Backwards from Pindari

This is an account of the Pindari Glacier Trek that I had done back in April 2009 and a continuation of this post.

All the passengers got off as the jeep screeched to a halt at Song, a village 5 kms before the trailhead at Loharkhet. The driver had to attend a wedding in the village and was in no mood to go any further just for the two of us. I wondered aloud how much it would cost to persuade him to take the jeep all the way to the trail head. D smirked with a vengeful grin and said, “500 Rs. This is why I asked you to go with my friend. If you had taken my advice, we would have been trekking by now.”

I gently reminded D that I was the boss and we were on a budget and if we have to walk 5 kms more, so be it and let’s move on. We moved on with D leading me on a short cut through a perilous trail that cut across the road. It wasn’t an easy walk for someone as unfit as I was. When we reached a little stream about 3 bends above the road, I was so exhausted that I threw down my bag and copiously washed my face with the icy cold water and asked D if we were there yet. D shook his head helplessly and said we had barely walked a mile. But I felt as if I had been walking all day. I had such a lot of sweat pouring out of my pores that I wondered if something was wrong with the plumbing in my fluid vessels.

We rested on a boulder where D, disappointment writ large across his face, wondered if we should take it easy. Our original plan was to finish the Pindari stretch in 4 long days. Now D broached the idea of doing it in 7 days, in short stretches and resting at more points on the way. When I heard this, the budget traveller in me got a rude shock because I realised I would be paying D 3 extra days than I would if I walked harder and faster. This had the effect an adrenalin shot would have on an ailing body making my senses spike and get their act together.

I heaved my way breathlessly to the Tourist guest house at Loharkhet where the chowkidar in its desolate interiors treated us to some tea and snacks. He was grateful for the human company, he said, because not too many people stopped by. It wasn’t the prettiest of places. The Himalayan peaks were hidden far away and the tall landslide-ridden mountains on the opposite slope were a bit of an eyesore. D was intent on getting the latest updates on local gossip with the caretaker and I had to interrupt their interminable conversation and ask him to move quickly so we have time to do the 24 kms to Khati by sundown.

As I clambered gingerly down a bouldered section that led to a stream on another one of D’s torturous shortcuts, I could feel something soft and squishy underneath my foot. It felt like horse dung or the back of a wet sponge. I shouldn’t have been feeling anything because I was walking with well worn, rugged Woodland shoes. When I leaned down to investigate, I saw a sight that no trekker should ever have to see. The soles had come off and I was standing on a patch of dirt with bottomless shoes.

D, who had already crossed the stream and was halfway up the hill on the other side, looked at me exasperatedly. He spread his arms wide and asked, “What happened now?” I pointed at my shoe. He grumbled his way over and asked if I had any chappals. Of course I didn’t. I was enough of a cheapskate to have never bought any and had been happily tramping all over India for two months on these Woodland shoes.

“We have to go back”, he said.

“Can’t I just go on barefoot?”, I asked, trying to salvage the situation.

“Look at you”, he said, “You can’t walk in the mountains even with your shoes on.  How’re you going to walk barefoot?”

“Good point”, I said, obediently.

He then took this opportunity to gloat about the advice he had given me earlier. “If you had shopped for some of the things I had written in that list, we wouldn’t be in this situation”, he said, “When we go back to Kapkot, you better buy your thermal inners and a good feather jacket because I don’t think your sweater is going to save you when you’re shivering in zero degree cold in my village.”

I was angry but calmed down when he took off his chappals and lent them to me so I could walk back to Loharkhet where we were treated to more tea and snacks by the manager at the Tourist Rest House. The manager gave me a pair of gumboots that he said I could borrow till I found a good pair of shoes. Those shoes were so uncomfortable that they gave me blisters from just 10 minutes of walking down the jungly trail back to the road. My feet were bleeding and I told D that I couldn’t possibly walk any further. We waited by the roadside staring at the landslide-ridden landscapes until we got a ride on the back of a milk van to Kapkote.

In Kapkote, I surrendered to buy whatever D thought I needed for the trek, a sturdy pair of shoes, walking sticks, thermal inners, a thick wind-proof feather jacket, rain cover for the rucksack, slippers, a haul that cost me more than what I had budgeted for the entire trek. But now, I had resigned myself to the elements and chose to do the trek even if it was the last thing I did in my life. We spent the night at a dingy little dhaba on charpoys spread around the kitchen, the odor of rotting potatoes and stale meat filling the room. When D came over the next morning to ask if I wanted to go by the shared jeep, I said no, I’d rather spend a 1000 Rs. and take his friend’s jeep if that option was still available.

“Of course”, he said with a mischievous smile plastered on his face, “Whatever you want. It’s your trek.”

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Tommy Emmanuel, middle age crisis, touristy stuff

When we met at the Esplanade to watch Tommy Emmanuel play, I learnt that C had a friend circle so extensive, it would fill up an entire row in the hall. I asked him if they were all rabid Tommy Emmanuel fans like he was. He replied dismissively saying, “None of us are fans, lah. We just here to have fun. He’s good but not ‘that’ good also.”

But I, on the other hand, thought he was quite good. Emmanuel played with no back-up band or metronome and used the entire body of his guitar to create both the music and the percussion to go with. It was electrifying to watch as he launched into dazzlingly fast arpeggios to go with speedy percussive rhythms. In the middle of his gig, he had an impromptu workshop where he showed how a novice could learn to play The Beatles and spoke about how he would want everyone to pick up a musical instrument and play because that’s the most positive change one could make in a life, an idea I vehemently disagree with having spent large chunks of my teens hanging out with terrible guitar players. After this little digression, he went back to shredding his fingers off and I was going to turn to C to thank him for introducing me to such a good musician when I found C turning to me and whispering, “Hey, we’re getting out of here. Do you want to go have some fun?”

“But isn’t this already fun?”, I said.

“No, this is getting boring now. Come with us. We’re getting late.”

“Can’t it wait after the gig? I’m guessing it’ll be over in less than an hour.”

“No, we’ll be late. Come fast”, he said.

I was angry at my concentration being snapped out of the gig. But I was also curious to know what these guys were up to. So, highly reluctantly, I joined them outside where once we’d assembled, we had to run to the metro to catch a train to Tanah Merah.

Inside the train, I asked C where we were going in such a hurry.

“Pulau Ubin”, he said, excitedly, “It’s an island in Singapore. We have to hurry because if we don’t, we’ll miss the last boat. We go there to camp on the beach all night.”

“But I have all my things in the hostel”, I said, “I can’t just leave it there.”

“It’s okay, lah. Only one night. Do you have anything important? You go back tomorrow.”

“What about food? We haven’t eaten anything.”

“Haha, we just hunt for something, lah”, he said mirthfully, with a pat on my back.

There were 25 people other than myself, with three girls from South Korea, two guys from Kenya, four American dudes, half a dozen Malaysian boys and girls, three Indonesians, a guy and a girl from Australia, two Indian boys, a girl from England and the two Singaporean friends of C that I had already met earlier that week. All of them studied at different Singaporean universities. Until I met this bunch, I had considered myself young but surrounded by college going kids talking about their espadrilles and fizzy hairstyles and Justin Biebers, I felt like an elder statesman with grey hair and arthritis watching his grandkids talk about stuff beyond his understanding. I was also on a different plane of consciousness altogether because most of them were already high on alcohol and I felt like a sober elder gent trying to keep up with their non-stop rickety rack.

