Wednesday, August 31, 2011

I, ?

When I was in the 11th standard, my sis had just moved to Pune as a new bride and mother. She would send me clothes from the Big City, and once mentioned feeling out of place in a store. At that age, I could not picture the child on her hip, her being tired after a full day, and with the day's stains on her clothes any more than I could imagine the effect of these on her. I knew she was still my spunky & chic sister, how could she be out of place in a department store?

And then, like other things, I learnt this too. These days, I guess that I look like..well, like what I am. A conservatively and unimaginatively dressed , sometimes frumpy, sometimes frazzled woman. I generally wear a salwar-kameez, always crumpled and generally faded. My hair is gathered in a ponytail, and the escaped bits stick straight out. I wear glasses, flat sandals and no makeup. This means that if I ever enter anything other than a grocery store, I am looked down upon. Trendy salespersons correcting my pronunciation and assuming I can't afford what I am looking at happens pretty often, and I don't mind it. I was a salesperson once, and had made the same mistake. 'Paying for my sins,' I think and move on.

The other day, I entered an 'adventure goods' store in Dun to look at camping stoves. The other (male and six feet tall) customers had clearly just come off a cliff, clad as they were in mountain gear-from the shoes to the hat. When an overweight salwar-kameez clad woman with vegetables sticking out of her bag entered and asked to look at 'um..camping stoves..something that runs on butane, perhaps?', he came to a very understandable conclusion. 'Gas stoves are down the road' he said, pointing to the household goods section of the market.

Ouch. Considering that this is my favourite photo of myself:

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Not a nice place to be

Pantnagar, Uttarakhand.

It was once a dense forest. Loved by the animals that had adapted themselves to their home, dreaded by the invaders who sought to conquer it.

Pant nagar is today dominated by an industrial estate- sterile at first glance, its toxicity is apparent when you look deeper. The people we spoke with told us of moving here during the Bangladesh war when they were given permission to move into deserted army barracks. Outside the small cleared circle that was theirs, was terror in the form of a dark forest with wild animals. Now not a tree remains. The economy runs on doing 'labour work' for the industries. The rivers are polluted beyond imagination; the water from the wells tastes of antibiotics.

Despite this, rural life still attempts to hang on by its teeth.

Take the river below. Even from the bridge we could smell it- like a belch after taking a B-complex capsule. The water was grey and sluggish. Despite that, life goes on. Tame ducks swim in those water. There is a fisherman patiently throwing his net over and over again into the opaque waters. Not in the snap for reasons of respect are a family performing a puja for their ancestors.

Further on, I came across a buffalo-shoeing. Never having seen this before, I stopped to see and take pictures. My colleague was embarrassed; the shoers were delighted. And it is not as brutal as it looks. The man holding the buffalo's head was the owner, and the animal trusted him and lay there calmly as he stroked its head. The only time I saw the buffalo jerk its foot was when the man tapped the nails into place. Here is a photo.

Monday, August 22, 2011

the Kausani-Garur trek

I think (and please correct me if I am wrong) that it was Eric Newby who said of his wife Wanda, that she firmly believed that a hill should run downhill both ways. And I agree with her.

While trekking, every step is bittersweet. If plodding uphill, its ok- your reward lies a bit further ahead. Sadly, if you are gaily waltzing downhill ,you know you will pay for it soon.

Unless you are walking from Kausani to Garur. This is that magical thing- a mountain walk that's downhill all the way. It's 9 km, or so we were told by the chap who came with my colleague and me. We were walking through the valley to inspect the springs,but there are also lots of things for the holiday-maker to enjoy.

The walk starts at the Kausani market, or if you choose, you can motor down to the tea gardens like we did. Right opposite the gate, there is a earth path that goes downhill into the valley. Follow it as it meanders through a Tolkienish Shire.

There are no grand vistas here, no awe-inspiring panoramas. Here instead is the charm of well kept fields, of neat woods, and bubbling little streams that refresh these. The walk leads through satisfying varying terrain. Initially you walk through pine forests, which lower down are replaced by a mixed broad-leaf forest. This is lush and crossed by numerous rivulets that either have a bridge, or need to be crossed over. There are farms to walk through, and rivers to walk along.  The path goes by a school and some houses, each one of which has sunflowers growing in the yard. The best part? It's all downhill!

For us spring-surveyors, the valley and the walk was the destination. However, Garur is an interesting marketplace. We had a very satisfying meal of rajma-chawal (though everything tastes good after a 9km walk). And it is also the home of the Baijnath temple, which also has a tank full of fish which you can feed.

I tried to look for a map to share with you, but couldn't get one. Its best then, if you can get someone to show you the way. And since I have a reader who is making the trip with his 8-yr old daughter, this is also a good trip for young ones, provided you have a plan B. Either be prepared to carry the child yourself, or negotiate with someone at the market to show you the road, and also pick her up once in a  while. Its a safe path, with no cliffs or scrambles involved and will give her the thrill of completing a 'real' hike. And for added incentive, there are plenty of these fruit trees.
Nashpatis. And apparently so common that even the schoolboys were ignoring them. A couple plopped down in front of us, and we did not ignore them. And I am glad we didn't.  They were the sweetest, juiciest, crispest, freshest pears I have ever eaten.

Friday, August 19, 2011


When I first moved to Dun and found myself friendless, I had begun looking among the office-wallahs for someone to hang out with. One of these had caught my eye, but to initiate friendship would have meant negotiating office hierarchy and gender politics. Consequently, I never invited S over for coffee. Three years later, I realised that I might have missed something.

