Lahaul fears turning into Manali with Rohtang tunnel

The ambitious Rohtang Tunnel is set for inauguration in September-end, opening the doors of the world for Lahaul-Spiti throughout the year. But Hindi poet Ajey Kumar, who grew up on the other side of the Pass, is unhappy. In conversation with fellow Lahauli Ishan Marvel

Ajey Kumar is a poet from Sumnam village in Lahaul. His poems have appeared in noted Hindi literary journals such as Pahal, Gyanodaya, Tadbhav, Akaar and Kathadesh.

Ishan Marvel hails from Marbal village in Lahaul. His debut book Exit One was published in 2018.

Tunnel in the Mountain | 1996

But just think Guruji
When there shall appear
a hole in its chest
And in this heaven shall enter
snakes and monkeys
and poisonous air
and the dirty intentions of the city
and filthy thoughts, Guruji
Even then you’ll paint them like this
and silent?

(Translated by Marvel from the original poem ‘Pahaad’ by Ajey)

Rohtang Tunnel | 2000

Shall you be

Atal Tunnel | 2020

So you didn’t listen

Ajey Kumar

Ishan Marvel

IM: A powerful poem like ‘Pahaad’ can often tell us more about a situation than a hundred factual books. Given that the Rohtang Tunnel is finally about to be inaugurated, could you share how you conceived the first stanza in 1996?

AK: Back then, everyone believed the tunnel was an empty dream. Very few people were actively fighting for it, and I was witness to these efforts, particularly by Tshering Dorjeji. Meanwhile, we organised an exhibition of paintings of Sukh Dass, who is fondly known as ‘Guruji’ across Lahaul, at Keylong. There were no portraits — just our mountains in all their silent, expressionless glory. It is these mountains that I’m referring to in the poem, for something clicked in my head at that exhibition, and the opening question emerged: ‘Par Zara Socho Guruji.’ But just think Guruji.

IM: Even if people were not fighting for it, they did want the tunnel, right?

AK: Of course. Who wants to be cut off from the world for six months in snow? Plus, the crops would reach the market and not go waste.

Connected, finally

Heavy snow on Rohtang Pass cuts off Lahaul-Spiti from the rest of the world for at least six months during winter. Opening of the tunnel (now called Atal Tunnel) would change that. It would ensure connectivity with Kullu throughout the year, making things easier for locals who have been bearing the brunt of the weather, especially in case of medical exigencies. Foundation stone of the project was laid in 2009 and work began two years later.

A vehicle makes its way through the tunnel.

IM: So why is the poet unhappy?

AK: The poet’s concerns are different. He feels the gravity of such things more acutely. And since action is not his domain, he can only express these feelings and raise questions even if he doesn’t have the answers. To raise them in such a piercing manner that people are forced to find answers, or at least think about them, that is my motive as a poet.

IM: How did you feel when PM Atal Bihari Vajpayee made the announcement in 2000?

AK: Vajpayee already supported the tunnel from a defence perspective, since it would provide an all-weather route to Ladakh. Then, in 1999, the Kargil War happened. Next year, the PM was in Keylong to make the official announcement. Amid all this, my poetic voice became trivial for I couldn’t find a single person who agreed with my views. Looking at the public consensus, I realised that perhaps it was the mountain’s own decision to get pierced. So all I could muster was that single line: ‘Pahaad, kya tum chhid jaoge?’

IM: You added another line this year, and there is a clear sense of hurt.

AK: I was and still am hurt that our mountains have been pierced. This abrupt model of development that we are blindly trying to implement across the world is especially harmful for vulnerable ecosystems and indigenous cultures like ours. Development must happen at a natural pace so that the people and the land get time to adapt. It’s not just a question of the environment, or loss of natural beauty and culture. I’m talking about losing our Lahauliyat.

IM: What do you mean by that?

AK: The essence of the people and the land. You can still find it in our peripheral villages. I have understood glimpses of it in the tales of Gyapo Gesar that we used to hear from our elders. I feel Gesar’s character embodies Lahauliyat — his innocence, sensitivity and presence of mind combined with his witty, carefree and romantic nature, and his antipathy towards the elite and his glorification of the ‘ordinary’. He embodies the best of what a rustic, pastoral consciousness can offer. To me, that is Lahauliyat.

IM: It’s sad that our generation missed out on these oral traditions.

AK: Then let me tell you a Gesar story about how Rohtang Pass came into existence. Once there was an evil king in Kullu, and it fell upon Gesar to go on his flying horse and destroy the tyrant. However, the Pir Panjal mountains were too high even for the magic horse. So, Gesar struck the mountains with his whip and Rohtang Pass came into being. As he raised his whip again, his aunt Kurman appeared from the heavens and stopped him. She explained that the Pass was enough, for if he struck the mountains again, Ling (Trans-Himalayas) and Mon (Indian Himalayas) would become one. So you see how our ancestors adapted the Trans-Himalayan epic to reflect their wisdom about maintaining limited connectivity with the outer world? It was a matter of preserving our Lahauliyat!

IM: Maybe that’s where the balance lies — embracing modernity on one’s own terms, according to one’s own context, and without letting go off one’s roots.

AK: Exactly! Now, we have undone our forefathers’ wisdom. And instead of just celebrating the practical gains, we should also be focussing on the negative prospects to try and find sustainable solutions. Not much is happening in that direction, and that’s what I feel sad about.

IM: You think Ling and Mon will become one now, as in, would Lahaul become another Manali?

AK: It is only a matter of time, depending on how our people and our leadership deal with this monster called ‘Vikas’.

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