Saturday, March 13, 2010

Wait until it's dark...

It was already late evening by the time we reached Kasol on the 26th of January this year. The town which reportedly spills over with foreign tourists in the peak season (Indeed we saw more signs in Hebrew than we saw in English or Hindi) wore a desolate look. Almost all the shops at the town centre where our bus dropped us off were closed and apart from the street dogs, even the rare human we came across was giving us shifty looks. We walked from hotel to boarding house to hotel to find them all boarded up until spring came to the mountains because this was the "off" season for Himachal Pradesh (HP) tourism. The tall trees and other natural vegetation in this town were conspicuously more greener than all the other towns in HP where we had stayed or passed through where the leaves had abandoned their creators and the hillsides were stark and bare. Winter seemed to have left all of nature in this nook of the hills untouched yet had driven away the tourists with its cold clammy hands. All of the tourists except the three of us, that is.

Darkness was fast approaching when we saw the little hand drawn sign for the "Ram Singh family house" hung from the wall of a school compound and followed in the direction of the red arrow on it. Ram Singh, the genial old man whose guests served as an important source of income was thrilled to see us and rushed us past his house, beyond the barren apple orchard to the semi finished house that was to be our stay for the night. The house stood on the banks of the river Parvati which gurgled and burbled its way across the mountain pebbles and with the night being the night before full moon, it was unholily beautiful, maybe too perfect a scene as our little house stood in between the river on one side and the skeletal apple trees separating our outhouse from Ram Singh's house on the other.

The house itself was a crude brick structure with a single room on the first floor split into two by the partition of half a wall. Two doors on both sides of the partition accessible by stairs were the sole access points into the room if you discounted the glass only wooden framed windows which were on three of the four walls of our split single room. What was even more striking was the clear demarcation of the "Happy room" and the "Horror room" as far as wall graffiti went inside the split room. The foreign tourists who had earlier stayed in this room for months during the "season" were definitely under the influence of narcotics when they had drawn the images that surrounded us the moment we entered the room. The "Happy room" had a smiling sun straight from the teletubbies and paintings of rolling green meadows with giant mushrooms, flowing streams and all those things out of happy hippie dreams! The "Horror room" was filled with images of witches, devil tailed creatures, tribal lizard shapes etc, products of a fevered imagination or many many nights spent in helpless fear.

The groundfloor had two bathrooms none of which had a bulb of its own so any call of nature at night would have to be handled with the assistance of a flashlight. Not much of a pleasure palace as you can see by the description but we were already in "Beggars can't be choosers" mode by then and plonked our rucksacks there. The other two of our trio went scouting down to the river accompanied by Ram Singh's grandson in the fading light, while I was unpacking some stuff in the room when all of a sudden, I heard an eerie sound - a mix of a howl and a moan and hurriedly looked around. Barging into the room accompanied by tremendously bad body odour was a huge dog with his bushy tail wagging like crazy generating a mini-hurricane behind him. I suspect that he was a light gold shade in colour but too many hours playing in the outdoors had left half of him so caked in the soil of the mountains that this was difficult to confirm. To top it all, the dog was behaving all cutesy and puppyish, a real contrast to the kind of behaviour you would expect from a guard dog of this massive a size when he discovers an intruder in his domain. It may have been because of the natural rapport which I share with all dogs and the incredible entertainment that their company offers, that this giant dog was already my friend. Further enquiry revealed that this was Jackie, Ram Singh's one year old "gaddi" dog (A local breed of mountain herding dog) who was used to being spoilt by whoever stayed in Ram Singh's "family house" which essentially was his outhouse. Close on Jackie's heels, Angel, the neighbouring house's German Shepherd came bounding into the room too. She and Jackie were both roughly one year old, joint custodians of the two isolated houses beside the river Parvati in this sleepy mountain town. This pair was a really important one to befriend as we had planned to go out to town for dinner that night and on our way back in the depths of night we had no intentions of ending up as dog chow. One of our company however was totally uncomfortable with hanging around with dogs, so unwillingly I had to chase the pair out of the room and play with them on the unwalled ledges outside the room.

The night finally came out in full force extinguishing the last rays of the winter sun and the moon a night before it attained it full glory was submerging everything in its silver flood of light. It was a surreal moment as we sat down outside the house taking in the peace and beauty all around us dangling our legs from the ledge smoking a cigarette while the rushing waters behind us played their restless orchestra and Jackie lay sprawled between the two of us (who were not petrified of him) like a fur sofa. He seemed to be studying us as we chatted and would occasionally raise an eyebrow as if he understood that part of our conversation. Material pleasures like food seemed so inconsequential in such a divine setting but common sense eventually prevailed and we set out for dinner at around 8:30 PM. The restaurant Evergreen was on our way to the town centre and there we experimented with Israeli food which turned out to be a pleasant experience. It must have been around 10:30-11:00 when we started to walk back to Ram Singh's compound after reconfirming that in the "off" season, this town was really powered "off".

