by Satvik Gupta
Bhaderwah, Jammu, and Kashmir, India
It was the middle of autumn in 2018. I was visiting Bhaderwah for the first time. Bhaderwah valley is the lesser explored sister of Kashmir in North India. Visiting Bhaderwah in autumn meant two things: having to deal with intense cold, and not having to deal with a multitude of tourists. Naturally, I embraced the cold. I was happy to have Bhaderwah to myself. I hired a taxi in the morning to see Padri—a magical hilltop I had heard a lot about. The driver, who seemed only a few years older than myself, sat in the front with his younger brother. They barely talked to each other. The younger one fiddled with the ancient music system every now and then until he settled on a predetermined tune.
We reached by noon. Padri was as beautiful as I had been told, perhaps even more so. I was surrounded by a plethora of mountains meditating under a sheet of ice. I could see the entire valley sprawled across the base of the mountains, slowly dissolving into the horizon. I paid no heed to the unrelenting cold winds. I picked a small hillock to climb in search of untainted views of lower Himalayan ranges. I spent almost three hours frolicking about like a frenzied child.
I headed back to the car upon exhaustion. My driver and his plus-one were waiting for me. They were sitting on a ramshackle bench, the only piece of furniture in that vast mountain scape. He was smoking a cigarette and offered me one. I refused politely. We started talking and soon words took form of a meaningful conversation. He told me that he was an electrical engineer. He had graduated from a college that was based in my home town. I asked him about his work.
“These days there are no jobs,” he lamented. “This country is a factory of engineers. And do you know what these engineers end up doing?” I indulged him.
“They become bankers and civil servants.” His cynicism amused him.
He took out another cigarette from his pocket and offered me again. This time I complied, more out of solidarity than desire. The younger brother sat in silence as the two of us smoked in the silence of mountains. On one of the mountains, beyond a deep gorge, a shepherd, known as Gujjar in these areas, trod on with his sheep. We could barely see them from such a distance, but their unmistakable bleating echoed restlessly.
“Hell, these Gujjars are better than us engineers,” he said as he observed the commotion in distance. I smiled in response.
“I mean it. They are men with a purpose. They ascend mountains during the summer, taking along their cattle and families. At the advent of winter, they descend these mountains. They live in synchrony with nature. These Gujjars have nerves of steel, I tell you. We, you and I, and especially you,” he pointed at his little brother in jest, “are not one percent of what they are.”
He took a long drag of his cigarette and deep in thought, he declared, “Gujjars are in perpetual motion, alien to the concept of permanence; nomads, in every sense of the word. They are born in the mountains, they live their lives within these mountains, and they die and become a part of these mountains, quite literally so.”
“How come?” I asked.
“Do you know where they rest?”
“No,” I replied.
He led me, along with his younger brother, through the curvaceous hillocks towards the edge of the gorge. Near the precipice, rocks were scattered across the surface. They were laid out in almost rectangular shapes. I realised that they were graves. Some of them had a tombstone with etchings on top in Urdu, and those without lay solemnly devoid of identity.
“This is where the Gujjars rest; on top of the world. Free in death as they were in life.”
We sat there for a while. I looked at the tombstone on one of the graves. I could not understand the lettering in Urdu. But at that moment, I wished that I could. I wished to be able to learn the name of the individual who lay there. I could have asked my driver but I decided against it. It occurred to me that their identity lay in their community. It was better that way; better to let silhouettes be silhouettes.
As we headed back to the valley, I pictured ambiguous shapes and silhouettes, lacking names and faces. But they were there; they were Gujjars who did not own a thing, yet the world belonged to them; they were Gujjars who were cradled in the arms of these mountains, and who rested incessantly in the same embrace.
Satvik Gupta is an Indian writer whose work has been published in The Alipore Post, The Abstract Elephant Magazine, and The Tint Journal, among others. Satvik has recently embarked on a doctoral journey which, he hopes, would strengthen his understanding of the ontology of human existence through literature. He lives with his family in Jammu, near the Himalayan foothills in India.