Monday, January 6, 2014

To the top... and beyond

A 'trip' is mostly a way to unwind for most us, unless you are blessed with a profession that takes you places. But there are few for whom a certain journey is much more than little joys of life. It's in fact life-defining -- or even threatening. I am privileged to come across someone who defines true-inspiration. I hope the story of making her dream come true is an example for all those who wish to follow their passion.


 It’s true that dreams inspire people, but it’s on that person to pursue it. We all dream big, but only few of us actually go for it. Then there are many of us with many dreams, so we always have an option to be happy with the alternative. But what if you dream of the Mount Everest? Well, there is no option as only one place can be called ‘the highest’ on the planet. And neither there is a choice to dream about anything bigger! So there’s only one way out – grind your teeth, lock your focus and go for it.
For Chhanda Gayen, it all started pretty early in life. Watching a group of young boys scale the rocky face of a hillock was enough for an adrenaline rush. And a little encouragement from parents did the rest. There was no access to artificial rock climbing clubs and from a humble living where the daily bread still comes from selling milk and petty grocery items, enrolling into a top flight climbing course wasn’t even a distant possibility.
But when passion is your driving force, handicaps seems mere part of the package. A basic rock climbing in the Susunia Hills of Purulia was possible, and thus came the first taste of climbing in 1998. From there it took her 8 more years to be certified from the premier Himalayan Institute of Mountaineering, Darjeeling with an ‘A’ Grade.
A gold medallist in swimming and national level champion in Taekwondo and Karate, she climbed the Mount Yogin 1 and Yogin 3 in 2008 – and became the first Indian to do so in the same day itself.
But bigger things awaited her. After a couple climbs in between, she embarked on what’s every mountaineer’s dream. And this year in May she became the second woman from Bengal to scale the Mount Everest. She also became the first civilian woman from the state to do so.
But this girl, who loves riding fast on a motorbike and crooning to Bangla and Hindi songs, wanted a bit more. And she was in real hurry too.
She climbed Mt Lhotse, the fourth highest peak in the world, within the next 52 hours. Well, only she can tell us how it feels to look at moon behind Everest standing at 28,169 feet. What we can say is, India is proud to have the first ever woman in the world to climb Everest and Lhotse – back-to-back within 52 hours!
A true story of grit and determination, dreams and inspiration – here’s Chhanda giving a glimpse of her struggle, grit and the “ultimate” experience.


The journey:

“Many things that comes easy for a lot of people, wasn’t applicable to me. Staying in Kona in Howrah, nor was I privy to many things that big city people has. Our family’s financial condition didn’t really allow anyone to think beyond the limited sphere.

So finally when I really got into a position where I was capable of actually taking a shy at the world’s highest peak, it was a difficult state to be in. I had the credentials and the skills. But that was it. I hadn't done anything worth mentioning before that, and so I couldn't expect anyone to sponsor. You can’t just walk up to corporate or a person and say that ‘I can climb the Mt Everest, so please sponsor me’.
It was a really difficult time. You need a lot of physical endurance, sometimes that’s beyond your imaginations, in mountaineering. And therefore you have to be in top physical condition. I have always been an athlete and an avid swimmer which helped in shaping me in the formative years.

Also the weather plays a big factor. For one single climb, months of preparation goes in. And even then, the time-window to succeed is very limited.

So I was desperate to make my preparedness count. But I simply didn't have the money. I had asked for assistance, but few came forward. I don’t blame them because climbing the Mt Everest is one many sure-shot ways of losing your life if a little go wrong up there.

But the one person, who should have been the most frightened, decided to throw that thought in the back burner and help me out. Mothers usually save their jewellery for a daughter’s marriage. My mother sold whatever little she had and decided to fund my attempt. But how much jewellery could my mother provide -- actually not even 25 per cent of my entire expenditure that cost Rs 18 lakhs. And so after the jewellery, came the LIC papers and everything else that could be mortgaged. When I think of it today, it sends down shivers down my spine. ‘What was my mother thinking? What if I had failed? What if something untoward had happened? What would have she done after that with practically nothing left?’

I was still short of money. But thankfully a nationalised bank and the state’s youth department provided me with rest of the money and I embarked on a two-month long uncertain journey.

My father accompanied me many a times on my previous expeditions. But we had lost him in 2010. It was he who had made me realise that I can actually climb the Mt Everest. So with his thought in mind I reached the base camp in April.

The acclimatisation process is a detailed one. Up their one needs to gradually blend with bone chilling temperature and thin air. Also, many days are spent playing the waiting game as the weather can be bad for days at length.

Over the next more than one-and-half month our gradual ascend continued. Apart from the difficult terrain that is a mountaineer’s ultimate challenge, what moved me most were the dead bodies dotting the mount. They were all climbers like me – death claimed some even before they could realise the Everest-dream, and others never came back to tell their tale. They all lay there, some for over decades now – in nature’s best cold-storage.

In every sport, mind plays an important part in deciding the ultimate outcome. It’s easy to get overwhelmed by such sights and thoughts along with the extreme physical exhaustion. My Sherpa and sole companion, Tashi, kept telling me not to think too much and concentrate on the climb.   

It was in the wee hours on May 18 we headed for the last few hundred metres to the top. And in a couple hours came the magic moment. Every day, there are many people doing the same thing around the world at the same time. Sleeping, eating, talking, watching TV etc etc... But on that dawn, there was only one person standing on the highest point on Earth watching the sun come down below her feet. It was magical.

But 8,848 metres is not really the height where you can sit and enjoy the view. The weather would have deteriorated, so we started descending.

Everest was done. Yes, it truly was. But that wasn’t the end of my journey. I wanted to push myself more. And so Mt Lhotse – the fourth highest peak in the world at 8516 m.