C then justifiably got bored of my company and went over to go talk to the girls and I was left all alone to fend for myself. I’m ordinarily quite uptight and terrible at non-nerdy small talk but this crowd of people was so strange, unfamiliar and out of my league that I felt even more alienated and awkward than I would otherwise. I hated myself for ditching a perfectly good gig for some kind of impromptu Spring Break party with tweens. I thought, if I felt so out of my depth at the very outset, an entire night on a beach with these kids was only going to make me even more depressive and lonesome. So I ditched the group by getting off at the next station and took the train that went back to Raffles Place.

I walked down to Esplanade Bridge and Marina Bay to get over the mildly depressive blues I had been feeling. Here, Chinese tourists were faking pictures of themselves drinking water pouring from the mouth of the Merlion, the Singapore flyer was gleaming in the distance with tourists taking overpriced rides on its giant wheel, the Singapore River Cruise was floating daintily in the waters with the people inside flashing their cameras at the skyscraper ship of the Marina Bay Sands.

These scenes felt familiar and comforting and I felt, at that moment, that however much an “outsider” may try to “blend in” and have an “authentic” experience, it’s never possible to see a city one doesn’t belong to like the people who live there do, especially not in the short amount of time one is allowed to spend in a foreign city. Arguably, going with the kids to a part of Singapore a lot of people don’t travel to might have given me an insight into the lives of college going kids in the city but I doubt I would have learnt any more than what I already had from my conversations with C. I consoled myself with the thought that it would have largely been a long night of alcohol and partying where, knowing myself, I would have felt too awkward to get a word in edgewise.

So, to perhaps compensate for this aborted trip, I chose to be an ordinary tourist in Singapore for the next 3 days. I went to the Asian Civilizations Museum to have a look at the spectacularly organized ancient artifacts from all over Asia where I learnt more about Indian art than I did in Indian museums, I walked around the Botanical Gardens for a slice of peace and tranquility, I walked up and down the electronic malls at Sim Lim Square and Funan to shop for electronic gadgets, I visited the Peranakan Museum housed in an old, sprawling Peranakan house with two Chinese dudes from my hostel where the Singaporean guide who took us around was highly curious to know how what he was showing me compared to what I had seen in India, I fought vertigo and the humid heat to walk the 11 km trail in the MacRitchie reservoir over the canopy of the tropical rainforest to the mighty suspension bridge dangling hundreds of meters above the ground and of course, I wasted my money at the Raffles Hotel doing that much maligned touristy thing of having a sugary sweet Singapore Sling in its colonial garden on a warm afternoon.

The more you did in a capitalist construct like Singapore, the more you felt you had to do. And it was only a conversation with an Australian backpacker who was staying in the same dorm as I was and who had travelled on a bicycle all the way from Japan via Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Laos etc. that I realised there were other places I wished to see and that if I wanted to do so, I had to get the hell out of Singapore. The next morning, I packed my bags and took a bus to the border at Johor Bahru to cross over to Malaysia. Although it’s undoubtedly a city made of and for money, I had a terrific time in Singapore. It wasn’t as cold and sterile as some travel literature led me to believe (I’m looking at you Paul Theroux) with a true cosmopolitan core that gave it diversity and life, a place I could easily go back when I needed some comfort and order.

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Onwards to Pindari

I opened the door of my little cell at Hotel Annapoorna in Bageshwar to find a face staring at me in utter torpor. So complete was the shock writ in its contours that I was about to ask the boy who owned the face if he wanted to sit down and if everything was okay and who the hell died? The face then regained its composure somewhat and said, “Aap Pindari jaa rahe hai?” (Are you going to Pindari?) I replied in the affirmative and the face sank again. The eyes sized me up and then looked at me like they were looking at a cat wanting to learn how to ride a bicycle.

Earlier that day, I had gone to the KMVN office to casually enquire if they had someone who could accompany me to the Pindari Glacier. The man at the reception said I didn’t need a guide for this particular trek as the path was easy to navigate and that I could find my way easily. But I was terrified of walking on my own after the disastrous trek to Vriddha Jageshwar a week ago when I had lost my way on the widest and clearest trail one could find. So I told him I’d rather go with a guide if he knew someone who could take me. He said he knew nobody who could and I walked back to my dank little room at Hotel Annapoorna dejectedly.

Hence, I didn’t expect this dismayed figure to show up at 9 pm in the night. After D had recovered from his shock where the wars going on his head about whether it was wise to take up this “assignment” was clearly apparent and the business end of his brain had ended up triumphant, he invited me over to where he was staying so he could go over the route with me. He generously ordered dinner for both of us while he took me through all the possible routes in the area, the trails to Pindari, Kafni, Sunderdhunga. Soon his apprehensions about my ability appeared to have evaporated as he made an itinerary for a 20 day long walk through remote Himalayan terrain much of which would involve walking through dangerous terrain, camping in the wildernesses and the use of porters to carry food supplies.

But I had to depressingly remind both of us that I was not some millionaire with a bottomless pool of money to spend on people who would carry my luggage, cook my food and take me around. Even D was a luxury I was permitting myself because I didn’t want to take stupid risks and it would be a crying shame to come all the way to the Himalaya and not walk its mountains. D looked crestfallen but he was in no mood to give up. He tried to convince me to go the whole distance by pulling out pictures of a 24 year old French guy who worked as a waiter and who had gone with him on a 2 month long sojourn through the remotest parts of the Kumaon Himalaya. Such was the bond they struck during that journey that the Frenchman still wrote letters to him. If I did this, my mind would become clear and I was certain to be successful in whatever I chose to do with my life after. It all sounded very exciting, I said, but we’ll take it as it comes and see how the body and the wallet feels after I finish the 4 day hike to Pindari. My only instruction to him was, KEEP IT CHEAP!

Which is why I found it particularly vexing when he turned up at my hotel the next morning on a jeep that belonged to his friend and coyly informed me that I’ll have to pay 1000 rupees to get to the trailhead at Loharkhet. I had done some investigation of my own the day before and found that a local shared jeep went to Loharkhet from Bageshwar which would cost me a measly 100 Rs. I couldn’t afford a private jeep for myself, I said, and it would be better for both of us if we found the shared jeep that took us to the trailhead. D was puzzled at my anger. “This is for your own good,” he said, “It’s a lot more comfortable. They cram 15 people into those sumos and people even ride on the roof. Where are we going to find space for all the things we are shopping for?”

“What are we shopping for?”, I asked, my anger rising with every heartbeat. D then brandished a shopping list which included a feather jacket, a down jacket, a sleeping bag rated to -20 degrees, snow shoes, carabiniers, woollen caps, gaiters, a 2 man tent, ropes, thermal inners, walking sticks, cooking stove, utensils, rice, potatoes, a kilo of oats, tea, 10 packs of maggi and a dozen other items. He smiled and said he knew a place in Kapkote run by a friend that could get us all of this in just a little over 15000 Rs. The Pindari was a teahouse trek with conveniently set rest houses on the way that provided food and shelter so you didn’t have to carry any tents or food. So I dropped my bags and told him I wasn’t going with him and would walk alone if I had to. D was again perplexed at my reaction and when I explained why I felt his shopping list was extortionate, he said we would need all of these if we were going to Sunderdhunga and the other remote routes he had told me about and that supplies would be a lot more expensive if we had to shop for those in the villages on the way.

