From Drums of Phantom to SMS

The vision that India would be a developed nation by 2020 is brushed aside by many people as a mere day dream. One has to just scratch the 'memory card' fitted in the brain and lo the memories of the days gone by flash in front of the eyes. A comparison between the past and the present confirms that dream of a developed nation is very much on a strong footing.

A road network that connects places and a communication network that connects people are two primary requirements for development. 

Despite being a young state, the track record of Himachal Pradesh in the spheres of development of roads and telecommunication is fantastic. Three and half decades ago the eastern part of the state, the Sirmaur district, bordering the then U.P was a neglected area. Bad roads, lack of infrastructure, poor communication were the hallmark of the area. The beautiful, exquisite Himalayan state was in its infancy when my travels took me to areas of Sirmaur then considered as remote interiors.

It was almost eight hours drive from Chandigarh to Sataun, a small hamlet on a terrace overlooking the Giri River and a gateway to interior of Sirmaur and Tons valley. Road was such that by the time one reached the destination all joints of the body howled aloud in pain. The road traversed through several torrential rivers. During the monsoon it was extremely perilous to ford them in a Jeep. A rain in the catchment could bring the calm looking river in to spate carrying away whatever came in its wake. Jeep was a puny.

Beyond Sataun it was a different world altogether. Rough and bumpy road, dense, virgin forests, simple folks, very beautiful looking girls, extreme poverty and polyandry were common. Coarse grain and red chilies were the staple diet of the people therefore nothing else was available in the village shops. Vegetables and fruits were unheard of.

The very thought of camping at Kamrau on an isolated terrace overlooking far into Yamuna plains for a just married couple like us was quite exciting. 

Journey from Satan to Kamrau on a 'Gattu' was a big adventure for the first timers like us. Those war model Nissan Trucks (Gattus) had a gaping port hole above the driver's cabin and another below the passenger's seat. A slight mistake and one could drop on the road and get pulverized under the speeding wheels. These trucks ferried limestone from a quarry at Tilordhar, further higher up to the huge lime kiln at Sataun. On way back the jalopies ferried passengers as if carrying goats to a slaughter house. I charmed the driver not to take other passengers on the front seat except us. My tents and equipment, baggage and helpers were dumped in the back of the truck.

The bone shaking and nerve-wrecking ride in the recklessly driven rickety truck on the potholed, bumpy road was perhaps was too much for my wife, she bit her lip at every jolt, till she bled. The ordeal of 16 km journey was fortunately over in about an hour. In the milieu of excitement plus a hurry to pitch tents before Sunset I did not notice the huge over hanging cliff some 500 feet above my tent. After spending three nights there, we followed the caravan of mules carrying our baggage and tents to another place, higher up in the thick of a forest, but connected by a road which required supernatural skills to drive upon. Last bumpy ride had made us prudent enough and we decided to trek.

The new camp at Bhaurar was on a small clearing in the midst of tall pine trees, a place which I learnt later was the play ground of black Himalayan bears. We were fortunate for they were busy plucking berries elsewhere. Local population was sparse. Nearest village which consisted of two houses only was on a spur overlooking the camp. A girl from the village made friends with my wife. Upon meeting the first thing she asked was, 'Is he your first husband?' It was Shocking indeed. It appeared that for the locals 'live in' marriages were common those days.

A view from Bhaurur - sketched by the author

There was no means of entertainment or news. My transistor decided to turn mute, perhaps the lofty mountains all around made the reception impossible! There were no newspapers either. The layers of newspapers used for packing the crockery came handy and we read them till all the legible phrases had been memorized by heart. The only news that reached us after ten days was that at Kamrau the huge cliff overhanging above my tent fell on the spot where we were sleeping. It happened in the dead of the night, on the day we left. Such incidents compel one to believe in God. 

A lone Bus with an occasional passenger used to pass through my camp once in three days. The Bus driver, a Nepali called Bahadur became my chum; he was my reporter for 'scoops' from the civilized world. It was he who told me that the King had died. Later I learnt that the President, Dr Zakir Hussain was no more. 

Bahadur willingly agreed to my request of bringing newspapers on his return journey from Paonta Saheb. The first consignment of newspapers he brought was in Gurmukhi and Urdu. Both were of no use for me. Next time I wrote a list of newspapers and gave him a choice to bring all or whichever he could. He brought a few issues of The Tribune.

One has to experience that kind of isolation to enjoy the thrill of reading old issues of newspapers. In school we were taught about the 'Book of the hour' and the 'Book of the day'. Our teacher explained newspaper is the book of the hour. You read it and trash it. Whereas, the great literary pieces, preserved till eternity are the 'books of the day'. But the experience proved that under circumstances of isolation a newspaper could be good as any book of the day.

Imagination runs wild in isolation especially when you crave for contact with the world outside. At times even the sounds of wind or water make one feel as if vehicles are approaching or even a helicopter is landing. Drums, howls, whistles, fires and flags have been used for communicating across the valleys in mountain terrains since times immemorial. Often such drums were heard from the hilltops of the far flung valleys. They used to sound as if the Pygmies were drumming messages to the Phantom.

Boon from modern technology, the SMS is nothing but advanced version of what Lee Falk conceived years ago, one of the most efficient ways of communication-the SMS via drums! 

Lee Falk the creator of the Phantom must be saluted for his vision. 

All those remote places in Sirmaur are now within a three hours drive from Chandigarh. The macadam roads have given tourism a big boost. Of course the tourists there today can not enjoy the exclusive privacy, natural solitude and near total isolation. For that one needs to run away from the 'developed' places. With a spectrum of communication technology available, the much cherished newspaper in the area, where I longed for news, must have once again become 'the book of the hour'!    


More by :  V. K. Joshi (Bijji)

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