Monday, May 25, 2015

Open Letters

As in most things in life, I had a very mistaken impression about these 'Open Letters'. (Yeah! I know - You think I am the world's leading exponent of misunderstanding everything. But, then, I do not persist in hugging those impressions to my chest nor do I refuse to let go of them, no matter what evidence I see to the contrary). You see, whenever I saw that someone wrote an 'Open Letter' to someone else, I used to be awed by that person - not only was he in correspondence with exalted people but he was also so important that the world would be interested in what he had to say to that other person.

Much later, it dawned on me that these 'Open Letters' were written precisely because any private letters by the said person would not even get past the secretary to the third secretary to the Executive Assistant of the person to whom they are purportedly addressed. I use the word 'purportedly', advisedly. It is the world at large to whom the message is directed and the 'Open Letter' is less TO the addressee and more ABOUT him. Quite naturally, it is very seldom laudatory - after all, when is the last time you ever heard anybody praise anybody else in public (other than, of course, 'dear Rocky who, from the time I gave birth to him, showed that he started from where Einstein left off')? If you did, quickly apply for the 'Guinness Book of World Records'. AND do not get misled by the fact that the letter may start being laudatory - there is always a 'but' lurking around the corner.

Whether or not YOU are an important person may or may not be relevant to the popularity of your 'Open Letter'. What is important is that the addressee of your 'open letter' HAS to be important. There is no point in writing an open letter like

Dear Padoswali Daiyan,

Do you think that throwing your garbage over the wall transports it miraculously to the municipal waste dump, instead of into my backyard? Or do you think that what you can do, I cannot do better? Next time you throw the garbage, I will show that I can generate and throw four times the garbage, six times a day onto your flower-bed.

With a million curses on your sewage-filled head.

Your irate padosi.

THIS may certainly ease your wrath-filled heart but if you expect people to queue up to read it, you have a far more active imagination that I have ever seen before.

On the other hand, though, you could write a letter like this

Dear Arvind Kejriwal,

I see that you are taking strong steps to ensure that you are in charge of the government of Delhi. In pursuit of ensuring that the LG does not keep interfering with your governance, I am sure that you shall also take strict action against the person who typed the order for acting Chief Secretary as well as the attender who delivered the orders. No doubt you have already ensured that the air is let out of their two-wheeler tires and you shall, further, hold a meeting in the slums of Govindpuri to tell the world about how the duo conspired in the past to ensure that the infrastructure of Delhi came to an absolute standstill. Of course, nobody can question you on why no action was taken WHEN they so conspired (we all understand that).

Concerned Citizen

Now THAT has the potential to draw people like flies to honey. All the more if there is controversy about it. After all, YOU may have intended only to say that the vendetta against the bureaucrats, who may have only been carrying out orders, seems illogical OR going public with accusations and allegations about your officers is immature BUT if you think that THAT is what people will understand, you have no business writing 'open letters'. There will be people who will call you a candle-bearer of the corrupt, people who will explain the constitution to you and decry your siding with the LG, people who will just call you a BJP- chamcha OR a AK-basher - in short, there will be a lot of people who have the ability to make the 'open letter' go viral.

See what I mean? A successful 'Open Letter' has to (a) be written to an important person (b) should be provocative enough to get people to call you names, (c) should be timely - you can hardly expect anyone to read a 'open letter' to Indira Gandhi about the imposition of the Emergency and share the glad news with family, friends and facebook friends, and (d) gather at least a few who will abuse those who abuse you. (Have you not heard? It takes two to tango and, unless there are people shouting from your side of the fence, how can you get a good yelling match going? Without that, how will the letter traverse the length and breadth of the Internet?)

There you are - I am quite the expert at getting publicity for 'open letters', aren't I? What can I do - I had to gain the expertise. Nobody - family or friends - bothers to read my private mail, so I am reduced to communicating through 'open letters' OR to use the Facebook equivalent - Status Messages - to communicate. Though, to be sure, both these options ensure that everyone, except the addressee, reads the message so I do not know what help they are.

If someone somewhere has written a post on 'How to get private messages read', please let me know. I will write an 'open letter' thanking you for it. AND you can get into the Guinness as the first person to have been the addressee of a laudatory 'open letter'!

There - THAT's an offer you cannot refuse!

