On the Great Himalayan Road Journey to Baltistan, today is the showdown, the final journey continuing from
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It was more difficult to reach here than i had thought. To an extent I was only one night away from leaving it all and going back home.
A whole day had gone in repairing Tyre and servicing this vehicle in Diskit, the same valley that hosted gypsies once, ancient travellers, porters coming from Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan carrying opium and other magic potions to the cold desert of Hunder; a stop that they still talk about as the Silk road. This was the ancient Silk route, and from here you either go up to Mongolia or find your way to the Tibetan plateau into China. I took to Baltistan.
“And had Turtuk not pulled me in this one time, I may not have ever gone there again”.
Because the aim was to meet my children, this little village of Love where I had set myself free ten years ago. It was this where I sensed, touched and ate freedom away from my own compulsive upbringing. That nest which I left to teach, kept becoming an example of what I would like to make of this world.
From 2010-11 Diary
Winters used to be the days of leisure. Without electricity, phone, or any other means of digital distraction, whole village used to sit outside under sun chirping, laughing, observing, talking, sunbathing and cooking for each other.
For when we arrived, there was nothing but happiness arriving in Turtuk. We got a heroes welcome yesterday. And it felt that there was nothing more intriguing, more important that had happened in the long barren history of this region than us, teachers arriving.
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Looking back, we were the empty pots waiting, wanting to be filled by the best means. And like most times, filling happened in the freezing cold of the night, at our home, granted to us by the village elders. ‘Teachers home’ became a community centre where each night someone or the other used to come carrying some gifts of love; apricots mostly, from their fields to sit with us and share tales of their own history, of this forbidden region.
One night an old, old man arrived. White long beard. And When he arrived other locals stood, gave him space. We also stood. He walked with a stick, kept smiling; we were told that he could hardly hear but was a renowned storyteller. It was night and electricity had just left. The kerosene lamplight was brought in, once his face was well lit, he started measuring words with great weight and precision, unfolding a tale that started with a popular amongst locals name, tera poodi or 13 chapatis. “In those days hardly anyone used to come to our villages. In winters it used to get so cold that we would never leave homes without our traditional fire pot kept under our clothes on our bellies. That age of cold has long gone, it is no cold anymore, ‘though we sat under our blankets with layers of clothes on us,’ he continued, it’s only a child’s play today! There were no roads and all ration, supplies used to come by air. The room was packed and quiet, hearing the old man’s tale about to start, and while in between sentences he was quiet, his hands could be seen shadow talking on the walls. Once I was sitting on the roof around noon looking at the sky, high up as the army helicopters were passing by making much noise, when one, two, three, four large Cans of may be fifty or hundred litre each, fell like fruits from the sky, in the field outside just in front of me. I hurriedly went down, without my shoes, no socks, I cut open the cans and the moment I smelled; my soul took me back to Rawalpindi, now in Pakistan. Nostalgia struck me. Face of my wife came standing in front like it was she who had sent it for me, all her love; all those decades ago when we had cows, and we used to drink their sweet milk, ate food with pure desi ghee. And here in my field after all these years I was blessed with four huge cans of pure desi cow ghee. I couldn’t help but stripped myself naked, I cut open all the cans, ate it as much as i could and later poured all that ghee on myself, I literally swam in it. Next day I called everyone from the village and we had a mass celebration, we prepared food, and god knows what happened that day, I ate the most Pudis a man had ever eaten till now, and since then everyone started calling me Tera Pudi Ka i.e 13 chapati baba. It was the last time my wife had done something for me. Even though I never saw her again, never heard from her ever since partition happened. For a while the silence filled the room”.
What happened that night baba? How come you were here, I asked. Someone shouted the question in his ear.
I had come here to buy apricots for my daughters wedding but god had some other plans. Overnight everything changed. The next morning as i got up, getting ready to leave, they said i cannot go anywhere, and ever since then I am here. We are here! And now you are here, looking at us, everybody laughed.
It was last time, he said, when i had looked to the sky thanking not the god but my wife. i knew it was her who had sent this all for me” 13 poodi baba was all teary eyed for a while, all quiet even though our cook Abraham, standing beside him, blushing so hard that we had to ask, it was then learnt that 13 poodi baba was his grandfather. While leaving he blessed us each and was so happy and even proud that his son will be feeding us for six months to come. I was so mesmerised with the grandfather that I went to meet him the next day and photographed him at his home.
We had named our project ‘Teach to Learn’ but it seemed after the first, second, and third week that it wasn’t the education these children needed. No body was ever serious apart from handful of students, to an extent I had to learn many a sentences from their language to break the barrier, to be seen as even, but it felt that it was something else they were interested in. Of course they had not seen anyone like us, we were interacting, walking, laughing, sleeping on the banks of the river, taking classes outside, to an extent I had written a theatre play for the children to enact on the republic day of 26th January 2011. But these children were different in many ways, they seemed to have embodied the burden of a prolonged denial of any kind of fulfilment. They carried a strange kind of gloom, plain sadness under their peach like faces. We found many children who were psychologically ill whom no body ever tended to. Some were quiet and almost never responded. Some laughed abnormally. For first few weeks I was nothing but probably only a comedian whose actions could be understood but not the language because certainly I was different, we teachers looked different. And it was this understanding with which we opened our home for the students and anybody could come in the evening. But once that started, there came many other challenges.
