The road trip

I like the road. I don’t know why. Or may be I do, but that isn’t what I want to write about. Then again, may be it is. For a student of Vedanta such as I am, life is a sojourn. Today, I wished farewell to a friend. We weren’t the thickest of friends. In fact, we were nothing like each other. I couldn’t stand him at times. I am sure it was mutual, given how crass I may have been in his eyes and viewed from his value systems. We had had our good times and bad. The last time I met him, as always, I asked him the forbidden question. He was his enthusiastic self. He promised me that we could meet after he was back from his travel, and his wife reprimanded him – it was festival day and she reminded him also that his health doesn’t afford him such vices.

I had invited a couple of friends to watch a movie with me. I didn’t tell them which one, and they were kind enough to oblige me anyway. I like giving people surprises. I don’t know how they took it. I liked the movie. I’ve wondered what makes me pick the movies that I watch. It is different things. If it is on the big screen, though, it may be the premise. It is the premise – of a black man, hiring a white man from the Bronx, to chauffeur him to the southern states in America in the 60’s – that fascinated me. This wasn’t just another road movie.

The two men form an unlikely friendship. They are chalk and cheese. This isn’t scripted, mind you – I think I saw somewhere that it is inspired from real life. So (pardon the cliche) we have a ‘cultured’ highly educated musician played by a black guy and a crass, cussing friend-chicken eating Italian American. Tony won’t be a man Friday, his job is to drive and he makes that clear. It is interesting, when the porter brings the bags and they both look at each other. Tony won’t make a move, until finally the porter loads the bags on to the car. The porter, interestingly, is Asian.

Dr Don Shirley, on the other hand, hasn’t ever eaten friend chicken – least of all with his fingers; he hasn’t visited the bar downtown and cussing is below his dignity. Regal as he may be, he realises that he needs to drive south. He is on a mission and Tony may be his best bet, in his assessment. There is irony from the word go, and this is as much about class as it is about skin colour.

Don is a musician, and the music in the movie was a highlight for me. More so, because it is accentuated by the visuals – the Don Shirley Trio playing in the most sophisticated places, to the most ‘cultured’ audiences. I was fascinated by the thing that is the piano. It is so massive, and to watch an artist’s fingers dance on it is an experience – those were some of the most memorable scenes for me, coupled with the music in the background.

As they travel, we get to see the racist America that was. Is it still that way even now, only superficially different, I wondered. Their journey together is eventful, and teaches many a lesson. Don, who would look down upon Tony, ends up at his very home for Christmas. And this is the Tony, giving Don a warm hub and welcoming him home. The Tony, who in the opening scene, throws away a pair of glasses because a couple of black repairmen drank out of them.

As different as they may both have been, they both seem to carry their set of values. There’s a certain sense of honesty. And yet, we see them being at odds, and learning, and evolving. After all, isn’t that what life is about – growth and evolution?

I am grateful for having had the company of people different from me. And I wish for more, so that then, I may overcome my small mind and grow to be a better person. When he left, and when I saw that body lie there, I could only recollect the good times we had together. And there were quite a few. After all, we had worked together and he was my neighbour for a few years as well.

Go well, my friend. If we met in another life, I shall wish that we were even more different from each other, and that our paths cross again, to begin another friendship. Until then, the scotch that you so relished can wait.

 

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Milestones

It used to happen especially when I rode a motorcycle. I would notice the odometer now and then. And I’d only see it when the reading was just short of it, and then again, when it is crossed it.

1000, 5000, 10000, 50000…Every one of those milestones passed away in a similar manner. I would think that I ought to capture it when it happens. Take a picture of it perhaps. I wasn’t yet exposed to digital photography, and certainly not to social media. Not that I wanted to post the picture, if I could, bak then, but I would want to save it for posterity. To tell my non-existent grandkids, perhaps. Or sometimes just to look back and reminisce. After all, those two wheels had traversed long distances with me, over a significant period of time. They had seen many places, experienced many a challenge. None of it happened. I would miss every milestone. Until one day when I gave away my motorcycle. 

Much later, it happened again. Only this time, I wasn’t sure if I ought to be proud of the milestone. 10,000 isn’t a small number. Not by my standards. Even though it fades in comparison with what others have done. Why compare? I don’t, but the way we are brought up, at times, it is inevitable that the mind throws up comparisons with others.

