Friday, July 28, 2017

The Tinder Life: Rohit Sharma v/s Black Bears

It was a conversation that I could not believe I was having.

Dileep and Ishwar, at most in their early 20s, had been until then hardy mountain youth without whose help I would not have made it to this enchanted nook of the forest.

A merry channel of water coming down from the snows of Rakhundi Top met up with the thunderous Tirthan River here. A little wooden bridge crossed the glacial channel coming from Rakhundi and led to our little graffiti spattered hut. Chaloccha, as this point was called, was in the depths of the forest visited by very few humans.

Even so, amongst those very few humans, an insatiable urge existed to leave their names scrawled on the walls for everyone who came after them. To acknowledge the bitter truth that Raja Hindustani was here before them.

Sorry but Raja Hindustani beat you to it
As the rains came down in the afternoon, stuck in our hut, the conversation between the 4 of us turned to… just about anything as any good adda should be. Basant, Dileep and Ishwar – guide, cook and porter respectively – had disappeared on me soon after getting here, emerging from the forests with green & narrow bamboo shoots a little while later. What’s the deal, I asked?

In answer, a fire was brought to life with the assistance of Basant’s gleaming axe, a long dead deodar tree and eager to incite sholi (the local word for tinder). In it were roasted the green bamboo shoots to golden shade of brown, which were then bent in all manners possible and rubbed vigorously with a cloth. One end of the sticks was trimmed just so that they were blunt cones. Voila! We had our walking sticks to be used for our steep uphill climb to Nara Thach the next morning.

Across the Tirthan from where we stood were the dense forests of the Khorli Poyi mountain which housed many a beauty and many a terror. It was prime habitat for one of the rarest and most beautiful birds in the world, the Western Tragopan but also not prime choice for local guides, when it came to selecting a forest route. You see, the forests were particularly dense on this part of the mountain and as it happened, they were also particularly popular with large proud animals known as Himalayan black bears.

Now black bears are omnivores with the majority of their diet being vegetarian so they don’t actively hunt for meat. They also actively avoid any sort of interaction with humans. But a surprised bear or God forbid a mother bear protecting her cubs can cause severe & fatal damage to the human unfortunate enough to surprise it. To emphasise his point, Dileep proceeded then to do an enactment of how a bear relentlessly claws at you standing on its two feet. It was funny when a human acted it out but I am pretty sure it would not be half as fun when an angry 200 kilo animal did the same with its 5-inch claws.

The Western tragopan - Pic:
Life in the mountains was tough, said Dileep. He told me about the time he had to carry a person on his back for about 20 kilometres up and down these steep and slippery paths. Halfway through a forest trek, one of his fellow villagers had fallen ill and he had to be taken to the nearest hospital.

I struggled to come up with something relatable in my life and failed to. Given the urban Bengali’s fascination with all manner of real and fake illnesses, back home I had about 4 doctors to choose from within 300 metres of my first sneeze. Everything about this place seemed so different.

Then Dileep asked me where I was from.

“Kolkata” I said. “Oh, Kolkata!” he laughed “It was amazing how you guys dismissed Bangalore for 49 this season. What a lame batting performance, especially from the big 3 of the Royal Challengers!”

I did a double take. Then a triple take. And a quadruple take, almost tumbling over into the Tirthan itself. Here we were in the middle of a National Park whose gates took 10 kilometres of hiking to get to, with no motorable roads and no cell phone signal around for at least another 20 kilometres all around. Yet out of nowhere, in the middle of pristine nature and most definitely a leopard or two in the general area popped up the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Old oaks, old stories

The IPL, that much advertised, much maligned and much moneyed annual domestic cricket T20 tournament was undeniably popular. Here I was… getting further proof. I shouldn’t have been that surprised though. The multiple dish antennas, the Airtels and DishTVs and TataSkys, that sprouted from the rooftops of the houses that I had seen during my preparatory treks to GHNP bordering villages earlier were not merely ornamental in purpose. The people needed entertainment and if they chose to watch IPL, so be it.

But this fact left me a little disturbed. These were villages where you could hear the river’s roar from the valley far far below as you fell asleep. These were paths where you could walk in the shadow of magnificent old oaks and watch for hours birds spectacularly coloured with a frequency normally reserved for spotting house crows in central Kolkata. These were horizons which were framed by the snowy peaks of the middle Himalayas not by giant billboards for the Jio Dhan Dhana Dhan lifetime offer.

Not exactly Quest Mall
Lest you assume that I will now launch into a tirade against the commercialization of cricket and the destruction of local cultures by corporate monsters, let me add. I too was watching the game, the Kolkata Knight Riders v/s the Bangalore Royal Challengers, that Dileep referred to. I was watching the game in the stadium, the Eden Gardens, giving up my hard-earned money to those evil corporations and cricket auctioneers.

