Friday, April 30, 2010

the best prayer I've heard for a long time

..the absolute brilliance of my life astounds me and I am so incredibly grateful for all of my co-travelers on this path.

Grumpy Granny in her latest post.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010


Nothing good ever comes out of it, I have been told. And that's right.

Snippets of the things I heard during the electricity cut-out in the office today:

"I never buy from those people..they are all crooks"
"Yes, and look at the way they have infiltrated everything- welders, mechanics, fruit sellers. Can't escape them."
"My blood boils just looking at them"

And then the conversation moved on, and I was glad. But only for a short while.

"You should try dropping phenyl on spiders..they stagger around for nearly a minute before they die."
"Really? Does it work on other animals as well?"

M leaves in a couple of months to learn how to create a more just world.

C has the strange feeling she's going to be a little conversation-starved.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Guess who's in town!

The Westen Circus, that's who!

And no, that's not a typo up there- the circus' tickets, posters and internal signboards indicate that the name has nothing to do with compass points. The external hoarding , confusingly, calls it the Western Circus. Let's go the democratic way and follow the majority, shall we?

It's currently running 3 shows a day (1pm, 4pm, and 7pm) at the Parade ground, Dehradun and is more fun than I thought it would be. The excitement began early when we sat and waited for the show to begin. The tent was torn, but the light was perfect, and it felt as if we were sitting under the sky on a planet where the stars burn fierce and bright. Of course, I could be influenced by the naked enthusiasm of my colleague who was super-excited to be there, though he was a little disappointed that there were no elephant acts.

The circus does have a couple of elephants, but they seem to be mainly for welcoming the guests. I was happy not seeing them balancing on tiny stools. The sight of animals being forced -with cruel training- to perform acts always seemed a brutality to me. There are those who say that  Supreme Court ruling prohibiting animal acts has brought the circus to its knees. The argument that animal acts entertained the audience can also be an argument for bear baiting. It is more likely that our being accustomed to the digitized possibilities and perfection of television has made us insensible to live acts with all their humanity and this has led to the decline of the circus.

Because we are not used to seeing the black safety cable during we do. We wait as the artistes set up their apparatus and test it. We see the chap sitting in the scaffolding away from the spotlight and making the acts possible. We see the man in charge of safety for the trapeze act bowing to each support before setting up the nets. 
The woman walking the tightrope was new, I think. At any rate she was unsure. A man walked by her throughout the act, hand outstretched in case she needed to grab it. She didn't , but I think that is because that hand was there ready and waiting to help. She didn't make any mistakes, didn't drop any of the crockery she was balancing on her head.

And that was pretty much the exception, because these artists do make errors. They drop the objects they are juggling with, miss passes, drive their cycles straight into the poles. But then they redo it till it is perfect. And yes, the applause then is louder, the audience seeing themselves in a human who commits errors. There were times when I felt that these errors were part of the act, because showmen are nothing if not masters of psychology. But it doesn't matter. All this makes the circus what it should be- a celebration of human skill, perseverance and team spirit.

The clown acts too, had the theme of the underdog who wins. And this made the audience respond with victory cheers. I need to admit though, that I am always uptight and uncomfortable around the circus clown concept. The whole idea of hiring someone who is fatter/thinner/shorter/taller than a mythical perfect for the job of being laughed at is disturbing to me.

But I should not be talking of acceptance, because to my utter shock and shame I realized that I have size-stereotypes. Me! I should be the last person judging people by their appearance! This was a bitter pill, alright. Two women ran into the ring for what I realised to be a contortionist act. One of the two had a body that fit in with what my assumption was a contortionist needs to be: petite. The other did not, and I found myself assuming that she was there in an assistant role; this assumption was strengthened when she stood there as her thin friend put her body into a series of knots . Another one of those times when I am gladly wrong, because she turned out to be the star of the act. She did all that was done earlier with a glass full of water on her forehead.

