Monday, August 08, 2016

Reasons - Part One

Here she was — four years after she had broken up the relationship they were never really in — finally unblocking him on Whatsapp on a fine Sunday afternoon. Here he was — bored on a flight about to take off, scrolling down his Whatsapp feed — shocked by the change in her profile pic. Gasping for air, he clicked on her name.
Is that you?
She hadn’t expected it. Barely a minute after she had unblocked him, almost absentmindedly, was this ping from a man whom no woman would have loved more than her.
How many times have I told you to not start conversations with questions?
He couldn’t help smiling like a fool. “Isn’t that a question as well?
She allowed herself a little hint of a smile that the idiot’s thoughts usually brought to her lips. She also allowed herself the little indulgence of being a tease, after ages, yet again. She didn’t reply. But she was online.
Your India number is working. Are you back?
She was still online. He was trying hard not to let the screen go idle.
It was harmless, she thought. She was going back to Hong Kong the next morning. After a while, she gave in.
Yes, I’m at Poltu da’s place in Calcutta.”
He froze, almost unable to type, rudely brought back to senses by the otherwise-interesting air hostess. He had to switch his cellphone off. He was about to fly to Calcutta!
“ You know what? I’ll be in Cal in three hours. Oly? For old times’ sake?
The ticks hadn’t turned blue till the time the flight took off. He knew she wouldn’t come.

His cellphone beeps, again. It isn’t her, again.
“You’ve got to be kidding me, Vicks. Snap out of it. I’m not playing,” reads her last ping.
“Stand me up, then. Beer isn’t that bad here. B-)”
The emoticon is the exact opposite of what he’s feeling right now. He’s dying inside, trying to play cool.
Last seen 18 minutes ago. The two grey ticks that haven’t turned blue pretty much sum up his story. Their story, he would like to argue.
He goes back to the comforting world of memories away from all the trepidation that uncertainty usually brings to him. Entropy isn’t his cup of tea; he likes things in an order. Not any particular order, though. Just some sort of a pattern, or a semblance of it.
She fit into the pattern. Like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle that fits so perfectly into another only to discover it’s all wrong after a while. It seems alright for the time the pieces are together — almost magical — like it’s meant to be. But life isn’t that bright and gay and colorful and HD as it is in her favorite Romedy Now movies. And she isn’t Reese Witherspoon.
Memories of how it all started occupy his thoughts.
Hanky gira hai tera neeche.
Sitting less than two feet apart in the same classroom for two years had not brought him farther than uttering these five words in the same breath. Athank you followed, reciprocated by an angular smile. The angle was a new addition that he practiced every day for hours in front of the mirror. Back in 2001, Kasoor was the new phenomenon and her bestie — who had a not-so-secret crush on him — had then told him that Pari luuuurrrvvved Aftab.
Every day, with a needle-like precision, would her handkerchief ‘fall down’ just before recess and everyday, like a Pavlov’s dog, would Vikram utter those five words. A thank you followed. Then the smile with the angle.
Nothing else. Zero. Zip. Nada.
He had always been popular with the ladies. He had his share of fun, too. It started with the introduction of something monumentally stimulating to his life — cleavage. Staring down the kurtas of senior school girls who pulled his cheeks when he was in the junior school drove him crazy.
Growing up was more fun, especially when it was Hide-&-Seek time. Erections felt awesome, especially against shapely teenage butts. Dark Room was the game where he actually grew up. Even before he learnt about the wonders of shagging, he got his first blowjob. It felt warm and wet and funny and amazing. If high school making out was a game, he had been hitting home runs with a remarkable ease.
But when it came to her, he froze. He would keep looking at her from angles only to be embarassed to death when she caught him in the process. He couldn’t even look her into the eye.
Abey Gandu, you know there’s something. Kuchh karega?” His best friend was a well-wisher: the kind you have in schools.
Haan meri jaan, chal sutta pila!”
Oh what a tease she was! Blissfully aware but playing the little games she had always been fond of. She wasn’t the one who could be wooed with roses and perfumes and chocolates and coffee and bikes. She was different and he knew that about her.
“Repeat?” asks the waiter, forcing him out of the daze.
The grey ticks have turned blue. She could have just slid down the notification panel on her Android. She didn’t have to tell him she’s read the ping.
Last seen 1 minute ago.

