Friday, December 11, 2009

A Trek in Goa

My previous visit to Goa, in my long gone youth, was the usual touristy affair replete with feni and a prurient young Indian male’s enjoyment of the fabled beaches of Goa. This time, however, I was out on a trek and on the look out for the beauties of nature that had little to do with the female form!

Vinod Hari – my usual Good Samaritan for these ventures – had managed to get a couple of friends in Goa to organize the trek for us. Damodar and Sandeep had a difficult time, apparently, in getting the tour itinerary organized thanks to the fact that the YHAI chaps, who have experience in conducting tours in the area, were extremely reluctant to share any information regarding the trek. Such reticence from a purportedly non-profit organization surprised us when we were told of it, but then I suppose there can be bad apples everywhere! Be that as it may, our intrepid duo did manage to hook up with some very decent guides and the tour was on!

We set off on the trek from Mollem on a very broad jeep trail and, as usual, walking into the embrace of the forest was a balm to the soul. Walking on easy terrain while in the forest on a trek is not the norm – as I may have mentioned before – and, thus, we made the most of the luxury of soothing your eyes with the green vistas around you, instead of concentrating on where you were placing your foot. The jeep track being broad, there were patches of sunlight and shadow on the trail and looking up provided visions of emerald and sapphire embedded in the platinum of diffuse sunlight. Bird song, as ever, provided a backdrop though one must admit that it was desultory here compared to the symphonies one got to hear in Parambikulam.

This jeep track must be familiar to anyone who has gone to the Dudhsagar falls in Goa. Of course the usual entry point is from Collem, which would have cut short the trek by about 6 KMs. We didn’t mind the extra walk…not at the start, at least! After a 15 KM trek we reached the Dudhsagar falls and started climbing up the dense forest to the top..rather than the bottom of the falls that tourists normally reach.

The point we arrived at, after walking along the railway track for a few minutes, is next door to the Dudhsagar railway station. There was a beautiful pool at the bottom of the snaking white lines of the falls. Vinod was into the water in a jiffy and started climbing up the falls in his usual exhibition of a reversal of the evolutionary process. Being the timid non-swimmer that I am, I contented myself with disporting in the shallow reaches of the pool.

After that invigorating bath we proceeded to climb up a relatively steep incline through the forest. Damodar, Sandeep and Sagar (Not of IIMB88!) were accompanying us, as I should have said before. The climb proved a stiffish task for Sandeep and Sagar, who had not been on long treks before. Sagar, for a fifty-year old, showed amazing courage in continuing with the trek even after cramps had threatened to incapacitate him in the course of this climb. We were headed to a village near Kuyeshi (having heard it pronounced only, my spelling may well be totally off!) which was where our guide – Krishna – lived and where a school was to be our camp for the night.

The climb ended in grasslands and to our left was a hillock on which a magnificent Sambar deer looked disdainfully down on us for a few minutes and then galloped gracefully away. Golden dusk painted the light green of the grass and the cup of trees behind us framed a fairy tale setting.

We reached the village by around dusk after about 12 KMs from Dudsagar. Part of the reason why it took us so long was the fact that the trekkers’ usual companion in these parts – leeches – were present and my companions were busy de-leeching themselves every now and then. Actually by the end of the trek others could proudly sport a few leech bites while the leeches showed total disdain for me and I felt moved to tears when a lone leech took pity on me and deigned to climb up my shoe! I can only postulate that the Ombattu Gudde leeches had probably marked me as their herd animal and, thus, these leeches did not want to challenge their territorial limits!

Krishna had arranged for dinner at his residence. He provided the Goan equivalent of Alu-mutter and, with the bread we had along, we ate a good meal. He, probably had not bargained for the fact that we would find his house a cosier place to sleep in than the school but we ended up inflicting our company on his household for the night. Sleeping with a buffalo calf chewing on your mat at the foot of your bed was indeed a new experience to me.

I have been with people from Isha before and, thus, I am blasé to being woken up by the sounds of snakes hissing and crows cawing around me! These sounds that necessarily accompany the observance of the Isha Kriya was new to the village, however, and an inquisitive neighbor dropped in to check out the menagerie that Krishna had brought home! After a couple of hours of Kriya and hatha yoga, we set off to the next destination.

The 10 KM trek to Castle Rock was largely through flat terrain and a large portion of the trek was to be by a tar road. Needless to say this was not greatly to the liking of Vinod and me since we had enough tar roads to walk on in our respective cities. Krishna suggested that we could detour for about 6-8 KMs, if we felt like it, in order to take in the Vajra river. Water rats that we are that idea was immediately seized upon and we plunged into deep forest immediately after cutting the tar road.

The Vajra river was a sight not to be missed and worth every thorn that scratched us on the way. Imagine walking out of the forest to see rapids on all sides of you pouring into various pools that join a stream in between and all of them shimmering in the sunlight. Imagine the sights of rocks carved in shapes, which no sculptor would dream of, declaring to you the mighty power of flowing water. Imagine, then, hot and sweaty bodies plunging into the pleasantly cold water and being pummeled by the flow of the rapids! Bliss!

Well! Slipping down a rock on the way and banging your knee on the rocks does not count as bliss but then I have become accustomed to doing something like that on every trek! If one fall a day serves to satisfy the Gods of mischance, I will take my spills to get to un-spoilt places like these!

After about an hour of splashing around in the water and then bulling our way through the jungle to minimize the time spent on tar roads we, perforce, hit the road and walked on to Castle Rock. When one talks of treks in Goa it is normally Dudhsagar to Castle Rock but Castle Rock seems to have nothing to recommend it but for having been a camping spot for trekkers maybe. We, however, were not camping there and were to proceed to Anmod (Again, only heard it pronounced not spelt!). We exchanged guides here and shifted from Krishna to Govind.

One of the interesting parts of trekking with Krishna was the fact that he knew only Konkani and, thus, Vinod and I were left in the dark groping for translations from the rest of the group. The others, apparently, felt so much at home with us that they would chatter away in Konkani and then walk on presuming that we were abreast with the conversation till we asked them for translations. Sometimes we would have asked them to ask Krishna something and they would duly do so and receive the answer and, then, feel no need to pass it on to us in English or Hindi! There is such a thing called being too much at home! Govind, however, knew Kannada as well as Hindi which made us more comfortable!

The about 8 Km trek to Anmod from Castle Rock started off on a tar road but, after about 1.5 KM we were led off into the jungles again. Walking in the jungle with imminent dusk is a sublime experience and, when you are pleasantly tired, you tend to do it in an almost trance-like state. By the time we hit the outskirts of the village it was twilight and we reached Govind’s house to put up for the night. There is a bus stop at Anmod and, finding that beer was available, Sagar and I made the most of the opportunity and downed a couple before retiring for the night.

The first stop the next day was a place called Tambdisurla which was about 13 KMs away. A 13th Century Shiva temple, built by the Goa-Kadamba dynasty was the highlight of the place. The route from Anmod to Tambdisurla involved steep descents and, as any trekker can tell you, descents are not much easier on you than ascents. Any descent tests your knees and ankles and when you walk on loose stones overlaid with dead branches it can be very treacherous. Top it with having to walk on a path with thorny plants to both sides of you all thoughts of the scenery around you vanish in the effort of having to keep your footing while warding thorns off you. Why people enjoy doing this is a mystery on par with why people want to climb the Mt. Everest and the only answer one can give is the classic one of “Because it is there”.

