Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Death. Be damned. Yes, I survived two landslides. Yay! And, Yay!

New Delhi: Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned. And if it's Mother Nature, be sure that her wrath is as twisted as the pathos of her loveliness.

In Uttarakhand, even as rescue operations continue, 20,000 people still await evacuation and unofficial sources tout the death toll to be as high as 10,000; the effects of nature's furor are still being felt in Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and adjoining areas – by those who lost their dear ones, by those still awaiting relief and by those who survived it.

I am one from the last lot.

When I along with a couple of friends reached Kaza, a small town in Himachal Pradesh's Spiti Valley on June 15th, well on our last leg of a week-long drive through the state's picturesque landscape, we didn't anticipate any trouble. Kaza was our second last stop from where we were headed to Sangla valley and then to Shimla – from where we would head back to Delhi.

When we set off for Sangla in the afternoon it seemed like fair weather, but after a 30 minute drive through the mountains it began to rain and the sleepy village of Leo still about 50 kms away seemed like a good spot to stop for a hot cup of tea. However, when we stopped at Leo – a village which had just one stall selling tea – it was unusually crowed with tourist vehicles. Six of them excluding ours. And just as we were looking forward to some piping hot beverage, two drivers from the waiting tourist cars approached us looking concerned and began having an animated conversation with our driver, Ravi. In a few minutes Ravi was telling us that the drivers had warned him against going ahead as there were landslides occurring which could be fatal.

Now, I am a lifelong Bombay girl at heart and anyone who has lived in Mumbai long enough knows that come what may – hell or high water (in the city's case, incessant rains) we Mumbaikars chug along, walk to our workplace, stay in office if the need be – yet work. “What could happen after all – it was only a spell of rain,” I thought. And that wasn't going to deter our plans.

Encouraged by my friends – also born and raised in Mumbai – we decided not to pay heed to the drivers' warnings. Forgetting our desire for a hot cuppa, we sped ahead. As we approached our first landslide zone 15 mins after, we asked Ravi what the strategy to pass through the landslide would be. But by then it was too late, we were in the midst of it.

Our driver Ravi deftly manouvered the Tata Sumo transporting us, over the huge boulders strewn all over the narrow road, even as he pedalled the accelerator with all his might, dodging the falling earth. My friends and I shut our eyes for a few moments, even as the friend sitting next to me let out a loud scream in fear.

I was pissed annoyed at my friend even as we crossed hurdle one. “DO NOT indulge in backseat driving,” I told her, “You are distracting Ravi. Even if we aren't going to die, we will die because of your shreiks!”. I had barely finished admonishing her when we approached our second landslide.

Before i knew it, I was holding the driver's seat and yelling, “Drive slow!”

I did exactly the same thing my friend had done a few minutes earlier, even as our Tata Sumo swiveled and skid as it hopped like a bunny on wheels on the boulder-ridden road. Wide-eyed, I gulped and looked at my friends who had similar expressions. Gasping we all hit our heads to the top of the car before we came to a standstill. At an altitude of over 12,000 feet I had just experienced my first real fear of death, as I'm quite certain my friends did – with falling rocks on one side and nothing on the other.

Even as I caught my breath and closed my eyes in relief after realising we were still on solid ground I chided the driver. “Why didn't you drive slowly? What if we skid off the road into the valley?” I said.

“Madame, driving slowly would get us hit, so I had to hit speed instead,” he replied.

It was, indeed, a situation of away from the falling rocks and into the valley below.

By now, we were all shaken. But what we saw ahead of us as we sat in the stationery car catching our breaths, horrified us enough to decide to turn back and risk the earlier two landslide zones we had just crossed.

About 600 meters away we could see a stream of water gushing down the mountain with big boulders rushing down at an even quicker pace. It looked like a stream of boulders, instead of a stream of water.

Our mind was made up. We decided to turn around, brave the landslides we passed (which now seemed less dangerous than the river of boulders we saw ahead) and head back to Kaza.