Also published at Medium here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Ridiculous Debate on Intolerance

There is a striking similarity between what’s happening in India today and post-World-War-I Germany that Ravish Kumar pointed out before the General Elections of 2014.
Strong anti-incumbency against the dynastic monarchy which was away from the ground realities and economic crisis led to the rise of German democracy which was soon bastardised by coalition politics. Policy paralysis reigned supreme with the Parliament not functioning for most of the time. This was when Hitler emerged as a moderate progressive figure synonymous with development of everyone.
Party workers started swearing allegiance to him. Personality cult seemed to touch a new high when the election posters had nothing more than a face and a name; as if he was the remedy to all malaise. There was an unprecedented support by the big businesses, war veterans and the youth. He had only one trusted deputy called Joseph Goebbels who is considered to have changed the paradigm of propaganda for which he chose radio as his favorite tool. Media’s independence was severely curtailed while there was an increasing intolerance amidst all classes in the society. People having no other similarity to each other except religion were made to believe in coherence which naturally bore aversion to anyone who didn’t subscribe to the same faith. It affected people of all religions regardless of their numbers. Victimization was in the air, ultra-nationalists ran amok in the name of German pride and anyone who voiced out the feeling of change faced character assassination.
Strangely, all media outlets kept praising Hitler’s foreign and economic policies and before anyone understood the depravity of it all, 6 million Jews had already been killed. It was only after his rule that it was found that most of his announcements didn’t progress much on paper.
Hitler's election poster. No party name/promises. Name and face.
Our generation and Modi
Our generation’s political evolution has been unique, just like every other generations pre or post Independence. Being unique has often been the most common commonality in the universe. Fools and madmen celebrate their uniqueness, like we celebrate the mass bastardized phrase of ‘Unity in Diversity’.
Our generation didn’t give a rat’s behind to ‘our country’ till about 4 years back. In all fairness, there were profile pic changes then, too, twice a year. And India crushing Pakistan everytime in World Cups sent us into an orgasmic tizzy. But it was there that it ended. Thankfully.
If we belonged to the backward classes, we availed reservation without blinking an eyelid. If we didn’t, we were plain jealous and criticized the policy of reservation. Fifty bucks was all that we needed to gratify the thulla at the traffic signal. We didn’t really get bothered to know about the intricacies of politics or bureaucracy, news channels bored us to death and we looked the other way whenever there was a threat to our physical or social safety. Because we loved convenience.
More ‘evolved’ ones among us started judging people on whether they voted regularly. It didn’t seem to matter whether they knew anything more than the name/party of the candidates. But the act of voting gelled well with the innate self-righteousness. We had no idea how to hold our MLAs and MPs accountable. In fact, we didn’t even know why do we need two different representatives and how do their responsibilities vary. But we voted. The necessary condition of responsible citizenship - voting - had conveniently become necessary and sufficient. And we had no qualms about it. Because we loved convenience.
Then, suddenly, everything changed in 2011 with the India Against Corruption movement culminating in Anna deification. The public conscience and discourse was changed irreversibly. Most of us had somehow survived the chronic societal conditioning that forced us to have an opinion. But here we were, suddenly enlightened by our greater consumption of informative media in our face.
From a generation of Gunda and Tip Tip Barsa Pani fans, we suddenly started asking bigger questions on social media. There have been hated governments in the past. But the almost surreal combination of last-in-dynasty Rahul Gandhi’s idiocy, Manmohan Singh’s emasculation, Robert Vadra’s windfall, several UPA2-gates, cheaper access to 3G data and availability of books on discount on e-tail made us more aware and thus suddenly intolerant of the regime. And everything that seemed to oppose it started sounding nice and fancy.
That, in my humble opinion (because I have one, too, like everyone else), was the start of polarization.
It was then we found Narendra Damodardas Modi. Our understanding of him was the exact opposite of our understanding of UPA2. And we thought we had found a savior.
Modi’s decisiveness led out of unforeseen centralization of power (15 portfolios shared between Amit Shah and him) amidst least number of days when the assembly functioned (avg of 31 per year) seemed a better alternative to the ‘policy paralysis’ of UPA2, the only understanding of the phrase being the interference by coalition partners, the only understanding of the phenomenon being Left’s opposition to the Nuclear deal, the only understanding of the reason being Left’s morbid abhorrence to anything to do with the United States of America. The opposition’s role in policy paralysis was quickly forgotten if, at all, we knew about it.
Modi’s clean record of personal gratification on public money and lack of immediate family was a start contrast with the ‘dynasty’ rule and several thousand crores scams. Modi’s eloquence gelled better than the aloofness of Gandhis and Manmohan. Modi’s use of social and anti-social media was better than UPA’s, if there was any. Modi’s PR team made groupthink suddenly come alive out of Orwell’s 1984 in the not-so-scary non-Commie context.
Before we knew it, we didn’t hate UPA2 as much as we loved Modi. One person leading a nation of a billion people out of it’s woes. It boosted our egos to think we should be involved in how is our nation being run, not in how our constituencies are. An NDA Parliament candidate suddenly had a newfound credibility. He was suddenly absolved of all the corruption scars and lack of progress as an incumbent. Our innate need for an almighty leader made us blind to everything else including the past ideologies, actions or lack of them. Namo-Namo was in the air.
The debate on ‘Intolerance’
If history is anything to learn a lesson from, the debate on intolerance is now getting ridiculous. On the ridiculousness scale of 1 to Sudarshan News, it’s quite comfortably sitting next to India’s constitutional declaration of being secular. And it’s unnerving.
There is absolutely no doubt in the factual accuracy of the following:
  • Ours has been a country with the most deep-rooted divide on the basis of subcastes, castes, religion and gender. Exploitation of a vast portion of population on the basis of race or color or ethnicity has examples throughout the world, but the sheer number of divides and sub-divides set us apart. We have been conditioned to harbor prejudices at many levels across generations.
  • In the last few months, there has been a deliberate attempt of sensationalism in public discourse. It has either been blamed on the rightwing ultra nationals (side ‘A’) or the opposition parties (side ‘B’), depending on which side one is on
  • Irresponsible statements have been made from both the sides of the spectrum in the name of ‘you-did-it-too’. The majority is made to abhor the minority appeasement while the minorities are made scared of emergence of an akhand Hindu rashtra
  • There has been no action taken - at least not made public - on the above repeat-offenders of people inflaming the volatile sentiments. It makes the powers-that-be look like they are in cahoots and their agenda is being served.
  • It has been majorly attributed to the Bihar 2015 and UP 2017 elections. Since the NDA doesn’t enjoy a majority in the Rajya Sabha (which is the House protecting the interests of states in our Federal structure) and has not been statesmanlike in dealing with the opposition, Bihar and UP were/are important. Team ‘A’ feels that such issues are raised to obfuscate the glorious work done by Modi while Team ‘B’ feels that polarization has been the modus operandi through which NDA wants to sweep the states, too.
So, the question arises that why is someone who says exactly this is being hunted like a witch to the point of inanity of app downloads and ‘I will not watch Dangal’ Facebook pages?
The bits about Hitler and Modi serve as a backdrop to what I am trying to vent out next. Not even remotely am I placing the entire blame of a billion-strong societal shift on one person. But if someone enjoys the glory and the perks, he should get the most part of the blame, too. Having said that, the role of the media - most of which runs like Modi’s errand boys anyway - cannot be ignored.
The pressures of 24-hour news reporting had brought in the ‘saanp-bichchhus’ and alien stories in long narratives with background scores before 2011. But our generation’s premature and sudden interest in passive consumption of news media after the IAC movement has changed the game. The TRPs are over the roof and so is competition. The bigwigs can pull the strings and play a symbiotic game with the Lutyen’s Delhi. The small fries just emulate what the big media houses are making news of. Rest is left to the senas of Bhakts and sickulars crammed up in war rooms, making made-and-paid news viral for a living.
Political establishment’s toying with the media houses is not a new phenomenon. There have been editorial visions closer to establishment, the visionaries of which have been suitably rewarded with Rajya Sabha seats and extravagant foreign junkets. It’s not tough to understand which media houses have enjoyed the most given the long rule of the Gandhis.
But the times have changed. The establishment has changed and it bloody well knows the game. In fact, it plays it much better than the predecessors. The so-called anti-establishment media houses have suddenly found new saviors. Advertisement slots bought by Patanjali and various Central governement departments are the most visible tip of the iceberg.
News is out. Campaign is in. What Arnab Goswami started - with the same spokespeople with absolute authority on every topic on the Earth - has slowly spread across the spectrum. Not only are these nonsensical panel discussions saving millions of rupees on investigative jounalism, it is creating a public discourse suited to the powers-that-be.
Aiding the panel discussions is selective and agenda-led reporting. People who should be on the fringe are made protagonists and explosive sound bytes are misinterpreted and ran on air throughout the day. Fact checks are things of the past. Why let truth get in the way of a good sensational story? It has fallen to such levels that an otherwise bullshitting KRK made sense for a change.