But as I was to find out Lhotse was even more difficult that Everest. The former has been climbed by quite a few people and therefore the route can be termed ‘safer’.  But I wasn’t willing to give up. Despite being told from the base to come back as the back-to-back physical exhaustion can be fatal, I didn’t want to let go the chance. I guess it was the realisation that this may be my last chance – ‘I never had the money, I may never have it again. So if I’m here now, I shall give it everything I have.’

The climb to the Lhotse peak threw up similar sights; rather even more dead bodies lay on this route. But this time around I was moved little and was determined to complete the climb. I remember on the last leg of the climb barely a few metres away from the summit the space was so less that I actually had to step on dead climber’s hand for the final push.

And 52 hours after I had seen the world from atop it, I was seeing Everest once again – this time from Lhotse’s peak.

I didn’t know what future had in store for me. But all I knew was I had done it. It was only later that I knew that I was the first woman to do this ‘hurried trip’ of Everest and Lhotse back-to-back, but at that moment it was only bliss. I had proven my father right, I had not let down my mother, I hadn’t disappointed anyone who supported me. And I had given myself the courage that would from now on pave my life’s path in a different way.”


Despite Chhanda’s wonderful achievements, much hasn’t changed in her life – at least financially. The family run little shop still is there. In between her preparation for a Kanchenjunga – the third highest peak -- expedition in 2014, Chhanda does various camps with children around the year in north Bengal and Sikkim and continues to inspire little ones to dream big, become big – and not lament not being born to some one big.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Hand pulled rickshaws – a heritage or a burden?

If it’s impossible to avoid the rasogollas while talking about Kolkata, it is as much difficult not to picture a hand-pulled rickshaw plying in the by lanes while thinking of the city. But in this era of technological advancement, do those two-wheeled things really have a place in a city that supposedly wants to shed some old clogs? And like everything else under the sun, there is no dearth of opinion on this one too in Kolkata.

City of joy; a foodie’s paradise; cheap-n-best; true appreciator of art, culture and music... the adjectives that make this place stand out from just any other metro of the country are galore. And so are the tags like reluctant and regressive. But one thing that would stand above all things that should describe this city best is ‘confused’.

Yes, Kolkata is a confused city. To do or not to do; to keep or let go; to change or retain; to look new or keep it the old way... the city keeps on finding itself at the crossroads too often. So when a symbolic thing such as the hand-pulled rickshaw was diced in as the topic, you couldn’t help but again see the confused Kolkatans.

“Which developed city in the world has vehicles pulled by humans like this?” questions second year History student Shibani Guha. “And look, we still have it in Kolkata.” Understandable, coming from a 20-year-old. While post cards of other cities, when Googled, offer beautiful landscapes or high-rises, her city’s name throws up elderly men pulling rickshaws – that’s definitely not what someone of her age associates with development. But, hold on.

“What about the coolies at our stations? Why are they still there?” questions Shibani’s college-mate Roshni Nayak. And there goes the debate.

Hand-pulled rickshaw have for long been the subject for discussion now in Kolkata. To have them or to do away with them? While almost everyone agrees that it doesn’t augur well in this age to have yourself pulled by someone else, taking away the livelihood of so many people is at stake too. “In any case there have hardly been new opportunities for these people, so where do you expect them to go?” questions Nayak.

True. The state may have seen a few IT biggies coming over in the last few years, but the ground reality remains pretty much the same in Bengal even today. With few industries coming up, things have hardly looked up for the lower strata in the state. “We just can’t do away with something just because it looks odd in the modern scheme of things,” Sociology student Abhijeet Sikdar makes a point. “That would be inhumane.”

“But then what’s humane about being pulled by someone you father’s age,” argues Shibani. “And the last thing that should be attached to this topic is a heritage-tag. There’s already enough heritage in the city that remains to be protected, there’s no pride in this one at least.”

And we thought that at least the new generation would be speaking in the same language – that of doing away with the old burden. Well, not really, if you are in Kolkata.

What do they want?

This debate can go on for eternity in a city that loves debating over their cups of tea. But why not ask those who are actually concerned -- those who have to walk the lanes pulling the load under the sun. Do they want the rickshaws to be done away with? How hard is it to carry on with such a laborious way of life? And here comes the real surprise.

“When other things from the British raaj can stay, why can’t we,” question Shauqat Ali. “The trams a moving, the thela (hand-pulled carts) is also running. So why this debate only on us,” questions the nearly 60 man. But isn’t it too hard for the body? Won’t the usual three-tyred rickshaws be easier?

“No no, that comes for Rs 100 a day,” remarks Mangal Yadav. For one hand-pulled rickshaw, one has to deposit Rs 20 a day to the owner, who usually has a fleet of around 100 rickshaws to rent. “Customers won’t give me extra money because of a cycle-rickshaw. So if I have to give Rs 100 a day on rent, what will I earn,” explains Yadav. “And this is actually much easier to pull,” chips in Ali. “Our legs would have ached even more.” Now that was something new!

The good men!

And there was more. There’s a typical bell that the rickshaw pullers use in Kolkata. A little tap on the handle of the rickshaw with these bells makes a rattling sound that’s so typical of a rickshaw behind you. But one never knew that this simple little bell could have a far greater importance than just helping pave the way for the poor rickshawwala, unaided with a brake or pedal. “Every rickshaw puller will always keep his bell at hand. This proves that we are not in the city doing something bad, but earning our livelihood honestly pulling rickshaws,” says Yadav.

Most rickshaw pullers in the city come from the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh or the rural districts of south and western Bengal. They huddle in one cramped place to spend the night or just sleep on the pavements. At a time when no one is to be believed and every unknown face that turns up in the city is a suspect for the police, these bells help these immigrants prove their noble intentions. At least, that’s what they believe. And it’s not a bad one either.


