning, cows, people, weeds, and rivers are all escaping from expected forms, straight edges, constraints, and controls. The monsoon does that to us.

 

Updated On : 30th Oct, 2019

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