The narrator of the story starts speaking at this point. He greeted a tourist who he saw on the way. The person looked tired and cold to the narrator, and he asked him if he was new to that place.
(The conversation has been given only from the side of the narrator. The replies of the other person is meant to be understood from the response given by the narrator.)
The narrator asked him if he was waiting for the bus that went to Badrinath. He did not reply. He assumed he might be a person who travelled for religious reason or he might be just visiting Uttarakhand. Uttarakhand is the home of the Valley of Flowers National Park, that attracts visitors from all over the world.
The narrator continued his conversation as the traveller did not seem to reply. He told him whoever he was, he could come and wait with him at his teashop, which was close by, near the curve of the road.
*Brij said his teashop was just past the bend of the road!
He continued that he was carrying a can of milk to his teashop and in ten minutes, he would start the fire to make tea. He told the person to warm up himself while he prepared the best tea in Garhwal. (Garhwal is a district in the Indian state of Uttarakhand. Its headquarters is in the town of Pauri.) He promised that his tea would make him feel refreshed and alleviate the tension and tiredness in his face.
Soon they reached his shop and he welcomed the person inside. It was a small teashop in the roadside with wooden benches. He told the person to sit and relax on the bench. He added that it might look shaky, but it would hold his weight.
**Brij started the fire to make tea! (Image for understanding purposes only.)
The person seemed to have asked the narrator's name. He responded that his name was Brij and that he was seventeen years old. He added that he opened that teashop two years back. Brij continued his story - he said he had worked in a roadside shop in the outskirts of Panipat. But he did not like the heat, the mass of people and the polluted environment. So he came back here with the money he had saved and opened this shop with some help from others. He thanked God that it provided him with a good life.
Meanwhile, Brij had finished preparing the tea. It was aromatic as he had made it strong with cardamom flavour. He handed over the tea to the person and continued with his duties. He said it was his daily schedule. He would close the shop around dusk and walk three miles to his house on the hills.
The person asked the name of his village. He said he did not have a village anymore. Molthi was the name of his village which did not exist anymore. Brij started explaining about what happened to his village. Four years back, there had been an earthquake in the month of October. Though mild earthquakes called tremors are common in these areas, this one was huge. The snow in the region seem to exist forever, and the Himalayan mountains may look hard and strong, but actually, it was very shaky under its surface. That night, they experienced a massive earthquake, the shakes of which were felt till Delhi and Lucknow. The destruction caused by the quake was unimaginable.
The main focus point of the earthquake was very close to his teashop. \(602\) villages out of \(672\) were destroyed within five minutes of the earthquake. But five minutes was enough to crush the mountains which were hundreds of years old. It had extinguished numerous lives and the village was brought down to remains of demolished buildings!
The village was reduced to a rubble, within a few minutes!
It was nothing other than his luck that Brij had not been in his village that night. He had gone to Pauri, a nearby place to buy his school books and he had stayed overnight in his uncle's house. They felt the tremors in Pauri also, and they ran outside their homes. Tremors were repetitive that night and they were forced to stay outside the house the whole night. Pauri village managed to sustain the earthquake, but Molthi did not.
It is better to stay out of buildings during an earthquake - Brij stayed out the whole night!
For those who lived that night, the next day was a scary dream. When the sun rose, the news of the vast destruction reached them. Huge rocks from mountain cliffs had collapsed down on the houses, tracks and roads.
Landslides - a collapse of a mass of earth or rock from a mountain or cliff!
A lot of time was spent in bombing the rocks to clear the way for the Army rescue team to remove the debris and save precious lives. It took four days for the Army to reach Molthi to help clear the debris.
Brij said he was among the first few people to reach his village, with his uncle. They knew about the massive destruction, but they were not prepared to handle what they saw. Each wall of every house, every roof was brought down by the earthquake. The house that his great grandfather had built was now mere stones and dust. Their home was built of stone and had two floors, with a slate roof. Brij's father had died due to an illness just fourteen months back. So his mother took care of him (thirteen years old during the incident), his small brother Nilu (ten years old), and their little sister Bhuli (two years old). He added that his grandmother also lived with them.
