Don’t Be a Gama in the Land of Lama
The Border Roads Organisation of Ladakh established the HIMANK project in 1985. The project is responsible for the construction and maintenance of roads in the region, which include some of the world’s highest motorways. The roads, which cross numerous high-altitude passes in the region, include the Srinagar-Leh highway, which serves as a crucial route for the Indian military. The thoroughfares in Ladakh are traversed not only by heavy military vehicles, local buses and trucks, but also by tourists and adventurists, many of them on motorbikes. The difficult terrain, alongside the long distances between destinations, and at times reckless and daredevil driving, have given the roads the dubious reputation of being some of the most dangerous in the world. Nicknamed “The Mountain Tamers,” HIMANK has tried to combat accidents by positioning creative and humorous road signs on the wayside, such as: “After Whiskey, Driving Risky”; “Be Gentle on My Curves;” and “Life Is Short, Don’t Make It Shorter.” The signs, as they appeared regularly out of my window, were both entertaining and disturbing; however, there was one sign that stumped me with its cryptic message: “Don’t Be a Gama in the Land of Lama.” The land of lama relates to the many Buddhist monks who reside in the multiple gompas that dot the landscape like magic entries into other worlds. But what or who was a Gama?
Given the limited internet access in the high mountains, it took me a while to discover that Gama (1878-1960), was a legendary Panjabi wrestler, also known as Ghulam Muhammad or Gama Pehalwan. Born in Amritsar, Gama’s career began at age ten. By 1910 he had won the world heavyweight title after defeating opponents in London. The Great Gama, resources tell me, used to do five thousand squats and three thousand pushups everyday, and his daily diet included 10 liters of milk, six desi chickens, and a pound and a half of crushed almond paste made into a tonic drink. Although attaining the height of only 1.70 meters, Gama was a fierce fighter, often beating a larger-sized rival within less than a minute. Following the partition (1947), Gama relocated to Pakistan, after which he failed to find new opponents. He retired in 1952, and died eight years later after a prolonged struggle with asthma and heart disease. Despite his relocation to Pakistan, Gama is embraced as an Indian hero, and remains a household name here. For Indians, the road sign would be clear: don’t be aggressive and competitive on the road. Rhyming Gama with Lama brings in the humor.
However, the signs, are only legible to English reading drivers, and most of the drivers on the highways of Ladakh – taxi drivers, truck drivers, bus drivers, army drivers, drivers of wealthy Indians – do not speak English, let alone read it. For them the instructive signs remain blank. We traveled for a few days with a Muslim driver from Kargil, who normally operates an off-the-record shared taxi service out of Leh (you need to pay a large sum of money to join the powerful taxi union). It was his first time driving ‘westerners,’ and he knew no English at all, although was fluent in Hindi, Urdu and Bhoti, the Ladakhi language. His shoes were sewed up at the toes, and his car was run-down, but he was a carful driver, and a gentle soul, absorbed in the daily struggle of earning a living to support his parents, wife and two children back in Kargil. His selection of Bollywood film songs played in the background, tinting the sublime landscapes in a filmic hue.
Rupturing the Bollywood fantasy and disturbing the aura of the sublime, are the Bihari construction workers hired by HIMANK. For four months a year manual laborers, from the poverty-stricken state Bihar – which is historically the birthplace of Buddhism – flock to Ladakh to maintain the roads. They sleep in makeshift tents on the side of the highways and work all day on the roads, ruthlessly exposed to both drivers and the elements. They painstakingly repair the damaged asphalt, receiving only a pittance for their effort. Some come with their children, who clamber up piles of sand and rocks while their parents labor under heavy loads. Bihari laborers (who can be seen throughout India) appear to be invisible to many Indians, or as V.S. Naipaul observed, they are considered to be less than human, therefore hard labor is their destiny. One afternoon we returned to Leh in a shared taxi. We traveled with a retired schoolteacher and one or two other locals. At one point an exhausted Bihari worker wearing a tattered coat joined us. He gave us a big smile before turning his head to look out of the window, never averting his gaze till we reached Leh. For a short time we shared the same space, and then our ways parted. It’s now evening, and as I write these words, he is probably finishing another day of hard labor, taming the mountains in the Land of Lama.