It was afternoon by the time I reached the Tikkar Cottage. I had a quick lunch. The usual dal makhni and aloo fry with paranthas that the cook of the next door cottage-hotel specializes in. I donned my biking shoes, slung my camera, strapped my helmet and thundered off to Tikkar Tal, my destination for the day. The drive to the lakes from the cottage is a steep descent for 8 km or so. The road had gravel all over. Large parts of the hill sides had experienced landslides in the devastating monsoons of 2010. The locals compared it to the similar calamitous rains of 1977. It seemed as if a demon had ripped off the sides of the hills. I silently repeated my resolve to source the deep rooted vetiver grass and raise funds for plantation to secure the fragile hill sides. I drove at a cautious speed in the second gear. It was my first venture within Morni since I had decided to park the Thunderbird permanently at Morni and I was slightly nervous. The road was deserted and the forests were looking sinister with the fading light. I crossed the all-important water pumping station on the way. Water is supplied from the tube-well near the tals at a height of 600 metres through this step-up pumping station to the Gajan water works at 1000 metre elevation. The tals and the adjoining meadows form a bowl enclosed by gentle hills to the South and sharp cliffs to the North. The hill sides that ensconce the twin lakes have terraced fields all around, though lately a part has been acquired by the Forest Department. Heavy plantation is needed in the catchment areas to stop the silt. The sacred lakes are described as bottomless by the devout. The Central Fisheries Department found them no deeper than 4 metres. I had intended photographing the 1000 year old stone sculptures at the lakeside temple of Krishna but a Grey Hornbill by the side of the Draupadi Tal caught my imagination. The bird obliged by posing boldly as I clicked several pictures for my bird album.
The sun was going down and I decided to head back to the cottage. As I turned back I was flagged by a local waiting for some transport for Morni. He was a mason from the Tikkar village bound for Pinjore. The shared jeep from Tikkar to Morni was expensive and he was looking for a free ride. He hoped to catch a bus to Panchkula from Morni (A recently started mini bus service by the State Transport for the steep single lane road from the Tals to Morni has proved to be a boon for the poor locals who were earlier fleeced by the jeep drivers). ‘I will be stopping a couple of kilometres short of Morni,’ I warned him. ‘I’ll walk the rest of the distance,’ he replied cheerfully. He was happy to get the lift and was not going to miss the opportunity. ‘The rains have caused a lot of damage,’ I said congenially as we drove back in order to start up a conversation. ‘If only locals did not damage the trees,’ I said thinking about the damage done to local trees that are mercilessly lopped in winters for fodder. ‘Are you from the forest department?’ he enquired cautiously. I smiled. ‘No. What made you think so?’ I enquired. ‘I saw you clicking photographs of birds,’ he informed me. ‘The forest guys are the cause of all trouble,’ he continued. ‘They plant saplings and claim to have planted many times the actual. They then start forest fires to destroy evidence. The plants are planted again the next year,’ he explained, quite convinced of his investigation. ‘Are the forest guards not locals?’ I quipped. ‘And I do see a lot of plantation by the roadside, the Silver Oaks, theTeak trees, the Bottle Brush and the Gulmohar,’ I pointed out. He looked unconvinced. ‘There is rampant corruption. Lets hope Baba Ramdev does something about it and gets the foreign funds back home. He’ll make a good PM,’ he announced. ‘Manmohan Singh is an honest guy. Let’s not write him off. What are Baba’s credentials as an administrator?’ I argued, slightly irritated with his simplistic analysis of the situation. He cast me a suspicious look and clammed up. I dropped him near the cottage and saw him undertake the steep climb effortlessly as he disappeared round the bend, his tools, tiffin and work clothes stuffed into a modest home stitched cloth bag. I halted at the cottage for a cup of tea and reviewed the bird pictures with satisfaction. The sun had set and Ii had to reach back home for a family dinner. I started back in my car leaving the Thunderbird behind. I couldn’t help comparing it to a warhorse as it wistfully watched the master leave after an exciting cross-country ride. I had barely crossed Morni when I spied my cheerful companion walking confidently towards Panchkula, a trifling 30 km walk in the dark through forests! I deliberated on the pros and cons of offering him a lift. Finally the milk of human kindness prevailed and I stopped by his side to his complete astonishment. He had missed the last bus to Panchkula and could not believe his luck- air-conditioned car and Lucky Ali’s music! I wanted to know the reason for his desperation to get to Pinjore. ‘I have landed a masonry job providing a week of continuous employment and I have to start work in the morning,’ he informed me. ‘Don’t you get work in Morni?’ I wanted to know. ‘People are poor. They get work done and are unable to pay up for months,’ he replied. ‘What about the road protection works being undertaken all over Morni after the rains?’ I asked. ‘They require stone masons. I am a brick mason,’ he responded. I learnt that Morni provided a large number of masons to the neighbouring towns. ‘Why don’t you settle down at Panchkula? It would be easier for you and you would earn more,’ I advised. ‘I like getting back home,’ was his simple reply. It is perhaps in the genes of the hill folk of Morni to be content with their humble existence in the hills. The British administrators made a special mention of this trait in the 19th century gazetteers.
The conversation veered round back to Ramdev. This time I curtailed my cynicism as he described the country’s enormous wealth that was stashed in Swiss banks. I got back to environment. He agreed that it was imperative to protect our trees and plant some for our posterity. ‘People remember you for a long time if you plant trees. Everybody remembers the person who planted the mango tree in our village,’ he said. ‘Who planted it?’ I wanted to know. ‘I don’t know because it was long before my birth but I am sure the village elders know his name. Anyway, I plant one tree every year even if it’s only a safeda (Eucalyptus),’ he said with pride. I wondered how many of us with resources can claim this. I enquired about the education of his children. His son and daughter studied in the government secondary school close to their village. ‘How are the teachers?’ I wanted to know. ‘They are okay, mostly locals. But the new generation is going to the dogs. School kids own mobiles and watch obscene clips. We work so hard to support their education but they don’t realize this. Especially my son,’ he complained. We chit chatted on the future of our country as we drove down to Panchkula. He requested me to turn down the car AC. I dropped him off at the intersection with Kalka road. He thanked me and said that he had been lucky. We proceeded to our different destinations.