Sunday, January 10, 2016

Sands of Miami

The seagull hovers in the air beside me, striving against the wind, unable to move an inch, as if held back by an invisible string. The wind relents, the string breaks, and off it goes, without so much as a backward glance at me. Abandoned, I sprawl on the soft chilly tawny slope of sand. Expands before me the vast green sea, beautiful, peaceful, and majestic, replete with breaking waves, decorated with an occasional freighter, overlooked by towering skyscrapers and flanked by an unceasing stretch of sand. As the seagull flies past the meandering bipeds, the disarrayed beach beds and the ephemeral sand castles, it fails to see what I see.

I see an elderly couple, with drooping skin, flabby flesh, bent backs and grey hair, standing close together, peaceful and content, serenely looking out into the horizon, an occasional hand caressing the salty water kissing their knees. I see them comfortable in each other’s company, exuding an intimacy spawned from years of cohabitation, from wrecked dreams and fulfilled ambitions, from bitter altercations and ardent reconciliations, an intimacy in no want of any external validation. I see their younger counterparts, passionately wrapped together like a vine around a tree trunk, oblivious to the incessant whooshing of the water and unheeding of the intermittent stares of random strangers, lost in each other, flooded with the excitement of feelings unknown, and the hopes of a future unexplored.

I see a father leading his little one into the water, who gears up for the approaching waves like a matador waiting for a charging bull, but gets overrun by a stampede of elephants instead. I see a sister scurrying around and swirling like a top in the frothy water, enthusiastically coaxing her little brother to join her, who nonchalantly keeps busy building a sand castle. In the distance I see frisbees flying and footballs whirling. Someone buries himself up to neck in sand, and frantically swears revenge, scared and helpless in his sandy prison, on his sister, when she mischievously throws some bread crumbs near him, inviting the circling seagulls. A girl puts on mascara with surgical precision, pouts her lips in ritualistic devotion, gingerly takes out her cell phone, and proceeds to click multiple shots from every which angle, her back to the dazzling yet ignored reflections on the turbulent waters. A man dives in with his sunglasses on, and presently, is frantically engaged in a futile search for the missing pairs. A lifeguard on a jet-ski blows on his shrill whistle, vehemently requesting swimmers to stay out of undercurrents, as a helicopter flies over, displaying a banner for a new year celebration party. A jogger runs by, in naked feet, sans the protruding ear phones, choosing to listen to nature instead. A couple walks along, deep in conversation, one hand intertwined with their partner’s, flippers in the other, backpacks on shoulders and eyes on the footprints they leave behind. I see people swimming, people maniacally flapping about their hands pretending to be swimming, people maniacally flapping about their hands trying to swim but failing, people maniacally flapping about their hands trying to sprinkle their water-repellent homie, and people manically flapping about their hands in water because why not, it’s fun!

And I see the sand, a stage on which this drama is being enacted, golden and grainy, witness to a thousand souls’ joys and sorrows. And through it, I become a part of those forgotten stories, those fuzzy memories, those potent emotions. Peering through time I see him, on a cold wintery afternoon, heart-broken, crushed and dejected, a pale ghost of his prior self, losing himself in the grandeur of his surroundings and deriving solace from the touch of the soft sand on his feet, from the damp smell and the belittling vastness of the ocean, and from the soothing caressing of the frothy water. And I see him, another him, years hence, his collar unbuttoned, his shirt untucked, his oxfords in his hand, his tie loosened, trudging along wearing his socks, a triumphant but tired victor in a day-long war for his dream job, come here to breathe a sigh of relief. I see her, apathetic and turbulent, coming here with her friends just because she had nothing better to do, and leaving with a new hope, a new idea, for a story the rumble of the sea inspired. I see them. I become them. I pick something up, and I leave something behind. I see the sand soaking up my turbulent emotions. I see in it my past few days, and the days unexplored, and a glimpse of the tribulations of the year before and the hopes of the fore.

I see her, our waitress in Havana 1957, wearing a traditional white Cuban frock, adorned with red belts and ribbons, with a red hibiscus flower sitting between her pitch black hair and left ear, the play of colors representing both perfection and sexuality. She compliments that with a gold necklace and a silver wrist watch, and a broken accent, seductive but distant. And I see Shannon, our Native American guide in the Antelope Canyon, short and portly, covered from head to toe in wool, guiding us through the womb-like formations in the crimson rocks, drawing attention to the play of light and shadow on the walls, and the consequent aura on the haloed travelers, bantering about the unintentional use of Hindi swear words on unsuspecting grandpas, thanks to a prank by her mischievous Indian friend, and leaving me with the sweet memory of a matronly embrace.

I see myself in Universal Studios, wearing a cloak with the Gryffindor insignia, brandishing the Elder wand, drinking butterbeer, unleashing the inner child from an adult exterior without being judged for it. I edge through a hole in the wall, and see myself in Diagon Alley, gleefully hopping from Weasley’s Wizard Wheezes to Madam Malkin’s. Doe-eying the fire-breathing dragon on top of Gringott’s. Humming to the Harry Potter theme. And looking in wonder at the Hogwarts castle. And the platform at King’s Cross numbered nine-and-three-quarters.

I see Kennedy Space Center swarming with alligators. I see the replicas in the Rocket Garden. The full-sized Atlantis space shuttle in its mid-flight glory, opened up like a dissected frog. The take-off countdown rehearsals. And the Apollo displays. And I see San Antonio Riverwalk, zigzagging through the city, adorned with Christmas lighting and intimately brushing past the river and the city.

