Monday, August 31, 2009

Seriously Crazy


Every time I am told to list down my top fifty craziest enterprises—and I have been asked to do so innumerable times—I would be totally clueless since what would or could I term as crazy. Believe me, when I embark on something or think of embarking on something, I never imagine that it could be crazy or even remotely so. I never start with the presumption of being, or doing, or trying to be crazy. It always turns out to be one. Not to me perhaps, but to others, specially those unfortunate enough to accompany me. And what's really sad is that no one believes me at the end that it wasn't my intention at all to do something crazy, different yes, crazy certainly not. I was a hapless victim of circumstances as well.

So what's crazy? Let's turn to that father of all dictionaries, Oxford, for the explanation, which lists four definitions: 1. insane or unbalanced, especially in a wild or aggressive way. 2. extremely enthusiastic about something. 3. absurdly unlikely 4. full of cracks or flaws. Now as per this lexicon am I crazy? Let me explain in the same numerical way.

1. I am definitely not insane or unbalanced. My mind works coherently and I don't hallucinate, neither do I attack people (provoked or unprovoked) or throw things at passer bys. I don't normally display any wild or aggressive behavior. I am a pacifist and practice non-violence to the point of ridicule. Though trained in unarmed combat with specific knowledge of how to kill a man in 34 precise ways I always opt to run when faced with violence. Despite being a trained criminologist and forensic scientist, having done autopsies and handled mangled and bloodied human remains on several occasions, I detest blood. I guess I can safely negate the level of 'crazy'.

2. I am an extremely lethargic fellow. Passionate about life, but not necessarily enthusiastic. If I had a choice in the matter then I would do nothing at all. I simply love to day dream and stay in my fanciful wonderland. But I am also extremely dreadful of becoming fat or unfit, hence my outdoor ventures. So on this count too; I don't think I qualify as 'crazy'.

3. This Oxford suggestion befuddled me completely. What do you mean by 'absurdly unlikely'? Well, am I absurdly unlikely! I already am whatsoever I am, or whosoever God wished me to be and all of you are a witness that I am, I exist, I am as much real and tangible as is possible in this make-believe world. Well, then is it what I do is absurdly unlikely! I don't think so, since I really do them and they really do happen. Repeatedly, time and again, year after year, I conjure new ways of killing myself or reaching a place where none had been before and they all happen. If something happens this regularly with such boring repetitive conclusions then how can it be 'absurdly unlikely', so there, once again I am not 'crazy'.

4. Hmmm, now that's something Nietzsche would have loved, with his questions on modern morality and human failings. Am I full of cracks and flaws? Well, I most certainly am… but no more or less than the next Joe in line. All human beings are full of flaws and everyone has cracked up at least once in their lifetime. With me, perhaps, the intensity and frequency is marginally higher. And in this count, I certainly am crazy.

My flaws are numerous and cracks too deep to delve. My flaw begins with a perennial thirst for the unknown, with a vision that refuses to focus anywhere else but the furthest and most obscure horizons, with a heart that is willing to embrace all, with a mind that never sleeps and never ceases to question and with limbs that are forever seeking to be punished and pushed beyond their normal function of carrying a human upright. My flaws begin to complicate with my epic sense of humor. There's absolutely nothing under the sky, and few even above, which I do not find funny; including life and death, love and longing. I love my own company yet I make friends for life instantly. Though I sift through time all the time and can't sit still for long, I am with you when I am with you since I live for the moment, only in that moment, with complete mind body and soul. These are definite flaws and people often label me as cold hearted or far too temporal for any prolonged association, and in this manner many a friend have I watched walking away, never to return again. Why didn't I stop them, you may ask and here lies my biggest flaw and deepest crack perhaps.

I live with zero expectations but with hundred percent hope. So I don't expect that they will return, but hope that as they recede, they would at least turn around. I don't expect life and its wonderment to go on forever, but I hope it will as long as one is alive. I don't expect that one nation would stop butchering another, but I hope that at least one sane voice would emerge from all the turmoil. I don't expect man to stop being his own worst enemy, but I hope that the human heart would replace hatred with compassion. I don't expect you to understand any of these, but I hope that you would at least try to. I don't expect spring to prevail through the year, but I hope that spring would come again. I don't expect that we would stop making mistakes, but I hope that we would learn to forgive. I don't expect the next mountain that I climb to grow shorter or easier, but I hope that by then my shoulders would have grown stronger and with that I really don't expect any of you to read this, but I hope that you will come visiting my blog once in a while.

If this makes me crazy, then so be it!

Saturday, August 29, 2009

My Uncle Fred

If you care to notice then this is my fiftieth post. In the past 49, I have shared with you stories of my travels, climbs, crazy thoughts, friends, impossible dreams and one lame excuse of limericks. The golden jubilee post demanded something special, something unique something as fundamental to me as the air I breathe. And I decided to pay tribute to that one person who single handedly steered and shaped the course of my life from a stage where I did not even know if I had one. He is my uncle Fred and to him I owe all that I am today. He arrived exactly a year after my father had departed. The only other person, to whom I owe more, is my mother. Here’s to you Uncle Fred, wherever you may be.

I was mid way to my thirteenth summer on the planet and a truly spirited truant that you can imagine. I spent more time kneeling outside my classroom than inside and hence learnt more. By this time, everyone who knew me, including my mother, had reaffirmed their belief that I was not one destined for academic excellence; though no one was certain what it was that I was destined to excel in, if I would excel in anything at all. My only claim to fame till then was three Himalayan peaks, India no 2 in badminton sub-junior category and being the brother to my genius sibling. Therefore, when one early evening, with my clothes torn and splattered with mud, I zoomed in with my school bag without a care in the world, I found my mother opening the door with perplexity, I was little worried. She should have been perplexed if my clothes had retained their creases and neatness in that order. ‘Your Uncle Fred had called,’ mother said, ‘I didn’t know you had such an uncle?’ Amazing, neither did I. ‘Who is he?’ I asked, ‘What did he say?’ He wished to speak with me, mother informed, and he would be calling up in the evening.

Around 9 p.m. our landlord’s son hailed from below, ‘Satya, there’s a call for you.’ I rushed down and picked up the phone, ‘Hello, Satya here.’ I said in my best polished English and manners. ‘Hello Satya,’ a large booming voice filled up the room, ‘I am your Uncle Fred.’ I remained silent. ‘I am, was a friend of your father. He told me how much you love the mountains and climbing. Would you like to come to Europe and climb in the Alps!’ Uncle Fred asked. I learned later that he always spoke in a suggestive manner when he was actually telling someone to just do what he was asking. I cursed for sleeping through my geography classes, though I knew Europe but the Alps only sounded a faint bell in my befuddled brain. Though I knew for sure that it was my wildest dream coming true. I remained silent lest the spell is broken. I wasn’t even sure if there was indeed anyone on the other side of the line. ‘When does your school close for vacation?’ He asked. I told him the dates of my summer break mechanically. ‘I won’t imagine you have a passport!’ he continued. What’s a passport I wanted to ask but remained silent. ‘Tell your mother that you would spend next year’s summer vacation with me. I will talk to her later.’ Finally I found my voice, ‘How did you find us? How did you find this phone number, it is not even ours?’ ‘I have means, my boy, to find things out. Don’t worry I will be in touch. Give my regards to your mother and your brother.’ Uncle Fred cut the line.

Fourteen months later I touched foreign land for the first time. One simple sunny morning, I disembarked at Charles De Gaulle airport, Paris with a small backpack that contained nothing beyond few warm clothes and my trekking shoe. I had no money and I was scared and apprehensive. A tiny wiry boy lost in that maddening milieu of Parisians and luxurious travelers from all over the world. I knew next to nothing about Paris and spoke no French. I had no idea if my fictional (till then) Uncle would be there at all or how he looked like. Much against the advice and judgment of anyone and everyone, my mother had let me go and here I was on the greatest adventure of my life, and was I excited!

Everything that I saw had me agog in amazement. Surprisingly, no one took even the slightest notice of the lost boy. Being a minor I had been escorted by an airline staff till the exit gate. As soon as I saw the tall gaunt figure standing upright and high above the rest I knew it was him. He looked straight at me with a smile, bright enough to light up rural India, beneath his mutton chop whiskers. He waved and rushed forward. He lifted me up in his arms with a bear hug, adopting me right then and there as his own. From then, over the next six years I traveled with him across the globe from Alps to Andes and Atlas to Altai charting routes through forbidden valleys and forlorn mountains. As always my passport would be collected by one of his Indian contacts and my visa would arrive followed by the air ticket and off would I go on another adventure. I waited for my summer and winter holidays and Uncle Fred’s bear hug.

He was reticent about his personal life and I never learnt much about him.
Apparently he was a gentleman of leisure with a private income, though he had an honorable occupation as the piano teacher in the St George’s British School in Montreux, Geneva. No one seemed to know if he had a family anywhere though it was known that he was born into a Scottish family with considerable wealth.

His mountain attire smacked of early twentieth century when the Alps had started becoming a playground for the British, Swiss, French and Italian alpinists. When I saw a sketch of Edward Whymper, that indomitable climber who led the first ascent of Matterhorn, I could have sworn that Uncle Fred dressed exactly like him. Hobnailed boots, though crampons were common, deerstalker cap, though fleece caps of much lighter weight were available, and checkered tweed with leather elbow patches and leather riding gloves completed Uncle Fred. He was not a real climber, preferring hill walking and scrambling to sheer rock and ice faces, as I did. He would often watch me from below, while I climbed alone or with one of his alpinist friends and on my return to ground he would give my back a pair of hearty pats and say in his baritone, ‘Well, my boy, face and friction is for you. I would rather rely on only what Lord granted me.’ And he would lead off sprightly down the slopes with me trying hard to keep pace.

