Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Going, going, gone...

“An optimist stays up until midnight to see the new year in. A pessimist stays up to make sure the old one leaves.”

- Bill Vaughan

And no matter what category tickles your fancy, I do hope you stay up till midnight. So 00:00 does not have any cosmic significance, and frankly, looking at the past year can be a bit depressing, but that is why we look at the year-to-come instead. And 11:59 of 31st December is when everything seems possible. Next year we will visit Kala patthar, sort out our finances, start farming, and win a Nobel. Magic is in the air then, and deserves to be toasted.

And that is what I will be doing tonight. Picture me sitting on a terrace wrapped in a dozen shawls. By my side is a jar of eggnog , which I am fastidiously drinking from a wineglass. There is a crescent moon, and I am talking to friends on the phone. Happiness.

What do you plan to do? Tell me.

Happy New Year.

eggnog recipe? I am using this, from Jerry Thomas’ Bartenders Guide or How To Mix Drinks, shown me by the wonderful one.

Friday, December 26, 2008


So you have seen more dramatic photos of the Himalayas.For that matter, you have probably seen more dramatic photos of construction sites. but the composition is not the point. The point is that I Was There. I was there, sitting on top of a water tank and watching those mountains as if they would disappear if I turned away.

train stations.

Last week, I was asked by a friend, (and bless her for considering me to be an expert on these things) how best to spend a couple of hours at night, at a railway station. Well, I just did that, and this is how it went:
• I started off with dinner at one of those roadside rajma-chawal carts. You know, the ones that cater to people who work at the station (rickshaw-wallahs and all) rather than passengers. That is good wintery comfort food- steaming hot rice, rajma, and chutney. My nonchalance and seen-better-days travelling outfit acts like an invisibility cloak and no one raises an eyebrow at the only woman at the stall. Till I finished eating dinner and said, “Thank you, hanh, bhaisaab.” Spoons paused mid-journey, and all eyes swivelled towards me as I grinned and scurried away.
• At the next stall, I bought exactly 60 gms of peanuts for 5Rs. Is it that the precision of Indian Rail permeates its environs? Like the smell of chlorine? It is only on and near railway platforms that I am able to buy 150 ml of coffee, 3 idlis of 50 gms each, and of course, 60 gms of peanuts. I like it. Totally appeals to the calculate-to-the-third-decimal part of me.
• I sat reading for a while. I was reading a book of urdu poems (in the devanagari script) and a train to Lucknow began to pull out. I so badly wanted to go and board that train! I want to go there and hear urdu being spoken on the streets and eat kababs, and meet chikankari artisans, and look at the architecture, and sketch it, and do such-like tourist things.
• Sadly, I needed to leave my bench and my train of thoughts when the chap sitting next to me pulled out a gutkha packet (from his sock!) and began to chew. I cannot stand that. Blech!
• So went to the next platform and bought me a coffee. There, I eavesdropped (well, I couldn’t help it- I would have to leave the platform not to) on a conversation between a group of Jaunsari women and a very urban couple all of whom had just gotten off a train. They were discussing-loudly, at great length, and most explicitly- certain gynaecological problems the urban woman had. Apparently, the Jaunsaris know some herbal remedies. Let the fact that I did not need the information I received, especially when i was meditating over my coffee be set aside. Let us instead consider how this conversation ever got off the ground. Even if we were to assume that they were in the same compartment (Unlikely, unless they were all travelling sleeper) how does one go one from there?
“Hello, I am travelling to Dehradun. And you?”
“Ah! Me too! This is my husband.”
“This is my family. How’s your uterus been behaving lately?”
I love railway platforms. The mind boggles.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

the white-capped water redstart

If one bird could sum up for me the whole feeling of living and working in the Himalayan foothills, this would be it. I first saw it at Harshil and was enchanted by the cheeriness of the bird. And then again, I saw it at Deval. for me, it is now linked with field trips, with himalayan rivers, with environmental flows, and with solitary walks in the cold. And when I discovered its name! such a long name for an absurd little clown!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Back from Champawat.

Have just travelled about 3/4th of the width of Uttarakhand- a 16-hour bus journey, most of which was spent with my haversack on my knees. I was totally tired when I got back. But the journey had its moments.

