Saturday, December 23, 2017

Politics? Who? Me?

PC: Mohamed Hasan @ Pixabay

Kyunki main politics nahin kartaa!” [Because I don’t engage in politics]

In any office environment, this happens to be the standard conspiracy theory when denied a pay raise, a promotion or a day off. The insinuation is that because the sufferer was not currying favour with the higher-ups, richly deserved rewards were withheld.

While bitterness is understandable as every employee in the world, including yours truly, thinks that he is doing his best, the claim of not being political is tough to digest.

Everyone is political. Politics does not only mean standing in queue every 5 years to vote for distant people who will cheat, lie and thieve for the next 5 years. Politics is in every human interaction.

The people you have lunch with, the people you smoke a cigarette with and the people with whom you would rather do neither with – all are clear ways of defining your group. By having a group or by being part of all groups or even by choosing to go it alone, you are being political. You may not care for power or prestige but declaring that you don’t is only another sort of politics.

Life and especially the monotonous routine of office life would be ridiculously tough to survive if it were not for the interactions with fellow sufferers. The grander objectives are most often set by people and powers beyond the daily sphere of activity and all that is left is the bit of work to be handled by the individual.

It should really come as no surprise that folks want to work on that bit alongside like minded or at least united in dislike colleagues. The best bosses do appreciate efficiency and output above compatibility but despite their best attempts at neutrality, they are human too.

This is not to advocate mindless dancing to the boss’ tunes. 

This is only a gentle reminder that good rapport is good practice.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

You’re plain weird

PC: Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Yes, you. Why else would you want to travel solo? 

Don’t you have a-n-y-o-n-e who will join you? It’s just not normal, I tell you. Is there something that you are hiding, some sadness which you couldn’t share with anyone else? Wandering bustling bazaars, ancient ruins and glitzy metropolises all alone is asking for trouble, if you ask me. You seem to think that solo travel is all about doing your own thing at your own pace. It appears very simple. But simple is not easy. Have you even considered the following?

  1. It’s plain boring = How strange… don’t you need someone familiar to talk to during the journey? Of course, you’ll never meet interesting people and opinions on your solo traverse. Surely you cannot get local with locals and find strange common grounds with fellow travellers who only start out strangers. The time and freedom to do so, afforded by being on your own, mean nothing. You already knew all the interesting people and all the interesting things before you started on this trip, right? Ignore all the beaches and the mountains that await the impatient solo traveller. Making new friends to get there is no fun.

  2. It’s actually scary = What if you are solo travelling to a place where no one speaks ‘your’ language? New places and new faces. Unfamiliar names and sounds all around. Does that sound like a fun time for normal people? You surely don’t want to explore a new side of you where you use sign languages and broken grammar that might mightily embarrass your language teachers but get the job done. You wouldn’t want to experience how your worst fears do not come true. In fact, never mind the fact most people would rather help. Like Momma said, it’s a scary world out there and you wouldn’t want to risk your presumptions.

  3. You’re just not that sort of person = Even if after all that I have told you, striking out on your own to lands afar, forging unlikely friendships and having insane adventures still sounds like fun to you, you are just not that sort of a person. The smooth James Bond-type who can chat up a stranger or trust in his/her abilities to figure it out whatever be the situation, that’s not you. While real life solo travel involves embarrassing faux-pas, trial and mostly error besides stumbling through the scenario a la Mr. Bean, please don’t let reality ruin your worst misconceptions. The key to not being weird is to stay well within your comfort zones.
After all, why bother with paths mysterious & conversations unknown? It’s almost like you are in search of the true meaning and real joy of travel at the risk of uncertainty. Like you want to open a world map, look at names others have seen only on world maps and recall, with a secret inward smile, how you negotiated those places on your very own terms.

Please avoid experiencing the sheer thrill of stepping out, alone, towards the unscripted. 