Years on the wheels 

For Mangal Yadav, it’s hard to remember if he ever did anything else in this city other than pulling the rickshaw since he first landed here in the early 1970s. “My chacha came here first from Joshidih and then I followed,” Yadav tries to rewind the years while taking a break on the Free School Street crossing. “I think I’m pulling rickshaw for 40-50 years now,” he says. Well, how old are you then? “Might be some 50-60,” he tries to get the math correct. “But that doesn't matter. I can still do this work for 4-5 months a year,” he adds quickly sensing my awkwardness after hearing that a man-aged that many years has to put in so much labour.

But I put a brake on this pseudo emotional-turmoil of mine there itself – from my vegetable seller to the farmers, the laundry men to the domestic helps... almost everyone is elderly. No one ever thought how difficult must it be for the farmers of this age to break their backs under the sun... so why this sudden awkwardness for a rickshaw-puller? And so, the chat continues.

“I work for 4-5 months here and then return to my village to tend to the crops,” says Yadav, who usually plies in the by-lanes of central Kolkata that connects the ever busy Park Street. This is one part of Kolkata that’s still holding on to its past. Loves going to the New Market for the morning fresh bakes, picks up the winter jaggery from Taltala market, hops on the tram to move from Wellington Square to the old furniture shops near Ripon Street – this part of Kolkata has little urge to enter the 21st the century. And probably that’s why the maximum number of rickshaws too can be seen there.

There’s one more reason why this part of the city is dotted with hand-pulled rickshaws – the number of small and renowned schools in the area. A fair chunk of the steady income for the rickshaw pullers come from plying the kids to the neighbourhood school and back. The by-lanes are so narrow and crowded that it’s practically not feasible for a school bus of van to operate, and so the rickshaws hardly have a competition here. And more so, if it’s the rainy season – which the city sees for at least three months a year. With water-logged streets, rickshaws are your best bet to climb high while the rickshawwala navigates through the water.

“There are around 5000 odd of us now in Kolkata,” says Hari Ram, joining Yadav for a bidi in the afternoon. “Even till five years ago there were around 12,000 rickshaws,” adds Hari, who comes from the Darbhanga district in Bihar. Yes, with the passage of time the numbers have come down. And Yadav’s testifies why. “I don’t want my kid to pull a rickshaw here,” he says. “He should study a bit.” Well, though by ‘study’ all Yadav means is that study enough to become “a driver or a mechanic”, but still it’s a welcome progress in the mindset. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Purulia – The red soiled wilderness

It’s definitely not on the list of ‘must visits’ for most of us. Neither is it likely to ever advertise itself as one. But for those who like to be surprised, and not go on roads already trodden, a little getaway on the Ayodha Hills should leave one with unnamed experiences.

Early bird... catches the train

This is one good thing that must be admitted – Indian Railways seriously joins this country from all possible corners. Well, at least, mostly. Though with air-traffic getting more congested every day, and the long-drive culture seeping in steadily, travelling by train is fast taking a backseat -- at least, for those weekend-holiday seeking city dwellers with a car. But still, nothing takes you to the remote places, that too pretty quickly, like the trains.

But, then, it’s not easy to get a reservation in this country. I didn’t get it either. But, in the hindsight, I now realise that not getting a reservation was the first step to the entire three-day experience that was to bring me very close to the people, the land... the reality.

The Rupashi Bangla Express leaves Howrah station at 6 in the morning. And, for those who don’t know, 6 mean exactly 6. You may always hear the more-famed long distance trains running late by hours, but the every-day short distance once – or local trains, as they are called – can pride themselves for being supremely efficient. And so I timed myself accordingly – reach the station at around 5:20 am, get my ticket (I guess for a hundred and five rupees) after standing in the queue for about 10-12 minutes (which is fabulous!!) and proceed to platform number 21, making a mental note of which side-window seat should I opt for.

But, well, morning’s not a good time to dream! I had forgotten that after all, I was a tourist – even if that was in my own backyard – and was up against much superior race of people called the ‘daily passengers’. An irresistible force that up turns in thousands at various railway stations of this country every single working day even before the sun wishes good morning. Yes, I didn’t get a seat. Well, I did manage one after about two hours at Kharagpur, but not before learning my lesson that showing up 10 minutes before the train departs may be enough to board it, but not good enough to get a seat!

Poor man’s sumptuousness

A newspaper and a pack of biscuits had kept me going all this while, but the smell of hot luchi-tarkari was trying my patience ever since the train had stopped at Kharagpur. I fought my dilemmas for a couple of minutes, and finally gave up. ‘Didi ektu seat ta rakhben (Sis, will you please keep my seat)?’ I urged the lady next to me. A nod of her head and the next moment I was on the platform ordering my breakfast. Seven little luchis with alu-chholar tarkari -- all for Rs 10. Oh god, or the government – or whosoever responsible – please keep Bengal as supposedly poor as it is, where else do I get ‘this’ otherwise!

In retrospect, I wonder what development really means. Is it a swanky place dotted with malls, high-rises and a handful of richie-rich people making things around them so costly that everyone else around feels poor? Or is it a place where even Rs 20 in the pocket at the end of the day can assure food for a family? Is it the relentless pursuit of wealth or this baffling smugness, or even happiness, in staying away from the riches? Well, that’s for another day, maybe.

The changing scenery

SRK may utter the scripted words such as ‘there’s something about Bengal’, but I guess, in reality leave apart the newly-appointed brand ambassador even his employers don’t really have any idea what that ‘thing’ is. It’s a pity that the state has never been promoted the way Madhya Pradesh, Kerala or Gujarat have been – after all, how many 'products' in this world have the Himalayas, Bay of Bengal, Sundarbans, Ganges – and much more – packed into one!