I see us hiking up Tent Rocks in sub-zero temperature and negotiating ice-covered slippery stairs, precarious ledges, and claustrophobic depressions, to get intimate with the pointy rock pillars born of the union of sedimentary and igneous rocks and shaped through weathering and erosion, huddling like a group of fat clowns in pointy hats and striped pajamas. I see the plunging reddish-white cliffs ahead, and the green solitary shrubs dispersed like freckles in the desert below, and the shadow of the cloud above crawling over them like spilled water on the floor. Then I see us leisurely ambling down to the Horseshoe Bend, and standing atop serrated rocky slabs, askew, possibly remnants of some earthquake past, cinnamon layers covering the earth like the scales of a fish. And I see it, the imposing bump of a land, resolute and adamant, refusing to give any quarters to the corrosive Colorado, forcing it to go around instead. I see in the belly of the valley so formed dark-green clear water, stagnant yet foreboding, nursing the thin border of vegetation separating the river from the surrounding precipice.

I find myself standing in the open, under a cloud-covered sunless sky, peering at the countless mounds of white sand in White Sands Monument, bathing in a gratuitous shower of white snowflakes. I am driving on the sand, sliding down the dunes and searching for white camouflaged animals. And presently I find myself in the dark, humid, warm interiors of Natural Bridge Caverns, walking amongst stalactites and stalagmites, standing there for ages like the great sages of our scriptures, some solitary, some sociable, some littered with bat-excretion, all immobile.

And then we are on the long lonely Texan roads, passing through ephemeral fog, blinding downpour and unexpected ice. I see never-ending horizon-kissing stretches of wavy concrete road, flanked by pale shrubs with needlelike leaves, like sentries along a royal procession, and windy deceptive mountain paths, with bottomless abysses and white snow-topped crimson peaks for company. I see us dodging unexpected mounds of snow, putrid dog carcasses and fickle brawny deer. I see us peering far into the horizon, sometimes to get drunk in the beauty of it, at others just out of boredom of a long drive, oblivious to the texture of the imposing hulk of a mountain in front or the buzz of the continuous stream of mechanical menaces flowing alongside. I see us trying to sneak in a quick clumsy nap in the back-seat; and fail at it. I see the constant jerks and occasional veering out of the lane and a tired, under-slept and overworked driver at the wheels. I see the rush to the nearest gas station for relieving ourselves. And to stock up on things we would be relieving ourselves of at the next stop. I see the spontaneous stop by the shoulder of the interstate highway in the dead of night to discover obscure constellations in the sky. I see the intermittent bickering and bantering. The decision to defer watching Star Wars till the end of the trip to save two precious hours, and the eons spent in restaurant-hunting and waiting right after. The haste to put on more layers of clothing before setting foot in the infernal subzero atmosphere and their frenetic removal while posing for a picture. The repeating songs and the groans and hustle for a different DJ. The enthusiastic sprint to ride shotgun and the dejected plea to be allowed to move to the back-seat to get some shut-eye after a few hours.

I am standing there, on the beaches of Miami, at the end of the year, thinking of memories lost and experiences gained, of the turmoils of the past and the opportunities of the future, of new acquaintances and old relations, of unfinished businesses and completed projects, of stories untold and promises unmade, of bittersweet changes and soothing constants, when the tide comes and washes the sand off my feet.

It had been a while since I had written anything. I recently saw Master of None, and the fig tree sequence in the finale tugged at my heart-strings. Sitting there on the Miami beach, when I was thinking about how to document my year-end road trip, I decided to experiment with a similar sequence, with the sand replacing the fig tree, instead of doing a regular serial travelogue. The setting of the beach automatically drew some other elements into the story. Somehow, without my conscious attempt, the tone of the piece became a pale imitation of the tone of the closing lines of A Tale of Two Cities, where Sydney Carton contemplates the future he could never be directly a part of. I am not sure if this whole thing worked, but writing this was absolute fun!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Musings from a toilet seat: Read any Hinglish articles recently?

This afternoon I was going through this impressive interview with Anurag Kashyap where he was focusing on the issues pertaining to commercialization of the film industry, intelligent cinema and the gaping 'misdemeanour' of the I&B Ministry to appease the low-self-esteem-ridden sects of a secular country, and I found myself extremely irritated. No, I was not incensed by his views: On the contrary, I really appreciated his take on these issues and I adore the man for providing us with those one or two movies a year that help prevent the Indian film industry from being an utter joke. What did make me uneasy was the indiscriminate use of Hindi in a supposedly English piece from a reputed English daily and the consequent awful journalism and presentation. It got me thinking: Is this scenario really that atrocious? Or am I just being a purist? Isn't Hinglish the norm of the day? Doesn't the youth of our country use it day in and day out? What's the point in sticking to an archaic concept of 'pure language' when the writing serves the purpose: that of getting the idea across and that too, more effectively by leveraging the current trend? But, and that's a big one, does it?

The phenomena of mixing up different languages and one language borrowing aspects of another closely and culturally related language are not new. All the Indian languages borrow heavily from Sanskrit -- some in its pure form, some the adulterated version. Urdu, literally the 'military camp', was born from elements of Hindi and Persian in Nader Shah's camps when Indian and Persian military culturally mingled with each other. English, being the international language of science, economics and communication, is bound to influence Hindi, and India being such a gigantic nation of a billion people, English is also bound to be influenced by it. Hence the origin of Hinglish. And it's not a twenty-first century phenomenon; "it's probably been around since the first trader stepped off the ships of the British East India Company in the early 1600s..."(Paul J. J. Payack, A Million Words and Counting: How Global English Is Rewriting the World. Citadel, 2008), though it definitely has seeped from the uneducated banter into the mainstream in the last decade. I did a quick Google search to ascertain the prevalence and growth of the present avatar of Hinglish: More than 350 million people speak some or other form of Hinglish. So much so that it has been made mandatory for British diplomats to India to be proficient in this new form. And as a matter of fact, it's so in vogue that most of us don't even realize that we are mixing English and Hindi up, when we are uttering sentences like 'yeh dil maange more' or 'it's a pukka way to speak'. But then, if it's so prevalent and I'm supposed to be so accustomed to it, why did I cringe when I went through the article?