Our nationalism is being appealed to and conquered. Our weak spot of self-righteousness is being hammered on. Patriotism is in the air, the only manifestation of which is writing on social media. We are made to believe in the concept of a paramount nation, which by the way, is no different from the Zamindari system abolished 50 years back. We’re the commoners at the mercy of an all-powerful elite enjoying the perks and throwing the leftovers to us. Democracy has been one of the most tragic inventions ever.
Riots have happened throughout our history and will continue to happen. Stray incidents of violence will, too. Some religions have had more extreme subscribers because of the ambiguity of the tenets and lack of evolution and will continue to be so. There have been blatant state-sponsored violations of the Constitution and peace and will continue to happen. Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.
But what is different this time is a suddenly curious but extremely polarized set of people who are ready to discount all shortcomings of their ideology, whichever side they might be on. Anyone who is not ‘A’ has to be ‘B’ and vice-versa. Two wrongs are made a right by both the poles of the game.
Since ‘A’, the extremely right-wing, funnily-pseudo-nationalists-on-social-media-and-panel-discussions monstrously outnumber the other extreme, they have been the bigger culprits of being misled and making the society more collectively extreme. The ‘liberals’ are slow to realize that by countering every point of view of the extreme, they are making things worse and are more prone to be earmarked into ‘B’.
Any celebrity who speaks out in favor of the team’s belief - whichever team it might be - is made larger than life and appreciated. There are no questions on his past, his political affiliations, his ‘agenda’. His quotes are shared extensively over the Internet and Whatsapp; most of which have no connection to him and often are obscure movie dialogues suiting the occasion.
Any celebrity speaks against the team’s belief has his past and motives questioned. Dirt is thrown like he has sinned and the act of speaking out is termed ‘publicity-seeking’. If someone didn’t speak out when there were incidents of violence during the past regime, he has absolutely no right to speak up now. Wow.
Well, it’s not every week that Anupam Kher gains 2 millions followers. Siding with the majority has it’s perks for sure.
The damage done is irreparable. I am no optimist, either. But I just hope that Team ‘A’ understands that there is no international ‘badnaami’ when celebrities speak their heart out, atleast not more than the ‘badnaami’ by inflammatory statements made by the bigwigs which made the celebrity voice out his concerns in the first place.
Just for fun
Just like everyone (including me) is an expert on national politics today, we have collectively been experts on cricket from time immemorial.
Imagine people criticizing the national cricket team’s weaknesses on their Facebook page. Or a celebrity voicing out, say, the growing lack of aggression under Dhoni (or unnecessary aggression under Kohli) and this being the only topic of panel discussions on news channels.
Would the critical analysis make the Indian team ‘badnaam’ in the international cricketing circuit? Will it affect the foreign investment in the team? Should any critical analysis be an insult to only the captain? Shouldn’t he be held accountable for most of the blame, though? Shouldn’t such critical analysis be encouraged rather than shelved? Should you make separate camps belonging to Dhoni and Kohli and threaten everyone who spoke out his mind against your team?
Come on. It’s high time we get a life. That includes reading and writing any more articles on the new buzzword: Intolerance.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Backpacking Across Spiti [Part 3: Of Mountains and Monasteries]