Even as we pulled up and reversed several times on the narrow mountain road before we headed back, the three of us looked into the valley hoping we didn't land up there. The ride back was a mostly silent one – intermittently praying for a safe passage through the two landslides and pondering over our good fortune to have survived them.

We reached Kaza 3 hours later, after having realised how lucky we were to still be alive and also savouring that piping hot tea in the pouring rain at Leo on our way back. Life felt good. We were back in Kaza – a town which was relatively safer than those being flashed on national television – far from the torrential floods of ravaged Uttarakhand. That night we slept like babies.

Mother Nature had another surprise in store for us the next morning – this time a pleasant one. The treacherous mountains surrounding Kaza had disappeared. She had worked all night to draw thick curtains of snow across them, as if they didn't exist. As if she was gently erasing our memory of the landslides the previous day with every new drape of white fluff.

That Sunday was exceptional for more than just the unseasonal snow that heralded a beautiful June day. It was special because we came to realise that the three of us had indeed gotten a second life. As the day tottered on we were told that the road to Shimla – the same one we had taken the previous day to reach Sangla Valley – had been washed away. They were swallowed by Mother Nature with loud burps nonetheless – roads, bridges and anything that dared to confront her fury.

Five days on, we were finally on our way out of Kaza via the Kunzum and Rothang passes to Manali and then onwards to Delhi. But, those five days were not without our share of rescue carrots.

We must have packed our bags to leave at least three times in five days that week. Once being when we were woken by our hotel manager banging our door at 7 am informing us that rescue helicopters were expected and asking if we were interested in flying out on them. “Of course we are!” we said, promptly putting our names on the list. We jumped out of bed, dressed and packed in 10 minutes and then waited all day. Nothing and nobody arrived to fetch us. And at the end of the day we unpacked – resigning ourselves to stay indefinitely.

We did manage to get out of Kaza last Friday after the officials and workers of the Border Roads Organisation and the Indian Army helped clear glaciers that had formed enroute to Rohtang Pass – some of which were as high as 18 feet.

As we drove up and down the treacherous winding roads marvelling at both, Mother Nature's beauty and her brutality, we couldn't help but ponder over her nature. Over the calm yet daunting peace she offers.

The words of Henry Van Dyke the American poet and Essayist resonating in my mind: “Who can explain the secret pathos of Nature's loveliness? It is a touch of melancholy inherited from our mother Eve. It is an unconscious memory of the lost Paradise. It is the sense that even if we should find another Eden, we would not be fit to enjoy it perfectly nor stay in it forever.”

Call it what one may. The bane of negligent and inconsiderate development, the curse of the Gods or apathy towards our environment. Our land – the likes of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh – will become a Paradise lost if we continue towards it our attitude of reckless abandon.

As lovely as Mother Nature may be, we must remember, she can be deadly.

P.S. Yes, This incident has finally prompted me to revive my blog (Yay!) Thank you all for being patient with my absence and still being loyal :) Keep reading and I hope I can keep writing here as frequently as I'd like to. If I don't -- egg me on :) 


  1. Quite unnerving is this account of yours Arlene. At the end its like destiny that helped you survive. I have had the same near death experience many years back on the same route. Again due to landslide and rising river after torrential rains... will never forget that day of my life. The images are still very clear in front of my eyes.

  2. And this wasn't half as horrific as what tens of thousands have experienced in Uttarakhand. I can't even begin to fathom what they went through.

  3. Wow. Reading itself gives me chills. Cant even begin to imagine what you guys went through. Glad to know you are safe.

  4. OMG!!!! I am so glad you are safe!!!!

  5. It was chance that I ended up reading this post, today. I must have last visited this page 4 years ago ...maybe. I'm glad you are fine, and I'm glad you are fine enough to recover from that incident and blog about it.
    Please keep on blogging. you are good. - Yashodhara.

  6. Keep blogging! I am an Indian raised in Hong Kong so I can relate. I now live in Singapore and my Indian kids re quite good at Mandarin. It confuses people. ..