Tuesday, 4 July 2017

What happened one morning in Ranikhet

On a dewy morning in early May, a man named Jogi finished his taxi round dropping off children to schools in Ranikhet. He came home at about eight and resumed a quarrel he had been having with his parents. In minutes, the fight became uglier and louder. Nobody is clear when it took a disastrous turn, but all at once, Jogi dashed into the house, pulled out a sari belonging to his wife, and declared that he would hang himself from the nearby deodar tree. Go ahead, his parents said sarcastically, what are you waiting for.

Deodars, a variety of cedar, are massive. Their branches start high up on pillar-like trunks and grow parallel to the earth. They are extremely difficult to climb, but most people in the hills are used to cutting fodder from the upper reaches of trees. Jogi was thirty years old, a tall, athletic man. He clambered up the tree, fashioned a noose from the sari, and hanged himself even as neighbours and parents stared on. It was over in minutes. His parents swore to the police they had no idea he would take them at their word. Gossips observed that they did not shed a tear. His wife had left him a fortnight before, fed-up with his savage beatings. She refused to come for his cremation.

Jogi’s family is one of several that live in rooms they rent in a once-grand colonial bungalow that has become a set of tenements. The bungalow is located in the dip of a hillside next to a ravine and overlooks an arc of Himalayan snow peaks. On that absurdly beautiful day, as a man’s body hung from a deodar, the sky was a gaudy blue and the usual morning symphony of thrushes and barbets was on.

The news reached us minutes after the police arrived and people gathered. We are on the other side of the ravine and I often came across Jogi and his dark blue van. My last conversation with him was about his dog, a shaggy creature who came loping out from behind the van, barking at me. Jogi, who was cleaning the van, told his dog to lay off “Aunty” and assured me the dog’s bark was more sound than bite. We chatted for a few minutes before I walked on.

Most people later reported the same pleasantness from him – that is, when he was himself. But all hell broke loose when he went “crazy-type”, as the hill folk say, or “half-mind”. At such times, he ordered his dog to attack people and hurtled about in his car, almost driving into rockfaces. The day before he killed himself, he had crashed his car and broken its rear windscreen. After his wife left him, he began beating up his parents and threatened the neighbours. He picked fights with drivers in his taxi rank.

Jogi studied at a small Hindi-medium school called Sarasvati Vidya Mandir, which is perched above our one-street market. He did not progress beyond class eight. (This is how it is for most of Ranikhet’s boys; girls  do better at school.) After this, like his friends, he did daily-wage labour at times, or played alley-cricket. He built up a reputation for being helpful, but this was also when he started going “half-mind”. His parents bought him the van secondhand to drive as a taxi – an occupation -- and an income perhaps. They got him married. A wife would be a calming influence.

This is the template for most young men’s lives in the lower Himalayas, including Ranikhet, a densely forested cantonment town set up in the nineteenth century and dominated since then by army regiments. Army personnel live in their own boxes here, all needs catered for. The grand bungalows are owned by wealthy plains-people who come up for a few days of the year. The rest of the population is semi-rural, with no prospect of worthwhile employment. The area is free of industry. Businesses are a non-starter in a place so cut off. Rocky hillsides are interspersed with meagre terraced plots, good only for bare subsistence. People grow greens and tubers around their homes and have a couple of cows, goats, and a few hens: basic food and a little income. Women cut grass and collect deadwood for fuel and fodder. There is no severe poverty, but it is a relentless grind to overcome shortages of every kind.

My husband and I, running an independent publishing house from here, are an anomaly. In the early days we had job-seekers at our door because we were thought of as industrialists. It was hard to explain the economics of small publishing, to turn away from their crestfallen faces. The Indian finance minister recently brushed away economists’ gloom over “jobless growth”, but the relevant fact is that growth in employment nationally is close to zero and India’s impressive GDP growth figure is meaningless to people in the hinterland.

Every street corner in Ranikhet has knots of lounging men shooting the breeze because there is nothing else to do. Most haven’t finished school. They stare at mobile phone screens and dream of escape to Delhi, even to nearby towns like Rudrapur and Haldwani. A few find ill-paid odd-jobs locally as waiters and handymen. Those who make it to a city soon return defeated. They cadge money off relatives, buy a bottle or two, choose a lonely hillside, make a bonfire, drink. The empties they shatter against rocks, strewing forest stretches with broken glass. A way of screaming into the nothingness. The mountains are vast and free and stunning. But they can seem part of a cosmic rat trap.

Many drive taxis as Jogi used to, for want of other work. But tourism has dwindled. This is the idyllic town where Edmund Hillary and Frank Smythe started off on climbs. Small mountaineering companies, mostly branch offices of outfits in the West, have managed to retain something like a foothold. But they too report a drop in bookings and have laid off staff. It seems foreign hikers are no longer coming to India because it is considered unsafe for women. The pilgrim routes are beset by landslides, while the popularity of middle-class driving holidays means Indian tourists travel in their own cars. Taxi drivers idle in long, seething ranks, nowhere to go.

With such hopeless desperation, the impulse to violence is a hair’s breadth away. When he committed suicide, Jogi would have known of the tourist couple robbed and murdered by their taxi driver, Raju Das, in Dehradun during the Diwali holiday of 2014. Both Jogi and Raju Das were in the news for a few days. Many like them, suicidal or murderous, remain unnoticed.

Jogi’s taxi-van is still parked outside the house. The white shroud draped over its missing back windshield gives it a creepy air. The dog has disappeared. Jogi’s mother has taken to showing every visitor his wedding album. Obsessively. He towers over his tiny red-gold bride in the pictures, smiling and handsome and ready for life.