He was my window to the world. I learned more about Earth from him then from any books. He sponsored my Alpine courses at Chamonix, Leysin and Innsbruck. He took me to Russia, to Mongolia, to Turkey and Tibet. He was full of stories and hilarious episodes. What amazed me more than our travels was the fact that he had friends everywhere. Wherever we went, there were people both local and foreign to welcome us. Everyone treated him with great respect and admiration. He introduced me to all as his Indian son.

It was funny that he would get me the latest mountain climbing equipment and clothing but for him it would still be those that were being used fifty years ago. From him I learnt that mountains had all the answers, no matter what our question was. He taught me wilderness camping and survival. Though we were poor and he was definitely rich beyond my imagination, he never offered us any financial assistance only sponsoring my trips abroad or climbs anywhere. He never let me feel in any way less abundant or fortunate than him. He never visited our home or India, always saying, if I so insisted, ‘Well, my boy, my ancestors have already done enough damage to your country. I think I will not add to it.’ I met him at strange places and unknown airports. Besides what was necessary for our adventure he never brought me any gifts or any fancy stuff, instilling within me a simplistic approach to life.

I still remember our camping trip to Lake Baikal. As one evening the sun set, painting the water orange and deep blue, I walked along Uncle Fred while he swung his hazel-wood cane in the air like fencer’s epee. I scurried to keep pace with his lengthy strides. It was late autumn and the air was decidedly chilly and we were the only two people in sight. We reached a round rock. ‘Come, my boy, let’s rest a while.’ Uncle Fred levered himself to the top and pulled me up. We sat side by side and gazed hypnotically at the deepening waters of the placid lake. My heart was brimming with unspoken joy. I was just happy to be where I was. I was lost in my own world of wild dreams.

‘What do they say to you?’ Uncle Fred asked at some point of time. ‘Who?’ I asked looking around. I didn’t see anyone else.
‘They,’ Uncle Fred pointed his cane around, ‘the water, air, the earth beneath your feet, the sun, the birds, the breeze, the flowers, the waves on the lake… what do they speak to you?’ I stared at him incredulously. What was he talking about!

‘My boy,’ he said, taking my hand and putting it up in the air, ‘you and I and every human on earth is a part of this, this family, we all are linked; we all belong to each other and we all say something, we communicate, we speak, we mean. You need to listen from your heart and open the doors to your mind to understand. You are a part of them as they are yours. No matter how old you grow or whatever may happen, never close your heart or your mind. Always listen and always understand and you will find a friend at every corner. To understand you don’t have to know the language only the humility to accept, even when you do not understand. Come, my boy, it will be night soon and it is time for you to brew some soup for this old man.’

At that moment as we walked back into the gathering dusk, my throat was choked with some unknown emotion. As if I had suddenly been given the secret key to the entire world and I was too merry to know what I could do with it. Most of my life’s philosophies were the outcome of such scrambles by the tall figure of Uncle Fred. He infused in me the love for nature and a world without boundaries. He taught me to recognize and trust the goodness of humanity in every man and showed me the path that I must follow all my life. The only mountain we ever climbed together was also our last.

I had only two weeks of winter break from college and by now I was one of the most promising badminton players in the country hence had national camps to attend, play tournaments etc but Uncle Fred insisted that I meet him in London. He met me at the airport in his car and we drove off heading straight up north. We made a night halt at Carlisle and the next day evening drove into the base of Mt Ben Nevis, the highest spot in UK. There was considerable ice and snow all around and the mountain was completely covered up in white. My heart of course leapt up with joy as I hadn’t climbed Ben Nevis yet.

We camped next to the shallow stream. Next morning I was surprised to see Uncle Fred donning a pair of gaiters and water proofs. ‘Are you climbing Ben Nevis?’ I asked. ‘Yes, my boy, and we will climb together.’ Uncle Fred said. ‘You will climb, through this snow? Are you sure? You never climb, I have asked you so many times. Can you climb?’ I was worried about him. The snow on the trail looked deep and dangerous. It was fresh and unbroken, not many people would climb here in the middle of a freezing winter. ‘I will have you know, young man, that your Uncle Fred can easily outpace a gazelle on a slope. Now lead on and save your breath for the mountain.’ He handed me one ice axe and hooked another to his right wrist, a long shaft wood one, I noticed to my bemusement. The normal trail to the hut on the summit of Ben Nevis is well marked with sticks and rope and is easy to follow even in deep snow. The sky was blue and the sun warm. It was a perfect day for climbing.

By now I was a seasoned climber with several first ascents and technical climbs across the globe and also much bigger so I easily outpaced Uncle Fred who seemed less than his usual self. Even then he stayed only few steps behind and we reached the hut on top after two hours. He got his burner out and we brewed hot tea. The day was unusually clear and bright and I could see almost the distant shores of the Northern Sea. As I sipped my tea I also realized that this old man now sitting close to me was no stranger to mountain climbing. He had handled himself like a pro on the steep parts of the trail and even when I intentionally left the trail and plunged into an ice covered gully near the top using my finest rock climbing skills to gain leverage, knowing full well that he would either stop me or leave me, I was surprised to see him following me with an agility much beyond his age and my expectations.

‘I saw today that you are a climber,’ I said, ‘Uncle Fred, but why would you not climb with me ever, and why did you climb today?’
‘How many peaks do you see around, my boy?’ Uncle Fred pointed at the horizon.
‘I don’t know, fifty perhaps.’ I offered.
‘Hundreds and I have climbed each of them as I have climbed many in the Alps and Alaska and in other parts of the world.’ Uncle Fred said. ‘You are good, my boy, I have seen you, you are good, and you need to be better if you wish to stay alive.’
I kept staring at him, puzzled and elated at this sudden revelation.
‘I lost the only woman who ever meant anything to me on this very mountain. Abseiling on an anchor I had fixed, it broke, and she fell and died even before reaching bottom. I vowed never to climb or step on any mountain face ever.’ He fell silent. He did not seem sad or unhappy, rather at peace with himself.
‘Then why did you climb today?’ I asked.
‘Satya,’ Uncle Fred put his right arm around my shoulders, ‘mountain climbing is like the notes of piano. Played individually they may sound nice but do not make much sense whereas together they complete the symphony. I had to conclude mine some day. I will never climb again. She will understand.’
As we retraced our steps down the mountain, I realized that it was only the second instance in our six year long friendship that Uncle Fred had addressed me by my name.

From Ben Nevis we drove around Scotland, along the cliffs of North Sea and Uncle Fred dropped me back at Heathrow on the day of my departure. I still recall as he hugged me hard and said, ‘My boy, remember, never stop climbing no matter what till your heart tells you to complete your symphony…’ ‘And what if it never tells me to complete my symphony?’ I had asked in my own mischievous way. ‘Well, my boy, then you must know that you are a poor piano player indeed.’ Uncle Fred’s booming laughter followed me till I entered the departure lounge. For some unspeakable reason that day, my eyes were brimming as the aircraft taxied out on to the runway, and I was terribly sad at leaving Uncle Fred.

I never saw him again. He died the next year walking through the alpine meadows of the Waltzmann Range in Upper Bavaria. He slipped and fell from a high cliff ending up into the ravine below. I only learned about this a year later when I called up his school number in Geneva. I located his grave in the picturesque village of Oberammeragau and laid two stones from the Himalaya next to the bunch of fresh flowers. I was intrigued that why an English gentleman teaching in a Swiss town should be buried in an obscure German village. I looked up the parish priest and had one of the most incredible conversations of my life. The parish priest, whose name I don’t remember now, knew all about me and towards the end of my visit he took out a small box and handed it over to me. ‘Fred left this for you.’ The kind priest said. As I sat by the blue waters of KÖnigssee (King’s Lake) two days later and read the letter from the box perhaps for the twentieth time, I felt as if I was back with him by the shores of Lake Baikal. My eyes were full of tears and the lump at my throat seemed to choke every ounce of air out of my lungs. The letter read,

‘Dear Satya, if you are reading this then you must know that I am no more. But fret not my boy. I am always with you since you have been the son I never had. I knew that you would come looking for me and you would find me in Oberammeragau since I could not be anywhere else but here, the land of my fraulein. Yes, my boy, I am now with Maggie and climbing all the hills of hell. You gave me endless joy and a reason to be proud of myself and I only wish one more favor from you. I wish you to place both of us on top of the world. Maggie wanted it so much and she would have been so proud of you as well. God bless my son and keep playing your symphony, I am listening.’

Along with the letter was a velvet pouch that held a silver locket containing a sepia portrait of Uncle Fred and a woman by the name of Maggie.

It is not known by any soul on earth and I am revealing it here for the first time that when I reached the summit of Everest and prayed on the summit to the mother goddess of Earth, I left three objects at the apex of the world. One of them was a silver locket.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Sujata Ki Shaadi (Sujata’s Marriage) – Colliding with the ‘Su’ Family




My blog is about climbing, travel and impossible dreams and most certainly about people who has touched my life. The people I feature in my blog are normally extraordinary doing the impossible, or ordinary doing the extraordinary, or normal aspiring to be abnormal, or simple stark crazy insane people. I love such people. Last night I met one such family and one such specimen (who is a dear friend; obviously) that belong to one of my favored categories as mentioned afore. After you have read this post, you would perhaps be able to pin them under one though I can’t for the simple reason that they had shades of all. Here’s the story.

