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The goldsmith's daughter

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posted by Greg Searle alias electricfrog on Thursday 17th of November 2005 01:26:46 AM

Coordinates: 31°12'15"N 78°4'24"E - Dodra (9200 feet) and Kwar (8000 feet) Villages, near the Indian/Tibetan border - unconnected by road, and cut off for seven months of the year due to heavy snows (map) - (full photo set) I've just been stalked by a tiger at 10,000 feet, coming over a snowbound mountain pass from the remote village of Genwali with Vinay and Sumit a couple of brave city kids I've brought along from New Delhi as translators. They have never climbed a mountain before, never even encountered snow. [Full Genwali trek photolog here] In Gutu, at the trailhead of the infamous Kedarnath trek I encounter Jim, a genuine wild mountain man. For the last 23 winters this superhuman garbage man from Lake Louise has traversed the remotest Himalayas by snowshoe and back-country ski, conducting remarkable field research as an amateur ethno-ecologist. He is so impressed with the difficult route we’ve just taken that he invites me to hang with him at his headquarters at the once-glorious Prince Hotel in Mussoorie. Jim shows me his precious khukri dagger. "It was a gift from an old Ghurka veteran I lived with. In the Pacific, he assassinated Japanese officers with this knife", he says proudly. "I would never go into the mountains without it. Back in '86, I woke up in my sleeping bag to a hyena drooling on my face. My khukri split its skull clean through." Jim and I hike up the ridge to play Frisbee in a field next to some ruins. He throws a curving backhand and launches into one of his brilliant lectures. “See those little huts next to the main building? Geodesist Sir George Everest, Surveyor General of India, stowed his Nepali concubines there from 1818 until 1843 while he was laboring to establish the height of the world's most famous mountain (named in his honor in 1865) and the larger trigonometric survey of India, on which depended the accurate mapping of the subcontinent.” Jim can talk like this for days without tiring, and I soak it up. "Draw me a map to the most beautiful place you've ever been in the Himalayas", I ask Jim. He is only too happy to share. "There is a village named Kwar just 45km from the Tibetan border", he says, "where the people are friendlier, the architecture better, and the religion stranger than anywhere I've been up in these mountains. . . Say, if you're going to go, would you mind delivering some photographs I took 16 years ago of those villagers?" -- Days later, I am a little lost on a mule trail somewhere near the fork of the Rupin river, 15 km short of my destination. I sit down to try to make sense of the hand-drawn map. Perhaps declining to hire one of those crooked guides from Naitwar (the village at the end of the road) wasn't such a hot idea after all. Hill people stride cheerfully past with improbable loads roped to their backs. Men haul stone slate shingles up the mountain, one heavy shingle at a time. A handsome man in a suit jacket walks by carrying a baby calf in his arms. A schoolboy with a shy smile and a stubborn sheep stops to let the animal graze on flowers from low-hanging tree branches. Thirty seconds of sign language and emergency Hindi is all it takes to establish everything I will ever know about him. He is Krishana, his sheep is Gablu, and we are going to Kewar together. -- Kewar turns out to be a magnificent village an hour’s hard climb straight up from the river. Homes with gracefully carved pagoda roofs line the steep ridge and offer their residents sweeping panoramic views of snow-capped mountains from sumptuous wrap-around balconies. The slopes of the rocky hills are softened by orchards full of fresh fruit. Kewar is also very remote - as I enter the village I stand aside for a parade of grim-faced men. They are carrying a violently ill woman down the mountain. It will take them two days just to reach the nearest road, and the nearest hospital is a day's drive from there. Harpal, a university student studying English in the provincial capital of Shimla, is beside himself with joy to lodge me in his family's gorgeous 4-story wood and stone home. I am surprised to find a satellite dish on it. Lying asleep in the sun in front of the home is a pony-sized mountain dog. Harpal assures me that the iron collar around their throats protect the village dogs during routine confrontations with tigers and bears. That night, Harpal's demure sisters serve dahl and rice. They say nothing, responding to none of my questions, and emphatically refuse to eat with us. They won't even meet my gaze - to do so would rupture the cultural dam that insulates the world of women from the world of men. Harpal proudly turns the television on so we can enjoy our dinner in the conversational company of CNN. I ask him if he watches much television. "Not much", he says, "but my sisters watch 3-4 hours most days." I shake my head. There are only 4 hours of electricity rationed out each day. These young women carry heavy pails of water up steep hills and work in the fields with the most basic tools, yet they follow Bombay's soap operas with religious devotion. I am secretly delighted when the electricity dies and we are left in silence to finish our meal. I tell my new friends that I wish to repay them for their kindess. I have run out of the popular little LED flashlights that I usually give away to my hosts. But I've been in India for long enough now to know that I a little cultural exchange will be just as treasured. I offer to sing an exotic Western pop song. Harpal and his sisters listen with angelic concentration in the lamp-light as I earnestly serenade them with The Chelsea Hotel, Leonard Cohen's ironic tribute to the queen of drugs and rock and roll. When it comes to the bit where Janis Joplin is "giving me head on the unmade bed while the limousines wait in the street", I smile sweetly and mumble incomprehensibly. The next morning, Harpals' sisters speak excellent English to me. -- I am introduced to the village goldsmith, who hand-crafts the fantastic gold jewelry that the older women wear. His is a dying trade. Harpal's sisters and the other young women in the village scorn these traditional tribal ornaments. None of the actresses on Bollywood TV wear them. Television is teaching these once-proud people to think of themselves as unfashionable and poor. Wherever I go, the few people who speak English apologize to me for the "poor facilities" and the state of their "backward villages". The young men yearn to move to the big cities like New Delhi. People smile politely when I try to point out that here they are surrounded by beautiful mountains, bountiful orchards, and enviable homes, whereas the rural people I’ve met in the big cities live in squalid ghettos without a stitch of dignity. -- Apparently, it is a great honor to meet the creepy village shaman, an oracle whose epileptic fits at religious festivities yield prophesies that are gospel to everyone in a hundred-kilometer radius. Jim's photographs are received with similar reverence. I am given a royal welcome, invited ceremoniously into homes to distribute 4x6 photos from 1989 to villagers who have never seen so much as a Polaroid of themselves before. And they love it. So this must be what it feels like, I think to myself, to descend in the night in a flaming spaceship and casually dispense crop circles. I start to look at the shaman in a whole new light. My spiritual self-satisfaction doesn't last long. The nearby village of Jhakha has burned to the ground, and the photographs I give away there are bittersweet, showing homes that no longer stand. Back in Kewar, I learn too late that some of the people in the remaining photographs have died tragically. The photo of a man who just 3 months earlier went out hunting and fell from a cliff goes to his speechless 16-year old son. The photo of the little 2-year-old girl that Jim cherished most goes to her elderly parents. They struggle to keep from sobbing in front of the foreigner. It is no comfort to me that I am as unprepared for this than they are. They clutch at the only photograph they will ever have of their only daughter, dead now for two years. Later I return to find them a little less distraught, and they quietly ask me to take their photo. Their neighbor the goldsmith takes me to his home. I photograph his mother, resplendent in her heavy gold earrings. I am about to leave when the goldsmith's daughter crawls up to the door of his wooden home and skewers me with her eyes. We stare at each other for a small eternity. I snap her photograph as an afterthough, and a chill runs up my spine. Her photo will find its way back to Kewar, I promise myself. The circle is begun again.



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