We reached Tambdisurla, which is on the regular tourist route and when we were enjoying a invigorating bath in the nearby stream a huge crowd of Russian tourists landed there. A few of them ventured to the stream with a view to taking a dip but were apparently put off by the fact of having to share the stream with us. As one of us commented, maybe if they had been Yanks they would have piled in till we found ourselves ousted from our cosy spots in the river!

Having ogled the temple with our sculpturally uneducated eyes we had our lunch and proceeded onwards on our way back to Mollem. A further 4-5 KM down the line we came across another inviting stream and jumped in for another bout of water sports. The rest, as they say, is anti-climax and the worst of the anti-climax was the long 5-6 KM walk on the road to Mollem gate where Damodar had parked his car.

Seldom, indeed, have I been on a trek that brought me back into civilization so often and it had its own charm. Every day of the trek we were reminded once again of how wonderful an experience it is to be one with nature in the jungle precisely because it could be contrasted with civilization repeatedly. It is difficult to thank our Goan friends adequately for having put in all the effort to make the trek possible. After about 80 KMs in the Goa/Karnataka forests I am in Chennai for a spell of wonderful carnatic music before I set off on a trek in Kodai by end-December.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Beauty and Success

I have lived all my life with a misconception! I had always thought that women of my generation had not made the sort of mark they could have made because Society was not supportive. How wrong I was!

How could the Air hostesses of my time have had their careers zooming up without the help of ‘Ariel Oxy-Blue’? How could they succeed in the corporate world without the priceless help of ‘Fair and Lovely’? How could a career woman balance Work and Parenting without Clinic Shampoos? What a deprived lot women of my generation were, being denied these invaluable aids to a successful career!

The language of beauty aids has changed from being a necessary adjunct for women to captivate men to being necessary for their corporate success. Men, however, have now become the target for beautifying to attract women. A stupendous turning of the tables indeed!

This quest for linking successful women to beauty aids can be carried too far, however. Santoor may keep the pretty choreographer mother looking young but for Madhavan to be so ignorant of his own field that he does not even recognize an award-winning choreographer seems to be carrying things a bit too far. The hairstylist, worthy of being a cover page story, who is so ignorant of other fashion aids like an Anti-marks cream must have an Arjun-like fixation on hair to the exclusion of everything else! It might have been better to have the success in a different field in order to ensure that these characters do not look like total nerds, but who knows what compels the ad-makers to stick to this sort of formula.

Be that as it may, for ads to be selling to successful women or selling success to women is a welcome change. Because they are worth it!

The Arithmetic of retirement

The first issue one needs to sort out when contemplating retirement, particularly when you are unlikely to get a pension, is the amount that needs to be saved by the time you retire. Lots of investment advisers have written reams on the subject. Amongst the first things that they mention is a cautionary statement about inflation.

It is evident to everyone that the fact that you need Rs.6 lakhs per annum (say) today to maintain your current lifestyle does not mean that ensuring a cash inflow of Rs.6 lakhs per annum after the date of your retirement will satisfy your needs. You have to factor in the increase in monetary expenditure on account of inflation and at 6% per annum (say) your requirement may well be around Rs.11 lakhs if you retire in 10 years. This fact is abundantly underscored in all existing literature. The problem, however, is that they seem to think that the Gods of Inflation would take pity on a poor retired person and bring inflation to a screeching halt upon retirement. Most advisers seek that you plan for Rs.11 lakhs per annum rather than Rs.6 lakhs per annum but seem to conveniently ignore that fact that costs will keep increasing and in another 10 years time, post retirement, you would be trying to meet an expenditure of Rs.20 lakhs with an income of Rs.11 lakhs.

A rough and ready method for calculating your monetary needs for retirement is to divide the annual funds requirement at the time of retirement by the difference between your expected rate of return and the estimated inflation rate. To illustrate, if your expenditure at the time of retirement is expected to be Rs.11 lakhs; expected return on your money is expected to be 10% and expected inflation rate is expected to be 6% divide Rs.11 lakhs by 0.04 to derive the required savings at the time of retirement. Thus Rs.2.75 crores would take care of your retirement provided your estimates of expenditure, return and inflation rate hold good.

The above calculation actually ensures that you can live off your savings in perpetuity. A cautionary word, however, is required here. Post retirement, you will find that your first year’s return is Rs.27.5 lakhs while your estimated expenditure is Rs.11 lakhs. The excess amount is to be re-invested in order to ensure that future inflationary increases are taken care of. In case you feel flush with what you consider to be excess returns and blow up the money you may live to rue the fact. The model works under the assumption that your initial expenditure is as estimated and, in every subsequent year, you spend no more than your previous year’s expenditure increased by the expected inflation rate. (Well! The real world does not operate as elegantly as the world of maths. Inflation rate will keep fluctuating from time to time. As long as you stick to your expected life style you should be OK).

You can readily see that you may actually require lesser money since you do not really think that you are immortal. If you want a more accurate method for computing your financial requirements adopt the following.

1. Calculate your inflation adjusted rate of return as [(1 + expected rate of return) divided by (1 + expected inflation rate)] minus 1. For our example, this would be (1.10/1.06)-1 which would be .037736.

2. In Excel, use this rate for return, the number of years you expect to live post retirement and your annual expenditure at the time of retirement in the PV function. For our example, this would be =PV(0.037736,20,1100000), which would give you a result of about Rs.1.5 crores.

It is apparent that when you fund only 20 years of the future the amount required is far lesser. If, however, you happen to outlast the expected lifetime you could end up totally destitute. Please remember also that the expenditure level has to be maintained for the same lifestyle and the excess re-invested.

Thus, when you plan for retirement, ensure that you underestimate your returns (also ensure that it is post-tax returns!), overestimate your expenditure, inflation as well as longevity. You can always find a way to spend the excess cash but doing without what you consider are your needs may not be a palatable option. If, however, you estimate so conservatively that a lifetime of saving is not enough, prepare to enjoy a lifetime of working!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Ombattu-Gudde Trek

With leech-bites itching on both legs up to the knee, smarting scratches all over the body and soreness in muscles I didn’t even know that I had, I wonder whether the two day trek at Ombattu Gudde was worth it all. Then I recollect the cool green confines of the forest, the gurgling streams, the superb vistas and the wonderful camaraderie shared with the other trekkers and all these minor inconveniences fade into insignificance.

The trek started from Gundya on a comfortable trail which was almost like a walk in a park. Once we reached a stream we stopped for breakfast and a bout of splashing around in the stream. One needs to be hot and sweaty and then hit a lovely forest stream in order to realize how enjoyable the experience can really be. After about an hour of sojourn there we proceeded on the trek.

Walking through virgin forest, jumping from boulder to boulder on the stream bed and wading up to waist deep while crossing streams we proceeded towards the first day’s campsite. The trek was not too strenuous in terms of effort or terrain and, but for de-leeching breaks, we could probably have comfortably reached the campsite in daylight.

When someone who hasn’t trekked at all thinks about going into forests, the idea of being close to Nature is exclusively benign. It doesn’t always work out that way! One of the less comfortable facts of Nature is the leech. An amazing creature which first anesthetizes the site of its bite, de-coagulates the blood and sucks blood enough to bloat from needle-size to a near-globe and then falls off. One can look on it in amazement till, of course, it practices its act on you!