I first spoke to Sujata when she interviewed me for her radio show ‘Big Chai’ on BIG FM. Till then I had no clue that she existed. She quizzed me about my adventures, specifically about Antarctica and South Pole and clean stumped me with questions that I had never been asked before by anyone on Mother Earth. We spoke over the phone. I liked her style, her spontaneity, her laughter and her crazy questions in that order and started listening to her show. Though I never heard my own interview being aired. Few emails followed and soon I found her wanting to go to the mountains insisting that she was fit and capable enough to go with me anywhere. I don’t think we were friends then, just acquaintances. Then suddenly her show stopped and she disappeared without a blink. To me it seemed natural, after all people do disappear all the time.

Then suddenly as she had disappeared like a falling star, she appeared out of nowhere. We collided in Facebook and soon became friends. And then she told me that she was about to get married to her sweetheart and before that wanted to do one crazy adrenalin charged stuff. She seemed obsessed despite my cautioning that she had every chance of not returning, breaking her bones, becoming darker… not the best options before one gets married. But Sujata was hell-bent. Well, though I offered her one of my trips she never could make it, since when she discussed it with her fiancée, Sumeet, he rejected it outright. Thank God for that. For him to agree to her coming with me for something that crazy, Summet needed to be crazier than I. Mercifully he has been able to usher in some semblance to sanity in Sujata’s life.

Then few days back Sujata hyperventilated down the phone, ‘I am coming to Delhi to finalize the menu, order my dresses, etc etc for the marriage and we must meet.’ So a pact was made that our first meeting had to happen no matter what. First we thought of a coffee shop as the venue but then Sujata wanted me to see her marriage shopping so I dropped in at her in-laws place. I rarely visit anyone’s home or families at all unable to mould myself to a typical family setup. As the lift to her building carried me up to the fifth floor I realized that in the last few years (as far back as I could remember) this was only the third home and family that I was visiting.

The black warning plate (Beware of Dog) outside the apartment door caught my eyes. Hmm, I wondered, a family with a dog that one should be beware of… how bad that family can be! I love dogs and any animals for that matter so a household pet is definitely a plus with me. Though I also ruminated that if I did not find the family as appeasing and appealing as the dog then on my way out, I could always add on the warning plate (Beware of Dog and the Owner).

A sweet smiling girl of perhaps twenty and five opened the door. Having seen her pictures before on Facebook I knew that she wasn’t Sujata. She was Neha, she said, Sumeet’s sister. What struck me first as I followed Neha inside was the simple stark elegance of the sitting room. I seemed to have entered one of the TV serial studio sets. All the white walls were set off with curved mahogany settees and tabourets and laid back chairs. The cushions were soft yet firm with the pallor of grey. One wall of the room was taken up entirely by a 3-seater swing. There was not a single fancy wall hanging or cluttered up art deco’s anywhere. It was a perfect example of ‘simple can be beautiful’. Whoever had done the interiors knew her job well. As I took in my surroundings with Neha hovering close by, Sujata suddenly appeared from nowhere. I swear, she wasn’t there a second ago. I barely blinked and well there she was plonk in front of me as if by magic with her terribly tousled tress girdling the smiling countenance.

Sujata’s dominant feature is her excitability. She is excited and excitable about anything and everything and her mind and words flutter between and from one topic to another like a restless butterfly. It’s nearly impossible to keep pace with her mind or her words. She gets notions, usually crazy ones, dozen per second and she can speak fifty words easily in that same span. I thought of Sumeet. Either the guy was a genius or had a clandestine Dictaphone on his person to record and replay (in slow motion) everything that Sujata would utter. How else could he follow her and her whims! But then another good thing about Sujata is that she also forgets equally fast so one moment she could be telling you her plans to invite only ten people for the marriage and in the next she could be crying foul over the broken flyovers in Delhi. I guess Sumeet was smart enough to hold his ground and mouth for that one single second to get his way through.

She screamed—in delight I would prefer to believe—and manhandled me right into the kitchen where her mum (in law) was engaged in some culinary concoction that smelled simply divine. Aunty was a sprightly lady with short hair and a huge grin to go along. Quickly the table was set as food was uppermost on everybody’s mind. When I saw the spread and the stainless steel utensils to go along I liked the family even more. Simple daal (lentil), cauliflower curry, rice and chapatti all blended just the way I love. No fancy spicy stuff. The sure winner was of course aunt’s patent banana yoghurt with Indian spices. I had never before eaten anything like that. There were no pretensions, no formalities at all, we ate with our hands as all Indians should, took whatever we felt like, no one serving anyone and all accompanied with banter and silly foolish fun talks. The main conclusion that emerged out of our talks was that all woman car drivers should be banned from the roads of India. It will not only reduce the number of accidents but also reduce global warming and help climate change (Sujata’s conclusion). What really made my day (or night rather) was the fact that I was surrounded by three beautiful women and I happened to be the only male around sharing their attention. I wondered, as I laughed and ate, did I really meet these three women just a while ago! Post dinner we retired to the bedroom for the highlight of the evening.

I was told to sit up on the bed and observe. Sujata flung open her cupboard with a flourish befitting a royal entourage. Out tumbled the goodies. Chunnis and saris, georgettes and crepes, chiffons and silk, mirrored filigree and motifs, and finally a red suitcase made of plastic. Sujata carefully opened it as if she was opening one of the treasure chests in Aladdin’s cave. The top lid lifted to reveal gold-netted gossamer that was unfurled to divulge the bride’s wedding dress or Lehenga (as it is called in India). It is supposedly to be worn only once at your wedding hence Sujata did not wear it for us but displayed it nevertheless. I was dumbfounded when told that it weighed a whopping 8 kg. Sujata would have to wear it through the day. Add it to her high heel shoes and heavy jewelry and other accessories, she could easily be carrying close to 15 kg extra on her person on her wedding day. Compared to this when I climbed I normally had around 20 kg on my back. Suddenly my respect for Indian women went up by several notches.

The colorful ensemble dazzled my eyes and I discovered that Sujata preferred parrot green. Aunty showed me one sari that came only from kerala, her native state that had been woven with real gold threads. What would they come up with next, I wondered. Sujata though told me the benefit; in dire emergencies you could actually sell that sari to a jeweler. Only at this point did I finally see the ‘Su’ family in its entirety. Sujata was getting married to Sumeet and all her dresses had come from the famous Sudhir Bhai of Chandni Chowk. For some insane reason, the famous Phil Collins song, su su sudio…, jingled in my head right then. Sujata finally handed me the wedding card… it weighed at least a kilo if it weighed a gram. Beautiful, elaborate, gorgeous and striking, all in one the card was but I couldn’t understand it’s purport as I didn’t about all that I was being made privy to.

It was getting late and aunty retired while Sujata and I sat down with her much abused laptop to plan her honeymoon. Neha stayed close by as a neutral observer and punctuated our much animated discussions with her observations once in a while. Why I was roped in as the honeymoon counselor was the fact that for their first outing as wedded couple, Sujata and Sumeet were heading for my second home, Ladakh. She opened the word document of her itinerary. Was I impressed with Sujata’s in depth planning! Though she never plans anything in life, but then she was getting married for the first time hence it could be ignored.

Her plan was audacious, arduous and ambitious. If I already did not know her purpose, I would have thought that she had planned a boot-camp for her worst enemy. Interestingly her plan included smiley’s and footnotes about certain activities that she quickly deleted (I guess from the laptop but not from her plan). We deliberated and debated on what all they could or should do in an all inclusive seven simple days. Finally we zeroed on to a trip to the pristine lake of Tso Moriri and overnight camping by the water, a night at the base of Stok Kangri massif, a journey to Nubra across Khardung La, diverse food and moonlit walks and the most expensive and luxurious hotel in all of Ladakh. Now all that was left for me was to call up my friend in Leh and set Sujata’s plan in motion.

Finally I took my leave with Sujata and Neha seeing me off till the gate. My bag contained a heavy box of motichoor ladoos (an Indian sweet) and my head contained memories of an eclectic evening. I may or may never again meet Sujata or her family, I would certainly not be able to make it to her wedding on the first week of September, as I would be away on a glacier then but it felt nice to have met her and them finally. It was and should be a happy and exciting time for all of them and it clearly dominated the evening. I did not belong to their world or such world, never will and I was happy to have only a glimpse of it. As I started my car and switched on the FM radio the evergreen song of Kishor Kumar, ‘Yeh jo mohabaat hai, yeh unka hai kaam, mehboob ka jo bus lete hue naam, mar jayen mit jayen…’ (only those can be in love who can die and sacrifice their own identity in the name of their beloved…) filled in the interiors. I rolled down the window allowing the cool breeze waft in. I backed out the car from the parking and swiftly avoiding a sleeping mangy dog sped off into the dark night.

Friday, August 21, 2009

A Bug called Travel and other Failings in Life


I climb to travel and travel to climb. When I am not asked why I climb then people ask me several questions about my travel travails and I thought to pen a post on the topic before my memory fails. The questions that often come to me are as under: -

Why do you Travel? Well, I have no definite answer to this except that I just love to travel and watch the roads or the continents go past by. Perhaps my post 'My Father's son' published earlier in April 2009 would offer some explanation. But most often than not I travel to climb in cold places. Therefore there are several countries; beautiful and exotic that I haven't been to since there is nothing credible enough to climb and let me remind you that I only like to climb natural protrusions.

How do you travel? How do you get so much time to travel? When do you travel? How many countries have you visited? Which is the prettiest country / city / place you have seen? If you had a choice where would you like to live? Etc, etc. These questions are not so surreal in nature and are easier to answer, yet, not so easy either. Even then do read on at my fragile attempt to do so.