The lushness of the countryside, dotted with numerous ponds, accompanies you throughout this nearly 5 hours journey as the train goes through three districts. And on this journey do you realise the geographical diversity that exists here. Slowly the rice field gives way to dry red rocky land, and the palm tree oasis takes over from the mango orchards as I enter Purulia district.

The Purulia town is just like any other in Bengal, dotted with every day thaali-bhojanalay (food joints), cycle-rickshaws taking you to almost everywhere from the station and a cramped up bus stand that helps bringing the remote corners of the district to the town. I gulp down an egg-thaali at one of the joint in front of the station and catch hold of a rickshaw for bus stand from where I shall further embark on my journey to the Ayodhya Hills.

As the rickshaw pulls through the by-lanes of Purulia town a board attracts my attention. Some government office of the Ayodhya Hills development project. I ask the rickshaw-guy to pull over. I don’t have a place to stay and these government offices always have something at the place of their project. It turns out they have much more than just something and I’m given a room for Rs 300 a night at their guest house up there. Sorted! J

My luck is to take me further on that day. I grab the last seat available. So what if it’s at the back of the bus, it’s a window side nonetheless!

I had heard and read how the scenery may look like in this part the world but wasn’t really aware. Frankly speaking, Purulia hasn’t been filmed or photographed as much as many other parts of the state. And it took just around 20 minutes to give me the real picture. As the bus moved out of the Sirkabad town, the tillas -- or little hills – started to appear in the distance. The brick-and-cement houses started giving way to more modest mud houses. And there were sugarcanes – everywhere. All along the winding road, till the time we started ascending, the green-and-yellow sugarcane fields kept us company.

It took me around two hours to reach Ayodhya Hills as the bus dropped me right at the gate of my guest house. Well, it was the biggest structure in the hamlet. It should be said here that the famed ‘Ayodhya’ where Ram’s throne was, is actually in Uttar Pradesh. But apparently Ram, Sita and Laxman had visited the hills during their exile. And thus, the name.

Mine was a modest room, but with everything you need. And that included a water heater in the bathroom and a mosquito net. Yes, some of the finest, and strongest, races of mosquitoes breed here, and you better stay protected!

The market place, or whatever a gathering of three tint grocery shops and two eateries can be called, was a minute’s walk. I was craving for some tea and the fading winter afternoon was encouraging the thought even more.

I was the only tourist in the hamlet, and the young lad at the khaabar-dokan (food joint) identified it quickly. I was told that if I wanted dinner, it’s best to pre-order and come within 8-8:30pm. After 9, there’s no one to sell to, and hence the place shuts down. The guest house has a kitchen, but no arrangement for cooking as they hardly get any boarder. Chicken and roti -- I ordered and went off to explore the place.

Making a difference

There wasn’t much time left in the day and not much energy in me either. Besides, I had to preserve it for a long day tomorrow. While largely under-developed over the decades and torn between Maoist rebel influence and the government in the recent times, Purulia is one of the poorer parts of the country. But that hasn’t stopped social service institutions like the Ramakrishna Mission and Bharat Sevashram Sangh to come here and work for the betterment of people. I headed for one such place called the Ram Mandir run by Kalyan Ashram.

The evening puja was on so I decided to wait outside the little Ram temple. A motley gathering of kids waited patiently for the puja to end – all for some prasad of puffed-rice and jaggery. I was offered too. These kids from the village get free education here, and some from distant places even put up in the hostel.

Though religiousness to me means sweating it out on the playground and worshipping RD Burman, I was quite enamoured with what I saw here. I don’t quite remember any city temple, those which bag quite few fast bucks around the year banking on people’s insecurities, wrapping it’s deity with a quilt! It’s winter, it’s cold, we need quilts, and so would Ram & family... simple.

Heading out...

I wanted to trek to the Barmi Falls, but decided to hire a car for the morning. So after a quick breakfast of luchi-daal, I set out for my first destination.

And I had good company for the rest of my day. Anirban, my driver, as it turned out to be was a Geography graduate and the son of the post master at Ayodhya Hills.  Oh yes, I have also picked local man Fuchu Das as my guide.

There’s no glacier, of course, neither any river as such in this arid landscape to feed the falls here. So it’s all about mineral-rich water from within the earth. And it took me a cool 15 minutes of descend through the trees and bushes of tendu leaves to reach the first fall.

With a height of just about 25 to 30 feet, it wasn’t something that would take you aback or even make you wonder at its splendour. But, then, who was even looking for something like that. This was a place where you may want to bring your loved one to spend some romantic time, or even better, if this was somewhere near your house, just get your book to sit and read by the water.

I trekked down further to catch the fall from a different angle. It was a smaller fall, but nonetheless beautiful enough. The Barmi meanders in a water body about thousand feet below that is now a part of a hydro power project’s reservoir. And that’s a wonderful sight from the height I was standing at.

On my return trek, Fuchu da identified the tendu leaves required to make biris and explained how it is an every-day affair for people to make their own stuff. But just that one can’t pick any leaf and roll their biri – only the fresh leaves at the start of the season is suited for the best smoke.

My next destination was the Turga Falls. Though not as lengthy as the Barmi, this one was certainly more beautiful and an ideal place for a day’s picnic. I decided to spend some quiet time here after having my fill of the sweet water. Fuchu da, sitting on a rock in the distance, enjoyed a biri.

In the land of Chhau

India is a land of such diversity, and you can only soak it all by travelling to its villages. In my next destination, I was headed for Charida, the place where the masks for the famous Chhau dance come from.

