Saturday, June 27, 2009

Platform Platitudes, OR Zen and the Art of Railway Travel

While waiting at Old Delhi Station for my train to Calcutta, I spotted a sign on Platform 1 that said: TRAINS MAY BE LATE OR MAY MAKE UP TIME. A statement like this could only have originated from a Zen master. Or the Indian Railways. The sign perfectly embodies an attitude which has become second nature to Indian Railways faithfuls: philosophical acceptance, and cheerful resignation to forces beyond our control.

My return train was 18 hours late. It had no pantry, and no running water. But on reflection, I realised that I was in no hurry anyway, I could always buy food at the stations, and as the good Lord hath given us grime, so too He hath given us a home at journey’s end – a home with soap and a shower. I faced the journey with equanimity – even pleasure, for I had a good book with me, and a side lower berth.

In spite of the epic delays, the unpredictability and the littered platforms, so many of us like nothing better than to travel by train. To truly love the Indian railways, you need to be a bit like a Zen monk yourself.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Move over Honey, I’m Travelling on that Line

On the road between Manali and Solang, there are lines and lines of stalls which rent out skiing equipment and woollens. The stall-owners got to choose their own stall-numbers.
The stall in the background is the rather mundane No. 2424. Had I owned that stall, I would have called it: The One After 909.

Monday, June 22, 2009

My Life is a Comic Book

My life is a comic book.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

It’s not about the Hike

This post about my trek from Solang to Beaskund was written practically under compulsion: my college seniors who organized the trek invited me on the express condition that I would blog about it. The transition from my preferred anecdotal style of posting to a full-fledged trip report did not come easy. I had to consciously avoid an atavism to the style of the identikit essays we used to write in Class 2: Last Sunday, my family, that is my parents, my younger brother and I, went to the zoo/circus/seaside…

Further difficulty was occasioned by the memory of this long-ago webcomic, which cropped up every time I sat down to write and made me acutely self-conscious. But on the plus side, this post allows me to settle a personal score: Rahul Saha, this is where I get back for what you once did to me.

When we landed at the Manali bus terminus, a well-meaning gentleman asked Tewary which hotel we were staying at. Tewary turned to look at him incredulously. “Hotel?! Azad panchhi hain hum, aasman ke nichey, paharon ke chhaon mein...” (Hotel?! We are free like the birds, under open skies, in the shadow of the mountains...)

Our reputation as nutcases was firmly established within minutes of our arrival.

For the four magical days which ensued, we tramped through snowfields, trudged across valleys, clambered over boulders, and waded across ice-cold streams. Best of all, we lived in bright yellow tents.

Too many Boy Scout camps in drab khaki tents have given me a weakness for brightly-coloured tents, and I was ecstatic when I saw the ones we had hired for this trip.

Such pretty tents demand tasteful interior decoration. Cows grazing on the steep hillsides sometimes lose their footing and dash themselves to pieces on the rocks below. So the valley in some places is strewn with bovine skeletons.

I found this nearly intact skull and wanted to take it back to adorn our tent, but the others didn’t let me. We have ambiguous and irrational attitudes towards death.

We also have ambiguous and irrational attitudes towards shit. In accordance with childhood habit, all four of us preferred water over toilet paper. So we designated one of our bottles as the pootle (Latin: poo + bottle). After the first day’s trek, we discovered in the evening that we were running short of bottles, and this led us to deliberate over the ethics of using the pootle also as a drinking-water bottle. Despite the telling arguments which I advanced, I believe the debate was settled against the motion.

But skulls and pootles were forgotten as soon as the smell of dinner wafted into our tents. We poked our heads outside to find that Dharam-ji, our intrepid guide and cook, was roasting rotis on the embers of our bonfire. Soft, slightly-charred rotis with a whiff of the wood-fire – on that bitterly cold night, they tasted like nothing on earth. I did not count how many I ate, but the tally easily runs into double digits.

Dharam-ji warned us that the next day there would be no bonfire, because we would pitch camp higher up at Bhakarthatch, where firewood is not easily available. Pramit said we should carry twigs in our pocket and make a tiny bonfire “just for the heck of it.” I don’t know why, but I found his suggestion unbelievably hilarious. I am laughing as I type it.

The next day we reached Bhakarthatch and pitched our tents. It snowed in the afternoon. The day after, we trekked to Beaskund and back to camp. We made good time, though we stopped occasionally to have snowball fights and eat apples. The scenery on this leg of the trek was the most stunning.

As you see from the pictures above, and at the risk of stating the obvious, the Himalayas are big. At close range, it is easy to be overawed by their majesty. Occasionally, to restore my sense of scale and to keep myself from going dizzy, I would desist from craning my neck and closely inspect the ground. To a probing eye and a powerful macro lens, a new and equally wonderful world reveals itself.

When we had dragged our rucksacks and our travel-weary bodies back into Manali, we set about finding ourselves a room for the night. And find one we did – a backpacker lodge in old Manali. You know the type: the sort of place that Lonely Planet describes as ‘basic’, dirt-cheap room charges, hippy inmates, an affable owner, grass on demand, and the trippiest colour scheme you have ever seen.

That night’s dinner at Johnson’s Café, Manali was on Pramit, Tewary and Archana. (This is why it is useless to go on trips with juniors, and highly profitable to go with seniors.) Over pasta, smoked trout and a celebratory bottle of wine, we relived our favourite moments from the trek.

For me at least, this unwinding after an outdoor expedition is as delightful as the trip itself. Because it is not just to see new places and enjoy new experiences that we travel; it is not just for the heck of it that we undergo myriad discomforts and inconveniences, physically push ourselves to the limit. We travel, as much as anything else, to return to familiar comforts and a broadband connection. It is a shopworn saying, but we travel to come home.

In Tremendous Trifles, G. K. Chesterton writes how, when he was leaving for a holiday, a friend walked into his flat in Battersea and asked where he was going. Chesterton baffled his friend with the reply:
I am going to Battersea, to Battersea viâ Paris, Belfort, Heidelberg, and Frankfort. […] I cannot see any Battersea here; I cannot see any London or any England. I cannot see that door. I cannot see that chair: because a cloud of sleep and custom has come across my eyes. The only way to get back to them is to go somewhere else; and that is the real object of travel and the real pleasure of holidays.
Chesterton, that canny old codger, had nailed it as usual. The hike is awesome. But it’s not just about the hike, is it?

Wednesday, June 3, 2009