Our trek group had four schools of thought with regard to the leeches. The organizers had come prepared with snuff and oil which was formed into a paste and applied on the legs (one of the very few healthy uses for tobacco, I suppose). Another group believed in eucalyptus oil and yet another believed in the miraculous effect of lime(chunna). The last school of thought, who included yours truly, believed in allowing the leeches to have their fill and drop off without either preventive measures or any effort at interrupting their feeding. The impact of the last school was that my leg bled as though it had been mangled in an automobile accident! The first three schools of thought were probably foiled by the fact that wading through streams washed off the applications and, thus, guys spent a lot of time plucking leeches off their legs or spraying painkillers to make them let go. (Pharma companies note! One more use you can advocate for painkiller sprays!)

Thanks to this repeated de-leeching the last part of the trek was completed in darkness. This was the first time I had trekked in the night with only torches to illuminate the way through a dense forest. The experience was eerie but extremely enjoyable. Well! But for the photophilic insects that clustered around my headlamp and made me wish for a flypaper attachment, it was thoroughly great! We eventually reached the campsite by the side of gurgling streams.

My treks, hitherto, had been either with people hired to set up tents and cook or with camps in forest rest-houses or both. It was, therefore, amazing to see the organizers and co-trekkers pitch in and convert an unpromising site into a cozy camp. Open air though it was it looked like home away from home! People cleaned up the site, fetched wood and generally got ready for dinner. The chefs got into the act chopping vegetables and soaking the avalakki/avul (beaten rice, I suppose, is the English term!). Naveen dished out a delicious avul upma/Ogranai and how good a camp-cooked hot meal can be only experience can tell.

Just as we were lying down to sleep it started raining. Being prone to acidity attacks and having had one just then I was in too much distress to help the guys who rigged up tarpaulins above us to keep us from being drenched. (With my fabulous aptitude for messing up the simplest physical tasks it was just as well that I did not get in their way!).

Next day we woke up to some delicious black tea (of course, there were the generous souls who woke up and made the tea that we woke up to!) and set off on what promised to be a strenuous trek. Crossing the stream that had lulled us to sleep the previous night we proceeded through the forest. Our constant companions – the leeches – were with us still but the group had to hasten to complete the nearly 20 KM trek for the day. Ploughing your way through creepers that trip you up when you try to bull your way through them and readily break off when you hold on to them to avoid a fall is an unforgettable experience. After nearly four hours of walking through the forests (Well! We did rest a lot in-between!) we reached the grasslands.

A steep climb up and we were on the peak. To stand on top with valleys displaying all shades of green stretching out into the distance and gazing at fluffy clouds lazily moving across distant peaks is an experience that uplifts you but does not lend itself readily to descriptive phrases. It is at times like this that you truly feel that you are on cloud nine or should I be saying in cloud nine since we appeared to be in the clouds?

After taking a fill of soaking in the blissful atmosphere and a couple of group photographs down the line, we set off on our way back to civilization reluctantly. There was a kicker in store for us, however. It was near dark and there was some confusion about the way forward. Guna went into the jungle and found us a way back to the jeep trail that was to lead us back to where our bus was parked. (Considering that this was the place that three trekkers had lost their way and their lives a couple of years back and that another group of trekkers who were there at the same time as us had also lost their way and sent out an SOS, this feat is worthy of mention!)

Another spell of night trekking through the forest and a 10 KM walk on the jeep trail and we were back at the bridge where the bus picked us up. A scrumptious dinner down the road at a Dhaba (sans beer, alas!) and we settled down to sleep in the bus to wake up in our mundane everyday world!

It is difficult to adequately praise Ravi Ghosh who organised the trek and Claudy who was the pathfinder. Nor indeed can one forget all the other guys who selfless pitched in to make the trek comfortable on the way and at the campsite. If Nature provides the aesthetic component of joy on treks the emotional satisfaction of trekking is provided by such wonderful people who not only create the camaraderie on the trek but also make it possible for the group to enjoy nature at its best.

Links to photographs taken by other trekkers in the group are given under

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

A trek to Kalhatti falls

There are very few treks that actually conform to a first timer’s ideas of what a trek would be like. I still remember my fantasies of happily walking on the mountains taking in the sights when I set out on my first trek to Tapovan/Nandanvan. 

The reality, however, was one of having to keep a careful watch on where one put his foot down lest he unintentionally took up tobogganing instead of trekking. Huffing and puffing while pushing wobbly legs up inclines was certainly not what I had conceived of when I took up trekking. Actually enjoying this process is something I’d have considered the heights of masochism before I actually found myself doing so. As a cousin of mine put it I nowadays undergo misery in order to enjoy myself (It comes out better in Tamil – Kashtapattu enjoy panran. Since kashtapattu would mean either putting in effort or being miserable you could read it as ‘He is working at enjoying himself’ or ‘He makes himself miserable in order to enjoy himself’). A new twist on the ‘Work Hard, Play Hard’ business!

The trek to Kalhatti Falls and Kemmangundi, strangely enough, was the first time where I did trek on a smooth enough path for a long enough period to actually enjoy the view while trekking. Masochism has not taken such a strong hold over me that I can only enjoy myself when my lungs are contemplating the idea of giving up on me. As usual, I am getting ahead of my tale.

The overnight drive to Chikmagalur – about 270 Kms – is not too tiresome since the roads are decent. We reached the spot from where we were to start the trek by around 5 AM and snoozed in the vehicle till 6 AM before we set off on the trek. The falls at the bottom with a temple by its side is popularly known as the Kalhatti falls though the real falls were at a much higher altitude. This is where we were to end up on day one of the trek.

Within seconds of starting the trek we were ascending through a cathedral of tall trees. The path was challenging without being enervating and one could soak in the peace of the forest without being disturbed by your own distressed breathing. After about an hour’s walk we stopped for ‘freshening up’ and breakfast by the side of a mini-waterfall. I was into the water almost immediately. In Vinod’s absence, I was the only one in the water. The others were saving their bodily dirt for the main waterfall at the top. Looks like only Vinod and I believe that more than one bath a day is not injurious to health!

I have never been particularly fond of bread and jam for breakfast but, after the morning’s trek and a dip in the waterfall, it tasted like ambrosia. Breakfast was spiced with a distant view of the waterfall to which we were heading and a very enticing sight it was! We were on our way on that dream trail that I talked of at the beginning and the view around was well worth gawking at while walking the trail. Rolling mist on verdant plains enchanted us on one side while the tall graceful trees looked down benignly on us from the other.

Such pleasant hikes don’t last on treks. According to the tour organizer – Kamesh – it wouldn’t have lasted long on this trek either but for his picking an easy trail to ensure that the grandfather and his two grandchildren, who were along on the trek, do not find it too difficult to do. Not that the grandfather would have felt that the chosen trail was easy when we next had to slip and slither up a steep slope to reach the waterfall.

One almost forgot the leeches. Nature is not always beautiful by the standards of men and on previous treks to Brahmagiri and Thadiyandamol, colonies of leeches had climbed all over the trek group. Thus, this desultory tasting of blood by one or two leeches was almost too insignificant to mention. One of the kids, however, could not get over the copious bleeding set off by leech-bites and her crying coupled with the shivering in the cold climes produced such musical effects that one involuntarily laughed at it though the child’s distress was all too real. Lest I give the impression that Supriya was a cry-baby I should mention that she did all that dangerous scrambling up slippery slopes with little complaint and her first attempt at rappelling later was done without a hitch.