---Warning: Political rant ahead---

Being staunchly left liberal, like I am, means leading a life of inherent contradictions. I genuinely believe that there are some evil corporations and that something needs to be done about them. Yet I do indulge in some thoroughly wholesale commercial activities like supporting the Kolkata Knight Riders.

And before my right-wing friends start cheering and high fiving, I must also add that my contradictions are significantly less hypocritical than those who strongly ‘support free speech’ (as long as it is sufficiently untruthful about *whoever-they-hate* and/or pro pseudo-nationalist governments) and are ‘true patriots’ (a.k.a we do exactly the same shitty things as *them* but *they* started it, so we should get together and be equally evil & self-destructive before *they* destroy us).

---Political rant over---

Back to the story then.

I told Dileep “That match!? I was there at the Eden Gardens screaming with 70,000 other fans.”

Cricket connection firmly established, we talked more. Dileep’s surprise at the progress of the Bangladesh cricket team from also-rans to to-be-taken-seriously; my surprise that he has the time to follow the Bangladesh cricket team (and no, Mr. Right Wing Nut Case, he isn’t a Bangladeshi, he’s a local Himachali and staunchly Hindu Pahadi boy) in between his tough work schedule as a cook/porter for the various trekking teams to GHNP; common agreement on how Pakistan seems to produce an endless supply of amazing pace bowlers like Mohammad Aamer (Mr. Right Wing Nut Case, refer preceding sentence); the sheer difficulty of finding a flat enough ground to play cricket in without having to climb down 100 feet to retrieve the ball;  the magic of watching the West Indies bat on the rare occasions when they find that calypso magic; about how Dileep usually watches only those IPL T20 matches when the team batting first scores above 140 - given that his village duties require him to be up at dawn he can’t afford to give up sleep over foregone conclusions – the conversation is a healthy mix of both plain-Jane and unique.

Dileep's village... stunning but not ideal cricket terrain

Who’s your favourite batsman, I ask? Rohit Sharma, pat comes the reply, there’s something really different about him. This is really weird now, because even though Rohit is not my all-time favourite (Tendulkar/Lara cemented that), I have frequently used the “something really different” description of him so many times myself. The lazy grace of his shots, never anxious, never angry yet powerful AF & the legendary unreliability of his ‘Throw’it Sharma alter-ego – listening to Dileep go on about Rohit Sharma was like me talking to myself.

By this point of time, as darkness approached and the jungle around transformed from a visual spectacle to an audio mystery, I was significantly less disturbed.

Sure, I would prefer for Dileep not to live a lifestyle where he hangs around at the latest generic glitzy supermall sipping coffee from CCD and waiting in line overnight for the launch of the next IPhone *AlmostTheSameThing*. Surely, we need him to be a man of the wilds so that he can continue to protect his ancestral land, this most rugged land of outstanding beauty where the blue skies, green valleys and clear water are more HD than UHD and 4K combined.

But to assume that he should stay away from all forms of modern ‘corruption’ is a little bit too selfish on my side. Since I enjoy all the benefits (and pitfalls) of a comfortable lifestyle and modernity, keeping someone away from every aspect of the same is neither healthy nor practical. He would have to figure out for himself what to learn and what to unlearn.

In the end, we are all hypocrites.

That moment of realization
Some to a lesser degree, some more. City nerd. Village boy. Left wing. Right wing. All these labels that we tag ourselves and tag others with, come with certain pre-set expectations. Reality is always a little removed from our assumptions. As we keep walking along with our ‘herd’, we come at some totally unexpected intersections.

I never expected to be fan-boying over Rohit Sharma’s fluid batting in a remote Himachal Pradesh forest with someone whose day job entailed a continuous risk of coming across a bear who might or might not be as big a fan. But it happened. I could write 10,000 blog posts on how precious nature is and yet not know even 10% of what Dileep knows simply via his lived experience. And that’s the truth.

In the end, if a man raised on the city couch and a boy raised in the jungle can connect over the laidback swag of a Mumbai city cricket player, it just may be that this inter-connected world of ours is not such a bad thing at all and things are going to be A OK. We both care for the forests in our own way – he, because they are his to protect and I, because I don’t have any of mine left to protect.

Humans, after all, can talk about themselves and figure things out. Make sure that the Rohit Sharmas roam only the stadiums of the world and Himalayan black bears go about their bearly business without being surprised by roaming Rohit Sharmas.

That way it’ll be much easier to appreciate their different varieties of majesty.

Checking... Black bears? Check. No Rohit Sharmas? Check.

[This is part of my blog’s The Tinder Life (TTL) series, a series of blog posts on certain episodes from my 15 day stay at the Great Himalayan National Park (GHNP) in mid-June 2017. More episodes and also some new series to come soon.]


Prosit said...

Beautifully written. What I loved the most is how the story mainly focused on the life of a common man living in these almost uncharted parts of our mountains. Keep up the good work mate !

Roy said...

Thanks, Prosit!