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It was June 9, 6:30 in the morning and Himanshu Prem Joshi was repeatedly rubbing his groggy eyes. It didn't help. Everything around him remained stubbornly white
The tall mountains, the black patches of rocks that broke the dusty brownness of the dry terrain and the military green metal bridge bolted firmly over the raging Chandra river were all gone. It was an endless sprawl of fresh snow, at least one-and-a-half-feet deep. Even the fibreglass forest department hut, across the faint dirt track that passes off as the national highway to Spiti, looked like an igloo. He scanned the expanse for the five vehicles that were part of the jeep safari and they were all just big lumps of puffy snow. Joshi, 46 years old and thin, turned to look inside the small, dimly-lit dhaba in Batal where he had spent the past two nights. "I've not seen this kind of snow at this time of the year in almost 35 years, " the Tibetan dhaba owner, Bodh Dorje, mused. It was minus 7 degrees Celsius outside. The man who had decided to set up his small business in the middle of nowhere, at a place that was cold, desolate and hostile with no phones, mobile network or electricity, with just the howling wind, the roaring Chandra and a few intrepid sparrows for company, should know. He had, after all, for long been coming to Batal from Manali for six months of the year - along with his wife Chandrabhaga - to run his dhaba, which they called 'Chandra', in this remote stopover at a height of 12, 500 feet at the base of Kunzum pass.
For two days, the Dorjes, fondly known as Chacha and Chachi (see Saviour Couple of Spiti Valley), had been playing hosts to Joshi's 33-member adventure group from Mumbai, whose journey began at Shimla on May 28. After covering the scenic villages of Sangla and Naco, walking up to Chitkul (which is the last Indian village on the Indo-Tibet border), witnessing a festival at Pin Valley and trekking up a glacier to Kunzum Top which offered a 360 degree view of the Himalayas, Joshi was to take this group to the turquoise blue Chandratal lake. According to the rough itinerary, they were to proceed to the last destination, Manali, the next day.
But on June 7, despite successfully crossing four patches of glacial ice on the way to Chandratal, the otherwise enthusiastic Joshi motioned the group to halt. "It's best that we turn back to Batal, " he said. The sky had darkened and little flakes of snow were floating down like prancing elves. It was a mostly young group - the youngest was just eight. There were 20 teenagers, three middle-aged couples and six working professionals.
Before setting off for the trip, Joshi had advised them to keep one day as buffer as nature could make the best-planned of itineraries go awry. So, most of them had booked their return ticket from Chandigarh not on June 9, but the next day. Initially, the unexpected night halt at this isolated place only seemed to add to the adventure. When it snowed on June 8, the winter-starved Mumbaikars rejoiced. "We even built a snowman and danced around, " said Chintan Naik, 22. But when snow continued to fall on June 9, the romance started fading and anxiety was building up.
"I knew there would be at least 32, 000 questions facing me that morning, " said Joshi, now sitting in his Borivali apartment in suburban Mumbai. The brochure of Wild Holidays, the adventure tour group run by him, says: "This is a wild holiday camp and not a luxury tour...the programme is entirely dependent on weather conditions...organisers will not be responsible for any situation resulting out of cancellation of flights, trains and buses. " Prior to their departure, Joshi had driven this point home. Still, he knew he and the team were truly stranded at Batal.
The tiny, crammed dhaba was brimming with worried faces. There were children there - school kids and college kids. The coldness seemed to infect Joshi's heart. What if someone fell ill? What if the canvas roof, burdened with snow, gave way? They could be struck by snow-blindness or oedema in the lung, leading to pneumonia? He tried to read their thoughts. Were they aware of the grave danger of their situation?
In conversation, though, they bravely tried to play down their anxiety. Some said they didn't want to miss the first day of school and earn a red mark. Some others spoke of being blacklisted on company payrolls. Parents said they were missing their kids. There was Vishwa Vora, a Class X student, whose SSC results would soon be out. And Chintan, who had done his major in clinical psychology, was beginning to get nervous about the new job for which he was to report the next week. Joshi knew these were not their real worries. The real worry was that they were helplessly stuck. The road was packed with snow - and it was still snowing. There was no way to send out word to anyone from this place. Joshi felt a twinge of guilt.
Above all, the lack of space was making everyone behave a bit like passengers in the second class compartment of Mumbai's local trains - edgy and irritable. The only composed guests in the dhaba were two Enfield riders, Germans who had checked in that day. One of them, based in Baroda, understood a bit of Gujarati. The other was a licensed tank driver from Germany. The Germans had biked in the Alps earlier and wanted to cover Himachal this time. They seemed philosophical, though. "It's a nice, extended stay in the Himalayas, " said one of them in guttural English.