I don’t feel like celebrating that number. And in that sense, I am glad I missed the milestone this time, if at all it is one. It showed me a whole new world, exposed me to several new facets, and some old ones. One of them being strong feelings – be it love or hatred. I wonder sometimes if the hatred spewed around is nothing but love for the opposite – be it a person or a way of thinking. 

More importantly, it changed the way I communicated. Brevity is the soul of wit, they say. And it certainly made me think of how I could say what I wanted to, within the constraints. I still impose the constraint on myself, even though they’ve freed us of it. Or have they, really? Willy-nilly, it pushed me to the shallow. Is it the nature of such a form of communication, or is it my inability? I would just skim and scroll, not really engage. And the few times I tried to, I would inevitably be disappointed. 

The biggest blow though was that it took me away from here. It wasn’t a blow, but more of a surreptitious move.Looking back, I hadn’t seen it coming. Slowly, depth gave way to the exact opposite. I would amuse myself momentarily. I would be angry, and even that would be momentary. It is the online equivalent of window shopping – an act that I have seldom indulged in. 

What has come of it? Some new experiences, new learning. And a significant loss, of words. Literally. In hindsight, the latter definitely outweighs the former. Here’s to 10,000 plus of those pithy footprints on the Internet. And with that, a reminder to myself, to engage more, to learn and work more deeply. And to write more. 

Tathaastu. 

Living through it all, stoically. 

Merku Thodarchi Malai is the story of a landless labourer in the Western Ghats. At one level, the plot is quite simple. It shows life in all its hues – birth, wedding, working, fighting, laughing and ultimately death too. At another level, it is the complex, extremely painful and sad story of a landless labourer. 

That is the heavy part. It makes you sad, it shakes you, it makes you question things, including the worth of your own existence. One has to deal with it, if you want to watch this movie. And watch it you must, if you asked me. 

That apart, I went into the cinema out of curiosity. I had heard of it of course, but that wasn’t the only reason; I was primarily interested in the hills. You do get to see some of it, but I couldn’t help but be disappointed. If I had to think of one thing that let me down about the movie, it would be just this. And mildly so. The script only could lend itself that much to showing the hills. Those bits were delightful. They made me nostalgic, not only about the Western Ghats per se, but about the hills. I think I am as much a sea as a mountain person. If I had to choose, I’d find a place with both, perhaps. Beach at the foot of the mountain. And yet, there’s something about the mountains. They tend to draw me back. I had forgotten that feeling in all these years, except being reminded of it briefly when I went up there and broke my foot, and had to come back. Not tumbling, thankfully, but on a wheelchair. I felt it was a calling. I resolved to heed to it. I hope I do. I must. 

Every single frame in the movie is worth framing, literally. I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, despite otherwise being a person who struggles to focus. I can be very focused as well, just as there are other contradictions that I am full of. Whoever it is, I realise, has played very well with light, especially in the scenes of dawn, dusk and night. I couldn’t help but envy the protagonist, just as I felt sad at his helplessness. He lives a simpler life. So simple, that you see him & others growing old, but more importantly, growing weary. This is a life where faith plays an important role, and the concept of faith has been presented in a wholly uncomplicated manner. Sanatana Dharma allows you to pray to a stone, literally, and so it is that simple. In this case, a pile of stones or even a tree.

There’s music by the Maestro. In the background. Unobtrusive, yet accentuating the overall aesthetic at just the appropriate places. And the songs remind me of something else I was perhaps missing. Music in general, and his music in particular. I realised I am a fan. The me, who understands fandom and still somehow thinks it is silly. 

Funnily enough, I had put out my tickets for sale. I was exhausted, I needed to rest. I tend to buy tickets now and then, and then not go. It has happened several times. This afternoon, I was trying to take a nap when I got called on my phone. It irritated me briefly as I couldn’t sleep afterwards. It was raining. I decided to go. After all I had the rain for company. The way it rained, I thought it would be a small adventure to drive out anyway. It is another thing that it stopped raining the moment I decided to go, something that one is otherwise thankful for. 

For once, I didn’t complain. My companion is in everybody, and everything. Every moment.

Where are you?

When I eat, when I drink,

as I go to bed, pretty much on the brink,

and then as I wake up – hoping that I never did,

for sometimes, I wish someone put the lid

on my life and shut it, forever. 

