Pratap Chand sat on his heels, watching the shrinking lake surrounded by weeds. Two fluffy little rabbits had their eyes set on him, as the three together soaked up the sun, or maybe, the verdant green meadow.
We had reached Khajiaar early in the morning when local business was just beginning to brew, and had already been besieged with requests for a bohni by local village boys, who make a living by lending their rabbits and baskets for photography.
There were just a handful of people around. In fact, the local pedlars seemed to outnumber the tourists. Even as we continued to be pestered, I wanted to hold on for a bit. There were so many hues my eyes were longing to behold. An azure skyline against restful green cedars- the tree tops chiseled in a most perfect manner and the palliative shades of the grassland willing to soothe my nerves. Such was the splash of colours!
I shuffled between giving in to the demands for getting clicked and following my heart. Finally, after a series of escapades with the camera, I made my way to the lake that sat in the middle of the meadow. It is a rather tiny pool of water with dense growth of weed all around. I cannot vouch for its beauty, which I felt was quite an inverse to the charm of the landscape that wrapped it in its arms. The lake has its own story, having taken its name (Khajjiar Lake) from Khajji Nag, the deity in the temple nearby.
It was here that I spotted Pratap Chand, a short, old man of about seventy, busy doing nothing. This happens to be such a rampant trait of people living in small towns and villages. In a world messed up with being busy, you find people here who do nothing and exist!
Pratap Chand wasn’t even hunting for customers. To be honest, I thought the rabbit duo belonging to the old man, were happier than their counterparts who were owned by competitive young village boys hankering for tourists. They were lazing around, just like their master.
I was keen to learn about the temple and decided that an elderly man with enough time on his hands would definitely have a story to narrate about the same. And he did!
The temple, also known as “Golden Devi” temple due to its golden dome is dedicated to the lord of serpents, Naga. It also carries images of the five Pandavas. But it was a native’s tale narrated by Pratap Chand that I carried home with me.
Many years ago, a sadhu set out to find the depth of the Khajji lake. He worked day and night for six long months and braided a rope. The rope was undoubtedly very long. The sadhu continued to immerse it in the lake, hoping to stop one fine day. However, as legend has it, both the rope and the sadhu vanished into thin air. Their whereabouts known to none.
Like any villager, Pratap Chand continues to be awed by the story. He believes that the wonders of god are best known only to HIM and no matter how hard man tries, he will always be evaded by His mystifying ways.
I cannot, but agree with him. Even after years of discoveries and inventions and man’s never-ending pursuit for a universal truth, things happen beyond the realm of reason and we can do nothing but stare wide-eyed and waver between belief and disbelief.
In the meantime, the children find time to click the rabbits. I am impressed with the story-teller’s conversation skills and must ask more.
Khajjiar is surrounded all over by villages. Every single day people like Pratap Chand walk a distance of a few kilometres, carrying their rabbits on their backs, and spend the day at the tourist destination, trying to make some money. Is it difficult?
‘No,’ comes the prompt reply. The season is about to end and crowd is likely to thin out in winters. Heavy snowfall ensures there is no tourist. The villagers must collect their fill of wood and other essential items that will last them two to three months.
I cannot imagine being cut-off for that long and waiting patiently for life to be back on track. But Pratap Chand doesn’t complain.
‘It is not as difficult as it seems. Gives time to man and nature to breathe and recoup.’
He enthusiastically tells me about the summer festival that takes place just after spring and is attended by several people. He tells me in a hushed tone that some lucky folks are blessed by the Naga Devta who pays them a visit.
The hills have always thrived on lore. Stories that draw just a thin line between authenticity and doubt. You may discard these tales when you turn around the corner and leave the mountains behind. But as long as you are there, in the midst of those mystifying legends, you cannot choose to ignore them. I was completely overtaken by an unearthly feeling as I stood in the middle of a patch of land surrounded by overpowering mountains.
At the end of our conversation I fished out some money from my bag and offered it to my guide. Pratap Chand immediately withdrew his hand. I hadn’t even got pictures clicked with the rabbits. I didn’t owe him any money! It wouldn’t be right.
‘Well,’ I insisted, ‘We took some pictures of the rabbits, if not any with them.’
Putting the measly amount in his pocket he told me that we could come to him any time of the day for more pictures. After all, we had paid more than one single picture deserved. In a world that is hungering for money, Pratap Chand may not be an exception, but he is certainly rare.
As we took the road back home, I had two stories to recount- a folk lore and a tale of simple living.
That I was already running the script in my mind wasn’t new for the family. My little girl was quick to understand this.
‘Do you think Pratap Chand ji is on facebook? You should have asked him. He is going to be famous soon!’ she said, leaving us all in splits.