I got down to the market square at about 5.30 am. It was cold, and dark, and quiet. But beautiful in a travelogue-ish way. Picture a large open square, lit by a couple of sodium vapour lamps, and a few small fires around which some people are standing. The parked taxis seem almost menacing in this un-earthly orange glow which looks like nothing so much as light reflected from Hades. The chai-shop is an oasis of cheery warmth, and there I go. It is brightly lit, tidy, warm, and the gas and the kettle are competing to out-hiss each other. I sip a chai and discuss mine and other’s travel plans.

When we finally leave, a good hour later, the sun has still not risen, but it is light. The fields are dreamily lovely. The harvest is over, and now the fields are covered with short grass. This morning, the fields have a coating of frost. The first time I saw frost, people, I was indignant because I thought someone had been spraying the lawns with chemicals! But now frosty mornings are a matter of course in my workplace.

When we climb the mountains and drive around a mountainside (oak forests, and then pine), there is the sun! And the sky is orangey-pink, and the world is golden. The driver greets the sun with a Namaste. I notice he does this to every shrine we pass as well, and am quite glad that I have such a devout person in charge. Now if only he did not close his eyes and bow his head in prayer while he is driving I would be happier.

The evening was lovely too. Here, the light was the same as when I started but in reverse, you know? Starting with golden, then pink, and finally grey. But while my morning was crisp with frost and laced with a few tendrils of mist, my evening was dark and warm. We were passing through a sugarcane belt, and the harvest is in progress. This means that the entire area is scented with jaggery. The farmers boil down sugarcane juice till it solidifies, and at every stage the smell is complex and warm and delicious. And this is done over wood fires, so the smoke adds its own touch of darkness and complexity. Sugarcane farming leads to over-extraction of ground water, reduces the fertility of fields and sows the seeds of a dozen social ills; the harvest however, is an incredibly sensuous time.

Cooking notes

Confession: I come from a long line of good and fiercely proud cooks and count among my friends good and equally proud cooks, all of who belong to the Mrs. Beeton school of cooking (to make rabbit stew, first catch the rabbit). I, most unworthy person that I am, did the unthinkable. I bought me a packet of instant dosa mix. But I made the dosas, and they turned out fine, and I am totally unrepentant (though skulking in shame).

What I learnt: Onions are slippery little devils. Especially when one is trying to grate them, they have a tendency to leap away and cause the cook to grate her fingers instead. But no worries. Blood has been traditionally used to thicken sauces, has it not?

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

addition to the process and product rant

Pope said it best, of course.

For forms of government let fools contest;
Whate'er is best administer'd is best:

games people play

One thing I love about Dehradun is the way the men here play board games. On the roadside one unexpectedly comes across groups of men intent on a game that I last played in my childhood. Very endearing. Near my house is a chess club. There is a place where the road has wide shoulders, and every evening there are groups of people sitting and playing chess. They store stools in a nearby shop, and their site is conveniently close to a chaiwallah. Generally 2-3 games are in progress, but on weekends there can be more- and the games also have spectators.

Another such institution is at a share-taxi stand close to my vegetable market. They have a carrom board, with a custom-built stand. Apparently, the drivers who are waiting for their turn to take passengers play carrom.

One game I did not recognize. It was being played by some truck drivers under their truck. They had drawn some concentric circles (4-5, am not sure), and divided them into sectors. They had some pebbles which were being used as markers. Does anyone know what game it is? Is it a variation of pacheesi?

I find myself doing the same. I play scrabble (real scrabble, not online) more often, attempt more crossword puzzles, write more, read more. I like it.

Cold Science, Warm Fuzziness

This is something I have only seen in the development sector. If someone found a cure for a disease you would not reject it on the grounds that a shaman will not be able to understand the process and so the cure will alienate him, would you? Then why are good processes for environmental conservation set aside because they are not inclusive enough?

Every process is only as good the product it delivers. If the ritual more important than the reason, well, you have just founded a cult. I am totally in favour of inclusive decision making, in favour of sharing, and yes, in favour of using techniques and material that make sure every stakeholder understands what is going on and can express his/her/its concerns. For me, it is important that every stakeholder has a voice.