When we entered Ram Singh's compound late at night, we half expected Jackie to jump us in his puppyish frenzy and he being not so little, knock all three of us over. But Jackie was not in sight, not even a whimper from him as we walked past Ram Singh's house, across the orchard and to our house in the clear moonlight. Climbing up the stairs, we were a little uneasy at this apparent security lapse when we looked back from one of our doors to see him galloping towards us from Ram Singh's house across the stark bare orchard. So Jackie was lazy but not unwary. He knew who was coming into his house and so did not create too much of a ruckus. Cruelly enough, we had to shut our room door right in his face due to the aforementioned fear that one of us had of dogs. Jackie stood whining and begging outside our door for a few minutes before we could hear his heavy paws plodding down the stairs as he left to begin his night time patrol duties.

We joked and we laughed as the division of rooms was made. My bro-in-law Abhi and his bro Jim were to take the "Horror room" as the bed in there was capable of handling two people. I was to take the "Happy room" as the cot in there was good enough for only one guy and was notoriously creaky leading to many wise-ass comments from my neighbouring room about my activities once the lights were turned off. But our glee was soon to be cut short.

Within a couple of minutes of turning the lights off, there was a loud, angry knock on the "Horror room" door. We were 3 young guys and in an adrenalin rush shouting "Kaun hai! Kaun hai be! (Who's that?)" which might not have been a smart move in that corner of the woods, we jumped up and instantly opened the door. There was no one outside and there was nowhere our door knocker could have hidden. There were just ledges on both sides of the door clearly in our line of sight, open stairs on which we did not hear anyone come up or go down and the moon was so bright that we could see all around the compound for quite some distance. Perplexed, we went back in and closed the door resolving to use the window adjacent to the door next time to take a peek. Within 15 minutes, there was the knocking again on that same door, this not only angry but persistent like someone in a real hurry. Once again we shouted "Kaun hai bey!" and the knocking ceased. We quickly popped open the window this time and looked outside. No one... again.

By now, we were getting a little nervous. Ram Singh's house was visible from the ledge outside our house but we were iffy about making that long walk or if required run to his house across the bright-as-day orchard which offered little protection in case someone with aggressive intentions was lying in wait outside. My bro-in-law popped open the knife blade in his Swiss knife and tucked it under his pillow, small security it might be but still some kind of security, and I kept the police number on the top of my cell phone call list in the rather utopian hope that I would get the time to make that call and the police would actually respond. We weren't going to make a scene if there was no real danger lurking outside but in case there was, we were ready... somewhat!

Getting back to sleep was a laughable endeavour but we tried, waiting for what we knew was inevitable. The knocking started again once again on the same door after half an hour... frenzied, impatient and unfriendly. We stayed mum for a little while longer this time but it was clear that our tormenter wasn't going away without getting an angry/fearful reaction from us. We shouted "Kaun hai bey?" (Hey! Don't blame us for our limited vocabulary in that kind of a stressful situation) in unison leading to a sudden halt to the knocking and our journey to the window yielded the same lack of visual confirmation as earlier.

Now Jackie stepped into the scene abandoning his night duty rounds to chose a watch-point near where his need was the most. I could hear him pant up the stairs and take his place outside the other door, the door to my "Happy room". As he rested against the door to my side, I could hear it squeak under his ample weight. Jackie wasn't happy, no not at all. He was angry, growling from the pit of his stomach, a sound which any dog lover would identify and tell you that it has nothing but serious intention written all over it. Something was making Jackie uneasy and for the first time, I felt afraid, really afraid for ourselves and for my canine friend outside. Whoever it was outside, if indeed as ill intentioned as Jackie's primitive defensive sounds seemed to indicate, wouldn't be stopped by a dog even though the dog would lay his life down before the noble creature would allow any harm to come to us. Now that Jackie had added us to his pack and was in pack defense mode, we were in fear for the safety of our pack member, an animal though he may be.

