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.]

Monday, July 24, 2017

Mithali Raj and Night Trains

I’ll be honest. Sunday’s Women's World Cup final between India and England was the first women’s cricket match I have ever watched. Sure, I had read in the papers about Mithali Raj’s epic 214 a long time ago and of the current Indian team’s amazing progress all the way through to the final of this tournament. But it was only in the second half of the match when India began its chase of 228 that I actually started watching. 3 overs into the Indian batting performance, it was obvious to me why I hadn’t followed women’s cricket all this while. It was boring.

Boring is also how most people would describe the Bharuch I grew up in. Only one road ran through the ‘city’, the imaginatively named Station Road (Hint: It ran by the railway station) and that was all the city there was. Long before the Internet and data arrived to make Bandra news instantaneously available in Bharuch, we were in our own little pocket of boringness. So boring in fact that a pastime in my group of teenage guys was to grab a glass of tea from the railway platform, one of the handful of places that stayed opened late into the night and sit on the platform benches to watch the nightly express trains go by.

It was difficult to make time go by, a Facebook status was already saying, when watching the Indian women’s cricket team play. Looks like a third grade amateur match not a World Cup final. For me, that feeling only lasted till the 4th over, when without any explanation whatsoever Punam Raut whacked one straight over the bowler’s head and into the boundary boards. OK. Something familiar after all. This was the same sport that I loved and idolized then. But more dreariness was to follow. Harmanpreet Kaur spent her entire time at the crease pretending that only the leg half of the stadium existed. It wasn’t pretty to watch.

Existed would be the right description for my sporting life. Not pretty to watch would be equally apt. Saddled with an initial-days-Dravid technique (sorry Dravid fans… believe me, I worship the guy) in a see rubber ball, hit rubber ball universe, my talents were not quite eye catching. Naturally they remained underappreciated except for those times when an explosive leftie at the other end needed a drab ‘sheet anchor’ partner. But I existed on the sporting field alright, especially when the team was falling short of the 11 needed to participate in a match. What did not exist, at least on the playing fields I grew up on, was the female half of the world. Playing with dolls, were they?

Apparently Mithali Raj was not. In that brief innings in the final, I saw the magical Indian batting wristiness a-la VVS and also VVS in the lazy runout. Harmanpreet’s swag was Yuvraj grade and so was her unwillingness to be cowed down by this ‘big match’. Punam’s grit in sprinting the singles even after the cramps came on was Gautam Gambhir reselected. It is a testament to their potential and an indictment of my biased interests that I don’t even have female athlete names to compare them against.
Come on, I hear some of you say, don’t tell me our Women In Blue are even half as good as our Men In Blue are.

I’ll be honest. They aren't. Men’s cricket is far more fun to watch. Lords has seen far better cricket matches.

But what they are is astonishing enough.
It is easy to simplify things too much. As per the Indian Constitution, women have the same rights as men. Some laws, like the anti-dowry law, are even heavily pro women. Hence women are now equal to men. Boom. Problem solved. If it were only that simple.

What we are forgetting is the circumstances that these women fought to get here. A week before their trip to England some of them were struggling to get a kit bag to carry their gear in. What we are ignoring is that we still largely live in a culture where everyone from the society watchman to the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh has an opinion on what women should do, eat, wear, hang around with and by what time they should return home, let alone play sports among the ‘boys’. The reality we are continuously in denial of is that though everyone jumped onto the “Support Women’s Cricket” bandwagon (me included) as soon as they saw a chance of India winning the Cup, some of them like our BCCI’s own Rajeev Shukla did not even know whether the tournament was the Champions Trophy or the World Cup.

The Women In Blue have emerged out of this maze, this maze of expectations and inhibitions and girls-should-not-do-this-ness, to the highest level their sport has to offer. Yes, they stumbled catastrophically at the last hurdle but they showed a glimpse of what could be if 50% of our population is able to reach their full potential. Not worry about how hours in the sun would reduce their marriage prospects and think about how it would help their medal prospects. 

This whole process I must admit is going to be a little complicated. 

In my own home, my Mom was the only person watching the game from Ball 1. My Dad and me joined in post England’s batting. Dad made the mistake of putting into words what I was also thinking “Well… this match is interesting!” only to have his head bitten off by Mom for his ‘patronizing’ tone. Why should it not be interesting, Mom asked, is it just because it’s girls playing? At the same time, a cooking experiment which Mom was engaged in went awry much to her embarrassment. Dad polished his share off not willing to risk any more fire. I whined and tried to secretly feed my share to the dog who promptly declined.
But it was odd when you think of it. Here was this modern woman fighting for equal treatment yet at the same time drowning in old-school womanly guilt about not having cooked well. When I cook, all my cooking goes awry, simple non-experimental dishes too. I feel no guilt about it whatsoever. This is what I made. Now eat it. 499950 years of flawed cultural programming may have something to do with it.

Women can do anything. As long as they don’t have a strong opinion. Women can do anything. As long as they are cute and non-aggressive. Women can do anything. As long they still manage to be polite, slim, Fair & Lovely and keep their hair unfrizzy. These terms and conditions on being a woman are a strange mix of self-imposed and societal. Breaking out of them completely makes average ‘society’ uncomfortable. Staying completely within them makes women’s empowerment impossible. Someone should try making Rahul Gandhi understand all of this before he makes another appearance on Arnab’s s(laughter) show. Good luck!

In all those years of watching night trains go by, it never bothered me that it was boys, only boys, who could lead this carefree life of loitering and shooting the breeze. I never realized how privileged I was as a boy to get by late night entries with only a mild scolding. That late an entry by my sister would have involved a call to the police station or two. Not because my parents are conservative, they are absolutely not. But because the world outside is ‘bad’ – a sentiment half based in truth, half based in paranoia.

The world outside is 'bad' because the world outside is not used to seeing an independent woman, free of any male ‘protector’. It gets excited when it sees a girl in shorts and slavers in anticipation when it sees a girl drink alcohol. Because… why is she doing all those things otherwise? It is still struggling to come to terms with thousands of years of unchallenged male dominance and in the meantime, women have to be ‘careful’. 

It’s a wonderful way of absolving responsibility from oneself. Is it happening in India alone? How can we be misogynists when we worship women as goddesses? Have you seen Saudi Arabia? Excuses. More excuses.

That this will take time and many more Women’s World Cup finals before it translates to actual ground level changes is something already stated. But to deny that a genuine problem exists is to prevent its solution.

The same TV ad break during the final which had a nice Kotak Mahindra Bank ad showing a female sports-caster ask a cameraman out on a movie date also had the terrible Dabur Red toothpaste ad. It showed the age-old fairy tale of a handsome dude blowing a breath of fresh air at a cute girl from whose hands he had just snatched an apple. Love story begins. Don’t you see? When a handsome dude harasses a girl on the street, he’s the hero… when it’s an ugly dude harassing the girl, it’s the villain from whom the hero must save the girl from. Wrong lessons. Long taught to us.

The only way forward is to accept that women are flawed and real. Much like men are. They are not ideals of perfection to be preserved and protected within the four walls of the house. They have desires and ambitions and it is perfectly OK for them to chase them & fail at them if need be.
Like there are good men, there are good women. Like there are bad men, there are bad women. They can be brilliant. They can be normal. They can already send rockets to Mars. They should also be able to watch night trains go by.

Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention. I support women’s cricket… now.