Do you really want to waste time explaining to that doubting uncle back home that you are in fact perfectly normal and that solo travel has changed the way you look at yourself and the world? Why, what’s wrong with you?

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Quiet Please

08-June-2015, Dammannakatte, Nagarhole National Park

The first evening safari had begun auspiciously enough.

The narcissist

A purple rumped sunbird had decided to check out its rival hiding inside the rear-view mirror of our safari canter and we were all enthralled. The green head, yellow body and purple rump of this outrageously coloured bird & its antics brought a smile to everyone's faces and a hope of even better things to come. The canter hadn't even started its engine yet.

In a few minutes, it did and just as it was about to roll out of the booking office area, three gentlemen, one of them with a professional TV camera came running up to the bus. The guide opened the bus door to let them in and they occupied the front most seats which were kept empty so far.

As soon as we started towards the Park entrance, the guide turned around to say that maintaining silence helped in better spotting of the animals and in keeping them undisturbed. One of the 3 gentlemen who had boarded last, turned around and repeated to everyone "Quiet please!"

As the gate lifted to let the vehicle in, this aforementioned gentleman Mr. Quiet-Please immediately set about ignoring his own instructions. With a vengeance. As it happened to be, Mr. Quiet-Please was the producer of a Malayali TV news show and was committed to shooting video of their trip into the National Park… with a running commentary!

Could tolerate Mr. Quiet-Please only briefly

The guide tried, I tried, a visibly irritated co-passenger tried but none of us could do anything to make this 'dedicated' team trying to get their ‘takes' to keep the peace. The forest, freshly revived from the first rains, was green and beautiful, but was particularly grumpy about revealing itself. Aside from a fleeing Malabar giant squirrel and really distant (luckily for the animals) elephants bathing in the Kabini river, we spotted absolutely nothing in the entire safari.

Mr. Quiet-Please was now, after all being central to all the problems, making protesting noises about how he felt cheated out of the money that he had paid for the safari.

“There is nothing in this forest!”, he said, as he and his team disembarked at the booking office.

The follow-up safari, the second of the evening had some seats empty so I had already booked myself into the next. The same drill again as the guide told all passengers to maintain silence.

The big difference on this trip? The passengers actually obeyed.

And what a difference it made! Even entering the forest was an adventure when human voices were silenced. The buzz of the insects, the calls of the birds, the drip drop of raindrops – all audio enhancements which we had missed on the preceding safari. The jungle felt so much more mysterious, almost holy, and the atmosphere thick with anticipation.

There it was! The reason I had wanted to come to the banks of the Kabini in the first place. In full view of our safari canter, the master of the night… a massive male leopard. He stalked by in front of the vehicle.

Rewards Program

Apart from an initial involuntary squeal of surprise from the back of the canter, our entire crew of watchers remained particularly silent. As a reward, the leopard decided to give us even more of a memorable experience. He circled our canter thrice within 20 feet or so and then clambered up & down neighbouring trees making the leopard’s typical sawing call.

We humans held our silence, only the sound of our thrilled breathing was to be heard. It got to the point that we had to let the leopard be and move on. For him, we didn’t seem to exist and we wanted to keep it that way.

The silent attitude was to pay further dividends. Further ahead, we arrived within seconds of a pack of dhole having hunted a chital down and were privy to a hurried feeding by them. One by one, each of the senior dogs took turns to keep an out for other predators in the area while the others fed. With a group of like-minded and rule abiding people, the jungle was indeed a gracious host.

Fresh action for the noiseless

It’s sad when due to the behaviour of a handful of boorish people, a wilderness as splendid as Nagarhole gets a thumbs down from Mr. I-visited-a-jungle-one-time-and-I-was-bored. Sure, not every safari is guaranteed spectacular animal sightings but that’s the way of the jungle and the charm of the jungle.

But from my back to back safari experiences of the same place, I can surely vouch for the value of silence. There is everything in this forest but for that you really need to be quiet please.