Is it because I absolutely detest the use of the Roman script for Hindi and the consequent dampening of the flow of reading? Or is it because I am more accustomed to using chunks of English while communicating in Hindi than using complete Hindi sentences while primarily conversing in English? - I don't think so, because like most other primates of my generation, I do tend to chat a lot and all of that is done in Roman script, with a completely random inclination towards the use of either language over the course of a conversation. In fact, Hindi not being my native-language, I am far more comfortable with the Roman script compared to the Devanagari. Then is it because I was expecting a better piece of article from a leading daily and was disappointed by their awful journalism? - May be, may be not. I say that, because we are talking about TOI here: if it were The Hindu, I would understand my disappointment right away. But I regularly read TOI, for its cheap 'masala' news ridden with senseless bickering riddled with a combination of vocabulary from different languages penned by reputed 'journalists' whose writing sense goes as far as sensationalizing the most recent upskirt. I have had consistently low expectations from the paper and such troughs in journalism/writing hardly ever bother me.

The more I think about these independent scenarios, the more I realize that perhaps I am not taking the best route to attacking this problem: may be it's just a combination of all these tiny inconsequential tit-bits that unnaturally leads to an inexplicable loathing that's more than the sum of its parts(hail Gestalt!). So, at the expense of elongating this unwelcome sally and estranging the unsuspecting spectator, let me venture into the psycho-linguistic domain.

One thing I distinctly remember is the incessant appearance of hurdles in my chain of thought; the cognitive load of switching from one language to the other, when you have a predisposition of thinking in one language thanks to the use of that language's script, is a bit too much to bear. Yet, as I have explained beforehand, I am accustomed to this switch and my cognition has had enough field-experience in sustaining such punches. So what changed? I was fumbling for a while before I happened upon this article on 'thinking in a language'. It talked of a scenario I am too painfully aware of: that of the effect of context on your language of choice. I have often noticed a peculiar inability to shift from my mother tongue Oriya to Hindi and vice-versa when I prolong my stay in either Kanpur or home. When I get back home during a vacation, I tend to intersperse Oriya with Hindi words for the first few days and the reverse happens when I get back to college after a long stay. (And it's not particular to this poor soul only: At least one other friend of mine faces the same inconvenience at times.) I guess that's because it takes me time to switch my contexts. And without going into a detailed analysis of the above phenomenon in this already long write-up, I would conjecture that this context-switch might be the culprit behind my detest for the article. True, I am accustomed to language switches during chats and also, in some other shady articles from the daily. But when I'm half-way through an elaborate compelling debate on the film industry, I am in no mood for non-sense: I am switched to the information-gathering fact-finding argument-dissecting reader-mode accustomed to a certain standard from a leading piece. I am not chatting away where, it being a conversation, I am amenable to frequent lapses and switches in my cognitive processing. It's like I am reading an essay, dissecting every other line for its purported merit, like I used to do in another life when I went through articles in The Hindu or The Frontline (before a hectic engineering-education schedule took that away from me), and I am expecting the same tempo and gusto till I am done going through the last line. And all of a sudden, I am hit by a gust of Roman-letter-laden unparsable strings. Gone are the days when respectable journalists would take the pain to translate the quotes, going into much effort to preserve the intention and tone of the speaker. This presentation hits you like the sound of nails scratching a blackboard. Consider the following sentence: "That's the way we see "Adult" content in our country - "haaw". Woh jo "haaw" wali sensibility hai - Adult manein kuch bohot dirty hai. " I can easily take in the first line, which uses only one Hindi word for dramatic effect; but then when the whole sentence switches to Hindi completely, there is definitely a breakage in the chain of thought, because I am now required to divide a part of my attention into actually converting the Roman script into a recognizable representation, and I am just not habitually and contextually prepared to seamlessly transition into that state. And there goes the reasoning that this presentation is smooth and effective. In my opinion, and I'm not forcing that on anyone, this is neither good English, nor good Hindi, and a far cry from any decent journalism: And I can only hope (though beyond reason) that we curb our propensity to indulge in such tomfoolery.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Musings from the road: Kafni Trip: Day 2


"Someone switch off the alarm, please!"

"Oi, it's already half past five. We were supposed to wake up at 5 and leave by 6. So get your lazy arses out of the bed."

"Yawn! Com'on. Lemme sleep for another 10 min. Please!"

Well, when was it ever easy to get a bunch of college guys on a holiday to get out of bed in time! And the malfunctioning water-geyser is not helping either. I never had a liking for tea or coffee. But when Jai Singh, our guide, knocks on the door with a few cups of tea, I jump up to grab one. In spite of being  devoid of the bovine-juice, the warmth on the lips feels like bliss. Dugs comes in crunching a piece of Britannia Marigold, "Bubu, they are sleeping like babies in my room too. :("

"More like pigs I would say. ;) Anyway, what's the plan?"

"Not much. We just take a Jeep up, which must be pretty eventless (how naive it is to assume anything). Then we walk for 4 kilometres and camp for today. All the good stuff is being saved for tomorrow."