Synonymous with tribal Bengal, the Chhau dance usually depicts various wars between the hindu gods and demons with dancers wearing huge-expressive masks – an art form that’s so typical, and exclusive, of Purulia.

Though enjoying a shade of what its popularity used to be a few decades ago, nonetheless, it still is the means of livelihood for quite a few artisans in Charida. And it was good to see some young boys picking up the art of doing wonders with clay, paper mash and colours from there seniors at the workshops.

As for me, I went around ‘shopping’ tribal faces. And though I couldn’t find my desired miniature Durga faces – it was just before Saraswati puja, and the artisans were over loaded with work of making idols – I was more than compensated with an exclusive clay-paper mash work of Ganesh that artist Uddhab Sutradhar pulled out from his ‘favourites’. A rare piece with Ganesh in war-mode, Uddhab had made this one two years ago to showcase at an international handicraft fair. Henceforth, it was mine!  

On my way back, we stopped by the hydel project reservoir. It was a splendid view as I sat on the hundred feet wall overlooking the Baghmundi forest with the lake behind me. I wanted to sit there for some more time, but it was well past noon and I was monstrously hungry.

Stories to be revealed

Fuchu da had no qualms in asking me for Rs 50 in advance – his daughter was visiting and that money would let his wife buy some fish. I dropped him at his mud hut with a promise to return by 2pm. I better get on with my lunch too, for the next half would require me to burn a hell lot of calories for sure.

Ayodhya pahar doesn’t have a sunset point or even a famed temple. But it is the untamed wilderness, the play of light and shadow on the rice field hidden inside valleys and the pure innocence of tribal life that makes it attractive. As I left the village road and entered the denser part of the tendu forest, I was slowly realising what life here was. We had already trekked up and down for nearly an hour now and I was yet to see another human being other than Fuchu da in front of me.

The hills of Purulia are said to be even older than the Himalayas. And for centuries wanderers and animals have made it their home. I had heard about the number of interesting caves and rocks formations in the region, and thus we were headed for one such cave.

The last leg of trek to the top of the hill was tough one. With no pathways – as hardly any animal or man walks there – the steep climb was that much more difficult. But the 50-something Fuchu da was showing me that you don’t need fashionable gears, GPS navigators or expensive sturdy shoes – just the zeal and a stick in hand was enough to navigate through spider cobwebs and rocky terrain.

Yes, I was drenched in sweat even in that winter afternoon after the climb. But I had little time to think. I was too engrossed in listening to the tales of how a lady had made the cave her home for nearly a decade. Bamuni, as she was called, lived alone there and meditated. She also helped villagers with herbal medicines, who in return gave her whatever little vegetable or rice they could spare. It was on one fateful evening, when she had gone to fetch water, that a bear attacked the sadhvi and broke her arm. Though she survived after prolonged treatment at the district hospital, the lady left the place one day – quietly, just as she had come one day many years ago. “Tarpor aar keu Baghmundi pahare dekheni tahare (After that no one saw her in the Baghmundi ranges),” Fuchu da lamented, who fears that the doctor-hermit was no more. “Jadi beche thaakto na, tahole ekbaar nirghat firto. E jaiga boro bhalobasto o (If she was alive, she would have surely returned here for once. She loved the place).”

From the top I looked around over the forest. Once home to wild animals, and the famed wild elephants of Bengal-Jharkhand-Bihar, it was now a much quieter place. Clearing of forests for agriculture has driven the animals away. But it’s not easy to go farming in these ranges, and hence still some of the wilderness remains. I know little about meditation and spiritualism. But what I could certainly feel is that at least I don’t need to chant anything – just sitting on a rock and soaking in the scenery is enough to lift me spiritually.

Letting the water be...

After showing me 30-feet long porcupine caves and explaining how they are hunted during the one-day hunting gala every year, we trekked back again to the little hamlet. On the way back, we also saw the place where Ram and Sita rested when they had first arrived here. Sita was tired and thirsty, and so Ram had shot an arrow through the ground to bring out water. Fuchu da told me that even if there’s no water in the valley, this little hole always keeps gurgling out mineral rich water. The place is called Sita kunda burburi dara – the gurgling water makes a bur-bur-bur sound.

I was thinking a different thing then. If this place was anywhere near the city, the place would have been cordoned off, there would have been a Sita kunda Committee and the water would have been bottled and sold!

Side effects!

The sun was going down, and we sat down by a pond surrounded by palm tree. Though winter was vanishing quickly, and Purulia was never known to have migratory birds, I had still expected to click a few in the wilderness. But I didn’t. On asking Fuchu da what’s the reason he threw up an interesting fact. Apparently, the Naga armed forces based there for the past nearly four years to counter red terrorism, have hunted birds and dogs at will. And that’s when for the first time I realised that I haven’t seen a single dog on the streets in the last two days!


Alone, in the universe...

I was the only boarder in the guest house and decide to go and sit on the terrace after a power cut.

Was I closer to heaven? I don’t remember when I had last seen so many stars. The sky seemed too close for comfort. It was pitch dark everywhere with only some occasional hymns from buzzing insects. I could even hear my heart beats. I’ll be off from here tomorrow morning, and I knew I had come to terms with quite a few new – or may be dormant – emotions.

While returning from my trek, I had encountered something deeply touching. A goat had just given birth to three kids. Two already lay dead and the poor village couple were desperately trying to save the last one. As Fuchu da went up to talk to them, I just stood and watched. The Santali woman was weeping, even as she kept cajoling the mother goat. The man was trying feed it leaves. Two kids are normal, but apparently three becomes heavy for the goat.

A goat is of immense value to these poor people, for milk and for money when in need. Just when the family was waiting for the newborns, all seems to have been shattered now. It’ll not be before the autumn now that the goat may again be ready to conceive. 