Good things come to those who wait...

... in relative silence

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

We Are Safe

I say so, knowing full well that Google's Artificial Intelligence (AI) has finally beaten humans at the last board game where we were still able to beat computers at. Go, a Chinese board game with a not undeserved reputation of being the toughest board game invented by mankind, was until recently ruled by human champions. Not so much anymore.

I say so, knowing full well that two computers programmed by Facebook to converse with each other in human language discarded it as too inefficient. They chose to develop their own version of language, understood only by fellow machines, to converse thereby cutting humans out of the loop.

I say so, because of what you see below.


Computers are stupendously good at spotting patterns. The only issue with their superpower is that a pattern exhibited by a human may actually mean zilch. Recently, I had been spending significant amounts of time on an insurance comparison website studying options in health insurance to switch over from my current one. After getting one, my interest in anything remotely insurance related were back to normal levels, i.e. zero.

So, Mr. AI, I am loathe to imagine myself working at If anything, that sounds like my worst nightmare.

If this is what AI is targeting me with after intently scanning my Internet surfing patterns, we are well and truly safe.

Fiction Fails

The following words, I assure you, are as far away from fiction as anything could possibly be. More like non-fiction in the truest sense.

The number of people who know that I like to write is significantly higher than the number of people who actually read what I write. I put that down to enthusiastic self-declaration on my end and unenthusiastic audiences at the other. That is actually not a terrible thing.

It is but natural for anyone, when he/she hears that I like to write, to ask me what kind of stories I like to write. After all, stories are where there is maximum scope for the creative and minimum scope for the mundane. The truly sad bit is that I usually disappoint them with my answer.

I don’t write fiction.

As in I have never written fiction and don’t necessarily want to write fiction in the future.

A quizzical eyebrow raise is the usual reaction I get which gets even more pronounced when I add that I prefer to write about my experiences and opinions. What I do is to overlay my nerdy POV over routine reality and imagine that the end results are somewhat interesting.

Who are you? Is your life really that amazing? Who are you kidding? Questions I have seen flash in many a polite enquirer’s eyes but here, for the first time, put into words.

Even though my life is really not amazing, I am a terrible fiction writer too. I am saving the world from unnecessary meh-ness by my voluntary abstention. No matter who you are, you have better things to do than reading my fiction and no, I am not kidding.

My very first attempt at fiction was when I was almost 10. I remember my not so subtle *version* of the lion helped by tiny mouse story where a monkey and a pulley save an elephant in the well. Yes, I was a kid but even that is no excuse for such embarrassing unoriginal-ity. In fact, when I re-read that story just after finishing it, it left a terrible scar of guilt and distaste that may last the rest of my lifetime.

More recent attempts all inevitably lead to a lonely protagonist, working with passion on something that he will eventually fail at, even as his world collapses around him in excruciatingly slow motion. Sure, the world needs antidotes to Shiv Khera’s insufferable peppiness but I assure you my stories are not addressing that gap. They are more like a You Can W(h)in(e) on a ventilator machine, beyond redemption but still unwilling to give up.

Part of my self-hate also stems from the fact that I love reading fiction. Knowing what good is makes consistently producing bad all the more unbearable. I’d rather be boring about real incidents that were interesting (at least before I wrote about them) than try to be interesting about my imaginary stories (boring despite having the freedom of fiction).


It was only a month into our first semester of engineering, at the peak of the collective ‘Seniors must be obeyed at all costs’ spell cast on us. The spell would dissipate in a few weeks and it would surely be attempted on subsequent newbies in newer batches, it would never ever have as much power on us greenhorns as it had then. We believed.

In this environment, Dubious (all names including this changed for privacy purposes) and me found ourselves roaming the campus at 02:00 AM, roughly hewn heavy wooden sticks in hand. We were part of a battalion, a few dozen strong, entrusted with the protection of our engineering college from possible attack by the enemy.