“Look at me”, I said, “do I look like a guy who could walk up and down mountains for weeks on end?” D laughed and said, “Baat toh sahi hai lekin hum aap se pachaas kilo zyada logon se bhi trekking karwa lete hain”. (You’re probably right but I can make people 50 kilos heavier than you trek in the mountains) I told him that I will go with him on two conditions. One, that we go there in a local shared jeep and two, we won’t be shopping for anything for the Pindari trek as I already had all the woollens and shoes that I needed. D nodded dejectedly and got rid of his friend who had some choice words to say to him for having wasted his time.

So we went to the jeep stand, found a jeep that went to the trailhead at Loharkhet and rode on the roof with sacks of onions and chickens because all the seats inside were taken.

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The “Why I quit my job and began traveling” post

10 years ago, I quit the last regular paying job I had. I was working in a production house that cut Hindi film trailers and was one of the two main video editors working there. While the other guy handled the bulk of the trailer cutting for Hindi films, I was saddled with the responsibility of supervising the post production work of two daily entertainment shows that the production house had been doing. I would be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy editing videos. I loved it. Just the idea of making a coherent whole out of bits and pieces of footage fascinated me (and still fascinates me) and it didn’t matter what I was cutting, it could be a simple AV, a news piece or a trailer for a shitty Hindi film, it felt amazing.

I quit my job not because I hated it but because the environment around it had become too overbearing. There were too few of us doing too much work and work always meant you were in the office with your edit machine for days on end. Our loyalty was always taken for granted by the owner of the production house. All the crazy working hours meant that I was losing the few people I considered my friends, some of whom I lost permanently. In many years of working in the “industry”, the only people I met were the ones I worked with. There was no time for anyone else.

To add to this overworked, claustrophobic life, my salary stopped getting paid on time. Sometimes it would take weeks, sometimes months. My November salary was paid at the end of December and when I quit in the end of January, I hadn’t been paid for two months. 10 years later, I’m still waiting for my paycheck, money that I could have used back then and I could certainly use now. That’s the way the “industry” worked and everyone who worked in it understood it. I just wasn’t willing to put up with it anymore.

I certainly didn’t leave my job because I wished to travel. I had no idea what I was going to do. I was an inveterate cinephile and was hoping to catch up on all the obscure films that I had wanted to see. I also wanted to make films and I thought the time that freed up could be utilized in fleshing out some of the ideas I had at the time. Time could also come handy to finally commence reading the gazillion books that were (and still are) languishing unread in my home. I was also toying with the idea of joining another company where my talents as a video editor could be more effectively utilized.

So no, travel wasn’t even on the horizon. Cinephilia, bibliophilia, career, writing, films, these were my foremost concerns at the time. I didn’t even know people quit jobs and travelled because I had known nobody who had done that. The only trips outside Mumbai I had done up to that point were short weekend sojourns to Suratkal or the Konkan coast or to watch Roger Waters or Megadeth playing in Bangalore and I always went with friends. When I was a kid, the only travel my family ever did was to our village in Tamil Nadu or to Chennai or a pilgrimage to a temple where our relatives lived. So this particular hobby or passion or way of life or whatever you wish to call it wasn’t even in my subconscious.

Three things set off the spark that would lead to the most enduring occupation of my life. One, the jobless life became tiring very quickly. After years of having no time on my hands, I didn’t know what to do with such a lot of time. I didn’t end up doing any of the writing, reading, filming and socializing that I had fantasized I would do and after two honeymooning days of freedom, found myself sad and depressed and hollow and nervy. I felt like I had to do a lot of things but didn’t know what to prioritize and ended up doing nothing at all. I was also extremely worried about money because even after working for so many years, I didn’t have much of a bank balance. I had spent a lot of my money on CDs, DVDs and books and feared I would run out of money if I didn’t get another job soon.

Two, a few days into this insecure, ennuic period, I had a conversation with a friend about the number of places we had been to in our lives. She listed over 30 while I could hardly put together a dozen. While this was only a silly little game we played to kill time, I found it shocking, perhaps owing to the unstable state my mind was in at the time. I felt like if I didn’t remedy this soon, I would die having seen only a dozen places in my life. I stopped getting out of the house and went down deep, dark holes of the interwebs looking at all the places I hadn’t been to and filled my time imagining how life would be in these myriad different places. The more I read, the more I felt as if I had lived a wasted life. It made me antsier and more irritable because I wanted to get out and see these places but I feared I didn’t have the money to do it.

And finally, and this is perhaps the strangest (and silliest) bit, the actual trigger came in the form of a film that released in the February of 2009 called Dev D. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where Dev, the protagonist who’s a wasteful drunkard and an asshole, gets almost knocked over by a vehicle while he’s stumbling out of a bar in an inebriated state. He finds a new lease of life when he realises he needs to make amends before it gets too late. I loved films but never took what happened in them seriously enough to make real changes in my life. But that particular scene kept running through my head and I saw that film again and again and I thought if I didn’t get out and see whatever little of the world I could with the money I had, I would die living a wasted life working for people who never valued my work.

I had no plan and took things as they came but I thought I would travel for a couple of months, come back and find a proper job with a fresher mind. Not in my wildest dreams did I imagine I would still be doing this full-time over 10 years later in 2019. In these years, I have torn my ligaments, broken my bones, stayed in the dankest of hotels, slept in bus-stations and pavements, wrecked my digestive system plenty of times, had a surgery in a country few people know exists, got bitten by dogs, almost lost my life over half a dozen times etc. But I’ve also seen some truly magical landscapes, lived in some of the most beautiful places and met some incredible people, all of which has given me enough material to write about for the rest of this life-time and perhaps the next. So a big thank you to everyone I’ve met on the road who’s made this journey so worthwhile, to all my friends and family, to the handful of people who read this blog and to my lovely partners at mediamagi who’ve endured my eccentric ways for so long and so patiently. Cheers.

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Rumbak

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The walk to the Markha Valley began with a cop-out. I wanted to do it alone, just with a rucksack for company and by public transport to the trail head. But no buses went to Zingchen where the long traverse to the Markha Valley began. Zingchen was not a settlement big enough to warrant these luxuries. An option was to walk from wherever the bus dropped me off on the highway but one look at the map and the mountainous wilderness that lay between the points was enough to dissuade me from the idea. So when I heard M and J, two great ladies from Australia, talk about doing the trek in the spacious confines of the restaurant at the Oriental Guest House in Leh, I threw my intrepid plans out of the window and joined in.

By the time I began this journey, I had spent over 2 months in Ladakh but I wasn’t quite used to the more surreal aspects of the Ladakhi weather. When we left Leh in our private taxi, the temperature was close to freezing but as we drove on the barren wilderness towards Zingchen, the sun was beating down our heads and there wasn’t a hint of a wind blowing our way. It became so hot that we had to tear down layers off our over-dressed bodies to beat the heat. It was singularly strange because the mountains around us were draped in thick stormy clouds bringing down rain and snow on their slopes, the very terrain we would be walking for over a week. These stormy portents did nothing to soothe our nerves.

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The vehicle dropped us off near the edge of a plateau where a group of pack animals with big burdens on their backs were grazing by a little stream. M, J and I looked at this scene with contempt and thought, “Tourists.” But when I saw a familiar face amongst the group of people huddled together in the distance, I knew these weren’t mere tourists.

