Dark spots on the Himalayan sun

Dark spots on the Himalayan sun

Contributor : Vandita Dubey

The dark spots on our bright Himalayan sun began to appear rather suddenly, well over a year after we moved to Kumaon. One instant, everything was idyllic –  the clouds floating in and out of the valleys – and our house – during the monsoons, the snow covered Himalayan ghosts hover in the clear blue winter skies across the horizon. In the aftermath of city life, people of the villages also seemed kinder, gentler, more honest. Then like unwelcome guests, a series of unfortunate incidents in the neighbourhood left us all feeling uncomfortable. The picture is still the same but with the soft, diffused light gone, the sharp, jagged edges have become more obvious.

This year, between the end of summer and beginning of winter, our small community witnessed three unnatural deaths.  A young man from a neighbouring village was found dead with wounds on his body. An amorous couple’s extra marital sex videos made it to the cell phones of a bunch of village folk. And the following day, which happened to be the festival of Rakshabandhan, ended with the wife consuming poison. This resulted in the husband being sent to jail and three teenaged children left to fend for themselves. Diwali eve brought the most heartbreaking news of all – a young 7-year-old boy, an only child who studied in the same school as our kids, was killed instantaneously in an accident. The motorcycle he was riding on with his parents was thrown over the cliff by a pickup truck driven by three drunk youth from the same district who also did not survive this accident. What are the chances that the one vehicle you come across on these empty, winding roads should be the one that takes your life!

All these events have been shocking for us, but are barely news worthy for a big city. I have struggled to make sense of why these incidents have caused us so much distress. We have lived in various big cities in India and abroad and have heard of all kinds of crime, but why do these incidents seem more jarring? Maybe it is because incidents of violence in the city are treated as accepted, expected parts of life – perhaps because the victims are often unknown individuals or exposure to such incidents is so great that one becomes numb towards them. In addition, one is always on guard and watchful so that one does not become a victim oneself. In a small mountain village like our’s however, the same kind of events shake one up. Maybe because they involve individuals who are known or perhaps because one has lowered one’s defences, lulled by the seemingly idyllic, peaceful nature of life. I don’t think it is the end of our innocence: I still don’t feel threatened in any way. What has ended, though, is the apathy and indifference that one learns to wear in the city. There is also an acute awareness that each crime has many victims – multiple lives are affected, not just one.

Our gentle Kumaoni village is not free of crime or sorrow, but here each victim is mourned and each story is heard countless times.

About the contributor :

An urban migrant, Dr. Vandita Dubey is a resident of the Kumaoni village of Satkhol. A US licensed psychologist, she is the author of the book “Parenting in the age of Sexposure”. She also co-hosts the Himalayan Writing Retreats. You can learn more about her at www.vanditadubey.com and about the writing retreats at www.himalayanwritingretreat.com .

One Tribe

One Tribe

Contributor : Matthew Wheelock.

Shared values are surely one of the fastest and strongest makers of bonds between people. Identified and defined by what is not said. The disclosure of a different set of priorities that act like a secret handshake, after which a great deal is silently understood. You can be close to and know a person for your whole life, but still carry the slightest doubt about them. Or meet someone for the first time and know that they’ll never give you cause for distrust. It’s a strange thing, bigger than age or culture or faith or colour, it’s instinctive.

There is an eclectic range of people here in Sitla, city runaways, educated and adventurousonetribe 3.jpg that know what they want. Or who more specifically, know exactly what they don’t want and have given up more than most are willing to in realising it. The rewards of which are implicit, so understood that we seldom speak of them. Being here through choice, making it self-evident.

You see it in the villagers, sat silently in the ‘garami-garami’ warmth of the afternoon sun, their gaze lost to the distant peaks. I see it in Kishan, my local home help, as he takes selfies on a crystal clear morning, capturing the distant snows in stark relief behind him. And when I pass him my binoculars and watch him utterly absorbed in his first sight of the intricate details of our giant neighbours.


I was sitting at my favourite viewing spot on the road from Almora one afternoon when an Onetribe 1.jpgelderly villager stopped to talk to me. ‘Very beautiful’ I say in my terrible Hindi looking out to the faraway mountains and the valley disappearing below us. ‘If you want to see a really beautiful view of the mountains, you should climb that next peak’ he says pointing to the opposite mountain. ‘Amazing 180 degree view of the Himalayas from there, incredibly beautiful’ he tells me passionately.


The love and admiration for this mountainous beauty isn’t diminished by being born here, like the local villagers. It is a constant and lifelong source of delight, sustenance for the soul and that shared appreciation transcends all boundaries and limitations.