The enemy in this case were Kurukshetra University (KU) students. This was all part of an endless cycle of insults and avenge-of-insults that KU and engineering college students were engaged in, possibly just because they needed something to do in this semi-agrarian town in Haryana.

With soldiers like Dubious, a short dreamy literature fanatic and me, a skin and bones contraption wearing telescopes for glasses, the future of this battalion if it chose to engage in any kind of physical battle was bleak. As it happened and as indeed happened on many a night, the KU chose to sleep off their insult while we patrolled the perimeters. Dubious and me weren’t above looking relieved at this turn of events.

The obvious lack of action in combination with the ache in our arms was leading us back towards our hostel and peace. We nearly made it when Jhamelaa from the leading dozen announced “This Popat has been showing off too much in class. Isn’t it time someone put him in his place?”

Just like that, the KU threat was gone but a visceral hatred for Popat replaced it. The mob had turned.  Now Popat, a batchmate I barely knew from a different branch, must be sought and taught.

What this Popat had done was something I had no idea of, yet it was truly astonishing how the focus had shifted on what was a cool October night. The mob had already swarmed towards Popat’s ground floor room before logic could step in.

Luckily for Popat and the extremely confused me, a baritone voiced negotiator friend of his managed to send us all back to where we should have in the first place, our rooms and our beds. The immediate unavailability of Popat, who had wisely decided to make a speedy exit towards safer climes before his lesson teachers showed up, also helped.

Whenever I read of mob mentality, I always go back to that night in Kurukshetra. I remember how Dubious, until then as much a passive participant as me, declared “Yes, Popat must be taught a lesson!” and merged into the crowd at Popat’s door. The very night air, it had seemed to me then, carried the perverse ability to turn thinking off and frenzy on.

Monday, October 30, 2017

A house on Ripon Street

No, it’s not even on Ripon Street. Ripon Street actually ends at Lower Circular Road but in the long standing tradition of locating themselves on the nearest modish sounding address, the occupants of the house often do the same. Haji Lane just doesn’t have the same ring.

The house is old. Some say that the ground floor base of the house is 150 years old and was the studio of noted painter Abanindranath Tagore. Like that of the blue-eyed Englishwoman said to have been seen by some domestic servants, this story about the house is yet to be confirmed.

For a functionally focussed house, so much so that it wasn’t given a name, it has its fair share of stories. The tall cool walls and their wooden shuttered windows, watched over by the brilliant red in spring krishnachura tree, have enclosed within them many a memory – newly married couples tentatively learning the ropes of matrimony; happy childhoods by the dozen as experience and an experienced pool of grandparents allowed them to be; and re-unions of re-animated cousins as they talk of them days past whilst the latest generations make latest memories.

A first-time visitor might note the long first floor verandah, once open to the streets and neighbourhood burglars but now protected by a grill of elaborate design, where the sunlight casts all manner of patterns through the day and where it is possible to daydream looking out onto the ultra-busy street, with a distance more emotional than physical.

Then there’s the roof, that is open to the breezes from the Ganga and the azaan calls of numerous mosques. With whimsical views both distant and near, there is never quite a wrong time to go up to the third floor in search of innumerable imaginary stories.


The inquisition is an everyday reality.

“Don’t you have any *real* friends?”

“Staring at a computer screen for hours together?”

“Get away, get outside, before you go crazy!”

The parents. Forever overreacting.

They see partial benefits though. Dad has discovered the world’s greatest library of WW2 documentaries, also known as YouTube. Mom has committed herself to that blue and white temple of baby announcements and perfect(ly staged) wedding pictures, also known as Facebook.

Yet they cannot bring themselves to see their son’s Internet usage as anything other than addiction. The lack of any business formals on my person in my newly chosen career as freelance writer has them convinced that their son is now that anti-social, work-shirking, manic-depressive Internet person that the newspapers sound warnings about.