Read Part 1 here or here. Read part 2 here or here. Cellphone with Spiti pics lost at Chandrataal. Respective owners of all pics used in the travelogue have been given due credit.

Always susceptible to the vagaries of nature, Spiti can be commonly accessed only for three to four months every year. Early July or late September are the best times to go while August would usually suit the people who do not like any hassles of probable landslides, hailstorms and snowfall. But a vast majority of people one usually meets here are the kinds who love a little extra to go on the road. On my first night in Kaza, I met three couples.

One of them were the Batras from Delhi (both aged 55). On a 2004 Machismo, they went on their first bike trip to Ladakh with a Royal Enfield group in 2004 which changed their life forever. They made 24 trips in the next decade together always looking for new adventures. (At this age, they took the rarely tread upon Saach Pass on their way back to Delhi)

Second of them was a Maharastrian couple from Solapur. Both of them (aged 47 and 45) quit their job 5 years back and set upon the adventure of their life vagabonding from one corner of the country to the other. They had just reached Kaza after doing the Pin Valley amidst frequent downpours.

The third was a couple from Chandigarh - the wonderful Jassi Paji and Sunita Bhabhi - who loved the mountains and their SUV. They loved meeting new people and were almost the guarding angels of hitchhikers all the time. They offered me a ride the next morning, which I gladly accepted.

The morning started with my first of the four deeply spiritual experiences I had on the trip. There was a 7am morning prayer at Sakya monastery and it was the first time I felt the power of faith. Whenever the kid lamas chanted, there was a perceivable warmth. When the chanting stopped even for a minute, the temperature fell again!

Amazed to the core, I went back to Sakya Abode, where the Gobhi paratha breakfast can put a lot of restaurants in plains to shame! Immediately after breakfast, I left with Jassi Paaji.

Our first stop was Ki (also spelled as Key, Kye, Kee; monastery at 13700 ft, no cellphone network) Gompa. Barely 12 kms from Kaza on surprisingly good roads, it's a 3 hour hike or a half hour drive. The Ki monastery is supposed to be the biggest one in Spiti and can accomodate more than 200 monks, if needed. One can stay in the monastery and would always find co-travelers and co-residents here, most of whom would have come here to learn meditation from the head monk here.

