Smita Khandelwal is an educationist and a working mother of two based in Dubai. Armed with a Bachelor’s in English (Hons) from Delhi University and a Master’s in Education from the University of Houston, she runs enrichment and gifted and talented programmes for elementary grades. She has a passion for reading, writing and travel.
Dealing with the extreme cold, in primitive conditions is not imaginable to us today. The Neanderthal man, from the Ice age can never fathom the comforts of the modern world. They who live in freezing limestone caves, using tools sharpened from stone, this Homosapien species had to work hard to survive in such harsh conditions. Any or all of their “comforts” were a direct result of their daily efforts. Yes, eventually they did discover fire, tools and much later farming, which made their lives easier but they still depended on personal labor.
On the other hand, today, mankind has reached such progressive levels, that should we choose, every task can be achieved by a click of a button, it can be delegated to others-human or machine, all for our convenience. This is what personal labor has been reduced to! This brings us to our story then, one that will shake and stir us out of our comfort zones both mentally and physically.
Rhea, a resident of the cosmopolitan city Dubai, in all her 17 years had been the passive recipient of numerous taken for granted comforts- necessities if you will, whether it was running water, 24 hour electricity, central heating or air conditioning ( this is Dubai you are talking about). Then there were the branded clothes, fancy cars and lavish dinners at posh restaurants.
Many of her holidays planned continued the cycle of comforts, just the extension of her home- living in no less than 5 star hotels, exotic destinations rated by Tripadvisor, where the only exertion would be being part of a local sightseeing trip, ending her days with hot meals served in grand opulent settings, to soothe her frazzled nerves from the day’s activities.
One of these holidays, she planned a winter vacation, to the high rugged Kumaon hills, ostensibly to escape her stressful life. No one, least of all her, thought much on what was ahead. It was going to be just another holiday, enjoying the view from the comforts of a luxurious wooden lodge.
Kumaon Hills! The most beautiful mountain range in Uttarakhand, at the foothills of the majestic Himalayas, its peaks rising to about 7000 meters, these hills form gorgeous waterfalls converging at a height of about 2000 meters, from where the snow melts from glaciers. These then travel down to pool into many lakes, surrounded by the charming villages nestled in the nooks. Although the temperature still hovers at freezing point at winter, during the summer, it allows for terraced farming by the humble villagers living in these areas. Tall pine trees form a lovely backdrop to lessen the harshness of the land; in fact they are a pleasure to hike through on pleasant mornings.
Our heroine reaches this versatile place after a short flight coupled with a really long night by train, and then a rather bumpy car ride with complete blind faith on the local man driving the vehicle, in the wee hours of a chilly December morning. But the journey was just beginning, for when she alighted from the cab, the realization dawned that the Nirvana they sought still remained elusive. It was going to be a steep hill trek along slippery slopes to reach their purported slice of heaven. This was the first in stirring things up; no door to door service here.
In freezing temperatures, snuggled into layers of warm clothing, woolen hats and thick mittens, this city girl confidently skips up a few 100 meters and realizes that her branded shoes are coming apart. Fazed but undaunted she carries on keeping up the simple goal of climbing up, occupied in her mind by the one hot cup of cocoa followed by a delicious hot shower. An hour and half later, when all cheeriness was slowly fading, they made the final turn. Aah bliss! Well depends on how one defines bliss.
“Seriously, there is no central heating in the rooms?” she mutters, her patience running thin. The miserably inefficient room heater does nothing to stop her shivers, her bones chilled to the core, craving a hot bath but in order to do that she knows she will have to brave the elements-unpeel the layers. Images of steaming hot water jetting out, strong enough to the fog the bathroom float in her mind, giving her courage. Gingerly, she steps out of her woolen socks. “Damn! My toes are turning blue” she jumps in horror. Totally unprepared for the cold stone floor, she hops, skips and jumps into the bathroom. But wait! Alas there is no hot water. The best they can do (with logs) is a semblance of hot water. Using all of her fortitude, she showers, barely managing to smile. Are we living in the Ice Age? The question definitely crossed her mind.