The waterfall delivered all that it promised. It looked even more wonderful than it had from afar. This was one of those falls which did not cascade in sheets of water but fell down like a shower from top. This, of course, meant that staying under the fall for any length of time was impossible except if you belonged to the blood of the mythical Hindu fakirs who slept on beds of nails. The water appeared intent on drilling through your ears and scalp and I, having an unprotected scalp, had to make do with staying immersed in the pool and looking up at the waterfall.

The process of moving over to the site where the trek organizers were cooking lunch involved climbing up a slippery rock. My penchant for slipping, kept in abeyance this far, kicked in and Crack! Never before had I landed on my forehead on a rock. The sound was audible for about twenty feet and everyone in the vicinity rushed in to see if my brains were oozing out. Thanks to the fact that my head is solid ivory above the neck – as anyone who knows me would readily testify – nothing much had happened barring a Donald Duck style protrusion from my right forehead and a severe headache.

You really have to do this sort of trekking and have food cooked on an open camp-fire before you can understand how delicious food can taste even if it does not match up to gourmet standards. That one can enjoy balancing paper plates heaped with rice and sambar while standing on rocks with a waterfall sleeting down in the background can prove to be difficult to believe otherwise.

The rest of the trek was a repeat of the slippery slithery approach to the waterfall till we reached open grassland from whence the trip to the campsite was a proverbial cake-walk. The campsite itself bordered a gurgling stream and since it was but noon by the time we reached it there was lots of time to keep the kids occupied with dumb charades and other such parlor games. But what a parlor to play games in!

Rains had kept off thus far though it was rainy weather. This combination of cloudy and breezy weather without rains was ideal for trekking and we had luck all through the two days with the weather holding its pattern except to bless us with a delicious drizzle every now and then. Add to that the fact that the mist converted the view into an enchanting fairyland that shafts of sunlight caused to glow like a huge gem.

The next day’s trek was down to Kemmangundi and we were walking in this fairyland through the mists. It was like walking through clouds and – who knows – maybe they were the clouds as seen from below. One of the problems with trekking is that you climb down to hill stations like Kemmangundi instead of traveling up. This, then, ensures that you feel let down by the hill station for it cannot match up with the views that you have already seen.

We took a little diversion to go to the ruins of a British fort and it was a thrill to see tiles made in the 19th century lying around. Thereafter we trekked down to Kemmangundi in relative ease till we reached a steep and slushy slope that had to be negotiated. With my customary grace and elegance I sat down on the path and traveled down on all fours in order to avoid a speedier descent than may have proved comfortable to me as well as those traveling before me.

The last stretch was too difficult and, so, the organizers strung up a rope so that one could hold on to it and descend in relative comfort. Having so descended we reached civilization. A short walk took us to a local resort where we had our lunch and went in for some rappelling. Descending down vertical cliffs while secured to a rope harness is one of those things that I never thought that I would ever do, leave alone enjoy, but it so happens that I do find it enjoyable.

Any trek feels anticlimactic when it ends. Like most things that we do for the joy of doing, it left one feeling that the experience had ended too soon. Well! There is always the next one!

Thursday, July 23, 2009

A trek to Nagalapuram

Why does one go on a trek? A break from the monotony of city life? To enjoy a tryst with nature? To see sights that one cannot otherwise see? Difficult to answer since there are times when a trek seems to be all strain and no rewards and, yet, one returns from the trek with an indefinable sense of satisfaction.

This trek to Nagalapuram is difficult to describe because one is unable to answer the most common questions that are normally asked about a trek. For example there is no answer to the question of where we did go to since there was no concrete goal – a waterfall, the top of a peak or even a temple – which was achieved. Nor indeed can one cite the height to which one climbed since we ascended only to descend and then walked along a stream bed. Was it a pleasant stroll in verdant surroundings? Not at all since the most part of the trek was jumping boulder to boulder and, thus, one was constrained to look at where one was placing his feet rather than taking in the sights.

The drive from Chennai to Nagalapuram – with Vinod and Chandru - was fun for the usual reason – great company. Once there, we had to walk about 3 Kms to reach the starting point of the trek. As usual, there were some good Samaritans who directed us with such great effect that we meandered all over the landscape before arriving at a waterfall (a mild apology for one since it was composed of minor trickles flowing down a rocky outcrop) which was to serve as the starting point of the trek. A small cave with a Shivling and a Nandi served a temple at the right end of the pool at the base of the waterfall.

Vinod and I, as usual, were into the water without any more ado. Vinod successfully climbed up the rock outcrop to the top of the waterfall in his customary exhibition of a reversal of the evolutionary process. Little did I know that I would have to later emulate this feat, in a minor way, as the day progressed!

Having done with the bathing, the three of us wended our way up the hillock that bordered the waterfall. Loose stone and nettles made it a reasonable painful process with Chandru complaining humorously that the whole process was a conspiracy to convert him to a bag of bones. I was too busy slipping and slithering to come up with witty repartee (at least I had an excuse for not being witty…normally I have no excuse to cover up my lack of wits!).

Having managed the climb, with little loss to life and limb, Vinod pointed out to what looked like a 75 degree incline and said, “Now I think we descend this gradual slope to reach the stream-bed. Let me check first.”

Every now and then one comes across the fact that a word that means one thing to you means something entirely different to another but this mistake in the understanding of the word ‘gradual’ bid fair to reduce Chandru and I into quivering bags of jelly – literally, as Chandru pointed out, since we were contemplating the possibility of a much more rapid descent than Vinod was considering! At this point Chandru refused point-blank from proceeding with what he refuses to accept as a trek! Having sprained a couple of fingers a few days back - while mistaking his staircase for a ski-slope – he had a valid problem. While I was hunting around for a reasonable excuse to drop out Vinod called from below to proceed and, failing an acceptable excuse, I did.

The first twenty feet or so of the ‘gradual slope’ involved walking on loose rock, which made it impossible to maintain a footing. Adopting my customary elegant mode of travel I sat down on the rock-face and slowly slithered down till I reached a place where the footing was better and I had a rock wall to hold on to while descending. Thereafter, the descent assumed the customary level of difficulty and without any great ado I managed to reach the stream-bed and rejoined Vinod.

The problem with frequent treks is that a gurgling stream meandering in the midst of verdant forests seems to be nothing worth writing home about unlike the case in my city-bound days. The sense of ineffable peace that descends on you while trekking in such surroundings was upon me despite the fact that the trekking involved jumping from boulder to boulder more often than not.

This path ought to have been named ‘Butterfly Alley’ as Vinod called it. Every few feet on ran into a big swarm of them in myriad colors. My maiden attempts at amateur photography, however, failed miserably since they just vanished within micro-seconds of my unlimbering my camera. A more camera-shy bunch of beings I have never come across in my life!

The boulder-to-boulder jumping has its pitfalls and once my shoes got wet they started emulating skates. This then meant that the shoes remained permanently wet since at every other step I would skate off the boulder and into the water. This happened so often that Vinod started taking it as the norm in lieu of the concern he exhibited the first couple of times.

We walked (jumped? Skated?) till about 12 PM when we decided to take a dip in a convenient pool there and turn back. There are few pleasures to equal a cool dip after a hot trek and a drink of cool water when you are thirsty. After having pleased ourselves thus we wended our way back.

Vinod was surprised about the difficulty I expressed about the initial descent to the stream bed and asked me to follow him closely in order not to avoid the easy path he had taken. I had no idea that his easy path would lead me to a position where the only way forward was a climb up a near-vertical rock face for about 20-30 feet!