"Well, in that case I guess we can let these guys have another 10 minutes. What's up with the monkeys by the way? Why is that one making faces at us?"

"He's fallen in love with you Bubu, go get him a banana." Dugs and his momentary lapses into mischief! Sutta seems jealous. He grabs a steel rod and goes after the poor soul - can't complain; he's the self proclaimed Don of Gorakhpur after all.

An hour later, we are seated in two Mahindra Maxxs, on our way to Loharkhet and Dhakuri. It's a slow ride. Most of us are still feeling sleepy. I see children in uniform, treading along in groups, with school bags on their shoulders. I am reminded of the evergreen 'School Chalein Hum' commercial. Seems like the publicity has done it's job, especially given the impressive number of girls in the groups. We cross a bridge across River Saryu. Corn fields come into view. We get our first glimpses of terrace farming. Forget the description in the books -- they are not the 'stairs' we are accustomed to -- only when you get closer to them do you notice how long and high each step is. From the car, it looks like each one would extend from my toe to chest. Still the women of the hill, wrapped in sarees, are negotiating the height, sometimes getting over 50 odd such steps to reach their own patch of field. Nature always gives us something to take away, some lesson that we otherwise tend to overlook in our hectic mundane affairs. These people fight with nature every single moment of their life -- just to get their hands on necessary sustenance. Imagine them getting their cattle and ploughs up there. They give their time, sweat and what not, all the while realising that may be the very next moment, an avalanche would wash away their year long toil. It makes you sit back and think. Gives you the strength to face the challenges in your life. It implores you to quit whining sitting in your cosy air conditioned rooms -- at least you don't have to struggle to get your very basic needs fulfilled. That, in itself, is a start. Go on and face your problems head on.

"Hey look down!" My philosophical musings are mercilessly trodden upon. But what's that! Is that a squashed car down there? It's unrecognisable. The roof and the base of the car seem to be wrapped in each others arms; if not for the horror they had for company, one would easily have mistaken them for a romantic pair enjoying their personal time in the greenery amidst rocks by the riverside beside a cliff, far from dissecting public eyes. I wonder how the cadavers would have looked like -- or if there would have even been a corpse at all, just appendages and your innards. "You see, it's a steep 90 degree (of course he said something else, but we being engineers, this's what we heard anyway) fall. The car crashed head down." No slopes to break the fall. No toppling, or tumbling. No romantic camera angle or the shaky camera motion. You just go into free fall, enjoying the weightlessness, savouring the adrenaline rush until you hit the ground 100 feet below, and leave behind a sore sight for the posterity. "Driver bhai, you aren't drunk, are you?" "Well, if I was, you won't live to find out," he quips.

"Things used to be worse. After the Prime Minister's Village Road Scheme, we have got these pebble and mud roads -- they are not much, but it's definitely an improvement over what we had before. You couldn't take a car through these parts. We used to trek the whole way up. But new blood doesn't understand the dangers these roads present. The key is to keep your vehicle in first or second gear only. You will be slow, but in case you get a slippery patch, your car won't veer out of control. And you won't end up at the bottom of the valley like them."

Yaswant, our driver (I would have loved to write 'name changed to help preserve anonymity', but hey, it's not like the guy murdered anybody -- so it's unfair to annotate him thus when quite frankly, the real problem lies with your failing sub-standard memory), gradually gets into a loquacious mode. He passes remarks at a few mountain girls treading along. "This is our life. The road is not even wide enough for two cars to pass. If you see one coming, you communicate from a long distance. These curves that you see; they are the only points where you get enough room to pass each other. We keep on beeping horns from time to time, so that we might know of each other's presence from a long enough distance to find a curve. We never know when we might end up at the bottom of a gorge. So the best you can do is be careful and get as many of those sweet girls as you can", he finishes with a mischievous wink.

And the downpour of previous night doesn't make matters any easier. Mud and water makes a deadly combination. Tyres skid like hell. At one point our car does a complete 90 degree turn and stands in the middle of the road, with it's face towards the cliff and the rear hanging onto the valley. But Yaswant is dexterous enough. A mile onwards, and we have two other Maxxs facing the same ordeal. The drivers and passengers, we included, join hands in getting the vehicles out of that muddy patch, and are left completely soiled.

In a short while, we reach Dhakuri. "Just follow this road for 4 kilometres and you will reach the camping site. I'll follow a different road, with the mules and our cooking stuff, to reach there before you do and get some food cooked for you tired souls. See you then.", Jai Singh takes leave. "Is your cell working?" "Nopes. Whose is working?" "Mine", "And mine", Ankur and Dugs are smiling. "Bloody BSNL, Bhai Sahab Nahi Lagega -- seems like bhai sahab has a special liking for these hilly terrains. So I guess the rest of us are officially cut-off from the rest of humanity. Well, that's what we wanted, did we not? Now let's hurry lest the rain god shows his colors again. Where's PP?"
"I'm here."
"Dude, where were you? You were lost for close to half an hour!"
"Just needed to go get some stuff."
"What 'stuff'?"
"You'll see."