Let me begin at the beginning (where else can one begin!) when it all started. As far as my knowledge goes, in every part of India when a child is born and is able to move its limbs a bit then he / she is put to a test to see what his future callings would be. The child is set upon the lap of a fat-bellied priest with a basket in front that contains several unappealing objects aka pen, paintbrush, money, newspaper, mirror, comb, and whatever; in today's world I have been told parents even add a pen-drive to the assortment. And then the child is left free (though amply goaded, chided and cooed by the onlookers) to pick up one or several of the objects. Depending upon the child's choice the priest then predicts what the child would turn out to be and pockets his fee (and bonus if his prediction matches the ambition of the parents). Now it is said that when my brother was put to this test, he grabbed all the pens, pencils and paintbrushes in the vicinity, chewing even few. He went on to become a notable academician and artist.

When I was dropped into this arena, three years hence, I have been told and as the story is related in hushed voices even today, I completely disregarded the priest, my parents, the neighborhood aunts and uncles and the basket. I punched the priest in his belly with my tiny fist, pinched the bottom of the maid and escaping through the legs of the audience grabbed all the shoes lying around. The priest predicted that I would become a cobbler. He of course did not get a single penny from my miserly dad, who aspired his younger son to don the white coat of a doctor. Between then and now I must have run through at least a 100 pair of shoes that has taken me to all the seven continents and the seven seas and then some. Here is the story in the tiniest of tiny nutshell (im)possible.

If you search the net as to how many countries your planet currently have, a diverse row of numbers would be thrown up. They could range from 183, 192, 195, 196, 201, or even 177. This is a highly debatable figure and even the UN list of nations is fluctuating constantly. This happens since there are dependencies and monarchies and subjugated territories that attach or detach themselves intermittently to or from a larger country for reasons of economics and political turmoil. For example in the Oceanic Region of Australia there are a number of island groups that are purely autonomous and a country by themselves yet they belong to one of the four developed nations, viz. US, UK, New Zealand and France. It is contentious therefore whether to call them as a part of the bigger country or a country of their own. I prefer the latter and hence as this post goes to publication, according to me there are precisely 183 countries in the world. I would further breakdown my travels according to the continents so as to avoid confusion and hence break the temporal timetable. So you might read about my latter travels earlier and earlier travels later. One final condition that I always lay as far as my own travels are concerned; which I feel anyone who travels should ideally include, is that for me to claim a country I must spend at least 48 hrs (two nights) within its boundaries. If not then it doesn't count.

Let me make a bold and correct statement. I have traveled by every natural and artificial modes of transportation known and unknown to man. I am not saying that I am the only one with this claim but I am certainly one of the luckiest few who can say this. There are four mediums of transportation known to man on this planet (I am yet to travel to outer space, so I would keep the rockets out of the picture): over or through land, through air, over water, underwater. The modes of transport therefore can be summed up with: land vehicles (motorized and manual), aircraft (motorized or mechanical or manual), ships (motorized or powered by wind, etc or manual), submarines. Well, I am a submariner. Now people often talk about air miles and take their spouses on free tickets through the frequent flyer mileage programs. Blatantly put, I have no idea how many millions of air miles or land miles or water and underwater miles I have so far traversed. But I have already changed my passports (official and civil) more than ten times. Only once due to the loss of the document.

Traveling, even by most frugal means can be expensive and before any of you presume that I am related to Bill Gates let me make it very clear that I am not. In fact I am rather poor financially. But where I lost out on money I gained in luck. I have been extremely lucky to meet the right people, be in the right place at the right time and do the right things to get the opportunities to travel. If I chalk back my life, I am amazed that everything this diverse and nearly impossible could and did fall into place in my life's extremely intricate jigsaw puzzle that paved the way for me to continue lugging my sack across the globe. Well, enough of introduction now let's get on with the main body. Alphabetically, as you remember!

Africa

I landed on the northern shores of the second largest continent on Earth on a tepid morning way back in 1983 with barely a dollar in my pocket and an audacious plan in my head. I and my three equally befuddled and ragged companions (including one very pretty blonde) and the comical guide wanted to walk the entire extent of the Dark Continent lengthwise from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean, following a meridian as closely as possible and climb everything climbable in between. If there was ever an enterprise concocted certain to doom then it was ours. I would certainly write this memoir one day since this story needs to be told. But the crux is that starting from Tunisian coast and over the next 11 months we covered nearly 18000 km and did eventually jump into the ocean right next to the board proclaiming, Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. That was my first visit to Africa. Measuring 30,065,000 sq km, it occupies 20.2 % of Earth's land and houses 53 countries. Since then I have been to this continent many times reaching both the highest (Mt Kilimanjaro 5895 m in Tanzania) and the lowest (the crater lake of Lac' Assal in Djibouti 156 m below MSL) points of its topography and also swam and sailed through the world's longest river of Nile. Of the 53 countries, I have been to 41, leaving out Gambia, Guinea-Bissau, Guinea, Equatorial Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Libya, Ivory Coast, Gabon, Sudan, Lesotho and Eritrea. With my first visit to Africa I can safely claim that I had been to a country that no one can now never be; Zaire, since it does not exist anymore. It's now Democratic Republic of Congo.

Asia

I landed in Asia on the day of my birth so to speak! Since then the largest continent on planet, covering 44,579,000 sq km and a mind boggling 30% of Earth's land, has been my host on many errands. I have seen much of Russia, the Middle East and the Central Asia due to my work. I mean, Navy had sent me there, but then I traveled as I felt. Most of the islands too came free courtesy the Navy. Navy's motto of 'join the navy and see the world' certainly held good as far as I was concerned. Over the years I climbed both the highest (Mt Everest 8848 m) and the lowest (Dead Sea in Jordan / Israel) points of Asia. Of the 44 countries and islands and dependencies that Asia boasts off, I have been to 34 opting to stay out of Afghanistan, Brunei, Burma, East Timor, Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Lebanon, Pakistan, and Yemen. The reasons for omitting these countries have ranged from political instability, visa refusal (Pakistan, North Korea) and lack of any mountains.

Australia & Oceania

Well, I landed in Australia in the early nineties to seek the Koalas, Kangaroos and Kosciusko in reverse order. Much to my surprise, none of them were difficult to find or attain. I fell in love with this land and its bohemian rhapsodically inclined people. I traveled again through Micronesia, Polynesia and Melanesia on sailing boats and balsam rafts meeting the indigenous tribes of Tonga, Tuvalu and Samoa. For some reasons unknown I never reached Fiji, though it is populated with Indian origin people. Kiribati had me in its grip with mysterious shaman rituals while Palau witch doctors called upon the spirits of my forefathers. In Vanuatu I was caught right in the middle of a clan war and had to run for my dear life as fast as my legs could go. On that occasion the American bush pilot from Fiji named Bruno literally skimmed me off the surf in his seaplane. But for him I would now be a prominent spear display mural in the Vanuatu Warlord's summer cottage. But in the tiniest continent on our planet, covering only 5.3% of Earth's land, consisting of thousands of coral atolls and archipelagos and volcanic islands, the place where I really left my heart was and still remains is none other than the Kiwi land of New Zealand. The Southern Alps and the tumbling glaciers are one of the finest spots on Earth and I have repeatedly visited this land to climb and hike through these giants. Of the 14 nations of Oceania I have been to nine leaving out Fiji, Marshall Isles, Micronesia, Nauru and the Solomon Isles. My journey to the summit of Mt Wilhelm, 4509 m, the highest point of this continent remain one of my most interesting climbs ever. I never bothered to visit the lowest point at Lake Eyre, it was simply too dry and low and out of my way to the mountains.

Europe

I first arrived in Europe at the age of fifteen, with a back pack and big dreamy eyes and had been whisked away into the crisp alpine meadows of Chamonix, France. This trip was courtesy my uncle Fred, my dad's friend who had taken me under his wings to train me into alpinism. My uncle Fred, who is no more, was a man to whom I owe much more than I owe my dad. A post on him would come some time. On that first trip to Europe, after France he took me to Switzerland where I interned at the International School of Mountaineering, Leysin and then to the Italian Alps and then to Austria. This trip of mine shaped the rest of my life. Those glaciers and lofty summits became my home, my heart lost forever in their alpenglow. I have been to the 6th largest continent, covering 9,938,000 sq km and 6.7% of Earth's land, many times since, including earlier this year thrice. Most of my forays were to the various Alps, dolomites, Pyrenees, etc. I cycled, drove, walked, hitch-hiked and sometimes boated in and around Europe. Of the 47 countries that it currently has, I have been to 32 avoiding Albania, Andorra, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Belarus, Moldova, Monaco, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein (I simply walked through this postage stamp sized nation in one afternoon), Malta, San Marino and Netherlands. I haven't been to Montenegro or Serbia either since they formed in 2006 but when I visited that region it was still called Yugoslavia. Needless to say I did climb the highest (Mt Elbrus 5633 m) and the lowest (Caspian Sea shore 28 m below MSL) spots of this continent too.

North America

The 3rd largest continent is still an enigma and a potpourri of contrasts. In terms of economics, geography and demography it is perhaps the most diverse of all continents. Though we mostly talk about the big three; USA, Canada and Mexico, this continent has 23 countries to talk about including a scattering of island nations and colonies. The Central American estuary, consisting 7 countries form another world altogether. I first stepped on this land of Columbus and the Red Indians on a Greenpeace assignment while still in school. They wanted to save the whales from poaching in the Hudson Bay. On that first trip I managed to steal away into the Baffin Island since the towering cliffs beckoned me hypnotically. My next visit to the land happened on work when I arrived in uniform. Sponsored by the Navy, things can and do go smoothly, so I headed for Alaska and climbed Mt McKinley 6194 m (the highest spot on the continent) and few rock walls in Yosemite, and thereafter returned repeatedly to gobble in more of the magical landscapes scurrying through Canada, USA, Alaska and Mexico. I did reach Death Valley too which at 86 m below sea level depicts the lowest point on NA. Central America came little later where I could only nick the southern countries of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama. I never bothered to approach any of the island nations of the Caribbean. To sum it up then, of the 23 nations of NA, I have been to only six, missing out on Antigua, Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Cuba, Dominica, Dominica Republic, El Salvador, Grenada, Guatemala, Haiti, Honduras, Jamaica, St. Kitts, St. Lucia, St. Vincent and Trinidad & Tobago. I don't know if any of you noticed but here there is a serious lapse on my part. With my dedication to lofty places I am yet to climb the volcano Tajumulco. Towering at 4223 m in western Guatemala, it is one of the highest volcanoes on Earth and what makes my faux pas more deplorable is the fact that my dear friend Brem hails from Guatemala and yet I haven't been there.