(A post by the hilarious Debajyoti Ghosh was the inspiration for this post and I may have even been guilty of filching a few of his ideas)

Monday, May 18, 2015

Words of Importance - Learning Curve

I am sure you must have experienced this. There are those times when a word keeps jumping up at you. You hear it from one friend and, then, it pops up in an email, screams from a news article and thumbs its nose at you from a hoarding. Well, recently, it seemed as though some divine commandment had gone out to everyone - "Thou shalt slip in the phrase 'learning curve' if you happen to be in the vicinity of Suresh". The damned phrase made itself so ubiquitous that I had to write about it.

In my youth (Yup! Long gone! I think I have told that many times before, so it is not like I am masquerading as a young man like the cine-stars of my times were wont to do), this phrase was actually used to describe a concept. The curve used to act like a plane taking off - taxiing, a tentative ascent,  a steep ascent tapering off till it became a straight line almost parallel to the ground. (X-Axis? What is that?) Apparently, when you start off learning any new thing, you start off with slow learning, then your incremental gains in knowledge are very high; the quantum of fresh learning keeps decreasing as you learn more and more, till you reach a point where you learn nothing new in that area. THAT, apparently, was the learning curve and people, especially those who loved jargon, used to talk of where you were on the learning curve.

For me, they not only had made the curve steep, they seemed to have greased it as well. Every time I tried going up the damn thing, I only found myself slipping further back than my starting point. (You disagree? You think that when I start off knowing nothing, how could I possibly slip further back? Shows how little you know. There is a difference between starting off knowing nothing while thinking you can learn and starting off knowing nothing and despairing of ever being able to learn. You would, of course, say that the latter is an improvement in my case since I had, at least, rid myself of the illusion that I could learn) They had ensured that they catered to people like me as well. The learning curve was not something that they conceived of with regard to the subject alone. They conceived of it in the context of the subject AND the learner, which meant that there was a different learning curve for each student-subject combination. So, I was the sort who plateaued on the learning curve even before I started (on any subject, you say? Well, my teachers said so, too) and there could be others who were always on the ascending arc provided the subject was deep enough. In other words, the point beyond which no further learning could happen depended on the depth of the subject AND the ability of the learner.

So far, so good. In my youth, therefore, the point was about how much you knew AND where you were on the learning curve. If you knew scant little and had hit the plateau, you were looked down upon whereas if you knew scant little but are ascending, you were encouraged. If you knew a lot and had plateaued, you were respected AND if you knew a lot and were still ascending, you were looked upon with awe. (Something like the difference between your high school physics teacher and Stephen Hawking). Of course this left me among the lowest of the low - competing with snails and other such beings known for their extraordinary disdain for intelligence.

Which is why I am all for the fact that this phrase has been adopted by everyone now. Since boys will be boys, they love even their learning with curves on, and, I suppose, that the girls are merely humoring the boys by adding it on to the learning. So, everyone and his aunt seem to be using 'learning curve' when they merely mean to say that someone is still learning. Since they have conveniently dropped all ideas of mentioning WHERE on the learning curve a person is, it works out wonderfully for me.

What does it matter if everyone else is on the ascending arc of their learning curves while I am stuck on a plateau pretty close to the ground (X-Axis? Will you stop heckling?). I am on the learning curve like everyone else is. Yippeeee!

Monday, May 11, 2015

Trek to Chandrashila Peak

There is an old joke from my youth about a Russian, an American and an Indian.

Russian: We have submarines that go down to the sea-floor.
Indian  : All the way to the sea-floor?
Russian: No, just a shade above.

American : That's nothing. We have airplanes that touch the sky.
Indian  : Really?
American : No, just a shade below.

Indian : What are these achievements compared to ours. We eat with our noses.
American and Russian : With your noses?
Indian : No. Just a shade below.

That, in short, seems to be the tale of my treks these days. I trekked to Chandrashila Peak. Well, no, just a shade below!

But I am getting ahead of myself.

