Wednesday, December 4, 2013

And quiet flows the Ganges!!

Much water has literally flown down the Ganges and washed out a good bit of the Himalayas since my starting to pen down thoughts of a memorable trip. Who would have thought that our fears of an avalanche would turn out to be true, taking with it hundreds of villagers and pilgrims? As can be guessed, it is the Kedarnath tragedy which brought the whole country to a standstill, that I am talking of. The statue of Lord Shiva, who stood tall when we passed him by, had the swirling brown waters of the Ganges around his waist at the time of the tragedy - an image that keeps going through my mind all the time! The time when the calm water of the Ganges at Rishikesh turned turbulent taking with it, to the Sunderbans probably, devotees who had trekked upto Kedarnath in the hope of attaining nirvana.

Often I was told to complete my blog related to the trip but now I realize after so much events happening in the last couple of years in my small world, that included snorkelling (rather struggling to take a breath while floating 25km at least above the seabed of the Atlantic Ocean) halfway between US and Cuba, the trip to the "Do Dhams " - Badrinath and Gangotri(Gaumukh) is still the highlight of the events in my life. Even as I try to decipher the ant-like figures of the men in khaki trekking above the waters of the Bhagirathi in the photos, those carefree days spent in the company of my sisters come rolling back.
The Commonwealth Games have come and gone and the organizers are spending quiet days counting the bars in prison. The status of sports persons are no better except for Sachin, the cricketeer, who has got the Bharat Ratna. Two years down the line, much of the sheen of India Shining has worn off and India is still struggling to keep its head above the waters in a world where everything seems to be going awry. However here I am, retracing our footsteps through the Himalayas. After one more stopover at another of Uttarakhand Tourist Homes, we carried on through one of the most picturesque routes. These were never short of adventures with long traffic jams enroute where travellers were fully prepared to bathe,cook, eat, wash and dry clothes - all with the help the most basic infrastructure. It often reminded one of the Junglebook song - "Bare necessities, the simple bare necessities, forget about your worries and your strife........." One does really forget everything and keeps praying to get through the next second safely on the HIGHways. Literally living in the present. Images keep flitting through my mind- an orange saree very artistically spread out on the retaining bamboo structures, newspaper boys frantically shifting the dailies from one truck to the other from both sides of the road block, cooks travelling with groups spreading out gas cylinders, stove and cookware to cook lunch....
A colourful funeral procession with people carrying logs with them to the cremation ground... and so on and so forth. Soon we reached Sreematha mandir(temple) ,Kemunda, Dhansoli or Khansoli, ( I am not sure how it is read!!) 2300km above sea level. The view was breathtaking. The driver got a good break while we went berserk clicking the setting sun through the devadharu (deodar, sounds better this way!) trees. Soon we were at Bhatwari district, Uttarkashi where we were told that traffic was not being permitted as repair work of the road was going on and we may have to turn back. After long discussions majority of us were against turning back but soon we gleaned the information that there was another UTDC(Tourist Development Centre -Toursit HOme in short) nearby. So we rushed there only to be told that it is fully booked though there was a better one further up the hills. With no option but to drive upto Raithal, we gave up all hope of reaching our destination Gangotri, where we had our bookings.
The totally unplanned stopover was a pleasant surprise and "Simply Heaven" as the Uttarkashi Tourism had advertised on their billboard. Decent accomodation though it could be better maintained -  colourful flowers, untouched and pristine village, innocent faces of villagers, lined with hardships faced by them, carrying the ubiquitous mobile phones and to top it all our first glimpse of the snowcapped Himalayas.
On the road once again we came across whole families including women and children getting ready for the winter - cutting grass, tying them up and carrying big rolls over their small backs. The chill of winter was already upon us and even in the afternoon sunshine we felt cold. Many of the horses and their guides were making their way back to the plains as the season was coming to a close. The route to Gangotri and other pilgrim centres in the hills of the Himalayas close down for the winter. It is a wonder how the people who stay back survive .
The Loharinag -Pala Hydro power project caught our attention as my sisters, much older than me, fondly remembered my father for whom Hydroelectric projects were dearer than his own children. Pictures of the dams in Kerala used to adorn the walls at the entrance to our house where normally one finds jaded photos depicting eternally young relatives! As the talk veered towards the eminent personalities of our family, time passed and the driver negotiated expertly the twists, turns, rocks and slurry from landslides. Soon devatharu trees gave way to rocky granite with fissures showing the path taken by the streams as ice melted. "There is Gangotri " pointed the driver in the general direction of a snowcapped peak looming large above us. All of us stared in silent awe at the grandeur as the reality of what we achieved sank in.
At another pit/loo stop only the flaps of the temporary toilet tents helped us maintain decorum as we attended nature's call - once again thanks to some unknown officer of the Uttaranchal Tourism board who probably within his meagre budget realized the need for providing the facility at such godforsaken places on the way to Dharali, Harshil.
The mannerisms of the mountain people  never stopped surprising us. They strided down the roads and up the mountain tracks for miles on end carrying any amount of provisions - Shepherds chased their totally indisciplined wards up and down the mountains - Unblemished faces untouched by the vagaries of progress took to new ways without batting an eyelid. May earthquakes or melting rivers come and go, shattering their lives, fields, shops or houses they painstakingly rebuild their lives, salvaging whatever they can, into picturesque villages.
Gangotri seemed to be an anticlimax - another Uttarkashi village, another rest house- though an environmentally conscious one I must say! - a separate storage shed for plastic, solar collection discs - for what no idea- as it was beside some logs of wood for burning! - the usual shops with plastic goods and water cans - for taking Ganga water- usually given when one is drawing the last breath! After taking the blessing of Goddess Ganga at the temple at Gangotri and attending the arathi in front of the spot where King Bhagirath meditated, to bring the River Ganges down to Earth so that its waters could liberate the souls of his ancestors who were cursed by Sage Kapila, we proceeded to Gaumukh. The story is well narrated in the following link