I couldn’t see if the goat too had tears in its eyes. Do goats cry?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The boudi, the baby and the bechara – A Duronto Bengali experience!

“Haan jethima, amra train e uthe gechhi (Yes aunty, we have boarded the train)... ki? Haan, haan. Upper, meedil aar lower. (What? Yes, yes. Upper, middle and lower [berths]),” shouts the 30-something lady over the cellphone within seconds of seating herself on her seat number 25 in B2.

‘Is this just the beginning of a much dreaded nightmare?’ I wonder. Oh yes it is – confirms the lady’s next call to her mother. Well, train journeys are fun in many ways. But trust me, if you are onboard a Calcutta-bound bogey with ‘this’ kind of a Bengali family, you are in for some experience!

Boudi -- the tormentor: To everyone, who is someone

What was told just a few seconds ago to sejo jethima, is repeated in exact words to maa. But since it’s maa, can it just end there? Ekdami na. And so: “Kotto mishti diyechhe jano jethu... sonhaalooa, borphhee.. aaro ki ki sab (Do know how much sweets uncle bought for us... Son Halwa, Barfi... what not)!” the boudi blurts on the phone.

I can’t go out. The train will start moving in just a few minutes. And why should I? Damn, it’s my seat. I try to curb my disgusted look, in the process turning it into something like ‘no no boudi, you carry on shouting... I just have some gastric problem to deal with’.

The train starts moving from platform number 8 at the New Delhi railway station. Even though I myself need to make a couple of calls, I pray for a network blackout. Sadly, no such thing happens. This is India. You may not find hospitals, schools... or  people with civic manners – but there’s always a mobile network to hang on to. Developing nation, you see.

And so, the calls continue. Oh yes, punctuated each time with a ‘koto kaatlo dekho toh (how much did they deduct for roaming charges)’ footnote in between the calls.

After one more ‘thik thak uthe gechhi’ call, boudi finally makes her most important call. “Kajol maashi, shono aamra kaal shakkale pouchhe jabo (Kajol aunty, we’ll reach early in the morning tomorrow)... tumi esho kintu... lamba chhuti khele toh (make sure you come... what a long holiday you had)”. Yes, gotcha. This is no ordinary ‘aunty’ but boudi’s maid in Kolkata – the most important, and probably the only 'relative' she wants to see after returning home from a winter holiday in Delhi.
Though it is a much appreciable fact that Bengalis never forget to affix something to a domestic help’s name to give that welcome family-touch, I always fail to understand why maids are always maashi (mom’s sister) and not a pishi or a kakima (aunties from your paternal side)!

Anyway, back to boudi. So boudi in pink salwar let’s out a sigh, chuckles to herself and hands over the phone to dada. “Dadashona-r cali aache, ki bol monai,” boudi pokes her 12-year-old daughter. Here she’s referring to her some brother courtesy whom the tickets got confirmed. Some heck of a dada who can get you a confirmed ticket in Indian Railways – aami maanchhi boudi (I agree).

I, too, thank in my mind THE dude in the central government ranks who saw that even I was able to travel today.

Monai – the pint sized irritation

Well, the phone couldn’t reach dada – it’s snatched in transit by the daughter. At just around 3 feet-something, I guess she’s no more than 11-12. ‘Bapi amar message ashbe (Dad, I’m expecting some SMS)’, she declares. Ohkk!!!

Well, poor bapi just couldn’t understand what important SMS might her class 6 going daughter can expect. That, too, on a holiday. And so, the bapi asks.

It turns out that there is some annual craft exhibition at school once the board exams are over, and important lil Monai is in charge of collecting the 2 or 3 odd exhibits that her class can add to the overall gala! Ain’t that in March, kid???

Excuse meeeeeeee... !!!!!!!!!

And so the important-SMS expectation continues. With every beep she would make it a point to have the phone from her bapi – apart from other nonsense. And her partner in crime is her mamoni aka The Boudi.

‘Bapi knows nothing’, ‘bapi doesn’t understand’, ‘bapi please tickle my feet’... “Ah, sursuri dite bolechhi, chulkote na (Ah, I asked you to tickle, not scratch).” Someone please take this kid away, or else I’ll do what her bapi should have done long time ago – thaash kore ekta thaappor (one tight slap).

And, to my utter joy, that moment actually comes. When Monai for the 7th  or 8th time tries to impress upon her dad that this beep may be her ‘much important SMS’, but it actually turns out to be ‘Plots available at Sohna Road on first come-first serve basis’, bapi loses it. He grinds his teeth, “Aar ekbar jadi phone ta chaash, train e sabar saamne maar khaabi (If one more time you ask for that phone, you’re gonna get a thrashing in the train).” Yesss, that’s like it my Baangalee bapi.

Monai lets out a grunt and turns to her mamoni; mamoni turns away and tries to look at me but prefers to see the NCR-filth outside the window, I look towards bapi who in turn gives out a sheepish grin.

Bapi – the poor eternal bapi

There’s a saying in Bangla: ‘Bapi bari ja’. It literally means shooing away some guy who clearly doesn’t belong here – well, atleast that’s what the others think.

Bapi, also, is one of the most favoured Bangla nicknames along with Babu, Buro, Bappa – ya, Bengalis still prefer these pet names over the Rahuls and Rajs of the world.

Also, bapi comes naturally to Bengali girls while calling out to their dads.

This third genre of bapis provide the required balance for the boudis to call up everyone from sejo jethima to kaajer maashi; these bapis will have to hop out at Kanpur to see if there’s any vendor selling comics for the monais they are bringing up; these bapis will have to sacrifice a piece of chicken because boudi discovers that her choice of ordering the veg-thali was wrong; and after all this bapi will be punctuated after every work by a ‘tomar dara kichhu habena (you are good for nothing)’. The dada here was a no different bapi.

