Nainital

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Few places made me feel as lonely as Nainital did. Behind every tree, sitting on every bench, hogging tables at every restaurant, snogging in a corner on every forested trail, floating on the lake in every boat, were young couples in love. My desolate self would be welcomed at restaurants by a grouchy face indicating clearly that I was unwelcome, that I had been occupying space meant for amorous dealings or family gatherings. It became so overbearing after 2 days that I began to interpret even friendly gestures and smiling faces as gentle trolling.

So after a day or two of this humiliating ordeal, I stuck to the fast food places at the Stadium corner of the lake. Even though the meals here were engineered to attack a digestive system as virulently as possible, the fact that they were crowded and had locals eating came as a relief. They served some of cheapest food one could get in the tourist trap and it was a delight to sip infinite cups of sugary chai and watch the waiters make snogging couples romancing over a plate of chowmein hurry up to make way for other customers.

One day while I was having a toxic lunch of mushroom chowmein and pepsi, I was made to share my table with an excitable gentleman from the town. His manner was like that of a fidgety squirrel with such an abundance of nervous tics that I felt as if his heart was pumping less on blood and more of coffee. His mind too appeared to be in sync with his body as it abruptly and shapelessly shifted topics in the middle of a conversation.

It was difficult to keep track of what he was saying and I let him babble for as long as he wanted to. From what I gathered, he worked as a cook at one of the Army hotels in the town. So why did he have to come and eat in this unhealthy joint all alone when he could be making decent meals for himself back where he worked? He nodded his head thoughtfully at my question, then ignored it completely as he began telling me about the peculiar quirks of some of the Officers he served, like how one of them liked to have his palak paneer spiced up with chillies or how one particular individual collected bird feathers or oh, did I want to visit this Officer’s house which he had delectably turned into a museum full of Kumaoni artifacts…? Before I could say yes, his monologue had moved on to his jobless son in Delhi who had run away with a girl and was dependent on him for sustenance. He was 55 years old, how long was he expected to pay for his son’s irresponsible life? The least he expected, he said mournfully, was a dowry which his son was too much of wimp to snag from the girl’s family. And, hey, since I was in Nainital, did I happen to go up to Chini Top? I should totally get a view of the lake from the top of the hill. A friend he knew went up and down every morning. He was a super fit individual but he passed away a couple of years ago. A pity, he was so young…

The next morning, I began the long walk up to Chini Top aka Naina Peak. Before going, I asked a bunch of shopkeepers and chaiwallahs on Mall Road if they knew what the place had to do with China. No one knew and after attracting a number of suspicious looks and rude retorts, I hit the trail in a bad mood. Despite my grumpiness and the unsolved mystery behind its nomenclature, this hike was a refreshing change from the overcrowded honeymoon tourism of the town below. Not many tourists had a reason to hike all the way up. There was a cable car that took them to the top of another hill for a bird’s eye view of the lake and the mountains beyond and a metaled road that took the others within meters of the top. The trail, it seems, was only meant for those who sought solitude and hardship, people like the fidgety cook’s friend and myself.

The trail wound up through thick pine and rhododendron forests and was alive with the sound of mynas, cuckoos, bulbuls and minivets. The birdlife here was astoundingly rich. There was a Rufous treepie up on an oak here, a scarlet minivet with its deep scarlet belly chirping from the tree above, seven sister babblers frolicking about the bushes, flame-backed woodpeckers poking at the barks. In 2018, I would be busy looking at these scenes with a telephoto lens of a DSLR camera and would be deeply worried if any of my shots were poorly exposed or not in focus. But in 2009, when I didn’t have much of a camera, I was more alive to these scenes and spent my time experiencing nature more purely without any filters.

The scenes at Chini Top were as busy as mass tourism hotspots tend to be. There was a circular platform at the end of a flight of stairs for visitors to take in the view. It was so crowded the day I went that people were finding it difficult to find a foothold to get a view of the lake below. Some enterprising people had set up games on the way and one of them had hung plastic bottles from the branches of trees which tourists willing to spend 20 Rs. could shoot down into the forested slopes below. Since the walk through the forest was enough of a highlight for me, I walked back without braving the crowds for the view.