Since flinging myself on the ground and going ‘Waaah!’ was not on considering that we were standing precariously on a six inch wide ledge, there was scant option but to try my rock-climbing skills. Having declined my only opportunity to climb rocks at Ramangaram – with rope harness and all – whatever skills were necessary had to be developed in situ. A chap who is notorious for his two left feet and all-thumbs hands is unlikely to approach any such job with great confidence. Confidence or no, I had the climb to do and I did do it. How I did it is a mystery to me but what it did to me I have since known with all the muscles that I didn’t know existed in my upper body screaming non-stop in pain for the next three days!

The rest of the tale is anti-climactic. We reached the initial waterfall pool with the temple in the corner. While we were taking a dip in the pool, the sun reflected off the pool to the roof of the cave housing the temple and created such an enchanting canopy of light that I couldn’t take my eyes off it for as long as the light show was on!

When I look back on the trek, I can recollect many memorable incidents but nothing that qualifies as a highlight. It is the accumulation of warm moments that made it a joyous experience and not the heights you climbed. Much like life, isn’t it?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Of Power

The sense of Power exists only in the contemplation of its misuse. In other words, a person feels powerful only when he is contemplating the possibility of misusing his position. This looks like a sweeping statement but is no more than the bare fact if one really thinks about it.

There will be little, if any, argument if one were to say that a person who has to choose only one course of action and is bereft of choices is a powerless person. Thus, Power can exist only when the concerned person can choose one course of action from a gamut of choices. A person feels most powerful when the choices he makes can affect other people.

When one talks of power one invariably thinks of politicians and bureaucrats since they are the modern surrogates of Kings and Emperors who were considered the most powerful people in their era. These Public Servants (surely an exhibition of tongue-in-cheek humor to call these people ‘servants’ when they are most likely to consider themselves as masters) are given their positions and their authority in order to serve the public good. If, indeed, they make all their choices for that purpose they are least likely to consider themselves powerful since the decision can no longer be of their choice but will be driven by considerations of public good. Their sense of power comes only because they can exercise their authority to suit their whims. If every action and decision were to be weighed on the scale of public good alone, they would only feel the weight of responsibility. Where the decision of what constitutes public good is based on their judgement the sense of responsibility would be all the more heavy.

There is the much-touted argument about the ‘power to do good’. It is merely a usage of the word ‘power’ to denote capability and not in the sense that denotes a feeling of personal power. The power to give is felt as personal power only when the giver contemplates the fact that he has the power to deny. The chap who delivers the donation cheque to the recipient does not feel powerful since he has no choice but to give it. Thus, even when it comes to giving to social causes, the donor can feel powerful only when he thinks of the fact that he can deny. A sense of power, therefore, comes into being only when the person concerned starts thinking negatively about denying help whimsically. If the Gandhian idea of the wealthy being caretakers is applied, donations/help ought to be given where deserved and exercising your whim to give or to deny counts as misuse.

The adage ‘Power corrupts! Absolute Power corrupts absolutely!’ does not go far enough. A sense of Power in inherently corrupt and any person who seeks personal power is a person who is automatically contemplating its misuse in a greater or lesser degree.

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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Requiem for some cinematic formulae

Passing time watching old movies is great fun especially considering that quite a few of the cinematic ideas of the past are irrevocably dead and gone. Before getting down to list a few of them one must make mention of those ideas which ought to find mention but do not simply because they have a disconcerting habit of coming back from the dead.

One idea that appears immortal is that of brothers/sisters (twins or otherwise) separated in the childhood as immortalized in ‘Yaadon ki baraat’. Just as one thinks that this is as dead as the dodo, it springs back to life like a phoenix ! The other one – the love triangle - partakes of more immortal blood and lives on in one avatar or the other. I make no mention of the hunt for revenge as a theme since without it Bollywood et al would go into an irreversible tail-spin!

One hesitates to mention the cancerous hero trying to make the loving heroine hate him as a dead idea but it does seem as though it is currently out of favor. Whether it is because the times do not favor such lachrymose themes or because macho heroes prefer not to moon around draped in shawls, one does not know. Let us put it to the fact that being a widow in today’s times is not the sort of living hell that it used to be and, thus, the hero does not think that the heroine should be saved from this fate worse than death.

The other thing that one does not see is the patriarch/matriarch counting his/her last breaths but using it all up in extracting promises from the hero/heroine which makes him/her wish that they had died instead! This promise is extracted with the preface of “I will not survive..” and it is not normally a bullet in the body that causes them to say so. Having never died before I don’t know whether one does realize the imminence of death on one’s death-bed but I am sure that someone who has had a chest pain may well feel close to death and find it was a mere gastric attack! Much of my time in the past used to be spent in thinking of such a ‘dying’ declaration succeeded by a red-faced survival of a gastric attack. One wonders whether, under these circumstances, the promise would still be held valid!

My pet theme, however, is the one employed in the past to get around the ‘How does boy meet girl and fall in love’ problem. There is a party where some miscreants mix liquor into the unsuspecting girl’s coke which she drinks up fully without ever realizing the adulteration. Fully sozzled she goes on further to get thoroughly drenched in the rain. The hero, then, finds her in this pitiable condition (white saree and all and maybe after bashing up the miscreants!) and takes her home. She wakes up in his bed and, under the covers, finds that she has been undressed and is embarrassed whereupon the hero assures her that he had his eyes closed all the time. This, naturally, not only reassures her about her chastity but also about the hero’s noble nature and love is the natural result!

This theme, I think, is irrevocably dead for the following reasons:

1. If ever there existed a time when a girl could not recognize that her coke was adulterated to the extent that she polished it off this day is certainly not that time. If anything, a girl is likely to be sozzled because she ordered her liquor and not because of any miscreant adulterating her coke.

2. White sarees in this day and age!! And, heroines!! What would they have to do with so much yardage? If titillation was the need of the day, a micro-mini or a bikini can do the job, can’t it?

3. I never have managed to understand this thing of being reassured by the hero closing his eyes while undressing the heroine. If the hero were not noble, his reassurance would be worth nothing. If he were noble, I would be a lot more reassured if he could see what he was doing. This concept of a chastity that is limited to the eyes and not to do with his hands beats me and, I think, beats the film-makers of today as well!

4. I am afraid that if such an incident did happen in this sexually permissive age, the heroine would either question the hero’s virility or her own attractiveness..neither of which is conducive to the blossoming of love!

I am sure one can think of a lot more such cinematic formulae of the past that have ceased to exist. The above is not an exhaustive list and, if I do remember more, I shall put it up later.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Fun with ads

It is not that I don’t like ads. Given that my day passes in front of the TV, when I am not trekking, ads sort of force themselves on me. This, in effect, means that the only fodder for what passes for my brain are ads! For example, whenever I see that dispirin ad which says, “When you don’t have time for a headache, take a dispirin”, I am forced to think about what they do suggest when you actually have time for a headache!

This once I am not singling out ads that, for whatever illogical reason, struck me as not sensible. Sometimes the timing of the ads are more humorous than most stand-up comedians. There was this ad – HDFC insurance, if my memory serves me right – about a kid planning to be a cosmonaut and the dad saying that he would save money to allow her to become one. The ad ends with the kid saying, “Yeh achcha plan hai”. As ever, one had the shortened version (how one wishes that the zoozoo ads were also shortened in their re-runs!) which begins and ends with the kid’s statement. A channel once ran the unwanted 72 ad, which was the pregnancy avoidance pill, followed immediately by the kid saying, ‘Yeh achcha plan hai’!

