Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The elements - Water

Sigh! I'd love to write everything nice about water, but the fact is that most of my dreams are still about flood water rising unrelentingly.

In the city where the open sky is taboo, for all but the most wretched or unlucky, water is an avoidable thing. If you dare not get soaked, you seek a roof, one of those dense concrete slabs that wall you into little boxes.

In the mountains, the mighty mountains, water is inevitable - If it doesn't sneak in through that little bolt hole in your tin roof, it'll come from flowing underneath your feet, and even simply manifest under your floor mattress.

The rains in the Himalayas are something else - Have to be seen to be believed - back in July 1991, when we first set out, we had a taste of it, a pretty bad taste (I can still feel the after taste).We trekked across many mountains in a random fashion (don't ask why). At one particular high meadowy place, we decided one night to camp, a few hundred meters from some huts where various animals had been "parked" for the night (buffaloes and horses as far as I recall). With much enthusiasm Meera and the elder kids set out the plastic sheeting against a huge rock and we crept in exhausted after a day full of walking - It started raining, pouring elephants and apatosaurs, but the sheet held fine and we were all smug and dry.

Roundabout 2 AM, something was wrong, there was water all around but the "tent" was still intact. We had ended up bedding on a stream bed, and now the stream was streaming... In a few minutes the water was ankle deep and we had to get out of there. It was pitch dark and we did not know the terrain. Holding hands in a chain, with the aid of the trusty "Eveready Commander" torch, we made our way slowly across the stream, across a buffalo, towards the nearest hut. We left behind all the stuff to take care of itself.
We crept in and settled next to the inhabitants of the hut, and managed to catch random bouts of sleep two feet away from horse's tails and buffaloes rears. At first light, Meera and the elders scouted up and down the stream, and recovered whatever had been left behind, some stuff had washed downhill, almost everything was sodden. For years and years after that, some of the books we own(ed) would remind us of that sodden, scary night.

The Tons river, is the major source of the water in the Yamuna. It starts as Supin, from the Har-ki-dun glacier, joins a stream called Obrigaad, flows by our former dwelling and then merges with the Rupin, after which it is called Tons (perhaps a British corruption of the sanskrit word Tamasa - the dark one)

Mountain rivers are a strange animal, ever changing, rapid, turbulent - sometimes they descend so fast down the valley that you could classify them as mini waterfalls. The relentless abrasion of the glacial ice makes millions of tiny silica particles get suspended in the water. For most of the year, the water resembles Lime juice in color - tastes just as good too - The locals used to fear drinking the river water, because of some legend. They said - "This is the Karam Naasha. It washes away your good karma, completely opposite to the Ganga". "Khooni nadi" (Bloody river) they said. Like we cared!!

Over time, Mimroo and a couple of local kids got over their taboo of the water due to us (after all we were supposed to be learned ones) and they used to accompany us for our daily ice cold dip. The water was cold - even in summer I'm sure it was about 15 degrees celsius at most, and in winter around 2 to 5 celsius and occasionally thin slivers of ice forming at dawn, in the stagnant pools along the banks.

The bath strategy was simple (for us boys anyway), you walk in, dip and rush out, and lie on the black rocks that were heated by the sun, basking like reptiles, until you gathered enough courage to do it again. There was one particular black basalt like rock, that somehow reminded me of a triceratops' head, nice flat surface angled just right, south facing to catch the sun. Dear old rock!

The river was bifurcated in two with a 300 meter long "island" in between. Old "Mahima Singh", Mimroos father, would tell us that in the "before times", the river flowed mainly in the opposite branch. That branch was quite small usually and in some months just waist deep all over. We'd cross over to the island, hunt for a candidate log and try riding on the log downstream in the shallow water. OUCH! Splinters in the thigh! But fun!!!

Come summer, and the river would start rising, water turning more grayish, slightly brown, but still quite pure to drink. There is something about the water of the Tons, the taste of which has never been equalled for me, even by "Evian" mineral water.

