Sunday, July 31, 2016

The Great Kashmir Lakes trek - II

There is nothing that frightens me more than to go on a trek and have people exclaim, 'Oh! You are a veteran trekker!" Somehow, human beings seem wired to try to live up to the billing. What with finding balancing myself more difficult than standing an egg on its edge and with blowing like a bellows from the very first step on an incline, I cut a pretty sorry picture of a 'veteran trekker' and the unsightly blush that covers my face, due to all that slipping, slithering and blowing, is really no help. So, you can understand how I felt when I got accosted as a 'You are one of the tough trekkers' by Arpita. Veteran was bad enough...tough?? What would I have to do to live up to that?

After napping for four hours, holding in nausea for the next 3 hours till we hit the base camp, breaking fast on the food arranged by Dushyant - who was the local India Hikes coordinator - and hooking up with Vaisakh and his team, who would guide us on the trek, we were off. I, as usual, was doing my celebrated imitation of a steam engine right from the start but THAT was no help to the others, since they had to ascend on their own steam.

Weather plays such an important role in making a trek easy or difficult. With a drizzle going, the path had turned to slush and we were slipping half a foot for every foot climbed. On a more than usually slippery turn, Vinod slipped and, in trying to break his fall, dislocated his shoulder. The joint was pushed back in but the pain was so intense that he had to carry it in a sling. So, back he went...or THAT would have been the result with anyone else. Vinod?? Forget dropping out of the trek, he was not even willing to drop off his day pack on someone else. So NOW you know the sort of madcaps I trek with.

Of course, being Vinod's friend, I showed my sympathy for him by slipping and falling myself in the same spot. (AND dislocating my shoulder? No, thanks, not even I am THAT sympathetic.) Onwards we went, puffing and panting (I speak for myself, of course) till we hit a dhabha. The dhabha, where I was inspired to imitate Salman Khan by shedding my T-Shirt in full view.

To be sure, Salman would not have liked to own up to my physique, much like I would not like to own up to the things he - oops...his driver, bodyguard, nanny etc - is said to have done. AND, no, I was not under any illusion that my upper torso was something for women to swoon over - unless they swooned because they could not stand the sight. The problem was a maddening itch, possibly caused by something that had got into me when I tried to 'sympathize' with Vinod. All that I found, though, were rashes here and there with no sight of the culprit causing them. Eventually, and thankfully, the itching subsided.

Up and away, again. Thanks to the fact that we could not acclimatize overnight - because of the change in schedule enforced by the aftermath of Wani's killing - and the lack of sleep, quite a few of the trekkers were making heavy weather of the trek. Rammohan was throwing up everything that went in, despite having hydrated himself at the start. (Another of those nuts...he still kept up with us, despite the nausea and the splitting headache). I, the eternal believer in Electral (and the one who needs it the most, considering how much I sweat), was, as usual, carrying a bottle of water mixed with Electral and forced him to drink it, thanks to which he threw up once again. By the end of the day, he was fresh and healthy, which, of course, I attribute to the Electral I forced down his throat!

Trekking in Kashmir throws up all the challenges of trekking on a daily basis. In addition to the ascents on inclines, you end up descending also on the same day - thanks to the fact that every day, we went up to close to 13k feet and, then, ending up camping at somewhere around 11500 feet. You walk over snow drifts, you jump across boulders and, even, cross fast-flowing streams on a slippery path of stones. It is fun to do all that, not least because you get to see such wonderful sights en route (When you stop to take it in, of course. If you tried it WHILE you were trekking...) And, no, pics are not a substitute. To see the pics of those rolling green valleys, those lovely carpets of flowers, those rearing mountains, the gushing River Sind and to think you have had the experience is to assume that you have had the joy of eating by looking at the pic of food on Facebook. There is a vast difference between looking AT some natural beauty and being in the midst of it.

We camped on day 1 at Table Top. Rammohan, Shekhar and I shared a tent. Both Mohan and I believed in giving the world audible evidence of the fact that we are asleep, when we are asleep - what a cousin calls 'sound' sleepers - and, thus, there are no prizes for guessing who could not sleep soundly in our tent.