All of a sudden, Jackie started barking ferociously forsaking his growls, and rushed out from outside the door to the orchard below and then to the riverside as we followed the sound of his barks from the confines of our room. I opened out the rear window to see his outline clearly defined by the night barking at the very edges of his compound. I could hear Angel join in from the neighbouring compound and some other dogs in the neighbourhood join in the barking. The dogs were on intruder alert and you needn't have been in such a situation before to understand that something was afoot. This was our survival instinct at work buzzing ominously, passed through human genes for millions of years. After a while, Jackie came back to my door still growling menacingly and took his position outside my door announced by the squeak of the wood as the door winced under his mass.

This alternate cycle of Jackie's barking and the angry knocking on the "Horror room" door would repeat through the night 'N' number of times but unbelievable as it may seem, this was not the oddest part of our experience. The real oddity was whenever Jackie went quiet after coming back to my door, the knocking would begin... again on the other door and Jackie would be totally nonchalant about it. Not the tiniest of growls from him. While the knocking was terrifying us no end and we were shouting "Kaun hai bey!" at the top of our voices and looking out for something to come crashing through the door or the glass only windows, Jackie would just sit peacefully outside my door and not even check out the action at the other door. It was if he knew what was going on and that it wasn't the real danger that hung over our heads. After we shouted, the knocking would cease instantly and then after a few minutes, Jackie would go ballistic again, barking and raging through his patrol area warning or scaring some unseen adversary off. But again never would he be disturbed in the slightest while the perpetrator-less knocking happened. We listened with keen ears whenever Jackie went all out barking into the night, running through his compound, listening carefully for, cold as it seems in retrospect for a final yelp, a fatal gasp, a sure-shot indicator for us that whoever was coming for us had overcome our most faithful defense and that we needed to act now.

Our throats had run completely dry by now thanks to this inexplicable chain of repetitive events. This was an ancient place in the equally ancient lap of the Himalayas. Man had just about reached the capability of trying to control nature in the past century but there were still places like these grand old mountains where he would be reminded time and again of his insignificance in the grand scheme of things. Strange things happened in places like these and we were right in the middle of such a situation.

It was 3:30 in the pre-dawn period when I hit upon an incomparable logic as it was the only 'logical' way out if you want to call it logic that is. Jackie was still hale & hearty coming back to my door after his exertions and the knocking was still around shaking us out of our thin layer of comfort every half an hour or so. We were prisoners of the night and by this time convinced that our only safety lay in sticking together and seeing off the night in the relatively safe confines of our room. I felt assured that the knocking was probably from a realm beyond nature and science, something whose vastness was beyond the outstretched fingers of our highly limited and recently acquired human knowledge. If the dog in whom I placed an infinite trust was not concerned about this aspect then it was some presence which definitely was familiar to him or harmless or at least not at odds with the dog's protective instincts towards us. Whatever else that was out there to get us ("Yeah, that's an exaggeration!" you might laugh and say now but then you weren't with us that night. Then you sure wouldn't laugh), Jackie and his buddies would look out for us and God forbid, if the situation called for it die for us. I later heard from the other two in our trio that they were not so trusting of the dog which is why they stayed awake till dawn. BTW it seems that the knocking did continue in frequent intervals till the sun came up when it stopped, as suddenly as it had begun in the night. Call me crazy if you will, but putting my deepest faith in a mere dog against possible foes like men and ghosts, I fell asleep. And as you can see, I lived to see the next morning and here I am writing about that night in Kasol.

And if you think that I am making any of this up and have a strong disbelief in things that go bump in the night, then go ahead and take a bus from Manikaran/Shimla/Manali to a little town called Kasol. Take up the house standing far apart from the rest, across the apple orchard, located under the shadow of the mountains with a spectacular view and right next to the chirpy, frothy Parvati river and wait... wait until it's dark. Oh, and be sure to make good friends with Jackie. A lot might depend on it...

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Knight has just begun

It's IPL season and I am gearing up for another year of possible heartbreak. Two years on the trot I have put my faith and belief in this woefully under-performing team from my present base and all I have to show for it are some really sore bruises. I try not to be judgmental or biased in favour of any place where I happen to have stayed in but Calcutta being my birthplace deserves some kind of special status even though I've lived only 2-3 years in this sometimes glorious, sometimes infuriating city. Plus in the inaugural game of IPL season 1, when I watched Brendan McCullum smash that incredible 158*, I decided that this was MY team... an unwise choice leading to extreme future agony. The Knight Riders of that first game in Bangalore have been missing for 2 years now and it's high time that they said "Hello" once more.