And then there was the macabre stuff - Don't read the next paragraph if you are squeamish!

Whenever someone died in the local villages, they'd bring the corpse down to the river, and half a mile upstream, they'd cremate the body - partially... Some folks claimed some ritualistic reasons, but I realize it was probably because fetching enough wood for the fire to completely turn a body into ash is hard work, and it takes up all day to burn too. In any case, they would burn it for a couple of hours, and then the low caste (That's one english phrase Mimroo and Guddu picked up real fast) folks would prod the remains into the water. Depending on several factors, it would be anywhere from extra-medium-rare to well-done. Coupled with the fact that most folks died in winter, and that the water level was pathetically low (Naren and Mimroo once made history by crossing the river one winter), it was inevitable that the corpse lodge itself on some small rock, and remain there until the vultures ate it. We lived downstream, and drank the river water, and though some calculations show that the "contamination" would have been in a few parts per billion, we'd have to go deal with the issue. Several times, with Mimroo and his two elder brothers, we'd go over, grab us some long sticks and attempt to dislodge the unrecognizable mass of charred human remains - it's dense, pulpy looking stuff and you get quite queasy when you feel it through the stick.
Once, on one such "waste disposal" missions, Govind Ram (Mimroos first brother), kept insisting that the black and bluish green "thing" lodged on a rock was a "ghorrot" (mountain goat) and pointed to a bony white projection (I believe a rib) insisting it was a "seengh" (horn). I and Naren took unholy pleasure that day, convincing him of the fact that it was a human, and seeing him squirm. Talk about black humour!

The rains would start in August - and what rains! It could be the slow misty "atmosphere-condensing-spontaneously" one, or the "Can-you-shout-louder-I-cant-hear-you-over-the-din-on-the-roof" torrent. In either case, the river would rise and rise and rise, until it was dark, and then we could imagine it rise during the night. I recall one evening, in fading light, rushing down to the place we had our water pump mounted. There, the water raged, just lapping at my feet as I stood on a platform that normally was ten feet above the river bank and almost twnty feet above the water level. Now, the water was just touching it and fifty feet upstream, the water was actually at a higher level than me! It was falling at such a downward angle! Who said water finds a flat level?

The 2x3 feet platform was mounted on a huge rock by two bolts and two chains. It required great faith in physics, material science and our own design/building skills to step onto it, not to mention balance. Even more so when that torrent was flowing underfoot.
Hanging on to the chains that held the platform for dear life, with one hand, and a death grip on a hacksaw in the other, I sawed through the PVC suction line, most of which had been smashed to bits by the river already, and the remaining pulling alarmingly at the pump. Finally, I somehow manhandled the heavy 60 pound machine up to safe ground. I still get goosebumps on the soles of my feet as the sensation of standing on that slippery platform replays itself in my head now. It's not surprising that to this day I often dream of rescuing equipment from rising floodwaters.

Things went bump in the night - Huge rocks rolling downhill underneath the coffee colored torrent. Come the morning and we'd look excitedly at the river for signs of a new record level of water. Log hunting time! Scout the banks, extract promising wood, and try to somehow drag the sodden heavy logs at least a meter or two uphill, lest the river reclaim it.

Then there were dead fish - We'd never really seen any fish in the river, but I recall on one particular flood, there were a number of large dead fish washed up on the banks - I have no idea where they came from.

And the smell, a smell of mud, of the bitter bodily juices of freshly uprooted trees. In those monsoon days, the rain water that dripped from the roof, would be all we drank, often flavored a little by the leaves of the apricot tree that leaned over the roof of our dwelling.

The last year I was there, the river rose to such high levels (judging from the age of the trees nearest to the river, I believe a once in thirty years event), that the island in the middle was completely submerged, the water reached upto the bridge towers that were usually ten yards inland. For the first time ever, the water level was so high that it actually seemed level and turbulence free, upstream from our location (downstream was all rocks and cascades). To comprehend that mass of water was kind of hard, since I knew how far down the actual ground was below the water.

