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. ‎

Nameless faces


That’s a name that stuck in my head all these years, even though I had forgotten the person. There’s very few of my classmates from school that I’ve managed to stay in touch with anyways. I don’t recall his name being mentioned in any conversation in all these years. Some of us went to school together for 12 years. And then others came in and went out of our class at various stages. Amarabalan and I were together from Class 1 to 5. I hadn’t heard of him ever since.

When I met him after all these years the other day, outside our school, I was in for a lovely surprise. And perhaps, a shock in some ways. He came, looked me into the eyes, and asked, ‘Bala, teriyuda da enna?’ *

What immediate caught my attention was his eyes.


Most of the times, I forget names. They are most likely to be of people that I have had a happy time with, but perhaps relatively briefly. Mostly during my travels. In some town or sometimes just for the duration of a train, or bus, or even an autorickshaw ride. Nothing much more.

I tend to forget faces much less, though. They stick. I know you, I just can’t place some things. You name, may be one such thing.

This man was a rustic. We must have spoken for ten minutes  in all. In that time, the conductor had come in to say he must sit at the back of the bus. I had reserved seat in the front and the seat next to mine was vacant. I felt offended and told the conductor that he’s found a place to sit! Why make him get up? After that, I must have fallen asleep. When I awoke, he wasn’t to be seen, until much later when the man had wanted to get off at, close to our destination. The bus driver just asked him to get off in the midst of traffic, hardly having pulled up the road properly. I was upset, but then I could empathise with the drivers too. It is hard. Roads are becoming like zoos.

In the brief minutes this man had spoken to me, I observed that he was a simpleton. Probably a farmer. ‘I am from Chennai, and I had come here on work. There’s no water there for us, back home. Out here, in Chinna Salem, there’s drinking water. The cattle, poor things, they suffer the most when there’s no water.’

Then there was Manivannan. This was most recently, and I had made a (physical) note of his name, and so I remember.

He had refused to turn on the meter, I refused to ride with him. He came back to me. ‘Meter pota 80, oru 20 kooda kudu.’ ** It was quarter to 11. The second time, I didn’t have the heart nor the energy to refuse. I had observed his frail body. He wore a long grey beard, and looked older than he probably was. He spoke a lot. I was tired and sleepy, so couldn’t register it all. He hails from a village in Perambalur district. If I remember right, he had come in the early nineties to Madras. A decade later, his family went back to their village. His two sons both go to college, I was told. I remember thinking that he had done well for himself. In a strange way, that made me proud.


It came back to me, almost as if in a flash, when he stood there in front of me. Amarabalan, the name, and the face. I was in awe of the moment. I remember he had sharp eyes. He always seemed like looking at things keenly. A lot of times his forehead would be a little creased. Maybe it had something to do with ‘pepe’, a game where a group of people is after a tennis ball, throwing it around to hit each other. He was pretty damn good at it. And I used to get hit a lot, with the ball, especially by him. I must have been easy target. And sometimes, I also remember seeing fear in his eyes. I don’t remember him doing well academically, but he was a perfectly ‘normal’, ‘smart’, talented kid. He now teaches at a college. He didn’t speak too highly of his job. Apparently, he did more for the system, than for the kids. It was evident, that he didn’t like his work. And I wondered how much our schooling had to do with where he or each one of us was. After all, aren’t schools supposed to help us carve out a path for ourselves?

That morning, I had very mixed feelings. I was extremely excited about meeting everyone. They had all planned to go to school, something I was not very keen about, for some reason. I’ve felt the same way about college, too. Not that they were ‘bad’ places, not to me in any case. In fact, I am grateful for absolutely wonderful, beautiful, colourful times as a student. As I heard names, and saw a few faces standing outside the school compound, my mind was racing away.

Through the day and until the following morning, I had a blast of a time with friends. With most people, it felt very easy. Just very easy, it was that simple. There’s something about childhood friends. I just felt like, if any of them needed me to, I’d just stand up for them. No questions asked. Each of us had parted at different points of time. A handful of them, I have since been in touch with. Every one of the rest, was a delight to meet. A lot of the girls felt the boys had changed in many ways, including having grown taller! And more than one of those pretty ladies told me that day, that I had changed to have become a lot quieter. I was quite an extroverted child. We were always up to something. We played, out in the open. A LOT.

Every one of them has had his or her life. They’re all doing their things. Some work for others, others make others work for them. Many of them have been married. Some had really grown up kids! I remember all of them as being unique. And when it came to school, I look back and think that it was mostly about coping. Parts of it were fun, no doubt. I remember liking some of the subjects too. And then there was time with friends – playing, just meeting, talking, flirting with the girls, during outings and what else not.

