Have you ever been to the hills? I do not mean the decked and artificially lighted five-star hill stations like Simla, Mussoorie, Nainital, or Darjeeling, which are the pleasure resorts of the nouveau rich. I do not even mean the hill stations which have by and large retained their virginal beauty like Dalhousie or Ranikhet or Chakrata because they are not so easily accessible except to offbeat nature lovers. I mean here the hills where the only source of light is the sun at day time and the moon and stars at night time. Where roads are bridle paths traversed by village women and cows and which ultimately disappear into the dark woods where the carnivorous animals stalk. Where even the most intrepid of tourists do not venture and, if he does, he will be more feared than the wild beasts ! Where the water springs cascading down the hilly slopes and rivulets gushing down into the ravines are the only means of quenching thirst of men/ women and animals alike. It is here that the river Ganga, called by its varied names-Bhagirathi, Mandakini or Alaknanda- in the different parts of Garhwal Himalayas, swirls down the deep gorges, winding all around the hills as if caressing them in a farewell gesture in its hurried, hurtling journey to the plains. On these obscure hills, dear reader, we can see sparsely populated villages dotted all over -perched precariously on the precipice.

So, in a village like this, once lived a village woman, Kanta by name. Her husband is now a naib subedar in the Indian Army. He used to come to his village at least once a year during annual leave to see his young wife and small children. Later, however, the life in the towns engulfed him, the hills receded, the wife and the children were reduced to a distant, faint memory. The money orders sent regularly in the past reached infrequently later and almost stopped some more time later.

The woman, Kanta, however, like Sati Savitri, did not despair. She kept the fire in her hearth burning by working in the field and fetching grass and wood from the forest and looked after the children as fondly as ever. Waiting for him to come, she would answer the awkward questions of heartless inquisitors with a wistful hope and mist in the eyes that her husband had been sent on a war. The war did not seem to end for her ( she was not, however, far wrong -illiterate though she was and modern means of communication in her village were non-existent). Some wars do not seem to end, even veteran war pundits have despaired of the long drawn out war of attrition between India and Pakistan and can not predict when and how this internecine war would end. In good time, however, the children forgot all about their father. How long the young and growing minds can nurse a stale, effete memory. He did no longer exist in their life.

Kanta, however, kept to her drudgery of existence, the flame of hope alit, guarding herself well from the lascivious menfolks… One day, while working in her field, she saw her husband from a distance waling home with a desi woman with a swaggering gait. He had also brought along a pony load of goods like transistor, clothes, gur (jaggery), chappals, toys etc. Kanta took no time in realizing that her saut (another wife) had arrived- women have uncanny intuition in these matters. She ran down the hill in quick, frightened steps like a deer being chased by a bagh( tiger) and without a second thought jumped into river Ganga. This is what many hill women do when they feel cheated in life. They can put up with long suffering, want and intense hardship, deprivation but not betrayal. The holy river Ganga is their last refuge…This woman Kanta was from my village Jakholi in Tehri Garhwal near which the controversial Tehri dam has come up with all its sinister portents, as stated by the environmentalists.

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Mahavir Nautiyal

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