Then there was the brook on the other bank of the river - Papralla it was called - Flows down from the lofty "Kedar Kaanta", to the streams left was forest and to the right farmland. Also the location of the "garat" (described later) owned by one Hon. Mr. Chander Singh Rana Esquire, of short stature, comical voice and suspiciously Nepalese features, despite his "Rana" tag.
"Aisa hain na jee, Sukhe ke saath kabhi hara bhi jal jaata hai!" ( You see, sometimes, the green (wood) gets burnt along with the dry ) was one of the memorable homilys that I remember of his - he was talking about collateral damage in disputes in case you missed the metaphor.

Mimroo always referred to him (out of his hearing) as "Chandokti"(a perjorative dimunitive of the name) or "Gorkha" (in derision of the oriental features which hinted at an impure bloodline).

And his eldest son Mohan Singh (Mohna), a speech impaired kid, who made up for it with brute strength and a primitive sense of technology.
For a few months, "gaadi" was his obsession - He'd run off to the forest and return with a 7 inch thick log from a freshly felled tree (he'd felled it). Saw it into slices, and make a hole, to get wheels. One wheel was all he needed for his "gaadi" which was more a wheelbarrow with no barrow. But he'd broght down a tree and he could have plenty of wheels. Once, his design evolved to a heavy stone wheel, that he spent a whole day making... With an axle and two poles nailed to either side of it, he'd run to and fro on the bridge (possibly the most flat and level 60 meters for miles and miles around), pushing it with superlative glee. "Tya hai - gaari hai - bariya hai" was his refrain (meaning - What? It's a vehicle, it's good).

The "gaadi" obsession turned once into a "ghadi" (watch) obsession and when we got him one, it really didn't last long - What you expect from a 30 rupees "Made in China" watch? One night close to the fire and probably it's toast. I remember one mean older lad by name of "Chain Singh" try to tease Mohna, by taking the watch away from him, on the bridge, threatening to throw it into the river. There was some kind of primal rage in Mohna's eyes that day, as if he would have thrown ol' Chaina into the turbid river to fetch his watch had he actually dropped it in.

I digress from water, but he was a nice boy, very loyal to us... I recall, the first "aangan" (stone courtyard) that we laid, he helped Naren with the sledgehammer and cold chisel to split stones and carried half of them from the far bank himself - my nerdy city boy physique was not capable of doing the whole sledgehammer and stone-carrying thing then, even though I was as far as I knew, 1 year older than Mohna. "Dada" (elder brother) was how he adressed both us brothers. We'd often "hire" him (to keep his parents from grumbling when he wanted to hang around, and help with whatever we'd do) to do stuff like dig up the garden, build retaining walls, and so on - "Dera doon na, joota hai, bahuat aa bariya - dooi shou chari shou".. he'd say - meaning he'd want us to buy him shoes of worth 200 or 400 rupees from Dehradun, when we went there. Not that "dooi shou chari shou" shoes last much longer than the standard issue 30 rupee ones in that environment, still, he could wear it to the "mela" (fair) and be proud of them whole they lasted. Speaking of melas, I recall the one time we'd been to one, and Mohna found a hilarious pastime, rolling up a small cardboard carton into a sort of club and going around whacking semi-drunk youth on the butt, with intense force and much guffawing and glee - They deserved that and more, since they'd always be mean to him.
It's been about 20 years since we first met him, he had gotten married when he was about fourteen, I dare say he is a grandfather now - that's the way it rolls in the villages.