None of us could fortunately foresee what we were in for!!!!!!!!!!
Life flows by faster than the waters of the Ganges, fortunately not so turbulent now possibly because it has reached the plains and called for a more mature outlook on life now that I am a grandmother. The memories of a happy childhood are once again flowering in me thanks to my school friends in the whatsapp group! Delhi the city I made my home looks washed and decorated with bright green leaves, washed clean after the rains, and Shivamalli flowers that once spread out like a carpet at the entrance to our home in Kerala.
Two winters spent mollycoddling my grandchild while heavy snowladen trees and cold winds blew outside took me back to the hardships faced by the natives living in the Himalayas. Central heating was probably unheard of in those places. Eating food that gives warmth and sharing, and spreading the inborn warmth made these people more warm hearted than the average westerners I guess. 
Like young brides totally ignorant of the hardships of family life, we sisters were led one early morning to the mules waiting for us. We were accompanied by tourists with heavy rucksacks that gave us a false sense of comfort and safety. The only sister who had climbed on horseback was giving lessons on the manner in which a horse has to be managed. Bend forward when the horse climbs up and bend backwards when it climbs down, she said, but all that was soon forgotten as we struggled hard to keep ourselves seated while our movement was in total contrast to the movement of the mule. One guide for two mules being the norm each of us had, a guide either before or behind us. My guide being in front of me, the sister behind me had her guide behind her, such that she felt she had no guide and kept a constant tirade as to the totally irresponsible behaviour of the guides who seemed to, according to her, have been paid preposterously large sums of money for nothing at all! 
path strewn with boulders.JPG
On being asked how much further to the next loo stop the prompt response was ten minutes – dont you see that building there?....- till we soon realized that he was only trying to help us keep our sanity. After a grueling few hours of bumpy ride we reached the only spot where there seemed to be humanity and an excess at that, we soon realized! A watery meal of Maggi noodles was served as the ‘free lunch’ included in the rates and then back on to the mules for another four hours ride to nowhere – literally. The “loo” was in the open air and the less said about it the better! The foot wide path over round cobbled stones and overhanging cliff that jutted out just above our head made us hold on to the mule for life. At times the mules had to cross rivulets of which it appeared they were too scared. So they would come to a grinding halt. The guide would then leave us and go across to the other side and blow a whistle softly using his mouth. The mules would then go across and trot to the next steep climb catching us totally unaware!!!