Work I do for what else is there?

Life, I live for death isn’t fair

We strive, if only to stay up and stare,

at the roof on lonely nights,

bereft of all meaning the mind is caught in a blight

And if there was ever anything that I wanted,

more than my own less than precious life

is to get over this inner strife

of forever searching, seeking, struggling 

for that one look of kindness. 

And when I don’t find it, the eyes fill with non-existent tears,

yet only I may know all the fear,

of living with you, yet being without you,

so much that my soul this feeling may sear.

As days go by, I look back into the moments that were but few,

all I hear myself ask, is where are you? 

Arise! Awake!

Don’t take things to your heart, my friend. It is important to feel, no doubt. Sometimes, it is feeling, more than anything else that moves us to do something. Yet, I say, don’t be disheartened.

I believe there is a large scheme of things. Adversity is made to strengthen us. Remember, even this will pass away. And you will come out stronger. You must. There’s no other way.

Did you say that things are tough for you, that life has been tough on you? Since when did a brave-heart like you fear, and complain about circumstances? Since when did you give up? Don’t you know that our circumstances are entirely our making? If you complain about fate, I remind you about freewill.

So stop whining. And get up!

Do you sincerely want something?

Is it just?

Then don’t stop before you get it. More importantly, don’t forget to put every ounce of effort into it. And never ever give up.

Wake up, young India. A belated Happy National Youth Day to you.

Adversity is desirable

“Hum poori koshish karenge ki aapko kal subah tak theek kar den,” * he said. Nursing assistant Subedar Ghanshyam didn’t quite look convinced himself, as he said those words. He had given me a shot for the pain, and was applying an ice pack over the injured area. When I sat up to look at my foot, I thought he was being rather too optimistic.

I had known about the Nehru Institute of Moutaineering only a few years ago. The moment I learnt about it, I wanted to go there. In 2015, I had sent in an application and the reply was quite prompt. I was told that I could be accommodated in the last batch for the year in 2017. It seems they had quite a few applicants waiting.

By the start of last year, I had started preparing in small ways. I ran a few days every week, progressively trying to increase the distances I cover. Closer to the date of joining, I shopped for a backpack and some basic necessities, including a good pair of hiking boots, a hat, sunglasses & so on. I was obviously excited and looking forward to being in the mountains. In fact, my previous post was from somewhere en route Dehradun to Uttarkashi, where the Institute is located.

The Course in Basic Mountaineering, which I had enrolled for, is structured in such a way that in the first week or so, we are trained in rock-craft and other ideas such as using ropes, equipment, first-aid and so on, the knowledge of which is required to be in the mountains. In those days, we were at the Institute campus and would trek about 10 km everyday to the rock climbing site. It was the last day of this phase of our training, and we were at the institute campus itself. We were to leave very early the next morning. We would venture out into the mountains, camping at a couple of locations along the way and learn two other trades – snow-craft and ice-craft. That morning, we were practising on some boulders, when I fell. I hadn’t fallen from any significant height, but landed quite awkwardly. In fact, the moment I fell, I knew that this wasn’t good. The pain was quite unbearable.

By mid morning, I was taken to the town of Uttarkashi for an x-ray, following which I met a doctor. The doctor declared what I had feared – that I had fractured by foot. He applied a plaster cast to immobilise the joint, and advised me to get home for further treatment. When I got back to the Institute, I took another painkiller and decided to not to lie resting in my room. I was fortunate to be lent the only pair of crutches that was available. I hobbled my way to the training area. It was evening, and most people were busy making sure they had their equipment right or exchanging things and packing their bags for the following day. I decided to sit there and witness  all the activity.

One by one, those who passed by me, including my batch mates, members of other courses who I had been familiar with, and the instructors, would stop by to enquire. I had to repeat the same thing. It was a fracture, I was advised to go home. I would perhaps leave the following morning, when the others hit the mountains. A couple of my roommates came along, looking grave. They sat next to me and enquired. Silence ensured for a long while, and was broken only by my suggestion, that we go to the cafeteria for a cup of tea. Over tea, one of them remarked that he was feeling very bad about the whole thing. After all, I had waited more than 2 years for this.