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Jim Corbett lived in Nainital and since Gurney House, his residence, had now been turned into a museum and was on the way to Tiffin Top (another of Nainital’s much vaunted viewpoints) I thought I would take a peek. As I swung open the main gate and gallantly strode into the courtyard, a big dog barked threateningly and came running in my direction. I was so shocked by this creature hopping and snarling towards me that I slipped unceremoniously and fell. I shouldn’t have panicked so hastily because the dog was silenced immediately by the caretaker with a swift order to calm down.

It was a quaint colonial cottage, and very much in the spirit of the man who had once lived there. It wasn’t luxurious but was furnished just sufficiently to provide reasonable comfort. The walls of the house were abundantly decorated with Corbett memorabilia, his hunting trophies, his family photographs, his African drums, his fishing rods, his cups and saucers etc. So steeped are the rooms in Corbett history that it’s easy to forget that the house was sold to the family of its current owners back in 1947. I can’t imagine too many households preserving and cherishing the memories of illustrious residents of the past for so long. It was a lovingly kept place in beautiful surroundings and among my most memorable experiences in Nainital.

 

One evening, tiring of the acidic food at the fast food places by the lake, I ventured bravely into a proper restaurant on Mall Road. Now, I’m not a terribly pragmatic person by nature but since I was sick of eating alone and being judged for it all the time, when I saw a girl sitting by herself reading a book in a corner table, I went over to her to ask if we could share a table. “What’s the worst that could happen?” I thought to myself. “She would say, ‘No, you look like a creep and I don’t want to know you’ or ‘No, I’m waiting for my boyfriend/husband so would you please find yourself someplace else to sit’ and I could go back to eating alone and wallowing in misery.” But to my abundant surprise, she said yes.

S was a rare solo female traveller making her way through the Kumaon mountains. She had quit her high-flying corporate job some months ago, sold the house her parents had bought for her in Delhi and was now a full-time traveller hoping to cash in by writing about her travels for magazines, maybe snagging a book deal in the process. We connected immediately as two single travelers in a honeymoon resort. As we swapped travel stories, she did the bulk of the talking because she had travelled a lot more than I had. S had been to places that weren’t even in my radar, places like Uzbekistan, Luzon, Bolivia and the Reunion Islands. She didn’t particularly enjoy traveling in India and stuck to the mountains because she felt creeped out by the attitude of people in the cities. 

S brightened up my time in Nainital immensely as we walked around the perimeter of the lake making fun of the honeymooners snogging on the shores, took long walks on the hidden trails that she had meticulously researched, sat for hours drinking rhododendron juice and watching cricket matches at the ground etc. One afternoon, we went on a cable car ride up to the “Snow View Point” where the Himalayan range in the distance delivered a hazy view of its peaks. Here, over a few beers at the bar, I watched her tell off a brash, flirtatious group of guys from Delhi who wanted to know what a pretty girl like her was doing with a fat guy like myself. In just a couple of days, Nainital had metamorphosed into the most fun place on earth.

The only time I was a bit troubled in her company was when she urged me go with her to the zoo. I hate zoos on principle because, well, birds and animals in cages are just a strange, cruel idea devised by humans for their amusement. The one in Nainital was one of India’s only “high-altitude” zoos and was predictably full of tourists behaving at their worst; making faces at primates who looked like they were in depression, shouting abusive words at napping bears hoping they would take offence, banging at the cells of animals to rile them up. The cages holding the animals provided the perfect safety net for them to bring their worst natures to the fore without the probability of suffering any repercussions.

 S wanted to visit the zoo not because she liked going there but because she wanted to do a piece on Nainital for a magazine and any write-up without this most vaunted attraction in the town would be incomplete. After we had gently sauntered around these depressing scenes and seen all that S had wanted to see to write her 100 words, we went up to an old Shiva temple in the area. Here, a pandit was performing an elaborate puja that some of the tourists, having exhausted their unruly energies, were observing patiently. After the puja, all of us followed protocol which was to collect our prasad (offering), give the pandit some money and go on our way. All of us except S i.e.