That is why including the socio-cultural aspect in studies is important- because that is the language used by those who cannot speak developmental jargon. And the people who cannot speak the jargon, who speak in terms of culture and spiritual values, are some of the most important stakeholders- they are the forest dwellers, the subsistence farmers. So to underline the point, for me, this is a language I use to make myself understood, and to understand. As I converse in English with my colleagues, in Marathi with villagers, I also listen in Culture.

But what about those stakeholders who cannot even make themselves heard through rituals? Are these not the most marginalized, and should efforts not be made to listen to their needs? I speak of the ecosystem. The only way for the rivers and the forests to express their needs, and the only way for us to understand what they say, is through the language of science. How can a river ecosystem tell us of its non-negotiable instream requirements, other than by past flow measurements? In these days when villagers are dissociated with their environment, they cannot be the spokespersons for the hills. The ecosystem must speak for itself, in whatever language it chooses to.

Monitoring ground water levels, tracking migratory fish populations, measuring biomass, counting mayfly larvae in a stream- these may not mean much to the human dwellers of an ecosystem and will not translate into immediate benefits for them. And so these studies are considered a downright waste of time. A study that results in data that is not important or useful to the villagers, or may not be easily understood by them is considered elitist. To me, it is possible to look at it in the exact other way. Just as development workers take pride in the fact that they take the effort to go to the dalit vastis to facilitate meetings- despite the fact that it means less than nothing to the Rajputs/ Brahmins who make up the majority of the population, we also need to take pride in trying to converse with the non-anthropoid and even the non-sentient members of an ecosystem. Every stakeholder already has a voice and is shouting out to us, we need to listen.

What I do

I am slightly embarrassed that it has only just occurred to me to write about my work. My main project- what I have been employed for- is working on Himalayan rivers. This involves studying the threats to the river ecosystems- including but not limited to planned hydropower projects. This I will be doing with the community, and I am excited about sharing EIA reports with villagers and analysing these reports with them. My desk work- which I am also excited about- involves attempting to establish a system for assessing environmental flows for Himalayan rivers. This is daunting, as the sub-continental response to environmental flow is “Eh?” and even the Government of India persists in talking in terms of ‘minimum flows’ which is NOT environmental flow. Environmental flows mean that the natural cycle of a river, with floods and low flows need to be followed. For this, it is necessary to know the natural flows in the river, and this information is either classified (!) or just not available. Interesting times.

Currently, though, I am working on another project. India’s five-year plans have so far been set by expert committees in Delhi. This time, the government is making an effort to decentralize the process in 250 districts which have been noted as Backward Regions. The idea is that 4 people in each village are trained in participatory micro-planning, and facilitate the creation of a village plan. This they submit to the technical support (which in Uttarakhand and Orissa, is PSI, the organization I work for). They then compile the plans at the Block and District level, and Voila! One has a district plan. This is being done for the first time, and I think it is democracy at work. I am very excited by it, and yes, there are problems. It is just too new for the villagers to get right at the first go, there are far too many vested interests at far too many levels, and ensuring equity is such a major challenge that my team-mates and I need to meet and cry on each other’s shoulders after each field visit. It will not be perfect this time. It won’t be perfect the next 5 times, but every time it will be better. The 6th time, it won’t be perfect either, but it will be a darn good plan. And that, people, is almost enough.

Friday, December 5, 2008

For Tara.

On reading a previous post, Tara instructed me to ‘keep my eyes on the mountains and not on handsome engineers’. But what to do? We are like this only. I found another one!
This one is the sub-divisional engineer at BSNL (the phone company). He out-Carys Mr. Grant every step of the way, and is gallant to boot. I am getting a landline connection, and went to the ‘phone exchange to request them to please let me know when they come home, as otherwise the house will be empty. In the exchange, Mr.Cute is the first chap I come across, so I go up to him, smile, give him the gist of my problem and ask him if he knows who I should approach.
‘Well, follow me’
When I am tagging along with him, I notice that everyone is salaaming him. He enters the SDE’s office, which is when I realize who he is, and tells me to sit down.
He checks (without being asked) the status of my application, takes down the details, asks me if there is a time I would prefer the linesmen to come by, and how I am liking my move to Dehradun. By the end of the conversation, I am batting my eyelashes so furiously the draft is ruffling the papers on his desk.
Do you think I should drop by to thank him when my connection comes through?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

In Which She Celebrates Thanksgiving

This weekend, people, I was consumed with the desire to cook.