But tempers were easy to lose. Joshi, a fan of Richard Bach's Jonathan Livingston Seagull, decided to counsel calm over chaos, to urge them for a philosophical acceptance of the situation. What could anyone do when ranged against the elements? And though he had come here before, he started to wonder if this trek was safe, especially with kids involved. What if he had failed to read signs of the coming storm? What if they hadn't reached Dorje's dhaba in time? An American biker caught in the storm had died.
Was the risk worth it? There were, of course, those magical monasteries for visual relief - Key, Dhankar, Tabo, Lahlung, some of them perched like fairy-tale castles along the craggy precipice of steep mountains. There were ghostly canyons, too, lined with high mud banks with crazy vertical patterns made by years of wind erosion. There were the wild rose bushes where nothing other than seabuck thorn grew. There was rarified air and, finally, the ethereal beauty of Chandratal lake. The abode of gods ... and demons?
Joshi tried to fight back the doubts.
Back in the dhaba the earthen chulha provided warmth that was sufficient only for two people at a time. The canvas roof looked like it would come tearing down under the weight of snow. Dorje would ask his Bihari assistants to clear it every few hours. The only connection with the outside world was a tiny transistor. The 8:30 pm Akashvani news was eagerly awaited. It was strictly confined to Himachal Pradesh, though. Nothing on anxious relatives back in Mumbai.
Everything was adding to their woes. The camera batteries threatened to die and water was so cold that it seemed to eat into the flesh. "We wore at least two or three pairs of jeans at a time and a pyjama sometimes over it, " said 17-year-old engineering student Srushti. The biting chill, said chief accountant Meena Sanghavi, "reached our bones". It was like the coldness of death.
There were other compelling issues. Answering nature's call, for instance. Since there was no toilet inside the dhaba or anywhere around it, the trekkers had to go out in groups with tissue rolls. The prospect of lowering one's pants, even for a minute, was pure torture, recalled 18-year-old Kinjal Shah.
Moods kept swinging between worry and despair. There were times when men would sulk in corners. Yoga teacher Sanjay Negandhi, also part of the group, said, "It was like a reality show where everyone wanted to be eliminated first. I thought we all would be buried in the snow. " His wife Neeta, a coffee-addict, gave up coffee out of sheer depression. In the fibreglass hut, where women retired every night after seven, someone or the other would weep at night. They were stranded, lost, forsaken.
Warmth, if any, came from each other. Meena hugged young Chintan when he said he was missing his mother. The group often lapsed into deep discussions on fate, god, life and death. Prayers had become a daily ritual. Neeta made sure everyone in the women's hut read the Hanuman Chalisa at least seven times daily. They also chanted the Navkar Mantra and other Kutchi and Marathi prayers before sleep.
Nights were the most difficult part. This is when the cold seeped in. Nothing could keep it out. Like a cold knife, it would go through every muscle. It caroused through every blood vessel, reaching the heart, gripping you with deathly paralysis. "My bones and knees would ache, " recalled Meena. She would stay up and pray for dawn to arrive. And when it did, they would all gather and sing itni shakti hame dena daata, the inspiring bhajan from N Chandra's 1986 film Ankush.
Any news, especially the daily Akashvani, which told them if Rohtang and other regions had opened up, was lapped up hungrily. Almost a week had gone by and nothing had changed. They were still stuck at Batal, 32 degrees north and 77 degrees east on the map, just a tiny point high on the mountains, cut off from the world.
Adults oscillated between "deliberate childishness" and "intellectual discussions", said Chintan. One day, someone put in a pen drive into the car stereo and, as music blared out, everyone came out in the snow and danced. Moments later they huddled in despair, reluctant to talk, much less dance. Lokesh Mahale, 25, took to shooting birds, Lammergeier and the horned larks, with his camera. He once wondered if they would ever be able to see the photos on a big computer screen.
There were some devotees on the way to Kunzum Devi, a temple across the river, who suggested they offer shira (a sweet Maharashtrian dish) to the goddess. "When the sun finally appeared on June 10, a girl who claimed to be an atheist offered it at the temple, " said Chintan. The road by then was under five feet of snow. Even if the PWD dozer started shoving snow aside, it would take days. At some places, the snow was 10-15 metres high. The possibility of avalanches and rockslides was equally real. In between, the Germans decided to pack up and push off. "But they returned four hours later with only bad news, " said Lokesh. Meanwhile, six shepherds (Gaddis) arrived at 'Kangda', the adjacent dhaba. Five of them suffered from severe snow-blindness and hypothermia.