We get elated at our first contact with the wild. The streams, the rocky roads, the roadside ferns, and chirping birds -- while they gather most of our attention, the journey remains uneventful. Though a few of us begin panting heavily and going crazy when they have to continuously move up a slope, foreboding the events of the next two days. Someone suggests we take a few walking sticks, and as it turned out, he could not have been more prudent. It takes a detour from the trekking path to reach the campsite. It's a barren patch of land, with a small stream along the border to meet our water-needs, and rocky terrain to serve as a public toilet the next morning. Our tents are already set up when we reach the site, with Jai Singh and his friends busy in cooking dinner. We have some time to explore the area, before we are called in. A bunch of dogs give us company; and Pulkit, the scare of his life. We quickly notice Archie, Veronica and Betty, playing with each other (Poor Betty seems oblivious to the misfortune that's to befall her -- but PP and me, the learned souls that we are, take pity and let her have a morsel each from our plates). Wolverine, a proud fellow that he's, keeps his distance, and gives away an occasional growl.

"Heyyyyy! Commme. We just saw the mooost wonderful scenery in the worrrrrrld. Heeeee Heeeee", comes in a blabbering Ankit, his eyes red and large, his stance askance, the cap on his head askew. "Oi Hawshi, are you high? Oh god, you inhaled some of PP's 'stuff', didn't you?"
"Does that mattttttter? Lemmmmme show you some wonderrrrrrrrful sceneryyyyy."
"You are so high that even if we beat you up right now and leave you in that bush, you will begin appreciating the dance of the leafs to the rhythm of the wind." "Heeeeeeeee", he blinks his demon-red eyes and shows his yellowish teeth.

Gddrrrr! The distant rumbling of clouds disrupts a fine game of 29. "Is our camp site gonna survive a downpour? Won't water get into the tents? What if the ground becomes muddy? Never thought of that beforehand, did we?", blabbers an apprehensive me, with cards in one hand, one eye at the hand being played, one at the sky, and half a brain devising a devious plan to rope in all the 29 points and the other half being what it does best - get crazy and complaining.  "Well, we have our ways to deal with that", Jai Singh barges in. "You see, we make these drains around the camps. The ground here goes up towards the south. And rain water streams might also come from those rocks over there. So we will make these small drains along those directions around the camp. The water will be redirected, and you will feel cozy inside your warm tents."
"Are you sure the drains are gonna hold even if it rains cats and dogs?"
"We'll find out, won't we?", he leaves with a taunting smile.

Needless to say, the rain god has his fare share of false alarms. Our spirits are up once we have ruled out the rain. We go a step further to annoy the rain god with a camp fire. Most of the wood is wet from last night's drizzle. But with a little kerosene, our collective zeal and a dexterous Jai Singh's wizardry, we get the camp fire going. PP is in a mood to get the whole party high. So he throws in some of his stuff into the fire. People begin recollecting sweet memories. We insist on Jai Singh telling us a ghost story particular to that region. But whatever it's -- superstition or pure damn fear -- he refrains from doing so even after our umpteenth attempt. Some chilling recollections and one or two occasional dog-bark-induced scares later, we are deep in slumber in our over-crowded tents, with me praying that none of them (or me for that matter) suddenly has an epiphany that he might be of a different orientation ;).

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Musings from the road: Rafting in Hudson

I never cared much for adventures. Going to some scenic place and basking in the glory of Mother Nature- that’s my forte. But then, it becomes monotonic. So I had a change of mood- why not go and have some fun! And when everybody else around you is up for something, it gets pretty hard to resist the temptation.

The day began with the pretty usual stuff of waking up the girls and reminding them of every tiny detail that comes so naturally to us. I was anticipating a bleak, uneventful and boring drive to the campsite. And I got more pensive when Ashu was late in picking us up while others were already on the road. Well, come he did and going into the ‘country-side’ and picking up Mridul did not turn out to be a hard task thereafter.

The drive turned out to be okay- uneventful, but not bleak either. Ashu was fun to be with today. Nonetheless, I must say I found his driving skills a bit clumsy and reckless for my taste – but anyway, I have always been like that. And Anish got to see the car chase he had been longing for, for such a long while now. The irony- he himself was in the car that got chased. For me, on the other hand, it was a very novel experience. In movies, the scenes involving a cop stopping a car for speeding were always a foretelling of some calamity. The cop coming out of his car, asking the driver to part with his license and stuff, him going back to check in his data base and the driver coming out and shooting the innocent cop-BANG—(no, that last part didn’t happen – just my imagibnation ;) ). And we were soon back on the freeway. It was funny though, when the cop told Ashu that he had been fined some hundred odd dollars for going at a speed of 81mph while he would have been exempted if he had stuck to below-80. Anyway, bar some minor set-backs and a few interspersed calls from a certain troubled soul who at times tries in vain to taunt me with ‘food-talks’ (though I must add, she sometimes tastes success with the other glutton), we reached the camp site safe and sound.

Adhar looked as composed as ever, with that boyish smile on his face. Sushmit was his usual self, constantly asking me what was so funny that I kept smiling at him. The lady brigade did what it had gotten used to- go to a corner and indulge in 'you know what happened over the road?'. ‘Sabu’ seemed like he had had a haircut, but he denied it nonetheless.
Now, wait- it’s time for some advice. Whatever you do, do NOT enter a bathroom in a campsite. Go find some open place if you really need to excrete those unnecessary fluids in your body. Trust me; you DON’T want to piss on other people’s ‘stuff’, even if it looks like slurry with all the phenyl water around it. Yuk!