The view of the Spiti river from the monastery was breath taking. We sat on the monastery rooftop for a long time, admiring the raw beauty we were so lucky to behold.

Just like any other monastery in the region, Ki monks love entertaining guests with what they're having. We were lucky that they were having tea, which they served us with utmost humility. It was, by far and would even be after I had visited all monasteries, the best tea I had ever had. A magical smell and the taste that warmed me up from the inside. To the amusement of everyone else in the room, I asked for another cup and was gladly obliged.

Our next stop was Kibber (14000ft, pop 366, no cellphone network) , barely 6kms from Ki. The roads were still very good and it took us 15 mins. On the way I met Robert and Vivek, two friends I made last evening hiking up. One of best things about Spiti is that one keeps stumbling into the same people again and again. The best experiences and the dos-and-donts are shared and adieu bid, only to meet again for sure.

Till Komik was connected by a road, Kibber was the highest village in the world with a connecting motorable road. It's still the highest polling station in the world. One of the most populated villages and one of the few with a telegraph office, a community TV and private TVs, it houses 77 families from time immemorial, thanks to the golden rule of family planning (explained a little later) which helps every family grow linearly. There is a wildlife sanctuary for the enthusiasts, too.

Kibber, with identical houses and windows - a unique Spitian feature in every village
Next, we drove down and took a left just before reaching Kaza to reach Langza (14400ft, 148pop, no cellphone network) - first of the 'triangle-villages'. (A week later, I trekked up the same road for 15 kms from Kaza which took me 4 and a half hours. Another option to reach Langza, the mythical headquarters of the Spitian devtas, is a biweekly bus on Tuesdays and Saturdays).

The drive to Langza, and then to Komik was the one of the most beautiful experiences ever. Every few kilometres, we were forced to get down the vehicle and just sit there speechless. It was so quiet we could hear ourselves breathe. It was the second of the four spiritual experiences I had on the entire trip.

No pic can do justice to the spiritual experience that the roads to Langza and Komik were, but this pic comes really close [Pic courtesy]
Langza is the land of a enchanting giant Buddha statue and 33 households. For people with no problem of mountain sickness, a homestay here would be highly recommended.

Langza [Pic courtesy Seemant Saxena, Flickr feed]
Langza is also the land of fossils. We tried to find some and couldn't get any. The 'fossil hunting' is a pursuit of the patient, although little kids playing around are more than eager to help.

Next was Komik, the road to which from Langza is long, tough and confusing despite being the only one. It is the highest village in the world at 15050 ft. Home to 114 people without a cellphone network but with Tata Sky connections and the original Sakya monastery with a really rad Lama (he asked me to smoke the good stuff when I asked for permission to smoke a cigarette).

We met a 50 year old farmer and his really hot daughter who were having fun doing absolutely nothing. They offered me to show a small one-hour route to Kaza on the condition that I would sponsor their night stay there!

That's me with the 8ft board in Komik in one of the pics that got saved because of Whatsapp! 
One of the highest monasteries of the world, of one of the most tantrik paths of Buddhism [Pic courtesy]

The Komik village [Pic courtesy]
We couldn't cover Hikkim (14400 ft, 161 pop, no cellphone network), 5 kms from Langza because of an under-construction road. One can easily hike/drive to Hikkim and post a post card to loved ones from the highest post office in the world.

Highest post office in the world, Hikkim, Spiti [Pic courtesy India Today]
Next couple of days were spent on strolling around Kaza and meeting people, mainly the volunteers from Ecosphere - Shaishavi, Abhishek, Daniel, Lauren, Tien, Vera, Sumant to name a few - from various parts of the world who were here to make a difference in their own small way. Little does Ishita (who founded Ecosphere) know I spent two nights in the Taste of Spiti volunteer rooms!

A few of us went to Chichum, a small village near Kibber, to experience the freak ropeway. It was organized by Tien, a Chinese national, is a filmmaker from London who has been spending 6 months every year in Spiti for the last 5 years making a documentary.

All of us went in groups of two in the basket in which the locals go as high as 10 people at the time, hanging! I went in with Lauren, a Dutch volunteer, and the experience was goosebumpy to say the least! We saw a truck split into pieces down below and it made the adrenaline flow even faster! Tien shot our video which I promised Lauren that I'd email her but eventually lost along with the cellphone!

 Anyway, this is what the ropeway looks like. It's a must, must, must, must do in Spiti!