The real dead-weight on the team's morale is the publicity hungry dummy that is Shahrukh Khan. He just doesn't seem to realize that just because he has paid for the team doesn't mean that he must hog the limelight, make stupid statements and try to be a real life "Chak De India" coach. Sports is no candy floss Karan Johar movie and if we do need a "tough as bones" coach, it most definitely won't be SRK. Someone should just rattle SRK of his 'filmi' dreams. I watched the match of KKR against Delhi Daredevils live at the Eden Gardens, a thrilling encounter which the Knights pulled through thanks to great teamwork inspired by the mercurial Shoaib Akhtar's devastating 3 over spell. I am no big fan of SRK and neither am I a SRK hater, but that evening as the team celebrated their victory by running victory laps around the stadium to the cheering crowds, I was genuinely pi**ed off at King Khan as I could see no reason why SRK and Arjun Rampal were in there too waving and running along as if they had taken a couple of wickets or more. SRK, we appreciate that you have poured your hard earned money into our team but do you mind not being so in-our-face all the time so that we can actually appreciate the players you have on your team and not your attention hungry antics.

Season 3 begins tomorrow and I fear for the future of India's best captains; a man whose contribution to Indian cricket is MASSIVE. Sourav Ganguly is back as the captain of KKR (Hey, that's an acronym for my dear Kurukshetra too) but I am worried that 20:20 might not be Dada's game at all. If he doesn't put up a decent show, he himself might have to call it a day. Sachin Tendulkar has been struggling in 20:20 too so Ganguly is not alone in his inability to adjust to the frenetic pace of this kiddie's game of cricket. But Dravid's stupendous early run in last year's IPL offers the faint glimmer of hope for these two stalwarts who no doubt have the goods and spare talent to go all the way but just haven't clicked in the right way... yet.

Why on earth do I support these teams which are gloriously unpredictable? Arsenal and their 'beautiful' brand of football that always leaves them gasping a couple of places short of the Premiership, and the Indian cricket team which always make a thriller out of the easiest victories/losses whether the opponent be Bangladesh or Australia it don't matter are the two main examples which I cite when asked about my favourite team. Add KKR to this list and the only plausible explanation seems to be that I may be addicted to self inflicted pain. The Knight Riders may stumble through this year's IPL season yet again but I won't switch allegiance despite the worst lot of ill conceived ideas that SRK might implement (like this season's purple uniform of KKR... sheeesh!). The battlefield is grim and gray but a blood pact had already been sealed two years ago as McCullum flayed the RCB bowlers all over the park. Come hell or high water, the Knights will stand their ground... and if such a dark day dawned upon us, fight right to the bitter end.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The scientist

The white lab coat and the people that wear them have always deeply fascinated me from back in the day when I actually had a dream and purpose in life. This was way way back in early primary school, when I had a total of only 2 good friends and a heartfelt wish of becoming a scientist. Labs still haunt my imagination like they did in those days with their bubbling multi-coloured solutions, cages filled with white mice and the hulking shadow of a robot under construction in a dark corner of the room. When I was a kid I was notorious for being extremely absent-minded and people were noticeably thrilled when I in my childish innocence declared to all and sundry that I wanted to be a scientist on growing up. I can almost still hear them say "Yes! Yes! That's the (only) thing you will be good at." I had found my twin soul in Dexter and his mysterious lab helped in no small measure by the fact that I had a frequently irritating elder sister like Dee-Dee, Dexter's exasperating sibling. Except that my experiments were limited to my Chemistry kit, alternative paper plane concepts, experiments illustrated in Tinkle and botched attempts at making a kite, unlike my hero who was into cloning, time travel, nuclear weapons and pretty much everything that was cool and illegal.

The years have flown by since those days of spirited scientific enquiry leaving me still as absent minded as then, but without enough enthusiasm to live out my lab-coat dream. Somewhere along the way I ran into some new friends, and then some more, and then some more. Their world was my world now: the world of terrace cricket, 8-bit video games, sneak peeks at the neighbourhood beauties, WWF (the wrestling circus, not the conservation guys), maths tuitions and all else that required at least a set of 10 different guys for each of the activities. There was no more space for my private universe, for my impractical dreams. Not to blame any of this on my dear buddies who were my partners in crime for some of the most amazing years of my life. It's just that they gave me the best reasons for not pursue what at one time had captivated my mind and helped me give in to my most deep rooted flaws, my laziness! Nowadays, I spend so much time on the social networking world keeping track of these aforementioned buddies, making smart Alec comments, replying to smart Alec comments, posting viral videos and in short doing anything that is totally pointless, that I console myself saying I am a new breed of scientist instead - a social scientist.