Faith was beginning to fade when someone yelled out. A group of five men were coming from Kunzum La. It was a group of policemen led by SP Bhal Singh of Kaza. Chintan said they could feel their quickening heartbeat despite the layers of clothes. "They said they were doing a recce, " Lokesh said. The cops were carrying satellite phones. "But, unfortunately, they didn't know how to use the phone. "
Real hope surfaced only on June 12, after five days that seemed an eternity. Someone shouted excitedly, pointing at the sky. It was a helicopter. It came over the dhaba, dropped some food packets and flew away. Joshi later rummaged through the packets and found a message stuck to one of them. It said: 'Lahaul-Spiti Police. We are trying to evacuate you soon. '
The next morning, Meena, whose body had not discarded solid waste for almost five days, woke up to frozen legs and prayed hard for the ordeal to end soon. At around the same time, oblivious to her prayers, the group noticed a pair of beautiful, white seagulls hovering over the dhaba. "Seagulls seldom fly that high, " said Joshi. Exactly half-an-hour later, in what they say was the "closest we came to the experience of divinity", another bird arrived, albeit a mechanical one. "We saw a helicopter which landed near our dhaba. We were told that all the women and kids will be rescued first. "
Meena, who had sent her eight-year-old into the helicopter, was asked by the pilot to join the first batch. "Nobody fought to go home first, surprisingly, " said Meena, who was dropped at Khoksar near Manali along with her son. The first bath in days at the hot water springs there was pure ecstasy. After buying her son a burger, which he was aching for, and some coffee, she left him at a hotel in Manali to watch one of the soccer World Cup matches while she made a trip to the local police station. "I wanted to get a certificate explaining the plight of the 33 stranded people, " she said. It was this certificate that served as identification for her at the Chandigarh airport later.
That same day, she learnt 17 people had been rescued in batches of four. Her husband and daughter were still at Batal, though, and she worried for their health. The remaining 16 had all woken up early the next day, hoping the chopper would arrive. It didn't, but many of the locals, they noticed, had started coming on foot from Rohtang. One of them told the group that a 70-year-old foreigner had died along with lots of sheep and two horses near Chandratal. To tide over the gush of negative feelings, the group, mostly men now, started playing cricket. In the evening, someone told them the roads would be opened the next morning.
But just as they mentally prepared themselves to leave by road instead of waiting for the chopper, they heard the familiar, happy whirr of the helicopter. The group was soon airlifted to Khoksar. Their luggage followed in jeeps, which reached Manali 10 hours later.
The first telephone calls home and subsequent airport meetings were, predictably, charged with emotion. Negandhi's mother cried on hearing his voice, while Chintan's parents arrived with a bouquet. "It was their anniversary the day I returned, so I bought them a cake at the airport, " he said, glad to learn that his internship was intact.
But the horror and hangover of the "wild holiday" remains. Meena, who said she feels guilty at having to part with the dhaba owners without even a proper goodbye, feels she's mentally still not come out of Batal. "I dream of snow, " she said. "I can see myself lying in it and somebody trying to pull my blanket away. "
Negandhi, whose wife carries the after-effects of frostbite, said it seems like an adventure in retrospect, but one that left him disenchanted with the administration for the delay in rescue despite it being a notified border area (see No relief, no rescue).
"Thankfully, we were stuck at the dhaba that had enough ration to last three months. What if we had been stuck somewhere else?" he wondered aloud. At a recent wedding, a bunch of his relatives told him not to venture out into the high snows again. Not that he would. At least for a long time. For the moment, though, he has a more immediate phobia. "I don't want to open the fridge anymore, " he says.
A Trans-Himalayan ordeal
The group congregates at Shimla, leaves for Kalka and Sangla the next day.
May 31 to June 3
They head to Kaza, with night halts at Chitkul (the last village on the Indo-Tibetan border), Nako and Dhankar.
June 3 to 5
Trip to Kibber village (world's highest permanent habitation), Pin Valley and Losar.
Group crosses the 4, 550-metre Kunzum La and reaches Batal.
From their base at Batal, they leave for the scenic Chandratal lake, 14-km away. A light snowfall makes them rereat to the base after they have driven past four glaciers.
Snowfall continues. Tourists revel, believing the weather would soon improve.
Batal white-washed as snowfall continues. The area is covered in 20 inches of snow and the minimum temperature dips to minus 7° C. Mobile phones blank out and, for the first time, the group is worried and scared.
Snowfall stops and the group celebrates. There is, however, no news on when the road would be cleared or help arrive.
Five officers cross Kunzum La for a recce. The dhaba is well-stocked for the 33 stranded tourists. The cops are carrying satellite phones, but no one knows how to use them. They promise to call families and friends of the group members.
A helicopter drops food packets and a note saying, 'Lahaul-Spiti Police: We are here to evacuate you'.
Women and children are the first to be evacuated by a chopper - 17 people are airlifted in batches of four. Some are dropped at Manali, others at Khoksar, 71 km from Manali. The rescued take their first bath in 12 days in the hot water springs of Vashisht.
Rescue hampered due to bad weather. Chopper does not return and 16 members of the group are still stranded in Batal.
Road is cleared and members prepare to leave by car. Just then the chopper arrives and rescues the remaining tourists.
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