South America

We finally arrive at my single most favorite continent. I have been here innumerable times and would love to keep coming back. In magnitude it stands a measly fourth and covers 12 % of Earth's landmass. This volume is gulped up by two huge nations of Brazil and Argentina. Andes and Patagonia and the world's highest volcanoes are its claim to fame. Darwin discovered his theory of evolution in the Galapagos and the furthest island from anywhere lies in the Easter Isles. Floating on Amazon or grappling with an anaconda, climbing volcanoes or walking through Torres Del Paine, being heli-dropped at the foot of devil's tower in Suriname and then being picked up from the summit, canyoning in Venezuela and then jumping off Angel Falls, or climbing Cerro Aconcagua (highest peak of Southern Hemisphere) and Cerro Torre or sunbathing with Penguins in the island of Tierra Del Fuego, each and every trip of mine to this continent has been among my finest. I can go on and on if I had the time and space. Some of my dearest friends are from Ecuador, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Brazil. Some of my most hair raising and hair disappearing moments have occurred here. Some of my lifelong dreams still lay unrealized in the South Patagonian Mountains. Despite my numerous and voluminous trips through SA what still leaves me amazed is that I can't yet speak Spanish beyond ten words. Of the 12 countries, I have not been to Guyana and Uruguay. If god granted me any years beyond I am destined for then all of them would I spend in South America.

Antarctica

Though alphabetically it should have come before I kept it for last, since it is also called the last continent. Only in the mid nineteenth century did mankind acknowledge its existence and it is the least known and explored region on earth as on date. Covering 13,209,000 sq km and 8.9 % of Earth's landmass Antarctica has no countries, no population, no boundaries, no vegetation, no rivers, and almost no indigenous flora and fauna. 98% of the land is iced up. It is the world's coldest, driest and windiest place. It's amazing that man still goes there. Despite its severity, Antarctica is supernal and breathtaking to behold. I consider myself lucky that I could actually land there and then ski all the way to the geographic South Pole. I also climbed in the Mt Vinson massif, the highest region on the continent. The lowest point though remains totally out of bound for any human intervention, being at Bentley sub glacial trench at 2555 m below sea level.

To summarize the above, the official count of countries that I have been to now stand at 132 out of the possible present 183. Of the 51 remaining, I have been through a few in transit or spending only one night like Netherlands, which doesn't count. I doubt that in my remaining days on Earth this number is likely to alter much. I would perhaps add Netherlands and Guatemala (both being resident countries of dear friends) to the list at the most. The balance 50 or so must remain in the realms of fantasy for me since dreams must all not be realized. I must leave out certain objective for my next life too.

If any of you find my above account amazing and unbelievable then I must remind you of my incredible luck. Many of these trips were fallout of my job. Some of my most expensive and arduous enterprises were sponsored by the Navy or the country. At many places my job got me very close to the locations where I eventually traveled to. If not for the proximity I wouldn't have been able to afford these trips. My naval and climbing connections opened doors that are not open to others. I always kept my mind and heart open and lived only in the moment hence made lifelong friends in seconds, never saying no to any proposal involving travel and danger. I met kindhearted and kindred souls at the most unexpected places who offered me sustenance, strength and encouragement where I had lost all. Wishing to live every moment I grabbed every tiny strand that offered me an escape from daily mundane life defying society, norms and rules at every step. Neither time, nor tide, nor the want of money or companions ever deterred me from the lure of unknown. I have never ever planned any of my trips beyond simply booking a plane ticket and calling up few friends. I have learned that the charm and delight of the mysterious, of what we do not know and can't expect by far exceeds the assurance of knowledge. I still don't plan anything in life.

Does all this make me a better person or knowledgeable or street smart than the next regular Joe? I don't think so. Did I really gain anything at all after all these years what you did not! Besides the infinite memories and the friends (most of whom I have no ways to contact) scattered all over the globe I can't boast of any other gain at all. My knowledge is laughable at the best. I don't know anything about the big tourist attractions or the cities. I can't tell you where to shop for diamonds in London or Beer in Berlin. I have no idea what's running at Broadway. I can't rattle out the names of any of the museums, art galleries or architectural wonders of medieval Europe. I have no idea where to pick up the two-piece naughty number for your wife or girlfriend in Rome or Sydney. What I know, normally doesn't find mention in the guidebooks or travel agency itineraries. I know of roads upon which only the winds glide and mountain tops where only the eagles slide. I know of jungles where only the animals preside and of islands where only the tides roar. Of what use are my travels when they have no application in the modern comfort-hungry world. I love to travel into the unknown whereas today the internet has taken away that very charm. People now travel more on their finger tips tapping on the keyboard rather on their feet. They sweat and fret even with confirmed air tickets and hotel bookings in their pocket. They find it absurdly fatiguing even to chug along the travel guide through Singapore or to throw dice at Macau.

These days' people travel and travel till they unravel their inner-self, I have been told. I have nothing against them or their motives to travel. I am sure they get something out of it after all as I do. My greatest learning from my travels has been the acute realization that this world is indeed a big single planet where every nation and every continent is beautiful. God has not been more or less kind to any region. People are good everywhere, only caught in difficult circumstances. National boundaries exist only in our hearts and not on land. Grass everywhere is green as snow everywhere is white. Oceans are blue and salty all over. People smile when you smile and welcome you with open heart when you open your heart as well. Religious and regional fervors and frivolities are all products of our mind and masses are being ruled by few asses.

If god were to grant me three wishes, I would wish:

Give me this beautiful planet but no nations

Make the entire humanity a big single happy family

Distribute natural resources evenly and let none go hungry or ill

And if Devil was to grant me one wish, I would wish:

Make travel more difficult and create few more inaccessible and inhospitable places

And even as I conclude this post, I eye my rucksack, bulging and belching near the door beckoning me to get up and go. Thank you my friends for bearing with me so far through all my nonsense. Hope you don't take anything to heart. You are most welcome to call up Thomas Cook or Cox & Kings to plan your honeymoon to Nainital and pin down every detail including the evening tea and cake at Caventers on the second day.

Amen and Bon Voyage.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Prophet of Doom


I am a great admirer of Khalil Gibran, have always been, and his book ‘The Prophet’ is one you will always find prominently displayed in my book rack. But that has got nothing to do with my friends often labeling me ‘The Prophet of Doom’.

Since my early childhood I have been fascinated with disasters, both natural and manmade. Always wishing that one should or must befell me. When I used to travel by train—a tiny toddler with my parents for company—I would wish that the train would derail or crash into another or would be robbed by dacoits or hooligans, or a short circuit will cause it to erupt in flames. Even the fat snoring uncle toppling off from the upper berth; any excitement would do for me. Then when I started traveling by air, I wished that the aircraft would develop engine snag and fall off the air, or jam its hydraulics and get into a tail spin forever or a hijacker would take over the cockpit. Every disaster scene of Nat Geo air crash investigations series would flash in front of my eyes. How I wish that the aircraft door will suddenly burst open and all of us would be sucked out into the space or the pilots might be struck with food poisoning and be incapacitated to fly. Nothing ever happened. The nearest I got to an aerial disaster was when on a Guwahati bound flight, within the sight of Mt Everest, my plane hit an air pocket and we dropped like stone for good 3000 ft. Everyone around blanched like baked tomato, few throwing up like a water sprout and the petite airhostess skidding onto the aisle landing nearly on my lap. I smiled through it all and helped the cabin crew to calm the befuddled passengers later. For my Samaritan work I received smiles, handshakes, thank-you(s) and a bottle of Chardonnay in that order. How I wished the last object too was bequeathed in plural.

Since joining the Navy I have traveled over and inside water countless hours and nautical miles and would play the scenes of pirates boarding, huge waves crushing us into Davy Jones’s Locker or a hole punctured in the bilges. My submarine getting crushed by water pressure was my favorite day dreaming sequence. When I would dip into the sea, I would wish the shark from Jaws to appear and devour every one of the bathers or a tsunami would flatten the shore forever. Climbing a dormant volcano I would visualize the crater erupting its lava on the innocent bystanders or burying an entire city aka Pompeii. In a jungle it would be the hungry lions, tigers and virulent snakes that would conjure my imagination.

Riding a bus on a dizzy mountain road, as I am often found, be it in the Himalaya or in the Andes or Caucuses, I would try my best to engage the driver in an inane conversation so that his eyes would avert from the road and he would take us all into a gory and direct plunge to the bottom. How I would wish that a massive landslide would roll down from above or a flat tyre would help us skid just when we were taking a hairpin bend on the narrowest section of the road.

In short I always wish a disaster to occur with me at the centre of the catastrophe. No wonder, no one wants to accompany me ever. But the irony is that despite chalking million miles in air and water travel and god knows how many moments in the world’s wildest places, nothing much really happens to me. Whereas rank outsiders and peace-loving people, out on their first honeymoon by the safest beach in the world get gobbled up by an alien shark or people simply fall out of their aircraft on their first journey above land. How fair is this? Not very, I must insist. And this does nothing to improve my reputation in the field of adventure world.

