Somewhere on the mighty Himalayan range in the northern mountain lands of the Indian state of West Bengal flickered the hilly settlement of Kharapahar. Surrounded by deep jagged cliffs on the east, west and southern sides and a colossal mountain wall in the north, the tiny village was not easily accessible to the outside world. A marvel of human engineering, a masterpiece of rock carving, a man-made stone stairway of more than a thousand meters descended from the southern cliff into the river valley below, forming the only path to and from this enchanting hamlet in the clouds.
Life in Kharapahar was pretty self-sustaining apart from the shortage of one critical ingredient, the elixir of life, water. The village did not have any permanent aquatic source apart from the occasional heavenly patter. Besides scanty bursts during the rainy season, the place was surprisingly rain-less for the rest of the year. Very unusual for a lush-green hilly region.
The villagers said it was due to the peculiar formation of the mountains that forced the rain-bearing clouds away from the village to leak their life-giving contents in other places. Kharapahar was like an oasis in the reverse sense. A secluded patch of a waterless domain in a land of heavy rains.
This, however, did not mean that there were no trees, vegetation, or cultivation in the hamlet. Water deep in the soil and the moisture brought by the wind supported decent flora and fauna for food and raw materials in the village. The only problem was the lack of a constant aquatic source for drinking and other essential uses.
From pots to pans to animal skins to wooden barrels to hollow poles to holes in the ground, the villagers used every possible thing to store every little drop of the precious aqua, which occasionally rained down from the sporadic clouds in the heavens.
The stored scanty sky-water was, however, not sufficient and would always run out. So, the villagers, usually the women, had to descend the treacherous thousand meters now and then to fetch aqua from the river below. There was, however, another problem much more troublesome than the dangerous trek itself.
At the bottom of the valley, there was the human settlement of the Neilghoti village. The pristine and tranquil life-supporting Neil River flowed right through its middle. Now the residents of Neilghoti considered themselves superior to the hilly dwellers of Kharapahar. The flat-landers were very jealous of the mountain people thinking that the other had a richer and healthier life up in their secluded cloudy domain. This hate and jealousy was ancient and never went away.
Water was the only thing that the cliff-hangers did not have up in their heavenly realm, and for centuries the bottom dwellers took advantage of this natural resource amply available in their domain. The mountain men were not allowed to fetch water from the Neil River, they were not even allowed to enter the Neilghoti village, only their women were permitted, and a heavy tax was levied for the same.
For every pail of water, the valley inhabitants charged a hefty sum of money or goods or produce equivalent to its value from the hilly residents. When the women of Kharapahar were unable to pay anything, they were forced to pay in labour. For a bucket of water, a full day’s back-breaking household work or toiling in the rice field was usually considered acceptable payment. At times, however, the hilly women were also exploited in ways unspeakable.
The women would never utter anything about this back at their mountain village, but their men knew that their ladies suffered a lot whenever they went to fetch water from the river of the valley people.
Shilamoy Bhaskor was the last surviving stonemason of the Kharapahar hamlet. Many centuries ago, his ancestors were the ones to carve the incomprehensible granite stairway, which made this heavenly settlement possible.
Over the ages, the Bhaskor’s had failed to pass on their unique stone carving skillset to others in the village. Somehow this gift of moulding rocks seemed to be divinely gifted and genetic. No one outside the Bhaskor family had the strength to perform it or the acumen to learn it. For reasons lost in time, slowly the Bhaskor bloodline thinned, till the seventy-year-old Shilamoy remained as the last of the legendary stonemasons of the Kharapahar village.
As the years went by, the people of Kharapahar did not need the skills of the stonemasons anymore. The fabled granite craftsmen who had painstakingly carved the entire village, etching out the houses and roads from the mountain, were not needed anymore. As the stonemasons gradually died over the centuries, their skills also became redundant. There was no need to carve out any new houses or civic infrastructures in the stone hamlet anymore.
“What on earth do you keep on carving at the back of your cave Shilamoy,” annoyingly enquired the lively Maya while brewing a cup of wildflower tea for the old man on the open charcoal hearth in the middle of the septuagenarian’s stone dwelling.
“The villagers are fed up with the constant noise of your hammer and chisel. They say there is no need for a stonemason anymore. You could at least show me what you are carving, but no, you prefer to work in secret behind the goddam locked wooden door at the back of your cave,” complained the teenager as she poured the boiling wildflower brew into a stone cup for the old mason.
The sixteen-year-old orphan had the gentlest of souls. She lost her mother to an unknown sickness during her infancy, and her father died a year back, leaving the poor girl all alone. Shilamoy was her neighbour and had promised Maya’s father on his deathbed to look after the girl after he was no more. Now, however, rather than Shilamoy looking after the teenager, Maya took care of the old man much more.
“The villagers say you have been obsessed with your masterpiece for more than fifty years now. God only knows what you do in there. It is late, I am going to sleep now. Have to go down to fetch water from the river tomorrow. All your pots and pans have nearly dried. If I don’t go, you will soon die of thirst if not old age first,” angrily blabbered Maya as she walked out of the old man’s hut to sleep in her dwelling next door. “I can feel it. I am very close to completing my masterpiece. It will change our world,” softly spoke the old man as he sipped the steaming mountain concoction from the chalice of stone.
As the first rays of sunlight kissed the jagged cliffs of the celestial hamlet in the early morn, Maya waved goodbye to the old man and descended the stone stairway along with a few other women to fetch water from the village below. Shilamoy waved back at his angel and returned to his rocky abode.
