What I think about when I think about travelling

India is a chaotic, beautiful place. It’s a study in opposites that leaves me spellbound in more ways than one whenever I travel. From the busy bustling traffic and lush green landscapes in and around Bangalore, to the barren, rocky, almost post-apocalyptic landscape of Spiti, it’s a visual treat to say the least.

I’m writing this just after my trek to Hampta Pass and an onward trip to Kaza, the sub-divisional headquarters of Spiti valley in the Lahaul-Spiti district. But this one is not about me, it’s about the mountains, the people we meet, and the things that make us fall in love with all the intangible aspects of it, the night sky, the shapes we see in the mountains due to an interplay of moonlight and shadows, the beauty of a sunrise, the despondency of incessant rain and the magic that finds us only once we step into the unknown.

If you look up the definition of a trek in a dictionary, it’ll tell you that it’s just a walk, albeit one where you gain or lose some altitude. But it’s so much more. It’s a case study on how we behave under physical stress and uncomfortable situations. It’s about being calm in the face of uncertain odds, about making new friends and having some memorable conversations that we might never have had, had we met the same people in the cities. Learning new things about ourselves is a part of it. As a self professed introvert, I managed to make great bonds with people I just met, while having so much more fun than any other social event I’ve ever attended. At a trekking campsite, you’ll find true brotherhood without barriers. The free flowing conversations (and tea) go on just as a mountain river flows and finds its own path, nevermind the apparent differences in backgrounds the people come from.

It’s not a bed of roses that’s for sure. The road from Rohtang Pass to Kaza is so bad that the entire busload of people seem to be headbanging to its rhythm for the entire duration of the journey. But they say shared suffering leads to much better bonds, and I saw it in action this time. And the suffering, real or imagined, was just one part of it. To find people with whom you can just stand and talk their under the stars when the cold winds of Spiti are doing there best to drive you inside your tents, was something else.

In the span of 6 days, I met an almost 10-year old kid whose confidence surpasses mine even though I’m 26. There’s a person who cares so deeply about the mountains and it’s people that he has done multiple volunteering stints from Ladakh to Delhi, and above all, wants to make life better for the people living in these extreme geographical fringes, in whatever big or small way he can. And he does this with real passion, whereas most of us engage in some sort of volunteering activity just to add “Social Work Creds” to our resumes. There was our trek leader, who is the calmest person when things to wrong, but belts out mind-numbing puns otherwise. And then there were out local guides, who can run up and down huge mountains in a matter of minutes, while we can only imagine doing such things in a video game. As for new friends, I made a great many of them, the list is too long to describe here. From laughing together at how stupid the mules looked and discussing the banality of our mundane work lives, to an infinite chai partner who’s always ready for a cup of tea, to one who can correlate any real-life situation with one of the numerous video games he has played.

Then there was Mr. Rinchen Tshering (the spelling might be wrong) in the world’s highest post office at Hikkim, who was extremely helpful. Although he was out of stamps at the post office and we couldn’t send any letters right then, he suggested alternate ways so that we could send some memorable letters with the postal mark of Hikkim on them. His kindness and helpful spirit in one of the remotest corners of India was heart-warming.

As a friend reminded me in one of the campsites, how can we be so nostalgic about a place we have never visited before? While this line is from The Motorcycle Diaries, I think it captures the spirit of travelling as a whole. When I see something, natural or man-made, that gives me goosebumps, that’s when all the long bus rides on bumpy roads make perfect sense to experience something that magnificent. This is the magic of the mountains, and indeed, raw nature in all its glory.

P.S.: The title is copied from an essay Haruki Murakami wrote about running. He had been running for more than 25 years when he wrote it. I’m nowhere close to that level of travelling yet. But consider his an homage to a great writer who might have shaped my worldview in a significant manner.


Forgotten Folk

India is a vast and multicultural nation. It defied experts’ predictions of imminent fragmentation within years of its independence. Despite having a multitude of faiths, cultures, languages, castes and sub-castes, the Indian Union has stood the test of time. Indeed, in many ways, it has been able to shake off the provincialism and feudalism that existed in the form of 562 princely states and emerged as a unified, cohesive entity.