On Friday, I purchased a quarter kilo of chicken, and made it go really far- for three spectacular (says she modestly) meals.

That evening, I opened a bottle of wine brought all the way from Delhi (no, I have not found a purveyor of grape-juice-made-interesting in Ddun yet), poured me a glass and set to work on the chicken. I deboned it, and boiled the bones with some veggies for stock. With the meat and some stock, I made me a jambalaya. You might have noticed that I have a slight tendency towards self-congratulation, but this was worthy. I know it happened by accident, and I will not be able to replicate it again, but Lord, this was so good. It was perfectly cooked- creamy but not mushy, had the right amount of flavour and a smidgen of heat, and was hearty and fragrant and warm and awesome. I wish you were all here.

The recipe? I fried my chicken till brown, took the pieces out and added far too much garlic and some sliced onions to the pan. Tossed that around a bit, then added diced tomatoes, and followed that up with some green peppers. Tossed in some chilli powder, a squeeze of lemon and a sprinkling of salt. Added some rice and moved it around till translucent, threw in the chicken, then added hot stock till the things in the pan were covered. Put a lid on the pan, and let it simmer while I cleared the kitchen and drank my wine. Opened the pan to check, and there was perfection. A sprinkling of coriander, and mmmmm.

It was when I sat down for dinner with the rice and another glass of wine, sat down in my house with the first poultry dish that I had cooked there, at the end of a satisfying work week, after having talked with/emailed friends and family, that I realised that it was Thanksgiving.

This is not a perfect world- infact it is filled with far too much horror, and pain and anger and pettiness, but I have a lot to say thanks for, and so do we all. Cheers, people. Miss all those of you I had been with at this time last year. Come and visit me.

The people I have met

have been truly nice. And here is an incomplete list, in no particular order.

  • I once reached Ddun at an ungodly hour when I returned from a field trip. The rickshaw-wallah agreed to take me to my corner of the town without haggling over price, and those of you who have travelled in any of the larger cities in India know what a miracle this is. I reached home, and paid my fare. He waited till I unlocked the gate and got safely inside before driving off. That was such a lovely, non-intrusive, and good thing to do. I don’t know his name, never saw his face. But he made me feel a whole lot better about Ddun.
  • The chap I buy veggies from. It’s not like we are bosom friends now, but his is a friendly face I know and someone to chat to.
  • A family of five who were crammed into a three-seat bench on a bus, but still made space for me.
  • Owner of the Vishwakarma Lodge at Ghat. She did not like me, or trust this strange-talking, backpack carrying solo woman traveller, but I liked her. She was an immensely confident, hardworking, and gutsy woman in a tough place. It is perhaps not very politically correct, but I need to mention that she is a Muslim woman in the Land of the (Hindu) Gods, where most of the women, irrespective of religion, are in purdah. My sis would have really liked her- we need to go there.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


Those of you who know me in my guise of a cushion propped up on a settee next to a steaming mug, picture this:

Imagine a steep and fairly loose mountain, clad with pine and strewn with slippery needles. The colours are intense- startlingly blue cloudless sky, intense green pine with silvery tips, rust-red trunks and floor. On the mountainside is carved a narrow path like a string tossed onto the mountain. Along it, moving ever-upwards, one hand always maintaining contact with the mountainside, are three people: a handsome, forty-ish man who looks every precise inch the Junior Engineer that he is, a painfully shy and painfully young priest-by-birth-development-worker-by-training, and a sofa cushion complete with tassels and all.

Two of the three are wearing expressions of ferocious concentration. The cushion is wearing a fatuous grin. “Hee” she is thinking, “This is me; I am here. I am a grassroots worker in the Himalayas walking 7 km to a mountain hamlet accessible only on foot to help establish decentralized governance. Wow. ”

Quote of the week

“If the most oppressed person of the village is not included in the planning process, then even if you account for every naya paisa after implementation, your plan is still dishonest.”

Surendra Bhandari, Jan Kalyan Samiti, Ghat, District Chamoli.

Politically incorrect, absolutely biased rant.

You know I have had some reservations about settling in Dehradun for the first few weeks. I have shrugged it off by saying ‘new place, adjustment issues’. But let me get the reasons off my chest and then we can move on to talking about the weather, ok?

