Let me say at the outset, that my incentives are not legislative, nor are they theological in any formal sense, they merely encompass certain personal directives, as might constitute ritual, observance of rigidly held beliefs (wholly of one’s own invention), prayer, inquiry and above all incident – in other words, adventure! of the soul and of the spirit. Perhaps that was what led me then down the slow and unfortunate path of engineering: a nightmare preoccupation with increasingly disproportionate yields.
My installations taking me places far off and away from the region of my nativity – a location whose disclosure I shall not grant as yet – I invariably ended up at unearthly hours of the night and day, suspended from the crevice of a mountain corner, deliberating the intrusion of a pipeline into its recesses, accommodating struts and rivets into dimensions impenetrable, or across the terrible height of some dissolute bridge unworthy of reconstruction – pondering earth and pace, vision and blindness, height and death, the crawling expanse of landscape, the skeleton forms of earthly objects, animate and inanimate – the definite shaft of possibility.
To plough this worldly kingdom of all its coral wealth, of all it could provide and find in its inner-most reaches, shimmering amongst the coal and dirt, the ghostly spectre of existence – whose eyes envelope, like the unclosing bud, all of daylight and the outer sphere.
Like many a man sent for the propagation of what hydel-power project would service the remotest settlement of regions dancing precariously on the boundaries of the map – I developed my own series of minute superstitions, clearly customised sets of irrational thought and behaviour by any means to ensure the serenity of my morrow. Naturally when the correspondence diverged I took to wild flights of fancy.
I instigated my colleagues and associates into investigating irregular occurrences that had nothing to do with the task at hand, just so the dread symmetry of my intuition be appeased. In my spare hours from the sites, I would venture up as far as the road would take me to forbidden passes, on the pretense of taking some pictures. Often enough, it was not a memory I was after as much as it was a vision; a vision that turned into a sensation, a sensation of true and unfathomable terror, of heights – an inexplicable embrace of the deadliest vertigo: a plummeting swoon; I would peer into the drop mockingly and fancy momentarily that I might, with the simple flick or detachment of a protruding rock, endanger the welfare of the entire project we had laboured so long and scrupulously to preserve, despite all kinds of weather conditions, and high altitude, inaccessibility and lack of local manpower.
What I perhaps wanted at first was a bird’s eye view of the work taking place at the site, so as to scrutinise any possible safety hazards that might have been neglected. But soon, when placed atop such a juncture, and the physical unease of the scene had settled – aberrational fancies of the most unreasonable kind would threaten to get the better of me, at moments when my brass eye and reason were required. Thoughts unnamable, incited no doubt by the desolate surroundings, warded off in quick succession by fierce prayer. I would pray and pray upon the sweep and majesty of some mountaintop, that the very thought its scenery lured into being never see the light of day. And then unperturbed after an hour or so of supposed rest, which I would spend in penance, I would resume my chores at the site, sharing my concerns with the others over the course of the day’s events.
I chose not, as other practitioners of my trade, to dwell in the supernatural, as some of them are wont to do (a phenomenon attributable in part to the various ghosts that hover over engineering colleges); but instead in the realm of the unknown. A realm not altogether unfamiliar to even the locals rarely provoked into assisting us on our excavations.
Ghosts and spirits seldom rattled me, and I do not recall having ever been frightened by the prospect of a life everlasting. My terrors tended to lie amongst what are more euphemistically termed – scientifically unexplainable phenomena. The monsters I envisioned on my expeditions were carved out of cold fact, moulded out of reason and painted with that most incomprehensible terror of them all – logic! And its disbelief. The one doom folly that led me to what I am about to enumerate.
The astute Prof Charan Prakash Chaturvedi, mountaineer extraordinaire, and PhD in environmental sciences (part-time herbal expert on botanical healing) whose acquaintance it would be my custom to make, was not doing too well with his practice; a foundation known as the Himalayan Rock Climbing Adventure Institute of Mountaineering and Research. His calloused hands had clutched the uppermost summits of Kanchenjunga, Bandar Pooch and Gaumukh, among others; all with a proficiency decorating him as something of a legend around the campfire.
