The Unknown Hero Of The Spiti Valley
“Bhaishaab” (brother), a voice called out with a pair of hands behind me asking for a hand shake. As I turned, I saw a man bending to greet me with a smile on his face. Though, the face wasn’t clearly visible in that poor light emitting from the bulb fighting all the way to light up the dark kitchen room. I put off the glass of tea I was holding, and turned a bit more to be comfortable to accept the greet with my pair of hands.
As I turned aback to catch again my tea, I heard him saying “Pio-Pio bhaishaab, thand hai” (please continue your tea, its cold), and laughter followed from the both of us. I wasn’t surprised at all by this unknown greeting, as people in Himachal (especially remote villages) are quite friendly, and make a point to greet folks around, whether its a known face or a stranger.
He entered the kitchen, shut the doors, and took off his heavy long jacket. The military green shaded denim jacket, though was heavy and long enough, but not waterproof, and was slightly torn from few places. There were several stitches as well. It was quite evident that he didn’t care to go to a tailor to get it stitched as they seemed self attempted.
His greeting followed towards the cook, the bus conductor who was standing right beside me, and the bus driver, standing right next to the cook. By the time, he reached behind the big stove, catching some heat for himself.
I was unaware about the remote village of Pooh in the Spiti valley, as I was visiting the place for the very first time. All that I knew was, it serves as a stop-over to travelers who are heading towards Leh or the well-known Kaza valley. However, while travelling towards Pooh, I couldn’t help but get lost in its splendid and breath taking views.
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The bus conductor from the bus I took to Pooh, told me that there’s a PWD guest house where the bus staff halt for spending the night, and I may get a stay in there, which as per their opinion was the only decent stay option in Pooh. Although, I was told that going for a home-stay in the village was a decent option too, but by the time I reached Pooh, it was already pitch dark and so, I decided to opt for the former.
It was 7:30 PM, pitch dark, and the entire village could be seen as few clustered stars in the sky. I got into the premises, and followed the two gentlemen (bus driver and conductor) into the guest house kitchen, where the cook (who was also the immediate caretaker of the rest house) was busy preparing food for all.
All three of us were immediately offered tea, which was a big relief to fight the cold waves as it could potentially freeze your blood if you stood unshielded for a little longer. However, the kitchen room proved to be a tiny heaven for all of us for obvious reasons.
He (and fortunately all of us in the room) were conversing in Hindi, so it wasn’t difficult to understand his conversations. Very short hair, firm athletic physique, hard hitting palms, and his attire made me think of him being in the army or the ITBP force. It was 8:30 by then, and when the cook inquired about his whereabouts until now, he told that he got late as he had to return back the earth-mover JCB to some distant place, and walk back from there.
This made me more curious then ever as to know what he actually did for a living. I believed, bluntly asking his name or being curious about his job might not feel good, so I chose to remain silent and continued to be a silent listener. Soon, the bus driver broke a political conversation to which both the bus conductor and the cook jumped in, whilst, this guy kept silent.
I found a good gap, and immediately cracked a question to him. Aren’t you interested in politics? I asked, looking at him. He shook his head horizontally meaning that he’s not interested; the cook intervened and asked “Is bar tabka nai mila na” (didn’t you receive a recognition this time) followed by a loud chuckle. I did smell the irony in this, and revealed my curiosity towards knowing more about it.
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Whilst this man burrowed his head deep inside, carrying a fake smile on his face (which unvieled his disappointment), the cook enlightened me that the BRO (Border Road Organization) is designated to clear off the snow every year in the Spiti valley (of which, Pooh is a small remote village).
He continued, that however, BRO is active in the prime areas of the valley, Pooh remains untouched. Hence, they ask local folks to help them out in clearing the snow in return of a minimum daily wage. The bus driver also joined in, and shared his despair that the local inhabitants clear snow all day manually, and earth-mover JCB(s) are only provided for clearing hard snow enroute.
Clogged snow on road means no traffic, which is a serious issue for these remote villages of Himachal. Not to mention, people here also lack optimum food, necessary household utensils, schools, and medical emergencies. Sadly, one of the national newspapers posted an article on 19 March 2017, about the villagers’s complaints about the inefficiency of the BRO’s duties that sadly cost 2 lives due to medical emergencies.
The cook continued, that this man, among many local villagers, helps the BRO in clearing snow from the roads every year, for which he had received recognition from the BRO and the state government in the last two years.
While I began to ponder as to how much pile of snow a single person could have cleared, I heard the cook asking the man “bata-bata kitna hataya iss bar” (tell me, how much snow could you manage to clear this time). The man, after a long pause, raised his head and again with a proud laugh on his face, answered 4 kms. The cook was a good story teller indeed. Soon he made a point, that for the last 2 years he did 8 kms, why was the reason behind his state recognition.
I asked, if the recognition is in the form of a certificate, or a medal, perhaps? The man acknowledged me saying that the one who tops to clear enough snow in a year’s time, receives a certificate and cash of 1000 INR.
In the current times, where a barber costs you 100 bucks for a chop chop, and petrol costs 70 bucks, how much of value is an award of 1000 rupee for the one who devotes himself for a year long of physical labour?
Anyhow, this chap didn’t seem to care about the money, but, only the recognition. He adds confidently, “I’m sure, next year it would be me”. To this, I was intrigued, and immediately got a sense of the kind of life such people led here. They just fight for their own achievement and glory, irrespective of the fact that they are recognized by the world or not.
Meanwhile, the cook summoned all other guests for dinner. I was bit surprised to see him calling everyone rather than delivering the food in their respective rooms as a standard norm. I assumed, it might be a buffet. Soon, I noticed a room behind me, adjacent to the kitchen, which had a large dining table with 15 approx. wooden chairs.
So, we all settled down, and all the while having my decent north Indian dinner, my mind was busy contemplating his gentle words and gestures. The dinner at the guesthouse cost me 300 INR. It was 11 PM, when I made my way towards the warm cozy bed. Even in the month of march, it was so cold out there that I was forced to take out another blanket from the cupboard.
I couldn’t ask for more from the PWD rest house room for just 500 INR. The Internet didn’t seem to work, so I couldn’t google the exact temperature that night. However, the feel was no more than -2 or -4 degree centigrade. I was not expecting this much of cold, but still I had my snow jacket with me, which worked quite well under two heavy blankets.
His name is Bahadur (of course his personality and attitude couldn’t make a more apt match), and I took his photograph the next morning. Other than the fact that he was blushing, he seemed to more concerned about his unsophisticated jacket, while my fingers were at the mercy of the icy winds that could potentially freeze even running water exposed to the wind. In the bright morning yellow sun, I saw a shadow of self-respect on his face, and a proud happy smile.
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