Forget about the journey scenarios. If I talk only about mountain disasters that I have lived through then too it doesn’t sound impressive enough. Let me try and remember and give you a brief perspective.

I must have been buried under avalanches at least a dozen times but unearthed by some kindly soul right before I breathed my last (though on two occasions my companions were not so lucky) … how absurdly boring! Then I must have fallen into crevasses at least on a score of occasions, again rescued and pulled out by fellow climbers at the nick of time. My nearest brush to eternity in the icy dungeon of a crevasse being when I fell into a 40 ft deep one and landed right atop a sharp ice shaft that neatly severed my clothes and my back in that order… missing my spine by a mm (which would have paralyzed me for life). I lost more than 20 gallons of blood on that occasion and I still remember being bundled up on someone’s back while the ‘someone’ running crazy like a rugby player in sight of his goal. Again I remained alive… how absurdly boring. Then I must have fallen god knows how many times from a mountain face or a rock band. Just let gravity take charge of my body and let go. Nothing much happened then too… just gashes and stitches on my head, broken knees or ribs, concussion and brain hemorrhage and temporary loss of vision; nothing too serious or death defying… again, how absurdly boring. Struck by lightning on two occasions and being nearly electrocuted by a million volt jolt, I have no idea how I did not convert into micro-waved ‘Satya’ the latest hill delicacy from the Himalaya. Nothing exciting there too, as you can see. On countless places I had been left for dead—dehydrated and hypothermic as I was—but no, just before I would cop up, some inner boring voice would chide me to stay alive and send me crawling back to life. Was I stupid or what!

Then confronting wild animals, be it the lions or hyenas of Serengeti, or the gorillas of Congo, or polar bears of Norway, or the Anacondas of the Amazon, or the maneaters of Sunderbans, or dragons of Komodo, or the Sharks of Hawaii, or the Bacterian Camels of Gobi, or the wolves of Alaska; none could or would eat me up for reasons I can’t explain. Either they would come close or I would approach the fiercest and wildest animals on earth, each one reputed to tear off human flesh in seconds, and nothing would happen; amazing, either I tasted too bad or I happened to find animals whose bellies were full. I was destined for such an unexciting life.

I am forty-five, going on twenty-five, and many of my fellow thrill seekers are here no more. I can’t justify my still being on terra-firma. Pure luck or my adrenalin-less life, one of them is responsible I am sure. As I look around each year hopefully that while ordinary everyday people who only ply from office to home and vice versa, throwing in perhaps a detour to the temple or church and an occasional movie or restaurant, who are experiencing disaster and catastrophes I too should have my share of thrills and spills. But no, nothing!

When I had started off with my so-called pseudo adventurism at the tender age of ten I had thought and all had predicted that either I would not live to see my thirties or I would hang up my ice axe in my twenties. Neither has happened and I am pretty perturbed, so I compensate my sedate life with my wishful disasters. So unfair; I jump across waterfalls and out of aircrafts, I insert my head into snake pits, I arm-wrestle (well, ahem, almost) with primates, I jump into Arctic lakes and frozen pools, I dive inside shark caves, etc etc, trying again and again to infuse some excitement, but nothing at all happens.

Well, would you believe it, the Navy in its wisdom even para-dropped me over the impenetrable jungles of Batticoala in Sri Lanka during the height of the IPKF (Indian Peace Keeping Force) operation. As I descended slowly towards the thick rainforests, with few grenades and guns stuck to my body, with war paints covering every bit of my exposed skin, I had thought that finally I would be devoured by the wild animals or would be butchered into tiny pieces by the Tamil Tigers. And in the ensuing days I fought along with my comrades (many of whom did not return) some of the fiercest battles of that mission, even got hit by bullet in an ambush on my helmet on a day when I decided to wear it the other way around (that’s what stopped the bullet from piercing my head and killing me instantly), but well, at the end of my nine month long deployment I returned walking on my own feet with barely a scratch anywhere else.

Having tried my best in every manner possible, both described and not prescribed in books, to kill or maim myself, now I have decided that I would just stop trying so damn hard and simply live a sedentary life of the ordinary common people. Perhaps then would I find some excitement. So from this day on, I convert into a law and book abiding citizen. But meanwhile, if any of you can suggest me something that I haven’t tried yet, some really really exciting affair, some catastrophe in the making, then do let me know… of course I wouldn’t be tempted to partake in that crazy stupid insane venture of yours but still it would pacify my mind in knowing that well there are still options left for me if no hope otherwise.

This is dedicated to all you people who go to the office each morning and once in a while fall into the open manhole of the sewer. I never did. I envy all of you.

Close Encounters of Underwater Kind



The great bull shark hovered inches away from my face and looked at me with unblinking black beady eyes. It observed me with an abject indifference. I stared back hypnotized not daring to blink or to breathe lest the bubbles escaping from my diving set disturb the ruler of these waters. Commonly we fear sharks as hostile and a predator though they are gentle and loving creatures seldom attacking human beings; my friend and mentor in such sports, Pedro had assured me. Without moving a muscle I strained my eyes to the extreme left to find the idiot suspended in a vertically upright position without a single movement from any parts of his body staring with equal intent at another shark that reposed in front of him. They seemed to be kissing.

I was completely out of my elements and shitting bricks in a manner of speaking. The enterprise at the beginning had seemed harmless enough. A peaceful dip in one of the finest and least explored coastal waters in the world and watch amazing marine lives go past us. A fun-filled afternoon, Pedro had told me when we were putting on our suits. Though I should have questioned him right then and there when I noticed the carving knife strapped to his left thigh… its serrated edge was anything but ‘peaceful’. Only when we had swam a considerable distance from the shore and belly-flopping through the green and red schools of Johnston's Topminnow and Orange River Mudfish, did he confide that we were here to actually sight some sharks feeding on these cute fishes. What would happen if the sharks got bored of the fish and preferred us instead; I had posed, still believing that Pedro was simply fooling around and was having one on me (since I had almost killed him two days before on a trad route in Western Cape), to which he had assured me that Zambezi sharks were on non-human diet. From anyone else, it would sound utterly ridiculous, but from Pedro; well anything concerning sharks and Pedro was pretty much the last word in the whole of Southern Hemisphere. Still, I wondered, what if this nasty looking bugger affronting me decided to change its diet at this very moment! I had absolutely no intention of becoming shark lunch at this far flung corner of the Dark Continent, or at any corner of any continent for that matter.

Born into a traditional Lusitanian pirate family, Pedro had migrated to South Africa in search of sharks. World’s leading marine biologists, ichthyologists, shark aficionados, Hollywood shark movie directors, Nat Geo and Discovery channel film makers, and anyone who wanted to get up close with sharks, called upon Pedro. He was nearly an illiterate man but he knew as much about sharks as there was or it was humanly possible to know.

We were two specks on the eastern most estuaries (Kosi River Bay) of the Maputuland area of Kwa Zulu-Natal province of South Africa. At a stone’s throw from Mozambique border, the tepid currents bore us well plodding us gently to and fro between a smattering of sand dunes and coral reefs. Few white backed night-herons and kingfishers floated in air, hovering above the water in the lookout for fishes. A hippo family walloped in the mud nearby. There were leatherback turtles and crocs too somewhere in the vicinity but thankfully outside our visible range. Intermittently we would dip under and play with the fishes and come up to bask under the sun. The water was clear enough for me to see the fishes from the surface. The water was fresh and felt great on my skin. Though I am a poor swimmer, the fins and the half-body suit kept me buoyant with ease. Pedro was trying his best to show off; to the fishes perhaps since I was least impressed with his antics. And I was in no mood for his soliloquy on sharks. I was on holiday and planned to enjoy myself to the hilt in South Africa.

When fully submerged and breathing through your mouth it is impossible to speak and nearly so to think, therefore abandoning my usual musical overtures, which I normally resort to when outdoors and extremely contented, I just simply observed the geometric patterns pulsating across my limbs as the sun penetrated the clear water and played with the waves. Pedro was sitting on his haunches on the bottom waving his hands at a pool of catfish. He had taken off his mouthpiece and was grinning like a fool, which in reality he was. Pedro held one of the world’s longest free diving records and I knew that he could easily hold his breath for over five minutes. My concern though was if one of these days he forgot that he was underwater and decided to breathe; with him it was possible. I bobbed back to the surface and lay on my back like a sunbathing whale. I had just begin to believe that life was finally turning out to be good and for once an outdoor stint of my life would be uneventful and worthy of telling my grandkids (if I ever had any), when I detected a sharp movement right underneath.

We had been frolicking in a 15 m deep cove. Not deep by any standards but deep enough. I turned over and put my head underwater. The shoals of Blue Kurper were running helter-skelter like random bullets shot from a high caliber gun. The gently playing fishes now zoomed off arrow fashion, darting around and diving into the corals. Incredibly one Lowveld Largemouth buried itself under the bottom sand and soon became one with the brown. I couldn’t understand this sudden exodus. While my friend seemed to be in a frenzy, engaged in a grotesque and seemingly bizarre and indecent Zulu dance ritual albeit in slow motion being underwater. His right hand gestured towards my back, repeatedly jabbing the water around with the index finger. I turned around and looked up. A pair of dorsal fin was heading straight towards us. Being on the surface I couldn’t see what lay beneath the fins but with several sea dives under my belt and having seen many Hollywood films on the topic I knew that a pair of sharks were heading our way. I watched mesmerized as the triangles cut neatly through the calm water, leaving barely a wake behind and closing the distance rapidly.