The above paragraph shows the prevalent opinion about the diverse cultures in India and its status as a unified nation. Schoolchildren and grown-ups alike are incessantly exposed to terms like “Unity in Diversity” et al. But while most Indians take pride in the fact that it is a tolerant state (and indeed it is to a large extent), deep seated prejudices and stereotypes paint a very different picture in many cases.

Reports of ill treatment towards visitors/students from north-east India and Africa have become commonplace. Tribal areas across the country have seen very few rewards of modern-day development, even after 70 years of independence. The north eastern states, till a few months ago, were connected to the rest of India by just a single bridge on the Brahmaputra. A new one has since been built. There is disproportionately low coverage of news from the north-east in mainstream media. One example is that the gruesome 1983 Nellie Massacre (with 2100 deaths) in Assam remains relatively unknown, while the 2002 Gujarat riots with a death toll of about 2000 people has been at the frontline of news reporting for the past two decades.

While one may be excused to think that these are isolated incidents that are not a reflection of our collective psyche, such incidents are too many to be isolated and too frequent to be coincidental.

In this article, we’ll start with exploring the basic tenets of Indian mythology and historical factors in search of some reasons for intolerance in our society. Then, we’ll move on to the post-Independence era to understand why such behaviour has not yet been rooted out despite tremendous improvement in education levels across the country. Ultimately, we’ll try to find ways to bring about a much-needed change.

Colour and Caste: An unholy correlation

Skin colour has assumed diabolical proportions in India’s caste ridden society. I wish I could say this was not always so. This particular narrative can be seen not only in our history but in myths as well. Consider the following points:

  1. The Sanskrit word for caste is “varna”, which means the colour of one’s skin. It indicates that the caste system as a division of social classes based on skin colour, though this might just be a correlation rather than causation.
  2. While the caste system was supposedly based on a system for division of labour, we can see around us that the so-called upper castes in India are predominantly fair-skinned and so-called lower castes dark skinned. This leads me to question the very basis on which the caste system was formed.
  3. In Ramayana, the Asuras were dark skinned people and have been depicted as such in all visual representations (artwork, serials, paintings, etc.). However, Lord Rama, though said to be dark skinned, has always been represented as fair or with a bluish hue. In this context, contemporary usage has relegated the Asuras to the evil side, further reinforcing discrimination based on colour. A recent example of this bias in action was the blockbuster movie, Baahubali, in which the antagonist was dark skinned, while the protagonist was fair skinned.
  4. Lord Krishna, although dark skinned (Krishna means “black, dark” in Sanskrit) has also been portrayed as blue skinned and not dark skinned.

The burgeoning market for fairness creams and demands of fair brides/grooms in matrimonial pages signify that the general populace of India is much more interested in a fair skin, perhaps disproportionately so. In a deeply religious country like India, a case can be made that such myths have impacted common perceptions of caste and skin colour.

Foreign Rule and the fascination for fair skin

During a nearly 300-year British rule in the subcontinent, the perception of superiority of fair skinned people was reinforced not just at a social level but as a matter of policy. The concept of “White Man’s Burden” was much touted across the world at this time as an excuse for rampant colonialism.

During these years, one can conjecture that caste system became even more rigid and inter-caste mobility grew even more constrained. A social order that put British citizens at the top and dark skinned Shudras at the bottom can be blamed for a further stagnation of society on the caste front.

Post-Independence Era

Post-1947, much has been done to bring marginalized populations in the mainstream. The controversial Reservation Policy (Affirmative Action) was instituted with similar aims. A detailed discussion of the policy is not the subject of this article, but suffice it to say that the twin aims of social justice and voter appeasement were the root causes behind it. Regardless of reservation, there are areas of the country that have not benefited from the economic miracle India has experienced in the past decades.

The north eastern frontier states like Manipur remain alienated (courtesy: AFSPA) and devoid of large scale development projects like power plants, expressways, steel plants, etc. The Kashmir valley is another such restive area where the promises made by the Constitution to the citizens of India seem to fade into irrelevance, whatever the reasons.

Present Day

When Indians are subjected to racial taunts and abuse in Australia, the whole country loses its collective mind. But when the same happens to an African here, we are curiously silent.

