Up To The Hills

 

It was a sworn promise that the four of us (Taarak, Satyajit, Nadu and I) would make a camping trip every year in the month of December. This year the TV channels and the news warned ceaselessly about a cyclone that was about to hit Tamil Nadu. This did not deter us from packing our bags and heading off for the hills near Kacharapalayam (A camp site 150km from Puducherry). This was our third trip there. Everytime the place rejuvenated us with its splendid hills, the undulating tea plantations, the endless tapestry of trees leaning on the hillsides. As soon as we get off the bus we bid good bye to civilization for four days. As we move further into the jungle our phone signals slowly disappear. We set aside our worldly worries dive into the nakedness of nature.

The blue sky above was smiling at us benevolently and the mere thought of a cyclone was laughable. After a trek of four hours the sound of a waterfall beckoned us. The sound soon turned into a deafening din as we got closer to it. We climbed down and ran towards towards the fall. Nothing like a cold shower after sweltering day of exhaustion. The sun inching towards the horizon hinted at us to move towards our first campsite. The transition between day to night is quick in the hills, the evening is just a helpless onlooker.  The soft, sandy river bank made a lovely platform for tents to be pitched on. Wood fire was in abundance, so we quickly made a fire, cooked some khichidi with pickle on the side. We hung around the fire until the last dying embers gave way and then we retired into our tents.

Sometime during the night our tents began to feel stuffy. One by one we woke up, we decided to open the tent door to allow some air. As soon as we unzipped it, we couldn’t believe what greeted us. The winds had picked up, low, dense clouds had swallowed up the stars, the music of the birds had given way to a sinister whisper in the trees. As expected, a slow pattering rain began to hit our tent. Within no time our kit bags, provisions, clothes, gadgets everything was soaked with the incessant rain. The river was clearly swelling up. It was only a matter of time before it would engulf our campsite. The time was 3AM, darkness was all around us. It was impossible to cross the river at this hour. We got back into the tent waited with baited breath for the first rays of light.

At the break of dawn we packed our soggy belongings and decided to face the wrath of nature. Youth has a gift of optimism but today this gift, was buried somewhere in the deep caverns of our heart. The mere look at the river punctured our spirits. Gone was the path, the rocks which paved an easy pathway across the river. But the situation would only get worse, so we held each others hands and began wading through the rapid currents. Slowly, steadily, with a prayer on our lips we inched closer to the other side. After an hour long struggle we reached the other bank and began our way up the hill towards the village where we would board a bus back to Pondy. We were under the impression that the tough part was over but the climb up proved to be equally treacherous. By now the winds were around 100 km/h, the trees were swaying like possessed dancers, branches breaking and falling sporadically on the ground. Like civilians in a war torn city, unaware of what the sky had in store for us, we marched along. Once at the hill top we came across an open ground, fields all around. Here the winds were on full throttle, every step was an effort, as if we were tied to a parachute. The rain wasn’t heavy but it stung a thousand needles on our body.

Alas, we reached the village to find it half submerged in water. The villagers told us that we were fools to try to go back to Pondy. They offered us shelter and asked us to return the next day. We appreciated their concerns but we didn’t know for how long these flimsy huts would hold up, so we decided to head home come what may.

We were the only ones in the tiny bus stop, waiting and hoping against hope for some form of transport. After an hour, we heard an engine grumbling at a distance. When the vehicle was barely thirty meters away we perceived through the fog a bus heading our way. There were around ten tribal men and women seated in the bus, the shutters were down. There was an air of gloom all around. The winds were howling through the slits in the windows, it felt as though the bus would be clipped off the hill anytime. We were moving steadily at 10km/hr. The visibility was no more than a few feet.  Like the violinists in the sinking Titanic, there were two swifts flying around the bus, chirping sorrowfully their loss.

Mid way in our journey, in the middle of no-where the bus came to a grinding halt. The driver announced that a tree had fallen right across the road. The tribal men and the driver had a long discussion and it was decided that two men would go to a nearby village and get a saw. After an hour the two men returned holding a long saw. They invited all the male passengers to help them. We came out in the pouring rain, smelling of mustard oil (it kept us warm and insulated). The operation began and for the next hour we were busy lifting heavy branches and shifting them to the road side. Finally the trunk was shifted just enough for the bus to go through.

We arrived in Kalakurchi in the early evening, from where we would catch a direct bus to Puducherry. It was a pleasant surprise that bus services were still running. We had a quick lunch and resumed our journey back home. By now the cyclone was in its last leg.  As we moved closer to home we witnessed the devastating impact it had on civilization.  Ravaged countryside, upturned trucks, fallen lamp posts, roofless houses, flooded paddy fields, as if we were witnessing a post-apocalyptic world. There was little to celebrate when we arrived in Puducherry that night. Tears welled up in our eyes seeing our beloved town wrecked to pieces, steeped in darkness. It was hard to believe that the sun would rise again, that the fallen trees would stand up again but they did. Life limped back to normalcy but sometimes I look up at the blue skies, I suspect there’s hidden somewhere the merciless dance of Shiva.

Categories: Travelogue

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