It is pointless trying to outrun a shark underwater. Nature had created this predator purely for killing underwater. It was the essence in water and every part of its body was meant for underwater propulsion, navigation and hunting. The best chance a diver stood was to blind a shark with a knife or a sharp object and I had no such objects. Having read a bit about the area I also knew that these two had to be bull sharks or Zambezi Shark as it was called in this part of the world. Weighing an average of 200 – 250 kg they measured around 10 ft in length with mean rounded head and were one of the most aggressive specimens of their specie. What ran rapidly through my mind at that moment was the thought that if one of them decided to gobble me for lunch then could it swallow me at one go or would I get stuck midway. Though Pedro with his tall and fleshy form would perhaps suffice for both. I would be a fool to expect that they were here just for sightseeing. I had always known that when death finally came to me I wouldn’t turn my back but stare right into its eyes and dare it to snip my lifeline off. So I dipped below the water and stared back.

I knew sharks could smell blood from miles away and were attracted by movements that warned them that a prey was nearby. But could they smell fear! My fear fragrance by then must have reached the Cape of Good Hope. I did not need any efforts to stay still. I was fear-frozen for eternity. One of the sharks, seemingly the bigger one (but then I could be wrong), approached me with its jaws marginally open. Was it smiling and saying ‘hello’! I wish I could return his greetings. While it surveyed me through its unblinking eyes I counted the row of teeth that would soon be crushing my bones and tearing my flesh into smithereens. It’s strange how the human mind works when confronted with his last moment on Mother Earth. No matter what, I couldn’t stop counting the teeth. They were razor sharp, fascinatingly streamlined and flossy white. The pink tongue in between appeared like a strip of tomato pepperoni pizza. Humans can’t smell underwater but I smelled the brute through my pores. Its oily smooth skin, white underneath and black above pulsated with life. The gills moved up and down as it breathed. As we remained suspended I begin to wash away my fears and succumbed to fascination. I must be one of the very few surviving human beings (along with the idiot to my left) to have ever seen a shark up so close without a cage in between.

Shark is one of the most fascinating marine creatures ever known to man. None has ever been tamed and we can’t predict its behavior. Despite all its bad publicity, sharks remain one of the least understood fishes. We almost know nothing about its migratory and reproductive patterns. They are definitely not friendly or playful as a dolphin or a whale but neither are they necessarily aggressive or lethal. We still can’t explain when or how would a shark attack and what it liked the most.

I scrutinized the pale white short rounded snout and gentle play of the tail fin that waved from left to right keeping it afloat nearly in a stopped trim condition. Being a submariner, principals of buoyancy and floatation was my bread and butter and now I studied the same theories as perfected by nature. I had no idea what my new found friend was thinking. I tried to read its left eye that remained mostly towards me but found myself spiraling into its dark depths. It was hypnotic, trance like. I suddenly saw my left hand swing up on its own and caress the shark’s belly. Not a bad gesture to placate my killer so as it would snap my head at one go and not prolong the agony. The shark remained motionless and allowed my hand to graze on its belly. Encouraged thus I begin to move. I went around its body tracing my fingers on its skin. It turned around to keep me in view. Its body had now formed into a half-circle. I caressed the tail and felt the rough thorn like scale. I spied Pedro atop the shark that he had befriended. He was holding on to its fin and groping along the upper body. He looked at me and raised his right hand thumb. And suddenly my fear abandoned me completely.

Over the next few minutes the sharks became our playmates. They nudged us with their nose as we held on to their fins. We swam alongside and even probed together through the bottom sands unearthing crabs and shells. We chased each other and I observed much to my wonderment that they knew that we could never outrun them so they in fact remained slow and allowed us to catch up. As they had suddenly appeared, they suddenly decided to go. Perhaps it was indeed their lunch time. They gave a gentle swing of the tails and zoomed off like torpedoes darting away into the water towards the ocean where lunch must be waiting. No goodbyes, no last words of parting… one moment we were playing together, in the next they were gone as if they had never been. I still don’t know what really happened in Kosi Bay or how it could be possible but I simply know that on that day I had once again become a part of nature where everyone, however insignificant or otherwise, is linked to another. A spell was cast and I and the shark had become one for few moments. Pedro did not offer any explanations either, nor did I seek any and I would now never know what he had felt about the whole thing since three years later he died filming tiger sharks feeding on a dead whale. He ended up inside the belly of those whom he loved the most.

I did shark diving thereafter too, but always within the confines of a steel cage that even an elephant wouldn’t be able to crack. After all why tempt nature more than once! Oh, and by the way did I mention that it was I and not the shark who would occupy the cage. If any of you are up for shark diving do let me know and I would arrange it for you. Pedro’ brother now runs a charter in Haleiwa Harbor Hawaii.

P.S. The above episode happened on my trip to South Africa in 1995. The picture accompanying this post has been borrowed from my friend and the world famous underwater photographer and adventurer Ms Fiona Ayerst.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ignorance and such other things


There’s a good reason why I never repeat a climb or a route in my life with very few exceptions. It simply boils down to ‘fear’.

Once back I would realize how tormenting and nigh terminating my endeavor had been and I would be afraid to let my body and mind undergo the ritual one more time. Therefore, always a new route, new summit and a new trail that would pull me into the world of maddening mountains. If I hadn’t experienced it, no matter how the guidebooks or someone else who had, described it, then it couldn’t be that difficult; my asinine belief always convinced my wayward mind thus. Though it can be added safely that nearly half of my adventures did not find an earlier mention in any guidebook nor had they been marred by any human presence prior to mine. Curses and expletives were certain to follow but then ignorance is indeed bliss. And if at a later stage (that always happened) I would feel that I had once again been duped into something nearly impossible, that stage often occurred well after I had crossed the ‘point of no return’ when it did not matter anymore. That’s precisely where my life’s dictum of ‘no option being the only option’ would surface and keep me going on the face of complete and total opposition. What else could I do! I have never accepted fate (it doesn’t exist for me) but I have shaped my destiny; helped nature weave it around my actions so that at the end of the day I and solely I am responsible for where I was or where I wasn’t.

What perhaps would seem most intriguing to you, as it is to me, that how come I relied so much on my ignorance and still succumb to these urges that are certain to get me killed sooner or later.

I choose my adventures based simply on ignorance. The lesser known the better, unheard of was best. Unseen, uncharted, unclimbed, unheralded, etc were words that often occur in my expedition reports and presentations. While amazingly rejuvenating, such endeavors have a down side as well. In a manner of speaking I have more failures than success, fewer peaks climbed than attempted and more trails lost than found. Like a friend’s daughter told me amidst the august gathering in the US where I had just finished one of my most technical presentations, ‘Uncle you are not a good climber at all, you keep falling all the time… my dad never falls.’ My friend, the poor guy, hid himself from me over the next five days. But his daughter was right in her perspective; I am not really a good climber and I wonder if I am or have ever been good at anything at all.

It is easy to lose your thoughts and ways within nature even when you have reliable maps at your disposal. So I am constantly lost and often lose the trails intentionally since I believe that only when you are lost do you begin to look and discover what was unknown before. How boring life would be if all of us only stuck to the known lanes and paths. So come and join me and lose yourself only to find what you did not know you had lost. On the topic of losing I must offer my views about what I call as the technological invasion of the outdoors. Without a doubt I am thankful to science and technology for making our lives safer and with lesser perils but at what cost! I severely detest using any technological gadgets, be it for communication or trail finding or anything at all, in the mountains. I rather prefer to rely on good old nature, the celestial bodies, clouds, the animals, the mountains and my own instincts for self preservation. I am often called regressive in such matters. I am yet to use a GPS and have only used the satellite communication under direct orders of a superior officer, failing which I would have been court-marshalled or worse face a firing squad.

Imagine my horror in 2004 on the summit of Mt Everest when I found an American boy of twenty and half calling his mother from the top of the world and inquiring what she was supping on. If I was permitted I would have booted him off the top without the benefit of a parachute. People carry their mobiles, iPods, PDAs, GPS, etc into the mountains as if the world will stop functioning without them.

I remember once I was ambling along with a friend and his family through a familiar trail, while his two young boys had fallen behind by no more than 50 meters. We could see them clearly. Suddenly my friend pulled out his GPS and Motorola radio set and spoke to his elder son, ‘Rajiv, we are at co-ordinates XXXX North and YYYY East. We will be waiting for you at XXXX North and YYYY East. At your present speed of walking you would be with us in the next four minutes. Mark the way point and follow your GPS. God bless and god speed. Over and out!’ I didn’t know if he had done it to impress me or irk me or that was how parent’s today behaved, but at that moment I deliberated between the choices of kicking my friend on his ample butt or just leaving his company. A man who has never lost himself has not known paradise.

Let me reassure you all techie geeks that no one wants to kill or maim or make your life unnecessarily difficult including Mother Nature; specially Mother Nature. She is a life-giver and preserver. Just listen to her humbly accepting what she offers. Do not demand more than you deserve and no harm would come your way. And if something did go wrong then that was or is your destiny, which in turn signifies that it wasn’t wrong at all. Extinguishing your life’s flame in the laps of lofty mountains is a privilege reserved for very few chosen ones. I would certainly like to be one of those.

How can we break down nature and its vagaries into terminologies and metaphors, data and graphs! Why make it all so complicated. Just go up, what the hell! Are you measuring every step you take or every breath you labor as you walk through your daily life! Tell me of one single scientist who counts the number of calories he is partaking with every bite of food. On a mountain why do you need to measure anything at all, since your aim is to reach the conical top and when you reach there, you will know that you are there. No GPS or satellite phone has to confirm what your eyes and mind can see and your feet can feel. I miss those heady days when we could simply disappear from civilization at will and return after months without a care.

No one inquired or need to know what happened. I still remember that many of my foreign friends and Indians as well believed that I was a secret service agent since I would disappear so often without a plausible cause and they had no way of knowing where I was.