Any person with oriental or mongoloid features is branded a “Chinki”, not just by the uneducated poor but also in university campuses across the country. Nobody shows the least bit of interest in understanding or even reading about the differences in the details. A person with oriental features in India may be Ladhakhi, Tibetan, Nepali, Sikkimese, Naga, Manipuri, Gorkha, Garo, Khasi, Jaintiya, Bhutia, Kuki, Nyishi, Bodo or a large number of other minorities. The least we can do is call them Indians. But we don’t care about such differences, that’s why they are all “Chinkis”. It is a travesty that the inhabitants of sensitive frontier states which are India’s first line of defence against foreign aggression should be alienated in such a manner.

There might be a bit of hyperbole in the above paragraphs, all of these things happen regularly in varying intensities.

The Silver Lining

The aim of this article is not to be as bleak as a Franz Kafka novel, but to question the status quo. If things had once been wrong, they are slowly been put to right. Social activists like Medha Patkar, Soni Sori, etc. have raised their voices and are being heard in the national discourse. Infrastructure projects in the north-east are finally picking up speed, whether as a response to feared Chinese aggression or for development or maybe both. The judiciary has done its duty in defence of the Constitution and the laws of the land in a manner that gives hope to even the most distraught people. All this is happening as India welcomes a new era, that of technology and data-driven solutions.

But while the efforts to eradicate prejudices have been underway for quite some time, it needs to gain momentum. It falls upon the media outlets to cover stories not just in the metropolises, but also in the far reaches of the nation. Atrocities in Assam need to have the same coverage as those in Delhi or Mumbai. Television, films and other vehicles of popular imagination have to help bring marginalized communities into the mainstream. Along with programmes about Lord Rama defeating Ravana, we need to have programmes which show Birsa Munda’s struggle against the British or the Social Reform Movement of Jotirao Phule.

The next generation of decision makers is studying in schools right now. Along with the exploits of Gulliver, they can also read about how Kailash Satyarthi worked incessantly against child labour. Along with plays of Shakespeare, they should be taught the history of the struggles of the Naga people. Only by bringing the otherwise marginalized communities in the common discourse can this alienation be ended.

Once we start doing that, India will gradually earn the right to be called a multicultural country which will truly be on a path to achieve “Unity in Diversity”.

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr.

A post-apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz is much different from most works in the genre. It is an expansive work which spans a period of centuries, while giving us brief snapshots of what life would be like after humans almost annihilated themselves somewhere in the late 20th Century.

For some reason which is not specified in the book but is quite easy to guess, humanity is almost wiped out in an event what has been called “The Flame Deluge”,  a clear indication of a cataclysmic nuclear event. This is followed by the destruction of all written knowledge and the onset of the dark ages.

Through all this, the lamp of knowledge is kept barely alight by an order of monks in an abbey in the middle of nowhere. They revere Leibowitz, an engineer who managed to save some technical documents from the deluge. Now, its the mission of these monks to accumulate and preserve whatever knowledge could be salvaged, in the hopes that someday, humanity will again be able to understand the forgotten knowledge.

Its a story of this noble pursuit which plays itself out through the ages, from a feudal society to a spacefaring one. There are strong biblical references throughout the book, which don’t seem out of place. The Church has been portrayed as the preserver of knowledge, which  is admittedly a far cry from the Catholic Church in the medieval ages.

While the tenor of the book is one of hope, the end chooses to attribute greater significance to the destructive tendencies of our race. After millennia, humanity again makes the same mistakes and pushes the planet to the brink of destruction, having learnt nothing from (or indeed, forgotten) the last time it happened. The story ends with a handful of survivors setting off into deep space, to keep humanity alive, albeit in a faraway and strange planet.

The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún, by JRR Tolkien

The Legend of Sigurd & Gudrún is an English rendition of the Poetic Edda, through the writings of Snorri Sturluson in the 12th century. It’s a heroic tale of Sigurd (also known as Siegfried), a warrior held in high regard. The book has been edited by Christopher Tolkien, though the introduction by JRR is proof of a master philologist at play. It’s a little known fact that he taught Old Norse in his preliminary years as a professor. We all know him as the father of modern High Fantasy, he was in reality, much more. But I digress.

The tale contains many of the inspirations for Tolkien’s later works. Be it “the sword that was broken”, a feud between two brothers for a red-golden ring or the slaying of a mighty dragon jealously guarding a cursed treasure hoard, the Poetic Edda can be taken to be a great inspiration for the Lord of the Rings Saga. Indeed the name Middle-earth is a loose translation of Midgard, which denotes earth in Norse mythology. It’s a rich & rewarding book for any Tolkien fan opening the paths to Norse mythology for the uninitiated, while being a (very) loose historical account of Scandinavian & Germanaic history from the Age of Heroes.