 A little playing around with a ball and a few futile attempts of Haldar at breaking Ashu’s car past, we got to meet our guide- Brian. Standing at six feet tall and sporting some nice red blonde hair, he had the usual charm and confidence of an adventure-sports-guide. Many safety instructions were passed on - but hey, we both know how many actually pay heed to that stuff. It doesn’t matter anyway. You hardly, if ever, can remember and adhere to those instructions once you are in peril. Go ask Jaina, Samanvaya, Sushmit or any of those other poor souls who fell off of the raft. ;)

You get into the boat, hold the **oar** in your hand and even when you are fully dressed with a life jacket and a helmet, your heart races. The guide teaches you a few basic manoeuvres and you suck at it. Ashu and Sriram are piloting. Sriram looks calm, though nervous; but Ashu is excited. I look at Jaina, sitting in-between Ashu and Anish, guarding the left end of the raft. Anish is balancing me and he is wearing that blank expression he always does. Vasudha looks back and smiles, though I can’t figure out if she is nervous or just excited, or both. Mridul is guarding the rear, all alone; but she has gone rafting before and Brian is not that far from her. Brien shouts, ‘Guys, give me two forward’ and we try to move in unison. It takes time, but we get to synchronise our movements after a few clumsy attempts.

 Our first fall is a five foot one. The tension builds up. The water ahead looks calm. But then we also see the rafts in front of us disappearing once they are across a certain point. We row on. I clamp my feet harder under the cylindrical airbags. Brian assures me that the friction is enough for you to do a complete flip, when the adrenalin rush is at its highest, and still stay inside the raft. But I don’t believe him and rotate my feet to the point of breaking them. And we dive. Water splashes around. Everybody shouts. The initial fear is gone. We are looking at each others’ face. Some seem to think it was not as bad as we were anticipating. I agree with them. Some are only savouring their first dive and the splashing black water of the black river. The raft undulates, with the waves guiding it forward and we sit back and do a ‘paddle check’. It gives you some sort of unexplainable pleasure to see all those happy faces around you. These are the times to cherish, when you are amongst your friends, laughing out loud even on as small a thing as clearing a level two drop, oblivious to all the tension and pain hidden inside you. I snap back from that philosophical outburst. Sorry, it's an incorrigible short-coming of mine.

When we are on calm waters, Brian tells us stories and incidents associated with the river. One of them strikes me. It was a cold January night. And the bridge that we are about to cross was covered with snow. When you are stuck in a car during snow fall, the last thing you should do is come out and try helping yourself. Well, the poor soul did just that and ended up diving into the river. Imagine falling thirty feet down into rock and ice-cold-water. The guy suffered from hypothermia and was in ICU for three days. But as luck would have it, he was left without any major injuries and went home after three days’ care, with a few minor bruises only. The kayakers of Black River still cut jokes about how he should have played a hell lot of lotteries.

‘The water is pretty still. You can jump in if you want to.’ Ashu doesn’t need any more cues. In he goes, just as he always does when he is around water. Anish and Sriram follow suit. Now usually I have a predisposition of not doing anything that I don’t absolutely have to, but it looks fun. So I dive in. Paddling in water and staying afloat had always given me a nightmare; but with the life jacket on, life looks simpler. I stay afloat, straight, for the first time in my life, and I sure do enjoy it. Hesitant at first, Mridul and Vasudha jump in; though I must add here, the latter is pretty scared of water. Jaina still stays back, even though I ask her umpteen times to give it a try. Well, she would have her fare share of ‘water-sport’ in a short while though. Uh oh, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves now, should we?

I turn about to see a kayaker kayaking with us the whole time. “He is the leader. He is the one who is gonna assist you if you fall off the raft. And you know what, he is a Youtube sensation. Go find a video on ‘how not to do a kayak roll’ and the thirteen-year-old-kid you see getting bloody trying it is him. He is only nineteen now.” As Brian tells us about him, we watch him do a perfect kayak-roll off a level five fall. I give him a thumbs-up. He smiles back. And after a look at that boyish face, I realise I am older than him.

We decide we should name the raft something. Vasudha suggests ‘Mermaid’. I disagree. ‘Mean machine’ seems more appropriate. Anish supports me. Ashutosh nods. Now I could never understand what it is with girls that makes them stick together when they are up against boys, even though they fight amongst each other most of the time; the girl brigade, obviously,  goes for ‘Mermaids’. The silly bickering goes on for some time before an equally silly solution is suggested- ‘Mean Mermaids’. I give up. ‘Concentrate on the white water’, I tell myself.

‘Here comes the Knife’s Edge, the most dangerous fall you have to raft through today. Pay attention to my words and do exactly as I say, as a team. Give me two forward.’ We all paddle at the same time. But it hardly counts. We miss the water and essentially paddle in the air. Brien shouts, ‘Give me three backward.’ We try harder. I reiterate Brian, shouting at the top of my voice. In the excitement, I hit people around me while paddling. But everyone is too engrossed to notice anything. Thud! The raft crashes. The water swirls and with it, the raft too. We jump off our seats. But my legs are firmly pressed onto the holder. We undulate. Water rushes everywhere, but we still hold our ground and enjoy the panic. We are all safe inside the raft and looking at each other. Oh no, wait! That was a premature statement. Someone from the shore points to something floating away in the water, with the current. I look closer and it hits me. I look back and yes, Jaina is missing. Amidst all that excitement, I hardly noticed when the person sitting behind me had done a belly flip and was now enjoying the sway. I remembered, Jaina did not want to dive in before, when all of us did. May be the Black River got too interested in her to let her go! ;) They say you can’t think rationally when you are facing peril. Jaina has two choices- to go after her shoe, which is floating away in front of her or to swim for the oars we are stretching out to her. She decides she would rather have the lone pair of the long lost shoe as a souvenir.