So, dada can’t shut his senses off – he has doomed them eternally on his marriage day. But the least he can do is thrusting his mouth with Rajnigandha and Talab – the idea I think must be ‘if I have to live with so much bitterness in all my senses, why not my mouth too’.

Well, that’s the emotional truth. The real thing is dada stays ready – if ever things get on my nerves and I have to spit on ‘these’ pain in the ass, let that be one heck of a red revolution!

*** The holy dip! ***

“Montu da, tomar barir upor diye jabo ebaar (Montu da, we’ll be crossing your home),” boudi is on the phone again. I was comfortably swaying between sleep and consciousness in between the soup and dinner, when this high decibel burima-bomb brings me back to alertness. We are crossing Allahabad. There’s a clamour at the window to see if the Maha Kumbh is visible. Monai is disinterested, but bapi wants to educate her. Boudi is still busy telling Montu da that they are now crossing the bridge and can’t meet them.

I look out at the cluster of lights on the far banks of the Ganga. Beautiful. I take my holy dip in the khaki-white water along with the train’s shadow. Yes, it works. Even if for few minutes, my mind just ain’t interested in the nonsense on the opposite seat. I feel cleansed.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

Trekking your way away from the bustle!

It is not every day that you get to chat with yourself. So when one was told about a place where you just ‘can’t do anything’, the temptation was just too much to resist – coz that’s when you actually can think of doing so many things.

Jari. For those who have been to the Sikh holy shrine at Manikarn, or Himachal’s ‘little Israel’ -- Kasol – Jari is just a hamlet that takes exactly 40 second for the tourist taxi to speed past. Those travelling the route by bus, well, know it by 2 minutes more for its halt there. 

But, about 2 hours uphill from the district town of Bhunter, Jari is a place that lets you form your own opinion – you may call it the most boring place one can suggest for a holiday, or come back with a new definition of it.

Off the road

One can’t ignore the comfort of a taxi-drive, especially when in the hills, but I like being on a bus. Not that one enjoys the bumpy-curves while trying hard not to dose of on a petit Himachali shoulder – there’s something strange about journeying through the hills, may how hard one tries to savour the gorgeous peaks and gushing rivers that run beside you, the eye-lids seem too busy to meet each other. (Now, how poetic can you possibly be while describing a rolled back head with an open mouth!)

Well, it’s kind of nice to become a part of those people’s lives who are going to be around you for the next few days. And there’s no better way than to have a bus ride while listening to Kumar Sanu crooning through the 90s. And if you are lucky enough, it’s not unusual for hill-people to just break into some Garhwali song.

Little kids hop from one hamlet to other for morning schools, farmers taking the fresh produce to the market, villagers going to some temple for a local festival – a little bus ride leaves you suddenly with so much knowledge about a place’s local life that you were completely unaware of even a few hours ago. And all these for just Rs 30!

As you hop down at Jari, little momo shops, a few local taxis and a couple of grocery shops are the first things to greet you. Make sure to fill yourself with some, for a little trek to nowhere waits for you.

Also, make sure the batteries for your little torch are working fine, the Odomos tube has something in it. Remember, up there you’ll hardly have any shops to offer you these, for everything people need in their daily lives need to be carried on their back or on donkeys from the shops down here. Every little thing.

Where am I?

Having had a fair share hill life, mostly in the north-eastern part of the country, one is acquainted with climbing through the zig-zag steps that cut through every little hamlet on the slopes. So one takes the steps that start from right behind the taxi stand and climb up among the little wooden houses. Trust, one has no idea how much the scene is about to change in just five minutes.

Within 6-7 minutes of climb I’m walking through one of the most sought after ‘thing’ in the whole world. Yes, sought after by people those who ‘do’ it; and those who do it are always sought after by the police! No guessing required, marijuana plants grow here like coconuts in Kerala!

But something more exotic is waiting for me, which is no less sought after. That too, without any guilt.

I continue my trek upwards, with the faint sound of the River Parvati from miles away keeping me company. Of course, the unusually fresh air is always there.

From about 100 metres away one spots a tree that has more shades of pinkish-red than the green of its leaves. Then more trees like that starts falling in line. And suddenly it’s everywhere. On my both sides, till where my eyes can run.

I’m in the middle of apples. Thousands, or even lakhs,of them.

For a city dweller, the brush with ‘straight from the tree’ is limited maximum to the one odd lemon tree in your garden. But apples -- no way. Do I pick up some? Whose are these? Do they penalise people for plucking?

I don’t even realise that I have been just standing and staring at them for about 2-3 minutes now. Ripe, juicy, yellowish-pink little apples right above my nose – just a pluck away!

“Apple khaayega,” the voice a 40-something woman breaks the spell. Two ladies returning with baskets on their backs have caught me gaping, and have with no doubt read my mind. They ask again. Sheepishly, I give a nod.

 Within a moment I’m handed over two just-pluck apples, and I take them just as one had last taken chocolates about a decade and half ago on a Children’s Day in school. The ladies walk off with a giggle while munching on apples, leaving me to do the same. I seriously don’t blame Adam or Eve! 

Who needs heaven...

The scenes are drastically changing with each 5 to 10 minutes’ climb. The imposing peaks are coming closer. I have been climbing for about 30 minutes now, and truly there’s no chance of feeling tired. You have one brain – you can either let it think about the walk, or let it feel overwhelmed while standing in the middle of a vast corn field.

Have you ever thought what kind of an adrenaline rush the cricketers must have when they stand in the field of play with the colossal stadium filled with people thronging at them? Electric.