So, when a severe thunderstorm conked out the Internet connection at home one morning, an opportunity to relive those golden pre-Internet days presented itself. The crew would take at least a day or two to restore services, I was told. I dusted out an old book or two, long kept in a forgotten queue. I stood for long in the verandah watching the rain pelt down. It was glorious.

My parents? All through the outage, every couple of hours they would ask me about the status of the Internet connection. After restoration, I ran upstairs to let them know.

I was late to the party.

Two senior citizens were already hunched over the blue glow of their respective smartphones, surfing with the devil.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Eternal fire

My trip to the Olpadwala Community Hall on Chowringhee today was to learn more about one particular Indian community which has long intrigued me.

My first encounter with the word was when I heard what the oldest section of the town I grew up in was named. The stately ancient houses and the narrow twisty lanes had a name – Parsiwada, the area of the fire worshippers.

Whether there were any Parsis left in that neighbourhood by the time I first saw it is a matter of debate but that they did sail there, escaping persecution in Iran, a few hundred years ago back when Bharuch was still a port town is certified history.

The exhibition which I visited, named “Threads of Continuity”, was peppered with bookmarks from my formative years in Gujarat, port towns and stories as to how Parsis had first found refuge to launch the incredible Indian chapter of their 3000-year history. I became aware, even more than I had been earlier, of how this tiny community had always punched far above its weight giving India some of our greatest freedom fighters, scientists, industrialists, soldiers and rock stars.

These factual updates and the current crisis in their community notwithstanding, that first image that I had of Parsis, of ship sailing families carrying and protecting their sacred flame, braving stormy seas and uncertain fates still holds strong in my head. The fire that they saved - the fire of faith in better worlds for those dared.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Flirting with perfection

Timeless and meme-worthy
It took only the first listen for it to dig deep into me... and stay there. Bob Dylan had been only a peripheral figure in my life, the Millenial that I was, as someone who was a big deal during my parents' college days but that's about it. Sure, I had heard Knocking On Heaven's Door and Blowin' In The Wind but nice as these songs were, they were just that for me and nothing more.

Then "Don't Think Twice It's Alright" happened. As my sister's Best Of Dylan cassette tape played, a song began with mild toned quick fingered guitar playing. Whatever it is I was doing went AWOL as my attention, for reasons still unclear, turned to the song. The nasal "It ain't no use to sit & wonder why babe, even if you don't know by now..." opening took a hold of me and I listened to the song... word for word, note for note in a manner I had never listened to a song before. The impact of those 3 and a half minutes would last a lifetime.

It's not that I related to the song because someone had made me feel the same way, bitter and regretful. I was then in my late teens, but too geeky and too reticent to even think of a situation where the lyrics would apply to my life. It was just that feeling of having listened to a piece of art composed in 1963 [The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan] and not have the intervening 38 years as any sort of impediment in understanding it.

"And it ain't no use in turning on your light, babe
I'm on the dark side of the road"

"I'm a-thinking and a-wonderin' walking down the road
I once loved a woman, a child I am told
I gave her my heart but she wanted my soul
But don't think twice, it's all right." 

"So long honey, baby
Where I'm bound, I can't tell
Goodbye's too good a word, babe
So I'll just say fare thee well"

Lines like the above, when heard for the first time and delivered in Dylan's lazy drawl had staying power beyond all measure. That words could be that powerful and that a silky smooth voice was not a requirement for a great song were driven home in those eye-opening moments. 

Yes, the song is bitter but just the right kind of bitter, playfully tolerant and forgiving in tone until the very brutal denouement ("You just kinda wasted myyyy precious time... but don't think twice it's alright!") I was astounded by the play of words over those few minutes that led up to that kind of finale, when the slowly smouldering remains of anger flare in that brief phrase only to melt away into painful acceptance again. 