When you spend any length of time in a place, you become more recognizable to some of its denizens even if they may not know you very well. So it was with A, the Ladakhi girl I had met on the Sham Valley trek, who was now leading a Canadian wildlife conservationist on a recce of snow leopard terrain on the same route we were going. She worked with the Snow Leopard Conservancy in Leh and part of her assignment was to make sure the parachute cafes (locally run tents serving tea, coffee, drinks and snacks to exhausted trekkers) on the route up to Ganda La were up and running. We made small talk and chit chat at the café by the dainty stream in Zingchen. I was hoping that we could follow her to make sure we were on the right trail but being citizens of the mountains and hence many times fitter, they were miles ahead while we were merely tottering behind stopping every few minutes to catch our breaths.

We hopped across raging streams on precipitous log-wood bridges, walked over slippery scree slopes avoiding nasty slips into deep ravines below, miraculously found ourselves on the right track after repeatedly losing our way on clearly marked trails, gaped at the crenelated bowl of mountains that surrounded us on all sides at all times, slipped through spectacular canyon gorges that looked like mythical doorways beckoning us to otherworldly landscapes, and wondered at the infinite geometric permutations that made the wildly different designs on the doorframes in the shepherd huts on the way possible.

Closer to Rumbak, at a wild turn on the blackened slopes, we caught up with A and her team. They were squinting with their binoculars at the rocky crags of a vertical mountainside a few miles away. To the naked eye, it was perplexing and I began to get a move on thinking the team had gone mad. But A lent me her binoculars and urged me to look more closely at some of the crags. I did and sure enough, the eye could see horned figures jumping from rock to rock vertiginously.

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Bharals are a fairly common sight in the wilder parts of the Himalayas and the trans-Himalayas. But the Canadian naturalist suspected they were argali, a terribly rare species of mountain goat. A was quite sure that they couldn’t be anything but bharal and seemed a bit exasperated at the naturalist’s stubbornness. A had grown up in Rumbak and had been watching these animals all her life, so no snooty Canadian was going to win an argument with her on her turf. Eventually, the Canadian had to concede grumpily and they moved on.

I had a closer encounter with the bharals a couple of miles ahead. There was a herd of them hanging right above the cliff we were under, impossibly balanced on sheer vertical slopes. Every time they moved a shower of scree would rain down and we had to run for cover. Neither the naturalist nor the team were too interested in this sight because they didn’t believe it was so special. M & J moved on as well while I lingered for a while watching these graceful creatures socialize and canter about the craggy cliffs. A meditative calm set upon me sitting all alone in the cold wilderness watching these wild goats hop from one rock to another. Every once in a while, the entire herd would look in my direction, perhaps wondering if this guy staring at their mundane routines had gone full loco.

In the outskirts of Rumbak, the women of the village were setting up the parachute tents for the season. They had lugged chairs, tables, cylinders, tent poles, food supplies etc. on their shoulders and the backs of ponies and now beckoned hungry trekkers like myself to stop by and have a cup of tea or maggi. It was a handy location for hardy trekkers who liked to camp closer to the high pass of Ganda La and wanted to take a break before pushing on without having to visit the village.

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A gentle snowfall began to pepper the landscape as I trudged towards the village whose ancient stone walls were visible in the distance in the backdrop of the razor-sharp crags of the Stok range. Mani-walls and whitewashed stupas lined the entrance to the village. Some of the mud-caked walls were ornamented with horns of the myriad species of mountain goats found in the region, relics from a time when they were considered totems of fertility. The architecture of the village was typically Ladakhi, rectangular grey and white structures made of wood and stone, built to withstand extreme weather of all kinds. The fields, set in a little bowl of space surrounded by enormous mountains, were marked with crude wooden fences made from the lean poplar trees that one finds in abundance everywhere in Ladakh.

The homestays in the village were run by the Snow Leopard Conservancy and the homes were allotted to guests on a turn-based system. As it turned out, M & J were put up in a house at one end of the village while I was given a house at the other end. But instead of settling down in my allotted homestay, I dumped my rucksack in A’s house and went for a long walk towards the Stok mountains. Coarse, stony, sheep pens marked the other end of the village and they looked so beaten and battered by the weather that from a distance they took on the aspect of ruinous, forgotten old watchtowers crumbling in the shadow of an ancient landscape.

As I walked on, gentle rolling hills towered on my left glowing in rosy and amber hues while in the distance, the sharper edged mountains of the Stok range rose like an impenetrable wall, their peaks peppered with snow. I sat on a stony platform a few miles from the village away, it seemed, from all of humanity, admiring the enormity of this landscape. The silence here was so total that I was startled when I heard faint whistles and hoots in the distance.

Two villagers from Rumbak were descending down a distant slope with a herd of sheep. They were on their way back to the village from grazing in the mountains below the high pass of Stok La. This could have been a scene from a hundred years ago and the only element that gave away the fact that we were in the 21st century was the dust soaked winterwear the villagers had donned for protection from sub-zero temperatures. We walked together silently to Rumbak where they directed the sheep into some of the ramshackle pens I had seen on the way.

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I got my rucksack back from A’s house and dutifully socialized with my hosts at the homestay. Ladakhis like to congregate not in their living rooms, but in their kitchens because of the natural warmth a lighted stove provides from the biting cold of the night. This particular kitchen was typical of a Ladakhi kitchen room with a mighty vertical stove in the cooking area and the walls covered top to bottom with shelves full of brass and copper utensils surrounded by colourfully decorated pots and pans.

T and S were delightfully warm and hospitable. I took a crash course in rolling momos to assist them in the cooking but after a couple of clumsily rolled balls, gave up because I didn’t wish to waste any more food. Food takes an inordinately long time to cook in the Ladakhi weather, so T indulged me in conversation to kill the time. He worked as a trail guide for wildlife conservationists who came to the village to go Snow Leopard watching and since Rumbak was strategically placed to provide the best opportunity to spot these elusive and secretive wild cats, work was never too hard to come by. One of his most cherished trips was with an intrepid National Geographic team that had set camp in the village to shoot a film on the wildlife in the area.

After they had done cooking the food, S worked away in a corner, stitching woollen socks meant to be sold to tourists during the peak season. Back then, I was terribly shy to use my camera on people but T & S urged me to shoot them knitting, laughing, posing for the camera. They were disarmingly good people whose warm hospitality made me think of extending my stay in the village.

But T had to go away to Leh on some work and S wouldn’t be around all day. If I had to extend, I would have to move to another house. The next village on the trail was merely two hours’ walk away and M & J wanted to get a move on as well. So off we trudged to the one-house village of Yurutse down the valley two mountain slopes away.

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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 Road to Lunglei

The Mizo couple accompanying Rajesh had to return to Aizawl because of an emergency. One of their relatives had suffered a stroke and was on life support. They were terribly apologetic that they couldn’t drive Rajesh to Lunglei to inspect the petrol pump they owned. However, they did arrange for a taxi to take him to the junction in Thenzawl where share taxis plying to Lunglei from Aizawl stopped to pick up passengers and since we had broken bread the previous night as fellow outsiders in Mizoram, he allowed me to accompany him in the taxi.

We were dropped at a restaurant which appeared to be the de-facto hang out place for anyone looking for any mode of transport going anywhere. Here, looking at the row of big vehicles lined by the roadside, we were confident that we would find a seat in one of them. But alas, all of them were full and as they rumbled away, we were left stranded all alone.