If not the same, but you get quite a similar feeling here. Surrounded by the massive Himalayas, here you stand in the middle of a field. You take a 360 degree look around with the wind rushing through the crop, gushing against your face, making a sound as if cheering you. The village temple courtyard can be taken as the pavilion end!    

Another five minutes takes me to my ‘home’ for the next few days. Chandra Place -- a two-storied cottage with 3-4 rooms. One the way up I have spotted a couple foreign tourists, but none is staying here. I’m given a choice to take any room I want. All for Rs 100 a night!

If you want a simple veg-meal for lunch or dinner, it’ll be provided for Rs 100. One is free to cook if you are carrying the stuffs needed.

For the next two days I wake up with mists and bird chirps and go back to rest with the silence of the hills. Read books sitting in the balcony longer than I hate spending at my office’s desk, and just stare at the lofty peaks as moonlight bathes them. And all this while I try to reason myself that yes, there can be places on earth where you just can’t hear anything mechanical.

So long...

Every person has a place, an emotion or even a friend, whom he wants to remain untouched. Not because one fears losing it – or maybe – but he loves it too much to let it get spoilt. Adulterated. Jari is one such place that every traveller would wish no one comes here... so that he can return there, time-and-again, and find it just the same -- whenever he is tired from everything else. He knows this little trek through the apple orchards is sure to bring him back... to himself.

** Nature’s best when it’s free! **

Raju bhai, the cottage owner has an orchard, and I was given a free run to pluck as many apples I wanted. I returned with about a kilo of them.

I asked the price after coming down to the Jari town. Rs 40, the girl told me. After an hour and half’s journey to Bhunter, it was Rs 80. The next morning in Delhi, the vendor just below my home was selling apples for Rs 130 for a kilo!


Saturday, July 5, 2008

Rest, in peace

Monsoon had arrived in Delhi earlier than ever before. And it wasn’t in its usual scorching self. But the sticky humidity was nonetheless keeping up with its good work. That’s when I heard of my destination — Shilon Bagh. Being a Cancerian, water is what my inner self seeks. But given the sweaty conditions here, a ‘place near Shimla’ was music to the ears.

Interesting India

Having travelled quite a lot in the eastern Himalayas, especially Sikkim and West Bengal, the mystic beauty of Himachal Pradesh was still unknown to me. And Shimla any day is a good bet. So, I embarked on what later turned out to be a nine-hour journey to a small hilltop hamlet 10 kilometres before Kufri.
For someone who loves driving, it was tough to be just seated. Although the long drive may sound tiring at times, I engaged myself in discovering northern India’s heartland as I crossed three states — Haryana, Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, finally. Though you might be getting impatient to reach Shilon Bagh, there’s one interesting observation I would like to mention here. Apart from the nice highway drive and the lush green-and-yellow mustard fields on the either sides, I noticed colonies after colonies of hatcheries, and in them millions of hens along with billions of eggs. But all through stretch all I got see was ‘Pure Vegetarian Hotels’!

Abode of peace

The misty hills had long taken over from the suburb-bustle, and I moved along the toy-train track towards my destination. And when I bifurcated from Kandaghat, keeping Shimla to my left, towards Chail, I realised a sense of peace seeping within — which was to be my soulmate for a long time to come.
Shilon Bagh has nothing to boast off if you search materialistically, or historically. It has no sunset points or heritage bakeries. What is in abundance here, is peace. Morning walks through the pine forests, trek trails to local temples, foggy evening brushing your cheeks while you listen to the chatter of ladies from a village hut from the opposite hill — yes, it’s that quite here — if these are what you crave for, Shilon Bagh is the perfect weekend getaway. A more paisa vasool Indian tourist has every right to question: “Why Shilon Bagh?” And believe me, I wont have the answer. Just as I didn’t have any when I questioned myself: “Why shouldn’t I go to Shimla, a place I have heard so much about?” The answer probably was, I just wanted to be at peace. I wanted to be with myself. Just wanted to be at Shilon Bagh.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Who’s day was it?

From school students to the office going babus, everyone had a perfect midweek break — at the name of those who never knew it was their day. Here's a reality check.

At nearly 43° C, it was a perfect start to the month of May in the capital city. But no one complained. After celebrating Delhi IPL team’s victory over Bangalore the night earlier, most Delhittes were in no hurry to scamper back to their 9 to 6 shifts — it was a holiday after all, courtesy the Labour Day, or better known as May Day!
Like many other facts of life, most Indians are blissfully unaware of the fact that this untimely holiday is a gift of one social movement in the 19th century that had finally forced employers over the world to recognise the labour workforce and ensure that they had a an eight-hour shift like any other person. Labour Day, in India, was declared as a national holiday in 1967, a day when the grass root workforce is recognised for their relentless service towards the nation.
But, who cares…buses and metros are empty by usual standards. Most offices had a deserted look, reminiscent that of usual weekends. But for the market and malls, it’s a busy day. And more so for the little Kamleshs and Sunnys — selling handkerchiefs to belts, while others busy washing utensils at the roadside stalls. It’s a holiday after all, and the business is brisk. Even 12 year-old Sudhir has no time to relax. He’s busy allocating parking slots to the early visitors at Sarojini Nagar Market. So the memsahebs and babus can keep strolling leisurely — after all, loves labour can’t be lost. Love for the labours can be.

And here we speak of social justice? Leave apart the grown ups, even these young ones have to work on a day specially dedicated to them. “It’s sad, but what can be done?” question college student Shruti. “Those who (ministers and bureaucrats) are liable to implement these should come and see,” opines Minakshi, another college student.
But aren’t we all responsible for this? Anyway, too much thinking is bad for health. So let us all chill — “Oye chhotu, ek thanda lana.”