* * *
The trek got off to a totally 'auspicious' start for me. Hitherto, I had made it a habit of falling a couple of times while on trek. This time, I managed to do it in the bathroom the night before I was to take the train to Haridwar, which was the first step of the trek. I walk into the bathroom, turn left and the next thing I know, my feet are in the air, my fundament lands with a thud on the ground and a cracking noise behind me heralds the fact that a bucket has met an untimely demise. Good for me, since the absence of the bucket could have meant cracking my head on the wall though, of course, the bucket would have had different ideas (like Dhoni?) about which alternative was preferable.

The net result was that I boarded the train the next day with a strained lower back, hoping that it would cure itself over the day. Ah! The illusions of youth do not vanish even if youth itself has deserted you for a decade or so. Though, to be sure, sitting in a train seat for five hours and, then, following it up with a ten hour road journey from Haridwar to Sari the next day was not exactly what a doctor would have ordered to treat the problem.

The first day of the trek was from Sari to Deoria Tal (By the way, trekking to Chandrashila peak can be done by hitting Chopta by road and trekking from there to Chandrashila and back. The intrepid trekker would probably consider it a good morning walk, maybe. It probably could have been done in 4-5 hours by the fitter guys that way. Our trek had been organised as a five day affair, starting from Sari and ending in Chopta). The group of 13 was a very congenial lot. Vinod, his wife Malini and daughter Deeksha I knew from before and the fact that I was on the trek was thanks to Vinod. (The same Vinod, whom perusers of these chronicles would know as the guy who was hunting for his Rudraksh while I was busily drowning in "Swimming like a stone") We had Guruprasad, Mahesh and Ashwini, as well as Swati from Bangalore other than myself; Deepak from Delhi; Suma from Vizag; Kiran, Asmita and Anjana from Rajkot. The trek guide was Rasesh, better known as Baba for his absolute resemblance to Baba Ramdev that it almost seemed a pity that he did not have a tic in his eye.

The first day's trek up to Deoria Tal was the proverbial walk in the park. Provided, of course, you thought of the park as ascending all the way. We took three and a half hours to walk what was, probably, an ascent worth an hour and a half, but then it was not exactly like we were on some race to reach the finish.

It has been my experience, as indeed must be the case with most of you, that places that look lovely in pictures are nothing like that when you actually eye-ball them. You sometimes wonder whether tourist spots are also enhanced digitally and made up to look better than they are, like your cinema idols. Deoria Tal was nothing like that. The place looked as lovely in reality as it was in the pics. And, of course, you can never ever get the full impact of the beauty of a place, the harmony and serenity of its ambiance, from pics. You have to be there!

We took a walk around the lake. Vinod had, these days, stopped hunting for his Rudraksh, and started hunting for birds. The sheer variety of lovely birds that we sighted (Nope! Not like in Chilika where the horizon was literally awash in birds. Here the birds are comparatively few and far between but of various kinds) was amazing (and the sight of the flock of birds taking turns to bathe in the lake and drying off still lingers in my mind). Mahesh, though, was moping about the weather. Intrepid photographer that he was, the clouds obscuring the distant snow-peaks were a source of disappointment to him. Luckily for him, the next day morning dawned with clear skies and he was like a child let loose in a sweet-shop.

When the rest vanished into their tents for a siesta, I realized the first problem with that sore back of mine. Bending, squatting and other such exercises seemed to set the back on fire and, if there was a way to get into a tent without doing all this, no-one had invented it yet. True that it would inevitably have to be done at night but I preferred doing it as little as possible. So, off I went on a solitary walk around the lake again.

Oh, did I forget to say, that my manly admission to snoring when asleep had set off such a scramble for other tents that I had a three-man tent all to myself. Congratulating myself for the unexpected bonuses of 'sound' sleeping, I sprawled in my tent looking forward to a good night's sleep - only to find that the cacophony of snores from all the other tents kept me awake half the night.

The next day was a longer trek to Rohini Bugyal. Through forests, and involving ascending and descending, it was a pleasant though testing trek. There was a time when a trek like this would have hardly counted as testing but then there was a time when I could do a lot more things with greater ease. The lack of water sources on the way was a bit of a problem though especially considering that I sweat enough for people to mistake me for a water source. We had packed lunch en route in a small meadow and went on to hit Rohini Bugyal about six hours from the time we set out. (I suppose it should not have taken more than three hours or so but then, as I keep repeating, this was no race against time to save the world.)