Broken Republic, by Arundhati Roy

The polemic writing leans too far to one side and fails to deliver a well balanced approach to the subject. The author has undertaken painstaking research into the subject of Maoist insurgency. Alas, in many of the cases, she has chosen to over-emphasize the facts/comparisons/connections that lend themselves well to her narrative and fails to explore the other part of the story in sufficient detail. There is a dire need for more balance in the narrative.

Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor E. Frankl

Here is a book which describes what keeps a human going in times of greatest despair, the likes of which humanity has seldom known. Its easy to look at instances of immense suffering from afar and exclaim: “Oh! Even death would be better.”
This is the exact line of thought that is irrevocably shattered once you read this book. No matter how degraded or miserable life becomes, it is still better than death. Of course it is very easy for me to write now, sitting comfortably in an air conditioned room, but this is the message of this book.
As is mentioned in the preface, what makes this book even more valuable in understanding human nature is that Mr Frankl was himself a trained psychologist.
And at the end of it, its a description of the human will to survive, whether through faith, or a belief of better times to come.

मधुशाला, by Harivansh Rai Bachchan

As soon as I read this poetry collection, the first thought that came to my mind was: Why is this not a part of our school curriculum?
I’d agree that a poetry collection about a मधुशाला (liquor tavern) is hardly suitable for the schoolchildren. But the way Mr Bachchan relates a मधुशाला with our day to day lives is nothing short of phenomenal. From not-so-oblique digs at communal differences to the powerlessness of man against an overpowering addiction, there is so much in these lines that even the best moral stories of our times fail to capture. All this and more, with reference to a मधुशाला.
Some of the many absolutely memorable lines of this composition are as follows:

मुसलमान औ’ हिन्दू है दो, एक, मगर, उनका प्याला,
एक, मगर, उनका मदिरालय, एक, मगर, उनकी हाला,
दोनों रहते एक न जब तक मस्जिद मन्दिर में जाते,
बैर बढ़ाते मस्जिद मन्दिर मेल कराती मधुशाला!

Days Bygone

Recent advertisements of food products (read Maggi, Paperboat, etc) play heavily upon the nostalgia of tastes experienced in our childhood. These are certainly powerful ads, but how far are they able to deliver what they promise?
I speak from personal experience & leave it to the reader to decide whether he/she feels the same way. When I remember the taste of a Frooti or a Maggi from my childhood, the memory includes the sweet taste of freedom, of a special occasion, of eating something different than what I tasted everyday. What I remember is no only the taste, but the happiness associated with it. Same goes for eating a mango or a sugarcane. If someome were to sell me some sugarcane juice now (or Paperboat Aamras, for that matter), the image evoked in my mind includes the days when we used to engage in with those sugarcanes, or when summer storms made mangoes fall from the trees by the dozens.
What they are trying to sell now falls far short of the images these images or advertisememts evoke. I daresay its not in the power of any company or product itself to deliver what is being promised now.
While I appreciate the marketing itself, I feel compelled to wonder:

Whither went the days bygone,
Whither went the sweet smell of the midsummer morn,
Will I ever ever taste that freedom unshorn,
Or must I wait forever in an attempt forlorn?

A Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The Little Prince on Asteroid 325

The Little Prince is a story that starts on such a low note that its almost childlike in its innocence, a quality maintained throughout its length. However, it intermittently raises questions about how a child perceives the world differently than a grown-up, having a completely different weltanschauung. The Little Prince remains relevant even after seven decades of its publication.

Maybe the age at which its read matters a lot. Maybe it is best suited for the age at which we slowly leave childhood behind but are not yet grown-ups. This limbo is a place where this story would make the most sense. But then, maybe all should read it, even the grown-ups. For although the inner child might be in hibernation, I’d like to think, nay believe that the kid is still alive in every grown-up.

You can read the book for free here: http://papermine.com/pub/2005#cover

Shakespeare & Schrödinger

Shakespeare: To be or not to be, that is the question.

Schrödinger’s Cat: To be and not to be, there is no question.