Finally, when the Army made its way to clear the debris, Brij's uncle took him away from the spot because Brij was a small boy and he could not bear to see his family members condition. Brij said he was in a complete shock and he was unable to think or feel anything properly. The soldiers had constructed a temporary camp and Brij had some tea with biscuits in the camp. He lost track of time and suddenly he saw his uncle standing beside him. He said that they had taken the bodies to the river banks and that he (Brij) must come along to perform the final ceremonies for the departed souls, before sunset. He added that they could leave for Pauri tomorrow. Yes, it meant that his family members had died in the earthquake destruction.
The debris had to be cleared to make way for the army rescue team!
Brij's last memories of his family were when they had waved him goodbye when he left to Pauri, with smiling faces, from the doorway. He remembered them in that image and not in the white cloth that covered the dead bodies.
Brij remembered only the smiling and waving images of his family!
He did not find Bhuli amongst the others. His uncle said her body was not found because wild animals might have, but he did not complete his statement. Brij found it hard to believe that she was gone, without her body. He shouted that they must find her. Uncle tried to calm down Brij and but Brij could not. He ran back to the village where his house had been. He crawled through the stones and dust. He spent hours searching and crying for his sister.
Just then he heard someone's voice telling him that his search is of no use. He saw that it was the Army Officer who was in charge of the relief work. He said no alive person was there and asked him whom he was searching for.
Brij replied in between tears that he was searching for his sister, at least to give her a proper burial. He stopped himself aware that he was talking fast and continuously in his tensed mood. He noticed that the officer was exhausted as if he hadn't taken rest for days. His body was covered in dust and his face was filled with a layer of dirt. But beyond everything, he seemed kind.
The army officer seemed exhausted, but was very kind!
He said gently that his soldiers have been searching bodies for days and that they had done the best they could do for that village. Next morning, they were about to leave to another village, for the same work. It was almost time for sunset as the sun was drowning behind the mountain peaks. He saw that in the lower part of the valley, rows and rows of bodies were being burnt. The officer said something in a whisper, almost to himself and turned away. Brij lost hope completely. He just laid there in the remains of his house and cried.
Within ten minutes, the officer had returned with three soldiers, equipped with tools to clear the debris. Without speaking anything, they started clearing the ruins.
The army officer returned with ten minutes with more soldiers to look for Bhuli!
They put in sincere efforts with determination and persistence to find his sister. As it grew darker, some petromax lights were brought in. After about two hours, one of the soldiers called to their officer.
He stood in the middle of a hole where the house's wall had caved in. Brij recognized it was a part of the door. Below the door, they found a small foot! Someone screamed that she was alive.
It was a miracle that she was alive. She had been out in the cold, buried under the debris for about \(116\) hours. Not only had she survived the earthquake but also the cold weather and the dangers from wild animals! A happy cheering sound was heard as the soldier covered her in a blanket to keep her warm and they took her to the temporary hospital for first-aid. Bhuli had survived! The next day Brij went to thank the army officer, but he had left; Brij did not even ask his name.
Brij and his sister went to Pauri to live with their uncle. Then Brij got a job in a small food stall near Panipat. Bhuli started going to school. Brij was always guilty that he had not thanked the Army officer. He was constantly searching for the officer in every crowd; every time he saw an army man, he hoped it would be him. Brij found him, one day.
***A dhaba is a small roadside store!
It was a cold night and it was late. A truck stopped at the shop where Brij worked. Someone got out and he looked familiar. But when he came into light, Brij realized it was not the army officer but someone who looked like him. That man was tired and he asked for tea. When Brij served him tea, he started feeling light as if he had served the army officer himself. He did not take money from that man. It continued every day. He met a complete stranger to whom he offered tea for free and he felt utter happiness in it. He saw the army officer in everybody that he met.
He quit the job after a month and returned to the mountains. The shop owner where he worked, was happy to let him go because he was a forgetful waiter who forgot to charge a customer every day! Now Brij had his own shop and he felt peaceful.
Returning to the present, Brij refused to take money from the traveller to whom he had given tea. He said to the traveller that he appeared tired and all he gave him was a cup of tea. He said the tea might have been good or bad, but he was happy about the small help that he could do. He wished him a safe journey and prayed that God be with him.
*Image courtesy: Oscar Johns / Shutterstock.com
** Image courtesy: Fat Jackey / Shutterstock.com
***Image courtesy: Murgermari / Shutterstock.com