Cable connection

Janaki Lenin | Updated on: Jan 17, 2018

BLink_kibber ropeway illus 09-07-16_REVISED

Kibber’s local ‘helicopter’ is a curious metal contraption called Angulimala

“Have you seen our helicopter?” Kalzang asked, every crease on his face smiling.

Kibber village in Spiti valley, Himachal Pradesh, is draped over a small knoll and ringed by jagged mountain peaks. In the setting autumn sun, the landscape glowed golden. In this treeless terrain, any large object would be visible for miles, but I had seen nothing. Was it a trick question?

“You should not only see it, you should also ride in it,” he continued mischievously.

I wobbled my head, non-committally. Ajay Bijoor, who lives part-time in the village and oversees a conservation programme, offered to take me.

A road, zigzagging downhill behind the village, led to a gorge. On either side stood two concrete structures, the towers of a bridge. But nothing spanned the chasm. Only a sturdy steel cable connected the two sides and a small iron cradle dangled from it.

Bijoor pulled the nylon rope that was hooked to the steel cable with large iron loops and the metal carrier slid over. This was the ‘helicopter’, whose original purpose was to transport construction materials across to the other side. Elsewhere in Himachal, cartons of apples from remote hill slopes zip-lined down to roads on similar contraptions.

Work on the bridge has been suspended for 10 years, a victim of political jockeying. Completing the crossing would not only connect Chichim to Kibber and thence Kaza, but the route from Manali would be shorter by 40 km.

The crate looked rickety and swung wildly from side to side. People from Kibber and Chichim began to use the ‘helicopter’, which they call jhoola in Hindi, to visit each other. A small notice in Hindi said the contractor was not liable for any mishaps that may occur, and passengers were taking their lives into their own hands if they used the jhoola . Travellers who spurn this makeshift arrangement walk all the way down to the bottom of the gorge, cross over the narrow ledge, and climb up again, a journey of a few hours and a task for the most muscular of limbs.

Bijoor said, “Sometimes, up to 10 people jam themselves in the crate. I’ve even seen a person holding a bicycle over the side.” The cradle was large enough for a baby.

I was glad Kalzang wasn’t along or he would have insisted I make the crossing.

The evening bus from Kaza arrived, and a lone teenage girl in school uniform disembarked. A student of a boarding school in Kaza, she was sent home for three days for being unwell. Mobile phones pick up an apology of signal when held in specific spots, and if the wind blew from the right direction. The school couldn’t reach her family. So no one was expecting her, and there was no one at the other end to pull the crate over.

Modern transport of any kind in these remote parts isn’t taken for granted. When the first public bus drove nearly 20 km from Kaza to Kibber, villagers plied the driver and conductor with home-brewed alcohol and laid out a feast of meat. They took turns putting up the bus crew for the night, and even sent bottles of booze down to the bus depot in Kaza. Villagers feared the bus service might be terminated if it didn’t get enough patronage and went to great lengths to keep the crew and officials happy.

Eventually, the wining and dining became a burden. The village made arrangements for the bus crew to stay at a guest-house and paid for food. In return for his troubles, the guest-house owner was granted leave from attending meetings. Normally, failure to attend village meetings carries a fine. It is under these conditions that the bus service continues to this day.

A couple of workers arrived at the other end. As the girl climbed in, Bijoor cautioned her not to put her hand on the cable. Kalzang had rattled off the names of at least five people who made the mistake of grabbing the cable to keep their balance. The sliding iron loops sliced off their fingers. Kalzang had cheerfully declared, “We call it Angulimala.” (after the eponymous reformed bandit from Buddhist scriptures; he used to wear a necklace made out of his victims’ fingers)

It’s easy to advise, ‘don’t grab the cable,’ but when the crate swings above a gorge that’s a couple of hundred metres deep, what does one hold on to?

When Bijoor let go of the crate, it zipped away and came to a standstill in the middle. The men on the other side hauled the metal carrier across and helped the girl out.

We watched her slowly trudge the two lonely kilometres to the village in the gathering darkness. I don’t remember facing this kind of hardship at her age.

A simple bridge could get a sick girl home faster and safer, without the threat of taking a plunge into the rocky depths or losing her fingers. And yet, it is held hostage by political interests.

Back in the village, Kalzang recalled the night when some villagers from Chichim got stuck midway, with no one to pull the crate across. They turned on the torchlights on their mobile phones, played music at full volume, waved and yelled, until they attracted the attention of a few in Kibber. Had no one heard them, they would have spent the night hanging over a pit of darkness, with icy winds howling through the gorge. I shuddered at the thought.

Kalzang demanded, “Did you ride our helicopter?”

I shook my head, much to his disappointment. I wasn’t made of stern stuff like that schoolgirl to dare Angulimala.

Janaki Leninis a Chennai-based writer

Published on July 08, 2016
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