Again! This is one trek that stands out for its camping spots - each one picture perfect and, surprisingly, an improvement even over the lovely pics of the spot. Meadows in the Himalayas always have a special place in my heart. The tiny flowers littering the landscape, the vistas of green, the forests, the brown peaks and the distant majesty of snow-clad mountains - these are all visions that you need to be in the middle of to appreciate the feeling.

A fox ran down the sloping meadow and we just caught its tail disappearing. Vinod went after it, his red jacket flashing down the slope. We lost sight of him for so long that we were seriously expecting the fox to come trotting out, clad in a red jacket, when he came trudging up the slope. No, he could not find the fox.

The next day, as we were brushing our teeth (and curbing the urge to check the foam that we spit out for any teeth that had fallen out due to the coldness of the water) when the fox trotted in front of us and ran down the slope. As luck would have it, it was the time when Vinod was doing his own imitation of animals (as has been mentioned in other trekking chronicles, his morning Kriya included cawing like a raven and hissing like a snake) and, thus, missed the fox, again. It was but sheer bad luck for, given time, our resident animal-lovers - Swati and Mahesh - would probably have tamed it and had it answering to 'Kutti' or some such name, thereby ensuring that Vinod had a good look at it. As it happened, though, we had to start on the day's trek to Bhrujgali.

Back again on the trails through the forests towards Bhrujgali. En route there was this lovely waterfall leading off into a stream. For Vinod and I, the eternal water babies, it was off with the outer-wear and into the water in a jiffy. How refreshing it can be to dunk yourself in a cold pool, when you are hot and sweaty, cannot be told. Though, yes, in the Himalayas, it does help if you have the skin of a buffalo. Swati, enthused by our antics, washed her head and hair in the water. Once her scalp thawed out, she did admit that she found it refreshing but till then...

Onwards again through the forests. The pace was nice and easy, as usual, so there was a lot of time (and, more importantly, breath) for banter. The trek, though, was the up and down as was the day before and, thus, you ended up doing a lot more climbing than the eventual altitude gain would warrant.

There was a twist in the tale, though, on this day's trek. The clouds that had threatened all along opened up and it started raining. Within five minutes or so, the rain became a heavy snowfall. If you thought that we spread out our hands, turned up our faces with beatific smiles and went around singing "Yeh haseen waadiyan....", you must be allowing your movies to do your thinking for you. When snow pelts down, you do not feel romantic. You feel more like Goliath when David is slinging stones at him. All you want to do is to reach shelter before he picks a big enough stone to brain you with. Luckily, we were near our campsite and rushed into the dinner tent and huddled in our wet clothes.

The brief sight of Bhrujgali that we got was about the possibility of a green meadow again but, by the time the snowfall paused a couple of hours down the line, this was the sight that met our eyes. The pic below is my tent with Rasesh contributing the totem pole made of ice.

A 4 AM start is not one of my favorite ideas but, on treks, there are times when you just cannot avoid it. The heavy snowfall had made it necessary to make an early start and complete the trek before the heat converted the snow to slush, and made it impossible to know if your next step would be merely that or a slide into oblivion. We were equipped with gaiters and crampons but, as in everything in life, there are no unmixed blessings. Crampons would ensure great footing on ice and snow but would be a positive menace on rock, since the spikes could catch on projections and ensure that you tumbled down the mountainside instead of merely stepping down.

For once, the trek was unrelieved ascent and, for the first time, my back acted up while on the trek. It was possibly the cold or possibly the unrelenting pressure of climbing or, perhaps, the fact that I had perforce stayed on my feet all day during the previous three days to avoid the pain of squatting down and standing up. Anyway, I made heavy weather of the climb up to Tung Nath temple - a Shiva temple counted among the PanchKedar temples, purportedly set up by the Pandava Arjun and the highest temple. The last stretch was a real tester. My first step sank me knee-deep in snow and, as anyone who has been in that position knows, pulling the leg out places a lot of pressure on the back. With every other step sinking in snow, shooting pains through my leg made me realize that I could not really trek much longer in this sort of terrain.

I reached the temple, where Vinod was in an ecstasy of grace. I checked with Ashish, the tour guide other than Rasesh, who said that the ascent to Chandrashila would likely be as bad in terms of having to wade through snow. I decided to stop right there. Guruprasad, Deeksha and Kiran decided to truncate their trek there as well. (Did I fail to mention? Deepak strained a knee near the beginning of the day's trek and dropped off.) The rest went on while we stopped off at the tea-shop, which had opened for business just before that last ascent.