I thought I will be moving out of the hindu fanaticism belt when I left Maharashtra, so it discomfited me (to say the least) that it is alive and kicking here.

I arrived in D’dun on a Sunday, and the first thing I did was buy a local paper. The main article in that rag attempted to advise the government on how to deal with terrorism, or rather, with terrorists, or rather, with that entire section of society that has been labelled as “terrorist”. Apparently ‘we’ need to deal with ‘them’ they way they are treated in ‘their countries’ with an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. Who is we? And who is them? And which country are you talking about, exactly? Does the author seriously believe that India has a spotless human rights record?

The next week, I am off to the hills, and in a village near the Nepal border, I come across a ‘situation’. Policemen aplenty, onlookers even more, much shouting, and in the centre of it all, three-four wretched, roughed-up youths.

“What is happening?”

“ They have been arrested.”


“They were taking some cows to Nepal to be slaughtered.”

“Ah, they stole the cattle.”

“No, no. They are traders. But they were going to slaughter them. And killing gaumatas (the cow as mother) is a sin.”

(I did not do anything. I could not have done much, but I did not even try. Forgive me)

So let me get this straight. Cow-slaughter is not banned in India, but it is considered to be a ‘sin’ by some good citizens, and so one is liable to be arrested for the intent to slaughter a cow. This is ok, as it is ok to beat up some poor youths who are trying to make a living any legal way they can. It is ok to slaughter goats and chickens, ok to wander into a Reserved Forest with a gun and shoot at endangered animals, ok to beat up other humans, and also ok to let those wretched cows starve to death, but NOT ok to do something which will provide food for around 20% of the population and apparel for the entire population (I mean seriously, where do these ban-on-cow-slaughter enthusiasts think their shoes come from?).

My boss greets everyone with a “Jai Ramji Ki”. Which I forgive because he just does it to be contrary, he hasn’t been seen in a temple since he got his set of permanent teeth, and most importantly, he does not impose it on other people. The office gardener however, is a different story. Gem of a man, no doubt, and has a keen understanding of roses. He greets everyone with a “Hari Om”. The first time I met him; I greeted him with a “Namaste”, and was gently corrected. Since then I greet him with a Hari Om, as does the entire staff, but on the days when I am preoccupied and slip up, I am always corrected “I prefer Hari Om, Madam. This way, the Lord’s name is on our lips.” When I am reading or working and merely grunt in reply, he stands directly in my line of vision and repeats the Hari Om till I get the subtle hint. This is not a big deal, but his insistence is annoying- like a grain of sand in my shoe. One of these days I am going to greet him with a ‘Salaam Aleikuum’. That way also, the Lord’s name will be on our lips, don’t you agree?

My mother and sister, not to worry. I will stop short of getting myself lynched.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

a botanical search

As i was walking back from the village I had visited (Attoo, Dewal Tahsil, Camoli Block, Uttarakhand),the middle Himalayas were at their stunning best. The snowclad peaks loomed majestically, streams gurgled musically, bees buzzed busily, flowers preened valiantly as they tried to attract said bees, and strange animals rustled well, strangely. All wasted on me, though. I saw none of these things. I was on a quest. I was looking for a certain shrub, with erect and bushy form, with a slightly woody stem, with deeply palmate and serrated leaves- Cannabis sativa .

I had first come across it, growing by the bushel, during a reconnaissance survey along the Bhagirathi. The main shrub along the road to the village of Mukhwa is hash. I had then managed to pluck a few leaves and stow them in my wallet- for experimental purposes. Took them to my room in great anticipation and chewed. Sadly, I was so tired with all the walking of the day, that I could just register, “Ah, fibrous. Of course, hemp!” before I fell asleep.

The next time I came across this shrub was during my visit to Chamoli as an observer for the planning processes being implemented in the villages. There was just one bush growing next to the Pradhan’s house, and I was eyeing it hopefully. But the thing about being an observer is that one is in turn, continually observed. And the credibility of said observations suffers a beating when it may be considered that they were made under the influence. I know, I know. This is blatant marginalization and I shall launch a protest. But not today.

But where one bush grows, surely there must be more? And that is why, as I walked the 6km to my hotel, my eyes were roving like a pair of bees on a search-and-consume mission. It all came to naught. Have suspicions that that one bush has been planted there. But ah well, there are other field trips and I might even visit Mukhwa again.