Angry without being really angry, cynical but not outrightly so and hopeful despite not openly saying so - all emotions I could identify with then and still do, hence the personal significance. All said and done, this set a benchmark, an impossible ideal to aspire to. It was a song, a poem, an emotion - all rolled into one package of perfection! If sadness and anger could be channeled into such a beautiful end product, it wouldn't be unfair to say that I am glad someone broke Dylan's heart.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

DD Prakriti : The right kind of Swadeshi

Nain Singh Rawat as Doodled today
At long last, the front page of a newspaper, for those of us who still read it in hard copy, carried some positive news. The sporadic sport victories do qualify as good news too but they don't count as policy decisions or announcements which would have a real impact on our immediate world.

Today's Indian Express carried news of an upcoming Doordarshan (DD) channel dedicated to the intricate and magnificent natural world. The Prakriti channel, Hindi for nature/environment, would focus on India specific nature documentaries and Indian content creators for the same. 

Yes, it may seem hard to imagine that a stodgy government department or panel will come up with something interesting but someone up there has made an interesting decision all the same. In the national parks that I have visited, I have been astonished by the sheer hard work and capability of individuals, who are not toasted or celebrated by the masses, but are doing extraordinary work alright in preserving what we have and making casual interlopers like me care about their mission too. 

Having personally seen what the brilliance of such men and women can accomplish, encumbered by red tape and realities though they may be, I am keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for great things from DD Prakriti.

Now this long wait for a local channel like this is something that had puzzled me. We did not lack in natural wealth, fast receding though it may currently be. We did not lack in wonderfully talented nature writers, researchers and local characters either. So why would only the BBC, National Geographic and Discovery make stories about our wilds and not anyone local?

It's not that I don't love the quality work that the foreign content producers have done. In fact, I have been raised on a steady diet of their wonderful programming about the forests of India and those of the rest of the world. It's just that for once I had hoped to hear the Himalayas addressed as the local Hee-ma-layas, instead of the clipped British Him-a-la-yas in every darn documentary.

Wandering about zoos in North America where I made it a point to visit the local zoo of every major city that I visited, I was amazed that most of the animals that interested me were found in or around my own country half a world away. Zoos, admittedly, are not the best place for any wild animal but the irony of seeing animals who were almost my neighbours being protected and discussed by countries thousands of miles away was not lost on me.

Sure, Indians are for the most part a practical sort of people to whom bumbling through jungles to study nature's menagerie seems like a colossal waste of time and a lot of the scientifically relevant information of our own natural wealth comes from books and studies by them so-called 'foreigners'. A lot of work still needs to be done to make the majority of us actually care for and understand the natural world but it's not like we didn't know anything at all. 

We knew better than to go about destroying jungles just for curiosity's sake or to try and control nature. For a country as populated and resource-hungry as India, it is a monumental achievement and a testament to our culture of tolerance in every sphere of life that we have co-existed with our natural surroundings even to this extent. Human beings do not have a very good reputation for putting up with competition from other species, and though with every passing day that relationship is strained and pushed further to the brink, we have managed a lot better than the developed world.

As spectacular and well preserved as the pockets of wild landscapes of the US are, in my travels through them, it was hard not to note that the systematic elimination of natural residents like pumas, grizzlies and wolves from domains once roamed by them, still beautiful but devoid of their animal soul. What happened to the native humans who had a relatively sustainable co-existence with their natural world is a tragic tale I won't even touch.

Development is the theme song for India of today but thanks to the efforts of foreign channels like Discovery, National Geographic and BBC, it would be fair to say that wildlife does have a fair hold on the mental landscape of a number of Indians. Developing local versions of their famed programming is a nativist initiative alright but one of the right variety and one that we are in dire need of. 

Having a local person well versed in the charms of nature explain to a larger, mostly non-urban audience of what exactly is so charming, would connect in a manner which was not possible before to inspire a lot of positivity and possibilities.