Next day mid-morning, the wintry sun finally peeks through a blanket of frost and fog. Hallelujah! Salvation!! Deliverance!!! The large group she travelled with decides to make the most of the precious sunshine and rising temperatures. “Let’s go for a walk in the mountains,” they exult. Layering herself once again, wishing for the warmth and comfort of home, and muttering about what kind of vacation she has gotten herself in, Rhea fixes her broken shoe in the best possible way and trudges behind her enthusiastic companions. Through breathtaking scenery, along narrow ridges, amongst those tall pines and gentle mountain streams they walk. But to her, her focus was her misery. She wouldn’t let the warmth of the lukewarm sun seep through, for it was easier to hang on to the gloom, this natural beauty totally escapes her, so focused is she on her woes, her discomforts. She prays for deliverance, an escape from this hell, and upon returning to her lodge, insists on shortening her trip.
Human nature if nothing is resilient. In the face of hardships, it can dust itself off, pick up from where it left of and plod on bravely. Having taken stock of the circumstances and having reached the nadir of self-pity, Rhea woke up refreshed and ready to start a new day. She was determined to prove that in her remaining time there, she can face the elements and come out winning. A positive outlook can only bring positive results for on that day’s trek she met an ordinary woman with an extraordinary grit.
This 70 year old woman lived and farmed alone on the hills. She had lost her only son, her son in law and husband over the years. Her daughter had taken the grandchildren to a big city choosing comfort over roots. Dressed in a purple sari, brown threadbare sweater, beaten up shoes, she looked every bit of her 70 years and some more, with calloused hands, grubby nails, a wrinkled face; she was no different to other typical mountain women. And yet, her eyes spoke of merriment, they crinkled in gentle laugh lines, speaking as though of better happier times, making her look adorable in a tender sort of way.
When the lady spied Rhea’s group sunning themselves on her farmed land, she invited them into her tiny mud hut, offering tea and biscuits, although it was plain to see she didn’t have much. In order to make their tea, she would even have to fetch water from a well, which was way down the hill. Despite that, Rhea could see her apparent graciousness, her hospitality, her happiness, her genuine desire for company, her unconcern for material comforts, her inspirational attitude of taking each day as a blessing, all that spritely spirit unfazed by what fate had dealt her. She remained undaunted by the insurmountable obstacles and challenges she faced every day and her ability to enjoy the moment here and now, touched Rhea in many ways. For here was someone who had nothing and no one and yet she was content, happy in ways that we live all our life seeking and not finding.
All this while, Rhea had compared her perceived hardships against her comfort zone and now she faced one whose comfort zone was completely incomprehensible to a city girl. Where she had felt chilly despite layers of warm cashmere, this lady was warm in her threadbare woolens; where she had cribbed at the lack of warm water, here she saw the sight of hauling water for a bath regardless of the fact whether it was warm enough. The exotic meals had failed to impress her, whereas some tea and biscuits satisfied her to the core. She had come face to face with human perseverance. She took off her leather gloves, on her own accord, and handed it over, a peace offering maybe
It had made her pause, it had given her reason to stop and think. To compare where she was, the benefits she enjoyed, to what she saw here. She realized she was living a charmed life albeit one that came at a high cost. Our evolution has enabled the human race in many ways and yet, here in many ways she saw that one could still exist in harmony with far less. Joy, peace, contentment, happiness, safety, security, comfort can all be elusive never to be achieved or ever present, always within reach, only you have to know where to look. All her beliefs had been shaken and stirred, but she knew she liked her new self far more. With a light heart and a spring to her steps, Rhea stepped out- it was a new beginning.
The Neanderthal man may have turned a few times in his grave but finally rests in peace. Life had come about full circle.