‘Now it’s time for my favourite part- “The Cruncher”. It is gonna be very adventurous and it is optional. You don’t have to do it if you are afraid. So, what do you say guys, are you up for it? Why don’t you first see what happens to the other team in the Cruncher! ’ We look up. The Cruncher is essentially a spot where the rocks are so aligned that once the raft gets into the cracks, it gets caught in the vortex and it is almost impossible to row out of that tight a spot. Other guides throw you a rope and then you have to be pulled out. We see the other group go into the Cruncher. We hear them shouting. We see them disappear in those large waves and we panic. But what’s the point in coming for rafting if you are going to miss the most perilous part of it! So with a bit of apprehension in heart, we move forward. Getting into the Cruncher seems easy. We revel. And then the first wave hits us. We had seen the previous group suffer. Now we knew how much worse and more dangerous it actually is. The raft is almost overturned. The left side goes straight up and Brien shouts, ‘Hit the deck’. We move into the middle of the raft. But that is hardly of any help. I press hard against Sriram.  He gets uncomfortable. But then, at a time when you can’t breathe, a squeeze hardly ever matters. I see Ashu and Anish enjoying. Mridul and Vasudha are huddled together. Mridul forgets to hang on to the rope and the two poor little souls rock from here to there. What is Jaina doing- I have no idea, nor the courage to look back.  The fun part gets over, at least for me. I am shouting, ‘Haven’t we had enough of this? When are we getting out of this? Is it gonna continue forever?’ Well, while this poor fella was scared to death, Brian was busy pulling us all out and in a short while, which seemed like eternity, we are back in calm waters.

‘How was the Cruncher?’ ‘It was freaking awesome’, comes the unanimous reply. ‘You people up for any more adventure? Because hell yeah, I still have something up my sleeve. You see that spot over there, where the water is swirling? You can jump off a rock into that spot and then be carried away by the water current- a novel experience.’ 'Don’t panic, there are no rocks down there’, he adds after passing a cursory look at my face. I don’t need a nudge this time. Almost everybody agrees. It looks like fun. Only Vasudha panics, thanks to her aquaphobia. I jump in and take help of the Kayaker to come to shore, as the current is a bit too much to negotiate on your own. Jaina dives and drinks a lot of water, unintentionally. Mridul perhaps was too empathetic of Jaina’s lost shoe -- so she loses one of hers. Anish enjoys the splash thrice and still then, he is not satisfied. He considers another dive in, but decides against it. And finally, Brian comes up and Vasudha finally gives way, defeated in front of Brian’s charming wit. Still, she hangs on to him for dear life when they both dive in. Anish and I have a blast pulling her leg.

As the day progresses, the excitement gradually starts to wear off. We hit the Square Rock without much ado. After that experience in the Cruncher, the falls are a lot less scary now. The rafting is over. We don’t see any more falls in the distance. Brian lets the air out of the cylinders that were working as a support all the while. We lie down. I am far from exhausted. I start singing. ‘Who is singing like a girl?’ I don’t stop. Samanvaya and party come closer. We take each other’s pictures. The rafts are all tied to a boat and we are pulled forward. Jaina is busy in small talks with Brian. Ashu jumps into the water and I have to pull him up.  Mridual is a bit restless. She doesn’t know what to do. First she tries sleeping for a short while. Then she sits up and comments on my songs and tone. May be she is still mad about getting hurt when she was pulled onto the raft off the water a little while back. Vasudha and Anish are busy dipping their legs and playing with water on the left side of the raft. Sriram is just sitting there, smiling. We taunt the other team, for almost all of them fell off the raft, some time or another. And Sushmit got a hatrick. We enter a very beautiful place. There are tiny islands scattered around the river bed. We cross them. It’s a feast to the eye. I notice the trees are lying down, as if to reach out to the water with their leaves and branches. I remember a description about roots of trees not being able to seep enough water and then the branches coming down to take care of themselves. I pass it by Jaina. She disagrees. I am not convinced.

I stand up. The view looks perfect this way. I remove my life jacket. Cold breeze gives me a shiver. But I am enjoying it. I lift my hands to embrace the sensation and feast upon nature’s beauty.
“Are you trying out the Titanic pose?”
“Well, I wasn’t. But if you care to come up, I can do that, since I guess there was a girl in the front.”
“Ah, that’s exactly why YOU are in the front.”
I am reminded of my wingies. I miss their jokes and the leg-pulling. Anyways, the present company is equally alive and kicking. So I stop contemplating and keep gazing into the setting red sun.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Musings from the road: Kafni Trek