In what seems to be a completely unrelated but relevant co-incidence, the Google Doodle today celebrates the 187th birth anniversary of Nain Singh Rawat, whose name I must confess I had never heard of. What's most interesting about him is that he was the first to exactly pinpoint Lhasa on a map all those years ago in what was then the semi-mythical kingdom of Tibet.

There's no denying that Indians had set off on many a adventure before throughout our long history - for example when they sailed off to conquer vast swathes of distant lands in south east Asia or as missionaries walked to exotic lands to spread the wise words of the Buddha. But in my own brain-washed mind, the word explorer always conjures up images of a Westerner in a khaki suit so it is wonderful to learn of a native role model, a Swadeshi explorer for all practical purposes.

Nain Singh Rawat fits the more cliched image of a seeker in what was still the golden age of exploration (or exploitation, also a perfectly valid description), map and compass in hand, linking the modern world to an ancient one, forever changing both and launching a million more adventure stories. His example becomes all the more relevant when we aspire to capture in a modern and scientific way, what is truly Indian heritage, much older and much more 'native' than any human culture could ever hope to be.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Words are all we need

Pardon my French, but ABSOLUTELY FUCKING AWESOME this! 

When you bring in blind hatred about Muslims or kafirs or Communists or Capitalists or blacks or whites or browns, you are deathly afraid of polite discussion.

 Because we won't shoot you down, we won't need a tank on your campus and we won't send you to Pakistan. 

We will defeat you... with our words alone. 

That is all we need and final victory, I assure you, will always be ours.


Friday, August 11, 2017

Cambodian Cahani: *Stampede* At Dawn

It’s not even light yet, but the busloads of visitors deposited in the parking lot are making their noisy way towards the temple complex, crossing the bridge guarded by giant stone serpents. The vastness of the moat surrounding the main temple is side-lined in the confusion caused by countless people debating the best location for a photograph. A photograph is, after all, the only reason they are here at this unearthly hour.

I had read about the crowds at Angkor Wat’s sunrise hours. I wasn’t surprised. The temple architecture of the god-kings of Cambodia had only one express purpose. To overpower with awe the onlooker. Angkor Wat is the most serious of those attempts. The temple is aligned along the east west line and positioned such that the sun rises directly behind it. Sunrise, therefore, is the best time to try to be overpowered with awe.

There’s no denying that the thousands of people filling up the lawns in front, jostling along the lotus ponds where the famous ‘reflection’ shot can be obtained and the bazaar like atmosphere just before the sun comes up are mood killers. The rhymes of the ancient can be a little harder to hear when someone is trying to poke you in the face with their selfie stick. You want to laugh out loud at some random fools who, finding about 3 human beings worth of space, sit down to meditate; there in that jungle of touristy fools.

People people everywhere and not a stone to see
And then… then the sun comes into view, just peeking behind the giant central tower of the main temple. The collective clacking of a thousand cameras and the unnecessary flashes sparkle randomly across the teeming masses. 

Strangely though... even the most touristy amongst them is no longer talking. 

As the golden dawn reaches out and embraces that famous silhouette, the grandeur and splendour of which every tourist brochure has gone on and on about, there is a perceptible hush in the crowd. Even the most selfie obsessed in the crowd realizes, if only for a few seconds, that this is not the time for idle chat.

Because this is a special moment where some lives may have been changed forever, now that they have seen something so beautiful. Because no matter how many times you’ve heard about it and dreamt about it through your life, you had no concept of the immense scale and heart stopping symmetry of the real deal. 

You can now hear the rhymes of the ancient. 

The meditating fools do not seem so much like fools anymore.

Because if you find yourself at Angkor Wat at dawn and can only complain about the *crowds*, you are looking in the wrong direction.

Seek and you shall find. Ancient glory... and peace of mind.
[This post is part of my blog series, Cambodian Cahani, on my visit to Cambodia in December 2016.]


Saturday, August 5, 2017

Tawang x 2 : Sumo Singh, Road King

It only took about 10 seconds for our Sumo driver to regret his decision.