I was regaling my colleagues at lunch with tales of my last trip in the mountains. When I was describing the drive, I said, ‘The worst thing about a pine forest is..’

‘A lack of undergrowth!’ interjected a gruff voice behind me, completing my sentence perfectly.

I turned around in disbelief to see S, the twinkle in his eye mirroring the one in mine. As the office looked on, we simultaneously burst into the uproarious, thigh-slapping laughter that is born of a shared embarrassing secret.

For those who don’t know why it is a bad thing, think about the long drives, the tiny hamlets, the utter lack of toilets. Think about the poor researcher forced to go on a long-ish trek till she is over the ridge just so she can be out of her colleagues’ view. Think about her discomfiture as she squats in relief and then notices a cowherd on the slope facing her.

Undergrowth is a good thing. Shared laughter is even better.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

the rasgulla that wasn't

We were driving down from Danya all the way to Dehradun. A two-day journey, and all throughout our driver only spoke of one thing. ‘We should stop for rasgullas at Nagina’, he said ‘I know a place where they are incredible. All officers beg to stop there.'

During the drive, my colleague and I swapped tales of the rasgullas we had eaten in Calcutta and vied with each other for the most mouth-watering descriptions of those luscious paneer balls. The first thing that something might be amiss came when I looked at the menu on the wall and asked, ‘What is the difference between a rasgulla (Rs. 5) and a chenna rasgulla( Rs. 6)? Aren’t all rasgullas made of chenna?’ We shrugged and ordered what our driver recommended- two samosas and two rasgullas each.

The samosas were everything they are supposed to be. Crisp, flaky, rich pastry enclosed warm, spicy-sweet soft potatoes and made us close our eyes in bliss. The rasgullas were not anything rasgullas are supposed to be. Simply because they were gulab jamuns. I have no idea why the names are mixed up. Other than the shape, rasgullas and gulabjamuns are as different as two things can be. A rasgulla is a ball of paneer dipped in sugar syrup and served cold. A gulab jamun is a ball of flour deep fried, dipped in sugar syrup and served hot.
That said, gulab jamuns are among my favourite sweets, and these were the best I’ve ever eaten. Not too sweet and without that annoying hard centre badly made ones have. These were served piping hot and were so soft they seemed to gently quiver on my plate. I polished mine off, and seriously contemplated walking around for a half hour just so I could have two more.

The place is well worth a stop if you ever find yourself driving down to Hardiwar from the east. The name of the shop is Tularam’s, and it is just opposite the railway station.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

I, weasel

There are things I do not like in myself. Perhaps the most despicable thing about me is my utter unreliability towards those I love. I had grown up thinking that I would always stay with my mum and take care of her. A few years ago, I felt shuttered in and eventually ran away, metaphorically and literally speaking.

My sis and my niece are two people I utterly love, who I want to spend more time with, but don’t. This time, I was in Pune for one precious evening during which my niece smothered me with kisses and painted my nails ‘because you have a meeting’. I was almost in tears as she painstakingly, inexpertly applied sparkly pink to my fingernails. But early the next morning, while she slept, I went away.

And now the little child I teach. We might not have made much progress in English, but we have become great friends. As I plan for the winter, I feel regret at leaving her, but that is overshadowed by excitement. And yesterday, because my travels for the last few weeks have not let us meet, she sent me this through her dad.

In a month, while she sleeps, I will go away.

Monday, August 8, 2011

of a Naula

Naulas are the little depression springs that communities in Uttarakhand use to collect drinking water.
As Naulas go, the one on the left is a pretty typical one. Its located in Bageshwar district. As you see, the spring has been enclosed using attractive stone masonry. Two little lampholders guide passing travelers. The water is cool and clear. The cleanliness is not by accident. There are various signs painted on that request the users not to use soap within the spring or otherwise pollute it in any way.

Sadly, this desire to not pollute it is used to further oppression. There is a hamlet nearby where people of the scheduled caste live. They are not allowed to use this spring, though it is close to their hamlet. Instead, they must use one a kilometre away. In the summer, their spring dries up. Then they are 'generously' given water from this spring. Provided of course, that they do not defile it by entering the premises. And so, they are not allowed to help themselves to the water. Instead a brahman must pour out the water into their pots from a height. What if there is no brahman present, you ask? well then, they are expected to wait till one such person comes along.

And that is the image that has been haunting me since I returned. People patiently waiting beside a full pool of clean water, but unable to use it. 

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Conversations on the road

If you haven't guessed already, I've been away. 5 districts in two states, and I haven't processed it all. The landscapes, of rural UP and the Himalayas were stunning enough to make me gasp for pleasure. This was a work tour, and my colleague and I were hosted by extremely passionate and committed people. We saw wonderful work being done, and magnificent restored forests. At the same time, there was much to distress me- xenophobia, untouchability, smugness. Great joy, great sadness, and I still need to sort through my photos, notes and memories. Till then a conversation:

Me (hunting for um, feminine products at a junction town): Hello Bhaisaab. Do you have Kotex?
He: (Blank stare)
Me (getting a little desperate because my colleagues might turn up) : Um. Kotex? Stayfree? Whisper?
He: What are those?
Me: Sanitary napkins. Do you have any?
He: What are those? Something to do with a camera?

There were many responses possible to that statement. A short sex-ed class might have been called for. I could have said,'It could be, but that's way too kinky for me'. I chose the coward's way out.

 'No. Thank you anyway.'