But this circus was non-discriminatory in other ways as well. The only gender-specific things I saw were the initial parade (women) and apparatus carrying (men). Most other roles were handled equally, including sharpshooting. It also did not discriminate between its audience, enthralling all equally.

There was an additional treat in store for me. Throughout the show, various vendors came by with things to eat and drink. None of those tempted me. Until, that is, this came along.
Cotton candy. It's pink and fluffy. It's  made of sugar and some strange fluorescent chemical dye. What's not to like? I liked very much.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The love of a good man..

can work wonders. Not that I think Mian married me to reform me (you didn't, right?), but he has helped me overcome a lot of the 'I cant do that' block I had.
Take my kitchen for example..I am a passable cook, but had accepted that I can't make breads in any form- leavened or otherwise. Pasta (which counts as unleavened bread in my book) would sometimes be made from scratch, but those were definitely special occasions, and the preparation would begin with buying flour. Yes, flour never formed a part of my pantry.
And then Mian came along with his love for the sensuality of bread making. I watched him make tons of bread for the simple pleasure of it and realized that it's not actually a dangerous process. He taught me how to knead, gave me a love for the smell of fermenting dough, and left our kitchen stocked with far too many flours (whole wheat, refined, corn, rice, millet, buckwheat, amaranth) and enough yeast to colonize a planet.
Last week, I returned from the Pindar valley hungry for good food but too tired to do anything remotely complicated.  Nothing that requires me to step out of the house, I decided. Nothing complicated, nothing requiring me to slave. And so I made this:
 My new go-to food for when I am too tired to cook. hm.
and today for lunch, it was this:

This was so good. It took me about an hour, of which less than half was actual work time. Everything needed for this was already in the kitchen, and the end result was heaven- thin, crisp crust with caramelly, salty, intense topping. Please, make this.
Base: I didn't really use a recipe. This is a good one with hand-holding for the technique, which is the kind of bread recipe I like. I mixed one three-fingered pinch of yeast and a pinch of sugar in a little water and let it proof till I finished the dishes. Added to it one cup flour, a pinch of salt, a splash of oil and enough water to make a soft dough. Kneaded it till there were no cracks, coated the ball with oil and let it rise for a little less than an hour. Preheated the oven at the hottest possible. Oiled the lid of our kadhai, and stretched out the dough on that. Loaded with toppings, and let it cook for maybe 15 mins till the bottom of the crust was brown.
Toppings: Tomato sauce made by reducing blanched tomatoes with some dried fish (softened for 10 mins), garlic, salt, crushed red chilies, sugar. Onions and capsicum that I had sauteed till brownish. Olives.pepper. salt. some oregano.

not too much work for lunch, dinner and absolute bliss, eh?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

The chai stalls of Pindar Valley

On the Pindari glacier trek, the major landmarks are chai-stalls. And it was interesting to me to see how unlike on the pilgrim treks, there is no mad proliferation of competitive stalls. Each stage has its little family-run establishment that is basic, comfortable and has its own unique selling point.

Take the first one on the route. This is run by a pair of brothers, and all they sell are chai and eggs. And actually, that is more than what is required. The place is strategically located -in terms of distance and time from Loharkhet- where all one wants is chai.

And after that is a more plush one, approximately half way between Loharkhet and Dhakuri. This one has maggi noodles, eggs, chai and cold drinks. I did not find it especially pretty, but it seemed to be an important news exchange point.

And at Dhakuri, you get lunch! Dal, rice, potatoes, and chapaties if you ask nicely.

At Wachum, it's chai and if you are a resident, drought relief compensation.

Mallya Daur, now deserves honourable mention. Unlike the previous two, there is nothing else at Mallya other than the chai stall. The chai stall IS Mallya Daur. When the present owner retired from the army, he took over from his uncle who ran it earlier. In addition to a chai and maggi noodles place, it is also the loading depot for the non-timber forest produce collected by the locals. It is a rest stop for muleteers and a salt lick/grazing stop for their charges. It is a contact point for pastoralists, and a first aid centre in times of trouble.
 Chai stalls are important on the Pindari trail. Nearly all travellers stop at each one irrespective of whether or not they want tea. There is not more than half-a-day's lag in news from one end of the valley to another, and that makes the chai stalls most efficient and energy-efficient transmission devices, na?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Of bugyals

As the uttarakhandandies* were asking..