S went up to the pandit, flung a 5 Rs. coin at the donation plate and then instead of opening her palms to receive the prasad respectfully, whipped out her monstrous Nikon D700 camera and began snapping pictures of the pandit on burst mode, circling him for an ideal composition. The pandit became furious both at being treated like an unpaid model and the paltry sum of 5 Rs. lying on his plate . But being a divine soul, he composed himself, cleared his throat and asked her not without a hint of scorn, “Camera bandh karo, bitiya, aur dhyan se suno. Bhagwan ke liye itne hi paise hain tumhare paas?” (Shut your camera, my daughter, and listen. Is that all the money you have to offer God?)

S rolled her eyes, then rummaged in the pockets of her Levi jeans and brandished another 5 Rs. coin. This act enraged the pandit even more. He showed her the plate which was full of 50 and 100 rupee notes and berated her angrily, “Itni door se aaye ho. Thoda toh pyaar hoga Bhagwan ke liye tumhare dil mein? Ki sirf photo kichane aaye ho yahaan pe?” (You’ve come from so far and that’s all the love you have for God? Have you come here just to take pictures?)  S told him, “Haan bas photo hi kheechne aaye hain. Aur aapko dene ke liye sirf itne hi paise hain humare paas.” (Yes, I have only come here to take pictures and that’s all the money I have to give you.)

The pandit then flew into a rage and told her, “Agar aisi baat hai toh jaao. Nahi denge tumhe prasad. Is harkat ke liye bhagwan tumhe kabhi maaf nahi karega.” (If that’s the case, then I won’t give you any prasad. God will never forgive you for this misdeed.) These caustic censures had little effect on S as she calmly focused her lens for one final close-up shot of the pandit and walked away like nothing happened.

S had to leave the next day because she was flying to Kenya on an assignment. I would have followed if I had a passport but we had to make do with vague promises to meet whenever possible. I felt the blues when she left and lingering in Nainital would only have made it worse. So I took the first bus I could find to a place I hadn’t been to. Almora.

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The monasteries, villages and wildernesses of Zanskar

(In 2012, a friend and I hired a horseman from the village of Darcha and trekked through the high pass of Shingo La into the villages of Zanskar. This is a continuation (and the conclusion) to the journey I began to recount in the previous post. The focus of these posts is to showcase the photography. I will do a more detailed report of the trip on a future post.)

The terrain below Shingo La was steep and punishing as we slipped and slid through vertiginous snowfields and mighty scree slopes to reach the campsite of Lakong. The lone granite peak of Gumbarunjon would be the defining feature of the spectacular wildernesses between Lakong and Kargiak as the Kargiak river photogenically wound through the arid technicolor moonscapes. 

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Although the goal of the trek was to spend as much time in the wilderness as possible, we couldn’t believe how relieved we were when we reached the stupas lining up the trail to the village of Kargiak and met its people at the trekkers cafe on the outskirts. The five days spent outside the realms of civilized society were beautiful but we were craving for genuine human warmth and conversation. The architecture here felt one with the landscape, whitewashed stone and wood houses set amidst green fields with the craggy mountains of Zanskar hanging above. 

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Beyond Kargiak, the trail passed through more villages and increasing human activity until we reach the campsite of Purne, the trailhead for the walk to the monastery of Phugtal. After you’ve walked through a landscape of sheer scree-ridden canyons, you cross a bridge, turn left and up there hanging in the sky on a sheer vertical cliff would be the Phugtal monastery. The first sight of this magnificent sanctuary is bound to impress even the most jaded eye. I spent 2 nights at the monastery guest house, a humble, spartan establishment, conversing with the monks and making repeated trips to the monastery above to have a closer look at the ancient murals and rituals at the monastery. It was a fitting end to what had a spectacular few days walking in the Zanskar mountains.

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The walk to Shingo La and the Zanskar landscapes

In July 2012, a fellow traveler and I employed a horseman from the village of Darcha in Lahaul and walked up to the village of Padum in Zanskar. I’ll recount the episode in more detail in future posts because it was an eventful, adventurous journey with emotional upheavals and strange encounters but the principal focus of this post (and the one after) would be the pictures I managed to capture of the landscapes and some of its people.