Day 1:
The Bagh Express comes to a halt with a jerk. It was a long trip, from Lucknow to Kathgodam, and the late-running trains of Indian Railways didn’t exactly help. Still I heave a sigh of relief as being two hours behind schedule is a pretty manageable affair, especially when you just have a 6-hour road trip planned for the whole day.
‘I hope you had a painless journey. We have to move fast – the roads get closed during night and I have to return back from Bageshwar after dropping you people at the hotel’, mutters our driver. Standing at around five feet five, with a receding hairline, he looks like a man in his late fifties. Eight young naughty college boys on a trip after just having done away with their end sems, and we are going to be accompanied by a quinquagenarian – somewhere in there I don’t like the sound of that. Anyway, off we go, empty-stomach, with a promise that good food will be available en route.
In a short while, the road gets extremely windy, like any other typical mountain road. Duggi and me constantly bump into each other. I can only guess what Pullu and PP would be feeling. Sitting at the rear end of Qualis/Sumo or any such vehicle on such a road might as well be considered the worst decision of your life, especially if you are six-feet something. People begin to feel nauseated. Put eight male youngsters in a place and you either have to tolerate some gibberish about girls or the most profound debate on problems of the world/life. Well, as anyone might have guessed, we take the easier path and the focus shifts to Pulkit and his six (or was it eight) wannabe’s. I don’t understand if it is an evolutionary thing, or just a social one – pulling your friend’s leg over a girl (try not to extract any ‘literal’ meaning out of this phrase ;) ) is the most satisfying thing in this world. At first it might just seem sadistic, but I believe there is always greater good involved; for there are times when you lose touch of reality, when you take things more seriously than they are meant to be taken and these little pranks are the ones that bring you down to earth, bringing before you the fun aspect of serious events.And at other times they let you know what-a-dumbass you are (sorry Pullu). And there is always the added laughter bonanza. (Pardon me if you get distracted by my philosophical bickering every once in a while—but if you know me, you know that it’s part of my Bubian tendency and I am sure you have got accustomed to it in the last four years.)
As the conversation veers to more adult stuff, the driver beside me shifts uneasily in his seat. You see, this is what I was apprehensive about at the outset. One of the added responsibilities of sitting up front beside the driver is to listen to him, to engage him in useful conversations, so that he doesn’t go to sleep on a long drive (whether you like it or not). The Qualis runs alongside River Saryu, and the road becomes narrower. Sometimes the car veers dangerously close to the cliff. ‘We drive on this road all year long. The river looks deprived of juice right now, but believe me, when rain comes, they rise up by more than fifty meters and wash away a large portion of this road. And we have driven at such times. The trick is to believe in God and drive in his name. Unless your luck runs out, you won’t be in an accident’, the driver smiles after noticing signs of apprehension on my face. Living in this Western-culture rampant campus, most of us have a tendency to devalue the power of faith and religion (I myself am an agnostic at best). But out there, that is what that is they live on, that is what endows them with the strength and courage to face danger every day. We might never agree on the existence of god or supernatural beings, but I am sure even the most adamant of us would agree that faith is what gets you along in life; may be in different forms, may be in different areas. Some believe God will lead the way; some believe in luck; and some believe in their own abilities to make a change – but everywhere they believe in something which most of the time has no empirical validity, yet it gives you the necessary momentum to move forward. Every time there is a road-side temple, the driver closes his eyes for a moment, and his hands automatically salute the deity, and he is back concentrating on the road. As is often seen in aging persons, he tries to engage me with our old Hindi philosophical anecdotes concerning luck versus self-worth. Some of them I am already aware of, but it is always great fun listening to them from every other person’s personal perspective. And he talks in impeccable pure hindi, which even my hindi-speaking friends have difficulty comprehending. ‘You see that bridge there? Folklore has it that the constructor took a few weeks to build it and when he went to have a good night’s sleep once the mammoth task was completed, the local troll came and put it upside down’, he tries to explain the existence of a peculiar bridge.
Some anecdotes are interesting, others downright boring. But I don’t complain. Meanwhile, unknown to me, the ‘Pulkit bashing’ has stopped sometime back. He doesn’t look like he’s in a good mood. So, to redirect the attack, on each of my comments he begins adding , ‘Just Chill, Buddy’. Now that is what you call sickeningly irritating. To make matters worse, the radio starts blaring that chimpanzee-face Salman’s song- ‘Just Chill Chill, Just Chill’. My dear roomie comes to the rescue and starts singing Kishore Kumar songs. No matter how much you show you are ultra-modern, and you are only an admirer of hip-hop English music, when Kishore sings, you undoubtedly are spell-bound. The songs have an altogether different charm, and all of us begin humming with him. The rest of the journey is spent recollecting more songs, some short discussion about their significance and their merit and I guess that acts as a reprieve for Dugs and Sutta who are on a puking spree.
Presently, the Bageshwar valley asserts its presence. It is a wonderful scene, watching at the plain place surrounded by mountains on all sides, still so alive with life, with River Gomati standing guard. Well, it’s an absolutely remarkable hobby to follow the threads of your thought from one topic to another, and we soon leave Pulkit and her girls to talk about the possible invasion and defence techniques particular to such a place. ‘You see, it is quite easy to occupy this valley. The defence has to protect each and every spot of the high-land. Even if one critical area on the mountain gets taken by the occupying force, a sniper can wreak havoc from that spot’, PP blabbers on. Told ya, it’s either girls or debates that come out of nowhere.
Jai Singh, our guide, a happy-go-lucky chap, with a perpetual smile on his face, greets us at the hotel. The hill-side hotels are a marvel of construction art. You see, they are made on a slope; so every storey has its own balcony and roof, and when you look out of the window, it seems like you are occupying the ground floor, no matter where you are. (And that leads to utter confusion, especially if you are drunk or sleepy. The next morning itself when I, with Duggi and Sutta, went upstairs, we were astonished to find four-wheelers parked there. Now, how on earth did they get those vehicles up on the roof? Reflect for a moment and you realise that it’s actually the street level and it was you who had been sleeping at below street level the previous night.) A rivulet runs beside the hotel. Night draws in, we take out our torches, and march in a file to the stone-ridden river bed. PP tries to be extra smart, and says ‘I’m the leader. I’ll tread upfront. Thee shall follow me.’ And lo!, the next minute the treacherously slippery stones give way, he’s in water, wetting himself, and giving that what-the-fuck-just-happened look. That is the second of his many epic falls (fails ?). Well, it all started when the wannabe Indiana Jones dove into Saryu beside a road-side restaurant to catch some filthy little black fish and came out empty-handed, humiliated and with a broken toe and a wet underwear. The Mom decides that’s enough for today, and the children go back to sleep, in anticipation of the future.