With cricket stars featuring in ads that are run during matches, one always has a good chance of hilarious timing. Amongst the more hilarious was Dhoni getting out after a scratchy 5 of 21 balls (or so) during the ICC-T20 which was followed by the Aircel ad where he ends up saying, “Main ban gaya man of the match’!

A friend quipped cruelly that Dhoni used to be a cricketer who also models but has now turned a model who also plays cricket, thereby reducing him to the level of those charity matches played by film-stars! That, however, is the way of India with its cricketers. It seems as though we raise them to pinnacles merely to see how high they bounce when we drop them down!

Monday, June 22, 2009

More Ad Agonies

These days the ads are addressed to a clientele with an IQ far in excess of my own. Whether I have an unnaturally low IQ or whether the standards have gone up far beyond the levels achieved by my generation is a moot question.

Take for example the Pepsi ad where the young chap climbs over all sorts of junk including some clad in suits while repeatedly yelling “I can’t hear you’. When he issues his climactic yell of “I can’t hear you” with guitar in hand, I don’t know whether the audience was intended to get the message that the young prefer not to listen to the old. All I could think was that if Pepsi wanted to communicate the message that drinking Pepsi would render you deaf, this ad would do a fine job of it though it beats me as to why Pepsi should want to communicate such a message. There are enough people sending out messages about what they think are the deleterious effects of colas on various parts of the body so why should Pepsi be spending its ad budget on one more such message?

The Vodafone zoozoos absolutely beat me. I know I am in the minority here and it is quite likely because of my bias against those squeaky cartoon voices but these zoozoos really got on my nerves. Oh! The messages were simple enough but having seen them once, it seemed to be a real test of patience to wait through three cartoon characters troop in one after the other into a room and come out yelling in order for you to be told that beauty tips are available for a monthly price. Of course, with any ad, once the denouement is known the element of surprise is lost but you find it possible to sit through them simply because the faces and figures are beautiful enough to hold your attention. Whatever else one may claim for the zoozoos, beauty, I am sure, cannot be one of the claims – unless the eye of that beholder is seriously skewed! (Serious flak here, I suppose, since cute is next door to beauty and an amazing number of people found them cute!)

The ad for Maruti Estilo(?) was truly wonderful. If only my father had known that the reason why my school friends did not find me attractive was because he did not own a Maruti car! Where he would have gone for a Maruti car in an era of Ambassadors and Premier Padminis is not the point – it is merely the principle of the thing! The idea of solving childhood angst by throwing big cars at them can only strike a stupendously creative and socially aware mind! I have no doubt that all the people concerned with the ad went home and duly complained about the ‘pester power’ of their children!!

Having groused against one ad for being too complicated and another for having been too simple, you would hardly be surprised if a complaint against spreading social extravagance is followed by one against frugality! There is this Hamam ad where the mom sends her daughter out to buy soap. Since she didn’t tell her what soap to buy she gets anxious about her daughter’s entire future being spoilt because of her purchasing and using the wrong soap! I am a votary of frugality, all right, but this mom’s reluctance to throw the soap away - even though using it would, in her opinion, spoil her daughter’s entire personality and future – seemed like carrying frugality a bit too far.

From what I see from ads, I live in a world of women busily working at becoming fair by way of using ‘Fair and Lovely’ in order to attract men, who are on the hunt for ‘Fair and Handsome’ so that they can attract women! Deodorants, which are supposed to de-odor you i.e. rid your body of smell, are advertised for their fragrance which will – surprise, surprise – attract women to you. The entire fashion industry is in imminent danger of being run out of business. When you can attract women merely by brushing your teeth, why do you need all those fancy and expensive expedients? I have to log out now since I have to log in to ICICI Direct to short the entire gamut of fashion houses.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The Bandarpoonch Trek - Photos and Snippets

An article on the Bandarpoonch trek was carried by The Hindu in its Trichy edition, which I forgot to refer to in my earlier write-up. The URL is

You can readily see that the photograph in my earlier write-up is the same as the one carried here. Some more photographs of the Bandarpoonch trek are here. I am no photographer and all the photographs have been taken by other members of the trek group.

One keeps finding that one has not mentioned all that is there to convey about a trek. For example, the evening bridge sessions with Vinod, Chandru and Dr. Sunil were a part of the daily routine. The other three tried their best to play bridge despite my best efforts at disrupting the game! What with point counts, bidding conventions and calculated card play, Bridge seemed more like work than play to me but the others assure me that I can get to enjoy it. But, then, there are even people who enjoy working!

I also see that I made a passing mention of the fact that the Bridge quartet shared the tent with the girls. The effect on the girls of this arrangement bears mention. In fact, if you asked them about the trek the enjoyability quotient of this trek would probably drop drastically! What with four of the girls sharing their tents with their dads, you can readily understand why this tent emptied rapidly and the boys’ tent was filled to bursting for as long as possible!

The problem for the girls was the singing sessions between us after it was too late for them to be staying away. At least we called them that but, if you had asked them, they would have called them caterwauling sessions, unless they felt extremely charitable at the moment. The problem was not merely our selection of songs but also the fact that our very presence put a stopper on their own singing (or caterwauling) sessions.

We came in very handy, however, upon reaching the campsite and finding wet and dirty sleeping mats, thanks to the incessant snowfall. Of course dads don’t do all the work but they come in handy for the heavy duty lugging. Attempts at getting us to stuff in all of their sleeping bags into their respective covers came a cropper, however, after the first day. We may be foolish but we do learn from our mistakes!

All in all, it was not merely Nature that provided all the fun in the trek. Human nature did add to it!

Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Bandarpoonch trek

When the Pandavas were on their Vanvas, after losing the dice game, a kalyana saugandhika flower drifted down to their ashram. The enchanting smell of the flower captivated Draupadi. Arjun was away in his quest for celestial weapons and, thus, Draupadi sought the help of Bhim to get her more of these lovely flowers. On his way to find these flowers Bhim came across an aged monkey which was lying down with its tail across the way. Bhim arrogantly asked the monkey to move its tail out of the way whereupon the monkey asked him to remove the tail and proceed. In the full pride of his strength Bhim tried to push the tail out of his way and found that his full strength proved unequal to the task of even budging it by an inch. Realising that the monkey was the Hanuman of legend, Bhim prostrated himself. Hanuman directed Bhim to the flowers and blessed him with victory in the war to come against the Kauravas. The Bandarpoonch Mountain is named after the tail of Hanuman. The Bandarpoonch glacier feeds water to the Yamuna as well as the Ganga. This year’s Himalayan trek was to the foot of the Bandarpoonch mountain.

Sweltering as I am in the heat of Delhi it is difficult to believe that I was shivering with cold under mounds of woolen garments not more than a week back. I have been on Himalayan treks twice before but this was the first time that weather played such an important part in the trekking experience. But I am getting ahead of my tale.

After a jeep ride to Barsu, the trek started in a rather sedate fashion to Barnala Tal (9700 ft high for the statistically minded!). The walk through Rhododendron forests and mild slopes was very pleasant and not too tiring and, almost before we got into the full swing of things we were at the campsite at Barnala Tal. The rains, apparently, had been in abeyance in the hills and the lake was almost non-existent. Mild showers in the evening, however, presaged things to come but, thankfully, we did not realize what was in store for us going forth.

