For artist Madhu Venugopalan, his wife Sreedevi V R and friend Josh P S, the six days they spend at an ashram in Gangotri and another five in a military camp at Harsil, after the Uttarakhand floods, were a soul-changing experience.
“After the ordeal, when we were brought to Haridwar, there were hundreds of people waiting with photographs of their dear ones who had gone missing. They wanted to know if we had seen them. Some did look familiar, but we couldn’t recollect and we didn’t know what to say,” recalled Madhu, who got back to his home at Kaloor, Kochi on Friday. Helpless they felt; even more than when they saw hundreds of dead bodies flowing down into Haridwar - deadbodies of men and animals, all together.
“The death toll is many times over the official version and there is no information about the people who climbed up to the forests,” said Madhu. The trio from Kerala, had gone to Uttarakhand not just as visitors, but to attend an artists’ camp at the Barsu village in Uttarkashi. A camp, that was attended by 15 artists across the country, including Bose Krishnamachari. The three then went to Gomukh, the origin of Ganga, en route to Tapovan, but was turned back by a monk who insisted that they return. “On our way down from Gangotri, just three buses ahead of us, we saw a major landslide. Madhu remembered a waterfall we had crossed and felt that there could be another landslide. We went back, hardly crossed the waterfall when the peaks came crashing,” recollected Josh, from his home at Vakkom, near Thiruvananthapuram.
The ashram at Gangotri was the only shelter. “We cut down our food intake from three meals to two and even once a day but ran out of food. When we were told that helicopters were evacuating people from Harsil, we climbed down 25 kms through difficult terrain by foot,” said Josh. By the time the trio reached Harsil, the military had evacuated 1200 people, but over 3000 remained. “On several days the copters could not be operated because of bad weather. Being young and healthy, we were given the last priority,” said Madhu.
Josh and Madhu were taken aback by the kindness of the villagers around Harsil, who would make food for the victims days on end without taking any money in return. “Even on our way back, there were several places where natives cooked and distributed food for free,” recalled Josh. Harsil also exposed them to a different face of the Army. “We saw army men giving away their sleeping bags, blankets and even coats to the flood victims. And they were always calm and pleasant, even when the stranded tourists acted difficult. They had to be saluted for their work,” said Madhu. Like the monk who insisted that they return from Gomukh, there were many a time when the trio received wisdom of the mountains. “At Kedar, there was this swami who told us that Himalayas is a place for people who have given up everything, not for people who are still trying to amass things,” he said.