Bugyals are what high altitude (>3000 m above sea level) meadows are called in Uttarakhand, with the Valley of Flowers being the most famous one yet.
Think of a patch of flat land  nestled among the mountains. This patch has been carved by an old glacier. It covered a valley with the fine matter it scraped off the surrounding mountains and brought down smooth boulders to punctuate this land.

This left the mountains bare and polished; the ground received a thick layer of soil.

Over the years, plants grew and died and added to the organic content of that soil. This land is covered with snow for a large part of the year.But come summer the snow begins to melt, forming little rivulets and adding moisture to the combination of warmer temperatures, longer days, and rich soil.

Things begin to grow then.

This season is necessarily short, and the plants know it. There is a race in summer to grow! live! procreate! The plants here are uniquely situated to these harsh conditions. The two main strategies for survival are:
  •  Condensing life into one short glorious defiant burst before returning back under the soil as seed or bulb.

  • Hunkering down and surviving all that life throws at you; growing slowly, never rising high enough to challenge the wind, never attracting attention, but never giving up either.

Due to the abundance of food and the remote locations, bugyals are the home of many animals: the bharal, the thar, deer, leopards, bears, hyrax, hares, and also of birds. Even if the animals are elusive, they leave traces of their existence. The paths are marked with spoor and exposed earth where deer and bears have hunted for roots.

Recently-in glacial terms- humans came to know of bugyals. What a wonderful place to fatten sheep! And so there is a tradition- as there is in all mountain regions- of shepherds taking their herds up to the meadows for the summer. Normally, there is enough. But when have we been content with enough?

The herd size is increasing over the years, and now there is severe competition between the invading herds and resident animals. Meadows are regularly set fire to in order to promote the growth of grasses (like eulalyopsis, seen in the pics) favoured by sheep.
This practice does promote growth- but only of heat resistant species. The more delicate herbs and bulbs do not survive. Over the years, this leads to a change in the ecosystem composition from a mix of herbs and bulbs  to a grasses-dominated one. The lives of the shepherds are dependent on feeding their herds, and it is difficult to deny them their livelihood. I strongly agree. But I also believe that each ecosystem is as much a complex, living, sentient entity as a human is and deserves the fundamental right to life. It will be a sad day when there are no magical flower strewn meadows to dream about.

* Love that term!

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Trekking in the Pindar Valley

The stories follow, but should you be planning to go there (and you should), here are the basics:
The Pindar valley lies to the north of the town of Bageshwar, in Uttarakhand. You can see it online, or if like me you prefer good old fashioned contour maps, the picture below is from nh-44-06, available here.
May and June is 'The Season'. The flowers are in their hundreds, but so are the tourists. Earlier than that, all the flowers in the bugyals are not in flower, but the rhododendrons are, and the relative solitude is definitely worth it.
The motorable road goes to Loharkhet, from where your trek begins. You can drive up all the way there, but the public transport way is to take a train to Haldwani (the Kathgodam Express from Dehradun, or the Ranikhet Express from Delhi). Take a share-taxi to Bageshwar (300/-, and expect to change cars at Almora). Once there, you will have to hop the share-jeeps in 30-10 Rs instalments (Bageshwar-Bharadi Bazaar-Song-Loharkhet), or splurge on a 'booking car' to Loharkhet from Bageshwar (1100 Rs). That's expensive, and the share-taxis not only make for environmentally friendly car-pooling, but are very pretty too. If you like masses of fake flowers, that is..
Then what?
Then you start your trek. If you leave Haldwani at seven-ish, you'll probably reach Loharkhet a little before 6 pm. You can elect to stay either at the KMVN guesthouse or as we did, stay in the forest rest house. This is prettier, friendlier, and cheaper. The accommodations are dorm-type, but we had the place to ourselves. Here is a snap..
Eh? Because it's there! Actually no. There are a hundred saner reasons.
Because this is the easiest trek to actually touch 3860 masl.
Because one can watch Thar prance about on sheer rock cliffs
Because there are more Monal than you can shake a stick at- not that you would do it, of course.
Because it is good to realise that a watch has no relevance here, to wake and sleep with the sun.
Because it is even better to pause in the middle of a walk and realize that you are the only human in a kilometer's radius.
Because the road from Loharkhet to Kafni passes through forests of oak, rhododendron, horse-chestnut, fir, deodar, more rhododendron, juniper, and so on to the high altitude grasslands.
Because there is more concentrated beauty here than I've ever seen.