We ate some noodles at the shop to bide our time. After an hour of protracted wait, Rajesh was getting nervy and tense. He went up to the lady at the counter asking for assistance in finding a vehicle to Lunglei but she just shooed him away with a flick of a hand like he was a cumbersome pest. Rajesh was infuriated at being dismissed so contemptuously. But he couldn’t take it out on the lady, so he came over to my table and began blurting a litany of racist abuses directed at the state of Mizoram and its people. The faces in the restaurant turned to look in our direction in consternation and the panic-meter in my head was going off the charts thinking of the repercussions of this outburst. The easiest way to get into trouble in a place you don’t belong is to vilify a people while you’re among them.

I asked Rajesh to shut the fuck up and went outside looking for anything that would take us to Lunglei. A taxi driver had been watching me flailing about from a distance and he came over to offer a ride for 2000 Rs. in his Alto. I thought it was a pretty sweet deal for an 80 km ride on some of the worst roads in the country. So I went up to Rajesh and told him we could get a move on because I had found a taxi to take us to Lunglei.

Rajesh reacted to my pragmatic move with fire and fury. He castigated me for getting into such a ludicrous deal without his consent as if I had filched his hard-earned cash out of his wallet. He was a family man, he said, and couldn’t afford luxuries like a private cab ride through the hills when he was on duty. Every rupee saved was a rupee that would put his son through college. We should be looking for the cheapest mode of transport that would help him finish his work and get back home in one piece, he bawled.

This angered me immensely and I stormed out of the restaurant with my rucksack to see if I could make the cab driver shave a few hundred rupees off the fare and get going. But the man appeared to have run away, possibly riled by Rajesh’s caustic attitude towards his generous offer. So I waited glumly by the roadside for any vehicle to arrive. At that moment, I didn’t care if it was a milk van, a truck or a school bus or a pony cart. All I wished to do was hit the road. It was then that the lady at the restaurant, perhaps stirred by the despondent look on my face, sent a little girl with a message.

The message was, “Wait 10 minutes. Bus is coming.” This was sweeter than honey to my ears. For a moment, I deliberated on delivering the good news to Rajesh who was morosely staring into space from the restaurant window. But recalling his disrespectful attitude from before, I chose not to.

The Mizoram State Transport doesn’t run an awful lot of buses in the state but there is one that goes from Aizawl to Lunglei early in the morning. On certain days, there is another that leaves Aizawl at 10 a.m. to reach Thenzawl by 1 p.m. And it was on this 1 p.m. bus that I found a seat by the window of the last row. As the bus moved, I saw a figure running behind banging vigorously at its hindside. It was Rajesh.

Rajesh took the only space vacant in the entire bus, a gap of a few inches between myself and an elderly Mizo woman sitting next to me. He had also bought a carton full of diminutive guava juice bottles for the road and handed me half a dozen of them as a friendly gesture of peace and harmony.

Over the course of the 3 hour journey, perhaps to overcompensate for his rude behaviour earlier, he battered me with questions about my life in Mumbai, my college days, my views on religion, food habits, family life, lack of a family life, marriage plans, career prospects, Salman Khan etc. I indulged him initially with questions of my own to keep the conversation going but soon, it became exhausting as his thirst for the knowledge of intimate details of my private life knew no bounds. But my disinterested monosyllabic replies only seemed to make him try harder at framing more probing questions. So I put earphones on to hint at my desire to end the conversation. But this measure too was to no avail as he plucked one of them out of my ears to find out what I was listening to. King Crimson’s Red was understandably incomprehensible to him and I had to spend an awful amount of time listening to his disapproval of my taste in music and his romantic ideas of what they should be. He whipped out his own playlist and made me listen to some of his favourite songs from the 90s, all of them overflowing with melancholic self-pity, like “Kitna Haseen Chehra”, “Jeeta Tha Jiske Liye”, “Bhari Barsaat Mein Pee Lene Do” etc. He insisted on singing passionately along with these songs drawing stares from the passengers around. At this point, I realised that to put up any fight would be futile. So I let him have his way and endured his shenanigans for the rest of the journey.

The final 10 km of the road before Lunglei had been decimated by the year’s monsoon and the resulting landslides. Work was on in full swing with labourers caked in the dirt of monstrous toil attempting to smoothen the bumps as well as they could. This was a torturous stretch where the road was less a road than a rocky, marshy gloop and seated on the last row of the bus, my spinal cord could feel every little inflection of the route twisting its tissues to the brink. There wasn’t an awful lot of headroom in the bus either, so every big bump on the trail meant a knock on the head. It’s a minor miracle that Rajesh and I survived it without any debilitating concussions.

Rajesh departed at a petrol pump on the way while I got off at the point where a steep road curved up to the Lunglei Tourist Lodge. It was strategically located on top of the highest hill in the vicinity and while the climb up was exhausting, the first thing I wanted to do when I reached the lodge was to drop my rucksacks in the lobby, take out my camera and click pictures because the views from here were so stunning that I had to pinch myself to see if I wasn’t dreaming.

It was 4 p.m. in the evening and to one side you had a cascade of green hills ornamented by low clouds and on the other, yellowing wisps of fog alternately revealing and obscuring the urban cityscape on the hills in the distance, a quintessentially Mizo landscape. I’ll let the pictures do the talking because no vocabulary (that I possess) can do justice to its beauty.

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Rishikesh #FIN

This is a continuation of my Rishikesh series with stories cobbled together from my trip there in April 2009. Do check out #1, #2, #3, #4, #5, #6 and #7.

Jessica’s exit made Jasbir glum and morose for a couple of days. He became unusually pious, taking the front row seat at Swami D’s discourses and accompanying him to the Bhagavad Gita recitals at the ghats where he sat for hours on end rapt in attention. Even Swami D appeared to be perturbed by this abrupt change in character and would wonder if he was alright because although his old self could be highly repugnant, this newly reformed character was downright scary. In order to snap him back to his original, brash avatar, I would tell him that he was being like Joseph (whose lovelorn Romeo manifestation Jasbir abhorred) and induce him to make a crass joke or two, all to no avail.

Which is why I was taken aback when he showed up so cheerfully at the Green Italian Restaurant the day I was sitting with Mohan and Archana. Jasbir had been attending the yoga classes assiduously since Jessica’s departure and it was in one of those that he met Natalya, the Russian girl. She had the immediate effect of making him forget all about Jessica and while Jessica wouldn’t even look in his direction, Natalya found him highly endearing. She would make him tell her stories about his life in Delhi and would laugh at the mere suggestion of a joke.

Jasbir would insist that I join in some of these annoying displays of mutual courtships. We would be sitting in Chotiwalla, eating a thali, and Natalya would wonder loudly what was up with the bald guy with the pink paint all over his face sitting outside the restaurant all day. Then, Jasbir would make up a fictitious story which would give her laughter fits and have the entire place stare at our table. We would walk around Swargashram and Jasbir would make up ridiculous names for the babas lining the roads, calling one “Happy Baba”, another “Charsi Baba”, all very loudly, inviting the wrath of the people around us as they watched Natalya whelp with laughter.

One day, tired of being tagged along in these amorous escapades, I begged Jasbir to leave me out the next time. To which, Jasbir said, “Bhai, tu akela hai na? Mere saath ladki dekhega toh samjhega kaise patathe hai. Jalan bhi hota hoga na tujhe? Accha hai. Hona bhi chahiye. Tabhi dhundega apne liye kisiko?” (Dude, you’re lonely. Only if you see me with a girl will you learn how to flirt with one. You must also feel jealous, right? That’s good. You should be because only then will you go and find a girl for yourself.)