While there is a motorable road that swings by the trail today, in 2012, the only way to traverse the high pass of Shingo La and cross into Zanskar, perhaps the remotest corner of India, was to walk. The first 4 days leading up to the pass were a pure wilderness where the only signs of habitation were the ramshackle tea-tents put up at the campsites. The walk up was a brutal slog, with perilous stream crossings, precipitous scree slopes and the temptation to turn back and call off the hike to go back and chill in the comfy German Bakeries of Manali grew with every step, an urge we were glad we didn’t succumb to when we reached the pass.

Shingo la, at 5091 meters (16, 701 feet) was an airless wilderness, an amphitheater of sorts where one was surrounded by the peaks of the Great Himalayan Range on one side and the jagged spurs of the Zanskar mountains on the other. There was a dainty, partially frozen lake, shimmering blue and turquoise at the foot of the pass. It was a gloriously beautiful scene and we would have lingered far longer than we did if we weren’t gasping for air and didn’t have to walk 5 more hours down to the campsite in the valley below.

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The conversations with the monk from Yuksom continue as we walk to the Dubdi monastery

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As we climbed up the steep flight of stairs to the Dubdi gompa, our path became so thickly enveloped by fog that we could hardly see the steps ahead of us. I asked the monk if he ever feels lonely having lived a life of abstinence.

“I do,” he said, “But this is the path I’ve chosen. It’s a conscious choice too. Many of the people I studied with never became a monk. They married and lived a happy life. The worst are those who became a monk and began making money. At least the ones who left were honest.

“Because why does a monk need money? The reason you give yourself up to God is so that you give up all your material desires. My guru was a very pure human being. He wouldn’t even touch meat and would only eat what was offered to him. I’m his only disciple who seeks to follow that path.

“Once after meeting a friend who had come to visit with his wife, I told my guru that I wanted to live a normal life with a wife and some children. My guru told me, okay, live that life, but remember that you’re committing a grave sin. Tell me, what’s the biggest sin that you could commit in the world? I told him, sex? He said no. Disrespecting God? Again, no. Killing someone? No. Not saying your prayers sincerely? No. The biggest sin you could commit is money because that makes you do all of those things.

“It struck a deep chord. And then I began thinking, if I marry and have children, I’ll need to make money to help them survive. And how do you make money without negatively impacting the world around you? Nowadays, every kid has a phone. If my son goes to school, he will also want a phone. So I have to make decent money to afford it. Which means I would have to work for a company that makes a lot of money. Every company that makes a lot of money does evil in the world, in the form of corruption, cutting down forests, poisoning rivers, working with evil regimes. So how can I make any money without being wilfully part of that evil? Where do you begin doing evil and when does it end?

“So I decided I won’t have a family. I will live my life the way my guru lead his life. At least then, my conscience will be clear. It’s not been easy and people make fun of me all the time. This young lama I am about to meet in Dubdi is a very good boy and I’m trying to guide him along the right path. People make fun of me all the time but I’m used to it now. When you live the way I do, you also realize how much kindness and goodness there is in this world. Without that, I wouldn’t be alive today.”

Then I pointed out that everything he was telling me on this mossy stairway to the monastery contradicted what he told me earlier about the power of China, ruthlessness etc.

“Ah, but that’s because the world is doomed. What I’m doing requires a great deal of sacrifice and the vast majority of the world is neither capable of nor inclined towards it. Over the past many centuries, we have been consumed by greed and it’s only accelerating. Even the monks who have been trained in abstinence and compassion like I have don’t follow those principles. So what hope is there for the world at large?

“But if you have to survive in a greedy world, you have to be greedy yourself. You either have to follow the way of the world, which is that of a ruthless race for survival, or you follow mine. If you follow a middle way, like the Dalai Lama suggests, you will be crushed. So, say the world is going to end in the next 10 minutes, you might as well live well for those 10 minutes. You and I are both going to perish anyway. The only difference is I can die peacefully with a clean conscience while if you are a highly successful businessman in China, you don’t have to worry about conscience. It’s the people in between who are going to suffer. Which is why I don’t preach my way to anybody because it gives me peace. I only talk a lot hahaha.”