More than half the journey is taken care of by gravity but the remaining is hard work: one needs to keep pulling the rope till the basket reaches the other end of the ropeway! On the final 'trip' on the ropeway, Tien sat with two others and while they were about the return to the Kibber end, the rope broke off! It was one of the moments I would never forget in my life. Thankfully, neither of the three panicked. But it made them pulling themselves impossible. So, eight of us pulled them for ten minutes to finally make them reach safely! Phew!

I made really good friends with Shaishavi, an IT professional from Pune, with whom I went to Dhangkar and Tabo. Dhangkar is reached through a 8km approach road from Shichhling which is on the SH30 24 kms from Kaza. It is where I had my third 'spiritual' experience.

Dhangkar village (12800ft, 301 pop, 68 families) was the capital of Spiti before it was shifted to the more hospitable Kaza. There is a 'fort' on one of the highest points of the village from where the people threw stones at the invaders. [Dhang = small mountain, Khar = fortress].
Dhangkar village, one of the most beautiful in Spiti [Pic courtesy Team BHP]
The monastery, already declared as one of the 100 most endangered heritage monuments in the world, is a crumbling structure precariously placed on a mountain. There are places in the Dhangkar Gompa where more than 3 people are not allowed to go together. At one such partially forbidden points in the monastery at the edge of a cliff, I took a nap under the blue sky looking at one of the most beautiful sights ever. It was there where I met the head Lama of the Gompa who had brought for me delicious black tea. He spoke to me about how nothing really mattered and everything always worked out because everything was part of the one and only unity. The conversation has been the single biggest influence I have had on the way I think.

Dhangkar Gompa [Pic courtesy]
We had lunch at the Dhangkar monastery guest house which is surprisingly good option to stay. A trek to Dhangkar lake is highly rated but we couldn't do it as we had to go back to Kaza after doing Tabo the same day.

Dhangkar lake [Pic courtesy Sagar Bolbhat, a friend I made on the trip]
We moved to Tabo (11000ft, 135 families, no cellphone network) which is the second most commercially exploited village after Kaza. 50kms from Kaza, it is here where people come to withdraw money when the ATM and the money vending machine do not work in Kaza.

Vivek, whom I spoke about earlier and met in Tabo again, told me about the monastery stay in Dhangkar, which he loved. Tabo monastery, though a little more comfortable, was a little too mainstream for his liking.

It's famous as being the top village on the wishlist for post-retirement life of the 14th Dalai Lama and for arguably the oldest and unarguably the most beautiful monastery of Spiti. It houses 1000 year old frescoes which cannot be photographed, though one can click in the monastery campus outside.

The 1000 year old monastery at Tabo [Pic courtesy]
The new monastery at Tabo [Pic courtesy Marcus Fornell, Flickr feed]
Unlike the rest of the trip, I had booked a cab for Tabo and Dhangkar with Shaishavi in interest of time. And it showed us another unique Spitian feature. Regardless of who is paying for the trip, there will always be locals hopping into the vehicle and hopping out at their destinations. This is because everyone knows everyone in Spiti and one cannot wait for the infrequent buses to travel. Hitchhiking is a integral part of life of Spiti, for which the locals never forget thanking the travelers.

Spiti literally means the 'Middle Land' - between Tibet and India. One can see a beautiful amalgamation of the two cultures from the relatively commercial Kaza to the tiny mud-and-timber hamlets of 20 people. Buddhism is a way of life here, manifested in the form of Tibetan-ish lamaseries/monasteries dotted spradically across far flung terrains.

People here are simple, almost incredibly so. One of them was Lady Dolma, a strikingly beautiful lady of 35 who looked at least 10 years older than her age. The aridity makes people age quickly, she explained. A disciplined intake of the Sea-buck thorn, spread across the barren-ish land of Spiti, helps but the people are way too lazy.

How would Spiti be in winter: this was one of the first questions I asked her. Almost a painter with her words in grammatically correct Hindi, she explained that for most days during the harsh winter for five months a year, people do nothing. The nonchalance of her rhetoric was surreal.

'Log baithe rehte hain. Aise hi. Ek jagah mein. Baat karte hain, aur kya?'

Kaza in winters. Pic courtesy -
On rare good days, there is only 3ft of snow which takes a 4-member family about 4 hours to take out manually. Those are the days when people get out of their houses. The rest of the winter is spent with the 10 tonnes of wood that every family needs to survive. Sometimes, there are helicopters to deliver provisions when the land is cut off for long durations. They also serve as the only vehicles available to take the sick and the needy to the hospital in Kaza.

