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Stranded by nature: Kedarnath to Kathmandu

Vile Parle's Ektaa Patel along with her family survived the Uttarakhand floods of 2013. As Nepal grapples to find its footing after the massive earthquake, Patel recounts her hope-tinged saga in a multi-lingual book, Gauri Kund 1.5.

Great ideas or immense guilt don't let you sleep at night, but Ektaa Patel, not really an insomniac until the summer of 2013, had discovered a third reason. She was in the throes of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), after having hoodwinked death in the Uttarakhand floods that claimed over 5,000 lives. These days, Patel may still not be sleeping well, but that's only because her debut book on the ordeal, Gauri Kund 1.5 km is days away from launch.

Stranded Indian pilgrims wait to be rescued on the side of a river at Govind Ghat on June 23, 2013. Bad weather hampered rescue operations and over 5,000 people were presumed dead and landslides and flash floods left pilgrims and tourists stranded without food or water. PIC/AFP
Stranded Indian pilgrims wait to be rescued on the side of a river at Govind Ghat on June 23, 2013. Bad weather hampered rescue operations and over 5,000 people were presumed dead and landslides and flash floods left pilgrims and tourists stranded without food or water. Pic/AFP

Following news reports of ongoing rescue operations in Nepal from her home in Vile Parle, Patel cannot help the goosebumps. A June before the last, on her way down from Kedarnath temple, the highest point of the popular Char Dham (four temple) yatra, she, along with her parents, sister and four more companions, were stranded for five days. "When you are at a ravaged spot of a mountain, the path ahead washed away, without food or water and witnessing other people die, you either lose hope in God or find strength from an unexpected space within you," she opens up.

Ektaa Patel (right) with her sister Jasmina and father Rajni near Kedarnath temple, a day before their ordeal began
Ektaa Patel (right) with her sister Jasmina and father Rajni near Kedarnath temple, a day before their ordeal began

Gauri Kund, revisited
On June 16, 2013, 30-year-old Patel and her family decided to trek down from Kedarnath, despite incessant rains. They dodged landslides, tree-falls and escaped being pulled away in gushing water to arrive at a milestone stating 'Gauri Kund 1.5 km'. "Looking back, I feel plain lucky to have made several decisions in split seconds, that eventually saved us," Patel feels, crediting God. Canadian writer Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink, would be proud.

Stranded Indian pilgrims make their way down a mountain after a section of road was washed away in Govind Ghat on June 23, 2013. Bad weather hampered rescue operations in northern India where up to 1,000 people were feared dead in landslides and flash floods left pilgrims and tourists stranded without food or water. PIC/AFP
Stranded Indian pilgrims make their way down a mountain after a section of road was washed away in Govind Ghat on June 23, 2013. Bad weather hampered rescue operations in northern India where up to 1,000 people were feared dead in landslides and flash floods left pilgrims and tourists stranded without food or water. PIC/AFP

"But sometimes, the survivors' trauma, which can go on for days after the calamity, can be painful, and that's worse than quick death," Patel says, narrating how Gauri Kund 1.5 km was the stage where the morbid drama's final act played out. "There were over a thousand of us, that close to the base, but with no road ahead and out of the military's sight because of dense trees… imagine the panic!" she winces.

Having led well-off, comfortable city lives, Patel and her family realised the vitality of the basics — food, drops of water, a borrowed blanket, a pain-killing pill and a tiny bar of signal on a phone with dying battery. "Just a call with my family invigorated me, made me believe we'll pass through this unscathed, because someone was waiting and praying for us," she says.

Rescue operations around Kedarnath by locals and the Indian government
Rescue operations around Kedarnath by locals and the Indian government

When help came…
Military help, after about 50 to 70 hours, only arrived in the form of airdropped packets of food and water, barely any of which reached the family. "Most of them would get washed away or get stuck in bushes, the ones which landed would get crushed," she says, adding that desperation would get the better of her co-survivors and they'd even eat soiled food. "I stayed on a couple of biscuits for four days. The water from streams was undrinkable as it was feared to be contaminated by dead bodies upstream," says Patel. Of those who still drank it, some came down with diarrhoea while others lost their lives.

She has also spoken of oodles of inexplicable kindness. "Sometimes, a complete stranger would offer us food or connect us to a call. We owe our lives to several nobodies who helped us," Patel reflects.

On day five, Patel's helicopter ride back to Gauri Kund took just a few minutes, but it took her weeks of meditation to return to emotional safety. Her compulsive scrap-book habit helped her piece together her debut book, which took eight months, while her companion's salvaged video clips now make for a compelling promo film for it.

Giving back
It's their turn to play angel now, the Patels believe. They have dispatched 1,500 theplas, medicines, and tea packets for Nepal's quake survivors. "I hope nobody is still awaiting rescue, but if they are, even half a thepla would feel like a gold brick to them," reflects Patel.

Gauri Kund 1.5 km
Gauri Kund 1.5 km, Ektaa Patel (English, Gujarati and Marathi). Notion Press (English), Image Publications (Gujarati), `220. Available on all major online stores soon

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