We were slowly getting to know many things that could never be known to an outside visitor. There were problems in the village, and more than problems the village ran on rumours. Even in the village there was a section of people who was quietly opposing us. This education drive. Who were we? Why are we here? What purpose? The ones who never wanted any kind of education to happen or upliftment of their women were slowly conspiring against us. We would not know but 180 days later it would bring an almost bomb on us.
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I realised that amongst all teachers I was the most outgoing of them all. Meeting, talking, always walking with my camera, showing up and being seen all day long, that i had earned few children’s trust and they had made me their personal mentor. They started walking along with me from day to night that it became almost impossible for me to be alone. Hence I started getting up very early in the morning to go on walks, daily for an hour around the village before going to school. That was a liberating time as whole valley slept while I walked.
It was this one time while I was passing through a narrow lane to go to the next village, when my eyes fell on a dog standing abnormally still at the far end. Something felt not right. Ice like he stood. Eerily still. I was getting closer when I saw a nail, an iron nail was forced inside from the top of his head. It had made him unconscious. And from that nail, a thin wire had been wrapped. Two children were pulling it just so mildly, just to poke enough so that the dog must not go to sleep. But the dog had gone to some other sleep. It had broken his central nervous system. He was dead already, but breathing. I came heavily on children to explain what were they doing. They unapologetically exclaimed that he ate their chicken and that they will kill him. I yelled, that you have killed him already, he is dead. Now leave, go home!
That morning changed something in me, as somehow I had started to see the deep rooted violence seeped in the subconscious of this society. It was being lived collectively inside each one’s heart, erupting in various unexpected, unnerving forms.
It was a world living in a century of rocks and stones. And like the name of our Project ‘Teach to Learn’, we were learning not about the man more but about our own collective nature.
No one in the village had ever seen a train, or the sea, ever. The faces and the age lines of the old narrated untold, never spoken stories of the past. Stories rather have become these lines. Everybody yearned to talk, tales of their rich history that they were carrying for so long that its weight could be seen in their eyes sulking due to the biting cold.
Their hands like animal leather and fingers square from the tip. The silence here had a frustration that had thickened into a deep-rooted helplessness. The children had no future, majority of the newborn died due to unavailability of any medical station. There was no work apart from becoming a porter for the army, going to the highest posts risking their lives even more or taking up agriculture which had seen no improvement in last so many decades. Caught in a melancholic shuttling between a sorrow for the past and a longing for a better future, they needed education to change their lives.
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Yet, we made the most of our times with the children and similarly with the families. We made sure to pass the best of knowledge that we had. I will share something I had never spoken about but it was this one incident that changed my sight and had been growing me ever since.
We were in our third month of teaching and by now I had a certain sense of an understanding about which student is serious and which ones are not attentive enough to spend time on. As our each hour was important, we teachers had discussed to put our energies on, more so to build certain children who could carry on this change once we leave. There was this girl, who probably was the most quiet, unintelligent women in my class. Since my first class, many a times because of her I had to repeat many a lessons but even then she could not really answer me ever. It had made me dislike her to an extent that I had started being a little rude to her, as she would never speak. During that time, we were also in talks with the army to give us some books, old newspapers, supply us with kerosene, wood to warm class rooms and most importantly to give us sports materials. A week later when everything had arrived, we took out children to the ground to play basketball and later volley ball. And to not only my surprise but each teacher’s that girl came out to be by far the best athlete we would meet in Turtuk. It opened my eyes at least, my world to an extent that I have never in my teacher career since then overlooked a child.
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Realisations, Friendships and Habits
Living in Baltistan acted like a mirror to my consciousness. Because in whole valley, there was not a single mirror at any home. No one used it. And to not see oneself for six months, slowly, strangely helped in unknowing me, of what I had known till then of my physical self slowly started melting away to more important learnings. Somehow I also realised how important was that time, even in that freezing cold, when other teachers were keeping bottles in their sleeping bags for not even going to pee outside, or some to warm themselves, I made notes, I wrote almost each day, in the morning, evening, night, on the banks of the river, in school, on the roof of our home, I wrote. I never felt to use any hot water bottle to warm myself, nor to pee in my sleeping bag. But it was rather hard in other areas like food. I was probably the only vegetarian in whole valley at that time. May be apart from some Indian Army soldiers but I know I was the only kind there. Never in my entire life I had to explain myself this much, why. As it was almost daily at one or the other household who used to invite us felt compelled to make something different for me and well I obliged. I had no problem if they were finding ways to feed me.