She also explained the age old family planning practices that still find favor across the valley. The first son of the family takes up farming (or other important jobs in the village) as the prime responsibility is towards the land one is born on. The second son of the family, without a choice, has the responsibility to keep the flag of Buddhism high. All the super awesome Lamas that I met were second sons of the family: an amazing trivia I wouldn't have an idea about, had it not been for Lady Dolma, who had never gone beyond Reckong Peo in her life!

Spiti can only be lived. No picture or blog can ever recreate the experience. Thank God for that!

[To be continued in final part...Chacha Chachi from Batal, Chandrataal, Old Manali and Vashisht)

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Backpacking Across Spiti [Part2: Love At First Sight]

Read Part1 here.

There's just one bus from Reckong Peo to Kaza every day at 7AM [11 hours, 330INR]. And it's not just a bus, it's the lifeline of the region in every sense of the word.

It serves as the only newspaper delivery mechanism with the driver promptly 'delivering' neat bundles of 1 to 3 newspapers rolled up and tied together with rubber bands from a moving bus. It serves as the only vehicle carrying officially sealed bundles of India Post without supervision to far flung post offices (including Hikkim - world's highest post office at 14,400ft - routed through Kaza). It serves as a lot more, best understood by talking to Mr Mohan Singh - one of the four conductors on the route - well versed with the region.

Talking to locals is the only way to learn about Spiti, which, with a population density of less than 2 people per sq km, is a land of stories that didn't find their way out. Take out the-relatively-easier-to-live-in Lahaul and what remains is a land of criminally few people and vast stretches of almost virgin beauty.

"Hunooz Spiti Dur Ast" - Nizamuddin Taulia

If the roads from Rampur to Peo were dramatic, I was in for the proverbial roller coaster. I got a ticket only till Nako, which looked somewhere midway on the map. The Nako village [Alt 12000ft, Population 572] and the Nako lake after a short trek, which I got to know later, would have been a fantastic option to explore. But after being forced to miss the Kinnaur gems of Sangla [9000ft], Rakcham [10000ft] and Chitkul [11300ft], I wasn't destined to explore Nako, too.

I was not feeling well at all. It wasn't mountain sickness, though. It was the fact that I needed to use a washroom urgently and the roads weren't helping. After a couple of hours that seemed like an eternity, the bus stopped at a sleepy highway village of Spillow.

'Strictly for 10 minutes,' shouted Mohan Singh.

The short clip shows the roads between Spillow and Pooh. The roads are pretty much the same from Peo to Spillow, too.

Almost in slow motion, I ran down the bus and then a small hill with a bottle of Kinley and the Dettol squeezy handwash, which by the way, is the biggest invention by mankind since sliced bread and condoms. A few minutes later, I personified world peace.

No adjectives or pictures can do justice to the incredibly humbling experience the rest of the journey was. It can only be lived. Especially the last hour before we leave the district of Kinnaur and enter Spiti would remain in my memories as the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen.

 Pic coutesy Sagar Bolbhat, a friend I made on the trip
Pic coutesy Sagar Bolbhat, a friend I made on the trip

I didn't get down at Nako and got a ticket till Kaza. The bus stopped at Hurling [4000 ft], the second village of the Spiti district after Sumdo, for lunch. It was where I met Dorje from a village called Chandigarh in Spiti who regaled me with Spiti stories.

One of them was about Chandigarh, the 'newest' village of Spiti around 50 years old. It had a population of 250, huge by Spiti standards. It was during the Chinese invasion in the 1962 war that the Indian goverment decided to relocate some people closer to Indo-Tibetan border to the plains of Chandigarh and Mohali. Not willing to leave their home soil, the villagers from several small villages set up the settlement on the highway and called it Chandigarh!

The other story was about a living mummy in a village called Giu which was 10km away from the place we were having this conversation at. Apparently, a buddhist saint asphyxiated himself with his knees to achieve the supreme form of transcendental meditation in the fifteenth century. In the 1975 earthquake, the mummy got washed up in the Spiti river only to be discovered when a ITBP digging shovel hit it on it's head and it started bleeding. The proof of the pudding lies in the fact that hair and nails still grow on the mummy's body!

One of the only 11 'mummified' Buddhist monks that somehow didn't get destroyed by the locals fearing the Chinese post the Cultural revolution. Carbon dating confirms the times of the 15th century. [Pic courtesy]

Planning to do Giu along with Tabo, I sat on the bus only to find myself catching forty winks involuntarily and wake up suddenly every few minutes to look outside and marvel at an entirely different terrain than the last time I woke up. The experience, in itself, was a unique one. It was almost a trance, with the night's sleep catching up with me in funny way.

Photo credits already taken by the photographer in the pics

Almost used to not having proper roads in the much more hospitable plains. I was pleasantly surprised by the work done by BRO and ITBP in such hazardous terrains. Hats off, to not just their willpower but also to their weird sense of humor exemplified in small boards that one finds all along the way.