The trek to Dayara Buggial (11500 ft) the next day was not much more tiring. The trek up hills and through verdant valleys was invigorating. The sprawling grassland that is named the Dayara Buggial is apparently a skier’s paradise comes winter. The campsite offered a view of Kala Nag, (20,850 feet), Bandar Poonch (20,640 feet) on one side and Srikantha, Jogin I and III, Gangotri I, II and III and Janoli on the other. This, indeed, is the pleasure of a Himalayan Trek to see hills and majestic ice-clad mountains surround you while you stand in verdant grassland that seems to extend into the far horizon.

The evening brought a not very welcome surprise. A wind started up and it started raining with a bit of hail thrown in. The dorm tent which housed the boys blew open and there was a sudden flurry of activity saving the luggage and setting right the tents. We (Vinod, Chandru, Dr. Sunil and I) were staying in the girls’ tent and Vinod set about securing the tent with stones with the bumbling assistance of yours truly. Soon all the weather-proof clothing and woolens were out and the bunch of trekkers had converted themselves into good imitations of colorful polar bears.

The next day, a designated rest day, dawned bright and sunny and we took a small walk to a place called Dev Kund. A panoramic view of the valley bordered by the majestic white peaks captivated the eyes. Our guides pointed out the Dodi Tal and the route to Hanuman Chatti – the latter being the route to Yamunotri. Our current trek would take us nowhere near either of these points though Dodi Tal does figure largely on other treks. Vinod and I, the designated water buffalos of the group, bathed ourselves in the water of Dev Kund, though we were barred from wallowing in the water since it was the source of drinking water for people who frequented the area. Little did we realize that this was the last bath anyone would take till the end of the trek.

It snowed heavily in the afternoon and, soon, a full-fledged snow-fight was in progress with everyone pelting everyone else. The entire grassland was speckled with snow even the Kala Nag was converted into a Safed Nag by the time the snowfall ended. The entire view that surrounded us had transformed itself with the brown of the nearby hills cloaked in a diaphanous white. One of the joys of trekking is this ever-changing enchantment with which nature enraptures you. The problem, however, was that it was so cold that we beat a hasty retreat to our tents and the cozy confines of our sleeping bags.

The trek for the next day was cancelled because the snowfall had coated rocks with treacherous ice. We spent the day watching the grazing sheep and the efficient sheepdogs which guarded them. Photographers went berserk filming the iridescent green of the grasslands which were looking at their best after their bath in snow. A cute newborn mare foal was another of the attractions of the day. Another bout of snow drove us back into the tents. A few more days like this and we would seriously bemoan having shed our fur in the long gone evolutionary past! Things were not helped by the snow continuing into the night with all of us shivering in out tents worrying about the tent getting blown off in the middle of the night leaving us lying out in the blizzard.

The next day we did set off for our next campsite at Lamda. It was a tough day’s trek up and down steep slopes. We had to cross a couple of snow patches with nothing between us and a steep slide down the mountainside but the grip of our shoes and the ever-helpful guides who stood between us and the precipitous slides. At the end of a tiring day, we ended up at the 12500 ft high Lamda.

The next day’s trek to Gidara Buggial was more of the same with the lot of us slipping and slithering on snow patches and panting up steep slopes. After five hours or so of trekking we ended up at a point where the way forward was a near 1000 ft steep descent covered entirely with snow. The very idea of descending down this slippery slope had our hearts in our mouths. The idea, however, was to glissade down this way.

This word glissade could well give rise to the idea of a lissome figure sashaying down the slope gracefully on a pair of skis. Nothing could be farther from the truth of what we did do there. We just squatted down on the snow and slid all the way down using our hands and feet to brake ourselves. It was an exhilarating experience though we did end up in a wild tangle of hands and legs at the end of the ‘glissade’! At the end of this fun we still had to climb up a tortuous slope and then stroll down a valley to reach the campsite at Gidara Buggial.

The Gidara Buggial provided some of the best views in the entire trek. Picture yourself standing in an enormous grassland carpeted with tiny blue and yellow flowers. Just in front of you is a burbling stream and on the other bank rears a brown mountain with a huge snow bank from the top to the bottom. Behind you is another brown mountain speckled with white and to its left is a grey massif which looks luminescent and glistens like a giant grey pearl. To your left, you can see snow-clad peaks shimmering like fairy castles in the light of a sun that is hidden behind the peaks. The entire view was so ethereal that you found it difficult to believe that it was real.

With a full moon in all its glory, the night provided a different charm. The entire area appeared stage-lit and, since the light was not too intrusive, the entire landscape was thrown into relief. What the view lost in ethereality it gained in majesty and one could find no words for what one saw and was reduced to wordless ejaculations. I, however, will be the first to admit that Vinod sort of over-did it with one wordless ejaculation per degree of the compass!

We spent a couple of days at Gidara Buggial. Snow, apparently, had taken a particular liking for our bunch and it had followed us here as well. With the weather the way it was, the decision was to abbreviate the trek. We were to trek to a place called Gujjar Hut (one of the many in the Himalayas) and from there to Gangnani, which is back in civilization. The hot springs there were certainly an attraction to the shivering bunch of trekkers who had already started dreaming of the comfortable warmth of Chennai!

The trek down to Gujjar Hut will live in my memory for long. After a conventional beginning it turned into an extremely strenuous but invigorating experience. We were to descend down through Oaks and Pine. A descent is normally a testing experience but when one adds a snow blizzard to the mix it turns out into an extremely exhilarating experience. Snow was sleeting down as we were making the descent. The sight of a snow blizzard falling down into green valleys is so beautiful that it is difficult to find words to describe how lovely it looks. The problem is that if you start taking in the view your feet start slipping right off the ground and you suddenly find your vision filled with stars! The entire trip was a mix of this beauty and the difficulty of trekking on the snow under your feet. All in all, one of the days that made me feel great about having taken up trekking!

The last day of the trek provided another of those lovely panoramas within an hour. The stunning 270 degree view with the grand snow-clad peaks in front, brown massifs on both sides, oaks and pines on either side and flowery grassland underfoot stopped us in our tracks and we spent nearly half an hour drinking in the view. The day degenerated from then on with pelting rains keeping us slipping and slithering all the way to Gangnani where a waterlogged campsite greeted us at the end of a seven hour trek. This was too much to bear for the tired group which took recourse to a hotel there, signaling the de facto end of the trek. After a dip in the hot water springs there we lost no time in converting the hotel into a Dhobi Ghat with all sorts of apparel strung all over the balcony and footwear spreading their fragrance after their long over-use.

I have, hitherto, not attempted to put down my Himalayan trekking experiences primarily because it requires far abler pens than mine to capture them in words. How does one adequately describe the hurt that you feel when you have to step on those lovely tiny flowers that quietly beautify those grasslands? What do you name the fullness of the heart that you feel when you see the jungle fox (which looked like an over-sized Malabar squirrel) spurt across the path and vanish into the bushes? How does one communicate the beauty of that copybook Christmas tree clinging to a rock? Down in the plains it feels ridiculous to mention the sense of peace and belonging that you feel when in the laps of the mountains or the pride that you feel in being a part of all that indescribable beauty. You only tend to over-use words like enchanting, panoramic et al and feel foolish at not being able to do any better.

