Tsewang had just brought the Gypsy to an abrupt halt. “What is it this time? Has the spare wheel come loose and rolled down the mountain again?” I asked myself. ‘We’ were on our way to Rangdum. The Gypsy we were in could easily have been the most rickety contraption mankind could have stepped into. And here ‘We’ were, blasting Ladakhi music at full volume up and down mountains and valleys, on roads that could hardly be called so. The radio system had been the star component on this journey so far; held together by about one hundred meters of tape, it unflinchingly blared out local music. Like a lone soldier on a bell tower keeping his gun firing against all odds. It bounced and dangled only more with each ditch, bump and puddle we sped over. The Ladakhis required that ‘The music must go on’. And the beat up Blaupunkt system did not disappoint.
‘Did you say this was the first time you’ve been up this mountain pass?’ asked Tsewang.
‘Why, I haven’t ever been up Namik la before.’ I replied, wondering if he had skidded to a stop just to ask me that question.
‘Oh well.’ Tsewang simply said and hopped out of the gypsy and ran up a slope. He came back running shortly, clutching flowers in his hand. ‘Here you go!’ he said, handing the flowers to me.
This was my introduction to the most wonderful Ladakhi tradition; If a Ladakhi finds himself travelling with somebody who is going up a particular mountain pass for the first time, he will pluck flowers from the mountain and present them to the first timer. And in return, the visitor is expected to buy the next meal!
There were five of us in the gypsy, and four more in another even more beat up gypsy. This was how our journey to Rangdum had begun. Who were ‘We’? We’re the Snow Leopard Conservancy; an organization striving hard to change the locals’ attitude towards the mystical creature and providing them with opportunities to benefit from its presence in their region. And this was my first field trip with the conservancy as a volunteer.
The next evening, Rangdum…
‘Village profiling’ is an incredibly interesting activity. The members of the conservancy spread out across the village with a questionnaire. The locals answer questions which allow the conservancy to create a brief profile of the village; what’s interesting about the town, what are animals one will find here, little known facts about their history, festivals and such information that might intrigue prospective visitors enough to travel to rangdum, thereby benefitting the town’s economy. All of 63 households, the profiling was carried out quickly. Each home I visited came guaranteed with at least 2 cups of butter tea. The Ladakhis are unrelenting in their hospitality and I had nothing to complain about hot tea on this freezing evening.
During profiling, we found out that there was a village fair that was happening at the Rangdum Monastery the next morning. And this was good news because the conservancy could now address the entire village under one roof, making the job easier. And for me, it was not only as close as I could get to experiencing Ladakhi culture, but also an opportunity to carry out a polaroid project I had been working on for a while. A project which had me giving out instant films to people in the remotest regions of india. No where near a photo studio, many of the people I gave out films to had their last picture print taken decades ago. Some didn’t even have a single photograph!
The next morning, everybody from the village had thronged the monastery in happy spirits. The men came in princely robes and the women dazzled in spectacular headgear studded with turquoise beads. Having emptied my wallet to purchase the monastery’s lottery tickets (For a grand prize of a washing machine!), I walked into a hallway which had a group of wonderfully dressed women seated. Here, I pulled out my instant camera and clicked one of the women’s photographs and presented it to her. A wide smile crossed her face as she examined the photograph closely. The other women crowded around her and peered at the picture inquisitively. Their attention slowly shifted to me; the man with the instant camera. Soon, requests followed. They all wanted a photograph. I obliged one of them. And then two more. And soon I had run out of film. But the crowd was still gathered around me, pleading for just one picture. With their daughters, with their husbands and sons. Word around the monastery had gotten around so quickly. I told them I was out of film but they all disbelieved. Cursing myself for not having anticipated this, I looked around for a safe exit. That’s when a hand grabbed me and took me aside and away from the crowd. It was one of the conservancy members. It was a crushing feeling, having disappointed so many of them. I began to feel miserable.
“They came looking for you, the sisters.” Said Dolker, a colleague. We were outside the monastery, standing on a rock overlooking the valley. The fair ended and the crowd had dispersed. “Looking for me?” I asked her.
‘”Yes, they thought you might have one extra film that you could click for them. They swore they wouldn’t tell anybody. They asked for you, waited for a bit and left.” She told me.
“Ummm” I mumbled, not knowing what to say.
‘Look, there!’ she pointed down the valley. Then I saw two black specks walking slowly. Silhouetted against the grand mountains. It was the sisters. I saw their figures grow smaller and smaller. I saw how remote this village was and where these people lived. I realized how much a photograph would mean to them. The disappointment in me grew tenfold. Just then, I saw a monk walk past me, the smile on his face was priceless; he was carrying the washing machine he had just won at the lottery. He looked like a guy who would come back next year and try his luck again.
Then I knew someone else who would come back the next year. It was me. I made a promise to myself. That I’d return, with enough film to give everybody.