Their acronym makes everything just so cool!

At around 7PM, the bus reached the much awaited basecamp for the next few days: Kaza [12000 ft, Pop 3000]. Fell in love with the place the moment I got down the bus!

Kaza Bus Stand [Pic courtesy]

Met a couple from Sweden in the bus who told me about the two best places to stay in Kaza: Sakya Abode and Deyzor. Tired like a dog, I buckled up and started walking when I came across the best little thing in Kaza: Sol Cafe. 

 [Pic courtesy Ecosphere]

Stopped by to have a cup of some seriously good coffee and met some great people, in turn. I would spend all the post-travel evenings that I would spend in Kaza in this little place meeting more interesting people than I could have ever imagined. The Seabuckthorn tea [50 INR] steals the show with the special Sol Sandwich [80 INR].

Sol Cafe, along with Taste of Spiti, is run by Ishita of Ecosphere for the last 12 years on the sheer strength of her iron will. They are 'developing the ecological and cultural conscience' of Spiti promoting eco-tourism, sustainable livelihoods and seabuckthorn - a local berry that's supposed to be awesomesauce for our health. It's run through a well-oiled chain of volunteers who participate in short or long term assignments on things as big as conservation development and as small as running the Sol Cafe. [Know more about the enterprise, which is no longer not-for-profit, here] It is here that I made friends with Abhishek, Shaishavi, Vera, Tien and Sumant with whom the mountain ropeway at Chichum was an experience of a lifetime a couple of days later.

It was here that I also got the much needed roadmap because it was getting increasingly confusing with all the stories and I desperately needed to put things in perspective using a map. The 10-rupee map that made everything crystal clear looked something like this:

Fingers crossed, I next went to the infamous Kaza ATM, only to find it out of order. Little did I know that it would not be working for the next four days and I would not be able to check out of the hotel till a wonderful couple from Chandigarh bail me out! 

It was then when I overheard people talking in Spitian and the only words I could hear were 'Spiti Festival'. I took a chance and asked them what were they talking about and it happened to be a question of amazing consequences.

Serendipitous as it might sound, it was the penultimate day of the Spiti festival: the annual cultural/sports extrvaganza of the district where people from all the villages walked tirelessly up and down the mountains for three consecutive nights in the dark and assembled in the Kaza Government school.

The folk dances were breath taking and so was the innocently explosive response of the crowd after every performance. I had seen the likes only in pics in the online travelogues. Witnessing them firsthand blew me away. Below are some pics from the Spiti festival - absolutely not doing justice to what the experience was like.

It was pitch dark till the time I decided to move on to the hotel. There was no electricity in the village and the only sounds were those of a few travellers and a lot of dogs. The mountains still looked majestic! [I try finding other adjectives for them but there's nothing - not even one - that does justice other than majestic] 

With a torch for company, I would have gone to every corner of Kaza before finally stumbling across the hotel Sakya Abode which, for future references, was next to the Sakya monastery.

Sakya Tangyud monastery [Pic courtesy Rudolf Schratter, Tripadvisor]

Sakya Abode, though not looking as beautiful without electricity, is still the best hotel in the district [Pic courtesy - Tripadvisor page]

I was told that it was impossible to get a room in Sakya without prior booking but I was lucky to get one, though I did see many of my cotraveler friends having to switch hotels because Sakya Abode was pre-booked!

Hotel food is so damned good that when I was came back to Kaza and didn't get a room here, I stayed at the hotel next door so that I could get food here. More importantly, the dining area is just too good with amazing coffee table books and retiring travelers with whom one can share a conversation or two with ease.

Dining area, Sakya Abode [Pic courtesy hotel website]

It was here that I met Mr Tsering Bodh, the property owner who also runs two other properties and organises camps, treks and all things in and around Spiti with several collaborators online. He is a rockstar with proud Spitian roots and a Delhi education. He knows what he does really well and is down to earth like few others. He happened to play an important role in my journey. 

It was also here that I met Poonam, the stud caretaker-cum-waiter from Assam who loves spending 6 months every year in Kaza!

I got a room downstairs for Rs 1000 a night, which Tsering reduced to Rs 900 at the time of final bill! This, by the way, is super expensive by Kaza standards where you can get a room for as low as Rs 200 and an equally comfortable room as Sakya Abode would cost Rs 600. 

But I'm glad I stayed here as some of the people and the resulting experiences I met here probably changed the way I think forever.

[To be continued in Part 3...Spiti Festival, Key, Kibber, Chichum, Langza, Komik, Dhangkar, Tabo and back to Kaza]