The next day, we started climbing up to Nichnai pass. Strangely for me, I was needing to take a break after every 10 steps (I know! It is your opinion that I do my trekking on the back of some-one else, sort of like the people who go walking in their SUVs. Malicious propaganda, I tell you!). By the time we hit Nichnai pass, I had a splitting headache to add to my woes. Around then is when it struck me that I had been so busy telling other people to hydrate themselves, on the previous day, that I had not found the time to do it myself. I downed my bottle of Electral and suddenly found that the trek was not as bad as it seemed, after all. Not even slipping and falling twice while descending down a snow-drift, changed my mind.

Around the time we reached a long field of boulders to cross, my headache intensified. Skipping lunch, due to the dehydration-induced nausea, was probably not the wisest of decisions but, then, I have very seldom been accused of wisdom. Arpita, who was then trekking ahead of me, was finding the boulders difficult going and, in the normal course, I'd have been helping her across them. (Yeah! Yeah! Being called a veteran trekker does do something to me). The way I was feeling, though, I could hardly help myself and I rushed on ahead.

By the time I hit the campsite, I was feeling ready to lie down and die. Vaisakh was all agog getting people to climb up a small hillock to take in the Vishnusar lake but I begged off.

After a snooze, I took a walk around the campsite, turned awkwardly, slipped on some slush and fell. Nothing new about it for me but this time the muscles of my right leg were strained badly and I could not bend my knee. Unfortunately, the rest day planned for the next day was rescheduled because it looked like rainy days were ahead and Vaisakh did not want to take a chance. An unbending knee may be the sign of a proud man but it is also a sign of a man who cannot skip over boulders.

I decided to take the call on turning back or continuing on the trek after a night's sleep. Well...there WAS no night's sleep with the pain keeping me awake almost all night, except for a few minutes of dozing now and then.

I did climb - if one can call dragging one foot behind you as climbing - up to see the Vishnusar lake. Shekhar, who had had enough of pushing himself, decided to turn back with me. THAT, then, ended the High Altitude trek. The saga of the High Altitude Horse Ride still remains to unfold.

Part I
Part III
Pics : Rammohan, Neha and Maulik Shah

Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Great Kashmir Lakes Trek - I

Just as I was thinking that this Nemesis that was stalking me on every trek had turned its attention to someone else, up it pops again and says that it was only taking a break last year. Every trek I have been on in the few years before then have been brushes with disaster. Who goes on a trip to Badami when the entire Gadag region drowns in rain? Yours truly! Who is on trek in the Leh/Ladakh region when Leh gets cut off by rains? Yours truly! Who gets stranded in the middle when the Uttaranchal disaster strikes? Yours truly! Just as I was wondering whether the weather reporters should abandon following things like El Nino and start chasing after me, the treks of last year came as a respite. And now...NOW I am waking up with nightmares of Arnab Goswami screaming in my ears, "Where are you going next? India wants to KNOW."

It all started rather innocuously, though...boringly, in fact. I mean, if one lands up at 2 PM on the 7th  of July at the Srinagar Airport, and has to wait till 6 PM before the rest of the group can join in, it is unlikely that the said person will have an interesting time. Four hours of sight-seeing in the Srinagar Airport, lugging a couple of bags, was four hours more than I wanted to spend in ANY airport but, if you have no clue where the group has arranged to stay and have a non-functioning prepaid mobile, you have little choice but to admire the car-park, the tea-shop and the canteen till the rest deign to land. I even managed to snooze at the waiting hall, where the cabbies rest in between ferrying passengers.

We did, eventually, hook up and landed at the houseboat - Aristotle, if you can believe it, which was paired with Plato - by around 7.30 PM. Since it was not named Socrates, we did arrange for beer and dinner, without any fears of being served hemlock. Shekhar, Ravi, Rammohan and I were the tipplers with Hari Sethuraman sticking to the less elevating drinks. Vinod was expected the next day and Chandru, having crocked his knee back home, skipped the trek, leaving his brother Rammohan to hold up the family banner.

The next day, we left to take in the sights at Gulmarg, having informed the Houseboat chaps to admit Vinod into the boat, despite what they may feel about him at first sight. Ravi who, in his previous avatar, was a Colonel in the 'Golden Gurkha Gunners' - the only artillery Gurkha regiment in the world - had organised lunch at his regiment.