Missed me?

Am back! Still have knots in my calves, but am now clean and caffeinated. Will post the trip details and stories soon, but in the meantime:

This is Maiktoli Peak (6804 m), and I clicked this photo on my way back from Khati Village.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Have project..

Will travel.

I am off again, for nearly two weeks. I hope to be back in Dun on the 18th, though I might be too preoccupied with excavating the dirt under my fingernails to do any posting then..yes, too much information, I agree.

So let's talk of prettier things..
I am going off to walk in the Pindar valley. My colleague and I will be conducting a baseline study in three mid-altitude villages (2500-3000 masl) in the valley. We will be staying in the villages, chatting up strangers, counting flowers in meadows and measuring flows in springs. While not strictly work related, we also plan to squeeze a half day out and go as far up on the path to the glacier as is possible without any technical know-how: the Zero point.

Tough job, but someone's got to do it.

I will of course be posting stories and pictures when i return, but till then, here is a good account of the same trek.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


I tend to stay away from rants, activism and politics on this blog, but now it's getting personal. How can the world hound a crush of mine and not expect me to take up arms? 'The world' is a bit of exaggeration. It is a small section of the world..But that does not mean that I cannot snarl in protest!

Jairam Ramesh, our minister of environment and forests is being upbraided for..well, for doing what he is supposed to do. One of the responsibilities of the MoEF is to assess the environmental impact of large infrastructure projects and accordingly give clearance to them. Sadly in the past, our government has only read the 'give clearance' bit. Today, we have an official who truly understands his job and is willing to do it. Instead of being commended, Mr.Ramesh is facing flak from cabinet ministers and from the Prime minister's office 'for delaying clearance'. He has been called, among other things, a 'green roadblock'.

A part of my job entails scrutinizing the environmental impact assessment reports submitted for hydro-electricity projects. These have made me weep. These are ideally, meant to be written to present an objective assessment of the projects concerned. Objective, hah! The remuneration of the EIA consultant is subject to approval of the project, which is a strong incentive for 'pushing' the project instead of 'assessing' it. Further, the reports have been written assuming complicity on the part of all its readers. Which means that there is not even an attempt at appearing to be honest, leave alone being honest. Large paragraphs are common to several project reports- irrespective of suitability. Over  and over, the assessment is contained in one sentence 'this project has no negative environmental impact'. Damming a river, in the Himalayas, in a biodiversity rich, fragile, landslide prone cannot have NO impact. The reports are full of blanket statements like these,and Mr.Ramesh's insistence on accreditation indicates that he has read them.

I am a fan- a delirously swooning, cheering fan-  of Mr.Ramesh's based on his statements in the press and what little I've seen of him. There was his statement on taking office that ' a 98% clearance rate of projects by the MoEF is a sign that the ministry is not doing its job' which had caused M and me to do a little jig around the office. He attended part of a seminar I had gone for, and had come for it on time and having read the report and reflected on it. That is almost unheard of in India. During the Bt brinjal issue, he took the trouble to have several public meetings, and gave democracy a fighting chance. And now there is this.

Shabaash, mere Jairam!

(Thanks to cats-and-facts dot com for the image)