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In the remote hills of Kumaon, life goes on, pandemic or not

Chetan Mahajan | Updated on May 15, 2020 Published on May 15, 2020

On their own: “We don’t walk our dogs. We go for a walk and the dogs choose to come along.”   -  CHETAN MAHAJAN

People already do their own work, so nobody misses the house help. Village houses aren’t clustered but spread out, so social distancing is easy

*Life for the Himalayan native in Uttarakhand is hard.

* People are poor; the wealth and industry of Kumaon sit mostly in the plains.

In just a couple of months, the pandemic has etched many images in our minds. For me as a kid, the word ‘corona’ instantly made a connect with ‘Toyota’. No, we didn’t own that car. I noticed the flashy Toyota Corona crown during my father’s Delhi posting — mostly as I clung precariously to the sloping spare wheel of his Lambretta. When I grew up, ‘corona’ became a beer with lemon in it. Now, ‘corona’ unleashes a new set of images: Masks, people vigorously washing hands and staring out of shut glass windows, elevator buttons pressed with toothpicks et al. Everyone seems to suffer because they are locked in and have to do the housework themselves. A few have found inner peace.

How is life in the hills in this age of the virus? People have misty and romantic notions about living in the Himalayas. We imagine everybody in old-world, woody houses with fireplaces and clouds rolling in. A strangely British lifestyle with mall roads and walking sticks and quaint little towns where authors named Bond, Alter and Gokhale live around the corner from a boarding school.

Such stereotypes are incomplete at best and untrue at worst. Stereotypes tend to whitewash nuance into simplistic uniformity.

Life for the Himalayan native in Uttarakhand is hard. People are poor; the wealth and industry of Kumaon — our part of Uttarakhand — sit mostly in the plains. Many village folk live at subsistence level with tiny landholdings, on which they grow their own food. Everyday life includes water shortages in the summer, sub-zero temperatures in winter with no Western-style heating, and power outages which can last for days. Young people often leave for the cities seeking employment. Local employment is limited and is mainly tourism-related and, therefore, seasonal. Fruit farming is important but depends on increasingly fickle weather.

So, what changes when a novel coronavirus-led lockdown comes along?

Not much. People here already do their own work, so nobody misses the house help. Village houses aren’t clustered but spread out, so social distancing is easy. Because people grow at least some of their food, the reduced supply does not lead to a crisis. People trade and consume locally grown peas and other produce.

There are no high-rises. So no elevators or toothpicks. People don’t look out of their windows, as most houses have tiny ones, which help them remain warm in winter. Besides, people can step out. Even the poorest people have houses with a small courtyard and a view which makes “park facing” a joke.

Big crowds come together only during the annual Dussehra mela. The nearest mall, cinema hall and petrol pump are 30 km away. Urban folk talk about how the virus has nudged us towards simplicity. But the people living here already lead a simple life. So the lockdown is only a minor shift. Inner peace pre-exists.

Yes, I am being simplistic and creating another stereotype — there is another side to the story. (There always is.)

As tourism comes to a juddering halt, so do taxis but not their EMIs. Many migrant workers walked home from Delhi over 7-8 days, unsure if they would still have jobs once all this was over. The supply of essentials from Haldwani — the railhead for Kumaon — has shrunk. This is because some parts of Haldwani are in total lockdown as they’ve found clusters of Covid-19 infection there.

But people mostly smile and aren’t anxious through all this — maybe because of that inner peace. They are aware of the danger, but carry on cheerfully. There are few cops, and there is little policing. It isn’t required. We walk long distances with our dogs every morning, but barely meet anyone. We didn’t before the lockdown, we don’t in the midst of it.

Wildlife sighting, though, is a reality. Wild boars and deer are a nuisance to local farmers. And our kids refer to all dogs as BKT, namely bagh ki toffee — “bagh” being the colloquial word for leopard.

The dog-walking exercise is also different here from the city. We don’t walk our dogs. We go for a walk and the dogs choose to come along. We don’t use leashes. Our dogs encounter other dogs along the way, each wary of trespassers in his/her territory. Sometimes our older dog gives us the “You’re nuts!” look and turns back halfway. Most canine encounters turn into a friendly face-off, and, occasionally, into play. Sometimes a scuffle ensues. We carry on. There are no stray dogs here. All dogs are kept indoors after dark to ensure their safety. The dogs that don’t have protection at night are “pedigree” as far the leopard is concerned. Pun intended.

The other day, a friendly dog decided to accompany us on our walk. I selfishly thought it was good news. “With just two dogs, if a leopard attacks, the chances of one being eaten is 50 per cent. With three, that probability just fell to 33 per cent.” The decision to take a dog along on our walks is a trade-off between allowing it the joy of roaming free and the risk of it being killed by a predator. The same risk we humans face with the novel coronavirus.

Chetan Mahajan is the author of The Bad Boys of Bokaro Jail and the founder of the Himalayan Writing Retreat in Kumaon

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Published on May 15, 2020
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