“He is the guy!”
A man in his late twenties was pointing his finger at me from a distance, while another man, quite older and taller and stouter than the first, hurriedly came and stood right in front of me, his nose seeming like a nozzle of a pistol held at me at point-blank range. I could sense the urgency in his body language. Following him, two more vehicles screeched to a halt not far from me. A fleet of men jumped out of them and quickly started to ferry some equipment, like ropes and harnesses, from the vehicles to the edge of the cliff. A naïve college kid at that time, I was already intimidated by all of this.
“Are you sure you saw it?” the older man barked at me.
“I think so. I was taking a picture of the waterfall from a far end, and I think I saw something white stuck on a branch in the waterfall.” I quivered. “Can you show us the spot?” he requested in a commanding tone walking ahead of me. I was jogging in order to keep up with him. I took him to the spot where I had seen what was speculated to be a body of some guy, fallen from the cliff while trying to be over smart on the edge of the waterfall. This stout man and the other guys, I came to know later, were from the Shivdurga Sanstha, a mountain rescue team in Lonavala. They had received a call from some locals that a particular guy was missing for almost a week and no one was able to find him after extensive search parades. Well, even I was not sure of what I had seen, but I anyway led them to the spot. We had to almost lie on our stomachs on the cliff and bend our heads down to see the white thing stuck on a branch in the crevices of the rocks. Within seconds the stout man had affirmed that it was indeed a body and had instructed his team to start the procedure immediately. A group of five to six individuals had, by then, tied a rope to a neighbouring rock and two people wearing harnesses started descending the cliff at once.
We were at Fanasrai, a popular picnic spot en route Rajmachi from Lonavala, where I had come with some friends for a day-outing after bunking our college lectures. Some of us had just learnt to ride mopeds and bikes and wanted to explore the nature around our city. We had rode from Lonavala till here, not a long distance though, but the ride was awesome. We had some tea and pakodas at the nearby stall and were soaking ourselves in the cloudy and windy atmosphere. All was good until I
saw something similar to a man wearing a white shirt, stuck in the rocks. It was then that some villagers had started gathering there and from their conversations we understood that someone had gone missing. One of them had called Shivdurga, and that’s why they were here.
While we waited for the two rescuers to return, I gathered some information about Shivdurga from one of their members. Started by Vishnu Gaikwad in 1980, Shivdurga is a Lonavala based organisation that works in the fields of adventure activities, fort restoration, nature conservation, and emergency services. Once, while roaming in the Sahyadris, some people got stuck on Jivdhan fort and had to face a lot of difficulties finding their way through bad weather and broken fort ruins. That is what brought in light the fact that there was no rescue team in Lonavala at the time and the urgent need for one. This stimulated the formation of Shivdurga and since then it has been working tirelessly in and around Pune, Lonavala and Mumbai helping and guiding people in the field of trekking and adventure activities.
Lonavala sees a lot of accidents every year. Most of them are drunkards losing control from cliffs in a state of high spirits or crazy boys and girls losing their life for a mere selfie shot. But lately, the number of accidents due to unprofessional trekking groups have been surfaced a lot. On average, Shivdurga attends to about forty cases in a year including jungle rescues, water rescues, and recoveries.
My conversation with him was interrupted by the foul stench that started lingering suddenly. The two guys who had rappelled in the valley had managed to wrap the body and pull it up. A very instantaneous reaction of the crowd was of repulsion. No one wanted to go near it. None of them had seen such a scene before, not even the rescuers. The body was rotten for seven days. There were no clothes, it was bitten by crabs at several places, the skull was broken. The rescuers, too, had found it difficult to touch it when they had first seen it at the spot where it was dangling between gushing water of the falls. They were reluctant, but then they thought that if this was someone from our own families, would we have not given him a decent funeral? And the thought of the immediate family of the deceased gave them the courage to handle it even in such a filthy state.
For a teenager like me, this was a horrifying scene. I was holding back the sensation of puking for a long time and with great effort. The thought that this could have been me, haunted me for weeks even after I returned home that day. I loved roaming in the mountains, exploring new places and submitting myself to nature. I always liked life in nature as opposed to the city life. I was also the enthusiastic type when it came to climbing a tough patch or reaching a particular spot that others feared and rather opted not to go there. That guy could have easily been me. I shuddered. I promised myself to be even more careful henceforth and if possible help others too.
The team had packed all their belongings by then and were ready to go. Just then the elderly man whom I had met in the beginning, walked past me and stopped a few feet ahead. He turned around, came to me and said, “Thank you very much. It was because of your keen observation skills that we were able to locate this body.”
“It’s my pleasure, sir.” I said politely.
Examining me for a second, he asked, “What is your name?”
“Rohit Vartak, sir.”
“Well Rohit, you seem to be very much interested in mountains and nature.”
“I am, sir.”
“Would you like to join Shivdurga?” he asked and I was taken aback by this sudden question.
“I would love to, sir!” I beamed.
He held his hand ahead and said, “I am Sunil Gaikwad. Welcome aboard.”
And that, my friends, is how I became a member of the Shivdurga Foundation. Today, about a decade since that incident, I stand strong as one of the dependable pillars of this organisation and I am more than happy about the service I provide to the society.
Speaking to Rohit was truly inspiring. It is his belief to work and live to serve others, to leave the world a little better than he found it. That is, he says, a life well spent.