Jain saab, one of the teacher there and I were once lying on the ground near the river. We were looking towards the sky, when he asked me, Narayan what color do you see the sky in? Surprised, I asked back, Jain saab, what color do you see it in? He said, Pink. He continued saying that sometimes some colours confuse him, that he had been wearing a pink jacket all winters thinking it was blue. And it was him who started the end of our days in Baltistan. Jain saab was a quirky fellow, and one would hardly come across a second person like him. May be we all were in our ways, who came to teach these children but he was more. Being a Jain, he would not eat meat- the one which was slaughtered and killed as meat but he had decided to eat whatever he might find already dead in the wild. On one of his excursions Jain saab found dead I-bex. An endangered animal in those areas, and which was sacred to the Baltis. He once brought it at our home secretly. Abraham denied to cook it, and even advised us not to, going against it one night other teachers decided to cook it. Baltis, as villagers were ancient dwellers, within hours some neighbours even arrived asking rather confirming that it is the gosht of an I-bex. It was a strange feeling which somehow just fell short of being sour as the next day those winter’s first snow changed each one’s eyes.
My first snowfall was again Life changing. I may still write it as one of the most beautiful day of my life. The harsh, cold brown earth vanished and every possible thing turned to white. Whole valley changed within hours. Our route to school became a skating way for the children. Out of unconfined happiness, we declared holiday after conducting the morning prayers, just to maintain the decorum. I even took a photograph of our school prayer for memory, just for myself so that i remember.
And once it was done, I left alone and walked, and walked for hours to other villages till the night fell. Photographing and writing all day long. Everything changed ever since the snow touched us. May be it opened us. It filled some color in us. We had forgotten about seasons, flowers, and shades.
That day freed something, may be it opened children towards us. Because somehow I almost felt that i didn’t know this landscape. And I wanted to know. But to know that part of the earth, I had to know the moon. And to know the moon I had to become friends with my students. The choicest ones. The ones who looked at me as if I was their only hope. The ones who lead me to newer lanes. The ones who would waited without a sound. Naseer and Sajjad. My favourite students. If my days became synonymous with the night, it was because of them. On the other edge of the village, where there was the graveyard, there was also a very old, small Buddhist monastery on the hill. No body used to go there as it was haram. There came those nights when I was waiting for the waxing moon period, every month for six months, I took them along with me, in the night looking at the barren mountain, seeing faces in them watching us walking, when all valley had slept long ago, these boys showed me magic.
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Today when i am here again, on the paths that are same but different i remember those children; few whom i met in my four hour stay in the village, I heard some unbelievable stories. Some good and some heart wrenching. Naseer, my favourite boy who walked with me since the day i set foot in this village, decided to hang himself a year after we had left. It was the saddest news, I had not anticipated something like this, and when i was the one who touched him, took him under my wing. It felt my failure. I was not prepared to hear this.
Hamida, The girl, who would never study but played her heart out that morning, turned out to be the one who would not marry, leave the village for a distant land. I learnt she was studying Psychology in Kashmir University, and does not want to come back.
Sajjad, my other favourite boy with Naseer, with whom we even made a film, Bongu with Rehmatuallah’s donkey, today is the only boy who is serving as an infantry in the Indian army. He was there when we arrived and stayed with me all along for those hours when i was there.
Abraham, our cook today runs his own restaurant. The moment he learnt i had come, he left everything, came to meet where i was and literally begged to come and have tea at his place. When i came, i told him i am hungry and would like to eat, he hesitated. As only snacks were available, but quietly he told someone to bring potato, tomato from the garden and he cooked the best food i have had from his hands again. I was so enamoured with so much meeting, looking, sharing that i forgot to take a selfie, i hardly do but photographed him cooking for me quietly.
I cannot tell you how my sleep was that night. But i slept well. Even it was only about Naseer whom i missed but when i met father, Hussein, i felt better because he probably had moved on already long back.
Even though it was a long drive back home, but it was the most fulfilling one. All my co-travellers, my Road to Nara family, who all travelled with me, i thank you for being the most important part of this sojourn. I leave now with some images of my closest moments, and favourite people here, from the road.
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The Wait of Baltistan and my story as a teacher went on to get published with numerous online and print magazines in India and internationally. It was also covered for the special edition of the Yale Journal Of International Affairs and anthropologic publishers like Visual Ethnography VE Journal. And won me the Best Photographer of the Year award in 2015, with Tasveer-Toto Funds the artist award in Bengaluru.
Bongu, went on to feature as the first ever Balti film and was screened at Dharamsala International Film Festival and Laddakh International Film Festival amongst many others.
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If you wish, you can buy a print of the photographs on this blog. It will be used to travel, and in between to buy something for the hungry.
Or else if you have something to share, or feel like saying a hello, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org
To visit other long-term photographic works, you can visit here.
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If today is the first time you have arrived on The Road to Nara, you are heartily welcome ~ Namaste
On this occasion, I would take this opportunity to introduce you to About me and importantly;
before we take our own Road to Nara.
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