Though a camera is a must for the outdoors and mountain climbing, I often prefer to pocket it when it might deem to be most useful. My best action shots and finest moments on the mountains are framed only in my mind. I take pictures only when my heart stirs and tells me to, not just because I have to. Often in those ethereal moments my heart bids me to stay still and soak in the sight solely for my individual pleasure. And then there are moments when a camera is the last thing on my mind. It’s only later, when back on solid ground, would I lament at my lapse. I still belong to the old school of transparencies and have only just started dabbling with a digital camera which I find is a good tool to learn the basic skills and to polish your existing ones but it is no match for transparencies.

Well I could go on and on about such things but then I must pause here today, lest you be bored by now with my random ramblings. Though I am not sure what this post is about or what had been my intent on posting it for the public but to return to the title, I must admit that ignorance is indeed a bliss, how else would you learn if you do not accept your ignorance.

I am often asked what I really gain or would anyone else gain from such senseless and apparently harmful activities. I have no definite answer to this query. To each his own, I guess is what seems most likely. You tell me what I really gain. Though I know exactly what I lose. I lose weight and the top layer of my skin.

With that I will bid you goodbye and ponder about the next adventure into my ignorance.

My Friend Kasoori Lal





As I stumbled into the gathering dusk, now thankful that the rain had finally lost its momentum, towards the cowherd’s hut that I had passed few days earlier, I observed that a solitary figure, dressed in white shirt and a rolled up dhoti stood outside gazing at my approaching form. I was tottering at the edge of my mental and physical limits. I reached the hut and crashed on the ground with a loud breath escaping my dry lips. The man came forward.

‘I was expecting you, Bhaiji,’ the man said through smiling eyes. ‘My humble home is yours. Please come inside, I will make food for you.’ He picked up my sack and entered the porch that doubled as the cow and buffalo shed as well. With such humble beginning I found Kasoori Lal, a cowherd of 50 years from the village of Juhul. He never bothered to explain how he knew of my arrival and I never bothered to ask. It just seemed natural that in that godforsaken place amidst the godforsaken weather I would appear before his hut at that godforsaken hour. I quickly changed into dry clothes, leaving the wet ones hanging outside above the head of a fat and calmly disposed buffalo.


I entered the stone-walled hut with thatched roof. Through the glow of my headlamp I discovered an antediluvian man huddled at a corner wearing threadbare clothes to cover his fragile frame. ‘I am Kasoori Lal, Bhaiji, and this is my father Moti Lal,’ my host declared. ‘He is 80 years old and used to be a champion bear fighter of this region. But now he has gone senile and deaf though his eyes are perfect.’ I looked at Moti Lal and marveled at the number of creases marring his once handsome face. How did he reach this place at his age was what I wondered. Kasoori Lal added few wood strips into the hearth and placed a small aluminum bowl on the flame. He poured rice and water into the bowl and commenced stirring. ‘We have already eaten, I wasn’t sure when would you arrive, I hope you don’t mind rice!’ Kasoori said. I protested that he need not take the trouble of cooking only for me and that I could simply do with a glass of curd or milk, but he would not hear any of it. ‘You are my guest, Bhaiji,’ Kasoori said, ‘how can I not offer what I have.’ While he continued stirring the pot, I observed what he had. The father said nothing and his head nodded spasmodically as is natural at his age.

The hut scarcely had any possession. Measuring barely 6 ft X 6 ft to the left was the intended kitchen and to the right on the mud floor lay a pair of threadbare ‘pattu’ (woolen blankets) and from the ceiling hung a wooden rack that was lined up with meager means of survival in such places. My sack and other belongings now lay atop the rack as well. The kitchen side held few pots and pans and two bags containing rice, maize wheat and two distorted steel mugs. Their food consisted of either rice or flat-bread leavened with buffalo milk or curd with perhaps few pinches of turmeric to lace the taste.

‘You will find us here every year from June to September. This is my hut and grazing pastures. We have been grazing here since the days of my great great grandfather,’ Kasoori said. ‘What’s your father doing here?’ I asked. The old man suddenly shouted (as deaf people are wont to), ‘You hungry, my son!’ ‘He is crazy, he has one buffalo, that fat one outside and tends to it. He drinks her milk and gives it to his grandchildren and the neighbors. Looking at him now you won’t imagine what strength he had. Let me tell you a true story about him.’ Kasoori blew into the dying fire through his cupped palm and commenced, ‘Once during the corn season, when our fields are in full bloom with orange corns, father visited one of his friends in the neighboring village. Now as you know, bears love corn and they often hide in a field, eating and damaging the mature corn crops. As he walked through the corn field towards his friend’s house, he spotted a dark shape squatting on the ground, well hidden in the field. He I guess was a little tipsy that day. He presumed it was his friend’s dog hiding. He walked up to the animal and caught hold of its ear and pulled him out of the field and dragged the brute to his friend’s house verandah. Only when his friend, who was waiting for him outside, started screaming in fear did father realize that what he held by the ears was not a dog but a huge black bear… that’s father for you.’ Kasoori and I broke into a hearty laughter. Moti Lal joined us too through his guffaws. ‘We are not Gaddis but traditional cowherds and you will find us on the lower pastures unlike the Gaddis. Our cows and buffalos can’t climb up so high, but I have done that job too.’

I sensed that Kasoori Lal was full of stories and wanted to share some with me. ‘Where did you go?’ I asked. ‘That was a bad year for us and the cows were not healthy so I grazed sheep and goats and walked from here till Darcha and Ladakh border.’ I was curious to know the route he took; it was definitely a long and tortuous way from here till Ladakh. Over the next fifteen minutes he took me on a wonderful journey across half a dozen remote Himalayan passes and unknown hamlets as he traveled with his flock from his village to Darcha and back. I kept nodding my head in confirmation as I had myself crossed each of those passes. ‘Do you know about the legendary strengths of the Gaddis?’ Kasoori asked as he poured me rice and curd on a twisted steel plate. I nodded my ignorance. ‘They get their strength from the goat’s milk they drink each day. These goats and lambs eat the best Himalayan herbs and roots and the milk has amazing potency and strength. But the Gaddis lost their legendary strength nearly a hundred years ago. I will tell you how.

‘Once Shivji and Parvatiji (the god couple of Hindu mythology) were traversing through air atop the Himalayan valleys when Parvatiji noticed that a huge rock was rising and falling through the air on its own accord. It intrigued her to no end and she asked Shivji about the occurrence. Shivji was busy dragging his chillum and couldn’t be bothered with such minor earthbound things. But as is always a man, including Shivji, has to bend to the woman’s will. They descended to earth and noticed that a Gaddi slept under the rock and with each breath he expelled the rock rose in the air and with each breath he inhaled, the rock came down to his nose. The God couple were amazed at such strength. “What do you eat, my son?” Shivji asked the Gaddi. “Only maize-wheat bread and goat’s milk,” came the reply. “You must do something about this,” Parvatiji whispered to Shivji fiercely, “if he is so strong he can seriously challenge you some day, he could lift you up as well.” Shivji thought for a while and then uttered, “My son from this day on, you will get ‘do mutthi bal baaki sab jal’ (only 2 and half fist of strength and the rest of the milk will be water). So saying they departed and since then the Gaddis no matter how much milk they drank could get no more strength than the ‘do mutthi’.

I had finished eating and as I washed my hand in the bowl, Kasoori asked, ‘Did you reach the pass and the mountain top?’ I nodded. ‘You are a very lucky man. This mountain is very complicated and no one goes there in this time and you were alone, you shouldn’t have done it. But I guess you are blessed by the gods and you were lucky; unlike my wife and daughter.’ He fell silent as he got busy clearing the fire and making a space for me on the tiny floor. Then he narrated a heart wrenching story.

Nearly fourteen years ago, almost to the day as today, his wife and 10 year old daughter were returning after the Mani Mahesh pilgrimage. They had to cross several ranges and passes en route and they were with two village adults. At the last pass before reaching home, the group got caught in a sudden snow storm. While the men wanted to go down his wife and daughter found it impossible to continue in the pounding snow. They decided to take shelter under a rock at the pass and wait out the weather. They would descend when the snow stopped. The two men left them there and returned to the village. The snow did not stop and only grew in proportion. Kasoori Lal was away with his herd and did not know any of these. Two days later when they hadn’t returned the village folks went up to discover the two frozen bodies at the same place as they had been last seen alive. When Kasoori Lal related this to me there was no grief or remorse in his eyes. Simple acceptance of what he could not help or alter and what he believed in. ‘Mata ne bula liya apne paas’ (Mother Goddess had called them to her) was all he offered. ‘No mountain top, however beautiful, is a place to stop,’ he further observed.

Kasoori Lal roamed around these enchanting meadows each year from June – September with his flock tending the cows and buffalos and a pair of mares. Often fighting with bears and leopards to save his animals. In autumn he went down to his village to pluck the ripe corns from his field and looked after his surviving family. He is happy, simple and content. The mountain gives him his sustenance and water. He looks up at the mountains every morning and says his prayers offering last night’s breads to the god and then goes out with his cows. He was born in these surroundings and he would die here one day without any desire to go anywhere else.

When I bid him goodbye the next morning he let me go only after I promised to visit his home and village one day. I took to the trail and near the uphill mound where I would lose sight of his cottage I paused and looked back at the two figures, one upright and the other slightly bent at the waist waving at me with sun from behind. I couldn’t see their faces but I knew that they both were smiling. I waved back and turned around; I still had a long way to go before reaching anywhere.

As I ambled away I felt a strange tug at my heart. A simple man in a simple place and a friend for a lifetime, I had left all the three behind not knowing if I would meet them ever again. I was not bereaving but only wondering about what I could not alter nor could help. With acceptance returned peace and once again as I sped down the slippery slopes I took up the chatter of the monkeys and the song of the birds from the trees.