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Five days battling rain and snakes

Pilgrims at Howrah station after arriving from Kedarnath on Saturday. Picture by Gopal Senapati

Lucknow, June 22: Dal at Rs 100 a cup, water for Rs 40 a bottle, and warding off jungle snakes at night was what helped a Calcutta family of nine survive five traumatic days at a mountain village near Sonprayag.

Businessman Praveen Kheria, 39, his 65-year-old father and the seven others were evacuated from Sitapur village yesterday after being stranded on June 16. Kheria spoke to The Telegraph over the phone from Hardwar’s Baidyanath Ashram as he waited to catch a train home.

“We saw elderly people perish from dehydration and fatigue; we watched 40 parked cars get devoured by the Mandakini at Gaurikund,” said the Bangur Avenue resident from south Calcutta who operates his business from Burrabazar.

The family had reached Sonprayag on June 16 morning on the way to Kedarnath when the cloudburst, a raging river and fear of landslides forced them to get off their rented car and climb up a hill, Kheria said.

“I was in shock but didn’t lose my nerve; I held my father’s hand to help him up the hill. As we reached Sitapur, about a quarter of a kilometre from Sonprayag, we could see devastation break out.”

The village offered safety from the floodwaters but posed challenges of a different kind. “We spent the first night in the open, sheltering from the rain under a tree and taking turns to sleep as the rest of the family chased away snakes in the dark.”

The next day, the villagers put up a makeshift shed. “We were charged Rs 100 for one piece of bread and a cup of dal. I had to buy water from a hand pump at Rs 40 a bottle,” Kheria said.

122 back

At least 122 people from Bengal who were trapped in Uttarakhand returned to Calcutta today, Bengal transport minister Madan Mitra said over the phone from the hill state.

“Another 150 will board trains for Bengal tonight,” he added.

Mitra said the official count of missing tourists from Bengal was “not more than 15”, and that “between 550 and 600” others were still stranded. The missing are said to include residents of Baguihati, Khardah and New Town on Calcutta’s outskirts.

Mitra was evasive on the casualties among travellers from Bengal. “Although no major casualty has been reported from Bengal, even the loss of a single life is unfortunate,” he said, adding that the death toll from Bengal had not yet been ascertained.

Government sources said extra bogies had been attached to trains headed for Bengal from Hardwar.

Many of those who returned to Calcutta today described their ordeal to this newspaper.

Howrah resident Ganesh Prasad Gupta said he and 10 others, including a 12-year-old, had crammed into an 11-seater Toyota Landcruiser for two nights in Rampur and survived on chanachur and biscuits.

The group was lucky that the vehicle had not been swept away, said another member, retired railway official Mrinal Kanti Mondal.

“We heard about the cloudburst barely a day after we visited Gaurikund. Despite the weather, we continued our 7km walk towards Rampur where our SUV was parked,” Mondal, a resident of Canning in South 24-Parganas, said.

“At Rampur, we saw that one row of vehicles parked along the road had been swept away. Luckily, our vehicle was in the second row.”