As if to confirm the truth of his words, we were showered with a thunderstorm. My slippers were ill-equipped to deal with the wet, cobbled stones on the trail and every time I stepped on a mossy section or one of the million leaves ornamenting our way, I slipped clumsily and fell. At one such embarrassing fall, two giggling girls from a village below passed by and one of them pointed at me, laughed and said, “You walk like a drunken man.” The monk howled with laughter too and said, “If you walk like that, no woman would marry you hahaha.” “Then I could be like you”, I said, with a tinge of anger in my voice. The monk laughed again and said, “No, no, don’t be like me. If you walk well, you can marry that girl also and start a family in Sikkim.”

He then gave me a crash course on walking in the wet mountains by demonstrating the many different ways to skip across the trail. The trick, he said, was to avoid any stones or foliage and hop between the earthy sections holding the stones together. And thus productively occupied with this elaborate tutorial, we reached the lonely stupas marking the way to Dubdi. It was an ethereal atmosphere, all mist and fog, scenes straight out of Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s brutal, misty adaptation of Macbeth. For a few moments there, I became genuinely excited by the idea of the monk’s life. Would I be able to live the way he lived? I was halfway there anyway, an eternal nomad roaming from place to place without a home to settle down. I had no wife or children to care for. I didn’t have a ton of friends either. The only material element I was clinging onto was money.

I began thinking of ways one could give up money, live the monastic life and roam infinitely. And then, like a flash, I got reminded of the beginning of the day when I exchanged my crummy dwelling in the basement of the hotel for a more plush, comfortable one. If I couldn’t live in a cheap hotel room, what chance did I have in the dharamsalas and monasteries of the world? I needed money as critically as I needed air and water.

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I was exhausted by the time we reached Dubdi. The late-night party of the previous night and the resulting sleeplessness made me dizzy and drowsy. One of the novice monks at the monastery cheerfully invited us into his room at the back of the monastery where we were treated to a bucketful of butter tea. When it stopped raining, the monk, the novice and I stepped out to sit on one of the benches as the mist wrapped around us. The ancient monastery had now assumed a ghostly sight resembling an apparition from centuries ago. While the two were chatting away in their native tongues, I passed out.

I wouldn’t wake up until the evening when an old German man shook me wildly to check if I was still alive. “Hey, are you okay? Do you need help?”, said the ancient, bearded face with a handycam hung across the neck. “Yeah,” I said, “What time is it?” “It’s 5 in the evening”, his wife said anxiously, “We’ve been here for 2 hours and you’ve been lying there all the time. We wondered if you were sick. Do you need any help? Where do you stay?”

As it turned out, we were staying in the same hotel. So off we went down to the Yak Café in the more material world of Yuksom to hang out over tongbas and conversation.

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Street Stories from Chennai

Georgetown, Chennai is one of the few pockets of the city that still bustles with an old world charm and character. These are some of the shots I took while walking in and around the streets and the flower markets in this atmospheric corner of the South Indian metropolis.

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Fuzzy conversations on politics, religion and literature with a monk in Yuksom

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I was woken up at 6 a.m. the next morning by the loud clattering of guides and porters packing up for another trek into the wilderness. My head was throbbing with a headache from all the drinking the previous night. I said a feeble goodbye to all the boys from the group and popped a paracetamol to numb the hangover. Then I went to the common squat toilet at one end of the basement to answer nature’s call but it had been rendered filthy and unusable by the trekking staff.

Normally, I would have “adjusted” to this situation by controlling the urge to take a dump and waiting for some of the cafes/restaurants to open to use the better-maintained toilets there. But these weren’t normal times. My body was crying for a rest after living on a shoestring for 7 months. I looked at my room whose dimensions were only a little larger than my body and this claustrophobia was only making my headache worse. If I was going to stay any longer in Yuksom, I had to upgrade. So I went upstairs and woke up the receptionist to ask if any of the good rooms were available.

The receptionist informed me in a drowsy drone that a German trekking group had checked out that morning. He charged me a 1000 Rs. for one of them (that was 900 more than my bargain basement room and more than I had ever paid for a room before) but I said yes in a heartbeat. The rooms hadn’t been cleaned and the cleaning staff wouldn’t be in for a few hours, he said, but I could use the toilet if I wanted to. It was just about perfect.