The gondola ride and the views from the top were amazing. For trekkers, though, I'd say it was more of an everyday affair since the views on a daily basis are equally as amazing and you do not either have to line up in haphazard queues to get tickets or have the serenity marred by screaming tourists. One of the things I never have managed to understand. Why does a sense of enjoyment involve making SO much noise?

The lunch in the regimental mess was an eye-opener. The military way of life is something that has been a closed book to me till then. (not that I have suddenly become the military expert who will come now on Arnab's show and plead with him to get a word in edge-ways.) It was an education to see the impeccable hospitality of the young CO, who was simultaneously engaged in handling reports from his men who were on patrol to nab a vehicle with intruders from across the border. The trophies of the regiment gave me to think. These were the guys, who were putting their lives on the line, to safeguard the country; the guys who carried out the orders of civilian governments in the process of carrying out their duties. Yet, when they risked their lives to carry out one set of orders, they were heroes to be lauded across the length and breadth of the country and, if they did the same to carry out another set of orders, they were demonized and vilified by anyone with a platform and a mike. The vice if any, one would have thought, was in the orders and, thus, the blame, if any, was that of those who gave the orders. Seemed to me that the journalists both want the military to be subordinated to the civilian government and, yet, question or refuse to carry out those orders that the journalists consider incorrect. Whether they ever bother to think about the inherent contradictions in their expectations, I would not know.

An interesting aside to that visit was the information that the father of Chetan Bhagat was once the CO of this regiment, and our Ravi was once his adjutant.

By the time we returned to the houseboat, leaving Ravi back at his regiment, Wani had been killed and the TV reported a tense situation. The cab that dropped Ravi the next morning was also pelted with stones on the way back, apparently. We were advised to stick to the vicinity of Dal lake, since the tourist areas are normally left alone by any rioters.

Vinod, who had come in while we were away had taken a long Shikara ride on the Dal Lake the previous day and, if you know Vinod, his joy in anything is communicated so infectiously that you regret the time you spent almost anywhere else except where he was enjoying himself. We took the Shikara ride on the Dal lake and the tour, especially the non-touristy areas, was so lovely and serene that it more than lived up to Vinod's billing. It is such a pity that the lake, in the vicinity of the Houseboats, is so full of the muck thrown in by the people who stay in them.

Around lunch-time, when we were supposed to leave for the base camp, the situation had still not improved and the trek hung in the balance. After a brief nap, we decided to go out for dinner, instead of having it on the houseboat, also in order to meet up with the other members of the trek who had come in from Mumbai, Pune and Delhi and were staying in other houseboats.

We took a long walk along the lake since the other lot was on a Shikara ride of their own and would be some time in getting back. In the meantime, Ravi talked to the India Hikes guys, who were the organizers of the trek, and we were informed that we should be leaving at 3.30 AM from Srinagar so that we could take advantage of the sleeping habits of potential stone-pelters to go over safely to the base camp. Since the arrival at the base camp would be in the morning, we would have to proceed on the trek, as per the original schedule, right away.

Deciding not to wait for the others, in order to maximize our sleep, we had dinner at a nearby restaurant. I was just stepping out of the restaurant when a crowd of lathi-wielding youth landed up. Luckily for me, the restaurant owner was swift to down the shutters and the lathis thudded into them. THAT was when I understood why the CRPF could not adopt a 'Now! Now! Don't be like that' sort of indulgent attitude when faced with stone-pelting mobs. After all, people have been killing each other with sticks and stones for far longer than with other weapons and I rather doubt that wearing a uniform makes them any less likely to get injured or killed.

We stayed put in the restaurant, shivering to the tune of drumming lathis for a while. Once all was silent, we crept out and went to the ghat to await the shikara from our houseboat to pick us up. The boatsmen at the ghat were telling us that, in thirty years, this area had been undisturbed and this was the first time that these rioters had asked them to take away the shikaras from the ghat. Notwithstanding that, they were still there to ferry any tourists. It is that part of Kashmir which was amazing - the friendliness of the people running in tandem with rioting.

Having to wake up at 2 AM is not one of my favorite ideas - THAT being the time I tend to go to sleep normally - but when needs must, one does have to adjust. The next day we would start on the main business of this visit - the Great Kashmir lakes trek.