One of them had travelled roughly 3000 km, all the way from Assam. ‘I loved school days. Mostly my friends. I love you all. I had a tough time trying to study, though. I couldn’t get a lot of what we were expected to learn. You did,’ he told me. I was shocked to hear that after all these years. In my student days, I remember I had thought this fellow coped better, honestly. I really didn’t study all that much.  We had a lot of other things to do, like I mentioned earlier. And then there were things like reading, music, ‘extra-curriculars’, or Scouting. I guess for me, they were all key parts that not only helped me learn a great deal more, they helped me cope with the whole idea of a classroom.

Back then, I was a mixed bag. I did a lot of shit. I remember one teacher. She got hold of me while I was returning from the playground. I think it was my last year at school. She took me around, and showed me to a few of her colleagues, and exclaimed, ‘Look at his shirt. They’re supposed to be grown up, and look how they play so much to soil their shirts.’ I used to like her. I think I coped fairly well with the studying part. I understood things, mostly. Or so I thought. And then I had learnt some tricks that helped me do well in examinations, thanks to my teachers. I was even appointed ‘monitor’, in my primary classes. Looking back, the term looks abhorrent. Later, it became ‘leader’. Just as ‘miss’ had become ‘madam’. In both cases, the connotation of the terms didn’t change much. My job was to ‘shepherd’ others and let the teacher know who the rogues were. Each of them would then punish us appropriately.  I wish someone explained the meaning of the word ‘leader’. I look back with a measure of guilt, that all I did was to be policing, and I never thought of helping my buddies out. It seems to me that we were taught competition more, than cooperation. All the cooperation, we mostly learnt ourselves, outside the classroom, mostly in playgrounds and so on.

I look back at my experience at school & college, and it makes me want to cry. Especially because I am now exposed to ideas around education. I wish kids don’t have to constantly struggle at school. I wish it wasn’t just about coping, but truly learning and discovering oneself. This isn’t to say that I had ‘bad’ teachers. As I remember it, most of them were perfectly nice people. Most of them perhaps wanted good things for us. Yet, I can’t help but think how limited they were in their views & consequently in doing their jobs. And I won’t blame them at all. Every teacher is but a product of the same system that is badly in need of transformation. All these thoughts are without doubt, in retrospect. Especially given that I’ve come to understand education somewhat better.

I am grateful for my work now. It adds a lot of meaning to my life. What keeps me going, is that somewhere, we may trigger some teacher may open her eyes, and change her mind a wee bit. It may just be trifle, yet I find it important to keep going. If we want a better world for ourselves & our kids, then there’s no better place than to start with our schools. Else, schools will remain places where thousands of nameless faceless entities do nothing more than struggle, and somehow find their way out. And it is high time that changed. So that another Amarabalan can discover himself.

* ‘Do you remember me?’

** ‘If I use the meter, it will come to 80. Give me 20 more.’


I am here, for you.

I have been meaning to write more, this year. If the last few years were to go by, then I may have written a bit more in this year, owing obviously, to that month long posting challenge that I had taken up.

I have also been meaning to write, in particular about the tree. I don’t have one particular tree in my mind as I write this. I am sure I would recall many of them, if I thought enough about it, but that isn’t the idea.

I am absolutely fascinated with the three. And no matter how many I see in the different places that I’ve been blessed enough to go to, my fascination with it doesn’t end. Sometimes, it is small, at other times, bigger than you first think it is. It isn’t until you stop and stare, crane your neck up and all around, that you realise how really vast it has grown. You wonder how old the tree would be, for it to have grown so big.

The three doesn’t need much. Save the initial days when someone must water it and protect it, consciously. Once it is on its own, the tree just lives with the help of precipitation, and without doubt, help from all the other creatures that come together in this wondrous phenomenon called nature.

Now, here’s the best part. It isn’t just there. It is fascinating how it can be such a vast, yet quiet living being. It is life! We may not perceive it as we may perceive life, in say, a dog or a human being. Not only does it live, it seems to support life too, in many ways – it cools, is home to other creatures & is helpful in many amny other ways.

I can not imagine how many times people may have sought shade under its branches. I have done it countless times, and I admit that I haven’t been conscious of it always. As a kid, I have my fondest memories associated with the tree because I would find every chance to climb on it. Among other things, it gave a wondrous sense of adventure to climb a tree. The sense of victory, after having climbed the most difficult one, was an unspeakable emotion in those days. I can not describe it adequately enough, save to suggest, that if you haven’t done it yet, I would strongly recommend that you do it. And your children do, too.

The tree is truly a miracle. If you don’t believe in God or miracles, surely you derive joys in the wonderful workings of nature? I wish that you and I are kind to it. The tree.