I told him I had absolutely no interest in looking for girls in Rishikesh. All I wanted to do was to see what life in Rishikesh was like. Jasbir scratched his chin, stared at me suspiciously and said, “Bhai, tu kahin woh gay type toh nahin hai?” (Dude, are you one of those gay types?)

I heaved a weary sigh and said no, I wasn’t a “gay type”. But I was also not in Rishikesh to score girls like he was. Jasbir conveniently ignored the second line and said, “Acchi baat hai. Mai kuch karta hoon.” (That’s good. I’ll do something.)

What he did was show up with two girls the next day when I was quietly reading a book in an undisturbed corner of the Ganga Café. One, of course, was Natalya and the other was…

“Mera naam Vishnupriya aur aapka?”, said a young, snow-white face with blond hair. Jasbir grinned gleefully like someone who had gift-wrapped a present and was certain the recipient will be eternally thankful for it. But this recipient was angry.

I didn’t know how to react. It was obvious that Jasbir had gotten Vishnupriya in on some ruse and she had no idea what his devious intentions were. So I chose not to outrage and deal with him later. It was also the moment I decided it was time for me to leave Rishikesh because after 3 weeks in the town under the inescapable glare of Jasbir, life was getting to be a bit creepy.

Jasbir ordered me to dump my book and get ready to leave the café because we were all going to the 13-storey temple near Lakshman Jhula, one of the unmissable visual landmarks in Rishikesh. On the way there, Natalya insisted she wanted to see it from the riverside and take pictures. So instead of going over the bridge and be done with it like sensible people, we took a long detour via loose rocks on the river bed. Then, once we were at the edge of the river with the water right underneath our feet, Natalya wondered if we could take a short-cut and cut across to reach the temple.

It was a terrible idea because even though the river was very shallow where we were, it was a lot deeper further down and it was apparent to even a child that it was impossible to cross such a big river with its horrendous currents. But Jasbir made encouraging noises and told her that was a great idea. He asked me to stay behind with Vishnupriya and… do something while he went on his long foreplay ritual.

So Vishnupriya and I stood there trying to make awkward small talk while Jasbir went yowling behind Natalya and awkwardly tried to negotiate knee deep waters in the swirling currents. I told Vishnupriya that I needed a coffee and she could either stand there and watch the two lovebirds giggling like swans all alone or join me at the Devraj Coffee Corner. It was a no brainer and at an airy terrace table of the Coffee Corner, watching monkeys pouncing on the passengers feeding them food, we made some conversation.

Vishnupriya was a Finnish girl in her late 20s who had been living in Rishikesh for 5 months learning Patanjali Yoga under a learned guru. The learned guru had coined her Hindu name after carefully going through name-lists and choosing one that he felt defined her the best astrologically. She had also been learning Hindi and Sanskrit from one of Jasbir’s myriad acquaintances and it was on one of these casual visits that they met each other. Because of her resolution to learn the language as thoroughly as she could, Vishnupriya spoke only in Hindi with everyone she met in India.

Our conversation was interrupted by a cheerful gentleman in saffron robes. This man helped himself to a chair and Vishnupriya introduced him as someone who was a disciple of the same learned guru as herself. She then told him that I was a film editor from Mumbai (in 2009 I still entertained hopes that I was) and he reacted to this information like he was being reunited with a long-lost cousin.

“Your film industry made me very sad once,” he said, with his eyes gazing at the shiny shimmers on the waters of the Ganga down below. “I was a young actor in a Rajesh Khanna film, one of the villain’s stooges who had to stand around and laugh at his mad jokes. I was still very young and wanted to make it big. All big actors had to start with small roles and I had only four dialogues in the movie. I forget what they were but they were your typical dumb lines of yelling and shouting. I was very excited because this was my first role in cinema. When it released, I took my mother to see the film in the theatre. She was a big fan of Rajesh Khanna, completely in love with him. I knew she would love the film and appreciate me for being in the same scenes as the star she loved so much. But, alas, as soon as the screening got over, all I got was a tight slap on my cheeks. She scolded me for wasting my life and her money on such tripe. That was the end of my film career because I realised she was right. There was no point working in the film industry unless you were Rajesh Khanna.”

Then, bidding a cheerful adieu, Vishnupriya went back to her ashram with this gentleman. I, too, returned to my room to recuperate from the activities of the day. On the way back, I said goodbye to everyone I had become acquainted with in all these days, the bookstore owner at Pustak Bhandar, the chaiwallah outside Parmarth Niketan, the friendly waiter at Puri Dukan etc. At the guest house, I sought Swami D and Ashok to tell them I was leaving . Ashok looked at me suspiciously and said, “Aap toh do din ke liye aaye the. Ab teen hafte ho gaye. Koi setting hua kya?” (You came here for two days. Now it’s three weeks. Did you find a girl or something?”) I just shook my head incredulously and went to my room.

An hour later, Jasbir showed up to find out how it went with Vishnupriya. I told him what we did and he was predictably disappointed. To dishearten him even further, I said I had resolved to get out of Rishikesh the very next day. Jasbir would perhaps have been a bit more aggrieved had he not been under the spell of Natalya but he took this news with a great degree of equanimity, as if he was expecting this to happen the whole time. It was I who felt peeved at his frigid reaction.

With its Little Tibets, Nirvana Cafes, Ganga Beach Camps etc., much of Rishikesh is a marketing exercise geared towards making a variety of spiritual ideas more palatable, understandable and most importantly, saleable to western eyes. Some of it is undoubtedly genuine but a lot of it is designed to take you on a rollercoaster divinity ride. It’s nevertheless a fascinating place. I would be back in Rishikesh a number of times over 2009 and 2010 but it was the 3 weeks of bargain basement living in the cramped dwelling in Swargashram, waiting in shit queues, listening to Swami D every morning, hanging out with a kaleidoscopic variety of people, getting in and out of strange situations, that I had the most memorable times. I haven’t recounted all the stories because to do so would consume the length of a book but when I look at my clumsily assembled notes from the time, I find it difficult to believe that so many bonds were made in just a matter of 20 days.

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A month in Mizoram

IMG_5911First of all, if you’re going to Mizoram as an Indian national with no local sponsor and wish to travel for anything more than 10 days, it’s a pain and a half to get your permit extended. I can name at least a dozen foreign countries where my visa process and extensions have been easier than what I experienced in Mizoram. I was under the impression that as an Indian traveler, you get a 15 day ILP at the Mizoram House in Guwahati but what I got was just a 7 day permit extendable for no more than 3 days. I wanted to travel around for at least a month as I like to travel slow and long and after several point blank refusals at the DC Office in Aizawl and much begging and pleading and furnishing my instagram profile as a traveler, I was allowed a month long extension as a “Photographer” because mere tourists can’t have the luxury of such a generous permit extension.

That being said, I totally loved my time in Mizoram. The people were friendly and the hills are absolutely tourist-free and beautiful.

Getting in: If you have the time, I totally recommend the overland approach by train from Guwahati to Silchar. I took the 4.30 a.m. Kanchenjunga and after taking a nap for a couple of hours, got to enjoy some of the most gorgeous scenery I have seen from an Indian train. The route goes through thickly forested hills, wide valleys and green fields of the Barak valley on the way. 

