A Red Woollen Shawl

A thick layer of fog had covered the city. Anyone who did not know a city nestled there, could easily mistake it to be an empty space. Right now, there was nothing.

Silence, in the mountains, is enhanced during winters.

Kishan was walking in that silence. Walking was the only way he could survive the cold of yet another winter night. A thin frail body, wrapped around a worn out coat, Kishan had nothing much on him to protect him from the harsh winter.

It’s a miracle, for him to have survived 60 odd winters like this.

On the black road ahead he saw something red. He walked closer to have a look. It was a red woollen shawl. Kishen took a round around it, with his palms tucked under the warmth of his armpits. His hands did not wish to leave the warmth of his body. They stayed tightly folded, under his armpits, not making any attempt to touch that ‘Red’ thing on the road. With his eyes Kishan felt the shawl. It was a woollen shawl. With his years of experience as a shepherd, back in his village, he knew it was made of expensive Pashmina wool. Someone probably dropped it while passing by the road. He looked around to see if there could be any possible takers of that ‘warm red thing’; quite as a habit, since no one with a decent home would dare to step out in that cold night. Kishan bent down, with his hands reluctantly leaving the warmth of his body, to pick up the shawl. By the roadside was an old oak tree. Kishan hung the shawl on its branch and walked away tucking his arms into his body.

Kishan was now 60 years old. He had no energy left to work as a porter. At one time, he was the most sought after porters in the town. He had the energy to lift a double door steel cupboard up to a km through the steep lanes of Almora town. Very efficient, Kishan was a reliable porter, on whom the shopkeepers in the town relied for transporting heavy goods through the narrow and steep lanes of the market. Kishan had no vices. He would hardly talk to anyone. All he was interested was in his wages and a two square meal. He hadn’t married. He had no one he could call his family.

Almora is a historic hill city, a cultural hub, in the Kumon region of Uttarakhand state. Vehicles ply only on the main mall road. Rest of the city is connected with narrow lanes, going up and down the steep slopes of the city. Porters are very important for the very survival in the city. From carrying LPG cylinders to transporting bricks for construction, porters are required. Mules are expensive. Human labour comes cheap. So one can see porters moving around in the market, around the city hall, offering their labour. Up and down they go, carrying fridge, T.V, cupboards, suitcases. Kishan was known to be doing this for 30 years now.

Often he would sit by a shop to catch up with some sleep.

Surviving in the cities is not that difficult. People here have too much to waste. Often passerby would handover leftover food to Kishan. Some older shopkeepers, who knew Kishan, would offer him tea and a bidi. Summers were the best time for the porters. Not only did they get more work, they did not have to worry about finding a shelter. They could simply sleep on the footpaths. But during the monsoon and in the winters life would get miserable for these porters. Often jobless, those who could afford would walk back to their villages. Others however had to stay back. If they survived they had yet another season of porting. If they died then they were dead.

Kishan had now walked up the hill. It was a matter of few more hours and the sun would rise in the mountains. That was something certain; rising of the sun. Peaks receive sunshine sooner than the valleys below. Kishan will bask in the morning sun and recharge his cells for the day’s ordeal.

Kishan was a Bhutiya. Anyone could guess that from his features. Bhutiya is a tribe from the greater Himalayas. They are known for their tenacity and grit. They are the original mountain people, designed for high altitude. They are short, thin with strong lungs. Probably that is why they are used as porters. They usually come down the higher altitudes, in search of work. No one knows why Kishan had left his village in the Pindari river basin and lived in Almora.

Unlike other porters, Kishan never left Almora. He lived in the city, inconspicuously, for 30 years, retaining the innocence of the mountains. He was gullible. That was the reason why he was also preferred over other porters; he never questioned. He would take whatever was given to him, always grateful. Honesty was something he had inherited from the mountains. It was because of the values he had carried from his village that he had not taken the shawl, that red thing he had found on the road. Back in his village, if anything is found abandoned on the road, it is simply kept aside, so that it can be found by the one who had lost it.

As Kishan climbed up, his coughing became intense. Climbing required heavy breathing and inhaling the cold breeze had numbed his lungs. He needed little more strength to survive that night, which was to end in an hour. But his 60 year old body, could not carry the weight of his own self that night. He was too weak and his body felt too heavy. He collapsed. Little warmth could have done him good…may be a cup of tea, or a tobacco puff, or that red woollen shawl. From the height he could see that red woollen shawl flutter on the Oak tree. From behind the snow peaked mountains, Sun rose. Its rays fell upon the cold body of Kishan. Another winter night ended.

– Jyoti Patil

(Jyoti is a film maker and a friend of Aajeevika. She currently works with Aarohi in Uttarakhand, – “in the hills” as she calls it – a life which has inspired the Ruskin bond in her writing, closely observing life around her and penning it down… This story picks a leaf from her diary…)

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One Response to A Red Woollen Shawl

  1. Sejal Dave says:

    A very well constructed story, leaves ones shattered with the honesty of Kishan and the societal harsh reality!

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