Pictures : Neha

Monday, July 18, 2016

Familiarity breeds contempt

Now! Now! Is that polite of you? I start off with 'Familiarity breeds contempt' and is it nice of you to say, "With some, the first sight counts as familiarity for this purpose" and direct meaningful glances at me? What did I ever do to you?

It is sort of true though of a lot of people. Like your film stars for example. You see them all aglitter on screen and on stage and you fall head over heels. Getting closer, though, could be a problem. I mean, after knowing that it takes three hours and a ton of chemicals to make that face look that lovely, it is a shade more difficult to swoon at it. All art is like that. When you see only the end result, you are taken by the beauty; when you see the effort, you start dissecting the artistry. (Not to mention the fact that it is rumored that the ONLY way you can see some people as they appear on screen IS on screen - till they find a way to photoshop the real person and not only the image.) So, yes, familiarity can take the glitter off a person.

Those, though, are not the only celebrities who are so affected. In the more mundane world of writing, there is still the problem. Hear of a school-friend who has a book out and what immediately springs in your mind? "Arre! THAT chap who had to keep holding his shorts up in order to keep them in place? You mean he expects people to actually spend money on his writing?" Exactly what the vertical position of his shorts in his childhood had to do with his linguistic and other abilities is something that everyone else seems to understand. So, there is the case - if you are familiar with a person, you hold his art in contempt, more often than not. Even if you are too kindly a person to hold anyone in contempt, a stranger's art is likely to get respect whereas a friend's art gets, at best, indulgence. Which is why an author probably should aim for respect for his writing from rank strangers and not friends.

You need not be a celebrity in order to be faced with this issue. After all, when they said in Hindi "Ghar ki murgi daal barabar" ('A gourmet meal at home gets no more respect than a burger' - Loose transliteration), they were not speaking only of celebrities. Ever had your advice sneered at when you gave it only to later on find that the same advice, given by an external consultant, is treated with all the respect that Moses accorded to the 'Ten Commandments'? THAT is your lesson on how familiarity breeds contempt.

Now that I have convinced myself that familiarity with people is counter-productive, I must start standing aloof. As a first step...

"Do I know you?"

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

A bad workman blames his tools

It is so nice to come across one of these wise phrases that cannot injure me in the ego. Everyone in the past seems to have spent his time in coining phrases that appear to be mainly intended to make me feel like crawling back under the stone from which I had just crawled out. This one, though, was a pleasure to read -  'A bad workman blames his tools' - because this was one I could always point at someone else happily, with the sublime confidence that no-one could point it at me.

There you go, misunderstanding my meaning as usual and muttering about swollen-headed idiots who overestimate how good they are. The problem with you is that you are totally lacking in analytical thinking. The moment I say you cannot apply something about a 'bad workman' to me, you go thinking that I consider myself a 'good workman'. It never crosses your mind to think that to be any sort of workman at all one should, in the first place...ah! NOW the light dawns...exactly! How can I be a bad workman if I never DO any work?

Though, to be sure, I find it difficult to actually use this against people. Too much empathy, that's my problem. If I were to work, like say carpentry, I am sure that my chisels would be blunt, the wood rotten and the varnish too dilute...all to explain why my chairs look like pieces of useless lumber in someone's scrapyard. If I took to plumbing, it is those stupid spanners and low quality pipes and valves that are the reason why the taps weep so inconsolably. If I were a...(Oh, you got the point? How was I to know that you had such an acute intelligence?)

You know what...this chap who coined this phrase, he was not really holistic in his approach. I mean, blaming tools is all right but what about suppliers, customers, subordinates, bosses? It is all that technical outlook to life in those times, I tell you. They completely forget the human element and thereby miss a rich variety of reasons why work can get messed up, without you being at fault.

I am more intelligent than that chap, much though my friends may like to say that the only difference between a snail and me is that the snail is more intelligent. But, then, THEY base their opinion on the fact that I do not understand the books they read while I KNOW it is all the authors' fault that they do not keep their vocabulary down to the kindergarten levels. AND it is obvious that one cannot write for those few eccentrics, who seem to speak of vague terms like infinitives, gerunds, participles, tenses and all, owing to a childhood misspent by reading 'Wren and Martin' when they could have usefully played marbles, instead.

With everyone and his uncle, not to mention aunt, getting on and mouthing off on social media, what a good thing it is that I do not do any work. Otherwise...