Silchar was an unavoidable pit-stop as no jeeps left that late in the evening for Aizawl. Stayed at Hotel Center Palace, which had okayish rooms for 700 odd rupees. Had biryani at Nawab restaurant next door, which I highly recommend if you need to bunk here for a night.

From Silchar, I took the 8.30 a.m. sumo to Aizawl (400 Rs.) on a bumpy road that got steadily worse as it went along, getting better only a few kilometers before Aizawl.

Aizawl – There wasn’t a lot to do in Aizawl but walk around and take in views. The airbnb place (Vanhmingi’s house) I stayed in had the most spectacular view of all the viewpoints in Aizawl. It’s one of the only two places in the city listed on airbnb and is on top of Laiputluang hill near the PWD office and is, I was told, on the highest point in the city. The view here, I thought, was even better than the one from the Presbyterian Hospital which was fantastic as well. It’s a short but steep walk up and down from the place to the market but worth the effort to stay there to take in the morning and sunset views.

Apart from this place, I also stayed in 3 other hotels in Aizawl because I had to track back to the city to go to Champhai and Reiek. Chawlhna Hotel was a cheap hotel with dingy, tiny rooms that are just about OK for a night or two and the price I paid. Walk-in rate – 730 Rs. (online aggregators tend to offer a decent discount for this place) There’s a common balcony looking down to Lower Bazaar which is nice for people watching.

Hotel Elite was on the other end of the town about 3 kms from Zarkawt market. Again, got a great discount online which made the place tolerable. I would have been very angry if I had paid the rack rate here (2000 Rs.) for the room I was in. My room was boxed in and the only view I had was of the two building walls ten inches away.

Decided to luxe out for a night at Hotel Regency, supposedly Aizawl’s most fancy address. I don’t know how the expensive suite rooms are but my room was merely OK, with a decent bathroom. It was exorbitantly overpriced for what it was. The restaurant here was pretty good and inexpensive considering this is as fine dining as dining gets in Aizawl.

The best Mizo food apart from my homestay was at Red Pepper which had humongous Mizo thalis and some local rice wine to go with it. The Indian food at Jojo’s was great as well.

Hmuifang: Mizoram doesn’t have an extensive bus network but there’s a bus that leaves every morning at 6 a.m. to Lunglei with an unreliable 10 a.m. service on alternate days. Hmuifang is on the way to Lunglei and I stopped at the tourist lodge here for a couple of nights. The rooms here were somewhat dilapidated (the caretaker assured me it was because of the severe monsoon) but I thought they were decent for the location and the price.

The best views in Hmuifang apart from the top of the hill itself is just down the Lunglei road where there’s a clearing from which there was a 180 degree vista of the mountains beyond. Perfect place for the sunset.

Opposite the tourist lodge, an extremely friendly ex-army guy runs a restaurant which was my go-to place for chai and breakfast. The bread omlette and chicken pulao there was amazing.

Thenzawl: Caught the Lunglei bus and got down here to spend a couple of nights. Again, not much to do but walk around. There’s a sizeable handloom industry here with every house having an old-style weaving mill. The tourist lodge here was perhaps the best maintained of all the lodges in Mizoram. Lots of government functionaries and officers seem to stay here. There aren’t any views from the lodge itself but the church at the top of Thenzawl town had some pretty vistas.

The Vangtawng Falls were about 9 kms further down the Lunglei road. Got a seat on a shared sumo to Lunglei and got down at the falls. Beautiful falls, especially because I had the whole place to myself. Hitchhiked back to town and got down on the way because the landscapes just before Thenzawl on the Lunglei road were beautiful. Walked around 5 kms back.

Lunglei: I did not want to stop in Lunglei. It’s billing as the second biggest city in Mizoram did not appeal to me at all and I was impatient to move on to Saiha and Phawngpui as quickly as possible. But the road from Thenzawl to Lunglei was so horrible (it took 3 and a half hours to do less than 50 kms) that I had to spend a night to rest aching bones. Lunglei won me over though. From the tourist lodge here which is a few kilometers before the town, the views of the city and rolling hills to both sides were just gobsmackingly beautiful. The 600 Rs. I paid for the room here was practically a steal. Did nothing here for 4 days, except eat, sleep, take in the views from the road below, have long conversations with the pastor and stare at the valley on the other side from the church below. Spectacular place. I didn’t like the city itself so much but had to make one trip to book my seat to Lawngtlai.

Lawngtlai: Probably my only disappointment in Mizoram. Maybe because Aizawl, Hmuifang, Lunglei and even Thenzawl were so awesome, wasn’t so taken in with this grubby small town in the south. Probably the best thing about the place is that the lodge here is friendly and food was a bit better than some of the other lodges.

Saiha: Another beautiful town to land in Mizoram after a backbreaking sumo ride. The road from Lawngtlai was just horrible but the views from Saiha and the easy-going laidback nature of the place was just the right kind of balm for aching bones. The people here were the friendliest I encountered in the state. My Vodafone network disappeared as soon I landed in Saiha district but I spent 3 nights here just soaking up the atmosphere.

Twisted my ankle here, so decided not to go further to Vawmbuk and Sangau as I had planned earlier. A big disappointment, especially considering the fact that to come all the way back here, I’ll have to beg and plead at the DC Office again for a permit extension.

Broke the journey at Lunglei and reach Aizawl the day after.

This stretch itself had exhausted 17 days of my permit. To heal my ankle, which the doctor said would take 2-3 days of rest, spent a couple of days in Aizawl and headed to

Reiek – Caught the 12 a.m. sumo from the Bungkawn stand. Don’t go to Reiek on the weekend unless you want to party. I didn’t mind the Aizawl crowds here though and I was amazed that most of them were coming to this awesome place merely 30 kms from the city for the first time. Was thrilled that I could do the hike to the top and the views were just spectacular. Spent 3 nights here and did climbs to some of the other peaks around too. Beautiful trekking country.

The lodge in Reiek was run by a very friendly guy and couple of ladies. Apart from myself, there was only a group of labourers staying at the property. They were building something at the Children’s Park and we hung out over lunches and dinners every day.

Saitual – The share jeeps to Saitual run from the sumo counter on a flight of steps adjacent to the Millenium Center at 6 a.m., then hourly from 12 a.m to 2 p.m.. Saitual was a laidback place but not one worth hanging around for long. The tourist lodge here had been “privatised” but the place was friendly and well-kept enough. Took a taxi from here to Tamdil and back and while the Tamdil Tourist lodge was at a great location right at the edge of the lake, it looked quite desolate and uncared for and I was glad I stayed at Saitual. The lake itself was merely alright and I have a feeling it’s been touted about as an “attraction” only because Mizoram doesn’t really have that many “tourist” attractions. There are spectacular views wherever you go and look, but very few “attractions”.

Champhai – The road to Champhai was less a road than a rocky trail punctuated by landslides. Took 8 hours to do the 100 kms from Saitual, the most obscenely difficult road of all in Mizoram. Since my permit would run out in a week’s time, decided to stick around in Champhai for 3 nights. Loved the town, which had a different landscape of the Mizo hills compared to other Mizo towns. Lots of green fields, beautiful evening light and rolling hills. I wanted to go further to Farkawn and Murlen but just didn’t have the time. The perils of a stringent permit regime and a slow, relaxed travel routine.