Even the more human aspects of the trek are difficult to describe. The camaraderie that you feel when you pant up those slopes; the shared fears of walking across snow or ‘glissading’ down snow banks; the common reluctance to walk out into the cold to have a dinner that doesn’t appeal merely because it will be too cold before you finish it and the in-jokes that do not sound as funny when you are back in your work-a-day world.

Be that as it may, I am back in civilization and back to looking forward to the next Himalayan trek!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Of Choices

I still remember a science fiction story that struck a chord in me way back in the past. The hero lives in a huge mansion and works for only one day a week with all the other days given over to amusement. Being low on the social totem pole, he mopes around all day dreaming about a future when he would have risen far enough in society to be able to live in a cozy one room flat and work for six days a week!

A somewhat similar story is one of Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer adventures. Tom is punished with having to whitewash the fence. While he is at it his friends come around and jeer at him. Tom claims that his job is important and cannot be entrusted to anyone who cannot do it with the competence and efficiency that he himself can bring to it. The net result of his reluctance to hand over the job to anyone is that all the boys in the village end up bribing him for the privilege of whitewashing the fence. The tale ends with ‘…if he had not run out of whitewash, he would have bankrupted every boy in the village’.

In both the above tales we find people aspiring to do things merely because they are hard to get and valued by society. Makes you think about the choices you make and how far these choices are driven by your innate needs and how much by your own perception of what is valued by society. The idea of making personal sacrifices – be it time, effort or money – in order to gain the approbation of others, who, in their turn, are similarly engaged in gaining your approbation seems funny but that does seem to be the reality that we live in now.

We do not know whether we, in isolation, choose the lifestyles that we feel that we have to live of whether we do it because that is the way all our peers live. We sacrifice time to earn the wherewithal to lead the lifestyle that we have apparently chosen but earning money acquires a life of its own and, so, we earn far in excess of what we can spend even at these lifestyles. The one thing that we appear to value the least is the one thing that we have very little of – Time! Oh! Yes! We do keep bemoaning the lack of time to do all that we have to do but, as is evident, we have made our choices of what we will do without taking into account the value of the time we are dribbling away in doing it. If you truly valued time you would decide on what you want to do with your time and then balance the need to earn money with the need to use time to suit yourself.

Not everyone in this vale of tears is in a position to make the choice. The basic needs need no peer pressure to enforce satisfaction and he who is yet to assure himself of his basic requirements leads a life of little choice. Poverty steals life in more ways than one and one of the insidious ways in which it does it is by denying a person free use of his time. To be in a position to choose the use of one’s time and to not exercise it is to lead a life of poverty when not required to do so and what can be more stupid than that?

If, indeed, you prefer living in a cozy one room flat and work six days a week do so if that is what you want to do. If your idea of fun is to whitewash a fence all day who am I to criticize it? If, however, you do either because of peer pressure or, worse still, due to mere force of habit then it shows more than mere material poverty. It is a poverty of imagination that beggars description.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

A Life chasing Lollipops

Life has become too complicated these days for poor old me. What with PINs, T-PINs, credit card numbers, usernames and passwords for various websites not to mention my passport number, PAN number and voter identification number, I wake up every day screaming from nightmares about drowning in an alpha-numeric soup. Then I read articles about how simple life has become these days, how convenient is modern banking and shopping etc. etc., which leaves me wondering about what I am missing..or is it what is missing in me?

I do understand that life is quite great for the youth of today. You can put on the desired personality with the clothing you wear, you can slide into the right attitude in the vehicle you use and you can pour charisma out of the perfume bottle. Why, you can even squeeze your destiny out of a face cream tube! The joie de vivre that you could pour down the hatch and the courage you could puff into yourself have, of course, fallen prey to the moralists!

Time was when people used to sell goods based on how well they serve the primary purpose that they intended to serve. People bought clothes primarily for covering themselves either against observation or against the weather and bought vehicles primarily for transportation. Ever since the concept of "Dont sell the steak, sell the sizzle' caught on, one sees only the sizzle advertised. In fact, I believe, that on most occasions, people only buy the sizzle..the steak is an unnecessary addition! After all, in the case of fashion, the bulk of the price is paid for the label and not the contents! Either most of us actually believe that personality traits are actually acquired along with possessions or the entire advertising community has got its sums wrong. In any case, it is smooth sailing for the current generation as far as acquiring personality is easier to buy it from your neighbourhood shop than the hard grind that we were taught to go through!

In other directions, however, life has become more complex. Take the case of money. Initially, you had to go around trying to figure out how many bushels of rice equalled how many yards of clothing. Someone invented money and, presto, you found that doing sums had become easy. A piece of paper in your hands reflected either so much cereals or so much cloth or so much meat or what have you. You sank your money into business and then issued shares. The share represented so much money which in turn represented so much property in the business. Did we stop there? We evolved what are called Mutual Funds, which represented so many shares in so many companies which in turn represented so much money which in turn represented so much actual goods in the business. Feeling a shade dizzy? It does not stop there..we parallelly devised what are called futures, which represented so many shares at a future date which represented..well, you get the picture! Then you have Mutuals Funds dealing in futures, you may have futures of Mutual Funds dealing in futures etc. etc. ad nauseum! To think that we started this whole rigmarole with a view to simplifying transactions. (And I have not even started talking about multiple currencies, currency futures, swaps, forward covers etc!)

Somewhere in this whole maze something catches a cold and, then you have what they call a recession.The entire house of cards comes tumbling down. You rush to your friendly neighbourhood Mutual Fund salesman (Oh! You are too fly to put your money in stocks. They are too risky!) and he talks to you about market cycles, which sort of slides over your head. He then adds, sagely, something about the stock market being a zero sum game from which you understand, possibly correctly, that what he means is that the sum of the value of your investments is zero. He then adds, chirpily, that what you lose on the swings you gain on the roundabouts. You feel a bit cheered but, in retrospect, it appears that the fairground of your life is exclusively equipped with swings.

Somewhere in the middle of this maze there must, theoretically, be some people who actually add to the goods and services which the money and that entire superstructure actually represents. If you start thinking about the fact that the people manning the superstructure actually hog most of the money while the poor sods creating the value behind the money probably go hungry, you tend to feel like picking up yon red flag and wave in the rivers of blood..till a cautious voice whispers in your ear that you, too, are one of those manning the superstructure! (Ah! The red flag would probably have waved in a different type of parasite into the positions currently occupied by the likes of me!)

Let us leave morbid reflections behind and go on to areas where life has become simpler! It has become particularly simple for children. I still remember wondering about what I wanted to become..Engine Driver topped the list (Sheer glamour!) but then maybe a Doctor (for the sheer pleasure of administering injections to others!) or maybe a scientist or, perhaps a freedom fighter (an ambition died still-born due to the unfortunate premature exit of the British!)! Things were a bit too confusing with the multiplicity of options. Thankfully, an engineer meant nothing concrete, a lawyer still less and the Computer Engineer had not been invented yet! Things are much simpler now. It is so much easier to answer the question 'What do you want to become?'. The answer is 'Rich!’ All it has required is a small shift in ambition..from what you want to do to what you want to have! After all, if you are rich you can put on your personality with your clothing, you can slide into the right attitude with the vehicle you use and you can pour charisma out of a bottle!

I remember a precocious cousin of mine who replied 'Rich!' to this question back then. The reason was that he could then have an unlimited supply of lollipops! Things haven’t changed very much after all. All of us are working day and night for our own lollipops, are we not?