Pulling out a giant antique key which hung on a coarse cord around his neck, always close to his bosom, from under his woollen robe, he unlocked the wooden door at the back of his cave. Lighting a lard-fuelled wooden torch with a pair of flintstones, the stonemason entered the antechamber. Shutting the door behind, he disappeared into the darkness to carry on with his masterpiece uninterrupted, locked away in a world of his own.
On the evening of the second day, Shilamoy stood anxiously at the top of the stone stairway, eagerly waiting for Maya to return from her water trek. As the last of the water-fetching ladies came up the stairs, a sudden ghast of fear engulfed Shilamoy. Maya was not there.
The old man frantically enquired, but no one would say anything. The women would never speak of what happened with them down at the Neilghoti village. That was the ancient custom. That was how they were trained and raised. That was their way, and perhaps for the best.
“The life-giving Neil River is drying up. We don’t know why it is happening. Not to fear though, as we have reached an agreement with the Neilghoti Chieftan. We can continue to fetch water, that’s all we can say,” said an older lady to Shilamoy and went her way.
Days turned to weeks. Weeks turned to months, and the months turned to a year. The amount of water brought back by the women from the valley below kept on dwindling. Shilamoy kept on enquiring with the women about Maya, but no one would say anything.
Since Kharapahar men were barred from entering the Neilghoti village, Shilamoy could also get no information from those of them who went down the mountain. The old man himself could not descend the steps due to his bad knees. He could slowly walk on plain land but climbing down the treacherous stone stairwell was absolutely out of the question.
As the days passed by, the Neil River started drying up at a faster pace. By the end of the year, one day, the women came back from the valley below without any water. “The flat-landers have said that we can’t fetch water from their river anymore. The Neil River is nearly dead. There is hardly any water there. Whatever is left will dry up pretty soon. Both our villages would perish. Their fate is worse than ours. We still know how to live without water. They have no clue,” announced one of the women to everyone gathered in the middle of the mountain village.
After the announcement, Shilamoy slowly entered his sone cave and locked himself away. The villagers could hear the old mason’s hammer and chisel mildly resonating through the stone walls of the village. He was continuously working with hardly any breaks. He now did not come out of his hut. Fifteen days passed this way.
On the morning of the sixteenth day, the villagers heard a huge crack, a massive and thunderous sound like that of mountains breaking apart. The noise was near deafening, and it came from the north wall of the village, right from inside Shilamoy’s stone cave.
As the villagers rushed out of their homes to see what had happened, roaring gushes of violent and boiling water broke through Shilamoy’s hut’s entrance. His main gate, pots and pans, furniture, tools and the inner wooded door at the back of the cave, everything now flowed in the mighty current that rolled from the bowels of his hut, cutting through the middle of the village making its way down the stone stairway.
The steaming flow was so fierce that it ripped apart anything that stood in its way and took with it many things, much of which the villagers were even unable to see or gauge. Within an hour, the gush gradually calmed down to a warm and steady stream carving out a smooth river through the middle of the village cascading down as a beautiful but fierce waterfall down the stone stairwell. The stone-paved meter deep village main road had been transformed into a steaming spring water canal.
No one could see Shilamoy though. They presumed that the slow-moving old man must have been unable to move away from the path of the roaring waters. He must have been washed away along with the contents of his cave. No one could be sure, but that’s what everyone said.
The villagers realised that the old mason somehow knew that there was a hidden hot-water-spring-river buried somewhere deep in the mountain. Did he know about this through divine intervention or sheer intuition, that no one would ever know? They realised that he had dedicated the last fifty years of his life to carving out a tunnel on the northern mountain wall from the back of his hut to finally crack open the hidden water source.
The newly formed river, however, permanently cut off Kharapahar’s only pathway to the valley below. The villagers, however, did not need to go down for anything anymore. Life-giving water now not only flowed through the middle of their village but dropped a thousand meters to feed and slowly replenish the Neil River once more. The selfish Neilghoti villagers were also saved by the old mason’s masterpiece carved out of the mountain core.
Down in the valley below, the Neilghoti villagers had gathered to witness the miracle that within a few hours had rejuvenated their dying river once more. On the bank of the stream stood Maya with a newborn baby clinging to her bosom, and beside her stood the Chieftan, his three wives and two other concubines. In front of them on the bank of the river lay a chisel, a hammer, and an ancient key on a broken and antique wooden door.
Today if you happen to visit the east Indian hilly town of Kalimpong in the Himalayan foothills of the state of West Bengal, do visit the Teesta River Low Dam in Reang. The locals say that when the dam and the hydropower plant was made it cut the water from certain small and unknown rivers in the region, which affected the way of life of certain ancient villages.
If you are adventurous enough and dare to venture into the bowels of the mountain forests in the neighbouring region, who knows you may find a beautiful thousand-meter waterfall coming down from an unreachable hamlet in the clouds. At the bottom of which you will find a beautiful village and a peculiar installation of an antique wooden door with a crossed hammer and chisel, and an ancient key in the middle, erected on a stone pedestal on the bank of the stream. Below the installation, you will find a stone plaque with an inscription in the local language saying, “In Memory Of The Man Who Brought The River… you, we shall never forget.”
Copyright © 2021 TRISHIKH DASGUPTA
This work of fiction, written by Trishikh Dasgupta is the author’s sole intellectual property. Some characters, incidents, places, and facts may be real while some fictitious. All rights are reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including printing, photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, send an email to the author at email@example.com or get in touch with Trishikh on the CONTACT page of this website.
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