Kolasib – Since I had two days left in my permit, decided to break my journey in the little-visited town of Kolasib on the way to Silchar. There was a wedding at the tourist lodge on the day I landed here and since I like social evenings when I travel alone, it was good fun with lots of alcohol and 80s rock music. The lodge here doesn’t have any views but there’s a school at the back which had a little clearing (infested with mosquitoes) that gave a nice view of the sunset over the hills.

The best view of the hills is from the viewpoint just after Thingdawl on the Aizawl road with a jawdropping view of an entire range of hills. There are also nice views of the lake from some of the shop terraces on the way to the market who were nice enough to let me in to take pictures from the rooftops.

So that was the account of my first tour of Mizoram lasting 29 days.

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Dehradun

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I was woken up at 7 in the morning with loud knocks on the door by the man at the reception. “Saab aaye hain aapse milne (A gentleman has come to see you)”, he said with a huff and left. I didn’t know anyone in Dehradun let alone “saabs”, so I thought it must be a misunderstanding and went back to sleep. After two minutes, he banged the door again and said angrily, “Kaha naa saab aaye hain? Chaliye jaldi. (Did I not tell you a gentleman was here for you? Come quickly!)” This was annoying and highly perplexing.

When I went downstairs, the man who was waiting for me (let’s call him JD) greeted me warmly and scolded me for staying in a cheap hotel when I could be living with him. He was a close family friend but since I was habitually anti-social when it came to family, I hadn’t seen him in a long time and had absolutely no idea that he lived in Dehradun. Apparently, my mother, in a state of panic after reading the e-mail about my lost phone, had called him up and asked him to take me home. I had a rather strict “no meeting friends or family on the road” rule but after 3 weeks of bad hotels, toxic food and exhausted wanderings, I wasn’t unhappy to go live in a sheltered environment for a while.

He was extremely polite, humble and mild-mannered for someone who was a high-ranking officer in the Indian Navy. But I could get a sense of his stature when a bike, in an attempt to overtake his car near a signal, grazed the bumper at the back. The biker couldn’t dodge the signal, so when he stopped, JD got out and censured him viciously. He was not a big man and was a lot smaller than the man who was riding the bike but with his fierce eyes and booming voice, he intimidated him into apologizing for his careless driving. “Fucking bastards,” he said after returning to the car, “these people think they own the world.”

Mr. and Mrs. JD (whom I shall henceforth call Aunty) treated me with extreme kindness and warmth. Their son was away on Merchant Navy duty and their daughter was studying in college and they gave me all the attention they could. Aunty put up with my idiosyncrasies like throwing stuff around all over the house, waking up at noon, not taking showers for days, mixing up clothes in the washing machines, carrying dirty shoes into the bedroom, forgetting to switch off fans and geysers etc. with a great degree of tolerance. Living with them, I realized how much I missed a close family setting despite the freedom and excitement of the traveling life.

The house was in the National Hydrographic Office campus on Rajpur Road, as serene and peaceful as the rest of Dehradun was noisy and chaotic. JP gave me an idea of the degree to which the city had changed over the years. Three decades ago, when he was here as a junior officer, he had to walk the 3 kms to Central Dehradun every day in pitch black darkness during the night. There was nothing but thick forests on the way on both sides of the road. It’s a scene unimaginable today with shopping centers, restaurants, residential buildings, street lights lined up all along Rajpur Road with not a hint of greenery to be seen anywhere. Development work, it seems, went into overdrive after the city was declared as the capital of the newly formed state of Uttarakhand in the year 2000.

Dehradun was a smallish city, so public transport was restricted to 8-seater rickshaws aka vikrams that plied on fixed routes. It was an uncomfortable yet cheap way to get to some of the tourist areas on the outskirts of the city. On one of these trips, I heard two young boys in their 20s talk about how difficult life was for them in Dehradun. “These bloody Tibetans get everything on a platter,” said one of them with rage plastered on his face, “and they are not even from India. They have never been to college but they get shops, markets, jobs, momo restaurants, everything, while we Indian people get nothing.” They were Economics graduates from the Doon University but had been waiting for a job to come by for over 6 months.

“They don’t have a country anymore,” I said, “and they had to build a life out of nothing when they came here. At least you have a family that supports you and a place you can call home.”

“If they didn’t have anything, they shouldn’t have come here. They should have learnt to live under China,” the other boy said. “They are a very crafty people, only wanting to make money. They already have a lot of things for free, so why are they so obsessed with money? People think they can get cheap clothes at the Tibetan Market but that’s not true. They always sell at a profit.”

The angrier boy then cut in saying, “Why are you taking their side anyway? They are not our people. You should be supporting young people like us.”

Realizing that this was an intensely emotive issue at least among the two boys sitting in front of me, I chose to end the discussion by nodding my head in agreement and staying quiet the rest of the way.

All this talk of Tibet made me hungry for momos and since the Tibetan market was very close to the rickshaw stand, the last stop on this journey, I promptly went into the first momo shop I could find after getting off. It was a little shed with a makeshift tin roof, dirty floors and cobwebbed ceilings. The woman seated next to the momo steamer evinced little interest in selling momos but after she was lazily poked in the back with a leg by another woman taking a nap on the bench reserved for customers, she moodily went about the arduous process of taking orders. She had only three options, veg, chicken and mutton. Since I was very hungry and momos tend to be terribly light, I ordered one of each.

The momos weren’t as juicy as I would have liked but they sated my hunger. While eating, I talked to the woman who turned out to be friendlier than first impressions suggested. I told her about the conversation I had with the two young boys in the rickshaw and she said, yes, the perception the boys had was very real and every once in a while some of these boys would come up to Tibetan-run shops and abuse them out of frustration. But these instances of verbal violence were a minority, she said, and most of the people in the city were friendly and they let them do business in peace.

Her family was originally from Amdo, the region where the present Dalai Lama came from. After continued repression in the 1980’s, her father crossed over into Nepal with her mother. She was born in the Tibetan colony around Pokhara and when she was five years old, the family moved again to India where the prospects appeared to be much brighter. They now lived in Clement Town, a large Tibetan settlement with a big monastery and she urged me to visit it whenever I had the time. It was the only worthwhile thing to do around Dehradun, she said. People accused Tibetans of being rude while selling goods in the markets but according to her, they didn’t realize that people like her father who ran the shops had neither the training nor the aptitude for the business. They were pastoral nomads and had been so for over a thousand years. Many of the people running the shops were old men and women who had never transacted business and had been uprooted from their landscapes and livelihoods and thrown into a world where they didn’t feel they belonged. She broke into tears at this point and said that she’d never desired to see the land her ancestors came from but her father, even after spending over 20 years abroad, kept longing to go back and wouldn’t stop pissing her off with his nostalgia.

The Mindrolling monastery in Clement Town was the first Tibetan monastery I ever went to and I was completely overawed by the setting, the atmosphere, the scale, the repeated drone of “Om Mani Padme Om” humming in the air and the colourful, macabre, spellbinding wall paintings filling the rooms. Surrounded by Mahakal with his crown of skulls, Hayagriva with the neck of a horse, Yamantaka signaling doom and death and graphic depictions of gruesome punishments meted out by wrathful deities, it felt odd and surreal to feel so peaceful and tranquil around that space. In the evening, the deep bass of Tibetan woodwinds signaled the culmination of evening prayers and a cacophony of arcane chants rumbled through the prayer hall. I, for one, was happy that the culture, however uprooted it may have been from its origins, was alive and kicking here in India.

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