I wanted to take a walk but it was freezing outside. I didn’t have the layers to protect me from the cold. The only place to hang out was the desolate restaurant area. So I whipped out Robert Rankin’s Witches of Chiswick which had helped me kill many an hour in the last couple of days. Just as I was about to finish the first sentence, a voice crept from the chair opposite to mine saying, “Witches of… Kaunsa book hai yeh bhai?” (Which book is this?). It freaked me out as this entity had been invisible when I had opened my book. For a moment I wondered if I hadn’t stumbled off to sleep and was dreaming a lucid dream.

The voice belonged to a lama who was squinting at the book cover trying to get its title.

I put the book down and said, “Witches of Chiswick.”

“Is it a good book?”, he asked in a crude Hindi. (For the purposes of brevity, I’m recounting the conversation in English).

“Yes, it’s very good.”

He shrugged half-heartedly and said, “Ah, you must be from England.”

“No, sir. I’m from Mumbai”, I said with a mix of puzzlement and anger.

“Arre, Mumbai se? How are you reading books? I never see Indian boys reading books. You must be doing a course. Which college are you from?”

“I don’t go to college. I just like reading books. Anyway, this is not the sort of book they teach in Indian colleges.”

“Why not? What’s wrong with the book?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the book”, I said, testily, “it’s just not the sort of book they would teach as part of a syllabus.”

“Why? What is it about?”

I groaned inside. The last thing I wanted to do in the wee hours of dawn after a night of zero sleep was explain the convoluted and twisted plot of Witches of Chiswick and its mish-mash of characters to a complete stranger. So I told him I had just started the book and directed him to the plot summary at the back of the cover.

He read attentively, then laughed heartily and said, “I don’t understand this. But Sherlock Holmes! A man from England once came to my monastery and gifted me his book. Too much tension. Haha. What does he do in this story?”

I said, “I don’t know. I think he’s trying to find out who Jack the Ripper is.”

“Ah”, he said, “Good, good. It is good to read books. Keeps your mind fresh.”

I was feeling crabby and irritable and wished my room would get ready soon so I could get some sleep. I went back to reading my book in the hope that some anti-social behaviour would make the monk go away. But he pulled the chair opposite to mine and sat there staring at me reading the book. This was annoying and I felt like my reading skills were being judged by his squinty eyes. To add to this, I was also guilt-tripping myself for ignoring his presence so blatantly and all that conflict was making me lose track of what I was reading. So I kept the book down and stared back at the monk.

“I used to read a lot of books because my guru also liked to read books,” he said, as if the break in conversation never happened, “He always encouraged me to read more. I was the only student who listened hahaha. I read everything. Charles Dickens, Kipling, Mark Twain, Hemingway, all classic English authors.”

“Who was your favorite?”

“Mark Twain. His stories had a lot of morality and taught you how to be a good human being. The lessons you learnt from his books are applicable even today. Tom Sawyer makes his friends pay him to do his work and tricks them into thinking it’s fun! That’s what big companies try to do today. If you can do what Tom Sawyer did back then, you could be a very rich man. Charles Dickens wrote good stories but they are nothing more. I found them boring.”

“What about Kipling? How do you like the monk in Kim?”

“I don’t like that book. The monk was a very unrealistic character. All mumbo-jumbo about our Buddhism that Kipling knew nothing about. I like Jungle Book more. Mowgli and Bagheera and all those animals. It was more fun to read. Kim was telling lies about our people to the world and the world believed it without batting an eye-lid. Tibet in Western books is either some mystic land or some peaceful utopia. Nobody gave a thought to the idea that the people living there were as human as anyone else on this planet. I think books like Kim and Shangri-La did more harm to the Tibetan idea than the Chinese because they helped them use these ideas from the West to subjugate and conquer the land. Listen, I need a cup of tea. I know a good place down the road. Would you like to join me?”

So we strolled to the tea-shop in the crisp 7 a.m. Himalayan air of Yuksom. This was the first time I was looking at the village in daylight and my first impressions led me to believe that it was just a tiny one street hamlet. Guest houses and small wooden shacks were stacked on the sides of the road and the village was surrounded by thickly forested Himalayan hills on all sides. It felt like a peaceful slice of Himalayan heaven and a perfect place to wind down a long journey.