A "garat" is a water mill, the kind that Ug may have first considered a working prototype. We were fortunate to have witnessed the construction of this.
Take a thick log, say 12 inches, hack it with a "Basola" (adze) into a sort of large baseball bat shape, the bottom part remaining a thick cylinder and the top a narrow shaft (making things out of a single piece of wood when possible, is a fetish there and I have imbibed that too). Insert one foot by one foot wooden planks radially in the bottom, to form a primitive turbine. Embed a round hard pebble at the bottom and rest it on a flat rock with a depression to form a "needle" bearing. Carve a tall thick tree into a long U shaped channel, to function as a water duct, and after adding some more details like a small hut above the turbine, the grinding stone(s), raising lever, grain delivery funnel (again one piece of wood), the wooden "kookdi" (pheasant?) device that would bounce on the rough top of the rotating grindstone and transmit enough jerks to the grain funnel to make it trickle into the hole at the center of the grindstone. Shah Rukh Khan (from Swadesh the movie) and all the geniuses from NASA could not have come up with this ingenious and fun mechanism (besides, Shah Rukh Khan is an intellectual property violator - No sooner than we had seen a garat than me and Naren had instantly known that it could have easily generated 5 to 10 kilowatts if hooked up to a truck alternator or something, even with that primitive "turbine". Haa Haa, we had dibs on it... (read in Bart Simpson voice, in NANANANANANA tune)! )

Imagine a grinding millstone, on which a wooden bird like thing dances endlessly with a rhythmic ratatat to spill grain at a regular rate - Form and function! And gives early warning that there are dangerous moving stone parts around. Of course the flour from the mill would have this "minerals added" thing from the stones, giving a kinda crunchy(in not a nice way) feel when you ate it.

"Garats" are owned by the person who builds them - it's a complex process. As payment, whosoever shall grind meal there, shall give a couple of bowls of flour as payment. It must be shutdown at night - if left running, the stones would wear smooth and get ruined. It's a kind of skill to grind flour in it. You need to go regulate the water in the dug out canals with stones and leafy ferns, divert water via some wooden gates into the wooden channels, lift the turbine with a special lever mechanism (which linked directly to the upper rotating stone) ever so slightly, to get the right clearance for the grain in question. Keep the floor and walls around nicely plastered (don't ask with what) and clean to prevent water seepage into the flour - lots of details and regular supervision. Many would nap right there, waking every so often to adjust stuff. Many a time we and Mimroo would squeeze into the little hut in the night and sit swapping stories, with a small fire burning, under the background music of the flowing water, the grinding stones and the kookdi.

First there was Chandokti's garat, then there was Padam Singh's garat as competition, and then when that washed away, there was Gila Ram's garat. The stream had this nasty surprise... It all happened for the first time in August '96 I believe. The day had been quite rain free, but cloudy and humid and there was ominous darkness above the kedar kanta peak. There was a sort of whistling wind and some rumbling, and as we watched, across the river, the stream was a raging torrent, huge 4 foot diameter logs were being splintered, trees on the banks uprooted so fast that leaves were being shaken off, several hundreds of thousands of cubic meters of rock, trees, mud and all gushing down the mountain at unbelievable velocity. Bus sized boulders literally floating in the dark brown semisolid mass. In about five minutes it was over, lots of water still flowed, but nothing more was shifting. This flood ruined the picturesque landscape near the stream for ever. For weeks we could smell it, a miasma of putrescence...
That flood would supply us with enough wood for many winters to come. It would cause the bridge foundation to settle, twisting the decking into a highly impassable angle in the middle. It would ruin a nice and deep pool upstream that had been a nice place to bathe, by dumping pointy boulders right in the middle.

The monsoon after we had left the place for good, it would happen again, this time with such violence that it dammed the river, causing it to erode the banks, wash away the bridge itself and change the landscape so much, that I could hardly recognize it when I went there again to visit.

So there you have it, my relationship with water, bitter-sweet - Giver of pain, as we carried it, fought it, froze in it, soaked in it, cleaned it, and yet perhaps as we imbibed that sweet icy Tons water, we developed the super powers that we have today.

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