The HRA Institute was supported charitably by the State Tourism Board of Uttarakhand. They would take the parties enrolled in the camp up to an altitude of not more than 3,500 metres. Sometimes this comprised a group of students from a neighbouring school or college; every once in a while, a seasoned climber; perhaps the backpacking foreigners that swarmed in by the busloads, or even the common tourist who could scarcely walk a mile uphill before wearying of the tiresome treks they embarked on.
The institute had a team of scouts and local guides which accompanied the parties on their expeditions and navigated the routes and paths that were to be followed, with the strictest severity; both by the participants of the climb and most certainly, by them. Any deviation from the allotted paths charted by their instructors resulted in imminent expulsion from the organisation; one was left then to be a freelance guide until signing up with another mountaineering outfit – all to the devices of his own cunning, prospecting for pilgrims at the more prominent rural way-stations up a crooked mountainside, and hitching rides on highways at an incline connecting not previously accessible villages and districts.
One of the chiefs of these iron-clad instructors, indeed Prof Charan Prakash Chaturvedi’s aide-de camp in overseeing the day-to-day operations of the establishment, was Ms Pratyusha Negi. She was from a mountaineering family of some repute – her mother had been the illustrious Smt Damini Jain from Roorkee, who had even taught geophysics at the IIT and had been one of the founding members of the Department of Earth Sciences.
Pratyusha Negi, after having abandoned a short-lived attempt at medicine, decided to devote her vocation full-time to the HRA institute, in exchange for a moderate fee that would support her and her three dogs – a Doberman, a German Shepherd, and a Bhutia. She resided with her companions in a two-storey cottage near the Sangrali village that had been bequeathed to her by her paternal grandfather – the late great Brigadier KNS Negi.
It was her discretion that would determine which trek was suited to which kind of party, how much time should be taken to complete it, and the kind of provisions that were to be carried along. Prof Chaturvedi rarely accompanied any of the parties up on a trek. He spent most of his time conducting lectures and educating students as to the basics of mountaineering and the correct usage of the equipment involved. He would do mock demonstrations for them, enumerating – countlessly, and patiently – the rules, drills and appropriate protocol for ensuring safety in precarious circumstances. He enjoyed the company of youngsters, especially those adventurous enough to be interested in what he had to say. He set up all kinds of obstacle courses for them, planned treasure hunts to keep them entertained, screened documentaries and gave first aid lessons.
He even put up an artificial rock climbing wall and had a special prize reserved for the first child that managed to climb up to the top. The HRA Institute had been quite an attraction for students, youngsters, and tourists of all sorts. Although its facilities were not more advanced than those at most adventure camps, Prof Chaturvedi’s singular dexterity (albeit aided in no small part by Ms Negi) at rock climbing, was considered by most to be its prime asset. In fact, she was said to have been swifter than him at ascending a rock face. It was at rappelling down that he had more nerve and command. She was a three-time gold medalist in surface-climbing and archery at the various IPS (Indian Public School) meets she had participated in over the course of her long and unstable academic career. A district silver-medalist, finalist and runner up for long jump, triple jump and javelin throw. Had even represented the state in archery.
The “infrastructure development” enterprise (whose name for hazard of banishment I shall not utter), under whose employ I serve (or did serve; a matter still of some heated contestation), had called upon their services on numerous occasions for the administering of rock extractions along the more precipitous and winding mountain roads leading up to Mahanagar – a steep settlement along the border of Garhwal and Himachal Pradesh that granted no established motorable routes up to its base.
Prof Chaturvedi had lent his expertise even on the explosion of an entire mountain range to enable the narrow passage of the vehicular exodus through its crags and tears – what he referred to as “sarva-naash”, the final state: The eve of destruction. When progress shall reign supreme and nature shall dance tunefully to the banshee shrieks of blaring lorry-horns.
Excerpted with permission from The Forsaken Wilderness, Vivaan Shah, Simon & Schuster India.