 We reached a resting point where the elder sisters just collapsed and cried out that they could take no more. We were told that from that moment we could either go take a walk or return - Gaumukh or the source of Ganga being a few more kilometers up the rocky path. The area was more wide open with high mountains on all sides. The first snowflakes were falling on the peaks of the highest ones. Far away we spotted a few backpackers trekking their way to other paths. mountain peak.jpg
Blue skies with puffy white clouds and water guzzling at the foot of the mountains beckoned us and I did not need another invitation to follow my sister who was keen on achieving her ambition of reaching the source of Ganga. However as we trudged along it soon appeared that my sister also gave up and signaled to me to continue. Later I was told that, on the contrary, she had signaled to me to turn back! Anyway here I was happily boneweary but trudging along with all my strength following the footsteps of my hometown guide. I concentrated on keeping one foot ahead of the next and wondered at the silence and loneliness all around me. I could spot a mountain deer patiently chomping away at bits of grass that hid under the round stones and the sharp screech of an eagle made me look in its direction, soaring high up in the sky. Ahead of me there was no one and behind me too I did not find anyone. I was alone on the top of the world – all alone with nothing but the white clouds floating up above in the blue ether. mountain deers.JPG
Tears, for reasons I knew not and that I did not have any control over, flowed down my cheeks. Was it tears of happiness or sadness I had no idea but my mind was full and overflowing. There did not seem to be any track – I kept tripping over round stones. I was thirsty and hungry but it did not seem to matter anymore. My mind was blank.hermitage.JPG
Then far away I spotted the figure of a hermit’s shanty with its blue sheet flapping though the air was still. It seemed to wave at me beckoning me to keep coming forward. Soon I reached the zero milestone and flopped on it. My guide who had gone still further – who had travelled the full distance only on foot – soon brought me water from the source of the Ganges. The sweet taste of the clean and pure Ganga water satiated my thirst. I felt that this is how it should be. No need to move from here. It’s a lovely place to be till the end of the world. No malls, no calls, no nothing – just a long wait!zeropoint.JPG
However I soon realized that my body was protesting and with a lot of effort and a few snaps to show my achievement I uncoiled myself, each joint screaming with pain. We both slowly made our way back to the spot where we had left the rest of the group but then there was no one there and no one in the base camp down below where we planned to spend the night. Confused we looked around to see two mules and one guide coming towards us and he appeared to be boiling with anger. It seems we had delayed him so much that it would be difficult to reach back before dark he grumbled as he strapped both of us on to the mules. Ahead of me was my guide in a white jacket, which was the only thing I could see in the dark after a few minutes. The rest of the journey is a blur as we galloped on the same track, round stones falling off as the guide or the mule slipped, reaching far down after a few agonizing minutes during which I realized the depth of the valley below. Once I nearly went over the mules head as he suddenly lurched downwards but managed to keep my hold.

In the pitch dark I could hear the tapping of the mule’s feet as it trot over the granite. High above me the stars were twinkling in the sky and if only I could, I would have been able to count them as the sky was clear and beautiful! Tired, sleepy and hungry my mind was numb and fearless. The white jacket ahead was all that was available to let me know that we were going on this hazardous journey. If any of the next generation had known what we were in for I am sure we would not have been anywhere near the Himalayas.
A few hours later I suddenly heard someone shouting my name and then came across my sister, spread-eagled, held tightly by two young guys, shouting my name asking if I had reached. Our guide kept going even as I tried to make out what was happening and shouted that I am fine but whats with you???!!!! A sight I will never forget in my life. 
It transpired later that she had nearly gone for a toss and fortunately as it was the fag end of the journey there were people waiting to help them get down and I had spotted her even as she was stopped from falling. 
The way back home was comparatively less adventurous though we did cut across the mountains to Tehri, passing more villages and beautiful panoramas, seeing daily life as the mountaineers faced it in a stoic manner as the few glimpses below indicate.carshop.JPG
Organically grown vegetables old on the wayside caught our attention and the car was loaded with it much to the disgust of the chauffeur who could not comprehend our attraction for buying what he considered as just home grown “sabji”.
organic vegetables sale.JPG
In contrast to city-bred mothers who are reluctant to carry their own babies we found buffalo babies and lambs being lovingly carried around.
Getting ready for winter.JPG

School kids seems to have a tough time reaching their destination. 
Going to school is a risky business.JPG