But to outsiders; the people of the plains, we must often explain it in detail. The forest, the clean air, touchable horizons, the pinks and oranges across the snows in the dying light. The pace of life and the grace of bells and children’s laughter.


I have lived here in the hills for nearly two years. In that time, I’ve learnt that the common ground the mountains provide, to us that live here, is as much cultural as physical. Drawn from such a range of origins and for such differing reasons, we all consider it a privilege to have arrived.


Our love of the hills, of nature and the peace and tranquility are not just passing interests, but fundamental parts of our being that reach to the core, as values that bind us.

We are many things here, but we are one Tribe.


About Matthew Wheelock :

Matthew left his job as a management consultant in the UK in March 2015 to move to the hills of Kumaon. He is currently writing a book about a recently completed 21,000km solo motorbike trip across Canada. He writes on a range of themes including, nature, travel, identity, belief and time.

More information can be found on his website  www.matthewwheelock.com


Uttarakhand Forest Fire Encounters – Part 1

Uttarakhand Forest Fire Encounters – Part 1

Everyone has their own theory about the cause of the forest fires. These range from mismanagement and bad governance / timber and land mafia / the Congress / the BJP / both / global warming and so on.

I am not an expert. I have one year’s experience of living in the mountains, and one day’s fighting fires.  Here I am simply sharing my experiences of Friday, April 29th.

We were driving home from Almora  around 3 pm – our pet Fia had just gone through an operation. About 8 km short of our home we were told to stop as the forest around the road ahead was on fire. We could see it. The whole mountain side was ablaze, and we could feel the heat 20 metres away. We drove after 10 minutes through what looked like a Vietnam Napalm bombing zone – burning trees on the roadside, smouldering branches on the road. As we crossed Aarohi (a local NGO) we could see staff members hurrying up the hill. They said the fire was moving up and Satoli, (a local village) was at risk. Some close friends lived there.

We rushed home, left Fia and headed to Satoli. En route I kept wondering what exactly we would do once we reached the fire. The area is water deficient, and the nearest fire hydrant is a hundred miles away. At Satoli one could see smoke in 2 places in the distance. Our friends Deepa and Ashish run the Himalayan Village – a beautiful resort in Sonapani. Deepa seemed unperturbed, and said her staff had gone to deal with the fires. Clearly, she’d seen fires before. Ashish’s absence (he was travelling) didn’t seem to matter. Thank god. I can’t deal with panicky people.

We headed down to where the fires were, and a few villagers were standing around it, trying to put it out by beating it with green branches from trees. Didn’t seem to be working very well. I tried the same strategy, and realized two things:

  1. Fire is REALLY hot
  2. Fire is unpredictable. It will change direction in a nanosecond.

A few singed hair on my forearm reinforced the learning. Some villagers whose house was en-route were trying to control the fire with a bucket and some water. Bloody uneven match.

The crew from Himalayan Village had assessed the situation and moved further up the hill. They were using rakes and clearing a path of the dry leaves and pine needles in the way of the fire. Dr Puneet – a local resident – explained the only way to fight fire is to cut it off.

The only tools in evidence were Rakes and green branches. No water. No Chemicals. A thought drifted in sideways

“Knock knock.

Who’s there?


Raikwal who?

Raikwal – the best firefighters in Kumaon. We have the most rakes. “

(Raikwal is a common last name in Kumaon. And yes, I need therapy. )

So the crew cleared a forest trail and set fire to the collected heaps of leaves and pine needles in the path of the oncoming fire. That way more leaves and branches close to the fire line would be burnt, and the oncoming fire would have even less to feed on. We seemed successful for a bit, but at one patch where the dry grass was particularly long, the fire – assisted by strong winds – just jumped across the path. Given the fire’s fury, our fire-fighting weapons of green branches were laughable, and our efforts proved futile.

The fire was running up the hill. The house of Dr. Sushil – another local resident – was just about 100 yards from the fire, but to the right. The wind wasn’t headed that way, but his house was pretty close. Sonapani (where Himalayan Village was) was much further, but the fire was literally running in that direction. The crew headed up the hill to create a second fire line. I considered the options, and finally decided to head up the hill as well. It was a tough call.

There was a forest road up the hill, and the Sonapani crew made a second fire line at the road. The road was a natural barrier to the fire, and was easy to clean of dry leaves. They laughed and joked as they went about it running up and down the hillside. Made it look rather easy.  I could see the crew make heaps of the pine needles again and light them with matches. It caught like tinder.  (…to be continued)

( You can see some videos on the Uncity facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/groups/1714595062158709/ but you’ll have to go to the beginning.)