Sitting around a fire beside a high altitude lake, Manav is smoking a bidi and warming himself up. The temperature is close to freezing point and the sun, which is about to rise, holds the promise of more warmth. Manav gathers a few more plastic wrappers from around and stokes the fire. There is plenty of plastic around and that’s his job- gather all the abundant plastic waste and burn it.
‘Chotu, chai bana’ (Chotu, make tea), comes a howl from inside one of the tents, from Panditji. This would be one of the many orders of the day that would be hurled upon the young man. Manav is known by the moniker Chotu around the Manimahesh lake. Employed at probably one of the most scenic places on earth, Chotu’s workplace is situated in district Chamba, Himachal Pradesh, high up in the Himalayas. The lake is situated at 4080m, which is the base of the sacred Manimahesh Kailash peak that towers higher up at 5653m. The peak, also considered to be Lord Shiva’s abode, is a revered site. The place has been Manav’s home for four months every year, from the last five to six years.
Hailing from a village at the base, from where the 13km trek to the lake begins, Manav has been employed by a dhaba (shack) owner and Panditji (priest) at the lake. Unemployed for the rest of the year (but happier), Manav slogs his way through the months at the sacred lake.
Preparing tea for Panditji and the others at the campsite, he discards packets of empty Amul milk tetra-pack and Tata tea into the holy fire which is currently keeping him warm. He takes a sip from his cup, when three yatris (religious travellers) appear from the common tent. Manav heaves a little sigh, since it’s only three and not the thousands of pilgrims who make their way to the lake during the holy fortnight period every year. From Janmashtmi to Radaashtmi every year, more than half a million people visit the lake to take a dip and cast off their sins.
For Manav, the sins don’t seem to go away anywhere for he has to be there and burn them all – the empty packets, discarded bottles, piles of shit in and around semi-existing toilets, scraps of clothes and footwear. He looks up at the peak in search of Shiva, but soon loses himself in the smoke of his bidi.
The three men in their late fifties had taken the arduous 13km walk upto the lake to conduct a pooja (ceremony) and pray for their dear ones who have passed away. The Panditji is thus kept busy with the duty of conducting these rites, apart from his regular daily pooja. Looking at the mountain, the three men fold their hands in devotion and chant the name of Shiva. They then take out their iPads and click a few sunrise shots as Manav hands over piping hot cups of tea.
At the stroke of 9, the trio would take a dip into the holy lake and the ceremony would commence. Meanwhile, Manav is busy cleaning the beds, preparing lunch, smoking bidis and burning the plastic. There is one more lady to assist Manav in cleaning up the surroundings but the mounds are so high that no amount of burning seems to matter.
‘How are the two of us supposed to clean this mess created by half a million people?’ asked Manav when two Israeli travellers asked him on arrival. The two women are travelling across north India after their mandatory two year army training. Fighting their own demons, all they want now is a good smoke. And Manav obliges. He takes them for a little walk to a pristine place away from the lake which hasn’t been touched by the pilgrims. Trampling over piles of garbage, the vista opens from a different angle and there is sheer beauty in the wide expanse in front of them.
‘The lake and surrounding area is a landfill we’ve created,’ says Manav as he passes along a joint to the women. They nod in agreement and take a deep puff to put the image of the lake behind them. They exchange pleasantries and share some life stories. Manav has picked up some english owing to the foreign tourists who frequent the place. And these are the conversations he longs for. Coming from a rather conservative family, these few interactions are a window into a more open world for Manav and more so, if these interactions are with the opposite sex. But at the end of the day, Manav very well knew that the meetings were going to be brief. Fleeting moments of glee.
After the joint, he would have had to go back and catch up with the others at the camp. He had to clean up the dish pile, have his food and get back to burning the plastic. It seemed that the authorities had made up a job whose description was to make a hole in the ozone layer, and pilgrims made it doubly sure that the job stays. Manav’s insides filled up with hopelessness and helplessness. He cleaned up the dishes thinking of the two new friends he made. If only there was a way out.
There was to be a special pooja that afternoon for which Panditji would be making kheer and offering it to god after which it’d be distributed as prasad. Manav made all the preparations for it and was looking forward to the evening when there would be a chance to spend an hour or so of smoking with the Israeli women.
When the kheer was about ready, a solo Indian traveller entered the lake premises and enquired if it would be possible to sleep at the campsite. The owner of the tent showed him the way where he could settle in. Manav offered the new entrant a bowl of kheer which the man took with glee. Sipping spoonfuls of the sweet gruel, the man started circumambulating the lake with a camera around his neck. He was clicking pictures of the lake, the peak, and also the garbage piles. He seemed a little disturbed. Along with him, two more elderly men had made their way up with a guide but it was too cold for them to stay out. They quickly disappeared into the blankets.
During his circumambulation, the man saw Manav walking inside the lake (which was half dry and one could easily navigate within) collecting coins that the pilgrims had offered to god when the lake was fuller. ‘So, Manav is the god,’ the man smiled to himself.
When Manav came over with a bidi in his mouth, to collect the bowl of kheer, he asked the man as to what he thought of the place? ‘The place and the peak are amazingly beautiful. They are so powerful! But what we have managed to do to it, is even more shocking!’ the man exclaimed. Manav replied, ‘You’re not the first one. Everyone says this. But these corrupt politicians! This gang incharge for cleanliness keeps filling their pockets.’ Anger was boiling within Manav. The man could see his eyes flare. Manav went on, ‘If ever one of these idiots makes his way to the lake, I will pull his guts out.’ Venting out, some steam was released. They both fell silent. Manav took the bowl and went away to prepare dinner.
A tear rolled down the man’s eye. He couldn’t believe the struggle. The stupidity of mankind. He continued walking and as he neared the small temple on the edge of the lake, Panditji called him over. Inquiring about his whereabouts, Panditji gathered that he was from Mumbai and was on a research project in the mountains. Panditji said, ‘Everything has been searched for by our rishis and munis. There is nothing new to be done. Man has to learn to live in contentment. Man has ventured too much in the material world, it’s time to go within’ and with that pearl of wisdom, he discarded the empty tetra-pack and a large empty packet of sugar inside the lake, for Manav to retrieve and burn or be drowned under 15 feet of snow, after a couple of months.