And local Himalayan weeds were seen being taken over by parthenium grass, indicating how far the cancer of progress was advancing.
himalayan weeds.JPG

parthenium taking over the weeds.JPG

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

My dear Vallunnichettan

Vallunnichettan, my brother – the “grand” or “big” Unni is no more. He is my ‘cousin’ but the intricacy of our relationship is lost on me though it has been told to me several times.  To me he is … or was, now that he is no more…..a “rakhee” brother as they say up north, an Uncle, a guardian, a Guru.. whatever. No words can describe either our relationship or affection for each other.
He was the brother who indulges in all my whims and fancies, often at variance to my mother’s orders – my first, red high-heeled sandals, that I hardly ever could manage to walk on – my first tennis kit, my maroon-coloured swimsuit……………..the list is endless. A constant figure sprawled out on the cane chair with a newspaper hiding his face, Vallunnichettan  “big brother Unni” as he was fondly referred to in contrast to “Kochunni” the eldest sibling in our family who was shorter, he would be a silent observer to all the madness that went around him. The caustic remarks of his observations would often surface only during the evening get-togethers of the family gathered on the veranda, enjoying the gentle, jamine–laden sea-breeze. He was a permanent fixture at Kala Vihar or the playground of Kala, aptly named, as we moved in a year after I was born. My tearful protests never stopped him from addressing my friends using nicknames.
My initiation to Harold Robbins, Alister Mc Lean and many other paperbacks – an upgradation from the staple diet of Mills & Boons, was thanks to him. They were left around for us to read and later discussed in different contexts. My father held a permanent grudge against him for ‘spoiling’ the minds of us teenagers – my sister and myself!
He was an unending source of information in an era when neither televisions nor computers existed – he even freely spoke (and I staunchly refused to believe) of the ‘black-dyed hair of Mrs. Gandhi’ whom my father supported even during the Emergency, despite Unnichettan divulging many of the goings-on at the time. His pet topics discussed were generally the skeletons in the closet of the ruling parties.  From minute details related to even the “Crusaders” to fantastique and logical-sounding conclusions like that of Cleopatra hailing from the Konkan Coast – he had it all stored in his then –active brains.
The bang of the latch on the wooden-framed metal-sheet gate accompanied by the scraping noise as his sandals dragged over the sand on the concrete steps would be my signal to be at the window near the telephone to hand over the keys to his rooms – the outhouse rented to his company. As his unofficially nominated ‘Secretary’, I would be ready with precise details related to phone calls and letters received including at times queries related to tenders floated which I was supposed to answer – the accommodation being his official office-cum-residence.
An unforgettable incidence is the night when he and Kochunnichettan, the smaller brother Unni, came at mid-night and tried to wake me up without waking up my Dad who was sleeping at the other end of the room.  (Woken up at an unearthly hour my father was like a wounded tiger! ) Their efforts were in vain and I woke up in the morning, body aching all over from the stones, chappals and what have you thrown on my bed and the two of them were asleep in uncomfortable positions on the veranda!
He was the brother who unobstrusively kept track of me and kept an invisible barrier between me, the na├»ve, small-town teenager and the big bad world outside. I still hold a grudge against him for having cruelly broken off a, who knows may be, what could have been a budding romance! A vague character kept ringing up to befriend me but fortunately or unfortunately one of the calls was received by my self-appointed local “guardian”and then there were no more calls!!!! “My big-brother Unni” never knew of the umpteen teenagers I used to roam around with though I suppose, as persipicacious as he was, he must have made out that they were just innocent friendships whereas this one seemed to be a wolf on the prowl!
The most touching moment in our life was the day when he came to meet me as we boarded the train after selling ‘Kala Vihar’. Holding tight on to a sandalwood Ganapathy he just sat on the bunker. Neither of us had much to say but our lack of words expressed a world of affection.
Coerced by my mother to marry a charming and soft girl, petrified of him, at the late age of 36, she ended up being his sole support in all ways with the debilitating onset of Alzeihmers. Death has now brought relief to both but our loss is immeasurable.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

West or East - who is the best?

