With each clap and roll of thunder, another small chunk of roof fell into the hut on the steep mountainside, peppering the six inhabitants with wood. We were late into the night, but none of us dared sleep.
The four elderly nomad shepherds murmured quietly to each other. Their leathery kind faces looked like masks in the light, changing with the warm glow of the fire embers to the pale white flashes of the storm. I could hear the sound of their ancient hookah pipe bubbling at intervals between the thunderclaps. I glanced at Bablu; he seemed nervous. Bablu was never nervous. I watched the corner of one of the shepherds lips curl down when one particularly loud crash of the storm hit, the air of the hut reverberating. White tobacco smoke swirled before his glazed eyes. We high in the Indian Himalayas, in the eye of a huge electric storm. It was as if we were huddled waiting for the rapture. Deafening noise came from every direction. The air around us adopted light with purple flashes at alarmingly fast intervals. We sat huddled in thick wool blankets around a small moody fire that was slowly going out. The embers flared orange with every fitful gust of wind.
Light entered the small hut from the outside, and the cold Himalayan night wind swirled around my body. As the door was opened, a shepherd; an outsider, was stood in the doorway. His body was silhouetted at intervals by the flashes of the great mountain storm. On his shoulders rested an enormous mountain goat. It was dead.
He flung the great animal onto the remaining floor space of the tiny hut, and I was transfixed by the unblinking, woolly creature. He muttered a few words in Gaddi dialect, and Bablu translated simply for me;
‘Poison. From the leaves of bushes across the valley’.
The flames cast one last light on the face of the enormous leaden mountain goat that lay by my feet. The smell of the dead creature, as well as its staring eyes, seemed to reach me through the night. My curiosity to meet with, and live as these lonely shepherds do in the remote Himalaya, was proving difficult.
The storm picked up in ferocity. The tiny stone hut was held together with mud, and the roof began letting in ice cold water, which made my skin crawl. It hissed on the fire like great mournful tears. I began to imagine the enormous boulders that were strewn across the adjacent pass being tossed around in the storm like marbles in the hands of Hindu gods in the wind. The Gaddi men around me believed they had a direct, ancient bloodline to the God Shiva; I wondered if that was why they were so placid. I slid deeper into my thick blanket, crawling into the warmest corner of my heart, and clung there until the sunrise. I was encountering the very heart of the storm, and the daily struggle of these men.
Morning. Having shut my eyes for a while, floating like a leaf, trying to enjoy the cool water and defying the complaints of my stomach full of goats heart (which I had been obliged to eat the night before in the hut) I looked to see around 50 curious faces peering down at me from a ledge above, basked in the pale morning light. I lifted my head out of the water and heard them laughing and making remarks to each other. On the rock above were the local secondary school kids-just the boys, as the girls were higher up the path hiding behind trees and rocks in an attempt not to be seen.
Suddenly there were huge splashes all around as the older students began diving into the pool. They were pointing and laughing at Bablu for his feeble swimming attempts, and began paddling around the pool to show off their own strokes, which I had never seen before, and would shame an Olympian.
On the way back through the pine forests, full of chai tea and with my muscles loose from the swim, Bablu began singing one of his Gaddi songs, which he explained were Pagan stories, a way of passing on Gaddi history to the next generation. He led the way to the bedlam of the little Indian village through the woods, singing at the top of his voice and occasionally hopping from rock to rock on the winding forest path.