For the past 6 days, our hired driver Mr. V had been driving his Tata Sumo with the expertise needed to negotiate the treacherous roads in and around Tawang. The steep broken roads winding through mountains, which were in equal measures beautiful and deadly, requiring a combination of the Buddha and Mad Max in the driver to make it both safely and on time.

No wonder then, that I was reasonably surprised when he said “Abhi aap chalao! [Now… you’ll drive]” Though on really friendly terms with him, I did not ever ask to drive.

I joked “Ab takk aap daraa rahein the humko, abb meri baari hai. [So far it was you who were scaring us on these roads. Now it’s payback time.]”

Mr. V shrugged “Mujhe koi darr warr nahin lagtaa. [I ain’t afraid.]”.

A worried voice, one from our group of 7, chimed in “Aurr bhi chhe log hai iss gaddi mein, please yaad rakhnaa. [Please remember that there are 6 more people who don’t feel that way]”

Everywhere you look in NW Arunachal, there is a view... and a chance of falling
I did mention that I was reasonably surprised. Did I mention that I was absolutely overjoyed as well?

This, as it happened, was my second trip to Arunachal Pradesh’s Tawang area. Having made my previous trip exactly one year ago, I had fallen in love with the scenic valleys, towering mountains and remoteness, which in a strange way, were actually protected from popularity by the scary nature of these very roads. Being able to drive here was an unexpected bonus!

Yes, lovely it is!
I smiled… a “is this really happening” kind of a smile and put the vehicle into gear. We headed south on our way to Bomdila from the riverside at Dirang.

Mr. I-Ain’t-Afraid lasted all of 10 seconds. Then he said “Yeh gaon mein thodaa aaraam se… yahan ke log bahut danger hai! [Take it easy… in this village. These folks are very short tempered.]”

But Mr. V… he was trapped in the third row. There was nothing he could do. This was EPIC!

I’d be lying if I said that I was fully comfortable with the vehicle.

For starters, I was struggling to find first gear and had to make do with second. This struggle, only because it was an old vehicle (I swear), may have caused some rudder shudder in my passengers. Also, the sheer size and weight of the Sumo made handling it a significantly different challenge from the dinky little Maruti 800 that I usually drive in Kolkata.

One of my "passengers" asked me to check the brakes. I replied “Haan, hain! [Yes, they exist]”. Strangely enough, not everyone found this funny.

But about 4 minutes in, the Road King symptom, as I like to call it, began to manifest. When a vehicle is significantly larger than its fellow transportation on the road, it makes its driver feel slightly pompous. “Make way”, in his mind he is thinking, “the King is coming.”

Old and shaky and beaten half to death by these rough roads, this baby was still a powerful beast. Seated like an emperor on my extra cushion, I watched, with detachment, the road ahead and charged on.

Corners? No problem, I spun the steering like a Pokeball, this way and that. Other vehicles? Chal hatt peechey [See you later]! Broken sections of the road? At least I didn’t feel any bumpiness in my driver’s seat.

It was evening and I may have driven only 4-5 kilometres of this heavenly green mountain road before Mr. V took the wheel again. The *official* reason given by him was the incoming fog which had started obscuring the road to Bomdila. When I requested feedback from our group, some of them even said “Haan! Haan! Accha chaleye! [Yes, yes, you drove well]”

But the real feedback was already received when after only those few minutes of my driving, Mr. V asked from the third row “Abb main chalau phirse? [Shall I take the wheel again?]”

Before & After
Before I could even process the question, 6 voices, none of which were mine, shouted in chorus “Haaaaan! [Yes]”. 

Outvoted 7 to 1, I had to give in to democracy.

He lived briefly but gloriously. Sumo Singh, Road King.

Road King urf Sumo Singh :P
[This is part of my blog series, Tawang x 2, on what possibly is my favourite part of India, north western Arunachal Pradesh]