One of the pleasures of trekking in Uttaranchal is the friendliness of the local people. Amit Rana and Arvind Kumar, who were running the tea-shop were all courtesy. While the others trekked up the mountain, this duo entertained us with an impromptu snowman construction. The pains they took over making it - collecting moss for the hair, ice spicules for horns, running up and down the slopes like goats - was a treat to watch. The three hours that we waited there passed in a jiffy and, when the others came in screaming and laughing with the joy of sliding down the mountain, Amit refused to take money for the teas we drank and had to be forced to accept payment.

Considering the possibility of snowfall again, Rasesh decided that it was best to descend to Chopta the same day instead of doing it the next day as scheduled. The half an hour descent was truly a walk in the park - the slope being gentle enough to not test the knees and ankles too much.

It is always the case that the journey back is anticlimactic and there are withdrawal symptoms. Especially when you have been in congenial company, it is also imbued with the sadness of parting.

But, then, there is always another trek and another journey into the majesty of the mountains.

Photo-Credits : Swati, Mahesh or Deepak. (Need I say it - none are by me)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Panchatantra with a twist: The Bird and the Monkeys

When winter came to the mountain, the gang of monkeys were unable to bear the cold. They collected the wild red berries, thinking they were embers, and blew air at them to make a fire that would warm them. A bird, Suchimukha, told them that they were foolishly blowing air at berries and should, instead, look for shelter in a cave. The monkeys rudely asked him not to interfere in their affairs. The bird persisted in trying to get them to take his advice. Incensed, the monkeys bashed him against a rock and killed him.

* * *
You see, there are instances where the lack of a management experience really shows. Most people tend to see this story as a warning against giving unsolicited advice but, to me, it shines through as a story that tells you that, sometimes, management experience can, literally, be a life-saver.

Let us see how this would have panned out if Suchimukha had management experience. To be sure, if he really had management experience, he would never give out advice gratis. In the current circumstances, of his being the outsider, he would necessarily have to be a management consultant being paid a hefty fee for his advice and with the mandate to deliver this gang of monkeys alive and kicking at the end of winter. (Why would anyone WANT an alive and kicking gang of monkeys, you ask? Check with any management consultant and you will find that they have been heftily paid to deliver more useless things than a live gang of monkeys)

"What are you guys doing, may I ask?" Suchimukha asked.

"What is it to you? That is none of your business." snapped the elderly head of the gang of monkeys.

"You are a bunch of wise people. This winter is really killing and I need to survive it somehow. I just thought that, maybe, you could give me a few tips on surviving it."

"You stupid fool! Just pick a few of those embers, there and blow on it. You will have a fire to keep yourself warm."

"Embers? What.."

"Are you blind? These red things, here. Don't touch them. You get your own from over there."

Suchimukha looks and sees wild red berries. A mocking look almost rises to his face but he curbs it. He was not a management consultant for nothing. If the client calls a berry an ember, it HAD to be an ember throughout the interaction. Polonius had nothing on him when it came to agreeing with clients.

"Yes! I see. What a great idea. Thank you."

"That's alright. Now go get them for yourself." said the monkey grudgingly.

"You are very wise. This idea with embers is really fantastic. May I share something which may make this even better? I have traveled to various places and have seen how humans handle embers."

"So, what is it?"

Behind the grudging growl, Suchimukha heard keen interest. THAT was always a good hook. Tell the client that it is your idea and he would look you up and down, and tell you to stuff it where it was anatomically painful, if not impossible, to do so. Tell the client that you have some inside knowledge of how people, whom he respects, work and it was bound to evoke interest.

"Well! They use these embers inside houses or caves. Possibly the wind does not allow the embers to flame up outside. Inside, they seem to, at least, make you warm even if they do not create a fire."

"I think, maybe, we should try it in that cave yonder." said the head monkey to the rest.

Suchimukha flew away, laughing to himself at the sight of the monkeys industriously blowing on the berries inside the cave. The only way to get people to do what YOU want them to do is to make them think that they are doing what THEY want to do.

Mission accomplished!