The seven billionth child has created a lot of furore the world over. However the West has put the onus of controlling the population once again on the developing countries. From the data available it has been clarified that since 1960 the population has increased manifold thanks mainly due to the decrease in death rate AND increase in birth rate. The technological advancements in healthcare facilities have led to increase in longevity of people alive today. However is it fair to pressurize a woman not to bring a child into this world only because the earlier generation members of the household have not yet left this world?
 US of A, Europe, Japan and other developed countries of the world are tottering on their legs. Robots are being invented to take care of the elderly even if they are only surviving on ventilators. The developed countries are enjoying the fruits of the labour of generations of toil by people from the so called developing countries who were once colonized and their minerals, metals and other raw materials were used to churn out millions of produce which were then forced on to the very same colonies through fair means or foul. Many were chained and taken away from their homeland to slave for the colonials.
The developed countries were sitting pretty on a pile of gold and looking the other way when their erstwhile colonies toiled to put themselves back on track after they gained independence. Trade barriers were set up as and when they found the competition is getting too hot. Immigration rules were tightened to ensure that the natural movement of human migration is avoided. Electric fences and snarling dogs created a safe haven for the rich countries to whiz by in gas guzzling limousines to resorts where they could while away their fortunes sipping on champagnes while frolicking in their Jacuzzis. The best of the lot were still given special passage to enter and serve them thereby enriching their already overflowing treasuries.
Today the heat is on them. The cycle has started turning. Their foolhardy lifestyle has emitted too much of chemicals into the atmosphere. Economies have started crumbling as the Pandora’s box of their misdeeds came into the open. The natural human tendency of greed not only made them refuse to share their profit but also egged them to grab all they can in any which way they could manage. Rules were bent, corrupt practices were given free hand, governments were supported or thrown off depending on their tendency to go in the direction of the wind.
Money is Power even today. They are still calling the shots in today’s economy. Trade barriers are being pegged higher but the realization is dawning on them that this cannot go on for long. Reactions are varied. Shove, Push, Overthrow – let me live till eternity – the rest be DAMNED. This is the message blinking on the hoardings everywhere. Still others are slowly going into despair and death.

Catwalk or bitchwalk?

Umang Sabharwal has taken up cudgels against an issue which may not be palatable to many, especially in a male-dominated society as is prevalent in India. There is no doubt she has struck a chord in the mind of many, both young and old. Definitely women need to be protected, especially in the current age when rapid changes and rural to urban shift leads to gullible victims being taken for a royal ride. Ms. Sabharwal’s ‘Slutwalk artharth Besharmi Morcha’ should be given support if only to highlight the status of women in Indian society. Though the Slutwalk event in Toronto may have taken the issue to a more aggressive level, here in India such a demonstration will make it a subject of discussion at all levels and women in general would become courageous enough to protest against the indignities heaped on them on an everyday basis.
It is often argued that efforts taken to protect women through legal means only favour a few and they are often misused. However these are few in number and this is largely because of ignorance. Women should be made aware of the reason for such measures being taken in the country and warned against severe repercussions in case of misuse. This cannot preclude the need for protecting the interests of the many. When Supreme Court gave the verdict in the Vishakha case many office-going ladies used it as a shield to create an atmosphere of laissez-faire in office. Still the many who have been protected merely because of the existence of this Act are innumerable. The Act itself is a matter of grave concern to many male predators wandering the corridors of government as well as private establishments.  
Women are silent sufferers. Their instinct is to search for security in life - financial and otherwise – both for themselves and their offsprings. They need to feel proud of their body, to attract males naturally, so that they can carry good genes to the next generation. The choice for this should be entirely that of each individual woman. Nobody can invade her private space – not just by touch but neither through spoken words or even suggestive glances. A society is formed by an individual’s acceptance of the need to follow the rules and regulations formulated. A mature individual is meant to curb his/her instinct when moving in public space. He/She also has to accept that liberty is only permitted in society to the extent of not interfering in the private space of the other individuals - be it their own family members. The society has the responsibility to protect every individual using the laid down laws. In India today, having adopted the western legal system, many are still immature enough to think that laws are applicable only to others and they have only to follow the degenerated traditional systems which have never been reviewed. It is true that originally all systems are made by society in an idealistic frame of mind but with time, changes need to be incorporated and for this every system needs to be reviewed. Our constitution permits such reviews and a healthy young democracy that is India is still undergoing the growing pains and it is every citizen’s responsibility to see that the system is maintained. Finding loopholes in laws to facilitate moneyed individuals to escape, media closing their eyes or even pampering well-known people has to end.