My first reaction, after the pain passed away, was to smile. “Man proposes, God disposes,” I told him. I thought to myself how things had turned out, and I couldn’t help but smile at the unexpected twist in my little adventure story. One of them remarked that I seemed to be taking it better than he had. He was a Lieutenant Colonel in the Navy. He did seem quite sullen for the rest of the evening, and here I was, trying to cheer him up! “We’ll meet again. If not in the mountains, elsewhere perhaps. Who knows we’ll have a drink together some day,” I told him.

It has been two months since all this happened. I am recovering quite well. I look back at the time that has elapsed, and feel very grateful for many things. I am listing them below, in no particular order.

I am extremely thankful for the care shown by the Institute. In fact, they insisted on paying for the medical expenses while I was there. They made sure someone was with me until the time I was back at my room.

My fellow students. Some of them who had hardly spoken with me turned up at my room that night, to commiserate. Others helped me in myriad ways that evening, and the following morning, until we all left – them to the mountains, and me back home.

The staff at the airlines. In one stretch, I was refused wheelchair assistance because they were booked. A friend who lived in Dehradun helped by speaking with someone at the airport. Some of the passengers who I was unfortunately inconveniencing. People who drove the cabs I had hired. Assistants who had wheeled me at the airport. Random fellow travelers. Many had helped in significant ways.

Medical care. Despite all that is said about it nowadays, I believe I received very good medical care. The surgery was carried out deftly. The pain had disappeared. Every doctor and nurse that I had met were caring and brought about an air of positivity around me.

My workplace, and colleagues who were kind enough not to trouble me. This, at a time when work has been at its peak. Many of them very kindly filled-in to complete my work during my absence. They continue to help in many ways, as I am back at work now.

Books. I read more than I had ever done in recent times and it felt good.

My parents. I was with them the last 2 months or so. I can’t remember the number of people to whom they would have narrated my story. And it would always end with them saying that despite everything, they were glad to have me home. I couldn’t help but feel sad that it ought to have been caring for them, rather than the other way around. Yet, I feel extremely grateful for the precious time I got in their company.

When I look back, I think the little difficulties made me look at everything with a lot more gratitude than I may have in other times. I was more accepting. I think our lives would be filled with more joy and peace, if we learned to accept things. When we think about it, a lot of our struggles may be with non-acceptance, and our desire to control and shape things in ways we may think is desirable for us and others.

This year, I pray that I learn to accept things and reside in the apparent discomfort. Happy new year.

 

* – We’ll try our best to get you fixed by tomorrow morning.

The silence of the hills

The little I saw of Dehradun as we drove out from the Railway Station, headed to Uttarkashi, was nothing like I had remembered. And why not? I had, after all, visited the town more than two decades ago. I was struck ‎by a pang as I left the town. There is a very visible impression , perhaps scars, that humans are leaving on earth. No doubt mountaineering has contributed to it too, and significantly in the recent times.

The rest of the drive was very different. The 140 odd km we had to cover was mostly through the hills. At dawn, it was all a misty grey of various shades. At one point, I noticed that a valley we were crossing was brightening up. When I look to my rear, I found a hill, hiding the sunrise on one side. Consequently, half the valley was painted golden yellow and it was slowly spreading as we drove. 

For the next hour or so, that was how it was. The hills were part yellow, part dark, depending on where the sunlight fell. It was a sight to behold, and for a change, I just soaked in, rather than reach out to my device to click pictures. 

Slowly, it brightened up, and by mid morning, the sun was shining bright enough to make me squint at times. The sights all along, until we reached our desti‎nation, was alternatively brown and green. The hills closer to us looked dark green where there were trees. At some places, it was shades of brown.

“Winter would be here soon‎. The pilgrimages shut down. And water will become scarce, ” said Omkar Singh, who was driving me to my destination. It was apt that my driver had to be named so. My earliest memory of this place goes back to a time when we were motorcycling. I had stopped for a cup of tea and had enquired about riding in the night. The rules prevented it, I was told; but otherwise I had nothing to fear. “Not even the animals harm you here. This is Dev Bhumi.”

As I mull over these thoughts, I do feel an unmistakable sense of divinity in these parts. And then, out of nowhere appears my first sighting. The snow capped Himalayas. This time, we stop. I take a picture, but in those moments, all my thoughts seem to cease. A calmness descends upon me as I stand there, watching in silence. ‎