The tea stall was a cramped, wooden shack that looked like it had been assembled in an hour with the raw materials available at hand. There was a creaky wooden bench with space for 3 people to sit and it was already packed with three men who had covered themselves so thoroughly with all manner of woollens that all one could see was their weary eyes. The man making the tea barked at the people to get up and make space for the monk. The monk ordered them to remain seated and told the teamaker that we would rather have the tea standing outside. “They are labourers from Nepal and Bihar working on a house in the village. They need to rest their bones more than we do. In any case, the breeze outside makes the tea taste better”, he said with a smile.

Our discussion now veered to the Dalai Lama issue. “I admire the Chinese very much”, he said thoughtfully, “The Dalai Lama admires them too but I admire them in a different sense. The Dalai Lama likes the industrious, hard-working nature of the Chinese and he likes them in spite of the fact that Tibetans had to flee enmasse from Tibet because of their policies.

“But I like the Chinese because of their policies. China couldn’t have achieved what it did without gaining control of the Tibetan plateau, with its glaciers and its minerals. Today it’s challenging America to be the biggest power in the world and if it had given independence to Tibet, that would have been impossible. You have to be ruthless to get what you want in this material world.”

I was surprised to see an ordained Buddhist monk so openly contradicting the Dalai Lama’s word. So I said, “You’re the first monk I’ve met who disagrees with what the Dalai Lama says.”

The monk said, “Oh, but you’re allowed to disagree with the Dalai Lama. If I met him, I could tell him what I told you and he would have no problem with it. Some of his disciples may have an issue because they are as corrupt as some of our politicians but he himself would be fine with someone disagreeing with him.

“And that’s where his weakness lies. He’s not ruthless. He’s very wise and says a lot of wonderful things. He gives good advice to people. Everyone in the world should read his books because they tell you how to be happy while being a good person in simple words. But his wisdom only works on the smaller scale. This world is ruled by politics and money and he knows nothing about either. Yes, he’ll advice you to be selfless, donate money to charity, do a good job etc. but he’s not going to tell you how to crush people to do the job better and the world is ruled by people who crush other people under their foot for success.

“If the Dalai Lama had been dictatorial and cunning like the Chinese, he would be living in Tibet right now and his people would have faced fewer troubles. I could say what I did to the Dalai Lama himself but I shouldn’t be able to. He should crack down on monks like me who speak their mind openly but he won’t. He’s too democratic and too good a human being. Which is why his people are still suffering.”

“But don’t you think that’s the reason he’s respected all over the world?”, I said.

“That’s all a tamasha (circus). People make money off his books and his name while he begs for the freedom of his people. Do you think Obama (then President of America) is going to tell Hu Jintao (then premier of China) to get out of Tibet? And even if he does, all the Chinese are going to do is have a big laugh, drink a lot of wine and forget about it.”

“So you think the Dalai Lama should surrender and do what the Chinese tell him to do for the good of his people.”

“No, no, the time for that is over. If he surrenders, they will kill him just like they killed the Panchen Lama. If he had done it during Mao’s time, before he attacked Tibet, something good might have come off it. But Tibet was always weak. It thrived on spirituality and had no idea about politics. The Dalai Lama keeps telling us about the wisdom of his predecessors but they weren’t so wise in negotiating political deals. They made stupid demands on the Chinese leadership. It’s like an ant pleading with an elephant to please avoid squishing it but at the same time, being adamant that it won’t get out of its path.  The entire world knows about the Tibetan struggle but you tell me, what has come of it? They’re still in the same place they were when the Dalai Lama fled. They’re keeping it alive only because their entire economy depends on foreign donations and if they say they’re going to end it, that money will dry up too.“

After these cynical observations on Tibet, the monk elaborated more on Chinese progress vis a vis India, why he thought India was lagging behind in development, how shiny the roads and the villages looked across the border, why democracy and lethargy are dragging India down a slippery slope to failure, why the UPA government has been utterly useless in giving incentives to industries, why everything is Nehru’s fault and a litany of diatribe directed at Indira Gandhi.

By the time he was done with his clinical analysis of all the things that were wrong with India, we had spent an hour standing outside that chai stall. The monk now wanted to go visit an acquaintance at the Dubdi gompa and asked me if I would join him.

“It’ll be good for you. I’ll show you the way. Free guide, no money. Haha.”

So off we went to the Dubdi gompa.

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