It is around four in the morning and Laxmi, Bachi Singh’s wife, tiptoes to the cattle shed. Located on the ground floor, beneath the living room, it is accessible by a rickety wooden staircase and lighted by a flickering bulb.
The proud owner of three buffaloes, two cows, a young calf and a few goats; like all days she will milk the cattle and store the milk in steel containers .These she will arrange methodically on the steps to the aangan (courtyard) save for one glass which she will carry to the kitchen on the top floor and kindle the fire for the morning tea. She will then wake her only daughter, Seema, to prepare the tea and scurry to the naula (natural water source) for her bath. In the distance, the sheep herders are sauntering to the lofty grasslands, with the bearded goats leading the way and the obedient sheep following; the bells around their necks jingling, breaking the silence of pre dawn. Morning is near-at-hand and this village in the Kumaon Himalayas is awakening to the exciting chatter of birds and humans, both eager to tend to their worldly errands.
Bachi Singh lives with his wife, daughter and younger son in a two-storied house made of stone and a slate roof with intricately carved wooden doors and windows. He is a proud man; his elder son was recently recruited in the army, an honourable profession in the hills since the colonial era. Both Bachi and Laxmi were born here and Laxmi has rarely ventured far from this village. As a young man he earned a living as a guide and porter for trekking groups; now he tills his few acres of land and rears cattle for milk. His younger son, Sher Singh, is a fiery lad with the temperament of his namesake. He dresses in neatly ironed trousers and shirt, carries a comb in his back pocket and is frequently apprehended loitering in the jungle during school hours. On the other hand, Seema is shy and top of her class; she is extremely hard-working and modest, inherent qualities of the hill women-folk.
This is the sowing autumn season and Bachi with his borrowed pair of oxen is off to his fields. Sher Singh and Seema collect the milk containers and head to school, distributing the milk en route. Laxmi bundles the green vegetables grown on her land in a wicker basket and prepares to walk around 6kms to the nearest hamlet to sell her produce. On her way back, she will tread far into the jungle to gather grass for her cattle; winter is approaching and she needs to stock enough to last the cold months when everything is buried in the numbing snow. After reaching home she will cook the afternoon meal and join Bachi on the fields, toiling till mid-afternoon in the punishing heat. Laxmi is the embodiment of the relentless hard-work and unadulterated joy common among the hill women; sadly their contribution is overlooked and their expertise neglected.
Evenings are hauntingly peaceful here; Bachi is enjoying a game of cards with his relatives, Seema is alternating between her home-work and cooking dinner, Sher Singh is chipping wood and Laxmi is mending his torn trousers. Soon the day will end and these tired souls will retire for a much needed rest and then the sun will rise again and the wheels of life will go round and round. Life is tough here; employment opportunities are limited, the land is barely fertile, facilities are negligent and nature is unforgiving. In these harsh conditions the human spirit is stretched to its limit and it is here, amidst rampant poverty and misery, we glimpse its real beauty. It is heartening to find compassion, courage and selflessness pitched against pain, suffering and loss; this stark reality of the Himalayas beyond the glory of its peaks.